Copyright 2016 Saffron Bryant
Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords
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"Then of course I had no choice but to hand it over," Aart said, throwing his head back and smacking the table.
The other Hunters chuckled, leaning back in Sylar's cushioned chairs.
Nova sat on Aart's right, smiling with the rest, but most of her thoughts circled around Crusader and going back for some much needed peace and quiet.
Ten days after leaving Chindo, and dark space whispered past on either side without a single hint of colonised planets or other ships. It gave new meaning to the emptiness of space.
Nova placed her empty glass on the table and stood, stretching her back. "I think I'll head back to Crusader and get some sleep."
Aart rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay, I promise not to tell that story again."
Nova smiled. "Even if I believed you, which I don't, I promised Cal I'd go over some of his repairs."
"Face it, Aart," Orion said. "She's sick of looking at your ugly face. Can't say I blame her."
"Here, here!" Gus said, lifting his mug.
"And even I've heard that story twice," said Tyra.
Blade smiled, watching them all through dark eyes, but the rest of her body stayed frozen in place, like a hologram.
Tanguin smiled but most of her face lay hidden beneath a thick hood she'd been wearing since they got back on board Sylar. Her mechanical eye reflected occasional flashes of light but otherwise stayed shrouded in darkness. Long gloves hid the scars covering most of her arms.
Nova's heart twinged every time she looked at Tanguin, guilt squeezing her stomach even after so much time.
"You know," Aart said. "I think you should all be a little more grateful for my stimulating conversation. Without me, you'd all be dead of boredom by now."
"Speaking of," said Tyra. "How much further do you think, Blade?"
Blade frowned, the corners of her mouth turning down. "It's so hard to be sure. The stars look different, and it's so far away. If I could just find—"
"Unmarked ship detected," Sylar's smooth voice cut through the conversation.
Nova raised an eyebrow while the others put down their glasses.
"You mean there's someone else out here?" Aart said. "Thank Vix because I was beginning to think we were the only ones."
"No radio or other identifying signals detected," said Sylar.
Blade rose to her feet like a spring gradually uncoiling. "How far away?"
"Still ten minutes flight time. They were detected by the long range scanners."
Blade gripped the edge of the table, her knuckles white. "Are there any life signs?"
"None detected," Sylar replied.
Blade's knees wobbled and she had to rest both hands on the table to stop from falling over. "Turn everything off."
"I'm sorry—" Sylar began.
"What?" Aart said.
Blade's eyes opened wide and she clutched Aart's shirt. "Turn it off! Turn them all off!"
"Do it," Aart said.
The lights flickered, plunging them into darkness.
"Life support, engines, everything!" Blade hissed. "And make sure you keep the nearest star at our back."
"I—" Aart's voice wavered.
"Dammit!" Blade said. "Do it!"
Aart cleared his throat. "Do what she says."
The ships maneuvered in line with the nearest star before the engines died and the gentle air flowing through the vents cut off, leaving behind a deep silence like a thick blanket, threatening to suffocate them.
Nova wrapped her arms over her chest, cold already seeping into her bones and reminding her of the escape vessel from Ankar. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
"What the hell is going on?" Tyra said.
"Shh!" Blade hissed. "No one say a word until they're out of range."
Nova's hand fell to the knife at her belt and she stepped away from the table, keeping her footsteps as silent as possible. The back of her neck tingled and each breath seemed to catch in the back of her throat. She shuffled away until her spine pressed against a cold wall, straining her ears for any sound of movement.
She'd come to like Blade, but in reality she barely knew the other woman. She'd been in prison for the cosmos-knew-how-long, and that could change a person. What if she'd decided to kill them all in the darkness?
Nova slowed her breathing and pulled her knife free of her belt. A cold trickle of sweat dribbled down her forehead and traced her cheek.
The rest of the ship remained silent except for faint breathing coming from the other Hunters. None of them sounded alarmed or strained.
Nova gritted her teeth and kept her knife in hand.
The minutes seemed to drag by like hours, each one stretching into infinity. Nova's tensed shoulders, hunched up around her ears, ached, longing to relax. An eternity later and still no movement. Nova opened her mouth, ready to confront Blade.
"Out of range," Sylar's voice filled the ship and the lights flicked on.
A warm rush of air brushed out of the vents and floated over Nova's skin, easing the chill that had sunk into her muscles.
"What the hell was that about?" Gus said.
"And what are you doing over there, Nova?" said Aart.
Orion snorted. "I think she was getting ready to be boarded. Look at that knife."
Blade met Nova's eyes. "She was getting ready to kill me. In case I attacked."
The others fell silent and shared uneasy glances.
Nova shrugged and came back to the table, tucking her knife back into her belt but still within easy reach. "What was all that about?"
Blade collapsed into her chair and rested her elbows on the table, hanging her head. "I'd almost managed to forget they were out here. It's been so long..."
"What was it?" Tanguin said, her voice soft.
Blade took a shaky breath. "Reapers."
Aart dropped his glass. It toppled through the air and smashed on the floor, sending shards skittering across the smooth metal.
Nova stepped back, shaking her head.
The others seemed frozen, eyes locked on Blade.
Aart's Triple-X Labourbot rolled out of a nearby closet and swept the shards of glass from the floor, humming as she did so. The broom's gentle scratching across the floor was the only other noise in the deafening silence.
"It can't be," Aart said.
Blade's gaze stayed fixed on the table. "They're creatures that hunt through space. You probably don't get those kinds of monsters where you're from. No one knows where they first came from, but—"
"HAV," Nova whispered.
Blade frowned and lifted her head. "What?"
"They come from HAV."
Blade shook her head. "No. HAV disintegrates people, turns them into clouds of blood."
Nova's legs shook and her heart clenched in her chest, as if refusing to pump blood through her body. She lowered herself into a chair, eyes fixed on a point in the distance. "Not all the time. In some people it's an ongoing infection. I've seen it."
"We've seen it," Aart said.
"No," Orion said, placing his palms on the table. "You made that story up. All that talk about fighting Reapers on Kopet. That didn't actually happen."
Aart met Orion's eyes. "I kept trying to tell you it was the truth."
"Reapers don't exist," Orion said, voice shaking.
"I didn't want to believe you..." Tanguin said.
"You've fought them?" Blade said, arms dropping to the table and mouth hanging open.
Nova nodded. "It's a long story."
"But, Nova," Aart said, leaning across the table and locking his eyes with hers. "Those things we fought couldn't have flown a ship. Hell, they couldn't even open doors!"
Nova shrugged, a dull ache throbbing at the base of her skull. "We don't know how they might have mutated over time, if these Reapers are from the original outbreak."
"As in hundreds of years ago?" said Orion, lifting an eyebrow.
Nova nodded. "Even on Chindo they were experimenting with HAV – they might have changed it."
Aart shook his head. "They were—"
Blade let out a long breath. "They're gone now. But all of you should have your ships' long range scanners on. Next time you might not be lucky enough to have a star at your back hiding your heat signature."
"There are more of those things?" Gus said.
Blade nodded. "No one knows how many but last time I was on Bardo there seemed to be more sightings and more attacks every year."
"Bloody hell," said Gus. "Where I come from Reapers are just a story you tell children to make sure they do what they're told."
Blade swallowed and shook her head. "They're very much a reality out here."
The next five days passed without seeing another Reaper ship. Blade seemed to spend most of the time staring out of the front window with her shoulders hunched, barely speaking. Nova spent more time in Crusader, with Cal and Tanguin keeping her company.
"We'll be landing in Bardo within ten minutes," Crusader said.
"Thank the Cloud for that," Tanguin said. "I don't know how much longer I can spend cooped up in these ships."
"You spent almost all of your time cooped up in The Jagged Maw," Nova said. "How's this any different?"
"You mean, aside from having my own room?"
"You have a room," Nova said. "On Sylar..."
Tanguin snorted. "Yeah. Aart's ship. You know he sings at the top of his lungs—"
"Every morning," Nova finished for her. "Yeah, I've heard his... renditions."
"Sylar has informed me that she has many recordings of Aart and has offered to send us some," Cal said. "For our enjoyment."
He hovered between Nova and Tanguin where they sat in the pilot's pod.
Tanguin groaned and Nova grinned. "Tell her we're very grateful, but we're… ah... we enjoy listening to your robot tones."
Cal's internal motor whirred. "I've passed the message along. Although I don't appreciate you making fun of my musical endeavours. You could have knocked."
Nova laughed. "Aww, c'mon Cal. It wasn't that bad."
Tanguin grinned. "Yeah. She told me you could be the next DJ-Labourbot."
Cal swivelled between them, his eye zooming in and out on their faces. "Really?" He hovered away from them, a series of beeps, whines and other discordant sounds blaring from his speakers.
Nova chuckled and leaned in close to Tanguin. "Good cover. He would have been moping around the ship for days."
"I just hope he doesn't start playing that music first thing every morning."
Nova grimaced. "Been there, done that. I don't think I could face it again."
"We're coming in to land," Crusader said. "Aart has suggested everyone meeting in Sylar to enter the planet."
"Alright, we're being summoned," Nova said, pushing away from her chair.
Together, she and Tanguin navigated through the maze of ships to Sylar where the others stood watching the main screen. An orange planet loomed below them, and as they drew closer a city came into view covered with short grey buildings, interspersed with bright splashes of colour.
"That's the market," Blade said, pointing to a patchwork of coloured cloth. "Try to land close to there. It's where all the off-worlders go so you won't draw attention."
"What about you?" Aart said.
"My girlfriend lives not far from the market... if she's still there."
With a dull rumble the ships entered atmosphere and dark space was replaced with a bright sunny sky. A cleared area filled with ships lay beside the market and they nestled down between two beat-up flyers. Their combined ships towered over the rest, standing out more than if they'd attached flashing neon signs.
"Well," Aart said. "We tried."
"Maybe we should have detached them first," Nova said.
"Mine wouldn't have made it," said Gus. "No fuel."
"Mine's out," added Orion.
Aart nodded. "Sylar is nearly on nothing and from memory, so is Crusader."
Nova grimaced, she'd forgotten their dire fuel situation. If she ever wanted to get into space again she had to find a way to get more supplies.
Through the external cameras they saw people turn to stare at their ships, mouths gaping.
"I thought this was a major trading hub," Aart said. "Surely you get different ships here all the time."
"Yes," Blade said. "But none like this thing."
Aart grimaced. "I'll admit it's not the prettiest complex, but we had to improvise to get past the border."
Blade shrugged. "There's nothing more we can do."
Sylar's door hissed open and a cacophony of light and noise poured through the door. Bright sunlight filled the entrance room, reflecting off the metal surfaces and creating dancing patches. Coloured tents cast pools of cool shade as people drifted between the stalls and merchants yelled out their wares.
Nova gaped. After so many days spent in the dark and cold of space, the sudden boom of noise and colour filled her senses, drowning them.
"This is more like it!" Aart said, clapping his hands together.
Blade took a stumbling step forward. "It looks just the same…"
"Woah," Tyra said, stepping in front and holding her hands up. "Shouldn't we have some kind of plan? We can't just wander out onto a strange planet. We'll be carved up and served for lunch for all we know."
"I have to get home," Blade said.
"So we walk her home and she can show us the sights on the way," Aart said.
Blade bit her lip. "Okay. But try to keep a low profile, I—" She didn't finish her thought.
"Low profile it is. Did you hear that Orion?" Aart said, raising an eyebrow.
Gus snorted. "You two are as bad as each other. But I'll keep you in line."
"Settled then," Aart said.
Blade stood straighter. "Stay close, and don't let any of the merchants pull you away. They'll be selling you back your own front teeth before you know what's happening."
Tanguin sidled closer to Nova. "There are so many people, and smells! I don't know if I can go out there…"
Nova laid a hand on Tanguin's shoulder and squeezed. "You'll be alright, and I'm right here."
"What if they have rules about… about cyborgs?"
Nova grimaced. "I've got your back."
Blade glanced over her shoulder. "Still… keep your hood down. Last time I was here cyborgs were tolerated, but anything could have happened since then."
Tanguin drew a ragged breath and pulled her hood lower over her face.
"Let's do this!" Aart said.
Blade strode forward, leading the way out onto the planet. Her footsteps clinked down Sylar's ramp until they reached the dusty ground. Swirls of red dirt danced up around her ankles and floated away on a stinging breeze.
Sylar's door slid shut behind them.
A spicy smell, like chillies mixed with garlic, wafted through the air, mixing with the scent of sand and people. Strange languages clicked and buzzed through the air, unrecognizable to Nova and her companions.
They paused at the edge of the crowd, mouths hanging open.
"This way," Blade said, turning left into a crowded alley.
They weaved around a table laden with old-fashioned analogue clocks, all of which had a different range of numbers. Their uneven ticking filled the air as their bent arms clicked around the dials. Tiny gears whirred over behind the clock faces, metal spindles twisting and interlocking.
Nova couldn't help but stop and admire the craftsmanship.
"So you can keep track of the time on planets with different day cycles," Blade said.
Nova raised an eyebrow. She'd only seen one analogue clock before in her life and that was on Roxanne's mantelpiece back on Tabryn. That had definitely never been used for keeping track of alternate day cycles.
"We should keep moving," Blade said, tugging Nova's sleeve.
Nova glanced back at the table and her eye caught on a black shape huddled in the shadows. A glint of sunlight reflected off a hard carapace and insectoid eyes bulged from the darkness. A pair of pincers loomed into view and clicked twice.
Nova swallowed and hurried after Blade, spine tingling. She felt the thing's eyes on her all the way to the next corner.
"Have you seen some of these… people?" Tanguin said.
Nova glanced to her right where a man with fingers the same length as Nova's whole arm stood talking to a woman with butterfly wings.
"Talk about taking mods too far," Nova whispered.
They weaved through the market stalls, away from the light bustling section filled with candles and other trinkets, and into a darker line of shops.
"This is what I'm talking about," Gus said, stopping in front of a glass window covered in dust.
Most of the shop beyond lay hidden in shadow, but displayed in the window, resting on red cushions, sat six gleaming guns. The one in the middle, the biggest, looked like it could blow away an entire city. Its plasma chamber throbbed with a bright green glow that lit up the other weapons.
A tiny pistol no bigger than Nova's thumb and forefinger nestled near the front, beside a long thin sniper-rifle with laser sighting and long-range plasma modifiers. The others Nova didn't even have names for.
Gus pressed his face against the glass, practically drooling. His big hands left clear splodges amongst the dirt and dust on the window. A faded sign hung above the door pronouncing it Wilful Weapons, complete with a skull and cross-bones.
"I'd be careful there," Blade said, staying well back from the window.
Gus seemed not to hear.
Blade's hands twisted about in front of her and she kept glancing up and down the empty street. Where before they'd been jostled on all sides, now only the wind kept them company.
Nova laid a hand on Gus's shoulder. "C'mon. We should go. You can always come back."
"Damn straight I'm coming back," Gus said, gazing over his shoulder.
A block further on, Blade grimaced. "You shouldn't stop in these parts. Unsavoury people. Wilful Weapons especially. Sprocket, the owner, is… unpredictable."
"With a shop like that, he can afford to be," Gus said.
More shops with dusty windows and shadowed doorways passed them on both sides. One had tiny vials of liquid that seemed to swirl and dance as they walked past. Another sold animals that Nova had never heard of before.
"I'm one street over," Blade said. "You should probably wait here. So I can… introduce you."
Blade's face seemed paler than usual and her hands kept twisting about her shirt.
"We'll wait here," Nova said. "Don't worry."
Blade nodded. "Don't go into any of the shops, and don't touch anything. Also, don't talk to anyone."
"Don't worry!" Aart said, throwing his arms wide. "We've destroyed Confederacy Headquarters, survived brain-controlling leaches, and escaped the border. I think we can handle a little alley."
Blade grimaced. "Stay here."
She hurried away from them, her boots clicking on the cement road. At the far corner she paused and glanced back at them once before disappearing out of view.
"Interesting place," said Tyra.
"Reminds me of Hassard," said Nova.
Aart snorted. "Yeah, except this place doesn't reek of camel."
Tanguin shuffled deeper into the shadows and leant against the nearest wall. "I miss The Jagged Maw."
The others nodded and a sad lull fell over them.
"Do you think they survived?" Orion said.
Gus rolled his shoulders. "The Confederacy cruisers were focused on us. The Jagged Maw would have had time to move on and shield. They survived."
Nova's chest clenched. She wished she could be so sure.
"Did I hear you right? The Jagged Maw?" An old woman in ragged clothes with frizzy grey hair stepped out of a nearby alley. "Hunters? You're really bounty hunters?"
Nova and her companions turned to the woman, faces stony. Nova's hand dropped to the butt of her plasma pistol.
"Look at you! You are!" The woman danced across the street and threw her hands into the air. "Just when I thought all my luck had run out, here you are. And such fine Hunters! I just need a little help; it won't take you five minutes. I'm afraid I don't have any coins, but surely Hunters like you could see your way to helping a poor old woman……?"
"What do you want?" Aart stepped forward.
Every muscle in Nova's body tensed, ready to rip her gun out of its holster at a moment's notice.
The woman bowed her head. "It's such a little thing. But an old woman like me…"
"What is it?"
"A weed!" The woman wailed. "A dirty horrible weed is growing above my door and I can't reach it. I tried climbing up on a chair, but then I wasn't strong enough. A weed!"
The Hunters shared a glance. Nova shook her head and Aart shrugged.
"We were told to stay here," Nova said. "Sorry."
The woman looked up at Aart and tears glistened in the corners of her eyes. "Of course. Smart Hunters. My house is only just there, but of course if you've been told to stay. Oh, to think after everything I've done in my life, I've been conquered by a weed!"
The woman turned and shuffled towards an overhanging doorway. A green vine snaked down over the top, dangling two feet above the woman's head.
"Oh, bloody hell," Aart said, stepping forward.
"No!" Nova grabbed the back of his shirt and yanked him to her side. "Blade said not to talk to anyone and not to go anywhere."
"It's just a bloody weed," Aart said. "Look at her, the poor sack."
Nova shook him and locked her gaze with his. "Blade said no."
Aart shrugged her off. "I'm going right there. You can see me, hell you can practically touch me. It'll take two seconds."
Nova gritted her teeth, wanting to shake Aart until his eyes fell out, but she couldn't argue; the weed was right there.
Aart strode across the street. "Sorry Ma'am, seeing as it is right here, I'd be more than happy to help."
The woman turned, her eyes shining. "Oh, you would? Oh what a gentleman! If there were more boys like you here on Bardo, I think it would be a much better place."
Aart grinned. The plant dangled just above his head, the roots within easy reach. "Just happy to help."
The woman smiled, revealing crooked teeth. "Such a good boy. If you can just tear it out, the blasted thing will be gone."
Aart leaned back and stretched up towards the roots.
"Aart! No!" Blade's voice echoed from the end of the street and a bright blue flash of lightening ripped up the shadowed alley, slamming into the green vine and turning it into a glowing strand of fire.
Nova's heart clenched and she tore her gun out of its holster. She glanced down the street to see Blade with her gun out, aimed at the plant, and her face plastered with horror.
The old woman stood behind Aart, face twisted, with a jagged knife in her hand. Aart's mouth gaped open and he snatched his hand away from the burning plant, stumbling back.
Blade jogged towards them, her gun falling to aim at the old woman. "Back off, Esmerelda."
The old woman snarled and her knife disappeared back into the folds of her rags. "Blade. So nice of you to return."
Blade reached Aart's side and shoved him back to the other Hunters. "Can't say I'm as happy to see you. Still pulling the same trick with the hallucino-weed?"
Esmerelda shrugged, eyes flashing. "If it ain't broke—"
Blade narrowed her eyes and lashed out, hand whipping to Esmerelda's neck and coming away with a bright blue stone, threaded on a thin gold chain. "An emotional field, really?"
Esmerelda scowled. "I was hoping you wouldn't notice that one."
Blade hurled the jewel to the ground and stomped it, grinding it into tiny shards.
A cold wave heaved out of the jewel and washed over the Hunters. Nova shivered and her uneasy concern turned into raging panic. She gripped her gun tighter and twisted, searching for another threat.
The other Hunters did the same.
"Easy, Hunters," Blade said. "Just the effects wearing off."
"That cost me a fortune!" Esmerelda wailed, kneeling beside the broken jewel and scraping the shards into a ragged pile.
"Imagine how much it would have cost you if I'd reported it to the Enforcers?" Blade said.
Esmerelda glared up at Blade. "Haven't you tortured me enough?"
Blade grimaced and stepped back. "Stay away from them, and from Leia. Or next time it'll be worse."
Esmerelda waved her away and clutched the shards in her hand, disappearing into the darkened door and slamming it shut behind her.
Blade joined the Hunters with a stern frown. "I told you not to talk to anyone."
"It was just a weed," Aart said, gaping.
"Not even close," Blade said. "Touch one of those and your skin will absorb a hallucinogen stronger than anything you've tried before. On top of that, you managed to get yourself caught in an e-mod field."
Blade turned away from Esmerelda's door and strode back down the street, the way she'd come. "C'mon. Leia's waiting."
The Hunters hurried to keep up.
Nova fell into step at Blade's side. "What do you mean an e-mod field?"
Blade grunted. "You must have emotional modifiers where you're from."
Nova frowned and shook her head.
"They use sounds, pheromones, lights – depends on the type – to modify people's emotions. Powerful ones like that are banned but you can always get them if you know where to look."
"Sounds high-tech for a planet past the outers," Orion said.
Aart rolled his eyes, recovered from his close brush with trouble. "Of course it is. I've told you before that the Confederacy stifles progress. I bet there's all kinds of cool things we've never heard of."
Blade pursed her lips. "All the more reason to be careful."
"But why would the old woman want to drug Aart?"
Blade shrugged. "Esmerelda always has a scheme. She was probably going to sell you for parts on the illegal organ market, or turn you into her slave. Who knows? In here. Quick."
She pushed open a simple wooden door and waved them through into a shadowed room.
Nova followed Aart and found herself in a dim lounge room not much bigger than her room on Crusader. She squeezed in beside Aart, their shoulders touching.
Gus's head brushed the wooden beams in the ceiling and his shoulders hunched up around his ears. Blade came in last and closed the door behind her, flicking the latch down.
"Leia. You can come in."
Light footsteps hurried towards them and a tall woman burst out of an adjoining corridor. Her bloodshot eyes glimmered in the darkness and she rushed to Blade's side, their hands finding each other.
Blade gave her hand a squeeze and gestured to the Hunters. "Here they are. Aart, Tyra, Nova, Tanguin, Gus, and Orion. They saved my life."
Leia shook her head, her gaze roving across their faces. "I could never thank you enough."
Aart waved his hand. "Don't worry about it. We were saving ourselves, happy to have her along for the ride."
Leia smiled. "I've set the table, if you'd like to sit down."
She led the way through the narrow corridor to the next room where a low wooden table filled most of the space. Dented and rusted plates scattered across its surface. A small lump of bread and a piece of cheese with mould sprouting over it sat in the centre.
A red glow crept up Leia's cheeks. "I'm sorry there isn't more…… Things haven't—"
"It's perfect!" Orion said, squeezing to the far side of the table and throwing himself into a chair.
Nova sat beside him, followed by the other Hunters. Blade and Leia sat side by side at the other end.
"Please. Eat," Leia said, waving at the bread.
Nova's hand clenched under the table. How could she take their food when they obviously had so little? She swallowed, mouth dry.
Aart grinned and leaned across the table, snatching a blunt knife from beside the bread. "Shall I serve everyone?"
Without waiting for a reply he carved into the bread, cutting thin slices and laying a piece of cheese on each. He passed them around and somehow managed to make enough for everyone and still have some left over.
Nova nibbled at the corner of her dry bread. The cheese had a strong tangy flavour that would have been nice if it wasn't overlaid with mould.
Leia kept looking at Blade as if she couldn't believe her eyes, and reaching out to stroke her hand, as if reassuring herself that she was still there. Each time Blade gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.
"So what else is here?" Orion said around a mouthful of food.
Leia frowned. "What do you mean?"
"You know, for fun, or to get supplies. We don't really have anywhere else to go – aside from the ships of course."
Blade and Leia shared an uneasy glance. "You could—"
Leia cut her off. "They can't stay here."
Blade pursed her lips and glared at Leia, dropping her voice to a low whisper. "They saved my life."
"So what? I have to watch you get taken all over again? It's too risky."
The Hunters fell silent, watching the exchange. Nova's stomach twisted as tension filled the small house.
"It's the least I can do," Blade said.
"I can't let you."
"Sorry to interrupt," Aart said. "But I'm sensing that there's something we should know."
Blade frowned again at Leia before lifting her gaze to the rest of the table. "It's nothing."
"It's not nothing," Leia said. "Bardo is a major trading hub but there are rules for visitors. You have to register if you want to stay here, and that comes with a lot of fees and taxes. Technically right now you're fugitives, and you're sitting in our kitchen."
Nova pushed back in her chair, as did the others.
"Criminals?" Tanguin said, voice wavering.
"It's a stupid law and they can shove it you-know-where," Blade said. "Leia shouldn't have mentioned it."
Leia turned on Blade. "You don't know what it's like. It's so much worse than it was before. With all the new Reaper attacks the Enforcers are scrounging every piece of coin they can."
"Whoa. Reaper attacks?" Aart said.
Blade pursed her lips. "Sometimes they attack the outer settlements. It's nothing to worry about here."
"See! That just proves that you don't know what it's like here anymore," Leia said. "There are attacks on the outer settlements at least once a week, and they're getting worse."
Blade frowned. "You're exaggerating."
"Like hell. And the Enforcers are almost as bad. They're probably already on their way here."
"That's ridiculous. I—"
"Maybe if you told us—" Aart's voice disappeared in a cacophony as everyone started talking and arguing at once.
Nova sprung to her feet so that her chair skidded back and hit the wall behind her.
Silence fell over the table as everyone turned to look at her.
"I think we all deserve some explanations. We won't stay here if it's going to cause you trouble. We've always got the ships, but we need to know what's going on."
The other Hunters nodded.
"Here, here," said Gus.
Blade sighed and twirled her fingers at Leia. "Go on then, seeing as I'm so misinformed."
Leia rolled her eyes and turned to face the Hunters. "The Reapers are always a trouble, especially during travel, and they used to attack the outer settlements every few years. I've never seen it, but I've heard it's horrible. Anyway, for the past year or so the attacks have been increasing, one settlement after another has been wiped out, hundreds killed, it's like a massacre."
Blade tapped the table. "They don't need to know about the Reapers. They're not a problem here."
Leia sighed. "Yes, but they explain why the Enforcers have gone crazy."
"The Enforcers have always been crazy."
Leia glared at Blade. "Shall I tell the story?"
Blade waved her hand.
"Despite what Blade says, the Enforcers are nothing like they used to be. Bardo has always had import and export taxes, without it we'd all be living in a giant sewer. But with the Reaper attacks, they've had to adjust. Financially. Now they'll fine you for almost anything. It used to be that off-worlders were only supposed to stay inside the market district, but everyone knew they travelled around. Nobody cared because they brought money with them. Now—" Leia shook her head. "Now you'll get fined just for stepping one toe over the line. They're holding everyone to the registration fees, accommodation fees, parking fees, and if you're found to be avoiding them, or helping people avoid them, they'll throw you in the clank."
Nova frowned. "For parking fees? That sounds a bit extreme."
Leia shrugged. "Like I said, it's not like it used to be."
"Okay," Aart said, getting to his feet. "We'll go back and pay the fees."
"It's expensive. Too expensive," Blade said. "And you'll still only be able to stay a week."
Aart shrugged. "We'll find work, find somewhere to set up shop, we'll make it work."
Blade sighed and Leia hung her head. "You might find it harder than you think to find work. People here aren't very trusting… of outsiders."
"Not trusting of outsiders?" Orion said, eyes nearly bulging out of his head. "We were on our own for ten minutes and one of your citizens tried to kidnap Aart."
Leia's head whipped up. "Esmerelda?"
Blade grimaced. "How'd you guess?"
"We've got lots of experience. I'm sure there'll be something we can do," Nova said.
"I hope you're right," Blade said. "But unfortunately I doubt that will be the case."
"It's just that—"
Bang. Bang. Bang. "Enforcers, open up," a voice boomed from the front door.
Leia and Blade shot to their feet, eyes wide.
"I told you," Leia hissed. "They've found us. It's been hard enough to get work, now it'll be impossible."
Blade laid a hand on Leia's shoulder and squeezed. "It's okay. You go answer the door, I'll clean this up. You Hunters are on your own."
Nova wove between the chairs. "There's another way out?"
Blade nodded. "Through the back, inside the cupboard. Be quick, go straight back to your ships and follow the signs."
"Open up or we will force our way in," the voice boomed.
Leia gasped and hurried towards the front door.
"Go!" Blade waved them away.
Nova dashed down the corridor, careful to keep her footsteps quiet, and burst around the far corner. Her heart jerked an erratic rhythm in her chest and her mouth was suddenly dry.
An old cupboard covered in scratches slumped in the far corner. She pulled open the door and stepped inside, finding a thin hole leading into the wall.
Deep voices echoed down the corridor from the kitchen, interspersed with Blade and Leia's softer tones.
"— Suspected of harbouring off-worlders. We've got a warrant here to search the premises. I advise—"
Nova squeezed through the narrow opening and scurried down the tunnel beyond. A musty smell filled her nostrils, like dust and age.
More footsteps pattered behind her, hushed breathing filling the small space.
"Damn thing," Gus whispered. "How's a normal sized person supposed to get through?"
Nova glanced back.
Gus's shoulders scraped along the tunnel on both sides, tearing away loose pieces of dirt and rock. His head bumped against the roof, already forming a purple bruise.
"Up ahead," Tanguin said.
Nova squinted into the darkness but it took another minute of frantic scampering before she saw a twinkle of light. Five minutes later they burst out into an empty alleyway surrounded by ramshackle buildings. A deep buzz of activity echoed from the next street over.
Tanguin, followed by the others, piled out of the tunnel and joined Nova, squinting in the sudden sunlight.
Nova led the way out towards the noise.
The alley spilled open onto a broad street lined with colourful stalls. Shoppers strolled between the tables and vendors called out, haggling.
"This looks familiar," Aart said, nodding to a table covered in analogue clocks.
Nova let out a long sigh and some of the tension left her chest.
"There," said Tyra, pointing to a gun-metal grey sign.
All Visitors Report to Registration Office.
They strolled in a tightly packed group to where the sign pointed. It led to a glass-fronted building with red-writing scrolling across its front. Symbols and languages that Nova didn't recognize adorned most of the glass, they looked like warnings.
The door buzzed as they pushed it open and piled inside. A moment later, a fat man in a grey suit appeared from an adjoining door, the name tag on his chest read; Phil, Happy to Help. He frowned at them as he strode to a wooden desk and sat down.
"Parking bay?" he said.
Aart opened his mouth but said nothing, turning to gape at the others. "Sorry?"
"Parking bay?" the man barked, frown deepening.
"We—" Aart faltered.
"We don't know," Gus said, rolling his shoulders.
Phil's mouth thinned into a line. He flicked a grey switch and a holographic image of the parking area sprung up above his desk. "Where?"
Tyra poked her finger through the centre of the image where their combined ships rose above the rest.
Phil's eyes narrowed. "That monstrosity has been parked there for hours. Where have you been? Illegally squatting?"
Orion stepped to the front, a wide grin spread across his face. "We tried to come straight here, sir, but we just couldn't find it. We've been wondering around for hours looking for this registration office."
Phil's clenched jaw loosened and he rolled his eyes. "There's a sign."
Orion threw his arms wide. "We completely missed it! Can you imagine?"
Phil grunted and tapped a few keys on a broad touchpad that took up most of the desk. "With the size of your craft you'll have to pay an oversized fee."
"And you'll have a late fee."
"That's only fair," Orion said.
"Purpose of visit?"
Orion glanced back at the other Hunters. "Mostly travel. Although if we can pick up some work—"
"Work?" Phil's head whipped up. "What kind of work? How long are you planning on staying? You'll have to fill in these work visas."
He pushed six portable screens across the desk towards them.
Orion took them and handed them out, a smile making the corners of his mouth tremble.
Nova took hers and scanned down the scrolling text. It went on for what seemed like forever. She was sure that if it had been printed on old-type paper it would have filled the whole office and then spilled out onto the street. Phrases and words jumped out at her as she read but mostly it seemed like a continuous stream of legal jargon.
… damages paid by off-worlder to worldee in the event of a non-circumstantial but unpreventable misappropriation…
Her eyes blurred over and she had to shake her head and begin again at the start of the paragraph.
"Well? Hurry up, I don't have all day."
"Are you kidding?" Aart said. "Before I can sign this I'll have to go and get a law degree, then come back and read it."
Phil's face darkened. "Anyone searching for work here on Bardo must fill out a visa form."
Tanguin sidled closer to Nova. "It's alright. A lot of covering their own arses and making sure they get paid if something goes down. But we're not signing our souls away."
Nova turned and raised an eyebrow.
Tanguin shrugged and spoke so low that Nova could barely hear her. "One good thing about a bionic eye, it can scan and search the text."
"What's that?" Phil's head sprung up from glaring at his screen. "Bionics?"
Tanguin shrank back, hiding behind Nova.
"We were talking privately," Nova said, scribbling her name across the bottom of her screen.
Phil folded his arms across her chests. "All cyborgs must register and pay a fee."
Nova handed him her screen, letting her jacket fall open to reveal the plasma pistol shoved into her belt. "I'll be sure to mention that if I see any."
Phil gaped and took the screen. "I-What—"
Nova turned to Orion and the others. "The form is alright, go ahead."
