Book: Stranger



Stranger






STRANGER

S.J. Bryant


Copyright 2016 Saffron Bryant

Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords


Smashwords Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favourite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


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Contents

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

The Journey Continues

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CHAPTER ONE




Nova's knuckles gleamed white against the controls as the ships plunged through a thick layer of atmosphere, hurtling towards the green planet below. White heat streamed past the front window and created a sheen of sweat over Nova's skin.

"Everyone hold on tight. This is going to be a rough landing," she said through gritted teeth.

The planet seemed to zoom up to meet them; growing until it encompassed the whole front of Crusader.

Nova tugged a rusted harness into place over her chest, locking herself to her chair. She ducked her head and wrapped her arms over her face just as the ships broke through a thick layer of trees and slammed into the ground.

Nova's body hurtled forward and ripped back, the harness digging into her shoulders with blunt bites. A loose spanner flew from behind her and slammed into the front window before clattering to the ground.

Crashing items and dull moans echoed through the speakers from the other ships.

"Damage report," Nova said, wincing as she pulled the harness free and massaged her bruised shoulders.

"No casualties," Crusader replied. "Minor injuries only, but all of the ships are critically damaged."

Nova closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. "How critically?"

"Take off would be impossible without extensive repairs."

Nova swallowed. "Is it possible, Cal?"

Cal hovered in from the storage bay, motor whirring. "I could do it but it will take months. I'm fine too, thanks for asking."

Nova rolled her eyes. "Show us what's out there, Crusader. And how do the vitals look?"

Crusader's front screen flickered, changing to show a forest thick with trees and vines. Dappled sunlight dotted the ground, dancing as wind rustled through the leaves.

"Temperature, pressure, and oxygen are safe. No toxins detected," Crusader said.

"I thought out of the border things would look... different," Nova said.

Tanguin hobbled in nursing her elbow. "Weird, right?"

Nova nodded.

The speakers buzzed and Aart's voice crackled through. "Sylar's reporting some gas leakage from Crusader's engines and recommends evacuation until it's fixed. Shouldn't take long."

"Copy that," Nova said. "Coming now."

Nova and Tanguin shuffled through the side door connecting Crusader to Sylar, where they met the others. All five ships had docked together to create a bigger combined vessel before they'd gone through the Confederacy's border, side doors connecting them all internally.

A cut above Orion's left eye dribbled blood down his face but he grinned at them as they approached. Everyone else appeared undamaged.

"Nice landing," Orion said, swiping a drop of blood from his chin.

Nova grinned. "I think it was a group effort."

They walked together to Sylar's main exit door. It hissed open, revealing a green forest beyond with vibrant vines and blooming flowers crowding around the crashed ships.

Aart held out his arms at the entrance, stopping them. "Take a moment guys. These will be our first steps on a planet outside of the border. I think we should savour it."

Nova drew a deep breath. The scents of flowers and clean air filled her nostrils and she couldn't help smiling.

Aart withdrew his arms and as a group they stepped forward, their feet landing in soft soil. Birds called between the trees above them while dappled shade created an easy cool amongst the trees.

"I don't know how," Aart said. "But Nova said she'd get us past the border. And dammit, she's right again."

The others cheered.

Red bloomed on Nova's cheeks and she ducked her head. A weight had lifted from her shoulders and the constant fear of The Confederacy breathing down her back had faded. She smiled. "We're here."

"Won't the Confederacy come looking for us? After everything," Tanguin said.

Nova shrugged. "They might. But they don't have the resources out here, no satellites or monitoring equipment. Unless we accidentally encounter one of their vehicles I think we're safe, especially while we're stuck here."

"And if we were going to be trapped on any planet while we wait for repairs," Orion said. "I have to say this is a pretty good option. Except for a tropical island, that would have been best."

"You're just not thinking big enough," Aart said. "We're beyond the border. We've got a whole planet to ourselves! There could be a tropical beach just on the other side of these trees for all we know. We've got time to find it."

Orion grinned. "You're on. Whoever finds a beach first gets to name it after themselves."

Aart waved his hand. "I bet—"

A dark blur leapt out of the trees and slammed into Aart's waist.

Nova stepped forward, hand on her pistol, when a weight slammed into her chest, throwing her to the ground. She scrambled for her gun but it lay pinned under her hip. She writhed and her eye caught on Sylar's open door. "Crusader! Shut everything down!"

A broad-shouldered man shoved her face into the ground while another tied her hands behind her back. A sharp rock dug into her cheek and dirt coated her tongue.

"What the hell do—" Aart's protest died as his attackers drove his head down.

Four men held Gus's arms, struggling to pull them behind his back. He roared and whipped his hands up, tearing them free. The attackers fell backwards, arms flailing as Gus swung two massive fists at them. He caught the closest two and sent them flying, blood pouring down their faces.

Four more men ran forward and dived over Gus's arms, wrenching them back while two more tied them together. Gus kicked and spat, twisting to get free, until a tall man with dark eyes stepped forward and slammed a thick tree branch across his face. Gus fell onto his knees, blinking.

Tyra had managed a single shot which flew wide into the forest as two men threw her to the ground beside Tanguin and Orion.

Nova struggled but the rest of the Hunters writhed on the ground beside her, trapped. "Cal! Can you hear me?" she projected the thought, keeping her lips pressed together.

"Nova… interference… action." Static buzzed between muffled words.

The men holding her dragged her to her feet so that she stood eye-to-eye with a man wearing a long black cloak with red trimming. His pitch-black eyes glared at her like the centres of treacherous storms.

He barked something in a foreign language. The man closest to Tyra snatched away her gun and held it at arm's length like a venomous snake.

The leader glared into Nova's eyes and spoke at her in his language.

"I don't understand!" Nova yelled back. "Let us go!"

The man yelled even louder and pushed his face to hers, showering her with spittle.

Nova twisted away, glancing at the others. "Can any of your understand him?"

"Not a bloody word," Aart replied.

The man holding Aart drew back his fist and slammed it into Aart's cheek. Blood exploded out of Aart's nose and showered the green leaves around him.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Nova said, lunging forward but ripped back by the men holding her arms. She glanced down at the gun in her belt. If she could just get to it, then she'd show these bastards.

The man in front of her followed her gaze. His eyes widened as they came to rest on her gun and his hand whipped out, snatching it.

"Give that back!" She strained against her ropes.

The man shouted some orders and the other captors went to work patting down Nova and her companions. They pulled ten guns from Gus alone.

Nova's mind raced, projecting thoughts to Cal. "Cal. I can't hear you. Have you got a language patch? Are the weapons online?"

"… Offline… Language… No response…"

"Cal, if you can hear me. Keep those ships closed. Don't open them for anyone else. Get the ships back online and come save our arses!"

Silence.

Nova pursed her lips and glared at their attackers, hoping that Cal would find a way to break them free.

There were no women and the men wore long cloaks, like dresses. Instead of guns they carried primitive blades, like long thin swords.

She frowned. How could there be a primitive class five planet beyond the borders of the Confederacy?

The man in charge gestured to his men and they pushed the Hunters along. Nova stumbled as one of her captors shoved her in the back. She kept her footing and glared over her shoulder. Her captors didn't seem to notice.

They were silent and stared straight ahead as they marched the prisoners along a rough forest trail. The plants on either side bloomed unlike any Nova had ever seen. They towered above her head and sprouted flowers the size of people. Vibrant red roses lit up the green forest.

She glanced over at Aart.

He shuffled forward and his left eye was swollen shut. His captors held him upright as blood dripped from his nose and left a trail behind him.

Nova clenched her fists. As soon as she worked out how to get away from these bastards they would pay. In the mean-time she focused on learning everything she could about the new planet.

After a stumbling walk through the forest they came out of the trees and into a cleared area, a village. Wooden huts lined dirt streets, and simple stalls bowed with wares created splashes of colour in the otherwise dull landscape. People in long flowing cloaks hurried between the houses and stalls carrying baskets. Most of them wore wide-brimmed hats that hid their faces.

Small farms with rough sticks for fences surrounded the side of the village. Small birds, similar to chickens, clucked from a row of cages at the back of a wooden hut. In the very centre of the village a young girl pulled water from a deep well and heaved the bucket down the street.

To Nova it felt as if she'd been pulled back through time into a picture book. She'd been to primitive planets before, out of curiosity, but none of them had felt as quaint as this. The huts were small, half the size of Crusader, and they looked flimsy enough that a strong breeze would knock them down.

Above the village, a green hill rose up to connect to a mountain range in the distance. Halfway up the hill loomed a bigger house made of thick logs, a mansion compared to the rest of the houses. A tall wooden fence marched around its exterior, broken only by a broad gate. A dirt path wound up the mountain from the village to the house, disappearing beneath the gate.

A silhouetted figure stood half-way up the path, gazing down at the village.

Their attackers shoved Nova and the Hunters into the village. As soon as they came into view, the villagers froze, staring with open mouths. Some ran and hid behind closed doors.

The man with black eyes who'd taken Nova's gun yelled at the villagers. They shuddered at his voice and hurried back to what they'd been doing, although they kept their eyes on the Hunters with subtle sideways glances.

"Take us back to our ship and we'll leave you alone," Nova said.

The leader of their captors rounded on her, laying a hand on the hilt of his sword and glaring into her eyes. He smirked and then pointed at Aart, made a fist, and then pointed at Nova. His eyes locked with hers and he stood absolutely still.

"Are you threatening me?" Nova said.

"Ban!" the man roared and brandished his fist again, right below Nova's nose.

She clenched her jaw shut and nodded once. She'd play along for now, if only to save herself a broken nose.

The man nodded once and walked away. A sharp shove to Nova's back made her stumble after him.

Her gaze raced around the village, searching for a friendly face, but everyone managed to ignore her whilst still keeping a keen eye on her and her companions.

They marched to the other side of the village where a wooden door had been set into the dirt. A man ran forward and lifted the trapdoor, it squealed in protest as darkness surged out to greet them.

They jostled Nova forward to the door where a thin set of stairs led down into darkness. The smell of rotten meat and piss rolled over her like a physical wave, seeming to soak into her skin.

She tried to bury her mouth and nose into her shoulder but it leaked through, bringing bile to her throat. She reached out a tentative foot to the first stair, it squeaked under her weight but held firm. Eight steps later she reached a short hallway with cells on either side. Rusted iron bars made up the fronts and sides of the cells, casting long shadows on the stained floor.

Her hands fell free and she was pushed into the nearest cell. The bars slammed shut behind her while the rest of the Hunters were shoved into the other cells with the jangle of metal keys.

Nova glared at her captors. The one in charge nodded and tested each lock as he strode from the far end of the hallway back to the stairs. He stopped outside of Nova's cell and stared at her for what felt like days.

She jutted her chin and stared right back at him with her feet spread shoulder-width apart.

The man grunted and turned with a flurry of his cloak, striding up the stairs and out of sight. The rest of their captors climbed the stairs after him, except one who stayed at the base of the trapdoor like a silent statue, staring at the far wall and not acknowledging any of the prisoners.

The captors dropped the trapdoor shut with a resounding bang that echoed through the prison, blocking the warmth of the sun. The only light came from a flickering torch set into the wall beside the stairs that made dancing shadows across the guard's face.

Nova turned away from him, hands clenched into fists.

Packed dirt scuffled under her feet and made up the back and left wall. She could have walked from one side to the other in less than two strides. A bucket in the corner reeked of human waste, and her stomach churned at the thought of using it. Even during her time in Ankar she'd been able to use a real toilet. The rest of the cell lay flat and bare; no bed, no chair, no way of escape.

She sighed and lowered herself to the floor as far away from the bucket as she could manage. She faced the rest of the prison and her fellow Hunters. They sat in their cells and glared at the prison, eyes flashing and red anger glowing in their cheeks.

Tanguin and Tyra sat in the cell next to her. On the other side of them Gus made a looming shadow and on the opposite side of the hallway, Aart and Orion stood leaning on the bars of separate cells.

Out of sight of the guard, Nova tested the metal bars on the front of her cage. They were rusted but strong. Without her gun there was no way she'd be able to break through.

She leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes. It was going to be a long night.






CHAPTER TWO






Nova strained her ears.

Somewhere nearby water trickled against rocks and above them the sounds of voices and laughter drifted through the trap door, but mostly the ragged breaths of the Hunters filled the stuffy silence.

"What's that saying?" Orion said. "Out of the supernova, into the black-hole?"

"Something like that," Gus said. "Hey, Aart, how's your nose? He got you good."

Nova opened her eyes and glanced at the guard. He hadn't moved an inch; apparently it was okay for them to talk in here.

"Yeah well, if I'd had my hands I would have got him twice as good," Aart said, voice muffled by his hands clutched over his nose. "I think the bastard broke it."

"Not the first time," Orion said.

"No, but it still hurts like a bitch," Aart said.

"You should reset that thing before it heals wrong," Gus said.

"I know." Aart took a deep breath and a yelp echoed through the cells.

The guard's eyes didn't even flicker.

"Better?" Orion said.

"Barely," Aart replied, his voice high.

"Now that Aart's nose is sorted," Tanguin said. "What's our plan?"

"Live long enough to get out of this dump," Gus said.

"What kind of place is this anyway?" said Tyra. "It's outside the Confederacy border and yet it's a class five at least."

"Maybe people came out here and lost their technology?" Aart said.

"Did you see the looks on those villagers' faces when they saw us?" said Tanguin. "They were really scared, like we shouldn't even exist."

Tyra nodded. "They've been here a long time. Look how primitive they are; that doesn't happen over one generation."

"What do you think, Nova?" said Aart.

Nova sat up straighter against her wall and laid her hands in her lap. "Lost colonisation ship."

"You think that actually happened?" Tanguin said.

"Why not? It wouldn't be the first planet I'd been to that had gone native. Earth sent off colonisation ships with no way of getting back, one-way tickets. Maybe one of them ended up here."

"What a ride," Aart said.

"That doesn't help us get out of here," Orion said.

"Are any of the bars on your cells breakable?" Nova asked.

"Nah, first thing I checked," Aart said. The rest of the Hunters echoed his reply.

Nova rested her head back against the wall. If they couldn't break through the bars they'd have to come up with another way of getting free.

Gus rolled his shoulders. "I am not going to waste away in a prison on some class five planet."

"None of us will," Orion said. "We didn't put all that effort into breaking free from the Confederacy only to end up here."

Aart chuckled. "Maybe Nova planned it. Did you come to like prison life during your time on Ankar?"

Nova snorted. "I had actually hoped never to see another prison cell ever again. Now here I am after what, two days of freedom?"

Tanguin frowned and shuffled closer to the front of the cell, her cybernetic eye whirring. "We're not alone."

"That guard hasn't moved an inch since we got here," said Gus.

"I don't mean him."

She slid her eyes back to the motionless guard. Past him, behind the metal ladder, another cell lay shrouded in gloom. Nova squinted and leaned forward as a deeper shadow shuffled in the darkness. The strange man sat in the exact centre of his cell with his legs crossed. His open eyes gazed past Nova's cell, unseeing, as if lost. Bruises and dirt covered his skin where it poked out from his torn brown cloak.

"What a sneaky bastard!" said Aart, crawling to the side of his cell and pressing his face between the bars, only an arm's distance from the stranger.

"He's so quiet I don't think I would ever have noticed him," said Gus. "Bloody dark place."

"Maybe he's spying on us?" said Tanguin. "That's what I'd do."

"Maybe," said Nova. "Keep an eye on him."

"Both of them," said Aart.

Gus leaned back and closed his eyes. "We'll take it in turns to keep watch. We don't want these bastards sneaking up on us while we're asleep."

Tyra nodded. "I'll take first watch. I'm not even tired."

"Good, because I'm exhausted," said Orion.

Nova had to agree. She'd barely stopped since her mad dash out of prison and every muscle ached. Her eyelids drooped and blurred her vision, scratching her eyes like they'd be covered in sandpaper. She nestled into the corner of her cell and let her head rest against the wall. Her eyes closed and she dropped asleep.








CHAPTER THREE






"Time to wake up."

Tyra's voice broke through Nova's dream, her eyes snapped open and her hand whipped to her empty holster, shoulders tense. Her muscles tensed in readiness. Shadows moved on the ladder, a figure climbing down with a tray of what looked like food.

Nova's stomach rumbled. How long had it been since she ate?

The new guard stopped at Nova's cell first. He slid a smaller tray under the bars and then moved on. A sword swung at his waist, moving in time with the black ponytail draped down his back. He shoved food at each of the Hunters before stopping in front of the stranger's cell, there he pushed the tray in and spoke.

The ragged prisoner replied and shoved the tray back.

The guard yelled and kicked the ground, sending a spray of dirt over the prisoner and the tray of food. He stomped away and climbed the ladder, slamming the trapdoor closed behind him.

The prisoner shuffled back out of the light and away from his food, resuming his glassy-eyed vigil.

"What the hell is this?" said Aart.

Nova pulled her tray closer; it was made of thick grass woven together to create a kind of checker board. A pile of white chunks that almost looked like meat quivered as she moved the tray, wobbling like jelly.

Green stalks created balls of slime like a heap of seaweed beside the white chunks. Altogether the food took up less room than one of her fists.

"We're supposed to eat this?" said Gus. "We'll probably die from poisoning."

Orion shrugged. "I've eaten worse."

Tanguin's face looked green in the dim light. "You first then. I'm sure you've all eaten all sorts of things in the field. Not me, give me a nice bowl of purple and that's quite enough for me, thank you very much."

"Alright, I'll try it. If I die, make sure you take care of my ship."

Orion dangled a quivering white chunk over his mouth and let it drop, snapping his teeth shut around it and chewing. His face screwed up as soon as the food hit his tongue and he spat it out with a splutter so that it landed on the dirt a few feet away. He kept spitting small drops of saliva and wiped his tongue on his sleeve.

"That. Was. Disgusting!"

Nova poked a cube with her finger and it wobbled. "What did it taste like?"

"Like a rotten corpse!" Orion yelled.

Nova's eyes flickered to the guard. He'd flinched when Orion spat out his food, it was barely a movement at all but compared to his absolute stillness of before, it was something.

"Do you feel sick?" Tanguin asked.

"Yes. I don't think I'll ever be able to eat again. That thing's going to be stuck to my tongue forever."

"You know what I mean," said Tanguin. "Do you think it was poisoned?"

Orion ran his hand over his tongue. "I don't feel faint or anything. I didn't eat much of it though."

"We don't know how much longer we're going to be stuck here," Nova said. "I think we might have to get used to it."

"Easy for you to say, you haven't tried it yet," said Orion.

Nova shrugged. "Here goes."

She grabbed a sticky chunk of white flesh between her fingers and lifted it towards her mouth. A deep breath brought the scent of raw fish and rotting meat rolled together and bile rose in her throat. She swallowed the bile and opened her mouth, dropping the chunk onto her tongue. As soon as it landed she clamped both hands over her mouth and pinned her lips together.

Orion was right. It tasted like rotting fish and the flavour leaked into every corner of Nova's mouth. The squidgy chunk burst over her tongue in a wave of cold juices before she could swallow. It slid down her throat like a cold, wet, sponge.

The taste clung to her tongue and gums, refusing to be washed away, and bringing new waves of bile up Nova's throat. She swallowed three more times before she trusted herself to open her mouth. "That was the most disgusting thing I've ever eaten."

"I can't wait to try it," said Aart.

Nova swallowed again, trying to keep her face expressionless. "I'm not dead."

"No, but after eating that thing I bet you wish you were," said Orion.

"We can do this," said Nova. "Trust me, if this food doesn't give us the urge to get out of here then I don't know what will."

One by one they each ate a piece of the white meat with varying degrees of success. Aart's face turned pale and, like Nova, he had to clamp his hands over his mouth. Gus's mouth twisted but he swallowed without gagging while Tyra stared at her piece for a full minute before throwing it into her mouth and pinning her eyes closed.

"You're up, Tanguin," Orion said.

Tanguin's face paled in the dim light and a sheen of sweat shone on her forehead. Her cybernetic eye swivelled around the prison. "I don't think that's a good idea."

Nova shuffled closer to Tanguin's cell. "You can do it. We all need to keep our strength up."

Tanguin glanced back at Nova and her mouth twisted in a grim parody of a smile. "I feel sick just looking at it."

Tyra grimaced. "Unfortunately it tastes worse than it looks. But if I had to eat it, you do too."

Tanguin took a deep breath and snatched a piece from her plate, hurling it into her mouth with one fluid motion. Her eyes bulged as it landed on her tongue and her face twisted. She leapt to her feet and lunged for the waste bucket, landing beside it just as vomit surged out of her mouth. It splattered against the bottom of the bucket and some dribbled down the sides.

Tanguin pulled the bucket closer, stomach heaving.

Orion shook his head. "Damn."

Tyra's eyes traced over the coloured mess. "Lovely."

Tanguin hung her head, sweat dripping down her face.

Nova kept her gaze on Tanguin but out of the corner of her eye she noticed the guard twitch, turning slightly towards Tanguin and frowning. Nova tried to gauge what it meant. Was it because he was waiting for them all to die from some kind of poison? That didn't feel right. The way his mouth twisted, it was almost like he was embarrassed. She frowned; there was no reason for him to be embarrassed about Tanguin throwing up. It didn't make any sense.

She shook her head and filed it away to consider later. "Alright, Tanguin?"

Tanguin nodded, wiping the back of her hand over her mouth.

"That could have gone better," Orion said.

"Maybe the second one isn't so bad?" Aart said, placing another chunk in his mouth.

He ate two more before his face turned green and he had to sit quietly in the corner of his cell, lips pinned together. Nova managed two pieces and even that was two pieces too many.

"The green ones taste better," Gus said.

Nova pulled a stringy piece of green vegetable from her plate. It dangled in the air before her, glistening. She shut her eyes and closed her mouth over it, letting it cling to her tongue like a green worm. It tasted like nothing, as if she'd been given a green piece of thickened air. Stringy fibres clung to the roof of her mouth but no matter how much she chewed they wouldn't break, staying in a thick tangle against the roof of her mouth. After what felt like hours she gave up and spat the stringy ball back to her tray. It had lost all colour and clumped together like the tentacles of a jellyfish.

She grimaced. "I wouldn't call that better, so much as less bad."

They each tried the green strands, spitting out the fibres.

Orion grimaced. "That was an educational experience."

"Don't even mention it," Tanguin said, face still beaded with sweat.

"He mustn't like it either," Aart said, nodding to their fellow prisoner.

"He still hasn't moved," Gus said. "It creeps me out. No one can sit in one place for this long; what if he has to piss?"

"Speaking of," said Orion.

He got to his feet and sidled to his bucket, facing away from the rest of the prisoners. The quick zip of his fly coming down filled the prison, followed by the steady rhythm of liquid hitting the bottom of the bucket.

"This is closer than I ever wanted to get with you," said Tyra.

"I guess we'll be seeing a lot more of each other," said Orion with a grin, sitting back down. "Shame they don't have any sinks though."

Nova shook her head. Orion always seemed to be able to keep a happy face no matter what was going on around him, but he was right about the sinks; her hands already felt covered in filth, and they reeked of the sticky, white meat.

She pushed the tray away from her towards the bars and settled with wiping her hands on her trousers.

"I'll take the next watch," she said.

The others grunted and settled against the walls of their cells, lost in thought.












CHAPTER FOUR




Nova lost track of time in the constant semi-darkness of the cells. She counted the number of meals they brought down but sometimes it felt like days between meals and other times it felt like only a few hours. She knew they could be doing it deliberately; taking away a person's sense of time was a tried-and-true method of torture. She'd never understood it before, but in the last few days it had become all too clear.

She ached to know how long they'd been trapped. She hoped that Crusader and Cal were working on a way to get them out. The food was the same every day and Nova and the other Hunters were quickly wasting away. Nova's clothes hung off her in loose folds and her pants slipped down every time she stood up.

"I wish they'd bring us more, even if it does taste like crap," Orion said, shoving away his empty tray.

Nova grimaced, remembering how she'd pushed away her tray on the first day having barely touched anything. Her belly ached for those sticky white chunks now.

Tanguin's skin went from pale white to pale green and back again and she had to lie down after every meal, but at least she was eating it. Purple circles ringed her eyes and she spent most of her time shivering, teeth chattering, even though Tyra held her close and leant her clothes.

"That's the twenty-eighth meal," Aart said, gouging another line into the wall of his cell.

"Assuming two meals a day, we've been here two weeks," Nova said.

"But there's no way to be sure of that," said Tyra, her arms wrapped around Tanguin who seemed asleep.

Nova shrugged. "It's the best we've got."

Orion groaned. "And we still don't have any kind of way out of here. Great."

Nova bit her lip and frowned at Tanguin. "We have to do something. Soon."

Tyra nodded and shared a dark glance with Nova. Tanguin wouldn't survive for much longer.

Nova could help but feel responsible; Tanguin could easily have left The Jagged Maw and gotten a job with the Confederacy. She would never have had to sneak past the border and she'd be safe in some luxury apartment in the Inner Galaxies, as opposed to dying in a prison cell on some planet past the border.

Nova took a deep breath. She had to keep Tanguin alive, not just because she was a friend but also because otherwise she'd be consumed with guilt. She tried giving Tanguin extra portions of food but she refused to take them. She barely spoke, just stared vacantly and shivered.

"This is bullshit," Orion said. "We can't live like this. Are we just going to wait here to die?"

"I was hoping Cal would come up with something," Nova said.

"The ships and your bloody robot have had two weeks," Orion said. "If they were going to do something, they would have done it by now."

"We don't know what's going on out there…" Nova said.

Orion climbed to his feet, fists clenched at his sides. "So we wait to die?"

"No. We—"

"It's time to do something," Orion said.

Nova tensed and got to her feet.

"Oi, you!" Orion said, striding to the front of his cell and holding out his arms. "Oi! Monkey guard! Come here. You good-for-nothing sack of meat."

Orion spouted more filth but he kept his tone light as if he was having a casual conversation with a friend. The words and the way he said them, were completely at odds. He waved at the guard and gestured for him to come closer.

Nova's stomach tightened. If the guard could understand what Orion was saying then they were all in serious trouble. She kept her eyes firmly locked on the guard and the other prisoner, who showed no sign that he could hear Orion; he was still sitting in the middle of his cell with his arms and legs crossed.

The guard frowned at Orion, one hand on the hilt of his sword.

"Yes you. You ugly son of a whore," Orion said, just as sweetly. He gestured again for the guard to come closer.

He pointed to his eye and then waved again for the guard to come closer. "I've got something wrong with my eye."

The guard glanced up at the trapdoor. His mouth turned down and he danced on the balls of his feet.

"C'mon you son-of-a-bitch. My eye."

Orion howled more loudly, making a scene which would have made any street performer proud.

The guard took five long steps to Orion's cell. He barked seven clipped words and waved his hand.

"I don't understand your stupid language," Orion said, clutching one hand to his face.

The guard leaned closer. He grabbed hold of Orion's wrist through the bars and pulled his hand away from his face. He repeated the seven words.

Orion grinned. "All better."

He twisted his wrist and snapped his hand down onto the guard's arm, gripping tight. He used his free hand to reach through the bars and grab the back of the guard's head, ripping both of his hands towards his chest so that the guard's face smashed into the bars with an audible crack.

Nova winced as a fountain of blood spurted out of the man's nose.

The guard wobbled and then slid down the bars, unconscious. Orion pulled his limp body closer to the bars and ran his hands along the man's belt. He came away with a ring of keys clutched in one hand that jingled softly in the small confines of the jail.

Orion thrust the key into the door of his cage and turned. The rusted lock clicked into place and he pushed the door open, taking the guard's body with it across the floor. Orion stepped out into the main hallway.

Their fellow prisoner erupted to his feet. He lurched to the front of his cell and yelled at the top of his lungs. He screamed louder than Nova would have thought possible, given that he hadn't eaten for days. He bellowed towards the trapdoor with a desperate string of words.

"What the fuck are you doing!" Orion yelled.

He ran down the short hallway and smashed his fist through the bars. The prisoner's voice died in his throat and he slithered to the floor.

Too late. Voices and pounding footsteps hammered above the trapdoor.

"That hairy-arsed bastard," Orion said.

He fumbled with the keys and shoved one into the door of Nova's cell. It didn't turn. He pulled it out and picked another key. It took three tries for him to get it into the lock because his hands were shaking so much.

It clicked.

The trapdoor above burst open and flooded the jail with bright light. Voices bellowed from above and a heavy weight fell through the air, landing on Orion's back. He collapsed to the floor, buried under a mountain of bodies.

Nova rushed for her cell door, slamming her shoulder against it. It opened an inch but someone dived against it from the other side. They shoved it shut, slamming it against Nova's shoulder, and thumped the lock home.

Nova collided with the metal bars and bounced back, falling to the floor. Pain flowed up her shoulder, sending numbing tingles down her arm and making her hand spasm. She staggered to her feet and threw herself against the cell door but it wouldn't budge.

More guards swarmed down the trapdoor, surrounding Orion and showering him with punches and kicks. Blood created colourful patches across his face and flew in bright arcs through the air.

Nova gripped the bars. "Orion!"

Aart yanked on his cell door. "Stop it! You bastards are going to kill him!"

The soldiers ignored them, pummelling Orion until he lay in a motionless heap on the floor, eyes rolled back in his head and bloody bruises covering his body. By the time they stopped, blood and teeth spattered the floor of the prison.

A commanding voice barked over the chaos.

Nova looked to the top of the ladder and saw the man who had been in charge when they were captured. The red trimming of his black tunic brushed against a pool of blood as he descended the ladder and surveyed the scene.

He waved his hand at Orion. Four guards leapt forward and carried Orion down the hallway, tossing him into his cell. He landed and rolled like a lifeless corpse, coming to rest against the far wall of his cell.

The guard that Orion had knocked unconscious leaned against the wall besides the stairs. He shuffled forward; face pale.

Nova gripped the bars, craning her neck to watch Orion. He made a lumpy shadow on the floor of his cell, and he still hadn't moved.

"What did you bastards do!"

The man in black rounded on her and without saying a word he slammed the hilt of his sword onto her fingers where they gripped the bars. She screamed and snapped her crushed fingers away cradling them to her chest. Blue bruises spread out from her knuckles.

The man in black spoke loudly, he seemed angry. He yelled at the guard who'd been knocked out. The guard stared at his feet and bowed every few seconds.

The leader barked a final command and the guard nodded once. He took his sword from its scabbard and laid it on the ground. He then knelt beside his sword, in the middle of the hallway, and bowed his head.

The leader took one step forward, lifted his sword, and swung it down. The blade sliced through the guard's neck in one clean sweep. His head toppled loose and rolled across the floor in a shower of blood that soaked the floor and splattered across the walls.

