Huntress: Alone by Jaye Patrick

Copyright © 2011 Jaye Patrick All rights reserved First Electronic Publishing September 2011

Not for profit under any circumstances, but free for distribution

Huntress: Alone

Chapter One He held the hunting knife in a steady hand, eyes gleaming with sick anticipation. Horror and helplessness filled her as she stared up at him. Then he lowered his gaze and the icy hot blade slowly parted the skin over her sternum. And he smiled as the blood flowed. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, with the drug in her system, but she felt every damn thing he did to her, cried out her pain and anguish in her mind. He was merciless and ruthless as he guided the tip of the knife deeper into her pliable flesh. He spoke to her in a soothing tone, with wonder and fascination as he worked; marvelled at finally having the perfect victim under his absolute control. Then the rape started. His words turned urgent, told her how much she enjoyed the sex with him; that she loved what he did to her. She turned her mind inward, to escape the agony, the grief, the rage. Soft hands touched her, but she resisted, struggled for air, tried to fight her way free of the drug he’d used to paralyse her. The hands turned hard, held her down and a new voice made demands of her, that she wake up, that she stop fighting him. But she’d always... Another blade – hers - sank deep into muscled flesh and hot blood flowed over her hand. Not her blood this time, but his. Grey eyes wide with disbelief and betrayal, as if impossible she kill him for his crimes against her and others. Satisfaction and relief coursed through her veins as the scent of blood flared her nostrils. He couldn’t hurt her any more, or slaughter innocents on whim. Excalibur Jones was dead. Dead. DEAD! And she killed him! ***

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Cambria Petersen slowly shook off the nightmare, the memories. The paralysis eased and she relaxed with a sigh. “Are you okay now?” The soft, accented voice of her worried lover was music to her ears and she opened her eyes. He’d turned the lighting to low. Nathan Caparossi: The man who saved her on Tudor, who waited for her as she hunted Jones; who knew what the serial killer had done to her. His dark chocolate eyes stared down at her, and gentle fingers brushed the damp tendrils of black hair off her brow. She saw the concern, the fear for her, and nodded. “Yeah.” She said hoarsely and reached up to cup his firm, bristled jaw, studied his expression. “I must be a burden to you sometimes.” Caparossi eased out a breath and gave her a brief smile. “A burden I seem unable to resist, even when you pop me in the face in the middle of the night.” Her glance slid away as regret pierced her. She dropped her hand. Two years, two God damned years and she still succumbed to Jones, suffered through his torture and killed him, repeatedly. And although those nightmares came less frequently, it still screwed her up and grieved Caparossi; her because she lived through it, him because he needed to kill Jones for her, to protect her as he’d always done, even as he knew she didn’t need it. Jones had zeroed in on the most important aspect of her nature: that he could brutalise, even kill her and she’d recover. At least, physically. Mentally... that would take time, if ever. She didn’t know what she’d become since that day on Nomad, since she’d blown up a shipload of aliens. The so-called ‘Dark-a-day’ who experimented on other alien species - the women, the children and men, of all ages – and they’d started on the population of the illegal human enclave until she and First Officer Karesh came along.

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“Why me and not her?” She murmured as she recalled the gratitude in the Nomadian’s eyes just before Cambria pressed the button that set off the hydrogen bunker busters. “Because you are special.” Caparossi whispered and she turned a sharp glance at him as he shifted his legs from confining to relaxing. “Before Nomad, I was an ordinary Hunter...” He tapped her nose. “...wanted for the murder of a World Council Senator.” “Which I did not do.” “Which you did not do.” “After Nomad, I’m turned into some miraculous being who can resurrect. But not Karesh. She is dead. Ashes on the wind.” “It gives me no end of comfort that you returned to me, Cam.” He tilted his head as his gaze roamed over her face. “I think I would be destroyed if I ever lost you.” His words sent a thrill through her and, if she were an ordinary woman, she would love to hear such a declaration. But she wasn’t ordinary and he would die on her one day. He had the comfort of knowing he’d never feel the anguish of her dying, while her own love for him, the pain of his passing would endure. But it was too late for escape. She loved him, loved the security he represented, the partnership they’d forged. For as long as he lived, she’d stay with him, enjoy his company. “And I will be shattered.” She said with tears in her eyes. Caparossi brushed his lips over her mouth. “I know.” He whispered and she blinked. He gave her a small smile, genuine humour gleaming. “Will you weep and wail? Throw yourself upon my grave and swear to have no other?” She snorted and choked on a laugh. “Will you wear black forever more, have a shrine dedicated to only me and forsake all others?”

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“I’ll toss the dirt onto your cardboard coffin, brush my hands and walk away with the young attendant.” She replied. He narrowed his gaze. “Guido or Luigi?” “Guido, of course, Luigi suffers from halitosis.” “Oh, good. I like Guido. He reminds me of my father.” Cambria relaxed into a smile and brushed her fingers across his mouth. “But he’s not as... creative as you.” The harsh sound of the alarm broke the impending mood and Caparossi leaned over to the side table to shut it off. “Seems our work day is about to begin.” Cambria stared up at the pale blue ceiling of their shared quarters. “Where are you off to today, Colonel?” He rose and sat on the side of the bed. Cambria sat up and ran a hand down his muscular back. He glanced at her. “I think I am briefing other teams today. Ordering in more supplies – including the knives you seem to keep losing.” “I do try to be careful, you know.” He heaved a sigh. “I think you are personally financing Mr Allan’s retirement. But... he makes the best and we need finely crafted weapons for our Hunters.” She rested her chin on his shoulder. “Having recruitment problems?” He nodded. “Always. But we have the time and patience to weed out any unacceptable candidates. We’re looking at those whose leadership meant the difference between survival and death on some of those colonist planets.” He shook his head. “We don’t have enough of them; never enough.” “The Gardishans spent decades building Earth’s illegal corridors. How is it we – the Hunters – never knew about it until they needed rescuing? Someone should have seen the decline in our population.” She wrapped her arms around his waist and wallowed in the warmth of his flesh. Caparossi snorted. “Yes, they should have, but we don’t have the staff numbers to do a true investigation into who is responsible and why it was kept from us.”

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She let him go, lightly slapped his shoulder. “Well, you and Lord Montague must know it’s someone on the World Council. Only they would have the ability to mask the numbers from the census.” Caparossi rose and stretched. Cambria admired the play of muscle under his tanned skin. “Stop leering at me. We have work to do.” “How do you know I’m leering?” She pouted and he sent her a knowing smile. “You always leer at me, even when I’m not looking. It is innate Italian knowledge. And as you know, all Italians are handsome or gorgeous.” He winked. “Humph.” She climbed off the opposite side of the bed, reached for a silk robe. “I might just take up with an Englishman.” “Too pale. All that rain and fog makes them stoic.” “A Spaniard, then. They’re hot!” “Too temperamental. All that sun and heat makes them unpredictable.” He sniffed. “Yeah, a Spaniard. I like spicy and hot and passionate.” He slid his hands around her waist and whispered in her ear. “You want spicy, hot and passionate? I can show you how... dangerously spicy, hot and passionate an Italian can be.” His hands rose to cup her breasts. She sighed with pleasure. “We’re gonna be late, aren’t we.” She said and reached for him. “Oh... yes, Bella, we are.” *** Cambria tucked her cotton shirt into her blue denim jeans, her skin buzzing from Caparossi’s hands and the hot shower where he used those hands. And still she wanted him.

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“Jeez, you mess with my head.” She muttered and he grinned at her as he buttoned his jacket. She studied him. Tall and darkly handsome in his drab green uniform with its many decorations for service, for bravery. His eyes sparkled with humour and arrogance. Cambria stepped over to him, gently tugged his jacket down and straightened his tie. “I do love a man in uniform... or out of one in your case.” “You are too good to me.” He kissed her cheek. She pulled on her denim jacket. “I know. Come on, let’s go to work.” He picked up her hand and they walked out together, walked the residential hallway of the underground Hunter complex to the elevator and down to the briefing room. He kissed her cheek again and dropped her hand, went to the podium to assign missions. Her mission seemed relatively simple: travel to Lazarus, arrest a man called Lincoln Dwight Grant and bring him back for trial on thirteen counts of murder, twelve counts of conspiracy to commit murder, robbery and illegal arms trading. Bring him back? Why not just swear out an execution warrant? Cambria shook her head. Grant’s picture showed him as a giant of man, with shoulder length unkempt shaggy dark hair. Massive shoulders and chest stretched the material of his white shirt. Worn, pale patches showed on the denim of his jeans that encased thick, tree-trunk thighs. He stood tall in tan, hand-tooled cowboy boots. His sun-darkened skin was the shade of a man who worked out doors. Pale blue eyes reflected an unguarded, angry expression. He looked like a very pissed off bear. She hoped he wouldn’t fight her. The warrant was for arrest, not execution. Someone must have a good reason to want him alive. Tranquilising him wouldn’t work – he was too big and too heavy for her to carry back to the Spatial Vortex Transport, or ‘corridor’ as the Hunter organisation called them.

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Cambria had tranq’d Lady Corona Cottington-Blake on Ragnarok. The Council convicted the former Minister of conspiring to murder hundreds and treason against an allied planet, but she was a slight woman, easily put into the back of a vehicle. Grant imitated a man mountain and she’d need a counter-gravity unit to lift him. That or local help. She chewed her lip and read the rest of the report. Grant was a very bad boy. Born in county Texas of the American province, he’d grown up on a vast provincialowned cattle farm; no, it was a ranch, wasn’t it? Or a cattle station? His parents, Adam and Martha, worked themselves into an early grave, as their grandparents had. Grant then spent most of his childhood at the ranch crèche. Life on a farm was obviously hard work, but the workers and the provincial government reaped the rewards of their endeavours, with highly prized prime beef sold to the best restaurants around the world. Frustrated, ill educated – which was irresponsible in these global times of compulsory school – he’d spent a lot of time hiding from truancy officers, judging from one of the appendices attached to the report. He’d started small, stealing from the supply depot on the ranch, graduating to drunken fights with other workers, harassing the women of the ranch – and Cambria felt the slow burn of vengeful anger. Grant finally lost it and went on a rampage, killing a dozen workers and running off the cattle. The remaining men banded together to defend themselves, but Grant still managed to injure some of them. Then he’d escaped and fell in with a group who trafficked arms to the Mexican province. Mexico farmed pharmaceutical plants, but some workers, who’d escaped, formed groups to make illegal drugs. The provincial government continued to hunt for them, but failed to find the cookhouses or the gang leaders. It was a never-ending process for law enforcement. Grant’s colleagues exported psychotropic drugs to anyone who could afford them. Dancer, the current preferred addictive narcotic, caused hallucinogenic effects

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of euphoria, then mellowness and finally, a sporadic muscle twitch akin to spasmodic dancing. Eventually, the uncontrollable muscle spasms increased to such an extent that bones broke and tendons or cartilage ripped off joints. The trauma was so extensive sufferers died from heart failure, brain aneurisms or killed themselves messily. Maybe someone should charge him with the manslaughter of those addicted souls, she thought grimly. Grant’s pals needed weaponry to protect their turf, to guarantee a supply route for their product to overseas customers and to ward off interfering and annoying narcotics agents. He’d need some serious military hardware to go up against the Special Narcotics Forces Unit of the defence force. Cambria thought that some centuries back a civil war had erupted on the border between America and Mexico over illegal substances; but she couldn’t recall when. Somehow, Grant managed to get off planet - and she suspected another illegal corridor - to arrange for more effective, advanced weaponry. That’s why he was on Lazarus, the report concluded. She tsked and shook her head. Grant was a career criminal in need of an attitude adjustment. “Problems?” Caparossi sat next to her, leaned back in the soft leather padded chair and draped his arm behind her. “Grant is some kind of nasty. I’m trying to work out how to bring him in. This is a job for a team, not a single Hunter.” He leaned over to look at the picture. “Big brute.” “Lazarus is a known trading post, isn’t it? Off world imports and exports?” “Indeed it is. If you have the money, they’d have the know-how to acquire the weaponry you need for any military project. What’s Grant up to?” He asked. “Since he’s fallen in with the provincial Mexican bandits, I suspect he wants some advanced technology to ensure the future of his business.”

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“Then you’ll just have to disabuse him of his ambitions.” Caparossi said. “I think he’s going to fight my attempts to extradite him back to Earth.” “I think you’re right. He doesn’t look the sort to give in or give up just because you ask nicely.” She shut down the information unit, tucked it into the top pocket of her jacket. “Well, I’ll ask, of course, but I expect he’ll politely decline my invitation.” She sighed. “They don’t allow weapons, either. Can I have a team?” He poked her in the back with a finger. “We don’t have the staff, Cam, everyone’s busy. I’m sure you’ll be able to bring him in - conscious or not. Use the local constabulary if necessary.” Cambria stood. “Time to go get the felon.” She looked down at him; put her hands on the back of the chair on either side of his body. “I’ll be seeing you later.” And she leaned down to kiss him. “Mmm. I think I’ll be waiting.” He grinned when she lifted her mouth from his.

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Chapter Two Lazarus was one of the first planets humans arrived on – legitimately. For nearly two hundred years, humans built a society with the most advanced technology of the time, and continued to advance as technology advanced. Like most human planets, the Gardishans manipulated the Government into installing second-hand corridors. Lazarus, an ardent ally of Earth, had the benefit of the Nexian technicians fixing those corridors first. Cambria walked around the arrival concourse, the vague feeling of coming home settling around her. Humans were the predominant species, with a smattering of aliens. All the typical franchises dotted the embarkation area, fashion, food and tax-free products, bars, restaurants, newsagents. She listened to alien conversations. The weirdness in her head translated the languages with barely a pause. And to think, when I first went to Tudor, I couldn’t believe I was on another planet. How many humans on Earth still think interstellar travel is impossible? And that there’s no such thing as aliens? The Dark-a-day, Watchers, ‘Guardians of this dimension’, the Nexians called them, now made up a part of her DNA, absorbed on the day she blew up the aliens on Nomad. Somehow, the universal translator installed by the Nomadians became organic and supplied her with an almost encyclopaedic knowledge whenever she accessed it. She suspected the Watchers used her to garner more knowledge about the species they had lost when she and Karesh destroyed their ship: humans. All she knew of the mysterious creatures was that no one could properly describe them. Witnesses told only of a darkness surrounded by mist. She knew they monitored her and gave her updated information every time someone killed her. Then they sent her back to life. She couldn’t decide if her existence depended on them, or they were genuinely keen on discovering what would kill her, so they could claim the same option. Was

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she a guinea pig for a superior, highly intelligent, highly advanced species or an interesting freak of nature? She shook off her thoughts. Grant would provide enough of a challenge; philosophising on her state of being could wait until she could ask the appropriate species – and that wouldn’t happen until someone killed her again; something she was disinclined to encourage. Cambria went to the Transit Authority office and showed her Hunter identification to the security officer. “Yes, ma’am, how may I assist?” The twenty-something man asked with a blandness that belied the excitement in his hazel eyes. “I’m looking for Lincoln Grant.” She said and pulled out her information unit, turned the device around to show the officer. “Linc?” His eyebrows rose. “Well, I’ll be damned. What’s he done?” “Haven’t you read the off-world warrant sheets?” He looked affronted. “Of course, it’s mandatory, but Linc Grant isn’t on them.” He turned away to a desk, picked up a handful of sheets and laid them in front of Cambria. “Here, these are the warrants for the last month, check for yourself.” Cambria accepted the pages, read them. He was right: Grant’s name wasn’t on it. She frowned. She supposed it was possible they hadn’t had an update. But she had her warrant and that’s all she needed. “How long has Grant been on planet?” She checked his nametag. “Officer Brent.” He pulled out his own information unit and brought up the details. “He arrived ten days ago. He’s a frequent visitor to Lazarus, coming in about once a month and records business as the primary reason for being here.” “Does he list a business?” “Yes, ma’am, he’s in the import/export industry. Advanced farm equipment routed through Lazarus from the Marsurius Protectorate.” He smiled at her. “They

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have the most efficient agricultural techniques going. They can grow crops on a rock, those guys.” When Cambria didn’t return his smile, he cleared his throat and continued reading. “Ah, he imports the equipment and exports the produce, corn, barley, beef and some lamb. I believe the Protectorate find our goods to be delicacies, and charge their people accordingly.” I’ll bet they do. She thought. Especially since there are no privately held farms in the American Province, which makes everything he sells illegal. Something this jackass should know. Farm machinery would make a good cover for the illegal arms. And the produce provided a conduit to ship illegal drugs off world. The amount of money Grant could earn had the potential to be staggering, unless she stopped him. “Where can I get a hold of the shipping manifests?” “The spaceport. He ships in bulk.” “Customs inspection reports?” “Same place.” He leaned forward. “Do you suspect him of importing illegal items or something?” “I’m not at liberty to say, officer, but I’m sure you’ll receive a full download of the proceedings.” And maybe a warrant for your own arrest on aiding and abetting. She could add more charges to Grant’s warrant once she had a copy of the manifests. She thanked him and left. Outside the transit facility, the air blew fresh and autumnal. The lighter gravity lifted her spirits, as if the very atmosphere took away her worries. In the sky, she saw the pale curves of two moons, one close, the other half its size and more distant. She hailed a taxi – a Terran vehicle – got in, and asked for the spaceport. The driver nodded and drove off while she looked around. The city of Rising was a modern, model city with low buildings instead of towers to block the view of the surrounding mountain ranges. Built in the middle of

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an old giant meteor impact zone, the humans had constructed their first city with care and a focus on minimal impact on the environment. Trees, Terran and native, grew tall above the broad boulevards, leaves turning brown and fluttering onto the grassed, open spaces. “New in town?” The driver asked and she met his gaze in the rear view mirror. “Yes. You have a beautiful city here.” She said. “Indeed we do. We arrived with the intention of not repeating Earth’s environmental mistakes. I think we’ve managed that.” His expression turned grim. “We also have the expectation that tourists and visitors to our fair planet will maintain the status quo and not do anything to harm the environment.” Cambria felt her eyebrows rise. “Harsh penalties for littering?” “Very. People who abuse Mother Nature rarely arrive at the police station unharmed.” He gave her a grin. “The citizens of Rising are serious about keeping a clean environment and ferocious in punishing wrong-doers.” She nodded slowly. “I’ll keep that in mind.” He pulled up in front of the spaceport gates. “You’ll need to catch another taxi from here, ma’am.” She handed over her Hunter ID and he swiped it through the credit machine, handed the card back without looking at it. The ID, with a DNA implant, drew directly on the financial resources of the Hunter Unit. “Thanks.” She said and got out. An enormous silver craft with alien language on the side slowly lifted off in eerie silence. The language shifted in front of her eyes. Orthra Murgra. Star Witch. With a shake of her head, she approached the guard who eyed her with suspicion. “May I help you?” He asked. She pointed to the rising ship. “Passenger liner?”

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“Cargo. We don’t have passenger liners on Lazarus. The passenger transit facility is downtown.” He reached inside the guardhouse. “I can call another taxi to take you.” “Please don’t, I was just making conversation. I’m not here to leave, I’m here to investigate.” She brought out her Hunter ID and guard took it, stepped inside the guardhouse. Cambria watched the silver craft, the sun shining off the hull like a starburst. Did it contain ‘farming equipment’ or something else? Where was its destination? “Everything is in order, Hunter.” The guard said and unlocked the gate. “A vehicle will arrive shortly to take you to the customs office.” “Thank you.” She said and walked through. “Good Hunting, ma’am.” He replied and closed the gate. She heard the metallic lock engage. Cambria turned her attention to the perimeter. The twelve-metre high, reinforced steel fence stretched out in either direction, with guard boxes spaced out every two hundred metres. Storage buildings were a hundred metres inside the fence with plenty of open space between the enormous hangars. Anyone attacking the facility would have to cross what ostensibly became a killing ground. Once, she’d never thought of how to defend territory; but that was before Tudor and the need to defend the village against the surrounding wildlife. She saw the black vehicle approach, its engine silent. A tiny woman dressed in the black uniform of a customs agent turned out of the golf-cart sized vehicle. “Hunter Petersen.” She tilted her head, auburn hair neatly tucked back in a bun. “I’m Customs Agent Jane Rhodes, your escort for the duration of your investigation. May I see your identification, please?”

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Cambria handed her wallet over and the agent studied the information, held it up and turned it to the side. “It’s genuine, I assure you.” Cambria said with a slight smile. “But it pays to check anyway.” Rhodes handed the wallet back and indicated the vehicle. “Shall we?” Cambria climbed in the passenger side. The agent started the vehicle and drove in a curve to head to one of the hangars. The agent didn’t speak, nor did Cambria ask questions. Approaching the building, she saw armed guards pace the length of the wall, rifle barrels gleamed silver in the sunlight. Cambria flicked at glance at the agent, but the woman said nothing. Rhodes drove inside the building through a twenty-five-metre wide open door. On the left were offices, four stories high and in the open area, crates of all shapes, sizes and material were stacked, awaiting inspection. In between the crates, male and female customs agents roamed with info-boards and flat-ended bars with which to open the cargo. Rhodes parked halfway down the office row. “This way, please.” Cambria followed the agent up a short flight of wooden steps. She glanced down. Wood? As if reading her mind, Rhodes turned with a slight smile. “Recycled.” She said and opened a door. The cramped office hosted a desk, two chairs and six filing cabinets taking up almost all the available space. The agent squeezed between desk and cabinet, seated herself and pointed to the chair facing the desk. “Now then Hunter, how may the Customs Service assist you?” Cambria cleared her throat. “I’m interested in the shipping manifests of Lincoln Grant.”

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Rhodes frowned, pulled out her info unit and ran her finger across the surface. Then she rose, and turned to one of the filing cabinets. “He imports/exports agricultural equipment, imports consumable produce from Earth for sale off world.” “Any... anomalies?” Rhodes turned to her, thin white plastic sheets in hand. “Smuggling?” She asked instead. “Maybe.” Cambria hedged and Rhodes resumed sitting, studied the documentation. “All the manifest documentation is in order.” She murmured and shifted the flimsies, studied the next sheet. “No compromise on the integrity of the customs seals on eighty percent of cargo from Earth and incoming worlds. All of that cargo has been certified as genuine.” She lifted her gaze from the documents. “And the other twenty percent?” Rhodes tossed her head towards the door. “If you look outside the pitifully small window, you’ll see the inspection area is full and this is one of a dozen inspection facilities on this base.” She laid the documents on the desk, crossed her arms on the surface. “While we endeavour to search every piece of cargo coming into Lazarus, the task is an impossible one, as any customs agent will tell you. We pride ourselves on maintaining an average higher than any other Customs Service humans have ever had. But to settle your mind, sample cargo is unloaded and scanned through a state-of-the art inspection device. Anything that even hints of being illegal is removed and thoroughly inspected.” She leaned back in her chair. “That’s not to say clever people can’t get by us. If you would give me an idea of what you’re searching for, I’ll be able to tell you if it’s possible.” She invited. Cambria breathed deep. “Weapons and drugs.” She said. Rhodes snorted. “The usual, then. I’m not saying it’s impossible to smuggle either through our system, but it is extremely difficult. Illegal narcotics are the first and most important thing we search for, thus, we designed our systems to hunt

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down even the smallest amount. Large quantities simply don’t come through because it’s too easy to find. Weapons...” She pursed her lips. “I admit we have some problems with weapons. Our equipment, currently, cannot detect weapons made of an alien material. Terran elements and material, yes - and we do find them. A single weapon here and there, usually for personal protection. But wholesale arms’ smuggling? Unless it’s something the customs agents have seen we don’t know what to look for. Information is coming down the line, from the World Council, from allied planets and systems, but it’s a slow process and we work on a rotation for training.” “So Grant could be smuggling advanced weapons’ systems.” Cambria said with satisfaction. Rhodes narrowed her gaze, green eyes sparking. “Could be, but I find it highly doubtful. We've never caught Mr Grant smuggling anything, his cargo is impeccable for the past ten years. I see no reason to suspect him of arms’ smuggling.” Cambria reached into her pocket for the treated paper version of the warrant, slid it across the desk. Rhodes picked it up and read it. Her expression drained of colour, then flushed red as she handed the warrant back. “I don’t believe it.” “Why not?” Cambria asked, curious. “As a businessman he buys and sells, but as an ordinary citizen, he has helped the farmers of Lazarus improve their crops and their farming practices – without charging one red cent for his expertise. As a person, he’s friendly, clever, professional, abides by the law and we’ve had no reason to look at him any closer than we have.” Cambria tilted her head. “You’re a fan.” Rhodes’ mouth tightened. “I have no reason to suspect him of wrong doing. Yes, I have met him but through my dealings with him, I have not seen any indication, not one iota of a clue, as to any malfeasance. I wouldn’t say that about most of the

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people I deal with Hunter, but to sully a man’s reputation without proof is a despicable thing.” Cambria tightened her own expression. “The World Council issued this warrant, Agent Rhodes. They do not issue warrants because they don’t like someone’s success. Before the GSU swears out a warrant, they investigate the charges thoroughly. The proof, should you require it, will be at the World Council’s Global Security Unit.” Silence hung between them as they tried to stare each other down. Cambria was confident of Grant’s guilt – Rhodes absolute in his innocence. Could Grant have paid off customs staff as well as the transit officer? Cambria wasn’t prepared to make that accusation, particular since Rhodes hadn’t given any indication of automatic defence, just natural support for a successful businessman. Grant didn’t look charming in his picture, didn’t seem the kind of man to employ such methods, nor did Rhodes seem the kind of woman to succumb to seduction measures. Cambria slowly nodded. “Well enough, Agent Rhodes. I still have to take him in, for his own benefit in defending himself against the charges.” “And his reputation will still be ruined by innuendo and rumour.” Rhodes bit out. “I have spoken to Officer Brent of the Transit Authority and you of this matter. Any rumour won’t be coming from me.” She promised. “And you can personally contact the GSU for the proof, should you require it.” Rhodes took her word. “I’ll trust Hunter honour this time. Officer Brent will be hearing from me.” Cambria finally dropped her gaze; saw the gold wedding band on Rhodes’ finger. “Where is Grant?” She asked and returned her gaze to Rhodes.

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The agent breathed deep and her mouth turned down in an unhappy expression. Then she checked her wrist unit. “He’ll be at the Green Friar’s Inn, probably in the bar for another couple of hours.” “Drinking?” She resisted a sneer. Just like his file said, then. He’d be drunk and belligerent, a difficult prospective. “That’s what the bar is for.” “Armed?” “No. No weapons allowed within the city limits.” Rhodes replied. Which meant he probably was, given who and what he was and where he’d come from. An inter-galactic arms’ smuggler would have no trouble secreting a weapon about his person. Cambria stood. “Okay, then. I’ll just go and have a word with him, see if I can convince him to come back to Earth with me without causing a ruckus.” Rhodes’ mouth quirked as she rose. “Any ‘ruckus’ he creates will be getting in contact with his lawyer.” She said. “You don’t become a success in business by bullying people.” Cambria disagreed, but didn’t speak her doubts. Rhodes drove her back to the gate and the guard called her a taxi. Cambria got in and gave the driver the address of the Green Friar’s Inn. Then she turned around. The agent and guard watched her leave and she saw their mouths move in conversation. Rhodes went back through the gate and Cambria wondered if the agent was going to warn Grant. If she supported a man under a suspicion she knew was false, she’d call it in, too. On a sigh, she turned to the front and saw the driver, different from the one who brought her out, watching her with a suspicious expression.

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Chapter Three The Green Friar’s Inn was obviously more salubrious than the name indicated. Bejewelled clients, dressed in the latest fashions, streamed in and out of the rotating door. Cambria handed the driver her Hunter ID to pay for the ride. This driver studied the card with interest, but made no comment. On the grassy sidewalk, Cambria looked down at her jeans and jacket. Probably not respectable enough for an establishment of this level, but... no one could refuse her ID. She stepped through the revolving door and wondered what the consequences would be if someone did refuse a Hunter access. She’d given Derryn an official warning on Ragnarok; he’d had no choice but to comply because he’d placed her and her captured felon, Cottington-Blake in life threatening situations. But if someone simply said ‘no’ to her entering an establishment? What then, would happen? Yes, she was judge, jury and executioner, so she supposed punishment was her decision to make; how to enforce her decision was the problem. Laws only worked if most, if not all, voluntarily abided by them and submitted themselves to punishment if they violated those laws. Hell, she could always wait outside. She walked into a medieval-style bar, which reminded her of Fenrir’s on Ragnarok, except this bar didn’t have fire pits. Rough-hewn wooden tables and benches, a fireplace set against the wall, low beams and a dark wooden bar lit by lanterns hanging on the support beams. He sat at the bar drinking out of a dull silver tankard, he looked enormous, bigger than his picture portrayed. She didn’t suppose anyone would be brave enough to approach Grant and suggest he be punished for any transgressions. He shifted on his stool and the wood squeaked in protest.

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Cambria swallowed against a suddenly dry throat then slowly approached, hooked her butt on the stool next to him. She wondered how she was going to take him down. “Budski Black, please.” She asked of the barkeeper. The sandy-haired man nodded and started to pour the dark ale into a tankard. Cambria watched him and tried to think of a way to open a conversation with Grant. Nothing came to mind. In fact, she felt the jittering jangle of nerves, as if this was her first take down. Cambria could feel her insides tremble and she realised she was afraid; deep down, Grant scared her as much as Jones had. Grant was the type of man who could break her in two without raising a sweat and walk away laughing. He could easily overpower her. Jones may have used a drug, but the result was the same: her under his complete control. Grant wouldn’t need any drug. One thump with a hog-sized fist and he could drag her off. And she’d never recover from the humiliation and fear. Her days as a Hunter would end. If she didn’t take Grant in, she’d never find the courage to pick up the badge again. Jones had stolen more than her freedom and life, she realised, he’d stolen her courage. And without realising it, she’d been slowly rebuilding it with the help of Caparossi and therapists. She couldn’t fail herself, for in doing so, she failed Nathan. The barkeeper set her tankard on the bar and looked at her expectantly. Cambria swallowed hard and braced herself, slid her Hunter ID across to him. Her fingers shook. The barkeeper’s eyebrows rose, but he made no comment. “Long way from home.” The deep, gravelly voice said next to her. She accepted the card back and tucked her wallet into the back pocket of her jeans. She didn’t reply at first, took a sip of her favourite ale to ease the dryness. Then she turned towards him. “Yep.” She said and was proud her voice didn’t shake. Cambria had no doubt he’d glanced at the ID.

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He studied the contents of his own tankard, and then slid it towards the barkeeper for a refill. “I reckon you’re here for a purpose; one that doesn’t involve staying at this fine establishment.” Cambria took another gulp of her ale. The barkeeper placed a foaming tankard in front of Grant and moved away. Whether it was because he had something else to do, or to give them privacy, she didn’t hazard a guess. Her focus was on her felon. “I reckon you’re right.” She said and nervously licking the foam from her lips. “My question is: who you represent. A business rival would send someone more... seductive to blackmail me with.” Cambria’s mouth dropped open. “I’m no honey pot, Grant, and having sex isn’t illegal. Anywhere.” She said, outraged. The big man grinned, flashed white, even teeth through the darkness of his full beard. “Just checking.” He turned in his seat, hooked a boot heel over the rung. “So. You’re not dressed for partying. You don’t seem the kind of woman to suddenly decide to step inside a plooty hotel to discover its’ delights. You’re not dressed like a businesswoman even though it’s nearing the end of the working day. Yet, what you wear is comfortable, a kind of uniform for you. Durable, washable, tough wearing.” Cambria turned and faced him, leaned against the bar. “Your hands,” he said and Cambria glanced at them, “aren’t those of a manual labourer, nor of an office worker. But what really gives you away is the belt.” “My belt?” “Sure thing, ma’am. You don’t need to hold your pants up and it’s not a fashion accessory. It has nicks and wear marks on the leather suggesting something usually hangs or attaches to it. Judging from the spacing, I’d say frequently used equipment. And,” he toasted her with his mug, “I’m pretty sure it’s something to do with... law

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enforcement. Being off world – and you knowing my name before we’ve been introduced - you have to be... a Hunter.” Grant grinned at her again, as if to convince her he was harmless. She knew from his record he was not and had an inclination for violence. She gripped her tankard, tested its durability and effectiveness as an impromptu weapon. “And if I was?” “I’d be wondering why you’re here. Which,” he tapped the side of his head, “with my exceptional deduction skills, I can assume it has something to do with me, especially since you already know me and where to find me.” He lifted his own tankard and drank deeply. “Right again.” She carefully watched his every move, ready to retreat should he advance. “So ask your questions and I’ll be as helpful as possible in your pursuit of your felon.” He lifted a massive shoulder. Cambria gulped her ale again. “I don’t need to ask you any questions, Grant, the felon I’m Hunting is you.” Grant looked at her, then threw back his head and laughed. The booming sound brought the attention of every patron in the place - including the barkeeper, and those passing by out on the street turned their heads with disapproval. Cambria patiently waited for his humour to subside. “And what did I do to warrant such attention from the World Council? Did I fail to pay the proper bribe?” Cambria showed him the warrant and his cocky grin disappeared as he read it. “You are joking!” Grant shoved off the chair and Cambria matched him, her own stool falling over as she moved back. Grant towered over her, his expression furious and similar to that in his file. But he didn’t look at her. He read and re-read the document. “That evil prick! He’s not getting away with this bilge!” He leaned across the bar. “Nigel! Gimme a phone! I’m calling my lawyer!”

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“You can’t.” Cambria said quietly. “What?” He roared and she flinched in the face of such fury. “I know my fucking rights! And the first one is to representation! I’ll crush him; grind his bones to dust, for this...” “Ahm...” Her voice shook with fear. God, she wanted to run, wanted to hide from his anger, but she stood her ground. Grant narrowed his eyes at her. “I could walk all over you and you wouldn’t stop me. I scare the spit out of you.” He stepped closer and she swayed. “You should have brought a team to bring me in. Cambria agreed. He did scare the tripe out of her and a part of her accused her of cowardice. She swallowed hard. “You would frighten a Komatsu into rolling over in acquiescence.” She said, referring to a ferocious, near elephant-sized creature from Tudor. The creature had vicious claws and once left their mark on her. “A what?” She remembered taking down a couple of the deadly beasts – without her enhanced system. The memory gave her courage, made her remember who and what she did, and why. “If you’re lucky, I’ll explain them to you, but for now, I need to take you back to Earth to defend these charges.” She said with more confidence. “A snip of girl like you, dragging me back to Earth?” “Yes.” And she swallowed hard again. He eyed her. “You do know these charges are bullshit.” “No.” “You’re serious. You were sent to bring me back.” He reached behind his body for the stool and relaxed onto it. “I cannot believe this.” He muttered, but he was over the shock of the warrant. He handed it back to her with one hand and gulped the rest of his ale with the other. “Are you coming quietly?” She asked.

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He raised thick, bushy eyebrows. “People of my size are never quiet.” “All right, are you coming peacefully?” Grant dragged air into his lungs, expanded his barrel-like chest. “Am I allowed a lawyer once we return?” It seemed like a strange request. “I assume so. It’s not an execution warrant, so I also assume the World Council Judicar wants to hear your side of the story. You can only do that with legal representation. Why would you ask?” He stared off into the distance for a moment. “Never mind. This has all happened so quickly. Never figured I’d be unprepared for it.” He heaved himself up and waited. When she did nothing, he asked, “Do you want to cuff me or take my word that I won’t run?” Cambria eyed his thick wrists. “Truth to tell, I don’t think my cuffs will fit, so I’m going to have to take your word.” “Fair enough.” He held up a hand. “I promise I won’t try to escape.” She knew better than to trust a felon, and yet, apart from being furious over the warrant, he’d not offered her violence. Of course, that could change as soon as they were out of the Green Friar’s Inn and on their way to the Transit terminal. All she could do was watch his every move and she nodded. “Let’s go.” Outside the Inn, Grant lifted his fingers to his mouth and let rip with an earsplitting whistle to attract the attention of a taxi. Cambria slammed her hands over her ears, but too late. Every person on the street turned and gaped at the giant. “Jesus wept, Grant,” she protested, “my ears!” A taxi screeched to a halt in front of them, the driver eyeing Grant with trepidation. He got in the back and the taxi lowered on its suspension. Cambria followed more carefully, in case the tyres burst under the combined weight.

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She gave the driver instructions and he cautiously pulled out on to the road, as if fearing the vehicle wouldn’t move. Grant sat back and crossed his beefy arms over his chest. “I am so angry right now, but not at you. I have never hit a woman, never intimid...” he flashed her a humourless smile, “never intentionally intimidated a woman. It’s true,” he nodded, “that as a child, I stole from the supply depot. Food for me and the other orphans worked to near death by our overlords. And it’s true they punished me for it. It’s a miracle I grew so large - given the lack of nutritional food. I spent most of my time on foot, since no one had a horse large enough for me to sit on.” “Ranches still used horses?” Cambria asked. “They don’t break down, don’t need fixin’ and don’t need artificial fuel, just good food and good water and they’ll keep on going.” He said. “In dire circumstances, you can even use them as food. You can’t eat a vehicle.” He heaved a sigh. “The accusations of murder are false, Hunter, although I will admit to a towering temper. I learned at a young age to corral that temper, lest I do someone a terrible mischief. As for arms’ dealing, I have no need of weapons, except personal ones to protect my business.” Cambria didn’t believe him. The World Council’s Global Security Unit would never fake evidence or information. Their objective was the protection of the people from those who would instigate or commit massive crime, be it murder, like Excalibur Jones, or treasonous conspiracy, like Lady Corona Cottington-Blake. They required compelling evidence to swear out a warrant for the Hunters to execute. Not even the World Council could interfere with its’ mandate and all evidence had to be unimpeachable. A slam-dunk in a court of law. Which made her wonder. Hunters were judge, jury and executioner. They had authorisation to carry out sentences in the form of the warrant. Off world, far from the Judicars, they had to be responsible for sentences they handed down. And when

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Hunters returned to Earth, they’d better have compelling evidence for handing down that sentence, or suffer the consequences. So why did this warrant, with all its compelling evidence back at the GSU headquarters, not be an execution warrant? Oh, she had no doubt of his guilt, but given the heinousness of the crimes, why not execute him? Who on Earth wanted a chat with him, wanted him in custody? “Here we are.” Grant said and got out of the taxi. Then he ducked his head. “You’re paying; I’ll wait over there, near the front door.” Cambria frowned. Now he was anxious to get back to Earth? To defend himself or what? Once in custody at the Hunter facility, he’d have no opportunity to escape and yet, when she looked, there he stood, a man mountain with crossed arms, waiting for her. She paid the fare and got out. “What are you up to?” She demanded and he affected an innocent expression. “And don’t say 'nothing'. The warrant may be for arrest but the sentence certainly deserves permanent exile or the death penalty.” “If you keep scowling like that, you’ll get wrinkles.” He said and opened the door for her. Suspicious, she preceded him. No felon she knew, or Hunted, was this amiable about a return to face the death penalty. Did he have evidence to prove his innocence? If he did, what did that say about the GSU? The answer didn’t bear thinking about. There’d be too many scenarios for her to investigate. It wasn’t her responsibility. Her job was to bring the felons in, not question the GSU. Grant walked beside her to the transit counter and the woman attendant stared up in awe at Grant who smiled down at her, gave her a nod. Cambria cleared her throat. “Two for transit to Earth.” She said and the attendant typed in her request, all without looking at the screen. The printer spat out two tickets and Cambria ripped them from the tray.

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“Come on, Mountain Man.” She muttered and rolled her eyes as Grant gave the woman a wink. The woman blushed scarlet and ducked her head. Cambria walked to the transit corridor and gave the tickets to the male attendant. “Address?” He asked and eyed Grant as Cambria told him. His fingers danced over the keyboard and a green light came on over the door. “You first, Mr Grant.” Cambria said politely. “Why, thank you, Hunter, most kind.” He pulled open the door, glanced at the transit operator and stepped through, smiling. Cambria waited. The light turned red for transit-in-motion, then back to green. She shook her head. At least this Hunt had started, continued and ended without trouble. Her first, she realised where the felon didn’t fight her every inch of the way. On a relieved sigh, she opened the door. She’d be back for dinner and she wondered if Caparossi was up for night out? *** Colonel Caparossi stood at ease in the observation room. He’d spent his day training new Hunters, testing their fortitude and aptitude for critical, instinctive decision-making. Sixty percent of them... failed, and while he could send them for refresher courses, he knew at least half of them simply were unsuitable for the kind of work Hunters did. As expected, some thought that service in the Colonial Marines guaranteed them entry into Hunter Service. They quickly discovered they had to unlearn all they’d been taught in the marines, for it wasn’t just a ‘follow orders’ kind of a job. Missions required thought, not just a ‘go and get’. Situations arose that the ordinary grunt wouldn’t run into, like instinctive control of a power more deadly than any weapon: that of judiciary power. Every allied planet recognised the need and authority of the Hunters and bowed to that authority. But in the hands of the

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wrong person and alliances could crumble. And he was at pains to preserve the outstanding reputation of the Hunters for solving tricky political problems as well as executing their warrants without creating inter-galactic incidents. “Incoming, Colonel. It’s Lazarus.” A technician next to him said. Caparossi smiled. He hadn’t expected Cambria to return so soon and he wondered how she managed to bring Grant down. He’d been worried after this morning’s nightmare. Whenever Jones stalked her dreams, it chilled him to the core. She’d finally told him what happened and with the help of a therapist, he thought she was slowly coming to terms with what he’d done to her, but some nights all the therapy in the world failed to protect her from her own demons, from her memories. He wished he could go back in time and kill the mongrel himself, but all he could do was be there when she came out of the paralysing episodes. He knew when it was bad, for she stiffened next to him, as if made of wood and no amount of prodding or cajoling could break her out of it. The horror of what she endured gave him his own special set of nightmares, but at least he could wake himself up; Jones’ control over her was so complete, her unconscious mind took over and froze her muscles, just as the drug Jones used did in her waking life. God, he hoped Jones suffered when Cambria killed him. The light flashed from green to red, then green again and he waited for the door to open. Grant first, he thought, but the door remained closed. Less than thirty seconds later, the light flashed to red again, then green and still the door stayed shut. Cold fear streaked through him. They bought this corridor from the Gardishans and they all knew of the potentially fatal flaw in those corridors. But the Nexian technicians fixed it. Gave a guarantee the corridor wouldn't fail under any circumstances they could think of. He looked at the technician. “What happened?”

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The white-coated man hunched over his keyboard, checked the workings of the corridor. “It didn’t fail, sir, it’s in perfect working order, like the Nexians promised.” “But...?” “I don’t know, sir. It’s as if... as if... the incoming traffic was diverted during transit.” The technician looked up at him. “Diverted?” The technician warmed to his subject. “Hijacked, sir. Like a pirate intercepting a shipment, or...” he pursed his lips and tried to think of another analogy. “If you think of the Spatial Vortex as a straight line from source to destination, what I think happened here is someone waited for the Hunter terminal address to be typed in but piggy-backed another address and diverted the destination to somewhere else.” Caparossi frowned. “Like an intercepted telephone call.” “Yes, sir.” The technician agreed and turned back to his keyboard. “So, where are they?” The technician’s shoulders hunched in again. “Sir?” “What was the new destination, Baxter? Where did Hunter Petersen and the convicted murderer, Lincoln Grant end up?” Baxter swallowed hard and stared at the computer screen that monitored the functions of the corridor. “Ah, I have no idea, sir. They could be anywhere in the galaxy, anywhere there’s a corridor.” He lifted his gaze to Caparossi. “And I have no way to track them.”

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Chapter Four Cambria closed the door behind her and walked to the end with the expectation of Grant in cuffs, surrounded by fully armed guards and a smiling Caparossi with heat in his eyes. Instead, she staggered mid-stride, stumbled to her knees, as if Nexians hadn’t fixed the corridor and still had the potentially catastrophic flaw. She put her hand on the wall to steady herself and rose, walked the rest of the way to the opposite door. If the corridor failed, whoever was unfortunate enough to be inside would find their molecules scattered throughout the galaxy. Everyone in the Hunter facility knew of the danger and sought to find the imperfect corridors. Whatever had gone wrong with the Hunter corridor needed fixing ASAP. She opened the metal door with a blistering comment on her tongue, but found herself confronted with blinding sunlight. The unexpected sight startled her, confused her and she froze with momentary puzzlement as she tried to work out where she was and what happened to the Hunter facility. That moment of inactivity cost her as black flashed at the corner of her right eye, then her vision exploded with white stars and darkness crashed down. *** Cambria’s head pounded like a metronome, with every beat of her heart a reciprocal flare of pain throbbed in her skull. She slowly opened her eyes and saw rich, dark soil stained with a puddle of red. It was blood, her blood, seeping into the thirsty ground. As she watched, a round globule of red liquid dripped off her chin and fell to the puddle, she watched as it soaked into the soil. Her next thought was that the headache didn’t fade, as it should have. Her new, unique nature regenerated damaged cells and she certainly felt damaged now. It didn’t save her from immediate pain, but regeneration worked to ease it as soon as it happened. So why not now?

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She also realised she was in an upright position, kneeling with her hands tied behind her. As she tried to shift to ease the pressure on her knees, she found her ankles bound as well. Cambria groaned and pulled herself backwards, bashed the back of her head against the wooden pole. White-hot pain flashed through her skull. Once she could focus again, she stared up at the pole. No climbing the ten metres and unhooking her arms. A shadow blocked the bright sunshine and Grant squatted down in front of her, holding a flask. “I want to thank you, Petersen, for your future sacrifice.” He said grimly. “My wha’?” She slurred and the roughly hewn face in front of her blurred. He chose not to explain; instead, he touched the flask to her lips and tilted it. Fresh, cold water slid down her throat. He took the flask away and dampened a cloth, gently dabbed at the side of her forehead. “I’m sorry you got hit, but your reputation precedes you.” She blinked at him, trying to understand what he was saying and confused by the gentleness of his touch. He winced with every touch as if unused to violence. “Why?” She asked hoarsely. He kept dabbing, kept wiping the blood away. “Well, now, I don’t know if you’re focused enough to hear and understand what I’d tell you. You’re looking pretty bleary eyed there, Hunter.” He tsked and stopped treating the cut. “I’m sending Doc; I’m guessing you need a couple of stitches there to stop the bleeding.” He rose and walked away. Cambria’s head drooped and the next thing she knew, someone had their fist in her hair and hauled her head back. She found herself staring into the angry dark eyes of a Mexican woman.

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“You are supposed to be so good, you should have ducked.” The woman sneered and held up a syringe. She deliberately squirted a small amount, and then plunged it under the skin of Cambria’s forehead. She tried not to wince, but the bite had her blinking rapidly. “You twitch and I’m gonna stitch this crooked. Of course,” she flashed a smile, “it might improve your looks.” Cambria remained silent as the woman, for all her anger, carefully dug the needle into her flesh and pulled it out again. When she was finished, she dabbed a stinging antiseptic on and then a plaster. She poked it hard and Cambria turned her head away. “Someone will be down every hour to make sure you’re awake. We can’t have you keeling over before the big day.” She packed up her equipment and rubbish and strode off into the trees. Cambria spent the rest of the day in a dazed state. Her thoughts fractured, drifted with confused memories of her former lover, Louis, her childhood on the coast of Belgium, her work with the Bureau of Political Security, her time on Tudor, Ragnarok, Nomad and other worlds. She remembered conversations with Lord Montague. Remembered him telling her they were keeping her missions to off world because of the warrant on capital murder charges. But she hadn’t killed Senator Dortmund, just been set up to take the fall because of her investigation into the Judicar case loads to test if more should be appointed. She remembered Bolingbroke and his corruption, his ambition for more power and his sending her to Tudor. And Excalibur Jones, serial killer, lover and torturer. “Dead now.” She mumbled. “Who’s dead?” She lifted her head and stared blearily at Grant crouched before her. “‘scalbur Jones. Killed him dead, I did, the motherfucker. Stuck him with a knife - like he did me.”

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“I don’t think I know that name.” “’Coz he’s dead now.” “Do you think you can eat?” Her stomach rebelled at the thought of food and she slowly shook her head. “Puke it all back up.” His brow lowered and he gently cupped her jaw, eased her head back and stared into her eyes. “Yeah, you’ve got a concussion. Damn Rodrigo, he didn’t have to hit you that hard.” “’s a dead man. ‘ssaulting a Hunter’s a felony.” His eyes warmed. “Only if you remember and only if you can tell someone who cares.” He replied. “Which, I’m relieved to say, is highly unlikely.” Grant released her. “I’ll be back in an hour.” Night fell. One moment the light turned golden and the next, darkness surrounded her. Only Grant returned to keep her company, a brief conversation every hour that gave her no clue to her location or planet, or how many people were out here, or why he’d kidnapped her. She felt she should know, but she couldn’t remember what she’d said to Grant, or what he said to her. She couldn’t focus clearly enough. The air turned chilly. But she was without warmth or light, even as she could see flickering orange glow of a fire through the trees. Their encampment? And the thought flitted away, much to her growing frustration. She knew the information was here, if only she could concentrate. Cambria felt the dawn coming, saw the slow brightening of the day. She kept her head lowered and watched the march of her shadow across the dirt and pine needle strewn ground. Exhaustion weighed heavily on her, but Grant had been true to the doctor’s word and woken her every hour, spoken to her for as long as it took to assure himself she was awake and then left.

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Her head still throbbed but her stomach had settled down. She couldn’t remember when last she’d eaten... The scent of coffee caught her attention and she lifted her head to watch as Grant strode towards her bearing two tin cups that steamed in the morning air. He had a quiet grace for such a large man. But she should have known that from watching him... when? Oh, right, at the bar on... Lazarus. She’d gone to arrest him, remembered his fury at the warrant and, and, he’d been... polite, almost eager to return to defend himself. But the memory was vague, disjointed. He crouched down in front of her. “I thought you might be ready for some coffee.” She gave him a tired, weak smile. “I am always ready for coffee.” He touched the rim of the cup to her lips and she drew in the scent, then the taste of the rich brew. She swallowed, closed her eyes and sighed as the hot liquid travelled to her belly and warmed her. “That is some good java.” The nausea flared then subsided. “Imported.” He said and she looked at him. “We roast and grind our own beans here, but the climate’s not much good for growing them.” He sipped from his own mug. “Shame that. There’s a booming market in the coffee industry.” “More, please.” She asked and he obliged until she drained the mug. “So, how are you feeling?” He looked into her eyes, checked her pupil size. “They’re reacting normally at least, so the concussion must be under control.” “I feel like a bucket of shit without the bucket.” She said and he grinned. “I’m tired, I’m cranky and I’d much rather be lying down for a nice long nap.” “Mmm. I don’t know about that. You’re a dangerous woman, Cambria Petersen and I’m not sure I’d trust you not to slaughter my colleagues because one of them happened to smack you upside the head with a rifle butt.” “The mood I’m in, you’re probably right.” “At least you’ve regained your honesty.” He smirked.

