Copyright 2015 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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"This is ridiculous," said Aart over Nova's shoulder. "There has to be a better option than breaking into a prison just to talk to a mob moss who might tell you how to get past the border… which is a stupid idea anyway!"
She rolled her eyes and studied the plans spread out over the table. Precise rectangles dotted the centre with small hand-written labels.
"Getting past the border is the only way to really be free of the Confederacy. I'm doing it."
Other bounty hunters filled The Jagged Maw's cafeteria but Nova and her companions created a still island amongst the milling crowd.
Tanguin pointed to the largest rectangle. "The guards' quarters overlook the central courtyard and cell block. A radiation shield separates it from the prison. No-one goes through it in either direction. The only time anything leaves the planet is when the guards change, every three months."
Nova nodded. "What else have you got?"
"The central courtyard and cell block are known as the 'Inners'; that's where Carter will be. It's got the food generators; the only source of non-toxic food on the planet… other than your fellow prisoners."
Nova grimaced. "Tasty. Speaks volumes about the Confederacy that they poisoned the whole planet. You can't even eat the rats because they've got so much poison built up in them."
Tanguin nodded. "Surrounding that is the prison's 'middle class' or the 'Mids'. They have shelter and a few water taps, but that's about it."
"Where are they getting water, if the whole planet is poisoned?" Orion asked.
"They set up some kind of recycling and filtration system deep underground. It's worked so far." Tanguin shrugged. "Outside of the Mids, right where you'll be landing, is the 'Outers'. As far as I can tell it's full of corpses and people who will soon be corpses. From the Inners to the Outers is about five kilometres and beyond the Outers is desert. Without the water filtration system, nothing can survive so it's a barren wasteland."
"Simple. I just have to get from the Outers to the Inners," Nova said with a grin.
"And get an introduction to Carter Mason," Tanguin said, rolling her eyes.
"And pass through a killer radioactive force field," Gus added.
"And, after you've done all that impossible stuff," Orion said. "You have to somehow get past the guards and catch a ride on their ship out of there."
"Simple. I'm going to use a ring filled with gas to knock out one of the guards and assume their identity."
"Oh of course." Orion threw up his hands. "Deliver a ring to some guard on the exact right day and just fall right into their shoes."
Nova nodded. "Exactly. And it's not just any guard; I've studied Terry's profile. She's a loner; no friends, and keeps her head down. She's perfect."
"You're crazy," Aart said, turning away from the table. "Too much can go wrong and there's no way for us to help you."
Nova looked up at him. "The plan will work."
"Plan? What you have isn't a plan. It's a notion at best."
Tyra frowned. "He's right. So much can go wrong. Are you sure there's no better way?"
Nova shook her head, ignoring the gnawing doubt chewing through her stomach. "No. Not with the time we've got."
Tanguin slapped the table with her palm. "Even if all of this goes according to plan. It doesn't solve how to get Nova to the planet in the first place. We've got immediate shoot to kill orders on our heads. As soon as she goes near a Confederacy soldier they'll blow her brains out."
"Can't we get someone else to do it?" Orion said, staring out across the cafeteria.
Tyra snorted. "No one would volunteer to go to Ankar. No matter how much they might like us."
"It's my idea. I'm going," Nova said.
"So?" Tanguin said. "How do we avoid the sudden death scenario?"
Nova sighed and rubbed her forehead. "We've got to create a fake identity. One with a criminal history but maybe not as colourful as my own."
Tanguin's cybernetic eye swivelled up from the plans to stare at Nova. "I can make a fake identity no problem. But I can't change your DNA and there's the small matter of the bio-imprint. They're probably honing in on us as we speak, and if you go anywhere near a Confederacy soldier their alarms will go off like air-raid sirens."
Nova groaned and sat back, staring up at the cafeteria ceiling. "There has to be a way to get past it, just for a little while. I'll be safe once I'm in there. No Confederacy soldier would risk entering Ankar, no matter how big the bounty was."
They sat in silence, Gus cleaning his gun and the others staring at different walls. Low chatter buzzed around them from the other bounty hunters, but tension hung thick in the air like smog.
"What about Grish?" Gus said.
The others turned to look at him.
"The crazy killer who's been rampaging through the outer galaxies for the last six months?" Aart said.
"What's he got to do with anything?"
"Fake handover," Gus said, still wiping his gun.
Nova met Aart's eyes and shrugged.
"I'm gonna need more information," Aart said.
Gus sighed and put his gun on the table where it gleamed under the orange lights. "We fake a handover of Grish. It wouldn't be weird to have him locked in a crate; he's too dangerous to have loose."
Aart's eyebrows rose. "You're saying put Nova in a crate and hand her to the Confederacy?"
Gus shrugged. "It's what we were going to do anyway. Except now you can shield the crate and provide a fake DNA sample for inspection. They won't open it to check…… wouldn't want to risk it."
The Hunters stared around at one another. Nova's mind raced. It was a good plan. Complicated, but there weren't many ways they could fool the Confederacy scanners.
"And Grish's DNA?" Tanguin said, voice flat.
Gus shrugged. "I've been looking for a job anyway and I've got an inside tip."
Orion laid his hands flat on the table. "This sounds as bad as the plan to send Nova to Ankar. Grish is a maniac. He tore a man in half with his bare hands!"
Gus rolled his shoulders. "I can take him."
Nova bit her lip. "It might just work."
"Good," Gus said. "Make sure everything's ready. We won't have long once I've caught him to make the switch."
Nova nodded and folded the plans for the prison, tucking them into her jacket pocket. "I'll be ready."
Nova's breath created a hot fog around her face as she crouched in the darkness of the crate. Cushions softened the hard metal but they couldn't stop cramps clenching her muscles and sending shots of pain through her legs and neck.
Outside her crate something scraped against metal and a rough voice cackled. "I'll be out in seconds. You'll see," Grish's voice rasped in a continuous stream as his body thudded against the sides of his crate.
"Hold still you bastard," Aart said.
Nova couldn't help but smile as she imagined him trying to get a needle into Grish's flesh.
"Got it!" Aart said.
"Stings," Grish said. "I like that."
"Ugh," Aart said. "You're sick. Good job catching this one, Gus, I think you did us all a favour."
"You know this isn't Haven," Nova said, trying to stretch her neck. "If we can move this along that would be great."
Footsteps stomped towards her cage and a thin slot opened, revealing Aart's grinning face. "Nearly there."
Nova nodded. "You'll send the broken labourbot to the guard complex?"
"In a couple of weeks, just like we planned."
"Good. The guard change is in three months. I'll see you then."
Aart's expression darkened. "You'll be careful. Won't you?"
Nova nodded and bit her lip, not trusting herself to speak.
Aart's smile wavered and he let the slit fall shut. "Okay you two. You understand the mission?"
Two new voices joined Aart. Nova recognized the rookie, Jimmy, from Drigoon; he'd come a long way since then and had started making a name for himself. The other voice had to be Maya.
"When I gave you my call sign on Kopet this definitely wasn't the kind of call I was expecting," said Maya. "Are you sure this is the best idea?"
"It's all we've got. Remember, don't let them open the crate. No matter what."
More voices, and Nova's crate jostled, lifting of the ground and making her stomach drop. The crate swung from side to side as they carried her up into the bowels of the waiting ship. It clunked as it hit the floor and footsteps echoed away into the distance. A few moments later vibrations shook through Nova's crate, setting her teeth on edge.
She closed her eyes and tried to sleep but her cramped joints and aching neck kept wrenching her awake. She shifted her weight and glared into the darkness for what felt like hours before a gentle tap on the top of her crate let her know they'd arrived.
Shuffling footsteps drew closer, overlaid with unfamiliar voices.
"You're trying to tell me you rookies managed to catch Grish?"
Jimmy cleared his throat. "We're just here for the bounty, not to discuss technique."
The Confederacy soldier snorted. "Excuse me. But I'm going to need to check, you could have a block of wood in there for all I know."
The slit on the front of the crate slid open and Nova's heart clenched.
The shadowed shape of Jimmy's leg stepped in front of the hole. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
"Look, rookie, you're not getting a bounty until I confirm the identity."
"If you want to get your hand bitten off, that's your business," Maya said. "But I think this will be easier. I took the liberty of taking a blood sample before locking him up."
The guard paused. "I'll take the sample, but I need to sight the prisoner as well."
Jimmy stepped away from the slit. "If that's what you want to do. I should warn you though, there used to be three of us. He's a maniac, will probably chew your face off just for looking at him."
Nova swallowed, her throat dry, and muscles tight.
"Well…" the Confederacy soldier's voice wavered.
"Go on. I don't have all day."
"Yeah alright," the soldier's voice sounded tight. "The blood sample should be enough. Stay here while I run it."
The footsteps faded away and Nova let out a long breath, head drooping.
A short time later the soldier returned. "It checks out. I don't know how you did it but here are the credits."
"Glad to get him off our hands. And a friendly piece of advice; ship him to Ankar in that crate; don't risk moving him."
"Thanks, Hunter. I think we can handle it."
Fingernails rapped on the top of Nova's crate; Maya's way of saying good luck, and then she was lifted into the air once more.
"Quieter than I expected," the Confederacy soldier said.
"Yeah. Dare you to open it," said another unfamiliar voice from Nova's other side.
"You first. You heard what those Hunters said."
"Hunters. What would they know?" But the soldier sounded unsure and Nova's crate remained closed.
When they placed the crate down they let it drop from a few inches off the floor so that it smacked against the hard ground and knocked Nova's head against the metal roof. She bit her lip to stop from crying out and braced herself against the walls.
They left her there for days. She lost track of time as she drifted in and out of consciousness, nibbling at the few rations she'd packed. Sometimes voices and footsteps drew closer but mostly she was left alone. By the time her rations ran out, she'd decided that they planned to leave her in the crate to die, and had started planning her escape.
"Prisoner transporter is here," a rough voice said, waking Nova from a troubled sleep.
"He's in there."
"We're gonna have to transfer him to standard issue transport."
Uneasy footsteps shuffled beside Nova's crate. "He's dangerous. Better to leave him in there."
"It's not protocol…"
"If your people want to transfer him, that's your business, but my crew won't touch him."
"I didn't know your division had grown so weak, Trevor."
"If you want to have your face chewed off, that's your problem. But I'm not doing it."
Feet scuffled beside Nova's crate and her hand clenched into a fist. She longed for her plasma pistol, or even a knife, but it was too risky, a simple weapon scan would pick it up, shield or no shield.
"You got a blood sample?"
"Yep. It checks out."
"Alright. We'll ship him as is."
More jostling followed until Nova's crate thunked against another metal floor.
"Arms out Grish," a rough voice said, accompanied by a solid kick to Nova's crate.
She held her breath and snaked her hands out through two circular holes cut into the crate.
"For a monster he's got girly looking hands," the rough voice said as cold metal handcuffs snapped shut around Nova's wrists.
"Lucky he's going to Ankar, he'd probably hunt you down and eat you alive for that kind of comment," said a new voice.
Footsteps faded away. Nearby, a door hissed closed and engines rumbled through the floor. A digital voice crackled over unseen speakers.
"Prisoner ship bound for Ankar. Arrival two hours."
Nova waited, but no one spoke. Her ears strained for any kind of hint as to what, or who, waited outside of her crate, but only silence and uneasy shuffling met her ears.
She tensed her muscles and pressed her shoulder into a thin silver button. The crate's door clicked and fell away in two pieces from around her hands. It clattered to the floor and Nova held her breath.
Sharp gasps echoed around her.
She stayed crouched inside the crate, the handcuffs pinning her close to the wall of the ship. When nothing happened, she took a deep breath and sprung out of the crate, as best she could with her hands tied.
People in ragged clothes gasped and drew back, pressing against the walls. They glanced at one another, hands clenching into fists.
Nova turned in a tight circle, eye flicking across the prisoners. They stared at her with gaping mouths for a few moments before letting their eyes fall back to their laps. Their clothes were as filthy as their faces and their hair hung in loose tangles. Only a dim orange light fell over the metal interior and the ragged prisoners.
She nodded once and lowered herself into a hard metal chair set into the wall.
The stench of desperation hung heavy in the stuffy air. Heat from the engines pulsed in the close confines and sweat dribbled down Nova's forehead.
The cylindrical prison ship had an automatic guiding system at the front that eliminated the need for guards or pilots. The ship had only one destination; Ankar. The cuffs would snap open once they landed and from there it was each prisoner for themselves.
Nova gauged her companions. A life sentence on Ankar meant they probably didn't have much to lose. The woman opposite her looked harmless enough, although some would say the same about Nova. Her dark hair covered most of her face and her hand twitched, but she didn't look blood thirsty.
The big man further down the ship looked angry but not crazy. Even in his cuffs his hands curled into fists. His face formed a permanent snarl and he glared at anyone who dared look his way. He would probably push them aside to get out of the ship but he wouldn't go out of his way to hurt them.
The man at the end though; he was trouble. His pale skin hung off his bones, clinging to a skeletal frame. He stared directly at Nova with eyes opened so wide that the whites shone in the semi-darkness of the ship. His hands twisted around each other in his cuffs. Something metal glinted; a knife up his sleeve.
Dark shadows rimmed his bulging eyes as he licked his lips. He had a look about him; he was the one to look out for. He reeked of a thirst for blood and his eyes stayed fixed on Nova.
The ship rattled and shook, setting her teeth on edge. A screw fell out from above her head and clattered against the metal floor, rolling under her seat. She watched it until it disappeared.
A noise sounded, like a choked engine, and the ship jerked upwards, hurling Nova back against her seat. Her arm jerked up and caught on a loose piece of wire, flesh tearing open and blood dribbling down into her hand.
"Shit." With her hands tied she couldn't stop the flow and was forced to watch the gash drip blood across the floor. The skinny man with murder in his eyes licked his lips.
A roaring noise filled the cabin as the ship broke atmosphere. The walls became so hot that Nova had to lean forward to avoid being burnt. Safety had no place on the prison transporters, especially as they were never retrieved; no sense letting good money go to waste.
The decelerators were minimal; just enough to get past the human ethics committee but not really enough to slow the descent. The transporter hurtled through the atmosphere, straight for the desert planet.
The ship careened into hard soil with so much speed that the entire front end caved in, crumpling in on itself and destroying what little navigation equipment it had. The prisoners flew into the air; their arms ripped back by the force of the cuffs.
A sharp pain jerked through Nova's shoulder but she bit her tongue and kept her face stern as she dropped back into her seat.
The thin man with the knife cried out as his left arm snapped. It twisted back and a white chunk of bone thrust through the flesh at his elbow. He howled as blood spurted from the wound, splattering the prisoners sitting next to him. They drew back and bared their teeth. He growled back at them and curled over around his broken arm.
When the ship came to a complete stop, the cuffs popped open.
Nova sprung to her feet, fists up, ready to defend. She ignored the nagging pain in her shoulder.
The woman who had been sitting opposite her ran for the exit. She climbed out of the dented door and sprinted out of sight. The big man with chunky fists raced right behind her. He pushed past Nova, knocking her to the side.
Nova didn't say anything. The rest of the prisoners glared at one another. They all knew it was a dog-eat-dog world on Ankar; any sign of weakness now would mean death. She walked backwards towards the door, eyes darting to keep track of the remaining prisoners.
Warm sunlight streamed through the broken door and warmed her back as she drew closer.
A meter from the door, the man with the knife leaped forward. His left arm hung useless at his side but his right wielded his vicious blade. It reflected the dim emergency lights of the transporter, flashing in and out of sight. Blood already stained the serrated edge.
Nova crouched and when he came within range she danced out of the way, slamming the side of her hand into his injured arm. The force of the blow snapped what was left of his elbow and his forearm swung loose.
He screamed and whirled on Nova, his broken arm swinging with him. He spat like a rabid beast as he came at her. The knife weaved left and right at her face. She ducked out of the way and it swept over her head.
She shot up and the top of her head slammed into his nose. The sound of crunching bone echoed through the transporter. The man stumbled backwards holding his good hand to his face. Blood poured out from between his fingers and soaked the front of his shirt.
"Leave now and you live," Nova said between gasping breaths.
"You bitch! Don't you get it? Nobody lives here!" He took his hand from his face and sprang towards her, blood spraying out around him.
Even with blood pouring down his face he managed to swing his knife at Nova's neck. The tip caught her cheek and a line of crimson swelled to the surface.
A sharp sting spread over her face and made her eyes water. She blinked away the tears; she couldn't afford them.
The knife came again, this time at her stomach. She stepped back, slamming into the body of another prisoner who shoved her forward. She tripped, off balance, and stumbled towards the knife.
The man grinned and strode forward to meet her. His knuckles whitened on his knife, ready to slam into her stomach.
Her arms flailed but she had no way to stop her fall. In that brief second she cast around for anything to help her, but dented metal and blank faces met her gaze. She turned back to face him and in the last moment used her momentum to slam her right hand down onto his wrist.
His hand dropped a few inches, giving her precious seconds to regain her balance. She gripped his wrist and twisted the knife away as she swung her foot around. Her leg caught his and he fell backwards, crashing hard against the metal floor.
His hissed and scrambled backwards, but before he could get back to his feet Nova slammed her boot down on his neck. A sickening crunch broke the air.
His eyes went blank and the knife dropped out of his hand.
Nova snatched it from the floor and turned to the other prisoners, panting. "Are we going to have a problem?"
They ducked their heads and stared at the floor, hands at their sides.
Nova nodded once and tucked the knife into her belt. She took the time to look around the ship. There wasn't much that could help her; the transporters were intentionally stripped bare to save costs. She yanked a handful of wires from a control panel and strode to the exit.
Glaring sunlight flared over her shoulders as she jumped out of the side door and landed in a sandy desert. A deep crater surrounded the crumpled transporter, and prisoners gathered around the lip. Whether they'd come to pick over the ship or the prisoners, Nova didn't know.
She gripped the handle of her knife and strode up the side of the crater towards the first line of civilization; the Outers.
Three months until guard change.
On the outskirts, closest to where the transporter landed, tattered pieces of cloth whipped in the wind. People with sunken eyes stared out at her from under rusted pieces of metal and torn canvas. Sand piled up against the sides of meagre shelters and coated the people's skin. Torn rags barely hid their skeletal frames while skin stretched tight over their bones, like thin paper ready to tear.
Nova's gaze slid over them, taking note, but feeling nothing.
Human bones lay scattered across the ground around the shelters. A long femur leant against the nearest tent, white gleaming in the harsh sun. One benefit of over-crowded prisons; plenty to eat.
Nova shivered and strode faster, leaving the hungry eyes behind her.
The closer she got to the heart of the prison the more civilised the surroundings became. Pieces of tattered cloth became actual tents which became shacks in the Mids, which eventually became solid buildings in the Inners. The people went from huddled skeletons scrounging for a scrap of food, to armed thugs lounging around playing cards.
The buildings were all that was left of the original prison, back when there were still human guards. Initially they had been big enough to house all the prisoners. Now it wasn't even close. The cell blocks surrounded an open-air cemented area with tables and chairs that could almost pass for a courtyard. Food generators lined one wall.
Overlooking it all, loomed a square tower set on top of a low hill and surrounded by a thick wall; the guards' complex. The guards never entered the prison but to meet ethics requirements they had to be on site. It cast a long shadow and seemed to sit above the cell-blocks like a constant threat.
The only plants she saw clung to the ground as thin weeds. Their yellowed leaves looked half-dead as they shrivelled under the harsh sun.
The maps Nova had studied didn't compare to the bleak reality. Everything seemed shrouded in shades of grey, with the guardhouse standing over it all like a cancerous god.
Inside the courtyard, prisoners sat at the tables, playing cards or eating from plain metal bowls. Their eyes flickered around them, as if ready for an attack at any moment. Men with bulging arms stood at each entrance. They sneered at her as she approached.
"I want in," she said.
"Well gee sugar-doll, I'm sure we can come to an arrangement," said the first man. He smiled to reveal a gold tooth.
She rolled her eyes. "I don't think so."
"I don't think I was asking."
He lunged for her, hands held out, ready to throttle her. The other man watched with a smug grin. A few people glanced up but most kept their heads down.
Nova stepped back out of the man's reach and ripped the knife from her belt. As he lunged for her she whipped the knife out and up. It plunged into the man's stomach. She twisted.
Blood poured out of the wound and soaked her hand. The warm, sticky fluids clung to her skin accompanied by a foul smell.
His mouth formed a surprised 'o' and his face froze. He gaped at her and collapsed to his knees. She ripped the knife out. The serrated edge tore organs along with it. They plopped to the ground with a wet squelch.
Nova's stomach churned but she kept her face expressionless.
He grabbed at his stomach, trying to hold it all in. Blood cascaded into the ground and he fell forward; face first into the dirt.
The second guard brandished a knife. His mouth twisted and he snarled as he stepped towards Nova, something like recognition flashing in his eyes.
"Kirt!" barked a commanding voice.
The man froze and glanced over his shoulder.
"Let me see her."
"I don't know if that's a good idea, sir. She's dangerous," Kirt said.
"Let me see her."
Kirt stepped to the side but kept his knife in hand and watched Nova with open hatred as she sauntered past. Ragged people scurried out of the shadows behind her and dragged the dead body away, leaving a trail of blood in the sand.
Nova held her head high and kept every one of her senses keenly tuned to Kirt. There was nothing stopping him from stabbing her in the back. She kept the knife in her hand as she stepped into the open area.
It was obvious who had summoned her. The big man sat at a cement table in the centre of the eating area, surrounded by even bigger men. He tilted his head to the side as she approached and his thick fingers thrummed against the table. His bodyguards kept straight faces although their tensed muscles stood out like rocks under their skin.
The big man waved her over. She recognised him, but unfortunately he wasn't the man she was looking for.
"Name?" he said.
"Nova," she replied. It was vital for her plan that she get in with this group, even if she had to start with lowly middle men like Amon Lockhold.
"Amon," he said.
She nodded once. Her eyes flicked across his bodyguards and she kept her knife in hand.
"Don't worry," he said. "If and when I want you dead, you'll know it."
She nodded again but didn't put the knife away.
"So. One kill before you even get off the transporter," Amon said. "And now another."
Nova nodded, hiding her surprise. News travelled fast in the prison.
"The silent type," he said with a chuckle. "I can respect that. And you're obviously handy with a weapon. Where'd you come from?"
"Hunter," Nova said. It didn't really hurt to give her history away. What did it matter in here?
"Ah, that would explain it then. Although the Confederacy is really grasping at straws if they're throwing Hunters in here now."
"A misunderstanding," she said.
"Yes," he said with a chuckle. "I'm also innocent. So, what do you want, Hunter?"
She shrugged. "Food." It was true enough; she did want food. On the other hand, the man she really needed to meet was bound to be here somewhere.
"I'll tell you what," Amon said. "As a thank you for that excellent display, you can eat. I'm afraid there are no free rooms here though."
"If you want to keep eating, you work for me."
Nova let herself relax and used the knife to pick imaginary dirt from under her fingernails. "What would I be doing?"
"Depends what you're good at," he said. "Probably security by the looks of you."
"I don't do shake-downs."
Amon chuckled. "I have to admire your spirit but I should warn you; in a place like this you don't get much of a choice. If I tell you to do something, you do it or you die. That's the rules of Ankar."
"We'll see," said Nova, refusing to show any weakness.
"Go on then," Amon said, shaking his head. "Before I change my mind."
Nova nodded once and went to the food generators. Unlike her machine on Crusader this one didn't have Many Other Functions; only one: gruel. She pressed the generate button and pulled out a heaping bowl of room-temperature sludge.
She sat at an empty table with her back to the wall. There were no spoons or cutlery so she had to satisfy herself with using her fingers. It was a gruesome affair given that they were still covered with blood. She did her best to wipe them clean on her pants but the thought of blood mixed with gruel made her stomach clench.
It tasted and felt like glue, sticking to the roof of her mouth and her throat, its rotten weak taste filling her nostrils. It wouldn't go away either. Even after she'd swallowed, a thin layer of the stuff stayed in her mouth for her to taste over and over again.
She ate it all. Even the foul tasting gruel was better than a lot of the prisoners on Ankar got. Plus, she had to be ready. There was no guarantee that Amon would let her back here.
The food made her a target. Some of the people here had spent years living off of human flesh, gradually working their way up the ranks until they made it to the inner sanctum. She'd managed it in less than an hour. There would be a lot of resentment following her around, and that was ignoring the fact that she'd killed one of their soldiers.
She scanned the prisoners. Some watched her, eyes calculating, but most ignored her. Three tall buildings surrounded the courtyard. Prisoners wondered freely in and out of the outer buildings but two burly men stood at the entrance to the central building, muscles bulging. Most of the prisoners stayed well clear, walking in a circle away from the entrance. Nova didn't need anyone to tell her that Carter's headquarters were inside.
She sighed, it would have been too much to hope for that he'd come out and sit at the table beside her.
As she finished her gruel, angry voices rose at the edge of Amon's group. Another group had come out and taken up the other half of the tables. In the middle sat a man with outrageous mods. Delicate butterfly wings sprouted from the centre of his back and his eyes glowed neon blue. Coloured lines ran over his skin, reflecting the sunlight like liquid mirrors. The people around him sported similar decorations; some had horns or wings while others had enlarged eyes. They created a colourful splash amongst the dreary grey of the rest of the prison.
"Aww honey, good thing you got those mods or you'd be one ugly ass dude," one of Amon's soldiers shouted to the other group.
"A pity you didn't, Gray, with a face like that..." a man with purple swirls on his cheeks said.
Gray stood and clenched his fists. "At least I don't look like a frickin' fairy." He nodded at the man with butterfly wings.
"No, you went with more of a cave-man vibe."
Gray stretched to his full height and stepped forward, his chest bumping against the smaller man and sending him stumbling back. The modded people drew together, creating a colourful wall in front of the bodyguard.
Gray cracked his knuckles and glared at them. "Better watch yourselves, freaks."
The two groups pulled back to their respective sides of the eating area and glared at each other. Tension hung thick in the air.
Nova's stomach tightened. She should have expected trouble. The fights between modded and un-modded were bad enough out in the real world. It would be ten times worse in a rough prison like Ankar.
"Boss says get a move on."
Nova looked up from the commotion and stared at Kirt. She'd seen him coming over but had deliberately ignored him. She needed to establish a reputation, and fast.
"Just finishing," she said, dropping her bowl to the table. She picked up her knife, slowly, deliberately.
"You know, some men get awful cold out there," Kirt said, nodding past the buildings to the city of tents. "Don't be surprised if someone comes knocking in the middle of the night."
Nova looked up at him, her eyes fierce, unafraid. "And don't you be surprised when I come knocking to let you know your boss doesn't want you anymore."
Kirt grinned. "I'll be glad to see your corpse on someone's dinner plate."
"Keep dreaming," she said, slamming her elbow into his groin before standing and brushing past.
He grunted and swung at her. She ducked under the blow and kept walking.
"Kirt!" Amon yelled. "I told you to back off."
Kirt swore under his breath.
Nova strode onward, grinning.
She left the inner sanctum with long strides, entering the Mids. She hadn't earned the right to sleep in the Inners, not yet, so the next big thing was finding a safe shelter. Kirt was right about one thing; the prison became even more dangerous at night. She was already a target, so wherever she holed up, it had to be secure. There wasn't much chance of that in a tent.
She'd have to make friends fast. Then she'd have someone to keep watch. That wasn't going to happen before nightfall. A tent wouldn't do, the metal shacks were almost certainly all taken; they were the best shelters after the actual buildings. So it had to be something else.
Broken pieces of metal, a few broken chairs, and some metal crates dotted the ground around her. Eyes watched her from the shadows; she could feel them on the back of her neck. Whatever she did, it had to be done quickly, carefully. Any one of these people would rat her out for a bowl of gruel.
The crates gave her an idea.
She found a solid one with thick sides that no one seemed to have claimed. She gripped a heavy handle and pulled. It dragged through the sand, straining Nova's muscles, and leaving a trail. Her legs and back ached as she heaved and sweated all the way back to the slums of the Outers, where tattered cloth passed for shelter.
She didn't doubt that Kirt would come looking for her, but hopefully he'd expect her to stay in the Mids. Hopefully.
She found an empty shelter that didn't smell too badly of death and pulled the crate inside. With hurried steps she retraced her path and kicked sand over the trail the crate had left.
Darkness lay thick over the prison by the time she got back to her ragged shelter. She swallowed. Deep shadows filled every corner and she imagined creatures hiding within them, watching her.
She shook her head, opened the crate, and ducked inside. Pulling the lid down on herself, she looped the wires she'd collected from the transporter around an internal lock to tie it closed. By the time she finished the lid wouldn't open one inch even when she put her full weight into it.
After the days she'd spent inside the crate pretending to be Grish she'd hoped never to have to hide in one again, yet here she was. She considered going back to the transporter to get her familiar crate back, at least it had minor shielding, and cushions, but discarded the idea. There'd be prisoners crawling all over the transporter, stripping whatever they could find. Her crate and cushions had probably already been taken.
Thin air filtered through a thin keyhole, not enough to replace the stale heat that surrounded her head like a suffocating cloud. She pressed her face as close to the hole as she could and closed her eyes. Her back ached, shots of pain racking her spine like electric shocks. Her head pounded from dehydration and the stench of death clung to her, filling the stuffy air of the crate. She drifted into fitful sleep, body tense.
Nova awoke to deep voices. She held her body absolutely still, ears straining to hear every word.
"Woman outside says she went in here." Nova recognised Kirt's voice.
"Look under the blankets."
"She's not here boss."
"Bitch. Sampson, go and kill that dumb cow who told us she was here."
Something slammed against Nova's crate, bumping it sideways. Her neck whipped back and her head slammed against the solid wall. She bit her lip to stifle a cry as pain exploded through her skull.
Someone strained against the lid but the wires held firm. They knocked the crate to one side. Nova fell hard on her elbow but kept her mouth pinned shut.
"Could be something good in it."
"There's nothing good on this planet," Kirt said. "She probably left it here to distract us. Clever bitch. I'll be glad to see her dead. I want each of you scouting the area. Wherever she is, I want her found."
Heavy footsteps faded away. Nova waited until the voices had gone but even then her muscles clenched and every rustle made her heart jump. Many hours later she drifted into fitful sleep, waking with every new noise.
Three months until guard change.
Nova awoke the next morning with a sore neck and an aching head. She untied the wires with stiff fingers and stepped out of her crate, cursing prisoners and the Confederacy alike. Every loose item in her tent had been tossed and thrown across the floor. She'd expected as much.
Still, she'd survived the night a lot better than the woman in the adjacent tent. Her body lay half in and half out of her shelter, covered in blood. Soon the human vultures would arrive to take her away.
Nova stretched and her spine cracked. She took the time to check her knife and test each of her limbs. Everything seemed intact. She tucked the wires back into a hidden pocket in her jacket and shut her crate, hoping it would still be there when she needed it.
She strode through the prison, every fibre tensed and ready. People stared at her as she walked past, but no one dared attack her. Sand flicked her skin, kicked up by hurried feet. Each grain stung like a small insect biting her flesh. She sighed and pulled her jacket tighter.
