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TRANSFORMING DARKNESS

Saffron Bryant


Copyright 2018 Saffron Bryant

Published by Saffron Bryant at Smashwords


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Contents

BOOK 1: LAST ESCAPE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

BOOK 2: LAST FIGHT

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

BOOK 3: LAST REFUGE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY-FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY-SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY-SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY-EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY-ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY-TWO

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BOOK 1: LAST ESCAPE



CHAPTER ONE




Aart leaned back on his pickax and wiped a sheen of sweat from his forehead. Dust and dirt coated his mouth and throat. He reached around and massaged his aching lower back. Rolling his head, he enjoyed three satisfying clicks from his neck.

He considered the poorly-lit tunnel around him.

Today was the day; after weeks of scrimping and working over-time, he just had to work half an hour more and he'd finally have enough to buy gravy with his dinner. How long had it been since he had gravy? Too long.

"Hey! If you want to be paid for this shift then get back to work!" bellowed the Confederacy overseer.

Aart flinched and grabbed up his pick, swinging it at the wall in front of him.

The overseer sauntered through the tunnel, his plasma rifle giving off a blue glow that reflected off the stone walls. His crisp uniform bore the castle-like Confederacy insignia and he wore a protective face shield that hid his features from the miners. He came to a stop behind Aart, one hand on his pistol and the other on a solid club that Aart had seen used on many occasions.

Aart's spine tingled and he swung his pick faster, sending loose rocks skittering to the floor of the tunnel.

"Better. Don't make me report you, slug." The overseer strode off, deeper into the tunnels.

Aart let out a long breath and some of the tension left his shoulders but he didn't lower his pick. Pain squeezed his lower back and shoulders. Each swing sent vibrations running up his arms that jarred his teeth and rattled his bones. He pushed the pain away. He'd committed to an extra half an hour, so he focused on thoughts of gravy and pushed down any passing inkling of dissension or revolution. He'd heard rumors that the Confederacy could read minds, and had heard of people going missing in the middle of the night.

The next half an hour dragged by, feeling almost as long as the entire shift. When the single sharp wail echoed through the tunnels, Aart sagged with relief. He put the pickax over his shoulder and trudged up the tunnel. The muscles in his legs burned with familiar exhaustion and he ached to sit down, to rest.

He'd found no gold during his entire shift, which meant no bonuses. He sighed. This vein should have been abandoned years ago but the Confederacy was bent on sucking out every last nugget; and slave labor cost nothing.

Aart kept his face blank and buried his thoughts. If any of the overseers even suspected… he shivered and created a wall around his rebellious thoughts. At night, when he was alone, he sometimes let them out and examined them, but not here, not out in the open.

His tunnel joined a catacomb of others where he met more miners coming up out of the deeps.

"You work the extra half hour too?" Aart said to a man covered in grime as their tunnels joined.

The man grimaced. "Broke my pick. Had to pay the rental fee."

Aart winced and patted the man on the back.

The tunnel opened up into a flat, desert-like basin, lit against the night by huge spotlights, with tattered tents and ram-shackle buildings leaning away from the constant wind. The only exception was the Confederacy quarters; a tall building made of stone. Solid doors manned by two Confederacy soldiers blocked the entrance, and gun turrets on the roof glinted in the light of the spotlights.

Aart had never been inside but he could imagine. There'd be plush carpet, soft furniture, and not a speck of dirt in sight.

He sighed and turned away, following the shuffling line of miners to a filthy tub of water. He scooped up handfuls to wash the grime from his face and hands. He splashed extra onto his head in an attempt to cool his overheated body. Even at night, the thick air lay like a hot blanket over the planet.

Once bathed, he strode to the biggest of the tents, feeling refreshed. Noise emanated from it like the buzz of insects. When he lifted the flap, bright light poured out into the night, accompanied by the smell of food.

His mouth watered.

Worn tables with make-shift chairs filled the tent. Over to one side a winding line of ragged miners made its way to a counter where three women in filthy aprons doled out scoops of mushed food.

Aart ambled to the back of the line.

The man in front of him scanned his wrist past the metal payment pole so that it would register the microchip implanted under his skin. "Meat, vegetables," he said.

The pole beeped once and a red light flashed. "Insufficient funds."

The man turned towards the pole, face twisted.

Aart recognized Billy. His white hair sprung out from under his ragged gray cap, joining up with white tufts of beard. Scars and dirt dotted Billy's face.

"Blasted machine!" Billy said, scanning his wrist again. "Just meat then!"

Beep. Red light. "Insufficient funds."

People at nearby tables averted their eyes, turning their bodies away from Billy.

Billy's face glowed red. He scanned. "Vegetables."

Beep. Red light. "Insufficient funds."

Billy's hands clenched into fists and he looked ready to strike the machine. A Confederacy guard pushed himself away from the wall, gun in hand. Billy's eyes glimmered in the harsh overhead lights. He sighed and turned away from the line.

"Whoa!" Aart said, gripping Billy's wrist.

"Oh, hello, Aart," said Billy, voice rough like gravel. He glanced at the pole and then at the Confederacy guard. "I didn't manage a full day today. Was the leg." He gestured at his left leg, which bent away from his body, the remnants of an old mining accident.

"Doesn't matter!" Aart said. He scanned his own wrist. "Two meat and vegetables."

Billy's eyes flew open and he snatched Aart's wrist away from the pole. "What are you doing?"

The pole beeped twice and a green light flashed.

Aart shrugged. "Getting dinner. Come on."

He strode forward and grabbed two rusted metal trays from the waiting stack. He handed one to Billy.

"You shouldn't have done that," Billy growled, red creeping up from his cheeks to his ears.

"You'd have done the same for me," Aart said. He'd felt only the barest pang of disappointment that he wouldn't get to have gravy after all, but what was that compared to letting Billy go hungry?

"Shouldn't have done it."

The line made slow progress and by the time they got to the front, Aart's stomach ached.