The man in black stepped away from the spray and wiped his sword clean on the back of the guard's cloak sliding it back in its scabbard. He pointed at Orion's cell and then down at the body. He stared into each cell in turn and each time he pointed back at the guard. His gaze rested on Nova for the longest; he stared deep into her eyes as if maybe he could communicate by telepathy if they just looked at each other for long enough.

He needn't have bothered; Nova got the message loud and clear; if they tried anything like that again, they'd all lose their heads and be just like the man on the floor.

She pursed her lips and refused to acknowledge him. He turned on his heel and climbed up the ladder out of sight, leaving the other guards to carry the body up the ladder.

After just five minutes all that was left of the grand escape was a pool of blood on the floor, a different guard standing at the base of the trapdoor, and the severed head.

"You forgot the bloody head!" Gus bellowed after the last of the guards. They ignored him and slammed the trapdoor shut.

"Orion!" Nova called. She went to the front of her cell, careful to keep her fingers away from the bars.

"Oi, buddy," Aart said.

He knelt at the side of his cell so that he was only an arm's length away from Orion. He reached through the bars, his shoulder pressed hard against the metal. He stretched his fingers out, just managing to grip hold of Orion's arm and shake it. No response.

"Can you see if he's breathing?" Nova said.

"I can hear him," Aart replied. "It sounds like he's trying to breathe through a cup of water. Those bastards must have broken his nose four times at least."

"It's that fucker's fault," Gus said, nodding to the other prisoner who was once again sitting in the middle of his cell without acknowledging them.

"We'll deal with him," Nova said. She fully intended to make good on that promise. If it wasn't for the low-life in the cell opposite her they could have been free and Orion wouldn't be lying at the bottom of his cell, half-dead.

"Is he going to make it?" Tanguin whispered.

"It'll be touch and go for the next few hours," Aart said, voice husky. "It depends whether his airways stay clear. I can't bloody reach him enough to turn him over."

"Why couldn't they just put him back in his cell like normal people?" said Tyra. "They just kept kicking."

"They're animals," said Gus.

"I know I'd like to hunt a few," said Nova.

She wanted to hurl. Whoever these people were, they were violent. The looks on their faces when they were beating Orion had been full of joy. They actually enjoyed knocking him to within an inch of his life.

"Why'd they kill the guard?" said Tyra.

"A better question is why'd he let them?" said Gus.

Aart shook his head. "He just knelt down and took it."

"He was being punished," Nova said. "The big guy in black was pissed with him letting Orion out I guess."

"Yeah but what was with him just laying down his sword like that?" said Gus. "If someone tried to tell me off for getting my face smashed in I'd hit 'em with my fist, not let them chop my head off."

"They're like the ancient Samurais," Tyra said in a low voice.

"What?" said Nova.

"An ancient civilisation; they had a strict honour code. This seems a lot like what I read about."

Aart slammed his palm against the cell bars and they rung. "They're all mad. Crazy nutcases and every second we spend here is a second too long."

"I'm not surprised they're all mad," said Tanguin in a whisper. "If I had to live on this food I'd go crazy too."

Nova clutched her injured shoulder, purple blotches spread down her arm, joining the bruises from her knuckles. "Too true."

"Next time we'll need a better plan," said Gus.

Tanguin crawled to the front of her cell. "How is he?"

Aart's forehead rested against the bars separating his cell from Orion's. "Still alive."

Tyra waved at the severed head. "Why the hell did they leave that there?"

"A warning," Nova replied.

The head lay right next to the door of her cell, staring up at her with sightless eyes. The mouth hung open in an 'o' of surprise. Some of the guard's long, dark hair had come loose from its bun and lay pasted across his face with dried blood.

"When we get out of here, I'm gonna kick their arses," said Gus.

Nova nodded and clenched her uninjured hand into a fist.






CHAPTER FIVE






They left the severed head on the floor for seven days.

The rotting meat let off a stench that filled every corner of the cells like a thick blanket, suffocating and inescapable. Maggots swarmed the eye sockets, chewing through the soft flesh and leaving gaping holes, like tunnels, leading into the skull. Chunks of blackened flesh fell loose from the bones and splattered to the floor where they gradually disintegrated into puddles of rancid fluid.

The guards didn't bring any food, leaving the Hunters with just the water they could lick from the walls. The only daylight they saw came through the trapdoor when the guards changed shifts and even that was just a bright splash amongst days of darkness.

Nova's stomach rumbled through the first day and on the second reverted to a constant ache. Fatigue and hunger filled every inch of her body until the only thing she could think about was getting more food. She'd start with the traitor prisoner, if she had to.

She huddled against the corner of her cell and stayed there, conserving energy. She let her head rest against the wall and drifted in and out of disturbed sleep.

Her companions looked to be doing the same. Tanguin lay curled in a ball at the back of her cell, Tyra sitting beside her. Aart leant against the bars close to Orion, who still hadn't woken since his beating.

"Still breathing," Aart announced every few hours, his voice fainter each time.

Gus sat with his back to the guard, facing into the corner of his cell and humming.

Nova frowned, tilting her head to see around his broad shoulders.

Gus's left boot lay in front of him, the rubber from the base torn aside to reveal a thin strip of metal laid into the base.

Nova stifled a gasp, her eyes flying to the guard, but he stared into the distance, oblivious.

Gus took the metal strip and rubbed it against the hard floor, scraping it back and forth. His humming covered the noise as he sharpened the thin strip into a deadly weapon.

Nova bit her lip. At least one of them was armed, that would come in handy when they next tried to break free. She fiddled with the pebbles at her side. Surely these people wouldn't starve them to death; there was no point in it.

On the seventh day after Orion's beating (or as close to seven days as Nova could estimate) the man in the black cloak with red lining climbed down the ladder. He stood at the base of the trapdoor, hands held behind his back and his chest puffed out as he surveyed them with a satisfied smile.

Nova didn't have the strength to stand but she glared at him with clenched teeth. He stayed like that for at least five minutes, gazing at each of them in turn. It was exactly what he'd done when they were first captured, only now he looked triumphant rather than angry.

He locked his gaze on Nova and spoke to the guard. The man hurried forward and fumbled with the keys at his belt. He inserted a long key covered in specks of rust and the lock clicked open. He opened the gate and stepped in.

Despite her exhaustion, Nova leaped to her feet and held up both fists, keeping her back to the wall and ignoring the dull pain throbbing from her injured hand.

The leader's eyes flashed as he spoke and gestured for her to come out with a quick flick of his hand.

She shook her head and stayed where she was, eyes watching the oncoming guard. There was no way she'd be lured into some kind of trap and beaten into a pulp like Orion. If this bastard wanted to take her down, he'd have to fight for it.

His face glowed red and he spoke louder and faster. The guard jumped forward and snatched at Nova's arms. She spun out of his way and lashed out with her fist, hitting him square in the jaw and sending him stumbling backwards.

He spat blood into the corner of the cell and came at her again.

She tried to dodge but her weakened muscles wavered and he dived around to her back, wrapping his arm around her neck. He used his other hand to hold both her wrists, pinning her against the wall. Rough stones gouged grazes up Nova's arms and into her chin.

She kicked backwards and slammed her boot down on his toes but he tightened his grip on her neck and her vision darkened. She hovered on the very edge of losing consciousness and stumbled. He held her upright by her neck and pushed her forward. She had no choice but to lurch out of the cell to where the man in black waited.

He grinned at her, revealing yellowed teeth, and stepped up the ladder in front of her. The guard behind her jerked her forward, forcing her to climb up to the trapdoor. She strained against the guard to look back at her companions but his grip was too strong.

"Get your arses out of here!" she bellowed, before her head was shoved out of the trapdoor and strong hands grabbed both her arms.

They hauled her out of the hole and into bright sunlight.

She squinted against the glare, her eyes taking in a grim circle of soldiers, all wearing swords on their right hips and long brown robes with red stars sewn over their chests. They kept their eyes forward as if Nova wasn't there; the only ones paying her any attention were those holding her in place.

The man in black gestured and the soldiers closed in around her, forming a tight column before marching forward. The flow of people pulled Nova forward, washing her away from the trapdoor to the rhythmic beat of footsteps, led by the man in black.

He guided them away from the hole in the ground and around the edge of the village. This time the villagers didn't look up, instead scurrying away from the procession and hiding out of sight. Nova pondered their actions; she couldn't work out why they'd be scared of their own soldiers, unless they were scared of her. But that didn't make much sense; she couldn't do anything while she was trapped in a platoon of soldiers.

They marched around the edge of the village to the winding path that led up the hill to the mansion. The compact path crunched under Nova's feet, loose pebbles skittering away behind her. Her exhausted legs wobbled although she tried to hide it. She'd been cramped inside a tiny jail cell with almost no food for so long that it was a wonder she could walk at all. Even so, she refused to show weakness in front of her new enemies, so she bit her lip and kept walking.

She ignored the stars that flashed at the edge of her vision and the pounding headache drilling into her temples. Sweat sprouted on her forehead, dribbling down her cheeks and into her eyes, she flicked it away and kept marching, keeping pace with soldiers all the way up the hill until they got to the tall fence.

Here more guards with red stars waited. They pulled open a wooden gate twice the height of a man and four times as wide. They stood like an honour guard on either side of the path and bowed as the man in black walked past. He ignored them as he marched into the courtyard beyond. The way he walked made Nova certain that this was his house, confidence and arrogance leaked out of every pore on his body.

Nova had expected nothing more than grass inside the courtyard; instead she was surrounded by a garden which looked cut straight from a fairy tale. To her left, an intricate pile of rocks with water cascading down from the top created a chest-high waterfall. The sound of falling water tinkled and cast the whole garden in a blanket of calm. At the base of the waterfall flowed a small stream that ran across the garden and ended in a pond the size of a small pool.

Plants with leaves as big as Nova's body dotted the grassy garden. For a moment her heart beat faster as she thought of the carnivorous plants she'd encountered on Drigoon, but these remained still, calm. Every plant seemed deliberately placed to compliment all the others and contrast with the rocks that sprouted intermittently from the ground, covered in bright green moss that looked soft enough to sleep on.

Nova would have liked to stand admiring the garden for hours, but a sharp jab in her back reminded her to keep walking. She stumbled forward with the rest of the soldiers, casting a dark glare over her shoulder.

An arched wooden bridge carried the path across the thin stream and Nova's boots clicked as she crossed it.

At the end of the garden rose the mansion itself. Wooden boards made up the outer walls and the decking that looked out on the garden. Six soldiers stood outside the main door, but instead of red stars these had indigo crosses on their chests.

The man in black stepped forward and gestured for Nova to follow. She strode forward, keeping her chin high. The soldier nearest the door stepped forward and patted his hands over her body.

She gritted her teeth and stopped herself from kneeing the man in the face.

After a thorough search, the soldier nodded and the six new soldiers with indigo crosses formed a box around Nova, marching her inside the house. As soon as they got inside, the man who had searched her pointed to her feet and spoke.

"I don't know what you want," she replied. She tried to keep her voice calm; if they'd just let her get a language patch from Crusader they would be able to talk and the whole situation would be a lot easier.

The man pointed to her shoes and repeated the words.

Nova sighed and looked around. They were in a small entrance room without any decoration. Many shoes, which looked like sandals, lined the wall. She looked back at the soldiers. They all wore socks without shoes.

She shrugged and pulled of her boots. She tossed them to the side where they landed in a heap on top of a bare pair of sandals, scattering clumps of dirt across the floor. The man in black lunged past the soldiers and snatched Nova's shoulders, shaking her. He spat words, mixed with spittle at her from a glowing red face, waving at her and then her shoes.

She crossed her arms over her chest and stared back at him. He refused to back down, kept pointing to her shoes and waving at the air.

From the inner door a small woman darted into the entrance room and stood Nova's boots together in a neat pair beside the sandals. She straightened the sandals and rushed out of the room as quickly as she'd entered.

The righted shoes seemed to calm the man in black because he stopped yelling, but his face remained bright red and his nostrils flared. He stalked away from Nova and into the room beyond, his back like a rigid pole. The guards led Nova after him.

The room beyond had paper-thin walls painted with intricate designs of white flowers and people fetching water from a well. One screen had a painting of the village with the mansion towering above it.

The guards stepped away from Nova and took up positions next to the walls. With them out of her way Nova's eyes locked on a man wearing a gold-trimmed robe. His hair and eyes were dark, almost black, like everyone else Nova had seen so far. Speckles of grey coloured his temples and highlighted his strong face. Everything about him screamed cunning and Nova warned herself to be careful around him. He sat on a pile of red cushions, his hands steepled in front of his face.






CHAPTER SIX






The man in black stepped forward and bowed low. He crouched down so that his head scraped the wooden floorboards and held his hands out, palms up, towards the seated man. He held the pose until the seated man spoke and only then did he raise his head.

The man in black glanced back at Nova and his face dropped. All colour drained out of his cheeks and it looked like he was choking on his own tongue. His horrified gaze flicked between her and the man on the cushions. A fountain of words poured out of his mouth as he scurried, on his knees, to where Nova stood.

He grabbed hold of her wrist and yanked so hard that she fell to her knees. He put a hand on the back of her head and pushed her face towards the floor.

"What the hell are you doing?" Nova yelled. She smacked her elbow onto the man's arm and he recoiled with a torrent of angry words.

"Yeah well, fuck you," she said. "I'm not bowing to anyone."

She stayed kneeling on the floor, if only to ease the aching in her legs.

The man on the platform watched the whole encounter without a single flicker of emotion. He sat as still as a statue, looking at them over the top of his hands. He studied Nova for what felt like hours before speaking to the man in black and gesturing for him to leave. It seemed like he protested but another word from the man on the dais sent everyone in the room scurrying.

Only Nova and the enigmatic man remained. He gestured for her to come closer; she did as he asked.

"Toro," he said, holding his hand to his chest.

"Oh, so one of you does have more brains than a chimpanzee," Nova said.

Toro frowned and shook his head once. "Toro."

"Nova," she replied, also pointing to herself.

He nodded slowly, studying her.

Nova's face flushed under his gaze. Her jaw clenched, if she could just get them to understand her, then maybe they would let her and the others go. Her mind raced to work out how she could get to Crusader to get the translator patch.

She held out her palm and pretended to write on it. It was a wild stab in the dark but perhaps this backwards culture still used pens and paper.

Toro's eyes sparkled. He turned towards the near wall and spoke. As soon as he'd finished, the woman who had righted Nova's boots rushed in and dropped into a deep bow, her head to the floor. She held out a sheet of yellowed paper and a pen towards Toro, without looking up.

He waved his hand and she backed out of the room, bowing the whole way. At the very edge of the room she glanced back at Nova, unlike everyone else Nova had seen on this planet, the woman's eyes were bright blue.

Toro waved at the page and spoke.

Nova pulled her eyes away from the woman's disappearing back and took the pen. It was like nothing she'd ever seen; a hollowed piece of wood made the shaft and bright blue ink dripped from the tip. She placed it on the paper and a blue blob spread out from the tip.

"Dammit," Nova hissed. She snatched the pen away from the page and studied it. The fine tip was made of stained hair that shone with ink. She almost never used real ink, not with interactive screens everywhere.

She took a deep breath and tried again. This time a shaky line followed the pen across the page. She made a quick sketch of Crusader and the other ships and held it up so that Toro could see. She pointed to her mouth, and then to Toro and then to the picture.

"If you take me to the ship, I can talk to you," she said slowly.

Toro shook his head once.

Nova growled, deep in her throat. She'd never appreciated the ability to communicate before now. She tried again by using her hand to make a talking action and then pointed again to her ship.

Toro studied the drawing. The silence stretched out around them until Nova was sure she couldn't take it anymore. Toro nodded once.

He called through the door and the man in black emerged followed by the brown-cloaked soldiers.

"Omi," Toro said, pointing at the man.

Nova nodded once; now she had a name to attach her revenge to.

Toro spoke to Omi at length. Omi's face darkened as the conversation went on but in the end he nodded and bowed low. He gestured for Nova to follow before marching out of the room. Nova nodded at Toro and walked outside with the soldiers. She pulled on her boots in the entrance hall while the soldiers silently slipped on their sandals.

Outside the soldiers closed in around her so that there was no way she could escape. Instead of going back to the village, Omi lead them around the side of the house to another path which led into the forest. The trees bowed over the trail like a green tunnel, leading them onwards. Bright yellow flowers created splashes of colour amongst green foliage while twisted roots weaved across the ground.

Twenty minutes into the forest they came to a clearing. Crusader and the other ships sat amongst the trees, metal hulls glinting unnaturally in the forest.

"Cal!" Nova sent a desperate thought towards the ships.

"You're alive!" he replied.

She pushed against the soldiers in an effort to get to the ships.

Omi turned and slammed his palm into her chest. He shook his head and crossed his arms.

Nova glared at Omi before turning her attention back to Cal. "It's hell here. Please tell me you've got a plan."

"They've disabled….engines… won't be going… anywhere," Cal said.

"How could they disable the engines? These people have only just discovered fire. And where the hell is that interference coming from?"

"They knew what… doing," Cal said. "Interference…… field."

Nova frowned. There was no way these savages knew how to disable an engine; it had to have been a lucky guess.

Omi waved his hand in front of her face and clicked his fingers. He raised an eyebrow, his face flushing red. She glared back at him and knocked his hand away from her face.



"We're in trouble and I need a patch for these idiots," Nova said.

"Crusader's systems… recognized some of the words. It's an evolution of an Old-Earth language."

"So we can get a patch."

"Yes, but… take time and… need a bigger sample..."

"The last thing I have right now is time. This bastard has got ants up his ass; he's jumpier than a lecheon in a forest."

"Then you'd better get them talking," Cal said.

"Alright."

Nova turned to Omi and looked him directly in the face. "Talk to me you ugly bastard."

He growled out a string of words.

"Tell him that… language patch based just on swear words isn't going to work," Cal said.

Nova grunted. She could have guess Omi's meaning without Cal but she still bristled.

"Is that all you've got then?" she said to Omi.

He frowned at her and grabbed hold of her arm. He gestured to his soldiers and they turned to walk back down the path.

"I'm not finished yet you monkeys," she said, ripping her arm away.

"More time," Cal said.

Nova cast around for anything that would get the soldiers talking. The more data Cal had, the better the translation patch would be. There was nothing but trees and leaves, certainly nothing that would start a stimulating conversation. She took a deep breath; there was only one thing for it.

She pushed away from Omi and the soldiers and started waving her hands in the air. She jumped from foot to foot and spun in tight circles. She danced as hard as she'd ever danced in her life and then she pushed harder. She spun into the air, kicking her legs out, landed on her hands and rolled. Her head spun, her food-deprived body barely able to stand, let alone carry her through a maddened dance.

Omi and the soldiers stared at Nova with open mouths. The composure that they'd held on to so far crumbled as they gestured at Nova and spoke in hurried tones. Omi yelled at her and then yelled at his soldiers, but everyone's attention stayed fixed on her.

Sweat poured down her forehead as the heat of the jungle clung to her. She repeated every dance move she'd ever seen and heard of, creating a crazed mix of styles and energy. She flung her body about the clearing as if she were mad, ignoring the bone-breaking exhaustion that tugged on each of her muscles. Her boots stomped on the dirt and created a percussive beat which she used to spin faster and faster.

"Please tell me you're nearly there," she said.

"Almost," Cal said.

Omi's face shone bright red by the time he stepped forward and knocked Nova to the floor. His spinning leg caught her at the knees and she toppled over to the dirt. He laid his boot on her neck and gestured to his soldiers. They ran forward and hauled Nova to her feet, keeping her firmly in place.

Omi put his face right in front of hers and held out his finger so that it was only inches from her nose. He bellowed at her before turning and striding from the clearing.

"Cal!" Nova called out in her mind.

"It's not finished!"

"Just send me what you have. We've run out of time."

"Confirmed," he said.

"Get those engines fixed! We need a way out!"

Nova's heart hammered as she struggled against the soldiers, dragging her feet against every step until the soldiers picked her up and carried her through the forest.

"Let me go you bastards," Nova pulled against them but they stayed silent so she had no way of knowing if the translator patch was working.

They carried her back to the mansion in stony silence, dropping to the dirt in front of the gate with a solid thump. She glared up at them as she got up, brushing the dirt from her hands. They pushed her into the entrance chamber where they slid off their sandals. She tugged off her boots and placed them together beside the door, making a point to catch Omi's eye. His nostrils flared as he turned on her and strode into the main chamber.

Nova wiped her arm across her forehead, collecting a layer of sweat, and imagining how good a shower would feel. Filth seemed to coat every pore as she followed Omi back into the central room where Toro sat looking down at them. She struggled to keep her chin upright as she imagined how she must look to him, covered in dirt and leaves and sweat.

Toro looked at her and then at Omi.

"She's a madwoman!" Omi bellowed. "She led us out there for nothing. Her and her companions are nothing but trouble and we should get rid of them now. She has wasted both mine and your time."

"Actually I think it was time well spent," Nova replied with a grin.

She stepped forward and held her head high, relief seeping through her, now at least she could communicate with the barbarians and that could mean the difference between life and death.

Omi's face lost all colour and his mouth hung open. The only change in Toro's expression was the slightest flicker of his eyes.

"What witchcraft is this?" Omi whispered.

"Maybe you should think about that the next time you put your boot on my throat," Nova said, taking another step forward and clenching her fist.

"Leave us," Toro said.

"But—" Omi's turned to face Toro.

"Leave," Toro repeated.

The soldiers filed out. Omi followed them, casting a single, distrustful glance back at Nova before he pulled the light screen door closed behind him.

"Now you can talk," Toro said.

"Yes," Nova replied.

"What do you have to say?"

"That bastard nearly killed my friend. He needs medical attention."

"I don't know this word 'bastard' but I can guess it's not a compliment. I will see that your friend is taken care of, so long as you tell me what I want to know."

"What do you want to know?"

"Everything."






CHAPTER SEVEN






"Tell me about where you come from," Toro said. "Then we will discuss your friends."

Nova sank to the floor in front of Toro, her legs aching and stomach rumbling. She told Toro about Tabryn, going against the Confederacy and their resultant flee past the border. Toro said nothing as she spoke, just gazed at her over his steepled fingers. Whenever she slowed or paused he rolled one of his hands, ordering her to continue.

She spoke for what felt like hours. By the time she finished her hoarse voice scratched her throat and her heavy eyelids drooped low. She massaged her numb legs and longed for a drink, or something to eat.

Toro raised his hand, cutting her off. "That's enough for today. We'll talk more another time. Omi."

The light screen slid aside almost instantly and Omi stepped through. He scowled at Nova but his face was expressionless when he turned back to Toro.

"Yes, My Lord?"

"Nova will be staying with you for a time."

Omi's eyelid twitched.

"Master, I don't think—"

"She will stay here," Toro said again.

Omi's mouth snapped shut and he bowed his head.

"What about my friends?" Nova said, climbing to her feet.

"They will be moved from the prison to a house, but kept under guard. If you, or any of them, try to escape, one of them will be killed."

Nova bit her lip and nodded, anger squeezing her chest. For the moment she'd play along with Toro's game, but now she knew how to get to the ships. It was only a matter of time before they made their escape. "Can I see them?"

"No."

Nova scrounged in her pocket and pulled up the crumpled piece of paper. She pulled it flat and scribbled a brief note. "Can you at least give them this? So they know I'm okay and don't try anything stupid."

Toro nodded and gestured for one of his men to take the note. "Omi, you are responsible for her. You will also teach her some manners. I don't think I could stay in the same room as such a barbarian for much longer."

Nova's mouth dropped and eyes narrowed. Her shoulders and legs tensed, ready to leap at Toro and throttle him where he sat. She couldn't believe he'd called her a barbarian. She had the power to travel through space and instantly translate languages, all they had were swords.

Omi narrowed his eyes and sneered down at her.

"That will be a hard task, Master."

"Hence why I give it to someone who can handle it. I leave tonight for the Capital but I will return shortly. I expect her to be housetrained by then."

Omi bowed low as Toro stood and marched to the door. He stood much taller than the other men and walked with uncanny grace. His gold-trimmed robes flowed out behind him as he swirled out into the garden.

Omi hurried after him, standing at the door and bowing low. Nova trailed behind, stepping to the other side of the door.

Afternoon sun lit upon Toro's soldiers surrounding a silk-lined litter carried by six men in loin-cloths. They lowered it to the ground at his feet and he stepped inside, arranging plump pillows as he lowered himself to the soft mattress. The half-clothed men lifted the litter to their shoulders, eyes staring straight ahead.

Toro nodded once to Omi and then looked past him, into the mansion to Nova. "Until next time."

He waved and his soldiers formed a tight battalion around his litter before marching out of the mansion and out of Nova's sight.

As Toro's litter disappeared Omi turned on her, his cruel smile sharp in the soft light. She could only hope that he respected Toro enough to keep her out of harm's way.

"You will meet my household," Omi said.

Nova folded her arms across her chest, wishing she had her gun, or even her knife. "Get my friends out of the prison."

Omi strode the three paces between them, drew back his hand, and slapped her face. Pain shot up her cheek as she reeled back. She crouched, fists ready, and lunged forward to attack. Before she could move, four soldiers jumped on her, pinning her arms at her sides.

"Lesson one," said Omi. "Respect. You will never raise your hand to me, and you will never talk back to me again. Your companions were taken out of the prison as soon as Toro ordered it."

Nova's jaw clenched but she stopped struggling.

"Release her," said Omi. "As I was saying, you will meet the household."

The soldiers stepped back from Nova. She kept her hands at her sides, refusing to touch the sharp sting on her cheek; she'd never give him that satisfaction.

"Here is my wife, Sia," Omi said.

He gestured towards the mansion door where seemingly out of nowhere, two women and a young man had appeared. The older woman stepped forward, she wore a long, flowing black dress decorated with deep red roses. Her long dark hair hung loose around her shoulders and fluttered in the garden breeze. Cold hard eyes, like pieces of flint, made her pretty face jagged. She inclined her head at Nova and stepped back.

Omi nodded. "This is my son, Zen."

The young man of about twenty stepped forward. He wore a black cloak with red trimming, very much like Omi's and had the same square face. Unlike his father, Zen regarded Nova with quiet curiosity as opposed to anger.

"And this is my sister, Meeka." Omi's voice dropped to a sinister growl.

The second woman stepped out of the shadows and Nova recognised her as the one who had righted her boots and brought her pen and paper. Meeka kept her head low as she took a brief step forward and then back again, loose pants rustling against a dark cloak.

"Nice to meet you," Nova said, at a loss for what else to do.

"Is it true you come from space?" Zen asked, stepping forward again.

"Yes," Nova said.

Omi's hand lashed out and grabbed her arm. "You will address him as Lord Zen and you will bow when he talks to you; just as you will refer to me as Lord Omi and bow when you speak."

Nova rounded on Omi, heart pounding and eyes searching for any kind of weapon.

Before she found anything, Omi's sword lashed out, coming to rest against her neck. He'd moved faster that she'd thought possible and grinned down at her.

"You can't kill me," she said. "Toro gave you orders."

"Quite true," said Omi. "But accidents happen. Do as you're told, or I will kill one of your companions."

Nova's eyes flashed but there was nothing she could do, not while they held her friends captive.

"Fine," she said, turning to Zen. "Yes, My Lord."

"What's it like out—"

"Zen, I think that's enough questions," Sia said, laying a hand on her son's shoulder.

Zen hesitated, mouth half open, before nodding and turning away from Nova, back to the house.

"Meeka, you will be in charge of making sure she behaves," Omi said. "I expect her to act properly and dress appropriately, although you're the last person who should be teaching that. Look at those pants; are you a boy?"

"No, My Lord," Meeka said, bowing her head even lower so that a curtain of dark hair hid her face.

"Then why dress like one?"

"I'm sorry, My Lord."

Nova's muscles twitched, aching to lunge forward and put Omi in his place, but he still had his sword out and she didn't want to end up on the wrong end of it. So she stood in silence, fuming, while Omi continued to speak down to Meeka.

"Do you think you can manage the simple task of dressing her properly?"

"Yes, My Lord."

"Good. Get her out of here."

Meeka bobbed her head and approached Nova.

Omi turned away from them and spoke quietly to Sia, whose cheeks shone red and nostrils flared. She spoke rapidly into Omi's ear, her shoulders stiff. She kept glancing at Nova, and every time her face got a shade redder and her jaw tightened.

"Please come with me," Meeka whispered.

Nova barely heard her over the stream flowing through the garden.

Meeka turned and shuffled through the main entrance where she slipped off her sandals and continued on in white socks. Nova hadn't bothered to put her shoes back on; it seemed ridiculous to waste so much time putting on and taking off shoes. Meeka led her through the room where she'd met Toro and into the house beyond. Thin paper screens that could easily be moved divided each room and beyond some shadows moved and voices spoke.

They went down a short hallway with open doorways leading into rooms on either side. At the end of the hall they reached a white screen that Meeka slid to the side to reveal a simple room beyond. A thin mattress lay on the floor in the far corner and a green vine climbed a wooden lattice in the other. The only other furniture was a closet made of bare wood and a candle in a metal holder that cast an orange light around the room.

"This will be your room," Meeka said in a soft whisper that seemed to be her normal way of talking.

Nova nodded.

"I will fetch you one of my dresses."

"I don't think so," said Nova, waving at her thick pants and long coat. "This is just fine."

Meeka looked up at her with bright blue eyes, opened wide. Her face pinched and her brows drew together as she hesitated in the doorway.

"I like what I'm wearing. It lets me move," said Nova.

"Master Omi demands that you dress in our traditional way," Meeka said, her eyes like round orbs, begging with Nova.

"Master Omi can demand whatever he likes. That doesn't mean I'm going to do it."

Meeka's hands wrung about each other in front of her stomach as she bit her bottom lip. "Please, Master Omi won't understand. He'll think that I've failed him."

Meeka's voice wavered and her gaze dropped back to the floor.

Nova frowned. Omi certainly didn't treat Meeka like a sister, would he punish his own sister if Nova didn't dress how he wanted? It seemed ridiculous, but then the whole planet seemed ridiculous and Omi was unstable. She couldn't bare it if her own stubbornness got Meeka punished.

"Alright. I'll try it," said Nova.

Meeka breathed an audible sigh and ran out of the room. She dashed back a second later with a bundle of cloth draped over her arms. She laid the items carefully on the floor and held up the top one, a long, pink dress that draped to the floor.

"No," Nova said, barely glancing at it.

Meeka laid the dress on the ground and pulled up the second one; a purple dress with a puffy bow.

"No!" Nova said. "Don't you have anything less useless?"

"Omi wanted traditional." Meeka frowned and burrowed through the pile, her cheeks glowing red. Near the bottom she pulled out a simple black dress with a cord that held it tight at the waist. She looked at Nova, face pinched and eyes wide.