Halfway back to the main compound she passed a labourbot with rusted wheels traveling in the opposite direction. The top of its rectangular body came up to her waist and made an odd square of technology amongst the squalid tents. It trundled across the sand and disappeared amongst the forest of tents.
Nova smiled and strode to the Inners.
Kirt stood guard at the entrance to the inner compound, stubble shadowing his chin. He scowled at her as she approached. "I see you managed to survive the night."
"No thanks to you, I'm sure," she said, pushing past him. It was a bold move but here in Ankar it was either sink or swim. She had to be tough or she'd be eaten up.
"Glad to see you're still with us!" Amon said, glancing up from his bowl of gruel.
Nova sauntered over. "I can take care of myself."
"Clearly. Surviving the night in Ankar means you at least deserve breakfast." Amon gestured to the food generators.
Nova nodded and went over. As she waited for her breakfast she looked out past the inner compound to the outer tents and shacks. Lonely, hungry eyes stared back at her. It was a maximum penalty prison so the chances were pretty good that these people had done some bad things. But how many of them were like her? Only stuck on Ankar because they were willing to fight for their beliefs against the Confederacy?
Nova's stomach churned and her fingers clenched. She took a faltering step towards the food generator, intending to take some gruel to the outer slums. Her finger hovered above the button.
With a sigh she let her hand fall to her side and turned away. She couldn't sacrifice the influence she'd gained just to give a few criminals a bare meal. Shuffling to a cement table she sat down and gazed out of the courtyard to the sea of tents.
Her stomach churned and she bit her lip as she watched them scrounge the dirt ground for scraps of food. At least she had a chance of getting out. These people would never leave. Not until they died anyway. She couldn't imagine facing a life of this. How did they drag themselves out of their tents every morning?
Her eyes slid over the shadows of the nearest cell block and something moved. She squinted, peering into the darkness.
Two men stood staring back at her. The taller one looked like he belonged in an expensive bar, not the roughest prison in the quadrant. His clean face and clothes stood out against the dirt and grime that covered everything else.
The smaller man beside him had long greasy hair that hung in a tangled mess. He blended into the surroundings where his companion stood out. Dirt covered his face and hands and his eyes bulged, flicking in all directions. He twitched every few seconds and jumped from foot to foot, struggling to stay still.
The unlikely pair watched Nova for a full minute before they walked away, rounded a corner and disappeared. She frowned. They didn't seem dangerous but it didn't feel like they belonged on Ankar either.
She shrugged it off as another mystery of the prison.
Her eyes flicked to Carter's building where again the entrance was surrounded by dangerous looking men and women, muscles bulging. She bit her lip and let her gaze fall to the table; how could she possibly get close to him?
A boot scraping on dirt behind Nova made her shoulders tense and she clutched her knife under the table.
"I don't know what you're playing at," Kirt said.
She glanced up, taking in his sneer and the knife in his white-knuckled hand.
"Nothing," she replied, turning her attention back to the bowl of gruel.
"I'll gut you," Kirt said. "I'll enjoy it too. I can't wait to tear your intestines up through your mouth."
Nova raised her head and rolled her eyes. "Do you bother everyone this much or is it just me?"
Kirt flexed his fingers around the knife. "You don't recognize me do you?"
Nova frowned. "Should I?"
A muscle in Kirt's jaw twitched. "Hasard. Two years ago."
Nova's mind raced. She'd only been to Hasard a couple of times; the only thing worse than the desert was the spitting camels. "Two years…… there was a drug cartel."
Nova studied his face, imagining it without the layers of dirt and with fewer wrinkles. Her mouth dropped. "The transporter."
"Now you recognize me," Kirt said, hand tightening on his blade.
"You were the one stuffing the camels…"
"Had a pretty good thing going too, until you came along."
Nova swallowed, her heart clenching. Kirt's overt aggression was starting to make more sense.
"Take a good look around," Kirt said, waving around the prison. "You might recognise more faces than you thought."
Nova clenched her jaw and refused to let her eyes fall from Kirt's face. "I would have thought you'd be happy. Did you really want to spend the rest of your life shoving drugs up camel arses?"
Kirt's face darkened. "You bitch. I'll make you pay for what you took from me. Don't think you're safe just because Amon happens to have taken a shine to you. That won't help you for long."
Nova snorted and turned back to her gruel. "With a mouth that big you must be pretty popular in here."
A choking noise came from Kirt's throat. "You little bitch."
Kirt stomped away, glaring at her over his shoulder. "I'll get you. Just see if I don't."
Nova watched him go, knuckles white where her hands clenched into fists.
"Don't mind him." A tall man came over and leaned against Nova's table.
She looked up at him, then glanced at Kirt's retreating back but didn't reply.
"I'm Wood," he said.
"Nova," she replied.
"The Hunter that everyone's talking about."
Nova shrugged. "Just surviving."
"Aren't we all?"
Nova shrugged again.
Wood sat down opposite her and held out a crude cigar. "It's not much but it's the best you'll find here."
"I don't smoke."
"Not much else to do in this rat-hole."
Nova stared hard at him. What did he want? He didn't seem threatening. He had a knife in his belt but it was a long way from his hands. His smile seemed genuine enough. Maybe he was just looking for someone to talk to.
"What are you in for?" she said.
It was the equivalent of 'how are you?' in Ankar.
"Big misunderstanding," Wood said. "I'm innocent actually."
"Hmm," Nova said. "I've heard everyone in here is."
"Ha!" Wood said, grinning. He cupped his hands around the cigar and lit it with a silver lighter. He took a deep drag and blew the smoke out of the corner of his mouth. "I like you. But no, I think there are probably a few guilty ones in here. Like your friend Kirt."
"Hmm, I know that. Apparently I'm the one that got him put in here," Nova said.
Wood raised an eyebrow. "That explains why he's been so friendly. I'm surprised you've survived this long."
Nova shrugged. "So what didn't you do?"
"Stole a ship worth a million credits," Wood said. He took another deep breath through his cigar.
"Wow," Nova said. "That's some ship."
"Complete accident," Wood said. "I thought it was the earlier model. They're only worth a few hundred thousand. Would have landed me a few years hard labour. Instead, I had to pick the most expensive ship on the market. The judge said it was a crime so big that only a life sentence would teach me a lesson."
Wood shook his head and chuckled. He flicked stray ash from the end of his cigar.
"Some misunderstanding," Nova said.
"Yeah. Tell me about it. So what'd you do?"
"I'm innocent," Nova said out of reflex.
"Yeah," Wood said. "But really?"
Nova shrugged. It wasn't like she could get into any more trouble. "Terrorism. Blew up the Confederacy Headquarters near Cupron."
Wood's eyes widened. "That was you?!"
Nova nodded slowly.
"You're joking! That was all anyone talked about for a month! I'm surprised they let you come here, usually they would have shot you on sight!"
Nova shrugged. "Lucky me."
"I'd say!" Wood laughed. He took another drag and blew away the smoke. It curled across the courtyard.
A stray whiff of it sailed up Nova's nostrils. Unlike the cigars she was used to it smelled of burning grass rather than tobacco.
"Wow. Well, it's an honour to meet you," Wood said. He held out his hand.
Nova couldn't help smiling as she shook it.
"Why do you keep staring at the boss-man's place?" Wood asked.
"What?" The smile snapped away from Nova's face. Had she been that obvious?
"Carter," Wood said, nodding towards the guarded building. "You've been staring at that door since you sat down."
"Oh," Nova said. "It's nothing. I've just heard of him, you know?"
"If you say so," said Wood. "But you know he won't be able to get you out of here? Even Carter doesn't have that kind of power."
"It's not like that," Nova said. "I just want to talk to him."
Wood snorted. "That's just as unlikely."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, he doesn't talk to anyone unless they're in his inner circle. Hell, you'll be lucky to even see him. He keeps to himself, otherwise he'd be killed. Do you know how many of these guys are in here because of him?"
Nova did know. She'd done her research. But she wasn't about to tell this stranger everything she knew about the prison and her plan for escape.
"So, how do I get into the circle?" Nova asked.
"Be reborn as his daughter?" Wood suggested.
Nova rolled her eyes.
"He doesn't talk to anyone. No one gets into his inner circle unless they've given him a kidney or something. He wouldn't even let you in if you offered him certain… trade. I don't know what the selection criteria is but he's had the same goons since I arrived four years ago. And that's an impressive survival rate seeing as most prisoners don't last longer than six months."
"You did," Nova said.
"Yeah," Wood chuckled. "I suppose I did."
Nova barely heard him, her mind racing. This was one part that she couldn't plan for. Getting into the inner circle of a mob-boss was something you couldn't learn. She had to find a way to make him trust her. Her last resort would be to stage an assassination attempt but if she got caught she'd be dead in seconds. It wasn't a plan she wanted to put to the test.
"Want to play some cards?" Wood asked.
She didn't really want to play cards but she needed something to occupy her attention and it could be useful having a friend on the inside.
"Only if you put out that cigar," she said, swatting smoke away from her face.
"Ah," Wood said, rolling his eyes. "One of those."
He pulled the cigar from his mouth and tapped it out on the table. When the last embers faded away he pulled a deck of cards from his pocket and dealt two neat piles. Nova picked up her hand, her mind still racing.
"He doesn't spend much time out here," Wood said, looking over his cards.
"Carter. Usually he stays inside his building with his goons. I've even heard rumours that they've got their own food generators. I've heard it's far more… comfortable."
Nova nodded and went back to her cards. If Carter didn't usually spend time in the yard then she had even less of a chance than she'd hoped of getting his attention. She sighed and played an Ace. It was never going to be easy.
Three months until guard change.
Nova sat with a hand on her knife and her head on the table. Another night spent curled up inside a crate had left her feeling more tired than she'd ever been before. Her head throbbed and her neck felt like a rod of agony. Even a sticky bowl of gruel hadn't helped.
She gritted her teeth as her eyes drifted closed. She needed to find a way to get in with Carter or she'd die from exhaustion just trying to stay away from Kirt.
"Hunter," Amon called across the yard.
Nova lifted her head, blinking in the sunlight.
Amon jerked his head, expression grim. Seven people covered in scars gathered close to him, glaring around at the rest of the prison. Kirt stood by Amon's shoulder, hand resting on a knife at his belt.
Nova pushed herself off the table and strode towards them, rubbing her eyes. Her brain buzzed, filling her thoughts with static. She reached Amon's table and stood looking down at him, doing her best to hide her annoyance at being summoned.
"You may have noticed that there are quite a few unnaturals here," Amon said, nodding towards a group of prisoners.
Mods sprouted over their bodies, from glowing skin to slanted, feline eyes.
"Modded," Nova corrected.
"Unnatural," Amon said in a stern voice. "It's going down tonight. If you want to keep enjoying privileges, you have to work for it."
Nova shook her head. "I don't do shake downs."
"This isn't a shake down," Kirt said, stepping forward so their faces almost touched and his rank breath brushed over her face. "This is war."
Nova stared back at him with her chin pushed forward.
"Unfortunately, Kirt's right. Boss says they've gotten too confident. It's time to take them down a peg," Amon said.
"Carter?" Nova said.
Amon raised an eyebrow and nodded.
"What's the point?" Nova said.
A heavy weight settled in her stomach. The last thing she wanted was to be caught in the middle of a prison battle. Too much bad history seethed between the mods and non-mods. The walls would be spattered with blood by the end and it would be just her luck to die in a prison brawl.
"Where's your natural pride?" Kirt said. Spit sprayed from his mouth and showered Nova's cheek. "Unless you're a mod. That blue streak in your hair doesn't look natural."
"Back off Kirt. You know hair colour isn't a real mod."
Kirt's upper lip twisted but he took a step back.
"So, Hunter. Are you in or out?" Amon said. The humour disappeared from his voice and his eyes darkened.
She kept her face neutral but inside, her stomach rolled. She didn't really have an option; if she backed out now she'd never be allowed back in the inner compound. She had to take her chances.
"Sure," she said. "I'm in."
"Good!" Amon said, smiling. "Make sure you don't wonder too far from here then. It'll be nightfall before you know it."
Afternoon sunlight filtered over the courtyard, painting the cement orange, as Nova rested her head in her hands, wishing she'd managed to come up with a better plan than getting thrown into prison. Maybe Aart had been right after all.
"Hello partner," said Wood. "How are you finding your third day?"
"Not much better than my first," Nova said without looking up.
"Ah, so you've heard about tonight's plan?"
"Yes." Her frown deepened.
"Don't worry about it too much," Wood said. "These things erupt every few months. They usually blow over after a big brawl."
"I'd rather not be in the brawl at all. There's nothing wrong with the mods."
"Shh!" Wood hissed and looked around. "Believe what you want, but don't let anyone else hear you say that, especially not tonight. Kirt would kill you just for the fun of it."
Nova grunted; she'd like to see him try.
"And you won't be able to back down. Not unless you want to be banned from the food. Chickens get thrown straight to the Outers. Unless you feel like spending the rest of your life eating human flesh, I'd suggest you get used to the idea."
Nova waved her hand. She didn't want to think about the night ahead. It promised to be brutal.
Prisoners filled the courtyard, some with their heads bent together in deep conversation, and others standing alone, glaring at the ground. Most of them she didn't recognize.
She took a deep breath and straightened her back. If she still wanted her plan to work she had to have as much information as she could scrounge, better to start sooner rather than later. "Are there just cells in the buildings?" She nodded at the brick towers.
Wood shrugged. "Mostly. No one really knows what's in Carter's quarters. They're in that central building. Most of the rest are single cells, occupied by the fine folks you see around you. It's quite a privilege to have a lockable door."
"Wouldn't they all lock from the outside?" Nova said.
Wood grinned. "Ah, so you are a bright spark. The prisoners switched the locks as soon as the guards stopped over-looking the place. Now as I was saying, they're all cell blocks except for the third floor in the right hand building; that's our medical wing."
Nova's eyebrow rose. "Med wing?"
Wood grinned. "Yep. We're lucky enough to have our very own doctor here on Ankar. Not a Medbot either, a real live doctor. He patches us up in exchange for a place here in the Inners."
"I guess anyone can be a criminal…"
Wood nodded but he gazed into the distance. "Yeah… although of all the people I've met in this hell hole I think he might actually be innocent. He's a nice guy anyway. Everyone calls him Doc."
"Which one is he?" Nova said, looking around.
Wood scanned the tables. "Not here. Can't say I'm surprised though; he won't be fighting. You'll recognize him when you see him though. He's tall, and somehow seems like he doesn't belong here. He's usually with a weird little fellow, Mouse, I think his name is."
Nova frowned. "I saw them earlier. He seemed… clean. Too clean to be here anyway. It felt like they were staring at me."
Wood nodded. "That's them. Doc likes to check out newbies; especially if they're about to be in a fight."
Nova shook her head and turned her attention back to the prisoners. "Who are they?"
She tilted her head to a group of people a few tables away. They stood with their heads together, only looking up to glare at the rest of the prisoners.
"Ah, you've got an eye for trouble," Wood said. "That's Kravkof and his crew. He's the tall one with tattoos on his face. He's got an eye on Carter's position; I don't care how much he denies it. They've survived so far because they're good in a fight, but if Carter sees them as a threat, he'll get rid of them."
"Good in a fight?"
Wood nodded. "I'm sure you'll get more than enough of a chance to see them in action tonight. But keep an eye on that blond one, Fi. If I could use a knife half as well as her I'd be happy. And the guy standing next to her used to be an acrobat or something; he can do things with his body that I can't even imagine."
Nova nodded and made a mental note to keep an eye on them. If they got rid of Carter, then her whole plan was ruined.
"Who's that?" she said, nodding to a thin man with grey skin.
He nibbled on the ends of his fingers, eyes darting around the compound.
"That's Scrim," Wood said with a shudder. "He's a nut case. Don't go near him if you know what's good for you. He's lost his marbles from being in here. He doesn't make any sense and he actually enjoys eating people. He's allowed in here cuz he's a good fighter but he eats just as many people as any of the rats living in the Outers."
Nova's nose wrinkled.
Scrim's head whipped up and he stared straight at her. He pulled his hand from his mouth and grinned. His teeth were sharpened into razor points and deep holes ploughed through his flesh where he'd bitten chunks out of his palm and fingers.
"He's eating himself," Nova whispered.
Her stomach rolled and bile rose in her throat.
"He's a maniac," Wood said in disgust. "Don't go near him. In fact, it's best not to even look at him. He likes to creep people out, and if you're really unlucky he might get a taste for you."
Nova shivered and wrapped her arms over her chest, ripping her gaze away from Scrim. She glared down at the table and clenched her teeth.
"C'mon," said Wood. "We'll play another round. That'll take your mind off things. Besides, I believe I have to win back my honour."
Nova gave a half smile. She appreciated Wood trying to help, but she didn't think cards would get her mind away from Scrim's mangled hand. Out of the corner of her eye she watched blood dribble down from his fingers and make ugly stains on his table.
Wood dealt the cards.
"He bit Kirt once," Wood said.
That was enough to get Nova's attention. She raised an eyebrow.
"Yep. Kirt was sitting with his eyes closed, just enjoying the sun. Scrim snuck up behind him and clamped down on his ear, ripped half the thing off."
"No!" Nova said.
"Yep," Wood replied. "Kirt's still missing the top of his left ear. Have a look next time he comes to bother you. Don't make it too obvious though, he's a bit sensitive about it."
"What happened?" Nova said. She couldn't imagine that Kirt let Scrim live after doing that.
"Scrim ripped the ear off and danced back. Then he started chewing on it. I saw the whole thing and it made me want to hurl. He just stood there with his eyes all shiny, chewing on a bloody piece of ear. Kirt lost it. I don't blame him, I would have too."
Wood glanced around the yard to make sure no one was listening.
"Kirt pulled his knife, yelling at the top of his lungs. He was ready to gut Scrim right there. You should have seen his eyes; mad. Blood was pouring down his face, soaked his shirt right through. The pain must have been massive but it was like he couldn't feel a thing. He ran straight at Scrim with his knife. I'm sure he would have carved him into steak fillets if Amon hadn't intervened."
"Yeah. He yelled out just before Kirt's knife slashed Scrim's throat. Told him to hold back."
"Why? What does Amon want with Scrim?"
Wood shrugged. "Amon has a special sympathy for the crazies. Something about a sibling of his… Anyway, Kirt was furious. He started swearing and carrying on. And the whole time Scrim just stood there with a stupid grin on in his face, chewing Kirt's ear."
Nova's mouth hung open and her cards lay face-up, abandoned on the table.
"Kirt ended up having to go to the med wing for three days to get his ear stitched up."
"Tell me about it," Wood said. "At least you didn't have to watch it."
Nova nodded and stared at the crude table. The sooner she got off this planet, the better.
Nova spent the rest of the day in the compound. She sat by herself at a rough cement table and watched the rest of the prisoners. None of them spoke to her, instead following Kirt's lead and glaring at her every few minutes.
Tension crackled through the air. The modded group paced the compound and spoke in low voices. Amon and Kirt bent their heads together and gestured around the courtyard. Even a blind person would have sensed trouble brewing.
Nova ducked her head and tried to ignore it. For better or worse she was all in now. She couldn't decide if it was better to die here in a prison riot, or be killed by the Confederacy. At least here she'd made the choice.
Nova's head snapped up, eyes locking on a woman with three ears. The third sat on the top of her head like a miniature hat while her pupils formed vertical slits, like a lizard.
Nova kept her face expressionless as she stared back at the modded woman.
"Have you chosen a side?" the woman said.
Nova gripped the edge of the table. "Who are you?"
"You can call me Sigma. So. Modded or un-modded?"
"I don't choose sides," Nova said.
"Really? Because it looks like you're getting pretty cosy with Amon and his crew."
Nova shrugged. "Just surviving."
"Aren't we all," Sigma said. Her strange yellow eyes made Nova's skin crawl.
"Can I help you?" Nova said.
"Things are about to get real. It's time to pick a side. I would suggest you join us. Carter and his crew are a bunch of thugs. They'll get rid of you faster than a Lecheon with a blood bag."
"And I suppose you're the honourable kind of prisoners?" Nova said.
Sigma smiled, revealing pointed teeth. "You could say that."
"I told you I'm not picking sides."
Sigma's face darkened and she leaned far over the table so that her teeth glinted in front of Nova's face. "I don't think you understand. You don't get to sit out. There are no side-lines here. You're either on our side, or you're not."
Nova stared straight back at her without saying anything.
"Fine," said Sigma. "You've made your choice. If I were you, I'd make peace with yourself before sunset."
Nova watched Sigma stroll away. Her stomach felt hollow. Under almost any other circumstances she would have agreed with Sigma; Carter's group were a bunch of thugs, but he was her only ticket away from the Confederacy and so her choice of sides wasn't a choice at all.
Darkness came far too quickly for Nova. As evening drew on, tension in the compound grew. The prisoners paced around the tables and small fights broke out at the fringes. Both groups had stacked tables in front of all the entrances so that no one from the Outers could get in. The last thing either wanted was an overthrow by the masses.
Nova sat at her table with her knife in hand. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and she twitched with every sudden sound. The guards up in the compound might be watching them, although even that was unlikely, and they certainly wouldn't step in to stop the fight; the violence would go on until someone won.
She clenched her hand tighter around her knife hilt and waited. Nausea and panic rolled through her stomach, and every muscle tightened. Her shoulders hunched up around her ears as she imagined having to kill the people sitting just a few meters away.
There was no obvious signal to begin. When the violence broke out it was in a growing wave that consumed the entire compound, drowning everyone inside.
At the first scream, Nova dived off her table and rolled to the closest wall. She pinned her back against it and raised her knife. Flickering lights revealed dim outlines, but barely enough to make out faces.
Screams echoed from all directions. Grunts of victory and pain erupted into the cacophony of battle.
Nova crouched at the fringes, out of sight. She refused to attack first, but she was more than prepared to defend herself. She didn't have to wait long. A man the size of a small horse leapt at her and two big fists swung out of the darkness.
She ducked, crouching like a coiled spring, and held her knife in front of her face. She drew back, ready to swing, when a third, mechanical, arm thrust out of his stomach.
Sharp metal glinted in the third hand, slashing through the air towards Nova's stomach.
She dived to the left and a cool brush of air fluttered over her abdomen as the blade whipped past, inches from her flesh.
She rolled to her feet, knife in hand and breathing hard. "Nice mod."
The man barrelled forward, swinging all three of his deadly arms. She ducked under his two fists and sidestepped the knife. Spinning, she stabbed out.
Her knife plunged into his fleshy stomach, coating her hand in warm blood. She stepped past and crouched, knife raised.
He swung to face her, eyes glittering in the dim lights. Lunging forward, his left hand closed around her shirt and he hauled her off the ground with a grim chuckle.
Her heart fluttered as the ground fell away below her and she kicked. Her boots pattered against the man's stomach but he seemed not to notice. With one hand she scrambled at his fist, unable to unknot his fingers, while with the other she slashed at him.
"Girl like you could do with some mods," he said, smirking.
Nova drew back and slashed. Her knife skimmed across his wrist, leaving a crimson gash that gaped open.
He cried out and dropped her, at the same time his mechanical hand jammed forward, knife aimed at her chest. She ducked out of the way and stood, bursting up inside the circle of his arms, just to the side of his robotic limb. Grimacing, she thrust straight up into the man's jaw. Her knife plunged through his head and released a spray of blood over her hands and face.
The man's cries gargled to a stop in his throat. His eyes rolled and he fell backwards with a heavy thump, pulling a loose table over with him.
Nova wrenched her knife free and ducked into the nearest shadow. She crouched low and watched until he stopped twitching. Her heart hammered and she panted as she turned to face the battle, wiping her bloodied hands on her shirt.
People scrambled across the tables and already bodies littered the ground. Standing on a table in the centre of the battle was the woman Wood had pointed out earlier, Fi. Knives danced in her hands. She seemed barely to move and an attacker would fall dead at her feet. Spinning and thrusting she wove an intricate dance, choreographed to the sounds of death.
A blur passed in front of Fi. Nova narrowed her eyes and caught sight of Fi's companion, Han, Wood had called him. He streamed through the fighting faster than Nova would have thought possible. He darted between the tables, leapt over fallen bodies and flipped through the air over a knot of fighting people.
Nova's mouth dropped. Han looked more like a machine than a human.
"I told you, he's amazing," Wood said as he stumbled past, exchanging blows with a man twice his size.
Nova stood to help when a shadow like a mountain barrelled out of the melee. He stood at least three times as wide as a normal man and his shoulders loomed like boulders. Nova recognised him, he'd been standing with Kravkof and Fi earlier. He grabbed hold of the man fighting Wood and tossed him aside like a piece of kindling.
The man flew through the air and hit a nearby wall, crumpling to the ground.
"Thanks Red," Wood said, wiping sweat from his brow.
Red didn't reply as he turned and dived back into the fighting.
Wood turned, nodded to Nova, and followed after Red.
Nova stared after them, mouth hanging open. Wood had been right; Kravkof's crew did have some tricks.
Something rustled to Nova's left and she spun.
Sigma's pale face and grinning mouth filled her vision. "Hey, Hunter," she said, thrusting her knife into Nova's stomach.
Nova's eyes widened. She stumbled backwards and fell, wrapping her hands around the wound. She stared up at the sky; stars twinkled. Warm blood seeped between her fingers and dribbled down her sides.
Sigma chuckled from somewhere above. "Be careful, Hunter. That'll kill you slow."
Footsteps faded away.
Tendrils of pain shot out of Nova's stomach, encircling her waist and racing into her limbs. Every beat of her heart brought a new wave of agony that crashed over her and adrenalin pushed her heart faster, making the pain unbearable.
Slick blood coated her palms, making them slippery as she tried to hold her stomach together.
She winced and bit her lip. Tears came unbidden to her eyes. She blinked them away, struggling to stand, but dark clouds surged up to swallow her and she let her head fall back to the ground.
A ragged breath stung her throat. She focused on the stars above, so unfamiliar, and tried to count them, to cling to consciousness.
As she lost control of her senses, the other world closed in. It had been a long time since she'd lost her grip and let the madness take over her mind with shadowed places. It came now. With her body on the brink of death, her mind was free to wander.
Before her eyes, the scene around her changed. Night turned to day and the fighting was replaced with prisoners eating. Further back in time. Right back to when the prison was still overlooked by human guards. Then back further still, to when the prison was being built and before that to when the small planet was just an empty desert, void of life.
In her dazed state she lost track of what was real and what was hallucination. There were so many voices surrounding her. They pressed in on all sides. Some voices belonged to people who were long dead, others hadn't been born yet. So many voices begged for her attention.
She whipped her head back and forth, trying to make sense of the shadowed beings walking all around her.
She struggled to stand but a blast of pain shot from her stomach. She remembered the knife wound. There was a battle raging, but where was it?
Nova forced her eyes closed and tried to clear her mind. She took a deep, shaky breath, knowing she had to think logically. She'd been stabbed, was probably bleeding to death at that very instant.
She breathed deeply, focusing on clean air flowing into her lungs and all the pain and frustration flowing out. She counted to three and opened her eyes.
Instead of being surrounded by the cement compound and fighting bodies, she lay in a soft bed cushioned in darkness. Bright lights lit the rest of the room. The sounds of battle were gone, replaced with dull murmuring from somewhere to her right.
She frowned and blinked. The scene didn't change.
"You're awake," someone said to Nova's left.
She strained to see who was talking. A tall man with greying hair came into view. He looked familiar.
"I wasn't sure you were going to make it," he said.
"What?" Nova said. "Who?"
"You're in my humble hospital. You can call me Doc," he said.
A second man scuttled into view. "Got the bandages you asked for."
He was short and covered in dirt. Feral hair hung in loose strands over his face. He jumped from foot to foot as he held the cloth to Doc.
Nova realised where she'd seen them before. Two men, standing in shadows. Wood had called them Doc and Mouse. What were they doing here? And where was here?
"Thank you, Mouse," Doc said.
The smaller man bowed his head and ran away from Nova's bed until he stood against the far wall.
"I need you to calm down," Doc said as he turned to Nova. "Your bandages need changing. Trust me; in here infection is your biggest enemy."
She pulled away from him, head shaking and scrambling for her knife.
Doc frowned at her. "You stopped bleeding this morning. I had to give you a transfusion but you're okay now."
Nova stopped and stared at him. Her mind seemed to be slogging through mud, chugging along at a quarter of its normal speed. It was almost as if - "You've drugged me!" she said.
"Of course," Doc said. "How could I stitch you up with you writhing and raving like a lunatic?"
Nova's slow mind worked over the new information. Stitched her up. Transfusion. Hospital.
She took a deep breath and lifted the sheet off her body. A piece of cloth wrapped around her stomach. It might have been clean at some point, but was covered in blood now. Her side ached in a dull constant kind of way, unlike the insistent blasts of pain she'd been getting before.
"I have a lot of other patients," Doc said. "Either let me change your bandage or let yourself die. Either way, I can't stay here."
She narrowed her eyes at him. He looked honest enough; his open face and clean hands didn't seem to be hiding anything.
"Okay," she said and pushed the sheet away.
"That's the way," he said.
He knelt by her side and peeled back the layers of soiled bandage. Underneath, a jagged cut slashed through her side, ribbed with thick black wire for stitching. The gouge ran from just above Nova's right hip, almost to her belly-button.
"It's not looking too bad," Doc said.
He took a bottle from a nearby table and dabbed it onto the wound. It burned like hell.
"Yes it stings," Doc said as Nova winced.
He took the new bandages that Mouse had given him, and re-wrapped Nova's stomach.
"Why'd you save me?" Nova said. If she'd learnt anything it was that no one ever did anything for free.
Doc shrugged. "It's what I do."
"Try and get some rest," Doc said.
"I need my knife."
"I'm afraid not. Not in my hospital. But don't be concerned. I have an understanding with the prisoners. Nothing happens inside my hospital, and I keep treating them."
He moved away from her bed and out of sight. She could hear him talking to someone on a bed further down.
Nova didn't like being so exposed. She had no idea where her knife was and she had no way of defending herself if someone attacked. On the other hand, she couldn't exactly get up and go anywhere. Fire raced through her side and her head spun. The best she could do was wait here until her body was good enough to look after itself.
Two and a half months until guard change.
Nova swam back to consciousness. She had no idea how long she'd been in the hospital. She had a vague memory of Doc coming to change her bandages a few times but that was all. Someone had given her food but she couldn't say who.
The pain in her side had subsided to a dull tightness, a small ache compared to what it had been. Her drugged haze had become a peripheral buzz and her thoughts flowed clear and free.
She kept her eyes closed as she took stock of each of her limbs and the rest of her body, testing each finger and toe. Muffled voices spoke right on the edge of her hearing. She took a deep breath.
The deep voices got louder and one she recognized; Kirt.
"He didn't even fight," Kirt said.
"But that's not so bad. If I was in charge, I wouldn't have fought either. Look at you, nearly died!"
"That's not the point. He could have stepped in before any of this happened and I wouldn't have got knifed in the first place."
"Should be careful who you say that to. You know you'd be dead if he found out."
"He can get stuffed. I'm telling you man, it's time for change. We should step up. We could be the new head-honchos."