The dirt-covered servers slopped food onto his and Billy's trays. He smiled and thanked each one. At the end of the line, the last woman glanced at a screen to her right and then at Aart and Billy.

"Shouldn't have let him do that, Billy," she said.

"I know," Billy said. "Lad didn't give me any choice."

"My credits," Aart said. "I spend them how I like, Maria."

"Not any more," she said. "You won't have enough for breakfast tomorrow."

Aart shrugged. "Tomorrow is another day."

She rolled her eyes. "You're a good lad, Aart."

"Too good for a place like this," said Billy.

"Ain't that the truth," Maria said.

"Move along! People are hungry!" said the man behind Billy.

Aart and Billy sidled forward.

"Thanks, Maria," Aart said.

People waved to him from rickety tables but avoided eye contact with Billy. Aart nodded to them but strolled past, coming to a stop at an empty table.

Aart sat with his tray and scooped a mound of green mush into his mouth. Billy sat opposite, his wrinkled hand shaking as he lifted a spoon to his mouth.

"You must have had a good day today to do that," Billy said, voice barely a whisper.

Aart's grin widened. "I sure did."

"What were you saving for?"

Aart shrugged. "Doesn't matter."

"Lad, you can't keep spending all your savings on me. I'm not going to be around much longer, better to just let me go."

Aart's stomach lurched and he frowned. "I won't do that. Besides, what good are savings in a place like this? It's not like I can go and buy a ship."

"It was for gravy," Billy said, studying Aart with rheumy eyes.

Aart dropped his gaze back to the pile of green mush on his plate.

"Bloody hell," said Billy, dropping his spoon so that it clattered against his tray. "No decent man should take another man's gravy."

Aart flicked his spoon. "It was my choice, Billy. Besides, it's the least I can do."

Billy licked his lips and retrieved his fork. "Doesn't feel right."

"If it weren't for you I would have died years ago. A few meals now and then is the least I can do."

Aart wolfed down his vegetables. "Although, after all the years you've spent here, the bloody Confederacy should be taking care of you properly."

Billy's face paled and his eyes flew to the nearest Confederacy soldier, but he didn't seem to be giving them any attention. "You can't say stuff like that, lad! You want to get yourself killed?"

Aart sighed. "No. I just don't think it's right that someone your age still has to spend twelve hours a day in the mines just to eat."

Billy scraped the last of his food from the tray. "It's the way it is."

"Well, it's wrong," Aart said.

Billy shrugged.

Aart finished his meal and they both rose from the table then headed for the door. Billy shuffled, limping on his bent left leg. They made a straight line through the hot night air to another tent. Bunk-beds lined each side, many sporting the lumps of sleeping workers.

Aart climbed up onto the top bunk and lay down.

Billy stayed standing a moment, his face just visible in the dim moonlight filtering through a hole in the roof of the tent. "Thanks, lad."

Aart grinned. "You're welcome, Billy."

Billy disappeared out of sight into the bed below and his snores soon filled the tent.








CHAPTER TWO




"How's your leg today?" Aart said as he and Billy trudged down into the mine.

The bright sunlight faded at their backs, plunging them into the artificial semi-darkness created by sparse glowballs. They scanned their wrists at the first intersection and it beeped before flashing green.

"All right," Billy said, his limp less pronounced than the day before. "But it's always better in the mornings."

"Just let me know if I can help."

"Enough talking!" said a Confederacy soldier, shoving Aart in the back.

He stumbled, sending loose gravel skittering about his feet. He gritted his teeth but forced himself not to reply, not to glare over his shoulder at the soldier. Any sign of disobedience, he'd be beaten. He wouldn't be able to work, and then he, and probably Billy, would starve. So he swallowed his pride and walked faster into the deep, keeping his lips pinned shut.

He and Billy went through the familiar maze until they came to a narrow tunnel that ended in a flat, dirt wall.

The Confederacy soldier stopped at the mouth of the short tunnel and leaned against the wall where he could keep an eye on them and at the same time watch the other workers mining farther down.

Aart swung his pick over his shoulder and slammed it against the wall. Loose rocks fell, creating a small pile at his feet. Billy used a shovel to collect them and pile them into a cart where he examined each one for any sign of gold.

"Don't know why I bother," Billy whispered, his voice hidden by the scrape of his shovel. "This vein is dryer than a bloody desert."

"I know," Aart said. "I haven't had a bonus in months."

Billy snorted and they fell into a quiet rhythm of work, excavating the tunnel.

After four hours, a tiny cart came around and gave them each a ladle of water. Aart relished the cool liquid in his dry throat which already was coated with dirt. It got stuck between his teeth no matter how tight he pressed his lips together while he worked. He sloshed the water around his mouth and swallowed.

"Back to work," said the soldier as the cart left, heading deeper into the mine.

Aart grabbed up his pick and swung at the wall but as he made contact, something deep in the ground rumbled. Both he and Billy froze.

The tiny rocks at his feet jumped across the tunnel floor, shaken by deep vibrations.

Aart's heart lurched into his throat and he met Billy's gaze. The older man's eyes opened wide with panick.

Another rumble rattled the tunnel; this time sending bigger rocks loose from the ceiling. They crashed into the tunnel floor with solid thuds.

Aart threw his hands over his head just as a stone flew down. It struck his forearm, sending reverberating pain through to his shoulder.

"Cave-in!" Billy bellowed.

Aart and Billy turned for the tunnel entrance and scrambled across the quaking floor. The Confederacy soldier was already running, not bothering to look behind.

The cry of 'cave-in' echoed through the tunnels and other voices took it up until it made a cacophony that joined the growing rumbling.

Billy limped, struggling against the moving floor.

Aart hooked his arm around the older man's waist and helped him forward, both of them rocked sideways by the moving ground.

"Bloody earthquake!" said Billy.

Sweat poured down Aart's face as he struggled to move them both faster. The suffocating air of the tunnels pushed down on them, making it hard to breathe and bringing a pounding ache to his head.