"I'll try it," Nova said, afraid that Meeka would burst into tears at any moment.

Meeka nodded and rushed forward, grabbing hold of Nova's shirt and tugging it up.

"Woah!" Nova said, spinning away from Meeka's hands. "I think I can handle this."

Meeka frowned and stepped back but didn't leave the room.

Nova's face flushed as she turned away and pulled her shirt over her head. "Hand it over."

"You must wash before the evening meal…"

Nova rolled her eyes and glared up at the ceiling, praying for lightning to strike her down.

"Then show me where your bath is."

"No time tonight. For now you will use this." Meeka held out a bowl of steaming water and a white cloth.

"Where did you…" Nova shivered in the cool night air.

Before she could protest, Meeka ran forward and began dabbing Nova's skin with the warm towel.

"Woah! Don't you people know anything about boundaries?" Nova said, taking the cloth from Meeka and rubbing it over her skin in rough lines.

It came away darkened with dirt.

Nova wet it in the water twice more and dabbed down the rest of her body. By the time she'd finished, the water had turned murky brown.

"There, now hand me the dress," Nova said, still facing away.

Instead of giving her the dress, Meeka stepped behind her and pulled it over Nova's head, drowning her protests under the fabric.

The rough material scraped down Nova's face until her head burst out of the opening. Instead of arm holes, the sides of the dress opened wide, revealing Nova's ribs.

"I think it's missing some material," she said.

"Like this," Meeka replied, wrapping a sash around Nova's stomach and pinching the sides of the dress together.

Nova gasped, unable to breathe as the dress squeezed her lungs. "Too. Tight," she whispered.

Meeka frowned. "This is how it's worn."

Stars danced over Nova's vision. "I can't breathe."

Meeka pulled at the sash. "There, it's already too loose. Omi won't be pleased."

To Nova it didn't feel like it had loosened at all and her chest heaved against the fabric with every breath. "I can't believe people wear this."

Meeka's lips thinned but she didn't say anything. She turned to the door and clapped her hands twice. The screen slid aside and a thin woman in a plain brown dress stepped in carrying a wooden tray with small plates of food balanced on top. She nodded low to both Nova and Meeka as she knelt on the floor and laid the tray in the centre of the room.

She took two small towels out from her belt and laid them on either side of the tray. She stayed sitting on the floor with her head bowed.

"This is Ree, the house servant," Meeka said.

"You have a servant?" Nova said, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes. Please, sit."

Meeka gestured to the white towel. Nova glanced at it, mouth turning down, and stayed standing. Meeka walked around to the other side of the tray and knelt so that her knees rested on the white towel. She waved for Nova to do the same.

Nova crouched but the dress tangled around her legs so that she landed hard on her knees. With a curse, she yanked it free and shuffled to the towel, struggling to bend in the tight dress. Even through the towel, her knees pressed against the hard wooden floor, creating a dull ache and making her feet numb. "Don't you people have chairs?"

Meeka looked up from her contemplation of the tray, her bright blue eyes glimmering in the dim light. "It is customary not to talk until the food has been served."

"Well, where I come from it's customary not to sit on the floor."

Meeka ignored her and turned back to the food. Her delicate hands fluttered like small birds over the food as she laid out two small plates. Using a pair of tongs smaller than her little finger, she placed a single piece from each main dish onto each plate, her hands never wavering. She set the tongs to the side and bowed her head low as she held one of the plates out to Nova.

Nova shifted, uncomfortable, and took the plate. "Thanks."

A white piece of meat like a tentacle curled around the edge of her plate, nestled against a slice of something purple that could have been a vegetable. Three orange cubes wobbled in the centre, dancing with Nova's jerky motions.

Nova's stomach rumbled. There was barely enough food for one mouthful, let alone a meal, and yet the main serving plates were already almost empty.

A strong smell, like rotting seafood and vegetables wafted from the plates, chasing away Nova's hunger and replacing it with a need to gag. She grimaced and looked up at Meeka to find the other woman staring straight back.

"What are you waiting for?" Nova said.

"It is customary to wait for the guest to begin eating."

"Look," Nova said. "I'm sure this is very nice but don't you have any real food?"

"Real food?" Meeka said, frowning. "This is real food."

"No, I mean chicken and chips, roast vegetables, beef." Nova's mouth watered as she thought of her favourite foods.

"I don't know what those are," Meeka said. "Except vegetables; there are some." She gestured to the purple slice on her plate.

Nova sighed heavily; it looked as though there would be no chicken and chips for her tonight. She looked around for cutlery but there were no knives and forks in sight.

She glanced at Meeka and saw that the other woman had picked up the tiny pair of tongs. Nova shrugged and reached for the other pair, her fingers looked like thick sausages in comparison. She reached for the white tentacle, hand trembling, and locked the tongs around it.

It wobbled as she lifted it towards her mouth, holding her breath to block the rotten seafood scent. An inch away from her mouth the sticky tentacle slipped, falling loose from the tongs and landing with a wet splat on the front of her new dress.

"Shit."

Ree rushed forward, a moist cloth appearing in her hand, and wiped the tentacle juice away. Before Nova could protest Ree had patted her front dry and returned to her place beside the tray, head bowed.

Heat seared Nova's cheeks and she glared down at her meagre meal. She reached out with the tongs, her hand already aching from using the unfamiliar tool, and gripped the purple slice. She lifted but it slipped back to the plate. She growled and tried again, but again it slipped away.

"Bloody hell." Nova slammed the tongs into the purple slice like a blunt spear, impaling the purple vegetable on the end.

Meeka gasped and Ree shifted, although she didn't look up.

Nova grinned and brought the purple slice to her mouth, but her smile died as the leathery plant touched her tongue. It tasted as if she'd licked a used tyre, the scent of rubber filling her mouth. She chewed as fast as she could, swallowing a hard chunk with a grimace.

She sighed down at the orange cubes; what new hellish taste would they bring?

She clamped her tongs around the first cube, so hard that it squished into soft orange jelly that clung to the tongs. She brought it to her mouth slowly, and placed it on her tongue, closing her eyes. Instead of rotten seafood or burned tyres, her mouth filled with the sudden flavour of oranges. It was as if she'd just taken a bite out of the most flavoursome orange ever grown. The jelly melted on her tongue, sending tendrils of tangy citrus down her throat.

Her eyes opened wide. "Now this is what I'm talking about."

Meeka frowned at her. "You enjoy the oran cubes?"

"Better than anything else I've had here."

"Interesting," said Meeka.

"Why?"

"Most people of Chindo do not enjoy oran cubes but we have found that if we don't eat them we get sick."

"Are you kidding? You people like eating the horrible rubber things, but you don't like these?"

Nova shoved another cube into her mouth and relished in the flavour. Meeka inclined her head.

When Nova finished the third and final cube she frowned at her empty plate, stomach growling. "Is there more coming?"

"Excuse me?" Meeka said.

"More food. That was the starters, right?"

Meeka frowned and shook her head. "That was the main meal of the day."

Nova's mouth hung open. "You're joking."

Meeka's frown deepened. "I don't understand."

"That wasn't enough to keep a person alive! I'm still starving."

"We are fortunate to have so much food," Meeka said. "Many in the village have far less than this."

"But—" Nova's protest died in her throat. Meeka seemed genuinely shocked that she wanted more food. She dreaded to think how the villager's survived.

"Will my friends be fed?" she said, her thoughts on Tanguin and how weak she'd been.

"They will be given similar to this," Meeka said. "Toro has commanded that they be looked after."

"One of them is badly injured and one of them is sick."

"The sickly one is being cared for by our healer. The one who caused trouble, the dishonourable man, is also being looked after, but our healer cannot care for him so he is being looked after by our animal carer."

Nova dropped her tongs. They clattered to the floor and left a splatter of sauce on the wooden boards. Ree was there wiping it up almost before the tongs landed, although Nova barely noticed her.

"What? What do you mean the dishonourable man? Why won't the healer look after him?"

Meeka frowned and shifted on her knees. She glanced down at her palms and then at the floor. "It is impolite to talk about prisoners."

"They're not prisoners; they're my friends!" Nova's voice rose louder and both Meeka and Ree turned pale. They glanced first at each other and then at the door.

"Please keep your voice down," Meeka begged. "Or Omi will come and he will be unhappy."

"Then answer my questions."

"He tried to escape from the punishment he was given. That is very shameful," Meeka said. Her hands twisted about each other. Ree's face glowed red as she busied herself with collecting up the plates.

"It's not shameful. He hadn't done anything wrong."

"You all trespassed on Omi's land. That is punishable by death. It was merciful of him to let you live, and the dishonourable man repaid him by injuring the guard."

"We didn't trespass; we crashed. And his name is Orion, not dishonourable man."

Meeka's jaw tensed but she inclined her head.

"Why can't the healer look after him?" Rage curdled in Nova's stomach, her hands balling into fists.

"It would be considered bad luck for him to care for such a dis—" Meeka bit her lip. "Such a man. He would likely lose his other patients so Omi has forbid it."

"That's ridiculous."

Meeka didn't reply.

Ree collected the rest of the plates and the tray and slipped silently out of the room. Nova brought her legs out from under her and stretched them along the floor. Pins and needles raced up her calves and made her leg spasm.

Meeka's eyes widened and she looked ready to run as Nova extended her legs.

Nova waved her hand. "I promise to sit properly if Omi comes in but if I stay like that any longer my legs will drop off."

"How do you sit normally?" Meeka asked.

"We have chairs."

"I don't know that word."

Nova sighed. "They're raised off the ground so that you sit on them and your legs hang down to the floor."

From Meeka's frown Nova didn't think she'd explained it properly, but she didn't have a better way and she was exhausted. Still, she couldn't afford to sleep yet; she had to know everything she could about this place so that she'd be better prepared to escape.

"So this is Chindo?" she said.

Meeka inclined her head.

"And who's Toro, is he your mayor or something?"

"Toro is Emperor of Chindo. He is favoured by the gods."

"What does that mean?"

"He has powers. He knows things that he has no way of knowing."

"He seemed like a man to me."

Meeka mouth dropped and her eyes flew to the door before darting back to Nova's face. "Never say that again. People have been executed for far less."

Nova bit her lip. If she got her way she'd prove to everyone just how powerless Toro was.

"And Omi, your brother?"

"He is a general in Toro's forces. We are honoured by his favour, but I think that is enough for tonight. You must rest, I'm sure there will be lots to do tomorrow."

Nova nodded and stood.

"If you need anything clap twice," Meeka said. "Ree will come and see you."

"You're joking. Won't she be sleeping?"

Meeka frowned and shook her head. "It is her job to be ready to assist the household at any time."

"That's not a servant, that's a slave," said Nova.

Meeka shrugged. "The two words have the same meaning. Now please, rest."

Meeka left the room, leaving Nova alone with the waving candle. She pulled off the uncomfortable dress with a lot of tugging and cursing until she yanked it over her head and hurled it into the far corner. She tugged on her familiar shirt and laid down.

The thin mattress felt no different to lying on the cold hard floor, with no evidence of sheets or pillows. The only position where her neck didn't feel like it was being snapped was on her back with the wretched dress balled up under her head. So she lay like a corpse in a coffin, staring up at the bare ceiling.

Through the thin paper walls she heard every footstep and every voice as if she stood beside them. She stored the memory away; she'd have to be careful about what she said because there could be no secrets in a place like this. Further down the hall Omi spoke in low tones to Sia. Past that someone, probably Ree, was sweeping; hard bristles scraping against wooden floorboards. Out in the courtyard leaves rustled against one another and the stream gurgled.

She focused on the gentle water, blocking out thoughts of her day and letting it soothe her to sleep.












CHAPTER EIGHT






Nova woke to every bone in her body aching. Her head pounded as if she'd been hit with a tonne of bricks and when she sat up it hung heavy as if filled with lead. She pushed herself off the floor and rubbed her eyes.

No sooner was she sitting then Ree bustled through the door with a tray. Nova's hopes for bacon and eggs were dashed at the sight of more purple rubber plants. She perked up a bit when she saw the orange cube to the side of the plate.

"Shall I help you get dressed?" Ree asked, already reaching for the black dress scrunched in the corner.

"No thank you. I can manage."

Ree bowed her head and backed out of the room. She slid the paper screen shut behind her, leaving Nova alone with her unappetising breakfast. She forced herself to eat all of the rubber slices but she used her hands rather than the small tongs. The orange cube she saved for last, letting it dissolve on her tongue as she untangled the dress and yanked it over her head.

She twisted and writhed in an effort to pull the dress down but the tight fabric pinned her arms to her sides. She wriggled, like a worm tunnelling through black dirt, until her shoulders broke out and she could pull the rest of the dress down to free her arms. She did her best to pull the sash around her waist but kept it much looser than Meeka had; she could actually breathe. She pulled her hair up into a ponytail and then lifted her usual trousers, sliding a paper-thin blade out from the lining. This she slipped inside the fabric of the sash, where it looked like an innocent fold in the fabric.

She stopped just in front of her door and took three deep breaths. Today she would learn as much as she could, and hopefully visit the other Hunters. She had to check that Tanguin and Orion were okay, especially if these animals were treating Orion like a second class citizen.

She resolved to first explore the house. If this was going to be her base for the foreseeable future then she had to know everything she could about it. She slid the door open and stepped into the empty hallway. Movement and low voices echoed from other rooms as she crept to the nearest door and paused to listen outside. Silence.

She eased the screen sideways an inch and peered through the narrow gap. Beyond lay a small room very similar to her own, only this one had a second, smaller screened area inside.

Nova closed the screen and moved on to the next room. She proceeded through the house, listening outside each room and peering inside the empty ones. She found mostly bedrooms, others lay empty and useless. A bigger room in a corner of the house billowed with thick steam rising from a rock pool in its centre. She was tempted to jump in and wash off the grime that seemed to cling to her despite her wash the night before.

At the back of the house she came to another screen standing partially open. Inside Ree chopped more of the disgusting purple plant and placed it into a large bowl. A fire sparkled on the far side of the room and a pan on top sizzled.

Nova placed her hand on the screen and pushed it open.

Ree's head snapped up and she looked at Nova with startled eyes. She dropped the knife which clattered onto the bench top and rushed to the door.

"I'm sorry, you can't come in here," she said.

"What?" Nova asked, craning her neck to look into the kitchen and see what had Ree so jumpy.

"It's improper for a guest of the house to enter the kitchen," Ree whispered, her eyes flicking down the hallway as if scared of someone leaping out of the shadows.

"That's ridiculous. I want to see what other food you have."

"I can't allow it," Ree said, her voice shaking.

Nova's jaw clenched. She could have batted Ree aside with one hand but the poor girl seemed scared out of her wits. Nova took one last glance around the kitchen, as far as she could see there was nothing more appetising than the purple rubber.

She stepped back. "Alright."

Ree breathed an audible sigh and stepped out of the room, sliding the door shut behind her and blocking Nova's view of the kitchen.

"Please let me fix your dress," Ree said.

"It's fine," Nova said. The last thing she wanted was to be suffocated again by the ridiculous sash.

"You look like you were dressed by a child," Ree whispered. "Omi will punish both Meeka and myself."

Nova wanted to punch her fist through the wall. If Omi was a real man he'd tell her directly that he had a problem, not take it out on his sister and his servant. She face flushed, when she saw him again she'd have something to say, that was for sure.

"Fine," Nova said. She turned around so Ree could reach the sash and held her breath.

Ree pulled the sash even tighter than Meeka had and by the time she finished stars danced in front of Nova's eyes.

"Please let me know if I can be of any further service," Ree said.

Nova nodded and strode away from the kitchen. As soon as she rounded the corner she reached around and loosened the sash. She took a grateful gulp of air and leant against the wooden outer wall. A window to her left revealed the gardens outside and a cool breeze fluttered through, clearing her head.

She marched through the maze of corridors to the front door and stepped out into bright sunlight. Green grass bent under her feet like a soft cushion as she walked to the waterfall. Water bubbled up out of the ground to tumble over rocks and continue downstream. Frogs the size of Nova's fingernail crouched on top of the rocks and chirped to one another while brightly coloured birds swooped overhead, occasionally dipping into the water and then shooting back into the sky.

Nova walked around the outer wall of the garden. It towered over her head, too high to climb, and too well made to dig under. That left just the main entrance, manned by six guards with red stars on their chests. If she could get down to the village then she had a chance of running away, back to Crusader, then she'd like to see Omi try to control her.

She pressed her hand against the concealed blade in her sash and marched towards the gate, keeping her eyes firmly locked on the path and village beyond. She strode with purposeful steps right until a guard stepped forward and blocked her path.

"I'm afraid you are not to leave," he said.

Nova lifted her chin and stared down her nose at the man. "I'll go where I like. Now step aside."

"Lord Omi would very much like you to stay and enjoy his gardens," the guard said.

"I've already enjoyed them. Now I'm going to go and enjoy the village."

The guard glanced over his shoulder at his companions but didn't move.

"Surely you would like to enjoy the warm baths inside?" he said.

"No. I want to go to the village," Nova said.

She'd had enough of their double-speak and their evasive answers. She clenched her fists, and only the fear that one of her friends would be killed stopped her lunging for the man.

The guard remained silent, watching her.

"I want to go to the village," she said slowly.

"There is fresh fruit in the dining room," the second guard said.

"I don't want fruit," she said, throwing her arms up. "I want to get out of this damned place."

"What's going on here! Why are you bringing shame on my household!" Omi said. He burst out of the house and strode down the path towards them. His face glowed bright red but he walked with measured steps.

The guards bowed and stepped back.

"I'm going to the village," Nova said.

"No. You're staying here," Omi said.

Nova's fingernails dug into her palms.

"You should be ashamed of yourself. Coming into my home and threatening my men. Do your people have no honour?"

"You're the one holding me prisoner."

"You are not a prisoner!" Omi said. "If you were a prisoner I would have you killed. Toro made it very clear that you are an honoured guest."

"But I can't leave?"

"No."

Nova swallowed and shuffled her feet, muscles twitching to lunge at the gate and break free, but she'd never get past all six guards and Omi.

"Disobey me again and I will kill one of your friends," Omi said. "You see they are prisoners, not honoured guests."

Nova's shoulders slumped.

"Good. Where's Meeka? She's supposed to be keeping an eye on you."

"I'm here, My Lord," Meeka said, hurrying out of the house and with her head bent low.

Omi's mouth worked and he looked ready to explode but instead he turned on his heel and stomped away.

"Perhaps you would like to have a bath?" Meeka said, once Omi was out of earshot.

"I don't want another damn bath," Nova said. "I want to get out of here."

Meeka bowed her head.

Nova groaned and stomped away from the guards. Meeka followed at her side. They strolled beneath the shaded trees and the cool breeze lifted some of the rage from Nova's shoulders. After five minutes, out of sight of the house, she slumped to a green patch of ground and plucked a blade of grass, twirling it in her hands.

Meeka lowered herself, far more gracefully, to the ground at Nova's side.

Birds and butterflies flitted amongst the leaves overhead and the stream created a gentle gurgle that joined the rush of the stream.

Nova let out another long breath and forced herself to relax. It wasn't Meeka's fault she was stuck here, and if she wanted any hope of getting out she had to learn everything she could.

"What would you be doing if I wasn't here?"

Meeka twitched, her eyes flying up and then back to the ground. "That's unimportant."

Nova snorted. "Then it's at least something you should be able to tell me."

"My job now is to be a companion for you."

Nova rolled her eyes and plucked another blade of grass, weaving it about the first. "Riveting. Don't you have your own life? Apart from what Omi tells you?"

Meeka's brow furrowed and her lips trembled. "It is forbidden."

"Of course it is."

Meeka looked around the garden as if checking for spies. She leant in close to Nova and whispered, "I'd be working on my inventions."

"Your what?" Nova said, hands falling still.

"Shh!" Meeka flushed and glanced around.

"Show me."

"You must promise not to tell Omi or anyone," Meeka said.

"I wouldn't tell that bastard anything."

Meeka nodded. She stood walked towards the house with steady footsteps, keeping her gaze firmly locked on her feet. Nova followed suit, glaring at the dirt.

They went into Meeka's room. Thin screens created a hidden alcove at the back. Meeka shut the main door and pulled the alcove screen aside.

Nova stumbled to a stop, mouth dropping.

Within the alcove a solid work bench lay covered with tools and pieces of metal, unlike anything she'd seen on Chindo so far. Amongst the nails and tiny screws rose hand-made contraptions.

"What is all this?" Nova said, stepping forward.

"These are my inventions," Meeka said with a wide smile that transformed her face.

She stood tall, meeting Nova's eye.

"What do they do?" Nova asked, picking up a long cylinder with what looked like a spiral thread running through the inside.

"This is for moving water," Meeka said, taking it from Nova.

She placed it into a bucket of water and spun it. Just as she'd said; water travelled up the internal screw and cascaded from the top into a waiting bucket.

"That's incredible!" Nova said. How water got from one point to another wasn't something she'd ever thought about before, but this device was ingenious.

"Is this what the village uses?" Nova asked.

Meeka frowned and stopped turning the screw. The water halted and fell back down into the lower trough.

"No, of course not," she said in a low whisper, shoulders hunching.

"Do they have better pipes?"

"No, the water comes from an underground stream that we haul up using buckets."

"But wouldn't this be easier?"

Meeka bit her bottom lip and nodded.

"Then why don't they use it? Have you shown them?"

"These inventions are… forbidden," Meeka said. "Omi lets me work on them because he can't stop me but I can never show them to anyone. I'd be killed."

"What?" Nova's mouth hung open. "Why would you be killed for making something that could help people?"

"Chindo has everything it needs. By trying to invent things I'm saying that Chindo isn't good enough for me; it appears ungrateful."

Nova tried to get her head around the notion but it was too ridiculous. "I can't believe this place. It's ridiculous."

Meeka's mouth dropped open and she took three steps back. "No! Chindo is not ridiculous. Some of our customs may seem strange to you but we are a rich culture."

Meeka's words were monotone, almost robotic, as if she was speaking from a rehearsed script. Her eyes dropped to her feet when she finished talking and she stood like that, barely breathing.

"But don't you want to do more?" Nova said. "Wouldn't you want to travel to other planets and see the stars?"

Meeka's gaze snapped up. Her bright blue eyes sparkled in the filtered light and her mouth dropped open. "Such things are impossible."

"How do you think I got here?"

Meeka's hands twisted about each other. "I'd heard rumours… but—— other planets?"

Nova nodded. "If you could see them, wouldn't you want to?"

"You don't understand. To even speak of such things is against the law. I'm happy here."

Meeka glanced around the room and her eyes lingered on the far doorway. She shivered and stepped close to Nova, leaning in. "They can hear things," she whispered and then clapped her hands over her mouth.

"What? Who?" Nova said.

Meeka looked genuinely horrified at herself. Her hand pressed so hard against her own mouth that her nails left red scratches on her cheek.

"Meeka, what are you talking about?" Nova said.

Meeka shook her head violently from side to side and pushed Nova out of the small alcove. She slammed the sliding door shut and hurried them both out of her bedroom.

Nova let herself be pushed along, hoping for answers. Meeka led her all the way to the back of the garden where a wooden platform with two red pillows nestled amongst the grass. A pool of water sat just to the side of the platform and bright orange fish darted beneath the surface.

"Well?" Nova said.

"We won't speak of that ever again," Meeka said, her voice stern.

"But—"

"Never," Meeka repeated.

Nova bit her lip. She'd leave the matter lie for a time, but she'd get her answers eventually and then maybe she'd have a way off of the planet.

From the wooden platform they could just see the entrance to the main house. Sia sat on the decking on top of a pile of crimson pillows, sewing. Her brows drew together and she glared down at her stitches. The rest of the household was nowhere in sight.

"Why does she always look so cranky?" Nova asked, nodding at Sia.

"Because she's never happy," Meeka said, rolling her eyes. "She hates me so I think having to live in the same house has made her permanently angry."

Nova looked back at Sia. "What's she got against you?"

"It's a very long story," said Meeka.

At that moment Ree stepped out from between the trees carrying a tray with a kettle and cups. She knelt in front of the platform.

"How did you know we were here?" Nova asked.

"It's a servant's job to know where their masters are and what they want at all times," Meeka replied.

Ree laid out the cups and poured a small amount of tea into each. The warm liquid splashed into the white cups and gave off steam.

"Pour yourself some," Meeka said, waving at Ree.

The servant glanced at Meeka and then at Nova.

"She won't mind," Meeka said.

"Of course not," Nova replied.

Ree nodded once and took a third cup from the tray. She poured tea and sat at the base of the platform, facing Meeka and Nova. They each held their cups close in their hands and sipped gently.

Nova relished in the warmth emanating from the tea and in the flavour that had an unfamiliar flowery taste that stuck with her and left a refreshing zing through her mouth. After the disgusting food, the tea was a welcome change.

They stayed like that until night crept upon them and Ree excused herself to prepare dinner. Meeka and Nova talked quietly, mostly of inconsequential things, like the types of flowers. Meeka refused to talk about anything that might lead back to inventions, or laws, or her family. Still, Nova stored every scrap of information away for future reference. Every shrug and every blink could mean the difference between survival and death further down the track. Nova was determined to survive.






CHAPTER NINE






In light of her recent run-in with Omi, Nova resolved to be on her best behaviour. She had to get out and see the town and the most likely way for that to happen was to win Omi's approval. So for the next week she bowed when she was supposed to, dressed like she was supposed to, and ate with the ridiculous tongs, just like she was supposed to.

Seven days after moving into Omi's house Nova approached him. He was sitting in the main lounge, perched upon a scarlet pillow on the platform where Nova had first met Toro. He was reading a long piece of yellowed parchment with black letters scrawled across it. His usual black cloak with red trimming spread around him and a small smile played across his as he read the letter. Nova took that as a good sign.

She approached the platform with her head lowered and when she was within a meter she got to her knees and bowed her head towards Omi until her forehead touched the floor. She rested her arms, palm down, on the wooden boards, and waited.

She strained her ears; the rustle of parchment told her that Omi was still there, even if he was ignoring her. She bit her lip to stop herself bursting out about rudeness and ridiculous customs. She let her eyes fall closed and her imagination to wonder. She pictured tying Omi to the front of Crusader and flying into space with him. If that didn't teach him a lesson or two it would at least make her feel better.

"Yes, Stranger," Omi said. It was a new name he'd taken to using for her because he struggled to pronounce her real name.

"I wish to beg a favour, My Lord," Nova said, keeping her head bowed.

"You may sit," Omi said.

Nova rose up so that she knelt in front of the platform and looked up at Omi.

"What is this favour?"

"My Lord, I was hoping to visit the village. Meeka has told me much about it and I was hoping to see it for myself."

"Lady Meeka," Omi corrected.

"Lady Meeka, of course. I'm sorry, My Lord."

Omi nodded and stared down at her with hard eyes. The dark irises scanned over her like a hawk, she imagined that he could see straight through her to her real intentions just below the surface. His face remained expressionless as he looked her over.

"How long would you be gone?"

"Just for the afternoon, My Lord, to see the sights and admire your work here. Most of all I was hoping to see my companions."

Omi nodded slowly. "You have behaved well these last seven days."

"Please forgive me for my earlier rudeness," Nova said, bowing her head low.

It made her sick to kowtow and kneel in the dirt in front of the violent man but it was the only way she could see of getting free. She had to see her friends and make sure they were okay, Omi was the thing standing in her way so she had to get past him, no matter what it took.

"I will allow you to see your friends for one hour," Omi said. "I think the village would be too much for you at this time. My guards will accompany you."

"Of course, My Lord, thank you so much."

"You will leave now," he said. "Bitami!"

Bitami stepped inside the chamber as soon as his name was called.

"Gather six guards; you will take Stranger down to see the other foreigners," Omi said.

"Yes, My Lord," Bitami said. He turned on his heel and marched out of the meeting hall.

Nova bowed again to Omi, who had already returned to his parchment, and backed out of the hall, keeping her head low. Once out of sight she practically jogged through the garden, to the main gate where Bitami was already waiting, surrounded by guards. Six broke away and formed a box around Nova whilst the rest remained lined along the entrance.

Bitami stepped forward so that he stood eye-to-eye with Nova. "If you try to escape, my men have been ordered to stop you by whatever means necessary."

Nova nodded once. She kept her head up; it was one thing for her to fake respect with Omi but she wasn't going to spend the rest of her life with her head lowered.

"You will be given exactly one hour, no more."

Nova nodded once.

"Good. Forward."

Bitami marched to the front of the group and led the collection of guards down the path from the mansion. Nova relished in the open space, she'd spent the last week cooped up inside Omi's mansion and she was sure she was on the verge of madness. Still, it was better than her time spent on Ankar; Omi's prison had nothing in comparison to that.

The village looked just as she remembered, with decrepit shacks made of paper-thin walls and thatched roofs. The dirt road through the middle of town was empty as they approached. Still, Nova felt a tingle on the back of her spine as if she was being watched. She could imagine the faces of the villagers, just inside their windows, shrouded by darkness.

Bitami led her around the side of the village to a hut that Nova was sure hadn't been there before. It was even more ramshackle than the rest of the village and three guards stood at the entrance beside a crackling fire. They looked thoroughly displeased and their faces remained stern as Bitami approached.

"She is permitted one hour with them," Bitami said.

The guards nodded and stepped to the side. Nova marched to the door, ripped it open and slammed it shut behind her without taking the time to see what was inside.

The smell hit her before her eyes adjusted to the darkness. The smell of piss, shit, and sweat clouded around her head and made her eyes water.

"Who the hell is that?" Gus's voice boomed out of the darkness.

"It's me," Nova said, shaking off the smell and focusing her eyes.

"Bloody hell, don't tell me they've put you here too," Gus said.

"Just for an hour," Nova replied. "Don't you have a light?"

"No," Gus replied. "Not since someone tried to set the walls of our last place on fire. They don't give us lanterns anymore."

"Aart!" Nova said.

"How did you know it was me? But you can smell it," Aart said. "You'd want to get out of here too."

"That's the truth," Nova said.

She opened the door wide and stuck her head into the sunshine. The brightness made her squint but she found Bitami and locked eyes with him.

"We need a light," she said.

"No!" the guard who had been standing in front of the hut said. "They'll use it to escape. These people have no honour."

Bitami's eyes narrowed as he looked back at Nova.

"We won't use it to escape. It's darker than a black-hole in here. We need something."

"Do you swear upon your honour and your friends' lives that you won't try to escape?" said Bitami.

"Yes!"

Bitami nodded to the man who had protested. He bent down and lifted a lantern from the floor. He reluctantly lit it from a fire at his feet and handed it to Nova. He watched her with narrowed eyes as she nodded once and closed the door on them.