"No. I mean it!" said Kirt. "We take control. All we'd have to do is kill him."
"But we're nobody."
Kirt snorted. "Speak for yourself. But that's just the thing, Carter used to be a nobody. You kill enough of the right people and suddenly, you're somebody. That's all we have to do."
"And how are you going to get to him? I don't see you getting invited to his quarters."
"He'll make an appearance, for a victory speech, he always does. That's when we strike."
"You really think we can do it?"
"Yep. As soon as I'm out of here. Are you in?"
"Good. Carter won't know what hit him."
Footsteps faded away.
Nova kept her eyes firmly closed. Behind her lids her mind raced. Kirt was planning to overthrow Carter. If they killed Carter, the secret to the border would be lost forever. She would have come to the prison and nearly died for no reason. She had to stop it, had to do something.
They'd never believe her. She would never get an audience with Carter to warn him, and Amon wouldn't take her word over Kirt's. All she could do was watch and be ready. But how could she be ready while she was trapped in bed? She consoled herself with the fact that Kirt was bedridden as well. At least while he was here, she had time.
She pretended to wake up and pushed herself higher on the bed. Her stomach hurt with the move but at least she could do it. She made it into a sitting position, panting with her back against the wall.
She slid her eyes to the left and let out a sigh. A piece of cloth hung between her and Kirt's bed. He couldn't see her. He might not even know she was there.
"Feeling better are we?" said Doc as he came over.
"A little," she said, careful to keep her voice low and hoping that Kirt wasn't listening. "When do you think I can get out of here?"
"Of course you can leave whenever you want," Doc said. "I'd recommend you wait another couple of days. Without the pain-killers you'll be in a world of hurt."
Nova nodded and smiled a little.
Doc handed her a bowl of gruel and turned away. "At least I think you're ready to feed yourself."
Nova grinned as she took the bowl. Her stomach rumbled like she hadn't eaten in weeks. A blunt piece of metal stuck out of the gruel, bent and curved into a crude spoon. She used it to scoop mountains of food into her mouth. Hunger made the gruel taste better than she remembered.
"If it isn't my two war heroes!" Amon's booming voice echoed through the cement room as he sauntered through the door towards Nova's bed.
Nova groaned as he tossed back the curtain between her and Kirt.
Kirt grunted. "I thought she died."
"Nearly did from what Doc was saying. Managed to take down Duke before she did though."
"Yes I know, Kirt. You killed about five of them before you even had a scratch," Amon said, rolling his eyes. He grinned from ear to ear as he looked between the two beds.
"You seemed to do quite well," Nova said, non-committal.
"Experience," Amon said with a shrug. "When will you two be coming back to the yard? We've managed to subdue the freaks for the moment but I'd feel better if the two of you were there."
"Doc said I can leave this afternoon," Kirt said. He glared at Nova, his fingers tangled like claws in his bed sheet.
She kept all emotion from her face. "Doc said I can leave whenever I want. I'm getting sick of this place anyway."
"Excellent!" Amon said. "Then I'll see you both tonight."
Amon left the hospital still smiling.
"How did you manage to survive?" Kirt said. "I thought for sure Sigma would finish you off."
"Perhaps I'm tougher than you think," Nova said.
"We'll see about that."
Nova ignored him, lowering her body back to the pillow and closing her eyes. She kept the tiniest slit open at the bottom so that she could still see Kirt. He watched her for some time after she lay down. His fists opened and closed at his sides and his whole body seemed tensed, ready to pounce.
A white bandage covered his right leg. It looked clean enough but she wouldn't know how bad the wound was until she saw him walking.
She waited until he'd turned away and lain down himself before she let her body relax. Only then did she allow herself to drift into half-sleep, still ready for an attack.
Kirt didn't try anything that afternoon. She suspected he was waiting until he was in charge of the prison. Then he'd be able to do whatever he wanted.
She shivered at the possibilities.
As darkness closed in, Kirt shifted his legs over the side of his bed and stood.
"Leaving us, Kirt?" said Doc from across the room.
"Yep," Kirt said. He shuffled to the door, limping. The wound in his leg had to be pretty bad for him to let it show.
As soon as he left, Nova sat up. She winced at the pain in her side but didn't stop. She threw her blood-stained shirt over her bandages and stood.
"What do you think you're doing?" Doc said.
She met his gaze. He looked concerned but not scared.
"I have to go," she said.
"I'm not going to stop you," he replied. "But you will be in a lot of pain. I don't hand out drugs to people who aren't staying at my hospital."
"I understand," said Nova. "But there are some things I've got to do."
Doc grunted and looked hard at her. "You're not like a lot of those brutes you've been hanging out with. Don't become one."
"That's not my plan," Nova said. "Thank you for everything."
Doc shrugged. "It's what I do."
Nova nodded and hobbled out of the hospital. The door led into a cement hallway with narrow windows. She glanced down at the central compound where dried pools of blood stained the grey floor.
A cool breeze floated through the window and brushed over Nova's skin, leaving a chill while cold seeped through from the floor into her toes and made her shiver.
She wrapped her arms over her chest and hurried forward, wanting to get as far away from the battle as she could. Pain bit her side with every footstep but she kept going. Through a maze of corridors, she wandered for what felt like hours before finally spilling out of a door to the courtyard.
Amon sat at a table, surrounded by people, including Kirt who stood right at his side.
"Here she is!" bellowed Amon, holding his hands wide.
Nova nodded but didn't smile. She sauntered up to the group and leaned against the table, keeping her mouth shut and allowing the conversation to continue. She listened hard until she recognised the voice of the man who'd spoken to Kirt. Brett was his name, a big man with a bad temper. He and Kirt exchanged meaningful glances across the table.
"Have you seen my knife?" Nova said when the conversation lulled.
"Brett was looking after it," said Amon, gesturing to the big man. The muscled brute frowned and glared at Nova.
She held her hand out and stared right back.
"Hand it over, Brett. She fought well and it's hers."
"I thought it was finder’s keepers here," said Kirt. He folded his arms across his chest. Brett still hadn't reached for the knife.
"And I thought I was in charge!" Amon's voice dropped and his face darkened. "Give her the damned knife!"
Kirt glared but said nothing more. Brett reluctantly reached into his belt and pulled out the jagged knife. It was lined with blood.
"And maybe when one of you useless morons manages to kill someone like Duke, you can have a pretty knife too," Amon said, nostrils flaring.
Nova took the knife from Brett's meaty hand and tucked it into her belt. She then went back to staring out of the compound as if nothing had happened.
"Good," Amon said. He spared another glare for Brett and Kirt before returning to the prior conversation.
"I'm turning in early," Kirt said. He whirled from the group and marched for the closest cement building.
"Me too," said Brett, stalking off.
Amon shook his head. "They're like a couple of pissy brats."
Nova nodded. Bone deep exhaustion filled every part of her body and she would have liked nothing more than to go to sleep, but she couldn't. For one, her little crate was too far from the main compound; she'd collapse before she got half-way. Secondly, if Carter made an appearance, she had to be ready. That left one option; she'd have to stay in the courtyard, awake, until Kirt made his move.
Two and a half months until guard change.
As the night went on, more of Nova's companions disappeared into the cement buildings. Eventually she was left alone in the night. She swallowed, hoping that Carter would be safe inside his own rooms; the one place she couldn't follow.
She rested her head on her arms. A cool breeze brushed over her and she shivered. She clutched her knife in her right hand, partially hidden from view by her arm.
The night air smelled fresh, promising, without the stench of sweat and unwashed prisoners. Calm stillness settled over the courtyard and for a moment Nova could almost pretend she was alone.
Despite the cool night air, stiff pain twisted through Nova's side, worsening with every hour. Each individual stitch tugged at the flesh to either side of her wound, burning hotter as the last of the pain medication faded away.
She closed her eyes and tried to block it out but it hammered back, stretching up from her stomach, through her chest, into her head.
Doc had been right; without his medication the pain was torture. But she didn't have a choice. She had to fight through it long enough to save Carter. After that it wouldn't matter. She bit her lip and sat through the pain.
The night stretched on for what felt like days. She managed to get a few hours of interrupted sleep by resting her head on the rough table, but most of the time she sat awake and in agony. Sharp jabs in her side kept jolting her awake, as if she were being stabbed. In her dreams she saw Sigma coming for her, heard the woman's ragged laughter. When Nova woke, she wondered where Sigma was now. Probably dead.
When finally the red light of dawn filtered over the horizon, Nova let out a sigh of relief and pushed herself to her feet. Tingles rushed up her stiff legs and she massaged her thighs to get feeling back. When she straightened, her back clicked into place.
She sauntered to the food generators and pulled out a bowl of gruel. The grey congealed mess looked more appealing every day; better than eating nothing, or eating human flesh.
Nova sat at a table that had a full view of the courtyard. Prisoners filtered in from the cement buildings, rubbing their eyes. A few nodded to Nova but most of them ignored her. She may have done her part in the prison riot but that didn't mean she was accepted.
She kept eating.
At mid-morning a commotion erupted at the entrance to the biggest building. A crowd of muscled people gathered together, carrying weapons; mostly knives and sharpened pieces of metal. They walked in battle formation into the eating area.
Everyone in front of them ran to get out of their way. They surrounded four tables and set up in a wide circle facing outwards. In the middle of their protection strode a much smaller man, his muscles like pebbles compared to the soldiers around him. A cigar hung out of the corner of his mouth. Carter Mason.
Nova gasped, shoulders tensed and eyes fixed.
Kirt sauntered out of a far building, right leg limping, and Nova's eyes locked on him. A fake smile tugged the corners of his mouth as he sauntered towards Carter's group, a suspicious bump jutting underneath his shirt.
Carter climbed up onto the cement table so that he towered above the rest of the prisoners.
The courtyard fell silent, everybody staring up at him.
"Today is a day for celebration. You overcame those unnatural bastards and proved once and for all that natural is best."
Carter grinned at the crowd.
Nova rose from her seat, clutching the knife sprouting from her belt.
Kirt inched sideways through the crowd, partially blocking Carter from some of the soldiers.
Brett strode out of a darkened doorway towards Carter, weaving past the distracted guards. Others in the inner sanctum glanced at him but turned their attention back to Carter's speech, enthralled.
A knife bulged in Brett's sleeve but he kept it mostly hidden. Nova wouldn't have seen it if she hadn't known to look for it.
Brett flicked his wrist and the hilt fell into his palm, still concealed, as he reached the edge of Carter's table. Metal glinted in the sunlight at Nova.
Her heart leapt into her throat.
With no time to think, she sprung forward and sprinted at the circle. Carter's guards turned, drawing their weapons. Cold metal glimmered.
Carter's smile faltered and he locked his gaze on Nova, but didn't move from the table.
Nova hurtled across the courtyard, hair flying back behind her. She yanked her knife from her belt, eyes pinned on Brett.
He grinned at her from behind Carter's shoulder. No one could see him except her and Kirt. Murder flashed in his eyes as he lifted the knife above Carter's back.
Kirt's mouth dropped as Nova dashed forward. His gaze flicked between Brett and Nova, colour draining from his face. He stepped towards her, hands held out like grasping claws. The other prisoners followed his lead and moved to surround her.
Nova darted left, ignoring the tearing pain in her side, and pushed past two prisoners. Three more stood behind them; she'd never get there in time.
"Behind you! Carter!" she bellowed but her voice faded amongst the buzz of the crowd, washed away by the oncoming thugs.
Brett stepped forward, only a meter from Carter. One big step and he'd be there.
Nova shouldered past another prisoner, adrenalin pouring strength into her muscles. She wrenched her arm back and lunged forward, hurling her knife as hard as she could.
The knife whirled through the air, spinning end over end. Metal flashed in the morning sunlight, the serrated edge cutting through cool air.
All of the prisoners, including Carter and Kirt, stopped to watch the knife. It sailed through the air with perfect precision towards Carter, too fast for him to dodge.
It shot past, inches from Carter's right cheek, and slammed into Brett's neck. The blade sunk into his flesh and lodged in his throat amongst a spurt of blood.
Brett stopped dead and the knife in his hand dropped, clattering to the ground. His hands flew to his throat, trying to stem the flow. Blood poured out around his fingers as he choked and gasped, eyes widening. His legs wobbled and he collapsed to his knees. He reached a clawed hand towards Nova and then fell forward onto his face. Dead.
Silence fell over the courtyard. Every pair of eyes flicked between Brett's dead body and Nova, mouths hanging open.
Nova stood hunched over, breathing hard and clutching her wounded side. She kept her gaze fixed on Brett, fighting the dizziness that threatened to knock her over.
Kirt shook his head and lunged forward with his knife out. He slashed at Nova, fury and desperation filling his eyes. Before he reached her, two other prisoners stepped forward and grabbed his arms, pinning them behind his back. They wrenched him around to face Carter, who stared down at them from the table.
"Ringer. Nail. Bring the Hunter and Kirt here," Carter said, voice low.
The taller guard shoved Kirt forward towards Carter while the other waved his hand at Nova. She stepped around him and strode to Carter's table, holding her head high despite the pain wracking her side.
The rest of Carter's goons took up uneasy positions in a rough circle. Some of them chose to face inwards, keeping an eye on Carter.
"What the hell just happened?" Carter said, vaulting to the ground. He looked between Nova and Kirt, ignoring Brett's body at his feet.
"This bitch can't be trusted," Kirt said. "She obviously was working with Brett. They just tried to kill you."
Nova rolled her eyes but her stomach clenched tight. This was it; the one and only chance she had of getting on Carter's good side. She had to make it count.
"Sir," she said. "I overheard Kirt and Brett plotting to kill you in the medical wing. I was ready for them and stopped them as best I could. I'm sorry I couldn't warn you sooner, but I didn't want to risk letting them know that I knew. I saw an opportunity and I took it."
She kept her voice steady. It was vital that she show respect but not weakness. She hid her shaking hands behind her back.
Carter looked between them. Ringer and Nail stood on either side, their shoulders hunched and jagged pieces of metal in hand.
"Do you have any proof?" Carter asked Nova.
"You can't believe her!" Kirt interrupted, two red spots blooming on his cheeks.
Carter turned furious eyes on Kirt. "And I suppose I should trust you? Even though it would make no sense for her to kill her partner if she wanted me dead."
Kirt's mouth worked but he said nothing.
"Well?" Carter said. "Do you have proof, Hunter?"
Nova spread her hands. "I'm afraid no one else heard it. The only proof I can give you is that Kirt was distracting some of the guards at the time Brett made his advance."
Carter frowned. He looked down at Brett's body, staring at it for some time as if looking for answers in his mutilated neck.
"Kirt," Carter said. "I'm going to ask you a very simple question and I want you to answer truthfully."
"Of course," Kirt said. His voice shook and his eyes darted from side to side like a trapped animal.
"Why did you lunge at the Hunter when it was clear she'd saved my life?"
Carter stared straight into Kirt's eyes. He stood completely still like a solid stone statue, or a predator ready to pounce.
Kirt trembled, arms and legs vibrating. He shifted from one foot to the other and his hands twisted in his shirt "I—" He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
"Yes?" Carter said. He wrapped his hands together, intertwining his fingers.
"I thought she was throwing the knife at you," Kirt said in a rush.
"Really?" Carter said. "Because the time between her throwing the knife, and you jumping was quite large. By then it was clear that Brett had been behind me, ready to attack."
"I—" Kirt said. His face glowed brighter and his breathing came out as uneven gasps. "It took me a while to process what had happened."
"Clearly," Carter said. He sighed and returned his eyes to Brett's body. "Nail. Ringer. String Kirt up. He's a traitor. Make sure everyone knows what happens to traitors."
"Yes sir," said Ringer.
"No! No. You can't do this!" Kirt said. His voice cracked, like rough gravel going through a blender.
"You knew the punishment for treason before you did it," Carter said. "Your mistake was getting caught. I suggest you be quiet, or I'll make sure it lasts twice as long."
Kirt's words died in his throat. Tears poured down his cheeks as he shook his head and a low wailing echoed from the back of his throat.
"What about the Hunter?" said Nail.
"I want to talk with her some more," Carter said, waving them away.
Ringer and Nail dragged Kirt away. He sobbed and stumbled beside them. The rest of the prisoners watched him go with expressions of shock, pity, and loathing.
Carter placed his boot on Brett's neck, bent down, and ripped Nova's knife free. He wiped it clean on Brett's shirt and handed it to her, hilt first, before sitting at the table. "Better hold onto that. Please have a seat."
Nova's heart flew to her mouth as she tucked the knife into her belt and sat. This was it. Step one complete. She'd gotten an audience with Carter. She just had to make sure she didn't blow it.
"That was a brave thing you did," said Carter. He waved his hand at Brett's body.
Nova shrugged. "I had my reasons."
"Oh?" Carter said with a sly smile.
"I came to this prison to talk to you," Nova said. She'd studied Carter's files extensively. From everything she'd learned she knew it was best to be honest with him. He appreciated straight shooters more than almost anything.
Carter raised an eyebrow. "You're telling me you intentionally got thrown into Ankar for a life sentence, just to talk to me?"
Nova glanced up at Carter's companions. "Maybe we should talk alone?"
Carter raised an eyebrow but flicked his wrist and his guards stepped back, narrowing their eyes at Nova.
Nova nodded. "I don't intend to stay here for life. But yes, I came here to talk to you."
"I must say I'm flattered," Carter said. "You're obviously delusional because no one gets out of Ankar. But I'm flattered all the same."
Nova gave a tight smile.
Carter leant back in his chair, locking his hands behind his head. "What did you want to talk about?"
"I want to know the secret to crossing the border."
"What?" Carter roared with laughter. A few of the prisoners jumped forward but he waved them back with more chuckles. "You can't be serious."
"Firstly, what would a Hunter want with the border?" he said. "And secondly, that is the single most valuable secret I have. I wouldn't give it up for anything."
Nova stared hard at him. This was the part she couldn't have predicted. As far as she could tell, no one had tried to get the border secret off Carter and survived to tell the tale. Of course they'd all tried violence and coercion. She had something far more effective in mind.
"I'm having problems with the Confederacy," Nova said slowly.
"Clearly," Carter said, waving his hand to indicate the prison.
Nova shook her head. "Bigger than that. They're planning to wipe me and my guild out. They won't stop until we're all dead."
"Surely it's enough that you're here," Carter said.
"No. I offended some very important people. They want me gone. My only chance is to get beyond the border."
"You're planning to stay out there?" Carter said.
"Have you ever seen it?"
"Barely. I've heard stories though."
"I can guarantee those stories don't tell the half of it. Those planets haven't been in contact with the main human population since their colonisation ships left Earth centuries ago. They're worse than the worst outer planet."
Nova shrugged. "It's better than death."
"You say that now. But you don't know, you haven't been there. You won't be able to communicate with them, you won't be able to understand their customs, and the chances are pretty good that they'll kill you straight off."
"And you don't understand how serious I am," said Nova. "I don't have any other choice."
Carter shook his head. "Just assuming that's all true, which it isn't; and assuming that the Confederacy would bother coming here to kill you, which they won't; that still leaves you with the impossible task of leaving Ankar. It can't be done."
"I can do it."
"No one can."
Nova shrugged. "I can. So what will it take for you to tell me the secret?"
Carter laughed again and shook his head. "You've got guts, I'll give you that much. But I told you. I'm not giving away that secret. It's too valuable."
"Everything has a price," she said. "What's your price for the border secret?"
"More than you've got, I can guarantee," said Carter. "But let me save you the trouble anyway. Even if I was to give you the secret, which I won't, you still need a special crystal to get past the border. Without one of those crystals you won't be able to break the frequency."
"I've got one," said Nova.
Carter's grin froze in place. He leaned forward on the table and stared hard at Nova.
"What do you mean?"
"I've already got one," she said.
"How can you possibly have one?" Carter said. "Only myself and the Confederacy have them."
Nova shrugged. "I have one. Taive. Mutant ear slugs. It's a long story."
"You're the strangest bounty Hunter I've ever met."
"I have everything I need to get past the border except what you know."
"I can't tell you that. Smuggling is the single-most lucrative business I have. If I gave out the border secrets to every prisoner who asked for them, I'd lose everything."
"Name your price," Nova said.
Carter sighed, staring at her with piercing eyes. His mouth turned down and he tapped the table with one finger.
"Freedom," he said finally.
"You break me free of this prison and I'll tell you."
Nova's mouth twitched. "You said it was impossible to break free."
"Yes, but you said you could do it. So, you do it and take me with you, and I'll tell you the secret."
Nova stared straight back at him. She'd expected this. There wasn't much else she could offer the mob boss which he didn't already have. Freedom was the only thing eluding him and she was the only one who could give it to him.
She smiled. "We have a deal."
She held out her hand and Carter grasped it, pulling her closer across the table.
"I wouldn't go telling everyone you're planning to break free," he said in a low whisper.
"I hadn't planned to."
Carter leaned back but Nova used their linked hands to pull him close again. "It would be best if I wasn't harassed by your people."
Carter grinned and shook his head. "You've got spirit. They won't bother you anymore."
"Good," Nova said with a smile, releasing his hand.
They studied each other across the table.
"I think I'm going to enjoy working with you," said Carter.
Nova smiled. "Me too."
"So when can I expect this miracle of yours?"
"When the guards change in a couple of months' time."
Carter raised an eyebrow. "That's not very long."
Nova nodded. "I don't want to stay here any longer than I have to. Do you?"
"You're right about that. Later you can tell me more, but for now; do you play cards?"
"I've played my share."
"Then let's do it," Carter said, pulling a deck from his pocket.
"I should warn you," Nova said. "I grew up on Tabryn."
"Ah, the gambling capital," Carter said. "Don't worry. I think I've spent enough time there to be able to hold my own against a Hunter."
He dealt the cards into two piles and the game began. They talked as they played and Nova couldn't help laughing. Carter had a wicked sense of humour and if you looked past his mob boss ways, he was likable enough.
The other prisoners stared on in confusion, sharing puzzled glances across the tables. They shook their heads and turned away.
Nova smiled as she played. Phase two complete; she had a way to get the secret. That only left phase three... she had to break them both out of prison.
Two and a half months until guard change.
Cheers drew Nova's attention away from her cards. A crowd was gathered in the middle of the courtyard, jeering at something. Shouts and yells echoed about the compound.
"Ah," Carter said. "The festivities are about to begin. Come on, Hunter."
Carter stood, put his cards on the table, and strode towards the milling crowd. His bodyguards formed a close-packed shield around him and cleared a path through the crowd so that Carter and Nova could see what was going on.
Kirt. Two prisoners wielding hammers held him down against the dirt ground while others propped massive nails against his palms.
Kirt writhed, his muscles bulging as he tried to rip free. "Let me go you bastards. Let me go!" His gaze flicked from one bloodthirsty face to another.
Nova's stomach churned. She didn't care for Kirt but whatever was in store for him was sure to be worse than anything he'd done.
She wanted to turn away, to pull her eyes free, but she didn't have a choice. It was crucial that she put on a strong face. Any sign of weakness now, and she'd lose any respect she'd gained, and on Ankar, that and fear were all that really mattered. So she bit her tongue and watched, expressionless.
The men with hammers drew back over their shoulders and slammed down. The metal heads collided with the nails and sent them pounding through Kirt's fleshy palms. Blood spurted out around the wounds.
Kirt shrieked, specs of blood flying out of his raw throat. His head twisted and slammed down onto the hard floor, skull making a dull thud.
The men with hammers drew back, the nails spread at least the length of Nova's hand, and they kept hammering until they went all the way through Kirt's hands and came out the other side. Then they went deeper still.
The nails sunk in until their heads were level with Kirt's palms. At that point the falling hammers hit his hand as well as the nails. The bones in his hand crunched, turned to fine powder.
Kirt wailed as loose pieces of bone shot through his skin, joining the puddles of blood like tiny white boats. His hands turned purple and blue beneath smears of blood while his broken fingers twisted like stunted trees.
Kirt's screams died and his eyes went glassy. He stared up at the sky, not seeing it.
"He's fainted," Carter said. "I've got to hand it to him. He lasted longer than most of them do."
Nova didn't reply, couldn't reply.
Only when the nails were solidly embedded into the dirt beneath Kirt's hands did they stop pounding. Prisoners stood looking down at Kirt, faces stony. His hands lay in pools of blood, looking like deformed nubs.
"What happens now?" Nova said. It took all of her effort to keep her voice flat, emotionless.
"Now he stays there until he dies," Carter said.
"Sometimes," Carter replied. "Sometimes their screaming gets so annoying that one of the prisoners will kill him just for the silence. Other times you get the real sick bastards who will give him water just so he lives and suffers longer."
Nova nodded but didn't reply. Some of the prisoners took the chance to lash out at Kirt with their boots, but they got bored quickly. It seemed the game just wasn't as fun if the victim had passed out and couldn't scream.
The crowd dispersed, leaving Carter and Nova alone.
"I guess the least I can do is give you a room in exchange for saving my life," Carter said.
"If you've got a spare," she said.
"As it happens we've just had a couple of vacancies come up," Carter said.
Nova grimaced and turned away from Kirt. She didn't want to be around when he woke up.
"Ringer! Show the Hunter to a room," Carter yelled.
Ringer appeared at his side.
"Right this way, Ma'am," he said, pretending to bow.
Nova couldn't help smiling. There was something about Ringer; he didn't give off the same thuggish vibe she got from a lot of the other prisoners. She had a feeling that she could get to like him.
"I'll see you later," Carter said with a nod.
Nova nodded back and turned to follow Ringer. He led her into a cement building and then up a flight of stairs. Grey walls met grey floor and grey ceiling. The only colour came from rusty splatters of dried blood, mixed with fresh red patches.
Nova gritted her teeth and kept walking.
Ringer took her up a corridor with rooms leading off to either side. Prisoners sat inside some of them and watched her walk by with darkened eyes and twisted mouths. Some of the rooms were decorated with hunks of metal, others were bare.
"Here you go," said Ringer. He held out his hand and gestured to the very last room.
"Thank you," Nova said.
Ringer nodded and started back down the corridor. "I'd lock the door if I were you."
She nodded and stepped inside, shutting and locking the door before letting her shoulders relax.
Her new room was a definite improvement on the locked crate she'd had before. The cement walls and solid metal door created a sense of security and for the first time since she arrived she felt she could breathe.
A thin mattress, covered in stains, hugged the far corner on a rickety frame. She longed to lie down, despite the filth. She tried not to think about who had had the room before her. Probably Brett or Kirt. They didn't need it anymore.
A tap dripped in the corner of the room, creating a damp circle that spread mould up the wall, a small price to pay for her own water supply.
She stepped over a pile of dirty clothes and a long metal pipe to get to a small window. Gripping hold of the rusted metal bars she looked out into the yard below. Prisoners sat at tables inside the courtyard, playing cards and talking. A light breeze brushed over Nova's face, lifting some of the stench of sweat and unwashed bodies that hung thick in the air, almost heavy enough to touch. Nova sighed and sat on the bed, unable to accept that the dingy cell would be home for months.
That night Nova slept better than she had since she arrived on Ankar. The rabid noises of the prison drifted through her barred window but it sounded just like Outer Tabryn, the noises she'd grown up with. A few times her door shuddered, loud bangs echoing around her cell, as people tried to get in.
Her eyes locked on the door but it stayed firm. The solid metal had been designed so that people couldn't break through.
Even those violent interruptions couldn't destroy her night and when she woke in the morning she felt more refreshed than she had since she'd first arrived.
Now that she'd finished phase two she had to prepare for phase three. There was a lot she had to do in the next two months.
Two and a half months until guard change.
"Nova! Join me!" Carter hollered across the courtyard.
Many prisoners looked up and glared at her as she walked past their tables with her bowl of gruel. She sat down opposite Carter, her knife sprouting from her belt. She'd found a rusted spoon under her new bed that she'd washed and scrubbed until it shone. It didn't make the gruel taste any better, but it did make it much easier to eat.
"Morning," she said.
Ringer took a seat next to her. Both he and Carter had crude spoons similar to Nova's. She stifled a smile at the thought that even here the class system flourished. They had spoons while the masses went hungry. Silver spoon in hand...
She shook her head, getting rid of the revolutionary thoughts. They were the reason she was in this mess in the first place.
"Honouring us with your presence two days in a row?" Nova said, raising an eyebrow.
Carter grinned. "Proving that I'm not afraid. I'm sure you understand. I also wanted to talk to you, and I think we'd have a revolution on our hands if I let you into my quarters after you've only been here two weeks. How's your new room?"
She swallowed a mouthful of gruel. "Better than where I was. I'm glad it has a lock."
"Yes. I'm sure you haven't made many friends. Some of these have been waiting years for a cell," said Ringer, glancing over his shoulder at the other tables. Many prisoners cast dirty looks in Nova's direction.
"Don't mind them," said Carter, waving his hand. "If they wanted rooms they should have saved my life."
Ringer chuckled as he ate another mouthful of gruel.
Nova followed suit. The sticky food slid down her throat like a ball of slime.
"The Hunter here thinks she can get out," Carter said in a low tone to Ringer.
Nova's eyes flew open and the blood drained out of her face. Cold fear gripped her throat, making it impossible to swallow.
She whipped her hand to her knife and had it out of her belt before Ringer could reply. Sweat trickled down Nova's face; she had no doubt the prisoners would chop her to pieces to find out her plan.
"Whoa!" Carter said, holding up his hands. "Take it easy, Hunter. Ringer's good."
Ringer chuckled and held up his spoon. "Your knife is no match for my spoon."
Nova frowned but didn't put away her weapon.
"I don't want to get off," Ringer said, turning back to his food.
Nova stayed tense, eyes flicking between Ringer and Carter. They both looked relaxed.
She lowered her knife but kept it clamped in her fist. If Carter was going around telling everyone her plan, then it was going to get a lot more difficult.
"You must be the only one who doesn't," said Carter around a mouthful of gruel. "Just this food is enough to make me want to leave."
Nova eyed them both. Her hands twitched and the knife quivered. "Why wouldn't you want to leave?"
Ringer glanced at her. "Where do you come from?"
"Tabryn," Nova said without pause.
"Ah, Inner or Outer?"
"Do you think I'd be here if I came from Inner Tabryn?"
Ringer smiled and shrugged. "You never know. Some of the kids in here have some crazy stories."
"Outer," she said.
"Then maybe you can understand," Ringer said. "You ever been an addict?"
"Never touched the drugs," Nova said. "Saw too many friends die."
"Ah," Ringer said, nodding. "So you've seen what it can do."
Nova grimaced, thinking of Caila choking on her own blood.
Ringer stared down into his gruel, eyes glazed over. "Zine was my poison. I would have done anything for another hit."
"I got into dealing and pushing," Ringer said. "Just so I could have another dose. You should have seen me! I was bleeding from my nose, gums, eyes, but I kept going. Luckily there was always someone there to pump my lungs for me, otherwise I would have died a long time ago."
Nova nodded. She'd pumped Caila's lungs more times than she could count, but there were only so many organ failures one body could take. She shifted in her seat, unsure why Ringer was telling her this. They barely knew each other. Was he trying to sneak his way onto her good side? Use her sympathy?