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“Regained...? I’ve never lied to you. I haven’t known you long enough.” “Ah, but your bosses have lied to me, and to you, via that warrant you showed to me.” “That doesn’t make me a liar.” “Sure it does.” He reached out and brushed the tip of her nose. “Don’t you guys ever check your evidence?” Cambria blinked at him. Check? “No, why should we? We’d be doubling up on the work already done and the GSU has no reason, or the ability, to fake the evidence. They are very careful given the results of the warrants.” “What about political enemies?” He asked and she stared at him blankly. “Political enemies?” Cambria felt like she’d caught a bad case of the stupids. Was he suggesting she was a guilty of a much larger crime than what he’d perpetrated? Perhaps suggesting he was innocent of all charges and someone, somewhere, wanted him out of the way? And worse, that they were using her to do it? She was a Hunter, sent to bring in criminals. Nothing in the warrant suggested ‘political’. “Don’t you think people in powerful places want to stay there?” Cambria thought of Judicar Bolingbroke and what he’d done to remain in power. And then she thought of Lady Cottington-Blake’s pursuit of her own fiefdom. But they were just two members of the enormous World Council that governed Earth - two of hundreds of delegates. “I deal with the criminal element, Grant, the mass murderers usually. I do that off world. The Bureau of Political Security deals with the politicians.” “So... you don’t think it’s your responsibility to Hunt down wrong-doers wherever they may lurk?” “No. Jeez. I am only one Hunter. There aren’t enough hours in the day and I’m in the wrong position to do anything.” And if he knew why, he’d be racing off to Geneva with her trussed up like a turkey. “Which is why there is a Bureau of Political

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Security; they deal with any corruption, not the Hunters.” She looked at him, puzzled. “Why would you put all this on me? I’m just a worker bee. If you have a gripe with a politician, take it up with the provincial government. You want someone to kidnap, try someone higher up in the chain of command!” He rose and stared down at her with a hooded expression. “Oh, I think you’ll do nicely.” He glanced over his shoulder and gave a short nod. “I’ll be back with breakfast shortly. Don’t go anywhere.” “As if.” She rolled her eyes, and then had a thought. “But I’ll need a bathroom break soon.” She warned. He didn’t reply, merely strode through the forest. Cambria listened hard, tried to hear his footsteps, but he moved quietly, as if born to sneaking around the forest. She couldn’t hear any voices either, only the sound of the wind sighing through the pines, the occasional cry of a bird high above her and unknown creatures rustling in the undergrowth. Birds? Pines trees? She tilted her head, listened harder and waited. Yes, she could hear the distant cry of an eagle. A hawk maybe? Cambria focused on her surrounds, the towering green-needled pine trees and others she didn’t recognise, the scrubby brush, the ants, mosquitoes and other insects. The scenery was familiar and yet not. Everything was familiar in the scents, the sounds, and the feel of the place - unfamiliar because she’d never been here. And she knew, after all her galactic travels, she knew her location: Earth. “Yep,” she muttered, “a bad case of the stupids.” But why? How? She’d set the address for the Hunter facility. No. She’d given the address to the attendant and he’d typed in the address. She’d focused on Grant, not what the attendant typed. Grant must have bribed him to redirect them here. But he couldn’t have been sure Cambria didn’t watch the attendant. Grant had been confident,

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distracting her with his compliance, used her suspicions of him to keep her attention on him. How could he guarantee she wouldn’t watch the attendant? How could he be that confident of the destination? Hijack the corridor somehow? Was that even possible? The ‘how’ of it was less important than the ‘why’. Grant walked into the corridor first. If that was an escape, they didn’t need her; they could have simply changed the address and sent her home... Ergo, she was the target. Cambria didn’t think she was important enough for kidnapping by an unknown group, yet Grant used her full name. He’d known her identity all along; from initiating the conversation in the bar to playing the outraged victim determined to clear his name. Had her fear of him – and what he could do to her – blinded her instincts and suspicions? Could she have seen the trap before it sprung? Grant must be yucking it up at how easily he captured her. When she returned to Geneva, she’d have to speak with the corridor controllers about upgrading security. Her thoughts kept circling back to why. She had nothing of value. She had no money – all the funds she used came from the Government; she had few belongings, nothing worth a ransom; her knowledge of the facility wouldn’t do them any good either, the security was too good and she knew little of it. It couldn’t be the people there, because many of the staff lived outside the complex and she had little or no contact with them. Even what she knew of politics was useless; she spent most of her time off world. She rolled her neck to ease the growing ache. Grant kidnapping her made no sense.

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She closed her eyes and breathed deep of the fragrant forest scents. Lord, but she’d missed the open air. She’d once thought that Earth no longer felt like home, but now, in this strange place, nowhere in the galaxy could match it. Mother Earth took on a new meaning. “You look peaceful.” Grant said and she looked at him. “It’s been a long time since I tasted Terran air.” She said with a slight smile. “It took you long enough to figure it out. Open.” He offered her a fork of fluffy yellow stuff. Her belly growled and she accepted the offering. “Eggs?” “Fresh off the farm. Scrambled with a hint of cream, a dash of seasoning and a soupcon of parsley.” “You?” She asked and accepted another mouthful. Grant laughed. “Oh, hell no. My cooking is much plainer. Eggs in a frypan, sunny-side up with a slab of bacon or beef. No, this is Anna’s work. She’s very good.” “Please give her my compliments.” Grant snickered and kept feeding her. “She might just come over here and scratch your eyes out if I did that. She doesn’t think much of you and any nice words will send her into a rage.” “I don’t get that.” “Because she hates you and anything you say, like a compliment, will be seen as sarcasm. She might poison your lunch.” Grant said and fed her the last of the eggs. Cambria lifted a shoulder. “Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” He nodded. “Yes, but later on this morning. I have things to do first and it will take time in the telling.” He glanced over his shoulder, and then smirked at her. “Here comes Anna, I better skedaddle. She already thinks I’m spending too much time with you, and she can be a real bitch about it.” He rose easily, brushed a thumb across her lower lip and turned away.

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Startled by his touch, Cambria watched his easy, silent stride as he blended into the forest and wondered who the real Lincoln Grant was. The killer of innocents, the actor who manipulated her or the man who tied her up but looked after her? He didn’t act like a killer, but what murderer did? Jones was as charming as a man could get, yet she knew from personal experience just what type of monster lay under the surface. She wasn’t going to think Grant innocent, not after reading his file. Even if half proved true, he was still a dangerous criminal. And she didn’t believe any of his file was false. GSU had no reason to target one man out of the billions that populated the world. She knew they checked and rechecked their facts, confirmed evidence from secondary, even tertiary sources. Lincoln Grant was guilty of all the charges on the warrant. Her problem was how to execute the warrant and get back to... Hard fingers gripped her hair and dragged her head back. Cambria felt the edge of a knife against her throat. She stared up into those angry dark eyes again. Thick curly hair, previously tied back, hung in a shiny dark mass around the woman’s shoulders. “You don’t look at him, puta. You don’t talk to him. You are less than dirt.” Cambria didn’t reply. Any movement and the knife would cut her. The fingers tightened. “I will kill you if I see you make moony eyes again.” Moony eyes? This crazy woman thought Cambria was interested in Grant on a personal level. Her eyebrows climbed. “I know your type.” Anna said through gritted teeth. “And it won’t work. Linc, he loves me, not you, never you. I am clear on this, yes?” “Yes.” Cambria whispered. Anna gripped her hair harder, then withdrew the knife and shoved her head forward. Cambria’s head ached again, and the cut throbbed, pulsed with venom.

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The doctor wasn’t gentle in checking Cambria’s injury. She ripped the plaster off, taking fine hairs with it, roughly prodded the bruised and puffy area around the stitches, and swiped more stinging antiseptic over the skin. Cambria’s eyes watered and she heard the tearing of paper. “Don’t.” She said. “What?” “I said ‘Don’t’.” She lifted her head, glared at the woman. “I don’t need you abusing me. I don’t want you to slap that plaster on, just for your own petty satisfaction of ripping it off.” She lifted her chin. “You want a piece of me? You do it with honour, with integrity, not sneaking around sniping at me when I can’t fight back. Doing this while I’m unable to defend myself makes you the worst of abusers.” Anna narrowed her gaze, then her open palm slapped against Cambria’s cheek. “Puta!” Anna screeched. “You know nothing!” She spat on the ground in front of Cambria. “Are nothing. Worm food. I would kill you now if not for my oath.” Cambria’s face stung, but she held the other woman’s gaze. “What? Your hypocritical oath?” She taunted. Anna fingers curled into a fist. “Yeah, go ahead, blacken my eye, break my nose, cut my lip.” Cambria sneered. “Confirm to me you’re nothing but a fucking criminal, that Grant surrounds himself with...” Anna punched her. Hard knuckles connected with her cheekbone and whipped her head to the side. When her head stopped spinning and her vision cleared, she saw Anna had gone. Cambria leaned back against the post, closed her eyes. She needed information about her location, needed to find an escape route. To do that, she needed to use the encyclopaedia and she wasn’t happy about it.

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She refused to give the Watchers any more information about Earth than they already had. She would not be responsible for the enslavement of another species especially her own. They might be masters of their universe, but their morals sucked. And she suspected the Watchers monitored her, absorbed what she absorbed through her senses, through her memory. But she wasn’t healing any faster than an ordinary human. Had they taken the ability away from her or had the malfunctioning corridor screwed her up? Had her molecules not reconstructed properly, or had the Watchers stripped out what didn’t belong? Had they now decided to study her? Time to find out. Encyclopaedia. Cambria lowered her head, and then opened her eyes to see the dark red smear of her blood on the ground. Thermal vision. She stared hard at the forest, but nothing changed. No heat signatures showed anywhere, just the greenery of an ordinary forest. I’m totally offline. She couldn’t decide if she felt relieved to back to normal, or afraid it was permanent. Her job as a Hunter of the worst of criminals limited her life expectancy without the protection of what the Watchers did to her. How many times had she been killed Hunting Jones and Cottington-Blake? Would both be free now if the former Minister’s shot had truly killed her? She wouldn’t have cared then, she’d be truly dead and neither villain her concern. But the consequences... Cottington-Blake, in control of the planet Nomad and Jones, free to torture and murder throughout the known galaxy. Cambria had done her job, but in doing so, had she become careless and reckless with her abilities? She trusted Jones on the black planet and he’d tried to gut her.

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She’d trusted Cottington-Blake on Ragnarok and been shot in the head for her troubles. Now, when she’d been bashed – twice - she was all pathetic, taunting an obviously deranged woman because that’s all she had left. Well, bugger that. Cambria lifted her head and studied her surrounds more carefully.

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Chapter Five Colonel Caparossi tried hard to hold on to his temper; he really did. He was not the kind of man to bully or intimidate lower grade staff members, preferring to cajole and convince in a reasonable, respectful manner. But his reason seemed to have left him. Vanished like a puff of smoke, or Cambria. As soon as the tech had told him no one could trace Cambria from Earth, he immediately went to Lazarus, to the manager of the facility. Escorted to the office, Caparossi could not believe the man’s dismissive attitude, as if anything that went wrong with the corridor was impossible and therefore not his responsibility. Caparossi felt the rage rise and his hands trembled with the need to choke the life out of the pompous idiot in front of him. Caparossi drew himself up and spoke carefully. “Let me test my understanding here, Mr Craig: When the report of missing passengers came in, you interviewed the staff, correct?” “Of course.” Craig waved a languid hand as he leaned back in the leather chair. “They assured me nothing out of the ordinary happened.” Caparossi gripped his hands so tightly behind his back, he could almost hear the bones creak. “And yet, something did happen.” “As you say.” “As I do say, Craig. I have a missing Hunter and detainee, and you think it unimportant.” Craig shrugged. Caparossi ground his teeth, tried to maintain control, but he could feel it slipping. “I’d like to interview the staff, please.” Craig quirked a grey dusted eyebrow at him. “Ah, well, the corridor dialler is currently off shift. He’s not due back until, oh, I think tomorrow evening.”

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Caparossi heard the smug tone in the man’s voice and breathed deep. “You fail to see the emergency in this situation, Craig.” “No, I just don’t see it as an emergency or why you’re so wound up about it. I mean, from what I understand, the two whom you seek seemed very friendly toward each other indeed. I wouldn’t be surprised if they decided to take a break and go off and... urk!” Caparossi dragged the man out of his chair, pinned him against the wall behind the desk and got in the man’s face. “That is my wife you’re besmirching with your filthy mouth!” It wasn’t entirely true, he and Cambria hadn’t taken any formal vows, but they’d been together for nearly two years, sharing everything. In his heart, she was his wife and he’d forsaken all others. For this smug little shit to suggest... “Let me go!” Craig squeaked, but made no effort to defend himself. “You don’t seem to understand the gravity of your situation, Mr Craig.” Caparossi bit out. “You don’t get to deny a Hunter access to any information or person of interest. You don’t get to insult or belittle me or any of my staff. You don’t get to interfere in a Hunter investigation.” He rattled the man against the wall. “And if you don’t think I have the power to make your life an absolute misery, then you haven’t been paying attention.” He shook him once more and let him go. Craig slid down the wall to the floor. “I want the addresses of the staff on duty at the time of Hunter Petersen’s disappearance, and I want them now.” He stared down at the dishevelled man. “Now, Craig.” The man looked up at him and then scrambled into his seat. Caparossi stepped back and watched the man as he reached for the address book on his desktop. “And if you fuck with me, I’ll see you in prison for a very... very... long time.” Craig’s hand shook as he wrote them down. He tore off the piece of recycled paper and handed it Caparossi.

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He folded the paper and tucked it into his top inside pocket, strode to the door. “I’m gonna have your job, you asshole.” Craig said and Caparossi turned. “You’re welcome to try, of course, but I think you’ll find yourself suspended from your position and sitting in a jail cell far, far away, if you make any false accusations.” “You assaulted me!” “And?” “And? And?” Craig seemed to realise he was on thin ice. He clamped his mouth shut, swallowed hard, but didn’t hide the sly expression in his hazel eyes. “I repeat, Mr Craig: Do not mess with me, you won’t like the result.” “Fuck off, you asshole. I’ll do as I please. I’m the boss here, not you! And I’m calling transit security!” He reached out for the com system and punched buttons. Caparossi touched a finger to his forehead and left. He could hear Craig shouting, demanding, but didn’t expect anything to come of it. Security would take one look at his uniform and walk away. He checked the boards, searched for the exit and made his way towards the taxi rank. The best he could do was talk to the corridor dialler first; if he didn’t get the answers he wanted, he’d shut the thing down and send in the Nexian technicians. A call to Nexus True was second on his agenda. He walked to the line of yellow taxis, lowered to speak with the driver. His head turned as a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. The big bruiser wore the uniform of transit security. A second guard stood a couple of metres back, and when he looked the other way, a third guard scowled at him. Guess I was wrong: they didn’t walk away. “Something I can help you with?” He asked as he straightened. “You need to come with us.” The man with his hand on Caparossi’s shoulder said.

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“You need to leave me alone and go back to your duties.” Caparossi replied and shook off the hand. The security guard narrowed his cold blue eyes. “Show me some identification, and we’ll consider it.” Caparossi carefully reached up and put two of his fingers into his top pocket, drew out his ID wallet and showed the front card to the guard. The guard took the wallet and examined it closely, then he closed it shook his head. “Craig.” He said in a tone that promised retribution against the transit manager. He looked at Caparossi. “I’ll not apologise for doing my job.” “Nor would I ask you to. It is for Craig to apologise, and his day of reckoning is about to arrive.” The guard flashed a grin and gathered his colleagues, marched back inside the complex. Caparossi ducked down again and spoke to the driver, gave her the address and got in. The journey took less time than he expected and he asked the driver to wait. Matthew Cornish’s building was three storeys of green vine covered red bricks, as were the low apartment blocks on either side of Cornish’s. He walked up the steps, then up the staircase and hoped Craig hadn’t lied to him. If he did, Caparossi was taking him back to Earth and charging him with obstruction of a Hunter investigation. On the top level, he saw, with a sinking heart, that the door he wanted was open. He strode down the hallway and inside the apartment. Empty: of Cornish and every stick of furniture. The man had moved out and Caparossi doubted he’d left a forwarding address. Willing to give Cornish an unlikely reasonable doubt, Caparossi knocked on the neighbour’s door. No one answered, so he tried another, then the final door. No one home and he listened. No

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noisy children or babies, no sounds of radio or television or cleaning equipment. It was as if the occupants abandoned the level. He went downstairs and checked the mailboxes. No names, just numbers on the metal boxes. These people took their privacy seriously, he decided, and left the building. His suspicions skyrocketed when he discovered Melina Rossovitch, the woman who issued the tickets, had also departed her house with no forwarding address. He climbed back into the taxi. “What are the odds on the two people you most want to talk to have packed up and moved away?” The driver turned in her seat. “Not good. Where to next?” Caparossi sat back and thought. He’d failed with interviewing the most direct witnesses. He supposed he should try the secondary witnesses, and that meant following in Cambria’s footsteps. What would have been her first stop? How would she have found Grant? Where would she start? Damn it, he was a Retrieval expert, sent to worlds to bring back illegal or endangered colonists, not an investigator. Yet, the Retrievers and Hunters worked in a similar fashion. Go there, pick up target, return. The difference was he knew the exact location of people, the Hunters rarely did. So how did they track their quarry? By seeing when the target arrived and follow on from there. He nearly slapped his forehead at the obvious answer. “Back to the transit facility, please.” He said. When he arrived, he paid the driver and went to find the customs office. Maybe they’d have some information he could use. ***

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Cambria noticed the child immediately. Blonde curly hair, grubby face with a pale streak down each cheek from tears, dirt smeared blue floral dress that matched her eyes; she must have been all of five or six. She watched the child try to sneak through the undergrowth but as soon as she saw Cambria watching, all pretence of hiding fled and she approached, a dirty thumb stuck firmly between Cupid’s bow lips. The bold kid walked up to her, stopped about two metres away and watched her. Cambria said nothing. “I gotta boo-boo, too.” The girl offered her thumb, but Cambria couldn’t see any injury. “Wanna kiss it better?” “No.” Cambria said. “You can kiss it better yourself.” Cambria had little interest in children; she’d rarely been in their company and didn’t know what to make of them. She knew to protect them, but that was on an instinctive level. She’d never directly protected one, and she couldn’t recall the last time she actually spoke to one. “I’m big girl, I can do it myself.” The kid said and proceeded to lavish her thumb with smacking noises. What the hell was she doing out here, alone in the forest? “You need to go back to your momma.” Cambria said and the child’s bottom lip trembled. “She don’ like me no more.” Ahh, right. What now, Cam? “Um, I’m sure she does. Maybe she’s just pissed at you for the moment.” The child smiled all trembling hurt gone. “Yeah, she’s pissed.” Oops. Cambria cleared her dry throat and looked around for an adult. None within sight. “Ah, I don’t think I should have said that. I meant she’s angry with you because of something you did, maybe?” The kid shook her head. “Are you pissed at me now?”

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Oh, hell, she’d given the girl a new word to explore. “No, no, of course not. You haven’t done anything wrong to me.” “Momma says you done Linc wrong. And you’re gonna burn in hell.” She took a careful step closer. “Momma says you’re gonna solve all their problems and when you’re dead, we’re all gonna be free. Momma says...” “Alicia?” Cambria heard the worry in the shouting. Here's ‘Momma’, Cambria thought, given the expression on Alicia’s crestfallen face. “She’s gonna be really pissed at me now. I’m not supposed to be here.” “Alicia! You come away, right this instant!” A tall blonde-haired woman, a grown up version of Alicia, and wearing blue jeans, a checked shirt and cowboy boots, brushed the shrubs aside and strode forward. Alicia turned and looked up at the woman. “Are you pissed at me, Momma?” “Am I what?” She demanded of her guileless daughter. “Pissed at me.” “Where did you hear that?” Alicia turned towards Cambria and the mother scowled at her. Someone else came through the undergrowth. “Did you find her?” A man’s hurried voice said. “Yeah.” The man was also blonde and he crouched down in front of Alicia. “Are you all right? You had us so worried.” “Yes, Daddy. I was just talking to the dead woman.” Alicia said. “But she’s not dead at all, see?” She turned and pointed at Cambria. The man had the grace to look embarrassed as he glanced at Cambria, but the mother’s expression didn’t change.

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More people turned up. They must have been searching for the truant child. Men and women of different descriptions wandered through the shrubs as soon as they heard Alicia’s voice and Cambria wondered if they’d been looking for an excuse to see the captive. The expressions were the same: she’d get no help from this lot. They looked at her with anger, with venom, or looked right through her as if she didn’t exist any longer. At the back of the growing crowd, Anna sent her a chilling smile filled with malice. “So, this is the bitch.” A husky man shifted away from those concerned for Alicia to study her. He wore a similar outfit to Alicia’s mother, with worn jeans, scuffed boots and dusty checked shirt. He had brown hair streaked with grey and pale green eyes that expressed contempt as he walked around her. He spoke with some kind of a strange drawl, as if he’d never learned the Queen’s English properly. Cambria didn’t bother looking at him, expressing her own contempt for his attempt at intimidating her. She watched the others and their reactions. Their focus split between concern for Alicia and silently watching the man circling her pole. They seemed interested in what he would do. She glanced at Anna and saw the anticipation on the woman’s face. Well, if violence happened, having a doctor nearby was good thing, wasn’t it? The man walked behind her, kicked her ankles and she winced as she felt the strain in her knees. She’d thought them long numb, but apparently not. “Not much for such a trouble maker.” He said and came around the front and his denim-clad thighs blocked her view of the crowd. “Still, I suppose poison comes in all manner of package.” More of the crowd started to pay attention to him rather than Alicia - that much she could see.

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He lifted his leg, set his foot between her breasts and pressed her back against the pole. He didn’t need much pressure to hold her in position. “The remedy can be lancing the poison and I think that’s what we’ll do. We don’t need no stinkin’ foreigner here takin’ up our supplies.” Cambria slowly lifted her head as he turned his own. “And we certainly don’t need her alive.” He had the crowd’s total focus now and Anna gave Cambria a big grin. Alicia’s parents set the little girl behind them, as if unsure of what was about to happen. Cambria lowered her gaze. “Speaking of packages,” she said and he looked down at her, “you talk big for such a small man.” And she stared meaningfully at his crotch. She heard the snickers before he adjusted his foot and ground the sharp-edged heel of his boot into her chest. Cambria gritted her teeth against the sharp pain, and then eased up. She gusted out a breath of relief. “It ain’t the size of the equipment that counts, bitch, it’s how you use it.” “Yeah,” she coughed and winced, “you just keep on believing that and maybe one day you’ll be able to play with women instead of girls.” He dropped his foot, levelled a kick at her stomach that bent her forward. When she could breathe again, breathe through the throbbing, she looked up into his smirking face. “Gosh, it’s so manly of you to kick a bound woman, ain’t it? You treat all women like this, or just those who can’t fight back?” He crouched down in front of her gripped her throat in his hand and squeezed. “I treat filthy whores who kill indiscriminately like this. I kill anyone who threatens the family or my people like this. I kill people like you.” He released her roughly, banged her head against the pole again. “And I’m looking forward to kicking the shit out of you.”

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He turned and walked away while she gasped for air. The crowd soon followed him and left her alone to her misery. She was beginning to feel the need for a bathroom break, and to move her legs. They’d begin to cramp soon. No one came near her for the rest of the day and she tried to shift against her uncomfortably full bladder. Damned coffee. Just when it became painful and she thought she’d have to suffer though the humiliation, Grant came striding through the forest. She looked at him and his expression darkened as he set a pack down. “I leave you alone for a day and you pick fights.” “Yeah, because I can so defend myself.” She replied. He walked behind her and she felt him fiddling with her ankles, then she heard the cuffs, felt them drop away. Without the extra support, she wobbled then fell face down onto the dirt, her arms unable to move. Even her knees creaked as her legs stretched out. She lay there and groaned, wanted to sleep, but Grant had other ideas and he gripped under her arms and hauled her upright. Her legs wouldn’t hold her and he ended up slinging one limp arm around his shoulders and gripping her waist with hard fingers as he dragged her deeper into the darkening forest. He pointed a flashlight onto the path. She didn’t care that he was probably going to bury her deep in a hole; her joints sang with disuse, her face throbbed and she simply didn’t care. Grant stopped and she lifted her head and stared without comprehension. “It’s an outhouse. Use it.” He commanded and dragged her to the door. He opened it for her and set her on the wooden box. “I’ll wait for you. Don’t think about escaping, we need to have a conversation.”

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As if that would stop her from absconding, she thought as the door closed in her face. Her shoulders creaked as she brought her arms forward to unzip her jeans. It took time, it caused aggravation, but the reward was sigh-inspiring relief. “You haven’t fallen in, have you?” Grant called. “No, I’m just enjoying the moment.” She used the side of the outhouse to brace herself as she stood. Her knees ached, felt bruised, but she thought she could walk just fine and she dragged up her jeans. “Where’s the button?” She asked. “No need, it’s an environmental toilet. You don’t need to do anything.” Cambria opened the door. “Except wash my hands.” He held out a bottle of water and she used it, and then drank some. “Think you can walk back without my support?” He asked. “Take it slow; I’m enjoying my temporary freedom.” “You won’t run?” “I can barely walk, you putz, so lead on before I fall flat on my face again. It does not need the abuse.” He guided her through the bushes. “Yes, about that. Would you care to explain how, this morning, you looked someone hit you with a rifle butt and now, you look like you’ve gone five rounds with the world heavy weight champ?” “Your people don’t like me and expressed that dislike personally to me.” She said. “You gonna name names?” “I don’t know them so there are no names to give.” She shrugged. He stopped at the pole. Instead of demanding she resume her position, he opened the pack and dragged out a campstool, spread the three legs. “Sit.” Again, her knees creaked, but at least she wasn’t kneeling. Grant sat on the ground and rummaged in the pack again, drew out a solarpowered heater, similar and smaller to one she’d used on Ragnarok to melt the snow entombing the tent.

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Cambria rubbed her hands together in front of the heat, warmed her bones and sighed with pleasure. “I’m not a fan of camping, never have been, but sometimes, life’s little luxuries make it less demanding.” He tossed a small object at her. “Nutrient bar.” He said and she tore it open. She was starving and she finished it in three injudiciously quick bites. “Anyone would think you’d never been fed.” “I was so busy, I missed lunch.” She said and he tossed her a second one. “I suspect that while I was away, certain people decided to make sport of you.” She ripped open the pack. “No comment.” Grant reached into his pack and drew out a thermos and two tin mugs. Cambria watched him pour the delicious liquid into the mugs and handed her one. She wrapped both hands around the mug and breathed in the scent of rich, strong coffee. “It doesn’t matter, I know which ones, and we are going to have a significant chat about manners.” Cambria’s eyebrows rose. “This, coming from a kidnapper.” His eyes gleamed with humour. “You’re not dead.” “Yet.” She muttered into her mug. Grant leaned forward. “Look. There are a few things you need to understand. And I think I may have... charged the situation beyond what was necessary.” Cambria said nothing. “You see...” He began and then took a sip of his coffee. “It’s kind of like this... No, that’s not it either. Okay. Let me ask you this: you know you’re on Earth, but do you know where?” She shook her head. Geography wasn’t really her subject in recent years. “Do you know how the World Council came about?” She tilted her head and frowned. “I believe it was a slow process of government’s turning to each to find the best way to govern and finally, the reins of

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power were handed to the United Nations. That morphed into what is now the World Council. Borders became irrelevant, thus creating a global unit. That solved the immigration problem and the wars. Religion also became irrelevant, with deliberately selected moderates placed within their own enclaves, then the leaders were co-opted into the Council, the more radical elements destroyed. Problem solved and no more religious wars, no more border disputes. We’ve been at peace ever since. Then the currencies were abolished in favour of the Euro and economies world-wide stabilised.” Cambria shrugged. She wasn’t a history buff any more than she was interested in geography, but the origin of the Council was a part of her mandatory education. “Simplistic, but essential correct.” He nodded. “But you missed one fundamental aspect of the whole plan, what every single government chose to ignore in their pursuit of power and money and influence.” He stared hard at her as if willing her to come up with the answer, but she was at a loss. Essentially, the World Council kept the peace, shared the wealth, settled minor disputes and generally governed the world without fear or favour. What wasn’t to like? So her answer was a shrug. “I like the way they’ve handled things. And, except for a small minority of the population for whom crime is a career, they’ve provided everything the law-abiding global citizen could ever need, or want.” His expression turned into disgust. “Another government lackey.” “Hey,” she said, offended, “I do my bit by arresting those who would do harm to innocents. Would you call the armed services, the police, government doctors, nurses, fire fighters and emergency services personnel lackeys?” “Actually, I would.” He said. “Because none of those people know what type of bastards they work for, just like you don’t know.” Her eyebrows rose at the venom in his voice, the frustration.

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Grant met her gaze. “The one aspect you failed to mention, or even understand about the World Council, is that the governments of the world conveniently forgot to ask their own people, their own citizens, if that’s what they wanted. And why didn’t they? Because they knew damned well that no self-respecting citizen would hand over their sovereign rights, their borders, currency, even their right to vote, to people who don’t even speak their language, who thought they knew better than someone who lives in that region. Who have done little except line their pockets with the sweat and blood of the new worker class – or slaves, as they are now.” Cambria snorted with disbelief. That wasn’t the history she’d learnt and she’d never seen anything of poverty in the world. The Council brought previously third world countries to economic parity with first world countries. Poverty didn’t exist; everyone worked, everyone had a house, a garden, a vehicle, and health care, whatever they wanted. They could even aspire to high office should they choose. “I’ve never seen any proof of what you’re saying, Grant. And I work in law enforcement.” “Oh, ri-ight. Ms Hunter-know-it-all who’s travelled the world to unscheduled places and seen what goes on behind the scenes. Have you seen the collective farms where parents die young and children grow up to take their place, where education is what the state wants you to learn, not what you should learn? Where the elderly and the terminally ill are segregated and denied basic medicine because nothing can help them and it takes resources away from the able bodied...?” He paused for breath and then clamped his mouth shut, as if he’d said too much. Cambria shook her head. “Grant, why would you expect to believe this bullshit? Even out here, your... colleagues are well dressed and well fed. They look like they are safe and secure, healthy. You even have a corridor of your own – although I wouldn’t trust it. Nothing I’ve seen yells oppression or hardship, but everything suggests a small, well-kept community. I don’t know what your game is, or why you think there’s something evil about a peaceful, productive and happy world, but

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you’ve kidnapped the wrong person. I have no influence other than as a Hunter. I am a nobody on Earth.” The look of frustration faded as he looked at her. “Obviously, I’m not going to change your mind with words.” He said and nodded as he made a decision. “Time for bed.” He indicated she should stand up. “Can I, at least, get a cushion for my knees?” She asked. He shook his head. “The less mobile you are, the less likely you are to escape.” She glared at him and he grinned. “You know I can easily overpower you, Hunter.” And she sighed, got down on her sore knees with her back to the pole and stretched her hands out behind her. Grant cuffed her and tied her ankles. Then he came around and squatted in front of her, brushed a lock off her forehead. “You’re wrong, you know, about being nobody. You’re the woman who’s going to change the world.” She burst out with a short laugh. “Oh, I don’t think so.” “You doubt your power, but Petersen,” he rose to full height and she looked up at him, “you are going to give us back our republic and break the corrupt World Council.” And he walked away, leaving her with her mouth open in shock.

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Chapter Six Caparossi gently bashed his fist against his forehead as he stood in the transit terminal. The customs agent at the Transit Facility sent him to the spaceport, the agent – an annoyed Jane Rhodes - sent him to the Green Friar’s Inn and the barkeep shook his head and sent him back to the Transit Facility. Unless he found the two original witnesses, he’d come to a dead end. He had no choice but to take the next step and contact the Nexians. With a heavy heart, he returned to Earth. Lord Montague, leaning heavily on his cane, waited for Caparossi as he stepped out of the corridor. “Colonel.” Montague said in a tone that suggested Caparossi was in trouble. “Lord Montague.” “I have had a rather... colourful conversation with the manager of the transit facility on Lazarus. Do you have any comment on your assault on Mr Craig’s person?” “Other than wishing I’d brought him in to spend a night in a cell for obstruction?” Caparossi shrugged. “No, sir.” “Levity is inappropriate, Colonel.” Montague’s eyes were steely. Caparossi raised an eyebrow. “I made the remark in all seriousness, sir. Mr Craig refused to take the situation seriously, was dismissive, and when I called him on it...” Montague tapped his cane. “Enough. I wish you’d brought him back, too, the pipsqueak.” Caparossi asked the question with his eyes. “He made ‘demands’, ‘threats’ and ‘promises’, to ‘ensure’ you lost your job.” Caparossi made a non-committing noise in his throat and Montague snorted. “Consider the subject closed. He demanded I speak with you – I have done so. He threatened to go to a higher authority if I did not – I am the higher authority. And

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the promises? Phoo-ey. Empty rhetoric to soothe his ego.” Lord Montague indicated Caparossi should accompany him and he stepped beside the head of the Hunter Facility. “Any luck in finding Hunter Petersen or Lincoln Grant?” “No, sir. The two witnesses have packed up lock, stock and guilt. I retraced her steps and ended back where I started.” Caparossi confessed. “What do you plan to do now?” “Shut down the Lazarus corridor and get the Nexian technicians in to find out what happened and how.” Montague grunted. “That will be exceptionally inconvenient to all concerned.” “Agreed, sir, however this is also an issue of our own security. If people have worked out how to divert travellers, then others can do it, too. Anyone could stop a Hunter from executing a warrant by sending the criminals to where we cannot track them.” Lord Montague opened the door to his office. “Yes, I do see your point. Very well, bring in the Nexians, but make sure they do a thorough and fast job. We cannot have our corridors compromised in this way, nor can we allow, say smugglers to use this method of transport. We must maintain the integrity of the staff that operates those corridors and I am loathe to start an investigation into them.” Montague slumped into his seat behind the desk and Caparossi noticed how old the Lord looked. His silver hair had turned white, the lines around his eyes were deeper and the colour of his eyes was fading from blue to something more blurred. When had his boss grown so old? He wondered. Montague gave him a tired smile. “Get it done, Colonel, and get it done quickly. Find my Hunter.” He gave the Lord a salute. “Yes, sir.” *** As expected, the Lazarus government ferociously protested Earth’s high-handed approach. Caparossi tried to explain the urgency and the reasoning behind his

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decision to shut the corridor down, but the politicians saw it as yet more interference from the home world even as he gave them time to make alternative arrangements, or put a hold on travellers. Nothing Caparossi could say would soothe their ire, so he went to Nexus True and asked for a technical Pair. Fradius and Fredios Callirishan came from the best technical family corporation on Nexus True. The Callirishans were keen to make amends for their cousins, the Gardishans, treasonous theft of the technology. “We are pleased to be of assistance,” the one he thought was Fredios said as... he? She? unpacked a bag of tools at the corridor console. “Yes, we are pleased. You have presented us with a unique problem.” Fradius replied and studied the tools. “Most unique, should the allegations prove truthful.” Fredios said with unrestrained glee. Caparossi stood back and watched them work. “I’m grateful to the Callirishans for their haste in providing assistance.” He said with a formal bow and moved away. The small, human-like aliens chatted to themselves as they tested the console, played with it and then got into the guts of the device. “What the hell are those creatures?” Craig demanded loudly and marched up to Caparossi. The Nexians politely chose not to hear. Caparossi turned and lifted a hand, planted it on Craig’s chest and marched him backward, away from the corridor until they were out of earshot. “You just don’t learn, do you.” Craig slapped his hand away. “Don’t you touch me or I’ll have you arrested.” The man snarled. “I’ve already spoken to your supervisor and you’re in a shit-load of trouble.”

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Caparossi shook his head. “What is wrong with you?” He asked. “Don’t you want to solve this problem? Stop smugglers, criminals or even crimes being committed by this faulty corridor?” Craig narrowed his eyes. “There’s nothing wrong with it and you have no right to shut down my facility for petty revenge.” This was new. “What revenge would that be?” Craig’s smile was nasty as he poked his thumb into his chest. “I lodged a complaint with your supervisor. I have no doubt you’ll be sent to planet Ass-wipe soon.” “Oh, I see.” Caparossi bowed his head slightly. “I shall await my punishment.” “It’s good you see the error of your ways, now get those ugly beasts away from my corridor and off my planet.” All his humour fled and he looked at the manager. “That’s the second time you’ve used derogatory words to describe an allied species. What is your problem with them?” Craig’s lip curled. “They’re not like us.” “No-one is like you.” Caparossi replied. “And bigotry is grounds for dismissal.” He warned. Craig waved him off. “I’m no bigot; I just don’t want any alien species using my facility. This is a Terran planet and it will remain a Terran planet. And the sooner those freaks – and any else that isn’t human – are kicked off this planet, the better in my book.” “Unless you change your tune, Craig, this won’t be your facility for much longer.” Craig snickered. “Don’t be getting on your high horse with me, Capa, I have the full support and approval of the government here and you’re in enough trouble with your own. I’m the boss here and there ain’t nothin’ you can do about it.”

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Caparossi winced at Craig’s smug use of the contraction, as if the Colonel was harmless. He turned and watched the chattering Nexians. “And yet, I’ve shut you down, brought in the people I need for my investigation and, apart for some caterwauling from your government, nothing and no-one has stopped me. And gee, I can make it permanent if I so choose.” Still Craig didn’t understand the precarious situation into which he’d placed himself. “Oh, puh-leeze. Earth cannot do without this trading post. It makes too much money through taxes. Sure, you can shut us down temporarily, but eventually, we’ll be open for business again. And you’re gonna be fired.” Caparossi lifted a hand and rubbed his forehead, knew Craig was right, but that didn’t mean Craig himself was exempt from prosecution. “Just... leave them alone. If they can work without the distraction of listening to your bullshit, the sooner they’ll finish and leave.” “I don’t want them stealing corridor addresses or technology.” Craig grumbled and watched the Nexians with distaste. “Craig... Jeez, why do I bother? These people invented the corridors. There is nothing they don’t know about them.” God, he wanted away from this obnoxious, small-minded little man. The Nexians granted his wish as one trilled with delight and the other chirped in agreement. “Stay here, Craig, I don’t want you offending them.” Craig sniffed but stayed where he was as Caparossi approached the excited Nexians. “It was much easier than we thought.” Fradius said. “Yes, very easy.” Fredios agreed with a satisfied nod. “The operator input an alternative address and waited for the primary address to be inputted as a trigger code. It is simple.”

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“Very simple.” Fradius agreed with a frown. “Too simple. We must correct the security.” Fredios glanced at his/her Pair and sketched the same frown. “This must be corrected. If a human can do this, who else?” “Yes,” Fradius considered, “who else? We cannot allow this to become corrupted. More shame for Nexus.” Fradius’ shoulders slumped. “More shame for Nexus.” He/she agreed. Both turned to Caparossi, eyes pleading with him. He held up his hands. “I’m only interested in the alternative address. If you have found a...” Oh lord, he didn’t want to use the word ‘flaw’. The idea that something was less than perfect was anathema to Nexians. “If you’ve discovered an interesting aspect to the corridors that you are unhappy with, then I bow to your expertise in adjusting the corridors currently in use.” There, that was diplomatic. He knew how highly the Nexians valued ‘perfection’. The Nexians’ expressions cleared as they considered his words. “We are grateful for you understanding.” “You are welcome Callirishans. The alternative address?” “Yes, yes, the alternative. Most fascinating.” Fradius presented the information device to him and he downloaded the translation. Finally, he thought, a genuine clue to Cambria’s whereabouts. But first, he had to escort the Nexians home, as protocol dictated. While they repaired the console and then packed their gear, Caparossi went back to Craig who stood closer, an offended scowl on his homely features. “I hope they didn’t mess anything up, Colonel, or you’re paying for it.” “Get over yourself, Craig, they’re done. I’m taking them back to Nexus True. I just came to tell you, the corridor is back on line.” “Well, hallelujah. Now fuck off.” Craig stormed off.

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Caparossi grinned after the retreating manager. He genuinely hoped he never saw the bastard again, but if the recordings of their conversations led to charges, then he’d be the first to march through the corridor and arrest the prick. In the meantime, he had a Nexian Pair to return and an address to hunt down. *** “You are going to give us back our republic and break the corrupt World Council.” The words repeated in her head like a mantra. Lincoln Grant was crazier than she thought if he expected her to take down the World Council. And Republic? What the hell was that? Where? Who the hell would want to go back to border disputes, hard scrabble in the dirt, poverty and ethnic violence? What was so wrong with the government supplying most of your needs? And then she thought of the crowd today, realised that these people wanted it. Every one of them was crazy mad, as if they formed a cult around an outdated and dangerous ideology. She wasn’t going to help them do squat. They’d have to kill her. She thought back to the sneering comment the man made about them not needing her alive for what they planned. What did they need her for that they couldn’t achieve on their own? They seemed organised, had good food, a transport system – although the corridor was illegal and flawed. The government didn't know they were here, they had weapons, had everything they needed. Yet, she had a nagging feeling she’d completely missed the obvious. Why risk so much to bring her here and wondered if she’d find out before the shit hit the fan. After another uncomfortable night, she awoke to find the man from yesterday sitting cross-legged in front of her. He looked distinctly uncomfortable and she lifted her head. Grant stood some metres away, leaning on a tree with his arms crossed and a scowl making him look more like a bear. She returned her gaze to the man sitting in front of her and waited.

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He cleared his throat. “I’d, ah... like to apologise.” He ground out. Oh. Well, she wasn’t going to make it easy for him, her chest and stomach were still sore and bruised from his boot. “You’d like to but something is stopping you?” His face flushed a dark, angry red to match the fury in his eyes. They also held the promise of retribution once Grant had disappeared. His head twitched as if to glance over his shoulder, but he resisted. He knew who stood behind him. “Hunter.” He said in a clear, loud voice. “I apologize for my actions yesterday. I had no right to assault you. It was ill considered and lacked judgement. And I ask that you forgive my transgression.” Grant couldn’t see the man’s expression, but he clearly heard the sincerity in his voice. He nodded and slipped quietly away. Cambria leaned forward. “You touch me again and when I get out of here, I’ll come back, rip your guts out, tie them around your throat, choke you with them.” He glanced back and saw Grant had gone. He reached out and caressed Cambria’s throat. “Not before I slit yours, bitch. Like I said yesterday, we don’t need you alive for our purposes, and dead is just fine with me.” “Go ahead you fucker, see how far that gets you.” Cambria sneered and the man laughed as he rose. He turned, as if to walk away, then swivelled and kicked her thigh, twice in the same spot with his pointed cowboy boots. Cambria refused to make a sound and he snickered. “Oh, you’re gonna be nice to play with.” And he walked away. She watched him swagger off then suddenly stop as Grant appeared. The big man said nothing, simply raised his fist and hammered the bastard. Grant picked him up by the back of his collar and dragged him away, all without saying a word or sparing Cambria a look. Grant just proved he was more than capable of unprovoked violence, even if it was in revenge for the kicks levelled at her.

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Nope, he just kept proving her right at every stage, no matter his conversations or his actions towards her. She had to get out of here, but knew she couldn’t survive the unknown wilderness without ration packs. She had no idea where she was or how far civilisation might be. She had every expectation that even now, Caparossi was following her footsteps. Although, she’d not given him any indication of when she’d return. Chances were, he was still waiting for her, not realising anything was wrong. Did she have a reasonable expectation of convincing these people she couldn’t do what Grant was asking of her? No. They seemed hell bent on following him and using her to further their ambitions of creating a republic. And she knew that was impossible. No one in the World Council would allow it. Jeez, but she hated the waiting. Lunchtime came and went with no one visiting her and her belly rumbled, tightened with hunger. She whiled away the hours by thinking of Caparossi and their two years together. He’d know eventually she was missing and he’d work it out. Smart person that he was, as soon as he knew, he’d... charge in with his retrieval unit. And that could be bad, especially if this whole crew were armed. She could only hope his love for her wouldn’t cloud his judgement, that he’d consider all options before coming to rescue her. But, God, she wished he’d hurry, her knees were killing her and her shoulders ached like a sore tooth. Grant was gonna die for doing this to her and to hell with his plans to somehow convince her that she was going to save their world. Cambria leaned back against the pole and closed her eyes. The day darkened to night and the sounds of the forest changed as she dozed. Then she heard something new, a rushing noise and she frowned, opened her eyes and searched the night.

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It came closer... something vaguely familiar about it and the scent of damp earth, but before she could pinpoint the memory, cold rain, in heavy fat drops, poured through the canopy of pine trees. Her shoulders slumped, her head bowed and she began thinking of all kinds of revenge scenarios against Grant and his band of outlaws. She imagined them warm, well fed and laughing, while she felt... absolutely wretched. Cambria lifted her head and opened her mouth to catch as much water as she could, to let the rain wash her hot face. The chilled rain soon numbed her skin and she began shivering. She rolled her shoulders, shifted from side to side in an effort to keep her blood flowing through her veins, but it quickly became an exercise in futility. The rain eased off to showers, but it didn’t increase her comfort level. Then, the temperature dropped as did her sense of hope. She wallowed in despair. Through the gloom of the forest, she saw the glow of a lantern, bobbing. Anna arrived, dressed in a rain slicker, a broad brimmed hat and a satisfied smile. “Are we sitting comfortably?” She snickered as Cambria looked up at her. She didn’t trust her voice not to shake she was so cold and another shudder rippled through her. “I just came out to see if you’re okay, and, by the looks of you, you are. So I’ll just go back in the warmth and the dry and have myself a nice whiskey.” Cambria lowered her head. She wouldn’t beg for anything off this woman. Not one damn thing. “Why are you doing this?” She heard herself ask through tightly held teeth. “Because I can, chica. People like you don’t understand what it’s like out here in the real world. Well, now you’re getting a taste.” She bent over with the lantern and water from her hat brim poured over Cambria. “So how does it feel?”

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“Cold.” Cambria nearly laughed. “Yes, this is what it is like for thousands, if not millions of people around the world who slave away at the collective farms for the benefit of a few. Do you even know the life expectancy of the general population?” Cambria twitched her head. “Of course not. You elitists sit in your fine offices, directing lives without considering what those lives might be like. With the strike of a pen or a note on a keyboard, you condemn thousands to a living hell, a barely subsistence living. The life expectancy out here is barely sixty years old. In the cities, the seats of provincial governments, it’s ninety-five and above. And yet the Eugenics Committee keeps fudging those numbers, keeps it at a nice, long eighty-seven.” Anna tilted her hat forward and more heavy drops of cold water fell onto Cambria’s pale face. “The corruption is rampant and it’s crushing us. Is it any wonder that people are desperate for an out?” Now she knew Anna was lying. There was no such thing as a ‘Eugenics Committee’. Then again, the drop in population to off world colonies was a reasonable response to those who wanted to start a new life. Every society had people who disagreed, who were never satisfied with its governance, no matter what the government gave them to make their lives more comfortable. “The corridors.” “Now, you’re beginning to understand. Those aliens did us a hell of a favour, opened new opportunities for freedom. But thanks to you, many of those avenues are closing to us.” “They are flawed, Anna. If you keep using them, they will eventually disperse your molecules to the end of the universe.” She wiped her face on her shoulder. Anna snorted. “Yes, you’d say that. But then, you’re personally responsible for shutting down hundreds of corridors, stopped millions of people trying to improve their lives.”

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Cambria shook her head. “You just don’t get it. The Gardishans sold you secondhand corridors that they knew would eventually fail. No one complains because those who use them, disappear. That distortion is an indicator of imminent failure.” Anna shook her head. “It’s to let us know of the transit. We’ve never lost anyone and those we sent out, are happy with their new freedoms, their new lives.” Cambria shook her head. “We send out retrieval units every single damned day to bring back those for whom life off planet is infinitely worse than what they left here, Anna. You have no idea what’s out there, how dangerous it is, what alien diseases there are, or aliens who have conquering ambitions.” Anna crossed her arms. “Yes, we know of those death squads, and they are our next targets. Do you know what happens to the returned colonists?” “I assume they go home, back to where they started.” Anna’s laugh was bitter. “Oh, Hunter, I never thought I’d come across anyone so naive, so ferociously loyal to the socialist state. Well, let me clue you in: they are sent to prison camps, to work farms, where they die from starvation and overwork.” “I wonder then, why so many returned colonists are grateful for the rescue.” The rain began again, but Anna made no move to return to the camp. “And so they are, until they get home where the Council’s storm troopers are waiting for them. New families have moved into their homes, taken control of their property. They return with nothing to nothing and are easy prey for the troopers.” The scenario she painted was an awful one, if it was true. But Cambria had never seen any hint of such things, no rumour, even before her work with Senator Dortmund. Working with the Bureau of Political Security, she went out into the countryside, to a politician’s home territory to investigate their backgrounds. The people she saw had no fear in them, were comfortable with their lifestyles, and enjoyed the country life. The townsfolk worked hard in their small businesses, were active in the communities, helping those less fortunate. Unemployment was near zero, especially during harvest season. She rarely ventured into the cities, that

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wasn’t in her purview, but her colleagues were unconcerned about any dissension or rebelliousness. Her experience told her that Anna was lying, or someone was lying to her. Grant, probably. “Anna, unless you show me proof, I just can’t believe you.” The doctor squatted before her, boots stirring the mud, her dark eyes gleamed with anger in the lantern light. “Everyone here has suffered under this provincial regime, some have come from outside the province, but all have felt the hand of oppression. Every one of them wants to come down here and kill you, slowly, to vent their anger. For now, Grant has them under control, but the longer you’re here, the more the injustices fester. Brett, the man forced to apologise, is the angriest. He grew up to the north of here, had a nice lifestyle on a corn farm, a wife, two kids, grandparents, all worked the farm. But a drought took it all from him. The crops failed two years running and when he asked for help, the government removed all of them and placed the family on other, more sustainable farms. Instead of working for himself and earning a nice living, he was now an ordinary farm worker, under the thumb of a brutal boss, worked as a slave. He hasn’t seen his children since, doesn’t even know if any of his family are still alive. He tried to escape to them, but was caught, tortured, as you are now; but not for days, he spent six months tied to a post. You’ll have noticed how he swaggers around?” Cambria nodded. “It’s not from arrogance, it’s from the damage done to his hips and knees. He has a rolling gait to ease the pain and he blames you for it because you represent everything he hates.” Cambria remained unconvinced. “Whatever you’re planning won’t work. You can tie me up, torture me, even kill me for your purposes, but nothing will change because you can’t take on a global government and expect to win. The resources levelled against you are too vast. I certainly can’t change their minds. Whatever old

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days you want to return to is an impossible dream. The world is a safer place because of the Council. People are happier, they work for a living, have holidays, can rise in their own careers, and are able to achieve success, should they wish it.” Anna rose, shook the rain from her hat. “You Europeans.” She said and contempt coloured her tone. “It’s always about you, how you want the world to run, the profits you can make for a better life, but you never look beyond, never see what’s happening in other provinces. Europeans are the best fed, the best clothed, have the best land and technology...” she pursed her lips and considered her last comment. “Okay, the Asian provinces have the best technology, I’ll admit that. But to have such a standard of living, the World Council limited the population. Any excess to the sustainability of the land, were shipped off, offered enticement to leave and found themselves here, or the African Province, some shifted to the Caucus Province, where land is not so fertile or profitable.” She stepped away then turned. “It’s all true. Lincoln Grant is our way out, and you’re going to help us whether you want to or not.” Then she left, taking light and conversation with her. Cambria spent the rest of the night alternating between feeling the hunger in her stomach and trying to work out why they believed this bilge. She concluded sometime around dawn that she didn’t know enough about history or geography, that her current knowledge on society was sadly lacking, that she’d been too narrowminded in her focus and that she should have stood up to Lord Montague, rather than let him manipulate and blackmail her into furthering the World Council agenda. She knew parts of the Council were corrupt, but Cambria also knew men like Senator Dortmund, worked hard to bring a better life to the people of the world, were trustworthy, honourable and had integrity. Representatives like CottingtonBlake were more an anomaly than the norm. But she also trusted the Bureau of Political Security and the Global Security Unit to weed out those villains, to punish them.