Nova held the lantern up and nearly dropped it with shock. Gus lay propped against the far wall, covered in bruises while Aart sat near Nova's feet with a scowl on his face. Tyra managed a brief wave as Nova's gaze travelled over her and fell to Tanguin. Tanguin lay sprawled in the middle of the floor with her eyes closed. Her chest moved rapidly up and down and her chin was covered in food.

"What's wrong with her?" Nova said, dashing forward.

She knelt by Tanguin's side and took up one of her hands. It was cold and clammy to the touch.

"It's their food," Tyra said. "She's been gradually fading away since you left. Some man comes and sees her sometimes. He tries to feed her something, a medicine I think, it helps a little but it's still not enough."

Nova's stomach churned, Tanguin looked almost dead, her face white as bone.

"She's still doing better than him," Aart said.

Nova glanced at him and followed his gaze to the furthest corner where the lamplight didn't quite reach. A pile of cushions lay bundled together in a makeshift bed with Orion sprawled over it. Purple bruises and dried blood covered every inch of him and his breath came in ragged hiccupping gasps. His arm was strapped to his chest.

"He hasn't woken up in days," Aart said.

"They didn't even bring him a bed," Tyra said. "That one is for Tanguin but she refuses to sleep on it while Orion's so bad."

"But—"

Nova stumbled from Tanguin's side to Orion. Up close his face resolved into a pummelled mess of bruised and broken flesh. He looked like a deformed eggplant, or worse. She placed her hand on his free arm. Where Tanguin had been cold, a layer of heat poured off Orion's skin like an oven.

"I was told they were helping him," she said.

"You can talk to the bastards?" Aart said.

Nova waved her hand. "I managed to get back to the ships and Cal gave me a patch."

"Lucky you," Aart said.

"But what about Orion?"

"A guy comes in here now and then," Tyra said. "But he doesn't do much. He just looks into Orion's eyes, checks his pulse and then leaves. He looks angry enough to kill every time he steps into this place."

"He doesn't look like he knows what he's doing if you ask me," Aart said.

"He doesn't," Nova whispered. "He's a vet."

"A what?" Aart asked through gritted teeth.

"The medicine man, the one who must be looking after Tanguin, is forbidden from looking after Orion. It's something about Orion being a dishonourable man," Nova said. Her body deflated with the words until all she could do was sink to the floor beside Orion and look out at her companions.

"Bastard," said Aart. "He's going to die if they don't treat him properly."

Nova shook her head. "I had no idea."

"Where have you been anyway?" Gus said. "Fancy clothes you've got on."

Nova held her head in her hands and stared at the floor. "I thought I was going through hell but this… I've been living with that bastard in the black cloak; Omi. For whatever reason his boss, the Emperor, wants me looked after."

"So you've been living the fine life while we've been down here dying?" Aart said, his grin twisting at the edges into a sneer.

"Hardly," Nova said. "The food's just as bad, the clothes are worse and I can't do anything except sit and be quiet."

"So," Gus said. "Are we getting out of here or what?"

"Yes," Nova replied without hesitation.

"You've got a plan?" Aart asked.

"Not at all. But we will get off this damned planet."

"You might have all the time in the world to come up with a plan, but we don't," said Aart. "Tanguin will waste away to nothing in another month and I have no idea how much longer Orion is gonna hang on."

Bitterness poured off Aart in waves. Nova had to bite her lip to stop a hot response from blistering out at him. He had a reason to be pissed, he was trapped in this shit box while at least she was out in the open; free by comparison.

"You're not staying like this," Nova said, clenching her fist. "I'll make sure this changes, today. Orion's not going to die just because they're bastards with some misplaced honour complex."

"Yeah," Aart said, but he didn't sound convinced.

They spent the rest of their time reminiscing because the past was far less painful than the present. Bitami knocked on the door after an hour and it felt far too soon for Nova.

"I'll make it better," she said as she walked out of the hut and into the bright sunlight, taking the lamp with her.






CHAPTER TEN






Nova burst into the mansion, her boots thumping on the wooden floorboards.

"What the hell do you call that?" she yelled at Omi.

A tiny voice in the back of her head yelled at her to stop, to take off her boots, to approach with respect, but a whirlwind of rage had lifted Nova up and bore her forward like an unstoppable torrent. She couldn't have taken off her boots any more than she could have stopped her heart from pounding against her ribs.

Three guards appeared from behind the sliding screens and ran for her. They pinned her arms to her sides and held her in place. She struggled to break free but she was no match for the three of them at once. As they gripped her arms they stared at her boots with looks of horror. She took some satisfaction in that but it was a small drop in the swirling rage that carried red across her vision.

Omi sprung up from the crimson cushions and stood towering over her, nostrils flaring.

"How dare you come in here like this," he said, a vein throbbing in his neck. "You stomp on my home with your filth, you dishonour me with your disrespect. You should be chopped into a thousand pieces and fed to slugs!"

Nova thrust her chin forward. "You're one to talk about honour! You told me that my friends were being looked after. Two of them are nearly dead!"

"It's not my fault that your friends are weak. If the Gods think them deserving of life then they will live."

"That's bullshit."

"That's the truth. If it wasn't for Toro, I would have killed you many times over by now."

"If you don't give my friends better conditions, I won't tell Toro anything and I'll tell him that it's your fault."

"You wouldn't dare."

"I would, in an instant."

"If you don't back down now I will kill one of your friends."

Nova glared up at Omi. He was serious, but so was she. If she didn't get help for Orion and Tanguin now they would die anyway. It was better for her to make a stand now, rather than do it on her knees later.

"Then give me access to my ship and I'll look after them!" The medical supplies on board the bounty hunter vehicles would see Tanguin and Orion healed in no time.

"No."

"Why the hell not?"

"Your ships are… unavailable."

Nova's heart jerked. Crusader. Cal. Without them she really was trapped on Chindo. "What do you mean?" Panic replaced rage.

"That's none of your business."

Nova took a ragged breath. She would worry about the ships later, right now she had to save Tanguin and Orion, even if that meant bowing to Omi. "Send your guards away."

"Do you think I'm an idiot?"

"You're not scared of me are you?" Nova asked.

Omi's face turned a brighter shade of red and he glanced at the guards. Their eyes were dutifully downcast and they pretended not to hear.

"Send them away and we'll talk," Nova said, letting her arms drop loose and stopping her struggling.

Omi narrowed his eyes and waved his hand once. The guards let go of Nova and marched out of the room.

"Take off your boots," Omi said the moment they were gone. "I can't talk to you a second longer while you befoul my home."

Nova kicked off her boots and tossed them to the side of the room. Omi winced and looked ready to explode but he said nothing.

"My companions need better care. They need proper medicine and a better place to live with a real toilet and beds."

"You're not in charge here. You have nothing to bargain with."

"I told you; I won't tell Toro anything and I'll blame you. On the other hand, if you look after my friends I'll tell Toro everything he wants to know and I'll make sure he knows that it was your idea."

Some of the red faded from Omi's face as he considered her. He rested his hands on his hips and chewed on his bottom lip. Nova could imagine the wheels working in his head; surely he had to give her what she wanted. It was nothing to him.

"I can't give you what you want just because you marched in here like an animal," Omi said after a long pause.

"What—" Nova was ready to strangle Omi right where he stood.

"I will grant you your request if you earn it honourably," Omi said, cutting her off.

"What do you mean?" she asked.

"You will fight one of my best warriors. If you win, then I will grant you your request. If you lose then you will be silent and never speak of this again."

Nova threw her hands in the air. "Why go through all the effort? Why not just give me what I ask?"

"Because you haven't earned it. You came in here and disrespected my home. Be grateful I'm not killing one of your companions."

"What if your soldier kills me? Toro won't be happy…"

Omi shrugged. "I'm sure any one of your companions could give him the information he needs."

Nova clenched her teeth. Omi was right about that, there was nothing separating her from her companions except luck.

"Fine," she said.

"Excuse me?"

"Yes, My Lord. I will fight for my companions," Nova said, biting out every syllable.

"Good. The match will be tomorrow. I suggest you prepare."

"Can I have my gun back?"

"Such weapons are not permitted on Chindo. The fight will be with knives and swords as tradition dictates."

Nova nodded once and marched out of the audience hall. Her heart beat heavily in her chest; she could use a knife well enough but she would have felt far more comfortable with her pistol.

She went straight to her room because she couldn't stand the thought of running into Omi or any of his guards. She sat on the thin mattress and contemplated the wall opposite. She wondered who she'd be fighting and if they were any good. Either way she had no choice but to win, if not for her own sake then for Orion and Tanguin's.

Not long after she sat down there was a gentle tap at the door.

"Come in," she said.

Meeka slid the door open and stepped inside. She wore a shirt and trousers made of soft brown material and her face was pinched. She knelt on the floor in front of Nova and bowed her head.

"I heard about the fight," she said.

"Come to wish me luck?" Nova said, half-heartedly.

"You'll need it," Meeka said, wincing. "Omi will ask Nori to fight. He is the best swordsman in the province."

Nova shrugged. "I guess I'll just have to do my best."

"You'll have to do better than that," Meeka said.

"Bloody Omi. Why didn't he just give my companions the care they need?"

"Don't you see?" Meeka said, tilting her head and gazing up at Nova. "You insulted him by bursting into his house. You stomped on his home with your boots and then demanded that he do what you ask. If he'd agreed he would have lost face with the village and his soldiers wouldn't have respected him. This way, if you win you get your request and he doesn't lose face. If you lose then the chances are you'll be dead so he wins that way as well."

"Lose face?"

"Yes." Meeka nodded deeply. "Honour is the most important thing and you threatened Omi's honour today. The story has already spread to the village. He's furious with you and he will try to have you killed tomorrow."

"But won't that make Toro mad?"

"It will," Meeka said, picking at a loose piece of fabric on the bottom of her shirt. "But Toro understands honour better than anyone. Omi will tell him what you did and he will agree that the fight was the best option."

Nova smacked her palm onto the mattress.

"If you'd just come in and spoke to him quietly, out of earshot of the guards, then he might have done what you asked," Meeka said, a tone of deep regret in her voice.

"Well that's fine to say now," Nova said. "But I was angry. I wanted to punch his face in."

"You have to control your emotions."

"Easy for you to say, you people are like robots!"

"It's not easy!" Meeka said. She glared straight at Nova and a venomous tone entered her voice. "Do you think it's easy for me to keep my inventions hidden? Do you think it's easy for me to say and do nothing and be treated like a slave just because of the colour of my eyes? Don't you think I would scream and punch them all if I thought it would make a difference?"

Nova's mouth dropped open and she leaned backwards. Fire crackled in Meeka's eyes with a ferocity that Nova hadn't seen from the other woman before.

"What—, what do you mean your eyes?" she asked, plucking the only thing she could out of Meeka's sudden tirade.

"My eyes," Meeka said in a softer tone. She lifted one hand and gestured to her face.

"What about them?" Nova said, frowning. Meeka's eyes looked normal enough to her.

"They're blue," Meeka said. "It is a sign of misfortune on Chindo."

"What? That's ridiculous," Nova said. She thought back on all the faces she'd seen so far. She felt a sinking sensation in her stomach; they had all had brown eyes, all except Meeka.

Meeka bowed her head and averted her eyes away so Nova couldn't see them.

"There must be others," Nova said.

"I've heard there are some in the Capital," Meeka said, her head still bowed. "But I have yet to see another. Until you and your companions arrived of course. The people of Chindo are very concerned about you; so many light eyes is a bad omen."

"That doesn't make any sense. Eye colour is genetic. Lots of people are born with light coloured eyes."

Meeka glanced up, a sparkle of hope in her eyes. "Are there many of us where you come from?"

"Of course there are. There's at least as many light coloured eyes as dark coloured. Some people even have striped eyes, or red eyes. Have you seen Tanguin? One of her eyes is bionic!"

Meeka's mouth dropped as Nova went on. "Red eyes? I've never heard of such a thing. What is 'bionic'?"

"Computers," Nova said. "Like cameras for eyes."

"Computers? Cameras?" Meeka said slowly, shaking her head.

Nova bit her lip and looked around. She had no idea how to explain a computer to someone whose people had only just discovered fire.

"They're like machines," Nova said, "that do things for you. They can do maths or give you directions and some of them can see."

"That sounds like a made-up story," Meeka said, wary.

"It's true."

"I'd like to see that."

"Well when I get off this damned planet you can come too."

Meeka's eyes lit up.

"You'd be allowed to invent things," Nova added.

Meeka smiled and bowed her head but the raised corners of her mouth were still visible.

"And my eyes won't matter?"

"Not at all. What do your eyes mean here?"

Meeka shrugged. "It means that I'm bad luck. Omi has to look after me because no man would want me. I bring bad luck to this house and he never lets me forget it. Sia hates it most of all."

Meeka clapped her hand over her mouth after she said the last.

"Unbelievable," Nova said, ignoring Meeka's embarrassment. "Just when I think this place can't get any crazier."






CHAPTER ELEVEN






In the cool air of dawn Nova strode into the garden where the sun painted the horizon in bright pinks and oranges. She breathed deep, mentally preparing for the day's fight.

Six guards stood at the gate as usual but just outside the walls a crowd milled around the entrance, peering into the garden with stretched necks.

"Finally you're awake," Omi said from behind her.

Nova twitched, and clenched her fists before turning. "Finally?"

"Customarily such fights would begin at the first sign of light," Omi nodded to the horizon. "Clearly, another courtesy that you barbarians don't observe."

Nova opened her mouth but he cut her off before she could speak.

"At least you're here now. The fight will be held outside. Your competitor, Nori, is already waiting."

Nova swallowed, throat dry, and looked down. She was still wearing one of Meeka's tight dresses and it pinned her legs together so that she couldn't run properly. Her bare toes wriggled beneath the hem, she hadn't bothered pulling on her boots just to breathe the fresh morning air.

"I have to get ready," she said.

"There's no time for that now," Omi said, pushing against her upper arm. "Once you've made an appearance you can't leave; that would be the same as surrendering. So unless you want to lose?"

"No! Of course not," Nova said, looking around for some kind of help. "I just didn't realise we'd be starting now, and I'm not dressed for it."

"You should have been better prepared," Omi said.

He gave her another hard shove in the back and she stumbled forward. The dress kept catching at her legs and threatened to trip her every few steps. Her heart fluttered as her mind raced, she had to delay, had to find time to prepare.

Sharp rocks and pebbles dug into her bare feet, forcing her to hobble. She'd be dead in seconds if the fight went ahead now.

Omi led her out of the gate and into the crowd of people. They stepped aside to let Nova and Omi pass, creating a seething tunnel of people that opened up some distance from the gate into a rough circle surrounded by spectators. A man in a black cloak with pitch black hair and hard eyes stood in the centre of the circle, back straight and eyes fixed on Nova.

"Nova!" Meeka called. She rushed forward and placed Nova's boots on the path.

Nova didn't think she'd ever been happier to see her shoes in all her life. She could have hugged Meeka right then if it hadn't been for Omi's growl of disapproval.

Nova stopped and pulled on her boots as quickly as she could, ignoring the indignant muttering of the crowd, and nodded to Meeka as the other woman melted back into the sea of people.

Nova strode forward but despite her boots the dress tugged at her legs, making her strides small, useless. She'd never be able to avoid Nori's attacks or get to him with her legs practically tied together.

Omi gave her a final shove, sending her stumbling into the clearing without a solution.

"The Stranger," Omi said, his voice silencing the crowd. "Has requested help for her companions. She must win the right in a fair fight, in accordance with our traditions."

The crowd cheered.

Omi gestured to two young boys. One dashed to Nori whilst the other ran to Nova. He held out a thin sword in one hand and a sharp knife in the other. Nova took both and nodded to the young man. He dashed back to the edge of the clearing.

She held her weapons at her sides and faced Nori; he was similarly armed.

"The fight will continue until one yields or one dies," Omi said. More cheers erupted from the crowd.

"May the gods smile upon you. Begin!"

Nori held his sword in front of his body. It looked light and fluid in his hands; very unlike Nova's which felt unwieldy and unnatural. She'd never had much reason to use a sword before now, hadn't expected her life to depend on it.

Nova held back, gauging, analysing. She refused to make the first move; not only would it reveal just how untrained she was, she was also afraid of tripping over her dress. It would be better for her if Nori attacked first, then maybe she could get in a killing blow before he could tear her to pieces.

She didn't have to wait long. Nori stood staring at her for only ten seconds before dashing across the arena and slashing his sword in an arc towards Nova's neck. She dove for Nori's abdomen and caught him in the ribs, sending them both tumbling. His sword swung behind her, well away from her neck and then they were both on the ground.

The crowd gasped as the two fighters rolled in the dirt. Nori's knife caught Nova's arm and sent a hot line of pain to her elbow. She gasped and threw all of her strength into rolling on top of Nori and pinning him beneath her, his arms locked under her knees. He writhed but his small body couldn't get out from under her.

She lifted her sword above her head, heart pounding.

His face twisted into a look of hateful spite as he struggled and kicked.

"Surrender!" she yelled, her sword poised.

"I would never surrender to such a pitiful fighter who relies on brawling tactics," Nori said. He drew back his head and spat in her face.

The globule splattered into Nova's left eye. She whipped her hand up to wipe the spit away, the cool liquid leaving a trail down the side of her face. While Nova was distracted, Nori lifted his leg, swung it around, and caught Nova in the side of the head. She sprawled sideways and Nori rolled free, lifting his sword as he went.

Nova sprung to her feet, trying to ignore the cold path on her cheek. Her dress caught as she got up and made her stumble. Nori lunged at her, slashing left and right with his sword. Nova ducked and weaved, only just managing to keep her balance.

Nori flowed from once stance to the next, leaving no openings for Nova to make her move. His sword made a silver blur in the dawn light, arcing down at Nova.

Each time she only just caught the blow with her own sword, or shambled out of the way. Her breaths came in laboured gasps and her dress threatened to drag her down.

Nova drew her arm back and threw her sword forward like a javelin. It sailed through the air straight for Nori's chest. His eyes widened as it got closer and he only just had time to spin out of its way as it shot through the air and clattered to the dirt a few meters from the crowd.

In the distraction, Nova took the dagger she'd been given and cut a long line from the bottom of her dress, all the way up her side to her hip. The sound of tearing fabric ripped through the arena and made the crowd stare.

The side of the dress flew open, revealing Nova's leg. She ignored the stares and leapt at Nori. He gaped at her, barely getting out of the way of her swinging knife. He turned and swung his sword, slicing through the air. Nova had no way to block it so she ducked and rolled, coming to a crouching stop three paces away.

Her torn dress fluttered in the breeze and the crowd gasped, some covering their eyes.

Nori came at her again, sword swinging. She jumped to her feet and sidestepped. He swung with practiced ease, his sword cutting through the air, swaying back and forth like a cobra. He didn't hesitate when she moved, adjusting his aim mid-strike. Nova stepped back, forced into retreat with each slash. She scrambled backwards and ducked, snatching her sword off the ground and rolling away from Nori's slashing blade.

Adrenalin fuelled momentum carried Nova's blade to meet Nori's in a rapid exchange of ringing blows. Her arms shook under his blistering downswing, knocking his blade to the side so that it hit the dirt to her right. A second later his dagger came up, slashing for her midsection. She danced back, jutting forward with her sword but Nori spun out of the way.

Sweat sprung out on her forehead as the hot sun beat down on her shoulders. The press of the crowd seemed to be smothering her and their cheers beat at her eardrums. None of them were cheering for her; they wanted to watch her bleed.

She refused to give them the satisfaction.

Nova took a deep breath and feinted left. When Nori went to swing she darted right and got in under his sword arm. He clutched his knife in his left hand but it seemed forgotten. Nova dashed under his sword and thrust her knife to his neck, stopping just short of his flesh. With her free hand she knocked his knife loose and it clattered to the ground amongst the shocked murmurs of the crowd.

Nori froze. His sword was still mid-air but there was no way he could bring it down on Nova before she cut his throat. His black eyes glazed over as he stared past her and into the crowd, straight at Omi.

Nova took a deep breath, keeping the pressure on the knife steady.

"Surrender," she hissed.

Nori pursed his lips and stared past her. He hadn't yet lowered his sword.

"I've won!" Nova bellowed. "Submit!"

Her voice shook as she stared at him. Her muscles ached and she yearned for a hot shower to wash the dirt and sweat off. She had no idea what Nori was waiting for; she just wished he'd end it.

"Submit!" she said. Her hand shook so badly that the knife jerked and drew a fine line of blood from Nori's neck.

He gave no indication that he'd even felt it.

"If you wish to win you will have to kill me," he said softly.

"What?" Nova nearly dropped her knife. She risked a glance over her shoulder at Omi. His face glowed red and storm clouds seemed to seethe behind his eyes, but he didn't make any move to end the fight.

"It's my right to die in battle. I do not submit," Nori said.

"Look," Nova said, her heart thundering in her chest. "Just submit and then you can go home and I can get out of this damned sun."

Nori didn't reply.

Nova bit her lip. She argued with herself over what to do; she could kill him and be done with it, but she didn't know if she had what it would take to kill in cold blood.

The crowd shuffled, the cheers replaced with disgruntled murmurs and the occasional yell to move on. The onlookers seemed uncertain; they watched Nova with equal measures of fear and respect, and none of them would meet her eyes.

"I can stand here longer than you, and I won't hesitate," said Nori.

Nova looked back up at him. She didn't want to kill him but then thoughts of Orion and Tanguin flashed through her head. She thought about how helpless they'd looked down in their hovel; they were being treated worse than animals. She knew that the only thing standing between them dying and them surviving was Nori. When she framed it like that, the choice was easy.

She drew a deep breath and shoved her knife upwards. At the last instant Nori's eyes flicked and stared straight at her. He blinked once. Nova's knife sliced through Nori's carotid artery and sent a gush of blood shooting out. It poured over Nova in a warm shower that splashed up her arms and onto her face. She ripped her knife out and stepped away from the body as quickly as she could.

Nori collapsed to the ground in a pool of his own blood. The red liquid spread out and stained the dirt crimson.

The crowd fell silent.

Nova stepped back and watched them. A mixture of emotions glared back at her, but most prominent was Omi. A cloud of fury spread out from his body and seemed to encompass the nearby crowd. Those closest drew back from him, leaning away. He stomped forward and stood over Nori's body.

"It appears we have a winner," he said in a flat voice.

A few in the crowd clapped a half-hearted applause.

"The fight's over. Get going," Omi said, flicking his hand.

The villagers disappeared in a rush. They pushed past one another to get away from the fighting grounds and back down the hill to the village. They whispered to each other as they hurried down the winding path but Nova couldn't make out what they were saying.

"You," Omi said, pointing to a nearby guard. "Feed him to the pigs."

"My Lord," the guard said, rushing forward and dragging Nori's limp body away from Omi's feet.

"What?" Nova said. "The pigs? Why would you do that?"

"He shamed me by losing to someone like you. He should have done better. He should be honoured that I'm feeding him to the pigs and not throwing him into the river."

"He lost a fight, that's all," Nova said.

"And it's lucky he refused to surrender. If he'd done that I would have made sure he spent the rest of his life regretting the decision."

"That's ridiculous! He didn't do anything wrong."

"If you want to fight for his rights too then it will cost you another victory," Omi said, his eyes nearly popping out of his head.

Nova bit her lip but said nothing.

"I won't even begin on you. Starting with such a disgraceful move and then revealing yourself to the entire village. Disgusting. I will give you what you asked for, but one whisper of trouble from you and I will kill all of your companions, and I'll make sure you're there to watch."

Nova nodded, not trusting herself to speak.

"Good. Your people will be moved into a better house this afternoon and I will send for a healer from the Capital. Leave me this instant before I change my mind."






CHAPTER TWELVE






Nova emerged from the bath with her skin rubbed raw. It seemed as though no matter how hard she scrubbed, she couldn't get rid of the feel of Nori's blood. She wrapped herself in a warm towel and ran her fingers through her hair.

"You disgust me! You bring nothing but shame on this family!"

Omi's voice bellowed through the house, easily audible over the soft splash of the bathing pool. Nova's stomach dropped with guilt. Meeka. She flung the towel off and yanked on a pair of loose trousers, tugging on a shirt as she slid the screen open and rushed for the main common room.

She burst through the open screen to find Omi standing over Meeka. The woman lay curled up on the floor with her hands above her head. Sia stood next to Omi, her arms crossed. She stared down at Meeka with a look of utter disgust. Zen sat further back, his eyes turned up to the ceiling rather than at the scene playing out in front of him.

"She would never have survived if it wasn't for your betrayal. After everything I've done for you! I should have let you die when we were children; at least then I wouldn't have had to live with the shame of you!"

Omi drew back his foot and slammed it into Meeka's stomach. A solid thud rocked through the floorboards and Meeka cried out.

"I was just—" she said through gasping breaths.

"No!" Omi screamed and kicked her again. "You do not interrupt me! Haven't you done enough today?"

"You shame your own family," Sia said, kneeling down by Meeka's head. She grabbed a handful of Meeka's hair and yanked the girl to her knees.

Bruises coloured Meeka's face and blood poured out of her nose. Tears streamed down her cheeks as she struggled to breathe. She clutched her ribs with one hand and held the other up in surrender.

"I wish I'd –"

"Stop it!" Nova yelled, rushing forward. Rage burned through her veins, squeezing her vision into a tight tunnel focused on Omi.

She sprinted for Meeka and shoved Omi in the chest.

He stumbled backwards. Nova drew back her hand and slapped Sia's face as hard as she could.

Sia reeled, a red welt erupting on her cheek.

"What the hell do you think you're doing?" Nova yelled. She stood in front of Meeka, shielding her. "I can't believe you would –"

Rough hands grabbed Nova's arms and ripped her backwards. Her feet flew out from under her and the thick arms of Omi's guards wrapped around her torso. Another three jumped on Meeka and held her down, grinding her forehead against the hard floor.

Omi stepped forward, his lips pulled back from his teeth, and slammed his fist into Nova's face. Pain bloomed out from her nose and stars danced across her vision. She gasped as blood poured down her face and filled her mouth with the taste of copper.

Omi's mouth twisted and he moved with slow steps, like a predator, towards Nova and Meeka.

"When will you learn," he said slowly. "That this is my house and you will obey my rules?" He stepped close, his face inches from Nova's. His breath rushed over her in a wave of rotting fish. "I tried being reasonable. I tried to give you space because you don't know our ways. But this is too much. You dare to strike my wife."

Nova glanced at Sia through a red stream of blood. She pressed one hand to her cheek while the other clasped into a fist at her side. Her eyes burned at Nova.

"This time I will punish you properly, then maybe you will understand," Omi said.

He straightened and nodded to Bitami. "The poles, both of them."

Bitami bowed and marched out into the garden. The guards holding Nova and Meeka followed behind, dragging their captives with rough hands.

Nova's insides boiled and she had trouble focusing her eyes through the red haze. Meeka's feet dragged against the floor beside her, her head hanging low and her breath reduced to ragged gasps.

The guards dragged them around to the back of the garden, hidden from the main entrance by the house. Here two wooden poles thrust out of the ground with ropes and chains tangled around their bases.

Nova swallowed hard. The poles looked like torture devices, complete with spatters of dried blood. She planted her feet into the ground and pushed against the guards, struggling to break free. Bitami kicked the back of her knees and her legs collapsed beneath her.

Nova's guards slammed her back against the pole while Bitami wrapped the ropes and chains around her. He started with her arms and legs, pinning them so tightly that she may as well have been encased in solid rock, then he moved to her body. He wrapped coil after coil around her midsection and then over her shoulders. The ropes held her in place while the chains weighed down her shoulders. Even before Bitami had finished, Nova's back ached with the effort of standing under the weight.

With the last rope secure, Bitami moved on to Meeka and performed a similar ritual. By the time he was done, only Meeka's head protruded above the mass of ropes and chains. Her frail neck quivered under the weight as her head lolled against the wooden pole.

"What the fuck is this?" Nova yelled at Bitami when he turned to walk away.

"Your punishment," he said with a shrug, before marching off, followed by his guards.

Meeka let out a soft sigh. Her eyes were pinched closed and her breath rasped in her throat.

Nova's legs wobbled. The chains seemed to get heavier with every passing moment; they tugged at her shoulders, threatening to pull her down. Only she couldn't drop because she was pinned to the pole, so she had no choice but to stand there and be crushed under the weight.

"Meeka?" Nova said.

"Mmm?" Meeka said.

"Stay with me."

"I can't go anywhere," Meeka whispered.

"I can't believe that bastard. Are you okay?" Pain pulsed through Nova's face with each beat of her heart and tears stung the corners of her eyes.

"I think one of my ribs is broken," Meeka said between breaths. Her eyes were still closed; she looked as though she was concentrating very hard.

"Then you need help! How long will he leave us out here?"

Meeka snorted. "Until we die? I don't know… until we learn our lesson I suppose."

"Learn our lesson? We didn't do anything."

"I brought you the boots," Meeka said, sighing and opening her eyes.

"So what?" Nova strained to look at Meeka.

"So you could fight properly and you won. Now Omi has to do what you asked and he blames me."

"That's ridiculous. It was supposed to be a fair fight."

"Of course it wasn't, or he would have told you it started at dawn."

"He set me up from the start?"

"Of course," Meeka said.

Nova leant her head against the pole. The ropes chaffed at her arms and wrists; she could already feel the burn and was sure blood would be dripping down her hands within the hour. Her shoulders felt like they carried the weight of the world and agony coursed up her neck.

"The sooner I get off this planet, the better."

"At least you can get away," said Meeka.

They stood in relative silence as the sun faded towards the horizon. As the light fell away, the garden came alive with insects and scurrying animals.

A sharp sting made Nova's shoulder twitch. A second hit the middle finger of her right hand. A third her forehead.

Nova whipped her head to the side. "Bloody mosquitoes!"

Another landed on her cheek while more swarmed around her, even finding pieces of flesh hidden by chains. In just a few minutes her skin felt covered in bites that itched like a junkie's rash. Nova writhed against the chains. "When I get hold of him, I'll kill him."

"As long as you keep saying that, he'll keep us here," Meeka said, seeming unaffected by the mosquitos.

"Well it's bloody hard not to hate him when there's nothing else to do."

"The first time I was put here I was five years old," Meeka said, voice soft.

"You… what?" Nova said, forgetting the mosquitoes.

"I was five," Meeka repeated, gazing into the darkness of the garden. "I was terrified of the dark then. I would have done anything to get back inside."

"Who would put a five year old out like this?" Nova said.

Something cold clamped about her chest at the thought of a five year old weighted under the chains and terrified of the darkness.

"It was my father; on the day I'd been forbidden from attending school."