"Anyway. The Confederacy caught me pushing to some of their reps. Threw me straight in here. They didn't want me spreading the word that half the department was hooked."
"You should have seen him when he arrived," Carter cut in. "He was so skinny, you could see his bones, and his veins stuck out like purple rivers. Every inch of him was covered in bruises and he was raving like a lunatic."
"The next three weeks were the worst of my life," Ringer said, looking around. "Coming down cold-turkey in a place like this."
"How did you survive?" Nova said, eyes wide. She'd barely survived so far and she wasn't coming down off the worst high.
"I think people were scared of me," he said. "Zine gives you crazy strength. I don't remember much of it, but I do know I flipped a small shack. After that, people stayed out of my way."
"I watched him from a distance," Carter said. "I could see that he'd be useful if I could get him back in working condition. I decided that if he survived, I'd take him in. I'll admit I didn't think he'd make it. He spent entire days curled on the ground shaking and yelling. He'd just lie there; no food, no water. It made me cringe even from here."
"I remember the last week or so," Ringer said, voice dropping to barely a whisper. "I was covered in cuts and bruises. My left eye was swollen shut and there was a siren going in my skull that made me want to throw up. But my head was clearer than it had been in a long time. Even so, I was still looking for another hit."
"You should have seen him!" Carter said, shaking his head. "He'd only just come down and he was scrounging every inch of this place looking for Zine. There isn't any of course. The Confederacy made sure there wasn't, because with that kind of strength we might have a chance of getting into the guard complex, even with the radiation shield."
"I remember a couple of people lied to me. They said they had Zine and I could have it if I paid 'em."
"Those poor bastards didn't last very long after he realized they were lying," said Carter with a chuckle.
Ringer nodded, his brows drawing together.
Nova shook her head. "I don't know how you did it, but I'm impressed you survived. Although I don't see why that should make me trust you."
"Don't you see?" said Ringer, lips trembling. "I can't afford to go back out there. Even just talking about Zine makes the cravings come back. Look at my hands."
Nova glanced down. Sometime while he was talking Ringer had put his spoon down and now both of his hands trembled and clenched intermittently.
"I can't afford to go back out there. I know me. I'd go straight to the closest dealer and get a hit. Then I'd be back on the downward spiral. Within a few months I'd be dead. At least in here I'm alive."
"How long's it been?" Nova asked.
"Five years," he said. "And it still keeps me up at night."
"It's a hell of a drug," Carter said. "Even I draw the line at Zine. None of my people distribute it. There's too much risk of them getting hooked."
Ringer nodded. "I respect you for that on top of everything else. I wouldn't wish Zine on anyone, not even the Confederacy."
"So there, Hunter," Carter said. "You can trust him."
"Yep, and if there's anything I can do for you, just ask."
"What's in it for you?" Nova said, tucking her knife back into her belt.
Ringer frowned, lifting his spoon in still-trembling hands. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, why would you bother helping us? What's in it for you?"
"Ah, perhaps I can answer that," Carter said. "I've promised Ringer that he can take over the prison operation once I'm gone."
"King of my own little kingdom," Ringer said with a satisfied smile. "Really it's in my best interest to see you gone as soon as possible."
"Will they let you take over?" Nova said. She glanced around at the other tables. Dark stares and gritted teeth met her gaze, making her spine tingle. She couldn't imagine these prisoners following anyone. It amazed her that they even followed Carter.
"Don't underestimate me," Ringer said. "I've got my own muscle and my own friends."
"And my word has a lot more pull than you'd think," Carter added.
"But surely prison rules apply?" Nova said. "Whoever kills the old king gets the crown, and so on."
"For some," said Carter. "But a lot of these people have families. They know that if they try anything, my people would kill their loved ones. So they stay in line."
"But how do you do it?" Nova said. She'd known Carter was controlling his empire somehow but Ankar was shielded from all known communication devices. Her link with Cal had been severed the moment she entered atmosphere.
Carter grinned. "I can't receive. But I can get messages out."
Nova's mind raced. Was this some new technology she hadn't heard of?
"By going right back to basics," Carter said. "Light signals."
"What?" Nova said.
"He's a genius," said Ringer. "Don't ever forget it."
"Lights. I've got people watching the planet. I signal them by turning lights on and off."
"That works?" said Nova.
"Yep. So the other prisoners stay in line. I've got them by the balls you might say."
"Clearly," said Nova.
"So, what do we need for this grand escape of yours?" Carter said.
Nova's mind raced over the plan. She hadn't counted on help. This could make things a lot easier.
"I need two of the big labourbots," she said.
"What the hell for?" Ringer said. "You know they take everything out of them that could be turned into a weapon."
"I know that," said Nova. "Can you do it or not?"
"Yeah I can do it. There're some in the Outers. I don't know what they're doing because it's not like there's anything they could fix out there," said Ringer.
"Good. Bring them to my room. There are lots of other things I need, but they're step one."
"Are you going to share your grand plan?" Carter asked.
"No way," said Nova. "That's my bargaining chip."
Carter raised an eyebrow. "I'm going to need something, otherwise you could be playing me for a fool."
Nova folded her arms across her chest. "The transport ship's outer casing is resistant to radiation."
Carter nodded. "So?"
Nova waved her hand. "That's all I'm giving you. I need to keep myself alive."
Carter chuckled. "I like you, Hunter."
"She's got spunk," agreed Ringer.
Nova smiled and saluted them with her spoon. From there the conversation turned away from the great escape and to more mundane things. Like how Kirt was coping after his first night nailed to the ground. Apparently a few of the prisoners had taken the liberty of pissing on him during the night. He was starting to smell.
Two and a quarter months until guard change.
Nova woke up early, tucked her knife into her belt, and strode into the courtyard, stomach rumbling.
Sunlight poured onto her shoulders as she stepped out of the shadowed doorway. A shuffling noise made her turn to face the only other people in the courtyard. Kirt and Scrim.
Kirt lay nailed to the ground where he'd been for the last three days. Blisters covered his skin, rising in red welts that dribbled clear liquid down his cheeks. Peeling skin created white flakes that dotted his clothes amongst the blood stains. Rubbish and worse lay on and around him, tossed by other prisoners. His glazed eyes stared up at the sky, not blinking. If it wasn't for the erratic rise and fall of his chest, he could have been dead.
Nova's gaze fell to Scrim. His shoulders hunched up around his ears and he stood over Kirt, rubbing his hands together. He licked his lips.
Nova's mouth twisted and hunger fled her stomach. She turned away and grabbed a bowl of gruel anyway, sitting as far away from Kirt's body as she could get. She scooped a spoonful onto her tongue and had to pinch her lips together to stop herself throwing it back up again.
Despite her best efforts, her eyes kept sliding to Scrim. His bloody fingers twisted together and he eyed Kirt like a piece of meat. His leg twitched.
Scrim fell to his knees and bent over Kirt's body, moving so fast Nova barely saw it.
She slammed her crude spoon down and jumped up, running towards Kirt.
Scrim bent over Kirt's feet and wrapped his mouth over Kirt's big toe, sucking. The wet noise filled the cold morning air like a cut-rate porno. Scrim closed his eyes as he suckled and moaned. His fingers massaged Kirt's leg.
Nova stumbled to a stop, stomach heaving. She bent over and threw up at the edge of the compound, unable to tear her eyes away. Her feet seemed glued in place even as more bile rose up her throat. A dry choking echoed from the back of her throat.
Scrim's eyes snapped open and he glared at Nova down the length of Kirt's body. He lifted his mouth from Kirt's toe, a trail of spittle still connecting them.
A layer of filth covered the other nine toes, whilst the one beneath Scrim had been sucked clean and gleamed in the morning sun.
Scrim lifted his head and smiled. His pointy teeth glinted and his eyes had a predatory look. He pushed himself to his feet, facing Nova. His fingers clenched at his sides.
Nova's neck tingled and her shoulders tensed. Out of the corners of her eyes she scanned the courtyard but it remained empty.
Scrim sprang at her.
She side-stepped, but too slow.
He slammed into her side and sent them both toppling to the ground. Grinning, he twisted around and straddled her, pinning her arms to the ground. Cold blue eyes peered down at her.
His tongue flicked out and ran along his teeth. A line of spittle fell from the corner of his mouth and landed on Nova's cheek.
She twisted her face away, straining to get free, but he kept her trapped. The spittle left a cold trail down the side of her face that made her stomach churn. She ached to wipe it away, her mind teetering on the edge of panic with a need almost as strong as the one to breathe. She would have done anything to free her arms and get rid of the repulsive trail, but she couldn't.
"Get off!" she roared.
Scrim chuckled. "You look delicious."
Blood drained from Nova's face and cold fear crept up her neck, encasing her skull. "Leave me alone."
"Oh I don't think so. You interrupted my meal."
Nova glanced at Kirt out of the corner of her eye. He was unconscious, or at least unaware of what was happening.
With a deep breath, Nova bucked and ripped her arm free. She grabbed Scrim's neck and shoved him sideways.
He scrambled, drew back, and slammed his fist into her face.
Something crunched and pain erupted through Nova's nose. Stars flashed over her vision as she blinked, tears stinging her eyes. Her head rung, stopping any coherent thought. Hot blood poured down her face, coating her chin.
"Don't move!" Scrim screeched. "I'll let that go because you look much tastier than that brute. He was far too... gamey. I bet you taste like adventure, you'll have tang, maybe even a lemon zest!"
Nova blinked and her vision cleared, focusing on Scrim's twisted face. He'd pinned her arms back at her sides and her spinning head prevented her fighting back.
"I'll start with the entrée and then move on," Scrim whispered, mostly to himself.
He bent his face towards Nova, hot breath wafting over her. It smelled of rotting meat and blood.
She twisted in a vain attempt to get away, panting with the effort. Sweat sprung out on her forehead.
"Shh, there's no point struggling."
Scrim nestled down beside her neck and buried his face in her hair. He started sucking.
A cry died on Nova's lips; she couldn't feel anything. What was he doing? Had he somehow numbed her?
He sat up straighter. A section of her hair snaked into his mouth. He sucked on the ends with his eyes closed. The strands tugged at Nova's skull with the movement of his mouth.
Nova's stomach rolled and sour bile surged in her throat. Filth seemed to soak into her every pore, as if she could have a thousand showers and would still never feel clean again.
"It's just like I expected!" Scrim said around her hair. "The flavour. It has everything! There are flowers, and lemon, and strength too. Oh I've never tasted anything so good!"
Nova writhed and pushed, vomit threatening to choke her.
"I can't wait for the main course. I want it to last forever."
Scrim let her hair fall out of his mouth. It landed on Nova's arm with a wet splat. He grinned at her with wild eyes and opened his mouth wider, leaning towards her neck. This time she'd feel it, she was sure.
She strained with every ounce of strength she had left, mustering all of her years of training and living on the streets. It couldn't end like this. After everything she'd been through, she could not be killed by some crazy man in a prison. She couldn't be eaten alive!
Scrim's teeth grazed her skin, bringing stinging pain.
She twisted her neck and slammed her head sideways, forehead smacking into Scrim's temple.
Scrim faltered and cried out, slipping sideways.
Nova freed her arm and shoved against him, struggling to roll free.
Scrim growled and turned on her. "You bitch. I warned you."
Without another word he punched her in the temple, drew back; punched her cheek, drew back.
Each new strike sent bright flashes through Nova's head, followed by waves of pain. At first she struggled, but by the fourth punch dark clouds swirled at the edge of her vision, threatening to engulf her.
"You sick bastard!" A new voice joined the madness.
Nova recognized it but she couldn't remember who it belonged to. Her own sanity was on the verge of disappearing and the ever-present chasm of madness drew closer as shadowed voices and figures crowded in on her subconscious.
Scrim's weight was thrown off her and he tumbled to the side under someone else with a dull moan.
Nova gasped for air, rolled over, and hurled into the dirt. Her hand whipped to her face and she wiped the line of spittle away with her sleeve. She stayed sitting, panting, only able to watch the fight happening just a meter away.
Wood sat on top of Scrim, punching him in the face. "How do you like it? You sick bastard. Hey, what if I feed you to the rats? That would be fun, right?"
Scrim grinned up at Wood, revealing broken teeth and bleeding gums. He squirmed and whipped his leg up, slamming his knee into Wood's back. Wood lurched forward and Scrim shoved him off, spinning over so that he sat on top of Wood.
"This day keeps getting better," Scrim said, slamming his fist into Wood's face.
Wood's eyes rolled and his head fell back, but Scrim didn't stop.
Nova took a deep rasping breath and struggled to her feet. She stumbled towards Scrim, even though a part of her urged her to run in the other direction. She came to a stop and drew back, slamming her fist into Scrim's leering face. He fell sideways, blood pouring from his lip.
Nova stood over him, hands trembling. "You sick bastard. You stay the hell away from me. I should put you down right now…"
Something moved near Nova's feet, but before she could look, a flash of metal plunged through the air into Scrim's throat. Wood's white knuckles gripped the hilt, and his mouth twisted as he watched hot blood spurt out of Scrim's throat and coat the dirt.
Wood released the knife and fell back onto the ground.
Nova's feet carried her to the edge of the courtyard where she bent over, hands on knees, and glared at the dirt. She heaved again and again until there was nothing left.
It felt as though every ounce of gruel she'd ever eaten had spilled onto the ground until her throat burned with it. She wanted to peel her skin off, get rid of Scrim's taint. An image flashed into her mind of herself clawing off her skin, piece by piece.
"Nova!" Wood called out.
His voice barely made it through her haze of madness. Her fingernails dug into her upper arm, ready to start tearing. Maybe then she'd be free of the memory of Scrim.
"Nova!" He was closer now.
His voice broke through. Nova blinked and looked around. Blood seeped out of her arm from around the edges of her nails and she stood in front of a pool of vomit. The healing knife wound in her side burned.
"Nova," Wood said. He laid a hand on her arm, the other hung at his side, covered in blood. He glanced down at her fingernails and the bloody trail they'd made. "Are you okay?"
He looked into her eyes.
Nova stared back. Her mouth worked but no sounds came out. How could she explain that she was on the very edge of madness? That if she took one step the wrong way she'd fall right off the precipice?
"I—" she said.
Nova shivered and couldn't stop. Violent shakes wracked her body like she stood on a crashing ship.
"Okay," Wood said. He pulled off his jacket and wrapped it over her shoulders. "I know. He should've been put down a while ago."
Nova tugged the jacket tight around her shoulders and collapsed onto the nearest bench. "Damn right he should have been." She glimpsed Scrim's prone body between the tables.
Other prisoners gathered at the edge of the courtyard. They looked between Nova and Scrim, whispering. More joined them as the noise grew louder.
"Nova!" Carter bellowed from the other side of the yard.
"Looks like you're being summoned," Wood said.
Nova shivered harder.
"You've gotta go," Wood said. "Carter doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Nova swallowed. "Thanks. For… you know."
Wood nodded. "What are friends for?"
Nova got to shaky feet and shuffled across the yard, careful to skirt as far around Scrim's body as she could. Some prisoners gathered around him, checking for a pulse.
She slumped into the bench opposite Carter, her skin cold and clammy.
"What the hell happened?"
"I—" Nova choked.
She'd been close to death before, but this was different. This was a violation. She could still feel his spit trailing down her cheek.
"Slowly," Carter said, voice hard.
"I came out for breakfast," she said in a rush.
"Scrim was here. He suddenly started..." she trailed off.
"He started sucking on Kirt's toes," Nova whispered.
"And?" Carter didn't seem surprised.
"I don't know why... but I got up. He saw me and this look came over his face. He jumped me. He was going to eat me!"
Carter nodded. "And then Wood arrived?"
Nova nodded. "I don't know exactly how it happened."
Carter sighed and leaned closer. "Scrim's been a problem for a while. I'll let him stay in the med wing until he's better. I owe him that much for the fights he's won me, and for Amon, but after that I'll send him to the Outers."
"He's still alive?" Nova said, stomach dropping.
"And he's going to be here?" A chill went down Nova's spine.
"Just for a little while. And he'll be confined to the medical bay with guards."
Nova nodded. The movement was mechanical, rehearsed, but inside she was already picturing running from the compound and taking refuge in the desert. Anything to get away from Scrim.
"Okay," Carter said with a note of finality.
Nova blinked, some sanity returning. "I should give Wood his jacket back."
"Alright, good. Don't go and see Scrim. It'll only disturb you."
Nova whipped her head back and forth. "I wouldn't."
Nova got up and shuffled back across the yard to Wood.
"Alright?" he said.
"Yeah. I um, wanted to give your coat back."
"Keep it for a bit. You look like you still need it."
Nova didn't reply, her thoughts floating away from the prison.
Wood pulled a deck from his pocket. "Let's play some cards to get our minds off things."
Nova nodded and he dealt.
Two months until guard change.
Nova stared down at Kirt's body, a hard knot twisting her stomach. For the past week his moans had drifted across the courtyard and his eyes had followed her, now he lay still.
A small crowd gathered around his body, faces solemn. Now that he'd died, the jeering had stopped. Fear and the inevitability of death hung like a cloud over the prison, made tangible by Kirt's rotting corpse.
Purple bruises covered most of his skin, interspersed with red patches of dried blood. Blisters rose like volcanoes over his flesh and his lips puffed out like over-fed leaches.
The stench of decay filled the air, overpowered only by the acrid scent of piss.
Someone had taken the time to close his eyes although he looked far from peace. Puss squirted out from around the metal nails in both hands, leaving trails of yellow fluid amongst the red. Mottled patterns of gangrene coloured his palms, spreading up his twisted fingers to the blackened tips, already rotting.
"Tilly, Gren, help me carry him to the Outers. We'll burn him there," said Nail.
The three prisoners yanked the nails out of Kirt's dead hands and hoisted him onto their shoulders. They carried him away from the courtyard, surrounded by prisoners. Nova considered turning away, but in the end followed the group. Deep in her heart she knew that without Kirt's stupidity, she might never have made it into Carter's confidence.
They marched through the prison like a funeral procession. People in the Outers licked their lips when they saw Kirt's body and scurried after the group, ducking between tents.
Amon appeared beside Nova, his face grim. "Stupid bastard."
"Things were looking up for him you know. He'd only recently been accepted from the Outers. He owed me, and Carter, a lot. Can't believe he'd go and do that."
Nova shrugged. "Desperate people."
"Ain't that the truth," said Amon. "Speaking of which, you seem to have done quite well for yourself."
"Just lucky I guess."
"I should say so!" said Amon. "Make sure you put in a good word for me. Remind Carter that if I hadn't let you in, he'd be dead."
Amon smiled at Nova and disappeared into the growing crowd. By the time they stopped at the edge of the Outers, fifty people pressed together to get a look at the body. Nova stood at the front but no one dared come near her.
Nail, Tilly and Gren laid Kirt's body on the ground. Nail pulled out a small bottle and squirted it over Kirt. The strong smell of fuel filled the air.
"Here you go, Kirt," he said. "You dumb bastard."
Nail flicked a lighter and tossed it onto Kirt's body, which erupted in flames.
"No!" A woman rushed forward from the crowd, diving to the ground beside Kirt's burning body. "There's good meat on that. What are you doing, you bastards?"
Nova backed away from the woman, glancing between her and the raging fire. Heat billowed out, wrapping the desert sand in new levels of warmth.
Nail grimaced at the woman. "He deserved a respectful send-off."
"And because you want to respect his corpse, I've got to starve?" the woman said, baring blackened teeth up at Nail.
He shrugged and returned his eyes to Kirt's blackening body.
The woman spat at the ground at Nail's feet and lunged forward, plunging her hands into the flames. She snatched Kirt's shoulder and ripped her arm back, wrenching a segment of blackened flesh free.
She grinned and stuffed the hunk of meat into her mouth, closing her eyes and chewing.
"You bitch!" Nail grabbed the woman's shirt and hurled her away from the fire into the waiting crowd.
She cackled as she shoved the last of the meat into her mouth, ignoring her blistered hand. Others from the Outer settlement crept forward, their hungry eyes on Kirt's body.
"The next person who tries that will become dessert," Nail said, pulling a jagged knife from his belt.
Prisoners crouched low, eyes flicking between Kirt and the knife.
Kirt's blackened flesh sloughed off into the flames. His clothes and hair fizzled and burned, leaking an acrid stench that clogged the air.
Muttering swept through the crowd but no one else tried to take a bite, hanging back, glaring at Nail and the fire. "Would have made a meal for twenty," an elderly man said as he hobbled past Nova, away from the fire.
She bit her lip and focused on the bright flames, watching until only his bones remained.
Nova sat at her table with a bowl of gruel, surrounded by people. The tall man with tattoos that Wood had pointed out, Kravkof, stood on her left side and put his foot up on the bench next to her so that he loomed above her.
"Nova," Kravkof said with a smile. "It's so nice to finally talk to you face to face."
Nova lowered her spoon. "Can I help you?"
Kravkof threw back his head and laughed. "All business. I like you. Let me introduce my friends."
Nova jutted her chin at the blond woman tossing a knife into the air. "Fi." She then turned to the broad-shouldered man standing to her right. "Red." She nodded at the man on the opposite side of the table. "Han."
The three nodded back at her as she said each of their names.
"Ah, I see you've been paying attention," Kravkof said, his smile wavering. "In that case, let me introduce Jen, Victor, and Pete."
Jen had brown hair and hung at the back, head down. Victor stood tall and gazed over the top of Nova's head, not responding as Kravkof said his name. Pete danced where he stood, his eyes jerking about the prison and his tongue flopping out to lick across his lips, leaving a glistening trail.
Nova raised an eyebrow, trying to ignore how much Pete resembled Scrim. "Let me repeat the question. Can I help you?"
Kravkof smiled, although it didn't reach his eyes. "You seem to have become quite close with our great lord and master of late."
"I was hoping we could come to some kind of arrangement," said Kravkof.
"Oh?" Nova said, raising an eyebrow.
"Carter seems especially relaxed around you… if something tragic were to happen to him, I'm sure you'd have a place high in the new regime."
Nova pushed her bowl away and stood, coming eye-to-eye with Kravkof. "I would suggest you go back to whatever hole you crawled out of. I'm not a traitor, and I'm sure Carter would be very interested to hear your proposal."
Kravkof's smile wavered. "I wouldn't do that if I were you."
Nova stepped away and bowed with a flourish. "It was lovely meeting you all."
Two months until guard change.
"Here you go," said Ringer as Nova entered her room.
Two labourbots stood at his side, broad boxes that came up almost to his waist. Rust and dents covered their outer casing and their wheels had left dirty tracks across the floor.
"Excellent!" Nova said. "Their motors work?"
"Good. Now I just have to gut them and make them remote controlled."
Ringer raised an eyebrow. "I won't ask. But what's that?" He pointed at the bottle in Nova's hand.
"Bleach," she said.
"Where the hell did you get bleach?"
Nova grimaced. "Did you know urine has ammonia in it?"
Ringer raised an eyebrow.
"It's best not to think about it," Nova said.
"I'll try to forget I heard that. But what do you need bleach for?"
"It's all part of the plan. The less you know, the better."
"If you say so. Do you need me to look out for anything else?"
"I've got most of what I need for now, thank you."
Ringer shook his head. "You know I've seen some hard cases in here but none of them, not a single one, has tried to escape."
"Probably good for them," said Nova. "The chances are pretty high they would have been killed."
"What about you?"
"I had time to plan," Nova said. "I knew I was coming here."
"I hope you packed an extra set of lives because you're going to need them."
He leaned against the wall of her cell and looked over the pile of junk they'd gathered. Aside from the two labourbots, there was a pile of sheeting from the outside of a prisoner transporter, and tools and wires scattered across her floor. The only clear space was her bed.
"Don't worry," Nova said. "I'll be off this dump in no time and waving at you from space."
Ringer grinned. "I hope you do. Can I interest you in a game of cards before you get started on whatever this is?"
Nova studied the items spread out over her floor. "After. I've only got two months to get everything ready. I'll come and find you later."
"Alright," Ringer said.
Later that afternoon Nova left her room and strode out into the courtyard. The sun seemed especially bright after being locked in her room all day. She returned Amon's nod but most of the other prisoners ignored her.
"Here as promised," Nova said, sitting opposite Ringer.
He grinned up at her. "Alright. Prepare to be amazed."
Nova chuckled. "We'll see."
Ringer dealt the cards and lifted his hand. Nova did the same. Her cards were good, really good. She kept her face neutral and looked over her hand to watch Ringer. The poor man tried to keep his expression straight but he just couldn't do it. There was a certain twinkle to his eyes that appeared whenever he had a good hand. A tiny downturn of his mouth was all it took to signal a bad hand.
His mouth turned down.
Nova smiled to herself. This hand was in the bag. She pulled a handful of rocks from her pocket; there wasn't much else to bet with on Ankar.
Sometimes the stakes were higher. If someone had a corner or end cell they'd sometimes put that up, just to keep the excitement going. On other occasions, Carter had made a special deal and set up games where the winner's family would get a lump sum of credits. Those often turned nasty.
Today Ringer and Nova played a simple, friendly game with rocks.
She put out two rocks. It was best to keep it conservative. Otherwise Ringer would fold like a collapsible tent. He looked down at the two rocks and bit his lip as if they were playing with precious diamonds. In the end he laid out two rocks of his own.
Nova upped the stakes. Ringer matched.
They repeated the moves until ten rocks lay piled in front of each of them.
"Okay. Let's do this," said Ringer, laying out his cards.
Nova glanced at them. She wasn't surprised to see they were useless. She put down her own hand.
"What!" Ringer said, face dropping. He let his forehead fall onto his forearm and groaned. "Every time. You get me every time."
Nova smiled and pulled his pile of rocks towards her. "Don't feel bad. I grew up on Tabryn remember?"
"I think it's time we played something I'd win at," Ringer said. "Like a ring fight or something."
Nova winced and smiled at the same time. "I don't know if you'd like that."
"What do you mean?" he said.
"I'm a mech-fighter," she said.
Ringer's mouth dropped. "Are you serious!"
"Since I was fifteen," she said. "I don't do it as much anymore, just when I need some extra cash."
"Unbelievable. You know I think in another life, you may have been the woman of my dreams. If only we'd met before I found Zine!"
Nova laughed and several prisoners stopped to look at her. It wasn't often that real laughter tinkled through the prison.
"If only," she said.
"So no ring fights," Ringer said. "I'm going to keep thinking. Eventually I'll come up with something and then I'll kick your arse."
"I believe you," Nova said, holding up her hands. "Now in the meantime, would you like another hand?"
Ringer waved at the table. "May as well."
Nova dealt out two new hands. The game went on. Ringer won a few hands but overall Nova stayed far out in front. After two hours her pile of rocks rose nearly to her shoulder and little pebbles kept tumbling down onto the table. Meanwhile, Ringer had to keep bending down under the table to find new ones.
"I think this would be much better if we were playing for actual credits," Nova said as Ringer's head disappeared under the table for the third time in as many hands.
"Are you kidding?" he said as he came back up. "At this rate you'd send me broker than Zine did!"
Nova laughed. "Hey, you can call it quits at any time."
"I think I might have to," said Ringer. "Dinner time!"
Nova's stomach rumbled in response. She had to agree it was well past dinner time. She handed Ringer the cards and together they went to the food generator. Carter joined them at their table not long after, causing a wave of conversation and startled looks from the surrounding prisoners. His body guards formed a circle around them, just out of earshot.
"How's our great escape going?" he asked.
"It's going," said Nova. "Ringer here has been a major help."
Carter nodded. "I told you he would be."
The three of them ate in silence for a time, sucking down grey gruel.
"Saw Kirt kicked the bucket," Carter said. "Traitorous bastard."
Nova grimaced and let her spoon fall back into the gruel. Memories of Kirt's dried face loomed in her mind, twisting her stomach.
"Pity though," continued Carter. "He could have been good. Not much brains, but lots of muscle. That can be a good combination provided they follow orders."
"I don't think anyone will try something so stupid for a while yet," said Ringer.
"I should hope not. At least I've only got to last another two months. Isn't that right, Hunter?"
Nova looked up from her food and nodded. "Yep. Best pack your delicates beforehand."
Carter roared with laughter and slapped the table. "I'll be sure to do that."
The three chatted the evening away until night-time settled on the prison. Nova took her leave and headed for her cell. She did have a lot of work to do before they would be ready to leave.
Two months until guard change.
Nova wiped a sweaty hand across her forehead and heaved on the bolt. Rust held it in place and the metal squeaked and squealed under her hands, refusing to come loose.
"You bastard!" she whispered, shifting her weight.
She put her whole back, shoulders and legs into it, pushing down. Her face turned red and sweat dribbled down her cheeks, dripping from her chin.
With an almighty squeal the bolt came free and dropped to the floor.
The sudden release sent Nova stumbling and she tripped on a metal panel, sprawling to the floor. Her elbows and knees slammed into the hard cement, tearing open in jagged grazes and oozing fresh blood.
She stomped back to the labourbot and ripped the outer panel free, dropping it to the ground beside her.
Wires and metal arms with tools attached filled the inside of the labourbot. Nova licked her lips, so many tools made a gold mine. She'd known what to expect; she'd studied the prison model extensively before arriving, but it was very different to see it for real.
A folded metal arm towards the back held a screwdriver. She yanked the arm out and rested it against the floor. She grabbed a large rock that she'd been using as a hammer, and slammed it down onto the robot's wrist. The metal bent. She drew back and slammed again, this time the metal buckled and peeled back. A third slam broke the screwdriver free and it rolled across the ground.
She snatched it up, avoiding the broken pieces of metal thrusting from its end, and went to work disassembling the other arms. An hour later her cell had been transformed into a robot cemetery. The smell of rust and oil wafted out of the robot and filled her room, too strong to fade away through her small window.
Tiny specs of rust stuck to her skin and refused to be wiped off no matter how many times she ran her hand over her pants. She hated rust. It looked and smelled like blood.
The next step would be the hardest. The robots had been turned off, their chips removed, making them lifeless pieces of machinery. Nova's job was to make them remote controlled, no easy task. All she had to work with were the bits and pieces left lying around the prison and what she could salvage from the robots themselves.
She'd gone through it all theoretically. She and Cal had worked it out from start to finish. She'd repeated the process so many times in her mind that she knew it off by heart. It was quite another thing to actually put all the pieces together.
She knew she'd never get it done that night so instead she focused on the far more mundane task of pulling the second robot apart. It was much easier now that she had all the tools.
By the time she was ready to crawl into bed there were two disassembled robots sitting in her room. Their metal limbs and casings glinted in the dim light filtering through her barred window. Nova washed her hands as best she could under the leaking faucet and crawled into bed.
Exhaustion settled over her like a blanket. Her back, shoulders and neck ached from bending over the robots and forcing the pieces apart, while her head throbbed.
Still, she consoled herself with the fact that she was one step closer to getting out of the prison. Two months to go and she'd be free. She'd be able to eat real food again! It had been so long that she'd almost forgotten what anything tasted like. When she thought of food, all she could taste was disgusting sticky gruel.
She closed her eyes and went to sleep imagining warm chicken and chips covered in salt.
Two months until guard change.