They signed and tossed their screens onto Phil's desk with a clatter.
"Is that all?" Nova said.
Phil took a breath and seemed to regain some of his composure. "No, that most certainly is not all. Where are you all planning on staying? For how long? I need your names, and other details. I—"
He went on until Nova's mind floated away, filled with images of tying Phil to the front of Crusader and taking off with him stuck there.
"— and finally, your total fee comes to two-thousand krones," Phil said after what felt like an eternity.
The Hunters shared a glance and Aart foraged in his pockets. "Do you take credits?" he asked, laying a cred-stick on Phil's desk.
Phil snatched it up, glanced it over, and hurled it back down. "Does this look like the middle of make-believe? Here in the real world we accept currency, not metal sticks."
Some of the humour left Aart's eyes and his shoulders tensed. "We're not exactly from around here. We don't have any crows—"
"—krones. You must accept other currencies, or there has to be an exchange of some sort."
"I can tell you right now that nowhere on Bardo is going to accept that – thing – for currency." Phil sneered down at the cred-stick.
"What about other stuff?" Tyra said. "You know, gold, technology, stuff."
Phil rubbed his hand across his mouth. "It would depend what it was. It'd have to be pretty good to make it to two-thousand."
"What if we don't pay it?" Gus said, the tattoos on his arms dancing as he flexed his muscles.
"You'll be removed from the planet," Phil said. "One way or another."
Tyra shook her head. "We'll pay. We just need to go back to our ships."
Phil frowned. "Fine. But you'd best be quick or you'll incur a secondary late fee."
Aart groaned and rolled his eyes.
Nova grabbed his shoulder, spun him around, and pushed him towards the door. The others followed.
"We'll be back soon with trading items," Tyra called over her shoulder.
The door jingled shut behind them, leaving them back in the middle of the bustling street.
"Such a friendly man," Aart said.
Orion snorted. "Maybe compared to a serial killer… and even then, I've met some pretty nice serial killers. C'mon, let's go get some trading items."
"Hang on," Nova said, striding towards the nearest stall. "If we're going to trade we need to know how much we're paying."
Colourful pieces of fruit covered most of the table and a thin woman with a braided shawl stood behind, smiling out at the crowd. As Nova drew closer, the woman's smile widened and her blue eyes sparkled.
"Welcome to Bardo, I hope Phil didn't give you too much trouble."
Nova's mouth dropped, the words she'd been going to say dying in her throat.
"I'm Abigail," the woman said, nodding her head. "It's a shame that the first part of Bardo that visitors see is that ghastly registration office. Please, don't judge us all based on that."
Nova smiled, some of the tension leaving her shoulders. "Of course. We're just trying to work out how much we're being asked to pay."
Abigail's face scrunched and she sucked in a breath of air. "How much did he hit you with?"
"Two thousand krones."
"Ow!" Abigail hung her head. "If he's not careful he's going to chase everyone away."
"So it's a lot?" Nova said, already liking Abigail.
Abigail nodded. "You could buy a cheap ship for that much."
Nova groaned. "Just when—"
"Nova." Tanguin grabbed Nova's arm and pulled her away from the stall.
Nova stumbled on a loose pebble and frowned down at Tanguin. "What? That's important information."
Tanguin bit her lip. "There's something not right. And remember Blade said not to talk to anyone."
"How exactly are we supposed to get by if we can't talk to anyone?"
Aart frowned. "You're right… but Tanguin's right too. There's something going on."
A small ember of anger flared to life in the bottom of Nova's stomach. "Are you kidding? She's the first reasonable person we've spoken to since we got here."
"It's just that—"
"Above the stall," Tyra hissed, slapping the back of her hand against Aart's chest.
Nova frowned and followed Tyra's gaze.
Above the fruit, sparkling in the sun, shone a yellow stone the size of her fist. It glimmered and cast bright twinkles of light across the table.
"An e-mod," Tanguin whispered.
"Blood hell," Nova said.
"Thought it was weird that you were having such a nice chat with a stranger," Aart said. "Usually you're more of a yell and watch them cower type."
Nova rolled her eyes. "That's it." She clenched her fists and strode towards Abigail. "What the hell do you call that?" She thrust her finger up at the jewel.
Abigail's smile grew but her eyes hardened. "A beautiful jewel."
"An e-mod," Nova said. "Which are illegal. Do you know what I've done to people for less than that?"
"I'm sure I'm terrified," Abigail said.
"Maybe I should go and tell Phil that right across the road from his office there's an e-mod?"
Abigail shrugged. "You could try. But of course this one is a registered marketing device and completely sanctioned by the Enforcers. And if you brought Phil over here I'd have to tell him about how you arrived an hour ago and went straight out of the market district into the forbidden zone."
A chill swept up Nova's neck accompanied by a hot glow on her cheeks.
Abigail's smile turned feral. "Typical off-worlders. Can't follow the rules. If it were up to me you'd be thrown straight in prison and your ship confiscated. Think you can get away with anything. Well, let me tell you; someone's always watching, and you'll get yours."
Nova spun and strode away from the stall, passing her companions and heading straight for the ship. Three meters away from the stall her emotions seemed to rocket. She went from being mildly annoyed to flat out furious and had to fight the urge to turn and shoot Abigail to pieces.
The other Hunters caught up.
"This is turning into a good day," Aart said.
Tanguin frowned. "Aart's right. Maybe we should consider going to a different planet."
Nova shook her head. "We can't. Aside from the fact that we'd run out of fuel before we even reached the next star, we have no idea what to expect out there. For all we know, the other planets are worse. At least here we have Blade. No, we need to stay here, learn more about how things work this side of the border, find our feet, and a way to get more fuel."
Gus grimaced. "I dunno, if someone tries to mess with me with one of those e-mods, I can't guarantee how I'll react."
Aart sighed. "As much as I want to leave, Nova's right. This place is bad but at least we know it. Hell, out there we could be boarded by Reapers."
"Never thought the Confederacy would look good," Tyra said.
"Too right there," said Orion.
They weaved amongst the parked ships to their combined crafts.
"That bitch said two-thousand krones would buy a ship, but I have no idea if she was telling the truth or not," Nova said.
"The fruit she was selling had a sign saying one krone each," said Tanguin. "That means krones and credits are about the same, and two-thousand in fees is excessive."
"We don't have a choice. We'll all grab what we have and hope it's enough," said Nova.
They nodded and filed into Sylar, each weaving through to their own ships. Tanguin followed Nova.
"Aside from Delta, I have nothing," Tanguin said, throwing up her hands.
Nova nodded as they entered Crusader's loading bay. "I don't—"
"You're back! You're alive!" Cal whizzed into the room and came to a spinning stop in front of Nova.
"Of course I'm alive."
"It's been terrible!" Cal said, throwing his metallic arms into the air. "There's been a horribly nasally voice trying to talk to me all morning. It keeps asking for registration and landing permits. Then we did some research on the planet and learned about the Enforcers… Crusader thought you were dead for sure."
Crusader broke in. "The labourbot is mistaken. I merely—"
"I knew you'd be okay," Cal said, cutting Crusader off.
"Okay is subjective," Nova said, pulling open a storage locker.
She tossed everything inside onto the floor of the storage bay. Broken wires nestled amongst old data chips and camouflage suits.
"Are we having a garage sale?" asked Cal.
"That registration you were asked for," Tanguin said. "Is going to cost us two-thousand krones. Whatever that means."
"Two-thousand?" Cal's motor whirred. "That's robbery! That's thievery! That's extortion! The people in front of you only had to pay a hundred."
Nova raised an eyebrow as she sifted through her junk. "Spying, Cal?"
"Gathering intelligence," he said.
"I'm sure." Nova grabbed an armful of stuff and strode for the door. "Bloody Phil, throwing all those fees at us. But we don't have any other options. Let's hope the others found something more valuable."
"If we trade all this just for parking, we'll have nothing left," said Orion. "What will we do if we can't get jobs?"
"We don't have a choice," said Tyra. "We don't have the fuel to go anywhere else. We're all in. We've got to make this work and that means paying for parking."
Gus cracked his knuckles. "I could talk to that guy, Phil, and convince him to waive some of the fees."
"No," Nova said, holding up her hand. "You heard what Blade said about the Enforcers. We can't risk it. We'll just trade our stuff and once we've paid for parking we'll be able to find work. Everything will sort itself out."
The others didn't look convinced, and Nova sounded more confident than she felt. But she was right, they had no choice. So the six of them gathered what they could carry and staggered back towards the registration office, barely able to see over the piles of junk in their arms. The stall-holders and shoppers stopped to stare at them, their mouths gaping open. Abigail snorted and rolled her eyes.
When they got to five meters away from the door to the registration office, it burst open and Phil ran out, waving his hands. "You can't bring that rubbish in here! Get away."
Aart peered around his pile of goods. "You said we could trade in items."
"I didn't know you'd be bringing a whole truck of garbage. No. I can't accept it."
"Then how exactly do you expect us to pay you?" Nova said.
Phil waved his hand down the street. "There's a trading stall down there. Maybe Freddy will want some of your junk. Damned if I know why."
He continued muttering as he bustled back into the office, slamming the door shut behind him.
"You know," Aart said. "I'm coming to like this planet less and less."
"Just keep an eye out for e-mods," Tyra said.
They staggered up the street between the stalls. The crowds parted before them, pushing their backs against the walls to get away. Halfway down the street they came to a grey table with a metal sign.
Trash to Cash
"Ten krones says you're looking for me." A thin man with greasy hair stepped out of the shadows and grinned at them, revealing blackened teeth.
"You buy stuff?" Aart said.
"Freddy, at your service," he said, flourishing his hand and taking a bow.
"Here it is, Freddy," Tyra said, placing her armload onto his stall. "We need two thousand krones for registration. We don't want to bargain, it's been a long day. We know how much this stuff is worth, and it's a hell of a lot more than the right to park on this hunk of dust for a few days."
Freddy chuckled. "Be careful saying that around here darling. Got some people who take great pride in old Bardo."
"Not you?" Nova said, placing her pile next to Tyra's.
Freddy tapped the side of his nose. "Depends who I'm talking to, doesn't it? But if I'm being honest with you fine folks, Bardo hasn't got that much going for it. And, there are so many interesting things… out there."
"So do we have a deal?" Tyra said.
Freddy sifted through the items on his table. "I'll have to check it over first. This stuff may be worth a lot to you but two thousand krones is a lot of money. Whether Phil is ripping you off or not is none of my business."
He pulled items off the pile and examined them one by one, muttering under his breath. Aart and the others added their items so that the pile reached almost above their heads.
"Fascinating," Freddy said, grabbing a pair of goggles and peering through them. "You have some interesting stuff, that's for sure. Of course I won't be able to sell most of it."
Nova's jaw clenched. "What do you mean? This is what you do, isn't it?"
"Junk, yes," Freddy said, nodding. "But this is off-worlder stuff. The locals won't want to touch it."
Aart threw up his hands. "This is supposed to be a trading hub, isn't it? Why the hell wouldn't they trade?"
Freddy shrugged. "They don't like off-worlders, or their junk. The only people who'd be interested are other off-worlders, and what with all the attacks and the increased costs…… well we're not seeing as many as we used to."
Nova took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "I guess we'll take this elsewhere then." She reached for the pile.
"Whoa," Freddy waved her away. "I didn't say that. I happen to like off-world trinkets. Why do you think they won't talk to me?" He nodded at the locals standing on the other side of the street. They sniffed and turned away.
"Look pal," Gus laid a hand on top of the pile. "I'm sure you can appreciate that we're in a hurry. We stay out here much longer and chuckles up there in the registration office will slap another late fee on us. So if you're in, hand over the cash. If you're not, tell us straight."
"Alright, alright!" Freddy bent under his table and came back up with a handful of silver coins. "There you go. Two thousand."
Aart took the coins and turned them over in his hand. "These are krones?"
"True as they come," Freddy said, pulling the pile closer.
"You still use hard currency?" Tyra said, taking a coin and holding it up to the light.
Freddy nodded. "It's gone out of fashion in most districts, but it's the only way to keep trade consistent here on Bardo."
"As lovely as this exploration of the history of currency is," Orion said. "We'd better get moving. I don't have anything left but the clothes on my back so if we get another fee…"
"I am not seeing that again," Tanguin said, hurrying up the street with her hood pulled low.
Nova's mouth twisted into a smile as she hurried after, leaving Freddy going through their things.
"Oh, c'mon," Orion said. "You loved it. I'm just worried about the ladies of Bardo, they might all keel over with heart attacks."
They shoved into the registration office to find Phil standing behind his desk with his arms folded. "Well, that took long enough. Another five minutes and—"
"Yep, we get it," Tyra said. "You're big and scary and have lots of administrative power. Here's your two thousand."
Aart dropped the coins onto Phil's desk. He scowled down at them, snatched one and held it up to the light. "Appears to be real…"
Nova rolled her eyes. "It is. Now give us the papers, or codes, or whatever the hell it is we need."
Phil glowered as he rummaged in his top drawer, pulling out six metal badges the size of his hand. "These are your identification cards. You are to wear them at all times while on Bardo. When you leave you must hand them back to me. Be aware that they will track your movements and if you're found in the restricted zone you will be arrested. Taking the badge off while on Bardo soil is an arrestable offence. Any damage to—"
Nova's eyes glazed over as she took the badge and clipped it to her shoulder. A red light flashed in its centre.
"Do you understand everything I've said?"
The Hunters nodded.
"Can't wait to see the backs of you," Phil said.
"Right back at you," Aart said, pretending to tilt a hat.
Phil scowled as they strode out of the office.
"Damn," Aart said. "After today, the prison on Chindo almost looks cosy."
They sat around the table on Sylar drinking tea and eating copious amounts of chocolate.
"Are you kidding?" Nova said. "Ankar looks cosy after this place."
Nova took a long sip of warm tea, it spread heat to her limbs and her shoulders relaxed.
"Tomorrow will be better," said Orion. "We'll go out there, find a couple of jobs, learn about this galaxy, and as soon as we find a better place, we'll leave."
"That sounds like a plan I can drink to," Gus said, pouring a heavy measure of whiskey into his tea before drinking.
"Rise and shine sleepy head," Cal said, hovering into Nova's sleeping pod.
She groaned and held a pillow over her face.
Cal's thin metallic arm gripped the corner of her blanket and pulled it free, allowing a cold blast of air to run over her.
Nova let the pillow fall and frowned up at him. "I think I'd rather just stay here."
Cal folded the blanket and placed it at the end of her bed, next to her feet. "I'd say that's an excellent idea except that we need supplies; new cartridges for the food generator, fuel, replacement parts for the air recycler, a—"
Nova lifted her hand. "I know. But I'd rather not. I feel like I haven't had a proper rest in so long… we were trapped on Chindo, before that I was locked in Ankar, before that the catacombs on Kopet, and before that the Confederacy were blowing holes in our door."
Cal patted her shoulder. "I've missed you too."
Nova smiled and sat up, pulling a long-sleeved shirt over her singlet. "As soon as we get those supplies we're going to head out to the middle of nowhere and just float. I thought once we got past the border…" She let out a sigh. "Never mind."
Cal hovered to the door. "It will happen. But for now I've prepared a warm bowl of porridge."
Nova followed him out. "You made me breakfast?"
"Just this once. Don't get used to it."
Nova chuckled. "Yes sir."
An hour later they stepped out into Bardo's bright sun, metal badges flashing red from their shoulders. The market buzzed with people, and crowds moved amongst the stalls.
"Teams of two," Aart said. "We're looking for any kind of job that pays. We need to build up some recognition, then we can worry about which jobs to take. Nothing too dangerous though, or illegal. I have a feeling Phil's just waiting for an excuse to peel my skin off."
Tanguin sidled next to Nova, keeping her head low. Orion grabbed Aart and wrapped him in a bear hug.
"Oh no, not you two," Tyra said, folding her arms across her chest.
"What?" Orion said.
"The two of you together are nothing but trouble," Tyra said.
Orion held a hand over his chest as if he'd been shot. "How can you say that?"
Nova snorted and shook her head.
Orion tapped his fist into Gus's shoulder. "Fine. Me and big guy."
Gus groaned and glared at Tyra. "Why'd you do that?"
Tyra chuckled. "Because otherwise we would have been collecting peeled pieces of their skin off the floor by the time lunch came around."
"Speaking of," said Nova. "Meet back here in four hours. If there's trouble, get back to the ships."
"See you then!" Orion said, hooking his arm in Gus's and strolling away into the markets. Gus dragged his feet and kept glaring over his shoulder at Tyra.
"This way," Tyra said, striding away with Aart in tow.
"I guess that leaves us with this direction," Tanguin said.
She and Nova entered the crowd, allowing it to push them along like a current. Tanguin kept her hood low and her head bent.
"So what are we supposed to do?" she said. "Ask people if they need a bounty hunter?"
Nova frowned. "I was hoping there'd be a sign."
Tanguin snorted. "A sign? Is that how it works."
Nova shrugged. "A lot of the time. People need something done, they advertise for it. And sometimes they don't want that thing advertised on the Cloud."
"Hmm. Well I don't think there's much risk of that out here; Delta hasn't been able to access the Cloud or find any equivalents on this side of the border."
They walked all the way to the edge of the stalls without seeing a single bulletin board or wanted poster. As they passed the final stall, their badges started wailing.
"What the—" Nova jumped and her hand whipped to her shoulder, ready to rip the thing free.
Tanguin grabbed her shirt and pulled her back to the stalls. "Look."
A red line splashed across the path, a step further on from where Nova had stopped.
Tanguin nodded at it. "How much do you wanna bet that's the forbidden zone?"
Someone behind them snorted. "I see it's true what they say about off-worlders. Not the brightest bunch, are you?"
Nova turned to find an older woman with grey hair, tugging a green shawl over her shoulders. She shook her head and walked away without glancing back.
"This place just gets friendlier and friendlier," Tanguin said.
Nova nodded. "I guess we'd better start asking people directly, seeing as there aren't any convenient signs."
They turned back the way they'd come, eyes scanning the stalls.
"Nova," a low voice hissed from a darkened side street.
Tanguin and Nova peered into the shadows where a dark figure stood, beckoning them.
"Blade?" Tanguin said.
"Yes, come here."
Nova and Tanguin stepped into the alley and Blade's face came into focus. A deep frown wrinkled her forehead and her eyes kept darting to the sides.
"Shh, no time. The Enforcers are trying to charge me with having 'off-world' affiliations. I can't be seen with you."
Nova nodded. "We don't want to cause you trouble."
"Good. Me neither. Look, I know I can't thank you enough for saving me from Chindo but I can't help you here. It's changed. As soon as you can, get into your ships and fly away. It's not safe here."
Nova's frown deepened. "We need supplies…"
"Then get them and leave," Blade said, her eyes wide. "Don't stay on Bardo."
Tanguin laid a hand on Blade's arm. "We won't. Don't worry about us, just keep yourself and Leia safe."
Blade bit her lip and nodded, stepping backwards, deeper into the alley. "Thank you." She turned and darted into the shadows, the sound of her footsteps fading into silence.
"Well…" Nova said. "I guess we're on our own."
Tanguin shrugged. "Same old."
"Now, who looks like they need a bounty hunter?"
"He looks friendly enough." Tanguin nodded towards a man in a colourful jacket with rainbow streaks through his hair.
They stepped to his table, laden with glass jars filled with colourful sand and scented candles.
"Hello ladies. Would you care for a trinket? A gift for friends perhaps?" He smiled wide and waved his hand to encompass his table.
Tanguin kept her hooded head down, as if studying the candles.
"Thank you," Nova said. "But we were actually hoping you, or someone you know, might need our services."
The man's arms dropped to his sides and his smile turned to a scowl. "Does this look like the whore district to you? Do I look like some hard up John with—"
"Whoa," Nova said, waving her hands. "Not those kinds of services."
The man grunted and folded his arms across his chest.
"We're bounty hunters. We help find things, or people, or other odd-jobs. We have a special talent for making things happen and can help with almost anything."
The man splayed his hands on the table and leaned towards them. "Maybe I didn't make myself clear. Whatever the hell you're selling, I'm not buying. I don't need some off-worlders taking my hard-earned krones. There's nothing you can do that I can't get done by an honest local."
Anger burned in the bottom of Nova's chest and her jaw clenched. "We're just trying to find work. A simple no would have been fine."
"Get the hell away from my stall."
Nova gripped Tanguin's arm and led her away, back into the street.
They continued on, one stall after another, meeting with the same response. As soon as the merchants realized they weren't there to buy, they got shooed on like stray cats. By the time they got back to the top of the street and the registration office, Nova didn't have the energy to fake a smile.
She didn't bother visiting Abigail's store with its yellow e-mod dangling above it.
The others were already waiting at the registration office.
"I guess you had as much luck as we did," Aart said, his usual smile gone.
"You'd think we had HAV or something," Orion said. "I at least thought people would want protection or something from the Reapers, but nothing."
"I don't know about you guys, but all this rejection has made me hungry," said Gus.
"I'm in," Tyra said. "Aart and I passed what looked like a restaurant, not far from here."
They followed her into the crowd, walking in silence until they got to a large tent filled with tables. The spicy scent of sizzling meat wafted out on the breeze and made Nova's stomach rumble.
They sat at a broad table, all of them glaring down at the wooden planks. A plump woman wearing a white apron bustled to them, a small computer in hand.
"What'll it be?" she said.
"Whatever that delicious smell is," Nova said, without looking up.
"Same," said Aart.
They all ordered the same except Tanguin. "Do you have anything simple?" she said, keeping her face down.
"Simple?" the woman said. "What's that mean?"
Tanguin bit her lip.
Nova's gut twisted. Tanguin's stomach wouldn't handle anything like sizzling meat, not after having spent the first half of her life Connected and being fed through tubes. "Uh, my friend comes from a planet where solid food is forbidden. Religious reasons."
The woman rolled her eyes. "Off-worlders. We've got a basic soup."
"Perfect," Nova said.
The woman walked off, muttering under her breath, and returned ten minutes later with plates of sizzling meat and a single bowl of grey soup.
The blood drained out of Nova's face and her throat went dry. How did they forget? She'd been so angry about the rejection and the way they'd been spoken to she'd completely forgotten that they didn't take credits. Apparently, so had everyone else.
Nova rummaged in her pockets and pulled out three silver coins she had left over from trading in their stuff. "What does everyone else have?"
"Er—" said Aart.
All up they had five krones.
The others gaped like dying fish.
The woman's eyes flashed. "If you think—"
"Easy Mary, I've got it." A man at the next table turned with a smile and handed her a handful of coins.
She pursed her lips as she took them and stalked away.
The man turned to the Hunters with a grin. "Don't mind Mary, or the rest of the citizens. Can't blame them for believing what they've been raised on."
"Thank you, sir," Aart said. "I think it's easy to say you're the nicest person we've met since we got here."
The man tipped his cap. "They call me Rider."
"You're welcome to join us," Aart said, waving at the table. "It's the least we can do."
Nova's jaw clenched. If the last day on Bardo had taught them anything, it was that they couldn't trust anyone, even if they seemed nice. The last thing she wanted was a stranger at their table.
Rider chuckled. "Thank you, but I wouldn't want to interrupt your meal. Please, enjoy."
Nova's shoulders relaxed. Despite everything she'd seen on Bardo so far, Rider didn't seem to want anything. Inwardly she shrugged. For the moment she'd enjoy a hot meal, if she needed to, she'd worry about Rider later.
She lifted a steaming piece of meat to her mouth. Juices flowed over her tongue and she closed her eyes. "This is good."
The others dug in and their table fell into silence, interrupted by the occasional slurp.
Nova scraped the last drop of sauce from her plate and laid down her fork, wishing there were more.
The others leaned back and a gentle calm settled over their group. Orion opened his mouth to speak when something clattered at the next table.
"You bastard! Come back here!" Rider flew to his feet and started after a young boy with a heavy purse in his hands.
The Hunters jumped up, knocking their chairs backwards. Gus stepped to the side, using his broad shoulders to block the exit. The young thief turned and darted to the side, making for the kitchens. Orion snatched for his collar but the boy darted out of the way and dived under a table, crawling to the other side and resuming his mad dash.
Nova pelted after him. She skidded around the tables and lunged just as the boy reached the door to the kitchens. She buried her hand in his hair and hauled him backwards.
"Ow!" he bellowed, writhing against her grip.
Nova snatched his shoulder with her other hand and turned him around, marching him back through the restaurant. Everyone stared at them, mouths hanging open.
"I would have had him…" Aart said. "I tripped."
Nova grinned. "You must be getting old."
She steered the boy to Rider and held him in place.
Rider snatched the purse away from the boy and looked inside. "Oh thank the sands, and thank you." He nodded at each of the Hunters.
The boy strained against Nova, she tightened her grip so that her fingers dug into his shoulder and he stopped.
"As for you," Rider said, glaring down at the boy. "You thief."
"I just wanted to feed my ma!" he wailed.
"Is that right? And do you need a whole bag of krones to do that?"
The boy's face paled.
"Do you know the punishment for stealing that kind of money?"
The boy swallowed and nodded.
"I should hand you over to the Enforcers right now!"
"Please sir, no!"
Rider tucked the purse into a pocket deep in his jacket. "No?"
"No! Please sir, I didn't know you had so much. I just wanted to feed ma."
"Perhaps," Rider said, scratching his chin.
"Maybe you're telling the truth. I'm going to let you off with a stern warning. But if I catch you even looking at me again, I'll hand you to the Enforcers. No second chances."
"Yes sir. Of course, sir."
Rider nodded and looked up at Nova. "Let him go."
She shrugged and released her grip. She'd done her share of pick-pocketing, and couldn't hold it against the boy too much. Especially as it had felt as though he hadn't eaten a solid meal in weeks.
The boy scurried away out of sight. Rider let out a long sigh and collapsed into the nearest chair. "I don't know how I can thank you enough."
Nova shrugged. "It's the least I can do after you bought us lunch."
Rider grimaced. "It's not even for me. This money is to pay someone to take medical supplies to the outer settlements. If I can ever find someone brave enough to go out there."
Nova's eyes widened and she looked back at the other Hunters. This could be the break they were looking for. She was just about to make an offer when scuffling erupted outside.
"Someone get the Enforcers!"
"We need help out here!"
Nova dashed for the door, the other Hunters right on her heels. She burst out into the street to find a ragged band of people, shuffling between the stalls. One had collapsed against a table and sent fruit rolling across the floor. Gashes leaked blood down the man's side. The others wore ragged clothes and their eyes stared, vacant.
Nova ran to the fallen man and lowered him to the ground. She pulled up his shirt to reveal a huge cut running up his side, from his hip to his ribs. Yellow pus oozed around the sides and blood stained most of his skin.
Aart rummaged in his bag and pulled out a glass bottle. Nova snatched it and tore the lid off, pouring it over the man's side. He groaned but remained unconscious.
"He needs stitches," Nova said.
"Here." Aart handed over a thin ball of wire and a sharp needle.
"There's another one here!" Tyra called. A woman lay at her side, blood pouring down from her temple.
Nova threaded the needle and pushed it through the man's side, squeezing his flaps of skin together. She lined up the next stitch.
"Hey! Get off him."
A firm hand gripped her shoulder and yanked her away. The needle fell out of her hand, the thread tugging a new hole in the man's stomach.
She shot to her feet, fists clench, to face whoever had grabbed her. "What the hell—"
The man wore a grey uniform with a circular emblem on his broad chest. His square jaw clenched as he looked down at her. "Off-worlders are forbidden from touching locals without their permission. The sentence for—"
"He's dying!" Nova yelled.
The Enforcer's hand clenched into a fist. "The sentence for ignoring this law is imprisonment or a one thousand krone fine."
Other Enforcer's crowded around. Some lifted the injured people onto stretchers and carried them up the street, others had restrained Tyra. The remaining four bounty hunters stood, hands hovering near their guns.
"Get off me you bastards," Tyra said, straining.
"Resisting punishment will lead to an additional charge for disturbing the peace. The sentence for disturbing the peace—"
"Brendan." Rider sauntered out of the restaurant, hands in the pockets of his dark jacket.
"Rider," the Enforcer in front of Nova said.
"I'm sure there's no need for sentencing. They were trying to help."
Brendan drew himself up to his full height. "All crimes must be punished. Especially those committed by off-worlders, or they'll consider themselves above our customs."
Rider waved his hand. "This is clearly part of the extraordinary circumstances sub-clause. You and I both know you're not obligated to charge them."
Brendan scowled. "Maybe not obligated. But that's never stopped me before."
Rider snorted. "Ah, our justice system at work."
"Stand aside Rider. I'm guessing these off-worlders can't pay so I'll be taking them to the prison."
Nova's hand twitched, ready to snatch her gun from her belt. With six Hunters they could take down the Enforcers. It'd make getting back to the ships harder but she'd be damned if she ended up in another prison cell.
Rider rolled his eyes. "What's the going rate these days? A thousand krones each?"
Brendan's eyes narrowed. "Yeah."
Rider withdrew his hand from his jacket and counted out a pile of coins, handing them to Brandon as if they were diseased. "Two thousand, there you go. Release them."
Brendan snatched the coins. "This won't stop me from arresting them, or you, if they set another toe out of line."
Rider waved his hand. "Go on, you got your money. Those people need looking after, that should be your focus."
Brendan spun and followed his Enforcers back up the street, prodding some bleeding people along in front of him.
Rider grinned and waved at Brendan's retreating back. "Such a nice man. Or at least he used to be, before he joined the bloody Enforcers."
Nova kept her hand hovering just above her gun.
"Wow, thank you," Tyra said, massaging her wrists where the Enforcers had grabbed her.
"It's the least I could do after you got my money back. Plus I have to try and save the reputation of Bardo."
Aart shook his head. "I don't understand how the rest of the planet can be so terrible and yet you're wonderful. If I had the krones, I'd buy you a drink!"
Nova glanced up the street where Brendan's back disappeared around a corner. "Who were all those people?"
Rider's face fell. "Refugees probably."
"If we're going to talk about that, I will need a drink. Come on back inside and Mary will sort us out."
They followed Rider back into the tent and took a table. Rider gestured to Mary and she came back with mugs of bubbling purple liquid. Rider took a long swallow.
"Ah, that's just what I needed."
Nova sipped hers. It bubbled along her tongue with the taste of blueberries. "The refugees?"
"Ah yes." Rider took another mouthful. "From the outer settlements. They were probably attacked by Reapers. That's been happening a lot these days."
"How'd they get here?" Aart said.
Rider shrugged. "Probably walked. There's no medical care out there, so they have to come here if they want to be looked after. It's sad. If the Enforcers were really doing their jobs, they'd be out there protecting the settlements from Reapers, not here arresting innocent off-worlders."
Nova shivered as memories of her encounter with Reapers came flooding back. If she never saw another Reaper again, she'd be happy.
"Half of them probably died on the way here," Rider said. "It's disgusting. Which is why I'm trying to send medical supplies, but no one will transport them for me."
Nova nudged Aart under the table and raised her eyebrow. He nodded.
"What do you mean?" Nova said.
Rider shrugged. "I like to do my part. I came from the outer settlements initially. Unfortunately here in the city they're seen as not much better than off-worlders. I've got the supplies; I just haven't found anyone willing to brave the outers to deliver them. Hell, I'm even willing to pay."
Aart placed his mug on the table with a loud click. "Then I think it's very lucky that we met each other."
Rider frowned and raised an eyebrow. "I'm sorry?"
"We happen to be exactly the people you're looking for. We can deliver the supplies."
Rider's mug dropped to the table, sloshing purple liquid over the sides. "Truly?"
"Sure. We've got a ship and we're not afraid of a little danger. Hell, we've faced Reapers before."
"But I could never thank you enough! And I'd pay…"
Aart waved his hand. "Enough for basic supplies is fine."
"I'll give you one thousand krones each, minus two thousand for that fee I just paid the Enforcers. Then at least you won't have to beg for food."
Aart shared a glance with the other Hunters. They nodded back at him.
Aart grinned. "Okay, but only because you look like you can afford it."
Rider clapped. "Oh the sands do have a strange way of aligning."
"Um, not to ruin everyone's parade," Tanguin said. "But there's the small matter of these." She pointed to the tracker on her shoulder.
"Oh yeah," Aart said, seeming to sag like a deflated balloon.
Nova frowned. Tanguin was right, if they couldn't even set foot out of the market, they had no hope of going to the outer settlements.
Rider's smile didn't falter. "Ah yes, Phil's favourite toys. Don't worry about him. He'll fine you and get red in the face, but I'll cover whatever he charges you; it's just part of the expense of going into the outer settlements these days."
"He doesn't like us much, it could end up being a lot," Orion said, eyes sparkling.
Rider waved his hand. "Once he knows I'm paying, he'll reconsider. I bring in a lot of business."
"It's settled then," said Aart, slapping the table.
"And I thought luck didn't exist," Nova said as they hauled a huge wooden box through Sylar's loading door.
"That will teach you for being so cynical," said Aart.
The box screeched along the metal floor to the centre of the room where they tied it down with long elastic ropes.
"Easy money," said Orion. "And maybe a chance for us to get some reputation with these horrible locals."
"Why take all the ships?" said Tanguin, "Won't that use more fuel?"
"Call me crazy," said Nova. "But I don't want to leave Crusader here unattended."
"Me neither," said Gus.
"Yep," said Tyra and Orion together.
"It's settled then." said Aart. "Seatbelts on everyone."
The engines rumbled to life beneath them, vibrating through the metal hull.
"You've got the coordinates, Sylar, take us away."
The ship lifted up. On the monitors they watched the city shrink beneath them. The colourful market stalls became a small patchwork of dots that was then swallowed by the grey of the rest of the city.