More rocks fell from the ceiling, landing on their heads and shoulders.

Aart grimaced, all it would take was one medium size rock to land in the wrong place…

He lurched sideways around a minor cave-in and kept moving, hauling Billy along beside him.

"It's going to be a bad one," said Billy. "Most of this tunnel will go."

In response, Aart hauled him faster.

"Go on without me, you idiot boy," said Billy. "If you run you might make it out."

"I'm not leaving you behind," Aart said, between gasping breaths.

"Don't be a fool! How much longer do you think I have left anyway? Save yourself."

Aart ignored him, adjusting his grip on Billy's waist and practically carrying the man up the steep tunnel.

The ground bucked beneath them like some wild beast.

Aart tripped and they both sprawled forward, landing hard on jagged rocks. More rained down on them from the ceiling.

A sharp pain erupted from Aart's knee but he scrambled upright, ignoring it. He snatched Billy and hauled him to his feet, resuming their mad dash down the tunnel.

Distorted screams and shouts echoed through the caves, sounding more like ghosts than people.

Aart gritted his teeth, hoping with all his might that everyone would get out safely. Although the chances of that were next to none.

Billy gasped beside him and their combined sweat made it hard to hold onto the other man. Aart's arm kept slipping and he had to adjust his grip every few seconds.

They turned left and there, in the distance, shone the barest hint of daylight.

"We're going to make it!" Aart said, running harder for the distant entrance.

Shadows moved in front of the light as others poured out of adjoining tunnels. The one he and Billy had been in was one of the deepest and the glowing entrance seemed an eternity away.

A violent quake hit and hurled Aart and Billy sideways into the wall.

Aart's head smacked against a rock. Stars flashed in front of his vision. His head spun and his arms fell limp at his sides. He leaned against the wall to stay upright and for a moment the sounds of screams and moving rock faded out of his hearing.

"Aart! Aart!"

Aart blinked at the sound of his name and his spinning vision came to focus on Billy. Dirt covered his wrinkled face and blood leaked from a cut above his left eye. His hat was missing.

Aart frowned. He didn't think he'd ever seen Billy without his hat; it didn't seem right.

"Aart!" Billy said again, shaking Aart's shoulders.

Aart swallowed and sound came pouring back; screams, crying, rocks falling.

"You idiot boy, run!" Billy said, turning Aart and shoving him toward the entrance.

Aart took a few steps before he remembered. He turned and snatched Billy, dragging him forward.

"No, you idiot!" Billy said.

"It's just there," said Aart, his dizziness fading. "We're going to make it."

His head ached but he ignored that, focusing on his one task: get them both to the entrance.

A second tunnel joined theirs ten feet ahead. People streamed out of it, pushing and shoving against each other to get to the entrance.

Aart braced himself to join the tide of people but just before they reached the mouth of the second tunnel, the ground bucked harder than it had before. He lost his grip on Billy and crumpled to the ground.

The sharp crack of splitting rock filled the dirt-choked air and the world around Aart collapsed. The ceiling fell down, rocks smacking the ground all around him. Dust and dirt billowed into the air, becoming an impenetrable cloud.

Screams, harsh and nearby, filled the air, but he couldn't look up. He curled into a tight ball, arms over his head. He made himself as small as possible and braced himself against the barrage of rocks that slammed into his legs, back, arms.

It went on for what felt like hours, a constant stream of falling rock and screams. When finally it stopped, Aart's ears rung and he couldn't bring himself to uncover his head. He stayed curled up into a ball until a rough hand gripped his arm.

"Aart, is that you? You alive?"

Aart blinked and looked up into a familiar face. Henry.

"You're alive," Henry said, letting out a long breath. "At least that's one miracle today. Come on, you've got to move. There will probably be after-shocks."

Aart sat upright, head ringing, and looked around.

The tunnel he'd come from was now a wall of rocks that stopped just short of his left leg. Smaller rocks surrounded him and dust covered his clothes. Fewer people swarmed out of the secondary tunnel and the screams had become muted moans.

"Come on," Henry said, tugging once more on Aart's arm.

Aart stood but then his heart froze. "Billy."

"What?" said Henry.

"Did Billy get out?"

Henry frowned. "I don't know. Nobody knows who got out and who… hasn't."

"He was with me!" Aart said, spinning in a tight circle. "I was holding him."

"Oh," Henry's gaze dropped to the ground. "I haven't seen him come past here."

Aart spun again and then his gaze locked on the wall of rocks. His stomach clenched. Billy…

Henry placed a hand on Aart's shoulder. "Maybe he made it out? I could have missed him; there was a lot of confusion. At least his body isn't here."

Henry gestured to the few people who hadn't been so lucky, their bodies lay in ragged piles of twisted limbs surrounded by rocks and blood.

Aart swallowed. Henry had to be right. Billy had to have made it out. But, Billy wouldn't have left him. Billy wouldn't have gone on and left Aart lying on the floor.

Aart sprinted past Henry toward the entrance. He pushed and shoved the few people who got in his way and burst out of the tunnel. He spun in a desperate circle, scanning the shocked faces around him.

"Billy!" he bellowed. "Billy!"

People glanced at him and then dropped their eyes. Many others wandered around the filthy crowd of survivors, hopelessly searching.

"Billy!" Aart yelled.

"Everyone scan out!" bellowed a Confederacy soldier, dropping a metal pole in the middle of the survivors.

Like zombies, the miners formed a line and ran their wrists over the pole. Aart followed them while searching every face. He didn't find Billy.

When the line dwindled, the Confederacy soldier strode forward. "The following people have not scanned out. If you're here and do not scan out you will be deducted a day's worth of pay." He proceeded to read a list of names from a hand-held device. Each name was accompanied by a tortured wail in the crowd.

"Patrick Peters, Billy Goldson, Sally—"

Aart's heart turned to ice. Billy hadn't come out. That mean he was still trapped in the tunnel. Aart spun and sprinted toward the entrance but before he could get in, two Confederacy soldiers snatched his arms and hauled him back.