"Who do I talk to about getting things to the guards?" Nova said.
Ringer looked at her over the top of his cards.
"Why are you getting things to them?"
"It's part of the plan," Nova said.
"Jimmy," Ringer said. "He handles import-export."
"Excellent," she said. "Which one is he?"
Ringer looked around the yard. "That one," he said, jutting his chin to a thin man in clean clothes.
"He can get things in?" she asked.
"Yeah. Only little things though and he always asks for something in return, which in a place like this..."
"Got it," she said.
Nova laid down her cards and marched over to Jimmy. She kept her face stern, expressionless, and lifted her shoulders so she looked bigger than she actually was.
Jimmy bent in deep discussion with some other prisoners. They all stopped and looked at her as she approached.
"Hunter," Jimmy said. "How nice of you to join us."
Nova nodded. "I need your services."
"Right here in front of all these people?" Jimmy said, wiggling his eyebrows. "It's a bit public isn't it?"
Nova growled and rolled her eyes. "You know what I mean."
Jimmy nodded to his companions who sneered at Nova and walked away.
He watched them go and then his face turned serious. "What do you want brought in?"
"Nothing. I want something taken to a guard."
"You know poisoning them won't make your life in here any easier, or mine. If they think I had a part in it, my whole operation goes down. No thank you."
"It's not poison," she said. "It's a gift."
"You're giving gifts to the guards?" Jimmy said, lifting a bushy eyebrow. "Don't let anyone else hear you say that or you'll be knifed."
"Can you do it or not?"
"I can do it," Jimmy said. "But it depends what it is and it'll cost you."
"A ring," Nova said. "It's small, shouldn't be hard."
Jimmy snorted. "That doesn't mean I won't charge for it."
"What's your price?"
He placed a finger on his chin and gazed up at the clouds. "This is tough. I've never had to price something going out before."
"Just name it."
Jimmy's hand dropped and he met Nova's eyes. "I want Carter's ring."
"What?" Nova said.
"His ring. The big one he's always wearing. His ring, for your ring."
Nova stared at him, lips pursed. It was a fair enough deal, but would Carter trust her enough to give it up?
"Bring me the ring and you've got yourself a deal," Jimmy said.
Nova nodded once and strode back to Ringer. "I need to speak to Carter."
Ringer raised an eyebrow. "About you-know-what?"
"I'll sort it." Ringer stood and strode to Carter's building. He walked past the guards with a bare nod and disappeared inside. Minutes later he returned, Carter and a squad of bodyguards at his side.
"I heard you were talking with our local merchant," Carter said.
"We need to talk," Nova said, glancing at his bodyguards.
Carter looked up and waved his hand. The prisoners walked away to form a circle out of earshot. Ringer stayed where he was.
"What is it?"
"Part of the plan involves Jimmy doing some smuggling. His price is your ring," Nova said, nodding to the jewel. The red ruby glimmered in the afternoon sun.
"No," Carter said.
"I don't think you understand. This is the only way you're getting out of here."
"And I don't think you understand," said Carter, red blotches flowering on his cheeks. "I said no."
Ringer looked between them but said nothing.
Nova heaved a heavy sigh. "Please, I need this to happen."
"Tell him you want a different price."
Nova glanced up at Jimmy. He stared straight back at her and smiled.
"I don't think he'd be willing to do that."
"Then you'll have to think of a different plan," Carter said.
Nova balled her frustration into the bottom of her chest and stormed away, marching into the cell block and up the stairs. She slammed her cell door shut and sat on her bed in a swirl of rage.
She reached into a hidden pocket sewn into the lining of her shirt and pulled out a smooth diamond ring. She needed to get it to the guard; Terry. Without that step, her whole plan was useless.
She lifted the ring and looked at the inside edge. A tiny switch set just below the diamond would release gas from a hidden canister inside the diamond. It was just a tiny squirt but it would be enough to knock a person out for a few hours. Just the window of time she needed. But she had to get it to Terry.
Nova grated her teeth, imagining slamming her fist into Carter's face. How could a ring be worth more than his freedom? More rage bubbled in her stomach. He had to see, there had to be a way to make him understand. Her hands balled into fists and she shoved the ring back into her pocket.
Two months until guard change.
"Couldn't Carter just threaten him into it?" Nova asked Ringer the next morning.
"Jimmy doesn't work like that. Besides, he's made too many friends in here. Carter and Jimmy stay out of each other's way and everything runs smoothly. There'd be real trouble if they started standing on each other's toes."
"Why won't he just give up the ring? This is his freedom we're talking about."
"That ring's special to him," said Ringer. He scooped a mouthful of gruel from his bowl. "It used to belong to his father, and his before that. It's kind of the symbol of the family business."
"But that's ridiculous," Nova said. "It's just a sentimental token. Surely it's not worth his freedom?"
"Wow, you're cold," said Ringer. "To most people sentimentality is worth more than credits."
"But surely freedom counts for more than that?"
Ringer shrugged. "You'd be surprised. If I were you, I'd start asking Jimmy for a different price because Carter isn't going to budge."
Nova ground her teeth. Her freedom, her entire life, relied on two bull-headed men. Neither of which would be willing to budge. She fumed silently as she finished her gruel, rage-like acid curdling her stomach.
She glared at Ringer's hands. He had a few rings too. They weren't nearly as big or impressive as Carter's but they were nice enough. The observation set her mind working. Perhaps there was a way around her problem. She just had to make each man think they'd won. That was all they really wanted in the end anyway, an ego boost.
She nodded. She had the beginnings of a plan.
Wood sat alone in the courtyard, eating a bowl of gruel and staring into the distance. Nova plonked down into the chair opposite him and he jumped, spilling a glob of gruel onto the table.
"Dammit!" he said, flicking the droplet away.
"Good morning to you too," Nova said.
Wood scowled. "It's so early! What do you want?"
Nova grinned. "Need some help."
"What with?" The venom disappeared from Wood's voice and he raised an eyebrow.
"I need to find a ring with a red jewel in it."
"Easy. Your friend Carter's got one," Wood said, returning to his food.
Nova rolled her eyes. "I need a different one that looks just like that."
"I just do."
"So do you know of any?"
He sighed and met her gaze. "You know, I thought we were friends. You should tell me whatever it is you're planning. Have you decided to propose to someone here?"
"No," Nova said.
"It's nothing," she replied. "Are you gonna help me or not?"
Wood's mouth turned down. "Sigma had one."
"Sigma? The crazy woman with the mods?"
"That's the one."
"Of course she does. Where can I find her?"
"In someone's stomach," Wood replied.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean she died during the brawl that nearly saw you dead too."
"Keep your pants on," said Wood. He pushed his bowl away from him; apparently he'd lost his appetite. "Ten credits say all her stuff got taken by Gren."
"Who the hell is Gren?"
"Creepy little guy. I don't know why they let him stay here. He should be in the outer edges if you ask me."
"Why would he have Sigma's stuff?"
"Because he takes everything. You'll see what I mean when you visit him."
"So he's here somewhere?"
"Yeah. That building." Wood nodded his head towards the far cement structure. "Everyone will be able to tell you which is his room."
"You are wonderful," Nova said.
"I know," Wood said. "So how're you holding up?"
"A little sore," Nova replied. She stood and lifted the bottom of her shirt, revealing her wound. Her stitches stood up in ugly lumps. She did her best to keep the wound clean but that didn't stop blood leaking out and staining the surrounding flesh.
"Geez. They did a number on you didn't they?"
"Had worse," Nova said, dropping her shirt.
"Got your knife on you?"
"Yeah, why?" she said.
"Just keep it handy when you go and see Gren. He can be unpredictable."
"Got it," she said. "Thanks Wood."
"Anytime," he said with a smile.
Nova nodded and walked towards the cell block he'd pointed out.
Wood was right. The first prisoner she asked knew exactly which cell was Gren's. They pointed it out to her but refused to get anywhere near it.
Nova shrugged and went on by herself.
As she drew closer a heavy scent wafted down the corridor, filling the air, like rotting garbage and sweat mixed together with stale mould. It got worse as she got closer, clinging to her skin and clogging her nostrils.
She tried to breathe through her mouth but then she could taste it, like she'd licked a sweaty man's armpit.
By the time she reached Gren's door, she had her arm over her nose and mouth and her eyes watered from the smell.
She knocked twice.
"Who is it?" a high, panicked voice asked.
"Gren? My name is Nova. I need to talk to you about an item you might have."
"I don't have anything of yours. Go away."
Nova gritted her teeth. "It's not mine. It belonged to someone else."
"I don't have it!" Gren shrieked.
Nova leaned her shoulder against the door, testing it, but the solid metal refused to give way before her.
"I—" her mind raced. "I want to buy it from you."
Silence echoed on the other side of the door. "How much?" Gren said, after a pause.
"I need to see it first."
More silence. Then the lock on the other side of the door clunked open and the door squealed on rusted hinges as it pulled back.
A deathly pale face covered in sores appeared in the tiny crack. Milky white eyes on the edge of tears peered out at her from above a nose leaking snot. Gren's yellowed and broken fingernails gripped the edge of the door. "Planning to steal my stuff?"
A new wave of stench washed through the open door, bathing Nova. She had to bury her face in her sleeve, and even then bile rose to the back of her throat. "What? No!"
"I'll kill you if you do," Gren said. His voice wavered but there was a certain madness in his eyes that made his threat more real.
"I won't steal," Nova said. She kept her left hand over her mouth but her right dangled at her side, near her knife. Wood had been right, Gren couldn't be trusted, but she'd have her knife out and buried in his throat the instant he tried anything.
Gren opened the door an inch wider and stepped back. "Okay."
Nova had to squeeze through the narrow opening. Her chest and stomach scraped along the door. She winced as the metal tugged on her stitches.
Inside, the cell was worse than a mess; Nova had seen meteor showers with more order. Items of every sort covered every inch of floor. Stacks of chairs, piles of metal tubes and mountains of torn material competed with heaps of rubbish. Rotting vegetation and meat, mouldy paper, blood-soaked cloth, all of them lay in piles throughout the small room.
Nova's face twisted and she instinctively gripped hold of her knife.
Towers of rubbish teetered so high that she couldn't see to the other side of the room. A single walkway snaked away from the door between the stacks in a maze-like pattern to what Nova assumed was Gren's bed. It was difficult to be sure because it was piled as high as the rest of the room with rubbish.
"Um—" Nova said.
"Well?" Gren said, face scrunching. "What did you want to buy? How much? Hmm? Stop looking at my things!"
"I er— I was looking for a ring. It belonged to Sigma."
"All of this is mine!" He bellowed like a child throwing a temper-tantrum.
"Oh," Nova said. "I mean. I'm looking for a ring with a red jewel on it."
She released her hold on her knife, trying to calm her nerves. She felt as if she'd stumbled into a serial-killer's basement.
Something rustled amongst the paper and rubbish.
Nova jumped, turning to face it.
A pink tail disappeared into a pile of rubbish with a high-pitched squeak.
She shivered to think about the rodents that must be crawling near her feet. With this much junk they could be the size of cats and she wouldn't even know.
"A ring," Gren said. He tapped his fingers against each other. His eyes narrowed as he gazed about his room. "A ring with a red jewel. I found one like that recently."
"Yes!" Nova said. "That would be it."
"Close your eyes!" Gren commanded.
Nova narrowed her eyes. She pretended to close them all the way but kept a slit open at the bottom. There was no way she'd let Gren stab her while she stood like an idiot with her eyes closed. She tensed all of her muscles, ready to strike.
Gren waved his hand in front of her eyes, nodded once, and scurried away into the rubbish. He knelt and crawled beneath a pile of dirty clothing, wriggling around before emerging with something clutched between his thumb and forefinger.
Nova stayed completely still.
Gren scurried back and stood in front of her. "Okay. You can open your eyes."
Nova's eyes sprung open. "That's it!"
Gren smiled. He pulled the ring close to his chest and stroked it with his spare hand. "It's mine."
Nova's hand clenched into a fist. "But you said that I could buy it."
"No I didn't," he said. "It's mine."
"I'll pay you whatever you want," Nova said. "Look, I'll give you my spoon."
She pulled the crude piece of metal out of her pocket and held it aloft.
He looked at it and licked his lips, eyes darting between the ring and the spoon. "It's nice. I want it."
"Give me the ring," Nova said.
"But it's mine!"
"I'll give you the spoon if you give me the ring."
Gren rocked back and forth on the balls of his feet. He seemed to be arguing with himself, muttering under his breath.
"No deal," he wailed. "It's not fair. I want it!"
"Then swap," Nova said. She took a deep breath, using all of her self-control not to snatch the ring out of Gren's hands.
Gren wailed. "No!"
Nova gritted her teeth and let out a long breath. "Then what do you want for it?"
Gren looked close to tears as he stared at Nova's spoon and then cast his eyes around his room. He flicked his head back and forth, tucking the ring deep into his pocket. Somewhere near the centre of the room his eyes lighted on something. They opened wide and a grin spread across his face.
"A skull!" he said. He danced away from Nova towards a dusty set of drawers. The bottom drawer lay in a broken heap of wood on the floor.
Gren slid open the next drawer up. Inside, lying on a bed of clothes, was a skeleton. The yellow bones stood out against the material but some of them still had bits of flesh clinging to them. None of the bones seemed to match, the right humorous extended at least three inches longer than the left and the ribcage didn't fit with the shoulders. The spine ended where the head should have been.
Bile rose in Nova's throat.
"I need a skull," Gren declared.
Nova froze in place, staring down at the skeleton. Whose bones were they?
"Don't look!" Gren snapped. He slammed the drawer shut and the bones rattled.
"I—" she didn't know where to begin.
"Get me a skull and I'll give you the ring," he said.
Nova shook her head.
"The skull or no deal!" Gren yelled.
Nova tore her eyes away from the drawer and stared into Gren's face. "You swear?"
"Alright. I'll get you the skull."
"It has to be a whole one," Gren said. "No missing pieces."
"It has to have teeth."
"And I want your spoon."
Nova gritted her teeth and glared at Gren. "Fine."
"When will you have it?"
"I don't know," Nova said, biting out each word. "It depends how long it takes me to find it."
"Well, hurry up," Gren said.
"Why?" Nova asked. "Do you have somewhere important to be?"
She shouldn't have said anything, she should have just left, but she couldn't help it. The weird man in front of her made her want to scream. She imagined shoving her fist into his face. Sarcasm was the most polite response she could manage.
"No," Gren said, narrowing his eyes. "Skelly doesn't like not having a head."
"Skelly?" Nova said.
Gren pointed at the closed drawer.
"You know it's not real…" Nova said slowly.
"Shut up!" Gren bellowed. "It's whatever I say it is! I need the skull to complete my collection! Now leave!"
Nova bit her lip and backed through the small walkway. Rubbish crowded in on her from all sides and she had a sneaking suspicion that the skeleton wasn't the worst thing Gren had hidden away.
She opened the door and practically ran out.
Gren slammed it shut behind her.
Nova jogged to the end of the corridor and out into the courtyard. She took a deep breath of fresh air that flooded her lungs, then took three more deep gasps, relishing the glorious aroma.
"Any success?" Wood said.
"Have you ever been there?" Nova said between breaths.
"No." Wood chuckled. "I wouldn't be that stupid."
"You could have warned me," she said.
Wood shrugged. "I did tell you to take a knife."
"I didn't need a knife! I needed a gas mask, and antibiotics, and a hazmat suit."
"That bad, huh?"
"Worse," Nova replied. "And he's a nut-case! He was going to give me the ring in exchange for my spoon."
"Good deal," Wood said.
"Yeah. Except then he changed his mind. Now he wants a skull! A skull so that he has a whole skeleton – Skelly!"
Wood burst into laughter, throwing his head back.
"It's not funny!" Nova hissed. "He has piles of rubbish in there. Actual rubbish. There are rotting things – I don't even know what they are!"
"I've heard that," Wood said when his laughter died away. "Glad I didn't go with you."
"Where the hell am I supposed to get a skull from?"
Nova's whole body felt covered in filth. She needed to wash her hands, desperately. It was like she could actually feel the germs crawling over her fingers.
"There're lot of dead people here," Wood said. "But a skull might be harder to find."
"So what?" Nova said. "I just go out into the tents and ask around for dead people?"
"That's one option," said Wood. "But as I said; a skull will be hard."
"People like to keep skulls. That's probably why Gren hasn't been able to find any."
"What do you mean, people keep them?"
"They're useful. They hold things so you can use them as cups or bowls. Also, lots of people here believe they bring good luck, so they keep hold of them."
"A skull?" Nova said. "Brings luck?"
"That's what they reckon," Wood said with a shrug.
"If it brought luck, how the hell did they end up in this dump!" Nova said through gritted teeth.
"Because they didn't have the skull before they were sent here," Wood said with infuriating logic.
Nova threw up her hands. "This is ridiculous."
"Tell me what you need the ring for and I'll help you find one."
Nova bit her lip. "I'm bartering with Jimmy."
"Jimmy, hey?" Wood said. "So, you need something. But what is it? You don't look like a druggie, so it's probably not that. What else would be worth this much trouble?"
Nova kept her mouth closed.
"I'm not helping unless you tell me."
Nova shook her head. "I can't."
Wood's eyes narrowed. "I thought we were friends…"
Nova let out a long sigh. A part of her wanted to tell Wood, even to help get him free too, but if she wanted any chance of saving her friends at The Jagged Maw she had to stick to the plan. "I'm sorry."
A brittle smile clung to Wood's face. "Sure. Of course. I've just gotta…" He turned, smile wavering, and walked back towards the cell complex.
Nova got to her feet and cursed all the way to the outer edges of the prison.
Two months until guard change.
The outer edges were just as derelict as when Nova had arrived a month previous. Half-dead people sat with vacant eyes and stared into nothing. Only broken boxes and tattered tents separated them from the planet. Their skin stretched so tight that Nova could make out the bones beneath.
They glared at Nova as she walked past and some of them licked their lips at the sight of her. They whispered after she'd gone.
Nova kept a firm hand on her knife. If any of these bastards tried to take her down, she'd bring them along with her. She was better trained than any of them and far stronger, especially as most of these were so close to starvation that their hair and fingernails had fallen out.
Sunken eyes loomed out of sockets so deep that they could have been mistaken for skulls. They looked so close to death that a part of Nova wanted to just sit still and wait for one of them to collapse. That wasn't really an option though. She didn't have long to organise delivery and she didn't want to risk spending any longer out here than she had to. The meaty flesh on her bones would be too much temptation for some of the prisoners.
She could have killed one of them and taken their skull but she wasn't that kind of person. She had no doubt that there were ample people on Ankar who would have done it for her, for a price, but she couldn't do that. She refused to let her humanity go completely, otherwise she deserved to stay on Ankar.
Nova blinked away her thoughts. She'd accidentally stumbled onto where Kirt's body had been burned. A blackened pile of ash was all that remained, with sooty footprints traipsing back and forth across the dark circle.
Nova stopped and stared down at the ashes. Despite not liking Kirt, a ball of guilt settled over her stomach. If it weren't for her, he'd never have been caught and sent to Ankar in the first place. Now his charred bones lay scattered amongst ash, but not his skull.
She shook her head and moved on. Further down the line of tattered tents she came upon a woman with yellowed teeth. The woman grinned at her, revealing a mouth blackened with rot. Her gnarled fingers tangled amongst the material of her ragged dress.
Nova's eyes slid past, ready to move on, when they landed on a white flash of bone. A skull.
It sat beside the woman's knee wearing a wide-brimmed hat that flopped down over its eye sockets.
Nova stopped short and stared, mouth hanging open. She'd found it! Everything she needed was sitting right there under a straw hat!
The old woman's eyes narrowed and her lips pursed. "What ya want?"
Nova took a deep breath and stepped forward. "Hello." She tore her eyes away from the skull and looked at the woman. "What's your name?"
"Auntie Mabel to you."
"Well –er. Mabel, I-"
"Auntie Mabel!" the woman screeched.
"Oh, Auntie Mabel," Nova said.
The woman's wild eyes flickered over Nova and then at the surrounding tents. "What ya want?"
"I'd er, like your skull," Nova said.
"What!" Auntie Mabel roared. She grabbed the skull and clutched it to her chest, along with the wide hat. "It's mine. You can't take old Agnis."
"Agnis?" Nova said.
"My dear sister," Mabel said. She looked down at the skull with infinite care and sadness. "We've been together since birth and I'm not letting you take her now."
Nova gritted her teeth. She needed that skull, but how was she supposed to convince a crazy woman to give up her sister's head? She took a deep breath and ran her eyes over Auntie Mabel's bare tent. "What if I trade you for something?"
"Don't want nothing."
"There has to be something-"
"Nothing!" Mabel screeched, clutching the skull tighter.
Nova frowned. A piece of leather cloth with tattered edges lay on the floor beside the woman. Bite marks dented the smooth finish. Why would someone bite a piece of leather? It was probably the most valuable thing she owned, aside from the skull.
Nova's nose wrinkled. "I'll get you some gruel."
Mabel's head whipped up. She narrowed her eyes at Nova and her tongue flicked out to lick her lips. "Food?"
"Yes. I'll get you a bowl of gruel if you give me that skull."
Mabel looked down at the skull with watery eyes. Her mouth twitched as she cradled it. "Poor Agnis."
Nova waited, teeth gritted.
"You bring the gruel first. Then we'll talk," Mabel said.
Nova took a deep breath and walked away. Her fingers twitched to snatch the skull out of Mabel's hands, she could easily outrun the old woman. But just like killing someone for their head, she wasn't that kind of person.
She trekked all the way back to the courtyard. By the time she got there, evening had descended. Prisoners gathered together under the orange spotlights.
"No skull I see," said Wood as soon as she came into the light.
Nova opened her mouth to reply but he'd already turned away before she had a chance.
Nova stomped all the way to her cell and lay down, exhausted.
She didn't get up again until the sun glowed high in the sky. She went down and collected a bowl of gruel from the food generator and carried it towards the outer edge of the courtyard.
"Where are you going with that?" asked Wood.
"Found someone with a skull," Nova said.
"You're going to go into the Outers with a bowl of food?"
Nova shrugged. "If that's what it takes."
"You'll be lucky to survive."
Nova snorted. "There's no such thing as luck."
"If there was, you'd be pushing it right now. At least hide it in something."
Nova grabbed a dirty rag from a nearby table and wrapped it around the bowl. "Better?"
Wood rolled his eyes and followed her out of the courtyard.
"I need that skull," Nova said. "If this is how I have to get it then so be it."
Nova shrugged again.
"Fine. I'll watch your crazy back," Wood said with gritted teeth. He pulled the knife out of his belt and walked along by Nova's side.
"I thought you wanted no part unless I told you everything," Nova said.
"Yeah well, decent people are hard to come by in this dump. Maybe I saw the error of my ways."
"Good to hear," said Nova.
Together they strode through the prison. The hungry crowd around them grew but they daren't attack whilst Wood's knife pointed at them, instead they grunted and crawled along as a starving mass.
"How do they know what I have?" Nova whispered.
Wood grimaced. "Smell it."
"Smell it? Gruel doesn't have a smell- it's like wet paper or something."
Wood shrugged. "What can I say? They're hungry."
Nova shivered at the thought that if it hadn't been for her wound, which led to her overhearing Kirt, that she could well have been part of that faceless mob.
They reached Kirt's pile of ashes and turned right. After that they came upon the old woman. She squinted up at them, clutching the skull to her chest. Nova wondered if she'd moved at all through the night.
"You," Mabel said. Her face scrunched up as if she'd tasted something foul.
"I brought food in exchange for the skull," Nova said.
Wood faced outwards, his eyes flicked across the hungry crowd. They glared at Mabel and licked their lips, eyes flashing with desperation.
"Not Agnis!" Mabel wailed.
"If you give it to me, I'll give you food," Nova said.
"I'll give you a skull!" a thin man in the crowd called out. He wrapped his hands around the man next to him, fingers clutching the man's temples, and dragged him forward through the crowd. "Look! Here's one. Give me the food!"
"No, no! Take this one!" A woman in the crowd held up half a skull, it looked like it'd been smashed with a hammer.
"I'll get you a skull for food!" yelled a third person. The rest of the crowd took up the chant until it boomed over the prison.
Nova groaned as she stood and faced the crowd. "I'm not killing a man for a skull," she said to the first prisoner who was still holding the other man's head.
"No need!" he yelled. "I'll kill him for you!"
He gripped tighter.
"No!" Nova yelled. "No. I want that one."
She made the mistake of pointing at Mabel's skull.
"I'll get if for you!" a thin woman called. She dashed forward through the crowd and lunged at Mabel.
"No!" Nova said. She grabbed the attacker's shirt and shoved her back into the crowd. "I'm sorry, but no. Mabel and I had a deal. Didn't we Auntie Mabel?"
Nova turned and looked at Mabel, mouth dry.
Mabel gazed up at her. She cradled the skull in her arms and stroked the bleached cheek. "A deal," she said. "Yes."
With shaking hands, Mabel handed the skull over to Nova. Tears welled in her eyes and dribbled down her sun-damaged cheeks and a low moan escaped her lips as the skull left her fingers.
Nova passed her the bowl of gruel, gripping the skull so tightly it was at risk of breaking. With her free hand she removed the floppy hat and put it on the ground next to Mabel.
"We can't leave her," said Wood. "They'll kill her."
Nova looked out at the crowd of prisoners. The mass surged, tension laying over them like a thick cloud. Greedy eyes pinned on Mabel and the grey bowl of gruel. They had been ready to tear each other's heads off for that bowl; what would they do to Mabel?
Mabel shovelled gruel into her mouth as fast as she could, it covered her fingers, sticking them together and shining in the sunlight. She scraped the bowl clean and licked it until there wasn't a single spec. Then she sucked each of her fingers until there was no dirt left under her nails. Only then did she take a deep breath.
"Give it back," she said. She stretched her hands towards the skull.
"No." Nova said, stepping away. "We had a deal."
"The food's gone! I want it back!"
"We've gotta move," Wood said.
With the food gone, furious prisoners muttered, pacing in front of Mabel's tent. Tension crackled over them like lightening.
Without another word, she and Wood dashed away through the tents, all the way back to the main courtyard.
Nova cradled the skull to her chest the whole way. She didn't even stop to consider the woman whom the skull used to belong to. She didn't have time to wonder if Agnis really was her name, or if that was just a character that Mabel had invented to occupy the loneliness.
Wood and Nova burst into the courtyard with a clatter of footsteps and gasping breaths. The other prisoners stopped their conversations and stared at them.
Carter stepped out of the guarded doorway of his quarters and raised an eyebrow, waving for them to approach.
"Where were you?" he asked.
Nova glanced around. There was no one else within hearing distance. "I had to get a trading item."
She held the white skull out for Carter to see.
"You went to the fringes and got a skull?" Carter's nose wrinkled.
Nova shrugged. "Part of the plan."
"And him?" Carter said, nodding at Wood.
"In that case he deserves a reward. It's Wood isn't it?"
"Yes, Sir," Wood replied. His face glowed bright red.
"You've got a cell?"
"Good. If anyone gives you trouble, just send 'em to me."
"Sir. Thank you, Sir," Wood gushed.
Carter waved his hand and turned to Nova. "I assume you've got work to do?"
"Sure do," Nova replied.
"Alright. Get on with it then."
Nova nodded and walked away. She and Wood sat at a far table to catch their breath.
"Well, that was close," Wood said.
"Nah. We had them."
Nova placed the skull on their table so that it stared out at the rest of the prison.
They sat in companionable silence, regaining their breaths and reigning in their racing hearts.
"I'm glad I came to my senses and decided to help you. Even if you won't tell me your plan."
"It's better that way," Nova said. "Now, there's a certain thieving weasel I have to find."
She got to her feet and grabbed the skull. She was starting to see how Mabel had become so attached. It was easy to pretend that the skull was another person with its own personality. She could practically imagine its mouth moving as it talked to her. She shook her head and walked faster. The sooner she got rid of it, the better.
She marched to Gren's room and rapped her knuckles against the cold metal.
"Who is it?" he squeaked from the other side.
"Nova. I've got payment," she said.
The door opened a crack and Gren peered out. His face looked especially rodent-like today. His eyes roved over her and came to rest on the skull. His eyes and mouth opened wide and he sucked in a gasp of air. "A skull!"
"Yes. Let me in."
Gren tripped over himself in his rush to open the door. He sprawled onto the floor and cowered in front of Nova as she strode in. She closed the door behind her, careful to keep the skull close to her body and her other hand close to her knife.
"A skull," Gren whispered as he got to his feet.
"Yes. Now give me the ring."
Gren's eyes narrowed. He regained some control over his expression and folded his arms across his chest.
"I already gave it to you. You're trying to cheat me."
Nova's free hand clenched into a fist. "No, you didn't. Now give me the ring or I will break this skull."
Gren's mouth fell open. "You wouldn't dare! Not Skelly!"
Nova held the skull aloft.
"No!" Gren howled. "Okay! I'll give you the ring."
He scurried into the back of the room. In his excitement he forgot to tell her to close her eyes. Nova snorted, he'd probably have to rearrange his room and hide everything in a new place just to cater to his paranoia.
He came back with the ring clutched in his hand.
"Give me the skull," he said.
"Hand over the ring first."
"No! The skull!"
"You're not getting this skull until I have the ring in my hand," Nova said.
"How do I know I can trust you?" Gren wailed.
"I'm more trustworthy than you. I don't steal things from dead people. Or living people," Nova said, letting her eyes slide across the room. A voice inside her head suggested that some of her salvage missions may have pushed the grey area but she chose not to share that with Gren.
"The ring," Nova repeated.
Gren's face screwed up and he looked on the verge of tears. He lifted his shaking hand and let the ring drop into Nova's waiting fingers. She took the time to tuck it deep into her pocket. Gren's face pinched tighter with every passing second. "Give it! Give it! Give It!" he whined. His fingers twitched at his sides.
Nova held out the skull. He snatched it out of her hand and scurried away, hunching over it in a corner. He stroked the skull like a precious pet.
"Nice doing business with you," Nova muttered.
"Get out!" Gren bellowed, before turning back to his skull.
Nova let herself out of the putrid cell and hurried outside. She nodded across the yard to Wood before heading to Carter's building.
"What do you want, Hunter?" the guard outside said.
"I need to speak to Carter."
The guard frowned. "Wait here."
He disappeared inside, leaving Nova outside with a stern-faced woman. A moment later Carter appeared.
"Hunter," he said, leading Nova out of earshot.
"I need you to do something," she said.
"I told you I'm not giving up the ring," Carter said, smile faltering.
"It's not that. I've come up with a solution where everybody wins."
"Oh?" Carter said. "And what's that?"
"I've got a fake. When you come into the yard tomorrow, I want you to be wearing the fake ring. I'm going to ask you for it. You have to put on a big show of not wanting to give it up, but eventually you'll give it to me."
"A fake?" said Carter.
"Yes. But it's very important that you do not wear your real ring again until we're off this damned planet. Do you understand?"
"I'm not an idiot."
"It's really important," Nova said, staring deep into his eyes. "If Jimmy thinks we've crossed him then the whole plan falls apart and we'll both be trapped here."