"Not looking forward to seeing it again," Tanguin said.
"Yeah, let's focus on finding somewhere better to be," Tyra said.
Aart sighed. "If only there were more people like Rider."
The ship pushed forward, shooting away from the city, past the outer edges and into the red desert beyond. Swirling sand lifted up beneath them, creating clouds in their wake. Dunes the size of mountains undulated as far as they could see and the bright sun glared at them from above.
Ragged beeping filled the ship.
"Ow!" Aart said, ripping the tracker from his shoulder and hurling it to the floor where he stomped it into a hundred tiny pieces until it stopped beeping.
The others followed suit.
"I hope Rider meant what he said," Orion said, looking down at the scattered pieces of tracker. "Or that's going to cost us."
"Destination in five hours," Sylar said, breaking the silence.
"That long?" said Tanguin.
Aart nodded. "Saving fuel, we're flying economy." He clapped his hands together. "Alright. I think we deserve a little bit of rest and relaxation. Blue Saturns anyone?"
"Two at least for me," Gus said.
Nova nodded. "I don't know what was in those purple drinks Rider gave us but it wasn't buzz, that's for sure."
Aart called over his shoulder. "Gabby, six Saturns please."
The cupboard door sprung open and Gabby the Triple-X labourbot rolled out, her metal curves glinting in Sylar's overhead lights. She disappeared around the corner to the food generator and returned a few moments later with a tray of drinks.
"Still weirds me out that you have one of these," Nova said when Gabby returned to her cupboard.
Aart shrugged. "You have Cal."
"I'll have you know, Artemis Goldson, that I am the peak of artificial intelligence," Cal said, floating in through the door connecting Sylar to Crusader.
Aart snorted and the rest hid chuckles behind their drinks.
Nova smiled. "Cal, to what do we owe the pleasure?"
"Nothing. I thought you'd come and see me when you got back – you know I've been worried sick. But I see you were too busy – drinking –– to worry about my feelings."
"Aww, Cal," Nova said with a laugh. "I'm sorry."
Cal hovered to her side. "You're forgiven."
Three hours later they sat laughing around the table, the troubles they'd faced on Bardo all but forgotten.
"I can't believe we're actually past the border," Tanguin said. "Nova, you talked about it for so long, but I never thought..."
"Let's face it," Aart said. "We all thought you were nuts."
Nova laughed. "Yes well, I'm afraid it hasn't exactly been the wonderland I was hoping for."
"Somewhere there is a planet made of chocolate," Orion said. "But in the meantime, it's nice to know the Confederacy aren't on our arses."
"You can say that again," said Aart.
Orion grinned. "Somewhere there is a planet—"
The lights flicked off, plunging the ship into darkness.
Nova's heart clenched. "The engines."
Silence filled the ships, a deep echoing silence that should never exist on a flying ship.
"Oh shit, Sylar, what's going on?" Aart said. "Did you run out of fuel?"
A dim light flickered to life, Cal. He swept his torch along the table, and everyone squinted as it passed over them. "All accounted for," he said.
"Can you get through to Crusader?" Nova said.
"Negative. Communication and all systems failed when the lights went out. Unfortunately emergency systems will fail in five seconds."
"Emergency—" Tanguin said.
"Anti-grav!" Nova yelled as the floor fell out beneath them.
Her stomach leapt into her chest as the ship fell out of the sky. She could almost feel the air rushing past and imagined the sand zooming up to meet them.
"Based on mass and altitude, impact in five, four, three—" Cal said.
"Brace!" Nova slid off her chair to the floor, curling into a ball, and wrapped her hands over her head, hoping the others were doing the same.
The world exploded around them. A ripping bang tore through the ship as it slammed to a stop.
Nova's back thumped into the floor, sending jarring shots of pain through her spine. Every bone in her body seemed to smash into something as she spilled through the ship like a rag doll.
Their drinks flew off the table and smashed, sending shards of glass ripping through the air and skittering across the floor, amongst puddles of Blue Saturns.
Aftershocks trembled through the ships and creaking metal warned of deeper structural damage.
"Nova!" Cal's voice echoed in the darkness.
"Here, Cal," she said, wincing as she tried to sit up.
She ran her hands over her body but nothing seemed broken.
His light swung over her, revealing a bleeding gash in her forearm and a few other scrapes but no major damage.
"Check the others," she said, waving her hand.
"Head count!" he said. "Aart?"
"Here," Aart groaned.
"Tanguin?" Cal's voice sounded more urgent.
"I'm here," she said. "My arm hurts like a forced disconnect though."
Cal's torch fell over Tanguin.
Her metal shoulder had been crushed, the jagged plates digging into the flesh around her collar. Blood and oil seeped out, dribbling down her arm.
Nova crawled across the floor to Tanguin's side. She squinted in the dim light and gripped the bent metal. "I thought cyborg parts were supposed to be stronger."
Tanguin winced. "So did I."
Nova adjusted her grip. "This will hurt."
Tanguin squeezed her eyes shut and looked away.
Nova gripped both ends of the bent metal plate and forced them flat. Her injured muscles strained against the tough metal and her hands slipped in Tanguin's blood. With a final strain she pushed the plate straight.
It cut new slices into Tanguin's human flesh.
"Sorry," Nova said, wiping her bloody hands on her shirt.
Tanguin flexed her arm. "That is better."
Cal's torch slid away. "Orion?"
"Yeah, yeah, I'm fine. Except that I feel like I've been hit by a ship during take-off."
"Nothing another drink won't fix."
"Lucky last, right?" she said, voice strained.
Cal's torch rolled over her to reveal a bleeding wound in her side.
Aart appeared out of the darkness and peeled up her shirt.
"Aart!" Tyra said. "You should at least buy me dinner first."
He snorted. "If this were a date there'd be a lot less injuries."
Nova chuckled, rubbing her aching back. "I'm pretty sure Maggie would disagree."
Aart glanced over his shoulder, glaring into the darkness at Nova. "It was her idea to go to an asteroid shower for a date. I can't be blamed."
He turned back to Tyra. A long cut traced up her stomach, leaking blood onto the floor.
"It looks worse than it is," said Aart. "If we get some disinfectant and a bandage on it you won't even know it's there."
"That's some good—"
Sylar's loading door hissed open and blinding sunlight poured in.
"Intruders," Cal said into Nova's mind chip before his motors went dead and he fell to the floor like a rock, rolling to her side.
She snatched him up and held him under the crook of her arm.
She squinted against the bright light, eyes stinging, as black silhouettes poured through the door.
"Okay people, we can do this the easy way, or the hard way," a rough voice said. "We're taking the ships and everything in them. You can either get out and live, or stay and die."
Nova's mind buzzed, unable to accept what was happening. The ships were shielded, the ships had been flying. How could they be sitting in the middle of the desert being taken by bandits?
Instinct took over and she snatched for her gun, whipping it out of its holster and firing at the nearest shadow. Her gun clicked. Useless.
The shadow chuckled. "Do you really think your plasma weapons will work after we disabled your whole ship?"
The other Hunters had their guns out but useless clicks echoed from all directions.
"I'll repeat myself once more. Get off, or die." He flicked his wrist and a bright ball of red electricity slammed into the far wall, exploding with a bright flash. "As you can see, our weapons are working."
"Nova, don't do anything stupid," Aart said.
She gritted her teeth. "There's only fifteen of them. I think we can still take them."
The bandit chuckled. "I was warned you were tough. Won't help you out here though."
Aart stood, still squinting against the light. "We'll go, but can we please take the crate. It has medical supplies for the outer settlements."
The shadow roared with laughter, and other voices joined him. "Medical supplies? Wow, you off-worlders really are something else."
Aart frowned. "What do you mean?"
Nova staggered to her feet and helped Tanguin up, Cal still clutched under her arm.
"I mean," said the bandit. "Who do you think tipped us off that you'd be here? Who would spend that much money on getting medical supplies to the outer settlements? You've been played my friend."
The other Hunters got to their feet, Tyra clutching her side.
"You bastards," Gus said.
"Ah, the big one gets it. Although from the looks of him he's probably done some weapons smuggling himself."
"Weapons smuggling?" Tanguin said.
"A cyborg too, eh?"
Tanguin ducked her head, her hood having fallen off during the crash.
"Oh well," said the shadow. "Time to go now, we've got business to conduct, as I'm sure you'll understand. Off."
Nova spread her legs and laid her hand on the knife at her belt.
"C'mon," Aart said, gripping her shoulder and pulling her forward. "This isn't one we can win."
She shook his hand off. "I'd rather die trying. If they take this they take everything. Crusader is all I have!"
"Oh and I suppose you think I've got something more stashed in the desert?" Aart said, eyes flashing. "These ships are all any of us have. That doesn't mean we have to die here for no good reason."
"Better listen to your friend, girl."
Nova's fingers twitched.
"Move." Aart shoved her in the back so that she stumbled forward, out into the bright pool of light.
She looked back at their ships, a cold hand gripping her heart.
The bandit who'd been speaking stepped forward so she could see his face. Sun-weathered skin creased around his mouth as he smirked down at them. A jagged scar marked his chin and his mocking eyes looked hard and mean. "Better try to get out of the desert as soon as you can. You won't last long out here."
Aart pushed Nova the last few steps so that she staggered off Sylar's landing bay and onto sand. Heat seared up through her boots but she barely felt it. Her eyes stayed locked on Crusader.
"So long," the bandit said, flicking his hand.
As soon as he spoke, Sylar's engines roared to life and the loading bay doors hissed shut. A moment later the ships lifted into the air and shot away across the desert, lifting a sandstorm in their wake.
Nova squinted as missiles of sand slammed into her cheeks and stung her eyes and nose. She coughed as grains stuck to the back of her throat.
The roar of the ships faded, leaving just the howling wind of the desert.
"That could have gone better," said Aart.
The back of Nova's throat stung and something had hold of her lungs, making it impossible to breathe. She stared out across the sand, to where the ships disappeared with a final glint of metal.
Cal buzzed to life, pushing against her grip.
Nova jerked and let him go with a gasp.
He spun upright and hovered in the air near her head. "They took the ships then."
Nova nodded. "What the hell did you do? Faint?"
"Analysis of possible scenarios said that they'd take the ship. I thought it best I was with you than with criminals."
"You know what would have been better? If you'd shot them!"
Cal's processors whirred and he hovered away from Nova. "Weapons systems were neutralised, as I'm sure you're aware."
Nova gritted her teeth. Anger raged through her abdomen but deep down she knew it wasn't aimed at Cal.
"What the hell happened?" said Tyra. "Life-support, engines, everything failed." She clutched her stomach and lowered herself to the sand, blood trickling between her fingers.
Aart went to her side and pulled a needle and wire from the first-aid kit at his belt.
"We passed through a disrupter field," Cal said.
"A disrupter field. What the hell is that?" Gus said.
Cal turned to face him. "It's an excellent name I just came up with for what happened."
Nova hung her head. "Cal..."
"It was some kind of energy field," Tanguin said. "I felt it too. My eye... flickered."
"The cyborg is—"
"Cal! Her name is Tanguin. What if I went around calling you 'labourbot'?"
Cal's lens-like eye focused on Nova. "Considering my name is a shortening of Class Four Labourbot, I can't say I'd notice much of a difference."
"But if you would prefer, very well then. Tanguin is right. There was an energy field and all electrical systems flickered. Some shut down while others came back online."
"I've never even heard of that kind of technology," Aart said, weaving the last stitch in Tyra's stomach.
Nova rubbed her forehead. A dull throb had started to pound behind her eyelids. "I saw something like it on Taive. Although, that was just some rock that disrupted weapons."
Tyra let out three slow breaths. "Thanks Aart. That sort of rock could easily be utilised into a weapon," Tyra said.
"But out here? In the middle of nowhere?" said Orion. "How can they have that kind of tech?"
Tyra shrugged. "They have e-mods. It's not hard to believe that their technology is ahead of ours."
"As much as I love all this discussion," Gus said. "I'm about to drown in a pool of my own sweat. We need a plan."
Dark circles stained the underarms and chest of his grey shirt and droplets ran over his tattoos like rivers.
Nova licked her lips and tasted salt. She ran a hand over her forehead and it came away wet. "Gus is right."
"We passed a town ten minutes back," Cal said. "I recommend heading that way. Based on the average walking speed of a human, it'll take six hours to get there. The sun should just be setting when we arrive."
"Six hours?" Nova's voice went hoarse.
They had no water, no shade, and no chance of rescue; six hours in the desert sounded like suicide.
"Better get walking then," said Aart. "Lead the way, Cal." Aart bent and hooked an arm under Tyra's, hauling her to her feet. She walked with a shuffling limp, wincing every few steps.
Cal hovered away from them, back the way they'd come. His metal casing glinted in the bright sunlight and his engines lifted a small swirl of sand in his wake. Already the small crater created by their crashing ships had disappeared, wiped away by the moving sand, as if they'd never existed.
Nova glanced back to see her footprints vanishing as quickly as she made them, like her history being erased. She walked faster, her heart skipping a beat.
An hour later, Nova licked her cracked lips and squinted up at Cal. Heat encased her body like a glove and her legs trembled with every step. Rather than walking it felt like she was continuously falling forward, only just catching herself in time to fall again.
The other Hunters created a ragged line behind and in front of her, all of them staggering. Gus had his shirt tied around his head. His stomach and back gleamed red, strips of skin already peeling off in white ribbons.
Tanguin walked at the back, dragging her feet. Her mouth hung open and she gasped for air, each breath sounding like a dry rasp. Every few meters she stopped, stared at the ground panting, before stumbling another few steps forward.
"Cal," Nova croaked.
Cal paused and hovered back to her.
Cal's eye roved back down the line of Hunters. "At the current pace. Seven hours."
"Seven?" Nova's heart plummeted and her knees wobbled, threatening to dump her to the ground right there. "You said it would only take six and we've been walking for ages."
"Yes but I hadn't counted on such a slow pace. I've seen one-legged fluffles move faster than this."
Nova's legs stopped. No matter how hard she tried, they refused to take her another step forward. "We can't keep this up for seven hours. Tanguin's practically dead on her feet as it is and Tyra's injured!"
"There was no sign of other settlements on our way over. There are no other options."
Nova's head pounded, sending aching pain into her eyes. "There are always options. We find a place to rest until nightfall, at least then we'll be able to move without being burnt to crisps."
Cal rotated in a slow circle. "There isn't much shelter."
"We'll bury into the side of a dune. What about water. Did we pass any?"
"No obvious lakes or water beds, but there may be some underground."
The other Hunters had come to a stumbling stop not far from her, all of them swaying on their feet and blinking around the desert in dazed confusion.
"There has to be some way of detecting it."
Cal's motor whirred. "I could do a sonic survey but it'll take hours to cover any kind of area and there's no guarantee I'll find anything."
Nova bit her lip. "It's the only chance we have. Even travelling at night time I don't think we'll make it without some kind of water."
Cal nodded. "Don't leave these coordinates or I won't be able to find you."
Nova nodded. "We won't be going anywhere, trust me."
Cal turned and hovered away, a steady beep emanating from his core. Tanguin stumbled after him.
"Whoa," Nova laid a hand on her shoulder. "We're staying here."
"What?" Aart looked up at her through blood-shot eyes.
Tanguin stared after Cal, her mouth slack.
"We'll never make it like this. We'll camp down until night time. Cal's going to find water."
"Water," Tyra whispered. "I remember water."
Nova nodded and looked around. A tall dune created a small pool of shade to their left. She gripped Tanguin's shoulder and steered her towards it, her own feet dragging in the sand. She pushed Tanguin into the shade and used the last of her strength to kick away a small ditch, creating a bigger pool of shadow.
They all fell into it with sighs of relief.
Nova spread out, intending to sleep for as long as it took Cal to find water, but the hot sand burned through her thin shirt so it felt like she was lying on a bed of coals. She sat up and hung her pounding head.
"Have I said how much I love this planet?" Aart said between pants.
No one replied.
Gus winced as he flexed his shoulders. Red blisters covered his back, distorting his tattoos. "I feel like I've been cooked in a forge."
"Me too," said Tyra.
The others nodded.
"When I find Rider…" Aart trailed off, glaring into the distance.
"You and me both," Gus said, cracking his knuckles.
Nova swallowed, although only a thin trickle of spit traced down her throat. "Based on the day cycle, we've still got four hours of sunlight. Better make ourselves comfortable."
Orion snorted but huddled back further in the shade.
Tanguin sat curled into a ball, her robotic eye glinting in the sun but the rest of her as still as a tombstone. Most of her skin glowed scarlet and sand coated her hair and clothes.
"I hate deserts," Nova said, knowing she shouldn't talk but feeling she had to anyway. If she didn't, how would they know if one of them died? "Tabryn's desert, Ankar's desert, this desert. They're all hell."
Aart nodded. "That's true. You don't really hear of nice welcoming deserts. No one ever says 'oh, I'm going to holiday in this lovely desert.' Why people colonised them in the first place is the real question..."
"I spy with my little eye—" Orion began.
Gus groaned and slapped him on the shoulder.
Nova grinned, tugging open her cracked lips with a stab of pain.
"What are we going to do when we get to this town?" Aart said, any humour leaving his voice.
"Learn some kind of skill and spend the rest of our lives living in this damned desert?" Orion said.
"No way," Nova said. "I'm getting Crusader back."
Aart laid a hand on her arm. "Maybe we should talk about something else until we actually get there."
They fell into silence. Nova glared down at the sand, burning the bandit's face into her memory. When she caught him she'd make him pay, she'd take away everything he cared about... then dump him in the middle of a desert.
"How's your side?" Aart asked Tyra.
She shrugged and lifted her blood-stained shirt to reveal the line of stitches running across her abdomen. "You could have done a neater job."
Aart snorted. "You could have whined less. It's the shallowest cut I've ever seen."
Tyra rolled her eyes. "It feels much better, thanks for asking."
Two hours later, stars danced across Nova's vision.
Gus sat with his head hanging down, loud snores billowing from his chest. Aart and Orion were playing eye-spy in husky voices while Tyra watched. Tanguin hadn't moved since they'd got there. Every so often Nova placed her hand in front of Tanguin's mouth, to make sure she was still breathing.
A far off glint on the horizon made Nova reach for her gun and she realised with a jolt that she had no idea if it would work. How could they not have tested them once the bandits left?
She swallowed and pulled it from the holster anyway.
The glint grew bigger until she recognised it. Cal.
He hovered to them in a whir of motors. "Water."
Nova scrambled to her feet, her throat aching. "Where?"
Cal hovered in a slow circle. "Everywhere."
Aart hung his head. "I told you that robot had a few wires loose."
"I mean underground, Artemis Goldson. I tried to find some near the surface, but there isn't any nearby."
Aart squinted across the desert. "Oh."
"How far?" Nova said. "Can we reach it?"
"It's closer to the surface in some spots. It will take some digging but you could reach it."
"Mark out the spot," Nova said, ignoring her pounding head.
Cal hovered out of the shadow of the dune and stopped at the bottom of two slopes.
"You guys stay here," Nova said.
"You can't dig a whole well by yourself," Aart said, rolling his eyes.
"Oh you'll be digging," she said. "But there's no point all of us standing around in the sun. When I'm done one of you can have a go."
Orion shrugged and sunk back to the sand. "Suits me."
Nova slid down the side of the dune, sand cascading in small waterfalls in front of her, until she got to Cal.
"Here the water is only a meter beneath the sand."
Nova nodded. "I don't suppose you packed a shovel?"
Cal's compartment open and he extended a thin arm clutching a small curved trowel. On his other side another arm protruded out, but instead of clamps it ended in a flattened spade. "The best I could do."
Nova took the trowel and knelt in the sand. She heaved forward and scooped, throwing it over her shoulder. Sweat trickled down her face but she kept digging. Beside her, Cal scraped away sand as best he could with his thin tool.
Heat pounded down on Nova's back until her shoulders felt like they'd catch fire. The pain in her head grew until she was sure her skull would explode and pieces of her brain would go flying. She took a ragged breath and dug another scoop of sand. As she pulled up, her vision wavered and she tilted forward, head spinning.
"Nova!" Cal's tiny arm slammed into her shoulder, holding her upright.
Nova blinked, mouth gaping like a dying fish. "What—"
"Your vitals are dipping. Go back to the shade."
Nova blinked and sat back on her heels, staring down at the shallow hole she'd made. "I've barely—"
"And you'll be even less use to us dead. Go back to the shade and send one of the others."
Nova tried to argue but her dried tongue refused to work. She stood, legs trembling, and took a step up the hill. Her knees gave way and she fell back into the hot sand, grains flicking up into her eyes. She blinked them away and started crawling towards the beckoning shade. A silhouette slid down towards her.
"Nova, are you alright?" Aart's familiar voice drifted to her.
"Fine," she said, voice husky.
Aart snorted. "Yeah, okay."
"Go and dig," Nova said, waving him down the hill.
To prove herself right she stood upright, forcing her legs to hold by sheer force of will, and walked the rest of the way up the dune. She collapsed beside Tanguin and let her eyes fall closed without bothering to see if Aart had moved.
She had no idea how long it was before she drifted back to consciousness at the sound of voices.
"I would almost rather be back mining on Goldson then dig another inch into that hole," Aart said.
"I guess that means it's my turn," Tyra said.
Aart fell into the shadow of the dune, his face glowing red. "Be my guest. But watch those stiches, I don't want to have to sew you up again."
Tyra stood and slid off down the hill.
"That bloody labourbot better be right," Aart said. "Because otherwise I'm going to bury him out here and see how he likes it."
Nova wanted to argue back but her head hurt too much, so she let her eyes fall closed again.
At some point Tyra and Orion swapped. When Nova looked over, Tyra's mouth formed a thin line and she glared at her own feet. Her pale white face looked like she'd throw up at any second.
Orion stumbled up the hill, sweat pouring down his face and collapsed next to Aart.
"I guess it's time for the big guns," Gus said, flexing. The blisters on his arms rippled.
Nova watched him go from slitted eyes, her cracked lips leaking blood onto her tongue. She blinked and it seemed to take an hour. The next time she opened her eyes Gus was already next to Cal, digging. She blinked. A mound of dirt piled beside Gus and the trowel moved like a blur in his arms.
Aart snorted. "We should have got him to dig from the start. Would have saved us all a headache."
"I second that," Tyra said.
"He's stopped," Orion said.
Aart frowned. "Lazy arse... he's only been digging—"
"Water!" Orion scrambled to his feet and slid down the hill.
Nova strained her aching neck to peer down at Gus. He'd thrown the trowel to the ground and knelt with his head buried in the sand. Orion fell next to him, slapping his hand on the bigger man's back and bending forward.
Nova wiped a rough hand down her face and sat, head spinning. She glanced down at Tanguin, who still hadn't moved.
"C'mon," Aart said.
Tyra was already half way down the hill, sand streaming out behind her.
Nova scooped one sunburnt arm under Tanguin's shoulders and hoisted her upright. Her head lolled back and her eyes stayed closed. "She needs it more than any of us."
Aart bent and wrapped his arm around Tanguin's other side and together they carried her down the hill.
Nova's feet caught in the sand, threatening to trip her, but she kept her eyes locked on the bottom of the hill and the puddle of water spreading out around Gus and the others. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the bottom but when they did they set Tanguin beside the hole and Tyra passed up the trowel with a mouthful of water sloshing in it.
Nova's tongue ached and her hands trembled to throw the water into her own mouth. She lifted Tanguin's head and tilted the trowel so that the water trickled between Tanguin's cracked lips.
Nova held her breath as she passed the trowel back for more water.
Tanguin's eyes fluttered and fell on Nova. "What—"
"Welcome back," Nova said with a grin.
Tanguin groaned. "We're still out here?"
"Don't you mean 'thank you Nova for saving my life'?"
"I'd hoped you'd magicked us somewhere else."
Nova took the trowel and held it to Tanguin's lips. "I'm good, but I'm not that good."
"I've got it," Aart said, supporting Tanguin's head. "You get a drink."
Nova nodded and gave him a weak smile before leaning into the hole. She plunged her face into the shallow pool of water and cool relief engulfed her head. It was almost better than a Parapen strip… almost. She sucked in great mouthfuls, relishing in the feel of it slicking her throat and easing her parched lips.
"Whoa, Nova, leave some for the rest of us," Gus said with a chuckle.
Nova came up with a gasp, letting water trickled down her chin and neck. She scooped some up and wiped it over her forehead, her headache easing. She drank until her stomach sloshed and only then did she sit back and breathe easy. "Thanks Cal."
The labourbot hovered some distance away, his lens eye scanning the desert. "You're welcome. Although I feel I should warn you that you all look like a heard of buffalo at a watering hole. Most undignified."
Nova laughed. "Better undignified than dead!"
"I wish I had the strength to be undignified," Tanguin said, gulping down water from the trowel.
"Hmm," Cal said, hovering further away. "Nightfall will come in another hour."
"We need a way to carry some of this," Aart said. "I am not going through this again tomorrow."
"I can carry a small amount," said Cal. "But it wouldn't even be enough for one."
"Okay people, what have you got?" Aart said. "Anything that's even remotely like a container, lay them down."
They searched their pockets but in the end had nothing better than Gus's hip flask and Tyra's portable toolbox. Together they could carry less than two litres.
"It's the best we're going to get," said Aart. "Drink as much as you can now, tomorrow we're on rations."
"Why don't we plan on making it to the town tonight," Orion said. "And not think about spending another day out here?"
"That man speaks sense," Tyra said, taking a swig of water from Gus's flask.
They spent the next hour drinking and cooling off in the fresh water as the sun dipped lower towards the horizon.
As the sun disappeared, so did the heat, leaving a chill wind howling across the desert sands. Nova tugged her jacket closer; suddenly grateful she had it, and stepped away from the water.
"That's our cue," Orion said. "Lead the way, Cal."
A beam of light bloomed to life and shot across the desert in front of Cal. He swung it back and forth across the sand as he hovered away. The Hunters fell into step behind him.
Gus's stomach rumbled. "When we get to this town I am going to eat every piece of food they have."
"I'm going to shower," Orion said. "And then shower again. Probably a third time."
"It's about time too," said Aart. "Cuz you smell."
Orion nudged Aart and then danced out of reach.
"That wind's picking up," Tyra said.
Nova tugged her jacket collar up to shield her neck from the icy wind. It howled over the dunes like a disembodied voice and carried with it sharp grains of sand that slapped into her skin.
"If it's not the heat, it's the cold," Aart said.
Cal shone his torch to the left, illuminating whirling waves of sand that flicked up off the desert and swirled like tornados. His light barely penetrated two meters into the clouds.
"Shouldn't we take shelter or something?" Tanguin said.
"And be trapped out here for another day?" Orion said. "No thank you."
Cal's light wavered and flicked to the right. "Engines are struggling."
Nova held her sleeve up over her eyes and pushed forward to Cal, grabbing hold of him. "We should all hold hands or something, we can't afford to get separated."
"This is most undignified," Cal said from under her arm.
"Well, earlier you made fun of us, now it's our turn. Besides, it's a small price to pay compared to getting blown away in a storm."
Tanguin grabbed the back of Nova's jacket.
In the dim light they made a ragged chain and leant forward into the hard wind. It whipped Nova's hair loose and strands flicked her face. Her jacket thrashed up, and slapped her legs like possessed wings. She squinted her eyes and pushed forward in the jagged light of Cal's torch.
"We'll never make it in this weather," she said. "We'll go blind or fall down a hole or something. We should stop until the storm clears."
The wind whipped her voice away, burying it in a howl. Only Tanguin's dim response came back over the wind. "We should stop."
Nova turned back to her companions and the wind tossed her hair in front of her face so she couldn't see.
The other Hunters heaved forward so that they formed a rough circle. Nova yelled to be heard over the whipping sand. "We're stopping here."
Aart's mouth moved but the storm took the words away before Nova could hear them. The wind buffeted them sideways and they stumbled.
Nova glared out at the swirling sand and her heart froze.
A shadow. It loomed through the storm, lumbering towards them. It towered, over twice their size, and horns curved up out of its head.
Nova tried to talk but words died in her throat. She tried to catch Aart's eyes to warn him, but as her gaze fell to the Hunters she stumbled back. They'd changed. Instead of her friends, twisted faces grimaced back at her.
A lecheon wore Tanguin's clothes and beside her a creature covered in long hair wore Aart's grin.
She scrambled away from the faces and deeper into the storm. The sand hid the monsters, leaving her alone in a swirling maelstrom. Something at her side shuddered. She looked down to see a severed head under her arm. The eyes rolled back to look up at her and the mouth twisted in a moan.
She screamed, hurling the head away into the sand. Her heart clenched and every breath came as a gasp that scraped grains of sand across her throat. She coughed and bent double, hacking. A trail of spit dotted with sand connected her to the ground.
As she watched, the trail grew, thickening until it became a rope tied around her head, pinning her to the ground. She gripped it, trying to tear it free but it held fast.
"Nova," a familiar but disembodied voice drifted through the storm.
She crouched low, slitted eyes flicking through the storm.
She screamed and scrambled backwards as the severed head hovered through the air towards her.
"Nova, what's happening? You all started screaming. Aart is trying to bury himself in the sand and Gus is making sand-angels."
The severed head opened and closed its mouth but the motion didn't seem to match the words.
"Get back!" Nova yelled, she tugged her gun out of its holster and aimed at the severed head. "Come closer and I'll shoot."
The severed head stopped, getting buffeted by the winds. "Nova, it's me, Cal."
Nova shook her head and kept a firm finger on her trigger. "I don't know what species you are, but this is your only chance. Leave me and my friends alone."
"It's Cal!" the severed head floated closer.
Nova squeezed and a bright ball of light burst out of her gun, lighting up the sand.
Cal let the wind carry him sideways out of the path of the blast and away from Nova, hidden by the swirling sand. She twisted in circles, squinting out at the storm, gun still in hand.
His processors couldn't work out what had happened. They'd been fine, then the storm had hit, and they'd lost what little logical reasoning they'd had. It could have been the water. A parasite perhaps?
Wind rocked him to the left, he engaged his motors and floated back so he could just make out Nova's shape. Sand whipped against his outer casing, leaving white scratches across his vision.
A shape rolled past to his right, he turned to see Tanguin spinning across the ground, laughing.
"This is not good. This is not good at all."
Nova awoke to her own screams. Her eyes burned as if they'd been carved out with hot blades and every inch of her skin stung as if she'd been flayed.
She blinked once, before squeezing her eyes shut, and tried to process what she'd seen in that brief flicker.
Desert. It stretched in all direction and a red hot glow on the horizon said the sun was coming up. Her skin had looked red, and bloody scrapes covered her arms.
She pushed up to a sitting position, bending her head down between her knees and took a ragged breath.
"Nova?" Cal's voice was like a siren song.
Nova's eyes flew open and locked on him, floating across the desert towards her. His metal casing didn't seem to gleam as much as it had the day before and he hovered lop-sided.
"Cal," she said, her voice barely a whisper that stung her throat.
"You recognise me?"
"Yes…" Nova frowned, trying to remember what had happened. Her head pounded but she could vaguely remember a storm. There'd been sand everywhere, and a shadow. She gasped. "What happened? Are the others okay?"
"That depends what you mean by okay," Cal said. "They're alive. Probably feel the same as you."
"There was no creature. Or severed head, or dancing pixies, or magic train." Cal's curt tone cut through Nova's headache like a racing bullet.
Cal wobbled. "I don't know. You all went crazy. At least you managed to go crazy in mostly the right direction. Another hour and we'll reach the town."
Nova frowned. "Where are the others?"
"We'll pick them up on the way, you're last in line."
Nova got up, legs trembling, and staggered after Cal. Her scratched skin stung in the harsh sun.
Five minutes later they came upon a grey lump in the sand. It moved when they got closer.
"Tanguin," Cal said, hovering above her.
Nova stepped forward and nudged Tanguin with the toe of her boot. "Tanguin?"
"What?" Tanguin rolled over and squinted up at Nova. Red cuts covered most of her face and skin, making the smooth metallic plates stand out.
"Time to go," Nova said, barely clinging to consciousness herself.
"Go? Where? What the hell happened? I feel like I'm coming off the biggest bender of my life."
Nova held out her hand. "For all I know, you could be. Apparently we went crazy."
Tanguin gripped Nova's hand and climbed to her feet, wincing. She clutched Nova's shoulder and took three deep breaths. "This is almost more painful than being disconnected. Cosmic craphole!"
Nova nodded. "Come on."
They staggered after Cal through the sand and a little further on came across a bigger mound that turned out to be Gus. All around him piles of sand shaped like castles rose out of the ground.
"Gus," Nova said.
"It's my kingdom!" Gus said.
Tanguin raised an eyebrow. "What?"
Gus's eyes flew open and he frowned up at them. "What?"
"That's today's question," Nova said. "Come on."
Ten minutes after Gus they came upon Orion and next to him lay Aart and Tyra, cuddled in each other's arms.
Nova kicked the bottom of Aart's shoe and he woke with a start. His eyes flew open and he gasped, arms flying away from Tyra as he rolled backwards. She woke at the same time and her eyes bulged. She scrambled away from him, mouth hanging open.
"What the hell were you doing?" Tyra said.
"What was I doing?" Aart said, running his hands over his body. "What were you doing?"
"They've been like that for most of the morning," Cal said. "Once they stopped dancing."
"What the hell are you guys doing?" Orion said, sitting up and running his hands over his forehead. "Can't a man sleep around here?"
"Tyra was trying to take advantage of me," Aart said.
Orion raised an eyebrow. "I doubt she has such poor taste."
"Bloody hell," Aart said. "My side hurts like I've been stabbed."