"No one is to enter the tunnel," said one of them.

"But there are still people down there!" Aart said. "We have to mount a rescue."

The soldier reading the list of names stopped and cast a glance at Aart. "Anyone not scanned out is presumed dead. They will be removed from the roster. All of you are to report to dig-site B."

"What?" Aart said. "No. We have to rescue them."

"Anyone who hasn't made it out, is dead," the soldier replied, turning and marching away from the dazed survivors.

"No," Aart said, sagging.

The soldiers holding him let go and followed their commander. Most of the survivors stood and shuffled behind them, heading in the direction of the old land-transporters which would take them across the planet to a secondary dig site.

"You can't abandon them!" Aart bellowed after the soldiers. "They could still be alive! People have survived months after cave-ins!"

The soldiers didn't turn around.

Henry peeled off from the survivors and came to Aart's side. He laid a hand on Aart's shoulder. "Better to let it go, lad. They're not going to mount a rescue. They never do."

"But he's down there." Aart drew a shuddering breath. "It's my fault he's trapped. If I'd just kept a better hold of him…"

Henry shook his head. "You can't blame yourself, lad. Just be glad you got out. Now come on; if you don't report to site B they'll punish you."

Aart gaped at him and at the retreating line of survivors. Some of them looked over their shoulders, tears making lines in the dust of their faces. Some of them would have family and friends trapped down there; how could they just walk away?

Aart clenched his hand into a fist. "I can't leave him."

Henry shook his head. "Give it up, lad." Then he turned and hurried to join the last of the survivors.

Aart turned and stared down into the tunnel. He'd save Billy on his own if he had to.








CHAPTER THREE




Aart dashed down into the tunnel, dodging fallen rocks and slipping on loose gravel. The ground seemed to have settled, with no more rumbling or shaking, but that didn't quiet his racing heart.

Some glowballs still remained on the walls, casting pale light over bodies and fallen rocks. Aart snatched one of them from its socket and ran with it down the tunnel to the wall of fallen rock where he'd been knocked down.

The light in his hand cast the rocks in stark contrast and fell upon chalky flesh dotted with blood.

First, he went through the gruesome task of checking all of the bodies near where he'd fallen. Most he recognized, some were friends, but none of them were alive and none of them were Billy. A lump formed in his throat as he forced down the tears that threatened to drown him.

He leaned his forehead against the cool surface of the new wall and listened. Silence.

"Billy?" he yelled.

Silence.

He bit his lip. He needed to hear his friend's voice, even just a faint reply, but nothing came.

He studied the wall of stone, finding its weak points and then laid the glowball on the ground at his feet. He snatched hold of a rock and hauled it away from the wall, dancing away as a tumble of new pieces cascaded down to the ground in a mini landslide.

He tossed the one in his hands to the ground and went back for more.

Aart worked until his shirt clung to him with sweat, and blood coated his torn fingers. Even then, he kept going. His arms trembled under the weight of the rubble but he kept working. Eventually, he'd move enough that he could get through to the other side, then he'd find Billy and everything would be okay.

His dry throat burned and his stomach ached, but he couldn't stop. Every second he lost could mean the difference between life and death for Billy and anyone else trapped on the other side.

He lifted a final rock from the top of the pile and allowed himself a brief flare of relief. Nothing fell to take its place, and for the first time he could see into the other side of the tunnel.

"Billy!" he yelled.

The tunnel beyond remained pitch-black and silent.

Aart snatched the glowball from the floor and thrust it through the hole. It cast a grim scene. Limbs poked out from beneath huge boulders and blood spattered the walls.

"Billy?" he said.

Someone groaned.

"Billy!" Aart yelled, recognizing Billy's white hair near the base of the pile. He was still alive.

Aart tucked the glowball into his pocket and grabbed another rock, widening the hole. "I'm coming Billy, just hold on!"

Aart fell into a frantic flurry of movement, hauling and scrabbling rocks out of his way. His fingernails tore loose and he left patches of blood on everything he touched. He didn't notice the pain, too focused on the dull moans of Billy coming from the other side of the wall.

"Here he is," said a stern voice.

Aart didn't turn around, too busy widening the hole so he could get through to Billy.

Heavy hands landed on Aart's shoulders and hauled him away from the wall. They spun him around and he came face-to-face with three Confederacy soldiers. One ran a hand-held scanner over his wrist and checked the read-out.

"Yep. It's him."

"Artemis Goldson. You failed to report for your shift this afternoon, therefore, a day's pay will be subtracted from your account. If you cannot afford it, you will work overtime in order to pay it off."

"What?" Aart said, squinting in the bright glare from their flashlights.

"Watch your tone, boy. I could break every bone in your body and leave you here and no-one would give a damn."

Aart struggled against them. "There are people alive on the other side of the wall!" he said. "I'm nearly through."

"They are dead," said the soldier.

"No, they're not! I saw them."

"Return to your tent immediately. Tomorrow you are assigned to dig site B. Lateness or failure to comply will result in further penalties."

"No!" Aart said, writhing against them. "He's still alive! I have to get to him."

The soldier drew back his fist and slammed it into Aart's face.

Pain exploded through his head and stars flashed across his vision. Blood poured down from his nose and filled his mouth. He sagged forward.

"Get him out of here," said the soldier.

They hooked their arms under Aart's and hauled him back toward the entrance.

"No!" Aart mumbled through his daze.

"Boss said to close this mine," said one soldier.

"Yeah, we'd better collapse it or we'll have more like this."

"What?" Aart said, barely processing their words. "What do you mean?"

"I'll set the explosives."

"What?" said Aart.

But they ignored him. They hauled him all the way out of the tunnel to the cold basin which was bathed in the harsh glow of the spotlights. Somehow, night had come without Aart realizing it.

They hurled him forward onto the sand where he landed on his back with a solid thud. He clutched his nose in an effort to stop the bleeding and sat, ready to sprint back for the tunnel.