"I've got it," Carter said, waving his hand.
"Good," Nova said. "I got this for you."
She pulled a small piece of cloth out of her pocket and handed it to Carter. The stench of Gren's room seemed to cling to the rag.
Nova looked at Carter with meaningful eyes.
"I don't know if red's my colour," Carter said as he tucked the cloth into his own pocket.
"You never know," Nova replied.
She left Carter and spent the rest of the afternoon playing cards with Wood.
The next day, Carter emerged from his quarters surrounded by guards, the fake ring glimmering on his finger. He sat and gestured for Nova to join him.
She grabbed her bowl of gruel and sat opposite, making light conversation until Carter's goons cleared away. "Carter, I need that ring."
"How many bloody times do I have to tell you! I'm not giving it up! Especially not to the scumbag Jimmy!" Carter's roar made everyone in the courtyard turn and look.
"I need it!" Nova hissed.
The rest of the prisoners sucked in a horrified breath. Carter had had people strangled with their own intestines for less than that.
"Then get your own damn ring!"
Nova leapt to her feet and stood over Carter. "I saved your life! You owe me!"
Carter's face went bright red and his mouth worked. He stood face-to-face with Nova so their noses almost touched. "You ungrateful little bitch! If it weren't for me you'd be chewing your own leg off for food!"
"And if it weren't for me, your whole body would be feeding the fringes!" Nova bellowed back.
Every prisoner in the courtyard stared at them with open mouths.
"You bitch! Nothing's enough for you, is it?"
"I just want that ring," Nova said, more quietly.
"Fine. If I give you the damned ring will you stop reminding me that a pathetic thing like you saved my life?"
"Then take the damned thing!" Carter ripped the ring off his finger and hurled it at Nova. He turned away and stormed back to his quarters.
The ring bounced off of Nova's chest and landed on the cement table. She snatched it up and glared after Carter. The rest of the prisoners stared at her like she'd just grown an extra head. Nova took a deep breath and whirled around to glare at them. Their mouths snapped shut and they pretended to go back to whatever they'd been doing.
Nova stormed over to Jimmy. He watched her with one eyebrow raised.
"That was quite a show," he said.
"Here's your damn ring," she said, thrusting out her hand.
Jimmy leaned in close and took it from her palm. He held it up to the light. "It's thinner than it looked at a distance."
Nova didn't say anything, keeping an expression of fury pinned to her face.
"Looks like we have a deal. Give me that package of yours and I'll have it delivered to the guards as soon as possible."
"No," Nova said. "I need it delivered on a specific day."
"Are you serious?" said Jimmy.
"And what day would your majesty like it delivered?"
"The day the guard transporter arrives."
Jimmy's eyes nearly popped out of his head. "You can't be serious. Do you know how much extra security goes on during guard change-over?"
"Can you do it or not?" Nova's nostrils flared.
"I don't think you understand how stupid—"
"If you can't do it then give me the ring back. I'll find a real smuggler."
Nova leaned in to take the ring.
Jimmy pulled it closer to his chest. "I didn't say I couldn't do it. I just said it was stupid."
"So, we have a deal?"
"Yes. I'll see it done."
"Good. I wouldn't cross me if I were you."
"I wouldn't dream of it," Jimmy said with a sickly sweet smile.
Nova nodded once and stormed out of the courtyard. Every eye watched her leave.
Two months until guard change.
The next day Nova ate breakfast with Ringer and agreed to another game of cards. Ringer looked less enthusiastic than he had the day before; he had yet to come up with a game in which he was sure to win.
Carter came out of his quarters, expression sour. He scanned the courtyard and his eyes locked on Nova and Ringer. He strode towards them, his guards struggling to keep up.
"Interested in a game?" Ringer called out. He was always more candid with Carter than any of the other prisoners dared to be. Probably because he had nothing to lose.
"Sure," Carter said. His tone was light but Nova sensed something underneath it, a seriousness in his eyes. Ringer sensed it too.
Carter slumped down beside Ringer.
Ringer dealt out the cards and spoke in a low voice. "What's going on?"
"The Hunter here has got herself a bounty."
Nova frowned. "What do you mean?"
Carter looked genuinely worried. "The Confederacy have put a price on your head. Dead, not alive."
Nova's heart clenched. "How do they know I'm here?"
Carter's jaw twitched. "How the bloody hell should I know?"
Nova's mind raced. Had the Confederacy found The Jagged Maw and her friends? Was she already too late?
"Why would they put a price on her head if she's in here?" Ringer said, his eyebrows drawing together.
"Clearly they're worried about her getting out. If they think she can do it, well then damn, so do I."
Ringer shook his head. "That's ridiculous. How can they be worried about someone getting out of here?"
"That's the Confederacy. They know you're in here and they want you gone."
"Bastards. Why don't they come down and do it themselves?" Ringer said.
Carter snorted. "Who'd volunteer for that mission? A one way ticket into Ankar… I don't think so."
Nova's heart pummelled against her ribs. She'd counted on having at least another month before the Confederacy worked out where she was; they were bound to lock onto her eventually. Even then she had hoped that they'd just let her be. What was the point of chasing her into Ankar? Clearly the Confederacy didn't want to take any chances.
"What reward are they offering? It's not like anyone in here would do the Confederacy's bidding," said Ringer.
All pretence of the game fled. Their cards lay forgotten on the table and their heads bent together.
"Freedom," Carter whispered.
Ringer's head whipped up and he had to grip the table to stop from falling backwards. "What!"
Carter jerked his hand down. "Shh! They're offering freedom to whoever does her in."
Nova's stomach dropped. Her heart beat erratically in her chest and a tingle went up her neck.
"Freedom!" Ringer hissed. "They'll have every prisoner in here trying to kill her off."
"I know," said Carter. "Hell, I considered doing you in myself."
Nova's face went white as Carter's eyes bore into hers. Ringer looked between them, his face frozen.
Carter shrugged. "Decided I owed you one and it wouldn't be right."
"That's not going to stop anyone else," said Ringer.
"How long until everyone gets the word?"
"An hour, tops. You'll have to stay in your room, Hunter. You can't trust anyone except me and Ringer."
Nova shook her head. "I can't. I still have too much to do before we can leave."
"It's either that or end up dead."
Nova shuddered. "How do you even know this?"
Carter grimaced. "A new prisoner ship dropped an hour ago carrying the offer. The news is spreading fast but my informant sprinted here straight from the Outers. People won't want everyone else to know, so hopefully that'll buy us some time."
Nova hung her head. It felt like every eye in the prison was looking at her back. She could almost see them sharpening their knives and preparing to jump her. Carter was right; she'd be no good dead. But on the other hand, what else could she do? She couldn't live in a prison cell for the rest of her life.
"Can't you do something?" Nova said, peering into Carter's eyes.
"Are you kidding? I've got a big enough target on my back just for helping you. You've only been here a month. Imagine what you'd do for a taste of freedom if you'd been here years like some of these."
"Damned Confederacy couldn't just let me be," Nova muttered.
Her face flushed red, mind racing. This changed everything. Her plan had been so carefully laid out, but she hadn't counted on the Confederacy going to such extremes. It was going to take a miracle to get out of Ankar alive.
"I'll just have to be careful," she said. "I'll do my work at night. I'll keep my knife on me and keep it sharp."
"I'm not sure that will be enough," said Carter.
"It's going to have to be. I don't see us having any other options."
Ringer shook his head. "Wow. You must have really pissed off the Confederacy. I've never heard of them putting a bounty like that on anyone. And we've had some pretty bad sorts in here."
Nova nodded, miserable.
"Ringer will take you to your room. He can't stay there otherwise he'll get a knife to his gut. Just lock your door and don't come out until it's safe. Don't open it for anyone except Ringer, he'll bring you food."
She nodded and stood. Ringer got to his feet beside her and together they walked into the cement building. Both of them kept their eyes roving to either side. They glanced over their shoulders and listened for any kind of attack. For the moment the prisoners were still.
They made it to Nova's room without being killed.
"Lock the door," Ringer said. "Don't do anything stupid."
"I wouldn't dream of it." Nova sighed. "You be careful too. I don't want to get you killed."
"I've survived this long," Ringer said with a shrug.
Nova nodded and closed the door behind him. She locked it and leant back against the cold metal. Debris from the two robots lay scattered across her room. At least she had work here she could do. She'd lose her mind if she had to stay in the tiny cell with nothing.
She knelt on the floor and gathered together the pieces she needed, making a pile of wires and levers. She used the broken microchips from the robots as a control system. They already had receivers so it didn't take much to adjust the frequency.
It took most of that day but by the time evening came, the robot was remote controlled.
Nova grinned as she pushed the joystick forward and the robot trundled to the other side of her cell. It rattled and whirred like a twentieth century engine, but it worked. She shoved her thumb left on the joystick and the robot turned. Its wide arc carried it too slowly and its right side scraped against the side of the cell.
It made a full circle and faced Nova across the dim grunge of her temporary home.
She nodded. One step closer to getting free.
One week until guard change.
Nova's eyes flew open as thunderous fists pummelled her door, sending deep rumbles through her cell.
"Come out girly, I've got a present for you," an unfamiliar voice sung from the other side.
"Move aside Baz, she's mine. Come out bitch. You're my ticket to freedom."
Nova held her pillow over her head and buried herself deeper into her mattress. Thumping fists and taunting voices filtered through, threatening, cajoling.
She bit her lip and squeezed her eyes shut, wishing for sleep that seemed unreachable.
For the last month every night had been the same, and most of the days.
Nova hurled her pillow across the room and sat up on her bed, flipping on a light. It flickered overhead, shining off the completed robots and pieces of scrap metal.
She caught her reflection on a shiny sheet. Red eyes stared back at her from dark circles. Her pale skin clung to her bones and her hollow cheeks looked more like a skull than a face.
"Hunter, this door won't last forever. Why don't you let me in and I'll see that it's quick?"
Nova ran a hand down her forehead and strode to the window. A faint brush of fresh air whispered across her skin, clearing her head. Her eyes stung, aching for sleep. Her hands clenched into fists around the bars of her window. If only she had her plasma pistol…
Something glinted on the ground beneath her cell window.
She frowned, watching the spot. It came again, a little closer, and something else; whispering on the breeze. Nova drew back from the window, and flicked her light switch, plunging the room back into darkness.
She pressed her back against the cold cement wall and peered down into the courtyard below, straining her ears. Every muscle tensed and she stood frozen.
Something rustled below and a voice carried up on the breeze. "Shh. She'll hear us."
"Won't matter if she hears us. You're never going to be able to get up there."
"Back off. I've climbed worse."
"Maybe twenty years ago."
"I said be quiet! You might not care about getting free but some of us do."
The other voice replied but Nova couldn't make out the words. Her stomach tensed and she slid down the wall, hand patting her mattress and coming to rest on her knife. She stood, cold metal reassuring in her palm.
Something scraped and loose cement scattered to the ground below. The first voice cursed and fell silent for a full minute. Then the scrape came again, louder.
Nova crouched beside the window, out of sight, and shifted her grip on her knife. She swallowed, her throat like sandpaper. Why couldn't they just leave her alone?
Two minutes later, a tuft of grey hair appeared level with the window, followed by a lined face and two dark eyes. The man peered into the prison cell, squinting at Nova's bed.
He hooked one arm around the barred window and lifted a long stick with a knife tied to the end. He rested the spear on the window and slid it through, towards Nova's bed.
Nova stood with liquid grace and snatched the stick, ripping it free of the man's grip. She drew it through the window and tossed it to the floor where it clattered on the hard cement. Without stopping, she lunged forward and plunged her knife through the bars, into the man's neck.
His eyes opened wide and his mouth dropped. He glanced down at Nova's arm and let out a flaccid sigh as his grip on the bars loosened.
Nova ripped her blood-covered arm back and stood at the window, legs shoulder-width apart.
The man gasped once and let go of the window. His body plummeted backwards through the night and landed on the ground with a sharp crack.
"Oh, shit," the second voice said from below, followed by retreating footsteps.
Nova peered down into the darkness where a dim silhouette lay mangled on the ground, limbs askew. A darker shadow of blood spread out around the body.
She sighed and wiped her knife clean on an oily rag, shoving it back in her belt. Wilting, she sat on her bed and lay down, glaring up at the ceiling.
A few minutes later the thudding at her door died down, replaced with murmuring voices.
"… Killed him."
"How'd he get in there?"
"Climbed up the outside. Was going to spear her."
"I dunno. She must have known it was coming. Slit his throat and let him fall."
The voices faded away and Nova's shoulders loosened. She let her eyes fall closed, hoping for just a few hours of uninterrupted sleep.
She needed it. The guards' transporter arrived in just one week.
One week until guard change.
Nova stood at her window, peering out at the darkness. It hadn't taken long for the hammering on her door to start back up again after the assassination attempt.
The dead man below had given her a thought. She needed to get out of her cell, to prepare the final phase of her plan, but she couldn't use the door. Going out through the window hadn't occurred to her until the idiot tried to stab her through it.
She clutched a metal cutter, stolen from one of the labourbots, in one hand and waited for the hammering at her door to reach a crescendo.
When the thuds echoed around her cell and the door threatened to break inwards, she ignited the torch and held it against the bars.
They glowed bright red, heat billowing up and brushing against her face. Sweat sprung out on her forehead and her lips dried and cracked after just a few minutes, but she kept the trigger down until the slamming on her door faded.
She released the torch and stood tensed, ears straining.
There was still no sign of movement through the window. She doubted anyone would be stupid enough to try that method, at least for a few days.
She took a deep breath and turned for the door. "Given up have you?"
At least seven voices bellowed back and a new rain of fists slammed against her door, rattling the hinges.
She grinned and reignited the torch.
The bars went from red to bright white, at which point Nova turned off the torch, drew back, and slammed her boot against them. They shot out of the window and tumbled down, hitting the ground with a loud clatter.
Nova held her breath and waited. Nothing outside made a noise and the cacophony outside her door didn't change. She placed the torch on the floor and gripped the sides of the window.
Her knife sprouted from her belt as she swung out over the ledge and scraped her boots along the smooth cement to find a foothold. Her boot lodged in and she moved down, finding one hole after another.
The cool wind made her shiver but freedom had never felt so good. She climbed all the way down and hit the ground, falling into a low crouch, eyes and ears straining.
When the guard transporter landed they'd have just six hours to make their escape. She had to be prepared, and that meant reconnaissance.
She pressed her back against the cold wall of the building and held her breath, straining for even the tiniest shuffle. Silence met her.
She pulled a black scrap of material from her pocket and tied it over her head like a hood, hiding her face, before dashing to the next shadow.
She crept out of the courtyard to the winding dirt path that led up to the guards' compound, keeping her head down. A few people glanced up at her but their gazes slid right off. She went unrecognized.
The unused road had deep holes but a clear enough path existed for labourbots to get from the prison to the guard's complex. Inside the enclosure, labourbots underwent repairs or were shipped off-world to scrapyards with the guard transporter.
Nova nodded. That part of her plan should run without a hitch, as long as they drove carefully.
"I wouldn't get too close," a rough voice spoke from behind Nova.
She spun drawing her knife, and squinted into the darkness.
Two shadows stepped forward, one tall and the other short. The taller one had grey hair and stood straight-backed, out of place in the prison. Whilst the other hopped in place, head whipping in all directions.
Nova swallowed, throat dry. "Doc. What do you mean?"
He bowed his head. "The fence. I wouldn't get too close. It's not unheard of for the guards to take pot-shots at prisoners who come too close."
Nova raised an eyebrow and glanced back at the fence. "I wonder how that passes the ethics committee."
Doc chuckled. "I assume it doesn't make it into their reports."
Nova turned back to him, her knife still up. "So, did you bring some kind of deadly injection? Or is your friend going to gut me?"
Doc raised an eyebrow. "I'm actually out here tending to a patient and happened to see you lurking in the shadows."
Nova's muscles remained tense. "Don't try to tell me you don't want to get out of this place."
"Fly away!" Mouse said before falling silent.
"Of course I want to get off Ankar. I'm just not willing to kill a decent human being to do it."
Nova's eyes darted to the side. "You'll forgive me if I find that hard to believe."
Doc shrugged. "Believe what you want. I should be on my way, it's a cool night and I have a lot of patients to see."
Doc and Mouse turned and walked away from Nova, disappearing into the deep shadows.
Nova stayed where she was for a full minute, expecting an attack. When nothing happened she crept towards the courtyard, sneaking between shadows to the base of her building. She took a deep breath and gripped a divot in the cement, hauling her legs up to the first hole.
"Skelly told me you'd be here," a rasping voice spoke from the shadows.
Nova's heart leapt into her throat and she dropped back to the ground, drawing her knife.
Gren stepped out of the darkness, licking his lips. He clutched a jagged piece of metal in both hands and his eyes gleamed. "Imagine the trades I could make for you. Oh Skelly was right."
Nova gripped her knife tighter and crouched. "Gren, get out of here."
Gren grinned, teeth gleaming in the pale light and lifted his weapons. He lunged at Nova, metal glinting in his hands. His right hand blade made a curved arc through the air, straight for Nova's throat.
She jumped backwards and her head slammed into the cement wall, sending stars across her eyes.
He swung at her. His weapons sliced through the air with sharp whooshing noises. Grunting, he pushed forward, face fixed with grim determination.
Nova rolled along the wall and out of his reach. She tried not to yell out. If they made any more noise, people would come to investigate and then she'd really be in trouble. They'd probably pull her to pieces so that they could all claim that they'd killed her.
Gren stopped his mad swinging. He advanced slowly, jagged knife held out in front of his body.
"Just go easily," he said. "I'll make sure it doesn't hurt."
"I'm not going to do that. I want to live as much as you do."
"We'll see about that."
He lunged with his left blade held out. It plunged through the air, inches from Nova's stomach.
She slammed her hand down. It hit Gren's wrist, and knocked him off course. The blade slid past Nova's side and collided with the wall behind her, dropping from his hand. She swung her right fist up and caught Gren's jaw.
He cried out and stumbled backwards. His left hand clutched his face while the other brandished his other knife. "Bitch!"
Nova bent her knees and crouched low.
Gren used his bigger size to crowd her, forcing her back against the wall. Blood dribbled out of the corner of his mouth, staining his chin. He swung at her with both his fist and knife.
She ducked, dodging to the side. As she darted past she lunged out, her knife swiping at Gren's stomach.
He knocked her hand away and swung his fist at her head.
She tried to duck but he moved faster than she'd expected. His fist slammed into her temple and she stumbled back, head reeling. Her shoulder slammed into the wall and she slouched against it, staying upright by sheer force of will. Her head rung and her vision blurred. She blinked, trying to get a fix on Gren.
He grinned and advanced on her. Purple bruising already spread along his jaw but he seemed not to notice.
Nova's heart raced and heat seared up her neck. Her eyes refused to focus and her legs kept wobbling. She tilted to one side like she'd had too much to drink. This was it. She couldn't defend herself and now she was going to die from a knife wound on the floor of a prison.
Flashes of bright light appeared before her, panic taking hold. She tried to resist it. Panic was bad. She had to stay calm. If she lost control she might fall through time and land in a black hole or something equally as horrid.
It was no good. The prospect of her looming death set her adrenalin pumping. It surged through her veins in a desperate bid for survival. Her muscles clenched. She lost sight of Gren.
Her vision flashed and everything around her changed. It was daylight. Strangers walked past. There were guards! The prisoners wore orange suits and a barbed fence kept them inside the courtyard. No blood stained the cement floor.
Nova's head pounded. A part of her knew that she had to get back to the here and now. She had no way to tell if her body was still there. If it was, then she'd be standing completely defenceless in front of Gren. But the logical part of her wasn't in control anymore. This was the other part of her. The panicked, semi-mad, part of her.
Ankar looked so different, clean and ordered. The prisoners were quiet at the tables and anarchy had yet to take over. No one seemed to notice Nova. She was like a ghost amongst them, in the same way as they were ghosts in the history of the prison.
She stood straighter, blinking away the remaining dizziness. No tents or tin shelters spread away from the main compound, only desert. A smooth road led up from the prison block to the guard's enclosure, with no sign of a radiation shield.
The guards wore guns that rested heavily in their hands. In a place like Ankar, you shot first and asked questions later.
The panic in Nova's chest reminded her that she had a limited window of time. She cast desperately about for anything that might help her. Sometimes she could pull things through time, sometimes she couldn't.
The guards had guns. She imagined trying to take one and discarded the thought. If she tried to take a gun off them they might notice her and shoot her. It was too risky. There was nothing else nearby. She considered running to find some kind of weapon, the gun locker perhaps, but with no way to know when she'd pop back to her own time, she couldn't risk it.
Voices whispered at the edge of her hearing and she tried to shut them out. They niggled at her, begging her to listen, screaming. They crowded in on her, the voices of hundreds of people. It was like she was listening to every word that had ever been spoken in the dim courtyard, every person through history talking at the same time.
She dropped to the ground, hands over her head, covering her ears. Angry voices. Guards yelling at prisoners. Prisoners screaming, cackling, and ranting in mad tirades. A heaping pile of insanity, forcing its way into Nova's head.
"Breathe," she whispered.
She rocked back and forth on the balls of her feet with her eyes closed.
Cal had warned her once that the time vortex swirling around her head would probably kill her. Now he was going to be proved right and he wasn't even here to see it.
She squeezed her eyes tighter. She imagined her breath flowing in and out, imagined her heart returning to a normal beat. She pictured a barrier surrounding her so that the voices couldn't get through, and teetered on the edge of madness.
Her panic quietened to a slow ache in her chest. The voices died away to a dull murmuring and the bright lights faded.
She opened her eyes into tiny slits. It was night-time again and blood stained the floor. She sat curled below a window, a few meters away from where she'd planned on climbing the wall.
"Very tricky," Gren said, face working. "But you won't get away from Skelly and me."
He lunged at Nova where she sat curled on the ground.
Her vision tilted, dizziness seizing her as she made a vain attempt to lift her knife.
"Back of your bastard!" a new voice hissed and a dark shape sprung out of the darkness, careening into Gren and sending them both tumbling to the ground.
Nova blinked, clearing her vision. Wood.
They rolled over one another, wrestling for the jagged knife in Gren's hand. Wood drew back and slammed his fist into Gren's face, knocking his head back. Gren fell away, blood pouring down his face.
Wood scrambled to his feet and rushed forward, pulling back for another hit. Mid-stride he stumbled, falling to his knees.
Nova gasped and used the wall to get to her feet. "Wood…"
He turned to look at her over his shoulder, mouth gaping.
She ran to Wood's side.
Gren's jagged knife stuck out of Wood's chest, surrounded by blood. Wood gaped but only a dull wheeze escaped his mouth. Gren lay on the ground, laughing.
"You bastard," Nova said.
Before Gren could move she lurched forward and thrust her own dagger into Gren's throat. His chuckles died in his throat and his eyes turned glassy. Blood spurted out and covered Nova's hands and arms in warm liquid. Some of it spilled over her face.
She ignored it, turning to Wood in time to catch him as he collapsed to the ground. She cradled his head in her arms, throat constricted.
"Go," Wood whispered.
"Wood…" Nova swallowed, tears stinging the corners of her eyes.
"Give 'em hell," he rasped, before his head lolled to the side, dead.
Nova drew in a ragged breath and lowered Wood's head to the ground before snatching her knife from Gren's neck. She jammed it into her belt, and sprinted to the wall. She grabbed hold and hauled herself up, moving with more speed and less care than she would have liked. She hurtled up like she had mods and fell in through her window, tumbling onto the floor.
She breathed hard, lungs heaving to keep time with her racing heart. In her mind's eye, she watched Wood over and over again, collapsing as he tried to save her. So much blood. It soaked Nova's shirt.
Her throat clenched and her stomach churned, bile rising to the back of her throat.
She took a gasping breath and struggled to her feet, tears blurring her eyes. She wiped a hand across her face, smearing away the tears.
Her door stood open.
One week until guard change.
Nova dived across her room and fell against her door. It slammed closed and she threw the lock home, pressing her back against it, chest heaving.
Her bed lay toppled against the wall, the mattress torn to shreds, and her clothes made tattered ribbons on the floor. Hunks of metal gleamed amongst her clothes.
Nova collapsed to her knees. "No. No. No."
The machines she'd spent more than a month perfecting lay in broken pieces across the floor. The outer casings had been torn off and the internal mechanisms smashed to pieces. Split wires tangled amongst the debris like broken roots, tying it all together.
She fell back against the door and stared at the mess. One week. All she'd had to do was last one more week. Now this. She tossed her clothes aside but not a single piece of salvageable machine showed itself.
The hours she'd spent. All for nothing.
There was no way she'd survive another three months in this hell-hole until the next guard transporter. If the other prisoners didn't get her, she'd eventually get herself.
She buried her face in her hands, trembling as she rocked back and forth. She stayed like that for what felt like hours, until her legs and back went stiff from the cold, only then did she lift her head, despair replaced by rage.
Morning sunlight glowed on the horizon when someone knocked on her door.
"Nova?" Ringer said.
Nova took a deep breath and stood. She leaned her forehead against the cool metal door and closed her eyes. "Yes?"
"Are you okay? Your friend, Wood… he's dead."
"He saved me," Nova said, opening the door.
He stepped in. "How you feeling?"
"I need you to get some things."
"Just name it."
"I need another two labourbots, and I need them today."
Ringer whistled. "That's a tall order. There's not many of them left anymore."
Nova's shoulders hunched and her head drooped lower. "I know. But I need them. And they need to be big like the other ones, with working motors and power sources."
"I'll do my best," Ringer said. "Anything else?"
"I'll need more sheeting from a transporter. The bastards took everything I had."
"Alright, that's easy enough."
Nova sighed. "Thanks, Ringer."
"Don't mention it. I thought you might want these." Ringer held out the scorched bars that she'd kicked out of her window.
Nova took them and nodded. "Thanks."
"I'll bring you some food in a bit."
His footsteps receded down the hall, leaving Nova alone with her thoughts. Her stomach rumbled but she dare not leave her room, knowing that jagged knives waited behind every corner.
She fixed her window as best she could to stop people climbing in and then stooped to collect the small shards of metal scattered across her floor. She threw the useless bits into a pile by the door and put the rest on her bed.
After half an hour her back ached from bending over and a pile the size of Cal sat by the door. The tiny collection of items on her bed barely made a dent in her mattress.
She ran her hand under the bed-frame, her fingers skittering through spider webs and thick layers of dust. Far at the back, in the very corner, her hand smacked against something plastic. She frowned and grabbed it, pulling it into view.
She let out a long breath and put it with the other items on her bed. A spanner, a screwdriver, a bottle of bleach, and a few bent nails were all that was left of her carefully laid plans.
Nova clenched her fists and sat next to the pile, fiddling with the nails. Her chest ached and her foot tapped against the floor. She got up, sat down, got up again, staring out the window. Mentally, she cursed every prisoner in the dump, but most of all she cursed the Confederacy. They'd forced her to come here in the first place and now they'd put a price on her head.
She slammed her fist down on her hard mattress and the vibrations shook the rusted frame. "Pull yourself together."
One more week. Just one week to gather everything together and recreate the remote controlled robots. So much for sleep.
All she could do was watch the sun float across the sky. Infuriating. Just when she should have been out there, doing something, she was trapped. Every second felt like an hour and yet each one was precious. She imagined the time drifting away. Seven days changed to six and a half, which changed to six and a quarter.
Knocking on the door.
"Go away, you bastards!" Nova bellowed. If she'd had her gun she would have thrown open the door and blasted every last one of them.
"It's me," said Ringer.
"Oh." She went to the door but didn't open it.
"I found them. They're in bad shape mind; I don't think they work anymore."
Nova leaned her forehead against the door. A tiny smile lifted the corner of her mouth. He'd found some. That was a step. It wasn't much, but it was a step.
"Anyone else around?" Nova asked.
Nova took her knife from her belt and flicked the lock, opening the door a crack.
Ringer stood in the doorway alone with a labourbot, the height of his waist, on either side. His face glistened bright red and sweat drenched his shirt.
He looked at her knife and raised an eyebrow.
Nova shrugged. "Can't be too careful."
"I think you know me better than that. Do you want these or not?"
She opened the door wider and sheathed her knife.
He dragged the two labourbots through the doorway and dropped them against the wall. He glanced at the pile of scrap.
Nova shut the door, locking them both inside.
"They really did a number on you," he said, nodding to the scraps.
"Tell me about it," Nova said. "The bastards didn't even know what it was for."
She knelt by the first labourbot. Ringer had been right; they were in terrible shape. Most of their outer casing formed jagged angles and dents while the internal circuits showed no response. "Where'd you find them?"
"They were in some hut on the very outers. A woman was using 'em as imaginary friends, if you can believe it. She was pretty pissed when I took them away."
"I'm sure she'll find some different imaginary friends."
"There's heaps of sheeting but I wanted to get these to you first."
Nova looked up at him and smiled. "Thank you."
Ringer waved his hand. "Don't mention it."
"I could break you out too, you know," Nova said. She didn't want to leave Ringer behind. If anyone deserved saving, it was him.
"Nah, you know I can't."
"I'm going beyond the border," Nova said. "They might not even have Zine there."
Ringer twiddled his fingers and gazed into the air. A look of longing came over his face.
Nova stood and laid a hand on his shoulder. "I'd look out for you. I've got a crew and everything."
Ringer bit his bottom lip. "It does sound tempting. But I can't. I don't want to put that kind of stress on you. Besides, once you get Carter off this rock, I'll be king of the castle. Nothing wrong with that."
Nova smiled. "If you change your mind you'll have to get another labourbot in the next couple of days."
Ringer laughed. "Are you kidding? That woman nearly killed me today. I don't think I'd risk my neck again for some labourbots."
Nova nodded, the smile fading from her lips. "I should get to work."
"What would I do without you?"
Ringer shrugged. "Probably be just fine. Except that the woman who used to own these labourbots would have two black eyes instead of one."
Nova laughed and followed Ringer to the door. They listened for movement but it was silent. Ringer opened the door and blocked the gap with his large body. He stepped out and shut it straight after him. Nova slid the lock home.
"Take care," Ringer said.
Nova turned to the labourbots. She groaned at the thought of having to re-do all the tedious work. Still, it was better than being trapped on Ankar for the rest of her life.
She pulled the first labourbot into the centre of the room and pried open its outer case, revealing broken wires and a pile of rust. A damp, musty smell flowed from the ancient interior and filled her room with the scent of decay.
Repeating the process she'd followed before, she gutted the robot and stripped the wires for reprogramming.
By the time the sun dipped below the horizon the robot's interior was as empty as Nova's stomach. She stood and flicked the light switch but instead of a flickering glow, shards of glass exploded down, showering the room.
Nova brushed the glass from her shoulders as her nostrils flared. Rage burned low in her stomach and her biceps clenched, yearning to lash out. She took a long breath and instead shifted the robot so she could work in the dim glow streaming through her window.
Worn antennas, rusted chips and corroded wires colluded against her rewiring the labourbot. They looked like they hadn't been used in over a century.