He lifted his shirt, peering down, and then let it fall, clenching his hands in the material.
"What was that?" Nova said, sure she'd seen a flash of something.
"Nothing," Aart said. "Are we going or what?"
Nova narrowed her eyes and darted forward, tugging his shirt up. A bright blue tattoo gleamed across Aart's abdomen.
"Is that a fluffle?" Gus said.
Aart tugged his shirt down, face flushing. "No."
"It looked a lot like a tattoo of a fluffle," Orion said.
"It can't be a tattoo," Aart said. "Because we're in the middle of nowhere, and you need, you know, equipment for that."
"Uh-oh," Tyra said.
All eyes flew to her as she peered into the toolkit at her waist.
She bit her lip and looked up at Aart. "I have some good news and some bad news."
Aart's eyes bulged. "What?"
"The bad news is that I may have given you a tattoo."
Aart groaned and hung his head. "The good news?"
Tyra shrugged, her mouth wavering in a weak smile. "Tattoos aren't that hard to get rid of?"
Aart kicked a pile of sand into the air. "A fluffle! Why a fluffle?!"
"Don't ask me," Tyra said. "I don't remember doing it."
"That's what you asked for," Cal said.
"What?" Aart rounded on the robot, mouth gaping.
"You thought it was an excellent idea. A real 'chick magnet' were your words. I tried to warn you not to… but you said my processors were faulty and to go away."
"Oh!" Aart smacked his forehead.
"Just be grateful it's not on your face," Orion said, getting up.
"Can we just get to this damn town and out of this bloody desert?" Aart said.
Cal hovered forward. "Please, follow me. Unless of course you think my processors are faulty."
"Are you ever going to let that go?" Aart said, falling into step behind Cal.
"Perhaps, when I feel you've suffered enough."
Aart rolled his eyes.
They staggered on through the desert, getting hotter as the sun rose higher in the sky. Sweat trickled down their bodies and any water they'd had the day before had disappeared during the night.
Nova's skin burned with grazes and each movement brought a new pang of pain. She longed for Crusader, and her sleeping pod, and the medical kit she kept there.
"There's something on the horizon," Tanguin said.
"That would be the town," Cal said. "Not much further."
"We're on a road," said Tyra, pointing to the slightly flatter sand that snaked towards the horizon.
From there more signs of civilisation loomed out of the desert. The occasional ragged tree made white skeletons in the red sand and a broken sign proclaimed the coming town of Mercy.
It felt like years later that they reached the outer limits and a wooden gateway leading into the dusty town. People in dirt-stained leather pants and broad-brimmed hats stopped to watch them, mouths open.
Nova's feet dragged in the dirt and she was sure her legs would give out at any moment.
"Here," Orion said, steering them towards a two story wooden building with a mug of something painted on a hanging sign.
They stomped inside to find an almost empty room with round tables and wooden chairs surrounding a long bar. A woman in a white shirt and leather vest stopped wiping the bench as they walked in. Conversation at the other tables stopped and even the fiddler in the corner lost his place and the music squeaked to a halt.
Orion went straight to the bar and sat down on a red stool. The others followed him, taking up the rest of the seats. Tyra sat as far away from Aart as she could get.
The woman in the vest sauntered to them and stood on the opposite side of the bar with an eyebrow raised. "Let me guess. Off-worlders."
Aart nodded. "But we really don't have any energy for your bias right now, and before you ask, no we don't have any money, it got stolen. But if you can give us some water we'll sing and dance or whatever the hell you want."
The woman's eyebrow drew higher. "Spent some time in the city."
Her hands went to work gathering glasses and pouring water, but her eyes barely left Aart's face. She slid the mugs along the bar and stood with her hands on her hips.
Nova caught her mug and gasped as cool droplets of condensation eased her stinging hands. She threw the glass to her mouth so quickly that it clinked against her teeth, but she barely noticed. She swallowed every last mouthful and pushed the glass back for more. "Thank you," she said with a gasp.
The woman turned and winked as she refilled Nova's glass. "Well at least one of you off-worlders has some manners."
Aart blinked, lowering his mug to the bench. "Sorry. Thank you…?"
"Alice," she said, refilling the rest of the glasses.
"Alice," Aart repeated.
"Let me take another guess," Alice said, looking them over. "Hallo-sand?"
"What?" Aart said, between mouthfuls.
"Hallo-sand. You know, makes you see things, hallucinate."
Gus opened his mouth, about to speak, and slapped his glass back onto the bench. It shattered into a thousand glimmering shards that flew across the bar and chinked along the wooden floor. Water splashed out and formed a puddle on the bar. The room returned to silence.
Gus's right hand was left gripping a glass handle, the rest of the mug obliterated. His face glowed bright red and he muttered, trying to scrape the glass up with his hands.
Cal zoomed forward and one of his compartments creaked open. Sand cascaded out onto the bench in a small torrent, followed by a pan and brush. "Blasted sand!" Cal said as he scraped up the glass and sand together and it disappeared back into his compartment.
Gus hung his head, as if trying to hide behind his own bulking shoulders.
"Nice bot," Alice said.
"Yeah, he's great," Aart said, eyes fixed on Alice.
Cal made a sound like a cough. "I thought my processors were malfunctioning?"
Aart flicked a glance over his shoulder and glared at Cal. "They will be if you keep talking."
Orion leaned forward. "Despite his clumsiness, my friend had a good point. Hallucinogenic sand?"
Alice nodded and mopped up the remaining puddle of water in front of Gus. "There are clouds of it out there. Usually you can see them coming but with the storm we had last night… if you weren't inside you were bound to be caught."
"Things just keep getting better," muttered Tyra.
"What were off-worlders doing out there anyway?" Alice said.
"Bloody bandits stole our ships," Orion said.
Alice's face darkened. "Tanned, mean eyes and a scar on his chin?"
"That's the one," Aart said.
"Randy Gumerson. Scum," Alice said. She gathered six new glasses and filled them each with an amber liquid before sliding them across the bar. "On the house, consider it an apology."
"You know him?" Nova said.
Alice nodded. "Him and his crew have been tormenting the outer settlements for years. Although it's been even worse lately."
Aart rubbed a hand through his hair. "Well he got us good. I'm pretty sure this makes us all homeless."
Nova's stomach twisted and she lifted the glass to her lips to hide her grimace. The amber drink tasted like fizzy honey and soothed her raw throat.
"I can put you up here until you find your feet," Alice said.
"Won't the boss mind?" Aart said as he took another drink.
Alice's eyes narrowed. "You're looking at her."
"Oh," Aart said, drink dribbling down his chin. "Oh. It's just that you're so young," he stuttered.
Nova rolled her eyes.
Alice grinned, revealing sparkling white teeth. "I could get used to you."
"Trust us," Orion said, "It's cute at first, but it'll get to you."
Alice laughed. "Until then, how about something to eat?" She strolled into the backroom whistling.
"I'm in love," Aart said, watching her go.
Nova snorted. "You'd say that about anyone who offered you food."
Aart took another swallow. "Doesn't make it any less true."
"Maybe you should try cuddling up to her when she's unconscious," Tyra said, a hard edge in her voice.
"You know I'll bet she'll be really into you when she sees your fluffle tattoo," Gus said.
Aart groaned and the others roared with laughter.
Alice returned a few minutes later with a tray of bowls. Nova's stomach rumbled as steam curled up, carrying with it a meaty aroma that promised a tasty meal. She grabbed her spoon and ate in silence, the gentle munching of the other Hunters keeping her company.
"So what are you going to do now?" Alice asked, pouring them each a new glass of amber drink.
Aart wiped his mouth on his sleeve. "That's the big question. We don't know—"
"Get our ships back," Nova said, cutting him off.
Aart glanced at her and frowned before turning back to Alice. "We haven't decided yet."
Alice nodded. "You'd best give up on those ships of yours. Randy and his friends have a camp deeper in the desert and even if you could survive long enough to get there, they'd kill you in seconds."
Nova dropped her gaze to her meal. There was no way she'd give up on Crusader, even if she had to face the bandits alone.
Aart nodded. "I don't know what else we're going to do though. We don't exactly have what you'd call traditional skills."
Alice smirked. "Can you carry things? Hammer things? Build things? Then you'll be fine around here."
Tanguin shared a glance with Nova, her pale face even whiter than usual. Nova nodded. She had no intention of staying in Mercy any longer than she had to.
"But for today, in return for the drinks, you can help me pack up once everyone leaves," Alice said, nodding around the bar.
"It would be my pleasure," Aart said, slurping the last of his soup.
"Alice!" A booming voice echoed from the door as it swung open, letting in a gust of warm air.
Alice looked up and a shadow passed over her face. "Bill."
"Since when did you start letting riff-raff in?" Bill said as he sauntered to the bar and leant next to Nova.
The scent of sweat and dust wafted off him and his yellow teeth gleamed as he smirked down at her.
"The usual, Bill?" Alice said, already reaching for a glass.
"Of course." Bill leaned in closer so that his breath brushed over Nova's face. "You know you'd be a pretty lady if you didn't look so messed up. Been rolling in the dirt with the boys, aye?"
Nova leant away and let her hand drop to her holster.
"Leave her alone, Bill. They got stuck in the hallo-sand."
Bill threw back his head and laughed. "Stuck in hallo-sand? Oh poor off-worlders, don't know which way is up, do they?"
"Here you go," Alice said, plonking a full mug onto the bench so that it sloshed over the sides.
Bill took it and leant back, drinking the foaming beer down. Some dribbled down his chin and soaked the neck of his t-shirt. "Another!" he bellowed, plonking the empty mug back on the bar.
"Sure, when I do it, it breaks," Gus muttered.
Bill laid his arm on the bar so that it wrapped around Nova, his shoulder blocking most of her view. "Anyway, as I was saying. If you want to get rid of the boys and roll with a real man…"
"I'm sure I don't. Back off and leave me alone," Nova said.
Bill licked his lips and leaned closer. "Spirit aye? Can't say I mind a bit of that. How about you and I—" He ran a hand up her back, coming to rest on her neck.
Nova's patience snapped. She ripped her gun out of its holster and pressed it into Bill's round stomach. She tilted her head to the side and met his gaze.
His mouth dropped and his eyes darted between her face and the gun. "Wha—"
For the third time the bar fell silent, accented by a high-pitched squawk of the fiddle.
"Somehow," Nova said. "I don't think you'd be able to handle me."
Bill made choking noises in the back of his throat.
"Pull your head in and get away from the bar," Nova said. "And if you ever come that close to me again, I'll pull the trigger."
Bill took three quick steps back, his foot catching on a chair and sending him stumbling. He grabbed a table and stood straight glaring back at Nova. "How dare you! Do you have any idea who I am?"
"I have an idea that I don't care," she said, letting her gun drop but keeping a firm hold on it.
Bill snapped his fingers and a bright silver badge appeared on his chest. Sheriff.
Nova's stomach clenched and she swallowed, although she let nothing show on her face.
"I should have you arrested for drawing a gun on an officer! I could put you away for the rest of your life, and rest assured—"
"C'mon Bill, don't be too harsh," Alice said, her eyes darting between Nova and Bill and a red flush staining her cheeks. "I think she might still be suffering some of the hallo-sand effects."
Bill sneered and clicked his fingers again, hiding the badge. "I'm going to let you go this one time, for Alice, but if I see you step one toe over the line in this town…"
"Here, have one on the house," Alice said, pouring a new mug and setting it down on the bar, away from Nova.
Bill sauntered back and drank it down in one long swallow, more dribbling into his shirt. He placed it onto the bar with a long burp. "Lucky for you off-worlders I'm needed elsewhere. But I'm warning you…" He strode out of the bar, taking the time to glare back at them from the door.
As soon as he left, Nova groaned and rested her forehead on the bar. "Every time."
"Always arguing with local law enforcement," Aart said, shaking his head.
Orion nodded and waved his spoon through the air. "It's because she has a problem with authority."
"And she used to be such a nice girl," Aart said, bowing his head.
The others laughed, except Nova who lifted her head long enough to glare at him.
"You shouldn't joke," Alice said, eyes locked on the door. "He's trouble. He'll make things much harder for you, you'll see."
Aart waved his hand. "Don't worry. We've seen a million guys like him. Put him in a room alone with Nova for an hour and if he comes out at all, it'll be with his tail between his legs."
Alice shook her head and slammed her fist down on the bar. "You're not listening! Shut up about him, you don't know what you're getting yourselves into." Her gaze flicked about the room. "And you never know who might be listening," she said in a lower voice.
Aart's face fell and he stared down at his feet. "Sorry. We won't cause you trouble."
Alice nodded. "Just stay out of his way."
Nova drew patterns on the bar with the condensation from her mug. She'd stay out of Bill's way, provided he stayed out of hers.
"C'mon, Nova, have a dance!" Orion said, holding out his hand.
Nova drank down the last of her honey ale and let Orion drag her to her feet. He spun her around in a tight circle and they joined the rest of the dancers stomping and spinning in the middle of the inn. The fiddle player's fingers whizzed across his instrument, bringing the music to a fever pitch that had the dancers sweating to keep up.
Nova grinned and her heart fluttered in her chest as she spun around, gripping Orion's hand and kicking out her right leg.
Beside them, Aart and Alice spun in erratic circles. He grinned like a maniac, one hand resting on her waist and the other twirling through the air. Alice's face glowed and she clapped in time with the fiddler.
Tanguin smiled from behind the bar as she got people drinks, laughing at Aart's antics, while Tyra and Gus sat engrossed in an intense game of cards.
Nova couldn't help but laugh as Orion spun her around. It was only their second day in Mercy but already she liked it better than most other cities she'd ever visited. If it weren't for Bill the Sheriff she'd almost have said it was perfect, except that she didn't have Crusader. She pushed the thought out of her head. They'd find a way, gather supplies, gather help, and get their ships back. For the moment she let the worry fall from her shoulders and spun away from Orion, into Aart's waiting arms.
He wriggled his eyebrows at her and then gripped her waist with both hands, turning her in rapid circles like a spinning top. Nova laughed and galloped across the room with him, weaving between the other dancers and ending up back where they started.
The dance seemed to last forever but eventually the fiddler's music came to a flourishing stop. The dancers erupted into a round of applause and the fiddler stood, bowing at the crowd.
Nova grinned up at Aart, sweat trickling down her face. "I need a drink."
He nodded. "Me too."
Orion and Alice came to join them and together they went to the bar.
"The usual?" Tanguin said with a grin.
Nova smiled back. "Yes please, barkeep."
Tanguin lay out four brimming glasses.
"Thanks for covering for me," Alice said.
Tanguin shrugged. "Thanks for letting us stay."
"It was the least—"
"Oi, Alice," a man weaved through the crowd, his drink sloshing over the sides of his mug. "Alice."
She rolled her eyes and smiled at the man. "What is it, Willy?"
"These Hunters," Willy said, squinting up at Aart. "I didn't like them."
Alice raised an eyebrow. "You made that pretty clear this morning when you told them to bugger off."
Willy waved his hand and took a deep drink. "I've changed my mind. They can dance, they play cards, and this one knows how to make a drink. I've decided they can stay."
Alice chuckled. "Thanks Willy. Shouldn't you be getting home?"
Willy snorted. "Probably. But you know I'll be in trouble no matter what time I get back."
"Still, better to get it over with," Alice said.
Willy sighed. "You're right. Of course."
Alice nodded and Willy turned for the door, staggering out into the night, his glass still in hand.
She grinned as she turned back to the Hunters. "Congratulations! You've just been approved by the town's—"
"Mayor?" Orion said.
"Chief person?" Aart said.
"Drunk," Alice finished. "But still, he's a good sort and people like him. It's better than nothing."
The fiddler drew a long note from his instrument and people surged for the dance floor.
"All I got from that," said Aart, sculling the rest of his drink and grabbing Alice's hand. "Was that I need to do more dancing."
Alice chuckled as he led her to the dance floor and they joined the other dancers as the fiddler broke into a rapid tune.
Orion shook his head. "He's persistent, I'll give him that."
Tanguin snorted. "He's going to have to be once she sees his fluffle tattoo."
Nova grinned. "Poor guy will have to take it slow if he doesn't want her to see it."
"Or keep his shirt on," Orion said, wiggling his eyebrows.
They laughed and had another drink.
That night Nova climbed the stairs with a smile on her face. The bar behind her was mostly empty with the party-goers staggering out into the night. She strolled across the landing to the small room she shared with Tanguin and stepped inside, careful to keep quiet.
Tanguin lay curled up in her bed, the metal plates on her face gleaming in the light of the moon. The curtains fluttered in a light breeze, revealing glimpses of the town and the desert beyond.
Nova eased the door shut behind her and crept to her bed. She sat down and pulled her boots off, slipping them under the mattress, before laying down and staring up at the ceiling. Mercy was like no place she'd ever been before. It almost felt like home.
She watched the moonlight make patterns on the roof and smiled.
"You're happy," Cal's voice sounded inside her head.
She turned to face where he sat in the corner, his lights off except for a single blinking red bulb. "I am," she thought back.
"But you're still going to get Crusader," his said, resigned.
"I have to."
"You don't. It's just a ship. You could find another."
Nova sighed and turned back to the roof. "Without Crusader and the other ships we have no money and no way to make money. We need to get them back."
Nova shook her head. "Besides, she's more than a ship. It's the same as I'd go back for you, if you got stolen."
"Obviously. I'm irreplaceable."
Nova grinned up at the roof and drifted to sleep, still smiling.
"Under the haystack!" Gus called.
Orion dived forward and jabbed into the hay with a long pitchfork. Something squealed and the haystack shook as a dark shadow shot out and disappeared into a far stall.
"Damn these things," Aart said, leaning on his own pitchfork, sweat dripping down his face.
Nova nodded, gasping for air.
"I can honestly say that when we left Chindo I never thought I'd end up clearing a barn of giant rats," Tanguin said.
"These aren't giant rats," Orion said. "I've seen horses that were smaller than these things. These are more like giant wolves with big rat teeth."
Nova nodded. "He's right. When they said they had a rat problem, it was an understatement."
Gus hefted his wide shotgun. "If we just shoot it…"
Aart laid a hand on Gus's arm and pushed the gun down. "You know we can't. If we burn down the barn or the hay, we'll be in deeper debt than when we started. After three weeks this is the best job we've been given so we've got to do it right."
Mention of how long they'd been in Mercy made Nova wince. Three weeks. Anything could have happened to Crusader in three weeks. But there'd been no other option. They owned absolutely nothing and had no way to get to the bandit hideout. They were trapped in Mercy with no way out. She swallowed and pushed thoughts of Crusader to the back of her mind.
Tyra hefted her pitchfork. "Come on. There's only a couple left. We get rid of these, then we'll make it back to Alice's in time for lunch."
"Alice…" Aart said, his gaze drifting.
"Bloody hell," Orion said. "Why did you have to say her name? Now he's going to be useless. I swear, he's like a love-sick calf."
Tyra swung the handle of her pitchfork around and tapped the backs of Aart's knees so that his legs jolted. He gasped and shook his head, gaze returning to the present. "Wha—"
"Welcome back, Romeo," Tyra said. "Time to wake up. We've got a rat to catch."
"It's trapped in the stall," Nova said. "Gus, Orion, and Tyra, you stand at the door and get ready for it. The rest of us will go in and chase it out."
She stalked through the stall door and waited for Tanguin and Aart to join her. The others stood just outside, pitchforks raised. "I'll go left. Tanguin, you go right. Aart, you take the middle and guide it to the door when it comes out."
Nova crept along the side of the stall, keeping the rough wood against her left shoulder. The empty stall didn't have many hiding places, just an old pile of equipment that shuddered every few seconds from the rat hiding within. She stood over it and met Tanguin's eye, nodding once.
Together they bent and ripped away the top-most items, hurling them into a corner and revealing the giant rat-thing. It snarled at them and leapt up towards Nova's face, its teeth at least as long as one of her fingers.
She fell back, swinging her pitchfork, but it was too close. Its sharp claws slashed across her chest, ripping open her shirt and tearing deep gashes in her skin. The weight of it slammed into her and knocked her off her feet. She fell against the hard floor of the stall with a cry.
She dropped her pitchfork and put her hands in front of her face, managing to catch the thing's jaws and hold them away without snagging her fingers. Its razor teeth gnashed just inches from her face as she tried to hold it back, arms straining.
"Nova!" Tanguin said, her pitchfork waving in the air.
Aart leant down and snatched hold of the rat's neck. He buried his hands deep in its fur and tore it away from Nova, letting it fly free half-way through the arc so that it sailed through the air towards the door.
It landed with a screech and sprinted for the opening, thin legs pumping.
As it rushed out of the stall three sharp pitchforks slammed down and impaled it like a kebab. Tyra's went through its head, piercing its brain, Gus's crushed through its ribs and let out a fountain of blood while Orion just caught its tail.
The rat convulsed and then lay still in a growing puddle of blood.
"Dammit," Nova said, sitting up and wiping her hand across her bloody chest. "Bastard got me."
Aart helped her to her feet. "And I saved your arse, yet again."
Nova scowled. "You got lucky. If it was—"
A shadow leapt out of the pile of equipment and slammed into Aart's side, knocking him to the ground. Sharp teeth and claws flashed in a rabid flurry.
Without thinking, Nova snatched her pitchfork from the ground and hurled it at the furious ball of fur. It sailed through the air like a javelin and smashed into the rat's side, knocking it off Aart and pinning it to the adjacent wall.
Its legs pumped and it screeched a blood-curdling scream, writhing around the prongs that held it in place.
Aart looked up, patting down his body, before turning to the wailing creature. "Oh that's disgusting."
Tanguin turned and leaned against the opposite wall, her face pale and her lips pressed together.
Nova took Aart's fork from his hands as she strode across the stall and slammed it into the creature's head, cutting the shrieks dead. Grim silence echoed around the barn, interspersed with the occasional dripping of blood to the floor.
"Well," said Orion. "That settles it."
"Nova kicks your arse, Aart."
Aart scowled as he climbed to his feet. "That was a lucky shot."
"Lucky it didn't impale you," said Tyra.
Tanguin flapped her hand, facing away from them and the impaled rat. "Okay, okay. Have we finished?"
"Infrared scanner says there aren't any more," said Tyra, glancing at the screen tied to her belt.
"Then can we please leave?" Tanguin said, already stumbling for the door.
The others followed her out into the burning sunlight and down the street towards Alice's.
"Why couldn't we have ended up on a world covered in server farms or something?" Tanguin said. "Where all they need is a really good hacker."
Nova smiled and clapped Tanguin on the back. "One day we'll find a planet just like that and you can go crazy."
"Guarantee it'll be better than here," Tanguin muttered, wiping sweat from her forehead. "At least we wouldn't be dying from heat stroke every day."
They pushed through the swinging doors into Alice's bar and took a corner table far away from the window and near the temperature regulator.
Alice appeared a moment later. "Oh come on. At least wash the blood off before you sit at my tables."
Nova glanced down and saw her torn shirt and bloody wound. "Oops."
Aart grinned up at Alice, teeth sparkling. "Sorry. We've gotten used to it. Hard to remember what to do in polite society."
Alice rolled her eyes. "Bathroom. Now. I don't need that scent of barn rat filling the place."
The Hunters stood and shuffled to the back where a long trough filled with water nestled beneath the stairs.
Nova scooped her hands into the cold water and splashed it over her face with a gasp. It trickled down her chin and eased the headache that seemed to be constantly lurking behind her eyes. She rubbed off the worst of the dirt and cleaned the bloody wound across her chest.
She held out the tattered remains of her shirt, which did nothing to cover the tight top she wore beneath, and frowned down at it. "Pity this is the only one I have."
Orion wiggled his eyebrows. "I think you should keep it like that. Maybe the fashion will catch on."
Aart elbowed him in the side. "Some respect!"
Orion chuckled. "Yeah. I bet you'd be really upset if Alice started dressing like that."
Nova rolled her eyes. Before he could react, she grabbed Orion's head and dunked him into the trough.
Bubbles streamed out of the sides of his mouth.
She let go and stepped back.
Orion erupted out of the trough with a gasp. "Dammit that's cold! Do you know what that does to a man?"
Nova smiled and shrugged. "I'm sure I have no idea." She turned and strolled back into the bar.
"Here," Alice said, holding out a clean shirt. "Sounded like you could use it."
Nova's heart fluttered, maybe Bardo wasn't so bad after all. "Thank you."
She ducked behind the stairs and pulled off her ruined shirt, slipping Alice's over her head. The clean fabric felt like heaven after her dirt-stained shirt and she couldn't help but smile. She joined the others back at their table where Alice had already laid out mugs of amber liquid.
She joined them with a glass of her own.
"Quiet day?" Aart said.
Alice shrugged. "It usually is around this time. Can I tell Greg that his barn is rat free?"
Aart nodded. "Sure can. Might be some blood stains though."
"But the next time you send us to go and catch 'rats', you need to tell us if they're actually mutant, cross-bred wolves," Tanguin said.
Alice raised an eyebrow. "Have you ever seen a mutant cross-bred wolf?"
Tanguin's face lost all colour.
Alice grinned and patted her on the back. "Just joking. I knew you'd be able to handle the rats. And now I can tell Greg his rats are gone, and he can pay me and maybe that will help cover some of the cost of you people being here."
"I thought our mere presence was enough?" Aart said.
Alice rolled her eyes. "It doesn't pay for that drink you're guzzling."
"But it helps," Aart said, taking another mouthful.
Cal hovered into the bar and came to rest beside Nova.
"And what have you been up to?" she said. "You could have helped us with the rats."
Cal turned to face her. "I was made for finer things than killing barn rats."
Nova snorted. "So what were you doing then?"
"I was… Connecting with some local droids."
"Connecting?" Nova raised an eyebrow.
Cal turned away from her. "Yes. Exchanging information. About hallo-sand and such."
Orion chuckled into his drink. "I didn't think labourbots connected."
Cal hovered away from the table. "If you're not going to take it seriously, I won't tell you what I learnt."
"Aww we're sorry, Cal," Nova said, mouth quirking.
"I don't ever want to hear about hallo-sand again," Aart said.
"Is that when you got the tattoo?" Alice said, eyes sparkling.
The Hunters roared with laughter, except Aart who turned a deep shade of red.
"Go on then," Aart said. "What vital piece of information did you learn while, connecting."
Cal came back to the table. "Hallo-sand. First identified in the year of Vlon on Bardo, as far as I could tell that's about a hundred standard years ago."
"Get to the important bit," said Aart.
"Since then it has undergone only limited study. This research has discovered that hallo-sand is actually made of parasitic organisms that resemble grains of sand which release a pheromone-like cloud that induces hallucinations and other psychotic behaviours. The purpose of this is yet to be found, although it may be involved in their mating cycle. It——"
"Whoa!" Orion said. "Are you saying that these tiny sand-bugs shot their juices all over us?"
Cal turned away from Orion and continued. "As yet there is no effective way to protect yourself from the effects of the hallo-sand, except by staying away from it. Hallo-sand is especially prevalent near areas of high wind and water."
"So when we dug for water…" Tanguin said.
"You attracted them, yes."
Alice nodded. "That's why we keep all the town wells covered, otherwise we'd have hallo-sand here every day."
Aart hung his head. "Well that's the last time I try to find water in a desert."
Alice smiled and sipped her drink, her eyes slipping to the front door. "Oh, shitting sands. Here's trouble." She locked eyes with Aart and Nova. "Don't start anything."
Alice slid her mug across the table and stood, half running to the bar. A moment later, Bill sauntered through the door. He sneered at the Hunters before turning to the bar where Alice was already pouring him a beer. They spoke, although the words didn't carry to the Hunters. Alice bowed her head and nodded, murmuring something.
"If I had my way with him…" Aart said.
Nova took a drink to hide the hatred burning in her eyes. She'd heard nothing but bad stories about Bill since they arrived in town.
The others cuddled their drinks closer, looking anywhere but at Bill.
Alice's voice crept louder. "— have as much right to be here as anyone."
Bill leant across the bar and said something, his mouth right next to her face.
"I don't see that that's a problem. I know Crowley—"
Bill slapped his palm on the bar, making Alice jump, and said something more. She nodded and hung her head.
He nodded once, finished his beer, and sauntered out without paying. Alice's shoulders drooped as soon as he left.
Aart flew to his feet and hurried to the bar. "What was all that?"
Alice sighed and collected Bill's glass. "He wants you to start paying to stay here."
Aart frowned. "Tell him to get stuffed. That's none of his business. And we are paying, as best we can."
Alice washed the glass and stacked it next to the others. "He knows that, but he wants you gone."
Nova swallowed the last of her drink and carried her glass to the bar. "That doesn't answer how it's any of his business."
Alice shrugged. "If I don't do what he says, things will get unpleasant for me."
Aart's expression darkened. "I'll make it unpleasant—"
Alice held up her hand. "Don't."
Tyra joined them. "How did he even end up in charge, seeing as he's such a giant asshole?"
Alice shrugged. "There's not much to keep the peace. I suppose he's a case of the evil you know… He's scary enough and good enough with a gun that he keeps the real criminals in line. With all the attacks recently… people would rather feel safe than free."
"You can have both," said Aart.
"Can you?" Tanguin whispered, joining them. "The Confederacy were the same, weren't they?"
Nova smacked her mug onto the bar. "All of this is ignoring the real problem. We can't pay."
"So we'll find more jobs. We'll do something," Aart said.
Alice shook her head. "There'd never be enough work for all of you to cover food and accommodation."
Aart turned, as if looking for a solution. "Can't you give us some kind of legitimate discount?"
Alice grimaced. "No. I already tried that. He said you're scaring away local customers and to make up for lost business you have to pay full price."
"Scaring away customers?" Orion said. "I'm pretty sure my juggling last night filled this place more than it's been in years."
"I know that. And Bill knows it too. But he wants you gone and he's the law."
Aart slumped onto a stool. "We have to find a way."
Nova straightened her shoulders. "No. This is the wakeup call we've been waiting for. What we need is to go and get our ships back. That's where we belong, not here killing rats."
"How is suicide better than making a life here?" Aart said.
"It's not suicide. It's fighting for what's ours."
"There were at least fifteen of them and they've got our ships!" Aart said, throwing his hands into the air.
Tanguin bit her lip. "I agree with Nova. I wasn't made to be in a place like this. If nothing else the sand is starting to clog up my gears."
Gus laid a hand on Aart's shoulder. "There's nothing for us here."
Aart looked up and met Alice's eyes. "There are some good things."
Alice looked away, busying herself wiping down the bar.
"How long do we have before Bill will want to collect, or whatever he does?" Nova said.
"Two days. Three at most."
Nova nodded. "Okay, we spend the next three days preparing. This time when we go into the desert we'll be ready. Alice knows where the bandits are, we make a plan and we get our ships back."
"But—" Aart began.
"Then once we have them, we'll have a way of making money. And if people want to return to Mercy they can." Nova gave Aart a meaningful look.
"No one's ever gone up against Randy and survived," Alice whispered.
Nova shrugged. "We've faced worse."
Alice poured out seven new drinks. "If you manage to get rid of him there'll be more than a few grateful people. You'd be able to stay wherever you wanted."
Nova lifted her glass. "It's settled then. Three days."
They clinked their glasses and drank a toast.
The rest of the evening passed in a blur of flowing drinks and raucous laughter. Once the sun set, the usual patrons filled the bar until the windows rattled. Aart and Orion stood in the middle of the crowd, alternating between juggling and telling stories from their time as bounty hunters.
Nova hung at the fringes, mostly hidden in shadows, and taking occasional sips of her drink. Tanguin stood at her side. Bill's earlier visit had left a foul taste in her mouth and she couldn't quite bring herself to enjoy the dancing, or the stories, or Aart and Orion's antics. Instead she ran over in her mind every obstacle they might face in going up against Randy and his gang.
The locals urged Aart and Orion on, asking for ever more outrageous stories and buying them round after round of drinks. As he drank more, Aart's stories grew darker. A swirling undercurrent of malice swept through them, like a shadow, and the audience stood entranced.
Halfway through a particularly gripping tale, that even Nova wanted to hear to the end, the door burst open. Bill stomped through, his broad stomach filling most of the walkway. The excited chatter died away and Aart and Orion stopped talking.
"I thought you were bounty hunters," Bill said. "It turns out you're just performers!" He let out a bark of laughter. A few people tittered but silence dominated.
Bill turned to Alice. "Well? Drink?"
Alice rushed behind the bar and poured a brimming glass of beer. She handed it to Bill who snatched it without so much as a thank you.
"You should be more polite to her," Aart said, swaying on his feet.
The barroom drew a collective breath as Bill lowered his glass and locked eyes with Aart. "What?"
Aart swept his hand to indicate the room. "You burst in here, acting like some kind of bloody king and treat everyone like dirt. I—"
Orion gripped Aart's shoulder and shook him. "Aart."
Nova straightened and edged around the shadows, keeping a hand on her gun.
Aart shrugged off Orion's arm. "No. I'm not afraid of him. He's like a blimp; big, but full of hot air."
Bill placed his glass on the nearest table and tucked his thumbs into his belt, beside two gleaming revolvers. "Watch your tongue, boy."
Aart stumbled, keeping his feet only by the crowd pushing him upright.
Bill reached out and snatched Alice's wrist as she hurried by, wrenching her to his chest. He wrapped an arm around her waist. "I'm sheriff here and it's my right to run this town how I see fit. Don't think for a second that some performer in costume is going to—"
Alice struggled in his arms. "Let me go."
"Be quiet, darling, I'm making a point," Bill said, hugging her tighter.
Aart's face darkened and his hands clenched into fists. "Let her go."
Bill grinned. "You like this one? Thought I saw it on that first day."