Heavy hands landed on his shoulders and held him down. "Stay," said the soldier.

"No!" Aart said, struggling.

The other two soldiers worked around the tunnel entrance for a few minutes before retreating.

"Ready when you are," said one.

"All clear," said the second.

"No!" Aart said. "You'll kill them! They're still alive. We've got to go in and get them."

"Fire in the hole."

A concussive shock shook the basin and a spray of dust shot out of the tunnel entrance. Rocks tumbled from the roof and seconds later the entrance was nothing more than a dusty pile of boulders.

"No!" howled Aart.

"I need a drink," said one soldier.

"Make that a double," said another.

The one holding Aart's shoulder released him and they strode across the desert toward the Confederacy building.

Aart crawled on his hands and knees to what had been the tunnel, leaving a trail of blood behind him. He gaped at the damage but the boulders were too big to lift without machinery.

He tried to haul one up. His muscles trembled and shook but it didn't move.

"No!" he wailed, scratching the rocks. "Billy."

The dam he'd been holding back broke and he collapsed into a wailing heap on top of the ruins of the tunnel. He cried until he had no tears left, and then he sobbed great dry cries that rattled his head.

He cried until he passed out, and even then his dreams were filled with falling rocks and of Billy being crushed beneath them.

He woke to muffled voices and excruciating pain throbbing from his face.

"I told him to leave it."

"Like he could leave Billy down there."

"Well, it didn't do any good, did it?"

Aart winced and opened his eyes to find Maria from the cafeteria bandaging his arm. Henry sat behind her on a wooden crate.

"Shh, lad," said Maria. "It's going to hurt."

He squinted; every second of consciousness brought more pain. His arm stung, his face felt like he were being hit repeatedly with a hammer, and his chest burned.

"You shouldn't have gone down, lad," said Maria.

Aart tried to sit up but his head spun and he had to lie back down. "I couldn't leave him."

"He's gone to a better place now. Best to let it be," said Maria.

"Poor lad won't be able to work for a week," said Henry. "What's he going to live on?"

"He's helped enough people, he won't go hungry," Maria said.

Aart closed his eyes, letting their voices wash over him. Billy was gone, well and truly. If the Confederacy bastards had just left Aart alone… He had to swallow to stop new tears and his throat burned.

"That's all I can do for you, love," said Maria, patting Aart's arm. "Stay here; someone will bring you food later."

Aart nodded and managed to whisper a hoarse thank you. Maria and Henry shuffled away and Aart let himself sink back into unconsciousness.


The next week passed in a semi-conscious blur. Every day brought less pain and more rage. It grew like a living thing inside Aart's chest until he could barely breathe through the burn of it. The Confederacy had to pay. If they'd just minded their own business, Billy would still be alive. If they'd actually helped… who knew how many people might have been saved?

Aart spent his days glaring up at the roof of the tent, imagining all the ways he could make the soldiers pay. They would pay.


***


Aart slipped into the unlit tent. "Copper," he said.

"Iron," replied a chorus of voices.

He took a seat to the right of the entrance and let his eyes adjust to the darkness. Dim figures sat around him, filling up most of the floor space.

"We've managed to secure enough explosives to bring it down," said a low voice.

"But who's going to do it?"

"There's no way they'll get away with it."

"Maybe if we all worked together…"

"No. It's a suicide mission."

They argued back and forth while Aart sat in silence and listened. It had been a month since the earthquake and he'd put every spare second he'd had into finding the secret organization. He'd known it existed of course, everyone did, but now he was a part of it. He'd make the Confederacy bastards pay for what they did to Billy if it was the last thing he ever did.

"I'm telling you, it's a suicide mission."

"I'll do it," Aart said, his voice cutting through the commotion.

Silence fell.

"I'll do it," he said again, confident.

"Are you sure you know—?"

"I'll do it."

"Then it's settled."

The sound of something scraping across the floor filled the tent. A solid box bumped against Aart's leg.

"Everything you need is in there," said a deep voice.

"Got it," said Aart.

"This'll make them pay."

"It's just our first move toward freedom."

"Freedom for all!" echoed many voices.

Aart mumbled along but he wasn't looking for freedom, not really, he was looking for revenge.

"We won't be able to meet for a while afterward. Keep an eye out for the usual sign; if our brave volunteer manages to survive, we owe it to him to make him safe."

"Agreed!" said a chorus of voices.

"Good. Good luck."

Shuffling movement and people left the tent in ones and twos, taking their time and leaving by different doors. Aart waited until the end, and only then did he hoist the box up onto his shoulder and hurry out into the night, sneaking back to bed.

He climbed up onto the top bunk and made a tent with his thin sheet before silently swinging open the box. Explosives, a plan of the Confederacy building, and a security card sat inside.

His heart hammered against his ribs. This was it; his chance to make things right for Billy.








CHAPTER FOUR




Aart hugged the shadows at the back of the Confederacy building. Silence lay over the mining camp, but huge spotlights cast their penetrating glow over it even now in the middle of the night. Explosives protruded from his meager pockets and he clutched the security swipe-card like a life-line.

A single guard stood in front of the back entrance, looking bored. He kicked a pebble repeatedly against the side of the building, watching it bounce back to his waiting foot.

Aart bit his lip. He had to get inside, preferably to the very heart of the building. To do that, he had to get past the guard; the others had to do their part or the mission would be a failure from the very start.

His muscles ached from staying crouched in one spot for so long but he didn't dare stand or walk around to stretch them. He settled for tensing and relaxing his legs as best he could. His thoughts offered no safe distraction, they leapt from fear over his coming mission to rage at the Confederacy and to despair over Billy, resulting in an endless roller-coaster of torturous emotions.

He gripped the security card tighter.

"Guard! Guard!" A dirt-stained man ran out of the nearest tent toward the soldier.

"Shut up, people are trying to sleep," said the guard.

"You've got to come quickly; some of the miners have symptoms of Caver's Disease!"

The soldier blanched and took a stumbling step toward the miner.