By the time morning came, Nova hadn't managed to get even one moving. Five and a half days left.
Ringer came in and dropped off a bowl of gruel.
Nova wolfed it down and looked at him over the top of the bowl. "I need a new lightbulb."
Ringer glanced at the shattered glass on her floor and frowned. "There are no more electric bulbs, but I can get you a bio-light."
Nova nodded. "Perfect."
Ringer nodded and walked away.
Nova gulped down the rest of the gruel in four massive mouthfuls and tossed the bowl into a corner of her room.
She worked all that day and night and well into the next. It wasn't until Ringer stopped by that she realised how tired she was.
Ringer frowned down at her. "How long since you slept?"
"I dunno. Three days?"
"You need to rest or you'll never work it out."
Nova shrugged and wrenched a cable free of the labourbot. "There's no time to sleep."
Even as she spoke, she felt the bone-crunching exhaustion sneaking over her. Her eyes stung with the effort of staying open and she kept yawning. Her head felt like it was full of cotton wool.
"See?" Ringer said, "Rest."
"But—" Her thoughts turned to Wood and she imagined his ghost standing in the corner of her cell.
"Just do it. And here's the light."
He held out a glass bowl lined with a sticky grey-green paste.
Nova took it, grunted thanks, and shut the door on him. She locked it and stood gazing at the worn metal. Her feet refused to work. She wanted to go back to the robots but instead her legs carried her to the bed. She fell face-forward onto the mattress and her eyes drooped closed.
Nova's eyes blinked open to almost pitch blackness. Silence hung in her cell like a veil, thick and suffocating. She sat bolt upright and looked around. How long had she slept? What if it had been days and not hours? What if she'd missed the transporter?
Her heart hammered in her chest and she took a deep breath. If she'd been asleep for days Ringer or Carter would have come and woke her. There was nothing wrong. She just had to get back to work and everything would be fine.
A soft glow pulsed in the corner of her room. She tensed as she peered at it through the shadows.
The bowl Ringer had given her glowed in the darkness like a huge blue light, casting a cool glow over her cell and lighting up the labourbots.
She slipped out of bed and onto the floor. The labourbots looked like dark sentinels in the semi-light. Her heart returned to a steady hum and she wiped the sleep from her eyes.
Bending forward, she examined the wires she'd been connecting before she fell asleep. The damn thing had refused to respond. She frowned at her work; the wires seemed to stand out like bright roads now that she'd cleared the wool from her head.
"Idiot." It was so obvious! She could have had both robots working by now if she'd just stopped and thought about it.
Nova threw herself into the work, ignoring the nagging ache in her back. For the first time since Wood's attack she felt a flutter of hope. She could do this.
When dawn trickled through the window Nova clicked the remote control and the labourbot rumbled to life, clattering across her cell.
Nova glanced at the tally on her wall. Two days. That meant that she had just one more night to get everything ready and then her and Carter would have to get moving.
One day until guard change.
Ringer delivered the sheeting along with some more food. He looked at Nova's face and smiled. "There, you look much better."
"Yes, I know. You were right."
"They're working?" Ringer said.
"Yes. I've got to make a few more adjustments and then they need to go to Carter's room."
"No problem, I can do that."
"Excellent. Do you think you can also get me a bucket?"
"I think so."
"You're the best." Nova smiled. "Is there anything at all I can do for you once we get free?"
"Nah," Ringer said. "Just give the Confederacy hell for me."
"That I can definitely do."
"Good. I'll come by tonight to take the bots."
Nova closed the door and carried the thin metal sheets to her bed. She used her knife to carve the sheeting, bending it around the outside of the robots.
She overlapped each section so there were no gaps, using broken nails to attach some sections and bits of wire on others. The front panel section was the hardest. She had to be able to open and close it from the inside and yet it had to shield completely. She ended up deciding to use one big sheet that overlapped on all sides with a simple latch to keep it in place.
She checked the labourbots three times for any gaps, her mind buzzing with what would happen if she messed up. Death. At best. They looked clean, although there was no way to tell until they tried to get into the compound, and by then it would be too late.
Ringer dropped off a bucket and Nova filled it with water.
She scrubbed a spare piece of sheeting until it shone and glinted her reflection back to her. Next, she pulled out her knife, grabbed a handful of her long black hair, and hacked at it until it just brushed her shoulders. She did her best to keep the line straight but it was impossible at the back where she couldn't see properly. It would have to do. She'd keep it up anyway.
She poured a capful of bleach into the bucket of water and dipped her hair into it, careful to keep it away from her face. As she strained her neck and back to keep in position she considered that it would have been much easier if she'd just dyed her hair before she came to prison. She rolled her eyes and glared down at the bucket. "Idiot."
When the strain on her back became too much, she straightened, using an old rag to keep her hair away from her face. She dabbed it dry and studied her reflection.
A poor job. If she'd paid for it in a salon she probably would have set Cal on the hairdresser. The tips of her hair shone blonde but black patches showed through the rest.
She sighed. It was a good thing it would be dark.
"Nova," Ringer said from the door.
"I'm ready to take those bots down if you're decent."
She opened the door.
Ringer looked at her patchy hair and wet shirt and burst into laughter. "You trying to make yourself pretty before you leave?" he asked between chuckles.
Nova scowled and slammed the door shut behind him.
"It's part of the plan."
"Are you sure?" he asked. "Because it looks like it's not going according to plan."
Nova rolled her eyes. "It could have come out better."
"So what, you have a special man waiting for you on the outside?"
Her scowl deepened. "No. It's part of the plan, a disguise."
"I think they'll definitely be confused."
"Oh, get out of here." Nova shoved him towards the robots.
Ringer chuckled. "I bet Carter takes one look at you and changes his mind about your plan."
"Just get the bots down there. We've only got twenty-four hours."
"I know. Game of cards before you leave?"
"Sounds good. Come back when you've delivered those. Hopefully by then I'll be dry."
Ringer laughed and hoisted the two labourbots under his arms, making the monstrosities look like cardboard cut-outs. "Back in a tic."
"Seven, and I believe I win again," Nova said.
Ringer threw his cards to the floor with a curse. "Grishnak! I don't know how you do it."
"I couldn't let you win right when I'm leaving," she said. "That would ruin everything I've been trying to build."
Ringer laughed. "I would have thought you'd let me win as an apology for leaving me here."
Nova frowned. "You told me you wanted to—"
"I'm joking, I'm joking."
He gathered up the cards and dealt another round. "So everything's sorted?"
Nova's stomach twisted. "Yeah."
She was doing her best to focus on the game but if truth be told, Ringer had nearly beaten her in the last hand. She just couldn't stop panicking. Her heart jerked around in her chest and her feet wouldn't stay still.
"You'll be fine," Ringer said.
"Just be careful with that radiation field. I saw a man go like that once. It's not pretty, and it's not worth it."
She could almost hear time ticking away but part of her wanted to know what to expect if things went badly. The armoured labourbots should work, but if she'd missed a crack, or if a screw came loose; they'd be dead in seconds.
"It was horrible," said Ringer. "Tim Bucklin was his name. He just couldn't take it here. He didn't belong. The Confederacy sent him here based on some made up bullshit. The truth being that he dared to speak out about some of the shit going on in the Resources Sector."
Nova nodded. That was pretty much what got her here, with some additional charges.
"People picked on him all the time. I didn't mind the guy. He was super clever; just not very tough. I tried to stand up for him once but it got me beaten to a pulp, that was before I met Carter. Kept to myself after that. Poor Tim. He just got worse and worse. A few too many knocks to the head and he stopped making sense. He lost all that cleverness I mentioned and became just another raving lunatic.
"People mostly left him alone after that. I suppose even here people feel sorry for the crazies. He spent about a year wandering around the Outer tents. He ate whatever he found. A lot of it was poisonous so he spent half his days eating and the other half throwing his guts up everywhere.
"The radiation in the plants made him lose his hair, then his teeth. His skin went all yellow, then his eyes. He looked like a walking corpse towards the end. Bits of skin flaked off everywhere he went and he had massive sores that leaked all over the place. You always got out of his way if you saw him coming, in case it was contagious."
"This one day his sickness was really bad. I was sitting around the Mids at that point. I watched him walking along. He'd go three steps and then throw up all over his feet. Another three steps, vomit. It went on and on all up the road towards the guard tower. When he got close enough I saw that there was a lot of blood in that vomit. There were chunks too, I dread to think what of, because it wasn't food; probably his stomach lining.
"It must have been agony for him to walk up the road like that. It hurt me just to watch it. If I'd been in his position I would have just curled up and died where I was. Not Tim though. He kept on going, hobbled all afternoon. He moved so slowly, what with having to throw up every few steps, but he kept going.
"He made it to the Inners and headed straight for the guard's area. He didn't speak to any of us on his way. I think he was mentally preparing himself for the end. You could see it in his eyes. They were dead but determined."
Ringer shivered. "Still makes me sick to think of it. He went up the hill, dragging those sorry feet of his, and leaving a trail of vomit.
"He made it all the way to the top, to the gate. The sirens started ringing. I'd watched him the whole way. I guess it was out of respect in a way; my way of seeing him off and of saying sorry for the hell he'd had to suffer. He got to the top and he stared up at the gates. He stood like that for four whole minutes. Then he ran forward.
"Full pelt he ran. Faster than I'd seen him move in a long time. I don't know how his mangy legs managed it. He sprinted right up to the boundary. As soon as he reached it, he stopped dead and started convulsing like he was being electrocuted. The rest of his hair fell out in an instant. After that it was like his illness continued, only at super-speed. His skin went yellow and then fell off. It literally peeled off in these giant flakes that I could see even from a distance. Blood and bile poured out of his mouth in a continuous stream. He collapsed onto the ground and bits of his body just kept falling off. His muscles, his nose, his eyes. They all fell apart and disintegrated until poor Tim was nothing but a pile of bones on the dirt."
Nova swallowed, nausea rolling through her stomach.
Ringer hung his head. "Poor Tim."
Nova laid a hand on Ringer's arm. "There was nothing you could have done."
Ringer shrugged. "Maybe not, but… Just be careful."
Nova nodded. "I will. We'll be okay."
Ringer glanced out of the window as the sun disappeared below the horizon. "I think it's time."
Nova sucked in a deep breath. Something squeezed her heart and made it hard for her to breathe. This was it. She either did the impossible, or she died, just like Tim.
"Keep calm," Ringer said, laying a hand on her shoulder.
She nodded and pulled her knife from her belt, the hilt soothed her jagged nerves. This was one of the most dangerous parts of their plan. She had to get through the prison complex and to Carter's room on the ground floor. The prisoners had gotten more desperate as the days went on and were almost always at her door. Ringer and Carter had had to threaten their families just to get them to move.
Ringer stood at the door and listened. "Get back you bastards or you'll regret it," he bellowed.
Footsteps scuffled outside and then silence.
Ringer turned to her. "They're gonna be waiting."
"I know," Nova said, drawing another ragged breath.
"Alright. Let's go!"
Guard change now.
Ringer threw open the door and started down the hallway. His head moved back and forth, scanning the cells and doorways they passed. He had a knife in each hand and his muscles rippled.
Nova stayed close to his back, ears straining. Voices echoed down the corridor but she couldn't tell if they were coming from right now or if they were just the ghosts that had been whispering to her ever since her encounter with Wood. Her knuckles glowed white against her knife.
At the end of the hallway they stopped, Ringer stepping into the junction. He took several steps down each corridor, head thrust forward, before waving her on. They turned left and despite Nova's best efforts her footsteps echoed in the empty hallway.
They just had this hallway, the stairs, and then one more corridor. They'd made it this far, just a little further to go.
The stairs loomed into view at the end of the corridor, spiralling down into darkness. Other corridors peeled off to either side but Nova's eyes stayed fixed on the stairs.
A puff of air brushed against her right shoulder and she jumped, knife lifting and back slamming against something solid. Heavy hands pushed her back into the middle of the corridor where faces loomed from the darkness.
"Where you going, Hunter? Ringer?" said Kravkof, his facial tattoos twisting as he spoke.
"We know you're planning something with Carter," said a skinny man with a knife clutched in his white hands.
"There's no way that bastard is getting out of here before me," said Kravkof. "And thanks to the Confederacy my chance has come. So Hunter, either go down quietly or go down with a fight. Either way, you're going down."
Nova's hand clenched around her knife and she spun in a slow circle. "Back off."
Her heart hammered in her throat. Time was ticking. The transporter would only be in the compound for a few short hours and she couldn't afford to waste time with these low-lives, let alone get killed by them.
"Go down fighting it is then," said Kravkof.
Cruel-faced prisoners jumped at them from all sides with knives and sharpened chunks of metal. Their glazed eyes sparkled with desperation and their lips curled back from blackened teeth.
Nova's back pressed against Ringer's and they spun in a slow circle, knives up.
Two men with blades lunged at Nova, slicing at her head. Their daggers glinted in the dim corridor lights, stained with dried blood.
She ducked, feeling a brush of air as the knives sailed over her head, and lunged forward. She jabbed, slamming her knife into the first man's neck, before ripping it free and stepping back to Ringer.
The man collapsed in a growing pool of his own blood, making gargling noises and clawing at his throat. The second man barely glanced at his fallen fellow. His eyes locked on Nova and he waved his knife back and forth like a cobra waiting to attack. His mouth twisted up in a mock-smile.
Something shuffled to Nova's right. On instinct she ducked low and spun.
A knife slashed, inches from her throat.
She lashed out with her leg and her foot slammed into her attacker's groin. A solid thump vibrated up her leg as she leapt to her feet.
He grunted and bent over double, clutching his crotch.
Behind her, Ringer stepped to the side and cracked his knife down into their first attacker's back. Blood dribbled out around the blade and the man collapsed to the ground, convulsing.
Nova turned and ploughed her fist into the man still clutching his crotch.
He lost his grimace beneath a flurry of broken teeth. Blood spurted out of his face and dripped down his chin.
Nova danced forward, lashing out with her other fist. Two more hits and the man collapsed, unconscious.
Ringer dodged, brandishing his blade as three prisoners that Nova recognized from Kravkof's crew swiped at him with jagged knives. Han darted around Ringer faster than Nova could follow, leaving bleeding lines along Ringer's arms.
Fi wielded her knife like an extension of her arm, slashing Ringer's cheek she stepped back, grinning.
The other prisoner, Red, towered over the others, his shoulders so wide they almost scraped against the sides of the corridor. He lumbered towards Ringer, boxing him in.
Han ducked under Ringer's arms, knife whipping back and forth in a blur. More red gashes opened up along Ringers arms and legs, dripping blood.
Red's shoulders tensed and his knees bent while Fi sidled around to Ringer's blind side.
Nova saw it happening in slow motion, saw shadows of them moving forward, attacking Ringer, killing him.
"Ringer, look out!"
Ringer turned, saw Fi, and stepped out of her reach.
Nova ducked around her own attackers and lunged for Han. He side-stepped to give Red room but Nova was already there, knife waiting. The tip plunged into his neck and his eyes boggled. He gasped and blood sprayed out over Nova's face in crimson droplets.
She ripped her knife out and sprung at Red.
He half-turned, gaping down at Han, but already barraging towards Ringer.
Nova ducked low, and as Red ran past she thrust her leg out, bracing herself.
Red's broad legs slammed against hers and he tripped, plunging forward. Nova's leg wrenched sideways.
She gasped and toppled, pain shooting up her shin and bursting through her thigh. It felt as if her leg had been pulled out of its socket. She drew a rasping breath and clutched her knee, teeth gritted.
Red stumbled, chin slamming into the cement floor. His flesh split open and leaked blood as he blinked at the ground, mouth hanging open, and shook his head.
Nova forced herself to her feet, stumbling through a haze of pain. She tried to put her weight on her injured leg but it wobbled and gave out beneath her. She clutched the wall to stay upright and hopped towards Ringer.
Ringer dashed forward and slammed his foot down on Red's head. Red's face slammed into the cement and stayed there, blood pooling beneath his face.
Three more of Kravkof's crew loomed out of the shadows; Pete, Victor, and Jen, stood in front of Fi, and Kravkof. Kravkof smirked and licked his lips while Fi hung back, her eyes narrowed and calculating.
The other three prisoners lunged at Nova, scrambling over their fallen companions. Their knives slashed the air, whizzing like deadly insects.
Nova braced one hand against the wall, her leg still useless, and clutched her knife with the other. It wavered, unsteady, and her weak fingers felt like they'd lose grip at any second.
The prisoners lunged, teeth barred, and hacked at her face.
She hopped backwards, arms wheeling. Her injured leg buckled, sending shots of pain up to her back. She winced, tears stinging the corners of her eyes. Fiery spurts of agony crackled through her knee and hip but she took a deep breath and made herself stay grounded. It was the only way to survive.
Pete reached Nova first, gnashing sharpened teeth and grinning. He clutched a knife in his hand, almost like an afterthought.
Nova's shoulders tensed and she readied to stab.
Instead of coming at her with the knife, he darted forward and slammed his foot down on her injured leg.
Agony burst through her knee as the rest of his weight careened into her, taking them both to the floor. Nova's knife fell out of her hand and clattered to the ground as she clutched her knee.
Pete fell on top of her, grinning, and pinned her down. He leaned in close to her face and his breath wafted over her, carrying the scent of rotten meat and blood.
Nova's vision blurred with memories of the lecheons, sucking the life out of innocent victims, draining them dry, and of Scrim, sucking her hair.
Her stomach rolled and vomit rose to the back of her throat. She strained to get away from Pete and his blood-soaked breath but couldn't budge him.
He smiled wider. "I bet you taste delicious." His voice shook with anticipation. His tongue slid out of his mouth, running along his lips and leaving a glistening trail.
Nova shuddered, a chill carving up her spine.
His head suddenly lashed down and his teeth latched onto Nova's shoulder, sharpened fangs piercing her flesh.
She screamed, feeling each individual point as it punctured her skin, like a handful of needles.
Blood poured out of the wound and dribbled down her shoulder.
Pete made sucking noises and his warm tongue ran over her bare flesh.
Nova struggled harder, every muscle straining to get free, to get away from the freak. Her insides twisted, disgust rocking through her body like she hadn't felt since her encounter with Scrim.
His tongue flicked across her wound and around her shoulder, leaving a cold trail of spittle.
Nova rocked her body sideways and bucked beneath him, but he didn't budge. His teeth latched into her skin like a rabid dog, refusing to let go. Hard suction pulled at Nova's shoulder as he suckled blood from her wounds.
"Come on, Pete! Finish it," said Victor.
Pete didn't respond. His eyes were closed as he feasted on Nova's shoulder.
"Look, you sick bastard, get a move on," said Victor.
"Can't," Pete said, lifting his head with a gasp. His face clenched in ecstasy. "She's too delicious."
He returned his face to the feast and ripped new holes in her flesh.
New pain exploded out of Nova's shoulder along with new blood. Her eyes flew around the room. Victor's nose scrunched as he glared at Pete with almost as much disgust as she felt.
Victor's nostrils flared and his hands clenched into fists. He stepped forward and put both hands on Pete's shoulders, ripping the other man up and off of Nova and tossing him away towards the stairs.
Pete's clenched teeth tore a chunk of flesh from her shoulder as he was ripped away. The gaping wound poured more blood all over the floor.
Nova screamed, her hand flying to the wound to stem the flow of blood. A huge section of flesh was missing.
"Don't worry, darling. You won't live long enough to worry about it," Victor said.
He stepped forward, brandishing his knife.
Nova lifted her legs in a pitiful attempt to kick him away. It was no good. Her injured leg barely made it off the ground and she'd lost a lot of blood. Victor brushed her legs aside and knelt by her head.
"I'll make it quick," he said. "Not like that sick bastard."
Victor ripped his knife towards Nova's neck.
"I'm not a bastard!" Pete roared and leapt at Victor's back.
Victor's knife fell from his hand as a blade protruded out of his stomach.
Pete chuckled with delight as Victor died. He pulled his knife out of Victor's back and bent his mouth to the gaping wound. Sucking noises filled the corridor, mixed with moans of pleasure.
Nova grabbed Victor's knife from the floor.
"Men," Fi said. She stabbed Pete's bent neck and stepped around his and Victor's bodies to stand over Nova. Her eyes cold, unrelenting.
Nova held Victor's knife.
"If you can stand I'd rather kill you while you're up," Fi said. "You're a good fighter. It would be shame to kill you like a common dog."
Nova mustered every ounce of strength she had left and sat. Her head swam, vision blurring and tilting. Her legs felt weak but she couldn't let that stop her. She had to stand and fight.
"What are you doing?" said Kravkof. "Just kill her."
"Shut up," said Fi. "You want me to do your dirty work, I'll do it my way."
"You bitch," Kravkof said.
"Careful," Fi said. She turned to look at Kravkof, ignoring Nova completely. "I might change my mind."
She fingered the knife in her hand. Kravkof's eyes darted to the side and his mouth snapped shut.
Nova took a second to glance over at Ringer. He and Jen circled each other, oblivious to everything else. Everyone else lay dead in the corridor.
She took three deep breaths and pushed herself to her feet. She wavered. Her leg screamed in agony and wobbled beneath her. It was probably broken, or at least fractured.
"Good," Fi said, turning back to Nova with a cold smile.
Fi's knife weaved left and right, stabbing, swiping, lunging.
Nova stumbled back, every step another shot of agony, until her back pressed against the corridor wall. Victor's knife felt unbalanced and slow in her hands. Usually her knife was an extension of her arm. Victor's knife was just a knife, and a poor one at that.
Cold seeped through her shirt from the cement wall and sent a shiver up her spine. She glanced sideways but there was no escape.
Fi advanced, the glint of victory shining from her eyes. Her knife flicked through the air, sharp edge gleaming.
Nova braced herself; she'd only have one chance, and took a deep breath.
Fi lunged forward, knife aimed at Nova's throat like a deadly missile.
Nova stepped into Fi's attack so their bodies pressed against each other. Fi's arm and knife swung wide around Nova's back, missing.
Nova clutched Fi's shoulders and stared into her eyes. She had only a second before Fi changed direction and plunged her knife into her back. "He's going to kill you."
Fi took three steps back and stared at Nova, face flushing red.
Nova could have killed her in that instant but she held back.
"What?" Fi said.
A high-pitched scream from the other side of the room made them both look up. Jen crumpled into a heap on the floor. Ringer's bloody knife dangled in his hand.
"He's going to kill you," Nova repeated, nodding at Kravkof.
Kravkof looked up from Jen and glared at Fi. "It's no time to talk! Finish the job."
"Why would he kill me? I'm the best he's got," Fi said. "It's embarrassing to end your final minutes in idle conversation instead of going down with a fight."
"The Confederacy isn't offering two free tickets out of here," said Nova. "Only one. Do you really think he'll let you take it?"
Fi scowled. "Actually, he's already spoken with the Confederacy. They've agreed to free us both."
"The Confederacy would never do that," said Nova. "In fact, I'd be surprised if they let anyone go. It was probably an empty promise to begin with."
"What the hell are you doing?" Kravkof said. "Kill her!"
"You don't have any proof of that," Fi said, ignoring Kravkof.
"She's full of lies," Kravkof said. "Both of us will get out of here."
Nova glanced at him, red patches coloured his cheeks and his eyes kept darting to the side.
"What about the others?" Nova asked, waving at the bodies scattered across the floor. "Did the Confederacy agree to free all of them too?"
"Well. No," said Fi. "Only—"
"But you told them all they could get free, didn't you?" Nova said.
"I—" Kravkof replied.
"You promised them all freedom but really none of them were ever getting out of here."
"No. I always knew Fi would survive," Kravkof said in a shaky voice. "I knew she'd make it, so I cleared it with the Confederacy."
Nova raised an eyebrow. "Really? That was a lucky guess. Imagine if one of the others had survived. What would you have done then?"
"I—" Sweat dribbled down Kravkof's face.
Nova tried to keep her voice calm, confident, and completely in control. It was hard when all she wanted to do was scream with pain. Her leg throbbed and her shoulder burned.
Fi lowered her knife and turned to face Kravkof. "She's right. How did you know none of the others would survive? Unless you planned to kill them... and if you planned to kill them you could have just as easily planned to kill me."
"No. Of course not!" Kravkof said. "You know you're the best, Fi. I knew I could trust you."
"I'm an idiot," Fi said. "I was so desperate to get out of here that I didn't think about it. You bastard."
"No, no," said Kravkof, stepping back. "The Hunter is just trying to destroy us."
"I will get out of here," said Fi.
"Of course! You and me both."
"No," Fi said.
"What?" Kravkof faltered.
"I'm getting out of here."
Fi's wrist flicked. Her knife whipped across the room and slammed into Kravkof's throat. It lodged there, all the way to the hilt. Blood seeped out from around the blade.
Kravkof clawed at the knife as he choked and gasped. He fell to his knees, then his face, eyes glazing over. Dead.
"Bastard," Fi said as he went down.
Nova took her chance. She stepped up behind Fi and put her knife to her throat.
"Walk away and you can live," Nova said.
Fi's body stiffened. "You're my ticket out of here."
"You'll have to find another ride," said Nova. "I'm leaving."
"Take me with you," said Fi. "I've got your back. I'll save your arse a hundred times over if you take me with you."
"I'm sorry," said Nova. "If you wanted a way out of here you should have tried to make friends with me before. It's too late now."
"I didn't know," said Fi.
Nova gritted her teeth as another wave of pain rushed up from her leg. "Next time be more careful about choosing your friends."
Fi took a deep breath.
"We're going to tie you up. You'll be able to get free eventually," said Nova.
Fi nodded, lips pursed. She didn't say another word as they tied her wrists and ankles together, staring vacantly at the floor like an empty shell.
"That noise will have them swarming here in no time," said Ringer.
Nova nodded. She picked her knife off the ground and wiped it clean on Kravkof's shirt.
Ringer led the way to the stairs, Nova limping at his side. Yelling voices echoed through the prison, filled with blood lust.
At the bottom of the stairs they turned left. Nova hobbled as fast as she could to Carter's unguarded door and knocked three times, waited, and knocked twice.
The door swung open, revealing Carter standing there with wild eyes and pale face. His knuckles glowed white where they gripped his door.
"Where have you been!" he hissed. "Get inside!"
Nova and Ringer piled into Carter's room. A massive double bed filled most of the floor while another doorway led into an ensuite. Many of the prisoners would have killed just to get Carter's room, let alone freedom.
Carter slammed the door shut and stared at them. Sweat trickled down his face and his eyes bulged, flicking between Ringer and Nova.
His twitching made Nova nervous. She could rely on the usual, calm Carter, but she couldn't be sure of this stranger. If he got too jumpy it could mean death for both of them.
"We were jumped," Ringer said.
Carter froze and stared at Ringer. "Jumped?"
"Yeah, Kravkof and his crew."
Carter's hands twisted together. "Oh, this is not good. Not good."
"What's up boss?" Nova said. Her hand fell to her knife and her shoulder's tensed. She refused to risk her life if Carter couldn't pull it together.
"That. That's what's up," Carter whispered, pointing to the right of the door.
Nova turned. Three bodies lay covered in blood next to the wall.
Carter's mouth twisted. "Three assassins in the last hour. They know something is happening tonight and whatever it is they want me dead."
Nova swallowed. "There was bound to be some trouble."
"Some trouble?" Carter said, face going red. "They put a razor in my food! Bastards."
"Why would they try to kill you?" Nova said.
Nova's heart fluttered. Surely Carter had had a hundred attempts on his life. Why had this one shaken him so badly?
"Because I'm protecting you!" he bellowed. "Should have just said no. It's a ridiculous plan anyway. If the radiation doesn't kill us, one of these bastards will."
Carter paced back and forth, shoes clicking against the cement floor. His hands wrung together behind his back.
Nova glanced at Ringer. He looked as worried as she felt.
Nova slapped her hand onto Carter's shoulder. "I need you to get a grip."
He stopped and stared at her with his mouth open. It would have been many years since anyone had the guts to confront him in such a way. He was a big fish. Even presuming to touch him would probably have seen her dead if it was any other day. But it wasn't. Today was the day of their escape, and Carter needed her as much as she needed him.
"What—" Carter said.
Nova pulled back and slapped Carter across the face. He grunted as his head whipped sideways. A trail of saliva snaked out of his mouth and spattered across the floor.
Ringer stepped forward, hand outstretched.
Carter whirled on Nova, eyes flashing. "How dare you! I'll have you shot! I'll have you skinned! I'll have you—"
"Fine. But it will all have to wait because we have to get out of here now," Nova said.
Carter's arms dropped to his sides. "What?"
"It's time to go. Provided you're not going to lose it again."
"Lose it?" Carter said. "I never lose it. You think this is the most dangerous thing I've done?"
Nova folded her arms across her chest, still keeping most of her weight on her good leg. "Whatever, boss, but you looked pretty lost a second ago. Don't you think Ringer?"
Ringer shrugged and swallowed, his throat bobbing.
"Chicken," Nova said.
She took a deep breath, doing her best to appear calm. Her shoulder throbbed so badly that with every heartbeat her vision flashed white. "We have to get the labourbots outside and then get in as quick as we can. If anyone sees what we're doing we'll be dead."
"Got it," said Ringer.
"I've loosened the bars on the back window. It won't be a problem getting them out."
"Alright, good. Ringer if you wouldn't mind?" Nova waved at the labourbots.
Ringer nodded once, hoisted both robots in his arms, and lowered them out of the far window to the ground.
Nova peered out into the bare blackness. Nothing moved. "We have to go. The transporter won't be there for much longer and we've got a lot of ground to cover."
"It's been good working with you, boss," said Ringer.
He held out a thick palm.
Carter shook it firmly. "You did good. I'll make sure you're taken care of."
"You better," Ringer said. "I think I'm going to have a hard time getting out of here."
"Little secret," said Carter. "There's a food generator in the far cupboard. Just in case you're stuck here for a while."
"You have your own food generator!" Ringer hissed. His eyes widened like saucers as they flew between Carter's face and the cupboard.
"Yep. In case I feel like a mid-night snack. Something I think you'll find even more interesting; it has flavours other than gruel."
Ringer's mouth dropped. "No way!"
"You've been holding out on me," Ringer said, breathless. "I should kill you right now just to teach you a lesson!"
Carter chuckled. "I don't think so. I'd bet one hundred credits that you don't tell anyone either. You can't trust anybody in this dump and as soon as someone finds out, they'll tell everyone. If you think what's happening now is bad, imagine the riot that would happen if people found out they could eat something other than gruel!"
Ringer sighed and shook his head. "You're right."
"Of course I am," Carter replied. "Just stay tight until it's all blown over. Eventually they'll lose interest. When that happens, send me the signal. I'll be ready to look after you."
Nova's heart-rate slowed. Carter seemed to be returning to his usual self.
"Thank you, sir," said Ringer.
Carter nodded and backed away, leaving Nova and Ringer alone.
"Well, Hunter," said Ringer with a smile. "It's been good working with you."
"And you," Nova replied. "It would be better if you were coming with us."
"I know. But I'm not ready for it out there. Maybe in a decade or so when you're performing your next impossible task, then I'll come with you."
Nova's throat stung but she refused to let it show. "You know I'll hold you to that."