"What did you do?"

Meeka let out a derisive snort. "Nothing. I was labelled a troublemaker from the day I was born because of my eyes and the teachers saw it the same way. When a group of children ganged up on me they said it was my fault; I was banned from school after that. My father was furious because at least with an education there was some hope for me. I think he hoped I would die out here; then he wouldn't have to be bothered with me."

Nova shook her head, lost for words.

"I've been out here lots of times since then," Meeka said. "Don't worry. You forget about the chains after a while."

Nova didn't think that was possible. The sheer weight of them was making her head pound, still she bit her lip, if a five year old could get through it then so could she.

***


Nova spent the night drifting in and out of sleep. Just when her eyes closed, something in the garden would move, or the chains would jingle and she'd snap awake again. Beside her, Meeka's head lolled from side to side.

The first spec of dawn was a welcome sight because it chased the mosquitoes away. Nova watched the sun rise with some apprehension. The chains dug deep gauges in her flesh and bruises ached along most of her back. She hoped that Omi would find it in himself to let them down; she could barely face the thought of spending another day strung to the pole.

They waited in silence as the sun got higher. It cast the garden into dappled shade, except where the poles were. The trees and grass around the poles had been cleared away so that they stood in a desolate patch of dirt. No overhanging trees stopped the sun beating down on them and as the day wore on, the sun got hotter.

Sweat poured down Nova's face and soaked her arms and legs beneath the chains. The salty layer made the ropes and chains chafe worse and left her body stinging. She could smell the sweat clinging to her body but she couldn't even raise an arm to wipe the droplets from her face. She licked her top lip and closed her eyes. She refused to beg Omi for mercy.










CHAPTER THIRTEEN






It was mid-afternoon when rough voices roused Nova from her heat-induced daze.

"Toro is coming! Omi wants her down and cleaned off before he arrives."

Nova opened her eyes a slit. Bitami and two other guards hurried towards her, faces grim. They kept glancing over their shoulders and talking in low voices to one another.

"We'll have to take them through the back," said Bitami. "Toro is already at the gate."

The guards ran to Nova's side, unlocking the metal chains and unwinding them from her shoulders. The sudden weightlessness made Nova feel as if she were flying. Her shoulders lifted involuntarily and she rolled her neck, relishing in the cracking of her vertebrae.

They untied the rope from around her bloody wrists, strips of skin peeling away and clinging to the metal. She touched a hand to her shoulder; it came away bloody.

They untied Meeka, but her expression didn't change as the chains came free. Bloody grazes covered her skin, interspersed with blooming bruises. It was only then that Nova noticed the scars already marking Meeka's wrists and shoulders.

She clenched her teeth and turned on Bitami.

"This way," he said, ignoring her glare.

He slid a section of wall aside to reveal a dim passage leading into the back of the mansion. A guard led the way inside, followed by Meeka and Nova. The other guard and Bitami came up the rear. The short passage came out in a small alcove at the back of the bath house. The steam from the heated pool filled the air with fragrant clouds.

"You will wash and put on clean clothes," Bitami said, pointing to a folded pile. "Then you will come out and greet Toro."

Nova glared at him but for the moment she was too focused on her injuries to bother striking back. The warm water bubbled beneath her and promised release from her aching muscles. She ignored the guards and stepped into the water fully clothed.

Dirt and blood streamed off her and into the water. The small outlet stream carried the filth away as she let the water run over her injured wrists. It stung at first; the water tugged at loose tendrils of skin and got into the grazes. She bit her lip and let the water do its work.

The guards hurried out of the room, leaving Meeka and Nova alone. Meeka delicately removed her dress and lowered herself into the water with a low moan. Nova averted her eyes and focused on scrubbing the dirt from her hands but even so she couldn't help notice the purple bruising covering Meeka's left side. She bit down on the rage rising in her stomach and focused on washing away the dirt.

When the pain in her wrists had eased, she tugged her clothes off and laid them in a sopping pile by the water's edge. She drew a deep breath and lowered the rest of her body into the warm water. The sudden sting at her shoulders brought tears to her eyes. She could picture the raw skin leaking blood into the water but couldn't bring herself to look.

After the initial sting the warm water went to work on her exhausted muscles. The knots in her neck and shoulders faded away and she let her back relax. More layers of grime fell off, colouring the water a dull brown, but gradually her pink skin was revealed.

Meeka dunked her head under the water and pulled her fingers through her hair, dragging out leaves and chunks of dirt.

"We shouldn't stay too long," Meeka said. "It would be an insult to Toro, and Omi won't be in a good mood."

Nova sighed. She could quite easily have spent the rest of the day in the bath, letting the pain of her time on the pole get carried away. She knew Meeka was right though, and the last thing she wanted was to be strung up on the pole again as soon as Toro left.

She scrubbed once more at her skin to remove the last traces of dirt and then stood, letting the warm water run off her in rivulets. She climbed out of the pool and towelled herself dry. Meeka did the same. They pulled on the simple clothing; both wore white trousers with loose shirts that hung down past their wrists. The fabric was light and gentle against their wounds whilst also conveniently hiding their injuries.

Nova rolled her eyes and led the way to the main entrance hall. She entered to find Toro sitting on the platform surrounded by pillows while Omi knelt on the floor. She relished in the sight of him having to grovel in his own home. It made a good change.

She walked to the platform, doing her best to hide the pain emanating from almost every inch of her, and bowed before Toro, as far away from Omi as she could manage. Meeka bowed low on her other side.

"Stranger," said Toro.

Nova sat up on her knees and looked at him.

"I'd like to continue our last conversation. The rest of you may leave us," Toro said.

"My Lord, she's dangerous. I really don't think—" Omi said.

"I said leave us," Toro repeated, glaring at Omi.

Omi bit his lip and stood. He withdrew from the room along with Meeka and the guards until Nova was left alone with Toro.

"You may sit comfortably," Toro said, pushing a red cushion towards her.

She took it and sat, trying to keep a straight face as pain shot up her knees.

"You're injured," Toro said. He wove his fingers in front of his face and looked at her over the top. "Let me guess; Omi lost his temper again."

Nova nodded once.

Toro's expression didn't change. "Unfortunately while most of us have control of our emotions there are some who haven't yet mastered it."

"I just want to go home," Nova said. "With my companions."

"Where is your home?"

Nova tilted her head to one side. That was a hard question to answer seeing as she didn't really know. "For the moment it's on our ship."

"The contraption you were found with?"

"Yes."

"But what do you eat? Have you found a way to survive without food?"

"No. We have ways of making food," Nova said, not wanting to reveal too much.

"From nothing?"

"Yes."

Toro nodded. Nova had expected some exclamation or at least a raised eyebrow but he gave nothing. His face remained the same serene mask it had been since she entered the room.

"When can we leave?"

"When you've taught me about your technology."

"I thought invention was banned on Chindo," Nova said sharply. She thought of Meeka and her hidden alcove.

"To some, yes," said Toro. "It would give the people too much power, which they wouldn't be able to handle. Wars and crime would break out. It's much better to keep things as they are; peaceful."

"So why would you want to know about our technology?"

Toro lowered his hands to his knees and leaned forward. "I said inventions are forbidden to the common people. I am anything but common."

As his tunic slipped forward Nova caught a glimpse inside to his undershirt. Tucked into a smooth holster was the unmistakable shape of a plasma pistol. It glinted silver in the torchlight of the hall.

Nova bit her lip to stop herself gasping. Her eyes flicked back to Toro's face and she tried to keep her expression neutral. Inside, her heart was raced. The gun didn't fit into anything else she'd seen on Chindo, like the swords the rest of the people carried. A cold fear crept through her stomach; if Toro was hiding that kind of technology, what else was he capable of? The interference, blocking her communication with Cal, maybe it wasn't natural at all.

Her mind raced as she sat as still as stone, watching Toro. She forced herself to keep her eyes on his face, instead of returning to the gun at his waist. If she could just keep calm then maybe he wouldn't know she'd seen it.

"We'll come back to the magic food," Toro said. "First, tell me where you come from."

"Where I come from?"

"Yes."

Nova took a deep breath to calm her beating heart. She couldn't see any harm in revealing her home planet.

"Tabryn," she said. "In the Pleasure District."

"Tabryn," Toro said, his tongue struggling over the unfamiliar word. "And all of you come from this, Tabryn?"

"No," Nova said slowly. "We all come from different planets."

"But how can that be? You all look and speak the same. You have the same technology."

Nova puzzled over the question. She had no idea what Toro was trying to get at.

"We're all humans," she said slowly.

"Yes," Toro said. "Where do humans come from?"

"What?" Nova frowned. Clearly the people of Chindo were human so they must have come from the same place; how could they not know?

Toro gazed at her but didn't repeat the question.

"Earth," Nova said. "We come from a planet called Earth."

"Earth," Toro said. He nodded to himself. "Tell me about the humans."

Nova made a stumbling start, explaining the expansion of the human colonies and the formation of the Confederacy. She was careful to skirt around the level of their technology and the colonisation ships. She needed to know how much Toro already knew before laying all her cards out.

"Where did your people come from?" Nova asked.

"Earth," Toro replied with a sly smile.

Nova's fist clenched but she forced herself to stay calm. "I mean, how did you get here? How long have you been here? What do you know about your history?"

"In a ship," Toro said, steepling his fingers in front of his face.

"What about the rest?"

"We've been here for as long as our history tells us and we know as much of our history as you. Do your people fight?"

Nova bit her lip and hid her frustration, it would get her nowhere with Toro. She turned her attention back to his question and thought about all the fighting going on in the human colonies. It wasn't just the Hunters and the Confederacy, there were always small turf wars going on between the planets and even between cities. She'd stayed well away from that though.

"Sometimes," she replied.

"Tell me about it."

Toro had a way of asking simple questions that left Nova talking for what felt like hours. Somehow he got her to reveal far more than she would have liked without telling her anything. They spoke until well past midnight and by the end Nova's voice was hoarse.

"Thank you," Toro said. "You may go now. I will call upon you again and we'll talk more."

Nova nodded and bowed her head before backing out of the room and sliding the screen shut behind her. She shuffled back to her room, her eyes drooping closed before she'd even shut the sliding door behind her.

Just as she was about to collapse into bed a soft tap sounded at her door.

"Yes?" she said, exhausted.

The door slid open to reveal Ree carrying a small tray loaded with food.

"I thought you might be hungry," she said.

In response Nova's stomach growled. She hadn't even noticed just how starving she was until she saw the food. She couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten; she'd been tied to the pole and before that she'd been fighting Nori.

"Thank you," Nova said, sitting on the floor in front of the tray.

Ree bowed low and slipped out through the sliding panel. As soon as she was gone Nova dug into the food, ignoring the small tongs and instead used her fingers to lift the food from the plate to her mouth. She was so hungry that even the slimy white tentacles tasted alright. She swallowed every morsel, leaving the sparkling orange cube until last.

She placed it on her tongue and then fell back on her bed. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the sensation of the citrus-flavoured sugar melting in her mouth. The refreshing zing soaked through and eased her pounding head and aching muscles. By the time the cube had dissolved she was already fast asleep.








CHAPTER FOURTEEN






Nova sat on a green patch of springy grass, out of sight of Omi's house and shielded from the sun by overhanging branches. The cool stream bubbled over rocks a few meters to her right sending up a light spray. She held a cup of warm tea in her hands and blew gently on its surface.

Over the top of the glass she gazed at a rock, the size of a cat. It stood vertically out of the ground, covered in a fine layer of moss. A lizard sat on the top with spines running around its head. It watched her out of the corner of its eye.

She took a gentle sip and let the warm tea slide down her throat. It left an aftertaste of jasmine on her tongue. She lowered the cup to her lap and continued to watch the lizard.

She'd come out here to clear her mind and think. Her meeting with Toro the night before kept replaying in her mind. Apparently he'd left in the early hours of the morning, back to the Capital. Nova frowned; he was her best chance for getting off the planet. He just wanted to learn, and if she could give him what he wanted then maybe he'd let her and the other Hunters go.

Now he'd disappeared and she was left with Omi. So far she'd managed to avoid him but she didn't hold much hope for the rest of the day. She planned to stay in the garden until nightfall and then sneak back to her room. It wasn't an ideal way to live but at least it might save her from being tied to the pole again.

She sighed as she thought of her fellow companions. There was no way Omi would let her see them again. She just had to hope that he'd kept his end of the bargain and was looking after them properly. Thoughts of Tanguin and Orion dying in a shit-filled hovel filled Nova's head and her hands clenched. The thin glass in her hand cracked and warm tea spilled out over her fingers.

"Shit." Nova dropped the glass to the ground and wiped her hands on her dress.

The fine glass fell into sharp fragments, surrounded by a puddle of brown tea.

Nova took a deep breath, returning her gaze to the lizard. She kept her breathing steady so that her chest barely moved, until some of the rage burned away from her stomach. She'd taken the time to learn some meditation after her run-in with the Ancients so long ago. If she let her emotions get ahead of her she'd lose control and if that happened she could end up a thousand years in the future with no way to get back.

Sometimes when she was surrounded by silence, she could still see the shadows at the edge of her vision. The people walked back and forth and sometimes spoke; they'd been with Nova for so long that she'd learned to ignore them.

That brought her back to how the hell she was going to get off Chindo.

"Nova." The soft voice filtered through Nova's thoughts.

"Nova."

Nova blinked and turned to find Meeka standing a few feet away.

"Omi has asked that we go into the village with him," Meeka said.

Nova sighed. The last thing she wanted to do was spend time with Omi but she daren't refuse him again, not while the pain in her wrists, and most of her body, reminded her of what had happened last time. She stood, startling the lizard, which scuttled off the rock and disappeared into the trees.

She walked with Meeka to the front gate where Omi was already waiting.

"Toro has demanded that I show you some of our ways," Omi said. His eyes narrowed as he looked at her. "Any trouble and I will string you straight back to that pole."

Nova nodded once.

Omi and his guards led the way down the winding path towards the village. Stalls lined the main street, creating colourful splashes amongst the otherwise dull buildings.

Meeka limped at the back of the soldiers, keeping her left arm pinned to her side and grimacing with each step.

Nova walked beside her, frowning. "Have you seen someone about that?"

"Ree bandaged it for me," Meeka said in a low whisper. "It's not the first time and she knows what she's doing."

Nova shook her head. The instant she got the chance, she would bring Omi and all of his men down. Her frown deepened. If Toro had a gun there was a good chance that Omi did too. She'd have to be careful if she challenged him; she had no idea how armed he was.

When they got to the village the people stared at them from beneath lowered lids, shoulders tensed as if they wanted to run.

"Toro demanded that I give you free reign to look at what you want and take whatever you desire," Omi said, voice tight, as if repeating a practiced speech.

Nova shrugged and followed Meeka to the nearest stall. Colourful fruits made neat stacks on the wooden bench with thin paper signs declaring the price. The woman behind the stall stepped away from them until her back pressed against the house behind her, colour draining from her face.

A pile of what looked like oranges took up most of the bench but beside them purple cubes made small towers.

Nova reached out and touched one of the cubes, it dipped under her fingers like soft jelly. Besides them a bowl of nuts gave off a smell vaguely like banana.

Nova took one of each and held them up to the woman. "How much?"

The woman shook her head and pushed herself even harder against the wall.

"She won't take your money," Meeka whispered at Nova's side and tugged at her arm.

"I don't have any," Nova said. "I was hoping Omi would pay."

Omi stood on the other side of the street, out of earshot, glaring at them.

"She still wouldn't take it."

"Why not?" Nova said as she cradled the fruit under her arm and walked to the next stall.

"Your eyes," Meeka said. "If blue is bad, purple must be worse."

"So they won't take my money because of the colour of my eyes?"

Meeka nodded, her eyes serious. "You'd be shocked at what they'd do. I'll tell you about it later."

At the next stall an elderly man sat hunched on a wooden stool. His white hair hung in wild tangles and he glared up at Nova and Meeka through thick eyebrows.

Rolls of brightly coloured cloth covered his stall, catching the sunlight. Soft dresses draped across the table and behind him mannequins showed off some of the clothes.

Nova nodded at the man and moved on. He didn't acknowledge her.

It continued like that as they moved up the street. Simmering hostility surged beneath the quiet exterior of the village. At every stall Nova met with cold distrust and sometimes hatred. None of the people would talk to her, or take money.

Half-way up the street they came to a stall draped in black cloth. Unlike the rest of the stands which were packed close together, this one stood alone with space on either side. It was as if the other stalls were drawing away from it.

Nova peered curiously into the darkness.

Sitting beneath the black canopy, lit only by a thin candle, was a woman. Her dark hair hung about her shoulders, pieces of coloured ribbon woven through it. She wore a black shirt and loose black trousers and unlike the rest of the villagers she jumped to her feet when they got close.

"Hello, Stranger," the woman said. Her head barely reached Nova's shoulder and her smile revealed toothless gums. An ugly scar ran down from her forehead, across her temple, to her ear.

"Hello," Nova said.

Meeka stood behind her, frozen.

"I'm sure I can interest you in something," the woman said.

She waved her hand at her table, laden with mysterious items. Jars with candles gave off a heavy scent that hung in the air around the stall. The orange firelight flickered over pieces of white bone; a human femur and a finger, as well as animal bones. A tiny bird skull that Nova could have held in the palm of her hand stared up at her. It looked hauntingly familiar.

Crystals and metal carvings took up the rest of the bench, similar to many stalls Nova had seen during her time on Tabryn. Charlatans often sold the merchandise as cures to all kinds of ailments and the desperate population was more than happy to pay for them.

"This," said the woman. She reached out a gnarled hand and wrapped it around a leather necklace with a golden skull dangling from the end. She held it out to Nova, the skull rocked in the breeze.

"I couldn't…" Nova said.

"Take it," said the woman. "You never know when it might come in handy."

Nova shrugged and took hold of the skull, surprised by the weight. She pulled the leather over her head and let the skull fall against her chest. The metal seeped warmth through her thin clothes like it had been sitting beside a fire.

"Thank you," she said.

"Hey Omi." A loud voice drew Nova's attention away from the woman.

A middle-aged man leant against a nearby post, sneering at Omi. He had a small eating knife in his hand and was using it to pick the dirt out from under his nails. In front of him stood a table laden with all manner of metal contraptions.

Omi rounded on the man.

"I thought you had enough bad luck with that freak sister of yours, but I guess it can get worse aye?"

Omi marched towards the man. Meeka let out a small squeak and took a hesitant step forward.

"Look. Even Mad-Maya has taken an interest in them," said the man.

"What's going on?" Nova whispered to Meeka. She laid her hand on her hip where her pistol usually rested and cursed Omi for taking it away.

"That's Huan," Meeka whispered. "He's nothing but trouble and he and Omi have hated each other since they first saw each other."

"One more word," Omi hissed.

"I can give you a bunch of words," Huan said. He hadn't moved from the post, as if he hadn't noticed Omi's looming presence and the sword at his hip. "So has Sia decided to come down and let me show her a real man yet?"

Omi growled and took another lumbering step.

Huan stared straight back at him, the smile dropping from his face.

Nova looked for anything she could use as a weapon but the bare street offered nothing. The merchants stood behind their stalls, eyes locked on the ground. Some of them silently moved the breakable items from their benches.

As her eyes scanned Huan's stall she took a better look at the contraptions. They had handles and dials like machinery, it was the first she'd seen of that kind since landing on Chindo, except for Meeka's inventions. Nova's eyes caught on a familiar object; it was the screw device Meeka had shown her for transporting water.

"He took your invention!" Nova hissed out of the corner of her mouth to Meeka.

Meeka's mouth dropped open. "No, no no! Please don't mention that here."

"But he stole it…"

"I gave it to him to sell," Meeka said in a rush. She gazed up at Nova, eyes wide.

Nova raised one eyebrow but bit down on any further questions. There were more important things to focus on. Like Omi's twitching hand.

Huan straightened from his pole and stood with his feet spread wide apart. He was the same height as Omi and they glared at each other with mutual hatred. The air buzzed with tension as the two men faced off against each other. The closest villagers backed away, abandoning their stalls.

"Let it go, let it go," Meeka whispered.

"How dare you insult me and my family. You are nothing but filth," Omi said. "I should have had you killed the instant I saw you."

Huan stood a little straighter. "And I should have killed you for being such a pompous asshole."

Omi laid his hand on his sword.

"Don't draw it, don't draw it," Meeka's voice wavered.

"If he draws, the other guy might back down, then we all go home in one piece," Nova said.

Meeka looked at Nova as if she'd just announced that she had been born with two heads.

"Have you learnt nothing?" Meeka whispered. "If Omi draws his sword he's honour-bound to finish the challenge. One of them would have to die and Huan doesn't stand a chance."

Nova's heart jerked in her chest and she looked back at the battle with new understanding. The eyes of every villager locked on Omi's hand on his sword. Nova's stomach turned; Huan's life hung in the balance. He'd come off as a loud mouth, but he didn't deserve to be slaughtered like an animal.

Huan's fists clenched at his sides and his eating knife glinted in the sun. Omi's nostrils flared as he gazed at Huan, as if daring him to make another comment.










CHAPTER FIFTEEN




"My Lord!"

A middle-aged woman with greying hair rushed over. A basket hung over her left arm, piled high with chunks of fish. Their wet scales flashed in the sun, drawing attention away from Huan's knife.

"My Lord Omi," the woman said again. She came to a stop in front of Omi and fell to her knees. She held the basket high above her head. "I know river fish are your favourite. I spent all of yesterday catching these for your greatness. Please accept my unworthy gift."

Omi's eyes fell away from Huan to the woman. He stared down at her and the basket of fish with some confusion. Unconsciously his hand fell away from his sword as he reached for a chunk of fish. He brought the meat to his mouth and chomped down. His expression didn't change.

When he swallowed he stepped back as if to get a better view of the woman. "Fisher Zien," he said. "You've outdone yourself."

The village, including Nova and Meeka, breathed a collective sigh of relief. The stall-holders returned to normal business while the man in the stall next to Huan's grabbed hold of the other man's arm and dragged him away from the street, into the nearest building. The woman with the basket of fish beamed up at Omi, her face glowing with pleasure.

"I will award your house fifty silver for such a gift," Omi said.

The woman nearly dropped the basket in her hurry to bow before Omi. Her head dropped to the dirt three times before she stopped long enough to beam back at Omi.

He took the basket from her and shoved it at one of his guards. The man fumbled for the handle and caught it just in time to stop the fish from falling out over the ground. Omi nodded at the woman and cast one last look to where Huan had been standing before moving on.

Nova glanced at Meeka and relaxed her shoulders. "Well that was close."

"It's still not good," Meeka said. "Omi will be in a bad mood after this. Why did Huan have to open his mouth?"

"Why did he?"

"Because Omi killed his father," Meeka said under her breath.

They were walking down the middle of the road, out of hearing of the villagers.

"What?" Nova said, her steps faltering.

"His father was an elderly man, nearly seventy and his eyesight wasn't good. He accidentally sold Omi some bad meat. And of course, he was punished."

"What do you mean 'of course'?" Nova asked, horrified. "He was an old man, he made a mistake!"

"I know." Meeka hung her head and stared at the road. "I tried to reason with Omi but he was sick for two days after eating that meat. He was furious."

"But that's—"

"That's Omi," Meeka said. "I'm lucky Huan still talks to me. He's not always nice but he's the only one who will stock my inventions."

Meeka's gaze slipped to the water transporter.

"I don't blame him for hating Omi," Nova said. "I hate him and he hasn't done anything that bad to me."

"Huan hates all kinds of authority," Meeka said. "He hates everything about Chindo. It's a wonder he's survived this long."

Nova nodded but said nothing. She also gazed at the spot where Huan had been standing. There was defiance in his eyes, the kind of burning desire for change that she'd seen in lots of revolutionaries. Hell, she'd had that same feeling herself when she looked at the Confederacy. Maybe Huan would be the one to bring change to Chindo; he clearly wanted to get rid of Omi.

"Omi's looking at us, we should keep moving," said Meeka.

They came to the end of the stalls, although Nova's enjoyment of them was coloured by the recent incident. After the market stalls were a handful of shops. The first had a wooden sign dangling above the door with a picture of a small rodent on it.

Nova shrugged and pulled off her boots. She left her shoes at the door and pushed past the thin screen. Inside a handful of candles cast fluttering light against the thick darkness. Their intermittent glow bounced off the walls and lit up the cold, dead eyes of a hundred animals.

Nova's heart leapt into her throat and she took an involuntary step back. From every shelf and every spare inch of floor, animals looked up at her. Or at least, they used to be animals. They were frozen in animated poses, their eyes dull, glassy. Most of them Nova didn't recognise, although a monkey-like creature stood beside the door wearing a long coat.

By her left foot crouched a small orange creature that looked like a fox and behind that was a rodent, similar to the one on the sign above the door, which looked just like a rat. On the shelves birds looked down at her with sharp eyes and in the corner a bear-like monstrosity towered over her.

Past the stuffed animals stood a rack of furry skins. The fur had been cleaned and brushed to a bright sheen.

She stood at the doorway with an expression of utter confusion.

"It's like I've stepped back in time," she whispered. It wasn't something she said lightly, considering she had actually stepped through time.

"You must have such shops," Meeka said. "Where else would you get warm clothes? I don't like the stuffed animals but lots of people do."

She looked at the bear, mouth turned down.

"We—" Nova tried to answer Meeka's question but she didn't know how to explain that most of their clothes were assembled molecule-by-molecule, by machines. She gave up and settled for taking a slow walk around the store.

At the very back, leering out at them from behind the counter, sat a woman in a black shall.

"If it isn't Misfortune herself," the woman said, her voice cold and scratchy.

Meeka didn't reply.

"And you. Make me tarnish my reputation by making me look after that filthy, dishonourable companion of yours." The woman's eyes bore into Nova as she snorted and spat a goblet of mucous at the floor. It landed and quivered on the floorboards by Nova's bare foot.

Nova's eyes widened. "You're the one that was looking after Orion?"

The woman scowled. "The dishonourable one. It's a shame he didn't die, even though I did my best. At least now he's not my problem."

"You what?" Nova took three quick steps forward until she was leaning over the woman, her fingers splayed on the desk.

"Nova, not now," Meeka said.

"Do what Misfortune says," the woman squawked. "And maybe she'll smile on you."

Nova's teeth ground together. "You tried to kill Orion?"

"Bloody bastard wouldn't die," the woman said. "I don't know what demons he's made a deal with, but I wouldn't want to meet them."

"You ugly—"

"Nova," Meeka warned. She grabbed hold of Nova's arm and tugged her towards the door.

Nova let herself be led away but she kept her eyes on the woman. The woman glared after her, not blinking.

As soon as they were in the daylight Nova wrenched her arm free of Meeka's grip. "She tried to kill my friend!"

Meeka nodded, her eyes darting around the street.

"She was supposed to be helping him! Did anyone else know? Did Omi tell her to do it?"

"I don't know," Meeka said. "But please, here is not a good place. She has an important place in this village and if you speak badly of her they might take it out on your friends."

Nova's mouth snapped shut. She couldn't imagine such a foul woman holding any kind of power, but this was a strange place. She hoped that the woman tripped in her store and was impaled on a bear claw.

"I don't know how much more of this I can handle," Nova said.

"There's only a couple more stores to go. Then Omi can tell Toro that you saw everything and everyone is happy."

"Yeah, okay," Nova said, following Meeka towards the next store.

She kept her mind open in case Cal or Crusader could reach her, but so far she'd heard nothing. It was as if they'd completely disappeared. A sickening sensation sunk through her stomach at the thought that something bad must have happened. She couldn't think of any other reason why Cal and Crusader hadn't come to save her yet.

A bell jingled above the door as they walked into the next store. An open window let in a gentle breeze and lit the store with warm sunlight. Herbs and flowers hung from the ceiling and dangled above the window while little clay jars with tiny labels filled hundreds of shelves, more sturdy than the walls of the building.

A wizened man hunched over a workbench at the back of the store, using a mortar and pestle to crush green herbs. He glanced up as they came in and then went back to work without acknowledging them.

Meeka leaned in close to Nova's ear. "He's the village healer. He's the one looking after your friends now."

"Is he trying to kill them too?" Nova asked, instantly on edge. She'd already taken a step towards the man before Meeka could reply.

"No!" Meeka said and tugged her back. "Doctor Yana is ok, he's a traditionalist but he takes his work seriously. He won't let them die."

Nova nodded, staring at the man for another five seconds before returning her attention to the jars. There were so many things here that she'd never heard of; essence of Murtlap, dried Grosens, pickled Quib brains.

On one shelf, pink embryos floated in amber fluid, their overlarge eyes stared, unseeing, at Nova. Next to them was a jar of eyeballs and a box of talons.

Nova's face twisted and she took a step back towards the door. If these were the ingredients the healer was using on her friends, then she didn't hold much hope for them. She backed out of the door and relished in the sudden brightness of the afternoon sun.

From there she moved as quickly as she could through the rest of the town and then hurried after Omi towards the mansion. She'd seen more than enough of the village to know that there would be no help from them. Even the fruit she'd got at the first stall looked wrong, like she'd find the insides rotten, and she handed them to Ree as a gift as soon as she could.

Ree's eyes lit up. "Surely I can't…"

"Take them," Nova said, leaving Ree gaping after her in front of the kitchen.


***


Nova sat with Meeka in her room, both of them eating from a tray using the small tongs. Nova had become somewhat more accustomed to the food although she'd do anything for a plate of chicken and chips.

"I can't believe how they looked at us today," Nova mused.

Meeka nodded and pointed to her eyes. "It's the curse."

"It's ridiculous."

"You have no idea. They would rather die of starvation than take anything from us."

"You're exaggerating."

Meeka dropped another white tentacle into her mouth and shook her head. "I give food to the poor," she said in a whisper. "But I have to do it in disguise because otherwise they'll throw the food out."

"No!"

Meeka nodded. "The first time I did it I didn't think they could be so foolish. There was a woman whose husband had been killed by Omi. They had seven children and they were all starving. I thought the least I could do was give them food. When I arrived with a basket she looked at me with disgust. I handed her the food and she tipped it into the dirt right in front of me."

"That's disgusting," Nova said, the food turning to ash in her mouth.

She forced herself to swallow the mouthful but placed her eating tongs onto the tray, unable to face another bite.

Meeka hung her head and also discarded her tongs.

"If I were you I wouldn't feed them," Nova said. "If they're going to be so stupid, then let them starve."

"They only know what they've been taught. I can't hate them for believing what they see."

"How can they see it?" Nova said. "There's no such thing as cursed eye colour!"

"But don't you see?" Meeka said. "It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since I was born with blue eyes I was given the worst of everything. I was banned from school and I'll never get married. Doesn't that sound unlucky to you?"