"Quick! If they've got it we have to evacuate the whole area."

Aart's stomach twisted and the security card dug into his palm.

The soldier hurried after the man, talking into a microphone at his collar. "Reported symptoms of Caver's Disease. Going to investigate. Request medic." They ran into the tent, leaving the back door to the Confederacy building temporarily unguarded.

Aart sprinted out of the shadows to the door and swiped the card against the reader. Usually the guards would use their wrists but if the card had been programmed right…

Aart's trembling fingers spasmed, making him drop the card. It spun through the air and clattered to the ground. Aart snatched it up, twisting in panicked circles, expecting to see soldiers everywhere.

The area at the back of the building remained empty but commotion and noise grew from the miner's tents.

Aart slammed the card against the reader a second time.

It flashed green and the door clicked.

Aart shoved his shoulder against it and fell inside, using the handle to keep himself upright. He eased the door shut behind him and let out a long sigh. Step one complete.

An automatic light came to life above his head, reflecting off smooth walls and framed pictures. Most of them showed men and women in crisp uniforms; a few had planets and gleaming ships. The corridor led into the heart of the building with doors leading off to either side.

He crept down the corridor, ears straining for sound beyond the many doors. Just as in Aart's imagination, the plush carpet cushioned his every footfall.

Silence pervaded the building. His own breath was like a bellows that was sure to wake the sleeping soldiers.

He pushed his panic down and kept edging along the hall to the fifth door on the right. According to the blueprints, the door led to the overseer's quarters which housed all the accounts and technology most important to the Confederacy's operation. If things went according to plan, there'd be Confederacy soldiers inside as well.

Aart tugged the explosives out of his shirt and placed them about the door. He had some experience with explosives from the mines and knew where to place them to cause the most damage without being obvious to a casual observer.

His heart jerked in his chest and his hands trembled. He'd never imagined in all those times he'd laid explosives in the tunnels that one day the experience would come to this.

His throat went dry. He'd be killing people—lots of people—and when they caught him…

He wrangled in his thoughts. The people beyond the door were the same ones that had let Billy, and many others, die. These people kept Aart and thousands of others enslaved. If they were killed in the blast, it was nothing less than they deserved.

With renewed determination, he finished laying the bombs. He didn't have much longer; the soldiers did a patrol of the building every fifteen minutes and if they found him there…

He attached the last wire and stood, studying his work.

Footsteps and muffled voices.

Aart's gaze flew to the end of the hall.

The automatic lights at the corner flicked on and shadows moved up the wall.

Aart snatched his belongings and sprinted as fast as he could in the opposite direction, grateful for the plush carpet which muffled his footsteps. Even so, the automatic lights would give him away. If they came around the corner and saw the lights on…

The lights turned off as Aart left them behind, but it wouldn't be fast enough. Surely the patrol would see the glow and come running…

He reached the door to the outside and grimaced. The soldier would be back in position by now. There was no way he'd be distracted by sick miners for more than a few minutes. He would have passed the job off to a medic and come back here.

Aart glanced over his shoulder; the voices grew louder. No matter which he chose, he'd be dead.

He gritted his teeth and shoved open the door, and at the same time pressed the detonate button clutched in his left hand. A shock-wave ripped up the corridor behind him, hurling him into the air.

The soldier outside the door got picked up by the blast and thrown clear.

Aart hit solid ground and rolled, sharp rocks carving deep grazes across his arms and legs. He hit his head on something solid and stars flashed in front of his eyes.

A moment later, a deep boom rocked across the camp, followed by roaring heat.

Aart pushed himself up on quaking arms.

Stone and pieces of the Confederacy building shot up into the air, accompanied by a ball of fire. Concrete and steel rose up, illuminated by the spotlights, and then crashed down in a deadly rain.

Aart covered his head and curled into a ball as pieces of rubble fell around him. The roaring boom left his ears ringing and dulled any other noise. Sharp pieces of shrapnel cut his arms and legs to ribbons. It thrust his mind back to the cave-in; back to when he lost Billy. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought against the memories. This was for Billy. Revenge.

Screams and yelling flew about the camp. Soldiers emerged from tents and scurried toward the Confederacy building. A wailing alarm started, echoing back from the rocky hills and growing louder as Aart's hearing returned.

Aart blinked down at the chaos. He'd survived. But only so far. There'd be footage of him inside the building; they'd know who he was, and they'd catch him.

He'd been so ready to die, but now…

He stood on shaking legs and edged back into the shadows, leaving a trail of blood droplets from his many wounds.

Confederacy soldiers swarmed over the rubble, tearing aside stone and broken doorways to get to the people trapped beneath.

Aart sneered at them. Apparently, it wasn't too much effort to mount a rescue mission for Confederacy soldiers.

"Aart!" a voice hissed from deeper in the shadows.

Aart jumped and turned.

"Aart, you've got to leave. Get out of here."

Aart shrugged. "How? No one ever leaves Goldson."

Maria emerged from the darkness and snatched hold of his arm. "They're all busy with the building. The guards who were loading shipments ran to help; everything is unguarded. Come on!" She hauled him away from the carnage, around the edge of the camp to where a shuttle waited. The whole area was off-limits to miners, but now it lay bare and unprotected.

"Go!" Maria said, shoving him forward. "It's due to leave in the morning and they won't delay shipment. You have to leave."

"But—" Aart stared back at her. Her wiry gray hair stood out around her head like a halo. "I can't leave you."

"If you stay here, you'll be dead."

"But—"

"Go, lad!" She gave him another hard shove and he stumbled toward the shuttle.

Aart gaped at her. It had all happened so fast. One minute he'd been content enough working with Billy, then the cave-in, then he was caught up in a terrorist group, and now he was being shoved away from the only home he'd ever known.

"They'll punish you for this," he said, waving toward the billowing flames left over from the explosion.

"Not as much as they'll punish you if you stay. Go on, get going. If it makes you feel better, remember us when you're out there."

Ice flowed through Aart's veins. He couldn't leave… and yet he had to.