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No. Life in the provinces was the same as Europe. But here, Grant had built himself a nice, loyal cult, dedicated to some appealing, amorphous dream and she could do nothing to free the followers of that kind of brainwashing. Cambria dozed, but tried to keep herself awake to avoid hyperthermia. By the time the day lightened, exhaustion nodded her head, drew it down and strained her shoulder joints. Pain radiated down her arms and back, kept her awake. But as the sun rose behind heavy dark clouds, and more rain fell, she understood the torture wasn’t going to end anytime soon.

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Chapter Seven Caparossi had a major problem. He leaned back in his chair and studied the information on the screen. Thanks to Cambria’s mission on Nexus True and the black planet the Gardishans owned, the Hunters had the complete information of where, when and for whom they’d built the illegal corridors. The information and the addresses staggered him. More than half the members of the World Council had bought one, even as they knew of the illegality. Worse, once the information regarding the dangers of the corridors became common knowledge within the Council, those members independently and immediately contacted Nexus True for the corrections. All without consultation, as if they felt it was their right to have a corridor and to have the Nexians fix them, free of charge. It made him sick to think the Council members believed their need was greater than many planets out there. As if born with the sense of entitlement and the welfare of colony planets meant nothing. While the list had been available for two years, accomplishments were few, other than those members fixing their own corridors. No punitive action, not even slaps on privileged wrists. It appeared that for the wealthy, it was okay to have one. It was, after all, an indication of just how wealthy a person was; but for everyone else, unless they were a part of the elite class, the authorities shut the corridor down, the owners heavily fined and imprisoned. He’d always had a vague feeling of disgust for the ruling class, with their privileged lifestyles, but that was okay as long as they worked for the betterment of other people as well. This corruption, this scale of corruption brought the light shining on just how despicably degenerate the World Council had become. He’d only meant to check the addresses to find where Cambria had gone – and failed. In searching for the location of the corridor, he discovered that someone had

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doctored the database. The list totalled more corridors than locations, which meant someone deleted those locations, including the one he needed. In changing the search parameters, and comparing the address with the original Cambria took from the black planet, he’d found the corridors of various groups involving the Council and business elites, he’d found the closed corridors in middleclass and worker class areas. But no one closed the corridors owned by the rich, as if those were exempt. He idly wondered how the Gardishans could install so many corridors without it reaching the ears of law enforcement. He snorted with disgust. Protection at the highest level. He sighed and reached for his com unit. “Jerry? Can you come to my office please?” He listened to the reply. “Yes, I’m aware of ongoing missions, but you can hand off to Tessa and... Thank you.” He shut off the com unit, aware that Jerry Handel sounded nervous. He’d reserve judgement on why until the man turned up. Five minutes later, Jerry knocked on his door. “Come in.” Jerry stood before him, shifted from foot to foot. He had the pallor of someone who rarely saw the sun, and the slim body of a man who forgot to eat regular meals. His curly hair had knots and a greasy appearance; pimples glowed like targets on his pale, sweating forehead. He had a thin mouth under a beak-like nose, but his light brown eyes were lively with fear and speculation. He wore wrinkled khaki slacks, a stained white shirt and Caparossi didn’t even hazard a guess as to what material marred his white lab coat. “Jerry, I have a little job for you.” Caparossi said and the foot shifting increased. “Yes, sir?” “I want you to detail who had access to the Nexian database and when.” Jerry’s face drained of remaining colour and a shudder rippled down his body. “Sir?”

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“I don’t believe you’re hard of hearing, yet you appear a little disturbed by my request.” Caparossi said kindly and watch Jerry swallow. “Sir... sir... that database is classified at a very high level.” “Yes, I know.” “A very high level.” “Jerry, let me be clear: you’re not in trouble, at least not with me. Have a seat and tell me about it. I get the impression I’ve just put you between a rock and a hard place.” Jerry didn’t just sit, he near collapsed into the visitor’s chair. He fumbled in the pocket of his white coat and drew out a white square, wiped his sweating face. “Yes, sir, I’m feeling a mite squeezed on all sides.” The technician said, guilt clear on his face. “I guess I always knew I’d be found out eventually, but I couldn’t help myself.” His expression begged for understanding. “Go on.” Caparossi said sternly. What was this about? Jerry swallowed hard. “All I’ve ever wanted to do was explore the corridors,” he confessed. “Where they went, who went, what they saw, their experiences. During my off shift times, I’d talk to those who came back, asked them about the missions. Even the returned colonists spoke of wonderful things and strange things, but I’m stuck here. I... ah, I started documenting things.” He lifted a defensive shoulder. “The stories, the planets, the co-ordinates and addresses...” His voice trailed off. Caparossi leaned forward, rested his forearms on the desktop. “Are you telling me you’ve been constructing a second database? From eyewitness reports?” Jerry hunched in on himself and nodded, miserable. “I know I shouldn’t have, that I’m not supposed to have anything to do with the information on the corridors and who uses them, but I have an interest in travel, in photography. Before I started working here, I spent my holiday time in a new province every year. I still do. And I have a database for those holidays, too, with comparisons, dates, a separate weather

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register for temperatures, wind speeds, humidity, isobars, pressure... The world is a truly amazing place, sir.” Caparossi stared at the young man. Dear God, this man was statistics geek! His mind whirled with possibilities. “Can I offer you some coffee?” He asked gently and Jerry nodded. He rose and went into his small kitchen, poured a cup of freshly brewed coffee from the carafe. He set it in front the technician and decided he needed coffee, too. When he returned, Jerry seemed calmer and Caparossi resumed his seat, leaned back nursing his mug. “Did you have any plans for your databases?” He asked, genuinely curious. “Oh, no, sir, it was purely for my own benefit. See, I’d visit a province, make notes on what I saw, take photographs, list times and dates and places, then I’d put it all down, kind of like a travelogue scrapbook.” Caparossi nodded. “A book of memories.” Jerry relaxed further. “That’s it exactly. There are so many fascinating places and I want to see as many as I can. But... I’ve never been off-world, so talking to people who came back didn’t seem so... wrong.” “No one to share all this with?” Caparossi asked and Jerry flushed, shook his head. “Not yet, but I live in hope.” Caparossi turned his chair from side to side, interested in this young man whom he thought just another techno-geek, just another body who operated the corridors. “How long have you been doing this?” Jerry stared down at his lap. “Jerry?” “Ahm... since about a month after I arrived, sir.” He said, as if expecting troopers to arrive at any moment and haul him off to prison.

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Caparossi turned his attention to Jerry’s personnel file and felt a spark of excitement. Jerry might be young, but he’d had access for six and a half years! That meant he’d arrived before Cambria exposed Bolingbroke, had started compiling his database when Caparossi was starting out as a Captain in charge of Retrieval Units. “Tell me about the Nexian database.” He asked. Jerry tensed and spontaneously glanced over his shoulder, cleared his throat and his prominent Adam’s apple bobbed. “I just started out of curiosity. The Stress Management Officer suggested I take up a hobby.” He scratched a pimple on his jaw. “I think she meant a sport or some sort of physical activity, but... I’m not that co-ordinated. I really wanted to know what was out there, beyond the metal door. I started to list travellers and missions, with people numbers. See, each corridor stores the number of transits in its memory, easy to program and easy to extract. We archive the information at the end of each twenty-four hour period. The tricky part was how to separate single transits from multiple transits. Because of the Retrieval Units and the comings and goings of the Hunters. I figured our corridor would be too difficult to track, so I, er, expanded my parameters and downloaded information from other corridors.” Caparossi froze. “Did you say multiple transits?” Jerry nodded and Caparossi inwardly groaned. As far as anyone here knew, only one person could go through the corridor at a time. He’d never heard nor seen anything to indicate multiple transits. Now Jerry was saying groups could go through? But then... it made economic sense. Owners of the public transits could charge for a premium for each passenger over discounts for groups. Was it a secret deliberately kept by the Nexians? He closed his eyes in thought. No, they’d assume customers knew. After all, their Spatial Vortex Transporters were ‘perfect’. He just hadn’t thought until now they meant for ‘mass’ transit and God knows what else. He could go further and

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assume those who did make group transits had asked about it – no doubt receiving the answer with a hint of contempt. It also meant a complete re-think on how to deploy troops. Until this bombshell, the point man went through the door with the expectation of finding significant trouble on the other side and had to wait at least thirty seconds before help arrived. Naked, vulnerable and exposed took on a new meaning for the first man or woman through. If he could send squads through... He opened his eyes and regarded a curious Jerry. He’d set aside the information, for now. He needed to know just how thorough Jerry’s research was, and what he could do with it. “How did you know who had a corridor?” Caparossi asked. “Well,” he scratched the pimple again, “I didn’t, at first; I just worked with this one. Then I thought it was silly to think this was the only one, so I went hunting.” His ears turned red. “I mean metaphorically speaking, of course. I, ah, studied the specifications we had – some of it’s missing, you know – and then looked at the input/output requirements, when the power peaked, what happened to it, ahm... the required build-up and bleed-off, stuff like that...” Caparossi nodded. “Go on.” Jerry shrugged. “So I’m slowly building up a picture of what makes the corridor work, then I heard Bolingbroke had one, so I, um, kind of downloaded the specifications of his. And wow, did that dump a lot of information on me. Anyway, I compared the two, saw the differences and, ah, hacked into Bolingbroke’s database.” Caparossi frowned. “I thought the addresses had been wiped.” “Kind’a sort’a.” Jerry said. “But only if you don’t know where the archive is kept on the system. It’s a specialised file with a mutable alpha-numeric extension that defaults to the original specifications unless the user sets their own parameters.” More comfortable with talking about his work, Jerry relaxed and leaned back in his chair. “Since I already knew about this archive, it was pretty easy to access the file on

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another system. So I downloaded the address and searched for energy emission patterns from that one system. They take up a bit of juice to operate – but the same amount of juice for each transit - so I accessed government power bills, which are public, and tracked down the individual power sources the consoles used during the operation of the corridors. I mean if one judicar can have a corridor, why not others in the government. Since they all use the same amount of power, it was easy to expand my parameters again to find corridors external from the Judicar to the World Council and then to private corridors. From there, I back-tracked the records and detailed the usage.” The colonel rubbed his chin to hide his shock and amazement. “So... you’ve known about these illegal corridors for... how long?” “A few years, sir, but in my defence, I didn’t know they were illegal. Nobody told us. We technicians, I mean. We... I thought you were working through a particular list, that the external corridors were legit; otherwise, you’d be shutting them down. And when they weren’t, I kept on adding to my database.” “I understand, Jerry.” Caparossi said and smiled. “And I’ll try to inform all technicians of corridor information, whether they need it or not.” “Oh, um, okay, thank you, sir, I think.” “Correct me if my conclusions are wrong, Jerry. You have a detailed database of traffic through corridors, legal and illegal. And you discovered these corridors through power usage and bills. Assume that most of the corridors are single transit only, you’d be able to calculate how much power each transit used, am I right?” Jerry nodded, but frowned. “You make it sound so easy, but it’s a little more complicated. There are frequencies involved. I don’t know how or why the corridors work – yet - but once I hooked into to the corridors themselves, the power usage became obvious.”

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Caparossi snorted a laugh. “Anyway, you worked out how many went through, in either direction. I guess odd numbers meant people had yet to return. No, that can’t be right...” Caparossi squinted at Jerry as he tried to work it out. Jerry grinned at him. “You’re thinking logically, when you should be thinking laterally, sir. The corridors use different frequencies for incoming and outgoing traffic.” He said. “Take Bolingbroke’s corridor. The amount of outgoing traffic far outweighed the incoming.” “Yes, he was sending his enemies off world.” “Yes, sir, so the outgoing frequency registered more frequently... Ha!” Jerry grinned at his comment, and then sobered. “Um, the outgoing frequency registered more frequently than the incoming frequency. Most of the power needed to start transit comes from the originating corridor, not the receiving corridor. It’s like tossing a ball: the pitcher expends more energy throwing the ball, than the catcher does in catching the ball, because the projectile loses energy due to air friction, gravity and so on. The energy at the receiving end is therefore less because it doesn’t need the same amount of energy for catching the object.” “Do you know exactly how the corridors work?” Caparossi asked. “Not a clue.” Jerry replied with a smile. “Could be hyper-spatial or sub-spatial; inter-dimensional is my guess, but we’re still at the theoretical level for that. I’ve only caught the frequencies in our reality. I don’t know what happens during transit since it takes a small amount of time and we don’t have the equipment – not even the theory – to detect what goes on during travel.” “You’re starting to mess with my head with all this science, but I think I understand what you mean.” Caparossi said. “Okay, so you put the amount of the two frequencies into your own database of incoming and outgoing traffic?” “Yes, sir.”

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“Right. I must say, you’ve done an outstanding job on this. But it’s a digression of sorts. When you arrived, you were just about to have a panic attack. So obviously, someone else has had a word in your ear.” Jerry tensed again. “Lord Montague sent word that the Nexian database was to have the highest of classifications, and only those with a need-to-know could access it for certain information. I thought you’d discovered my alternate information and were going to call me on the carpet about it. I swear, I never meant any harm and it was only for my statistical interest.” “And I’m glad you did. But I still need to know who had access to the Nexian information, and when, so I can discover who redacted some of the information.” Jerry sat up straight. “Redacted, sir?” Caparossi nodded towards his screen. “There are more corridors listed than locations, Jerry. And that means someone’s messed with it. Someone doesn’t want certain locations known. I want to know how many people have travelled to these ‘unknown’ locations, the identity of the locations and I want to know who has the power to delete those locations.” Jerry rose, set his half-empty mug of coffee down and came around the desk leaned over the keyboard. Caparossi obligingly moved out of the way and watched the technician’s fingers fly across the smooth surface. Caparossi drained his coffee and took his mug back to the kitchen, rinsed it and set it aside. Jerry, he saw, had taken control of Caparossi’s chair. He leaned against the doorjamb and watched him work. Every few moments, his fingers would be a flurry of activity, and then he’d pause, his hands absolutely still. After ten minutes, Jerry snorted, then paused and leaned closer to the screen and flopped backwards. “Jerry?” Caparossi straightened and the young man jerked, as if he’d forgotten where he was and in whose office.

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“Yes, sir, I have the information for you.” Jerry said, depressed and pale. Caparossi approached then looked at the screen. Yeah, that’s pale-worthy, he thought. “I’m going to ask you for a copy of your corridor database, Jerry, and I genuinely hope you’ll give me one. Better yet, I want you to share your findings with...” Who? He was well aware of how Bolingbroke caught Cambria, by having a spy in Dortmund’s office. While Caparossi worked alone, there were still people who’d willingly spy on him. “...some of your colleagues, I think. I need you to send copies to here, to my home and portable units, to Hunter Petersen’s portable and home units. I want you, Jerry, to protect this information by giving to those you trust implicitly.” Jerry stared at him with wide eyes. “Do you think I’m in danger?” He asked in a whisper. “In this facility, no, but I think it pays to be careful. Continue your work, Jerry, continue to build your secondary database, and continue to be Jerry Handel.” He said with a relaxed smile. “Share your work, share your scrapbooks; who knows, you might find a nice, young, attractive technician who enjoys travelling as much as you do.” Jerry blinked at him and the tension in his shoulders eased, as if Caparossi’s words reassured him that he’d done nothing wrong, that his hobby was still his hobby. “Better get back to work. Thank you for coming to see me.” Jerry looked around and flushed as he realised in whose seat he was sitting. He popped up like a cork. “I’ll, ah, send the info to you ASAP, Colonel.” Caparossi kept the smile on his face as he watched the technician leave. His office door closed and he slumped into his chair, still warm from Jerry’s body, and stared at the names listed as accessing the database.

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While he recognised all the names, some he knew needed that access. With the genie out of the bottle, the World Council had to make the decision on which corridors to legitimise. The skies were open and the World Council saw an opportunity to take control and charge departure and arrival fees – another, very lucrative profit source for them. But two most decidedly did not – and those two had more access than anyone else did: The President of the World Council and the Provincial Governor of America. So what deal did the two men have going that required access to an alien database? And what was going on in America that needed the Governor to access the same database? Caparossi waited patiently for the alternative database and when the icon began blinking on his screen, he opened the document and started work on finding the link between Lazarus and Cambria’s location. She could be anywhere in the universe, but he thought not. Grant’s businesses were Earth-bound or routed through Lazarus. And he knew the incoming transit was from Lazarus. All he needed was to access the passenger manifest to Earth from Lazarus and find the incoming address. He clicked his tongue as he saw the arrival destination, but they hadn’t turned up here, so where else on Earth could they have gone? *** Cambria lost track of time. With the sun out, she could estimate the time, but with the rain, the day brightened to gloomy and stayed there. Lincoln Grant came striding through the forest, dressed in a rain slicker, a broad brimmed hat and a backpack over one shoulder. “I seem to be the only one who’s interested in your well-being.” He said and set the pack down on the muddy ground. “I’m sure it’s not deliberate.” Cambria muttered. “No,” he sighed and rummaged around inside the bag, “the others just don’t think you’re worth caring for. They want you as weak as possible, as unhappy and

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uncomfortable as they can make you.” He lifted massive shoulders. “It’s their way of gaining petty revenge, a hedge, if you will against future acts of revenge. Yet, they don’t want to cause permanent harm.” Grant pulled out a camouflaged sheet of smooth material and set about building a cover for her with extendable poles and low branches. “I think,” Cambria said, exhaustion colouring her tone, “they would see me dead but cannot muster the courage to do it themselves, so they poke and prod, and taunt, trying to gather that courage to do the deed. And if leaving me out here, in the cold and the rain, without water or food, soothes their consciences, then that’s what they’ll do.” He tugged on a rope. “You don’t know them like I do, Hunter. They are good people who’ve had a hard life and who are in an awkward situation. If they haven’t found the courage to do you dangerous harm, then it’s because they know it’s wrong.” She peered over at him. “And Brett? The one you pole-axed yesterday?” “He won’t be bothering you anymore. I’ve sent him to... somewhere else. Seems he lacks discipline where representatives of the Council are concerned.” “I’m a Hunter, not a ‘representative of the Council’.” He snorted. “You work for the Government and that’s good enough.” Cambria leaned back against the pole, closed tired eyes. “I don’t give a shit about your twisted reasoning.” “No, I suppose not.” He said from close in front of her. But she didn’t budge until she felt the heat of the portable stove. She looked at him, then the stove as he unpacked a pot and flask, poured water into the pot and set it on the stove. Her belly growled as he poured desiccated meat and vegetables into the water. Then he dragged out the thermos, poured two cups of coffee. “If I let you loose, will you promise not to run?”

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“There’s nowhere I can go, Grant, you know that. Maybe I could muster up a crawl or a slide.” His expression tightened and she saw the lines of tiredness around his eyes. “If I let you loose, will you promise not to run?” He repeated. On a sigh, she made her promise. “I will not try to escape, I will not run. You have my word.” He flashed a grin. “Given the governments habit of breaking their word, I’ll take that with a grain of salt. So I’ll give you a promise: If you do try to abscond, I will hunt you down and the punishment will be worse than this.” “I don’t see how, but okay. And for your information, I don’t make promises I can’t keep.” He rose and went behind her and untied her ankles, then unlocked the cuffs, but this time, he also placed a hand on her shoulder to stop her falling onto the stove. Cambria was relieved for the support, but not grateful; no way would she express her thanks. “All right?” Grant asked. “Yes.” She said and he released her, came back to the stove. Cambria painfully eased her legs around, winced at the deep ache in her knees and ankles. Her shoulders also protested as she rubbed her raw wrists. Grant peeled his coat off and draped it around her shoulders. Warmth immediately seeped through her wet clothes. She wished she had her thermal coat, but she hadn’t taken it to Lazarus, didn’t think she needed it. “Thank you.” She said as she wrapped the wool-lined material around her. “But why the sudden kindness?” He set up his foldable seat, lowered his large frame onto it gingerly. The legs sank into the mud then stopped and he relaxed. He dragged out another stool and gave it to her. She set it up and sat, massaged her thighs.

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“Well, now, I think it’s time to explain what’s going to happen.” He handed her a mug of coffee and then stirred the pot. Cambria watched the stew reconstitute with a feeling of impending doom and waited. Grant said nothing. He also stared down at the pot, as if considering his words, or reconsidering his plan. The stew thickened and steamed. Cambria drank her coffee and the warmth inside spread. Grant set his mug down and grabbed two plates. He dished up the meal, offered her the plate and a spoon. Cambria put her mug on the muddy ground, took the plate and tried not to be greedy. She deliberately chewed, then swallowed when she really wanted to shovel. The taste didn’t matter, the bulk and warmth did and she finished her meal. Grant offered her a fist-sized bread roll and she consumed that too, using the soft interior to sop up the gravy. When her stomach felt content, she picked up her mug again. Grant lifted the thermos and she held it out. “Fed, watered and more comfortable?” He asked and refilled his own mug. “Yes.” “Good, good.” He said and sank into silence again. “If you’re going to stall, Grant, then may I ask that you escort me to the outhouse?” He lifted his head, startled, then pushed up from his seat. “Of course.” He set his mug on the ground and helped her up, guided her down to the outhouse. When they returned, Grant settled his bulk and leaned his elbows on his knees. “This isn’t going to end well for you, Hunter, I guess you know that.” Cambria shook her head. “No, I don’t know that.” He raised his eyebrows.

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“I have found that no situation is beyond rescue or redemption. I have been on missions that beggared belief, suicide missions, missions against impossible odds, and yet, I’m still here.” She said and he looked sad. “And now, that remarkableness is going to end.” He replied. “We’ve heard stories, rumours, of course, of a Hunter who fought off the sharks on Nomad, who saved the human enclave. Stories of a Hunter who tracked down and killed that mongrel dog Jones, discovered a new world, new species, new allies. Who stopped slavery in its tracks, took on an alien enemy on behalf of an allied world and defeated them.” Cambria flushed with embarrassment. “You make me sound like some sort of superhero. And I’m not. I just did my job.” He nodded, slowly. “I know, but I don’t believe most of it. You spoke of redemption, which also fits. I guess you’re out there trying to redeem yourself for a most heinous crime. But that doesn’t matter to us.” His eyes sparked with anger. “It time you pay up for the murder of the most popular Senator we ever had.” Cambria nearly choked on her coffee. “Dortmund?” Grant nodded. “But he was a European senator!” She was in Provincial Europe? She looked around at the forest and the weather, thought of Grant’s accent and the strange cadence of the others. No, impossible! She'd know if they were in Europe. Grant showed her his teeth. “It never mattered from where he came, Hunter, it mattered that he championed our cause, that he investigated crimes against the people by corrupt Judicars and politicians.” “Holy shit.” She said, amazed. Now she knew the real reason for her report. Not only the case level of the Judicars, but the spread of cases, she realised now as she remembered the anger of the senator. Yes, it had been directed at her, but also at the corruption he’d seen and she had not. “Bugger me.” She said softly. Bolingbroke

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wasn’t the only one interested in getting rid of her and Dortmund, but he was the executioner. No wonder Montague sought to keep her off planet. Someone out there, someone with a lot of power and a lot to lose if discovered, failed to exterminate her and would probably try to kill her if they knew... She sent him a sharp glance as she remembered the warrant out on her. Montague rescinded it, but he assured her bounty hunters still searched for her, still wanted the enormous reward money. And then it all fell into place. Why she was the target, why she was here, trussed up. “You’re going to sell me.” She said, horrified. “Sell? No. Cash in on the reward, absolutely.” He confirmed. “But it goes further than that. The money is just a bonus for all our hard work. The real negotiating price and why you’re going to change the world, is secession from the provincial government.” Cambria gaped at him. “You’re trading me for independent land? Are you crazy? No member of the World Council is going to let you do that. If they give in to you, they’ll have to allow any other group that threatens dissension. And they will not do that. They will not stand by and watch centuries of peace be disrupted by fringe groups who want to opt out of the mainstream.” “Yes, they will. We have promises, in writing, to do just that.” He smiled and she stared at him in shock. Then she shook it off. “And they’ll break that agreement as soon as they can.” She said, but his expression remained determined.” Cambria sighed. “All right then, do they know where you are? Have you told them or given them any indication where this... camp is?” He snorted. “I’m not a fool. That’s why I’ve been absent from this... camp. This morning, I’ve been making final preparations for transfer of goods – you – for the deed to the land.”

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Cambria rolled her eyes and sighed. “Great. So you’ve at least given them an area to search.” She rubbed her forehead. “And even when you do trade me, they know exactly where you’ll be and crush every last one of you.” “We’re not worried, since we have acquired guarantees of security.” He said and smiled at her. “The President of the World Council will not betray us or we will take him down.”

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Chapter Eight Caparossi tried to contain his amazement at the amount of information Jerry acquired. The database was concise, structured and easily accessible. The man was a genius, his talents wasted as a door monitor. No wonder he’d taken up a hobby. Caparossi could access information on who had a corridor, how often they used it, and where they went and who visited – since Jerry had also acquired offices electronic visitors’ log; just to confirm the visits against the numbers, of course. Caparossi also thought it might be worthwhile to ask Jerry if he could find out if representatives used the corridors as a way sneaking into another’s office, for espionage. Maybe I’m being too paranoid – if there is such a thing in this job. If he put Jerry together with a Nexian pair like the Callirishans, the galaxy wouldn’t know what hit them. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea. He set his plans aside to focus on his current problems. Caparossi rubbed tired eyes. He knew he should sleep, but he couldn’t rest, not until he knew she was safe. Oh, he knew she couldn’t die and any injury healed relatively quickly, but he also knew this enemy was as ruthless as he’d been relentless. Grant had to keep her sequestered; otherwise, she’d be back by now if he’d merely dumped her on foreign soil. He needed to see Lord Montague, to brief him on the situation, but if he could find the corridor she’d gone to, he’d have the information to send a Retrieval Unit, or two, or three. And so he hunted through the database, tracking the alpha-numeric codes and compared them to the addresses the Nexians downloaded, searched for the anomaly. He smiled with relief when he finally found it. A corridor address from Lazarus to Texas, used on the day Cambria disappeared.

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Caparossi leaned back and rubbed a hand down his face. Jerry’s work shortened the hunt considerably. Jerry hadn’t just discovered the corridors, he’d connected them to other corridors further afield, in other provinces around the world. It would have appealed to Jerry’s travel bug to follow the bouncing ball, to follow a traveller like an itinerary. And so, the Texas address connected to a Geneva address within the World Council building itself. Since the Governor and the County Commissioner had their own corridors, this location – nowhere near any township – could only mean it was illegal and probably used for smuggling. Right up Grant’s alley. He transferred the information to his portable unit and rose. Then he checked the time, saw it was two a.m. He couldn’t disturb Montague until at least nine. It looked like he was going to get some sleep after all. Caparossi set a new encrypted password and shut down his desktop unit. He tucked his portable unit into his top pocket and left the office, locked the door. He understood his computer might be bugged – if Jerry could infiltrate the World Council computers, the reverse was also true - but there was no way they could gain access to delete the material before he returned later in the morning. What really troubled him, was the idea anyone would want to or even feel it necessary to track his actions. Here in the Hunter unit, they were all of a like mind, that of Hunting down criminals who escaped off world, retrieving colonists who found life out there too hard, finding allies and trading partners, and locating new, empty worlds with resources they could exploit. He found his way back to the quarters he shared with Cambria and slowly opened the door. She was everywhere; her unique scent lingered, mixed with his aftershave. One of her hard used denim jackets lay tossed over the back of the couch. Scuffed and stained leather boots, haphazardly underneath kitchen table.

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He closed the door and leaned against it. Images of both of them, smiling in a picture frame after picture frame on different planets sat on the sideboard. He picked one up, studied it. Cambria stood in profile gazing off into the distance. In the background, the towering peaks of Ragnarok. He smiled as remembered the village built of prefabricated, single storey huts. And the waitress, what was her name? Chan, Chen! Martha, the xeno-biologist or something. Oh, that was an amazing trip. Even now, he could hear Cambria’s laughter at something he said; hell, he couldn’t remember what, but the effect on him when she laughed shut down every damn neuron he had. He gently set the picture down, adjusted it minutely, and then wandered to the bedroom. The bed, still unmade, beckoned, but he didn’t think he could sleep without her beside him, her lithe body snuggled up to his. It shook him that when she was away on other missions for longer than twentyfour hours, he didn’t worry, he knew she’d be back. But this time was different. This time he knew an insane and dangerous criminal had captured her. After the nightmare she’d had the morning of her departure, he genuinely feared for her. Not that she’d die, but that she mentally couldn’t cope with a bastard like Grant. What had he done to her? What was he doing to her right now? *** Cold fear grabbed Cambria by the throat. The President? Of the World Council? He was willing to trade centuries of peaceful existence for her? Wait. There’d been an election last year? Eighteen months ago? Two years? She’d never voted, never dared given her precarious status on Earth. So again, Montague sent her off planet. Every time she returned, she asked whether she could go outside the facility, but he’d always shaken his head. His network of covert operatives spread wide and people still searched for her to claim the unspeakably rich reward. Montague even heard rumours of people looking off world, which, it turned out, was the very place

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Grant and his cohorts set the trap for her - which meant the bait had to be not only something the Hunters couldn’t refuse, but also guaranteed she’d be the one sent. And Caparossi made up the Hunter lists. “Your file.” She said through a constricted throat. “Is it true?” He lifted a shoulder. “I haven’t seen the file, so I can’t comment.” She grimaced with disgust. Maybe it the President and Grant designed the file to lure her in, lure Caparossi into giving the assignment to her. After all, she was indestructible, could take a hit and keep going. With the facility so short of Hunters, they’d sent her instead of a more vulnerable Hunter. Hell, Grant was big enough to take out a Hunter and wait for her. “I walked into a perfectly laid trap.” She murmured. “That you did.” “The price of your freedom is my own.” “A price we are willing to pay.” He said with a grin. She thrust to her feet. “And one I am not!” She shouted. Grant slowly got to his feet, a warning clear in his eyes. “You killed Dortmund. Now it’s time pay off your debt to society. Be a woman and own up to your mistakes, Hunter. Show some pride and integrity.” “You fucking moron! I didn’t kill him! Bolingbroke had it done! If you had the sense God gave a gnat, you’d have checked with GSU or the Hunter Unit! The warrant was rescinded years ago!” She poked a finger into his rock hard chest, but he didn’t flinch. “I should doubt the word of the President... why, exactly?” “You jackass...” She stopped the next rant. “Wait, who is the President, anyway, that will pay any price for me?” “Peter de Crecy.” Grant said. “Not ringing any bells.” “He was the Secretary before making a bid for President.”

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Cambria closed her eyes, lowered to her seat. The Secretary. “Short? Artfully coiffed greying hair, blue eyed? Has a liking for tanning salons? Bit of a bulldog attitude?” “So, you know of him after all.” Grant said with a predatory smile. Oh, yes, she knew him. She’d met him exactly once, in Montague’s office when he accused her of murder and promised her the death penalty. Montague gave him evidence of Judicar Bolingbroke’s treachery, but de Crecy still maintained that Cambria was guilty, regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Oh, yes. If he was in partnership with Bolingbroke, he’d certainly want to get rid of anyone involved with the investigation into Bolingbroke’s corruption. Now, he was in a position to do anything to anyone. Was he really that much of an egotist? He was the President! She, a mere Hunter once suspected of murder – her word meant nothing, her reputation trashed. So why continue hunting her? “Jesus wept.” She muttered. “I met him once; when Lord Montague gave him a copy of the evidence exonerating me – Judicar Bolingbroke’s handwritten diary. Obviously he didn’t believe it, or chose not to believe it, even as others stepped forward and supported the evidence.” She snapped her fingers. “That must be it.” She said, almost to herself. Did de Crecy order the hit on Dortmund through Bolingbroke because her investigation would lead to his door? Dortmund would certainly have taken it further, hence his fear and orders to her to make copies. He wanted to guarantee someone else had a starting place should something happen to him; and it had. He just hadn’t expected his own secretary to be a spy. And then de Crecy’s scapegoat, the author of the report got away – and he couldn’t abide that. She was Dortmund’s starting point. And as long as she lived, de Crecy couldn’t be sure she wouldn’t reconstruct the report and take it to its conclusion – even if she did it anonymously.

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“If you want corruption,” Cambria said, “de Crecy personifies it. If you want a target to blame for your oppression, he’s the very man, because he’s the one who was in position to order it.” “And why should I believe you? You don’t believe in the oppression.” “I’m beginning to wonder. My turn for a story.” She said and poured herself more coffee before sitting down and telling him of the report she did for Dortmund. When she was done, his expression was doubtful. “Yeah, I know. Without that report, I can’t prove a damn thing. And, of course, Bolingbroke had all the copies destroyed. But,” she lifted a finger, “if I can find the information, you can, too. In fact, anyone could find the information - it’s all public record. I just put it all together.” “Well,” he rose and stretched, “that’s all very interesting, but you’ve run out of time. In an hour, you’ll be on your way to Geneva and fronting the World Council.” Cambria tilted her head, and then slowly turned in a circle. “What kind of security devices do you have around the perimeter?” She asked. “The usual, but I’m not going into any details.” He shrugged as if it was of no concern. “If you try to escape, you’ll find out soon enough how difficult it will be.” She rolled her eyes. “And weapons?” Grant frowned. “We have an armoury with plenty of things to take you down from close or distant range.” She slowly turned back to him, saw Anna approaching as quietly and quickly as she could. “It’s not me you have to worry about. The troopers are probably coming through your perimeter right now, to wipe you out and take me. And you gave them just enough time to get into position.” He grinned, was about to laugh when Anna arrived and spoke to him with urgency. His eyes darted to Cambria and she raised an eyebrow. Then he turned to Anna. “He broke his word.” She heard him say.

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Anna said something more and the big man paled. “Emergency bug out, Anna, as quickly and quietly as you can. Take nothing but the people.” The doctor finally turned to Cambria and lifted her chin. “What about her?” “Don’t worry, we’ll be along.” Anna looked like she wanted to protest, but she understood her job. She gave Grant a quick kiss, and then dashed off. “Our outriders failed to report in.” He said and stowed everything away in his pack. “How far out?” Cambria asked. “Half an hour. If what you say is true, the enemy will hit the outer surveillance net in about twenty minutes, and then...” “They’ll slaughter anyone left. De Crecy cannot afford to leave anyone alive to betray him. Not even me.” She handed him back his coat and began taking down the cover sheet. She was barely dry, more uncomfortably damp, and now another soaking was on the way. “If anyone asks, the press release will probably describe a band of rebels, an uprising of workers... no, too noble... he might just shrug and say he knows nothing but will ‘investigate’. I doubt anyone will chase him up on it.” “For someone who’s only met de Crecy once, you seem to know a lot about him.” Grant said. “His type, not him personally. Narcissistic sociopaths. And his type never gives in until they have what they want; then they go after more. It’s inconceivable that they might be wrong, that their power might be threatened. It’s always someone else’s fault when things go wrong.” She said. “And you never tell them so, or you might just end up paying for it with your life.” “Walk and talk, Petersen, we need to be away from here ASAP.” She closed the extendable rods, quickly folded the camouflaged sheet and followed him back towards the encampment.

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Where she’d seen the light was further away than she expected. Also unexpected were the log cabins, all set out as she’d seen in Kekotown on Nomad. Were all colonial outpost built the same way? “Nice...” She dropped to the ground when Grant did, rolled under the bushes. Grant rolled the other way to make a gap of three metres between them. He looked at her and lifted his hand, spread his forefinger and second finger and indicated his eyes. Then he pointed the two fingers towards the cabins, spread all of his fingers, and closed his fist, spread his fingers, closed his fist. Ten. Ten soldiers making their way through the cabins? She made no move and her eyes slowly scanned the area. She caught movement , too close to her and her gaze dropped to the black booted feet carefully stepping through the bush between her and Grant. She lifted her gaze. The soldier pressed the automatic, black weapon against his shoulder and scanned the area, but in holding the rifle up, the weapon blocked his view of her. He hadn’t seen them. Yet. He should have if he’d been paying attention. Maybe a tree blocked his view as they dived for cover? As long as the soldier didn’t look down, they’d be temporarily safe. The man continued to scan the area, then took another step forward. Scan and step, scan and step. Cambria waited patiently, watched only with her eyes as the man made his way forward to the cabins. Her gaze darted to Grant. He held a finger to his lips, then pointed back the way they’d come. He demonstrated the slow, easy and low to the ground crawl. Cambria followed him, surprised at how quiet the movement was. She suspected the sodden earth helped muffle their progress. They past the pole and continued, went by the outhouse with movements in slow motion, but saw no more of the black-clad soldiers.

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She kept her eyes on Grant, froze when he did, moved when he moved. He knew this area, she did not and apparently, he knew bush craft, too. Cambria had to trust him to get them out, but what then? She had little experience in the wilderness, didn’t know where they were and didn’t know how to help. And she knew she was Grant’s best chance at collecting the reward money, even if de Crecy didn’t want to pay up. Damned but it sucked to be her at the moment. For hours, Grant led her through the increasingly rough forest. If she thought her arms were tired before, it was nothing to the increasing pain of elbowing her way through the undergrowth. When Grant came to a creek, he stopped and rolled onto his back, stared up through the forest canopy. Cambria crawled up beside him. “Are we free of them yet?” She asked in a whisper. Grant grunted. “Been away from them for about two hours.” She sat up. Her front was soaked with sticky mud and leaf litter, bits of wood and bugs covered her; she flicked the bugs off. “Then why the hell did we keep crawling?” He looked at her. “It’s a good way to hide our trail. Not many people will check under bushes for footprints and if there are any soldiers still in front of us, you won’t show up on thermal imaging with all that mud. Also, it was better for your knees.” He turned his head away to the canopy again and a smile played around his mouth. “And I wanted to see if you’d actually do it.” Cambria sighed. “Great. So we won’t be getting clean anytime soon.” “Nope.” He lifted into a sitting position, adjusted the pack on his shoulders. “I know you won’t be able to run yet, but we can get up and move on now.” Cambria climbed to her feet, glad to be on them and followed Grant through the forest. She said nothing and he seemed disinclined to start a conversation.

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With every step, Cambria’s knees began to ache, then to burn and then hurt with a grinding pain. But she still said nothing as night slowly enclosed them. She wished she still had her variable vision, but it was lost to her, like her healing ability. Again, she wondered if she was still indestructible. There was only one way to find out, and she wasn’t in any hurry. Grant walked into a small clearing, a gap between the towering trees and set the pack down. Cambria, still clutching the camouflage sheet and poles, set up a lean-to next to the closest tree while he set up the stove and began heating more rations. Cambria came over to him and eased onto the ground, wincing. “How many rations do you have?” He glanced at her. “Enough.” “Enough? For what?” He gusted out a sigh. “Enough for what I have to do.” “And that is...?” “Keeping away from those storm troopers and making our way to our next destination.” Cambria considered his words. “You came down and released me because you knew this would happen.” She said. “I was preparing you for what came next.” He said and waved a dismissive hand. “The emergency bug out is standard protocol in case we were discovered. Everyone was ready this morning to move out to our new land.” Cambria frowned, brushed back her damp hair. She didn’t believe him; there was something wrong with his story. “I thought you had infinite trust in the esteemed President.” “Not so much.” He said with a shrug. “He’s just another politician out for the main chance – that being you and the one hundred million Euros attached to the back of your head. All I have to do is frustrate him long enough and he’ll stop screwing around.”

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“Yeah... no.” Cambria said and accepted the plate he fixed for her. “He’s been very patient and I suspect only one person has... well, two people, have ever thwarted him.” He emptied the pot onto his own plate and set it aside, to let the pot catch the rainwater. “And they are? You? And...?” “Lord Montague.” Grant shovelled food into his mouth. More stew, but it was tasty and filling. The rain slowly petered out as they ate. Fat drops fell from the canopy. “Lord Montague?” Grant asked. “He’s the head of the Hunter unit.” “Okay, then why didn’t the President just ask him to hand you over?” “Because Montague already gave him evidence of my innocence. He could not keep demanding me when he’d seen the proof. And he can’t take action against Montague because the Hunters are outside Presidential oversight.” She shrugged. It was a theory, anyway. “Did you recognise the soldiers?” “No. But then, I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the military uniforms of Earth’s defence forces.” She finished her meal and set the plate aside. “Presidential Security Unit.” Grant announced. “Nope, never heard of them. Are they new?” Grant also finished his meal and set his plate down. He rummaged in the pack and tossed her a coffee pouch, like one she’d used on Ragnarok. She pulled the tab and waited for it to brew. “Yes, they’re new. They’re whole reason for being is to hunt down the personal enemies of the President. They go where they want, do what they want, without fear of prosecution from anyone. The President protects them, even from the most violent of excesses - and they love it. The President is keen to make sure everyone knows

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about them, and he just had to gloat that these are the men who would... escort you to the palace.” “Nice.” “We’ve heard plenty of stories of thuggery, rape, theft, murder. All designed to intimidate or remove the president’s rivals or agitators.” Cambria sipped her coffee and slowly nodded. The then Secretary had been so furious in Lord Montague’s office, so unwilling to believe anything bad of Judge Bolingbroke. Even though Montague had the warrant rescinded, even though Cottington-Blake shot her dead... ish and fulfilled the requirements of the warrant, her walking around proved to certain members of the Council that the Hunters protected her; that Cottington-Blake – a convicted felon – would say anything to avoid her own death sentence. And there’d be people out there willing to believe anything for the chance at earning so much money; Grant had said as much. A hundred million Euros was a fortune in anyone’s book. The president would be loath to hand the money over, unless he went straight into his pocket. Did he promise the PSU a percentage? “They’ll be hunting us.” She said. “Yep.” “Unless...” She looked at him. “You laid a false trail? Indicated that everyone bugged out, not just the citizens?” He shook his head and grinned. “I did lay a false trail: us.” “Oh, joy.” “Well, you’re the juicier target than some rabble rousers, and I have to thank you for your noble sacrifice on their behalf.” “Yeah, right. You’re just going after the money yourself.” And she speared him with a look. “You are, aren’t you. That’s the only reason we didn’t race for the corridor as soon as Anna appeared. You needed to separate me from the rest of your followers.”

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“Ah, gee, you found me out. Christ. A hundred million? I’d sell them out in a second, except...” “Except?” “Except, money means nothing if you’re not around to spend it.” He leaned his elbows on his thighs. “You’ve been off world for too long, too disinterested in the workings of your own planet. I’m not the first to go after the bounty, but I will be the last.” “Oh? What happened to the others?” He lifted massive shoulders. “Most are dead or in internment camps. DNA is very specific and yet, some tried to pass another’s off as yours. The World Council had them executed for fraud against the World Council. As a warning. No one has presented absolute evidence, until me.” “That’s why you got that asshat to hit me.” “Nothing personal, but I needed a blood sample and a picture to give to de Crecy.” Cambria leaned forward. “It was very personal, you bastard, and I wouldn’t be surprised if de Crecy set other hounds on our trail. That much money will cause a treasure hunt of the worst and best hunters on Earth, maybe even...” She heard a beeping come from somewhere in his coat. He held up a hand and dug into his left pocket, brought out an information unit. My, wasn’t he prepared to run at a moment’s notice? She thought. He accessed the unit, and then frowned as he read the text. Then his fingers flew across the tiny keyboard as he replied. Then he closed the unit and shoved it back into his pocket. “Our lifeline, should you be considering nicking it.” Her eyebrows rose. “Given the universal satellite tracking system of every damn info unit, I want nothing to do with it.”

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“It’s encrypted. As far as anyone knows, that call was just answered by a grandmother in Copenhagen.” He said with a smile. “You don’t know that unless you have access to com centre in the World Council or have a mole there.” He continued to smile at her. “Good thing it’s unregistered then, isn’t it?” He got to his feet. “Now, I need to set up a perimeter. Don’t go anywhere.” As if she could. She got to her feet and went to the lean-to where she lay down close to the back. She closed her eyes and decided she’d slept in worse places, but at the moment, couldn’t remember where. She was cold, mostly damp and decided unhappy. Exhaustion weighed on her and she dropped off into an uneasy sleep.

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Chapter Nine “He’s a clever boy, Colonel, but what he’s done also makes him very dangerous.” Lord Montague laid the info-unit on the desktop. “Yes, sir, but Jerry is a valuable asset.” Caparossi said, ready to defend the young man. The white haired Lord nodded. “Agreed. And you say you got him to spread the wealth?” Caparossi snorted a laugh. “It was all I could think of to protect him; in case ears, eyes and sticky fingers turned up in places we don’t want them.” Lord Montague grinned. “You’d be right given we, too, have ears, eyes and sticky fingers in places that would embarrass certain members of our esteemed World Council.” “Ah.” Caparossi nodded. “The continuing fight for funding?” “That, too.” Montague said quietly and Caparossi kept his surprise to himself. Apparently, the Lord felt concerned about something else he’d discovered the council members were planning. “It won’t surprise you to know,” Montague went on, “that there are a number of organisations seeking to muscle in on our turf. Interests who are... less than savoury in my eyes. Who are more about profit than any benefits to humanity.” “Sir?” Montague ignored his question. “And your Hunt for Cambria is just one small piece of the puzzle.” He reached across to his intercom and pressed the button. “Coffee, please, for myself and the Colonel.” “Sir.” Montague’s secretary replied. Montague leaned back in the leather chair, steepled his fingers. “I have, over the past few years, wondered whether... convincing Cambria Petersen into our ranks was a wise move.” He lifted a hand before Caparossi could protest.

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“I am aware of our duty to our citizens, the good, the bad and the decidedly ugly of spirit. What we do, we do for all - here on Earth and on allied planets. But factions within the World Council – who, at this stage, shall remain nameless – wish to stop the so-called ‘touchy-feely’ approach, and go straight for resource stripping of planets too weak to defend themselves against us.” Caparossi tightened his jaw. “The ugly, greedy human who cares nothing for anyone else but what they can grab off for themselves.” “Indeed, but it is worse than that: those... people cannot imagine what would happen to us should we invade a planet and that planet has a much more powerful friend. Their confidence in our Colonial Marines is absolute.” His assistant arrived with a tray filled with a carafe, mugs, milk, sugar and neat little rounds of shortbread. She was tall, slim, with grey-streaked brown hair neatly set in a bun, and mild blue eyes. “Thank you, Maureen. We can take it from here.” “Of course.” She smiled and left. Caparossi leaned forward to pour and handed a cup, saucer and the plate of shortbread to Montague. “So,” the Lord said, “to continue: We have a number of competing schools within the Council who would like nothing better than wholesale resource harvesting and within that group, those who wish to... ‘acquire’ their own planets and populate them with, ah, colonists; a kind of rapid expansion of the human race out beyond the stars.” “The corridors have become the access point to a holy grail.” Caparossi murmured and sipped his coffee. “Exactly so. Scientists no longer study how to develop faster than light ships since other species have them. We have the corridors that can zip us from one point to another even quicker. We can now explore the known and unknown galaxy

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without expending vast resources to build the ships – a dream of every explorer ever born.” “If allowed, we’d become a plague.” Caparossi mused, imagining it. “That, and the corridors, the planets out there, also give us the opportunity to spread out, to populate, to create an Empire of Man... eventually, unless controls are put in place.” The Lord shot Caparossi a short, grim smile. “Or someone looks at us and thinks ‘resources’.” “And, of course, those competing factors want to be that control and reject the idea of an alien species wanting to conquer us.” Caparossi’s mouth turned down. Lord Montague nodded, tasted his own coffee and grimaced. “Oh, for some sugar.” He murmured. “Ah, well.” Caparossi raised an eyebrow, but Montague brushed off his own comment. “On the other side of the argument, is the voice, in my opinion, of reason. Those who want to take the slow route of trade negotiations, for space and resources. Those who want to control the way we expand because, let’s face it,” he tapped Caparossi’s info unit, “what Handel has found is wholesale access to the galaxy – should it become known to the wrong people - and we cannot hope to police it with the staff we have.” “And you made this fact known to the Council?” Caparossi asked. “I did.” The Lord said with an appalled expression. “No one lies outright to a Council Hearing; but not Handel’s name. I can protect a ‘source’, but only for so long. Currently, the speculation is of an outside database, one generated off-planet. I intend to keep that speculation going until I have no choice.” Caparossi knew Lord Montague was a wily operator when it came to Council politics. “Tracking the ‘factions’?” He asked and Montague nodded. Lord Montague might be the boss, but even he had to justify his actions to the full Council Board of Armed Services. And his boss was the Duke of Norway, Pers Raikkonen.

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“So... what now?” Again, Montague tapped the info-unit. “I’ve had a meeting with young Jerry.” He said with a quick smile and Caparossi knew the young man had probably been near catatonic with fear at the thought. “And he has agreed to stay within the facility for the near future to work up a monitoring programme that will constantly update his database. I’ve taken him off corridor duty and set him to work on this alone. I want to know more about the activity of these corridors; I want an in-depth analysis of the patterns of shutdown and access.” “From what I’ve seen so far, sir, all the illegal ones - away from the World Council and business that operate in conjunction with the Council - are being targeted and shut down.” Lord Montague snorted. “What did you expect? That the Council would slap its own wrist and say ‘naughty, naughty’?” “Well, I... thought that... I mean...” Caparossi flushed. “You thought they’d be fair? That they’d take a stand and shut down all the corridors?” Lord Montague shook his head. “Not in this lifetime, Colonel. They are worth too much and members too confident of their own importance to worry about their corridors being shut down.” “Yes, I can see that, sir. But how many can there be? I mean, they’re not the smallest things you can shove into your closet.” “Is that so? And how many have you travelled through, Colonel?” The Lord asked. “You mean... they can?” Montague smiled at him. “Of course not, but anyone with a three bedroom house can install one in a single room. I can assure you, Colonel that none of the members have anything less than eight bedroom mansions!”

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Caparossi cleared his throat. “I meant, sir, that the Gardishans wouldn’t have been able to install too many of them. Not only would they’d be noticed on first contact, but there’s a time element, too.” “Indeed. Time, I believe, is relative. And no one is talking about the timing of their corridor installations. That alone suggests a long-time conspiracy.” White eyebrows rose and Montague’s eyes took on an intensity as he regarded Caparossi. “For example, what do you know of the global slavery problem?” Caparossi blinked at him. “What global slavery problem?” He asked. Lord Montague narrowed his gaze. “If you don’t know about it, then I see you’ve spent too much time focused here. But you make my point. If the World Council can hide the working and living conditions of the rest of the world from the populace of Europe, what makes you think they can’t hide the bigger secret of the corridors?” Caparossi spoke slowly and leaned forward, setting his cup and saucer on the desktop. “Sir? What slavery problem?” Lord Montague sent him a look of warning. “That’s for you to discover, Colonel, when we are done here. But onward with our discussion. You now have an overview of what’s going on with the corridors and our staffing levels – which, I will point out, needs your focus to bring us more Hunters.” “Sir... I can’t...” Again, Lord Montague held up a hand. “Patience, Colonel.” He said and Caparossi eased back in his seat. He struggled with the bombshell, but brought his attention back to his boss. He could only manage one thing at a time, but as soon as he was out of here, he’d do some investigating. “Now, then. Because of our lack of staff, the Board of Armed Services decided to set up an internal unit; one tasked wholly with finding the corridors and shutting them down, while we focus on what we do best: finding lost colonists and bringing

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them home, and Hunting down escaped felons. We look outward while this unit,” he leaned forward and studied a sheet of paper on his desk, “the Internal Security Unit, looks inward. From what my... ah, sources, tell me, they’re a fair group. But I fear certain factions within the Council may try to co-opt them with money and favours. Letting certain corridors remain accessible while detailing their shutdown. And as you know: money talks long and loud.” Caparossi rubbed his forehead. “Are we the last honest men left?” He asked softly and Lord Montague chuckled. “We continue to fight the good fight, Colonel, as always.” Caparossi snorted bitterly. “Yes, sir.” “And fight it will be, Colonel. The ISU have been very busy. They’ve not touched the Councillor’s corridors, that, in itself is a tricky business and Lord Raikkonen is trying to justify their closure. I think he’s leaving them to last. Anyway, a part of the ISU’s job is to evaluate the corridors. We cannot close all of them, only to re-open them again because of their location and trade value. Again, from my sources, there’s another ‘internal’ outfit running around the countryside – and not under the auspices of Lord Raikkonen. And it neatly brings this briefing back to your current mission.” “It does? How?” Caparossi sat up straight. “I have spent decades setting up sources, Colonel, as I’m sure you’ll understand in the current climate and they are now coming into their own. From your information, the person you list as redacting certain locations also has his own unit out there hunting malcontents. They are the Presidential Security Unit and they are the worst of the worst, beholden only to the President under the guise of a bodyguard detail, and he’s determined to keep their existence secret. He is absolutely determined to keep control of the World Council as no other president has. He basically wants to initiate a more totalitarian government than it already is, with him as supreme ruler.”