Nova's reply died in her throat and she snapped her mouth shut. In a way Meeka was right; when she said it like that it did sound like a cursed life. Nova shook her head and glared at the ground; the sooner she got away from Chindo, the better.






CHAPTER SIXTEEN






The weeks dragged on. After Nova's trip to the village she was confined to Omi's household, forced to endure endless hours sitting in the garden or staring at the walls of her room. Meeka taught her some of the games of Chindo but they brought little distraction to Nova who could think of nothing else but getting free.

Four weeks after her visit to town she sought an audience with Omi. She entered the main room and bowed low before the platform. A sense of déjà vu turned her stomach as her forehead touched the wooden floorboards.

"What do you want?" Omi said, peering down at her from his pile of cushions.

"I wish to see my companions," Nova said.

Omi snorted. "After what happened last time, what makes you think that I'll let you?"

"I'll do anything," Nova said. "I'll even tell Toro that you deserve to be made elite general."

She'd gotten the idea from Meeka. Omi's sister had said that he'd always dreamed of being promoted to elite general and being allowed inside the Capital. It was the one thing he wanted above everything else.

Omi paused and stared down at her. "Elite general?"

"Yes," Nova said, raising her eyes from the floor to look at him. "I will vouch for you. I'll tell Toro whatever it takes."

Omi stroked his chin and his tongue flicked out to lick his lips. "Very well then. You may visit your friends. Be warned though; another incident and I will have them killed."

"I understand," Nova said.

She bowed her way out of the room and into the garden where Bitami met her. Six guards went with her into the village. This time they led her to a different house, a bigger one with smoke curling out of the chimney. The two guards at the front stood aside as Bitami approached.

"Two hours," Bitami said as he nodded Nova inside.

She nodded back and slid the door open.

This time when she stepped inside she was greeted with dancing orange light from the fireplace. The room smelled of burning wood and freshly cooked food, unlike the rancid scent of disease that had assaulted her last time.

When her friends turned to face her their skin shone, healthy, instead of the pallid shade of the near-dead.

"Nova!" Tanguin said, from her position leaning against the far wall. She still looked far too skinny but at least she was conscious.

Tyra sat beside her with a bowl of soup cradled in her hands. Aart stood near the fire stirring a large pot over the flames. He managed a grin at her and ladled out a new bowl of soup.

"Well look who it is," said Gus, sharpening a long knife in the light of the fire.

Nova's eyes slid to Orion. A part of her didn't want to look; she didn't want to stare into his dying face and know that there was no hope. When her eyes finally came to rest on him, her mouth dropped open. He smiled up at her from a mountain of pillows, cheeks glowing red. The bandage around his ribs was clean and the bruises on his face were gone.

"You're better!" Nova said.

"Getting there," Orion said in a soft voice.

"He's been milking it for weeks," Aart said. "I'm convinced that him and the doc have got a scam going on."

Nova chuckled and sat on the floor. Aart handed her a steaming bowl.

"What's this?"

He shrugged. "Aart's famous soup."

Nova looked at the bowl and sniffed. There were chunks of something floating in it.

"It's actually pretty good," said Tanguin. "Better than anything they give us anyway."

Nova shrugged and brought the bowl to her mouth for a tentative sip. A zingy flavour flowed over her tongue and left a pleasant burn. It tasted like chilli-stew and if she closed her eyes she could almost pretend the chunks were beef.

"How'd you make this?" Nova said. "It's better than anything I'm getting!"

"Their first problem is they don't cook anything," Aart said. "It was no wonder Tanguin was getting sick. So I figured we should cook it. Then of course I wasn't sure that we should trust the water so that had to be boiled too. I've been working on the flavour with some help from the Doc."

Nova grimaced. "You wouldn't be so keen if you saw some of the things he's got in his shop."

Aart shrugged. "If it looks like chilli and tastes like chilli…"

Nova nodded and had another sip. The warm broth was exactly what her stomach needed and she gulped it down. She frowned when she looked down to find an empty bowl. "I wish I had that up at the mansion."

"Tell 'em to make it for you," Aart said. "You seem to have their attention, although I have no idea why seeing as I'm the most handsome."

Nova rolled her eyes. "I don't know either."

"So have you worked out a master plan to get us out of here?" Tyra asked.

Nova's smile vanished and she shook her head. "They've got this place locked down tighter than a Confederacy prison."

"Nova, you just broke out of one of those," Aart said.

"Yes but look how much planning that took! I was prepared for that. This is just one giant bowl of crap."

"Hey! I worked hard on that," Aart said with a smile, taking the bowl away.

Nova allowed a sad smile to flash across her face.

"But you are working on it, right?" said Tanguin. Her face had lost some of its colour.

"Of course. I will find a way. It's just taking longer than expected. I haven't seen any ships and I can't get hold of Cal or Crusader."

"Make sure it's soon," Gus said, hoisting his knife. "Or I'll have to take matters into my own hands."

Nova nodded. "I know. I know. But we'll get out of this, we always do."

They stayed like that talking for the next two hours until Bitami slid the screen aside and waved at Nova that it was time to leave.

She walked away from her friends with her head hung low. She was glad they were getting better but she could feel their frustration. In a way she had it easy; at least she wasn't living in a single room with four other people.

She had to find a way off Chindo; if not for herself then for her friends.










CHAPTER SEVENTEEN






Nova awoke to the sound of screams.

She leapt out of bed and ripped her door open to find people running down the hallway in various states of undress. They pulled on their clothes as they belted swords around their waists.

Nova sprinted away from her room to the guards' quarters where she heaved a sword off the wall. Her heart raced in her chest and her fingers shook. This could be her chance for escape, she just had to grab hold of it. If she could get down to her companions and free them then they'd be one big step closer to freedom.

She jogged from the guards' quarters towards the gardens. The screams grew louder and new voices joined in. The garden was alight with the flickering glow of a fire, casting flickering shadows against the walls.

Nova burst into the open air and slammed into a wall of heat. She backed away from the flames that licked the thin walls, raging towards the house.

"Put it out!" bellowed Omi, tussled hair hanging loose over a silk nightgown. He held his sword in hand and sweat dribbled down his face. "Put it out, you good-for-nothings!"

Omi's soldiers sprinted in every direction with wicker baskets leaking water that they hurled at the flames. The fired hissed and leapt in defiance. Shadows danced up the trees and across the walls as the household desperately tried to put out the flames.

More screams came from the village. Nova ran to the unguarded gate and looked down.

The town was aflame.

Figures darted between the buildings and metal glinted in the flames. Nova watched as a man sprinted out from behind a burning building and slashed his knife across a running woman's neck. She collapsed to the dirt, convulsing.

Nova's stomach dropped. Her friends were down in the village, almost weaponless.

"The village is under attack!" she yelled.

The soldiers and Omi ignored her, focused on putting out the flames overrunning the mansion.

Nova took her chance and sprinted out of the garden, down the winding path. She bounded down the hill with all the speed she could muster, her eyes scanning the chaos for any sign of her friends. She ignored the flaming houses as heat licked up her arms. She raced to the edge of the village where Aart and the others were held. The guards outside their door were nowhere to be seen.

Her heart fluttered.

This could be the chance that she'd been waiting for. She dashed for the door and ripped it open. Gus jumped on her the second the door moved, his knife pressed against her throat.

"Nova!" he said in surprise, dropping his hand to his side.

"What's going on?" Aart said, dashing to the door, peering at the chaos.

"The village is under attack," she said between breaths. "Now's our chance. We can break free." A part of her felt bad for leaving Meeka behind, but she was safer on Chindo than the Hunters.

"Hell yes," Aart said.

He darted back inside followed by Gus. They returned a second later with Orion held between them. Tanguin and Tyra were right behind, make-shift knives clasped in their hands.

"We head to the forest," Nova said. "Once we're away from this damned place we can come up with a plan to find our ships."

The others nodded. They moved as a group away from the small hovel and towards the closest edge of town. The fire leapt between the houses, sweeping through the village faster than anyone could put it out. The paper screened houses made the perfect kindling.

The Hunters made it to the shadow of the next building when three hooded men sprang at them from the shadows. They wielded sharpened swords and inexplicably, guns. The glowing plasma pistols were unmistakeable in the gloom.

Nova darted forward and swung her sword.

The man in front of her could have blown her head off three times by the time she reached him, but instead he raised his sword.

She swung her blade at his head, but it was blocked by his own and the ring of metal on metal echoed through the night. He ducked and thrust his blade at her belly. She rolled to the side, and came up in a low crouch. She risked a glance at the others, the two attackers circled the other Hunters. Gus had his knife ready.

The sharp blade swung at Nova's neck and she had to roll again to avoid being decapitated. She lunged to her feet and pushed forward; swinging left and right with her blade. It sliced through the air with a satisfying whoosh that sent her attacker stumbling back. From beneath his hood she could make out a leering smile.

He lunged at her. She tapped his blade away. He lunged again; this time she stepped to the side so that he sailed past and kicked him in the back. He stumbled forward. She dove after him and with all her strength she drove her sword into his back, severing nerves and muscle.

A fountain of blood spewed out of the wound and coated Nova's arms and face. She rolled out of the stream as quickly as she could, taking the man's gun with her. She struggled to her feet, wiping the blood from her eyes. The other two hooded figures were locked in close combat with Tyra and Gus. Aart didn't have a weapon but he was doing his best to punch, kick and disarm Tyra's attacker.

Nova darted in while they were distracted and dispatched the men with two quick shots from the pistol. They crumpled to the ground at her feet in a pool of their own blood.

Aart looked up at her, eyes wide. "Nova, we—"

"Halt!" Aart's words were cut off by a sharp bark from behind Nova's left shoulder.

She turned slowly and came face to face with Bitami.

"Omi thought you might try to use this to your advantage," Bitami said. "I've been instructed to bring you back to the house."

Nova's hand tightened around the gun. Bitami had six guards around him. While she'd been fighting, the battle raging around her had changed. The cloaked attackers had disappeared and instead of running and screaming, the villagers were calmly throwing buckets of water on the flames. The fire at Omi's house had died down to a soft red glow and his soldiers walked the streets, helping the villagers.

She considered making a break for it but they'd never make it past six guards with Orion in his condition. She pointed the gun at the ground.

"I wasn't using anything," she said. "I was just checking on my friends and helping with the defence."

She pointed her gun at the three dead men.

Bitami grunted. "Your friends will be returned to their shelter. It was undamaged. You will come with me back to Omi."

Nova bit her lip. "Of course."

She turned to her companions, putting her back to Bitami and his guards.

"He's taking me back to the mansion," she said. "And you back to your house. Don't do anything rash. This is a good thing; it might be the break we've been waiting for."

"Check them for weapons," said Bitami.

The two guards ran their hands over the Hunters, taking a pistol each from Nova, Aart and Tyra, and six from Gus.

Nova raised an eyebrow; she hadn't even seen him take them.

Dark clouds surged over Gus's face but he followed the others back to their dwelling while Nova turned to face Bitami. Two of his guards followed after the Hunters.

"Good," he said.

Together they marched back up the hill to Omi's mansion. As they drew closer the full extent of the damage became clear. The fence around the side of the mansion had become a blackened pile of ash on the ground. The trees both inside and outside of the fence formed blackened stumps while the piles of half-burnt wood and debris glimmered with the water that had been thrown in an attempt to put out the flames.

Nova stopped at the gate and looked at Omi's house, her mouth hanging open. The side closest to the fence was burnt black and had collapsed to one side, the roof caving in on the rooms below. The paper sliders that made up the walls had been completely incinerated, along with most of the support poles. The other side of the house remained intact; Omi's guards had managed to stop the flames before they spread too far.

Omi yelled at a group of guards near the charred side of the house while others dragged the burnt pieces of the mansion away. They'd already created a sizeable pile of burnt rubble. The rest of the household stood in tight circles and gazed at the ruins with horror-struck faces.

Sia stood apart from the others, one hand firmly placed on Zen's shoulder, the knuckles white from her tight grip. Her face made a stony mask as she surveyed the damage. Zen on the other hand looked close to tears, but he wasn't looking at the house. Nova followed his gaze to two figures laid out on the ground. The wizened medicine man from the village was bent over them so that Nova couldn't make out their faces.

She jogged closer to get a better look and stopped short, her hand clapping over her mouth.

Meeka's small frame was unmistakeable as the doctor leaned close to her chest, head tilted. Her eyes stayed closed in her pale face.

Ree lay beside Meeka, her small body hidden under a white sheet with just her head poking out the end. She looked serenely asleep, as if she would open her eyes and get up at any moment.

Nova ran to the doctor's side and knelt next to Meeka's head. The onlookers gasped at her sudden approach and the doctor glared at her.

"What happened?"

She cast her eyes desperately over Meeka but there was no sign of life.

"The servant was caught in the fire," the doctor said. "Meeka ran in to save her and they were both caught."

"Are they going to make it?" Nova whispered.

He gave her a stern look and leant over Meeka, pulling the corner of Ree's sheet up to reveal the body underneath.

Nova fell back as bile rose in her throat. "No."

Where Ree's body should have been there was a charred ruin. Her arms and legs had become blackened stumps that ended in twisted knobs that looked nothing like hands or feet. The burns went all the way to her neck where miraculously they stopped. A few blisters and redness on Ree's chin was the only sign of the fire.

The medicine man dropped the sheet.

Nova's eyes raced away from Ree and back to Meeka. She couldn't help but think of their time together. Meeka had helped her and together they'd faced Omi's wrath. Seeing her lying, on the verge of death, made hot tears sting the corners of Nova's eyes.

Hot anger seared through her veins as she looked around for someone to blame.

Omi's round face came into view as he yelled at his guards to clear the burnt ruins of his house away. He hadn't even glanced at the little village, which had been brutally attacked. Nova wondered if any of these guards had family down in the village and whether they even knew if their loved ones were still alive.

Nova sprung to her feet and marched at Omi. She managed to wrangle her rage enough not to yell but it burned in her chest like a raging inferno.

His nostrils flared. "I'm busy, stranger."

Nova took a deep breath, pulling her voice under control, and bowed her head. "What happened, Lord Omi?"

Omi's jaw tensed. "Buta."

Nova twitched. "What does that mean?"

Omi shoved her out of the way and kept talking to his guards. They formed a tight circle that Nova couldn't break into, leaving her standing on the outside, fuming.

She gritted her teeth and went to help clear the wreckage, hoping they didn't find any more bodies. She watched Omi and his guards out of the corner of her eye. Every so often a group of guards would break off. Sometimes they'd join the clean-up, other times they ran out of the gate and disappeared into the lightening dawn.

Nova waited until Omi was alone and then made to approach him. Before she could take two steps three guards were on her, holding her arms at her sides.

"He doesn't want to talk to you," Bitami said. "He's busy."

"I want to know what is going on!"

"It's none of your business," Bitami said.

By the time the guards let her go, Omi had long since disappeared into the side of the house that remained standing. The rest of the household were also moving inside.

Already new screens had appeared beside the broken half of the house and were being erected over the charred remains. At the rate they were working there would be no sign of a fire by the end of the day.

Two guards carried Ree's body away from the mansion towards the village whilst Meeka was carried inside followed by Yana. Nova went after them. Meeka had been her only friend in this hell-hole and she wasn't going to give up on her now.

The guards carried Meeka to her room and laid her out on her own bed. Doctor Yana knelt beside her mattress and reached into the bag at his side.

"I'll need warm water for tea," he said.

"I don't know where it is," Nova said, surprised that he was talking to her.

"Then you'd best find it. I don't think anyone else will try to save this girl. What do you think?"

Nova swallowed hard and dashed from the room. She ran down the corridor to the kitchen where Ree had forbidden her from entering. A pang of sadness rolled through her as she thought of Ree's fearful face. She shook her head and looked around, there was no time to mourn Ree, and she had to focus on saving Meeka.

Over by the far wall stood a stove with a small fire burning underneath it. A pot of water was already sitting on top, bubbling. Nova breathed a sigh of relief and loaded the pot onto a tray. She carried it through the house as fast as she could to Meeka's room.

Yana didn't acknowledge her as she lay down the water. Instead he pulled a small glass jar filled with crushed green leaves from his bag. He took a pinch of these and dropped them into the tea, swirling the pot and then letting it sit. The colour leaked out of the leaves and turned the water a murky brown.

"You'll try to save her?" Nova asked.

Yana didn't respond, pulling another jar from his bag.

"Even though she's… cursed with misfortune?"

Yana's hand's paused and he looked up at her through thick eyebrows. "I take care of all my patients equally. It's my job to do my best and save them all. If I fail them, their souls will weigh down on my shoulders long after I die."

Nova's mouth hung open but any reply she might have had died in her throat.

"But you'll have to help," Yana said. "No one else will risk being cursed by saving her.

"Anything you need," Nova said in a whisper.

Yana took her at her word. For the next twelve hours she was rushed off her feet fetching things. He sent her down to the village three separate times to collect things from his shop and then she had to get water from the stream and boil it every half an hour so that he could make teas and poultices. She was also sent scrounging for pieces of cloth to use as bandages. She wished that Crusader was nearby, one can of New-Skin-O and all of Meeka's injuries would be sealed.

At first glance, Meeka's burns didn't look so bad. There was a line on the back of her hand and one of her toes was bleeding profusely but apart from that she looked normal. It wasn't until Yana pulled back her coat that the real damage became clear. A huge bruise covered Meeka's chest and stomach, surrounded by blisters and blackened pieces of skin.

"One of the beams fell on her," Yana said as way of explanation.

Nova's mouth hung open and her chest constricted, squeezing the air out of her. She couldn't believe Meeka was still alive after an injury like that.

"And here." Yana lifted Meeka's head, revealing a pool of bright blood.

It seemed to Nova that no matter how many bandages she placed under Meeka's head, they kept coming away soaked in blood.

It went on like that well into the night. The rest of the household had fallen into restless sleep by the time Yana leant back on his haunches and wiped the sweat from his brow. "It's up to her now."

Nova nodded, resolved on staying by Meeka's side until she woke up.

"Give her a cup of tea with two pinches of this every hour," Yana said, handing her a jar of dried leaves.

Nova nodded and clutched the jar close to her chest. Yana shuffled out of the room and slid the screen shut behind him.










CHAPTER EIGHTEEN






Nova dozed in and out of sleep as the night dragged on. Her eyes popped open at every noise, hoping to see Meeka awake and dreading the alternative.

Finally, as dawn peeked over the horizon, Meeka shuffled and opened her eyes. Nova rushed to her side, and helped her sit higher.

Meeka sat against the pile of pillows and smiled wanly at Nova. "Thank you."

Nova shrugged. "It was the least I could do after all the help you've given me. Plus I need you here to keep me updated on what the hell is going on."

Meeka sighed and dropped her eyes to her hands. "Ree didn't make it, did she?"

Nova shook her head and placed her hand on top of Meeka's.

"I thought I'd saved her. I had her hand and we were running, but then the roof fell in. I don't remember much after that."

"It took all of Yana's knowledge just to save you," Nova said. "Ree was already gone by the time they pulled her out."

"She should have lived," Meeka said. "Of everyone here she was the one who most deserved to live. She was never mean or cruel to me like the others. She was a good woman."

Nova bit her lip and said nothing. Sometimes people would whisper about an after-life and how the lost loved one was better off. But Nova didn't like to live in fairy tales. If Meeka wanted to believe that, then it was her business.

"Those bastards," Meeka said under her breath.

"Which ones?"

"Buta."

"That's what Omi said. What does it mean?"

"Buta is a man. He's a cruel man with no honour. He and a band of renegades live outside of the towns and they're constantly attacking villages. Omi and Toro have tried to root them out but it's like they can disappear into thin air."

Nova gripped Meeka's hand tight as she remembered the men who attacked her in the village. "They had guns!"

Meeka's eyes flew open and her gaze rushed to the door. There was only silence on the other side.

"How do you know of such things?" Meeka whispered.

Nova frowned. "What do you mean? I know all about guns; how do you know about them?"

Meeka dropped her eyes and bit her lip. "I shouldn't know."

"But you do. What the hell is going on here if you're still getting water from wells and yet your attackers carry plasma pistols!"

"Shh!" Meeka urged, her eyes again darting to the door. "I'm not supposed to know. Those weapons are reserved for Toro's elite guard, his top soldiers. I saw Omi practicing with his one day, I've seen what they can do."

"All of Toro's elite guard?"

"His whole personal army has them," Meeka said.

"But they were carrying swords."

"On the outside, yes," Meeka said. "The shooting weapons are a secret. The common folk, like me, aren't supposed to know such technology exists. It's like my inventions, we're not supposed to see anything more than what we have."

"How can no one know?" Nova said, shaking her head. She couldn't conceive of a whole population being so oblivious.

Meeka shrugged. "We're trained from an early age not to ask questions. This is just a part of that."

"It's disgusting. So how the hell does this outlaw have weapons then?"

"I don't know. I would guess that he stole them. Buta's family used to be part of Toro's honoured elite. His father was the last Emperor's closest general. Something happened back then and Buta's father disappeared along with his family. Buta reappeared a decade ago, with these attacks, and they haven't stopped since."

"But how are the villagers supposed to defend themselves against guns when they don't even have lighters to make fires!"

Meeka caught Nova's gaze. "Did the attackers use guns on the villagers?"

Nova frowned, mind racing. "They must have. They were carrying them…"

"Did you see them fire?"

"Well… No…"

Meeka nodded. "Then at least some of them keep some honour."

"Still cowards," Nova spat.

A sharp rap on the door made both women glance up like startled rabbits.

"Toro has arrived. He wants to see you both," Bitami said through the sliding door.

"Meeka can't move!" Nova bellowed back.

"I don't—"

Bitami's reply was cut short by the door sliding open and Toro stepping inside. "I don't mind talking here," he said.

Nova instinctively bowed her head towards the floor. Beside her Meeka tried to do the same and gave an audible gasp of pain.

"You may forgo the formalities this once," Toro said, raising his hand to Meeka.

He slid the door shut behind him, leaving Bitami on the outside, mouth gaping.

"I wanted to talk to you," he said, nodding to Nova.

"Good, because I want to talk to you too," Nova said. She turned away from Meeka and got to her feet. "Buta and his followers have guns. Why the hell didn't you tell me that you have that kind of technology?"

Toro's mouth twitched but that was his only sign of emotion. "It's not my job to tell you the intimate details of our ways."

Nova's jaw clenched.

"I've let your insolence go so far," Toro said, his voice dropping to a menacing whisper. "But my patience is wearing thin. I came here to tell you that you're coming with me to the Capital. As are Meeka and Omi."

"What?" Nova and Meeka said in unison.

"My companions?" Nova said.

"Will not be joining us."

"But—"

"Perhaps I didn't make myself clear," Toro said in the same whisper. "This is not a request. It's an order. You will accompany me. We leave at dawn."

Toro gave them one more look and then marched from the room.

Nova and Meeka looked at each other, their mouths hanging open.

"I can't believe we're going to the Capital," Meeka said, her voice filled with wonder.

"It's another step further from my friends and home!"

"I've heard it's the most beautiful place," Meeka continued, unheeding. "No one except Toro's most trusted are allowed inside. It's supposed to be like a whole other world."

Nova sighed and collapsed back beside Meeka's bed. Something in Toro's voice had warned her that there would be no argument, but now that he was gone her insides boiled with rage. She dreaded the thought of leaving her companions alone. All it would take was one bad move and all hell would break loose.

"You have to do what he says," Meeka said, as if reading Nova's thoughts.

Nova sighed. "I know. But that doesn't mean I have to like it."


***




True to his word Toro and his travelling companions marched out of Omi's gates when the sun had barely peaked over the horizon. Toro strode out in front, surrounded by guards. Six men carried a palanquin draped in gold silk behind him, which he ignored.

Behind Toro and his soldiers came Omi and a small retinue of his household guards. The rest were left behind to repair the damage left by Buta's soldiers and to keep an eye on the village. Omi marched along in his usual black cloak with red trimming and a sword on each hip.

Nova's eyes kept sliding to Omi's waist, wondering where he kept his plasma pistol, and then to the rest of Toro's soldiers; did they have guns too?

Nova's skin crawled at being surrounded by weapons while having nothing to defend herself with. She felt like a sitting duck at a back-planet country fair. She just hoped none of these soldiers tried to shoot her for extra points.

One hundred people marched away from Omi's mansion in relative silence. Only Toro's occasional comment and Nova's questions broke the quiet. The path out of town led towards mountains in the distance and soon thick trees and swaying grass hid the village from view.

In the daylight, and with soldiers on all sides, the forest seemed far less threatening. The purple flowers cast a cool glow over the ground and the leaves spread over their heads like giant tents. In a way the ancient forest reminded her of Drigoon, but at least here she hadn't been swallowed by a carnivorous plant, at least not yet.

Meeka lay on a small palanquin with a thin veil for shade. She winced with every jolt of the carriers but said nothing. Nova had fought tooth and nail to get her the carriers; Omi had wanted to make Meeka walk all the way to the Capital.

Nova had argued, sure that just the short trip through the garden would have killed Meeka. Even now, Meeka's face had lost all colour except for two bright patches of red on her cheeks, and she gripped her side with her free hand.

Nova walked close by her side in case she needed anything. At least for the moment Omi was keeping quiet, his face a mask as he marched alongside his soldiers. Despite that, Nova though he looked pleased; otherwise he'd be yelling or cursing at someone. The fact that he was silent was all the proof she needed.

"It's the Capital," Meeka whispered when Omi marched forward to speak with Toro. "Omi's had his eye on it since the day he was born. He's hoping to be allowed inside, I think he'd die happy if he got that one wish."

"He's never been inside?" Nova said. "I thought he and Toro were best friends."

"He likes to think so," Meeka said. "But really he's just one of Toro's many generals. He's hoping to marry Zen to Toro's daughter. That would make him practically royalty."

"Do you think that will happen?" Nova said.

"If Sia gets her way," Meeka said with a shrug.

"So no one except Toro knows what's inside?"

Meeka shook her head, biting her lip as the soldiers jostled her litter.

"It's probably nothing," Nova said. "A classic case of the grass being greener. The only reason everyone wants to go there is because they can't."

Meeka frowned. "We've heard stories…"

Nova nodded but pinned her lips closed as Omi marched back towards them.

They spent the morning walking through the forest. Around noon the trees thinned and opened onto green fields that stretched away in all directions. The mountains looked much closer and the path they followed disappeared between them. Far in the distance a black smudge shadowed the horizon.

"That's where we'll be staying tonight," Meeka said.

Nova nodded. Her stomach rumbled; she still hadn't gotten used to only eating two tiny meals a day. Ever since she landed on Chindo she'd felt like she was starving. It was no wonder all the people here were so small; they didn't eat enough! Her biggest hope for the Capital, aside from finding a way home, was finding better food.

Creatures darted away from the army into the high grass of the fields, making the strands quiver. Butterflies swarmed up from the grass and surrounded the army, bright blue wings sparkling in the sun and flapping around the soldiers. The tiny bodies brushed against Nova's skin and made it tingle.

"Bloody pests," Omi said, swatting at them. He caught three in his hand and crushed them between his fingers before letting them drop to the ground.

Nova swallowed the sharp rage that burned the back of her throat, relieved to see one of the fallen butterflies lift off the ground and flap back to the grass. "We don't have many butterflies anymore," she said in a whisper, mostly to herself.

"There are whole swarms of them here," said Meeka. "I've always liked them."

"Of course you have," Omi said, spinning to glare at them. "Look at the colour of their cursed wings."

Meeka fell silent.

Nova clenched her fist and imagined crushing Omi's face beneath her boot; the time would come soon enough. For the moment she settled herself with enjoying the swarm of butterflies. They followed the army for at least ten minutes before circling up into the air and then flying back down the path to where they'd been hiding in the grass.






CHAPTER NINETEEN






Bright orange tinted the sky by the time they came alongside the inn. It sat beside a lively river, which tinkled as it raced its way past. A dock hung over the water and two men in straw hats leant over the side with poles.

As Nova watched, one of them gave a shout of victory and yanked his pole up to reveal a thrashing squid, tentacles flailing. Nova's stomach rolled as she recognised the squishy white tentacles that appeared on her dinner tray every night.

A short fence, the height of Nova's waist surrounded the inn, separated from the building by soft waving grass that rustled in the evening breeze. Tall trees dotted the garden and cast long shadows across the grass. A smooth dirt path led to the front of the inn where five young women and two young men stood with their heads bowed. An older woman in a sweeping grey robe stood in front of the others, her head similarly bowed.

Most of Toro and Omi's men stopped at the front gate where they pulled tents out of their bags and went to work erecting them. Toro and Omi went on into the garden with three guards each. Nova followed alongside Meeka's palanquin to the front door.

"My Lord," the older woman said, falling to her knees and laying her head on the ground. The people behind her dropped to the ground in the same fashion.

Toro nodded. "Thank you for your gracious welcome Madam Illia."

The woman got to her feet but kept her eyes lowered. "You honour me with your presence."

"I always enjoy my time at the Jade inn. Please see that my companions are taken care of," he said, gesturing to Omi, Nova, and Meeka.

"Of course," Illia said. "Will you be having your usual room?"

"Yes, thank you."

Madam Illia clapped her hands twice. The women behind her stood and fled back into the inn while the two men stepped forward and held out their arms to Meeka. The soldiers holding the palanquin lowered it to the ground and backed away while the two men bowed low and lifted Meeka into their arms so smoothly that barely a grimace crossed over her face.

"Please," Madam Illia said, holding out her hand towards the door.

Nova pulled off her boots in the entranceway and followed Toro and Omi into the inn. The first room contained twenty empty tables that barely came to Nova's knees with thin cushions dotting the floor around them.

The five girls who had run inside stood beside the far wall, heads bowed.

"Jasmine, please show Lord Toro to his room," Illia said.

The prettiest of the girls rushed forward and bowed low to Toro before walking quietly from the room. He followed along behind her.

Illia called each of the girls forward in turn to lead each of Toro's party to their rooms.

"Angel," Illia called, nodding at Nova.

A woman in a soft white dress stepped forward. She smiled at Nova but there was a seriousness behind her eyes that Nova couldn't fathom.

Angel lead the way to the front of the inn where a small room overlooked the garden, decorated with just a single sheet of material and a small vase.

"If you need anything, please ring this bell," Angel said in a soft voice, pointing to a small bell hanging beside the door.

"Thank you," Nova replied.

Angel bowed and tiptoed away, leaving Nova alone in the sparse room. Unlike Omi's house, she couldn't hear any noise from the other rooms. She had expected to hear each of her travelling companions as they settled in, but instead she was encased in a silent bubble. She gazed out of the window at the trees as they bowed in the wind. She breathed a deep sigh and let her muscles relax. As much as she resented being on the road and being taken from her friends she had to appreciate the beauty of this place. It was a long way from the inns that she was used to.