Aart stepped forward and the crowd parted before him. "I said. Let. Her. Go."
Bill grinned and bent his face to Alice's. Puckering his lips, he laid a wet kiss on her cheek that left a glistening patch of spittle. Alice writhed in his arms, tears glistening in the corners of her eyes.
Nova's stomach tightened. She'd been meaning to stop Aart from doing anything stupid, now she thought she might join him. She loosened her gun in its holster and spread her legs, still hidden by the shadows.
Cal's motor buzzed near her ear and he spoke through her mental chip. "What should I do?"
"Follow my lead," Nova thought back, all her muscles tense.
"C'mon sweetheart, don't struggle," Bill said, running his hand down Alice's side.
"Hey, Sheriff. No harm done. Why don't we call it a night?" an older man said, his voice wavering.
Bill's expression darkened as he turned to the man. "Stay out of it, Eddy. Doesn't concern you."
Eddy lowered his gaze back to his drink and hunched his shoulders.
"What say me and you go upstairs for a quick tumble, aye Alice?" Bill said, burying his face in her hair and taking an audible sniff.
"You bastard," Aart said, lunging the rest of the way across the room.
His drunken dive carried him into Bill and the three of them fell to the floor in a tangle of limbs. Alice crawled away as soon as Bill lost his grip, taking cover behind a nearby table. Aart wrapped his hands around Bill's throat and squeezed.
Bill's face turned red and he swung a wide fist, catching Aart on the side of the head and sending him sprawling. Aart grunted as he hit the floor, eyes rolling.
Bill scrambled on top of him, sitting on his chest and pushing the air from his lungs. Aart's face turned red, then purple, as he writhed under Bill's weight. Choked noises escaped his throat as his hands waved through the air, swatting at Bill's face.
"Not so tough now, are you?" Bill said, wrapping his thick fingers around Aart's neck. "Do you know the punishment for assaulting a Sheriff?"
"Death," Bill said with a grin. "As the sheriff I sentence you, and the punishment will be carried out immediately." His grip on Aart's neck tightened and Aart's eyes bulged.
Nova lunged out of the shadows and pressed the barrel of her gun against Bill's head. "Let him go."
Bill's smile faltered and he turned slowly to look up the barrel at Nova. "You..."
"Now," Nova said, pressing harder so that her gun left a dent on Bill's forehead.
Bill released his hands from around Aart's neck but didn't get up. "I'd put that gun away if I were you. Won't be long til my constables get here and if they see you pointing a gun at me... well, they might decide to shoot first."
"Get up and stand against the wall," Nova said, jutting her chin towards the far wall. She flicked her eyes up to Alice. "Is it true, does he have constables?"
Alice nodded, wiping the sleeve of her dress across her cheek where Bill had kissed her, although it had already been rubbed raw.
Bill lumbered to his feet, casting a long shadow through the silent bar. "You're making a mistake," he said. "Just put your gun away and I'll let your friend live. I'll charge him with disturbing the peace or something."
"The wall," Nova said.
"Has anyone ever told you that you're not great at making friends?" Bill said.
"All the time. Keep your hands away from those guns."
Bill sauntered to the far wall, Nova following behind, her gun trained on his head. Tyra knelt at Aart's side and helped him up while the others formed a tight knot near the door. Cal hovered behind Nova, his gun out and aimed just above the heads of the crowd.
"Hands up," Nova said.
Bill grinned as he lifted his arms and rested them against the wood panelling.
Nova glanced once around the bar, then back at Bill. "Let me tell you how it's going to be. My friends and I are going to leave, and you're going to stay here and do nothing to stop us. If you try, I will shoot you."
Bill smirked. "Not if I shoot you first."
"If anyone else tries to stop us," Nova said, turning to the rest of the bar. "The same threat applies. We're getting out of your way. Just let us go."
"You won't get away with this," Bill said.
Nova eased Bill's guns out of his belt and tossed them to Tanguin, then she took a step back, towards the door and her friends.
"We'll come after you," Bill said. "Me and the other Sheriffs. It's a matter of keeping the order."
"Maybe instead of harassing women and visitors, you should focus on taking care of those bandits," Nova said.
"We're going now," Nova said. "Remember what I told you."
The Hunters backed out of the bar, Orion and Gus supporting Aart between them. Cal hovered at Nova's side, gun still drawn.
At the door Nova paused. "Alice, can you please join us outside."
Alice nodded and rushed past Nova into the night.
Nova swept her gaze across the room once more and stepped outside. Cool wind bit her bare skin but she didn't take her eyes off the door, expecting Bill to burst through at any moment.
"He won't come out until his constables arrive," Alice whispered. "He's brave until the numbers are against him."
"Are you okay?" Aart said, swaying as he squinted at Alice.
She scowled and wiped at her cheek. "I'm fine. Why'd you have to go and get him worked up?"
Aart's face fell. "I was just trying to help you..."
"I've been helping myself just fine for years without you. Never had the animal slobber over my face before."
Aart's eyes flashed. "I should go in there and..."
"Whoa." Orion grabbed the back of his shirt and hauled him back.
"You have to leave," Alice said. "All of you. Right now. His men will be here any second and they will kill you."
"What about you?" Nova said. "Won't you be in trouble?"
Alice grimaced. "I'll just give him a drugged drink like usual. He'll be too drunk to do anything and wake up in the morning with a headache. I'll be okay."
"You should come with us!" Aart said, his face lighting up.
Alice shook her head. "He might be a beast, but I'd take Bill over the desert any day."
"We should go," Tanguin said, peering into the darkened streets.
"There are water bottles hanging by the garage," Alice said. "But I can't give you more than that without going back inside."
"No," Nova said. "We'll manage. If you can give us directions..."
Alice nodded. "If you head in the direction of the rising sun for two days, you'll come up to a sand dune, practically a mountain. Randy and his group live in a cave on the other side of that."
"Thank you," Nova said, meeting Alice's eyes. "For everything."
The others said their goodbyes and stepped back until it was just Aart and Alice. He seemed to sober up and stood straighter as she gripped his shoulder. "Goodbye, Aart. I'm glad to have met you."
"I'll see you again," he said, gripping her hand in his. "You'll see."
A weak smile flicked across Alice's face. "I hope so."
"There are people coming," Tanguin said, ducking deeper into the shadows.
The Hunters melted away, leaving Alice in a pool of light spilling out of a window from the bar.
Nova wrapped her arm under Aart's shoulder and half-carried, half-dragged him away. He kept looking back and muttering.
Hurried footsteps came to a stop behind them, followed by gruff voices.
"The Sheriff's personal alarm went off. What's going on here?"
"He's inside," Alice said.
A moment later the sound of the door swinging open and slamming shut filled the night, leaving the Hunters to snatch the supplies from Alice's garage and run for the edge of town as fast as they could.
The final street ended with little ceremony, tossing them out into the rough sand of the desert. A steady wind tickled their skin with fine grains and flicked their clothes about their bodies.
"That could have gone better," Orion said, when the town was just a collection of twinkling lights behind them.
"Aart and his giant mouth," Tyra said. "We should have had three days to prepare. Now we're back out here, no better than before we got to Mercy."
"We've got water bottles," Orion said.
Nova snorted. "If we'd had three days we'd have food, a proper map, hell we could have even had some kind of vehicle."
Gus groaned. "A vehicle? I bet we'll miss that tomorrow."
"Approximate heading is good," said Cal. "Maintain current course and you may be able to rest during the day."
"I don't know," Nova said, glancing over her shoulder. "I have a feeling Bill will be right on our heels, gun aimed at our skulls."
The other Hunters looked over their shoulders and hurried a little faster.
"And he will have a vehicle," Gus said. "And friends."
"There's no sign of them yet," Tanguin said, her cybernetic eye glinting in the dim light from Bardo's moon.
"Just keep an eye out for that bloody sand," Orion said. "I don't want to end up with a fluffle tattoo, like a certain someone."
Tyra shuddered. "Me neither."
"Weird that you carry that around," Orion said. "Why not a strip of Parapem or something?"
Tyra shrugged. "It's just in my toolkit which is always with me."
Aart barely spoke for the rest of the night. His footsteps grew more sure until he didn't need Nova's help but his expression stayed grim, eyes locked on the sand in front of him. He didn't smile when they threw jokes to each other and something dark swam behind his eyes.
Blood red sunlight bathed the horizon when Tanguin let out a choked gasp. "Something behind us. Gaining fast."
"It's Bill," Tyra said. "It has to be."
Nova bit her lip and spun in a tight circle. Smooth desert sand met her in every direction, lifting and falling in wide dunes. "Shit, where the hell are we supposed to hide?"
"We'll kill him," Aart said, spinning and taking his gun from its holster.
"There are a lot of them," Tanguin said, squinting at the desert behind them. "At least four vehicles."
"What?" Orion said. "I thought he had two constables."
"He probably called in help from neighbouring towns," Gus said. "I know if I was a corrupt Sheriff, that's what I'd do."
"Great. So we've practically got a small militia on our tails and absolutely nowhere to hide," Orion said.
Tanguin bit her lip. "Five minutes, max."
"Shit," Nova said. "Did anyone bring a camouflager? A grenade? Anything?"
"Maybe I can help," a croaky voice said from behind them.
Nova turned, lifting her gun, and came face-to-face with an old woman whose hunched shoulders barely came up to Nova's stomach. Deep lines made crevasses over her tanned face and hid her eyes in deep folds. She wore a brown shawl covered in sand that blended in with the rest of the desert.
"Well?" the woman said.
Nova cleared her throat and glanced at the others, her gun wavering. The others gaped at the woman.
"We'd be grateful for anything you can do," Nova said, lowering her gun but keeping her finger on the trigger.
The old woman nodded and smiled, revealing a toothless mouth. "It's been a while since I had any visitors. But before I let you in, you must answer my questions."
Nova's eyes flew to the others; questions? "We'll answer if we can."
The woman's eyes sparkled and she nodded. "Good. In what year did the HAV virus wipe out most of human civilisation?"
"2050," Nova said, without pausing.
The woman's smile widened. "Very good! Although I started with an easy one."
Tanguin danced from foot to foot as she watched the horizon. Dust clouds swirled up from the desert.
"True or false. Old-Earth was founded by a more ancient species?"
Orion snorted. "False."
"No!" Nova's eyes flew wide and she stepped between Orion and the woman.
Orion raised an eyebrow. "Please don't tell me you buy into the Ancients theory."
Nova swallowed. All this time she hadn't told a soul about her time on Archalon.
The woman raised an eyebrow. "Is that your final answer?"
"Nova, don't be silly," Aart said. "There's never been any evidence of an Ancient species. If they managed to found Earth there'd be evidence of them."
"It's true," Nova whispered.
"She is correct," Cal said, hovering at her shoulder with his gun aimed at the oncoming dust cloud.
Aart's face darkened. "This isn't time to argue beliefs, Nova, this is serious."
The other Hunters stared at Nova and Cal with varying levels of disbelief.
"I met them," she whispered. "It's true. That's our final answer."
"No!" Aart and the others said.
The old woman clapped her hands together. "Correct!"
Aart's mouth fell open. "What—"
"They'll be here in less than a minute," said Tanguin.
"Final question," the old woman said.
Nova's stomach tightened.
"I'm tall when I'm young and short when I'm old…… what am I?"
Nova's shoulders slumped; she'd never heard the riddle before. She turned to the others, sand hitting her cheeks.
Aart shook his head, glaring down at the ground, while Tanguin bit her lip and watched the approaching dust clouds. Tyra pulled her gun from its holster and aimed it back at the oncoming threat.
"That's a stupid question," said Gus. "It could be a bunch of things. Just say potato."
Orion's hand flew up. "Whoa. Potato is not our answer."
Gus waved his hand. "She reckons the Ancients exist. I think we just tell her any answer and she'll accept it. Potato."
"We're not saying potato," said Orion. "I love riddles. I've heard them all; just give me a minute."
"We don't have a minute," said Tanguin.
Orion stared at the sand, kicking small clouds up with his boots and muttering the riddle under his breath. "Could be a mountain but I don't think so. Time? No. A ball of string? No. That's not right."
Nova squared her shoulders and aimed her gun. The oncoming vehicles were close enough to make out Bill's grinning face, his clothes whipping out behind him.
"Candle!" Orion said. "It's a candle!"
The old woman grinned. "Correct." She stepped back towards the nearest hill of sand and seemed to disappear into it.
"What—" said Aart, looking up from his feet.
Gus spun in a circle. "That bitch. She—"
"Well, come on!" her voice floated out to them.
Nova stepped to the dune and touched the billowing sand, her fingers slipped between camouflaged pieces of cloth and encountered empty air. "There's something—"
Bony fingers snatched hold of Nova's hand and wrenched her into the sand. She stumbled through a flowing curtain and into a round room decorated with coloured pieces of cloth and flickering candles.
"Nova!" Aart said.
She spun, pulling her hand free of the old woman, to see Aart rush forward, both hands outstretched. He reached the shimmering wall and fell through to join them in the room.
"Wow. You guys should get in here," he called.
The other Hunters shrugged at each other and stepped through. By the time they were all inside, the room was so full their elbows touched.
The sheriff's vehicles arrived only a few seconds later.
"Best to keep quiet," the old woman whispered.
Nova held her breath as Bill and his dozen companions got down off their four-wheeled bikes, three men on each. He bent and studied their footprints, squinting out at the desert.
"They were here just a minute ago, we saw them," said a constable.
Bill nodded. "They must have some kind of camouflage field. Run the infrared."
"Already done. Nothing."
Bill's frown deepened and he returned to staring at the sand. "How many footsteps do you count here?"
The constable leant over Bill's shoulder, frowning. "Seven."
"Right," Bill said. "But there were only six of them."
The constable frowned. "So they met up with someone out here."
Bill shook his head. "There weren't any others. And these footsteps only start here, a moment before they all disappear."
The colour drained from the constable's face and he took three steps back. "You don't think..."
Bill's companions gathered closer. "What?"
The constable shook his head, sweat gleaming on his forehead. "Desert spirit."
Some of the men gasped and knelt, tossing a pinch of sand over their left shoulders. The rest shared uneasy glances.
"There's no such thing," Bill said, although his voice wavered.
The constable kept walking backwards until he bumped into his vehicle. "The footsteps appeared out of nowhere. They're lighter than any human has a right to be, and now the Hunters have disappeared."
"They've been taken," another man said. "We've all heard the stories."
"Fairy tales," Bill said.
An older man with a grey moustache cleared his throat. "Even so... there's no sign of them now, no trail for us to follow. Maybe it would be best for us to call it a day."
The first constable nodded, already climbing back onto the bike.
Bill's face glowed red. "They assaulted me. They have to pay for it."
The older man nodded. "Of course. But they won't survive long out here; that's punishment enough."
"Or they've been taken. And that's worse than death," said a young man who'd thrown sand over his shoulder.
The old man with the moustache bowed his head.
Bill slammed his foot into the sand, kicking up a cloud that whipped away on the wind. "Cretins! Bloody cretins! It was my right to punish them. My right!" He took a deep breath and looked around at his gathered men. "No one has to know what happened here. As far as anyone in the towns are concerned, we hunted them down, killed them, and left them out here as a warning."
The old man nodded again.
Bill's eyes scanned over the rest of the crowd. Each man nodded in turn, except the constable whose white face glowed in the bright sun. "You can't lie about a sand spirit!"
Bill's eyes narrowed.
"You can't!" the constable stuttered. "They'll come after you in your sleep and see you dead."
"Let me be very clear," Bill said, stepping towards the boy. "If anyone in the towns finds out what happened, I'll come after you in your sleep and see you dead."
The constable swallowed, throat bobbing.
"Do you understand?" Bill said, laying a hand on his gun.
The young constable nodded but didn't speak.
"Good. Let's get the hell out of here."
They loaded back onto their bikes and skidded off, spitting a spray of sand in their wake. The engines roared over the silence of the desert, gradually fading to a dull murmur.
The Hunters let out a collective breath.
"Their infrared didn't work," Tyra said.
The old woman weaved between them and set a pot over a smouldering fire. The smoke curled up through a hole in the ceiling and disappeared. "No one can see in here if I don't want them to."
Orion's mouth dropped open. "So you are a desert spirit?"
Nova and Tanguin snorted while the woman let out a cackle of laughter.
Orion frowned at them. "What? You're telling me Ancients are real but I can't ask if she's a spirit?"
"He has a fair point," said Gus.
"The camouflage matches ambient temperature. They wouldn't have seen anything."
Orion let out a long breath. "Not a spirit then."
The woman shook her head. "No. You can call me Yit."
"Yit," Aart said. "Unusual name."
Yit shrugged. "I made it up just now. Not much point for names out here."
Gus rolled his shoulders and craned his neck over the others. "Is there some place bigger to sit? Or stand?"
Yit glanced at the far wall and flicked her wrist. A curtain fell loose, revealing another round room filled with a broad table and chairs.
"Seems like a spirit to me," Orion whispered to Aart.
"Simple sound-activated motor control," Cal said, hovering after them.
Nova rolled her eyes and turned to Yit. "Thank you for saving us."
Yit nodded. "You seemed nice enough, and it's not often I get to meet people. Would anyone like tea?"
"Yes please!" the Hunters replied in chorus.
Nova drifted into the next room and sat at the end of the table where she could watch the woman. She sprinkled dried herbs into the pot over the fire and hummed. A few minutes later she removed the pot and came back to the table with a tray of warm cups.
"It's quite pleasant in here," Tyra said. "Not suffocatingly hot like out there."
Yit sipped her tea and bowed her head.
"Temperature control unit. There," Cal said, pointing at a small metal box set into the wall.
Yit glared at him over the top of her cup.
"Cal!" Nova hissed, gesturing for him to back away from the table.
Nova lifted her cup to her lips, taking a small sip, and nearly spitting it across the table. She pinned her lips shut and hid her expression behind her mug. It tasted like a mouthful of swamp water. She forced herself to swallow. The murky taste trailed down her tongue and into her throat, filling her nostrils.
She put the cup back on the table with a loud clink, trying to catch the others' eyes, but before she could, Aart took a deep swallow. Nova ducked under the table out of instinct just as Aart spat the whole mouthful back across the table at her.
"Oh hell! What is that?" he said, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve.
The others glanced at Aart and put their untouched cups down.
Nova sat up straight to see a pool of brown tea spreading across the table. She bit her lip and looked around for anything to clean up the mess. "Sorry. About him—"
Yit cackled, tossing her a rag. "He's not the first man to spit my tea across the table and I'm sure he won't be the last."
Aart dabbed at the mess, his face glowing red. "Sorry. The um- flavour was stronger than I expected."
Yit shrugged. "No matter to me if you like my tea or not."
Nova wrapped her hands in the folds of her shirt and tried not to think about the question that should have occurred to her first; where would Yit get tea leaves in the middle of the desert? And if they weren't tea leaves... what were they?
"So er—" Orion said. "You live out here?"
Yit nodded. "One can only take the company of others for so long."
Orion looked at the other Hunters, eyes wide. Tyra took up the thread of conversation. "So how long have you lived here?"
Yit lifted her eyes to the ceiling. "Five-hundred thousand days."
"Two hundred and ten standard years," Cal said.
Nova's mouth dropped and the others gaped.
"Over two-hundred years?" Orion said. "But—"
Yit shrugged. "I don't know about your standard of time."
"That's a long time," Aart said. "You don't look... that old."
Yit fixed her wrinkled eyes on him. "It's amazing what solitude and tea can do." She lifted her cup to him and took a deep drink.
Aart eyed his own half-empty glass as if considering giving it another go.
"Where did you come from, before the desert?" Tyra said.
Yit frowned, as if in deep concentration. "It's always been the desert, for as long as I can remember. My grandmother lived here before me, and hers before that. But, I'm sure you didn't come here just to hear an old woman rambling."
"Technically we didn't plan on coming here at all," Cal said.
Nova pursed her lips and nudged him with her elbow.
"You have an odd companion," Yit said, nodding at Cal.
"You have no idea," said Aart.
Cal spun to face him. "Weren't you trying to get on my good side?"
Aart grinned. "I meant that in a good way!"
"So why are you out wondering the desert being chased by local law enforcement?" Yit said.
"A misunderstanding," said Aart.
"Our friend here had a few too many drinks," said Orion. "And opened his big mouth to the local sheriff."
"To be fair," said Nova. "He was being a colossal arse—"
"Exactly!" said Aart.
"And where are you headed now?" said Yit.
"We've got a score to settle," said Nova.
"Some bandit named Randy stole our ships."
"Ah," Yit nodded. "I've seen him and his people, zooming across the desert, yelling like animals."
"They won't be a problem for much longer," said Nova.
"It's full daylight now, too hot to be moving through the desert. Why don't you rest here until nightfall?"
"That is music to my ears," Aart said. "My head feels the size of a planet."
Yit grinned. "If you'd drunk that tea you would have felt better."
Aart's eyes slid to his cup once more but he didn't reach for it.
"Make yourselves comfortable out here. I'll be in the backroom. It would be best if you didn't touch anything."
Nova and the others stood. "Thank you."
Yit waved her hand and shuffled away from the table to a concealed door. "I enjoy the company…temporarily."
Once she left, the Hunters slumped back to the table.
"What an odd woman," said Orion.
"Sometimes it's best to watch what you're saying," said Cal.
Orion frowned. "What's wrong with your labourbot now?"
Cal hovered to Nova's side and his lens-like eye zoomed on her face. "You never know who might be listening."
Nova raised an eyebrow and nodded. "Bugs."
The other Hunters glanced over their shoulders, eyes scanning the walls.
"Anyway," said Nova. "I know I could use some sleep. I call this patch of dirt."
The others did similar, curling into balls and using their jackets as rough pillows. Gus's snores echoed around the room after just a few seconds.
Nova's open eyes scanned around the room once more, taking in the twisted candles and pieces of old junk. Warped metal and ragged pieces of cloth decorated tilted shelves on every wall. The skeleton of some creature, it looked like one of the wolf-rats, stood staring out at the room.
She shivered and pressed her back against the wall. "Keep a look out, Cal."
He hovered just above her head. "Confirmed."
Nova awoke hours later feeling more refreshed than she had since landing on Bardo. She opened her eyes and stretched, her back clicking.
Cal still hovered above her, gently circling.
"Anything to report?" she whispered.
"No movement," said Cal. "Although there has been some noise from the next room. I was about to wake you; night's fallen."
Nova sat and wrapped her jacket over her shoulders before shaking Aart. "Wakey-wakey sleepy head."
He batted at her hand but didn't open his eyes.
She shook with more force, so his head lolled from side to side. "Wake. Now."
He moaned and his eyes flicked open. "Okay! I'm awake."
"You and the rest of us," said Gus. "Can't you two do whatever you're doing quietly?"
"Time to get up," Nova said, standing. "Night time."
Orion groaned and pulled his coat over his head. "Five more minutes."
Tyra kicked the bottom of his boots. "You heard her. Up."
A moment later, Yit bustled into the room carrying another tray of steaming cups. "Figured you'd be getting up at any moment. I made you some more tea."
Nova grimaced at her still full cup from last time and Aart's face glowed red.
Yit rummaged in the folds of her moth-eaten dress, pulling out an assortment of devices that she laid out on the table, naming each one as she did. "Hydration patch, it'll take moisture from the air and release it straight into your blood stream. Bottles of water. Sun deflectors." She placed six pairs of sunglasses on the table. "At least with this there's less chance of you being killed before you find Randy and his gang."
"Wow. Thank you," Orion said, taking a slim pair of sunglasses and slipping them on.
"Tanguin should have the patch," Nova said.
The others nodded.
Tanguin grumbled as Yit peeled off the back sticker and smoothed it over Tanguin's upper arm.
"It'll be good for at least another three days," said Yit.
"Thank you for all this," Tyra said, balancing a pair of glasses on top of her head. "I don't know how we're ever going to repay you."
"Ah yes," said Yit, "Payment."
The Hunters shared a glance and Nova put the glasses back on the table. "What?"
"Payment," Yit said. "Do you think I just hand out accommodation, tea, and supplies to everyone? That's no way to get by."
"Er— we don't have any krones," Aart said.
Yit waved her hand and snorted. "Useless currency."
Nova bit her lip. "We don't have anything else. Maybe once we get our ships back we'll have something to trade... but until then..."
"Of course you have things to trade!" Yit said. "Look at the gorgeous purple of your eyes! Or that one's muscles." She nodded to Gus.
"I don't understand," said Aart.
Yit scowled. "I'm an old woman. Do you think I've lived this long using my own parts? Of course not!"
"Parts?" Orion said, his throat bobbing.
Yit nodded. "I need a fully working part."
"Look, Yit," Nova said. "We're grateful for everything you've done. But we can't give you parts."
Yit's eyes narrowed and she folded her arms across her chest. It was only then that Nova noticed how different the sizes of her two hands were.
"Then you're trapped here."
"The door is sealed," said Cal.
Orion threw his hands into the air. "Why! You were supposed to be just a friendly old lady. Why does everyone on this planet have to be a psychopath?"
Yit slumped into a chair and watched them. "In exchange for everything I've done, I will accept either; one working eye, two tendons, or five ribs."
"What?" Aart said. "You must be joking."
Yit kept her arms folded and didn't reply.
"What about robot parts?" Orion said. "Look at that labourbot. I bet he's full of useless bits!"
"Orion!" Nova and Cal said in unison.
"I already scanned the labourbot. It's no good."
"Hey..." said Cal.
Nova stepped forward and laid a hand on her gun. "None of us are carving out bits of ourselves to give to you. Let us out now or you're going to need much more than an eye."
Yit's eyes sparkled. "That door won't open unless it gets a living signature from me. Kill me and this is your tomb as well."
Nova pulled her gun from its holster. "Maybe I didn't—"
"She's telling the truth," Cal said from the door. "We'll be sealed in here for good."
"Grishnak!" Nova whirled away from Yit and stared at her fellow Hunters. They huddled in close, forming a rough circle. "What the hell are we supposed to do now?"
Aart swallowed. "I suppose a tendon isn't so bad..."
"What are we supposed to do?" said Tyra. "Perform major surgery in the middle of the desert? We have no pain-killers, no equipment, and nothing to stop the bleeding."
"I'll do it," said Orion. "What's a couple of tendons? And I trust you guys to sew me up right."
"No one's giving away their tendons," said Nova.
"Well she's not having my ribs," said Aart. "I need them."
Nova bit her lip and looked back at Yit. "What if we promise to give you one of the bandit's bodies? Then you can take whatever bits you need."
Yit's pupils dilated and she sat up straighter. "A whole body... that is tempting." She thrummed her fingers on her arm. "But no good. I can't trust that you'll return, or that you'll even survive. No. I need payment now."
Nova groaned and turned back to the circle.
"It was a good plan," said Orion.
They stood in silence, Nova's stomach twisting. How could she have been so foolish? If she'd learnt anything it was that everything came with a price. Why would a strange lady living in the middle of the desert be any different?
"She can have my eye," Tanguin whispered.
Nova's gaze flew to Tanguin's face. "No!"
Tanguin looked up from the floor, her cybernetic eye glowing in the dim light. "It's the only thing that makes sense. It won't hurt me to take it out, and there won't be blood to worry about. It's the only way."
Nova clenched her teeth and shook her head. "No. We have no way of knowing if we can get another cybernetic eye for you. It's too much to risk."
"Less than what any of you would be risking to give up a tendon!" Tanguin said. "This is something only I can do. Let me do it."
"Don't you keep spares or something?" Orion said.
Tanguin gave him a scathing look. "No." She pushed through their circle and stood tall in front of Yit. "I'll give you my cyber eye."
Yit raised an eyebrow and got to her feet. She stood on the tips of her toes and peered into Tanguin's eyes. "It's a fine model. Plenty of life left in it. I haven't had any cybernetic parts in a very long time. They are superior. Of course it will ruin the organic look I've got going."
"You wanted an eye, here it is," said Tanguin. "That was the deal."
"Alright, alright," Yit said. "I just have to grab my kit. Make yourself comfortable in the chair right there. It won't hurt you of course, but many still find it... disconcerting."
"If we bring you back a bandit body, she gets the eye back," Nova said.
Yit frowned. "I don't know…"
"That's the deal."
"Fine, fine," Yit said, waving her hand.
Tanguin sat in the chair and let out a long breath as Yit disappeared into the next room, humming.
"Tanguin, you don't have to do this," said Aart.
"We'll find another way," said Nova. Her stomach cramped and she searched for any way out of the mess.
Tanguin looked away from them. "It's the best thing."
Cal hovered to Nova's side and spoke quietly. "Can you and your companions please stand against the far wall."
Nova frowned at him. "Cal, now's not the time—"
She raised an eyebrow but something in his voice made her pause. She grabbed Aart's shoulder and guided the others to the far wall, leaving Cal hovering beside Tanguin. He seemed to be speaking and as he continued Tanguin's eyes widened and the corners of her mouth flickered.
Yit came back into the room and glanced at them huddling beside the far wall. "You're all afraid of a little blood? Well you aren't as tough as you pretend to be."
She placed a tray of metal cutting implements on the table and looked over Tanguin's face. "This will be good. I can't wait to see the world—"
"Will you sit beside me?" Tanguin said, voice wavering.
"Of course," Yit said with a smile.
Tanguin stared into Yit's eyes. "Do you care about me?"
Yit blinked. "Of course. How could anyone not care about you. You're perfect."
Nova frowned and glanced sideways at her fellow Hunters. Aart shrugged back at her and the others shook their heads.
"You know I care about you too, right?"
Yit nodded and smiled, a thin tear trickling out of her left eye and trailing down her cheek.
"It's just that my friends and I really need to go outside. It'll just be for a second. Then I'll come right back."
Yit's brow furrowed. "But I thought we were going to..."
"Take my eye?" Tanguin said.
Yit's frown cleared and she nodded. "Your beautiful eye."
"We will," Tanguin laid her hand on Yit's. "I promise. I just need to go outside with my friends for a second. You trust me don't you?"
Yit nodded. "Of course. Although I'm not sure about your friends..."
Tanguin nodded with a grave expression. "I know. But I'll keep them in line. Then I'll be right back with you."
Yit smiled. "Hurry back then."
Tanguin stood, stepping around Yit and walked towards the door with stiff steps. "Come on guys, we've got to do that thing."
Nova glanced at the others and hurried after Tanguin, Cal hovered at the back. Tanguin pushed through the now open door and out into the cool desert night. Warmth still seeped up from the sand, heating Nova's toes.
"What the—" Orion said.
Tanguin elbowed Orion in the ribs. "Just over here," she said, voice light as she walked away from the entrance.
"Clear of visual field," Cal said. "Suggest running."
Tanguin leapt into a sprint, kicking a wave of sand up behind her. Nova's heart thrummed and she pounded after Tanguin through the desert, the others at her sides.
Through heaving breaths Aart spoke. "What the hell just happened?"
"Talk later," Cal said, hovering at the back. "We don't know what kind of technology she has."
They ran through the desert night like spirits, racing with the wind. Their silhouettes flew along behind them, stretching in the light of the far moon. A kilometre away from Yit's house there came a haunting cry on the wind, like some ghost shrieking behind them.
"Faster," Cal said.
He didn't need to tell Nova that. Her legs pumped harder as she imagined the spirit chasing her, ghostly arms reaching out…
They ran until every ragged breath scraped Nova's lungs and her head danced with stars. Tanguin's faltering steps barely moved her forward and her eyes drooped closed.
"We've got to stop," Nova said, slowing to Tanguin's side.
Cal turned and looked back the way they'd come. "She might still be there…"
"If she is then we'll never outrun her," Nova said.
Tanguin leant both hands on her knees and took great gasping breaths.
"Here, have some water," Nova said, waving for Aart to pass a bottle.
Tanguin held up her hand. "Got this remember?" She pulled up her sleeve to show the hydration patch. "I'm not thirsty at all."
Nova whistled. "Wish I had one. I could drink a river." She turned the bottle up and drank great gulping mouthfuls.
"Whoa!" Aart took the bottle back. "Easy. We don't know how long this has to last us."
"I think we're all ignoring the much more important issue," said Tyra. "What the hell happened?"
Tanguin lifted her sweaty face to them and glanced at Cal. "He probably has a better idea than I do. But this helped." She held up her right hand where glistening on her index finger, sat a ruby-studded ring.
"An e-mod," Cal said, hovering to Tanguin and holding out a thin metal arm.
She slipped the ring off and gave it to him.
"Where the hell did that come from?" Nova said.
Cal's arm retracted back into his casing. "I found it in Yit's house. I was studying it. It evokes love."
Orion raised an eyebrow. "A love charm?"
Nova folded her arms across her chest. "What were you doing with a love charm, Cal? Hoping to attract some ladies?"
Cal's motor whirred. "I was researching! I just wanted to know how they work…"
"Uh-huh," Nova said.
Orion slapped Aart on the back. "You should really give it to this guy, because with that fluffle tattoo he's going to need all the help he can get."
"Hang on," said Tyra. "So you gave Tanguin the ring and then she flirted her way past Yit?"
Tanguin nodded. "He told me to flatter her and get everyone out. To just go with it."
Aart shook his head. "Every time I think you're a useless piece of junk you do something like this."
Cal let out a noise that sounded like a grunt. "Perhaps next time I'll make sure you get left behind."
Gus ran his hand along his forehead. "What a nutcase."
Aart's face twisted. "She wanted to use pieces of us! Can you imagine?"
Nova took three deep breaths, her heart slowing. Yit hadn't suddenly appeared in front of them, that was a good sign.
"What do we do now?" Tanguin said.
"Same as we were going to do before," Nova said. "We find this bastard, Randy, and we take our ships back."