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“But... history shows it’s unsustainable!” Caparossi protested. Lord Montague nodded. “Agreed, but while he’s able, he could cause havoc, and after he finishes with Earth, he can move on to a planet of his choosing and we’d never find him. That is, until Jerry’s neat little trick.” Caparossi frowned. “Our resident hacker is very, very good and people who think they are beyond the law often make notes, discuss their adventures, set up companies to exploit resources. In short, Colonel, this digital age has provided a sticky-fingered tech with the opportunity to find all sorts of dirty, little secrets. It also gave him an opportunity to..., um, bug, I guess you’d say, certain... info units, personal info units.” “Jerry hacked through the Council’s own firewall?” Caparossi asked, astonished. Lord Montague chuckled. “Security isn’t as tight as the Council thinks. Who would dare invade their system? I’m sure you’ve noticed that Jerry’s not a conventional hacker. He doesn’t even realise that’s what he’s doing. He just sees information, or a route to the information he wants, and sets about acquiring it for his database.” “How does someone become that...?” Caparossi searched his mind for a word, but failed. “I think he started off that way, Colonel. I’ve set him up with his own unit to track... well, to keep doing what he’s doing.” Lord Montague rubbed a thumb along his lower lip. “I must be getting old.” He said. “I keep digressing.” He poured himself more coffee, picked up a shortbread round and nibbled. Caparossi waited while the Lord gathered his thoughts. Montague sighed. “Maybe it’s time for someone else to do this job, maybe you, Colonel.” “Me?”

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“Or not, given your reaction. You’re probably right. You are too much of a military man, have too much integrity and honour, to have the patience and slyness for the job.” He heaved a sigh. “Right then, to the crux of the matter. Jerry, in his innocence, has been tracking where the PSU have had covert missions. According to his latest update, the PSU headed to an address on the list the Callirishans downloaded. They headed, Colonel, to where Hunter Petersen was probably taken.” Caparossi bolted to his feet. “Sir, I request...” “Sit. Down. Colonel.” Lord Montague barked. Caparossi glared at him, and the urge to simply walk out, gather his retrieval team and race to Cambria’s rescue had him swaying. But his military control, the instinctive need to obey a superior officer, held him still. He managed to unlock his knees and lowered into his chair. “You’d be too late, Colonel, and the last thing I need is for you to go haring off into a situation I know you won’t be able to control. All we can do at this stage is keep an eye on the situation. If the PSU have Petersen in custody, we’ll hear about it soon enough and then we can take measures. If they don’t have her, then she managed to escape Grant and she is out there, free. If the former, we’ll hear about soon; if not, the PSU will stay where they are and we’ll hear about that, too. What I need from you is patience. Patience and mentoring Jerry. He is our most valuable asset in this war of... well, society, really.” Caparossi scowled, resentful he had to sit this out. “I could...” “No, you couldn’t.” Lord Montague said and he made it sound like an order. “What I want you to do, what I need you to do, is research what’s really going on in the manufacturing and production provinces. Gather your evidence, Colonel; make it as complete and unimpeachable as possible. I need absolute proof of what you discover.” “And what’s that?” Caparossi asked sourly.

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Lord Montague stared at him with a hooded gaze. “Whatever you find, Caparossi. Document it.” He seemed to deflate and Caparossi wondered if the Lord was ill. “Thank you for coming to see me, Colonel, I suggest you start on your new project. It may take you a while.” Hearing the dismissal, Caparossi rose. “And if I hear of you jaunting off to rescue Petersen,” Montague warned, “I’ll throw you into prison for the rest of your days. I do not need you jeopardising decades’ long plans for the sake of a loved one.” Caparossi held his gaze for a rebellious moment. Then he sketched a salute and left the Lord. Back in his office, Caparossi paced the floor. He held his hands behind his back and walked the twelve steps to the wall and back again. Again, the temptation to run to Cambria’s rescue had adrenalin surging through his veins. All he had to do was... go get her. But... he had a near direct order not to go, not to provoke a confrontation with this PSU group and screw up Montague’s other plans. He kept pacing. Lord Montague knew him well. His boss had given him the tools to find Cambria, and more, to find a way to stop the president from corrupting the entire government system. He’d given Caparossi a moral choice: save Cambria, or save the world; sacrifice one woman, his woman, for the benefit of millions. He stopped walking. Oh, that thought hurt. Caparossi rubbed his chest were the constant ache of loss flared to pain. He knew what he should do, and knew what Cambria would want, what she’d do to him for making the wrong choice. And with that, the pain eased, his steps slowed and he began to relax. No one could kill her. She’d be back with him soon enough, spitting fire and venting her spleen.

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Caparossi smiled at the image. Then he went to his desk and opened his information unit, started setting up the integrated files he’d need. And he got down to work on finding out exactly what was going on in the provinces. *** Cambria inhaled the unique scent of man as she awoke. The arms around her body held her secure and she smiled at the thought of waking Caparossi for some early morning delight. But... no. This scent was different. Still male, but unfamiliar and her mind slowly filtered the relevant information to her. Not Caparossi, but Lincoln Grant, whose breath huffed quietly against her hair, whose giant size would probably crush her if he rolled over, who... sneaked the handcuffs on her while she slept. She pulled her wrists as they rested against Grant’s chest. Bastard. At least he hadn't cuffed her hands behind her back. He’d also tied her ankles. Bigger bastard. He obviously didn’t trust her word not to escape. Well, maybe he was right. As soon as they came to reasonable civilisation, she would try to get back to Geneva, preferably dragging Grant with her. That wasn’t escape... was it? Since he had restrained her, Cambria decided to think on the plan later. For now, she was warm, dry and relatively comfortable. She sank into a doze as she waited for Grant to rouse himself. She dreamed of Jones and felt her body stiffen. He laughed with delight, grey eyes gleaming with maniacal joy, as he used the hunting knife on her. She tasted toothpaste, minty, and tried to protest. Jones wouldn’t hear her; he was too busy pounding away inside her, too wrapped up in his own pleasure. A chill seeped through her. He could do this forever and she’d never be free of him. Trapped with a homicidal serial killer, unable to move or escape. Her only consolation was he’d eventually lose interest in her, that, or die of old age... and as

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he slid the knife into her, he crooned how much she enjoyed it, how much she wanted... Something snapped against her forehead, jolted her out of the nightmarish memories and she dragged her eyes open. Grant crouched in front of her, his face set in angry lines. “Get up. It’s time to move.” Cambria relaxed as the stiffness in her muscles released. God, she ached! He’d provoked the nightmare by restraining her, the bastard, and he was the one to sleep in. He had no reason to be pissed with her! She struggled into a sitting position and held out her hands. He shook his head. “No.” He said curtly, but he did untie her ankles. “So, I’m a prisoner again.” “You were never free, Petersen.” “I’m guessing you’re not a morning person.” She sighed and got her legs under her body pushed up to her feet. “Want me to take the lean-to down?” She offered. “No, I want you to stand right where you are, where I can keep an eye on you.” He growled. Cambria tried to decide whether he was being sarcastic. After all, she’d put it up last night. But he must have been serious, because he took the camouflage sheet down and retracted the poles. Once done, he strapped the poles to the side of his pack and covered it with the folded sheet. He hoisted the pack over his shoulder and led the way through the undergrowth, careful of his footsteps. Cambria followed, also taking care where she stepped, but tempted to thrash her way through. Regardless of what she thought of the giant idiot, she doubted he’d do anything to put her in jeopardy. At least, not yet. Not until he worked out a way to get the hundred million Euro without losing his life. And she figured de Crecy did not

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intend to release that amount of money unless he could work out how to divert the money into his own pocket. Cambria frowned at her thoughts. Since when did she take the side of a felon over the world of the President? For all she knew, de Crecy was simply executing the mission to close down illegal corridors. God knows, the Hunter and Retrieval Units needed all the help they could get. And she’d never really seen, spoken or interacted with anyone from the cabins. Alicia didn’t count, unless you considered her repeating what her parents said. She had contact with Grant and the doctor, Anna, and felt the rough end of Brett’s boot. Nothing, so far, indicated the veracity of Grant’s statements. The whole group could be a part of his gang. She’d caught him off world, after all... But... if he was such a criminal, why hadn’t the Terran authorities, along with the locals on Lazarus, frozen his assets, or stopped the shipments? The Customs agent... what was her name? Rhodes, Jane Rhodes, kept protesting Grant’s innocence. She didn’t look the type of woman easily swayed by charm or money, just focused on her job. Even if he and his band were insurrectionists, no authority would allow them off world, regardless of the corridor. Customs control would stop them as soon as they heard the name – they had immigration black ban sheets for God’s sake! But the attendant must be a colleague of Grant’s to let him come and go as he pleased, to divert a corridor. Where lay the truth? She bumped into Grant as he crouched. She stepped back and looked over his shoulder. “Wow.” She murmured as she took in the wide sweeping plain of green stalks spread out below them. The long, curved leaves shone, vibrant and healthy, under the sunlight, and backed by towering mountains the scenery was spectacular. The

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snow-capped peaks didn’t rival Ragnarok, but it was surely impressive. Caparossi would love it. She missed him and felt an overwhelming urge to just run, run back to the corridor, bust through the PSU thugs and go home. As if sensing her dark thoughts, clouds swept across the sky, turned the field algae-green. “What is this place?” She asked. He looked at her over his shoulder. “Do you want to decorate someone’s fireplace?” “Huh?” “They shoot strangers out here and then ask questions.” She stared at him puzzled for a moment, and then realized what a good target she made and ducked down beside him. “Why are we here?” She asked, but he didn’t answer. Given his mood swings, she decided to follow his lead – until she knew she could escape. He watched the cornfield, watched for... something she didn’t see. Cambria thought it about an hour later when he rose and continued along the path that sloped down to the field. Grant held onto her cuffs and dragged her along. He refused to stop for a meal, but she demanded a bathroom break. He stood guard while she ducked around the tree he pointed out and did her business. Still no chance for escape. He’d see her no matter what direction she took. When she managed to right her clothing, he merely indicated they continue with a twitch of his head. At least he no longer dragged her and she walked beside him, kept pace with his long-legged stride. She wasn’t as fit as she’d liked and soon, her knees and ankles started to ache.

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Cambria also decided the fields were boring. The green stalks rippled in the cool breeze, birds and insects flew in and out, mice raced between the strands, but that was it, for kilometre after kilometre. The road ahead was dirt in some parts, mud and pools of water in others. Near sunset, he picked up his pace, as if afraid of the dark. Yet, Cambria saw no sign of habitation. Tired from the journey, she kept the original pace and the space between them grew until he realised she wasn’t keeping up. “Something on your mind?” He asked when she walked up to him. “No. It’s quite empty.” She said. He grunted and turned, started striding again. She followed at the usual pace and he had to stop again. “Obviously, it must be something, otherwise you’d be in as much of a hurry as I am.” “I don’t know this area, so why would I be in a hurry?” “Could be the guards deploy at sunset. Could be they have big nasty guns to stop the runaways. Could be they shoot anyone out of the barracks after dark.” He said. “And it could be you’re full of shit.” She said and he laughed. “Could be,” he grinned and then sobered, “but in this case, I’m not.” “Are we far from our destination?” “No. Another kilometre, I think, and then you can rest. But only if you hurry.” As she’d said: she didn’t know the area. He could be telling the truth. Cambria picked up her pace until she was near jogging beside him; not the best exercise for bruised knees and ankles, but he did promise a rest at the end of the journey. One kilometre turned into two, and then three, but he didn’t slow. As full darkness crowded in, she saw searchlights sweep across the corn. “Why the lights and where are they coming from?” She asked, out of breath.

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“Vehicles checking the crop for missing workers, but any worker worth their salt will have headed into the forest, not the cornfield.” Grant said in a low voice. “If you know that and the workers know that, why do the guards persist in lighting up the fields?” “Because they are lazy s.o.b.s and hunting runaways within the forest takes time and effort; something they are loath to expend. Besides, the bobcats in the forest might think a runaway would make a tasty meal. We are hundreds of miles from the nearest town out here. Not much chance of a runaway making it without transport or provisions.” And she had her answer as to an escape route. While she had trekked through the mountains of Ragnarok for nearly as far, she had provisions to make the journey. Out here, she’d starve, lost in the wilderness - which Grant counted on. “So... where are we heading, if not a township?” He flashed her a white smile in the darkness. “To the barracks, of course.” Of course. That made perfect sense. She thought and rolled her eyes at him. “I doubt they’d think to check your identification; you’d be just another worker to slave in the fields, or the processing plant or elsewhere.” “We’re gonna hide in plain sight?” “Well, you are. Me, I’ve got to make few changes, since I’m so recognisable.” “You cannot hide your height.” She said. “Actually, I can, but you don’t need to worry about that.” He came to the corner of the field and shuffled down off the road, into the corn proper. He settled into a crouch and Cambria followed him, peeked around his big body to observe. She could see the first of a long, single storey house, unpainted and built with flat brown boards. A naked bulb above the door illuminated the steps in a puddle of light. Set into the wall, every three metres was a dusty window with a pale, flickering light. She thought she saw shadowed movement, but was too far away to be sure.

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On the dirt road that ran along the side of the building, nearly blocking her view, was parked an SUV, its headlights turned off. The black vehicle had fat, all-terrain tyres. A guard stood in the back sweeping the searchlight left and right across the field. Grant reached behind and grabbed her arm, dragged her down flat as the light swept above them. To Cambria, it was as if the search was for form rather than a genuine search for an escapee. Once the searchlight guard was satisfied with his work, he tapped the driver on the shoulder and the vehicle moved forward. Neither guard turned his head as they drove down the road. Cambria watched the red tail-lights until they disappeared around a bend. And still Grant waited. Silence descended. She opened her mouth to speak when he rose and moved out of the corn. He gripped the cuffs and walked her to the long building. But he didn’t stop and she saw half a dozen more long buildings beyond the first. How many people worked here? Grant moved quickly to the fourth longhouse and up the single step to the door. He dragged her inside and shut the door. Men and women of differing ages turned to them, studied Linc and Cambria for a second or two then went back to lying on beds, stirring pots on stovetops, or playing cards. They all wore the same clothes of blue shirts and trousers, with black boots. Grant dragged her three-quarters of the way down the long aisle and stopped at an older woman’s... section. She had a bed, covered in a grey blanket, a footlocker, closed, and three shelves with a small pot, silver packets, toiletries and neatly folded clothes. The woman herself lay on the bed reading a sheaf of loose papers. She lowered the pages to look at Grant and then Cambria, then the cuffs. Her wrinkled face

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creased as she smiled and rose to kiss Grant’s bushy cheeks. “Linc, I thought you’d forgotten us.” “Never, Teresa, but I did bring you a present.” He said and tugged Cambria forward. “She’s a hard worker, but needs constant supervision.” Hard blue eyes swept up and down Cambria’s muddy and dishevelled figure. “And the cuffs?” “Insurance.” He grinned and Teresa frowned. “The cuffs are to ensure she didn’t bolt. She’s a little... unhappy about the situation and her future.” “Or lack of one.” Cambria intoned. Teresa returned Grant’s smile. “Or lack of one.” She agreed and dragged in a breath. “Okay, Linc, we’ll clean her up, put her to work and make sure the Blaggies don’t go near her. You got a time limit?” Grant shook his head. “No. But I can tell you Peter isn’t the friend we thought him. And for that, well, I’m gonna have to mess with him some. Starting with those boys out in the woods who think our people are children.” Teresa lifted her chin. “The others?” She asked as if she didn’t want to express concern. “They’re fine or we would have heard a ruckus. I got Anna to initiate the emergency bug out; that was maybe half an hour before the troopers arrived.” “Good, good. Well then, let’s have a look at you.” Teresa said and she ran her hands over his face, down his chest, and then enveloped him in a hug. “Oh, it’s good to see you, Linc. You never visit nearly enough.” “I’m sorry about that.” He leaned his cheek on the top of her head. “I need a haircut. A shave, too, if you can manage it tonight.” “Of course, just go over to Marion’s hut. But can you stay a while, catch up?” Teresa leaned back and studied Grant. “Just overnight, T. I need to make sure everyone’s okay.”

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Teresa leaned her head against his chest. “I understand.” She turned her head to Cambria. “Well, then, missy, we’d better do something with you.” Cambria backed away. “You don’t need to do anything with me, but take these handcuffs off and...” She bumped into a breathing obstacle and turned. Four of the workers formed a barrier. Teresa released Grant, eyed Cambria with malicious glee. “Why, you’re our guest. So, you need to clean up and get into to some fresh clothes. Then we’ll see if we can rustle up some food for you.” Her voice dripped with false kindness, her expression studiously sympathetic, but Cambria saw the fire of satisfaction in her eyes. She didn’t trust Teresa, or any of the people blocking her way. Hands fell on her shoulders and Grant unlocked the cuffs. “Play nice.” He said and stepped back. The hands moved her forward to the back of the long room. A slim hand, tanned with trimmed nails, reached out to open the door and she saw the bathroom. Along the left side of the wooden wall, gleamed six silver showerheads and six large buttons, all highly polished. One the right, opposite the showers, she saw six stalls with doors. Cambria assumed they were toilets. Above her were two lights set into the ceiling and three tiny windows, high on each wall, no doubt provided a little light during the day. Immediately to her right were two basins with metal mirrors; to her left were shelves with folded clothes one side and towelling on the other. “There are no gender issues in Camp 3724.” The woman behind her said as Cambria heard the door close and lock. She shook off the hands and turned. Two women and a man stood behind her. The first woman was short, skinny with acne scars dotting her cheeks. But her short dark hair shone with good health even as shadows darkened her brown eyes. She could have been aged between thirty and forty.

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The second woman stood a little taller, a little firmer in stoutness, but still underfed. She, too, had short hair, but a muddy blonde. Her baby blue eyes held suspicion, as if Cambria had come to cause trouble within her family. Their male companion looked to be in his twenties, the sallow skin of his face stretched across bones that gave him a gaunt appearance. Sunken hazel eyes and oak-coloured spiked hair gave him a waif-like look. His blue shirt and trousers bagged around a painfully thin frame, as if he never had enough to eat. He, too, wasn’t very tall. “I’m Sienna.” The dark haired woman said. “This is Louisa and he’s Will.” “I’m...” “We know who you are, Hunter.” Sienna said with a faint curling of her lip. “Teresa might be the most generous soul on the planet, but that don’t make her right. So...” She waved at Cambria’s clothes. The mud had set to a fine clay consistency, cracking and spreading a fine dust. Cambria didn’t care. A hot shower beckoned and she stripped off. Louisa handed her a miniscule bar of brown soap. The three stood by as she approached the shower and pressed the button. Her skin immediately puckered as cold water gushed over her. The laughter of the three behind her covered her gasp and she didn’t dare ask if there was any hot water. She quickly rubbed the soap over her body, noting the bruises darkening her skin from days of abuse. The water cut off as she finished rinsing. No luxuries here then - just the basics. As she turned, a thick strip of material hit her. She caught it. It was more the size of hand towel, but much thinner. She glanced at the shelves holding the larger towels. These three aimed to make her as uncomfortable as possible, Cambria decided. But she’d been more uncomfortable for longer and this was a minor inconvenience.

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The towel quickly turned damp and refused to mop any more water from her body. Sienna offered her the uniform they all wore and she reached out for the clothes. Before she could touch them, Will gripped her upper arms, pulled them back. She tried to shake him off, but as emaciated as he appeared, he was a strong as an ox. “What are you...?” Louisa hit the backs of both knees and she crumbled to the hard cement. Louisa gripped her hair, pulled her head back. Sienna set aside the clothes on a shelf next to the showers. “One more thing.” She held up a large pair of scissors and grinned. “All newbies get haircuts.”

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Chapter Ten Cambria’s scalp stung with nicks and small cuts - her nether regions, too. No matter how she held herself still, Sienna deliberately scored her skin as she snipped, as if Cambria’s hair was a personal offence. If they thought she’d be upset, they hid their disappointment. To Cambria, it was only hair, and it would grow back – although one area would torture her with itching. Sienna, with a sweep of the blades, explained it was a ‘health’ issue – a requirement against lice and other noxious vermin. The accusation was clear, as was how they thought of her. Cambria kept her embarrassment to herself as Sienna got down on her knees and considered the next lot of hair to remove. Sienna finally declared herself done, but Will didn’t release her. Louisa showed Cambria the tweezers and Sienna held her head to the side while Louisa tugged out the stitches Anna carefully, if painfully, inserted. The cut hadn’t quite healed enough, or Louisa was too rough, and warm blood oozed thickly down the side of her face. Cambria gritted her teeth against the obscenities she wanted to express. “Yeah, that’ll do.” Sienna muttered. “For what?” Cambria asked. Will finally released her, but Sienna slapped her hand away as she tried to dab at the blood. “Leave it.” “Why?” Louisa got in her face, studied the injury and the bruises. “We’re having an inspection, right before lights out. If you want to avoid being dragged out of here and worse, you gotta look like shit.” Cambria stared at her, puzzled. What kind of a place was this? “Ah, don’t worry about her, Lou, she ain’t worth it.” Will said.

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Louisa turned her head, looked up at him. “You know what they’ll do to the rest of us, Will.” She looked at Cambria. “She’s gotta play ball or we all pay.” “With what?” Cambria asked and Louisa grinned, displayed poor dental hygiene. “That, you don’t wanna find out and we don’t wanna go through again.” Sienna grabbed her arm, hauled her upright. “Get your clothes on. We’ll get you fed and when the Blaggies show up, you act like an idiot.” She grimaced. “I’m sure you’ve had plenty of experience.” “Blaggies?” Teresa lifted a shoulder in irritation. “Short for ‘black guards’.” “You...” “Don’t say anything, Hunter. You want to live, you do it our way.” If she wanted to live? Lincoln Grant was going to trade her for the ludicrous idea of his own piece of freedom. And he was going to drag as many people as he could into his conspiracy. Questions could wait until later. The clothes felt scratchy, especially without underwear, but she wasn’t putting on her... own clothes which had vanished, her boots, too. “Where are my clothes? My boots?” She asked. The three looked at each other, grinned, and then shrugged. “Time to go.” Louisa twitched her head and led the way. In the long room, the workers scooped their meals as if they’d never see another. The three left Cambria with Teresa and moved past her to their own stoves, towards the middle of the room. “Come. Sit.” Teresa invited. Cambria looked at her and Teresa’s expression turned hard. “You’re bed is behind you.” She said.

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Like everyone else’s, the narrow cot had a grey blanket, two sheets and a pillow. Someone had made it up for her. Sitting meant rough cloth rubbing where she didn’t want it. Teresa handed her a tin plate with a pool of grey goo spreading out from the middle. “It’s not much, they don’t give us many rations, but it’s good for you.” “Why would you be on rations? Is this some sort of prison?” Cambria asked and Teresa stared at her, surprise unwrinkling her features. “Prison? Lord, no, this is an agricultural facility and we’re the farmers. We work the farms, bring in the harvest and take it to the distribution facility.” Farmers? “But... why are you under guard? Have inspections?” “We’re part of the farming collective.” She said as if that answered Cambria’s questions. “Eat up. They’ll be here soon, and you need to be... less than intelligent.” Cambria scooped up a portion with a plastic spoon, sniffed the grey goo and tasted it. Bland, smooth, like eating slippery paste, but it was better than nothing. “How often do they do a bed check?” “Once a week.” Cambria finished the gruel in half a dozen spoonfuls. Teresa handed Cambria her plate and indicated the bathroom. Cambria went back in and washed the plates and spoons in the basin, flicked them dry and returned. Teresa took the plates from her and stowed them on an open shelf next to her bed. Cambria saw she had a similar shelf, but empty. Everyone arranged their gear and themselves, then the lights flickered and they all stood at the end of their beds. “Follow my lead, Hunter, and you might even survive. Just... don’t look at them, don’t make eye contact unless they force you.”

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She stood in front of her footlocker, waved her hand at Cambria as the door at the far end opened. Cambria hunched in on herself, dropped her head at an angle and half opened her mouth. Out of the corner of her eye, two guards, dressed in black uniforms, walked in. One kept back while the other’s gaze brushed over the workers and their areas. He strolled down the centre aisle, moving easily around the stoves. The workers didn’t - quite - stand to attention, but they focused on the guards, watched them both warily. No one spoke until the guard reached Cambria’s bed. “So, we’ve got a new one in?” The man gripped her chin in hard fingers, lifted her head. Cambria whimpered and turned her head, kept her gaze lowered and moving as if she couldn’t bear to look at him. “Teresa?” The guard shifted his grip, forced her head to the side to examine the scar and the blood trail down her cheek. “She, uh, transferred in from 3790. She had an accident that sent her silly. Can’t do the books or any complicated labour anymore.” “Huh. Shame. Well, I’ll get more rations in. You keep an eye on her,” he dropped his hand, “she doesn’t look too clever.” Cambria eyed Teresa. She didn’t look happy. Then the guard stepped in front of her, blocking her view. He ran his hand over his dark buzz cut, green eyes curious, but she saw a deeper emotion, one she’d seen before. A small white scar bisected his left eyebrow and another marred his upper lip. “You got a name?” “Uh, uh, C... C... Kerry.”

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“Well, K... K... Kerry, you’d best be getting a good night’s sleep. We’ll set you up with something easy to start with, something that won’t tax that addled brain of yours.” He flicked a finger against the scar on the side of her forehead; she just looked at him with dead eyes. The guard smiled and stood straight and glanced at Teresa. “Not much in there, but that’s okay. You take good care of her, Teresa.” He pivoted and strode down the centre aisle, nodded to his partner, and left. Neither guard looked back. The door slammed and the workers climbed into their beds. Cambria rolled her shoulders and neck. “You need to watch yourself tomorrow.” Teresa said. “I will.” She promised and dabbed at the blood, drying on her face. “No, I mean, really watch yourself. Those two, they’ll come looking for you and try to play, to taunt. You can’t show any emotion, even if they get rough.” Cambria rubbed her tired eyes. “Yeah, nothing new there.” She said and shook her head. “Why do you put up with this?” “Put up with what? This is what our lives are like, from cradle to grave. We work hard to feed the world. It’s what we do.” The lights went out. “Go to bed, Hunter.” Teresa said and Cambria obliged. Although, she didn’t consider it a ‘real’ bed, more a narrow camp stretcher. She climbed in, lay back and stared at the dark wood ceiling. Camp 3790. Three thousand, seven hundred and ninety. Was it a coded number or how many camps in the county, in the Province? She closed her eyes. It didn’t matter - she was here. Somehow, she had to escape before Grant set his alternative plan into action – and she had no doubt he had one.

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She wondered if the people in this longhouse knew of the reward money. She’d not seen any newssheets or info-units, but that didn’t mean there weren’t any, just she hadn’t seen any. Cambria drifted off to sleep with the firm wish that Caparossi would find her... and soon. *** Caparossi had never been a student of history, content to live in the here and now. History was history, and there was nothing he could learn that would affect the future, unless in a militaristic way. Now he knew just how wrong he was, how selective his education had been. Now he understood the importance of history and how far the ruling body went to hide it. Caparossi always knew he’d be in the military; he’d been encouraged since the day he’d picked up his first plastic rifle and run around the house in Desenzano Del Garda. The surrounding streets and countryside provided perfect fighting grounds for him and his friends. His parents enrolled him military school as soon as he was of age. He’d learned the basics of language and numbers, then moved on to strategy and everything a soldier needed. He did not study political or social history – the reasons why people went to war were less important than how the military achieved success or failure. People, those not in the military, were pawns to move around the field. Politicians directed armed conflicts to benefit of themselves and through them, the people. He’d learned that citizens would sacrifice much for the benefit of the collective; all the military had to do was use them as an asset and victory followed. He loved it. Loved the study of previous military campaigns, rooting out why one side prevailed over the other. His problem, and the military’s problem, was that with the World Council, armed conflict didn't exist; politicians fought for the hearts and minds of the people in the People's Chamber of the Parliament - or in private

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meetings between delegates. The citizenry were happy with their lives, productive in the collectives, working for the betterment of the world. And so the Council separated the standing army into various local units, to protect and encourage productivity. Of course, there were specialised units, like the Hunter facility, like the Colonial Marines, like the Global Security Unit and others designed to keep the peace. In his pursuit of solving Lord Montague’s cryptic comment about ‘slavery’ he discovered a history too pristine, too focused on how wonderful the World Council was and its predecessor, the United Nations. He read works detailing glorious victories on the fields of ideology, of countries willing to join the organisations dedicated to working towards equality for all. Together, the texts were treatises of how well collectivism worked. Individually, they added up to a conspiracy of epic proportions. He found Earth’s history impossible. Where was the dissent? The arguments against forming the World Council? No one in their right mind would believe the world’s population suddenly decided that one organisation deciding their fate was a good thing. Humans were naturally belligerent, wanting to protect their own territory. For those countries to fall into line, governments had to be similar to make leap and give up sovereignty. And the people would be pissed off about that. But there was no record of any debates, either for or against, just the signed agreement and the declaration of global peace and co-operation. Yay, celebrate, celebrate. The process must have taken decades. Proponents must have constantly undermined any opposition, or the removed those against the idea. He could work out how to do it, too. Sacrificing the few for the benefit of the collective didn’t just work in military terms. Form enough civilian groups to intimidate the unwilling, and eventually, the unwilling were either converted to the cause, or removed.

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He leaned back in his chair and pursed his lips. What he’d read was the official version, the version taught in schools and universities by zealots of the cause. Sanitized history and they’d kept it that way for... generations. So. Being a smart, clever and intelligent officer, where would he find the true history? Would the governing body eradicate all evidence of the past? No self-respecting government would want the proletariat to read the true history of the world, but they would want to keep it for gloating purposes. Whatever system came before must have ruled for centuries, if the idea that countries should give up sovereignty was true. Countries had populations and populations never wholly agreed on much. Individuals had opinions, opposing views. He doubted anyone would form a consensus long enough to make such a major change. His experience in the military told him that, while he and the other soldiers followed orders, someone had to create those orders, decide what the best avenue forward was. He knew the ultimate control lay in the top echelons of the Armed forces. They had to discuss the protocol, what units to use, when to use them, where. But life outside the military, within communities, was different. They had their elected officials, who formed Boards designed for the ultimate performance of the counties, then up the chain to the Provinces –the Provincial Governor - and up to the World Council. Given the Council controlled the digital information flow, where would he find what he needed? Where would he go to find original texts – if any survived? A library? He knew most of the population went to libraries and the Council controlled the publishing industry. They decided what people could and could not read. Most of it involved some sort of political correction, cautionary tales, celebrated the political system or regaled tales of heroes of the Council. He wouldn’t find what he wanted in the public domain. What about archives? Again, Council controlled. Only those at the top level could access those documents, and way above his pay grade.

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Lord Montague obviously wanted him to find out, but from where? Hmm... Maybe he could find a short cut. Combine his two pressing needs and achieve a solution for both? What was that saying about two birds and one stone? He reached for his com unit, hooked it around his ear and dialled. “Captain Nero, Colonel Caparossi. I wonder if you have time to stop by my office? I think I have an interesting mission for you and your boys.”

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Chapter Eleven Morning for the workers arrived, before the sun had a chance to rise. The raucous sound of an alarm ripped through the longhouse from a speaker above the front door. Cambria sat up, startled. She could an echo of the alarm from the other longhouses. But no one grumbled at the sound, merely rolled out of bed, lined up in the aisle and marched to the bathroom. Cambria watched them and then slowly climbed out of bed. She’d slept well, barely moving in the narrow cot, and with no dreams. While she didn’t feel quite awake, it was better than the constant state of exhaustion she’d found herself in over the past few days. And the last thing she needed was another nightmare stalking her dreams. Within a few minutes, people began filtering out of the bathroom, talking softly. None spared her a glance. It was as if she didn’t exist to them. Teresa came out. “You need to wash your face and clean your teeth.” She said and handed Cambria an old-fashioned toothbrush and paste. She studied them. “Here.” Teresa said and squeezed out green striped white paste onto the bristles. “Get going. We have five minutes before muster.” Five... minutes? “Better hurry.” Teresa said, and left Cambria staring at the archaic toothbrush. Cambria shrugged and went into the bathroom. Maybe coffee and breakfast came later in a cafeteria? She scrubbed her teeth, enjoyed the minty taste, then used the toilets and washed her hands. Her image in the metal mirror caught her attention. She looked like an escapee from an illegally colonised world. Caparossi escorted many a physically abused colonist. The harsh realities of a new, unexplored world showed in the ragged appearances and haunted expressions of grateful men, women and children.

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Sienna had deliberately botched the head shave, leaving tufts of dark hair sprouting haphazardly across her near naked scalp. She had red and bloody scabs forming where the woman had tipped the scissors to gouge the soft skin. Her face was equally battered. The scar on the side of her head puckered in a red and angry line from Louise’s rough treatment when she pulled out the stitches. The cut itself hosted a long brown scab and the yellowed bruises added to her escapee image. Cambria tossed water over her face, twice, and called herself done. She went back to her bed and found a battered pair of black work boots, not her own tancoloured ones. With a shrug, she tugged them on. The toes pinched her bare feet, but if they protected her from outside nasties, she was okay with that. She was the last one out of the building. In the pre-dawn darkness, she saw rows of workers lined up outside the other longhouses under spotlights set on the roof of each house. No one spoke as the farmers formed two lines facing away from the longhouses. In silence, they braced themselves to attention. Cambria shuffled to the end of the line. With her, the line equalled ten, with another beside her. Twenty people per house. She turned her head to look around, but the woman next to her shook her head. “Eyes front.” She whispered. “Do not draw attention to yourself.” Okay, then. What was it Sienna told her last night? You want to live, you do it our way. Cambria faced the back of the head of the man in front of her. He had neatly cut short brown hair with reddened acne on the back of his neck and a slim build. As she watched, he reached back and scratched a darkened area, which reddened. Beyond the line, lay a vast field of young stalks. Fields stretched out behind the longhouses, and to either side.

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How big was this farm? Cambria wondered and stared towards the distant incline Grant must have brought her down. If she could get there... As if by unspoken order, the lines turned to the left, away from Cambria. She adjusted her position, hunched her shoulders and the groups marched off, as if military-trained. She followed them as they walked out on to the road and to the left. I guess coffee and croissants are off the menu, she thought with a pang in the region of her stomach. The sun rose behind broken cloud, painting the sky with orange and pink pearllike luminescence. The growing stalks rose green and spiky in the quiet morning, the air smelled fresh from the rain and even the mud held an earthy fragrance. The walk loosened her muscles, the sun warmed her skin, but she wasn’t happy. The workers didn’t speak with each. On a beautiful day like this, normal workers would chat, discuss, argue, but all was silent. Cambria followed their lead and kept her mouth shut as they made their way to the end of the field and turned down a muddy lane. Through the line, she saw a large warehouse type structure, built of wood turned grey by years of rain. Parked out the front of two hangar-like sliding doors was a black vehicle. Inside the open doorway, two guards in black uniforms waited, short-barrelled machine guns resting in their arms. The lines came to a well-practiced halt in front of the two men. One guard stepped forward, climbed onto the vehicle. Cambria recognised him as the driver of the patrol truck from last night. He swung his head left and right, studied the workers. “All right you mutts, let’s get this show on the road.” Workers fell out of the line and headed into the warehouse. With no instructions, Cambria ducked her head and slowly followed them inside. She saw equipment hanging on the wooden walls – scythes, oversized forks, shovels, small round things with jagged edges. Tractors with strange attachments

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were parked down the centre and rooms – offices? – branched off the building. Everything was clean and organised. She saw Teresa head into a room and followed her in. A desk sat in front of a grimy window. On either side, filing cabinets and to the right of Cambria, urine yellow containers with thin metal tubes hung in a line on the wall. “Take one of those backpacks.” She ordered Cambria. Cambria unhooked one and saw the straps. “What do I do with it?” She asked as she put her arms through the straps and hoisted the unit up her arms onto her shoulders. “You go down the lines of corn and spray.” Teresa handed her a bag with half a metre tall metal spikes. A red flag drooped off the top of each spike. “When you empty your backpack, you stick a flag in the ground to show where you’re up to. Then you come back for a refill and continue. Leave the poles in the ground so the guards can check your progress. Be careful how you spray. If there’s one thing these guys hate, it’s waste. But you need to put enough poison out to kill off the insects that attack the corn.” “Poison?” Teresa nodded and sat behind the desk. “Poison mixed with fertiliser. Two in one stuff.” “What about protective gear?” Cambria asked and Teresa raised her eyebrows, and then ignored the question. “You need to keep out of sight. Maybe the guards will forget you’re new and leave you alone. But if they catch you, make sure you’re in sight of any of the workers. These boys will earn no favours from anyone if they harass someone who’s obviously silly in the head. Do you understand me?” Cambria nodded. No protective gear, then. “Let me make it quite clear to you, Kerry, if they can, they’ll isolate any woman whom they think they can have. It makes no difference to them age, size or

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attractiveness. If they’re in the mood, they’ll take you. But they won’t do it unless they know they can get away with it. And no one will care to look for your body should that happen. We’re risking everything to keep you safe. Do not betray us.” Right. The ‘harmless’ exteriors of the guards hid hearts as black as the uniforms. But Cambria knew their calm attitude hid the knowledge they had absolute control over the ‘farmers’. And if that knowledge came under threat, they’d take swift and brutal action. Cambria leaned her hands on the tabletop and glared at Teresa. “I’m sure you understand if I say I’m not overly confident; in the guards or you. Grant kidnapped me and your people beat me up, all for selfish purposes. I am now the captive of a group of workers, whose overlords are worse than they are. I am under no illusions here, Teresa, but if either of those men comes near me in the corn fields, they won’t be leaving alive.” Teresa’s scowled turned angry. “You can’t.” She rose to her feet. “If you harm them...” she shuddered, “it won’t just be our longhouse that is punished, but the whole camp.” “Teresa. I know Grant told you about me. I’m a Hunter, for God’s sake! Judge, jury and executioner! They step out of line and I’m well within my rights to take punitive action!” Teresa got into her face. “You have no identification and out here, you’re still a wanted woman, a murderer. The only reason we’ve chosen to help you is for the money and the freedom promised us. You do anything to jeopardise that, anything at all, and one of us will take pleasure in taking it out of your hide. We don’t need you alive, Hunter, we chose to keep you that way while you behaved yourself.” “Help me?” Cambria narrowed her gaze. “You lying sack of shit! Help would be getting me back home. Help would be assisting a Hunter in need. Help would be bringing Grant in.” She dragged in a breath to calm her anger. “Help is not keeping

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me confined, nor is it lecturing me on how good you all are. How noble and pure you are. As if your shit don’t stink!” “As if you’re the victim.” Teresa scoffed and curled her lip. “You brought this on yourself. And out here, people take responsibility for their mistakes.” Cambria lowered her voice. “I’ve never considered you stupid, but I might be wrong. I’m changing my mind to greedy. A hundred million Euros is a lot of money to someone who’s never had any. And de Crecy tweaked the greedy gene, didn’t he. You know the government cancelled the warrant, but not everyone believe it; or they don’t accept it. De Crecy... now, he’s different. He wants revenge on me for Dortmund and Bolingbroke, even though I had nothing to do with either death, and he is willing to use any method to have me. Secrecy is his best shot, out of view of the World Council, or there’d be protests, and he can’t have that.” She shook her head. “But ‘out here’, well, all the Provincial government is interested in, is getting as much work out of you as possible, not the machinations of the World Council. And the chances of my being here, why they’d be zero, unless someone made it possible. The truth of the matter is irrelevant when it comes to money. De Crecy is willing to use any pawn for his purposes; and he has the power to crush you regardless.” Teresa flushed. “I don’t care. We need that money and de Crecy needs you. Case closed.” “Not quite.” Cambria said with a slight smile. “Explain to me why you think de Crecy will honour his word. The greater good? No, maybe out of the goodness of his heart? He’s decided that maybe, people need a little freedom in their lives?” “Yes. And if you had any courage, you’d agree to this. Sacrifice yourself for us. You Europeans have all the freedom you want. Here, we have nothing.” The comment raised Cambria’s eyebrows and she eased back. “If I had courage? Do you even know what Hunters do?”

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“You go after whoever the Council wants you to. Be they innocent or not. You’re their ‘problem solvers’.” Teresa said with barely veiled contempt. Cambria shook her head. “For someone with visions of grandeur, you are remarkably ignorant.” Teresa’s hand flashed out and connected with Cambria’s cheek. It stung, but Cambria did nothing. “You allowed yourselves to become slaves, Teresa, whether through planned ignorance, or whether this life was good enough for your parents and so is good enough for you. Freedom is up to you, and unless you’re willing to die for it, it will mean nothing. You can’t buy it.” Teresa’s lip curled. “So speaks someone who’s never known poverty or hard work, who had the best education, the best opportunities of the social elite. What were your parents, mm? Government lawyers? Armed Services Officers? Economic Advisors? Or were they traditional provincial governors?” She stopped and glared. “Get out there and work for a living, Hunter. If you kill the guards, you’re on your own. No one will lift a finger to help you.” And she resumed her seat, studied the papers before her. Cambria, just as fed up with the conversation went out into the sunshine. The vehicle had gone, along with the guards. “Hey! You!” A woman’s voice called and Cambria turned, lifted her hand to shade her eyes. The woman was short and skinny – and that seemed to be the atypical body type around here – with short white hair and brilliant blue eyes. Her nose had been broken at some stage and never fixed and a long scar, from her top lip through the bottom all the way to her chin and down her throat, permanently twisted her mouth. Cambria glanced over her shoulder, then back at the woman. “Are you referring to me?” The woman hurried over, a pack similar to Cambria’s over her shoulders. “Shh! You’re supposed to be fucked in the head, remember?”

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Cambria tightened her mouth, in disgust, and then dipped her head. “I’m Ally.” The woman said and kicked Cambria in the knee. She dropped to the ground and gripped the damaged joint as pain flared up her thigh. “Gah!” Ally leaned over her. “Better you have a limp, too. These guards aren’t so interested in the physically disabled. Mental handicap give them a measure of deniability.” “Fuck me, that hurt.” “Excellent! Now get up and stop being such a pussy.” She reached down and hauled Cambria to her feet. “Jeez.” She massaged the bruised area and carefully put her foot down. She was beginning to feel like a punching bag for any malcontent who came along. By the time she got back to the Hunter facility, she’d be a patchwork of purple, yellow and green bruises. Ally marched her, limping, to the first row of corn. “Start here and keep me in sight at all times. Okay?” “Yeah, sure.” She muttered. Ally shook her head. “You need to work on your grunting.” She said and gave her a push. Cambria stumbled forward, her knee zinging. She turned to watch the woman. Ally unhooked the long metal rod. She gripped the end close to the spout and further up the tube. She slowly pushed her hands together and a spray of fine mist came out of the end and covered the closest corn stalk. The stalks rose to Cambria’s chest, but with the other workers, they were neck high. When they grew taller, closer to harvest, the stalks would hide the workers. Cambria unhooked her own tube and copied Ally. “All righty then. A day out in the sunshine with toxic chemicals - what more could life offer?”

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She practiced, aware of what Teresa said about waste. She kept pace with Ally, following her lead of slowly walking and turning to spray the stuff on the crop. Cambria considered a job well done when she was only a few paces behind Ally when no more spray came out. She jammed a pole into the ground and turned, walked back to meet Ally at the beginning of the row. She followed the woman to a large tank that held the chemicals. Ally indicated she should take off the backpack. “You can’t look too smart, Kerry, or they’ll know.” “How?” She hadn’t seen the guards all morning. “The place has multipurpose surveillance systems.” Ally said quietly as she filled first one backpack, then the other. “Cameras and sound-activated microphones pick up conversations. Nowhere is safe except out in the field, and they’re careful that no one gets close enough for a chat.” Cambria kept her head low, but her eyes roamed over everything. Security hid the cameras well. She saw no sign of them, but the Asian provinces excelled at developing high-resolution miniature cameras; they could be anywhere, on anything. Surely cameras out in the open would be more intimidating that hidden ones? Then again, if the workers couldn’t see them, they’d be more careful with their actions and words. It didn’t mean they were actually there - suspicion and rumour would be enough to keep the farmers focused on their tasks. As a method, it was effective. “Here you go.” Ally said and hoisted the pack over Cambria’s shoulders. “You’re doing fine, just keep at it and remember: head down, limp up.” She tilted her head and smiled. “I can kick you again, if you think...” “No, no, it’s fine. I’ll limp.” Cambria grimaced.

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She did as Ally suggested, but as the sun reached its zenith and there was no sign of anyone stopping for lunch, she feared the oppression was worse than she thought. At the next stop, she asked Ally about it. “Lunch?” The woman laughed and shook her head. “We get one meal a day of high protein mix. Enough for twenty-four hours. That’s it.” She chuckled again. “Lunch.” She chuckled and went back to her rows. One meal a day? No wonder the workers were undernourished and puny. Cambria went to her own markers, continued the slow spraying, plucking caterpillars off the corn tops, or stamping the ground to scare away the mice. These bastard overlords treated the workers worse than slaves. And Teresa said they weren’t prisoners. Even those in custody, the worst offenders, got three square meals a day. And then she thought of Cottington-Blake, working on an off-world farm as a reward/punishment for her treasonous actions. Was it like this for her? She should have listened more closely to what Lincoln Grant tried to tell her. If she hadn’t been so resistant to the idea, would she have volunteered to help them? Could she help them? They had their own plans for her; a plan she knew doomed them all. De Crecy was under no obligation to fulfil his side of a bargain made with the workers of a backwater province. He had the firepower to crush this lot, to destroy the whole province and not bat an eyelid. So what was he waiting for? For reasons of his own, de Crecy wanted to make sure he had Cambria under his control. But he also needed to make sure he caught all the conspirators. That would have consequences – but she was aware she’d be dead with not a care in the world. For the President to execute someone – even a someone who a whole lot of other someone’s knew was innocent - was risky. So why wait? Why not come in and take her, kill the rest and be done with it?

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The money, yes. Personal satisfaction, of course. But politically? He was already the President of the World. What more was there? Unless he wanted what Lady Cottington-Blake tried and Earth was no longer enough for him. He didn’t need Cambria for that. So what was his game? She heard a sound that chilled her blood: a hissing that froze her steps. She’d never seen a snake, but she knew an awful lot were poisonous. And out here, she didn’t expect any suitable medical treatment if a pair of fangs plunged into her ankle. Her eyes searched the ground for the slithering beast, but saw no sign. Of course, no self-respecting snake would be obvious. The sound came again and her eyes darted to the right. Slowly, she turned her head. Ally. Trying to attract her attention. She glared at the woman, but she was pointing to Cambria’s other side. With her head down and heart pounding, she squirted more spray onto the corn and slid another couple of paces forward, turned and saw the black vehicle parked on the dirt road. The two men grinned at her, the driver with a corn stalk stuck between his teeth. Cambria ignored them, sprayed to the right and shuffled forward, sprayed to the left. The guard standing in the back of the vehicle gave her wave. Cambria affected not to see him and kept moving. Midday moved on to afternoon, but she heard no call to stop. Her neck and shoulders ached. Her limp worsened as the day went on and her thighs burned with compensating. But, she kept her expression vacant and focused, waited for someone to tell her to stop. The sun slowly sank, hovered above the horizon, and a hand finally fell on her shoulder. She stopped walking and stood quietly. “It’s time to go.” Ally said.

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Cambria planted her red-flagged pole and walked through the field back to the warehouse. Other workers, equally exhausted, stumbled in to clean, refill and store their equipment. Cambria hooked the backpack where Teresa had indicated. Then she went out of the warehouse and lined up with everyone else, too tired to speak. This was how the provincials kept them in check. Tire them out, feed them barely subsistence food and you had a compliant workforce. The line marched back to the longhouses. This time, it took closer to an hour and the sun had long set by the time Cambria saw the welcoming spotlight over the house. Welcoming, hell. All it meant was an opportunity to lie down. Once more, the groups lined up in front of their longhouses and waited. Some secret signal? All at once, the groups broke up and headed indoors, talking quietly. The farmers did everything quietly, she realised, the discussions, the cooking of the gruel, the showers and changing of clothes. No one raised their voice, or shouted out a bark of laughter, only whispers, low conversations and subdued snickers if someone was amused. Cambria went to her own area; saw a stack of silver packs on one of her shelves. On another, lay a toothbrush and toothpaste, a bar of soap, a brush of fine bristles, and a box of tampons next to one of condoms. She snorted. As if. Next shelf down held a tin plate, a mug and a plastic spoon, the seven silver packs and a small pot she would have used for heating a cup of milk in. “Just add water.” Teresa said as she stirred her own pot. Cambria sighed. Even after the harsh words spoken this morning, Teresa was still willing to help her adjust to this new life.

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Well, she wasn’t going to get too comfortable; she wasn’t born to this existence, this benign acceptance of negligence. Why didn’t they leave? If this wasn’t a prison, then surely they were free to go. What had Grant said? There was nowhere to run? But he had a corridor, to other worlds, why hadn’t he evacuated these people to colonise another planet? She went into the bathroom and half filled the pot, returned to shake the protein mixture in and set it next to Teresa’s pot, stirred. “Why do you stay?” She asked. “Most of us have no choice but to stay.” Teresa said quietly. “No choice? But you said it wasn’t a prison.” Teresa poured her gruel onto her plate, set the pot aside. “It isn’t, but there’s obviously one thing your eagle Hunter’s eyes have completely missed. The one element that keeps us subdued and compliant, a critical factor that allows those guards absolute control over us.” Cambria was at a loss. Everyone followed orders, or perceived orders. The guards were more like casual visitors, making sure everyone was working or taking a census of farmers. “And what’s that?” She asked and peered into her pot. The stuff didn’t thicken as she expected and she had a lumpy soup instead of porridge. Well, live and learn. “Children.” Teresa said in a near whisper. Cambria’s gaze went to Teresa. “Children?” Teresa nodded and tears gleamed in her eyes. “Most of us have children or are the children of farmers at other camps. They keep us separated except for one day every month. None of us will willingly buck the system for fear of what might happen to our kids.” Christ. This was getting worse and worse. Cambria also hadn’t seen anyone pair up. “Husbands and wives?”