Maria flicked her hands at him a final time and then melted back into the shadows.

Aart turned and stumbled towards the shuttle, if only because he had no idea what else he could do.

Inside, carts and boxes overflowing with gold nuggets glowed beneath a dim light. The metal floor clicked beneath his boots.

He turned in a rapid circle, searching for somewhere to hide.

He strode to a pile of crates and rearranged them to create a tiny space in the very middle where he could hunch down, while still being able to watch the door.

As he worked, the sounds of panic from the camp gradually faded and became something more sinister—something angry. They'd be searching for him.

He hunkered down into his hiding place and drew a crate into position behind him. All he could do now was wait.








CHAPTER FIVE




Aart woke to the floor vibrating beneath his cheek. Something rumbled nearby and the hard floor had numbed his left leg.

"What a bloody mess," said a deep voice.

"When they catch the one that did it…"

Two Confederacy soldiers walked past Aart's hiding spot.

"He better hope he died in the explosion, because what he'll get is worse."

"Just wish I could be there to see him get what he deserves."

"Me too. But boss's orders, the deliveries still have to be made on time."

"Great, another shift spent on Ipheron."

"Have you ever tried their stuff?"

"What? No way. I'll stay natural thank you very much."

"It's good. You should give it a go."

Their voices faded out of Aart's hearing as the soldiers disappeared deeper into the ship.

Aart trembled. They'd left Goldson, his home planet, and he was left floating in space headed to some strange place that he knew nothing about. He shouldn't have left. He should have stayed in hiding, or better yet, not have taken the damn suicide mission. But he'd been so bent on revenge… If Billy could see him now…

Aart bit his lip and swallowed the lump in his throat. There was only one way he'd be able to face living with himself every morning. He'd find a way to free the people of Goldson, even if it was the last thing he ever did. There had to be a way. Out in the universe, there'd be people, technology… something he could use to overthrow the Confederacy soldiers.

He hardened his resolve. He had a plan, now he just had to see it through.

Aart lost track of how long they traveled for, but his stomach ached and his parched tongue scraped against the top of his mouth.

He was just considering what he'd do if the journey ended up being days rather than hours when the pitch of the engine changed. A short time later they bumped against solid ground.

Aart pushed himself as upright as he could get in his hiding place and waited. His head spun from lack of food and water, but if he didn't get off the ship soon he knew he'd die, so he had to push through it.

The soldiers sauntered into view and opened the main door.

Dreary sunlight poured in, accompanied by unfamiliar smells that Aart couldn't place. Through the slits in the crates he could just make out people and buildings beyond the door, more of each than he'd ever seen before.

The soldiers left the ship and the door hissed shut behind them.

Aart held his breath, but nothing happened.

He forced himself to wait a full five minutes before easing the crates away from his hiding place and standing straight. Every muscle in his body ached and dried blood crusted across his skin from the cuts and scrapes he'd taken during the explosion.

He hunched low and scurried to the door. He pressed the button he'd seen the soldiers touch and the door hissed open.

He twirled out of the way, hiding behind the edge of the door, sure to hear sounds of discovery. Nothing.

He edged around the side and studied the world beyond. Unlike Goldson, where the yellowed sky never clouded, the sky here was gray and filled with thick clouds that leaked moisture across a grimy city.

Hard streets and tall buildings surrounded him. People in elaborate costumes with long flowing sleeves strode amongst others who wore little more than rags and held out their hands in begging gestures.

Aart gaped at it all. So different; so many sounds and smells to take in.

He swallowed and shook himself. He had to get away from the ship before the soldiers got back.

Bending low, he dashed through the entrance and out onto the street. He hurried across the hard ground until he reached the shadow of a building across the street. There, he paused.

The ship's door shut.

"Got a credit?" said a man in rags, pushing his toothless face up close to Aart's.

"What? No."

The man scowled and hurried away to the next person.

Noise pounded Aart's eardrums; the hawk of merchants, the buzz of engines, the whirring of overhead ships. Conversations in a myriad of languages surrounded him, threatening to overwhelm.

He took a deep breath. He needed food, water, a place to sleep. For that, he needed money.

He groaned as his eyes fell back on the shuttle; a shuttle filled with gold. His stomach dropped. If he'd just stopped and thought about it for five seconds he could have grabbed a handful of gold and had enough money to survive for weeks. As it was, he couldn't risk going back, and even if he did he had no way of opening the door.

"Idiot!" he cursed himself, smacking his palm against the building beside him.

He rubbed his eyes. He didn't know how things worked here—wherever here was—and he had nothing to his name.

He steadied himself against the building and calmed his racing thoughts. What did he have? What assets? Just himself. He could mine, but somehow the city-like district didn't look like it offered many mining opportunities. His only other skill, one which had got him out of trouble before, was his ability to talk to people.

He stood straight and brushed as much dirt and blood off himself as he could. He steered clear of those dressed in fine robes and went instead to a young man dressed in slightly tattered clothes who stood on the corner selling bruised apples.

"Excuse me," said Aart.

The boy studied him with narrowed eyes. "Want an apple?"

Aart glanced down at the browning fruit. "Thank you, no. I can't afford it."

The boy scowled and looked ready to shoo him on.

Aart spoke before he had a chance. "I was just wondering, what planet is this?"

"What?" said the boy.

"What planet is this?"

"What's wrong with you? It's Ipheron, of course. You hit your head or something?"

"No," Aart said, keeping a light smile on his face. "I just got a little lost."

"You're blocking customers."

"Just one more thing," said Aart. "Do you know where I can get a job?"

"You're mad," said the boy, shaking his head.

"I don't mind what it is, I just need to get back on my feet."

"If there were jobs going around do you think I'd be here selling these?" the boy said, waving to his apples.

"But there must be something? I'll do most things."

The boy scowled. "I know a lot of your type go to the Undercity."

"Where's that?"

"Keep heading that way." The boy flicked his hand toward the nearest street. "You'll get there eventually."