"If you maintain a steady pace their camp should be within sight by morning," Cal said.
"Let's do this," said Orion.
Nova took one last mouthful of water from Aart's bottle and then they set off for the horizon. The freezing wind evaporated the sweat along Nova's forehead and left behind an icy chill. Even the air entering her lungs seemed too cold, bringing with it a stinging bite. She pulled her collar higher and tucked her chin down, breathing the heated air coming off her chest.
They mostly walked in silence, interrupted only by short bursts of conversation, before lulling back into individual thoughts.
"I wonder how many people she's taken bits from?" Aart said.
"Aart!" said Tanguin. "That's disgusting."
"Her hands were definitely different sizes," said Orion. That's two people right there."
Tanguin swallowed. "I got a good look at her eyes at the end there… they were different too."
"And I'm sure one of her legs was longer than the other," said Tyra.
"Like that old-Earth story," Aart said, shaking his head.
"No wonder the sheriffs were scared," said Orion. "They knew she was out here harvesting people for parts."
"Yeah," Aart said. "Maybe we should have taken our chances with them."
Another bout of silence followed them over the next rise.
"Nova," said Tanguin. "How did you know about the Ancients?"
Nova's stomach twisted; she'd hoped they'd forgotten. "I er—— just guessed what she wanted to hear."
Aart snorted. "Yeah right. You knew what you were doing. What haven't you told us?"
Nova fixed a brittle smile to her face. "There's probably lots I haven't told you. Or I might have told you and you weren't listening, that happens a lot too."
"Wow," said Orion. "I thought you were a better liar than that."
Nova ducked her head, hiding her face in the shadows of the night and glaring at the sand. How could she tell them that she'd met the Ancients, that they had been inches away from destroying the human colonies? That she'd almost gone mad, might already be mad.
She caught a faint whisper inside her chip from Cal. "Be careful."
Nova pressed her lips together and thought back to him. "They won't stop asking. Never."
"So tell them just what you need to. But keep it simple."
Nova lifted her face to the moon. "I found a planet once. The Ancients used to occupy it."
The other Hunters gaped at her.
"You found an Ancient planet?" Aart said.
"And didn't tell me?" said Tanguin.
Nova bit her lip and went back to staring at the ground. "It was old. In ruins. But had a lot of traps. I thought it best if no one knew…"
"You kept knowledge of the Ancients to yourself?" Aart said.
Nova shrugged. "It wasn't that big a deal."
"Hang on," said Tyra. "How do you even know they were Ancients?"
"Carbon dating on artefacts placed the time, and certain language similarities and pictorial history confirmed," said Cal.
"Unbelievable," said Aart.
"Good thing I'm not a praying man," said Gus.
Nova nodded. "I'd rather not talk about it."
"Fine," said Aart, a slight edge to his voice. "But when we get out of here you're giving me the coordinates."
Nova swallowed and didn't reply.
"Won't you be busy with your girlfriend?" Tanguin said, nudging Aart with her shoulder.
"Ah yes, his sweet Alice," said Orion.
Aart's cheeks glowed red and a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Nova cast Tanguin a grateful glance and gave her hand a brief squeeze. Tanguin nodded.
It felt like hours later that they came to the biggest sand dune Nova had ever seen. It rose above them like a mountain range, blocking out sight of the moon and creating a dark shadow in the sky.
"According to Alice, the bandits have a home on the other side of this," said Cal. "Dawn is three hours away."
Aart choked on his water and spat droplets across the sand. "You expect us to climb this in three hours?"
Cal turned to face Aart. "Based on the average climbing speed of the average human, it shouldn't be a problem. Are you saying you're less than average, Aartemis Goldson?"
Aart scowled and thrust his bottle back into his bag before stomping to the base of the hill and beginning to climb.
The steep slope fell away in waterfalls of sand beneath their feet. Nova clung to the side but it felt as though for every step forward she slid two back. They climbed for what felt like hours, until Nova's arms and legs shook with exhaustion and sweat coated her face and neck. She arched backwards to see how far they'd come and her stomach plummeted when she saw the ground, just fifty meters below their feet.
Aart clung to the side of the mountain, breathing hard. "You can say that again. Hey Cal, I know just where you can stick your average."
Cal hovered above them, his motor kicking up small drifts of sand.
Gus sweated and cursed at the back, the sand unable to hold his weight. His boots kept slipping backwards, sinking a foot deep into loose sand.
"I'll scout for an easier way up," said Cal, disappearing into the night.
"Should have done that to start with," Aart said, holding onto the hill with one hand and drinking more water with his other.
Ten minutes later, Cal hovered back into view. "There's a slight ridge ahead, on the other side of that is a faint path. The sand seems harder there, you may be able to walk."
Nova took a deep breath and pushed forward, following Cal's dim light up the side of the mountain.
Straining, sweating, and cursing, half an hour later, she fell over the lip of a ridge and landed on firm sand.
The others struggled over and lay next to her in a gasping pile.
Nova dragged herself to a sitting position and studied the sand. "It's a path," she said.
Cal hovered backwards. "Yes."
"There's a path."
Nova squinted up at him, breathing hard. "And where does the bottom of this path come out?"
Cal hovered further out of her reach. "About twenty meters away from where you started to climb."
Aart snatched a handful of loose sand and hurled it at Cal. The grains drummed against his casing like rain on a tin roof. "Useless labourbot."
"A simple mistake," Cal said. "Humans are so unforgiving!"
"Cal," said Nova. "To prevent you getting killed by Aart, I suggest you scout ahead in case our bandit friends have lookouts or something."
Cal hovered away up the hill and disappeared into the darkness without another word.
Tyra got to her feet. "If we're going to make the top by daylight we should get a move on."
The others stood, groaning, and followed her up the steep incline. Nova's calves ached with each step but it was still easier than climbing up the side. She took deep breaths of the cold desert air and kept her gaze locked on the top of the hill where it faded into the darkness of the sky.
Cal returned a short time later, his motor humming in the quiet night. "No sign of activity on this side of the mountain but lights and noise are coming from the other side, it definitely looks like a bandit camp."
Nova nodded. "Good work."
The faint light of dawn coloured the top of the mountain red and turned the rolling desert into a pool of fire. It glittered like a thousand stars, reflecting back the sun's glow. Uncomfortable heat had just started to overtake the cool night when they rounded a bend and came to a flat crest that looked out over the other side of the mountain.
"Thank the Ancients for that," Aart said, swaggering towards the edge.
Nova snatched the back of his shirt and yanked him back.
"What?" he said, scowling. "Don't like me taking their name in vein?"
"No," Nova hissed. "I don't like you getting spotted by bandits. You idiot."
Aart glanced at the steep cliff that dropped down the other side of the mountain. "Oh."
Nova released his shirt and slumped in the shade cast by a large pillar of sand.
"I hope they're there," said Gus. "I don't think I could face climbing another mountain."
"Me neither," said Tanguin."I'll get us a better look." She lay on her stomach and crawled towards the edge.
"Whoa," Nova said, grabbing her boot. "Is that a good idea?"
Tanguin rolled her eyes. "As Yit so kindly illustrated; I have the best eye of any of you. I'll get a look, we need to know what's going on."
Nova released Tanguin's boot and dropped her hand to her gun, muscles tensed in case things went badly.
Tanguin army-crawled across the plateau to the other side where the cliff dropped out of sight. She left a trail through the sand, like a body that's been dragged. She slowed to a snail's pace as she neared the edge and pressed her cheek flat against the sand. Tanguin stayed frozen like that for what felt like hours.
Every muscle in Nova's body lay coiled, ready to spring, and her knuckles shone white where she gripped her gun.
Finally, Tanguin crawled backwards, easing away from the ledge until she could sit up and turn. "Well, we've found them."
Nova's gaze flicked over Tanguin's shoulder as if the bandits might suddenly appear.
"Defences?" said Gus, already easing his cannon-sized gun from over his back.
Tanguin made an easing gesture. "Too much."
Nova frowned. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, they've got motion sensors, automatic machine guns, droid patrols, sentries, there's no way we're getting in there unnoticed."
"Did you see the ships?" Orion said.
Tanguin nodded. "They're parked with a few other smaller vehicles. Inside the perimeter."
Orion slumped back and poked the ground, creating small holes in the sand.
"We go in fighting," Gus said with a shrug.
"Did you not hear the part where she said automatic machine guns?" Orion said.
Gus narrowed his eyes. "I did. Maybe I'm just not afraid of a few robo droids."
Orion rolled his eyes and went back to poking the sand.
"Whoa," Tyra said. "Take it easy. I did not trek all the way through this desert just to give up here. Taking out the guns and droids should be easy enough, I brought my bomb kit, remember?"
"Bomb kit, tattoo kit," Aart said. "Too bad you didn't pack something useful, like a retrieve ships kit."
Tyra rolled her eyes and turned away.
Nova lifted her head, thoughts racing.
"Still at least seven sentries and twenty bandits to get past," Tanguin said. "And that's just the ones that were in full view of the ships. There's no way to know how many more are inside the cave."
Tyra bit her lip. "Machines I can handle. The people, not so much."
Nova gazed out at the rolling desert below them. A sparkle on the horizon may have been Mercy, or it could have been a figment of her imagination. She forced herself to look past the sand. There had to be a way, she'd gotten out of stickier situations before.
"Could we use Cal's love ring?" she said.
"It's not mine," Cal said.
"But could we?"
"Its radius of effect is too small. You'd be shot dead by one bandit while the other was trying to win your heart."
"What we all need is some sleep," Aart said. "There's no way we'll be able to solve all our problems like this. We take a break, get some sleep, and I bet we wake up with a thousand ideas. On top of that, it will be night so we'll have some cover."
Nova wanted to argue but the weight of her eyelids stopped her.
"He's right," said Orion. "My head feels like it's full of fluffles."
"Short nap," Tyra said. "A couple of hours and then we sort this thing out."
The others nodded.
Nova huddled into the shade of a narrow column of sand and turned her back to the others, gazing out across the desert. "Cal—"
"I'll keep watch."
Nova's eyes drooped closed but even through her exhaustion she couldn't help but worry. The bandit camp lay only a few hundred meters away. What if they came up and caught the Hunters sleeping? They'd all be dead.
She shook her head, trying to get rid of the thoughts like buzzing flies. Instead she tried to picture leaving Bardo in Crusader, Cal at her side. Where would they go? It didn't matter. Away.
A moment later she slipped into sleep.
Nova woke first to find that the sun was already dipping back towards the horizon and the cool blue of dusk had settled over the desert.
"What the hell?" she whispered to Cal.
The robot replied inside her head. "It was for the best. Everyone's vitals showed major stress and inefficient brain patterns. Waking you early would have been a mistake."
Nova scowled. "You don't make those decisions, I do. How's everyone else?"
"Based on brain wave activity Aart will wake soon. The others still require perhaps half an hour."
Nova nodded and returned to staring out at the desert. It looked different at night-time. Where during the day the sand had looked like a pit of fire, now in the blue light of the moon it was like a vast sparkling lake surrounding the island on which she sat.
Clouds gathered on the horizon to her right, rolling like waves across the desert sand. Wind howled in the distance like a lone wolf, rushing across the dune and whipping around Nova. She pulled her jacket closer and shivered, remembering the hallo-sand.
"Those clouds are probably full of it," she said. "I can only—"
She froze, the first seed of a thought blossoming in her mind. "Wake the others."
Cal's motor whirred. "But finishing an REM cycle is vital to—"
Nova slid across the sand to Aart and shook his shoulder, holding her hand over his mouth as he awoke and tried to yell at her. Once he calmed she moved to Tanguin, by the time she sat up the others were awake.
"Dammit!" Orion hissed. "How long have we been sleeping?"
"Too long," said Tyra. "Aart was right. That labourbot needs some adjustments."
"The perfect amount of time," Nova said.
The others frowned at her and she gestured them closer so that they made a small circle on top of the hill.
"We use the hallo-sand," Nova whispered, wary of her voice carrying on the night wind.
"What?" Aart said, echoed by the others.
"The hallo-sand! Just think what it did to us. If we can get it down into their cave, they'll go crazy. Tyra can neutralise the weapons and then we can stroll in and take the ships."
"I can identify at least fifty errors with that plan," Cal said.
Nova rolled her eyes at the robot.
"I don't know about fifty, but I've got three," Aart said. "One. How the hell were you planning on transporting a sand storm? Two. How exactly do we then enter said sand storm to get our ships? Three. Transporting a sand storm!"
Nova pushed down a sharp reply and instead took a deep breath. "I know it sounds crazy, and it won't be easy, but it's the best plan we've got. The sand is perfect for neutralising a large group. There has to be a way to get it here."
Aart threw up his hands and slumped back into the sand. "Sure, I bet the technology for transporting sand storms is just lying around. Tell you what, I'll wait here and you let me know when you find it."
Orion relaxed back into the sand beside Aart. "I'm with him. I can't see any easy way of doing what you're asking."
Gus patted his gun. "Going in guns first would be a better plan."
Nova sighed and hung her head, studying the sand between her feet. "There has to be a way. We know that it's not just sand. We know they release some kind of chemical. We just need to find a way to get those bugs here."
"Which is exactly the same problem we had when we thought they were just grains of sand," said Orion.
Nova shook her head. "No. We have more than that. We know they're attracted to wind and water."
Aart snorted. "I suppose when you met the Ancients you also got elemental powers?"
Nova scowled at him, but inside her heart fluttered at how close he was to the truth.
"No, but those bandits have water," Tanguin said, catching onto Nova's train of thought. "There was a water tank beside the cave."
Orion kicked at the sand. "I still don't see how—"
"We just have to make another pool," said Gus. "Same as we did before."
"Exactly!" Nova said. "Tanguin, what else do you remember about the tank?"
"It's big. And it looked like there was a pump attached to it. It's probably feeding water up from underground!"
Aart folded his arms and frowned. "That might just work. Provided the information Cal found in Mercy was right."
"It will work," Nova said. "We just have to break open that tank, and we're good to go."
"Hate to break the mood," said Gus. "But that still doesn't tell us how to get to the ships without being affected ourselves, or being blown to pieces by the sentinel droids."
"I'll do it," said Cal. "Provided you've disabled their weapons I should be able to go in during the confusion and reprogram the ships."
Aart grinned and patted Cal's side. "I knew you were a genius."
Cal hovered out of his reach and didn't reply.
"It's settled then," said Tyra. "I'll start on the automatic weapons. Gus, I'll need your help."
"And we'll work something out for the tank," said Nova. "Aart, you stay and keep watch. Let us know as soon as anything changes."
Tyra and Gus sat opposite each other at the side of the hill as she pulled items from the bag at her waist. Tanguin lay on the ground and slid back to the edge of the cliff.
Nova lay by Tanguin's side and studied the camp. A steep drop fell away beneath them, ending in a valley. A shallow cave disappeared into the cliff-face and around that rough tents and a collection of ships shone in the moonlight. Sure enough, at least five men with automatic guns stood on guard whilst the rest sat about the mouth of the cave eating and drinking. Three sentinel droids overlooked the camp, their long guns ranging back and forth. Behind them, nestled against the side of the cave, was the biggest water tank Nova had ever seen. It could hold a swimming pool and still have room to spare.
She studied the shape of it and the pump attached to the side. The metal looked thin, so long as they hit it in the right spot, causing a leak wouldn't be hard. Then they just had to hope the hallo-sand was actually attracted to water.
Nova scooted back away from the edge and sat between Tyra and Gus. "Gus, do you have any long-range silenced weapons?"
Gus rubbed his chin and then reached to his belt where a long rifle rested against his leg. "This pretty thing, Betsy, I call her. She's as quiet as they come, but she's got an alright range."
Nova held out her hand and Gus passed it to her with some reluctance.
"What's your plan?" Tyra said.
"We just need to pop a hole in that tank so it leaks," said Nova. "And hope they don't notice before the bugs do. Even if they do notice it'd probably take them a while to work out what happened."
The others nodded.
Nova lay down and crawled back to the edge. She rested the gun out in front of her and stared down the sight. It was an easy shot, the massive tank took up the whole field of view and she just had to hit it below the pump. She took a deep breath and held it, lined up the shot, and fired.
The barest puff of sound echoed through the night.
"Is it leaking?" Nova whispered.
Tanguin squinted at the darkness. "It doesn't… oh wait, yes. Out the bottom and mostly out of sight. Good shot."
Nova grinned as she crawled back and handed Gus back his gun. "Give it half an hour or so and there'll be a good puddle down there, hopefully we'll see some hallo-sand."
Tyra looked up at her and raised an eyebrow. "I hope it's soon. We've got everything sorted here. I've adapted Gus's gun to take more… explosive… rounds. A few well-aimed shots will take out those automatic weapons and sentinel droids."
Nova nodded. "Good. Get into position. We don't know how long it's going to take these bugs to show up."
"I'm on it," said Gus, crawling along the sand on his stomach to join Tanguin, the large gun slung over his shoulder.
"Everyone stay away from the edge and the hallo-sand," Cal said. "I do not want to have to chase you all over the desert again."
The next fifteen minutes were spent in tense silence. Nova jumped at every whisper of wind, expecting to see a cloud of sand hurtling towards her, but the desert remained silent.
She shifted, legs aching and neck tense. The others glanced at each other and looked out over the desert.
Tanguin backed away from the edge of the cliff to where the rest of them waited. "Something's happening."
Nova and the others lay on their stomachs and crawled to the lip. Shadows moved about the tents and voices rose in concern.
"Where's this bloody water coming from?"
"You're dreaming again, Barry, you're not going to find water flowing around out here."
"Why don't you come see for yourself, Glen?"
Nova found the two shadows, one stood at the edge of the tent nearest the tank with his hands on his hips. The other stood deeper in the camp, a red cigarette glimmering in front of his face. He sighed and hurled the butt into the sand before stomping over to Barry.
"See?" said Barry.
Glen knelt and prodded the sand. "It's wet."
"That's what I've been saying."
Glen's gaze traced across the sand to the tank. Shadows hid most of his face but Nova could just make out the beginnings of a frown.
"Get Randy," said Glen.
"For a bit of water?" said Barry. "No way, you get him."
Glen's hand dropped to the gun at his waist. "Go get him. Now."
Barry hesitated and then hurried off among the tents.
"Shit," Aart whispered.
"He hasn't seen us," Tanguin replied. "He can probably barely make out the top of the mountain and he's looking at the tank, not us."
"You can see his eyes?" Aart said.
Tanguin ignored the question. "He seems worried though. The water has spread about five meters from the tank in all directions."
"Let's hope it's enough," said Nova.
A bigger silhouette lumbered out from amongst the tents. Nova recognised the shape of his head in an instant. Randy.
"What the hell do you want, Glen?"
Glen gestured towards the water with his gun. "We've got a leak."
Randy frowned and knelt by the growing pool, prodding the wet sand. "Shit."
Barry glanced between them. "Would one of you mind telling me what exactly is wrong with a bit of wet sand?"
"Hallo-sand," said Randy.
Barry took a startled step back. "Where?"
"Not yet," said Glen, lighting another cigarette, grey smoke curling around his face. "But soon."
"Somebody's watching us," said Randy. "This is deliberate."
Barry followed their gazes and squinted up at the hills surrounding the valley. "Someone's out there?"
Randy turned to Glen. "Get everyone assembled. We're going to find these bastards and make them pay."
Barry stepped away from the puddle. "Er- shouldn't we be getting away from the hallo-sand?"
"I'm not running anywhere," said Randy.
Glen tossed his glowing cigarette into the wet sand where it hissed. "I'll get them together."
He darted into the nearest tent where a flurry of activity bloomed, spreading out to the adjacent tents until the whole bandit camp became a hive of people running back and forth, gathering weapons, shouting to each other.
"Shit," Nova said. "It won't take them long to scout the mountains and come up here."
"Where the hell is that hallo-sand?" Orion said. "I knew this was a bad plan, I knew it."
"I could take a few of them out now," said Gus, looking down the barrel of his gun.
"No," said Nova. "We need those rounds to take out the weapons and sentinel droids, or the plan is no good."
"I could do both," he said, still looking down the barrel.
"Not unless things get desperate."
Twenty bandits gathered at the edge of the water. Glen strode at the front, looking up along the top of the surrounding hills.
Nova ducked her head down so that her cheek pressed against the sand.
"He won't be able to see us," Tanguin said. "They've got their lights on down there, they won't be able to see a thing out here."
"How close do they get to us before things get desperate," said Aart.
Nova bit her lip and looked out over the desert, not even a hint of a dust cloud. In fact, the air seemed unnaturally still, like any wind had been sucked away, leaving the desert in a vacuum.
"If you want me to take them and the weapons, it has to be now," said Gus.
Nova looked back into the valley. Every second took the group of bandits further from the first line of automated weapons. "Fire," she said with a sigh.
Gus hunched his shoulders, steadied his gun, and fired. A thin missile shot out and hissed through the air, followed by a trail of grey smoke. It slammed into the outer-most gun and exploded in a sun-bright burst.
The automated gun shattered into sharp pieces of shrapnel that shot through the air like bright sparks. Jagged pieces slammed into the back-most bandits and they collapsed with wailing cries. The others stumbled forward, away from the wall of heat that rose like a column from the gun.
"Damn, Tyra," said Orion. "Remind me not to piss you off. Also, can you mod my gun when this is over?"
Aart snorted. "Just don't try cuddling her or she'll give you a fluffle tattoo."
More bandits streamed out of the tents and ran to their fallen companions, who writhed in the sand.
"Five dead. Seven critically injured," Tanguin said.
Aart nodded. "Good. That should slow—"
"They're still coming this way. That shot helped them narrow down our position."
A crackle of gunfire from below echoed through the night and stray blasts hit the sand dune to either side of them. The Hunters pressed low against the sand, out of sight.
"They're too far away from the other guns for me to do any damage," Gus said.
"Dammit." Nova wiped a streak of sweat from her forehead and glared down into the valley.
"Odds are severely against you surviving a direct confrontation with them, even with Gus's gun," Cal said.
Nova slapped the sand. "We're not going to go down lying here. Try to find cover everyone and open fire. If they want us, they're going to have to fight for it."
She knelt behind a low wall of sand and fired down into the valley. Someone screamed and a shadow scaling the mountain fell, curling into a ball.
Cal hovered at her side, his gun also out. The others scattered across the mountain top, steely eyes watching the path leading up from the bandits' camp.
Nova's heart clenched in her chest. If they all died it was her fault. It had been her idea to risk everything on a few sand bugs. Now what did they have? Nothing. She swallowed.
"Did you feel that?" Tanguin whispered.
"What?" Nova said, distracted. Most of her mind was locked on the path. The bandits still hadn't found it and were milling at the bottom of the valley, out of sight, but it wouldn't be long before they were swarming up.
Nova frowned and tried to focus on what Tanguin had said. Felt what? A thin breath of air tickled her arm. There was a breeze on top of the mountain, that didn't seem worth distracting her from a fight. It was just a breeze…
"Wind!" Nova said.
She risked peaking her head up above cover and scanned the surrounding desert. There, on the horizon, loomed a dark cloud, rolling over the sand, straight for them. "Come on!" she said, begging it to move faster, to catch the bandits before they made the mountain top.
The sand storm moved faster than Nova would have thought possible; it shot across the desert like a rolling ocean and splashed across the base of the mountain. A thin yell echoed up the path but Nova couldn't make out the words.
Cal inched forward, out of cover.
"Careful!" said Nova.
He hovered to the top of the path and peered down before coming back to them. "The whole bottom of the path is covered in the storm. There's no sign of the bandits."
Nova breathed a sigh of relief and collapsed into the sand. "It worked."
"Here's something we didn't count on," said Gus, kneeling at the edge of the cliff. "How the hell am I supposed to shoot anything when there's a bloody great sandstorm covering it all?"
Nova crawled to his side and her stomach dropped. Swirling sand covered everything. She couldn't even make out the tops of the tents, let alone the automated guns.
"Oops," she said.
"Infrared shows the bandits dispersing," said Cal. "Their patterns of movement suggest they're in the same hallucinogenic state you were. Now is the perfect time to collect the ships."
"That's no good," said Nova. "The automated system will recognise you as an intruder and shoot you down. Shit."
"I could do it," Tanguin whispered.
Nova frowned and looked at her. "Do what?"
"Take the shot," Tanguin said with a shrug, a slight tremor in her voice. "I've got the coordinate positions for each of the weapons and the sentinel droids."
Gus scratched his head. "Uh, no offense, but have you ever fired one of these before?"
Tanguin shook her head. "But I'm a fast learner and aside from Cal, I'm the only one that knows where those guns are."
"Damn," said Orion. "If I'd known there were so many benefits to cyborg eyes, I would have put my face in the way of a piece of shrapnel!"
Tanguin's top lip quivered and Nova elbowed Orion in the ribs.
"What! It's a complement."
"Show me how the gun works," said Tanguin.
Gus leant over and pointed to the dials and trigger. "The cross-hairs will show you where it's going. This will show you the distance."
Tanguin rested the gun on her shoulder and it nearly flattened her into the sand. Gus lifted it off her and she gasped for air. "Wow. That's heavy."
"I can support the back end," Gus said. "You point."
Tanguin nodded and together they maneuvered the gun into position. Tanguin adjusted the dials and looked down the barrel. "Here goes."
She squeezed the trigger and a missile shot out of the end. It disappeared into the cloud of sand and a moment later a bright burst of light lit up the grains like fireworks.
"One down," she said.
They repeated the process four more times, each one a direct hit.
"Wow," said Gus. "Girl can shoot."
Tanguin rolled out from beneath the gun and grinned back at them. "Okay, maybe you were right. There are some benefits to a cyborg eye."
"All yours, Cal," said Nova.
"I will bravely go where no robot has gone before," he said, hovering towards the path.
Nova rolled her eyes. "He's mad."
"I can still hear you."
"Good luck, Cal!" Tanguin called.
His silver casing dipped below the top of the hill and disappeared into the swirling clouds of sand. The wind seemed to pick up as he got close, rising up to meet and swallow him. It howled across the desert, ripping across the mountain top.
"I hope he can fly in that," Tanguin said.
Nova frowned. "I lost communication with him as soon as he entered the cloud. It must create some kind of interference."
Gus slumped into the sand. "So we wait."
"And hope the sand doesn't come up here," Orion muttered.
Nova's thoughts wandered as she gazed, unfocused, at the swirling sand. Part of her remained tensed, ready to shoot down anything that came her way, but another detached part of her floated above it all like a casual observer. That part of her mind wondered how she'd got here, to be destroying bandits with hallucinogenic sand. It felt like only yesterday, but at the same time an eternity ago, that she'd landed on Archalon and discovered the Ancients. It seemed she was doomed to be stuck trekking through deserts.
"Something's coming," said Tanguin.
Nova blinked away her thoughts and focused where Tanguin pointed. Dim lights, barely visible through the sand, twinkled above the bandits' camp.
"It's the ships, it's got to be," said Aart.
Tanguin squinted. "I can't see a thing, damn sand."
The lights grew brighter, separating into smaller flashes of red and bright beams of white. A deep rumble rattled the air, gradually drowning out the howl of the storm. The lights lifted higher, nearing the top of the rolling sand, and then a silver hull burst out of the raging clouds.
"Sylar!" Aart said.
More metal loomed out of the clouds of sand until all five of their conjoined ships hovered in the air, buffeting the sand below into raging columns.
"Better clear the way or you'll be crushed," Cal said inside Nova's head.
She smiled and backed to the edge of the cliff. "They're coming in to land."
The other Hunters scurried out of the way and the ships rumbled closer. The wind of the engines tossed Nova's hair and jacket about and she had to shield her eyes as it approached. With a solid thunk, Sylar's landing door hit the sand and a bright pool of light spilled out, bathing the mountain top.
"Shotgun!" Orion said, sprinting for the door.
The others followed in a mad dash and Sylar's door closed behind them.
Nova grinned as the metal door drowned out the howling storm and rumbling engines, leaving a gentle quiet. She slumped into the nearest chair with a long sigh, relishing the smooth feel of cushions and the gentle light of Sylar's interior.
Aart hugged Sylar's wall, pressing his cheek against the smooth metal. "You have no idea how glad I am to see you."
"The labourbot has explained your situation," said Sylar.
"That would be me," Cal said, hovering into view. "Also, you're all welcome, I used positive pressure to keep the sand out, otherwise you'd all be dancing around like maniacs."
"Cal!" Aart said, wrapping the robot in a hug. "Have I ever said how much I love you?"
Cal's motors whirred until he broke free of Aart's grip. "Um—I'm flattered but I'm afraid I don't feel that way…"
Aart rolled his eyes and danced away. "Make for Mercy. The labourbot has the coordinates."
"Wait, wait," Nova said. "There's a bandit problem that needs taking care of."
"Ah, I thought you'd say that," said Cal. "Please check the storage cupboard, Gabby is looking after a guest. I found him already inside, I think he was planning on leaving his friends behind."
Aart frowned and went to the cupboard, it sprung open to reveal the Triple-X bot holding Randy in a headlock. His face glowed red and he strained against her metal arms but couldn't break free.
"Well," said Aart. "What do we have here?"
"Who the hell are you and what do you think you're doing?" Randy said, gasping for breath.
"We're the owners of these ships, and we're taking them back," said Aart.
Nova rolled her shoulders. "We'll leave his minions down there, that's punishment enough. But him we're taking to Mercy for a proper trial. It will hopefully also buy us some sympathy with the local sheriff."
"Somehow I doubt that," said Aart. "But it's the best plan we've got, so we'll go with it."
"No!" Randy said. "What do you want? I'll get you anything if you just let me free."
Aart closed the cupboard door and blocked out Randy's protests. He keyed a sequence of numbers onto the locking mechanism and a solid clunk echoed through the room. "He won't be getting out of there in a hurry."
Aart turned in a tight circle. "Everything looks the same as we left it."
"The renegades went through everything," Sylar said. "But luckily we didn't have much of value left."
Nova got to her aching feet and stretched her back. "Glad that's sorted. I'm going to Crusader for a cold drink and new clothes. I feel like I've still got half the desert clinging to me."
Aart raised an eyebrow at her. "As evidenced by the trail of sand you're traipsing through my ship."
Nova glanced down at the grains coating the floor all the way from the door to where she'd sat. "I'm sure everyone contributed to that. I'll be back before we reach Mercy."
She left the main room and headed for Crusader, breathing a long sigh of relief as the rusted door hissed open and wrapped her in the familiar interior. Her clothes lay pulled from the drawers and the engine bay was scattered with tools, but at least she was home. She went straight to the shower and stripped off her sand-filled clothes, hurling them to the floor, and relishing in the feel of cool water washing away the sand from her skin.
Ten minutes later she emerged feeling as if she'd been reborn. Clean for what felt like the first time in weeks, and her clothes didn't reek of sweat and dirt. She floated out to the pilot's pod like she stood on a layer of cloud.
"I missed you," she said, patting Crusader's dashboard.
"The feeling's mutual," Crusader replied. "Those bandits interfered with my circuits. It was most improper."
"Yes, but I can't help feeling violated."
Nova smiled. "You'll be okay. Now all I need is a cool drink. Cal!"
"Yes?" Cal said, hovering into view.
"Do I look like a slave-bot?"
Nova pressed her lips together. "No. But your name does have 'labour' in it."
"After saving all of your lives, I'm taking the afternoon off."
"Oh really?" Nova said, raising an eyebrow.
In reply, Cal's motors dulled and he gradually sunk until he landed with a clunk on Crusader's dashboard and most of his lights went off.
Nova scowled. "Standby mode. Clever."
She went to the food generator and got herself a soda, sinking into the pilot's chair with a satisfied smile. She took a long drink, relishing in the cool fizz that rushed down her throat. "I've worked out what we have to do."
"What's that?" Crusader said.
"Perfect our recycling. Then we wouldn't have to land on another planet ever again. We could just float along out there."
"That does sound optimal," Crusader said.
Nova nodded and smiled. "It's settled then."
"Artemis Goldson has requested that I tell you that Mercy is only ten minutes away."
Nova's eyebrows flew up. "Already?"
"I'm under the impression that it takes much less time to fly there…" Crusader said.
Nova drunk down the rest of her soda and put the glass on the dash as she stood, grabbing a clean jacket from the back of her chair. "You're as bad as Cal."
"We do share the same software," Crusader said.
Nova hurried for the exit. "Wake him up before too long. He'll probably want to see Mercy again too. Especially if he connected with some local droids……"
She left the comfort of Crusader's rustic interior and went back into Sylar's gleaming hull. The Hunters were gathered in the pilot's room, all of them free of sand and filth.
Tyra sat on the floor beside the open crate, a metal cannon rising above her. Gus stood on the other side, gently stroking the metal.
"It's beautiful," he said.
Nova snorted. "What is it?"
Tyra looked up from studying the weapon. "Some kind of targeted energy gun."
"And in normal words?"
"You can program the signal to match brain waves. Anyone caught in the blast with those waves would be killed almost instantly, although painfully. I'm calling it The Exterminator."
"Beautiful," Gus whispered.
Nova frowned. "What the hell would a group of bandits want with something like that?"
Tyra shrugged. "They could have killed almost everyone in the capital with it. With its tuning ability they could use it for genocide. The lecheons have different brain waves to us, so if you got the setting right…"
"You could kill them all and not get a scratch?"
Tyra nodded. "I have to admire whoever made it. But it's a bad thing."
"We need to know what they needed it for and where they got it," Nova said. "Aart, open the cupboard."
Aart punched in the code and the door swung open. Randy hung limply from Gabby's arms, his eyes bloodshot and sweat dripping down his face. "What the hell do you want?"
"Where'd you get the weapon?" Nova said.