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“Kept in the other longhouses.” Teresa said. “We’re allowed to visit on a weekly basis for half a day.” Cambria watched the grey soup bubble, it wouldn’t thicken, and she poured the stuff into the tin mug. “How long has this been going on?” “It’s always been this way.” Teresa said. “The children?” “Education camps, where they learn correct behaviour and proper political doctrine. They learn their future careers; not, I should hasten to add, anything to do with politics. No, they’ll be farmers, like their parents and grandparents and greatgrandparents and so on. That’s why you’re our last hope.” In Grant’s perfect plan, he’d sell Cambria to de Crecy and the President would honour his promise to hand over a large parcel of independent land for them, give them the money to start a new ‘province’. The idiot. Was he genuinely planning to force the President to abide by his agreement or was he simply after the money. Cambria hadn’t seen him since last night. “Your last hope is yourselves.” She said. “My job is primarily off world, Hunting down singletons. I cannot and will not take on the establishment for anyone. Selling me to the President is only going to get you dead, whether by his hand or those of his lackeys, because they cannot leave any witnesses to this blackmail alive. I don’t have a solution for you, but it has to come from the workers, the farmers, not through a criminal act.” “Right, and the criminal act that put us here, and keeps us here?” Teresa asked. “Pointing out bad behaviour does not excuse your own bad behaviour.” Cambria said and Teresa laughed bitterly. “It’s a little more than just ‘bad behaviour’, more than just ‘criminal’, and you know it. You’ve been here for twenty-four hours; is this the kind of life you’d like to

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live for the rest of your days? Your children? Your grandchildren? One meal a day? Working sixteen hours a day? One day off a week.” Cambria drank down her tasteless gruel soup, grimaced. “How many longhouses do you have here? In this camp?” She asked instead of answering Teresa’s question. “We have ten.” Two hundred people, under the guard of two? “And how many camps in the county?” Teresa tilted her head. “I think about a hundred and fifty, maybe two hundred.” She said with a shrug. Forty-thousand people. In this county alone working as farmers. “How many counties?” “Forty-eight, I think.” “You have nearly two million farmers, all living in conditions like this?” Cambria asked. “I don’t know. I figure so.” She said with a speculative gleam. “And that’s just the farmers, right? What else does this province do?” “Well, there’re the construction workers, the stevedores, miners, vehicle manufacturers; they’re the only ones I can think of.” “And if each of those industries had as many workers in them as the farming industry?” Cambria asked. “We wouldn’t be a whole lot of nothing and nobodies, then. But...” Her shoulders slumped. “We have no way of contacting people.” “Sure you do. Use Grant. He gets around, doesn’t he?” Teresa blinked at her. “Yes, but... it’s more about his contact with the President and, well,” her face tightened with defiance. “Selling me to him.” Cambria finished for her and she nodded.

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“Well, I think it’s time Grant... Linc used his connections. I think it’s time, if you can manage it properly, to start a revolution and free your Province. You certainly have the people.” Teresa said nothing and Cambria turned away, took her mug and pot into the bathroom to clean up. She couldn’t believe what she was saying! Revolution? Insurrection? Was she insane? She snorted at the irony. She’d accused Grant of the very same thing. Now she was fomenting unrest. Yeah, she was certifiable. What reason could she possibly have for interfering in the World Council’s management of its’ Provinces? It wasn’t any of her business. Hadn’t she learned her lesson on Nomad? And look how that turned out. And yet... and yet, she’d seen, the speculation and narrow-eyed planning in Teresa’s eyes. She couldn’t go back out there and say ‘sorry, my bad. I was speaking metaphorically’. The oppression suffered by these people had sucked away the meaning of hope for them. The hope for a better life, an easier life, a life where hard work rewarded the self, not the state. The World Council provided everything to the people, health care, jobs, housing, childcare, retirement to the place of the person’s choice – at least in Europe. Given Grant’s file, the conditions here, the lack of proper food, housing and facilities, the guards, the lack of contact with family, what kind of retirement could these people expect? Grant’s grandparents and parents died at an early age, worked to death at another camp. If this was how the World Council treated the populations of the Provinces outside Europe, then these people deserved a chance to throw off the shackles of oppression. But how did she help them, without Grant turning up and hauling her back to Geneva and into Peter de Crecy’s not-so-tender mercies? Why didn’t she just walk away?

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Chapter Twelve Colonel Caparossi joined Captain Randalph Nero’s briefing. He stood at the back of the room and listened to their plans. The group of thirty soldiers paid close attention, wrote notes, but made no comments until the end of the briefing. If they had any reservations about the plan, they didn’t mention it, only asked questions about the deployment of assets, what they would do, how they could make the missions more of a success and the Rules of Engagement. Not a one questioned the wisdom of the mission, only the strategy. “Right then,” Captain Nero said. “I think we’ve flogged this horse enough. Launch time, you lucky bastards, is eleven hundred hours. Unfortunately, this mission requires regular air sucking engines, not any rinky-dinky-wanky corridor. Our friends at the GSU are giving you a lift, so don’t be late. They’ll laugh at us.” Nero raised his head, pinned Caparossi with a hard, brown-eyed stare. “Does the Colonel have any comment to make?” “No, Captain, carry on.” “Thank you, sir.” Nero nodded. “Okay, then, separate into your units and make your final plans.” He shot his wrist out from the cuff of his uniform and checked the time. “I’ll expect a final ops plan from each of you starting at zero nine hundred.” He leaned on the lectern. “I don’t need to tell you all the importance of the mission. It may take you a while, but we need absolute documentation, so have your monitoring devices set to automatic from the moment you arrive. Eyes and ears, people. Initiate automatic updates at zero hours every day. Stay alert and stay alive. I shall be extremely pissed should one of you have an embarrassing moment of carelessness and actually find yourself prematurely terminated. Do I make myself clear?” Murmurs of ‘yes, sir’ went around the room. “Dismissed.” Nero barked and the officers rose to their feet as one and saluted.

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The officers filed out, quietly talking about their mission. Nero waited until the last one left. “Well, Colonel, they’re my best; the soldiers under them are the best. I fully expect results within twenty-four hours of deployment.” “Good, Captain. We need those eyewitness reports. I cannot believe Lord Montague’s... assertions without them.” Nero’s expression didn’t change. Caparossi dropped his gaze. “Walk with me.” He turned and left the briefing room, Nero beside him. “I’m concerned that this may be a wild goose chase.” He said and tucked his hands behind his back. “Then my troopers get a nice holiday in a Province they’ve never visited.” He replied and Caparossi grinned. His smile faded at the audacious plan he’d devised. He wasn’t defying Lord Montague – he wasn’t going – and the Lord did suggest he research the provinces... “I don’t think I can impress upon you the severity of the brief, Randalph. If I’m even half right, this will be...” “Awesome.” The Captain replied. “Deadly.” Caparossi countered. “Worst case scenario and your people will be prey to the Presidential Security Unit.” “Sir, I trust my people. I have to when they are in the field. I have trained them the best I can in covert and counter-intelligence. If anyone can get you what you need, it is my group. It is a recon mission, not active engagement. They know that.” Caparossi chewed his lip. “I know, Randalph. I fear the... problem has been in place for some time.” He shook his head. He wanted to go with them. Desperately. But any good soldier knew he needed intel on the ground before deploying active assets. “If you’re discovered, get your teams back here a.s.a.p. and off world as soon as possible.” Nero waved off his concerns. “I’m working on a back up mission plan already. Anyone comes looking, my people will be... somewhere unreachable for at least a

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month. After all,” his smile was predatory, “training must take place in isolation and without any outside interference, no matter who’s asking. And the GSU will deny all knowledge. You know how they and we fight all the time.” “Let’s hope it won’t be necessary. Exposure would be... unfortunate. For all of us.” Outside Caparossi’s office, the two men paused. The Colonel turned to his junior officer. He held out his hand. “Good Hunting, Captain.” Nero took the offered hand. “Thank you, sir.” *** The daily schedule began to wear on Cambria. Every morning, before the sun peeked over the horizon, she rose, showered, dressed in clean clothes and marched out to the fields. She hunched in on herself, worked at emphasising her physically and mentally disability as she sprayed the crops. Once she finished her rows, she had to go back to the beginning and start again. The guards, so far, left her alone, but the driver watched her with narrow intensity, as if trying to see fault with her act. It was tiring to keep her head tucked down and a vacant expression on her face. She had to remember her name was ‘Kerry’, too, but at least the stupid expression on her face hid her consternation whenever she forgot and allowed her extra latitude. Tonight was inspection night, but she didn’t have anything of her own to organise. She cleaned everything as she used them, made her bed first thing in the morning. It was depressing to think that no one else had many personal items to shelve and admire, to remember. Perhaps those memories were too painful to bear; maybe the memories were confiscated. She worked the field, belly rumbling with hunger, mouth dry from thirst, but she had to finish this backpack full before going back and getting some water. As she walked, the black vehicle moved slowly, kept pace with her. She saw it out of the corner of her eye, saw the way the driver kept watching her.

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He was biding his time, waiting for an opportunity, but on her other side, Ally kept pace with her, and beyond her, Will, then Brodie, Martine, Tana and Graham. Each of them had five rows of corn, more than a kilometre in length. Cambria kept plodding, kept spraying, kept her eye on the vehicle. She thought she knew every nook and cranny, but she glanced at the vehicle once too often, and then found herself flat on her face as she tripped over a rock. Cursing a blue streak, she looked back. No way was that fist-sized rock there yesterday. And sure enough, the driver came through the corn and crouched down. “Are you all right?” He asked. Cambria nodded and got to her knees. The driver deliberately reached out and brushed a hand down her chest, hesitated over her breasts then pressed firmly. Cambria looked down at his hand, tanned against her dark shirt. Then she looked at him, her expression blank. “You’re, er, quite, um... robust.” He said with a gleam in his eye. “All firm and round and soft and...” Cambria eased back and he left his hand hanging in the air. His eyes lifted and he tried to catch her eye. Cambria got to her feet, stepped around the driver and continued on, spraying left then right, to show the other workers who’d paused that she was fine. Ally had stepped through a number of rows, but she now returned to her own work, once she saw Cambria was okay. She heard the rustle of corn behind her, then half a minute later, heard the vehicle move off and the second guard laugh. Cambria kept her head down for the rest of the day, searched for obstacles that never appeared. By the time the workday ended, she had a ferocious headache and her neck hurt.

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All she wanted was to get back to the longhouse, heat some water in her little pot, soak some material and ease her strained neck muscles. And she still felt the pressure of the man’s hand on her, as if he had every right to touch her. The march back felt longer. It was, after all, the night of inspection and no one wanted to get back any quicker. But the spotlight came into sight and the group formed up, braced themselves, then relaxed and wandered into the longhouse for the evening meal. Cambria made herself a hot towel, before making her grey gruel. She nearly groaned with relief at the heat permeating her skin and into her muscles. “I heard what happened today.” Teresa said and set her pot onto the stove. Cambria didn’t bother using the plate, just scooped the thick, slimy gloop straight out of the pot – one less thing to wash up. “Yeah, well, the dog put a rock in my path. Stupid me tripped over it while I was watching and waiting for the guards to do something.” She said and rolled her eyes. “At least he didn’t whisk you away in the vehicle on the pretext of medical treatment. Then there’d be nothing we could do.” “I wish he had. Then I’d have a vehicle and be out of here.” Cambria said and rubbed her neck. “You’d betray us. Just like that.” “Yep.” Cambria eyed Teresa. “There is no ‘us’, just me and the rest of you. Still, it’s not a bad idea. I kill those two, take off in the car and you’d be free.” “No.” Teresa said. “You could say – truthfully – that you didn’t know what happened.” Teresa shook her head, stared down at the grey smears on her plate. “No.” “So... it is less about any freedom and more about financed freedom; and only on your terms.”

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Teresa glared at her. “You need to accept that there is no escape from this farm. Not until we release you.” Cambria held a hand to the slowly cooling towel. “I will defend myself, Teresa; against you, the farmers or the guards if it brings me closer to escape.” “Do, and everyone will know you’re not what you seem.” Cambria shrugged. “So what? I will not let either of those guards lay a hand on me, since you’re so sure they’re up to no good, Teresa, I will kill them first.” She raised her eyebrows. “Not die first?” “Why would I say that? Its’ not my personality flaw, but whomever laid hands on me. Nowhere does it say I have to put with such behaviour. Nor will I.” Teresa gave her a lopsided smile. “Yeah, you go on thinking that and see how far it gets you. And don’t forget: you have nowhere to run to, just the vast open spaces of farmland.” Cambria knew she was right, but it didn’t stop her from planning. Now she had two: walk away, up the side of the mountain to Grant’s illegal corridor and home; or, kill the guards and take off for the nearest town in their vehicle. All she need for both to work were supplies. She, at least, was formulating different scenarios. Teresa stuck hard and fast to one: wait for Grant, hand Cambria over and collect the money. She didn’t have a backup plan. It was as if Grant had to succeed and nothing else was acceptable. Yet, she took none of the risks, that was all on Grant. Cambria couldn’t understand the woman’s attitude. If they wanted freedom, then they should be free, in mind, body and spirit. But their constant servitude had knocked out any defiance, except on an intellectual level. She studied the other workers. Did any of them have the courage to actually stand up and fight, should the time come? She didn’t think so. They were used to figures of authority telling them where to go, what to do, what to eat, when to sleep and rise, what to wear.

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Cambria sighed and finished her meal. Then, the lights flickered. Inspection time. She turned, saw that everything was in its’ place. She set her pot on the shelf, the handle facing towards the back and stood at the end of the bed, like the others. She lowered her head and hunched up her shoulder, as if mentally preparing herself. She watched the door out of the corner of her eye. She’d play along. For now. The driver marched in, held the door open. He stood holding the door open as the second guard came in, followed by another, younger man. He, too, wore a black uniform, but was at least a foot taller than the guards were. “Okay, people, we have a special inspection tonight. This here is Mister Tredea and he’s from the county capital. If he asks you a question, you answer smartly, or I’ll know the reason why.” The newcomer tucked his peaked cap under his arm and inspected each person, bed and individual shelf. He said a few words to the occupant and moved on. Cambria held herself still as the trio slowly moved down the aisle. She was aware the driver watched her every non-movement. Was he hoping she’d screw up and need discipline? Need correction from him? Mister Tredea finally reached the end of the longhouse. He spoke quietly to Teresa who answered his questions on whether she was happy here. Yes, sir. Whether she was getting enough to eat. Yes, sir. Whether she liked the work. Yes, sir. He turned to Cambria and she dropped her eyes. Something about him bothered her, not on a threat level, but something else. Was it his attitude? The way he walked? The look of him, with his blue eyes and sandy-coloured hair? She, of all people, knew what dark hearts handsome men could hide. “What’s your name?” He asked her in a soft voice. “Uh... uh...” The driver nudged her with his foot. “K... Kerry, sir.” She replied.

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“And do you like working on the farm?” “Uh... uh... sir.” “Can she not look at me?” Mr Tredea asked. “She’s a might odd in the head.” The driver said. “Bit of an accident at another farm. Here, she doesn’t have to think too much, or do too much. The doctors don’t hold out much hope of her ever returning to normal.” Calloused fingers, brushed her chin, turned her head to the side. “I... see.” He tried to lift her head, but she refused, made noises of pain and he released her. “Make sure she’s comfortable and does the easy work.” “Oh, yes sir. She may be stupid, but she isn’t dumb. She walks the field and sprays the fertiliser with precision. Nothing onerous and she does the job very well. Why, we’ve got to put a hand on her shoulder to get her to stop.” The second guard lied. “The stupid ones do the most work, sir. They just don’t know when to quit and don’t have the mental capacity to screw around.” “I see. I understand.” Mr Tredea said and went to the end of the room. He gave the bathroom a cursory look then did an about face. “You seem to have everything in hand. Your workers... ah, farmers look healthy and fit, their accommodations are comfortable and your productivity is good, bordering on excellent. I am most pleased and will express my opinion as such.” He said. The two guards beamed. “Shall we move on, then sir?” “By all means, lead away.” The trio walked down to the door where Mr Tredea turned to address the waiting farmers. “Keep up the good work, people and know the world is grateful for your endeavours.” He set his hat on his head and sketched a salute, and then he left. The driver stared down the length of the longhouse at Cambria, gave her a wink and closed the door. “He’s got his eye on me.” Cambria said as everyone relaxed.

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“Yeah. And tomorrow, he’s gonna try and have something more on you.” Teresa agreed. Cambria stood straight and rubbed her neck. “Then he’s going to learn the true meaning of the word ‘Hunter’.” She promised. Teresa came over to her, turned her around with hands on her shoulders and began massaging her neck. Cambria groaned. “If you kill him, we’ll all pay the price.” Teresa said and dug her fingers into the tight muscles. “Hunters aren’t all kill and be-damned, we have a few... tricks up our sleeves.” “I hope so. You’ll need every one, and more to escape his clutches.” Cambria couldn’t help but agree, but so far, she couldn’t think of an alternative. *** Another morning and another early wake up call. Cambria opened her eyes to the dark ceiling and yawned. She should be used to it by now; Nomad had long, long days and nights. Maybe it was the sheer exhaustion at the end of the day and the lack of proper food. Or the lack of variety in tasks. People moved past the end of her bed and into the bathroom. She was in no hurry for a blisteringly cold shower – but it would wake her up. She needed a plan to thwart the Driver and his pal from raping her and/or worse; one that didn’t require her killing either of them, but made sure they didn’t bother her. She couldn’t be violent – the repercussions could be bad, or so Teresa said. So what could she come up with that would turn them off? She rolled out of bed and joined the others under the cold water. Cambria stood next to Teresa and braced herself for the gush of frigid water against her sleep-warmed skin. “Teresa? How well educated are the guards?”

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“Atypical collective education.” Teresa replied and rinsed off fast. Cold showers meant quick showers. But Cambria thought that might change in summer. Atypical collective education? “What does that mean?” Cambria asked and went for the towels. “Well, you know, language, numbers, political history and then training in your chosen profession.” Cambria rubbed down, tried to warm her chilled flesh. “I didn’t know you could choose your profession.” She said and wondered why anyone would volunteer for this. “We don’t choose,” Teresa scoffed, “the county commissioners chose for us.” “Ah.” Cambria said. She had no reply and kept her thoughts to herself, but it did give her an idea. She dressed in the dark blue trousers and shirt, slid her feet into the ill-fitting boots, although the leather had become flexible enough to be less blister inducing. Outside, the morning ritual continued. Wait, stand to attention, and move off. In the field once more, Cambria could feel an itch, a mental tick that threatened to slide her into the mindless task. Yes, the work was boring and monotonous, but she’d always thought her mind was her best weapon against becoming just another farmer. Her life, as a Hunter, ricocheted between bowel-loosening terror, mind-blanking action and boring stretches of reports and research. Nowhere in the Hunter rulebook did it say she’d be bored stupid. She flicked a quick glance at Ally, wondered what she thought as she walked the cornfield, spraying left and right with metronomic precision. Whatever chemical was in the spray, it held no scent and didn’t seem to have any effect on the insects. They flew away from the spray, but when she returned, they’d settled again. The corn grew tall and strong, so she suspected there was some

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sort of fertilising agent – then again, it could just be water. She wasn’t brave enough to taste it. Cambria knew she should be watching for the guards, but her mind slipped into a fugue state, and she kept thinking of Caparossi. Oh, she knew he had a plan, but how could he possibly find her? She bobbed her head. Hijacking a corridor. That took balls. And where was Grant, anyway? He wouldn’t leave his payday in the field; so maybe he trusted these people enough to leave her here, protected by anonymity and the greedy hope of the farmers. He could be dead or captured by the PSU. If he were dead, that would leave her here forever, unless she actively did something. Of course, the PSU might have captured him. And she thought up all manner of torture the group would use to extract information. It wasn’t pretty. Then the PSU would descend on this farm and kill everyone... A hand reached through the corn stalks to grab her ankle and down she went. The Driver turned her over and was on top of her before she could squeak in protest. “Well, now.” He said with a smile. One hand pinned her hip, the other pressed down on her breast. “I’m sure you’re willing to give me comfort now, aren’t you.” She could feel him against her thigh and he wriggled so she had no doubt about what kind of ‘comfort’ he was after. Slowly she turned her head and met his gaze. He frowned at her, and then fumbled with the buttons of her pants. Cambria gripped his wrist to stop him. “So you do have fight in you. Good, I like a good tussle.” He grinned. “What’s the penalty for assaulting a senior officer?” Cambria asked without slurring her words. He blinked at her and froze. “What did you say?” “You aren’t deaf, so don’t make me repeat the question.”

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“Oh, shit. You’re a spy?” He slowly eased away from her. “What did you think? That the commissioners would allow two meatheads like you to look after two hundred people and not keep an eye on them?” She asked and sat up. “I... I... didn’t think...” The pink heat of humiliation flared across his cheeks. “No, that much is obvious.” She gripped the front of his uniform, dragged him closer. “The threat of rebellion is everywhere. And I’ll let you into a little secret: I’m not the only one in this camp.” He swallowed hard. “We observe, we record, we report. Or did you think Mr Tredea’s visit was just to see how we’re all doing and making nice with the farmers?” The Driver shook his head, appalled. Cambria saw him thinking, remembering, considering. “I thought it strange at the time since it was unscheduled. But you’re saying...” Cambria cut him off. “Now, you need to go away; but keep treating me like you have. Do not change your behaviour. But I warn you: touch me again and I’ll have your guts for garters and your balls for earrings.” “Y... Yes, ma’am.” “Oh, wipe that stunned look off your face, you idiot. Just get up, smug and confident. You give any hint that anything’s wrong and you’ll be sorry. Now, piss off and let me get on with finding the enemies of the state.” “Are there many? Maybe I can help.” He said anxiously. Cambria rubbed her forehead and thought hard. “That’s what I’m here to find out! Now get back to work before someone comes along. I have masters, just like you do.” “Yes, ma’am.” He said with flare of relief in his eyes. No doubt, he’d go blabbing to his colleague, but knowing she’d be in trouble, too, should things go awry made him a co-conspirator – protect her and he’d protect himself.

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He slowly got up and looked down at her. She nodded and he made his way through the corn. Cambria closed her eyes with relief. Atypical collective education. The system had to have instilled a respect and healthy fear for the establishment and what it could do to the students should they step out of line. Better yet, the system would not teach critical thinking. No, no, it simply wouldn’t do for the workers to start thinking uppity thoughts. “Ssst.” Cambria froze at the thought of a snake sneaking up on her, but as she opened her eyes, she saw Ally peering down at her, concern written on her face. “I’m fine.” She said and slowly got to her feet. “I thought... when I saw you go down...” Cambria brushed off the dirt and bugs. “Don’t worry about it.” Ally frowned as she took in Cambria’s unruffled appearance. “He didn’t...?” “Nope. I had a few words with him and he declined to...” She rolled her hand. “Must have been some powerful words to stop that bastard.” Cambria grinned, and then chuckled. “Oh, they were. Yes, indeed, powerful words.” She couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed, but it felt good and Ally, a puzzled expression on her face, moved back to her own rows. Feeling lighter than she had for the past week or more, Cambria focused on her work. She didn’t see the guards at all for the rest of the day and she figured she’d scared them into temporary retreat. At least the Driver wouldn’t harass any more of the farmers for fear of bumping into another ‘spy’. But... did the camp have genuine spies for the commissioners? It seemed obvious, yet the Driver was stunned at the thought his movements might be monitored. Maybe the ‘atypical collective education’ was more word than action. She could work with that.

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Chapter Thirteen “This is wrong.” Caparossi murmured as he read the latest report. Captain Nero, his face tight with anger and his mouth set in a line, deliberately stood at ease. Caparossi knew he did that to rely on military discipline; otherwise, he’d be raging about the office, kicking and punching things. He fully expected the Captain to take his temper out on a punching bag down – or a battle companion - in the gym once this briefing concluded. “Apparently not, sir.” Nero said through gritted teeth. “While we’ve been unable to locate your missing Hunter, the reports are similar. The only difference is degree of...” He ducked his head, unable to continue so great was his anger. “Yes, Randalph, so I see.” He leaned back in his seat, sick at heart. He’d always thought a world government was the best for all concerned. No more border disputes to fight, a standard economy for all, with one currency, standard trade prices, no more poverty, everyone happy and healthy. Hell, he’d never known anything different. But this... How did the Provinces expect to get away with systemic abuse of the people? He snorted bitterly. Because they are protected by the World Council and their business favourites. And they’ve gotten away with it for decades, maybe centuries, just as Lord Montague intimated. Oh, but it was evil, the exploitation, the corruption, the abuse. The wealth of provinces, funnelled into the pockets of a few. “Yes, I see.” He said again. “The question, sir, is what we’re going to do about it.” Nero thrust his jaw forward, dared Caparossi to come up with the wrong answer. Caparossi declined that dare. “Agreed. But we mustn’t make hasty decisions, or be lured into hasty actions.” He said and Nero looked disappointed. “Think hard, Randalph, there are too many people for you to race in and ‘Retrieve’. We do not have the space for them. Nor

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could we engage in such a mission without serious consequences: to us and to those we couldn’t get to.” The last deflated Nero slightly. “But we can’t sit by and do nothing. My people are doing good work, but it’s wearing on them to see what’s happening out there and be unable to help.” “I understand, Captain. But from your own reports and those of your people, there is a status quo. We don’t want to upset that... yet.” He tapped a finger against his lower lip and thought. “While your information is detailed, it’s only from one area. I think you should pull your people out, give them a bit of rest and then insert them into another county, spread them out for shorter missions. I want to know if this is just an isolated incident or whether it is province-wide.” “Yes, sir. I’ll give them another day, and then reel them in.” “Good. Thank you, Randalph, I know this mission hasn’t gone as you expected, but I hope the end result will.” Nero saluted and left Caparossi to examine the reports he found hard to believe, but had no choice. The written reports had audio and visual observations attached. Unimpeachable evidence – just what he’d ordered. He saw the vast fields of corn, of barley, wheat, soybeans and other grains, felt impressed at the health of the crops. But the people who worked in those fields... all wore uniforms. They lived in long... huts, barracks, with minimal facilities, in the centre of those fields. The workers were thin, undernourished, and yet put in long days. But what made him sick, what depressed him most of all, was the attitude, as if they were happy with their lives, and expected nothing better. Of course not, he thought sadly, they’d never been allowed to experience anything other than the hard work of farming. The county treated the farmers like cattle, herding them out of the barracks in the morning and into the fields, then herding them right back into the barracks at the end of the day. For God’s sake, these

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people didn’t have anything to read, or watch - no entertainment at all. They had one day off a week! And that was to see their families. Hostages. They were hostages for the county who ran the farms. Oh, but he was itching to go out there and crush those tyrannical bastards. He dragged in a deep breath. He needed patience, had to work out a plan to stop this, to give the people a chance at a better life. He had the reports, but he also had to work carefully. H needed more; an overwhelming amount of evidence. And then what? He asked himself. Take it to Lord Montague? What could he do? He’d take the information to the World Council and they’d... protect their assets, their profits. As long as everything worked in the Council’s favour, nothing would change. If this got out, they’d move heaven and earth to crush whoever released the information, they’d crack down even harder on the workers, ferret out those who gathered the evidence and brush it all under the carpet. Oh, he’d make sure Lord Montague saw the information, but he needed to come up with something unconventional, something outside of the box to resolve this situation. And for the life of him, he couldn’t think of one. He set aside the problem. Maybe his subconscious would come up with something if he stopped chewing on it. Caparossi settled himself and accessed the report from Lt. Tredea. *** Cambria found herself in a quandary: did she talk about how she got Driver away from her and risk exposing the lie or did she keep a mysterious silence on the subject and let them speculate? She ignored all the curious glances sent her way, kept her head down and her expression suitably blank as she made her way back to the longhouse. Teresa, however, persisted in her questions. “How’d you do it?” The older woman demanded in a harsh, low voice. “I can’t tell you.” Cambria replied.

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“Look, if we know the secret, then all the women will be much safer from the hands of those bastards.” Teresa insisted. “They’re safer now, Teresa, and I don’t want to jeopardise anyone else’s safety.” Cambria said. Although if discovered, the Blaggies would punish the whole camp because someone had to know, had to be in on the plot. Worse, she figured Teresa’s longhouse would suffer the worst because Cambria lived with them. Teresa looked wounded. “We’re trying to help you and this is how you repay us?” Cambria lifted an eyebrow. “Don’t take that tone with me, Teresa, or try to make that argument. I’m here because Grant kidnapped me. I’m still here because I haven’t worked out a way to escape yet. You want to blame someone, blame him.” Teresa gripped the front of Cambria’s shirt and she allowed the woman to haul her in close. “Don’t you dare criticise Linc. He’s the only one trying to help us.” “At the cost of my life.” Cambria bit out. “Your life, for millions. I’d say that’s a fair trade.” Teresa released her. “Yes, the money is all important to you, isn’t it? I don’t see you volunteering to take my place. I don’t see any one here stepping up to the plate and making a difference. Yet all I had to do was say a few words, and those guards are standing back, not harassing anyone else. What have you done for the farmers lately?” Teresa sniffed, started to prepare her own meal. “I do my bit.” She huffed. Cambria set her pot next to Teresa’s bubbling one. She’d finally learned not to add too much water. “So, any progress on finding the spies within the camp?” Teresa sent her a startled glance, and then her eyes slid away to the others in the hut. “What spies?” She asked casually. Cambria grinned. “Right. So... what’s your ‘bit’ that you do?” Teresa lifted a shoulder. “I keep everyone safe.” “Uh, huh.”

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“I do.” She whispered harshly. “If no one makes any trouble, then we’re all safe.” “You need to get your facts straight. Either you’re helping Grant free your people, or you’re helping the province keep people oppressed. Which is it?” Cambria asked and stirred her gruel. Damn, but she was getting bored with it and disgusted with the consistency. “You’re trying to confuse me.” Teresa accused and Cambria wondered why she was trying to provoke the woman. It wasn’t her fault Teresa and the farmers knew nothing of the outside world and didn’t have enough understanding or education to ask. All they were concerned about was their own families and keeping their heads down. But were none of them curious about where she came from? Maybe they didn’t want to know because they all understood she was a dead woman and didn’t want to invest in her emotionally. She eyed Teresa. What about her? Did she not feel any guilt? “I’m not trying to confuse you, Teresa; I’m just trying to understand.” “What? What is there to understand? Linc makes a deal with the President, he comes back here, picks you up, hands you over and we get our land and the money.” Cambria frowned. “And all without you lifting a finger to help him.” She said and slowly nodded. These people had, for so long, the government to rely on for everything. They’d never needed to help themselves because the authorities did it for them. Even her capture and confinement required these people do nothing but keep her here. They lived this lifestyle; they didn’t know anything different. ‘Freedom’ was still an esoteric exercise for them while Grant risked his life for them. “We help, we...” “Do bugger all, Teresa, and you know it. He risks everything for you and you do nothing but sit here and wait. No one here is proactively working towards freedom. No one. You still expect the local authorities give you everything without exerting

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any effort. This food,” she dropped her spoon into the gloop, but it didn’t give a satisfying plop, “this is shit, but do you complain? Do you ask for anything better, more variety, something, anything? No. You blithely accept this as the best it’s going to get. That it’s all you’re going to get, or worse, you don’t think you deserve any better.” Teresa flushed. “It’s just food.” She said. “No need to go on about it.” “And that is my point.” Cambria said, frustrated. “If you don’t even care about what you eat, a simple thing, why should you care about the big stuff, like earning your own living, having your own room, or house, having, as you so desperately don’t want, the freedom to choose?” “I don’t know what you mean. We all want better lives, we dream of it.” Cambria wanted to rip out some hair, but she didn’t have enough to get a grip. Instead, she ran her hand over the stubble. “Unless you act, it will forever remain a dream.” She picked up her gruel and grimaced. How had they survived on this muck? Why were they so complacent about it? Did none of them have a rebellious bone in their bodies? Cambria sighed as she started to eat. The same atypical education the workers received, burdened the guards as well. She finished half of it before she tossed in the spoon. “I don’t even know what this crap is.” She said, depressed. “Grits. With nutrient and calorie additives. We don’t need anything more.” “According to whom?” Cambria asked tartly and wished for a steak. With escalloped potatoes, honeyed carrots and fresh, juicy baby peas, followed by a lush, rich crème brule. “It’s... always been that way. We grew up on grits.” “No longing for a hamburger and fries, or fish and chips? Ice cream, maybe?” Cambria’s mouth salivated at the images.

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Teresa swallowed her gruel, shook her head. “That fancy stuff? Too rich for likes of us.” Cambria didn’t bother to sigh. Too... rich? And didn’t that say it all given it was fast food, takeaway, and cheap – at least for Europeans, it was. “Christ.” She muttered and finished her rapidly cooling... grits. Even if they did achieve their ultimate goal, Cambria had no confidence in what they would do with freedom. None of these people would be able to survive on their own. It would take massive re-education, and a massive injection of funds. Her mouth twisted. The government owed these people a living wage; owed generations of workers a living wage. Getting these people up to the level of their European counterparts was the least the World Council could do. But she also knew her thoughts required to total overthrow of the World Council and a new government body put in its place. An impossible task, given the power of the politicians over every aspect of people’s lives and their belligerence in keeping that power. Revolution started from the ground up, and revolution was the only thing that would free these people, would boost them into the type of community they should be. And she had no idea how to start a rebellion, let alone continue one. She felt trapped here, without resources and allies. Even if she managed to return to the Hunters, she couldn’t think of any way to influence how these people were treated. It was beyond her. Cambria washed up, and then rolled into bed before the lights went out. *** “I don’t know what to say, Colonel, let alone what to do about this.” Lord Montague carefully set the condensed report down on his desktop. “They are using disabled people as slaves, sir. There has to be something!” Caparossi protested.

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“I understand your frustration, Colonel, believe me, I do. But let me ask you this: how would you deal with it?” “I’d go in there and...” he began hotly, and then stopped. He’d brought the reports to Lord Montague because he couldn’t really think of an effective strategy. He knew what he wanted to do: go in and kick the snot out the provincial government, then work his way down the chain of command. “Yes?” Lord Montague prompted. “I don’t know, sir.” His shoulders slumped. The sight of the crippled up, bald woman, who couldn’t even speak properly just burned him up. He didn’t need to see the colour of her eyes to know it wasn’t Cambria. His woman could heal damage quickly and the images of this woman with the bashed in head, the healing nicks and cuts on her scalp repulsed him. But it wasn’t the only thing that got him riled: The sight of the separated families, the children in provincial run crèches, away from any parental influence, appalled him, as did the working conditions, the living conditions... the list of his anguish went on. If anyone had told him such a thing went on today, he’d laugh at them, say it was impossible in this modern society. But he’d seen the visuals, heard the audios. There was no doubt the American Provincial government practiced repressive slavery on their people. It varied from county to county, but generally, conditions were the same and he could not understand how anyone could do this to their own citizens. “I am just as appalled by this situation as you, Colonel.” Lord Montague sighed and Caparossi saw how tired the Lord looked. He was pale. The skin around his eyes drooped and sagged around his jowls. He realised Montague looked old. Caparossi regretted bring the report to the Lord, but he didn’t know who else to turn to. Maybe political machinations were ageing him more than just physically. And perhaps that was the key. “What about political allies, sir? Surely there must be some Councillors who could take steps?”

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“Possibly.” Lord Montague said tiredly. “But it would have to be handled with care. The Councillors are first and foremost, selfish and secondly, will do much to protect their own areas. It would take quite the altruistic Councillor to consider changes. And I doubt they’d want to mess with the purview of another Councillor. Unless they had a rock solid political faction, they’d be isolated and prey to the more ruthless and ambitious Councillors.” “And if this is happening on a global scale, sir? If the Asian and African Province are just as oppressed as their American counter-parts? What then?” “Indeed, what then?” Lord Montague raised his eyebrows. “If, and I say again ‘if’, this is a global issue, then it has been kept secret for generations, by the very government we presume to serve. And we, by serving that government, are complicit in how it manages the global community because we swore to uphold the global law, and the laws dictating how we work off planet. And before you think to go to the media, a cadre of Councillors – including the President – owns it and if discovered, treason is the charge you'd face. Does that change anything in your thinking?” Caparossi’s mouth twisted. “Only that this Council isn’t worthy of my loyalty.” He said and Lord Montague barked a sharp laugh. “As I expected, Colonel, as I expected.” He eased back in his seat. “But it’s treasonous thinking. You swore allegiance to the Council, to uphold the laws of the land and to the people. In that order.” “Those are now in conflict.” Caparossi said curtly. “I can’t do the Council’s bidding if it is in conflict with the needs of the people. I can’t uphold the law if those very laws conflict with basic human decency. Whom do I defend? The Council or the people?” “The Council.” Lord Montague said sharply and Caparossi stared at him. “The pledge of allegiance holds the Council above all others. Therefore, they come first, the law and then the people. The Council specifically wrote the Pledge that way to

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lay power into the hands of those with most experience in government. The people, as a whole, are incapable of reaching consensus within a reasonable time, nor are they willing to compromise their own beliefs. Thus, it led to border disputes and war.” “Yes, sir, I understand that. But shouldn’t we defend the people against the illegal excesses of the Council, too?” “Of course. But pooling that much power into the hands of the few creates a social elite who will not give up that power until forced. The ‘people’ don’t enter into the equation unless it is what they can do for their overlords, how much work can be squeezed out of them in the name of profit margins. It is, in essence, a return to feudalism.” And this was why he was a soldier: political machinations were beyond him. He preferred a ‘go here, do that’ kind of approach; and he knew nothing of ‘feudalism’. He gazed at Lord Montague. And wasn’t that the point his boss was trying to make? Keep education and the truth of history to a few select groups and the rest never knew of it, couldn't investigate and the true information became quarantined. “I understand, sir. I am a simple soldier, taught to be a simple soldier, and expected to behave as a simple soldier. I follow orders; never question other than the ‘how to’.” Lord Montague gave him an indulgent smile. “Oh, Colonel, you are so much more than just a soldier. And because you are, you deployed your assets accordingly, since circumstance denied you other avenues. I suggest you keep deploying assets, with the addition of resources.” Lord Montague said and Caparossi saw approval in his boss’s eyes; he also saw a warning and concern. But he thought he understood what the Lord was saying. He opened his mouth, but Lord Montague held up a hand. “I’ll work at things from this end, test the waters, if you will, and use my own... political connections to try and find a route through this maze. But I warn you now, Colonel, anything we do, any proactive measures we

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take, must be done in secret. If the wrong people catch wind of what we’re trying to accomplish, the Council will shut us down. Completely. And I don’t need to tell you what the result will be.” No, he didn’t need to tell Caparossi that exile off planet was the best outcome, executed as traitors the worst if discovered. Or even confined with the very people they were trying to help. “I understand, sir.” “Good. Carry on, Colonel.” Caparossi returned to his own office and sat. Lord Montague had virtually given him carte blanche to do what he could. By unspoken agreement, they were now coconspirators in changing the face of global politics and the responsibility weighed heavily on his shoulders. He put his elbows on the desktop and buried his face in his hands. What a mess! Not so long ago, he was looking forward to going home to Cambria. Now, she was gone and he was planning rebellion on a global scale! Well, if revolution was worth doing, it was worth doing to the limit. He dropped his hands and rubbed his chest, rubbed the ache in his heart. He missed Cambria with every fibre of his being, but his search for her, under the cover of discovering what was going on in the Provinces, hadn’t borne fruit. He still had no further information other than the abandoned corridor she gone through. And she could be anywhere, on any farm, or in the wilderness somewhere, alone and without resources, hunted by the PSU. He turned on his console, then picked up a picture he had of Cambria that sat next to the unit. He couldn’t allow Cambria’s predicament to distract him. She was indestructible and she’d survive – the farmers might not. No, she’d come back to him. Next week, next month, but she would return. He brushed gentle fingers across her beloved face and set the picture down again, adjusted it slightly.

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He accessed the information from the counter-intelligence teams. He needed to understand the depth of the slavery, the number of guards and armed militia. He needed to think hard about where and when to deploy insurgency teams. And, he needed to come to terms with the knowledge that good people, innocent people, were going to die if he was to succeed in his mission.

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Chapter Fourteen God, she was so bored. Cambria wanted to know what was going on at home, wanted to sit down for some televised entertainment, read book, a newssheet, an advert, anything! She figured she could feel her brain atrophying through lack of use. She guessed it was another aspect of the oppression; bore your people into a state of compliance with mind-numbing activities. Still, today was visiting day for those who had families. For the rest of them, they could enjoy the outdoors. No organised activities, of course, no excursions beyond the buildings, but at least she’d get to meet and greet some of the others here. She opened her eyes to sunlight creeping through the windows. No early morning wake up call, just natural sleep. She rolled over. Some beds were empty, some still had slumbering farmers huddled under the blanket. Cambria rolled out of bed and took a quick shower. What she wouldn’t give for hot water to wallow in! Her little pot simply wasn’t large enough. At least she was awake now. Outside, she breathed in the cool freshness of the air, the scent of ripening corn and loamy soil. She wanted to lift her head, face the sun and absorb the warmth, but she’d chosen this persona and, no matter how uncomfortable, she was stuck with it. On the plus side, she could wander at her leisure, unless and until someone stopped her. She was after all, ‘silly in the head’. And so she limped away from the longhouse, wandered in between other ‘houses. Whoever built them lacked imagination, as the buildings were identical, from one end to the other. Few people were around; there was little to do here, no game fields, no barbecue pits, and no pool for the coming hot days. At the back of the buildings was another, smaller building and behind that, long lines held up by wooden posts. Bedclothes, shirts and trousers hung out to dry and as she watched, a skinny black woman came out with a basket filled with blue.

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Laundry detail. She’d not given a thought to who made her bed, changed the sheets or washed her clothes. God, she was as elitist as Teresa accused her of being! Cambria approached the woman. “’lo.” She mumbled, but the woman was obviously off on another planet, so she stood and waited, swayed from foot-to-foot until the woman emptied her basket and turned. She gave a little shriek of surprise. “Damn, girl, why didn’t you say somethin’? You just about scared me white!” Cambria didn’t reply, just watched as the woman frowned. “You all right?” The woman approached slowly, her gaze going to the scar on the side of Cambria’s face, the tilted head and slight swaying. “You ain’t all there, at all, are you. Who let you out?” “No one.” Cambria said. “Well, watch’a doin’ here?” “Nuffin.” “I ain’t got time for you, girl, so you just get along with you.” The woman turned away and went back inside. Cambria looked around. The laundry backed onto more fields of corn, all carefully cultivated. She saw small black birds with split tails fly over, swoop down to feast on insects. The corn stood taller than the field she worked in and the thick green cobs were beginning to form. Such a simple thing to be worth so much to the provincial government. She frowned in thought. What would happen if the crops, say, accidentally burned? Would the local authorities move the workers to another farm? Re-sow the crop? Punish the farmers for the loss? It might be worthwhile to find out, make it look like an act of nature, a lightning strike maybe. “Well, hell.” The woman came out with another basket full of laundry. “If you’re gonna be standing there, looking stupid, you might as well be useful.” She handed

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Cambria the basket. It felt surprisingly heavy, but she accepted the load and followed along behind the laundress. “You look like you had one hell of an accident, girl.” The woman mumbled with pegs in her mouth. “Uh... uh...” “Hell of a thing; they got you working instead of trying to fix you up.” “Uh...” “Damn them to hell and back. I got no problem doing the work; I’m able-bodied, like everyone else. But you?” She tut-tutted and continued down the line. “I bet you don’t have any family, either.” “Huh. Family.” Cambria murmured sadly and thought of Caparossi. “Oh, so you do got family. And they never came for you? Shameful, that. Just shameful.” “Dead now.” The woman stopped, and then restarted her march down the line. “I am surely sorry to hear that. Do you work in the fields?” “Uh... huh.” “Do you like it?” “No. Bored now.” The woman chuckled. “Yeah, it can be pretty gruelling walking up and down the field spraying the corn with nothing but nutrient filled water.” Cambria stopped, and then shuffled her feet. Water. Nutrient filled water. The farmers tramped the fields for hours on end, unable to access the taps for a drink until they returned to refill the chemical tanks. “Bastards.” She bit out and the woman turned, surprised. “As if lying to us is any great shock. You have to understand, and I’m pretty sure you did understand before,” she lifted her chin to indicate Cambria’s head, “that happened. So, since you’ve helped me, I’ll tell you: This camp is a light labour

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camp. If people work hard and keep their noses clean, this is the type of work they can expect. But a little fractious and it’s back to harvesting fruit or vegetables.” “B... bastards.” The woman patted her wrist. “Yes, I know. For you, this is probably perfect. Repetitive work, food, shelter, people to guide you and watch over you.” She shook her head in disgust. “It could be worse. Some people who can’t work because of disability, like lost limbs, beg on the streets for food. And let me tell you,” she said with a huff, “it’s hard enough within the camps, so I don’t know how they survive outside.” “Bastards.” Cambria said much softly. “You got that right, sweetie, but what can a body do?” She pegged her way down the line and back up the next. “You go to work, you come home; you go to work, you come home. That’s it; that is life.” “No more?” “And no less. We can’t be having secessionist plans, you know, none of us have the strength after all those grits.” She laughed at her own joke. But she was right. The nutritional and caloric values of the food were enough to work, not enough for extra exercise, like survivalist exercise, or building up the muscles for stamina. “Want. To. Leave.” “You don’t like it here? Well, sweetie, you go where Adams and Price tell you. You haven’t got a choice.” “Want to leave here.” The woman sighed. “Sure, we all do, but we’ve got nowhere else to go and nothing to do when we get there.” “City?” “A city. Not for hundreds and hundreds of kilometres. Sure, we’ve got towns and villages, of a sort, but they’re mostly distribution places, I think. I did hear tell

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from Marge, she’s an import from another camp because I cannot keep the blessed machines working all the time, she came in from a place called... ah, somewhere north, Lubbock or ‘Cloma city – I’d have to care to remember and I don’t care that much - that it’s worse there. If you can’t work, you can’t eat. Simple as that. We are all working for the glory of the people, sweetie, and there’s no greater cause than that. And I’ll tell you something else, those disabled mob? There are always jobs for them. They can lick stamps or stand there, like you do and help the washerwoman. But the provincials just don’t care enough to take them to the jobs, to house and feed them. They live, abandoned, on the streets, on the fringes of society. As if losing a limb was their own blessed fault.” The back door of the smaller building banged open. “Sherry! I got the damned thing workin’ agin, don’t go bustin’... hello, who have you got here?” Hard hands gripped Cambria’s upper arms and turned her around. She was tall, broad shouldered and narrow hipped, almost masculine. The mop of dirt brown curly hair and hazel eyes surrounded by long lashes, the full mouth and plucked eyebrows, turned man-like into woman. “A mutt? You gotta mutt working for you?” A stiffened finger poked her scar and Cambria winced. “At least she’s got the sense to know when something hurts.” Marge frowned. “What’s wrong with her eyes?” “Lay off Marge,” Sherry said quickly, “she’s harmless and is happy to listen to my babbling. Unlike someone else I could mention.” “That’s because you spend a lot of time with your babbling. I gotta get on. Price wants a word, damn him.” “You’re the one who wanted a man between your thighs.” Sherry snickered and earned a scowl. “At least I’m gettin’ some.” Marge replied and strode away, tucking her shirt into her trousers. But Cambria saw something else. “Boots.” She muttered as she watched the mechanic walk away in Cambria’s footgear. Oh, crap. Those boots were special issue.

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If anyone looked closely at the soles, or the construction, they’d know they came from Europe. “She traded them with someone from hut five. Extra food, I think. I dunno where they got ‘em.” “Mine.” Cambria growled plaintively. Sherry put an arm around Cambria’s shoulders. “Someone stole your boots? Damn shame that, but if you have anything better than what someone has, is fair game to thieves. And here you are, unable to defend yourself.” “Mine!” “Now calm down there, girl. Those boots are gone and it doesn’t matter who’s got them now. You’ve got boots on your feet now, and they work just fine.” “Present, from... family.” Cambria lied and took a ragged breath. “I’m sorry to hear that, but let them go. Marge isn’t the kind of woman to let something out of her hands when she’s paid for them fair and square.” “Mongrel. Dog. Bitch. Muther. Fucker.” Cambria tossed off the arm and limped away, walked back to the longhouse and studied the occupants. She had a choice of three: Sienna, Will or Louisa. The first two were gone, but Louisa still lay in bed. She shuffled over to the woman and crouched down. Blue eyes peered at her. “What do you want?” “I want to know who stole my boots and my clothes.” Cambria said. Louisa sat up, brushed a hand through her muddy blonde hair. “Why the fuck should I know?” She said without looking at Cambria. “Because I have three choices.” Louisa stopped running her hands through her hair and turned. “Prove it.” She sneered. “I don’t have to, but let me give you the facts, Louisa. Those boots are custommade, in Europe, and should Price chose to investigate Marge’s nice newish

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footwear, he’s gonna be puzzled as to where she got them. And you know Price, he rarely takes ‘no’ for an answer. What do you think Marge is going to say to save her own skin? Hmm?” “You’re bluffing.” “Am I? Shall we wait for Price then? Try to come up with an excuse as to where someone managed to get them? You might want to get the rest of my clothes back, too. They’re not the rough material you’re used to.” She lay down again. “I don’t believe you.” Cambria rose. “Fine. I’ll just go have a chat to Sienna and Will, see what they have to say.” “You do that, now piss off, I’m taking a nap.” Cambria left her alone and went in search of Sienna. She’d leave Will to last. Sienna was perched on the front step of the last hut, talking to a man. Next to the building, more corn grew, but this grew to about waist height. Cambria dragged herself over and waited for one of them to notice her. She saw Sienna glance at her, saw her mouth tighten, but she chose to ignore Cambria in favour of the man. He was husky, at least in the bones, but he, too, suffered from not enough food and his clothes were tight across the shoulders, but bagged everywhere else. His face was gaunt, with sharp cheekbones, a crooked nose over a firm, smiling mouth. He kept his black hair shorn tight to his skull and his eyes were a pale blue when they caught sight of her. He had the longest lashes she’d ever seen on a man. “Hello, there.” He said in a deep soft voice. Cambria tucked her head into her shoulder and he smiled, went to stand, but Sienna laid a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Dean, this is the mutt I was telling you about. She obviously wants something.” Sienna rose and came over, grabbed Cambria’s arm and hauled her around the side of the longhouse. “What the fuck do you want?”

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Cambria tilted her head so she could glare at the woman. “I want my fucking boots back.” Sienna jerked back in disgust. “That’s it? You interrupt my date because you want... yeah, you would, wouldn’t you, Hunter. Well, they’re long gone and you ain’t getting them back.” “You idiot, Sienna. Stupid, fucking, unthinking, greedy tosser. You sold them to Marge, who’s boffing Price. He’s sees those nice tan, custom-made boots and he’s going to look at them And when he does, he’s going to find something he doesn’t recognise and knows is impossible here: a European manufacturers stamp on them. Then he’s going to look closer and see the construction also doesn’t fit anything he’s seen, and you can bet he knows Marge can’t afford them, nor does she have the wherewithal to get them. Do you understand now?” Cambria held on to her temper, but only because Sienna paled. “But... they’re just boots.” Cambria tightened her mouth. “They are custom made for Hunters! For off world work, for extreme weather conditions!” Sienna’s eyes went darker with anger. “I knew you were going to be trouble, you dumb bitch! Now, look what you’ve done.” “Don’t you fucking blame your thieving ways on me.” She let the woman go, threw up her hands. “Fuck me but you lot are ignorant.” She poked at her temple. “You never think! All you care about is your own welfare, what other people can give you. And if you have the minimum, well shit, you’re happy, but, by God if someone has more, you just can’t let it be, you’ve got to have it so you have more. Well rah, bloody rah for equality, it’s gonna come back and bite you on your ass!” Cambria heard footsteps and hunched over. “Everything all right here?” Dean strolled around the side of the building, his hands in his pockets. Sienna put her fists to her own head and gave a quiet scream of frustration.