"Thank you," Aart said, turning away.

"Don't be surprised if you don't come back though."

Aart paused and turned back. "What do you mean?"

The boy shrugged. "Undercity has a lot of Emots, don't it? Most that go there don't come back again."

Aart frowned. "Emots?"

"Would you move on?" said the boy. "If my da' sees me talking to you and not selling, he'll hide me. Go on, get going." He flicked his hand at Aart.

Aart backed away and got caught in the crowd of people sweeping down the street. He let the tide carry him, thinking on the boy's words. He'd never heard of an Emot before. Perhaps it was a type of animal?

The way the boy's nose had turned up, the Undercity didn't sound like a good place, but what choice did Aart have? Covered in blood and bruises, no one respectable would have him.

The wave of people thinned and dispersed the farther down the street he went. The tall, gleaming, buildings gave way to block-like apartment buildings which, in turn, gave way to double-story metal structures that leaned out over the street. Metal grating crisscrossed above the street, creating a second layer which plunged the lower street into semi-darkness.

Broken windows and graffiti lined the street, and people in ragged clothing glared out at him from broken doorways. The whir of traffic and business faded until silence pervaded, broken only by the occasional argument or siren. The smell of unwashed bodies and garbage grew stronger the farther he went.

"Got any Joy?" a man said, lurching out from a shadowed alley and snatching hold of Aart's shirt. "I need some Joy."

"What?" Aart said, pulling free of the man's grip. "No, I don't have any."

"You look like you've got some." The man's eyes narrowed as he studied Aart's face. "Give it to me."

Aart stepped around him and kept on down the street, ready to turn and defend himself if the man came at him. Joy. It had to be a kind of drug. Such things weren't allowed on Goldson, but Aart had heard rumors.

"Just a bit? Just a dab?" the man said, scurrying around in front of Aart and dancing backwards down the street. "I'll pay you good. I've got a daughter, she's pretty. She'd treat you right."

"No!" Aart said, sickened at the very thought.

"Come on, she's nice. Maybell! Maybell! Come here," the man screeched, his voice echoing off the tightly packed buildings.

"Jax! Get away from here, I've warned you about hassling customers." A burly man stood in the doorway of a relatively well-kept building. A grimy apron covered his wide stomach and he held a dish-cloth in his hand.

Jax scowled and backed away up the street. "Of course, Mal, didn't know he was one of yours. Didn't mean to cause no trouble."

Aart watched him scurry away and disappear into one of the alleys before turning to Mal. "Thank you."

"Better watch them," Mal said. "Jax isn't too bad, but you get others…"

Aart nodded.

"Looking for a drink?"

Aart spotted the sign above the man's head; The Pipeline. "Actually, I don't have any money. I was looking for a job."

"Ah," Mal said. "We get a lot of you from Goldson here; refugees, I mean." He tapped the skin next to his left eye.

Aart reached up to his own temple, only then remembering his origin tattoo which proclaimed to the world his slave status. He'd gotten so used to seeing them on his fellow miners that he'd forgotten his own. Funny, he hadn't noticed that no one he'd seen so far on Ipheron had one.

Mal chuckled. "You must be fresh out."

"Just got off the ship," Aart said.

"What's your name, lad?"

"Aart."

"I'll tell you what, Aart. I've known lots of good lads from Goldson. If you work for me for a couple of hours I'll give you food and drink. It looks like you could use it."

"You'd do that?" Aart said.

Mal grinned and gestured him through the door. "We're not all bad here on Ipheron. I've been out of luck a few times myself. Not quite in your situation, but I've seen enough of it."

"Thank you," Aart said, following him inside.

"Don't mention it."

Inside was warm and clean, a stark contrast to the grimy chill out on the street. Orange bulbs cast friendly light over tables and chairs where people ate and drank, and spoke in soft tones.

As they past an abandoned table, Aart collected the used plates and cups, balancing them one on top of the other and carrying them into the kitchen behind Mal.

Mal glanced at him and raised an eyebrow. "I like you."








CHAPTER SIX




"This is Watt," Mal said, waving to a burly man in an apron who sweated over a boiling pot.

Watt glanced up.

"Boy's earning a few extra dollars," Mal said.

Aart's eyes went to the tattoo on Watt's temple. Similar to his own but somehow different…

"Watt is from Cupron. You two probably have a lot in common," said Mal.

Aart nodded. "Hello."

Watt nodded and went back to stirring the pot.

"Obviously this is the kitchen," Mal said. "You saw the barroom, and upstairs is where I sleep. If it goes well, tonight you can sleep in the bar after closing."

"Thank you," Aart said, struggling with the man's open generosity.

"And out the back is where I do some harvesting," Mal nodded to a closed door. "I don't push it, mind, not like some places. But I'd be leaving money on the table if I didn't have it."

"Harvesting?" Aart said, but Mal was already walking away, back into the bar.

"You clean tables, take orders, make yourself useful. Who knows what will happen?" Mal said.

Aart nodded and dove into the work.


***


A week later, Aart had a semi-permanent bed set up in the kitchen and knew most of the regulars by name. He had expected Mal to see him off on the second day, but instead he'd given Aart more chores and things had gone on. What had started as a one-night arrangement had turned into an indefinite job, and Aart threw himself in with full determination.

He found he liked working in the bar. He got to talk to interesting people from different planets and hear their fascinating stories. He didn't get yelled at, cursed, or beaten, and he had more than enough to eat. Never had his life felt so good.

"What can I get you?" Aart said.

He stood in front of a group of four; two men and two women. Their clothes lacked the slightly tattered look of the rest of the patrons and they had a superior air about them that Aart recognized from his time with the Confederacy soldiers.

"Four beers. Shot of Joy in each," said the bigger man.

Aart frowned. "Shot of Joy?"

"Yes, are you deaf, boy?"

"I'm not sure we—"

The man rolled his eyes. "I was here last week and you did, so why don't you go and talk to someone with hair on his chest who might actually know what's going on?"


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