Randy rolled his eyes. "You. Idiots."
Nova's jaw clenched. "Where did Rider get it from? Who made it?"
Randy shrugged. "Do you ask where your clothes come from? No, you just buy them. Same thing."
Nova took a deep breath and buried her hand in Randy's hair, yanking his head up. "What was it for?"
Randy sneered. "None of your business, honey. But if you want to climb in this cupboard with me…"
Nova yanked his head up and he winced. "What was it for?"
"Selling! We were gonna sell it."
"But you just bought it."
Randy rolled his eyes. "Haven't you ever heard of trafficking? We had to transport it from Bardo, into the Confederacy controlled zone."
"This was going inside the border?" Nova said.
"How were you going to get it there?"
Randy's sneer widened. "Happened to find some ships that could pass the border, didn't I?"
Nova's heart fluttered and her grip on Randy's head loosened. "But we only just arrived."
"Good timing," Randy said. "Would have been the job of a lifetime. Enough credits to retire to Haven."
Nova shook herself back into focus. "What was it for?"
Randy pressed his lips together.
"What was it for?" She gave his head a shake.
"I don't know! I don't know how your pathetic controlled planets work!"
Nova used her free hand to pull her gun from its holster and pressed it against Randy's head. "I really want to use this, so please, give me a reason."
Randy followed the barrel of the gun up to Nova's eyes. She didn't waver.
"Resources District. There've been uprisings, the Confederacy want to make it go away."
"The Confederacy was going to use it?!"
Randy chuckled. "Some government, right?"
"There are families there. Children," Aart said, stepping forward, hands balled into fists. "I have friends there!"
Randy shrugged. "Not my problem."
"You bastard!" Aart's hand whipped to his gun. He pulled it out and fired before any of the others could stop him. Randy's face disappeared in a sudden blast of light and heat, leaving Nova holding a bunch of singed hairs.
"Bloody hell!" she said, stepping back and letting the hairs flutter to the ground.
Randy's body slumped to the bottom of the cupboard, dead.
"Aart!" Nova said.
"You weren't going to get any more out of him," Aart said. "And he deserved it."
"We might have been able to use him!" Tyra said.
"We're all better off with him dead," Aart said, turning and storming away.
Nova wiped her blood-spattered hands on her clean pants and sighed. She didn't know why she bothered with clean clothes, they never stayed that way for long.
"This is quite a mess," Gabby said, a cloth appearing in one hand as she wiped the splatters of blood from her cupboard walls.
"What do we do with this?" Tyra said, pointing to the bandit's weapon.
"We'll find a safe way to destroy it," Nova said, turning away from Randy's body and trying to put thoughts of his spattered head from her mind.
Gus whimpered. "But—"
"Sorry, Gus, we can't risk it falling into the wrong hands."
His head fell but he kept stroking the weapon.
They lapsed into silence for a few moments.
"I can't wait to see her again," said Aart.
Orion groaned. "You sound like a love-sick puppy."
Aart grinned. "It is what it is, my friend."
"Well it's making me sick."
"Aren't you forgetting the whole reason we left Mercy in the first place?" Tyra said. "The sheriff?"
Aart's expression darkened. "I'm going to tell him exactly where to—"
"He can't do anything now that we've got the ships back," said Gus. "We've got our own place, our own food, a way to make money, and a way to fight back if we need to."
"I hope he didn't hurt Alice," Aart said, his fingers tapping an erratic rhythm on Sylar's smooth metal wall.
"She's tough. She can take care of herself," said Nova.
"Yeah," Aart said. "It's just that——"
"What's that?" Tanguin said, leaning forward to see out of Sylar's front window, frowning.
"What?" said Aart, squinting at the spreading dawn.
"There's smoke on the horizon," Tanguin said.
"Sylar, zoom in," said Aart.
The view of the front screen expanded, focusing on a dark splodge in the distance. Black smoke billowed up, creating thick clouds that spread over the desert.
Nova's stomach clenched. "Is that—"
"No," Aart said, voice catching. "It can't be."
"Approximate position of the smoke matches the coordinates provided by the labourbot," Sylar said.
"No," Aart said.
The smoky splodge on the horizon inched closer.
"Can't you go any faster?" Aart said.
"Maybe that's not a good idea," Nova said.
Aart turned on her. "What do you mean? They could need our help!"
Nova bit her lip. "We don't know what might be waiting for us when we get there."
"She's right," said Tyra. "Sylar, approach with caution, scan for hostiles."
"No signs of life, although there are erratic heat signatures, possibly fires, distorting the readings."
Aart rounded on Tyra. "This is my ship and it'll do as I say. Sylar, full speed."
"It's all of our ships," Nova said. "They're all connected."
"Confirmed," said Sylar. "Even if I tried to make maximum speed, the other ships would put on reverse thrusters and we wouldn't move any faster."
"Then disengage," Aart said. "We have to get there."
"Aart, don't be ridiculous," Nova said. "We'll be there in less than ten minutes. We have to do this carefully or we won't be any good to anyone."
Aart bared his teeth. "You wouldn't say that if there was someone you cared about down there! But of course you could never bring yourself to care about anyone!"
Nova's heart clenched and a hard ball filled her throat. Her cheeks glowed and something stung the corners of her eyes. She swallowed down her hurt, compressing it into a hard rock of anger in the bottom of her stomach. "Maybe if you didn't fall in love with everything that moves you wouldn't make such stupid decisions."
Nova's hands clenched into fists and shook at her sides.
Aart rolled his eyes and looked away, gaze locked on the oncoming village.
Tanguin laid a hand on Nova's arm and met her gaze. Nova let out a slow breath and stared out the window, refusing to let the stinging tears lurking at the corners of her eyes fall. Tanguin gave her arm a squeeze and went back to the view in front of them.
Nova straightened her back and watched Mercy approach. As they got closer the thick smoke cloud spread wider until it seemed to encompass the whole horizon. It billowed black and poisonous from the desert like a flat volcano, shielding any sight of Mercy.
"There are flames," Tanguin said.
A minute later, Nova could make out the red flickers dancing at the base of the clouds. They licked at the wooden remains of a building, just visible through the smoke.
As they drew closer, Sylar slowed until they hovered at the edge of town. The ships' engines blew away the smoke, as if pulling back a thick curtain.
Nova's breath caught in her throat.
The buildings on either side of the road had been turned to rubble. Smoking husks flickered with flames beneath collapsed rooves. The welcome sign had been pushed over and scratched out with something sharp while black soot covered most of the road.
"Take us to the inn," Aart said.
"Aart—" Tyra said.
"The inn!" he barked.
The ships hovered along the street, clearing a path through the smoke. More burnt buildings loomed into view but no people. It was as if the town had been set on fire and deserted. The double-story inn came out of the clouds like a sinking ship.
Most of the top half had collapsed into the bottom half, leaving blackened walls thrusting up from the wreckage like tombstones. The wooden door lay in the street meters away from the entrance, as if it had been thrown by some giant. All of the windows had shattered, leaving sparkling glass amongst the dull soot.
"Let me out," Aart whispered.
They sunk down onto the road and Sylar's main door hissed open. Aart pushed away from the pilot's pod and sprinted through the ship, his face twisted. He shoved past chairs and shouldered Nova out of the way as he dashed for the door.
Nova jogged after him. Already smoke filled the main entrance room, carrying with it a heavy scent of ash and burning. She pulled the collar of her jacket up, trying to cover her nose, and followed him out into the ruined city.
Smoke wrapped around her, stinging her eyes and scraping her throat. She blinked, searching for Aart.
She saw him, just a grey silhouette pushing through the entrance to the inn. She pulled her gun from her belt and hurried after him. A patter of footsteps told her that the others were right behind.
Stinging tears blurred her vision as she swung into the wreckage of the inn. Smoke tickled the back of her throat and she stifled a cough in her sleeve, straining to see through the haze.
"Alice!" Aart's raw voice cut through the smoke.
Nova ran towards it, stepping over broken pieces of furniture and blackened hunks of wood. Her heart hammered high in her throat, making it hard to breathe and a cold feeling of dread seeped through her chest.
The broken roof above groaned and shifted, as if threatening to fall and crush them all. Flames danced in the far corner, chewing through the last piece of timber railing. The red light glowed and danced, as if mocking.
In the middle of the inn, near the bar, Aart's silhouette knelt on the ground, bent over something that lay in the only unburnt region of the bar.
Nova held her breath as she fell to his side, gripping his shoulder.
Alice's head lay cradled in his lap, slick with blood. He held one of her hands in his while he stroked her cheek with the other, leaving streaks of blood over her closed eyes. He mumbled into her ears as tears poured down his cheeks.
Nova swallowed, clearing a hard ball in her throat. "Aart…"
"She's okay," Aart said. "She'll be alright."
Nova bit her lip as her gaze travelled down to Alice's body. A bloody gash gaped across her abdomen, leaking blood and grey organs onto the floor. Her right leg ended abruptly at her knee in a ragged collection of torn flesh and her chest wasn't moving.
Nova laid a hand on Alice's throat. No pulse.
"She's fine!" he roared, turning on Nova, mad eyes leaking tears.
The other Hunters stood around them, creating a grim circle. Cal floated with them, blowing an area clear of smoke around them. Nova looked up, eyes begging.
Aart turned back to Alice and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her to his chest. Her blood soaked through his shirt and stuck it to his body. "She's fine."
Nova stood and gestured the other Hunters to her. "What are we going to do?"
"Poor bastard," said Orion.
"Whoever did this are monsters," Tyra said. "They've destroyed everything."
Gus glanced at Alice's body and then leaned in close to the Hunters. "Maybe they were."
Tyra frowned. "What do you mean?"
Gus nodded at Alice. "Those wounds don't look like gun or knife to me."
"Are you saying some pack of animals did this?" Orion said, throwing his arms wide.
Gus shook his head. "Worse."
"Reapers," Nova whispered.
"What?" Orion hissed, lifting his gun.
Nova's neck prickled as she turned in a slow circle. "They were talking about attacks in the city…"
"And she looks like she's been chewed on," Gus said.
"Oh no. No way," Orion said. "I am not getting my face bitten off by Reapers. Aart, buddy. We've gotta go." He grabbed Aart's shoulder and tried to haul him up.
"Get off me!" Aart shook Orion's arm free. "I'm not going anywhere."
Orion knelt by Aart's side. "I know you're hurting, but did you hear what we just said? Reapers!"
Tanguin sidled closer to Nova so that their arms touched while Gus and Tyra faced outwards, guns up.
Aart ignored them, still stroking Alice's head.
"Something's coming!" Tanguin said, nudging Nova.
Nova lifted her gun and squinted into the smoke. A silhouette loomed at the back door to the inn, it walked with a limp, keeling to one side.
"Identify yourself," Nova whispered.
The figure drew closer, its lame leg dragging on the floor.
"Three seconds and I shoot," Nova said, keeping her voice low.
The figure seemed to grow as it got closer, stretching wide and tall.
Nova rested her finger on the trigger and looked down the barrel.
"Don't shoot," a husky voice whispered, just as the figure collapsed into a heap on the floor.
Nova ran to its side, gun still in hand. The smoke cleared enough for her to make out its face.
"Sheriff," she whispered.
Blood trickled out of his mouth as his glassy eyes focused on her. "Bloody hell," he said.
Nova fell to her knees at his side.
"Never thought I'd be glad to see you," he said between gasps.
"What the hell happened here?" Nova said, wiping the blood from his lips and propping up his head.
"Reapers," Bill said, more blood dribbling down his chin. "Bastards took us by surprise during the night. We didn't stand a chance."
"Where is everyone? It's like a ghost town," Nova said.
Bill hacked a harsh bark of laughter, sending speckles of crimson across Nova's arms. "You know what Reapers do, right?"
Nova's heart skipped a beat. "Infect."
Bill nodded. "The few survivors are fleeing for the city but the Reapers went after them. I doubt they'll make it. Not that it'll do 'em good."
Bill sunk into a flurry of bloody coughs.
"What do you mean?" Nova said when he subsided.
"That many Reapers? This wasn't an ordinary reaping, this is war."
Bill nodded. "They're invading, and I'll bet the short time I have left that they're heading for the capital."
Nova's mouth dropped. A Reaper invasion? She couldn't imagine it, and the city with so many people…
"I assume you found your ships," Bill said. "Take my advice. Leave now and don't look back."
Nova frowned. "What about you?"
Bill smirked. "Didn't we just cover what Reapers do?"
Nova's frown deepened.
Bill rolled his eyes and lifted the corner of his shirt. A ragged bite leaked blood from his stomach, surrounded by bruised teeth marks.
Nova fell back and scrambled to level her gun.
"Now she gets it," he said.
"Y-you're turning," she said.
He squeezed his eyes shut. "Yep. Hurts like a bitch too."
When Bill reopened his eyes burst capillaries had stained them red. "I think it would be best for everyone if you took care of me before it happens."
Nova swallowed and steadied her gun. "I'm sorry things—"
Bill waved his hand. "Get on with it."
She fired and Bill's head dissolved in a bright flash of light, turning to spattered skull fragments and charred pieces of flesh.
"Bloody hell!" said Orion. "You gave me a heart attack."
"You heard him," said Tyra. "We need to leave. Now."
Nova knelt beside Aart, eyeing Alice's body. "Aart, we need to go."
"I can't leave her."
Nova grabbed both his arms and forced him to look at her. "I know it hurts, and I know you loved her, but she's not here anymore. It's not safe, we've got to go."
Aart's gaze slid back to Alice. "But—"
"I'm at least taking her body. I'll give her a proper burial. I can't just leave her out here to be eaten by rats."
Nova glanced at Alice. "You can't do that, Aart."
His eyes narrowed. "I can do whatever I want. Of course I can give her a proper burial, I—"
Gus grabbed the backs of both of their shirts and hauled them away from Alice.
Aart cried out.
"Twitch," Gus said, gun aimed down at Alice.
"Shit," Nova said.
"She's alive?" Aart said, dazed.
"No." Nova shoved Aart away from Alice, towards the door.
He resisted, arms outstretched. "No. I'm taking her with us…"
Sweat sprung out on Nova's forehead as she strained to hold Aart back, to stop him falling into Alice's waiting arms.
"I've got him," Gus said, snatching Aart around the waist and tossing him over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.
The rest of the Hunters jogged for the door but Nova hung back. Once they'd left the inn she turned to face Alice.
"Thanks for the shirt," she said, as she fired a single shot into Alice's forehead.
Aart pummelled on Sylar's main door. "Let me out! I command it!"
"I'm afraid based on the available data and your brain activity, you've been temporarily deemed unfit to captain," Sylar replied. "Therefore I have reverted to your designated back up, Nova Tabryn."
Aart fell against the door and slid to the floor. "I need to go back to her."
Nova and the others sat around Sylar's main table.
"A Reaper army," Orion said. "I never imagined such a thing."
"Heading straight for the capital," said Tanguin.
"But what do we do about it?" said Nova. "We might have enough supplies to get to another planet, but not likely."
"Blade's in the capital," Tanguin said.
"And maybe survivors from Mercy," said Gus.
"That doesn't mean we have to commit suicide in a vain attempt to save them," Tyra said. "I vote we lift off right now, before shit really gets bad."
"She's right," said Orion. "We don't owe these people anything. They've treated us like dirt since we got here, it's time we left."
Tanguin frowned. "Some of them were good people. Especially those from Mercy. We've got ships, we know how to fight; we can save people, we might be the best chance Bardo has."
Gus nodded. "She's right. I've never run from a fight before and I don't plan to start now."
Orion sighed. "I guess it's up to you then Nova, seeing as I don't think Romeo over there is in any condition to give his opinion."
Nova glanced back at Aart. He sat on the floor, curled in a ball, rocking back and forth. "He'll be okay once he gets some sleep and calms down."
"But in the meantime, we need to decide," said Orion.
"Estimates predict the Reapers will reach the capital in ten hours, assuming they have ships which is likely given some of the damage in Mercy, and allowing time for them to stop at each town on the way," said Sylar.
Nova bit her lip. "The people here were awful."
"Exactly. It's time we looked after ourselves for a change," said Tyra.
"On the other hand," said Nova. "There were good people too."
"AND, if we don't do something now, the Reapers will infect more people, become more powerful, and they won't stop here. If we don't fight them now, they'll keep appearing and every time they'll be stronger, harder to beat."
Tyra bit her lip and stared at the table.
"Damn," said Orion. "I hadn't thought of that."
Nova nodded. "I know why you want to leave, I do too, but I think even ignoring the people of Bardo, if we don't do something now, it'll hurt us later."
"So we're supposed to face a Reaper army with just our five ships?" Tyra said.
Nova shook her head. "We go to the capital. They must have defences there, and they've got all the Enforcers. We go there, warn them, and make a stand together."
"It's the best option we've got," said Gus.
Orion sighed. "I hadn't thought about the infection thing, but I'd rather kill them now than later."
Tyra threw up her hands. "That decides it then."
Nova laid her hands flat on the table and met Tyra's eyes. "If you don't want to stay, you don't have to. We wouldn't blame you if you chose to leave Bardo and find somewhere else."
Tyra's eyes narrowed. "Do you think I'm a coward?"
"No," Nova said, sitting back. "I just wanted to be clear that our decision doesn't have to affect you."
"Of course it does. I couldn't leave you to be eaten by Reapers."
Nova nodded. "Very well then."
"If you intend on reaching the capital before the Reapers, I recommend leaving immediately," said Sylar.
"Do it," said Nova. "But keep scanners on for any signs of life and adjust course as needed. If there are Reapers we need to steer clear and if there are survivors we might be able to save them."
"Confirmed," said Sylar.
The ships' engines whirred to life and they lifted up. Nova turned away from the front screen, which showed the smoking ruins of Mercy sinking beneath them.
"Bloody hell," said Orion, letting out a long breath. "I guess this is war."
"I'll go get my guns," said Gus, pushing away from the table.
"How long will it take us to reach the capital?" Nova said.
"Then I'm having a nap," she said, also getting up.
"Aart's calmed down a bit," Tanguin said, walking into Nova's command pod hours later.
"That's good," Nova said, gazing out of Crusader's front window.
"The sedatives Orion snuck into his food probably helped."
Nova sighed and rubbed her eyes. "Poor bastard."
"Sylar said we passed the Reaper army a while back."
Nova nodded. "We stayed well clear of their scanners but they were there. Hundreds of them."
Tanguin grimaced. "That doesn't sound good."
Nova shook her head. "It's a disaster waiting to happen. When Blade said there were Reapers that flew ships… I didn't really believe her, it's too horrible. But now, it's right in front of us."
"It'll work out," said Tanguin, although her voice wavered. "It always does."
"We're nearly at the capital, let's hope they have some kind of plan."
The capital city loomed like a black splodge on the horizon, growing bigger every minute until they could make out individual buildings. Smoke curled out of some chimneys but otherwise it looked normal, peaceful.
They flew over the outer fringes and landed in the main bay where they'd parked the first time. Fewer ships filled the lot than there'd been before and the locals were hauling their belongings into the buildings and shuttering the doors.
"Oh shit," Nova said. "Look who's coming."
The administration office door burst open and Phil stormed out, face red. The door slammed shut behind him as he waddled through the shipping yard. He shook his head and spoke to himself, hands clenched into fists at his side.
"Better go see the welcoming party," Nova said, swinging out of her chair.
She and Tanguin walked through to Sylar where Aart lay fast asleep on a couch. The other Hunters waited by the door.
Nova took a deep breath. "Just remember what's coming. If we have to take this guy out, then that's what we have to do."
The others nodded and laid hands on the weapons at their belts.
"Open up, Sylar," Nova said.
The metal door hissed open just as Phil arrived.
"What do you think you're doing? Do you know how many laws you've broken? You're going to be locked away for the rest of your lives for what you've done. Not only did you move your ship without approval, you also left the tourist approved zone. On top of that, you illegally entered the outers and overstayed your visa without paying for an extension. Now you dare to come back?"
Orion shrugged. "We couldn't face leaving without paying all those fines."
Phil scowled. "Disrespecting an office official, that'll be another two-hundred krones."
Nova cast Orion a frown and then turned back to Phil. "Look, Phil, as much as I would usually love going through this bureaucratic bullshit with you, we're here for another reason."
Phil's mouth dropped open and his face turned a brighter shade of red. "How dare—"
"Reapers," Nova said. "Coming this way."
Phil rolled his eyes. "The Reapers only ever attack the outer settlements. They don't come to the capital. Don't try to get out of what you owe."
Nova closed her eyes, trying with all her might to keep her anger in check. "You're not listening. There's an army of them. Hundreds. And they're coming this way. They've destroyed every city between here and Mercy. Surely you've had refugees..."
Phil glanced down. "There are always refugees claiming one thing or another."
Nova stepped towards him, her boots clinking on Sylar's metal floor. "I would suggest that this time you put your prejudices aside and listen. The Reapers will be here within four hours and the city needs to be ready."
Phil folded his arms across his chest. "I don't have to listen to this. You're criminals and that's all I need to know. You're confined here until the Enforcers arrive."
Orion groaned. "Not those bastards again."
"Aren't you listening?" said Tanguin. "If you don't do something, everyone in this city, including you, will be killed."
"Is that a threat?"
"We're just trying—" Nova began, but Phil turned away from them and pretended not to hear.
A moment later, stomping footsteps interrupted the bustling marketplace. Shoppers pressed themselves back against the walls as Enforcers pushed through the narrow streets and into the shipping yard. They marched across the cleared area to Phil. Nova recognised the man in the grey uniform as Brendan from when she'd tried to help the injured refugees entering the city.
"Captain Brendan, thank the rulers you're here," Phil said. "These criminals have broken a dozen of our laws and threatened a government official. I want them punished to the full extent of the law."
Brendan looked them over, his gaze settling on Nova. "Oh I'm familiar with the exploits of these particular criminals. They were involved in illegally transporting a very dangerous weapon."
Phil shook his head. "I tell you, Captain, we're too soft on off-worlders. If it were up to me—"
"I'm sure you'd be ruthless," Brendan said, waving his hand. "You lot. Out here."
Nova and the Hunters stayed standing where they were, just inside the ship, feet spread.
Brendan laid a hand on the weapon at his belt, the other Enforcers did the same.
"We're here to warn you about a coming Reaper attack," Nova said.
Phil rolled his eyes. "They've got a ridiculous story about—"
Brendan lifted his hand. "I'd rather hear it from them."
Nova went on to tell him everything she'd told Phil. "If you don't prepare a defence, the capital will be over-run."
Brendan pulled the gun out of his belt. "A lovely story, but utterly ridiculous. The Reapers don't come to the capital."
Nova groaned and her fingers bent into claws. "Why can't you accept that sometimes things change?"
Brendan looked up at her and aimed his gun. "Because they never do. Now, you and your companions have exactly three seconds to let go of your weapons and come with me, or you'll all be involved in a very serious accident."
Nova stood her ground and clenched her jaw.
The other Enforcers pulled their weapons and trained them on the Hunters.
"We tried to warn you," said Nova.
The Enforcers fired.
Their bright blasts slammed through the air and dissipated in Sylar's shields, a meter shy of the Hunters.
A few seconds later, the Enforcers stopped firing, mouths hanging open.
Phil's eyes flew between the Hunters and Brendan. "What kind of sorcery is this?"
Brendan's lips thinned. "No sorcery. Shields."
Nova nodded. "We're going to go and defend your people. Even if you won't."
Sylar's door hissed closed, leaving the Enforcers and Phil standing outside, scowling.
"Idiots," said Orion.
Nova nodded. "Tanguin, you need to hack into the communication networks and deliver our message to the people. Tyra, I need you to start devising some kind of defence grid. Gus, gather whatever guns we can spare, if people decide to join us they'll need weapons. Orion, you need to get Aart out of whatever he's going through. If we're going to survive this thing, we're going to need his help."
Each of the Hunters went their own way while Nova strode to Sylar's command pod. "Lift off and head to the outskirts of the city, where the Reapers will hit."
Sylar lifted off, sending up swirls of sand and dirt. Wind from the engines whipped the Enforcers' coats and made them stumble back, arms lifted. The ships rose above the city and shot back the way they'd come, to the edge of the desert.
Nova frowned down at the outer edges of the city. They didn't have so much as a watchtower, let alone solid walls. How the hell could they push back a Reaper army?
"Land on the main road. The Reapers will try to come in that way, otherwise they'll be divided on the small streets and won't be able to use their ships. It's our best chance of holding them back."
Sylar landed in the middle of the flattened dirt road with a soft clunk.
"I've hacked in," Tanguin said, "Their security is a joke."
"Alright," said Nova. "Send the message."
"Go ahead, Delta," said Tanguin to her computer.
Sylar's front screen flickered and images of the destruction of Mercy scrolled past, interspersed with images of Reapers that Tanguin had pieced together. A voiceover spoke in time with the images.
"People of Bardo. A terrible threat is bearing down on the capital and your protectors will do nothing to stop it. Reapers. Until now they've only ever attacked the outer settlements, but that's changing. Ask the refugees, ask anyone who's been out there. They're coming, more of them than you've ever seen before, and they will destroy the capital unless we all stand together to stop them. To protect yourselves and your loved ones, go to the main exit out of the city. If you're a coward, stay where you are and prepare to be infected."
"I've got it playing on repeat," Tanguin said. "Based on the limited security it'll probably take them quite a while to disable it."
Nova nodded. "Good. It's the best we can do. We just have to hope that some pay attention. Sylar, scanners at full range. If the Reapers are coming, we need to know about it."
Together she and Tanguin strode from the pilot's pod back into Sylar's main room. Orion and Aart sat together, talking in low tones. Aart's bloodshot eyes glistened with tears but at least his howling madness had faded.
Gus sat surrounded by guns of all shapes and sizes. Every now and then he'd reach out and stroke one, shaking his head.
Tyra looked up at them from a pile of wires and explosives. "You know how we love digging holes in the desert?"
Nova groaned. "Yes."
Tyra gestured at the devices around her. "Mines. We need to plant them before the Reapers get here."
"Mines," Nova said. "You've got mines?"
Tyra shrugged. "Always pack for the worst-case scenario."
"I'd say this qualifies," said Tanguin.
"Genius," said Nova. "Hopefully it'll take out the first line of them. It'll give us a chance."
"I can dig," Gus said, looking up from his guns. "I can't choose which ones to keep and which ones to give away, so I may as well give all of them. If it means saving the city, then that's something I can live with. I'll bury those mines, provided the labourbot helps."
"My name is Cal, not 'labourbot'," he said, hovering around the corner.
"And he has a nasty habit for eavesdropping," Nova said.
"I just happened to be coming around the corner at that moment," Cal said.
"Better grab your shovel then, Cal, we're going digging," said Gus.
Sylar's door opened and they stepped out, Tyra following them with a box full of mines.
"Tyra," Nova called after her. "Gus and Cal can handle that. I need your expertise."
Tyra passed the box to Gus and came to stand by Nova.
"Can you reprogram The Exterminator?"
Tyra's face went pale and she glanced at the contraption. "Maybe. If I had days to study it."
"You might have a few hours."
Tyra shook her head. "No way. If it's programmed wrong it'd kill every living person on Bardo. There's no rushing a job like that."
Nova held up her hands. "I know the risks. But the damage this Reaper army could do if they infected all of Bardo is worse. The Exterminator is our last resort. If we're all going to die anyway, we take the Reapers with us."
"Mutually assured destruction," Tyra whispered.
Nova nodded. "But ideally, you'll reprogram it before that happens and we all live happily ever after."
"Nova, I can't…"
"I know." Nova let out a long sigh. She was asking the impossible. "Just do your best, but don't get anyone's hopes up."
Tyra nodded and strode to The Exterminator.
"I've been monitoring communications," said Tanguin. "The Enforcers don't believe us about the Reapers. But they don't know what to make of us coming here either. At this stage they're waiting to see what happens."
Nova nodded. "Let's hope they're waiting with their guns loaded."
Tanguin shrugged. "From what I've seen, I don't think their guns are ever not loaded."
"The ships will need maximum fire power, so those of us with nothing to do will unload as much excess weight as we can," Nova said.
"Nova?" Aart's husky voice whispered across Sylar's room.
She turned to see him looking up at her through bloodshot eyes. Orion stood from his side and stepped away, giving her a significant look.
Nova nodded to Tanguin and then went to sit beside Aart. His hands formed a tight knot in his lap, knuckles white. His head dropped as she approached, hiding his face.
"Hey buddy," she said, gripping his shoulder.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
Nova shrugged. "Nothing to be sorry for."
Aart snorted. "Those things I said. I didn't mean..."
Nova shook his shoulder, making his head loll from side to side. "It's nothing."
"I was just so angry... am so angry."
Nova nodded. "We're going to make those bastards pay."
The corner of Aart's mouth flickered. "Yeah we are."
Nova took a deep breath. "I know it hurts, and it sucks. But we need you."
Aart nodded. "I'm back. I think it was the shock... seeing her like that... but nothing will stop me getting revenge."
"That's my boy."
Aart rubbed his hands on his pants and sat up straighter. "I don't know what the hell you guys gave me but my head's spinning like I had a dozen Blue Saturns."
"The packet said it'd wear off in a few hours," Nova said.
Aart nodded. "In that case, I'm having a nap. Wake me if the bastards get here."
Nova gripped his shoulder one last time before standing. "I will."
"This is it?" Gus said, looking down from Sylar.
Nova grimaced. "Yep."
Before them stood a ragged band of people, most with bandaged wounds. Some of them carried kitchen knives, but most of their hands hung empty at their sides.
"There's not even a hundred," Gus said, looking at the crowd.
Nova shrugged. "The Reapers will be here soon and these are the only ones that have shown up."
"They look like they're half-dead already!"
"Survivors of Reaper raids," Nova said with a sigh. "They've seen what's coming."
"They've got balls, I'll give 'em that. But a hundred ragged villagers isn't enough."
Nova stood taller. "It's all we've got. Besides, you're the one that said you never back down from a fight."
"I'm not backing down. I just wish we had a bit more on our side."
"Me too. But don't let them see that. They need us to be strong."
Gus nodded, keeping his face stony. "After you."
Nova cleared her throat. "People of Bardo, thank you for answering our call."
"Are you going to stop them?" a thin man with a bandage around his head called from the crowd.
"You've got guns. Have you fought them before?"
"What if they take the capital?"
"My family is back inside. What will happen to them?"
Nova lifted her hands and the crowd fell back into silence. "I'm afraid I can't guarantee anything. Except that we're here to fight beside you, and that the Reapers are coming.
"We've got guns for all of you and Gus here will quickly show you how to use them. In the meantime, we need to build some kind of barricade to hold the Reapers back. I'll split you into two groups. While one group is learning guns, the other one builds."
Nova pointed down the centre of the crowd. "Left side go with Gus to the side of the ship. Those on the right side, gather whatever you can to build a wall. Anything is better than nothing."
The people did as they were told, some limping on crutches and others missing limbs.
"I feel bad for recruiting them," Aart said, coming to stand at Nova's side. "They look like they've been through enough already."
Nova nodded. "I would agree with you. Except that if they don't fight they're going to go through even worse."
"I'll help with the wall," Aart said. "I think I've done enough sleeping."
Nova nodded, a weight easing in her chest that he seemed to have gotten over his grief, at least for the moment. Tyra and Tanguin stood beside The Exterminator. They'd unloaded it and carried it close to the edge of the city, where it would be as far from the fighting as possible and now were locked in deep discussion.
Nova turned away. One way or another, the Reapers would die. She just didn't know if she might go with them. She shook the thoughts away and went to help Gus with the new recruits. He seemed to be struggling to hand over his precious guns, clinging to each one until the last second.
"I know this is hard," Nova said. "But at this rate, the Reapers will be here before we've even armed half of them.
She grabbed a handful of guns and handed them out to the first people to hold out their hands. She kept going until everyone was armed.
"These are all easy to use," Gus said, diving into a detailed description of the settings, safety, and operation of the guns.
Nova supervised and walked amongst the recruits, changing grips and pointing out features as she went.
A half-hour later they could at least fire their guns in the right general direction. Nova and Gus repeated the process with the second group while Aart continued supervising the wall. By the time Gus and Nova had finished with the second group it stood to chest height and blocked the main road into the capital.
"Nicely done," Nova said, stopping at his side.
Aart nodded. "Needs more though. There's no side protection and I want it head height. We can always make windows in it but I'd rather our skulls were protected."
"It's a good plan. I—"
"Incoming!" Sylar's voice blared over external speakers.
Nova's heart clenched and she sprinted back to Sylar. "Tanguin, you stay here and guide the ships."
"No," Tanguin said, jumping down to the dusty ground. "The ships have auto-pilot, this is my fight as much as yours."
Nova bit her lip. "Sylar. You and the other ships are on auto-pilot. Take out those Reapers, as many as you can. Especially protect the road into town. Use all necessary force. And... If we don't make it..."
"Such thoughts are unnecessary," said Sylar.
"Or they would be if you weren't being stupid," Cal said, hovering down the ramp to Nova's side.
"Excuse me? What are you doing here?"
Cal's lower compartment opened and a plasma pistol extended out on a rotating arm. "If you're going to risk your lives out there, rather than taking cover inside the ships, then I suppose I'll just die with you."
Nova pursed her lips. "Cal, we can't do anything inside the ships that they can't do on their own. At least out here we can give more firepower."
"And you could die," Cal said, his voice crackling with static.
Nova patted his side. "We'll be alright."
"Famous last words," he said, hovering away to the wall.
The militia crowded behind it, shoulder to shoulder. They looked at each other with wide eyes, faces pale. Their guns shook in their hands as they watched the horizon.