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“Damn you!” Sienna nearly shouted. “You never fucking listen! You’ll never understand!” Cambria hunched in further, as if pretending to be a turtle. Sienna trembled with rage and fear and she only had one outlet for her anger. Cambria felt like a hammer had come down on her and she went to her hands and knees. “Sienna!” Dean gasped, appalled, but Sienna got a kick into Cambria’s ribs before Dean dragged her away. “What are doing? She can’t defend herself!” “Hell with that. Get up, Hunter, before I kick the snot out of you.” Cambria’s head swirled and her side ached like a bad tooth. “Hunter? I thought her name was Kerry.” Dean said as he held on to a struggling Sienna. Now, Cambria was pissed. She had frustrations, too, and Sienna had just opened a can of whoop-ass. She slowly got to her feet, rolled her neck and shook out her hands. “You wanna piece of me, you just come and try, you ignorant, backwater, stupid and lazy scum-sucking bottom feeder.” Sienna jammed an elbow into Dean’s stomach. “Oof.” He grunted and let her go. Sienna growled and came right at Cambria, fists raised. Cambria stood her ground and waited for the woman to come. She waited for Sienna to ease back a fist, and waited for the down swing. Then she ducked under swing and slammed her own fist into Sienna’s belly. The woman oofed and bent double. She went to her knees holding her stomach and tried to drag in a breath. Cambria back off. She really wanted to press home her advantage, but waited to see how tough Sienna was. “We don’t fight to solve our difference.” Dean protested. “We sit down and discuss them, try to compromise to the benefit of...”

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“Shut up, Dean!” Sienna barked and climbed to her feet. She lifted her chin, rubbed her belly. “Lucky shot.” “You just keep telling yourself that, see how low it brings you.” Cambria sneered. “I’m gonna kick your ass, you cunt.” “Bring it on, bitch.” Cambria said and they grinned maliciously at each other. Again, Cambria waited, but she didn’t count on sneakiness. Sienna’s lip curled as she approached. Then the woman tossed the sandy soil at Cambria’s face. She instinctively flinched away and Sienna came in with fists flying. The punches lacked power, but still stung and bruised as they beat at her face, arms and stomach. All she could do was block, but she heard Sienna’s breath turn harsh. Those grits. Not as nutritional as Sienna wanted. Cambria lifted her head from behind her fists and her left eye caught Sienna’s knuckles. Her head went back and she staggered. Her mouth caught another punch and split, spraying blood. E...nough! Instead of retreating, she stepped into Sienna and slammed a fist into the woman’s ribs once, twice, and a third time in quick succession. Then she stepped past the woman, lifted her elbow into Sienna’s chin. She heard the clack of teeth slammed together. Cambria pivoted as Sienna jerked away. Her own knuckles sang with satisfaction as they connected with Sienna’s eye, then mouth. Sienna’s knees wobbled. Cambria grabbed Sienna, hooked an arm around her thin, small body and brought her off her feet, dropped her to the ground. “Are you done yet?” She asked. Sienna rolled to her hands and knees, spat blood onto the ground and glared at Dean who stood by and watched. He shrugged at her. Good man.

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Sienna struggled to gain her feet and Cambria moved back. She didn’t want any more dirt in her face, but Sienna had a different plan. She finally stood, bent over and spat more blood. Then she turned, slammed her shoulder into Cambria’s stomach and rammed her against the wall of the building with a loud thump. Cambria grunted as the edges of the long boards bit into her back. She bent forward, wrapped her arms around Sienna lifted her, upside down off the ground, held her as she considered the damage she might do if she dropped the woman. She didn’t want to kill the woman or permanently disable her. Sienna’s feet hit the wall and bounced off. Cambria released her and she fell into an awkward heap. She unfolded herself, a look of fright on her face as she understood Cambria’s strength. “Stay down, Sienna.” Cambria warned, but... Sienna wasn’t going to give up nor give in, even with blood running down her face and chin. She threw a rock at Cambria and the sharp edged stone smacked into cheekbone. “Ow, shit!” Cambria screwed up her eyes and turned away, then back again. If Sienna had one stone, she’d have another and Cambria dropped to the ground. The sound of a much larger rock slamming against the wood told her Sienna was serious, that she wanted to kill. “Jesus, Sienna!” Dean said. “Don’t interfere, Dean, it’s her fault. All her fault.” And she swung at Cambria again. Cambria scrambled backwards, face hurting, rage turning into self-preservation. “Don’t make me hurt you, Sienna.” She said and rolled away from the furious, murderous expression in Sienna’s eyes. “Fuck that. I’m gonna kill you!”

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Cambria finally got to her feet and shifted her body at angle as the rock came down again, but glanced off her shoulder. It still hurt, but she now had the advantage. Sienna lifted the rock again and Cambria stepped into her, turned her fist and punched the woman in the upper stomach, stunning the diaphragm into stillness. Sienna gaped at her like a landed fish. The rock fell from her hand and Cambria hit her again, a little lower. Air whooshed into Sienna’s lungs, and Cambria brought her fist down onto the side of the woman’s head. She dropped to the ground, groaned once and lay still. Cambria crouched down and checked to make sure she was still breathing. She had a strong pulse, but would awaken soon enough with a monster headache. Groaning, Cambria stood up, arched her back. “What the hell is going on?” Dean demanded as he came over. “You’re no more a mutt than I am.” “Yeah, well, why don’t you get your fuck-buddy to explain.” Cambria said and limped around the side of the building, her head lowered. Damn, she hurt. She stumbled her way back to her hut and staggered up the stair. Inside, Louisa sat up, a smirk on her face. “Found Sienna, I see.” “Yeah.” Cambria dabbed at her lip with the sleeve of her shirt and saw Louisa’s smile broaden. “Dean’s scooping her up as we speak.” “Oh, hell.” Louisa bounced out of bed and ran to the door. “You’ve done it now.” “Yeah, well she started it.” Cambria limped down the aisle to the bathroom as the door slammed behind her. She stripped off. “Damn me.” She grunted as she pressed fingers into a new array of bruises. She turned on the shower and nearly screamed as cold water gushed over the cuts on her face. Her language coloured the

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air blue as she stood there, then lowered her head to let the water rinse down her back. “Skinny assed bitch.” She groused, as she watched the blood wash down her body and onto the cement and swirl down the drain. “Did you have to be so brutal to Sienna?” Teresa demanded behind her. “Yeah. I did.” Cambria said and shut off the water, turned for a towel. “Mother have mercy!” Teresa gasped and got a towel for her. “What’s wrong with the two of you that you pound each other into the ground? Sit down before you fall down.” She dragged a stool out from underneath the shelves and pushed a finger against Cambria’s shoulder. Cambria slumped onto the stool. “Tip your head up, fool.” Cambria winced as Teresa pressed the pads of her fingers against the bones of Cambria’s face. “You’re lucky nothing is broken. Cut up some, but I can take care of that. You just stay put.” Exhaustion cloaked her shoulders and she hung her head, watched the drips of diluted blood splat on the concrete as water eased down her face and mixed with blood. The pink slowly changed to red. Teresa returned with a small, embroidered bag and Cambria finally felt a little light-headed. Teresa dipped into the bag and pulled out fine needles, then the black thread. She saw Cambria looking at her, pale and sweating. “Don’t give me that look - you’re the one who ran into Sienna’s fist a few times.” “God, I hope she’s suffering as much as I’m about to.” Teresa snorted as she threaded the needle. “Actually, no. Marion, from Dean’s hut is lavishing attention on her.” “She got stitched while unconscious.” Teresa nodded with a sly a grin. “She got stitched while unconscious.”

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“Bitch.” Cambria muttered and lifted her eyes as Teresa cupped her chin to decide where to start. “Mm... she said the same thing about you, when she woke up.” She met Cambria’s gaze with a shark-like smile. “Ready?” “You don’t have to enjoy this so much.” Cambria complained. “Yes. I do.” And the needle flashed.

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Chapter Fifteen Cambria slept the rest of the day, or tried. Her face throbbed, her body ached and she felt like shit warmed over. She hoped she’d made her point to both Sienna and Louisa, hoped she impressed upon them the urgency in getting those boots back. She figured Sienna, for the most part, would look for a return match and Cambria was inclined to give her one; but not now, not yet. The day slowly waned and people made their way indoors to make their gruel. The very thought of the stuff turned Cambria’s stomach, so she rolled over, away from them all and tried to rest. For the most part, she was successful, but in the morning, she understood just how run down and unfit she was as muscles protested, her face ached and stung, and her head pounded. There’s nothing like a good beating to make you aware of just how human you can be – or regret losing the healing factor. With a groan, she pushed herself up. Others were busy preparing for the day, but she wasn’t as quick and Teresa had to hurry her along. “Come on, come on; one late, we all are. We have an excellent punctuality record.” “Want me to tell you where to put that punctuality?” Cambria griped. Teresa gripped her arm and rushed her into the bathroom, where she leaned against the sink studying her boxer features. One eye swelled shut surrounded by a nice shiny black mixed in with yellow and red, her bottom lip with a neat row of stitches, bulged like a pout, one cheekbone with another neat row of black against the red swelling, a graze along her jaw that she didn’t remember getting. “Be careful, be fast.” Teresa ordered as she set the toothpaste and brush down. “God. I get uglier every day.” She said to her image. “I hope Sienna’s got a monster headache.”

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Cambria carefully brushed her teeth, thankful that none were loose, winced every time she touched her lip. Giving up after desultory swipes, she drooled over the basin and cautiously washed her mouth. “Crap.” Outside, everyone in her longhouse turned to watch her slow progress. She knew they marched and the walk to the fields threatened to be painful, but she got a little kick out Sienna not being in line. “Pussy.” She muttered and took her place at the back of the line. As she expected, the line marched of and she wondered if today they moved faster, were punishing her for thumping one of their own. Their plan failed. As the sun rose, it warmed her muscles and she found she could move more easily. When she arrived at the field and grabbed her pack, she recalled what Sherry had said about the contents. With a glance at Teresa, she squeezed some of the liquid into her palm and licked it. It tasted a little metallic, but it didn’t burn her tongue or make it tingle. Her tongue didn’t go numb, nor did she fall into a heap and shudder with spasms. “What’s in these canisters again?” She asked. “Pesticide and fertiliser.” Teresa said without lifting her head from her paperwork. “Huh. Tastes like water to me, with a few nutrients tossed in.” Now Teresa looked at her sharply. “I don’t think you’re meant to drink it. It’s for the corn and nothing else.” She chastised. “Yeah, well, I get thirsty marching up and down the fields. It’s nice to know there’s an alternative to a dry mouth.” Teresa laid down her pen. “Hunter. I’m not sure what goes into the mixture, someone else does that, but if it makes the corn grow, which is a plant, then that’s what it’s designed for.”

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Cambria suppressed a smile, she didn’t want to be at the mercy of the needle and thread again. “And if cost-cutting measures were introduced? You know, to increase the profit margin? Would they tell you?” Teresa frowned. “No, of course not.” “Well, then. Maybe you should taste it for yourself. Me, I got work to do, so I’ll see you later.” Teresa gave her a nod, and then eyed the other canisters. She shook her head and picked up a pen. “Chicken.” Cambria said and went out into the sunshine. Price, the Driver, interrupted her mind-numbing walk up and down the field. He stepped in front of her. She tilted a look up and saw a scowl on his face. “I shall punish the polecat who did this to you.” He promised and stepped closer. “No need, I meted out the punishment required.” She allowed a gleam of happiness show in her eyes. “And I so enjoyed it. But, that’s done now.” She flexed her bruised and battered knuckles. “What can I do for you, Price?” He cleared his throat, regret in his eyes at the loss of enacting violence, but he noted the state of her knuckles and grinned. “I’ve been... talking to one of my contacts within the camp.” Ah. Marge of the stolen boots. “And?” “And she’s got it into her head that you’re paying too much attention to the washerwoman, um... Sherry.” “Jeez. Does she like it both ways?” Cambria asked and gave the corn a spray. “Sure does. But hey, she keeps an eye on things for me. You make sure you tell your bosses that.” “I will. Anything else?” “Um... have you given any more thought to how I can help you find these rebels?”

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Cambria winced as her eyebrows instinctively rose, tugging at the stitches. “Yeah. Just... see if you can get more information out of Marge. She seems to be a lot better fed than the rest of us.” “Oh.” Price blushed. “That’s, uh, me. It’s how I, uh, pay her. For services rendered, you understand.” And that she did. Price and his little cohort were probably stopping food deliveries. “Price.” “Yes, ma’am?” He swallowed hard. “Correct me if I’m wrong here, but the grits we subsist on. While tasty,” she said with a grimace, “I can’t help wondering if the farmers are supposed to be given something, oh, I don’t know, extra?” “I can surely let you have some, ma’am.” Cambria wiped her nose with the back of her hand. “No, you couldn’t. It would mean you're singling me out for special treatment and the others would wonder why - especially since we are standing in a cornfield where everyone can see us! You have two choices: you can either keep selling whatever it is that’s meant to go to farmers on the black market, or you can suddenly find the stuff and deliver it.” Price shifted, uncomfortable. “And what choice should I make?” “You’re a big boy, an independent operator. You make the choice.” She said and stepped around him, ducked her head and kept spraying. “Right.” She heard him mutter behind her. “One more thing.” She turned back and he lifted an eyebrow at her, every bit the domineering guard. “If you decide to deliver the goods, make sure Marge gets the credit. I suspect she’s on the outer a little because she’s having sex with you and not sharing any of the gifts you give her. It will get her claws into the community a lot quicker, too.”

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It was as if a light bulb turned on in his head and he gave her a smile, crafty and sly. “And that’s why you get the big bucks.” He said and sauntered off, whistling off key. Cambria rolled her eyes. “I sure do.” A cloud passed over the face of the sun, but she couldn’t turn her head up to see. A rumbling in the distance settled the matter for her, but she kept walking, kept spraying until Ally laid a hand on her shoulder. “We don’t need to spray if it’s going to rain, Kerry, we can go now.” Ally said and lifted her chin to the road to the parked vehicle. Price and Adams faced the cornfield, their mouths moving in conversation. “Uh. Must finish. Bad girl for not finishing.” Cambria said and kept walking. “No, Kerry, we stop now.” Another rumble of thunder punctuated her words and Cambria froze, just like her persona would. “Rain now.” Ally turned her around, a hand gently tucked into her elbow to guide her back. “Yes. Rain now, work later.” They walked in silence for a while as the sky grew darker. “Who did this to you, Kerry?” Ally asked. “Bad girl.” She said. “Bad girl.” “You’re not a bad girl, just a little... odd.” Cambria nodded. “Bad girl. Talk to Dean.” Ally clicked her tongue. “Sienna. Damn but I’m gonna fix her wagon.” Cambria shook her head and gave Ally a twisted smile. “Wagon. Fixed. Bad girl get knocked in head.” She lowered her voice. “But not before knocking the bitch onto her fat ass.” Ally chuckled. “Right. I might have word with Teresa anyway. See if I can’t get one of you moved.” “Good girl.” Cambria said and resisted a snicker.

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“What did Price want?” “To gloat. Although he regrets he doesn’t need to discipline Sienna, since I told him I didn’t know who attacked me.” Cambria gusted out a breath. “And to help if I’m nice to him.” “Then you’ll just have to be mean, because he is not a nice man.” Ally warned. “Yeah.” The rain started as they lined up to march back to the longhouses. By the time they got back, they were all soaked to the skin and shivering. “Bad weather.” She said and shook like a dog to spray water. Inside, the stoves were a welcome heat to chilled bones. They didn’t have enough for all the farmers, so some went straight for towels. Cambria stripped off and rubbed down, like half a dozen others, and changed into dry clothes. The flash of lightning lit up the bathroom and the crack of thunder made everyone flinch. “Close.” “We get a lot of storms at this time of year.” Brutus, a short, skinny man said as he rubbed the towel over his white blonde hair. “It’s not so bad; we get to stay indoors since the fields are getting their own water.” “Could get boring.” Cambria gently dabbed her face. “Oh, we always find something to do.” He said with a smirk and a wink. “I think I’ll pass thank you.” He lowered the towel. “I’ll be gentle.” The smile was playful. He knew he had no chance, but couldn’t resist zinging her. Cambria appreciated his humour. “I know, but I’d fall asleep.” “Maybe, but that’s not important, and you don’t snore.” Cambria touched her tender lip. “True, but you do.” Brutus snickered. “A manly sound of contentment.” A quick grin tightened the stitches. “Don’t make me laugh, Brutus, I’ll bleed all over you.”

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He reached out and brushed the offended flesh. “Yeah. Sienna popped you a good one.” “I popped her back.” “And we haven’t seen her since.” He said, touched the stitches and dropped his hand. “She’s been the toughest, meanest bitch in the house; until you.” Cambria buttoned her shirt. “I’m not mean and I’m not feeling so tough, but she started it.” “I guess you finished it.” “It’s what I do.” She bent down and picked up her wet clothes, hung them on the line someone – Sherry? – had strung between the showerheads and toilet doors. She went to the door and opened it. The long room was warming up and she could smell damp, steaming clothes and humanity. Since she didn’t eat last night, she had a spare pack of grits. Two shots should fill the emptiness in her belly. “May I join you?” Brutus asked. “Of course.” She said, surprised, and he went to his own area, picked up his pot and a silver bag. He was the first, apart from Teresa who shared the stove, who actually want to talk to her, who acted friendly. When the pots were warming on the stove, he looked at her curiosity burning in his eyes. “What’s it like?” “What?” “Being a Hunter.” Cambria’s mouth tightened. “It’s hard, deadly work, Brutus. This,” she waved her hand indicating the room, “is a holiday in comparison. But taking down villains, that can require time in areas that are riddle with dangers – the least of which can be the local population. Regardless of our treaties with off world governments, they can sometimes...”

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“Off world? You go off world?” “Criminals don’t generally run to somewhere else in the world, they find an illegal corridor and try to get as far away as possible.” She said. “Oh, my God. You’ve been to another planet!” She sent him a puzzled look. “Most of our missions are off planet, Brutus.” He sighed, a mournfully sound filled with longing accompanied by another rumble of thunder. She understood now that this wasn’t just slavery of the body - it was slavery of the spirit. To deny the citizens a proper education and freedom to move around was one thing, but to deny them their dreams and fondest hopes? Every person, no matter who, had the right to pursue those dreams in her mind. Although... she hadn’t thought of her own hopes and dreams in a long time. She’d kept her focus on surviving, on hunting Jones down. Now he was dead, she should be free to think of life after the Hunters. Surely, Montague didn't expect her to work for them forever? Her healing factor was gone and she was feeling pretty fragile about her immortality, too. How short was her lifespan now? She stirred her gruel. “Would you want to go off planet?” He lifted his thin shoulders. “Sure, who wouldn’t? Even as a kid, I’d look up at the stars and wonder. But our teachers told us our jobs are more important than unreachable dreams. We were to feed the world, because without us, the world would starve. We felt pretty good about that, pretty important.” He smiled as he remembered. “It wasn’t until Lincoln Grant turned up and explained about the corridors, about other worlds and opportunities that we... I began staring at the stars again.” “And now?” The smile faded. “Now, since you arrived, since Linc started on his own mission, I have hope that we’ll throw off these shackles. I understand now. I understand that

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this,” he also waved a hand indicating the room, “isn’t all there is, isn’t what I want.” Colour tainted his cheekbones. “I’m... kinda sorry about what you’re giving up for us, but we need more than what we have now. Oh, what we do is important, but shouldn’t we have a choice?” “Yes, Brutus, you should. What the provincials have done here, what the World Council is complicit in, is heinous. Worse, they’ve been doing it for generations. I can see it: you’re all undernourished, puny in comparison to... others I’ve seen.” He stared down the length of the longhouse and saw how small everyone was. “My parents were small, too, and their parents. We didn’t think anything of it.” His dark blue eyes swung back to her. “We thought it natural. Now you’re saying it’s not.” She shook her head. “No. If you had proper nutrition as children, you’d have grown tall and strong. But the County, the Province, have conspired to keep you at minimal strength; engineered you to be this way, so you won’t protest, you won’t rise up against them because you'll never have the stamina. It’s... manipulating the human condition to weed out those who would challenge them.” His face darkened. “Is there nothing we can do?” “I don’t know, Brutus. I don’t know enough about retro-active medicine.” “If there is such a thing, then maybe we can change.” “You sound as if you have a choice, Brutus.” Teresa walked up to them, dripping with water. “And you don’t.” She put her hands out to warm them. “Teresa.” Brutus frowned and she tightened her mouth. “You always have these pie-in-the-sky ideas.” Her eyes flicked to Cambria. “And you shouldn’t encourage him.” “I don’t believe there’s a law against asking questions.” She replied. Teresa snorted. “Actually, there’s a law against asking the wrong questions. And they include rebellious ones.” “Isn’t that what you’re after?”

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She shook her head and water flew, hissed on the stovetop. “We don’t need violence. We’re after a nice, quiet, negotiated settlement.” Cambria scooped the grits into her mouth and swallowed. Much more of this stuff and she’d probably puke. “Teresa, if you believe that, you’re in as much a dream world as you accuse Brutus of. You don’t know who you’re up against.” “But Linc does. That’s why he’s working so hard for us. Something you don’t seem to understand.” “Teresa, he’s walking you all into a trap.” Cambria said. “The Presidential Security Unit already has the rogue corridor. I wouldn’t be surprised if they haven’t tracked the exit address and found all those who went through. And now they control it, they have direct access to anywhere, with a base not far from here so they can keep an eye on the local farms.” Teresa remained silent, while Brutus kept swivelling his gaze between them. “All they are waiting for Teresa, is for Grant to show his face and they’ll act. They’ll sweep through the farms looking for me and anyone who gets in their way is dead. No questions, no arguments.” Teresa sneered, ready for a hot reply, but the door opened and a stranger burst in, wet from the rain. “Sienna’s dead.” The man gasped and every head in the room turned to the trio at the stove. Cambria kept her head down, but studied her bruised and scraped knuckles. She could have sworn she didn’t hit Sienna that hard, but... she squinted at the messenger as he told his extra news. “Dean, too.” Dean? Of the lovely eyes and lush eyelashes Dean? No. Something was off, but the growls of discontent, the shifting of the mood, warned her she’d better get out of here, see if she could find a solution before these people lynched her.

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Chapter Sixteen Cambria limped down the aisle; her head ducked down onto her chest and eyed the angry faces as she went by. She didn’t care about the rain as she made her way to the end hut and around the side. A group of farmers formed a wall and she pushed her way through. At first, they resisted, but on seeing her, they shifted aside. Nor were they silent as murmurs of discontent rippled through the group. Marion crouched next to Sienna. She laid face up, her face wet, eyes uncaring of the water. Marion lifted her head. “You mutt. You just couldn’t leave her alone, could you? You just had to finish the job.” Cambria got down on her knees by Sienna’s head and Marion reached out her hands. Cambria slapped the hands away, leaned over and pushed the middle-aged woman onto her butt. “Don’t fuck with me.” Cambria growled and Marion stared at her wide-eyed. Cambria ignored her, moved her face closer to the battered features of Sienna. Gasps of outrage greeted her move, but she ignored them as she saw the burst capillaries streaking the whites of Sienna’s eyes. She turned to Dean, face down on the wet grass, and the bloody mess of the back of his head. Too easy for her to know the cause of death of both of them, and how it must have happened. Someone smothered Sienna when she was too weak to fend them off – was that on her? Then they brought her out into a private area. That someone then went to get Dean who, on leaning down to check on his love, turned away from his killer. Someone he trusted bashed his head in with... yeah, there it was... a bloodstained, sharp-edged rock. This was bullshit. She didn’t kill Dean or Sienna, but someone had. Why? Dean had nothing to do with her.

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She snorted with disgust. What did these two know that someone didn’t want revealed? Cambria was the perfect patsy for this. Beating up on Sienna, harsh words with Dean. Had someone overheard the altercation and decided to take advantage? A long-awaited vengeance on Sienna, and had they decided the ‘mutt’ girl provided a perfect villain? If she was to escape lynching, and the crowd behind her were growing restless, then she had to trust another farmer. She gave Marion a glance. “Do you see what I see?” She asked with a warning look in her eyes. Marion got to her hands and knees, moved closer. “You don’t sound like a mutt.” “I’m not, Marion. Work with me here, you’ve got a killer on your hands – probably in your own house!” Marion narrowed her gaze. “Who are you? What are you doing here? Are you a spy for the provincials?” “Hunter, kidnapped and no.” Cambria replied. “What? Who?” Cambria ducked her head, glanced at the restless crowd. They were waiting for Marion to pass judgement, and that wouldn’t be good for Cambria. “Now, what do you see?” She bobbed her head. “Look closer at her eyes.” Marion stared at her for a moment longer, and then did as Cambria bid. “They are red. But her eyes have been tearing up a lot. Probably dirt and infection from you beating on her.” As Cambria suspected, Marion had no knowledge of petechiael haemorrhage nor what it meant. “She was smothered, Marion, and these ruptured capillaries are the evidence.” She said and explained her theory.

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Marion frowned. “All I see are two dead people – one who you beat into unconsciousness and the other wouldn’t hurt a fly, no matter the provocation.” Yeah, Cambria remembered his comment about reaching compromise. “I will tell you, I did not do this. I had no motive, no reason.” Marion’s lip curled. “Dean was handsome, you are as ugly as it’s possible to get. A lot of women throw themselves at him and he’s too nice to tell them to bugger off. He only had eyes for Sienna.” She wiped her eyes. “They were trying for a child.” “I already have a...” what? What was Caparossi to her? She set the question aside. “If ‘a lot’ of women wanted him, why are you focusing on me? Why not someone who killed them both in a fit of jealousy?” “Because they wouldn’t have killed him; her, yes, but him... him they’d just try to console him, play up to him.” “Like you, maybe?” Cambria asked and saw the burning hate in the woman’s gaze. Oh, yeah, Marion was a fan. But accusing Marion did not help her cause. “I haven’t had the opportunity, Marion. No one told me where she was; only that she didn’t come back here after the fight and that you were taking care of her.” “You could have sneaked out.” Cambria blinked. “I could? Aren’t the doors locked at night?” “Don’t try that with me, of course they’re not locked! This isn’t a prison, you know.” “You could have fooled me, Marion.” Cambria sighed. “How can I sneak out if I didn’t know they weren’t locked and being able to stumble through the darkness... no. Wait.” She used a finger to press lightly on the skin of Sienna’s face. “Don’t touch her!” Marion slapped her hand away. “The flesh is still resilient, Marion. She died sometime today, when my house was working the field. You want a witness to my whereabouts, you ask Ally, or even Price, if you must.” Marion scowled at her. “How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

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“You must have seen death, seen the... seen the paleness, the waxiness of the skin, know that the blood pools towards the ground. Can you see any evidence of that?” Again, Marion looked at her, suspicious. Cambria rolled her eyes. “It’s not as if it’s something I can fake, you know.” Marion shifted, unbuttoned Sienna’s shirt and rolled the body. “No blood. You’re right.” She conceded with ill grace. “If she’d been dead longer, there’d be more purple, but I see none.” She eased the body back. “You still have some explaining to do.” Cambria bobbed her head. “As soon as you find a reason for my not being guilty and explain it to the circling mob.” She got to her feet and shuffled forward through the crowd, intending to make her way back to her house to dry off. She expected Marion to make a pronouncement, but she didn’t and the hair stood up on the back of Cambria’s neck as she realised what she’d just walked into. Someone stuck out a foot and tripped her. She fell into the mud to the satisfaction of the crowd. One boot, then another found her ribs and she curled into a ball as she heard the word ‘murderer’, ‘stupid mutt’, ‘killer’ spread through the group. Their temper was up and she wasn’t escaping without injury, or maybe they meant to kill her, like the true murderer wanted. She held her hands up to cover her face and got a boot to the belly. She reached out and grabbed a foot, twisted it and threw it up as she rolled into more legs. People stumbled backwards, fell into others and she scrambled away. The crowd followed her, but she got to her feet and eyed them, one hand wrapped around her aching stomach and ribs. “Enough.” Marion said. “She didn’t do it.” “She beat up Sienna. She just returned to finish the job.” A man said.

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“Can’t see how. Sienna’s not been dead long. Nor Dean. The mutt’s been at work all day. So who amongst you wasn’t at work?” The crowd shifted, and people eyed each other with speculation and calculation. Cambria took the opportunity to make her slow and painful way back to her own house. Still, someone came up behind her and pushed her down into the mud. She rolled over, and a foot came down on her throat and she gripped the ankle that held her still. The man who accused her stood over her, pressing down, murderous rage in his hazel eyes. “I know you did it, mutt and we don’t need your type around here. This here’s a working farm, not a crèche for the fucked in the head.” Stars began to speckle her vision as he ground his boot into her windpipe. Then the pressure was gone, the ankle ripped from her hands. Her arms flopped into the mud and she coughed. Her ribs sang with outrage and she rolled into a wet, muddy and miserable ball. She should have waited in the house, let others sort out the murders. But no, she just had to go and see. Had to get involved and focus everyone’s attention on her. Jeez, she was an idiot. “You okay?” Teresa asked and Cambria nodded. “Aaron’s a bit of an ass, a bit hot headed, but he’s a loyal as they come.” “I want to go home.” Cambria said. “I want fresh food, a hot shower. I want a double bed, and to snuggle up with man I love.” She rolled onto her back and sniffed back the tears. She was soaked to the skin and cold. She stared up at the gloomy sky as the rain continued to fall. “I want to not be here.” “Well, gee, aren’t you precious?” Cambria blinked the rain away and stared up at Teresa’s disgusted face. “How does it feel to experience the other side of life?” Cambria closed her eyes and eased up into a sitting position. Teresa was right. She lived in luxury compared to the farmers.

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“Pretty shitty, actually.” She wiped her hands down her face, flicked the water and mud away. Teresa helped her up, and then grimaced at the mud on her hand. Cambria glanced back. The crowd watched her with belligerent expressions. She saw the accusations in many a face. She went to her longhouse and into the bathroom, stripped off, turned the shower on. The water felt warmer, telling her just how cold her skin was. She scrubbed away the mud, but couldn’t budge the anguish she felt in her heart. God, but she missed Caparossi. Missed his humour, his charm, and his strong arms around her when she got home. Missed his understanding and his brainstorming sessions; God the way he cooked! His gentle touch in the middle of the night when she had nightmares. She heaved a heart-felt sigh and turned the water off as it cooled. Caparossi was searching for her, she was sure, and he’d find her. Eventually. Cambria dried off, climbed into her third set of clothes for the day and used the basin to rinse off the old. Then she hung them up next to everyone else’s damp clothes. Darkness had fallen when she came out and she stood as close to the stove as possible to warm her bones. No one spoke to her; no one looked at her, not even Brutus at the first bunk. She’d returned to being persona non grata. Once she warmed up, she reheated the gruel she’d left in her mad rush and choked it down. Then she turned in, huddled into a dejected ball and slept. *** Her skin burned cold with pain as the hunting knife separated the skin over her stomach. He’d been careful so far, drawing out his pleasure. She couldn’t speak, couldn’t move, as he carved her up. He was brutal, careful, and maniacal as he used years of practicing on other victims on her. He spoke in a soothing calm voice, tender, loving as he admired his canvas.

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Then the rape started. He told her how much she enjoyed the sex and him, that she loved what he did to her and she turned her mind inward, to escape the agony, the grief, the rage as Caparossi thrust into her. In her sleep, Cambria frowned, knew something was wrong the dream, the nightmare, but she sank further into the torture. Another blade, hers, with hot blood flowing over her hand as she plunged the knife into the soft, yielding flesh of his stomach. Not her blood this time, but his. Soft brown eyes widened with disbelief and betrayal, as if it were impossible she kill him. He’d done nothing but help her, love her, comfort her and Cambria felt the shock of what she’d done to the man she loved. He gripped her hand. “Why?” Caparossi pleaded, the life slowly draining from his gorgeous dark chocolate eyes. “You abandoned me.” She said and coldly twisted the knife. “I needed you to find me and you failed me.” Caparossi slumped to the ground, his eyes stared up at her an expression of betrayal stamped on his dead features. Cambria felt the dampness of the pillow beneath her head and waited for the paralysis to ease. Her body relaxed on a sigh and she turned her face into the soft pillow. Caparossi hadn’t abandoned her, but her subconscious thought otherwise. Her throat felt tight with unshed tears, with unrelieved stress. What she wouldn’t give for a cup of Caparossi’s espresso? Unable to sleep, she rose and made her way quietly through the sleeping room to the front door. She opened it and stepped out into the night, leaned against the wall, since the steps were still wet. The air was fragrant with damp corn, loamy soil and rain. She stared up into the night sky. White edged clouds scudded across the starspangled universe. A pretty sight, but she found no solutions up there. Could she just walk away? Try to sneak up on the PSU and access the corridor, if they hadn’t shut it down, of course. She doubted it; any military unit needed an exit

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plan. It would be there, waiting. So why didn’t she just... go? What made her stay here and take the abuse? Guilt, maybe? A need to punish herself? Compared to these people, she lived in luxury. Maybe she felt that she owed it to them to try to improve their lives. The longer she stayed, the closer Grant was to finalising a deal that would see her given to de Crecy – and she couldn’t forget that. Couldn’t forget these people... well, Teresa and Grant at least, were willing to sell her for their own ends – another form of slavery. The air felt mild on her hot and brutalised skin. She’d constantly expressed her longing to feel the cold air of Earth again. Caparossi sympathised, but bounty hunters searched for her, didn't believe her innocence. Now, she knew why. De Crecy must have introduced an element of doubt when announcing the cancellation of the warrant. He must want her bad to lie to the population. She snorted. Hell, the middle class of Europe had no idea where their products came from, no idea of the conditions of those who made those goods. Were her boots constructed under similar circumstances, her clothes, everything she owned back home? Cambria could easily imagine herself tossing everything out, stripping the apartment bare, but that didn’t solve anything and disrespected those who suffered to make the items. What the world needed, was an attitude adjustment, she just didn’t know how to make that happen. *** “Still no sign of your Hunter, sir.” Captain Nero reported with regret. Caparossi nodded. He knew what Nero was thinking - that she was dead - but he didn’t know Cambria, didn’t know her resilience and fortitude, her willingness to do anything to survive and come back to him. He’d half-expected reports of someone cutting a swathe through the local law enforcement but so far, nothing.

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And that meant she wasn’t in a position to return to him, yet. “As I expected, Nero. I think she’s busy with something else, or someone else. Keep looking, but your first priority is to find... people who are less inclined to accept their current circumstances.” Nero flashed a smile. “It seems there are more of those people than the locals know or would like.” Nero said. Caparossi indicated the chair in front of his desk and eased back in his seat. “What do you know, Nero?” The captain sat, leaned to the side and slung an arm over the back. “I know there’s underground movement in County Texas to funnel food and medical supplies into the farms. I know there’s an underground route from County Mexico to County Canada.” “Is that so?” Caparossi asked, intrigued. “Well established?” “Very. It’s been going on for centuries, untroubled, as if...” He frowned. “As if...” “As if the counties know about it and have decided to keep quiet. A secret isn’t a secret if more than two people know.” Caparossi said and swivelled in his chair. “Could they be making extra, under the table profits?” He asked and Nero shrugged. “Okay, we’ll set that aside for the moment.” But he made note to find out. “So, this underground. Tell me about it.” “Lieutenant Morgan widened his field of infiltration, caught some farmers in southern Texas with a load of contraband. They expected him to kill them right off, since he was ‘new’ to the area. He took a risk in trusting them with his identity, but they had a conversation and he found out. He sent a message via the route to... ah, Yurikowski in Canada. The return reply was as he expected.” “Can we use them? Use this route?” Nero looked away, but Caparossi knew he was considering all he knew about the route, about his people and the reports he’d read. It came down to trust. Trust in

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the route, in the people who ran it, in his own troops. He finally looked back at Caparossi. “I think we can, but it will be time consuming to guarantee my people’s safety. If the county commissioners, and or the Provincial governments know and are using the routes to line their pockets, they could shut it down if there’s even a hint of trouble, slaughter all involved and no one would be the wiser.” Caparossi chewed his lip. What he was doing, what he’d involved his people in... And yet, he saw absolute loyalty in Nero’s eyes, absolute assurance he was doing the right thing. But the consequences... ah, yes, the consequences. Not just for the farmers and those oppressed, but on a larger scale, for those under his command, the World Council, hell, the world. He shook off the thoughts. He couldn’t think about that now – it scared him too much. The people, those he’d sworn to protect and defend, they were the most important, not the corrupt, morally empty shell of the Council. “Then we should move cautiously, Randalph. Insert more of our own, more resources, show the true smugglers of our support. We also need to root out who might be an informer for the authorities, either turn them, or remove them via a judicious accident. Do you think your people can do that?” “Yeah, I do.” He sat up straight, every inch the professional soldier. “We’ve both seen the reports, the visuals and audio, the witness reports. This is not what I signed up for, sir; this isn’t the global community I thought I was defending. It sickens me to think that the reverse is true: that I’ve been defending the wrong people, that I’ve been complicit in the oppression of those who need our protection most of all. And I know my brigade feel the same way.” He ran a hand over his scalp. “I will do whatever it takes, sir, my people will do whatever it takes. And I will dance the twostep to make sure the Council never gets wind of our actions.” Caparossi felt a surge of relief at Nero’s support for his mission. He played a double game. He had to justify the diversion of the Retrieval Units and the others

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he’d assigned to Nero. They were for off world use and if there was trouble on another planet, the locals called in the colonial marines, like on Nomad. But he couldn’t afford to use the marines; good or bad their loyalty was to the Council. Even if with compelling evidence, they felt duty-bound to uphold their oaths. Then again, like him, the marines had sworn to protect the people, too, and the council. He looked at his subordinate. “Thank you, Randalph. What we do now could be considered treason.” Nero snorted. “Could be considered?” “Is treason.” Nero gave him a slight smile. “One man’s traitor is another man’s freedom fighter, sir.” He said. Caparossi blew out a breath. “Okay, then. Brief your people. Make sure you can set up a rotation basis. If your men and women are absent for too long, questions might be asked.” Nero nodded. “Good thought, sir.” He stood and gave Caparossi a salute. “Time to shake things up, sir.” He said and left Caparossi alone. For the first time since his promotion to colonel, Caparossi didn’t want the trappings of command. He wanted to sit where Nero sat, take orders as Nero took orders, go out into the field again, as Nero did. But... someone had to watch the back door, had to come up with the plans and nut them out to be as near to foolproof as possible. It never worked out that way, no mission-plan survived execution, but he tried to account for everything he could think of that might go wrong. And in this, there were boatloads of options. He stared at the note he’d made himself and pursed his lips. Then he smiled and reached for his com unit. “Jerry? I have a little job for you.” He grinned at the tech-geek’s long suffering sigh. “You don’t have to do it yourself, I know you’ve got a team, but I think this might need your delicate touch.”

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Chapter Seventeen The sun flirted with the clouds, but the ground was too wet for the farmers to venture out. The crops certainly didn’t need any more watering or pesticides, if the liquid had any pesticide in it at all, and Cambria doubted it. The county skimmed as much as possible, but if something should happen to the crop, a blight or something, what then? Probably blame the farmers themselves for not working hard enough to protect the crop, she thought. So, they had another day off and Cambria was at a loss as to what to do. They had no entertainment here, other than each other. And she wasn’t going to indulge in the sexual antics the other farmers enjoyed. She would remain faithful to Caparossi, no matter what. She heard a rumbling and looked up at the sky. No rain clouds, just fluffiness drifting across the sun. The sound grew louder and she turned from her study of the vast cornfield. People started to emerge from the houses as a large truck, belching blue-ish smoke out the back, rumbled into the yard. The driver, Price, jumped out of the cabin and looked around. He saw Cambria and took a step toward her. She gave a quick shake of her head and he continued around the back of the truck. “You!” He shouted at a curious farmer. “Get your pals and start unloading!” Cambria stumbled over and joined the growing crowd, stood behind Louisa and Teresa. “Holy shit!” Came the cry from inside the truck and the first solid sack came out the truck. Another man caught it, but didn’t set it on the wet ground. He read the label. “Oats?” He said and handed the bag off to someone else.

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The next was a crate of tinned fruit, then another of fruit and a third. Another sack of oats. “Marge.” Cambria muttered and Louisa glanced at her. “Marge boffs Price.” Cambria said and more than just Louisa heard her. From there, the puzzlement segued into understanding and excitement. Marge’s name rippled through the crowd. Cambria backed away. At least now, they’d have something different, something new maybe to break up the monotony of what they usually had. She found a bench at the back of the laundry building and sat, turned her face to the sun and dozed. She kept her mind off Caparossi, off home and considered the murder of Sienna and Dean instead. No one mentioned them, mentioned what they’d done with the bodies; and, in all honesty, she didn’t care. Finding who and why, that’s what was important. It could have been anyone – except those she went to work with, those she’d seen in the fields. Someone in one of the other houses, then. She knew nothing about them, didn’t mix with them because there was no need. Well, except for a couple who worked in the field with her and only Ally really spoke to her. Finding the why, then, would lead her to the who. Sienna: with her bullying ways, in love with a pacifist who preferred to back off rather than risk injury getting between his loved one and another woman. Well, that did say much about his character. Nor of Sienna’s, if she loved the milquetoast. They’d been planning to have a child together, so yes, she loved him, Cambria thought. Sienna knew who Cambria was, knew her as a Hunter, and what was planned for her. She new Cambria was their bridge to freedom. How could that be a threat? To anyone?

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Only one type of person needed to keep Cambria’s presence a secret and that was someone who didn’t want anyone else to know she was here. And only those within her house knew. And Dean knew. So, the killer needed to silence them both, to avoid her presence becoming public knowledge. No, probably to avoid any spies within the camp from discovering her. If the guards found out about Cambria and took her, there goes any reward. Yeah, that fit. And from there, she narrowed it down to four and from there... one. But how? A shadow drifted in front of her and stayed. Cambria opened her eyes. Sherry. “Too much sun and you’ll burn. Not so good for healing those cuts.” She said and sat next to her. “Shame about Sienna and Dean.” Sherry said and lifted her face to the sun. Cambria said nothing. “I can’t think of any reason to kill them other than they knew something they weren’t supposed to. Any comment on that?” “Nuh.” Cambria said and drew her legs up under the bench. “Figured. Still, at least Marge is wallowing in the adulation of the others. Know anything about that?” “Nuh.” Sherry sighed. “The house mistresses and masters are divvying up the proceeds. Some of that stuff we’ve never seen before, don’t know whether to cook it or not.” Cambria lowered her head, turned it slightly to the side. “The funny thing is, those crates and sacks have our camp number stamped on them. That makes me awfully suspicious.” “Of?”

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“Whether Price and his pals are stealing from us, that the stuff they dropped off was meant for us in the first place. And that Marge sold her virtue for us.” Cambria shrugged. The conversation was beginning to make her uncomfortable, as if Sherry was fishing for information. “And you wouldn’t tell me, even if you knew.” “Nuh.” Cambria agreed and got to her feet. She felt like she’d aged twenty years in the short time she’d been here. She felt like shit, like she’d never escape or return to her normal robust self. Even her hunt for Excalibur Jones hadn’t worn on her as this confinement did. How did they put up with it? But she knew the answer: they didn’t know any different, had accepted this life. “There’s more to you than meets the eye.” Sherry said and Cambria glanced at her, saw the calculations in her eyes. “But discovering the truth is worth nothing without trust.” She leaned back again and closed her eyes, set to enjoy the sun and the rest of the day. Cambria made her way back to the longhouse. The truck was gone, with no sign of the produce it brought. She could hear cheering from the longhouses on either side of her own and she trudged inside. It took a minute or so for her eyes to adjust to the darkness, but she became aware people were looking at her. Cambria blinked and made her way down to her area, rubbed her eyes. Every shelf she passed had tinned goods stored and she saw some, Louisa, Will, Brutus spooning out peaches, beans or... was that creamed corn? Ick. She got to her area and lay down, threw an arm across her eyes. It did not escape her notice that her shelf... was bare. But the farmers needed the extra nutrients more than she did. God, she was tired of all this. They had their supplies, they had protection from Price; Marge was the toast of the camp. Did she really need to continue this charade?

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Did she really need to punish herself this way when she should be getting back to Hunter headquarters and reporting what was going on out here? Dear God, she bore the scars on her face, in the lack of hair on her head! What was she trying to prove to herself? To the others? They conspired to keep her here, to use her for a freedom they may be entitled to, but had no idea how to achieve. “Kerry.” Teresa said from next to her. “What?” “Did you do this?” She asked in a subdued voice. “Do what?” “Arrange for the food delivery.” “And how could I possibly do that? Why don’t you talk to Marge?” Teresa sighed. “Marge is many things: selfish, clever, nasty... but she’d never think of this, wouldn’t know it was available. Even if she did, she’d use it for her own good self. No, this is not her doing, although she’s enjoying the rewards. And you were seen talking to Price in the field yesterday.” “Price likes to gloat, to taunt. Leave me alone, Teresa, you’re secret’s safe with me.” Cambria rolled away from her and watched Chuck, in the next bed, stick his spoon into a can of peaches and scoop out an orange, slippery slice. “What secret would that be?” Teresa asked cautiously. Cambria turned back, raised up on her elbow. “I just can’t work out how you managed it. Or why.” Teresa’s expression turned nervous. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Cambria leaned forward slightly. “Sienna and Dean. When the report came in, everyone turned to the three of us. I didn’t even consider that they weren’t looking at me since I kicked the shit out of the victim. But they were looking at you, not me, as if seeking confirmation. Did she threaten to inform Price? Blow your plan out of the water? Did she tell Dean, explain...”

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Why don’t you ask your fuck-buddy? Cambria had told Dean. Guess he did, the fool. “I would make a perfect foil for the crime. They don’t like mutts here and you don’t need me alive. Isn’t that what you said? A little pre-emptive of you since Grant is yet to return. So, speak up, Teresa, how did you manage it?” “I didn’t do it.” Teresa said. “But I ordered it done.” “Oh, great,” Cambria lay back down, “like that makes it all better and absolves you of any guilt.” “You have nailed everything, except the actual killer.” She stood up. “I’ll leave you to work that out too, since you’re so damned clever.” She went back to her own area and studied the cans on the shelf. Around sunset, Cambria rose and mixed up her gruel. She ignored the sounds of the others enjoying their own personal feasts. Obviously, the workers were punishing her in the only way they knew: by excluding her and blaming her for something she didn’t do, but made the best of scapegoats. They refused to consider someone they knew and worked with could murder one of their own. And not a guilty conscience amongst them. She swallowed the muck. Well, they know this is a one shot deal and when it’s gone, they’ll be back to the grits. She washed her pot and then turned around. The shower area... and she managed a smile without splitting her lip again. Cambria stowed her pot and went back into the bathroom. Sherry had come and collected the damp clothes, taken down the rope, but that left a nice wide area. She stretched her legs out, every muscle, then began an exercise regime and punished herself for laziness. Push-ups, sit ups, crunches, everything she could think of to shake off her gloom and start getting fit. Just because she was stuck with these rubes, didn’t mean she

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had to join them in lassitude. And when she felt better about her fitness, she’d brush the dust off her second-hand boots and get back to the Hunter facility. “Watch’a doin’?” Louisa asked as she crunched on an apple, the bitch. “Exercising.” “Why?” “Because I need it, because I’m bored, because I no longer see a need to schlep about moaning about my lot in life. That will change soon enough, and I’m the one responsible.” “Huh. Looks like hard work.” “It is.” Cambria agreed as she completed on last sit up and groaned. “But nothing good comes easily, or cheaply.” She stood and pressed her hands against the wall, stretched her calf muscles. “Why do all that hard work, when just being in the field is labour enough?” Cambria eyed the woman. “What do you do in the fields?” She asked. “Weed patrol.” Weed patrol? There was such a thing? “Huh. Who knew?” “It ain’t fun, not like what you do, but,” she shrugged, “it’s what I do.” Talk about busy work. Cambria thought and stepped away from the wall. She reached down to touch the ground, to stretch out her hamstrings, winced as she felt the strain. She wondered if she could go out for a jog, but figured she didn’t need the tiredness, even if was good for her muscles. Overdoing it would be bad, no matter how unfit she was now. A wait and see approach seemed best. Louisa watched her go through the stretches, the push-ups, as she finished her apple. She tossed the core into the bin beneath the basin and went into a cubicle. Cambria decided she’d had enough. Sweat stung her wounds and her muscles trembled with effort. It appalled her to realise how quickly she lost her fitness, even as she’d lost weight.

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Well, no more. She had to be ready to run as soon as she saw Grant – at least she hoped she saw Grant before he had in cuffs again – and she needed to be ready. She filled the basin with cold water and threw the liquid onto her face, washed her arms, then dried off. No one seemed interested in her doings, no one spared her a glance and she rolled into her bed and waited for sleep. It was long in coming as her mind churned with escape plans, with the deaths of Sienna and Dean, with Caparossi. Finally, when she heard Brutus snoring, she drifted off into sleep, still plagued with more questions than answers. By morning, she’d still not come up with an escape plan, nor a solution to the murders. It didn’t really matter. No one here would believe her innocence, but would take no action against her either. What would it take to poke this lot into action? Into taking an interest in how their lives evolved? Was their indoctrination so complete, that they didn’t even recognise the idea that they could change things? She lined up with the others, outside the house and marched off. Cambria noted that the farmers kept their distance from her, as if she had a nasty disease. Well, good. The farmers walked off to do whatever they did after rain. Cambria fronted up to Teresa at the desk. “Watering?” She asked. Teresa shook her head. “Doesn’t need it; wont’ need it for a few days.” “So...” “You get to clean equipment.” “Ah, okay.” She nodded. “How?” “Go see Aaron.” Teresa ordered with a sly smile. “He’ll show you how.” “Oh, great. You do remember he tried to kill me, right?”

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“Yes. Off you go.” She made a shooing motion with her hands. Cambria huffed and went out into the warehouse. She looked around. Tractors parked down the centre, with the attachments dropped behind. Various unknown implements hung on the walls: small tools and large. She made her way around the tractors, studied the attachments and large machines as she shuffled towards the back. When she arrived, she saw a workshop and benches lining the wall with mud obscuring the windows above. Others were already polishing and sharpening various implements at their stations. Cambria felt a spurt of dread and fear at the sight of those edges and slow glide of whetstone over metal. She braced herself and stepped through the open door of the workshop. Aaron, with brown hair dropping across his light brown eyes, looked at her, blankly, and then scowled. “What do you want?” “Teresa.” She said as humbly as she could. “She wants you to work here? Here? With all these sharp implements? Is she crazy?” He slowly stood as he spoke. Cambria took the opportunity to nod. “Don’t you disrespect her, you filthy mutt, or I’ll slap you silly.” Again, she nodded and he frowned, confused, unsure why she was nodding. “You stay right there, mutt, and don’t move.” And he strode out in search of Teresa. Cambria took the opportunity to look around. Bits and pieces scattered his desktop, parts of machinery, tools and grease-stained documents. Good Lord, she thought, they still use paper! She heard the argument long before she saw Aaron and Teresa marching towards the office.

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“Just look at her Terry,” Aaron protested, “she’d be useless and a danger to the others! I cannot have her around sharp things!” “Oh, hush, now. Give her a simple task, something repetitive and she just keep going and going and going.” She snorted out a laugh as she came into the office, walked around Cambria with her bowed head and slight hunch. “Goodness, what did you say that she looks like as frozen as a rock?” Aaron came in, walked around to his desk and smirked. “I told her to stay right there and not move.” “There you go, then. Give her a simple task and she’ll do it.” Aaron tilted his head, doubtful. “Aaron, how hard can it be to polish a tractor blade?” Teresa said, exasperated. And so, Cambria spent the day with a hammer and chisel to break off rock hard mud, a bucket of cold water and cloth to removed the dirt and dust, and another rag and grease to polish the blade to a high sheen. Someone else would come along with whatever they used to sharpen the damn thing. Aaron didn’t trust her to do the work and kept arriving on silent feet to check. At first, he pointed to areas where she hadn’t been as careful. “You missed a bit.” Then he’d point to highly polished parts, “You missed a bit.” And then he looked closer and could find no fault. He directed her to the next tractor. “Do this one, then the next. Understand?” He demanded with his arms crossed. Cambria bobbed her head and set to work. It was grimy, filthy work and, as Teresa wanted, repetitive. She eventually fell into a fugue state, empty of thoughts as she rubbed and scrubbed and polished. By the time she finished the last one, she realised she’d been abandoned, that the others had snuck past her at the end of the day and gone home. Even Teresa had disappeared.