An hour later there was a soft tap on her door.

"Yes?" Nova said, stirring from her thoughts.

"Dinner is served, if you would like," Angel said in a whisper.

"Coming," Nova replied, sliding the door open.

Angel bowed and gestured for Nova to follow. They walked through the house and back to the main room. Where before there had been twenty small tables now there was one long one with crimson cushions set around its edge. Piles of steaming food filled the length of the table, sending out aromas and filling the air with a warm mist.

Toro sat at the centre of the table. "Sit," he said, pointing to the cushion opposite his own. He was already scooping tentacles onto his plate.

Madam Illia stood in the corner as still as a statue. She blended so completely into the background that Nova wouldn't have noticed her if it weren't for her eyes roving about the room. Angel and Jasmine stood at either end of the table with their heads bowed.

Not long after, the rest of their companions came in. They all stood next to the table until Toro invited them to sit. Meeka looked to be in agony as she waited for Toro's approval. He was quick to point her to the closest cushion and Meeka sat with an audible sigh.

"Forgive me, My Lord," she whispered.

"Speak when you're spoken too!" Omi hissed. He sat opposite Meeka and his eyes burned with rage.

Nova sat beside Meeka, opposite Toro, and she was sorely tempted to kick Omi under the table. Unfortunately she couldn't be sure which were his legs, and which were Toro's, so she kept her rage under control.

"What can I get you?" Nova asked as Meeka strained to bend over the platters.

Meeka's face flushed red at Nova's offer. "Please, I don't want to trouble you."

"No trouble at all, I have to get mine anyway."

Meeka's face continued to burn bright red as she mumbled that she'd like some tentacles and a small spoonful of vegetables. Nova ladled the food onto Meeka's plate without saying a word. She intentionally ignored Omi's flared nostrils and glaring expression.

"Like an invalid," Omi hissed.

"Have you never been wounded in battle?" Toro asked in a pleasant tone, turning to Omi.

"My Lord," Omi said, choking on the food in his mouth. "I— of course."

"And did you need taking care of?"

"Well— yes," Omi said. "You were there. It was after the battle of Grindel."

Toro nodded. "I know. I just wanted to make sure that you remembered it."

"Of course," Omi said, patting the stray food from his chin with a white napkin. "Why would I forget such an honour?"

"Please forgive me," Toro said. "From your tone I thought you were disappointed with your sister. I thought it best to remind you that wounds sustained in battle are marks of honour."

"I—" Omi's face went from red to a sickly green. "Battle?"

Toro chewed slowly on a tentacle and gazed at Omi. He took the time to swallow it before continuing. "Your house was attacked by Buta was it not?"

"Yes," Omi said slowly.

"And Meeka was injured as a result of that?"

"Well… yes."

"Then doesn't that mean she was wounded in battle?"

Nova had to shove a whole tentacle into her mouth to stop herself bursting out in laughter. The look on Omi's face was one of complete and utter bewilderment whilst Toro's expression remained serene and slightly curious. Meeka hid her face behind her hand, as if pretending to wipe her face clean.

"I—" Omi frowned as if in deep thought. "I suppose it does, yes."

"Then congratulations are in order!" Toro said, raising his glass towards Meeka. "To the hero of the battle."

Nova lifted her glass so quickly that some liquid splashed down the side. Omi raised his glass much more slowly with the expression of bewilderment still firmly fixed over his face. As they drank from their glasses Nova saw bewilderment change to realisation and then to deep, burning anger. He glared at Meeka and his knuckles turned white where they gripped the edge of the table. She didn't seem to notice as she basked in Toro's attention.

They spent the rest of the meal in relative silence. Meeka was too injured to talk and Omi was too mad. Nova preferred to keep her silence and study Toro as she ate. Unfortunately he gave nothing away.

As soon as they finished eating, Jasmine and Angel rushed forward and cleared away the plates.

"Would you care for entertainment?" Madam Illia said, stepping out of the shadows.

"Not for me," said Toro, "I'm going to sleep."

"Of course, My Lord," Illia said.

Toro nodded to each of them and walked out of the room with his head held high.

"I want the usual," Omi said gruffly.

"Which one?" Madam Illia said, her smile becoming fixed.

"Does it look like I bloody care? They all look the same with the lights off."

"Very good," Illia said, her mouth barely moving. "Angel, you will see to Master Omi."

"Yes My Lady," Angel said in a shaky voice. She followed Omi from the room.

Nova's whole body tensed, ready to spring at Omi and tell him exactly what she thought of enforced prostitution, when Meeka laid a hand on Nova's arm. "It's the way," she said softly.

"And would you ladies like entertainment? We have music, drink, dancing, and many other things…" Illia let her words hang in the air like a promise.

"I think I'll sleep too," Nova said.

"And me," Meeka said.

Nova held out her arm to Meeka and helped her through the inn to her room.

Nova fumed as she lowered Meeka to her bed. It must have shown in her face because as she stood, Meeka spoke. "They're better off here than wherever they were."

"How do you know that?" Nova whispered. "You don't know where they've come from."

Meeka nodded, wincing as she shifted positions. "They each have a small cut on their hands. It's the sign of the unwanted. If Mother Illia hadn't taken them in they would have died on the streets."

"The unwanted?" Nova said. "Is that some kind of Chindo thing? Is it because they all have quiet voices or something equally ridiculous?"

Meeka sighed as a smile tugged the corners of her lips. "If that were the case two thirds of the women in Chindo would be working here."

"Well then what is it, the unwanted?"

"It means their parents didn't want them. They're probably children of adolescent girls who didn't plan on becoming pregnant."

"Orphans?" Nova said.

"In a way," Meeka replied. "Although not like normal orphans whose parents have died. There are other places for those."

"What's the difference?" Nova said.

Meeka shrugged. "It's just the way."

"Well the way sucks."

"Sometimes," Meeka said, nodding slowly. "But usually the unwanted die before they reach two days old. These are the lucky ones."

Nova snorted. "Tell Angel that while Omi has his way with her."

"It could be worse," Meeka said. "He's not as violent as some."

"Oh I'll show him violent," Nova said, clenching her fist.

"Just believe me when I say that they're happy here," Meeka said.

Nova swallowed and looked away. In a twisted kind of way she was an unwanted too. If she'd been born on Chindo she could have ended up in a place just like this. In a way, her chances here were better than on Tabryn, at least here there was no Zine to get high and die from.

She pushed thoughts of her home-world down. Even after all these years it was painful to think about.

"Okay," Nova said with a sigh. "They're happy."

"Yes. Now get some sleep. Tomorrow we'll reach the Capital!" Meeka's voice bubbled with excitement.

Nova smiled as she left the room. Meeka's enthusiasm was infectious and she was starting to look forward to seeing the Capital too. She'd be sorely disappointed if it did turn out to be just Toro's house.






CHAPTER TWENTY






The next morning Nova awoke to Angel laying a tray of tea beside her bed.

Nova's hand snapped to her belt, for her gun, only to find nothing. Angel gasped and stepped back at Nova's sudden movement.

"Please forgive me," Angel whispered.

Nova blinked, coming fully awake with adrenalin pumping through her veins. "No, it's my fault. Sorry. Bad habit."

Only the barest sliver of light lit the horizon. Angel followed her gaze and nodded. "Toro requested that all guests be woken, he wishes to continue travelling once the sun is fully risen."

Nova nodded and Angel bowed herself out of the room. Nova filled a cup with the fragrant tea and brought it to her lips. The zingy flavour took away the taste of sleep from her mouth and filled her with new energy for the day.

A short time later they were back on the road with Toro's army spread out around them. Nova breathed deep of the fresh air and couldn't help smiling. She had a good feeling about the Capital, and after last night she couldn't dislike Toro too much, he'd put Omi in his place and stood up for Meeka; that was worth a lot in Nova's books.

After leaving the inn they passed no more villages, the landscape becoming bare of any human involvement except for the dirt road that wound on through the mountains. The occasional rodent scurried across their path and took refuge in the long grass on either side.

"Where is everyone?" Nova asked Meeka when by midday they still hadn't passed anyone.

"Travel to and from the Capital is forbidden without Toro's permission," Meeka said. "Almost no one is given the honour."

"But shouldn't there be villages or something?"

Meeka shook her head. "It is forbidden to build so close to the Capital. It's for security."

Nova shook her head. Just when she thought she'd got a hold of Chindo's crazy ways something new came up. There wasn't a single building within a day's walk of the Capital and it made the walk dull and daunting at the same time. Nova shivered at the thought of losing sight of the road and wandering lost in the wilderness. That wasn't a fate she wanted to live out.

At mid-afternoon they rounded a bend and came into view of a glistening wall at least three stories tall. It connected two mountain ranges and ran straight across the path, blocking it. A collection of small wooden shacks huddled up against the wall beside a solid wooden door.

Members of Toro's army stood guard in front of the door with swords in hand. Nova felt eyes on the back of her neck and suspected there were others hidden on the mountainsides, watching. The wooden houses spread out from the gate like a small city but there were no people in sight.

Toro called a halt in front of the gates.

"Dismissed," he said to his soldiers.

They dispersed in orderly lines and followed their officers into the town of wooden huts, leaving Nova, Meeka, Omi, and Omi's guards alone with Toro.

"The Stranger will come with me. The rest of you will be accommodated here," Toro said, waving at the houses.

Omi's mouth dropped and he stepped forward. "My Lord, I—"

"Are you questioning me?" Toro said.

Omi's face went white. "No, of course not, My Lord."

"Good. You will find these houses most comfortable. I will come for you when I need you."

Nova glanced at Meeka, her face was frozen into a serene half-smile but Nova could see the disappointment in her eyes. Nova's stomach rolled with guilt and she considered arguing with Toro, otherwise what was the point of Toro dragging Meeka across the planet?

"Come, Stranger," Toro said.

He turned on his heel and marched to the wooden gate.

Nova bit her lip and cast a sympathetic glance to Meeka before following after him. The guards at the gate stepped to the side and pushed it open as Toro approached.

Nova glanced at the guards and stumbled. They had no eyes.

Where they should have been puckered masses of scars and burnt skin, blistered and flaking.

Nova swallowed, hurrying to catch up with Toro.

As soon as they passed through, the gates slammed shut behind them.

Nova stumbled to a stop, gaping. She'd expected a simple village like Omi's, but this was something else entirely. On this side of the wall the guards wore holsters with plasma pistols on each hip. Instead of cloaks they wore bullet proof armour that glinted into the sun.

The buildings weren't wooden or made of sliding screens. These were made of metal and looked like grounded spaceships. The round windows were made of solid glass and speeding vehicles covered in solar panels filled smooth streets.

"What—" Nova said.

"Welcome to the real Chindo," Toro replied.

Nova glanced back at him. His usual guards had been replaced by men with guns who formed a tight box around him. A sleek black car waited just inside the gates.

Nova spun in a tight circle. Solar panels, computers, ships.

"How is this—"

"Please come with me," Toro said.

He turned for the car and one of the guards opened the door for him. He slid inside and beckoned for Nova to follow. She couldn't see any other options so she slid in beside him. Glasses of sparkling water glistened in a holder in front of them.

A woman with red hair and black glasses, wearing a sleek suit, sat on the chair opposite them holding a clipboard.

"Welcome back, Toro," she said, raising one eyebrow at Nova.

"Updates," Toro said.

"There was some muttering of a rebellion amongst some fisherman in Sector Eight. We took care of it like you asked."

"Good. You were subtle?"

"A tragic boating accident," the woman said, shaking her head.

"Good. Next?"

"Sector Two continues to try to adapt. We've sent in spontaneous explosions, unexplained fires, and plague, but they seem intent on pushing forward."

"Move on to HAV. Annihilate a village and spread a rumour that it was a result of one of their inventions. That should set them straight."

The woman made a note on her clipboard.

Nova looked from Toro to the woman with her mouth wide open. She could only make out half of what they were saying without context but none of it sounded good. Her head was still circling what Toro had said about the virus. The name sounded so familiar. Then it struck; HAV, Halucin Acute Virus had almost wiped out all of humanity… then there were the Reapers. She shivered. It was more virulent and more deadly than anything else the human race had ever invented. So what the hell was Toro doing with it?

While Nova's thoughts circled Toro and the woman kept talking.

"The drought in Sector Five is going well. They're begging for our help and when we send water they'll do anything you ask."

"Good. We'll need them. Do you have anything on Buta?"

The woman's lips pursed even tighter and she looked down at her notes. "Nothing since the attack on Omi's village."

"How can we lose him like that!" bellowed Toro. "We have cameras all over the planet!"

"Our analysts think that he's got a way of blocking them. It's the only explanation for how he keeps disappearing."

Toro took a deep breath and smoothed the sleave of his shirt. "I want him found and executed. No more waiting and no more excuses."

"Of course," said the woman.

"Good. Let's go," Toro said.

The woman tapped once on the glass screen that separated their compartment from the driver and the car lurched forward. Nova's hands twisted around her shirt as she stared fixedly out of the window. The streets rushed past and it was like being on another world, separate from Chindo. She saw no children as they raced through the city; only military men and women marching about their duties.

Nova guessed it had been ten minutes when they stopped in front of a sparkling white building with guards on every corner. Nova's door was opened for her and she stepped out into the afternoon light. Toro got out on the other side and marched up the steps. Nova followed a few paces behind. At the top of the stairs a white door opened for them and beyond that spread a wide entranceway lined with desks.

Men and women sat at each desk monitoring computer screens. Each of them displayed a separate video feed; some of them looked out into forests and fields while others looked out at villagers. Nova's stomach dropped as she recognised one particular room; it had been hers back in Omi's house.

"What the hell is this?" she hissed as she caught up to Toro.

"This," he said. "Is Chindo."

"You're spying on the whole planet?"

"I prefer to think of it as keeping them safe."

"They're living in poverty while you watch!"

"It's for the good of Chindo."

"How is keeping them in the Dark Ages for their own good? How is encouraging rampant sexism in their best interest?"

"That's easy," Toro said. "If the women are silenced, the people are far less likely to move forward, to advance technologically. You see, it's all about control. As long as they see me as untouchable, god-like, they will follow me."

"So this is just a power trip?" Nova said. "You're doing everything you can to keep these people as slaves!"

"All for the greater good," Toro said. "It keeps order. Now I want to show you something."

Toro turned and led the way down a dim corridor. A guard followed behind them. The corridor led down to a set of steps which wound around a central pole. They went deeper until Nova was sure they were well underground. The bottom of the staircase deposited them into a cavern made of metal, like a giant hanger, and sitting in its very centre was a ship as big as any Nova had seen. The only vessel that came close was the crashed colonisation ship she'd raided on Taive.

"These colonisation ships have a habit of crashing," she said. "And somehow the people always end up as savages."

Toro glared at her. "We are far from savages."

"I guess that depends on your definition."

"This way," Toro said, sweeping forward.

He led her to the front of the ship where the command pod door lay open. Inside, a yellow warp crystal just like the one Cal had salvaged from Taive lay on top of the control panel.

Nova's heart fluttered, after everything she'd gone through to get that crystal… this one lay abandoned, but then, this ship was already past the border.

A star chart took up most of the wall behind the command chairs, mapping the galaxies that were known when it had been made.

Nova took it in with one glance. The large pieces of empty space were missing entire galaxies, many of which were now inhabited. Some of the planets marked on the map were gone now, ruined by mining or explosions. The map itself was a relic, probably worth a fortune.

"Where did you come from?" Toro said, waving at the map.

Nova glared at him and took her time to observe the rest of the cockpit. Wires hung out of broken holes in the walls and a cup balanced inside of the chip reader. Most of it looked like it would never work again.

"Where?" Toro said, more forcefully.

Nova glanced at the map and pointed vaguely to the central galaxy.

"Where are we?" Toro asked.

Nova frowned at the map. She imagined overlaying it with the modern maps that she was more familiar with. The Jagged Maw had sat near the edge of the known galaxies and they'd flown past that to the border. In her mind's eye the border was a red line that circled the Confederacy controlled zone. She traced a line with her finger past the border to the next galaxy.

"Here," she said.

"That's not far at all!" Toro said. On the map the two galaxies were barely thirty centimetres apart.

Nova rolled her eyes. "This is a compressed chart."

"What does that mean?"

"It means they've removed all the space between galaxies so that they can fit them all in."

Toro frowned. "So how far away is it?"

"It would have taken this ship seventy years at least to get from there to here," Nova said.

"Seventy years?" Toro whispered.

Nova nodded. "At least, and that's if they didn't run into any trouble."

Toro stared up at the star chart and then looked at Nova with narrowed eyes. "Yours can do it faster."

Nova hesitated.

"How?"

"Newer technology."

"You will talk to my scientists and you will tell them about this technology."

Nova bit her bottom lip. "Why?"

"Because once I've learned everything I can from you, you and your friends will be free to go."

Toro gazed at her, expressionless.

"If you'd let your people invent they'd come up with it on their own," she said.

Toro shook his head. "You still don't get it. If I let them create it, then they will have too much power."

"But what's the point?" Nova said. "What's the point of learning my technology if you're going to keep your people in the dark?"

"Because I want to travel the stars."

"What makes you so special? What do you get from the stars which you don't have here?"

Nova waved vaguely above their heads where the opulent building spread out around them.

"Why be a king," Toro said. "When you can be a God?"

Nova's mouth snapped shut. Toro had spoken the words with absolute sincerity and not a hint of irony. He did mean to become God to his people.

"I can't help you," she said. "No one should have that much power."

Toro stepped closer so that his face was inches from hers. "Wouldn't it be better for them to praise me as a God, rather than some savage made-up being? At least I have realistic expectations, at least I have my humanity."

"You're going to release HAV on a village of people," Nova said quietly. "Whatever humanity you used to have, it's long gone."

The corner of Toro's mouth twitched, the first sign of emotion Nova had seen since they entered the colonisation ship.

"I will get what I need out of you. One way or another," he said. "Guards!"

Two men with guns appeared at the door to the ship.

"Take her to the prisons. I'll deal with her later."






CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE




Each guard grabbed one of her arms and dragged her out of the ship. Nova fought and kicked at them but together they pinned her arms to her sides and dragged her out of the hanger into a dark maze of passages. The musty air became filled with the scent of wasted years as the tunnel opened wider and revealed a cell block.

Unlike the prison near Omi's village, which had only six cells, this one had at least twenty stacked on top of one another. As they entered, gaunt faces peered at them through the bars. The guards tossed Nova into a ground-level cell and slammed the gate shut behind her.

She whirled around and grabbed the bars but the guards were already walking away. There wasn't even a lock on the door that she could try to pick. Whatever was holding the door shut, she couldn't reach it.

She turned to face her new cell. A thin sheet lay scrunched in one corner and a bucket lay on its side in the other, that was all.

"Welcome," said a scratchy voice to Nova's left.

She glanced over. A woman sat hunched in the far corner of the next cell. Her grey hair hung in loose tendrils around her face and hid most of her features. Her gnarled hands were wrinkled and covered in brown spots.

"Hello," Nova said, distracted, still looking for a way out.

"I'm not crazy," the woman said, as if replying to Nova's thoughts. "You can call me Gin."

Nova stepped closer and wrapped her hands around the bars that separated their cells.

"Nova," she said.

The woman nodded. "Off-worlder."

"Yes."

"So's that one," Gin said, pointing to the cell on Nova's other side.

Nova whirled around, expecting to see one of her companions. Instead she was faced with deep shadows and a pair of eyes.

"Doesn't talk much," Gin said. "Not that there's much to talk about."

Nova nodded, her eyes scanning the rest of the jail and taking note of the prisoners she could see.

"No point looking for a way out," Gin said. "I've been here twenty years and haven't found a way yet."

"Twenty years?" Nova said.

Gin nodded. She lifted her head and some of her hair fell away to reveal a scarred mess of flesh that curled across her features, twisting them.

"Tried to get her back home," Gin said, jutting her chin towards the shadows on Nova's other side. "Toro senior was in charge then. He didn't take kindly to me giving away his prizes."

"Prizes?"

Gin nodded. "Off-worlders. You're all a fountain of knowledge you know. Most of the Capital's technology comes from you lot."

"Toro said I could go home if I told him how to build a ship."

Gin let out a bark of laughter. "You're an idiot if you believed him."

Nova sighed. She hadn't believed him, not really, but a part of her had wanted to believe it would be that easy. "He's got my companions imprisoned and he took our ship."

Gin nodded. "That's the way he does it. Cannibals."

"You used to work here?" Nova said.

Gin nodded. "My family has worked in the Capital for generations, since the ship first landed."

"What the hell happened? How'd that bastard Toro and his dad get to be in charge over this technological backwater you've got going on?"

Gin sighed. "My family tried to fight the technology act but they were just a few people against the entire Capital. Toro's family have ruled since the ship landed. He's descended from the pilot."

"The… what?"

"The pilot of the colonisation ship. My family has passed the story on for generations so that we don't forget where we come from. When the ship first landed it made sense for the pilot to be in charge, but over generations the position became something else. Now it's a dictatorship wrapped in a monarchy."

Nova's hands slid away from the bars and she leant her face against them instead. The cold metal felt good against her face and helped her to focus. She could barely imagine how something so simple as a pilot taking control of a crashed ship could turn into this. Chindo was the result of generations of bad decisions.

"So now Toro's got his eyes on other planets," Nova said.

Gin nodded. "His father had the same ideas."

"They're mad."

"Probably. I had hoped that off-worlders would come and set this place straight, but I suppose you're not in a position to do that."

Nova shook her head. "Not without my friends and my ship."

"I don't know how much has changed but if things are still the same as they were when I was free, then your ship is probably in the lab, getting analysed."

"The lab?"

"Same building as this one, few floors up."

Nova nodded. If she could get to Crusader then maybe she had a chance of getting out of here.

"I see that hope in your eyes," Gin said. "I'd put it out now if I were you. They won't let you get free."

Nova sighed and slumped down on her crumpled sheet but it wreaked of urine and blood so she tossed it into the corner with the bucket and settled with resting her head against the stone wall. She gazed into the next cell where the shadows hid whoever was there. Nova could feel eyes staring back at her but she couldn't make out more than that.

She tried to put Gin's words out of her head; she'd escaped Ankar, the inescapable; what was some small backwater prison?

That night felt like the longest of Nova's life. She was thoroughly sick of being in prisons and she resolved that she would never be locked in such a depressing place ever again, even if it meant staying on the right side of the law.

She managed to get a few quick naps but the sounds from the other prisoners kept waking her. She had to assume it was morning when guards appeared with food. She was given a spoonful of grey gruel and that was all.

"Toro will see you," the guard said when Nova had licked every trace of the disgusting food off of her fingers.

"How wonderful," she muttered.

The guard slid her door open and led her out of the prison and up a nearby set of stairs. As they went higher, the lights got brighter and the passages got cleaner until they were walking through a gleaming metal passage.

At the end stood a glass door that slid open as they approached. The room beyond was lined with gleaming white desks covered with glass tubes, and beakers, and machines that read off numbers. People in white coats hurried between the benches, notebooks in hand. Nova's eyes slid past all of that and locked onto the most beautiful sight she'd seen in months. Crusader, still attached to the other ships, sat squarely in the centre of the room. People in white coats were tapping the outside and taking scrapings from the hull.

"Crusader," Nova whispered.

"You're here!" Cal's voice replied inside her head.

Nova bit her lip to keep the absolute joy and relief from her face at hearing Cal's voice.

"You're here," Toro said, coming up behind her. There was no sign of apology at having her locked in prison overnight. "Open your ship."

Nova glared at him. "No."

Toro nodded to the guard on Nova's right. The man pulled back his fist and slammed it into Nova's stomach. Her organs clenched and she bent double with sudden pain. The air rushed out of her lungs and left her gasping for breath as tears stung the corners of her eyes.

"Let's try that again," Toro said. "Open your ship."

A calm chill spread through Nova's veins as a plan formed in her mind. "I can't," she said between breaths.

"Explain."

"I don't have authority to open it. That's Orion."

Toro frowned. "Your companion?"

Nova nodded, still clutching her stomach.

"Then you will tell us how it works."

Nova took a deep breath and stood upright. "I can't do that either. Tanguin is the engineer. I just fly the ship."

"What about the weapons?" Toro said, desperation creeping into his voice.

"Tyra and Gus."

"Communication systems."

"Aart."

Nova stared stonily at Toro, refusing to let any emotion show on her face.

"Each of you operates a different part of the ship," Toro said slowly.

"Of course."

Toro's jaw twitched as he turned to Nova's guards. "Send word. Bring the others here. Do not let them escape."

The guard on Nova's right nodded and hurried from the room.

"When they get here, you will—"

A loud buzz cut Toro short and the far wall of the lab flickered, changing from plain white to the face of a man.

Toro's jaw clenched and he marched towards it.

"Buta," he said, voice level.

"Toro," Buta replied. He had a round face and a scar running along his cheek.

"It's an honour to talk to you," Toro said.

Nova frowned. She was under the impression that Toro and Buta hated each other and yet here they were acting like friendly acquaintances.

"Oh the honour is all mine. I thought you might have trouble contacting me so I called you to save you the effort."

"Very considerate of you," Toro said. "Although there was no need. I am more than happy to contact you whenever I require."

"So good to hear. I'm sorry about what happened to Omi's house. These brigands are getting worse every year."

"Quite right. In fact, I was hoping you would come to the Capital and we could discuss the brigand problem together, perhaps come up with a solution?"

"Oh, you know I would love to visit you in the Capital but I'm afraid my family is very ill."

"I'm sorry to hear that," said Toro. "Perhaps if you brought them to the Capital we could find a cure?"

"Thank you for such a generous offer, but my medicine man assures me that they'll be better in a few weeks."

"Ah, you can visit then!" Toro said, holding his hands out.

Buta nodded "Perhaps I can. Of course that is if war hasn't come to Chindo."

Toro's hands dropped to his sides and his voice got softer. "Are you threatening me?"

"Of course not!" Buta said, his eyes like hard pieces of flint. "I just meant if these bandits get out of hand."

"Of course," Toro said. "Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Although if it does, I'm more than prepared for any kind of attack."

"Ah, best not let confidence blind you. The bandits may have technology you're not expecting."

Tension hung in the air, so thick Nova could feel it suffocating her.

"I'm sure I can handle it," Toro said.

"Of course," Buta said. "I am very sorry to go, but I should take care for my family."

"Give them my best."

"And to yours."

The screen flickered and disappeared, returning to a plain, white wall. As soon as Buta's face faded, Toro's shoulders dropped and he whirled on the nearest scientists.

"How did he make a connection straight to me?"

"He must have an internal communicator," a man in a white coat replied, staring at his feet.

"Well get that line secured!" Toro bellowed. "And track where he was communicating from."

"Yes, Sir."

Toro rounded on her. "He'll attack within the week. It would be in your best interests to help me defeat him."

Nova gazed at Toro. It was like picking the best side of a rotten apple; either way she'd end up with a foul taste in her mouth. Even beneath his polite exterior there was hardness in Buta's eyes, a cruelty. On the other hand, Toro had a cruel streak as well. Both of them were capable of murder, and she couldn't see how she could pick between them. She also didn't see why she had to; if she could get Crusader and get free then everything would be fine.

Nova's thoughts turned to Meeka and Gin and the others she'd met on Chindo. There were certainly some that she wouldn't shed a tear for, if they were caught in the crossfire; Omi and Toro among them. But then she couldn't imagine leaving Meeka to survive a war, only to live out her hellish life here on Chindo.

"Bring my companions here, and we'll open the ship," Nova said, keeping her face straight.

"Fine. Then you will stay in your cell until you're of use to me."

Toro waved to his guards who took a firm hold of Nova's arms and dragged her away to the prison. They tossed her into her cell and marched away.

"Welcome back," said Gin.

"Good to be home," Nova said, pushing herself off of the floor and wiping her hands on her pants.


"He didn't kill you then."

"Not yet," Nova replied. "He got a call from Buta though."

Gin audibly spat at the ground. "He's a pig. He was a young man when I was thrown in here and he was scum even then."

"Toro thinks he'll attack within a week."

"It's about time. That's been brewing for years."

"I thought Toro kept everyone in the dark ages. But Buta had a communicator."

"Ah yes," Gin said, bouncing her head up and down. "Buta's father used to work here in the Capital. I don't know exactly what happened but he got power hungry and ran off with a bunch of followers and a truck of technology. They've been building an army ever since."

"So if they attack, it won't be with swords," Nova said.

"Of course not," Gin replied. "If they attack it's going to be a blood bath."

Nova sighed and sank to the floor. "My companions are being brought to the city, but we can't stop a war."

"Let them kill each other," a new voice echoed out of the shadows on Nova's other side.

She whipped around to stare into the darkness.

"Let them burn each other up, then maybe we'll get free," the shadow said.

"What's your name?" Nova said, squinting into the darkness.

"Blade."

"Some of them don't deserve to burn," Nova said, thinking of Meeka.

"Collateral damage."

Nova couldn't argue; she'd had similar thoughts since landing on Chindo and Blade had been trapped years longer than she had.

"There are some I would save," Nova said.

The shadow moved and out of the darkness stepped a woman. She had deep blue skin, almost black, that shimmered in the dim lights. She wore a simple brown dress covered in dirt and ripped almost to shreds. Her black hair hung in a braid over her shoulder.

Blade wrapped her fingers around the bars separating their cells. "We won't get a say in the matter."

"I'm not going to sit and do nothing," Nova said. "If you help then I'll make sure you get back to your home planet."

"My ship was destroyed years ago. There's no way for me to leave."

"I'll take you," Nova said. She stared directly into Blade's black eyes, and the other woman stared straight back.






CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO






"Oh good, another bloody prison!" Aart's familiar voice boomed through the cells.

Nova sprung to her feet and ran to the front of her cell. The guards led a line of familiar faces that made Nova's heart swell.

Aart sauntered at the front, surveying the cells as if he was looking for a new house. Gus walked behind him, scanning each cell as they passed by. The corner of Tyra's mouth lifted as she watched Aart, while Tanguin shuffled behind them. She looked thin and pale but still better than the last time Nova had seen her. Finally, limping and leaning heavily to one side, came Orion. He gripped a crutch and he was breathing hard by the time he got level with Nova's cell.

"In," the guard said, pulling open the door to Nova's cell.

The Hunters grinned at Nova and poured into the cell as if it was a pleasure ship. The guard slammed the gate shut behind them as they took it in turns to wrap Nova in warm hugs.

"You know," Aart said. "I don't know if this is an improvement."

Nova punched him in the arm and grinned. "It's a step. Crusader and the other ships are upstairs."

"You found them!" Tanguin said.