"Nova!" A familiar voice called from the crowd.
Nova spun to see Blade pushing to the front of the recruits.
"Blade, what are you doing here?"
"You didn't think I'd stay cowering at home, did you? But that's not why I called out. Leia and I are going to lead a group inside the city. Those Reapers are vicious and if they find a way in, we need to be there to fight them. I know the city and how to fight. We've got the rooftops and major intersections covered."
Nova couldn't help grinning, this was just what they needed; an able-bodied soldier. "Excellent work. We're scanning all the communication channels so if you need to get to us, just shout."
Blade nodded, face serious. "Thank you for staying."
"We'll get rid of these bastards together."
Blade grinned and disappeared back into the crowd, running into the maze of buildings that made up the city.
Nova strode to the wall. Small holes had been built into it around the junk so that the defenders could shoot out but still be protected. "Tyra, you've got everything set?"
Tyra nodded. "And a few surprises."
"Good. Take out as many as you can. This is a game of numbers."
"Er- I think I've lost count," Orion said in a soft voice.
Nova turned, following his gaze to the horizon where a dark cloud, like a swarm, rushed towards them across the sand. Her heart jumped and a hard lump blocked her throat. She swallowed and loosened her gun, taking cover beside Tanguin.
"Just remember," she said. "Head shots. They die just like anything else if you shoot 'em in the head."
The man beside her snorted, leaning heavily on a crutch. "Just hope that we manage to hit them and not each other."
Nova's lips thinned. "Just keep facing forward."
The cloud grew bigger, accompanied by a dull roar. Sunlight glittered off of the hulls of black ships unlike anything Nova had seen before. Instead of sleek metal, these were covered in spikes and chains. Long rods and jagged pieces protruded from the top and sides, making the vehicles look more like piles of metal waste than space ships.
Tanguin shivered at her side.
"Take out those ships," Nova said to Crusader, via her mind-chip. "If they get to us we won't stand a chance."
Sylar and the other ships lifted into the air, smooth and sleek compared to the oncoming vessels. They rose above the militia and weaved forward, weapons firing. Coloured blasts shot out of the long-range cannons towards the Reaper ships with loud booms that sent waves across the desert.
The first shot smashed into the front-most Reaper vessel with a burst of yellow. The jagged metal casing caved and red fire licked up the sides. The vessel swerved, dived, and slammed into the sand, sending up a cloud of dust.
Other ships similarly exploded with bright colours and crash-landed into the desert, some hundred meters from Nova.
"Take that you bastards!" a woman at Nova's side cheered. "At this rate we won't have to fight at all."
Nova swallowed, wanting to believe the woman was right, but knowing that there was no way.
"They have limited shield capacity," said Cal. "Primitive."
Nova held her breath, waiting, as Crusader and the other ships shot down more of the Reaper vessels. There were at least a hundred ships bearing down on the capital but after ten had been shot down the rest landed.
"What's that?" the woman at Nova's side pointed a shaking finger at the ship that had crashed first.
Nova lifted unwilling eyes to the mass of crushed metal. Black figures crawled out of the rubble, clawing and swarming like insects. Their blackened skin shone in the sun and they barely glanced at their broken ship before racing across the desert sand. Their uneven gait chewed through the ground, carrying them to the capital with the speed of demons.
"No," the woman whispered.
Nova swallowed. "Remember your training. Safeties off," she called, loud enough for all to hear. "Stay strong, we can do this."
The line of Reapers came close enough for Nova to make out their faces. Somehow these looked different to the ones she'd seen on Kopet; more feral and yet more intelligent. Their eyes glittered with understanding and ran over the defences, analysing. Saliva clung to their sharpened teeth and their slit-like nostrils flared, sniffing the air.
Instead of clothes they wore segments of metal, like primitive armour, held together by what looked like wires and scraps of leather.
Crusader and the other ships turned, firing at the swarm of creatures. An orange blast slammed into the front line and exploded outwards, carrying the nearby Reapers into the air and hurling them across the desert. Broken segments of flesh rained down on the desert, including entire arms and legs that had been separated from their bodies.
The Reapers that had been thrown scrambled back to their feet and resumed their run as if nothing had happened. The more injured ones crawled forward, dragging bloody stumps across the sand. Others lay dead and unmoving.
Sylar fired a red blast and another handful of Reapers ripped apart. But there were too many Reapers. They poured out of the landed ships and streamed across the desert like a tide, at least a thousand of them.
Crusader and the other ships couldn't fire fast enough. They made dents in the coming enemy but the main force rushed for the city regardless, closing the gap. Fifty meters from the gates, Nova could hear their feral shrieks and calls, like rabid creatures let loose.
Nova looked down the barrel of her gun and held her breath. She fired at the front-most Reaper and its head exploded in a burst of red. Bits of flesh and skin showered backwards, pattering down on its companions.
The other defenders seemed to react to Nova's first shot, all of them firing at once in a continuous stream. Only two Reapers fell, the rest sprinting at the defenders despite smoking holes in their limbs and torso.
"They can't be killed!" the man on crutches cried.
Nova glared down at him. "Yes they can. Headshots people!" To prove her point, she aimed and fired, another Reaper fell to the ground mid-stride, its momentum carrying it forward several more paces and leaving the remains of its head far behind.
Cal fired and took out another Reaper but they were just two amongst more than a thousand. The Reapers gathered together and rushed across the desert towards the city like a swarm of ants, ravenous.
"Whenever you're ready!" Nova called to Tyra, firing a flurry of shots.
Tyra held a small control in her right hand. "Wait for it."
A wall of Reapers, unstoppable, bore down on them.
"Tyra!" Nova said, sweat trickling down her forehead.
"Wait for it."
Some of the defenders tossed their weapons to the ground and sprinted away from the wall, back to the city.
Tyra squeezed the remote and a deep vibration trembled through the desert. It shook up through Nova's feet and set her teeth on edge. A moment later, the desert fifty meters ahead of the wall lifted up like an ocean swell and then burst open. Clods of dirt and sand shot up in geysers, accompanied by tongues of fire.
The blast ripped through the wall of Reapers, sending bodies shooting high into the sky. The Reapers in front of the blast got thrown forwards, shrapnel eating through their backs. They landed on the ground, howling and looking over their shoulders.
More explosions ripped across the desert, tearing away limbs and leaving hunks of flesh baking in the hot sun. The surviving Reapers paused, eyeing the ground. Their lips drew back from pointed teeth as they snarled at the defenders.
"I estimate seven hundred remain," Cal said.
Nova bit her lip. Still too many for the few defenders. She looked back to Tyra who had tossed the remote to the side and was furiously pulling wires from The Exterminator.
The Reapers lunged forward, their long limbs tearing through the desert. Flurries of sand flicked out behind them, catching on the wind and lifting up above the carnage. Crusader and the ships continued to fire at the coming mass, taking out tens of Reapers at a time, but not fast enough to stop them reaching the gate.
"Aim," Gus bellowed.
The defenders raised shaking weapons. The Reapers scrambled just twenty meters away. Fifteen. Ten.
Nova squeezed her trigger and the Reaper in front of her collapsed. To either side untrained refugees fired glowing balls of plasma. The man with crutches shot an oncoming Reaper in the stomach and a gaping hole opened through its abdomen, lifting tendrils of smoke, but it kept coming.
The Reaper lunged at the wall, its long fingers digging into the refuse as it scrabbled up. It tore pieces away and hurled them back at the sand, tearing down the wall piece by piece.
"Get off you bastard," Aart said, stepping back and firing.
The Reaper's head exploded and it fell backwards.
More came. Nova bit her lip and fired but as soon as one fell, another appeared to take its place.
Wild plasma blasts ripped away Reaper limbs but the creatures kept coming.
"Head shots!" Gus bellowed.
The man beside Nova cursed. "What does he expect? We've never held one of these bloody things before."
"He expects to survive," Nova said between gritted teeth. "Take your time. Aim. Fire."
The man grumbled but looked down the barrel of his gun, taking the time to exhale before he squeezed the trigger. His shot tore across the desert and slammed into a racing Reaper, whipping its head backwards. The creature fell to the ground, twitching.
"Nice," Nova said.
The man stood straighter and the corner of his mouth twitched.
The Hunters' ships tore through the swarms of Reapers, rapid-fire guns knocking holes in their line, but there were always more.
"They're charging weapons on their ships," Cal said.
"What?" Nova almost dropped her gun as she turned to face him.
"They're primitive but they'd tear through this wall in less than a second."
"Shit. Tell Crusader and the ships to engage. We can't afford to let those ships get close enough to fire."
Crusader and the other ships moved away from the main Reaper contingent, towards the landed ships. Streams of flame blasted out of the Reaper ships and encased the sleeker Hunter vessels in walls of fire.
"How are they doing?" Nova asked Cal.
"The shields are holding. The Reaper weapons look worse than they are. Crusader and the others are in no real danger at this stage."
A stream of purple blasts poured out of Sylar's front guns and slammed into the closest Reaper vessel. Something shimmered around it and the shots dissipated into the surrounding sand.
"They have shields," Cal said.
"Dammit! How can you call that primitive?"
"Crusader predicts they will be engaged with the Reaper ships for the foreseeable time and will not be able to offer assistance."
Nova's stomach clenched as she looked out at the black horde bearing down on her. "Shit."
A Reaper tore free of the mass and raced forward, dodging around poorly aimed plasma blasts. It slammed into the low wall and clamboured up the side. Shots flew past on either side through carefully built holes but its blood-shot eyes stayed focused on the top. It crested the wall and leapt down into the defenders, landing on top of the man with crutches.
Its wheeling limbs knocked Nova sideways. Her elbows and knees scraped on the hard sand, dribbling blood.
"No!" she turned back, gun raised.
The Reaper snatched the man's throat and twisted. He fell on top of his crutches like a sack of potatoes, eyes wide.
Nova fired, squeezing her trigger as hard as her finger would allow. The Reaper fell into a smoking pile on top of the dead man.
Bile rose in Nova's throat as she scrambled to her feet, desperately trying to tear her eyes away and to forget the man's quirky smile. She hadn't even asked his name……
Other Reapers had the same idea and they slammed into the wall, using their bodies like battering rams before scaling up its uneven front. They tore more pieces loose as they climbed, scattering them across the surrounding sand.
The wall trembled under their weight and pieces slid loose, clattering to the ground.
Nova mentally thanked Aart for building the wall in a curve so that the ends met the backs of the first line of buildings into the city, effectively sealing the defenders in. Otherwise, the Reapers would have flanked them already and they'd all be dead.
"It's not going to hold," Orion said.
Tyra stood from her work on The Exterminator and yelled over the crowd, "Everybody cover your ears and duck!"
Nova covered her ears and fell to the ground. She glanced up and dragged the woman beside her down as well, eyes flashing. The woman frowned and then covered her ears.
Nova squeezed her eyes shut and ducked her head just as a dull ripple washed over the air. She felt more than heard it, like a whisper over her skin, but a moment later howling shrieks erupted around her. She squeezed her eyes open to see the Reapers falling off the wall and slamming into the sand, grabbing their heads and rolling on their sides.
"Clear!" Tyra bellowed.
Nova lowered her hands away from her ears, mouth open. "What—"
"Sonic wave," Tyra said. "Just something I whipped up."
Nova shook her head. "But—"
"You can be amazed later. It only had a limited range!"
Nova turned back to see a new wall of Reapers replacing those that had fallen, crushing their bodies into the sand. She aimed and fired, taking down five Reapers in quick succession. She hoped Tyra had a few more of those tricks up her sleeve, or that she reprogrammed The Exterminator.
The woman beside Nova got shakily to her feet. "Thank you."
Nova nodded but didn't turn. "Next time, pay attention."
The woman swallowed and glanced to her right where a defender hadn't been fast enough. She lay on the ground, blood trickling out of her ears.
"Is she going to be okay?"
Nova glanced down and then back at the Reapers. "If I were you, I'd be more worried about them."
The woman's mouth snapped shut and she went back to firing at the Reapers. Nova did the same.
Something light tapped Nova's sleeve and she turned to find Tanguin standing at her shoulder, clutching a hand-held computer. "The Enforcers have been watching the fight. They're arguing over whether to help us or not."
"Bloody hell," Nova said, shooting dead two more Reapers. "What's to argue over? If they don't help us, they die. If they do, they might live."
"See what you can do. Say anything you have to. Getting those Enforcers out here might be the only chance we have."
Tanguin backed away from the main fight, taking cover in the shadow of the nearest building. Her fingers raced across her computer, eyes scanning.
Nova watched her for a few more seconds before turning back to the fray. At least four hundred Reapers remained and they continued to climb the wall. Soon the defenders would be surrounded.
"Tyra! We need—"
"Ah!" The woman beside Nova screeched.
Nova turned, gun raised and ready to fire. A blackened hand gripped the woman's wrist from the other side of the wall. Blood dribbled down the black fingers where it had punched through the wall of rubbish. It clamped tighter, turning the woman's hand red, and pulled her towards the wall.
"No!" The woman dropped her gun and tried to pry the fingers from around her arm.
Nova fired at the wall but the Reaper's head remained hidden.
"Get it off me!"
The Reaper yanked the woman closer so that her hand disappeared into the rough hole in the wall. Nova grabbed the woman's shoulders and tried to haul her back.
Nova heaved and the woman fell free. They both collapsed to the ground in a flurry of limbs. Nova rolled to her feet and aimed her gun at the wall, expecting to see the Reaper climbing through. Nothing.
"No." The woman at Nova's feet sobbed.
Nova looked down and gasped, stumbling back.
Three of the woman's fingers were missing, ending in bloody stumps that leaked crimson down her palm. Tattered bits of skin dangled around broken shards of bone as the woman stared at her mangled hand, mouth open and tears streaming down her face. "No."
Nova gaped and lifted her shaking arm to aim her gun at the woman's face.
"Hey! What are you doing?" A defender yelled, looking away from the wall and stepping towards Nova.
"Nova, what's going on?" Aart said, appearing at her side.
"She's infected," Nova whispered.
The defender's mouth fell open and he backed away from the woman, darting around the droplets of her blood drying in the sand.
"Shit," Aart said.
Nova took a shaky breath and steadied her gun.
The woman looked up at Nova through glistening eyes, shaking her head. "It can't be."
Nova squeezed her trigger. "I'm sorry."
The woman's arm disappeared in a bright blast of fire. She wailed and collapsed into a ball on the ground.
Nova turned away. "Keep fighting." She had no idea if it was enough to save the woman, or if she would turn into a Reaper anyway, but she couldn't just kill her without trying first. Nova shook the thoughts away, if the woman started to turn, she'd have her answer.
"There are too many of them," Aart said. "We're not going to make it out of this one."
Nova nodded and bit her lip. "I know."
"So we go down fighting?"
"Like always," Nova said, straightening her back.
More Reapers thrust their hands through the walls, grabbing hold of defenders and yanking them close enough to bite, until half the defenders lay in the sand, wailing over missing fingers. The rest of the swarm climbed over the wall, their teeth dripping with saliva.
Spilled blood muddied the ground behind the wall and more bodies dotted the ground.
"The Enforcers aren't coming," Tanguin whispered at Nova's side, her communicator replaced with a gun.
"What?" Nova said, firing. "Can't they see what's happening?"
Tanguin nodded, jaw tense. "They're scared. They're hiding. Not that they'd ever admit it."
"But they'll be surrounded. There's still at least three hundred here, that's enough to infect the whole city. They'll die…"
"I think they hope we'll sort it out," Tanguin said.
"Sort it out? Like this is some kind of simple thing that'll just disappear?"
Tanguin shrugged and gripped her gun tighter, face white. "They're not coming."
Nova gritted her teeth and shot down three more Reapers, ignoring the flashing light on her gun that said it would overheat at any second.
A defender turned and sprinted away from the wall, hurling his gun to the side of the road. Others followed him.
"They're about to crack," Nova said. "We're losing them."
"Can you blame them?" Tanguin said. "If I thought there was another option I can't say I'd be here either. Hell, I'm considering calling the ships back and getting the hell out of here."
"They can't save everyone," said Nova, looking over the defenders.
A woman beside them took in a gasping breath and fired at the same time as letting out a long sob. A Reaper's head exploded but another leapt onto the wall to take its place. The woman glared at Nova and Tanguin through blood-shot eyes. Her matted hair hung in front of her face, coloured with dried blood. "You have a way to defeat them. Why would you bring us here to die if you didn't have a way of beating them?"
Nova pursed her lips and kept fighting. "We never promised we'd win."
The woman sobbed again. "There's so much blood."
Nova looked over the mass of fighting bodies to where Tyra sat with The Exterminator. "Tyra, we really need that thing."
Three Reapers lunged at Nova, drowning out Tyra's reply. She killed two with a blast from her pistol but then the next slammed into her and carried them both to the ground, teeth gnashing next to her face. It crushed one of her arms into the ground, pinning it.
Nova grabbed its neck with her free hand and held it back, arm shaking under the strain. Spittle flew over her face and she squeezed her eyes shut, feeling warm flecks dot her cheeks. Its foul breath washed over her like a noxious cloud, bringing bile to the back of her throat.
Its sharp teeth inched closer to Nova's face. She pushed her head back into the ground, straining to get away or break her hand free.
Something squelched and then the weight vanished. Nova opened her eyes to see the Reaper's eyes widen and then go still as Gus ripped it away from Nova, a knife protruding from its spine. "I wish you'd be careful," he said.
Nova let out a long breath and grinned. "Thanks." She scrambled to her feet and shot an oncoming Reaper. She fought her way through the crowd, away from the wall and towards Tyra. "We're not going to last much longer."
Tyra didn't look up from the mass of wires she held. "Can't go any faster."
"Any kind of estimate."
"An hour, at least, if we don't want to risk killing every human in the capital."
"If they're going to overrun us, that's a risk we have to take. If they get control of the city they'll infect everyone. They'll be unstoppable."
"I can't work any faster!"
"No," Nova said, laying a hand on Tyra's shoulder. "But if we break, you set it off. No matter what."
Tyra pulled her eyes from The Exterminator and met Nova's gaze. "I will."
Nova nodded once and then turned back to the fighting. "We just have to hold a little longer. Keep strong!"
"The Enforcers are coming?" a young man said, eyes filled with hope.
Nova pretended not to hear, turning and firing at the oncoming Reapers. Her words seemed to buoy the defenders and they fought with more vigour, shots slamming into the oncoming Reapers.
Sweat poured down Nova's forehead and her muscles ached. She'd begun to suspect that she'd be drowned by the bodies of Reapers before she was eaten. She couldn't imagine there being so many in the entire universe, let alone here on a backwater trading planet.
Her gun's light flashed red and her stream of plasma blasts sputtered to a stop. Her gun clicked over in her hand, useless. "Shit."
Nova slammed the gun back into its holster and pulled a knife from her belt. Its jagged edge glinted as she plunged it into the closest Reaper's head. It came away covered in red. She scanned the ground for a dropped weapon, but if there were any they were buried under a layer of dead bodies.
Without her gun, Reapers swarmed in on her from all sides, the wall now nothing more than a stepping stone. She crouched, lashing out at anything that came too close, but knowing she couldn't keep it up for long. Every breath ached in her lungs and her legs shook beneath her. It felt as though she'd been fighting for days, weeks even, rather than barely an hour.
Aart appeared out of the crowd, slashing down Reapers with his own knife. He cut a path to Nova and they stood back to back. Warmth spread out from his flesh to hers.
"It's been nice knowing you," he said.
Nova swallowed, a hard lump in her throat. "And you."
"Let's give 'em hell, one last time."
Nova nodded and together they issued a fierce battle cry, lashing out with their knives and cutting down a swath of Reapers. Nova killed four before one got behind her and snatched her shoulders, dragging her to the ground.
She slashed it with the edge of her blade but more appeared, making a circle above her like a pack of hungry wolves. She lifted her knife, refusing to let them take her without a fight.
They lunged, sharp teeth gnashing.
Nova plunged her knife through the skull of the first Reaper, releasing a torrent of black blood that splashed across her shirt. Its dead weight fell across her, knocking the air from her lungs. With her spare hand she shoved it free. It flopped to the ground beside her, making room for three more Reapers.
They lunged for Nova's exposed skin. She slashed at the first and knocked the second away with a sharp kick, but the third dived for her neck, sharp talons raking across her bare arm.
She winced and tried to turn, to bring her knife up in time, but it was too close. She braced her arm as its weight fell against her, scrabbling and biting. Speckles of saliva dotted her cheeks and her arm shook.
Just as she was sure her arm would give out, the Reaper closest to her face collapsed, curling into a ball on the ground. The grip on Nova's shoulders disappeared and she slid back. The Reapers writhed, wailing, as pieces of their flesh blackened and sloughed off.
"What the hell?" Aart said, climbing to his feet from under a press of fallen Reapers.
Nova got up, breathing hard, and wiped the saliva off her cheek with her sleeve. "Tyra did it."
The other defenders got to their feet and stared, mouths hanging open. They formed ragged circles, silent.
"Did what?" Gus said, coming to stand with them.
Tanguin and Orion joined them. Orion had a bloody gash running along his right cheek. Nova eyed it, hand falling to her gun.
"Whoa, take it easy," Orion said, holding up his hands. "This came from one of these people. Apparently Gus here didn't cover knife safety in his training."
Nova let her hand fall. "She got The Exterminator to work."
"The Exterminator?" Orion said. "As in the big scary machine that we're never to touch because it could cause the extinction of a whole species?"
"But with my genius it stopped one instead," Tyra said, grinning as she came to join them.
"Shouldn't we do something about them?" Tanguin whispered, gazing at the Reapers.
Nova's eyes fell to the writhing creatures. Bloody holes covered most of their skin and the ground was covered with slimy pieces of rotten flesh. "My gun's out."
"And mine," said Aart.
"Mine went ages ago," said Orion.
Gus rolled his eyes. "I've told you guys a thousand times to get automated cooling."
"If I wanted a gun that cost more than a spaceship, I would," said Orion.
Gus shrugged and pulled his gun over his shoulder. He stepped away and systematically destroyed each thrashing Reaper until nothing moved other than the defenders.
Nova turned away, she'd seen enough blood to last a lifetime.
"W-what happens now?" a young defender said.
The others turned to look at the Hunters, faces pale.
Blood streaked most of their skin and their arms hung limp at their sides. Some knelt in the dirt, cradling loved ones, while others clasped hands, knuckles white.
Nova looked at Aart but he shrugged, shadows chasing each other behind his eyes.
She stood tall. "You live."
"How can we live now?" a woman said, tears streaming down her face.
"You go on," Nova said. "You rebuild. Go back out and re-make your settlements. Be free and be happy."
"The Enforcers forbid us rebuilding the outer settlements," said the young man.
Nova sneered. "The same Enforcers who refused to come help you today? If they'd been here, instead of being cowards, your loved ones might still be alive. They're as much to blame for what happened as the Reapers."
A wave of mutters rushed over the crowd, followed by nodding heads.
"They should pay."
"What are they for, if they don't protect us?"
"They've got guns, droids, they should have been here."
"Let's kill them all!"
Many defenders took up the shout, brandishing guns and knives.
Nova held up her hands. She was all too familiar with blood-lust. How it could overwhelm and take away any sense of reason. "They're to blame, but nothing would be gained by storming them except your own deaths. Instead, use this to your advantage. Rebuild your settlements, make your own rules. The Enforcers won't stop you; they'd be too scared of what might happen if the people saw how cowardly they really are. You're free."
The defenders lowered their weapons and spoke in low tones.
"We need medicine, bandages," a man said, clutching a gaping wound in his upper arm.
Nova nodded. "We'll use the nearest inn as a hospital. People will help, once they see what you did."
She glanced at Tanguin who had her computer in her hands, fingers blurring over the screen. "Already uploading."
Nova nodded. "You're all heroes."
Over the next few hours, people emerged from the surrounding houses. They brought medical supplies, food, and comfort to the defenders. Their white faces flushed red and they stared at their feet as they spoke to the new heroes of Bardo, and a great cloud of guilt hung in the air.
Nova and the Hunters carried the most badly injured into the nearest inn on makeshift stretchers. A portly man in a white apron greeted them at the door. "Come in! Come in! Put them there. I've already called for the doctors."
"Nice of you," Aart said, laying the stretcher onto a broad table.
The inn-keeper swallowed, throat bobbing. "Well, it's the least I can do, isn't it? After… Of course, I would have been there. It's just my knee… and…"
He faded into silence and no one responded.
"Anyway, my inn is theirs as long as they need it."
Aart nodded. "Good man."
A commotion sounded outside and the inn door burst open, grey-coated Enforcers storming in. Captain Brendan stood at the front, nostrils flaring.
"What's going on here? Unauthorised medical practice in an uncertified venue. Misappropriation of medical goods. Unlicensed bearing of arms. Un—"
Nova whirled on the man, laying her hand on the gun at her waist. "Shut up, Brendan."
Brendan's mouth opened and closed like a gaping fish. He spluttered, his voice returning with barely contained rage. "Disrespecting a –"
"What do these cowards want?" a young man that Nova recognized as one of the defenders burst through the door, followed by a small crowd.
Brendan turned on him. "Stay out of this, Blake. There are multiple breaches of—"
"Get out," Blake said, also laying a hand on his gun.
"You don't want to throw in with this lot," Brendan said. "They're nothing but trouble. Now go on and—"
"Without them we'd all be Reapers by now," Blake said. "How dare you come here and try to arrest them after you were too cowardly to do your job. Get out, or I'll be forced to take action."
Brendan's eyebrows flew up. "Threatening an Enforcer. That'll cost you."
Blake stepped back and opened the inn door to reveal a crowd gathered outside. Blood-streaked defenders interspersed with clean-dressed citizens filled the street, glaring.
Blake glanced out at them. "They're trying to arrest the Hunters."
The crowd surged forward, hands falling to weapons and angry voices swelling.
Blake looked back at Brendan. "I don't think they approve."
Brendan stuttered and glanced at his companions. All of them clutched their weapons with white knuckles.
"Leave. Never bother them again. Or you'll regret it."
Brendan turned red. "They've made multiple breaches, and so have you. We can't let that go. You need to be punished or what's to stop everyone breaking the rules?"
Blake crossed his arms over his chest and leant against the door. "Frankly, Brendan, I don't think you have much of a choice with this one."
Brendan narrowed his eyes and glared once more at the Hunters. "I'm going to let it pass, this one time, because of extenuating circumstances. But if I catch you, or them, putting one toe out of line…"
"You'll do nothing," Blake said. "Because apparently they're better at defending this planet than you are. Leave."
Brendan's hands clenched into fists as he stormed past Blake and into the waiting crowd. He pushed his way through them as they jeered back at him. At the edge of the crowd a familiar face popped into view, speaking loud enough for everyone to hear.
"But, Captain, they've entered the restricted zone at least twice, in direct violation of my instructions. They still have three outstanding fines, and—" Phil scurried after Brendan, his belly bouncing as he hurried to keep up.
Brendan ignored him.
"Their weapons caused serious damage to some community equipment and their message is still interfering with communication channels. They must be stopped! They're a menace!"
Brendan whirled on Phil and pushed his face down so their noses almost touched. "If you want to stop them, be my guest." He threw his hand wide to encompass the waiting crowd, seething with rage.
Phil glanced at them and his mouth worked. "But… you're the Enforcer… I…"
Brendan turned and stalked off without another word, leaving Phil standing in the middle of the street clutching a handful of papers and eyeing the waiting crowd. He cleared his throat and turned, stalking up the hill with as much dignity as he could muster, but before he reached the top he stumbled into an uneven jog, glancing over his shoulder every few steps.
Aart snorted. "This hell of a day was almost worth it to see that."
"There's just one more item of business to take care of," Gus said, cracking his knuckles.
"Rider," Orion said.
The others nodded.
"Although his weapon did save our arses…" Tyra said.
"He sent us out to get killed," Aart said. "The fact that we happened to work out how to use his weapon doesn't change that."
"Speaking of…" said Orion.
"Secure inside Sylar," Tyra said. "And I've removed a certain component. Don't worry, it's safe."
Nova turned to the young man leaning by the door. "Blake, is it?"
The young man turned to them and nodded.
"We need to find a man called Rider, he has—"
"Everyone knows Rider," Blake said.
"Where is he?" Nova said.
Blake leant out of the doorway. "Anyone seen Rider?"
"Yeah, he ran for his ship as soon as the Reapers came this way," a man with a bandage around his arm yelled back.
Blake turned to the Hunters and shrugged. "Probably far from here by now. He's got a good ship."
Aart scowled and Gus's face darkened.
Nova rubbed a hand over her face. "We'll get him. A guy like that is bound to turn up sooner or later."
"Yeah, you're right," Aart said, his shoulders easing.
"Look on the bright side," Orion said. "We won."
Nova sat at a wooden table with the other Hunters, Cal hovering at her shoulder. She lifted a mug of amber liquid to her lips, enjoying the pleasant burn as it washed down her throat. The grazes on her hands and knees had become nothing more than faint scars that blended with her other injuries.
Aart sat to her right, he smiled, but every so often his eyes glazed over, lost in memory.
"Next!" Orion called from the centre of their table.
A man with a long red scarf swept into the room and stood before their table. His hands twisted in front of his round stomach and his eyes kept flicking sideways.
"Mister Wilnem, shipping," Tyra said, reading from a screen held in her hand.
Orion steepled his fingers and gazed at the man. Nova had to stifle a laugh.
"What can we do for you, Mister Wilnem?" Orion said.
Wilnem straightened his shoulders. "I have a container of goods for Klavox Two. They're valuable and I want them delivered in one piece. I'll pay fairly."
Orion nodded and glanced at Gus. "Shipping?"
Gus rolled his eyes. "Is there any chance I'll get to use my guns?"
Wilnem's mouth dropped and he spluttered. "I should hope not! The valuable cargo… I…"
Orion raised an eyebrow.
"— but then of course… unexpected things happen all the time…" Wilnem's voice trailed off.
Orion nodded, eyes sparkling.
Gus sighed. "I guess I'll take it. But there better be some action this time."
Wilnem looked like he'd swallowed a toad.
"Excellent," said Orion. "Mister Wilnem, please see Tanguin about your fee."
Wilnem shuffled to the end of the table where Tanguin sat behind a pile of krones.
Orion grinned and leaned back in his chair. "This is how it's meant to be. Plenty of work, plenty of money, no Reapers. This is the life."
Aart jabbed him in the ribs. "I haven't seen you take any jobs yet, when do you start helping with all of this 'work'?"
Orion grinned. "When a job comes along that takes me to a planet covered in smart, beautiful women."
Aart rolled his eyes. "You keep dreaming."
Nova finished the last of her drink and let her mug clink on the table. "I suppose I have a civil unrest case to see to. I'll let you guys know when I'm on the way back."
"Take it easy," Orion said.
Aart gripped Nova's wrist. "Be safe."
She nodded and waved at the others, pausing by Tanguin's side.
Tanguin looked up at her from the depths of a dark hood, her cybernetic eye glinting.
"Make sure you get your cut."
Tanguin snorted. "You haven't seen how many hacker jobs these people have. It's like taking money from a baby."
Nova grinned. "In that case, make sure I get my cut."
Tanguin slid five krones across the table towards Nova. "For today."
Nova scooped the coins and dropped them into a hidden pocket.
"You won't be gone long?" Tanguin said, voice wavering.
"Nah. I'll be back before you know it."
Tanguin nodded. "Good. Because being stuck with him is more than I can handle." She nodded towards Aart who stuck out his tongue.
Nova smiled and laid a hand on Tanguin's shoulder. "See ya soon."
Nova wrapped her jacket around her shoulders and sauntered out of the inn, the long queue parting before her, eyes seeking her attention. The line snaked out of the inn and around the building. It had been growing since first light when Orion had 'opened shop' as he liked to call it.
Nova shook her head as she walked past the trail of people and circled around to Crusader. These same people had practically spat at them when they first arrived, now here they were, begging for help. In a way it was thanks to the Reapers that she and her companions weren't begging for scraps, not that she'd want to go through that again.
She stretched her legs. If it meant they charged certain people, like Phil, a little extra, a special 'Bardo Surcharge', then that was nothing more than what they deserved.
Crusader's door hissed open as she approached. The other ships spread out to either side, separated again rather than clinging together like a warped space station. Her boots clinked on the metal ramp as she entered the engine room and tossed her bag onto the floor.
"Honey, I'm home!"
Cal zoomed in from the adjacent corridor as the door hissed shut behind her. "You're back!"
Nova grinned. "Yep, it's only been two hours."
One of Cal's arms shot out of his casing and rested above his lens-like eye. "After everything I've been through, don't make fun of my worrying."
Nova snorted and sauntered through to the food generator where she pressed a short sequence of buttons. A moment later it dinged and she pulled out a steaming piece of chicken buried under a pile of hot chips.
She carried it to the pilot's pod and slumped into the command chair. "Sorry, Cal."
His hand withdrew and he hovered to her side. "Where to?"
Nova waved a chip. "That planet, Glop, or whatever it's called. The civil disturbance."
Cal's motor shuddered. "That sounds dangerous."
Nova raised an eyebrow as she chewed on a chip, relishing the salty goodness.
"Okay, we'll go," Cal said. "But it's dangerous."
"I'll be careful," Nova said around another chip. "Take us up, Crusader."
The engines rumbled and they lifted into the sky. Bardo shrunk beneath them, the city becoming nothing more than a grey dot, and then they passed through a layer of clouds and entered the darkness of space.
"Ah," Nova said, leaning back and holding a chip in her hand. "It's good to be home."
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Find all of Saffron's Books At:
The Nova Chronicles
Other Science Fiction
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:
EMAIL: [email protected]