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Cambria put the cleaning gear on the ground in front of the last tractor blade she’d cleaned, and then sat down. Her fingers, hands and wrists ached from the fine work Aaron demanded of her and she flexed the muscles. What now? She wondered as darkness encroached on the interior. Aaron would expect her to keep working, throughout the long night. But what did Teresa expect to gain? More punishment for discovering her secret? An opportunity to create more mischief? She doubted anyone would care she wasn’t in her bed... Ah. Teresa could continue with whatever plan she had without Cambria nearby watching and blame the ‘mutt’ for the result. Stupid woman. Aaron himself was a witness to her absence. But it also gave her the opportunity to look around, to poke into places she shouldn’t. She started with Aaron’s office. An hour later, all she knew was that he was messy, but diligent in his work reports. Next, she went into Teresa’s office. She, too, was diligent in her work. Cambria found a second record book, hidden inside a cracked fertilising backpack. Teresa carefully noted the diversion of chemicals - pesticide, in particular. But not where. Cambria already knew the mixture sprayed on the field wasn’t what it was supposed to be and hadn’t had a great effect. The local birds loved the excess of insects and those bugs didn’t do much damage to the crop. And Cambria admitted she knew of the switch. Pesticide. What did she know about it and what could be done with it? Not a blessed thing. Fertiliser, on the other hand, could be, with the judicious application of other chemicals, turned into an explosive. Again, she mourned the loss of the encyclopaedia as much as the healing. Poison was the obvious answer, but who was the target? Teresa had been stockpiling in small increments for some time, years, even. Or she sold it.

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Nothing else was of interest and she carefully studied the office to make sure all evidence of her snooping disappeared. It was now too dark to see anything and she returned to the first tractor blade. Her belly growled, but she’d found no food. She could chew on the corn, she supposed, but she wasn’t that desperate. At least, not yet. She lay down on the straw strewn dirt and curled into a ball. A nice nap would serve her well.

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Chapter Eighteen Dawn crept across the floor of the warehouse and Cambria sat up, rubbed her eyes. Crap. The farmers would be here soon and she climbed to her feet. She’d meant to do more work, to show Aaron she’d just kept going, but it was too late now. In the distance, she could hear the cadence of marching feet. She picked up her cleaning gear and went to the second tractor, started repolishing the centre of the blade. Her empty stomach squeaked and popped, but she could do nothing and kept rubbing even as the feet stopped and farmers came in to start the day’s work. Some stopped as they saw her work and she saw more than one guilty expression. Others completely ignored her, as if she was of no importance. Aaron came in laughing, but stopped when he saw her working. “What are you doing?” He asked and fisted his hands on his hips. “Rub, rub; polish, polish; shine, shine.” She muttered. “Well, for Christ’s Sake! You can stop!” She froze in her work. Aaron gusted out a lungful of air. “Pick up your cleaning supplies, return them to where I showed you and come into my office. Do you understand me?” She bobbed her head and he stormed off. Cambria got to her feet and did as he asked. She stood in the doorway, shifting from foot-to-foot. “Get in here.” He snarled and she shuffled in to stand in front of his desk. “You’re a fucking idiot, you know that?” Cambria bobbed her head and allowed her shoulders to slump. “Bad girl.” “You’re not a bad girl, mutt, just an idiot.” He said softly. “What did you think you were doing here all night?”

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“Rub, rub, polish, polish, shine, shine.” She said again, repeating what he wanted of her the day before. Aaron put his face into his hands and groaned. Then he dropped them onto the desktop. “When Teresa said give you a task and you’d do it until you stopped, I thought she was joking. I’m... I’m sorry. I thought you’d see everyone start to pack up and do the same. But, you don’t think that way, do you.” Cambria stared at him, a blank expression on her face. “Now I feel like a shit. All that hard work.” He stared down at his paperwork, then up again. “You really didn’t kill Sienna or Dean, you just aren’t capable of it... or,” he frowned, “or could only do it if someone told you to. So... who ordered you to kill them? Hmm?” If he investigated much further, Teresa would have him killed, too. She continued to stare at him without expression. He finally snorted. “No, I don’t think so, either.” He leaned back in his chair. “What am I going to do with you today?” “Rub, rub; polish...” “No. You’ve already done that.” He eyed her with speculation, and then rose. “I think I have just the thing.” He picked up a board with papers on it. “Follow me.” He said and she let him guide her out of the warehouse to another equally large building behind it. Aaron drew keys out of his pocket and unlocked the enormous door. Then he pushed one side open along a roller, and then the other. Inside, crates and boxes and barrels were stacked in long lines. “What we have here,” he said, “are spare parts, cleaning supplies, fertiliser, pesticides, everything Sherry needs to resupply the houses, paper, pens, you name it, and it’s here. Price and Adams are supposed to do this, but they’re lazy shits and couldn’t be bothered with a stock take. Now look.” He started at the first crate with

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the label grits stamped on the top. “I need you to mark off the labels.” He paused in thought. “Can you count?” “One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.” Cambria said. “Good.” He checked down the list. “Thankfully, nothing goes over eight. I should have done this months ago, but with my other work, I just haven’t had time. Now, you can do it.” He handed her the board. “Show me.” He said. Cambria looked at the board. Five crates of grits. And she counted them off out loud and then marked a check in the box provided. “Good work, mutt.” He patted her shoulder. “I promise, I will come and get you at the end of the day.” He said. “Now. Read the next item. Read the label. Make sure it is the same. Count the boxes or crates or bags. Make sure it is the same and mark the box.” “Read the label. Count. Mark the box.” She repeated and he stared at her. He could always double check her work, she thought, but he wouldn’t have to. He patted her shoulder again and left to return to his own office. She made sure he was out of sight before stretching her lower back and rolling her shoulders. Here, then, was the solution to her problems. Supplies. Back at the longhouse, she knew she didn’t have, nor would ever get, enough grits to last in the wild. And she hated the stuff. But if there was something else in here, something that someone diverted for their own use, well then, that changed everything. Teresa stole pesticide. Who’s to say someone else, Aaron, for example, didn’t also steal stuff? She already knew the guards did, before it arrived here. She counted the grits, the small boxes of toothpaste, of toothbrushes, sanitary items, moved on to the towels, boxes of shirts, trousers, spare brand new boots, then she stopped and stared at the suitcase-sized box tucked away next to the boots, in the corner of the room. She gaped, her mouth open. Coffee?

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Where...? Who...? Dear God, they had coffee! “Oh, Lord, thank you!” She looked back over her shoulder. No one appeared and she was twenty metres from the front door, at the back of the supply building. Her eyes went to the list. No coffee on the front page. She checked the second, then the third. No coffee listed. A mistake? She slapped a hand over her mouth as a giggle escaped. Someone delivered the coffee by mistake. But, damn it, she had no facility to brew herself a cup or a mug or a pot full. She picked the box up, walked down to the open doors. No one appeared, too busy with their assigned tasks, she assumed and looked around. Where could she hide a box of coffee? Aaron would return at the end of the day and lock up. She didn’t want the coffee to be inside when he did. And then she had to get the coffee back to the longhouse or... a can of the precious stuff. This, she wasn’t sharing. Cambria stepped back from the door and looked around outside. The buildings, the cornfield, two large harvesters parked next to the warehouse. She set the checklist on top of the grits. With the box tucked under her arm, she checked for anyone looking in her direction, but all was quiet and she snuck out to the back of the warehouse. The windows had accumulated a layer of corn dust and crusted mud. With all the busywork around the farm, it surprised her no one cleaned them. If she couldn’t see in, no one could see out and she went to the side of the building, found an overgrown area near a drain, between the wall and the harvester. She shifted the grass, saw a small wire mesh covering an air hole in the brick foundation and prised it off.

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Just right, she thought. She opened the box and took out a can of ground Guatemalan blend. She closed the box and shoved it into the hole, replaced the wire. With a quick look around, she hurried back to the supply building, the can inside her shirt, and picked up the board, continued the inventory. Thrilled with her find, she slowly counted and marked off the items. An excess of industrial grease tins, a missing box of chisels and a sack of towels. She was nearing the end of the counting when she noticed a shadow at the doorway. She tucked in her chin, hunched around the coffee can and kept counting the boxes of paper reams. Why would anyone still use paper? A hand landed on her shoulder and she stopped. “The day is done, mutt. Time to go.” Aaron plucked the pen and board from her unresisting hands. He went down the list, turned the page and did the second page, then the third. “Nearly done.” He said, surprised. “Are you sure you counted properly?” “Read label, count label, mark off if same.” Cambria mumbled. “That’s right.” He said and lowered the board. “Come on, time to leave.” He guided her out of the building. “Stand there.” He ordered and locked up, then walked her around the front of the building where the other workers lined up for the march home. Aaron disappeared into the warehouse and not long after, returned to take his own place. She figured he’d just tossed the board onto the mess of his desk and called it done. Cambria kept herself hunched in, to protect the coffee can as they walked back to the houses. She wasn’t sharing and then wondered if anyone knew what coffee was. They sure didn’t know to put the beans or the corn into a pot and heat it. When they arrived back, she went straight to her area and paused. Someone, or a bunch of someone’s had donated cans to her shelf. Guilt at leaving her behind?

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She didn’t care; she surreptitiously added her coffee can to the supplies and turned around. Again, no one looked at her, but Brutus’s ears turned red and others studiously avoided her gaze. Maybe they weren’t such a bad bunch, she thought and turned back. Nah, they were ignorant, unambitious, ill-educated hicks and she wasn’t forgiving them any time soon for abandoning her, or the accusations of murder. She picked up her mug and pot and went into the bathroom, carefully measured the water. She set the pot onto the stove to heat, then she returned for the coffee, peeled open the can and breathed in the oh, so, rich aroma. Oh, God. Heaven in a can! With her spoon, she scooped the grounds and gently, reverently, sprinkled them onto the warming water and then stirred. She didn’t look anywhere but at the brew, watched the water darken and then the steam began to rise. Nearly done. “That smells funny. Good but odd.” Teresa said with a sniff. “What is it?” “Coffee. Freshly brewed and all mine.” “Where did you get it?” “On my shelf.” Cambria said and watched the first bubbles burst on the surface. How long did it take? Should she wait for a rolling boil or just until it was hot? “Strange. I don’t remember any cans of coffee in the supplies dropped off.” Teresa said and Cambria leaned over to sniff the brew to hide her shock. She got her mug and carefully poured her first cup o’ java in forever. “If you didn’t recognise the scent of coffee, Teresa, how do you know it comes in a can?” She sipped and groaned as the rich flavour coated her tongue, and then she swallowed. Heat and caffeine. Unbeatable. And she took another sip while Teresa considered her answer. Cambria looked at her. She looked pissed. “You are too smart for your own good.”

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“That’s why they pay me the big Euros.” Cambria said with a smile. “Well, aren’t you going to offer me any?” “Why should I share? You, the thief of pesticides.” Teresa’s mouth twisted with frustration. “I could confiscate it.” “So you could. But, Teresa, I’d have to kill you then and take it back. No one, and I mean no one, touches my coffee, or I’ll hurt them.” Cambria held Teresa's gaze and sipped the brew. She felt better and better with the caffeine zinging through her system and figured she should stop at one cup. There’d be more tomorrow. Teresa looked ready to burst, but then she sighed, her shoulders slumped and she looked away. “I can’t tell you about the pesticide.” “Coffee will make you feel better.” Cambria said and lifted the mug again. Teresa’s eyes followed the movement. “Really, I simply cannot tell you.” “Well,” Cambria drained the mug, “there’s always tomorrow, I guess.” She said and picked up the pot, peered at the grounds swishing around in the mouthful of dark coffee that remained. “How about a trade?” Teresa said. “Mmm?” Teresa gave an aggravated sigh. “I get your boots back and you make coffee for the both of us, in the morning.” Which was more important? The footgear or discovering what Teresa was up to – other than selling her? Cambria had seen no sign of Grant, heard not a whisper. She could be out of here and on her way to de Crecy tomorrow, next week, or next month. She did have spare cans of coffee, as long as no one found her stash. “And my clothes.” Cambria bargained. “I can’t do that. I don’t know who has them.”

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“Can you find out?” “I doubt it. Someone can hide underwear and socks forever. Shirt and jeans... I just don’t know. Someone could wear both under their usual gear.” Well, it was worth a shot and these people had precious little; she’d have to settle for the boots. Cambria nodded. “Okay. How much coffee?” “Half of what you’ve got.” Teresa quickly said and Cambria chuckled. “Not even. The boots are mine to begin with and Price will see them, maybe wonder how someone acquired them. The clothes, I agree with. Whoever has them, can keep them.” She studied the grounds again. “Being a generous soul, I’ll make coffee every morning for a week.” She eyed Teresa. “If I’m still here.” Teresa’s expression didn’t shift except for a moue as she considered the bargain. “Done.” She said with a nod and peered into the pot. “So... how about a sample?” *** “I’m hearing rumours, Colonel.” Lord Montague dabbed at the sweat on his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. “Sir, are you all right?” Caparossi asked. The Lord didn’t look well. He was pale, his hands shook slightly and he sweated while the air conditioning ran cool. “For the moment, Colonel.” Montague gave him a brief smile. “Yes, sir.” Caparossi replied, knowing that was all the comment the Lord would make on his health. But... he seemed to be in decline, and had been for months. Was he looking to retire? A chill went through him. Lord Montague had always been his boss; he didn’t know how to break in a new one. “To these rumours. The President, it is said, is in a lighter mood these days.” “That’s... good?”

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Montague glared at him. “No, Colonel, it is not. For the President to be in a good mood, means someone else is going to pay for it. The one thing I know about Peter de Crecy is he is never satisfied unless he has crushed a rival, or made another vast profit. Financially, the Financial Non-Disclosure Act protects him from publically announcing his personal profit margin, but rivals? Oh, yes, he’s a man who gloats in the most vicious of ways. For him to be happy now, could mean a rival is going down.” Caparossi waited. His current project took up all of his time and he had none left for the machinations of an asshole politician, even the president of the world. He just didn’t see the connection. “You’ll have to become more politically savvy, Colonel.” Montague said. “But I’ll give you another clue that something is seriously wrong. Not one of the other World Council members knows why; and they are all sweating bullets over de Crecy’s sudden jovial mood.” Caparossi frowned. In any political system he’d seen, gossip and the grapevine was the main source of ‘unconfirmed’ reports that usually turned out to be true. ‘Unauthorised’ leaks were the tried and true method of disseminating information to pre-position the media or rivals, or even the public. “So, not so much rumours, but a lack of them?” Montague nodded. “This is personal for the president. He’s the most powerful man in the world and enjoys that status.” Montague’s rheumy eyes took on a distance. “He got there through political assassination, corruption and a willingness to manufacture lies. And he does it better than anyone else I’ve ever known. He knows where the metaphorical bodies are buried.” “Are you at risk, sir?” Caparossi asked. The skin around Montague’s eyes crinkled with humour. “Of course. You don’t work for the Council and not be at risk from someone who wants to control your organisation. It’s a game long played and one I enjoy.”

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Personal happiness for a man who had no fear of anyone toppling him meant the President achieved a private goal, one he’d worked towards for some time and one that he knew would make an impact on the members of the Council, on his friends and enemies alike. Or, he was beyond caring. He had so much power, he couldn’t imagine every losing it. And his achieving his goal simply made him happy. “I don’t see what...” “No, I see that now.” Lord Montague leaned forward and rested his mildly shaking hands on the desktop. “De Crecy is a man who holds a grudge. The last person to stand up to him was a man by the name of Fernando Garcia Guerrero, Provincial Governor of Brazil. He protested new austerity measures, wanted to allow his people more freedom from the collective farms, less working hours.” Montague shook his head. “Unfortunately for Guerrero, Brazil happened to be one of de Crecy’s profit-making ventures and he wanted more. Guerrero tried to convince his allies on the Council to relax the restrictions. After all, the Global Government benefits all, not just the elite. Some saw it as a way to take down Secretary de Crecy, some saw it as a way to increase their own holdings, and some saw it as a route to more power by allying themselves with de Crecy. Political manoeuvring then followed, death threats, vandalism of production facilities, oppressive measures to ensure the workers kept working, deliberate undermining of Guerrero with unsubstantiated rumours. Then the appearance of falsified evidence of heinous acts of murder levelled against Guerrero. Support shifted as rumoured excesses became reality; a slow decline picking up speed. News articles questioning Guerrero’s ability and competence. He, of course, denied it all, but more he resisted the worse the stories told about him.” Lord Montague paused and wiped his brow again. “He now works in the sugar cane fields of Brazil, a broken man who only wanted to do good. Following his expulsion and arrest, de Crecy smugly announced an increase in profits from Brazil,

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said the workers were happier than ever that the evil, corrupt bastard of a Governor was joining them, and would soon understand what it meant to work for the benefit of all.” His eyes met Caparossi’s. “This is what de Crecy does. He is a master of public opinion, of dirty tricks and forging alliances. That he’s got the Presidential Security Group firmly in his pocket, and is growing the organisation, means he’s ready to take that step and subjugate the Council itself.” Caparossi nodded slowly. “And with the Council members running around trying to find out why the President is so gleeful, they’re in the perfect position to express relief it wasn’t about them. Until the President’s men step out of the shadows.” “True.” Montague agreed. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if de Crecy had his eye on getting rid of his rivals at the same time. Remember, this is a personal issue for him, one he’d have no trouble turning into a public and political one.” “You think he’s coming after us.” Caparossi said and felt the blood drain from his face. “I do. He’s cleaning house, consolidating his control over everyone and everything. Having this facility under his control gives him another armed services unit to send out and secure untold riches; power, too, since he’ll have the entire Earth defence forces at his disposal and more than a billion people of age ripe for conscription.” Caparossi rubbed his hands over his face appalled at what Lord Montague suggested. He had no doubt the Lord was correct in his conclusions. “Christ. The man’s a megalomaniac!” “Yes, he is. And with the corridors, his ambitions have increased exponentially.” “We have to stop him.” Caparossi said. “We do.” Montague agreed. “But we will have to take a back door approach. White ant him, the way he has done to others, subvert the authorities at a grass roots

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level and work upwards. You’ll probably need to take out those unwilling to play ball, who are more interested in their own comforts than the collective good.” Caparossi nodded, glad he’d already put the plan in motion. “We’re working on that as we speak. The problem will be in personnel and resources, sir.” Lord Montague flashed a smile. “I happen to know of a number of groups who will be willing to help, Colonel, all you need do is find room for them until deployment.” Caparossi frowned. “How many are we talking about?” “Oh, a few thousand to start.” Lord Montague said, with his eyes sparkling. “A few... sir?” Caparossi stared at the old, sly fox. “Mm. Like you, Colonel, I have been working very hard with my own contacts and it’s surprising the amount of resentment out there over oppressive dictates. Oh,” he waved a gnarled hand, “they do exactly what’s asked of them, but, gee, trustworthiness goes a long way when it comes to... alternative ideology.” Caparossi said nothing. His mind was reeling with options, prospects, optimism. His treason might just work, now he had more people to work with. He needed to know who, where they were, their talents, their... Lord Montague rapped his knuckles on the desktop and Caparossi focused on him. “Your attention, if you please, Colonel.” “Of course, sir.” “Start planning deployment for the first thousand. I won’t authorise the release of the... assets, until I see what you’ve come up with.” “I have a few ideas, sir.” Caparossi said with a faint smile. “I’m sure you do.” The Lord replied with an equally slight smile that suddenly bloomed, wrinkling his features and making his eyes glow with gleeful realisation. “I can only say that it is fortunate you’ve focused your attentions on the American Province.”

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“Why is that, sir?” Lord Montague’s smile turned wry. “Obviously, your attempt at locating history was in vain, so I’ll let you in on a secret long suppressed. The American province not only had a history of enslavement of minorities, but also a... unique evolution to begin with: rebellion against European overlords.”

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Chapter Nineteen Cambria finished the stock take quickly, probably, she thought, due to the nice caffeine buzz she had going. She didn’t find anything of use for a run to the corridor. A near two-day walk – if she could remember where it was, that is. She stood studying the board in her hands, trying to work out if she could find the corridor without help and if none was forthcoming, whether she could survive in the forest on her own until she did find it, or a township. She heard footsteps and hunched her shoulders. “Psst.” Cambria slowly turned. Price. He kept looking over his shoulder as if a maniacal axe murderer hovered with evil intent. She relaxed her shoulders, rotated her neck. “What?” He shuffled in, closed the door slightly. He looked out again, then back at her, nervous. “I, ah, have some information that I think you might find interesting.” “Yes?” She asked and set the board down, folded her arms across her chest. “As you know, I’ve been stepping out with Marge. She’s real popular with the farmers now, just like you wanted. They’re talking to her a lot more, trying to get more supplies. I told her not yet, not until she gave me something useful.” He grinned at his own cleverness. “And did she? Give you something useful?” “Yeah, she sure did. She thinks you killed two farmers while having some sort of mental raging fit or something. I didn’t know if it was true or not.” He looked at her waiting for confirmation, but not entirely sure he wanted to know. “Nope. Not me, Price. I had no reason. These people have survived on rations for so long, maybe one or the other finally went too far with someone. Unless you saw the bodies?” Price shook his head. “Never knew nothing about it until Marge said. So I don’t know what happened to them.”

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Cambria nodded. “It’s fortunate Marge told you so quickly. Now the killer or killers won’t be benefiting with extra rations.” Price scowled. “But I gave them extra rations. You think they were fighting over them?” Cambria sighed. “No, Price, they were killed before you turned up.” “Oh, right. Yeah.” “Do you have anything else for me?” “Hmm? Oh, yeah. Marge wasn’t too happy with donating her footwear to some idiot who destroyed theirs in the cornfield.” “Donating?” Teresa had come through for her. “Yeah, she had these tan ones, said she found them in the fields, cleaned them up.” He shook his head. “I ain’t never seen the like, but they looked good on her. Even better next to my bed.” “Price, please don’t put those images in my head.” “Sorry, ma’am.” He said and tried to suppress the grin without much luck. Dear Lord, he was acting like a smug teenager who got the best-looking debutante. Cambria lifted her shoulders in a shrug. “So what’s the problem?” Price sobered. “I don’t believe her.” “Why?” “I’ve been hearing rumours, talk about strangers in the forest and in town. People, I mean the people who watch over the farms, like me and Adams, are getting twitchy, real nervous like.” Cambria chewed her lip. PSU. Hunting for her and Grant, talking to anyone and everyone. Soon, they’d be looking at the farmers themselves and Teresa’s group could only hide her for so long before moving her to a safer place until Grant completed the negotiations. “I was wondering if, you know, you could tell me what it’s about.”

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“Crackdown.” She immediately said. Price looked confused. “On who? We all do our jobs, produce as much as we possibly can. I don’t think there need for a crackdown, we’re working as hard as we can.” He whined. “How sure are you of that?” She asked with a narrow-eyed gaze. “Positive.” He nodded firmly. Cambria sighed with disappointment. “Price, I all but told you straight out this was coming!” She lied. “The supplies you delivered? The ones with this camp number stamped on them?” “What about them? I thought I was being generous, helping you find rebels.” “Price.” She rubbed a tired hand over her eyes. “I gave you biggest hint I was able.” She lowered her voice and he leaned in. “The County commissioners are trying to cover their butts – you know what they’re like.” Price nodded. “But I think it might be too late for some of them.” She moved closer, like a conspirator, and Price glanced over his shoulder. “The Commissioners have been stealing supplies from the camps. Obviously, the Provincial Government feels they’re getting away with too much and it’s hurting their bottom line. Maybe,” she looked around for any listening ears; Price did the same, then leaned in closer, “maybe, they are being pressured by the World Council itself.” Price jerked back, shocked. “Oh, Lord. Do you think so?” He asked with palefaced intensity. “I can only speculate on the World Council part, but the County commissioners? Yeah, I think so. And those strangers... civilian dress?” Price nodded. “Spies. Here to find out the truth. People in the forest? Checking for caches of supplies.” Price suddenly looked nervous.

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Cambria pressed harder. “And if they find them, can trace them back to the distribution and who signed for them, well.” She lifted her hands and backed away. “I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes.” “No. That would be... bad, wouldn’t it?” “I could tell you stories, Price, stories that would make your hair curl and give you nightmares. I believe they call it: treason against the people.” Cambria heard him swallow. “And I’ll tell you something else: I have no sympathy for those who steal from hard working farmers. It’s just not fair.” “No, I can see that now.” Price murmured. “What did you say?” Price blinked at her. “I, ah, have to go and, ah, check the farmers.” He stammered and promptly left. Cambria figured the camp would shortly have a consistent supply of proper food, and when she got her hands on some, she was out of here. This farm represented a trap and she needed to escape. If she went down, she went down free. She picked up the board, ran through the supplies again. Yeah, once Price coughed up what she needed... “What did that dog want?” Aaron asked as he walked in. “And what did you tell him that set his pants on fire?” Cambria spared him a glance. “Rub, rub, polish, polish. Mark off.” Aaron blinked at her, then grinned and finally laughed. “Oh, man, he thought you were coming on to him!” Aaron shook his head. “Price might like to take what he wants from the women here, but it has to be on his terms, no one else’s.” But Cambria was beginning to have her doubts. He’d tried it with her, but quickly backed off. She’d not heard or seen him go after anyone else, either. A myth, then, perpetuated to keep the women subdued. Or was he so happy with Marge, that he didn’t want anyone?

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The man was easily manipulated, although that might be due to his lack of education and absolute trust in those he perceived as having control over him. He’d done nothing to dispel what the farmers thought of him, nor had he encouraged the attitude. Just making an appearance was enough to keep everyone in line. “Well, whatever.” He took the board from her. “All done, good.” He frowned as he read through. “Missing chisels and towels? Damn. I’ll have to fill out another report.” He took her arm and guided her out. “Nothing but damned paper work, this job. I want to get back to the mechanics, but, no good deed goes unpunished.” He said as he locked up. “And I simply took over when old Barron passed on. I should’a just stuck to what I loved, instead of helping out an old man.” He shook his head. “Now, what are we going to do with you?” “Water?” “You want water? Well, geez, can you even feed yourself?” “Water corn.” Cambria elaborated. “Oh.” He said with an embarrassed snort. “Sure. You go see Teresa, she’ll give you the stuff.” But he guided her to Teresa’s office, touched his finger to his forehead and left them alone. “Water corn?” Cambria asked plaintively, and then resumed her normal posture as Teresa grimaced. “I hear tell of Price hunting for you.” “Yep. He wanted to talk.” “I’ll bet.” “Something you need to confirm with Marge.” Teresa perked up, sat up in her chair and raised her eyebrows. “What?” “While Price was looking around at the supplies, he mentioned a bunch of strangers in the township and in the forest.”

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“Uh, oh.” “Agreed.” Teresa’s expression turned puzzled. “You want them to catch you? You know we’ll move you if they start searching the farms.” “I do. But if they find me here, they’ll kill everyone.” “So? What do you care? You don’t even like us.” She said. “I don’t understand you, Teresa, that’s different.” Teresa leaned back in her chair, tapped her pen on her paperwork. “I think, Hunter, that you have your own game going, one that gave us added supplies and gave Marge a measure of acceptability. I think you tried to protect us by trying to get your boots back – which are under your bed, by the way. I think you’re doing everything you can by making our situation better, even though you know Grant will come for you, soon. How am I doing so far?” “Hunters serve the people.” Cambria said. “Mmm... yes. But very few people actually know the word ‘Hunter’, let alone what you do. Did you know Brutus has a crush on you?” Cambria shook her head. “He just wants to know about the rest of the world. What’s out there, beyond the cornfields he’s confined to, that’s all.” “It’s more than that. Marion is actively asking questions about Dean and Sienna; she’s good at getting answers, too.” Cambria leaned her fists on the tabletop. “Then you’d better warn her off. Without causing her any bodily harm. Whatever game you’ve got going, it isn’t worth Price’s further attention.” “What are you talking about?” “Marge blamed me for the killings and told Price. He’s an idiot, but he understands that I’ve never lied to him and spoken in short, truthful terms. He wanted to know if I’d done it and I said no. He’s letting it go, for now, but if more bodies turn up, with all the odd balls running around, he’ll have to report it.”

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Teresa tossed the pen. “I don’t think I’ve met anyone as manipulative as you. All right, I’ll warn Marion off and not harm a hair on her head.” Cambria gave her short nod, and then hunched in. “Water corn?” *** Cambria walked the field, spraying the nutrient-enhanced water and squelching through the mud. It allowed her to watch the countryside, but she didn’t see anyone, it was an empty landscape. At the end of the day, she marched back to the longhouses, her focus on another cup of coffee, but Sherry called her over. She watched the others go inside and then wandered over to the laundress. Sherry crooked her finger and Cambria stepped inside the laundry room. Washing machines churned and the scent of soap powder permeated the warm air. Sherry settled herself on a chair and patted the one next to her. “Come and sit with me.” She said and Cambria frowned. “Marge will be off with Price shortly. She seems to spend more time with him than with her own people.” She picked up a shirt from the basket next to her and began folding it in quick moves, leaned forward to set it on the table. Cambria slowly lowered herself onto the padded seat and stared at the cement floor, waited for Sherry to come to the point. “Still, getting all that lovely food for us, that was nice of her. I think she’s having a positive effect on Price and we’re the beneficiaries.” She folded another shirt. “The thing is, she doesn’t have the brains to ask Price or the generosity of spirit to think of it. She is a selfish slut only out for what she can get.” The shirt went on top of the first. Cambria said nothing, fascinated by the quick work of Sherry’s folding. “Nothing to say?” Cambria kept her eyes lowered.

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“Well, then. This business with Sienna and Dean. There you are all beat to shit and so is she. Then we find Sienna dead alongside her lover. You are the perfect suspect, and then quick as a flash, Marion says you ain’t guilty. Then there's Price and you chatting in the cornfields. You got anything to say about that?” Again, Cambria kept silent. “Girl, you just don’t add up. Oh, the majority of farmers don’t give you much of a thought. You stay out of their way, and they’ll stay out of yours. Most don’t like mutts anyway, got no use for ‘em. But me? I got all the time in the world to watch the workings of this farm, to watch the farmers. And things are changing, have changed since you turned up.” Sherry stared at her, but Cambria refused to meet her gaze. Cambria wanted her coffee, not field questions she wouldn’t and couldn’t answer. The pile of shirts grew as Sherry’s hands worked their amazing magic. When she judged the pile enough, she patted the top shirt, stood and picked them up, offered them to Cambria. “Take these to your house, set them on the shelf in the bathroom, please.” Cambria stood and accepted the pile. Sherry ran her hands up and down Cambria’s arms. “If you need or want to talk, I’m here for you. I know it’s been tough, but you come and see me if you’re having problems, hear?” Cambria gave her a short nod and took the pile back to the house. She didn’t know enough about Sherry, or indeed anyone here to trust them. If her Hunter identity leaked out of the house, it wouldn’t come from her. And how had they kept the secret for so long? Didn’t they gossip with those in other houses? Or were they just that loyal to Teresa? Cambria suspected the latter rather than the former. It couldn’t last. Eventually, someone would blab.

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She stowed the shirts, patted them as Sherry had done and heard the crackle of paper from the top one. She heard movement at the door and quickly hunched over. She picked up the top half-dozen shirts and set them on the next shelf. Two women came in, saw Cambria and abruptly turned around and left. She was thankful that her ostracism still held. She reached for the top shirt and pulled out a handwritten note. “What the...?” T is a traitor to us all. Sherry wrote. Cambria flushed the paper down the toilet and wandered out of the room, picked up her pot and got water for her coffee. As it brewed, her mind whirled with speculation. Sherry had decided to step up and trust Cambria, and to play a dangerous game in warning Cambria of Teresa’s double life. She’d had her suspicions of course, with the woman’s refusal to explain the murder of Sienna and Dean, with her hot and cold behaviour, with her absolute refusal to consider releasing Cambria, all for the sake of money. Did Teresa’s treachery go deeper? Was she the other spy she’d inadvertently warned Price of? Cambria played the spy game with Price; Teresa could be dealing with the County Commissioners. To keep the workers subdued, there had to be someone watching and now she knew – if she believed Sherry, and she had no reason not to – that Teresa informed on the workers. But what did she do with the information? Confront Teresa and take what came next? Or confront Sherry and demand to know how she knew? That would require her revealing her identity and whom would that benefit? She didn’t know Sherry; she could be a player, too. But she did have the right of it when she said she spent a lot of time watching others. She had access to the longhouses, to the personal gear of everyone. She was probably a repository of all manner of secrets and lies.

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One act of trust did not mean Cambria should return it, but it would be interesting to see what happened. Tomorrow, then, after work... no, she’d stay here. Teresa could come up with an excuse. She poured her coffee and then took her mug and lay down. She’d get to dinner shortly, after she thought about this new development. Was Teresa playing Grant? She was in the perfect situation to keep an eye on Cambria, while putting roadblocks in Grant’s way until the PSU were finally in position to wipe out the farm. No witnesses and she’d trade Cambria, walk away with the money. Surely, she didn’t expect to survive the purge? Or did she? Cambria knew Teresa intended to take her elsewhere before handing her over to the PSU. She’d have to move Cambria before the assault on the farm. Somewhere, Teresa had a communications device; that or she regularly spoke with someone on the outside. Not Price, he’d been too surprised by Cambria keeping an eye on him. Adams? A dead drop in the cornfield? However she did it, it was effective. And Sherry. The timing of the note. It was a hell of risk she took, giving Cambria the note and expecting her to understand. It meant Sherry knew something. And knew something about Cambria. The woman did have the run of the place; she could pass Teresa’s messages on to anyone while the workers were out in the field. She could take care of Sienna and Dean, too. But... why warn Cambria, if that were all true? Cambria finished her coffee, questions and speculation whirling in her mind.

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Chapter Twenty The rumble of thunder woke Cambria and shifted onto her back. She heard the snores and the restlessness of the sleepers, but she also heard something else: the stealthy movements of someone sneaking down the aisle. Cambria turned towards the door as it opened, then closed again and sat up, looked over. Teresa’s bed. Empty. Now what would she be up to at this time of night? Cambria threw aside the blanket and followed the housemistress. Outside, flashes of lightning showed footprints in the softened ground. Cambria flexed her naked toes, and then followed the prints. A shadow moved ahead of her, ducking from house to house. Cambria broke into a light jog to close the gap. Teresa kept moving to the last house and crouched down, stared at the cornfield beyond. A light from the field flashed twice and Teresa stood up, intending to walk forward. Cambria sprinted around the side of the house and into the cornfield behind the building, made her way through the stalks until she heard voices and slowed, carefully placed her feet. “...We’ll need to move soon, T.” Grant said and Cambria moved closer. She couldn’t see them, didn’t need to, just hear the conversation. “I know, but the PSU...” “They still hold a watch on the corridor, but I’m working to finding an alternative exit strategy.” Grant said. “And they have no idea where she is. It’s more to keep us from using it.” “And my family?” Teresa asked. “Safe on Lazarus. They all are and will remain safe, I promise.

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“Okay.” Teresa sighed. “I just want this to be over. People are starting to ask awkward questions. If they find out why she’s here...” “They’d want a slice of the pie.” Grant grumbled. “Look, while the workers know we’re negotiating for land, they’ll abide by your wishes. Push that. Push the fact that we’re close to achieving that aim. That will distract them. As long as we keep her hidden, de Crecy can’t move against us; he must negotiate. We have what he wants and we’re keeping her out of his reach. He’s on the verge of agreeing to all our demands, T., all of them.” Grant sounded excited, but Cambria knew it was a false hope. Grant had no idea with whom he was dealing. “Really?” “Yeah. He’s looking at land further north to separate from the Province. Land with rich soil and coastline for a port. He’s even offering to incorporate the local farms there.” “You don’t think...?” Teresa began her voice expressing doubt, and then she paused. “Don’t think what?” Grant asked and another rumble of thunder rolled across the increasingly cloudy sky. “You don’t think he’s being overly generous, do you? That he plans to lure us in with more than we ever dreamed of and betray us?” “No. It’s been a lot of give and take in this, he’s a master negotiator, but I do this every day in my business dealings. He’s been unwilling, but grudgingly so. It will work for us, T., I know it will.” Grant urged. “We’ll have the money and the land; and if he reneges on the land, we’ll have the money anyway.” “What about the military around here? Are they searching the farms for her?” “No, there’s something else going on and I have no idea what. They’re checking identities and baggage. Whatever they’re doing, it’s not affecting our plans. I won’t let it.”

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“Just as long it’s not something to worry about, but we might have other trouble. This Hunter is turning people’s attitudes around and I don’t like it. I want them nice and complacent, not excited and questioning.” Cambria heard the venom in her tone. “Do what you have to. Tie her up, lock her up, I don’t care, just keep her out of sight and contained. It shouldn’t be more than another week and we’ll be free.” Cambria decided she’d heard enough when they started chatting about family and friends. She backed through the cornfield, and then made her way back to the longhouse and inside. The room felt overly warm compared to the cool air outside and she silently cursed herself as she saw how the cloying mud stuck to her feet. Teresa would return soon and she had to be in bed; no time to clean up, but she scraped her feet on the bottom guard of the door to loosen the mud on her feet. Then she rubbed as much off as possible. Figuring she was out of time, she moved through the darkness to her bed and folded the blanket over her body as the door opened and shut quickly. Cambria relaxed. Teresa was rarely the first to rise, preferring let others use the bathroom first; she’d not seen the mud. Cambria heard her move about and climb into her own bed. Time enough for a confrontation tomorrow. *** Cambria found Sherry shoving blue shirts into a top loader washing machine, her back to the door. She leaned against the doorjamb with her arms folded and watched Sherry. The laundress set the dial and pulled it out. A strange, archaic device to Cambria’s eyes, but they worked. Sherry turned and gasped when she saw Cambria standing in the doorway.

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“Shit, girl, you just took five years off my life. What are you doing here?” She asked and stepped to the next machine, started shoving trousers into the top. At least Cambria knew who had her denim shirt. “Nice shirt.” She said and Sherry plucked at the front. “This old thing? Had it for years. But it’s kind of you to say so.” She said. “Sherry.” Cambria unfolded her arms. “You and I both know that’s not true. As it happens, you’re wearing the shirt was mine.” A smile came into Sherry’s eyes. “Not such a mutt, then.” She said. “I’m keeping the shirt.” “And you’re welcome to it, just don’t get caught wearing it.” “So, what brings you here? Hell, what’s your name?” Cambria checked to make sure no one was around. She’d made coffee for Teresa then told her she needed a day off. Teresa agreed, but not without some argument. Cambria held her ground and Teresa finally gave in. “You, Sherry, or rather your note.” Cambria said, ignoring the second question. “You finally decided to trust someone. Good. Teresa is bad business. Hand me that hamper, would you please?” Cambria picked up the square, woven basket and shifted it next to the third machine. Sherry started loading. “Teresa came to us about three years ago. She quickly demonstrated a knack for organising and became housemistress. What we didn’t know then, was she was in the employ of the county commissioners, here to make sure the farmers did the job and to raise productivity. Price and Adams have been skimming off supplies for, oh, five years. Bennett and Tyler before them; it was just the way things were done around here.” She set the machine running and moved onto the fourth machine. “Long-term corruption.” “Yes.” She turned around. “Tell me your name.” “Hunter Cambria Petersen.”

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Sherry displayed neither surprise, nor puzzlement. It was if she confirmed what she’d already worked out. “Then you know Lincoln Grant.” “He brought me here.” “The idiot and his high-flying ideas.” She shook her head in disgust. “Linc has a bee in his bonnet about how we should be living. Got hold of a damned fool book and decided that was the way to live. He’s been working hard to that end ever since, working to create some sort of independence for people who know nothing about it and would have no idea what to do with it, if they had it.” “Freedom not earned, is no freedom at all.” Sherry stared at her, and then shook of whatever thought she had. “Living here is some people’s idea of freedom, Hunter. A solid day’s work, free clothes, a bed to sleep in and food; for some, that’s all they need.” Cambria sat in the seat she’d used the day before. “Anyway,” Sherry continued, “Linc objected to the conditions here and started to slip extra supplies in. Teresa met with him, wanted to know what he thought he was doing and Linc explained. Teresa, intrigued by the idea, let him do it rather than informing on him. Then he struck upon an idea. Everyone knows about the murder of Dortmund, he proactively tried to help the provinces and end the corruption. When someone murdered Dortmund, de Crecy spread the word of the reward along with a name. Yours. He wanted you badly, but no one knew where you were. Linc and Teresa discussed it, but it was Teresa who contacted her county commissioner overlords and suggested Linc might actually know your location. The commissioners contacted the Governor, who passed on the information to de Crecy. De Crecy worked up a profile of Linc and handed it to the Hunters. He’s big enough and strong enough to lure in the unit. Make the crimes heinous enough and the Hunters would focus on him. Linc, for his part, knew he was at risk, but not how much until Teresa told him people were looking for him because of his... ah, involvement in

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smuggling people off world. Anyone who wanted to go, could. Start a new life somewhere else.” Cambria could join the dots. “He needed de Crecy off his back, but he needed money to do it. The Hunters are looking for him; de Crecy is looking for me. So Linc set up a plan to hijack me, right out of the corridor.” “Yeah. So he has what de Crecy will bend over for.” Sherry shook her head. “It’s a shame Linc didn’t kiss him first, then he’d know how poisonous our President is.” Cambria stretched out her legs. “Teresa’s stalling him on taking me to de Crecy. I think she’s waiting for the Presidential Security Units to bring up the men and resources to wipe this farm out and everyone in it. She, of course, will have taken me elsewhere before that happens. In a week.” “Ah, shit. The bitch.” Sherry leaned against the machine and hung her head. “She hates it here, but I never thought she bore us any ill will.” “It’s not about you. It’s about the money, the reward, and you’re in the way. If she can get me away from here in time, Grant will die with the rest of you and she has a free shot at a hundred and fifty million Euros.” Sherry raised her head. “De Crecy will never pay up.” “Nope.” “Damn. Listen. Since you’re obviously not as disabled as you made out, can you do this laundry while I... make my own contact and hand off the information?” Cambria glared at her. “Cough it up, Sherry. Who are you working for?” Sherry gave her a slight smile. “Just a certain centuries old underground movement dedicated to the return of the republic. In a more... proactive way.” *** “Things are getting tight, sir.” Captain Nero reported. “Tight?” Caparossi asked as he looked up from Jerry’s report. “Word of a build up of military units in the area, searching for something or someone.”

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Caparossi felt the hair stand up on the back of his neck and a surge of adrenalin shot through his veins. Could it be? He set the report aside and crossed his hands on the desktop. “Explain.” “I think you were right about the compromising of the underground route. My teams are reporting increased military activity all along the route.” Nero said. “This has the potential for disaster.” Caparossi said. “We are nowhere near ready for action. I’ll have to expedite the deployment of the secondary assets.” He regarded the Captain and saw how tired he looked. “You’ve been to-ing and fro-ing quite a bit lately, haven’t you, Randalph?” Nero nodded. “Someone has to check in with the teams.” “Then get yourself a runner, Randalph. I need you to co-ordinate the insertion of covert operations groups to assist the locals and to take out the turncoats.” He picked up the report Jerry gave him and handed to the Captain. “Read and inwardly digest. If this is about to go pear-shaped, I want as many teams on the ground as possible, if only to act as spoilers.” Nero accepted the document, flicked through it. “I recognise some of these names.” He said, appalled. “Some of my members are sharing intel with them.” “Then fix it. Because those people are probably passing along vital information and the local armed forces are now boosting their personnel levels. Ready to take everyone out.” “Yes, sir.” Nero stood and snapped off a salute before leaving. Caparossi knew it was a possibility, but Jerry and his team had done an outstanding job in hijacking communications equipment. The American communications system was old and ridiculously easy to compromise. The technician had put real names to code names and places, all but had descriptions of the informers, thanks to the true underground agents reporting their own

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movements to Caparossi’s men. Jerry was a certifiable genius in searching for patterns. He felt the clock ticking down and was helpless to stop it now. And he wondered if this was the reason de Crecy was so happy. He was about to crush the largest insurgency in the World Council’s history, and it would give him the power to overthrow the Council itself – especially if he’d manoeuvred particular Councillors into supporting his coup. He’d thought they were hunting Cambria, but maybe that was a small part of it; the bigger picture was capturing Caparossi’s men and the underground. He couldn’t help but think his insertion of the investigative teams started the actions of the local military groups. If de Crecy could create a large enough body count, he could point to it and tell the world of the rebellion. He could tell of the traitors of the people, and then tell everyone what happens to those who steal from the rest. All neatly side-stepping his own guilt. He could declare martial law, arrest enemies with manufactured evidence and then take control ‘in the interests of stability’. He turned to his personnel report, and those preparing and waiting for insertion. Time to make some calls. If he was going to succeed, he had to bold, he had to act judiciously, covertly, and he had to act now. *** The day waned as Cambria finished up in the laundry. She wasn’t as good at folding shirts like Sherry, but it was her first day – and probably her last. The woman hadn’t returned from her mission and Cambria felt antsy about this ‘underground’. People who bucked the system usually ended up dead. And the network had survived for a century? No, she didn’t think so. She went back to the empty longhouse and made coffee. When it brewed, she sat out on the top step and brooded.

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Like everything else she’d seen so far, any system was open to corruption, but in this environment, the people it hurt were the workers who weren’t in a position to help themselves. The oppressive overlords made sure of that, usually with crushing violence. No, she suspected the underground of corruption as well and it would be dangerous if not fatal to put herself in their hands. She heard a truck rumble along the road, the same grinding of gears as Price rolled the truck into the yard. He was too used to automatic transmissions, she thought, and hunkered down into her disabled persona. Price jumped down and waited, looked around, but no one appeared. He came up to her and stared down at her – just in case people were watching, she decided – with arrogance and command. “Where is everyone?” He demanded. “Not back from the fields, yet.” “Damn it. I’m not unloading all this by myself!” Cambria shrugged. “Then wait for the farmers.” She said and drained her coffee, flicked out the grounds onto the dirt. “I’m sure they’ll be along soon.” “I’ve got a date.” Price nearly whined, then braced himself, set a foot on a step and leaned on his knee. “And not with Marge.” He said quietly. “Something’s going down soon, and me and Adams are being briefed by some out-of-towners. Do you know anything about that? Just so we’re prepared.” “How much stuff do you have?” She asked, just as quietly. “This is the last of it and only because it won’t fit in my storage area. I had it the truck right, hidden, before the search team came in. I think I’m safe. Thanks to you, ma’am. And I’m grateful.”

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Cambria twitched a shoulder. “I’m worried, Price. This is outside the county commissioners and I wonder if they know this is going down. Out-of-towners? That’s not good.” She chewed her lip. “What are you hearing?” “Nothing, but people are... anxious, I guess. Nervous and looking over their shoulders. The locals don’t know what’s going on either.” “I can hear the farmers.” She said and hunched in. Price went to move. “No, stay there. If they see you trying to intimidate me...” “Oh, right.” “And listen, you need to get back to me tomorrow on what’s going on. I’ll be out in the cornfields. Now, be nasty. It’s what they expect.” “Yes, ma’am.” He cleared his throat as the sound of the farmers marched closer, a cadence easily recognisable. Price lifted his voice. “Well, where the God damned hell are they? You think I got all day to talk to a mutt like you? I don’t got the time to teach you the manners of a regular human, ya hear me? Now get off that useless butt and start unloading? That or you can fucking starve!” He leaned back as she stumbled to her feet, the very picture of humiliation and fear. She limped to the back of the truck and started to shift from foot-to-foot, as if unsure what to do. Aaron stepped up. “She needs direction, Price. Specific instructions, not general.” “Get that shit out of my truck and make it quick. I got places to go.” Price sneered and climbed back into the driver’s seat. Aaron put a hand around her shoulder and moved her back to the step. “Just sit there, we’ll take care of it.” “Bad girl.” Cambria mumbled. “Bad, bad girl.” Aaron sighed. “Just... sit. Stay.” And so she sat and stayed while the farmers unloaded the truck and piled the goods next to the house.

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Price drove away in an ill-tempered belch of smoke and silence descended as the farmers studied the crates, the sacks and boxes. “Twice in one week.” Someone murmured. “Do you think they’re gonna close us down? Pay us off with all this stuff?” The farmers shifted uncomfortable with the idea. “Where would we go? It’s nearing harvesting season.” Another said. “Maybe they want to fallow the land?” Murmurs of agreement. “Maybe they won’t do nothing until we’re done with harvesting.” “We gotta green crop, Seth, and set to replant the north field in the next coupla weeks.” Teresa clapped her hands. “Come on now, people, we don’t know anything. Let’s enjoy this and wait for whatever happens. Let’s not go borrowing any trouble, we’ll be told soon enough” She moved through the crowd. “Aaron, Mike, organise these supplies into house lots, then we’ll open them up see what’s tasty.” The men moved into action, but Cambria could still hear the speculation as the crowd waited. Other men helped and a few women, too. Cambria stayed put, her tin cup tucked into her shirt to avoid comment. She watched them work and when the supplies were organised, Aaron came over and guided her to the back of the line. “Move along as the woman in front of you moves forward. Take what is offered. It is yours. Okay?” “Move, take, mine.” Cambria replied and he patted her shoulder, moved away to his own line. Cambria patiently waited, although she was tempted to just say ‘to hell with it’ and dump the disabled persona. Oh, she wanted to be herself in all her violent glory. But not now, not yet. Damn it. These supplies were integral to her escape.

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She came to the front of the line and Teresa eyed her, then gave a smile and dug into various crates, boxes and sacks. Obviously, as last in line, Cambria received what others did not like: the threebean mix, canned franks, beetroot – blech, and she dropped the can – packets of instant potato, flavoured rice, three cans of fruit salad, tinned beef, tinned ham and more. With her arms loaded, she took her haul into the house, organised everything onto the shelf. This was better than dried trail mix. With the addition of a can of coffee, she was set to go by, say tomorrow night. Yeah. And she smiled. While everyone was busy trading cans, she took the opportunity to go to the laundry and find Sherry. The laundry room was empty, with stacked baskets in the corner, silent machines, the warmth dispelled. She left and went around the other side, to the accommodation area and knocked on the door. No one answered. When she tried the handle, she found it locked. With a shrug, she went back to the longhouse and made more coffee, then the grits. She was going to save the cans for later. “Not indulging in the new food?” Teresa asked and Cambria looked at her, then the pot and then at Teresa again. “I’m so used this stuff, I guess it’s automatic.” She shrugged, then turned and pointed to her shelf. “Help yourself to some coffee.” Teresa didn’t hesitate and carefully measured out a spoonful into her pot. “This is most generous of you. What do you want in return?” “Nothing.” Cambria said. “Nothing?”