"Please do. It'll give me an excuse to see you."
"Just be careful," Nova said. "It doesn't sound good out there."
"Can't say I'm surprised," said Ringer. "We left a graveyard up there."
"They started it."
"I know that."
Nova nodded. "You'll look after yourself?"
"Of course I will. If I wasn't looking after myself I'd be going with you on this impossible mission."
"Not impossible," Nova said.
Ringer's eyes glazed over and his hands trembled.
Nova laid her hand on his shoulder and squeezed. "Thank you for everything."
"Yeah, yeah," he said with a sad smile. "I'm just glad that this time I got to help someone."
Nova nodded, not trusting herself with more words. She grabbed Carter's arm and pushed him towards the window.
He shook off her hand and strode for the opening, throwing his leg over the sill and climbing out next to the labourbots.
Nova limped behind. She crouched in the darkness and strained her ears. There was still a lot of uproar in the main building but she couldn't see anyone outside.
"Follow my lead," she whispered.
She opened the front of the closest labourbot and clamboured inside, biting her lip to stop from crying out at the pain shooting through her leg. She took the control from inside and held it while she tried to get comfortable. It wasn't easy. The space inside was only just big enough. Her knees bent up near her shoulders, roaring with agony, and her elbows pressed right up against the metal sides.
Carter glared at her before getting into his own labourbot. He was bigger than her and his shoulders bulged out of the doorway. He tried to shut the door but it bounced off his feet and limbs. "Bloody hell. Didn't think this through, did you?"
Ringer leaned out the window and shoved bits of Carter inside the robot before slamming the front panel closed.
Nova nodded once at Ringer and closed her own door.
"The controls have intercom," she whispered. "But it would be best not to talk. We can't risk being caught."
"This is a damned foolish plan," Carter said.
"You'll thank me when you're free," Nova said. "The controls are just like we talked about. You can see outside on the screen above your head. Just try to keep calm. We can't move too fast or we'll attract attention."
"Yep," Carter said.
Nova glanced at her front screen and used the control stick to move forward. The labourbot jolted and she let go of the controls. It was much harder to drive it from inside than it was from outside. She cursed herself for not practicing with it sooner. Too late now.
She pushed forward again and made it out onto the road. Once there, she spun around to watch Carter.
He had more trouble than she did. His labourbot jerked backwards and forwards in a crazy dance. It banged into the wall twice before making it out onto the road.
"What the hell kind of controls are these?" he hissed at her through the intercom.
"You better learn quick," Nova said. "You'll attract the guards straight to us, driving like that."
Carter didn't reply. His labourbot jerked forward, stopped, jerked forward, and stopped next to her. Nova turned around and faced back up the slight hill to the guard's complex.
Her heart beat hard in her chest as they rolled forward. She was sure the guards would be able to hear it, all the way in their enclosed building. Sweat poured down her face and coated her arms where they squeezed against the metal casing.
The heat of her body clung to her, trapped inside the robot shell, cooking her alive. Each breath came harder, like the air was filled with wool and a dull throb started in the back of her head.
The motors whirred into overdrive as they started up the hill. They weren't built to carry the weight of a whole human and they struggled, heat pouring from the engines and filling the labourbots with the smell of burning plastic.
Nova had a horrific vision of suffocating on the toxic fumes. What if she died before they even made it past the main gate? She'd never be found. She'd be stuck inside the robot until eventually it was melted down for parts. She shivered at the thought and forced herself to breathe steadily. It would only be worse if she used up all the oxygen.
It didn't sound like Carter was doing any better. His breathing came through the intercom in short gasps followed by long stints of silence. Nova would have checked that he was okay but it was too risky. Anyone could hear them and they were too close to freedom to let that happen. Besides, his labourbot was still heading in the general direction of the guard's quarters so he had to at least be conscious.
The desolate landscape scrolled past on her flickering screen like an old-time movie. Barren desert, void of plants or tents, lined the road up to the enclosure. That was only to be expected. No one could be quite sure how far the radioactive shield extended. Besides that, there was always the risk that a guard would decide to do some target practice.
The intimidating cement and steel wall rose out of the flat desert like a tombstone, towering over the rest of the prison and blocking out the stars. Black cameras glinted along the top, nestled amongst razor-sharp barbed wire.
Nova held her breath. They were getting close. Another ten meters and they'd be within range of the shield. She just had to hope that she'd done everything right. She'd checked and re-checked her handiwork, but what if there was something she missed?
She shook her head to dislodge the thought and pushed harder on the control. Her labourbot surged forward, rushing over the dirt ground, wheels kicking up a trail of dirt.
A part of her knew she should be more careful. A racing labourbot was bound to draw attention. But she couldn't do that. If she paused or slowed down for just a second she'd lose her nerve. She had to do this right now while she still had the guts.
A part of her subconscious noticed that Carter wasn't racing to get ahead of her. No doubt he wanted to make sure she survived before he put himself in danger. She couldn't blame him, she would have done the same thing.
Three metres to go... two metres... one metre...
Nova burst past the invisible line of the radiation shield. She kept her hand firmly on the controls, expecting to burst into flames. She squeezed her eyes shut, couldn't bear to open them and watch her skin falling away.
Her arms and legs were already itchy. That was probably a side-effect of the radiation. Was her hair falling out?
Nova slammed forward in her metal casing and her face smashed into the front panel with a crunch. Pain exploded across her forehead and the control fell out of her hand, clattering down somewhere near her feet.
Her eyes popped open.
She patted her skin; it didn't feel like it was falling off. She lifted her aching head and gazed out of her small screen. A thick grey pole filled most of the view.
She scrounged around for the control, her injured shoulder scraping against the hard metal. She finally found it tucked next to the back of her shoe. Pushing the joystick right, the robot jerked back to life, rumbling in a rough circle.
She couldn't make out much through the small screen, but she could tell one thing. She was inside the guard's enclosure. Somehow she'd made it past the radiation shield.
Carter's labourbot trundled through the gate, racing just as hers had been. At least he had the sense to pull up short before he slammed into the pole.
She cast her mind's eye over the building plans she'd spent so long studying. There was a clear pathway from the entrance straight to the dumping ground for old labourbots. There shouldn't be many guards out now; they'd all be at the transporter getting packed.
Nova led the way through the compound. It was easy enough; a driveway covered in labourbot tracks showed the way. They followed it around a corner and came face to face with a pile of broken robots. Some of them were falling apart with rust, others were missing limbs or were so dented they would be no good for anything.
She steered her labourbot around to the far side of the pile where she was least likely to be spotted. Carter followed her around.
"Just stay where you are," Nova said.
"Hang on! How do I know you're not going to leave me here?"
"Because you still haven't told me how to get past the border," Nova said with gritted teeth.
"I'll hunt you down if you leave me here," Carter said. "I feel like my arms are going to fall off."
"Just trust me. And be quiet!" Nova hissed.
She took one last look around but couldn't see any guards. She popped open the front panel and crawled out into the garbage heap, careful to keep away from the jagged machinery.
She crawled to near the top of the junk pile and shuffled bits of refuse around. It didn't take long to find what she was looking for. A labourbot with a bright orange stripe lay in the heap. It wasn't especially memorable, a standard issue labourbot, that Aart had sent down not long before, just as planned. It hadn't worked when it arrived so it had been tossed straight to the rubbish pile, ready for her to find.
She fiddled with the front panel and lifted it away. The whole time her ears strained for any kind of noise. After the radiation shield, this was the most dangerous part of her plan. If she was spotted now, the guards would shoot first and ask questions later.
Inside the labourbot lay a simple uniform, an ID badge, and a knife.
She pulled the guard's uniform on over her clothes, balancing to try to keep her weight off her injured leg. They were loose-fitting blue overalls. She tucked her hair up under the matching blue cap and clipped the ID card to her front pocket. She glanced down at the picture.
It would have to do. The woman's hair didn't have big black spots like Nova's and her face was rounder. At least it was night-time and hopefully the guards would be too busy to notice. Nova had done her homework. The guard in question, Terry Brine, was as antisocial as they came. She actually enjoyed her shifts on Ankar because it meant she didn't have to talk to anyone. None of the more than twenty other guards knew her very well so they wouldn't notice that Nova had taken her place.
Nova staggered down off the junk pile, brushing dirt from her pants. She put her hands on Carter's labourbot.
"Stay here. I have to check the guard."
"You can't leave me here!" Carter hissed.
Nova stepped away. "Stay here!"
She strode away from the dump pile as if she belonged, despite her limp, and rounded the corner. Bright lights lit up the inner rooms of the enclosure, spilling an orange glow into the night. Nova counted three windows along and stopped, back pressed against the wall.
She took a deep breath and ducked her head around, peering into the room beyond.
A blond woman in blue overalls lay on the bed inside, Terry. A diamond ring glimmered on her finger. Plain package wrap lay scattered on her bed.
Nova let out her held breath. Despite everything, Jimmy had upheld his end of the bargain; he'd delivered the ring on time, and Terry had done just what she was supposed to; put on the ring and activate the sedative gas release.
Nova ducked away from the window and hurried back to the dump. As soon as she came into view, Carter's labourbot rolled towards her.
She laid a hand on top as it came close. "Like we talked about."
Carter's labourbot lurched forward.
Nova tried to keep her hands on the frame, to give the illusion that she was pushing it along. That would have been almost impossible with Carter's added weight. She'd told Carter the directions and made him repeat it to her twenty times a day. He didn't fail her.
They went around the outside of the enclosure and came to a gated yard. The guard transporter sat inside.
Nova's heart fluttered. Freedom.
Seven guards stood gathered around the ship. Two leaned against the door, keeping watch, while the others loaded supplies and equipment into the storage compartment.
"Where have you been? The damn ship landed an hour ago."
Nova grunted and waved her right hand at the woman. She walked straight past with the labourbot rolling in front.
"Be glad to see her go," she heard the guard whisper.
Nova couldn't have agreed more.
The storage bay was already full. Clothes, personal items, mementos as well as monitoring equipment and computers filled most of the space. Nova's stomach dropped. She hadn't counted on the guards having so much stuff. But then, they were trapped here for three months with not much to do. They probably packed heavy.
"Why are you bringing that thing?" a male guard asked.
Nova glanced at his name tag; Jared Wilkinson. Two other guards hoisted a large package into the storage compartment, blocking her exit. "Manufacturer wants a look." She put a twang on the end of her words to match the accent of Terry's home-world.
"What the hell for?" Jared asked.
She shrugged. "Not like they tell me anything."
"I don't think we have room for it."
"Well, make bloody room," Nova said. The fury in her voice wasn't faked. "I've been ordered by the boss to make sure this gets on board. Do you want to argue with him?"
Jared gritted his teeth and glared at her.
Nova kept her head down so that her hat covered most of her face. Her fingers tingled with anticipation. She measured the distance from her to Jared. If he got suspicious she could snatch his gun and take them all out but then she'd be trapped here forever, or dead.
"What a pain in the ass!" Jared bellowed. "Oi, Carlos, we're gonna have to leave the X300. Apparently the boss has ordered this labourbot back."
"What!" Carlos yelled from the storage bay. "That's bullshit."
"Yeah, well, take it up with him."
"Yeah, right. After what happened last time? No, thank you," Carlos said. "Good for nothing."
"Alright," Jared said, nodding to Nova. "Load it up."
She nudged Carter forward and he took control. He rolled up the ramp and into the storage bay, coming to a stop in the far corner where he would hopefully not be bumped around too much during take-off.
"Got anything else?" Jared asked.
"Nope," Nova said.
"What about clothes?" he said as if talking to an idiot.
Nova shrugged. "Buy new ones."
"Yeah," Jared said. He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "Sure. May as well load up then."
Nova went around to the personnel entrance and slid the heavy door open. It squeaked as it slid to the side, revealing a small room with seats running along each wall fitted with old-fashioned buckles.
Handles protruded from the roof but the rest of the ship was bare. Rust and grime covered the metal walls, partially hidden by dead light bulbs.
Nova chose a seat at the front where she could see the control panel and pulled her cap lower, pretending to sleep.
It took another hour for the rest of the guards to load up their stuff and climb aboard. They chatted to each other, all eager to get away from Ankar. None of them bothered trying to talk to Nova. They glanced at her every now and then, their eyes full of fear as if she might leap at them at any moment. Having looked at Terry's record, it was possible she already had.
"All life-forms accounted for," the ship's smooth voice said, floating to them out of speakers set along the walls. "Take-off in ten minutes."
"Why does it always take so long?" Carlos said. "I swear these last ten minutes always feel longer than the whole last six months."
"Confederacy probably does it to torture us," said Jared.
Nova kept silent. She'd studied the specs for the ship and she knew exactly why they waited ten minutes. It was in case anything went wrong. If there was a prison riot, or if there was a stow-away then the ten minutes was supposed to be enough for the problem to be found. The time was based on extensive research, Nova just hoped that this time it wouldn't be enough.
Carlos was right. The next ten minutes were the longest of Nova's life. Her stomach stayed clenched in her throat for the whole time and her hands shook where they lay curled in her lap. She had horrible visions of Carter losing patience and getting out of his labourbot. He'd be sensed in seconds and the whole plan would be blown.
The seconds dragged by like days.
She kept her breath steady by thinking about what she was going to do once she got free. She needed to get to The Jagged Maw and collect Aart and the others. She hoped he'd managed to convince them to come. There would be lots that would say no. Going beyond the border was more than madness. To most people it was considered suicide.
Nova shook her head. Those thoughts weren't going to calm her down. She needed something else to focus on, but she couldn't find anything. It seemed like every memory she had was filled with some kind of danger, something that made her heart race.
"What's your problem?" Carlos asked.
Nova's stomach dropped. She swallowed hard. This was just the kind of question she'd been dreading.
"Take-off initiated," the ship's voice interrupted.
A second later the ship filled with the deep rumbling of the engine. Everything rattled and vibrated and the guards gripped their handholds, falling silent.
Nova clasped her hands tighter and hoped that her hat hid how pale her face was. This was the final stage in her plan. She just had to get through this and everything would be okay.
The ship blasted up and into the air, throwing Nova sideways into Carlos, despite her harness. He glared at her but didn't say anything. She clasped her hand over her hat to stop it from flying off and pulled herself upright.
This was it!
She watched the coordinates flick by on the navigation panel.
They broke atmosphere and the rumbling engines died away into a dull murmur. The other guards resumed their conversations as if nothing had happened.
"I'm going to Tabryn," Jared said. "Going to use all the credits I've earned in this dump and make me a fortune."
"That's ridiculous," said a female guard, Ari. "Those games are rigged. You're just going to lose all your money and then you'll have to come back here next year."
"No way!" said Jared. "You just have to know how to play them. You watch, I'll be rich. One day you'll be watching the Cloud and you'll see me driving along in my brand new ship on my way to Haven."
Ari and Carlos scoffed. "You keep dreaming."
"Oh, I will," said Jared.
Nova's eyes stayed glued to the coordinates. They didn't have far to go now. Another minute at most.
She slid both hands into the pockets of her overalls. With her left she flicked the switch on a gas bomb, and with her right she gripped a mask.
Gas hissed out of the device, whispering through the compartment.
Nova held her breath and let her eyes slide sideways to watch Carlos. His eyes drooped and his chin bobbed towards his chest. The other guards yawned and their conversations slowed to a stop.
"What—" Jared said.
"I'm so tired…" Carlos said, voice trailing off as his eyes closed.
Nova's head pounded with the need to breathe and her lungs ached. She forced herself to stay calm, to do nothing.
Carlos sagged into a heap beside her.
Stars flashed across Nova's vision. She waited until the last second before ripping the mask out of her right pocket and pulling it over her face. She drew a deep breath and the clouds cleared from her head.
"Terry?" Jared slurred, eyes drooping.
"I know you," Ari whispered, hand falling towards her gun but hanging useless at her side. "You're that Hunter, the one the Confederacy has a bounty on."
"No," Jared said, his eyes widening.
The rest of the guards had already collapsed.
Nova undid her harness and stood.
Jared fumbled for his gun but as his palm reached his holster his head fell back and his eyes rolled in his head. Ari slumped over beside him.
As soon as they hit the floor, the ship's engine cut off, falling eerily silent, while the ship continued to coast forward.
"Internal attack detected. Life signs faint. Emergency escape protocol activated. Engines and life-support terminated."
The gentle blow of the temperature control and air supply stopped.
Nova tightened the mask about her face. She'd expected the shutdown, a standard security measure of the guard transporter; if the ship sensed any kind of trouble it shut off all systems to kill anyone on board. Better to kill a few guards then risk a prisoner getting free of Ankar.
She hurried to the back of the transporter and opened the cargo pod.
"Carter, get your ass out of there."
There was a lot of grunting and then the front of the labourbot sprung open. Carter clamboured out. Bruises covered his arms and legs from where they'd been crushed against the insides of the labourbot and he gleamed with sweat.
"About bloody time," he said.
"Put this on," Nova said, pulling another mask from her overalls.
Carter pulled the mask on and pushed his way past Nova and into the main compartment. He cocked his head to the side and listened.
"Where's the life support?"
"Turns off automatically," she said.
"What?" Carter's eyes bulged.
"Confederacy would rather kill everyone on board then let a prisoner get off of Ankar."
"You've led us into a death-trap!" Carter roared. He pulled a concealed knife from his belt and held it towards Nova.
"No," she said calmly. "I have a way out. But it's my security. If you kill me now, or if you don't tell me how to get past the border, then you'll die here."
"If you can restart the ship, I'm sure I can. You're no good anymore."
Nova's eyes flashed and hot anger boiled in her chest. "No one could restart those engines. They're dead. Trust me, I'm the only way you survive this, so tell me your secret. Now."
Carter's face fell. He narrowed his eyes at Nova as he shoved the knife back into his belt. "You better have a way out of this."
Nova nodded and sat, leaning back against the wall.
A cold chill seeped into the air; without the temperature control her and Carter would freeze to death within an hour. It was either that or they'd run out of oxygen.
"So tell me how to get past," she said.
Carter scowled as he sat opposite her. "You need a warp crystal. Only a few authorized Confederacy ships, and me, have one."
"I told you," she said, thinking back to Taive and the crashed colonization ship. "I've got one."
"If you say so," Carter replied, rolling his eyes. "You know, usually you'd be killed for pulling a stunt like this with me."
"Yeah well, usually people don't have your life in their hands. The border. Go on."
"You have to get your ship to analyse the crystal structure. They're specially made and the way the atoms are arranged is a code. You use that code as a frequency. It cancels out the border shield and you're home free."
Nova stared hard at him. "You know I will hunt you down and tear you limb from limb if you've lied to me."
"You wouldn't get the chance because you'd be dead at the border," Carter said with a sigh. "But I haven't lied. Besides; you broke me out of Ankar. That at least deserves the truth. Although if you ever try to hold it over me… or compete with my operations…"
Nova nodded. For whatever reason, she believed him.
"Nope," she replied. "I'm getting out of here. I'm going to live in the outers."
"Wow," Carter said. "You must be desperate."
Nova shrugged. "Just sick of the Confederacy."
"It's different out there. You wouldn't understand because you haven't seen it. But it's different."
"I'm ready for different."
"If you say so."
They sat in silence. Goosebumps covered Nova's skin and she shivered. She pulled the blue overalls tighter around her body but they didn't do much to warm her. Her breaths came in little gasps and she felt light-headed.
"What's your grand plan?" Carter said, teeth chattering.
"Soon," Nova said.
"What do you mean soon? Soon I'll be dead!"
"No you won't. Based on ambient temperature decrease and oxygen usage, we have another five minutes."
"Five minutes!" Carter bellowed. He leapt to his feet and towered over Nova.
"Four minutes if you do that," she said.
"Four minutes! What was the point of getting off of Ankar, just to die here with you! And what use are these bloody masks if we're still going to suffocate?"
"Sit down or you will kill us," she said. "The masks filter the sedative gas, they don't produce oxygen. Sit. Down."
Carter's face glowed bright red but he did what she said.
They both sat in silence. Carter spent his time glowering. Nova stayed sitting perfectly still except for her shivering. After three minutes they were both gasping for air and stars danced across Nova's vision.
Nova's chest moved up and down in ragged bursts. She could just make out the coordinates on the control panel. Nearly there.
Carter's eyes drifted closed and his chest barely moved. Blue blotches bloomed on his nose and cheeks.
Nova huddled closer to the unconscious guards. She'd left leeway in her calculations, but was it enough?
Nova's head spun. She'd lost all feeling in her hands and toes and her cheeks had become a mass of spiking pain. She glanced at Carter. He stared at her with a mixture of hatred and accusation.
It was the tiniest sound, but it was enough to send Nova's heart soaring.
A larger grinding sounded from the side door. More clunks and then suddenly the door burst open. Warm air rushed through and flooded the transporter.
Nova gulped greedily at the fresh air. It went through her body with a refreshing zing. The feeling in her hands and toes gradually returned. At first it felt like a thousand needles were being stabbed into her extremities but that passed after just a few seconds.
She pushed herself up and looked through the open doorway. Beyond loomed Crusader's engine room. Cal hovered into view and rushed to her side.
"We have to move," he said. "The transporter is sending out a tracking signal. The Confederacy will be here in less than ten minutes."
"I know," Nova whispered. When she spoke her voice came out like dried gravel.
Carter breathed heavily at her side. The guards were starting to wake up too. Their eyes roved back and forth beneath their lids and their limbs twitched.
"We have to go," Nova said.
She struggled to her feet and had to grab the wall to stop herself falling over.
"Just another minute," Carter whispered in a matching dry voice.
"We don't have a minute. Either you come with me now or you stay with these guys and get sent back to Ankar."
That made Carter move. He rolled over and got to his hands and knees. He had to stay like that to regain his breath before standing all the way up.
Nova followed the wall through the transporter, to the door, and through to Crusader. With each breath more strength flooded her muscles and clear thought returned.
Carter followed her into Crusader and then collapsed to the floor. "What kind of dump is this?"
"This is the ship that's saving your arse," Nova said. "Cal, cut 'em off."
Cal closed Crusader's door and with a few quick button presses a great hissing noise signalled the two ships separating.
Nova ripped off her mask and looked down at Carter. "Where do you want to be dropped?"
"Pleasure District, Vix," Carter said, tugging off his mask with his eyes closed.
Nova nodded to Cal. She sunk down and joined Carter on the floor.
"I guess I won't be seeing you again," Carter said.
"I hope not," she said.
"Thank you, I guess. Even if you nearly killed me."
Nova shrugged. "It was under control the whole time."
"Seemed like it."
"Will you be staying in the Pleasure District?"
"Less you know, the better," he replied. "I'm still not even sure you're going to make it past the border."
"I've got some business to attend to on Vix."
"You won't be turning over a new leaf?"
"No, thank you. I like my leaf just fine. Besides, you're one to talk; still disobeying the Confederacy."
Nova smiled. "I guess neither of us will be changing much."
"Doesn't look like it."
Nova leaned back and relished the familiar feel of Crusader. The warm light, the humming engine, even the smell, were as familiar to her as her own hand. It felt good to be home.
It didn't take long for Crusader to reach the Pleasure District. From there it was a short flight to the space station above Vix.
"You'll be alright catching a shuttle from here?" Nova said. "I don't want to go down, I'm sure you understand."
"Of course," Carter said with a grin. "Thanks for the lift."
Crusader locked onto one of the station's many airlocks. The door slid open and Carter stepped out. He waved back at Nova and then strolled away out of sight.
Crusader's door slid closed and the ship detached from the station.
"Okay, head back to The—" Nova began, but was interrupted by Cal flying into the engine room.
"They've tagged us!" he said.
"The Confederacy have got our location. There's a flotilla heading our way, an hour away at most."
"You have got to be kidding," Nova said.
She jumped to her feet, ignoring the dizziness in her head and limped to the pilot's pod as fast as she could.
"They're a little way away but it won't take them long to catch up."
"Will we make it to the Maw in time?" she said.
"Okay. Crusader, take us as fast as you can to the Maw, anyway you can find. I also need you both analysing the warp crystal. The structure is the code to the border. Get me Aart now!"
Crusader and Cal whirred into action. Cal removed the glowing crystal from his inner compartment and placed it into the Food Generator: Many Other Functions. Meanwhile Crusader's front screen showed their rapid progress through space before being replaced with Aart's face.
"Nova!" he cried. "You made it! I was beginning to get worried. Wow, nice hair. Orion and I had a bet going that you'd—"
"Aart, they're onto me. This time they won't want to talk. You need to be ready to leave as soon as I get there. No time for practice rounds or anything. Make sure the others are ready to go. We'll have to have the ships locked in a matter of seconds, you hear me?"
"Do you hear me?"
"Yes, of course I hear you. Are you alright?"
"For now, but we can't waste any time. Get a move on, Aart, this is it. And get the rest of the Maw away, or they'll be blown to pieces."
She disconnected. Aart needed all the focus he could get. He'd have less than an hour to get the others organized and the ships into locking position. She just hoped everyone was at the Maw, or they'd probably be left behind.
"How are you going with that crystal?" she said.
"One fifth analysed," Crusader replied.
"Faster," Nova said.
She gripped the control panel even though she wasn't driving. No matter how quickly they moved it would never be fast enough to outrun the Confederacy. Their ships were many times better than hers and they had access to the special hidden warp trails. They could appear right in front of her for all she knew.
"Where are they, Cal?"
"Still one hour behind," he said. "But gaining fast."
"Okay," Nova said. "We can do this."
The delicious food she'd been looking forward to since the prison flew from her mind. Now every ounce of her being was focused on running. Why did it feel like she'd spent most of her life running?
This was supposed to be the easy part. She was supposed to get out of prison and then get past the border on her own time. Now it was going to be a race to the death. There would be no time for test runs. She had to go in, all or nothing. The worst thing was that she was dragging her friends along too.
The minutes raced by. It felt like one instant she had an hour and the next instant she had only half an hour.
"Scan indicates damaged leg," Cal said, his lens eye focusing on Nova.
She grimaced. "Dislocated I think."
"Immediate repair recommended."
"Cal, there's no time—"
"It might be the only time we have."
Nova's lips thinned, in a way Cal was right. If she had to run, or fight, she'd be doomed. She swivelled away from the screen and stretched her injured leg out as best she could. Cal hovered down to her and extended two mechanical arms. With a few deft movements he wrenched Nova's leg sideways and up.
She gripped the armrests, knuckles white. "Bloody hell!"
"It will still hurt," said Cal. "But at least you'll have function."
"Thanks," Nova whispered, pain rocking up from her knee. She turned back to the screen, shoulders hunched. "Update."
"Crystal structure ninety-eight percent complete," Crusader said.
"Confederacy twenty minutes behind. Jagged Maw ten minutes ahead."
"Get me Aart."
His worried face appeared on the screen.
"Nova! What's happening?"
"I'm ten minutes out," she said. "The Confederacy is right on my arse. There won't be any time for stuffing around. We've got ten minutes from when I get there to when we have to be past the border."
"That's a tight squeeze," Aart said. "It will take us eight minutes to get to the border!"
"You think I don't know that?" Nova roared. Pressure pushed down behind her eyes, making her head a mass of pain that leaked out to join all her other aches, cuts, and bruises. "Just be ready!"
"We're ready," Aart said. "Everyone is in position for docking."
"Good. Make sure everyone knows that this is not a drill. Also make sure no other ships are in the area."
"The Maw's gone. They're clear and safe."
Nova let out a long breath. "Thank the Cloud for that."
"I know. Just get your arse here as quick as you can. We're waiting."
"Copy," Nova said.
She leaned forward, urging Crusader on.
Ten minutes later five ships came into view, equally spaced, leaving a gap in the middle the size of Crusader.
"Lock on," Nova commanded.
Crusader slowed and came to a stop amidst the other ships. Locking noises came from all directions as the other ships hooked onto Crusader.
"Confederacy five minutes out," Cal said.
"Dammit, dammit, dammit!" Nova said. "Move!"
As soon as the other ships locked on, Crusader sprang forward. The other ships added their engines and they shot away as a single complex craft.
"We're not going to make it," Tanguin said.
Her scared face appeared on Nova's screen, Aart stood behind her, his eyes locked on Sylar's front screen.
"Sure we are," Orion replied. His face joined Tanguin's in another window. "What's life without a little adrenalin? Hey Nova, was the person you impersonated part skunk? With hair like that…"
Nova didn't reply. She didn't have the energy to allay Tanguin's fears or put up with Orion's poor taste.
"Confederacy three minutes away, border two minutes," Cal said.
"Crystal structure one-hundred percent," said Crusader.
"Send out that frequency now," Nova yelled.
A minute later three Confederacy ships appeared on screen, zooming towards them.
"Are any of them sending out the border signal?" Nova asked.
"Negative," replied Cal.
"We just have to get past the border."
"Shots incoming," Cal said.
"Evasive manoeuvres everyone," Nova called.
The collection of ships veered to the left but too slow. The combination of ships made the whole vessel unwieldy and it moved through space with all the grace of a sack of potatoes.
Luckily, the Confederacy shots were wide and sailed past.
"Coming up on the border," Cal said.
"We're nearly there!" cried Orion.
"Incoming," Cal said.
"Evade!" Nova yelled.
The ships swerved to the right. This time it wasn't enough. A blast of energy careened into Crusader's main thruster and an explosion rocked through the ships.
"Border reached," Cal said over the din.
Nova was thrown forward by the force of the blast. Red lights flashed above her head and rushing wind told her the air seal was broken.
"We're through!" yelled Orion.
Nova opened her eyes and stared at the screen. Nothing had changed. It looked just the same as space inside the border.
The Confederacy ships fell behind, stopping at the border.
"Systems critical," Crusader said. "Damage to four vessels. Insufficient power to keep momentum. Oxygen levels dropping."
"We're in trouble guys," Nova said.
"I'm losing air too," said Aart.
"We have to make an emergency landing," Tanguin said. "That shot took us out, we won't live much longer unless we land."
"There's a planet with breathable atmosphere just ahead," said Tyra. "I don't know if it's survivable or not. I've got no information on ambient temperature or toxicity."
"It'll have to do," said Nova. "We don't have any other choice."
The ships changed course, diving towards a green planet looming in front of them. Nova gripped the controls and gritted her teeth.
She was finally free of the Confederacy and their borders.
TO BE CONTINUED…
Nova's Journey Continues…
Out of the prison and into the… unknown planet.
Nova and her companions crash land on an alien planet, stranded.
Before they can pick themselves up they’re arrested by the locals.
The threat of death looms over them and the cultural divide seems insurmountable.
Just as Nova finds her feet, a bigger threat emerges, and it could destroy them all.
Book 9: Stranger
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Saffron Bryant was born on the 17th December 1990 in a small town in North Queensland. In 2010 she was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After extensive, life-saving surgery she returned to her home in Queensland to recover and finish The Fallen Star. She received a Bachelor of Biomedical Science in 2011.
Saffron has been interested in fantasy and science fiction writing from a very young age, writing her first story at the age of seven. She has always been fascinated by fantasy stories and has a passion for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Saffron currently lives in Sydney with her partner Michael Lee where she is completing her PhD in chemistry.
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