"Yep. Toro wants us to open them up though, he wants to steal the technology."

"Toro?" Aart said.

Nova waved her hand. "King of this God-forsaken planet. It's a long story."

"Aren't you going to introduce us?" Gin said.

It took a second for Nova to process that the Hunters were still talking common-tongue whilst Gin had spoken the native language of Chindo. With Nova's translation chip she barely noticed the change in languages but the two groups wouldn't be able to understand a word.

"Of course," Nova said, speaking to Gin. "Gin, this is Aart, Gus, Tyra, Tanguin, and Orion."

Nova pointed to each of them in turn and they nodded their heads towards Gin.

"That's Gin, and that's Blade," Nova said, gesturing to each cell. "They want out of here as much as we do."

"I don't blame them," Aart said, looking around. "It's a bit depressing isn't it?"

"Try it for twenty years," Blade said from her shadowed cell.

Aart's eyebrows shot up as he gazed at her. "You can speak the common-tongue?"

"Well enough," Blade said, "Although it's been a while."

"Blade is from another planet," Nova said. "Captured here just like us."

"Sorry to hear it," Aart said.

"Okay, so what exactly are we planning to do when this Toro asks us to open the ship?"

"I don't know," Nova said. "I was hoping you would come up with something."

"Cal's still active?" Gus said.

"Yeah."

"Fire up the ship's weapons," Gus said. "Light the building up."

Nova tapped her chin, considering the plan. It was probably the best option they had so far. It was risky though; there was no telling what technology Toro might have. Although, she reasoned, if he hadn't found a way into the ships yet then he probably wasn't ahead of them.

"That could work," she said. "They're in a lab though, so we'd have to be careful."

"Don't forget the war that's coming," Blade added.

"War?" Tanguin said.

"Yeah, you know when the village was attacked by those hooded people? Turns out there's another nutcase on this planet looking to take control. He's planning to attack here in the next couple of days."

"That would explain all the tanks," Gus said.

"Tanks?"

"The streets were full of them," Tyra said. "The car that was driving us had to stop and we walked most of the way."

"Toro didn't waste any time…" Nova said.

"So what?" Gus said. "We get to the ships and get off of this planet before war breaks out?"

"That would be nice," Nova said. "But there's someone I need to save. And I don't know if the ships are repaired yet. Cal and I didn't have much of a chance to talk."

"I hope your robot is more competent than he sounds," Aart said. "That out-of-date thing doesn't fill me with confidence."

"You'll eat those words when Cal saves our arses," Nova said.

"When do you think Toro will summon us?"

"Damned if I know—"

Nova was cut off by a sudden boom that rocked the foundations of the prison and sent pieces of loose concrete tumbling out of the walls and ceiling. Chunks clattered to the floor and exploded into small pieces of dirt.

"What the hell was that?" Aart said.

His words were followed by another barrage. Distant booms filled the air followed by vibrations that sent cracks racing across the prison walls.

"It's beginning," Gin said.

"We have to get out," Nova said. "The middle of a war is the perfect time for us to get away."

Tyra ran to the gate and examined the door mechanism. "Internal computerised lock. Pity the computer's not nearby, Tanguin could probably knock it over in five seconds."

Another booming shudder knocked Nova off her feet and she landed hard on her hip.

"Can you open it or not?" Orion said, his face a grimace as he leant against the wall.

"Yeah, yeah," Tyra said. She pulled a small ball of grey putty out of her pocket and jammed it against the edge of the door. "Step back."

Nova and the others backed to the far wall while Tyra held a lighter to the putty and waited for it to catch fire. As soon as the spark caught, she dove away towards the back of the cell.

The putty fizzed and then exploded, sending out a bright flash of light and a loud shudder that buckled the metal gate.

"Bloody hell," Nova said. "Where'd you find that?"

"Made it," Tyra said with a grin. "I've been collecting materials since we landed."

"Have you got enough for the rest of us?" Blade said.

"You bet," Tyra replied, running to the next cell.

Gin grinned at Nova. "I'm glad your friends got here."

"You want out too?" Nova asked.

"Is Chindo round?" Gin said as way of reply.

It took less than two minutes for Tyra to blow off the remaining doors and then they were running from the prison. Nova led the way up past the other levels, straight to the lab.

Chaos reigned through the corridors, with people running and yelling in all directions, paying no attention to the silent group that scurried up from the prisons.

Two guards stood in front of the doors wearing body armour and open-faced helmets. As soon as Nova came into view, they drew their weapons and fired.

The Hunters rolled to either side of the corridor, dodging fire. Gin stayed back behind the corner, her arthritic hands curled into fists.

As soon as the gunfire fell silent, Blade dashed forward, faster than any human Nova had ever seen. Her dark skin created a blur against the metal corridors as she sprinted straight at the guards. They set their weapons on her but too slow. Before they had time to fire, Blade crashed into the leftmost guard and they both toppled to the ground.

The guard still standing waved his gun in the air, trying to get a clear shot, but Blade moved too quickly. Nova darted forward, accompanied by Gus and Tyra. Gus reached the standing guard first; he pulled back his fist and slammed it into the side of the man's head

The guard's head snapped to the side with a crack and he stumbled backwards.

"Shit!" Gus roared, hugging his hand to his chest. His fingers were already turning purple from where he'd hit the man's helmet.

Nova ran around Gus and kicked the guard's chest, sending him sprawling to the floor. She dropped down next to him, grabbed hold of his gun and yanked it out of his hand. She brought the weapon to her shoulder, aimed, and fired. A blast of yellow light shot out and engulfed the guard's chest.

The glow vanished, leaving a gaping hole where his lungs should have been.

Nova rounded on the other guard and Blade who were still rolling on the floor. His gun lay forgotten on the ground, Nova kicked it towards Tyra who grabbed it off the floor and trained it on the two bodies on the ground.

"Blade, get out of the way," Nova yelled.

Blade gave no indication that she'd heard. She tucked her leg behind the guard's body and rolled him over so that she was sitting on his chest. She grappled with the straps of his helmet while his hands clenched around her face, his fingers seeking her eyeballs.

With a click his helmet fell free, revealing a red-faced man, mouth twisted with fury. As soon as the helmet popped off, Blade drew back her fist and slammed it into his face. She pummelled him again and again until his hands fell limply by his sides and then she kept punching. Fountains of blood spurted out of his face and spattered her tattered clothes.

"Blade! He's down," Nova said.

She lurched forward and took hold of Blade's upper arm, pulling her away from the body. Blade resisted at first, getting two more punches in before finally allowing herself to be dragged away.

Nova caught a glimpse of the man's mangled face; he wasn't going to be getting up.

Gin and the others caught up and they went into the lab together. Each of them breathed a sigh of relief when they caught sight of the ships.

"Cal, please tell me you've got the systems repaired," Nova said.

"Confirmed," Cal replied. "It's mostly masking tape and blue-tac but it should hold together."

"It'll do," Nova said, dashing forward with the others.

They were nearly at Crusader's main entrance when footsteps erupted through the lab and a cold, familiar voice spoke from behind Nova.

"I knew you'd come straight here," Toro said.






CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE




Nova whipped around to face him, aiming her gun at his face. "We're leaving."

Toro had ten guards with him, all of them aiming guns at the Hunters.

"No, you're not. You will open that ship and help me destroy Buta."

"You're not getting inside," Nova said, her finger closing around the trigger.

"Open it now or my guards will start shooting."

The guard nearest to Gin stepped forward and pressed the barrel of his gun against her wrinkled forehead.

Nova bit her lip. Both she and Tyra had guns, with the two of them shooting they could maybe take out five of the guards before the others could respond, but by then it would be too late. She looked at her fellow Hunters, their expressions hopeless.

"Crusader open the door," Nova said out-loud.

The door hissed as it slid open.

"Beautiful!" Toro said.

He pushed past his guards, and Nova, and stepped up into Crusader's engine room. He ran his hands over the pipes and wires that kept the ship going. He turned to face them, his eyes shining. "Hurry up! We have a war to win!"

Nova reluctantly climbed in after him, followed by the others. Toro's guards kept close to him, their guns drawn.

"If you want me to fly, I'll have to get to the pilot's pod, won't I?" Nova said, shouldering past the guards and Toro.

This wasn't how she'd imagined her reunion with Crusader. She couldn't stop to enjoy the familiar smell of the engine room, or run her hands along the rusted walls. She couldn't even say hello to Cal properly because he was nowhere in sight. She stomped through the ship to the pilot's pod and sat down. The front screen was filled with the lab and the solid walls on every side.

"How exactly am I supposed to fly you out of a closed room?" Nova yelled over her shoulder.

A second later Toro appeared, smiling in the doorway.

"That wall is a door," he said, pointing to the far wall.

Nova frowned. It certainly looked like a wall to her.

"Do you have speakers to the outside?" Toro asked.

Nova nodded and pressed a small green button near her thumb.

"Open side door," Toro said.

A section of wall slid away to reveal the city beyond. The towering buildings reflected the midday sun. Smoke billowed up out of the city, creating black smog in the air.

"Hurry up," Toro said.

Nova sighed and pushed forward on the throttle. She could have let autopilot take over, but she didn't want Toro to know that she had that technology. The less he knew, the better.

Crusader and the other ships lifted and moved through the lab, knocking over benches and glassware, and leaving a trail of destruction in their wake as they shot out into the open air. Nova was tempted to slam her elbow into Toro's throat and be done with him, but she could feel his guards just behind her, their guns trained on her back.

She pushed Crusader forward and then hovered outside of the building. The streets below were filled with people running and guns shooting. At the outer edges of the city flames flickered through the smoke.

Some people stopped in the streets and stared up at them, shouting and pointing, but most of them were too consumed with the battle for survival.

"Buta's main force is coming this way from the main gate. Go there," Toro commanded.

Nova leant against the controls and guided Crusader towards the thickest gunfire. The further they went, the more dead bodies they passed. Buildings on either side had been reduced to smoking rubble that spread out onto the street.

"He'll pay for this," Toro said softly.

A red bolt the size of a car shot out of the smoke below and slammed into Crusader's underside. The ship rocked to the side and Toro and his guards sprawled against the equipment. Nova only just managed to keep Crusader in the air.

"What was that?" Toro said.

"They've got anti-aircraft weapons," Nova said. "You could have warned me."

"I don't know what they have," Toro said.

Nova pulled the controls to the right and Crusader spun around, flying away from the mayhem.

"What are you doing?" Toro said.

"Two more hits like that and we're going down," Nova said. "The shields are already at sixty percent."

"You will fly down there and take out Buta's forces."

"They'll shoot us down before we can even see them."

"Take us down now, or I will kill one of your companions."

He gestured to his guards and a second later they thrust Tanguin into the pilot's pod. She landed on her knees with a grunt. A guard stepped forward and pushed his gun into the back of her head.

"Take. Me. Down," Toro said.

Nova's face flushed red. All she could imagine as she turned Crusader around was smashing Toro's face into a brick wall, over and over again. She could picture each one of his teeth falling out as she crushed him into a bloody pulp.

She wasn't exaggerating. If they got hit by another anti-air blast they'd be in serious trouble. She could already feel Crusader's engines shuddering beneath her.

Nova opened her mouth to warn Toro again when a familiar buzz filled the air. She slammed her hand into the auto-pilot button and spun in her seat. She ripped her gun off the control board and fired. Cal had already taken down the man who'd had his gun pushed against Tanguin's head and three other guards.

The noises coming from the engine room suggested that Gus had got the jump on a few of them as well. Tanguin snatched the gun off of the fallen soldier behind her and fired twice, taking a guard in the chest.

Toro lunged at Nova and Tanguin, knocking Tanguin sideways so that her head slammed against the controls and she slumped to the floor. He grabbed Nova's arm and twisted it up so that she fired into Crusader's ceiling. Smoke twirled out from the blackened hole.

Nova grunted and kicked Toro's knee. He collapsed, his weight falling against her and they fell to the floor of the pilot's pod, the air pushed out of Nova's lungs.

Sounds of fighting echoed from the engine room but the door to the pod remained empty.

Nova strained against Toro, trying to twist the gun back down, but his muscles bulged pinning her to the floor. Her legs thrashed and she caught him between the legs. His grip on her arm wavered and she twisted free, bringing the gun down, and fired at Toro's face. It exploded in a shower of red that coated the pilot's pod, and rained down on Nova and Tanguin.

Nova wiped the goo out of her eyes and reached for Tanguin, gripping her arm.

A flurry of movement caught her eye and a guard burst into the pilot's pod, gun raised.

Nova's wrist flicked and she fired. The guard collapsed to the floor with a dull thud and Nova let her head fall back.

Cal hovered in the doorway with his small pistols still extended.

Nova breathed a sigh of relief that caught in her throat. "Cal."

"Thought I'd play some hide-and-seek," he said.

Nova burst into laughter and then covered her mouth. She was surrounded by dead bodies, in the middle of a war zone. Probably a bad time to be laughing.






CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR






"What the hell happened?" Tanguin said, reaching for her head.

"We killed the bastard," Nova said, sitting up. "Is anyone hurt?"

"We're all fine," Gus yelled back.

"I dunno, I hurt my ass pretty bad when we got shot. I think I'm going to sue you for injuries," Aart said.

Nova shook her head and returned her gaze to the front screen.

"There are more weapons down there," Cal said, "It won't be long until they fire at us again."

"I know," Nova said, biting her lip.

"Destination?" Crusader said.

"Take us to the front gate," Nova said. "Carefully. We need to find Meeka."

Crusader lifted higher into the air and flew far above the battle, through the clouds.

Blade stepped into the doorway and stared down at Toro's mangled body. "I was hoping to be the one…"

Nova glanced at Toro and then at Blade. "At least he's dead."

"That's true. Now we've just got to kill the rest of these bastards."

Nova nodded. "Although I think they're doing a pretty good job of that themselves."

Blade stared through Crusader's front screen at the sky rushing past and the city far below. "I haven't seen the sky in twenty years."

"Then please, enjoy," Nova said. She couldn't imagine being imprisoned for twenty years. Her time in jail had lasted just a few months and that had been more than enough.

Blade leant against the wall and gazed out at the sky. She wasn't smiling but some of the rage had dropped from her face.

"The gate's below us," Cal said.

Nova peered down. Where before there had been a massive stone wall there was now a pile of rubble. Massive stones spread out around the base of the mountains and the wooden houses were smashed to smithereens. Corpses dotted the landscape around the gate.

"Meeka!" Nova said, her hand snapping to her mouth.

"Landing clear of gunfire," Crusader said.

Near the gate a few plasma blasts hissed across the rubble but most of the heavy fighting was going on in the Capital's streets. Crusader descended and the closer they got to the ground, the more horrifying the destruction became.

"That was done with a single blast," Gus said.

The other Hunters crowded behind him, mouths open.

"How the hell can a people who don't have running water, have a weapon like that?" Orion said.

Nova ignored them as she scanned the rubble for any sign of Meeka. She would have been inside one of the wooden houses and there wasn't a single one of those left standing.

As soon as Crusader touched down, Nova sprinted out of the pilot's pod, jumping over Toro's dead body. She dashed out through the engine room just as the door slid open, leaping out into the rubble and landing in a crouch, gun in hand.

The other Hunters landed behind her, footsteps crunching on the broken stone.

Nova took a deep breath. Her only options were to sift through the rubble and hope to find Meeka's body, or to leave the planet without her. Both options made Nova's stomach turn. She thought about Meeka's strength in the face of everything she'd been through. Nova refused to abandon such a person.

"Meeka!" she called.

"Nova! There are still soldiers everywhere," Tanguin hissed.

"If you've got a better way of finding her, I'm all ears," Nova said. "Meeka!"

"Nova!" a firm voice called back over the rubble.

Nova ducked her head low and ran. She jumped from boulder to boulder and ducked between shattered pieces of metal. The gunfire thickened as she drew closer to the gate, plasma blasts erupting from behind rocks and smashing against others, leaving blackened stains.

"Nova!" the voice said again, quieter now.

Nova slowed to a quick walk, careful to keep her head low and hidden. She couldn't hear the others behind her. She ran to a particularly large boulder and skirted around the outside, not sure what she expected to find on the other side, but she squinted her eyes against the thought that it would be Meeka's mangled body.

"About time," Meeka said.

She stood with her back against the rock and a plasma pistol in her hands. Scratches and dirt covered most of her body and her clothes were stained with blood. A cut ran down her right cheek, leaking blood onto her shoulder.

"There are about six soldiers behind that rock," Meeka said, nodding her head to a far boulder.

Nova swallowed the tight ball in her throat and trained her gun. She didn't have to wait long for an armoured head to appear at the side of the rock. She squeezed the trigger without a moment's hesitation and a bolt of energy knocked the soldier ten paces back, his head exploding.

"Five to go," Meeka said.

Between the two of them, they made quick work of the next two soldiers to show their heads and by then the rest of the Hunters were with them. Somewhere Gus had found a cannon-sized weapon and when he fired it at the far boulder the whole thing exploded into pieces of shrapnel that tore the hiding guards to shreds. None of them got up.

"Everyone, this is Meeka," Nova said. "Meeka, this is everyone."

Meeka nodded as she wiped her hand across her forehead.

"What the hell happened?" Nova asked.

Meeka took a deep breath and shoved the gun into her belt. "They appeared on the horizon a few hours ago. The soldiers were slow to respond, not that it would have done them any good. Before they were anywhere near us, they fired some kind of gun and it took out the whole wall. Pretty much everyone was crushed in that instant."

"Omi?" Nova asked.

Meeka snorted. "The coward ran as soon as the wall went down. You know he's spent his whole life lecturing me about honour, but as soon as he saw what he was up against, he ran. Luckily he left his gun behind." Meeka gestured to the gun at her belt.

"I'm so glad you made it."

"I hid while most of the army went past, not exactly honourable either. They left a few soldiers here to guard the gate and I've been taking them out ever since."

"Well this is a great reunion," Orion said. "But I want to get the fuck off this planet as soon as we can."

"Me too," Blade said.

Meeka's eyes widened when she saw the foreign woman but she kept her mouth closed.

"Me three," said Tyra.

"What are they saying?" Meeka said.

Nova bit her lip. "They want to leave Chindo before we get caught in the fighting."

Meeka frowned. "There are still good people here, you know that. Things will only get worse if Buta takes control, and you saw how it was with Toro."

"Toro's dead," Nova said.

"Then we definitely can't leave! Without competition, Buta will take over completely; Chindo will be set even further back."

Nova looked from Meeka to her companions.

"There are good people here," Meeka said again.

"She wants to stay and fight the attackers," Nova said to the others.

"Fine, let her. Let this damned planet sort itself out," Gus said.

"We can't leave it like this," Nova said, waving at the destruction.

"Why the hell not?" said Gus. "We didn't do anything."

"If we kill Buta the rest of his army will fail. He's the only thing holding them together," said Meeka.

"Cal! Get the other ships to upload translator patches to the others, I'm sick of being a parrot," Nova said.

"Thanks," Aart said and the others nodded.

"She said that if we take out their leader then the army will fall," Nova said.

"But it's not our fight," Blade said. "I've suffered enough for these people."

"I know it's hard," Nova said. "But we can't just leave them like this. Not when we have the power to make a difference."

Tanguin sighed. "I think Nova's right. Not everyone here is bad, and if we don't try to help them we'll never forgive ourselves."

"I'll forgive myself," Orion said. "Look, done! Those bastards nearly killed me. They're nothing but robots following orders. In fact, I've seen robots with more empathy, self-control and more will-power than these bastards."

Aart scuffed his foot against the ground. "I think she's right, if we can take this bastard out nice and quick then we should. I know you're pissed." He locked eyes with Orion. "But that's why we've got to do something. We've faced worse odds."

"I'm not exactly in fighting condition," Orion said, gesturing to his crutch.

"You might have to be backup on this one," Aart said.

"We have to go now," Meeka cut in. "If he makes it to the Capital building he'll have control over the whole city, the whole country even, and then we won't stand a chance."

"We can't take the ships back in there," Tanguin said. "The shields are already low and we don't know where those anti-air weapons are now."

"She's right," Gus said. "I'm not going to get my arse stranded here trying to save these bastards."

"Then I'll go alone!" Meeka yelled. She pushed away from the rock and darted across the desolate landscape, limping and clutching her injured side.

Nova sprinted after her, glancing back at the other Hunters. "I've got this! If something happens, get out of here."

Tanguin and Aart had stepped forward to follow but stopped. Nova nodded and turned back to Meeka, who was already far ahead. Nova pushed harder, her boots slapping against the stones.






CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE






When Meeka burst past the wall to the Capital she stopped dead, giving Nova a chance to catch up. Nova came to a stop at Meeka's side.

"I never knew," Meeka whispered.

"If we're going to do this, we have to go now," Nova said.

She glanced around, they were like sitting ducks standing in the open. She grabbed hold of Meeka's arm and dragged her to the road where a four-wheeled quad bike was parked up on the curb.

Nova threw her leg over the bike and pulled Meeka on behind. "Hold on," she said.

Meeka's arms wrapped around Nova's waist and Nova threw the bike's ignition. The engine roared to life beneath them and they shot off down the street. Nova had grown up riding abandoned bikes across Tabryn's desert; riding on a street was child's play in comparison.

The bike screamed across the pavement and weaved between abandoned cars and ships. Bodies lined the sidewalk, some of them civilians and some of them soldiers. Nova tried not to look too closely at their faces, afraid that she might recognise someone. She pushed the bike as hard as it would go.

Meeka's arms were so tight around her waist that Nova could barely breathe but that could also have been the panic rising inside. As they raced through the streets towards the main building, the sound of gunfire and screaming got louder. People ran past them in the opposite direction, shouting.

A soldier on the side of the road saw them coming and knelt, resting the butt of his gun against his shoulder and his finger on the trigger.

Nova kept one hand on the steering wheel and with the other she held out her gun. She pointed it at the kneeling man and fired. A volley of plasma blasts shot out of the gun, creating a line of black marks along the building they were passing and slamming into the soldier. He crumpled into a heap.

Nova put her hand back on the steering wheel and kept on driving. There were more soldiers as they got closer to the Capital. She managed to kill some of them, but others ducked out of the way and fired at them as they shot past. One blast caught the side of the bike and sent the back end skidding off course. Nova tapped the brake, bringing the bike back under control, and then pushed the throttle harder, desperate to get out of range.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she wound through the streets. Pieces of collapsed buildings spread out over the street and she was forced to drive up on the footpath to get past.

They shot around a sharp corner onto a straight road, at the end of which was the central building, still gleaming white. A crowd of people gathered around the base of the stairs, watching something. Nova didn't have time to think; she cranked the bike and held her gun firmer.

As they got closer she could make out people in white coats kneeling on the stairs. Some of them were crumpled lumps while others had rolled down a few levels, to lie tangled across the steps. Someone was standing behind the scientists with a gun. Nova recognised him from Toro's lab; Buta.

The crowd watched with wide eyes as he stood behind the left-most scientist and pushed his gun against the man's head. He looked out at the crowd and fired. The boom of the shot echoed around the crumbled buildings and the scientist toppled forward, falling down three steps before coming to rest, blood spattered across his face.

Buta moved to the next scientist.

The crowd turned to stare as the roar of the bike rolled over them. Nova didn't stop. She aimed the bike straight at the steps and kept her thumb on the accelerator. The soldiers and onlookers dived out of the way to avoid being hit as she careened for the crowd. Nova slammed down on the brakes and the bike skidded to a stop in front of the stairs.

Buta glanced up, his gun still pressed against the back of the scientist's head.

"Bastard!" Meeka roared.

She threw her leg over the bike and ran to the base of the stairs. She ripped up her gun and fired.

The blast hit Buta in the chest and threw him off his feet. His gun flew out of his hand and clattered down the stairs. The scientist who'd been seconds away from being shot fainted into a heap.

Nova's mouth hung open as she watched the scene unfold.

Meeka's arm fell loosely by her side. She panted hard, her chest heaving up and down as she stared at Buta.

Confusion erupted amongst the crowd. Some of the onlookers drew their guns and aimed at Meeka and Nova, others shook their heads as if suddenly waking from a dream. The prisoners on the stairs got shakily to their feet and gazed down at the crowd.

Voices rose in a cacophony of panic as people yelled at one another, trying to make sense of the madness. The soldiers looked from Buta's corpse to Meeka, their guns wavering.

"There's no point fighting anymore!" Nova bellowed. She cut the bike's engine and climbed up on the seat so that she stood above the crowd. "Both Buta and Toro are dead. The battle's over."

"You blue-eyed devils killed him!" a soldier roared, his gun moving between Nova and Meeka.

"Do you really think life would have been any better under Buta?" Meeka said, breathless. "He was a cruel man. Look what he did to those innocents." She pointed at the corpses in white coats.

The crowd murmured agreement.

"She's right," said a scientist, making his way down the stairs. "The fighting has to stop. We are all Chindo."

More voices rose in agreement, drowning out the soldier's protests. Those that refused to lower their weapons were overrun by the crowd and their guns ripped out of their hands and then tossed to the ground.

"Looks like we missed the party," Gus said.

Nova glanced behind, in all the confusion she hadn't noticed Crusader touching down. Her companions emerged one-by-one with guns in hand. Blade was nowhere to be seen.

Gin was last out of the ship. She used Aart's arm for support as she climbed the short distance to the ground. She stood with her head held high despite her bent knees and wrinkled face, she smiled and winked at Nova.

"Keep sharp," Orion said. "I'm sure one of these bastards is thinking about taking over right now."

"No," Meeka said. "You don't understand our ways. It takes decades for a leader to build up enough respect to have an army. None of these people could lead."

"Their general dies and they just give up?" Orion said.

Meeka shrugged and nodded. "Without anyone to follow they're like leaves in the wind."

"A thing called second in command?" Orion said.

"It's not the same," Meeka said.

"So what the hell happens now?" Gus said.

Meeka bit her lip and looked out at the crowd. Some of them were crying and holding one another. Others held bleeding wounds together with their bare hands.

"We rebuild," she said.

"Look," Orion said. "We've already stayed here five times longer than I think we should have. I appreciate you looking out for Nova but I'm not sticking around to rebuild this damned planet. I'll take my ship away alone if I have to."

"No," Meeka said. "You should go. You're a reminder of what was; Chindo needs to look forward."

"Who will lead?" Aart said. "Now that the ruling idiots are dead."

"She will," Gin said, smiling at Meeka.

"What? I—" Meeka said, her eyes flying wide and her mouth dropping.

"You're the only one," Gin said. "You killed Buta and we'll say you killed Toro too. You're the only one they'll follow."

"I don't think I can—" Meeka said in a whisper.

"You have to. If you don't take control now, Chindo will sink back into war."

Meeka bit her lip, face pale. "I'll do what I have to."

Gin nodded and then turned to Nova. "You should go. It's going to be hard enough to keep law and order with a blue-eyed female emperor, let alone a handful of off-worlders."

Nova laid a hand on Gin's shoulder. "Thank you."

Gin smiled and winked.

"Now that that's sorted, I'm getting my guns," Gus said, marching up the broad steps.

"And my equipment!" Tyra said, jogging after him.

The other Hunters disappeared inside, leaving Nova staring at Meeka. She didn't know how to express all of the emotions that welled inside her. There was so much she wanted to say but not enough time or words to say it.

"Good luck," she said softly.

Meeka nodded, still biting her lip. "Thank you for saving us all."

Nova shrugged. "It was payback."

"Do you think I'll see you again?"

Nova glanced up at the sky and then at Crusader, avoiding Meeka's eyes. "Maybe. Once things have settled down here I'll try to send you a message."

"Good," Meeka said. "Please do. You promised me I'd see the stars."

Nova smiled and allowed her guard to drop. She stepped forward and engulfed Meeka in a hug, holding her tight for three full seconds before letting her go and stepping back.

"Be careful," Nova said. "Both of you."

"We will," Meeka replied.

Nova nodded and turned. She marched back to Crusader without glancing back. She swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked the tears away from her eyes. She'd said lots of goodbyes before; she didn't see why this one had to be so emotional. But deep down she knew the reason; Meeka reminded her a lot of Caila. At least here on Chindo, Meeka couldn't get addicted to Zine and die in a puddle of her own vomit.

Nova stomped through Crusader to the pilot's pod and gazed out at the city spread before her. Smoke billowed out from some of the buildings but already the chaos was settling. It would take them a long time to rebuild but at least this time they were off to a better start.

"It'll be good to go," Blade said from behind Nova's shoulder.

Nova jumped a little in her seat and glanced at the dark woman. "Yeah. Do you know the coordinates of your home planet?"

"Bardo," Blade said. "And yes."

"Hey Blade," Aart said from Crusader's door. "Tanguin and I are having a feast on Sylar if you want to join us."

Gus stood behind him with an armful of guns and weapons, grinning.

Blade glanced down at Nova and then walked towards Aart. "Sounds good to me. As long as it doesn't involve tentacles."






CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX




Crusader's door hissed shut behind them and Nova was left alone in the silence with just Cal and Crusader. Her shoulders slumped and the false smile fell away from her face.

"Autopilot. Follow Aart's directions," she said, her voice hoarse.

"Confirmed," Crusader said.

"What a fucking nightmare," she said in the same voice. "The fighting, the prison, this damned place."

Cal hovered into view at her side. "But you're free of the Confederacy borders. Isn't that what you've always wanted?"

Nova held her head in her hands. "Yeah. I just didn't think it would be so bloody hard. Or that so many people would die along the way."

Cal extended a mechanical arm and laid it on the top of her head. "It was never going to be easy."

"I know," Nova said.

She pulled her hands away from her face and glared out of Crusader's front screen. While she'd been talking she hadn't noticed them taking off and leaving Chindo behind. Now the planet was just a blue-green ball in the distance.

She clenched her teeth and didn't say another word, afraid that if she spoke she wouldn't be able to stop the tears that were sure to follow.


TO BE CONTINUED…







Nova's Journey Continues…

Finally free of the border.

Nova and her companions are finally free and go to Bardo to find work. But, what seems like a simple delivery job quickly becomes far more sinister.

A bigger danger.

Beyond simple brigands a far more dangerous threat emerges and it will take all of Nova's strength to survive, and become a Hero.

Book 10: Hero

Find out more at:

www.saffronbryant.com/books/hero

Stranger









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Find all of Saffron's Books At:

www.saffronbryant.com/books



The Nova Chronicles

Survivor

Pilgrim

Hunter

Gambler

Justice

Junkie

Adventurer

Prisoner

Stranger

Hero


Other Science Fiction

Skin Deep



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.


Connect with Saffron:


WEBSITE: www.saffronbryant.com

EMAIL: [email protected]

TWITTER: @SaffronBryant

FACEBOOK: www.facebook.com/saffron.bryant






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