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“Nope. Not a thing. Enjoy.” She said and licked the spoon, grimaced. “What was I thinking?” She muttered, but dug into the grey mush and washed it down with her own coffee. “So. What do you think?” Teresa asked. “About what?” “This. The food delivery. Why do you think Price would drop this off; for the second time in a week?” “I honestly don’t know. Don’t you get supply runs? Ever?” Teresa slowly shook her head. “Maybe they’re planning on moving us on after all, like Seth said.” “You’re the farmer here, the house mistress, wouldn’t they tell you?” Teresa chewed her lip. “I would have thought so, but... I don’t know. We just do what they tell us to do and the local leaders record what we do, when, how much. We’re glorified bookkeepers, nothing more.” Cambria leaned in. “And the pesticide?” Teresa gave her a smile. “Not of your concern.” “No, I suppose not.” Not anymore. Cambria thought. The next morning, she went back to the fields and worked with the others. She didn’t see Price all day and wondered why. He wasn’t the kind of man to deny information to a superior, so what delayed him? Cambria took the opportunity to smuggle two tins of coffee from her secret stash and regretted she couldn’t take more with her. But the cans would show under her shirt. What she really needed was a weapon, but she couldn’t find any - not a knife or blade anywhere. Even the men used safety razors in the morning, if they chose to shave at all.

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She saw no sign of Sherry or Price when she wandered around the buildings at sunset and she couldn’t really afford to give them any more time. The nagging sense she was running out of time gave her a feeling urgency. Either the PSU or Grant would act to take her early, she was sure of it. And capture wasn't on her agenda. Sherry, where the hell are you?

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Chapter Twenty-One Caparossi stood behind the observation glass and watched the British Special Forces move into the corridor. The Group, fiercely loyal to the protection of the people, were the first of the covert specialists he was sending. The next group where the Russian Provinces own Speznatz and weren’t they a deadly group? He’d been astonished at the variety of special forces Lord Montague mustered. He could only think that a lot of the Provincial Governors were unhappy with either the President or the style of government they now worked under. The British, for example, had virtually two governments: one that worked with Geneva through the Governor and another, which truly ruled the British Isles under the Monarch. He would love to have been in on those original negotiations. The Russians were just pissed at foreign rule. But deep down, he knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Oh, on a one to one basis these men and women would kick anyone’s butt, what they faced was a preponderance of numbers. There were simply too many of men loyal to the President in the area. The mission was a hit and run, a guerrilla war that he expected to have the most effect, even as he knew they couldn't win a knockdown, drag out fight. He was fortunate that a so-called American Patriots Group loaned them the use of an illegal corridor – and irony wasn’t lost on him – promising to get the soldiers to safety when they could. Lord, he hoped that was true, otherwise, he was sending these troopers into a death trap. He had to trust in the training and the metal of the soldiers. And trust their orders from the provincial governments matched his calculations and strategy sessions.

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Caparossi shook his head. How had Lord Montague acquired so many different troops from so many provinces? It was as if the provinces were waiting for someone to step up and make the decision to take on the World Council. Decades of negotiations stalled or failed on provincial politics and he wondered when the ‘establishment’ decided that the Council worked at optimum performance and didn’t need the old regime. How difficult was it to replace the old governments? He could only think that previous presidents worked hard to keep their chosen governors in place and President de Crecy continued the tradition. French Provincial Legionnaires lined up in the ready room as the last Speznatz officer closed the corridor. The light went red, then green and he saw the Legionnaire officer, blond hair so short he looked bald, yell orders at his troops. Not one soldier appeared nervous, or anxious. No, they looked... hungry, determined. All the Special Forces worked to peak performance, but only the Colonial Marines saw any action in the last century. None of the soldiers that went through the corridor had experienced true combat. All were ceremonial, only needed to ‘fly the flag’ of the province. Yet, he’d bet the bank on them creating havoc out in the American Province. “They look like they mean business.” Lord Montague said behind him and he turned. Montague leaned heavily on a cane, his arthritic hands wrapped around the highly polished wood handle. “I hope they can back it up, sir.” He said and the Lord nodded, dropped into a leather chair behind the technicians. Caparossi took the chair next to him. “I should say, sir, that I have every confidence they will perform their duties to maximum effect.” A smile flickered around Montague’s mouth. “Very diplomatic of you, but you think this is a fight we can’t win.”

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“I have my doubts, sir. From the reports Nero sent, the President has more men out there than I can muster here.” “Not all wars are fought on the battlefield, Colonel.” Montague said. “Some wars are even won on the political stage, and that’s an arena that can be more bloody than any battlefield.” “Sir?” Watery, pale blue eyes met his. “It won’t just be the soldiers’ lives we’ll lose if we fail, Colonel. I have set in motion the political confrontation as well. Provincial Governors, World Council members are at risk now. Should we fail, the purges will be... brutal and they won’t stop until de Crecy is master of all.” “And then he’ll move on to the galaxy.” Montague rested both hands on his cane and nodded. “I fear so.” “Sir... Lord Montague... my main concern is that I simply don’t have enough assets.” Montague snorted. “Quantity does not equal quality, Colonel, but I understand your point. I am working on a solution. It may take time, it may not happen, but it may tip the balance.” “I don’t think we have much more time, sir.” Caparossi murmured. “We’re funnelling as many troops through as possible, but we only have one corridor.” Montague nodded, tapped his cane. “Then perhaps you should locate a secondary or tertiary corridor. Better yet, contact the commanding officers of the units you are sending and talk to them about potential access.” If he hadn’t been so busy, Caparossi thought, he’d have come up with the obvious solution. “Yes, sir.” He said. “Then stop lollygagging around here and get to it!” Lord Montague stamped his cane again.

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Caparossi got to his feet, and snapped off a salute. “Yes, sir!” He barked and strode back to his office. He settled behind his desk and pulled out the deployment orders. His grin was wry as he turned the paper page. Jerry taught him a valuable lesson: put nothing onto computer. So he made sure he wrote everything, in long hand, no less, on easily disposable paper. He ordered everyone under his command involved in this to do the same, impressed upon them the need for absolute security. While the staff expressed surprise, they understood. Quantity does not equal quality. He studied the first document, from the South African Province contingent and reached for his com unit. This would take some special co-ordination. *** The distant sound of gunfire caught Cambria’s attention, woke her up. She’d only meant to doze until two or three in the morning then sneak out, but it felt later, an hour or more before dawn. She bolted upright at the sound. Teresa, across from her also sat up. “What is it?” The woman asked. “Gunfire.” Cambria she said softly and tilted her head, listened. Crackling machine gun, single shot pistols and rifles; the burr of a mini-gun. “Crap.” She muttered and threw back the blanket. It was coming closer. She jammed her feet into her tan boots, closed the snaps and stood, tucked her shirt into her trousers. “Gunfire? Here? How? Why?” Cambria paused and glared at the woman. “And I would know... why?” Teresa got up, put her boots on and followed Cambria out into the pre-dawn darkness.

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Cambria jogged to the first hut. The sound was louder here, more frantic and it was coming from up the road to the left. She saw bright orange tracer rounds streak across the sky. She kept to front of the building, watched the road for movement. More people were struggling outside, querulously demanding what was happening. “Teresa, get your people back inside.” “What for?” Cambria turned her head to the woman who was looking over Cambria’s shoulder with a frown. “Plausible deniability.” She said and Teresa focused on her. “If your people don’t know who’s shooting at each other, questioning will go smoothly when whoever wins comes back for witnesses or collaborators. If they are inside, they’ll also have a lot more protection from flying bullets!” Teresa paused, and then vanished into the darkness. Cambria could hear her telling people to return to their longhouses. Some did as she bid, others refused, and one came up behind her. “Wazzup, mutt?” The man asked. Cambria slammed her elbow back into the man’s nose and spun as he fell backwards, clutching his face. “Don’t you ever call me a mutt again, y’hear?” The man’s eyes widened and he nodded. “Get back to your house and stay there. You hear the bullets come closer, you get your people under their beds. And stay there until someone tells you it’s all clear.” Again, he nodded and crawled backwards. Her time of pretending to be disabled was over. If the retreating group were allies, she’d help – she had no illusions they could take her with them, they’d be busy with wounded, with escaping and they didn’t need her as an added burden. She could, however, send a verbal message. If the

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retreating group were PSU chased by... locals, the underground, she’d have to hide from the President’s people and wait for the militia, slot into the underground network and find her way home. The weapons’ fire came closer. She heard the whine of bullets losing velocity, the rattle of bullets hitting the end of the building but not penetrating. “They’re inside, except for a few keeping watch.” Teresa whispered behind her. “They also want to know what’s going on.” “Who the hell knows?” Cambria reminded her. “But in the next ten minutes, or so, we are going to find out.” She swivelled and went to the inside wall of the house. When the combatants arrived, they’d be coming through the cornfield. She nodded to herself as she saw the top of the corn stalks wave as someone came running. Under the pale rind of moon, she saw more spots in the cornfield shift. Then a black-clothed figure, armed to the teeth, burst out of the field and slowed, dropped to a crouch. The warrior wore a complete blackout kit from head to toe, with night vision glasses. Cambria felt her heart pound in her chest as she waved a hand. She didn’t want it shot off, but it was better than sticking her head out. The soldier saw her, aimed his weapon and came ahead. She suddenly felt cold metal press into her lower back. “Don’t say anything about joining them, Hunter, or I’ll blow out your spine.” “Get a grip, Teresa, I’m just trying to find out what’s going on.” “And maybe get assistance in escaping. Well, I’m here to stop you.” Two more black clad soldiers joined the first as they crept forward. “You guys okay?” She asked in harsh whisper as bullets whistled through the corn, decapitating stalks. “Yes, ma’am.” The first soldier said in an accent she couldn’t identify. “If you’re cut off, I have a solution.”

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“Ma’am?” “Go to the end of the cornfield.” She jabbed her thumb over her shoulder. “Turn left, into the forest and up the hill. Use your corridor locators, there’s an illegal one a day, day and half into the forest. Be warned, the PSU, I think, are patrolling the forest and are in control.” Teresa jabbed her in the back. “Not for long, ma’am.” He turned and gave a hand signal. The men behind him repeated the signal. “Thanks. Keep your head down, the Presidential Force isn’t stopping to chat.” “We will. Tell Caparossi...” The barrel dug harder into her skin. “Nothing.” The soldier nodded and gave her the ‘I understand’ signal and she nodded. “Good luck.” All three men raced by her, into the next field. More black clad soldiers followed and the bullets came closer, thunked into the wood. “We should get under cover, Teresa.” She said and raced to their longhouse. Teresa followed with admirable speed. Inside, people huddled in their beds, wide eyed with fear but not without questions. Teresa’s gun had vanished and she lifted her hands to quell the noise. Cambria marched to her own area and made herself some coffee. These were her people; let her deal with it. The soldiers would arrive whether she was ready or not; and when they did, if they knew who she was, nothing she said or did would save them. The crackling of gunfire grew louder and Cambria hunkered down on her bed, nursed her brew and sulked. Too many people had control over her, too many directed her life, took from her; her freedom – Lord Montague, Peter de Crecy, Excalibur Jones, Lincoln Grant, even

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the Nomadians with their implant; her life – Jones, Cottington-Blake; way of life – Bolingbroke, Jones, again, Montague and de Crecy. She sipped the rich brew. She was as much a slave to other people’s whims as these farmers. A pawn in a greater political and legal scheme. Could she retire? Go somewhere with Caparossi and settle down? Cambria stared into the black coffee. He’d do it - for her. And she could imagine it: a nice chalet on Ragnarok, where they could ski, or climb mountains. A beachfront or cliff face home on Brindig, where they could look out and watch the spectacular winter storms roll in. So many worlds offered so much, and yet... Neither of them were stay-at-home-by-the-hearth type of people. They had to be doing, rather than sitting on the sidelines watching events. It wasn’t in them and eventually, they’d become bored, search for outside stimulus and the relationship would fall apart. And she would not let him go. The door burst open and she lifted her head. Soldiers, dressed in tan uniforms, aimed their rifles at anyone who moved. “Up!” The first demanded, his cold green eyes focused and deadly. Every farmer rose and stood at the end of their beds, Cambria, too. More soldiers came in and searched, tossed bedclothes and shelves, took a few things and moved on. No one protested, no one said anything as the troops moved down the room. Cambria swallowed, nervous, and watched Teresa watch her. The soldiers trashed her area, took the tinned franks and ham, but thankfully, left the opened tin of coffee. The men burst into the bathroom, banged open the toilet doors and threw the clothes and towels onto the floor.

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Satisfied the workers had nothing else of worth, the soldiers marched out of the longhouses. The last soldier left the door open and even from the back of the room, Cambria could hear screams, gunshots and shouts. Dammit, she should have told them not to resist, not giving any soldier that turned up cause to take action against them. And still, no one moved in her longhouse. Teresa blinked, then relaxed and it was if she’d given the tacit order. People picked up their tossed stuff, remade beds. Someone closed the door, shut off the brutality coming from the other houses. Teresa’s eyes lowered to Cambria’s boots. “They didn’t bat an eyelid.” She said. “They weren’t looking for me, they were looking to intimidate, to steal what they liked, to make sure everyone knew who is in charge. And it ain’t the people.” Cambria replied. “What do we do now?” Brutus asked in a shaking voice. “Nothing.” Teresa replied. “We stay here until Price or Adams return to give us instructions.” “But the crops...” “Will take care of themselves for a few days, Brut. Our primary concern is staying safe until we know what’s happening out there.” The sun finally rose and still no one moved to the door. Cambria felt her nerves stretch. With no entertainment, nothing to take their minds off the violence, people chose to nap, or take showers, or talk amongst themselves. She opened a can of fruit salad for breakfast, slowly chewed. “Any thoughts?” Teresa asked from next to her. Cambria eyed her. “Yeah. Why didn’t they find a gun on you?”

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Teresa turned innocent. “Gun? I don’t have a gun. The handle of a pot, however...” She showed Cambria the rolled metal handled and Cambria sighed. “I thought I needed a weapon.” Teresa smirked with a shrug. “Great.” Cambria set the empty tin aside. “Held up by a pot.” She shook her head in disgust. “Oh, don’t be such a gloomy-guts.” Teresa chastised, obviously happy her scheme worked. “It’s not as if they could have done anything for you.” “Agreed, but still...” Cambria got up and stretched. “I’m over this.” She said and went to the door. Conversations stopped as she went by and she knew they watched her. She cracked the door. Sunlight beamed in, the mud had dried and she saw dozens of booted footprints had churned up the soft ground. Some of the corn lay broken on the ground, squashed as troops moved through, uncaring of its value, but she saw no sign of the soldiers, nor of the farmers from other houses. She stepped out into the sunlight and caught the scent of cordite, crushed corn, grass and blood, the throat-catching smell of loosened bowels. People, farmers, were dead. She heard crying that told of unspeakable grief and she walked towards the sound. The next house over no longer had a door and she stepped up. Aaron lay slumped against the nearest bed, blood streaming from a head wound. She crouched in front of him. Rifle butt. At least he was alive. The soldiers had trashed the rest of the house, but no one else was here. She saw the closed bathroom door. She let them be, for the moment and ripped up a pillowcase to use as a bandage. She wrapped it around Aaron’s head, and then hauled him up onto the bed. Then she marched to the bathroom and threw open the door. The farmers flinched away from her, terror in their eyes.

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“Fucking sheep.” She muttered and did an about face, marched out of the house and to the next one. More people lay in awkward positions, dead, the blood thick on the floor and scenting the air. Again, she found the survivors in the bathroom. It was a similar situation in every house: dead people – bashed or shot - trashed room, cowering people. Cambria finally stopped at the last house, but didn’t go in. Here were the sounds of grief she’d heard. Marion lay on the ground, eyes staring up into forever, a dark circle in the centre of her forehead. Six others from her house also lay dead, in a line that suggested an execution. Her living companions walked amongst them, weeping. One woman clasped a dead man to her breast, rocking and wailing, uncaring of the blood she sat in. And this is what totalitarianism does. She thought. Where corruption is absolute and the innocents pay with their lives. For a moment, while watching the confused and blank eyed farmers, she wished she’d asked the black-clad soldier for a weapon. She could have... done nothing except taken out a few tan-uniformed soldiers and brought down the wrath of the others upon all the farmers. Then most of them would be dead, instead of some. “They just came in.” A small woman with her dark hair in a bun said. “Just burst in. Marion wanted to know what they wanted. They dragged her out. These six protested and the soldiers shot them, then Marion. Just like that. No argument, no questions, just... shot them. Why? Why did they do that?” The woman sniffed, tears overflowing cornflower blue eyes. “Marion never hurt anyone.” Cambria raised her arm and settled it around the woman’s shoulders, drew her in. “They didn’t need a reason and the excuse would probably be temper at losing some of their comrades. They needed to kill and kill they did. If not soldiers, then those who couldn’t fight back but are, in some esoteric way, still to blame.”

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“I don’t understand that.” The woman said and sniffed again, dabbed at her eyes. “I just don’t understand that.” Cambria let her go No, civilians never did understand what it took to be a soldier, the effect a dead friend had on people trained to kill. Cambria thought. “Where did they come from? Why come here?” Her fingers dropped to her mouth and she stared at Cambria. “Will they come back?” Cambria shrugged. The woman frowned, looked at Cambria again, but closer. “You... aren’t you... you don’t look...” “I’m not, but sometimes deceit is your only protection; for yourself and those around you.” “Oh, my God.” She said and moved away. “You’re a spy?” Ah, shit. Heads lifted, eyes accused. “You brought them here? To murder us?” The woman asked, outraged. “Why? We never hurt anyone!” “Calm down. I didn’t call these people in, I’m a Hunter!” Cambria said, but she quickly saw her words meant nothing. Like the soldiers seeking revenge for their losses, these farmers, too, were looking for payback. And she gave them the perfect target: someone they knew was a stupid mutt, who’d beaten up Sienna and, in their eyes, killed her and Dean. Who now stood upright, speaking in clear, complete sentences - who’d lied to them. Cambria backed away as hate filled gazes landed on her. Then she ran. A shout went up and they ran after her. She bolted past the first two houses, with no direction in mind. The fields! She could hide in there, escape to the corridor.

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But even as she considered the route, she saw a shadow at the end of the building. Too late to duck, in too full a stride to dodge, she turned her head and heard the clang of the flat side of the shovel against the side of her head. Her feet went out from beneath her and she slammed her back on the ground; and that was all she wrote.

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Chapter Twenty-Two “Late.” Caparossi murmured as he glanced at the clock and saw it read twoseventeen a.m. Exhaustion suddenly made his eyelids and shoulders droop. He needed sleep, he knew that, but didn’t want to face the empty apartment, his empty bed. He rubbed his eyes and wondered what the hell he thought he was doing. This job, this prosecuting a war, was the job of a general, a few starred general, not a colonel and certainly not one whose only previous experience was organising and deploying Retrieval Teams and Hunters. The potential for disaster was enormous, especially because of the time difference between here and the American Province. He wanted to be there, get real-time updates from the ground, but he couldn’t. Real time reports... And his mind whirled faster than it should have. Jerry. Genius Jerry. Could he work up a program to receive those reports and translate them into threedimensional images? Like on a game table or comp game? His mind conjured up the image of a room, with a three-metre wide table. On it, brigades down to sections moved about the colourful, terrained surface – red soldiers for the enemy, blue for friendlies and yellow for non-combatant groups. Technicians constantly updated the movements while he looked on from a windowed room above. He could give direct orders to the units and send in needed supplies through the black squares of corridors. Red icons would vanish, while the blue shifted through the countryside, searching and destroying the enemy. Oh, a few blue icons would blink out, but he send in reinforcements to take back the ground. With a few sweeps of the keyboard, he’d be able to zoom in on individual units, take note of how many troops remained, check their medical and ammunition status. Jerry would be there, studying the patterns of enemy troop movements, making recommendations and he moved the pieces like a master chess player...

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A rapid beeping woke him and the idea slowly faded away. He stared at the comfortable red couch set against the wall and blinked a few times. He wasn’t in bed and Cambria didn't snuggle up behind him. No, he’d fallen asleep and mashed the side of his face on the keyboard. The comp protested at the abuse. Caparossi lifted his head, yawned and paused at the spike of pain in his neck. He carefully rolled his shoulders, rotated his neck and eased back in his seat, rubbed his hands over his face. He actually felt clearer, more focused and got to his feet, stretched out his cramped muscles and bones. Before he started in on another day, he wanted a shower, a fresh uniform and a good feed. In the cafeteria, feeling more like the officer he was supposed to be, rather than the wrung out dishrag, Caparossi filled his plate with sausages, grilled tomatoes and scrambled eggs, then set a full mug of coffee on his tray. Few people were in the room, and he realised that was because it was the middle of the morning. He’d slept longer than he expected. Odd that his assistant, Lieutenant Tim Sheridan, hadn’t woken him. The young officer was a stickler for military protocol. He sat and ate like a man long starved. Caparossi knew the value in good rest, and in the field, a soldier grabbed what sleep he could, whenever he could. An exhausted soldier made mistakes sometimes fatal ones. Just because he was a soldier currently shining his butt on a chair, didn’t make him any less of a soldier. And he vowed to take better care of himself. This... insurrection needed him at optimal performance. Any mistakes he made had better be small, inconsequential ones; larger ones meant someone died.

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He finished his meal, stowed his plate and tray, and went back to his office, a refreshed mug of coffee in hand. Sheridan was still absent from his station outside Caparossi’s door. Behind his desk, he shifted the chair forward. Tim was around since he’d organised Caparossi’s documents for him. He rolled his neck again, opened the first folder and read the hand written note. Goosebumps rippled across his skin. His resolved mood hardened to implacability as he read the note from the Ghurkha commander: Encountered heavy resistance at target location; evac through cornfields. Directed to secondary corridor by Euro-accented farmer. Farmer mentioned the Colonel’s name. Corridor defended by Presidential Security Units. Evac complete casualties: six wounded; zero fatalities. PSU casualties: zero wounded, 32 fatalities. Recommend full debriefing at fourteen hundred hours. The report he’d waited for; and feared. But only one person in America knew his name: Cambria. And that meant she was alive but at the farm and unable to escape. He would love to send in a team to Retrieve her, but with the message, the balloon had well and truly gone up. The Presidential Forces knew foreign troops were on American soil. De Crecy would be in no doubt something was amiss and he’d have to crush whatever forces he found. Caparossi didn’t know the troops de Crecy would use, but he expected reinforcements to arrive to back up the PSU. His mouth tightened with frustration. So close and yet so far. The place would be crawling with Presidential Forces and local militia groups, hunting for enemy troops. They’d find the corridor, yes, and guard it with more men. They couldn’t get through to her, not backup, nor resources. Once again, she was on her own. He felt quiet pride and satisfaction in his Cambria. She’d kept herself alive and healthy, she’d find a way out, come back...

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Wait a minute. The location... Caparossi rummaged through his portable digital media files, plucked out the report from the area. Lt. Tredea’s area of inspection. The lieutenant had been quietly appalled at how easy it was to infiltrate the local authorities. All he mentioned was that he represented the Governor or the World Council and people fell over themselves to assist. Caparossi slowly went through the file. Tredea spent an hour surveying the inhabitants and the farms. He’d managed to get each farmer to look him in the eyes, so his small lapel camera could pick up the colours. Nero briefed every covert operative on Cambria’s unusual eye colour. The unique gold-spangled dark blue. He had every face, from front on, except... one. He studied the images, frame by frame and felt a sick certainty rise as he slowed the pictures. She was taller than the rest, that should have clued him in when he first saw the visuals, but she’d hunched in, as if in pain and refused all attempts by Lt Tredea to lift her head. Her glorious dark hair shaved away in clumps, her scalp cut and bruised with scabs, the side of her head damaged but with rough stitches removed. That’s why he’d dismissed her; Cambria could heal any damage quickly. This woman looked like she’d been beaten up and dragged through a hedge backwards. She wouldn’t or couldn’t lift her head, as if ashamed of her appearance. Something had gone wrong with her healing factor. Could she now die? Be taken from him? His fear for her spiked. He heard the guard’s words again: “She’s a might odd in the head. Bit of an accident at another farm. Here, she doesn’t have to think too much, or do too much. The doctors don’t hold out much hope of her ever returning to normal.” And more: “The stupid ones do the most work, sir. They just don’t know when to quit and don’t have the mental capacity to screw around.”

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The Ghurkha report made no mention of Cambria’s condition. Damn. He checked the clock. He had another two and a half hours until he could attend the briefing by the Ghurkha commander. He paused his computer, studied the shadowed features she allowed seen, and the more he looked, the more he knew it was her. Finally, he shut the image down, removed the storage device and dropped it into his drawer. Torturing himself this way served no purpose. He had to set his anguish aside and concentrate on the things he could do, not what he wished he could do. And there were so many others things that needed his attention. With shaking hands and regret in his heart, he closed the file, moved it to the out-tray and opened the next one. *** Cambria felt the rough dirt beneath her hot cheek; then the pounding started in her temple and moved to encompass her skull. She groaned and tried to roll over, found her hands bound behind her and her ankles tied. God damn it! She tried to squint, but her right eye refused to open. Her left eye was still puffy from Sienna’s fist, but she could see. In the gloom, she saw boxes and crates and... sacks! The supply building, but who brought her here and how? She wasn’t a lightweight, and the farmers were pretty puny. Probably a group of them carried her – and got their kicks in, too, judging from the throbbing bruises on her thighs and ribs. She flexed her hands, heard and felt the creak of rope. At least they weren’t the cuffs. She struggled to sit up, head pounding, bones aching and muscles pinging with pain. At least they hadn’t taken her boots.

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She used the crates behind her and struggled to her feet. Then, she hopped down the aisle. During her stock-take, she’d seen... yes, chisels, less one box. She knocked the top box off the stack and it landed with a metallic thump and rattle. With the tips of her fingers, she pried the top off and glanced over her shoulder to see which way the handles faced. Damn, they were big. And heavy she found when she picked one up. She dropped it more than once as she tried to turn it upwards, but finally, she could saw through the rope. The lengths parted easily and then popped apart. She brought her hands around and untied her ankles; saw the nicks on the skin of her forearms from the chisel blade. She got to her feet and leaned a hand against the next box of chisels. Blood still dripped from where some asshole hit her with the shovel. Her ribs burned as well and she lifted her shirt and saw the blue-ing boot marks. “Yeah, kick a woman when she’s down and out for the count. Ass hats.” She muttered and went to the front door, considered her options. She had boxes of gruel behind her and the stash of coffee she couldn’t take with her the last time she was here. Cambria closed her eyes and thought of the inventory. Clothes, she didn’t need; towels, not large enough to use as a blanket; boots, nope; toothpaste, yes; toothbrush, yes; grease, no; paper, no. She ran through the list again. Shirts. One shirt to load her supplies into. Tie the sleeves, tuck in the tails and she had a bag, of sorts. Double it up in a second shirt for insurance. Cambria had enough supplies, but now, she faced a different problem: locked doors. She pursed her lips and thought, turned in a circle. The windows were too small for her to crawl through; and it would take too long to chisel her way out through the hard packed earth.

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Cambria crouched down and studied the lock. Nothing too complex, but the doors slid sideways, not out or in. She needed a bloody great hammer to bash a chisel into the lock and some leverage to break it. She could always wait for whomever stored her here, but there might be too many to overpower, no matter how they didn’t fight. A lucky shot and she’d be down again and a headache on top of the one she already had, she didn’t need. Escape and evade were her only options. Get back to the corridor and sneak her way in. Through, no doubt, a battalion of soldiers. She snorted. Easy. Not. She walked the aisles of the supplies, desperately searching for a hammer or something she could use as one. She made up her shirt bag and stuffed it with silver packs, a tube of toothpaste and toothbrush, a towel. Then she studied the box of chisels. Okay. One chisel against another. And why give them the tools without the hammer? Why have so many shirts and trousers? Or towels? She plucked out two more chisels and took them to the lock. She set the bevelled side to the left and pushed it into the door seam. She took the second chisel and reversed it, with the bevel to the right, jammed it into position. The chisels held and she set the third chisel to the centre, studied the heel of her hand, flexed her fingers and slammed her flesh against the flat end. The chisels fell out, thumped to the ground with a clang and she cursed a blue streak as pain ricocheted through her wrist and up her forearm to her elbow and back again. “Use another bloody chisel next time, you idiot!” When her eyes stopped watering, she studied the lock, the door seam and smiled. “Finally!” She said through gritted teeth and went for her shirt-bag.

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Cambria winced as she picked the bag up. She studied her swelling wrist and blueing bruise on the heel. On a sigh, she slowly tied her bag into another shirt, tied a knot in the tails and hooked the arms over her chest, tied the cuffs and crouched at the door, slid it open a couple of centimetres. Late afternoon sunshine painted the corn a shiny dark green, but across from her, the burned out warehouse looked like a charcoal pyre. The tractors stood as sentinels of destruction, the bare metal tarnished and warped. Crap. She heard nothing but the birds in the fields, the swish of breeze through the stalks - no gunfire, no talking, and no footsteps. Curious that whoever torched the warehouse left the supply building alone. Cambria went to the side of the former warehouse and crouched. She pried off the scorched metal lattice of her hidey-hole and stuck her hand in, pulled out can after can and set them aside. Some had burst from the heat, others warped, but two, closest to the mesh, survived and she hugged the cans to her breasts. Nope, she wasn’t a caffeine addict. Not at all. “Hah!” She barked, and then looked around to see if anyone heard. Silent, but for nature. She tucked the two cans into her shirt and popped the lid on a warped tin, mourned as the extra roasted and burnt grounds trickled onto the scorched grass. She now had a spare container to boil her coffee in – once she found a water source and an ignition source to light a fire. The supply building didn’t have any sources, nor did she recall any in the warehouse. Who needed to light... a... fire? The stoves? She’d never checked what they used for heat, simply assumed it electrically generated. But what if it was gas? Automatic, or did Sherry or Marge

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light them before the workers returned from the fields? She didn’t know, hadn’t paid close enough attention. The stoves were either on or not. She took the risk and went around the front of the warehouse. The tractor blades she’d spent so long on polishing now held dark ash in the curves. Blackened tools, their wood handles burned away, littered the ground where the walls once stood. Nothing remained of Aaron or Teresa’s office. Whoever started the fire, and she suspected the soldiers, had done an excellent job in destroying everything. But she wandered around, kicked some of the tools, picked up a screwdriver and put it into her bag. She saw a metal cylinder, lying on its side with part of it blown out, the jagged metal sharp. She looked around and saw a rounded mask with an oblong square where the protective glass blew out, searched further until she saw what she needed: the ignition tool for the arc welder. Sadly, all the backpack units were now greyish-black puddles of hardened plastic on the floor of Teresa’s office. She would not find a secure water vessel here. Satisfied her search had garnered her all she could use, she left the destroyed building and headed into the cornfield. Eventually, someone would come for her and she intended to be a long way away when he, or probably, she did. The day waned glorious in spectacular sunset colours, but Cambria focused on all her senses on avoiding detection. If someone discovered her now, she'd be pissed off. Her steps were slow, measured as she concentrated on listening to the environment, on the scents around her, the feel of the corn leaves against her fingers and her eyes constantly searching. It was as if she was alone in the world, the last woman standing, but she knew the countryside had troops searching for the enemy, had farmers terrified and in unproductive huddles within their longhouses.

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As the sky darkened into true night, she reached the edge of the field near the longhouses and crouched. She could see soft light through the bathroom windows where the interior doors were open or people showered. Her attention shifted to the laundry and she heard the soft whoosh of a machine on a spin cycle. Cambria waited but she still saw no one. A self-imposed curfew or fear? With a slight readjustment of her bag, she came out of field and quickly made her way to the door, cracked it. “Sherry.” She sighed and ducked inside. The woman turned and stared at Cambria in shock. “Christ, girl, must you always sneak up on a body!” She approached, cautious, her eyes searching Cambria’s face. “What happened to you?” “I could ask you the same thing.” “Got delayed, on the other side of the presidential forces. Got back this afternoon. You look like shit.” “Feel it, too.” Cambria said and sat in one of the chairs, waved at her face. “This is what happens when you run into a shovel.” Sherry shut and locked the door, then went to a cabinet with a cross on it. She plucked out various items and set them on top of the last washing machine. “I don’t need to tell you: this will sting.” She said as she uncapped a bottle of clear antiseptic and lightly poured a measure onto a piece of gauze. Cambria braced herself, but still winced at the hot, sharp burn as Sherry dabbed at the wound. “You’ve certainly been in the wars.” She said. “You’ll need more stitches, I’m afraid.” “Just don’t use embroidery thread.” Cambria said. “Embroidery thread?” “Teresa used it on the other stuff.” “Ah. Time I took them out, then, if they haven’t set into the skin already.”

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Cambria closed her eyes while Sherry stitched and kept them closed when Sherry pulled the others out. “Who smacked you with a shovel, girl?” “I don’t know. I’m running past the last two houses, on my way into the fields and wham! Right in the kisser.” “No suspects?” “Not really. I was checking the other houses after the president’s men showed up. Made me angry, what they did, how the farmers reacted; made me say things I probably shouldn’t have and the accusations flew. Had to run.” Cambria sighed. “Right into a shovel. You are some kind of trouble magnet.” Cambria felt another tug. “There, all done. So where you been at?” Cambria held out her wrist and Sherry clicked her tongue. “That looks broken or dislocated.” Cambria’s lips twisted. “Feels like it, too.” Sherry held Cambria’s fingers in one hand and forearm in the other. “Let’s test the theory, shall we?” Sherry said and Cambria gulped, opened her mouth to protest. Pain shot up into her shoulder as Sherry jerked on the joint, and her vision went grey. She opened her eyes and stared down at the cement floor. Sherry rubbed her back and Cambria’s wrist throbbed painfully. “There now. All over. I’ll just splint it and you’ll be fine.” Nausea churned in Cambria’s belly as her wrist throbbed. She swallowed hard and then leaned back, rested her head against the wall. “Bitch.” She murmured and Sherry chuckled. “Better to get it done fast.” Cambria eyed Sherry as she went through the connecting door to the laundress’s quarters. She heard the sound of wood cracking and then Sherry came back holding

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up two pieces of flat wood. “From one of the supply crates. Hold out your arm,” Sherry ordered as she put one piece of wood above and the other below her wrist, “and hold them steady.” Sherry wrapped a bandage around Cambria’s hand and halfway up her forearm. Then she repeated with a second, tighter bandage. “That should do.” She nodded with satisfaction. “So tell me all.” Cambria flexed her fingers, and then rested her arm on her lap. “Someone took me down to the supply building, tied me up and locked me in.” She said and opened her eyes. Sherry packed away her medical supplies, stowed them in the cabinet and came back, sat next to Cambria. “What are you going to do now?” “Well, all I need is something to put water in, and I’m outta here.” Sherry frowned. “I don’t think that’s a good idea; too many troopers around. They’ve been here twice today, looking for God knows what.” Cambria nodded and touched the stitches. “Enemy troops or me.” She said and Sherry slapped her hand away. “Don’t touch them or I’ll pull ‘em out and start again.” Cambria sighed. “I wish people would stop smacking me.” “Just tell me why those goons would be looking for you.” “Because I’m a Hunter, Sherry, one the President would dearly love to get his hands on. Lincoln Grant and Teresa have hatched a plan to sell me to him in return for an independent state of their own – oh, and the one hundred and fifty million Euro reward that goes with my capture.” Sherry’s mouth dropped open. “You... a hundred and... the President...” She leaned back in her chair, slapped a hand over her eyes, and dragged it down her face. “Senator Dortmund.” “Bingo.”

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“But... I saw the cancellation of the warrant, the withdrawal of the bounty. Evidence proving your innocence!” Sherry said and Cambria frowned. “When did you see it?” Sherry pushed to her feet. “Oh, for Pete’s sake, I wasn’t always a washer woman and this underground has been going for a long time. How do you think I saw it? Everyone in the underground knows the story. From here to Timbuktu, wherever that is.” “And you didn’t share this information with anyone, at least, not Teresa. Grant and his camp of followers already knew.” Cambria said, as understanding dawned. “Teresa’s a traitor. Of course I wouldn’t tell her and I never see Grant, just hear about him. If you’d come to me when I dropped the heavy hints, we could have got you out of here.” Sherry’s mouth tightened with disgust. Cambria tilted her head. “He was here a couple of nights ago. Met with Teresa... ah. It’s to be today.” She murmured. “What?” “Teresa wanted to wait a week or so. My guess is to gather the Presidential Security Unit in closer. This morning, she wacks me in the head, confines me to the supply building until she’s ready to give me over to Grant. He takes me to the President, gets his reward and it all ends unhappily ever after.” “Shame, then, that you’re here and not there.” Sherry grinned and began moving around the room. “I imagine she’ll be a might upset.” “Let’s see if I can’t help you out.” She went back into the accommodation area. Cambria stayed where she was. After fifteen minutes, Sherry returned with a cloth bag and held it up. “For smalls, in the washing machine.” She said. “You leave the... ah... whatever that is and load your stuff in this.”

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Cambria quickly followed her orders and then Sherry presented her with a plastic drinking bottle. “This should hold your water, but don’t lose it, it’s the only one I had.” “Thank you, Sherry.” Cambria said and hugged her. Sherry pushed against her and Cambria let her go. “Yes, well. Just don’t forget us, okay? We need help out here.” “I suspect help’s already here. The president’s men were chasing Ghurkhas this morning. I doubt they’re the only group; it’s just a matter of how many.” Sherry unlocked the door, turned out the lights. “Take care, Hunter.” “Be safe, Sherry.” Cambria brushed a hand down Sherry’s arm, and then dashed into the darkness. Silence and an empty landscape greeted her and she walked straight into the opposite cornfield. At the end, she’d turn right, just as she instructed the Ghurkhas. Then it was into the forest and hope she was going in the right direction for the corridor. But if she got... geographically embarrassed, she had plenty of supplies to see her through a few days searching. No moon gleamed down on the corn and she made good time through the field. She popped out onto the road and into the second field. She wrapped the handle of the cloth bag around her uninjured wrist and hand, just in case she had to throw it and run. The farm was too close for her to stop for the night, so she kept going. The sense of freedom exhilarated her, leant energy to her legs as she strode down the row of corn. Ahead, she saw the opening. From there it would be a right turn towards the forest, up the slope and hopefully, she’d find the corridor. If troops guarded it, she’d stop to plan. At the edge of the field, she paused and listened. She heard the squeak of corn leaves brushing against one another, the soft sigh of the breeze, crickets and frogs, but no human activity.

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Satisfied no one was around, she stepped out of the field and onto the road, turned right. Cambria didn’t rest as she made her way towards the Grant’s former encampment, didn’t dare risk falling asleep. The closer she got, she more likely she’d hear or see evidence of soldiers. As the sky lightened, exhaustion dragged at her and she had to stop. She mentally cursed her lack of fitness. Her mind was willing, knowing who awaited her at the other end of the corridor, but her body wasn’t up to the physical exertion. Cambria looked around for a suitable place, off the animal track she managed to follow. In the end, she walked off the track and around the opposite side of a tree, curled into a ball and dropped into a doze.

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Chapter Twenty-Three Caparossi wanted to pull his hair out, but resisted. Barely. He was trying to put out too many fires in too many areas and it was driving him crazy! His intercom buzzed. “Yes, what?” He asked with ill temper, and then sighed. “Sorry, Tim. What is it?” “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but Lord Montague would like to see you.” “Tell him I’m on my way.” He stood up. At least it would get his mind off number crunching. He donned his jacket, buttoned and straightened it. Hopefully, the Lord had some good news for him, or any news. He hadn’t exactly kept up with the newssheets and he guiltily knew he should. At least he’d know what was happening from the media’s perspective, but he simply didn’t have the time. He stepped out of his office. “Tim, can you rustle up the media reports on what’s happening in the American Province?” “Sir?” Caparossi waited. He did not repeat his question and Tim flushed. “Sir, if there’d been any reports, I’d have put them on your desk. But... there haven’t been. If the media knows about it, they’re not saying.” “Ah. Thank you, Tim, carry on.” De Crecy intimidated – or owned - the media and had suppressed reports of violence. Not that it would do him any good. In fact, it might just backfire on him. And that was good news for Caparossi. *** Caparossi noted, with some consternation, that Lord Montague’s doors stood open. As his view improved, he saw white-coated medics surrounding the Lord. “Ah, shit.” He muttered and strode forward. Why hadn’t the old fool told him how ill he was? God damn it!

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He marched in and heard the murmurs of the medics. He didn’t understand their terms, but it sounded bad. Then he heard Montague’s plaintive tone and felt a measure of relief. If the Lord was pissed at the attention, then he wasn’t as ill as Caparossi first thought. “Sir.” He said and the rheumy eyes darted to his. “Colonel Caparossi reporting.” Lord Montague lowered the oxygen mask. A medic tried to settle it back over his nose and mouth. “Leave it, or I’ll beat you to death with it, Hall.” The Lord glared. “Sir...” “Christ, man, give me five minutes, will you? I shan’t drop off the twig – not yet, anyway.” The medic heaved a sigh and stepped away. “Five minutes, sir, then we’re coming back in.” Hall warned and gathered his colleagues. Lord Montague watched them go, sucked in a couple of breaths from the mask. “Like damn crows over a corpse.” He muttered, and then leaned forward in his chair. “I don’t have much time here, Caparossi, so I’ll get straight to the point.” He pointed to the visitor’s chair and Caparossi lowered himself into it, waited patiently. Lord Montague cleared his throat. “Today is the President’s Speech Day. The day he pontificates about how well everyone is doing, the happiness of the people, the hard work of the Council, blah, blah, blah-dy, blah.” Caparossi had forgotten. His work took all his attention. Not that he ever tuned in. As a child, it was mandatory viewing and he’d often found himself – others too – falling asleep at the hour long monotony of backslapping and cheering. He didn’t see how it had anything to do with him and he needed to... “I want you to take my place.” Lord Montague said, cutting off Caparossi’s thoughts. “Sir?” He asked.

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“I’ll rephrase. I need you to take my place, Colonel, at the World Council.” A smile flickered around Lord Montague’s thin, pale mouth. “No one is excused unless they are dead or dying. And...” Caparossi bolted out of his chair, started to lean over the desk. “Sir, you’re not saying...” “Peace, Colonel, peace. No, I’m not dying yet. But these medics will not allow me any excitement, the party-poopers.” Again, that flickering smile. “I was just going to say, ‘and you need to observe the other councillors, gauge their reactions to the speech.” Caparossi straightened. “Oh, I get it. You’re as bored with the idea as everyone else in the world.” Montague’s expression turned innocent and his eyes twinkled. “Why, Colonel, this is a glorious day. When we can all feel good about ourselves under the direction of our most beloved President. What’s boring about that?” Caparossi rolled his eyes and resumed his seat. “Let me count the ways, sir.” “None of that, Colonel.” The Lord tut-tutted. “You’ll need to wear your dress uniform and be spick and span.” He glanced towards the clock. “I’ll want a full report when you return. I think it will prove interesting. I want to know if he mentions the American Province, since the media seem loathe to.” “Yes, sir. I shall be interested, too.” The Lord nodded and the doors opened again. “Time’s up, sir.” Hall said with barely disguised glee. Lord Montague huffed out an irritated breath. “Better get a move on, Colonel, you have three hours.” *** Cambria only managed a couple of hours sleep. The need to stay alert conspired to keep her hovering between wakefulness and true, restorative sleep.

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It would have be enough, she decided. She could snooze the day away once back with Caparossi. She uncurled and listened to the forest. She heard birds, insects and small mammals. With a groan, she stood, rubbed her aching thighs and went back to the path, continued up the slope. At the top, she paused for a gulp of water and turned. “Yeah,” she murmured, “déjà vu.” The green fields of unripened corn spread out beneath her in rectangles. She capped the bottle, shoved it into the bag and continued her march towards the corridor. Somewhere up ahead was the campsite she and Grant made. This time she wouldn’t be sliding through the mud, she’d be walking, so it would take less time. And somewhere up ahead, soldiers stood guard. She’d have to be more... “So nice of you to join us, Hunter.” Teresa stepped out from behind a tree on Cambria’s left. Grant stepped out from the right. Cambria froze, glanced over her shoulder, then back at the gun in Teresa’s fist. On a sigh, she moved forward. “How did you find me?” She demanded. Teresa chuckled. “Too easy, Hunter. I was coming to get you when I saw you open the doors. I simply followed you. Since you decided to have a chat with Sherry – who I’m gonna kill once I’m done with you – it gave me time to meet up with Grant and to find a nice spot to rest while waiting for you.” Grant frowned at her. “Yeah, Grant, Sherry works for the good guys. Teresa, here, does not.” “Shut up or I’ll shoot you now.” Cambria lifted her hands as she shrugged. Grant marched forward, grabbed one of her wrists and lowered it behind her back. “Ah. The cuffs aren’t going to fit around that, Hunter. What happened?”

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Cambria shrugged. “Fine. But if you try to escape, Teresa will shoot you.” He said and pushed a meaty finger into her back. True to his word, Grant changed his appearance. He’d shaved his face and his head, not that it changed much up close. He also dressed in the blue shirt and pants of a worker. From a distance, people might pause in their identification of him. Still, his height gave him away. Grant took the lead, with Teresa following Cambria, the gun barrel occasionally poking her in the back. “And you said you didn’t have a weapon.” Cambria said, her voice oozing disappointment. “Keep moving, Hunter, we have business to attend to this morning.” Cambria shook her head. “I’m telling you, de Crecy will see you dead before he hands over the money.” “We don’t need all of it.” Grant tossed over his shoulder and Cambria snorted. “Right. You’re going to split it with him.” “Win-win.” Teresa said. “Only for de Crecy.” She muttered and kept walking. Two hours later, Grant called a halt. “The camp is about half an hour away.” He turned and studied Cambria. “Looks like you’ve had a rough time of it.” He said and raised an eyebrow at Teresa. “Some of the farmers needed some... entertainment. The Hunter kindly provided it with some injudicious words.” Grant grinned and gripped Cambria’s chin. He turned her head from side-toside. “Figured. Still, it’s only superficial.” Cambria jerked from his hand. “You should feel it from my side.” “Cheer up, Hunter, what you’re about to do is for the greater good.”

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“The only one to come out of this feeling all warm and fuzzy is de Crecy. You and Teresa will die.” Grant shook his head. Then stopped, froze. Cambria looked at him, then leaned slightly to the side and around his big body. Two soldiers, dressed in black stood on the path, their weapons resting lightly in their arms. She heard a click behind her and slowly turned, as did Teresa. Two more soldiers aimed their rifles at the trio. The one on the left jerked his gun. “I guess we’re about to find out who’s right.” She said softly. *** For all Tim Sheridan’s hard work, Caparossi still felt uncomfortable in his dress blues. He so rarely wore the uniform that it was a wonder it still fit, let alone look fresh from the tailor. Sheridan kept twitching his hands as he sat next to Caparossi in the back seat of the car, as if he wanted to slap Caparossi’s hands from tugging at his collar. “I don’t like this peacock’s suit.” Caparossi rumbled. “No, sir, I can see that, but you do look splendid. Every inch the military man.” Tim replied and tugged at his own collar. “Flattery will get you a long way in this man’s army, Tim, just not with me.” Tim sighed. “I should find myself a general who wants to relive past glories.” Caparossi chuckled and lowered his hands. “Past glories. We haven’t had a good fight since... Well, Nomad, really, and that was a mess.” “I’m sure a general or two will have some exciting tales to tell of night time manoeuvres in Scotland, sir, or training exercises in the Pyrenees.” Tim demurred. Caparossi snorted. “Good luck with that, Tim. Really.” The spectacular Lake Geneva came into view and Caparossi cleared his throat. He was nervous. He was a military man, not a politician and he hated the idea of sitting in an albeit comfortable seat for two hours while the President patted himself on the back and Councillors besieged him with questions or false conversation.

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The car pulled up in front of the arched driveway of the People’s House and an aide opened the door for him. “Show time, Tim.” Caparossi said and turned. “I’m sure you won’t embarrass me, sir.” Tim replied as he got out his own side of the vehicle. Caparossi gave the young man a smile and tugged down his jacket, set his peaked cap on his head and marched forward into the House. Caparossi flicked a glance at the high vaulted ceiling, painted with past battles of raggedly dressed people engaged with military units. The artwork was beautiful; the subject matter appalling to anyone who’d seen what full-scale conflict could do. He looked around. Politicians, dressed as if they were trying to out-fashion each other, spoke in quiet voices to each other and their staff milled about with coms in their ears or making notes on portable notebooks. Others strode through the crowd on whatever important business they were attending. Lord, but he disliked the machinations and greed of these people. He felt like he’d entered an arena of sly cats and wily foxes. All cunning, with sharp teeth, should you misspeak. Tim stepped in front of him, pinned his id-tag on. “I don’t see why I need to wear it.” “Just in case you forget who you are, sir.” Tim said with a smile and plucked a non-existent piece of lint from Caparossi’s upper arm. “Ha, ha.” A soft gong chimed and the chatter slowly petered out as sound summoned the politicians into session. Caparossi took a deep breath and followed the sweeping, jewel-coloured dresses of the women and men wearing the latest, most fashionable be-jewelled tabards. Speaking of peacocks, he thought with contempt.

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Tim walked behind him, as all the aides did, but on entering the vast, overly ornate coliseum of the World Council, Tim took the lead and guided him to Lord Montague’s place, halfway down the sloped arena. All around him, people took their seats in plush red leather chairs overlooking the raised stage of the formal speaking dais. Caparossi looked at the panel in front of him, the voting buttons, the microphone and toggle. He saw underneath the panel and grimaced with distaste. A food prep unit. He removed his cap and set it to the side of the microphone. “Does everyone have these?” He asked his aide who sat down next to him on his right. “Yes, sir. May I get you something?” “Coffee. I think I’m going to need it.” Tim obliged and set the porcelain cup and saucer next to his microphone. “Very funny, Tim.” Caparossi said. “Sir, it’s the only type of cup or mug there.” His aide said with a faint smirk. “Fine, have yourself a cup, too. Don’t forget to extend the pinkie.” Caparossi said and leaned back in his seat, fragile cup and saucer in hand. He had to admit, the coffee was excellent, but then thought of the workers who probably produced the blend and it didn’t have the same appeal. Would everything he ate, drank or wear have the same... disappointment and guilt attached to it? He shook off the thought. At least he was trying to fix things, to... what? Overthrow the government? Then what? What took its place? Chaos or was he simply replacing one corrupt government with another? A chime sounded and the soft talking eased off. The spotlights came up over the stage bathing another mural in carefully choreographed light. The mural portrayed another battle scene, with noble peasants holding farm implements, scythes, forks, shovels, up in the air and confronted a line of snarling soldiers.

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Then big screens behind the dais rose, blotting out the artwork and displaying the World Council’s red hammer and sickle on a blue background appeared. A man with grey, curly hair walked out on to the stage dressed in a long, gold embroidered red jacket, black pants with a red stripe down the side, and jet-black, knee-high boots polished to a high sheen. In his hand, he held a gold staff with a diamond-encrusted orb on the top. Set at the very top of the orb, a gold cross glittered with red jewels, bordered with sparkling diamonds. The man didn’t seem to appreciate the work of expensive art he held in his hand. He banged the bottom on the stage floor and Caparossi winced. “My Lords... My Ladies!” His voice boomed out across the auditorium. “Please be upstanding for the anthem!” Caparossi set his cup and saucer on the panel and stood to attention as the anthem echoed around the room. He suspected most Councillors did not truly relate to the ‘sweat of the people’s brow’, or the ‘bloodied defenders of truth and justice’, nor did he think they appreciated the ‘pride of one nation for all’. No, they sat here, within these hallowed halls and worked their deals to their own benefit, not the people they swore to serve. The anthem ended, but no one took their seat as the man banged the staff again. He waited, a dramatic pause before his voice boomed out over the full gathering of the Council. “Presenting.” Another dramatic pause. “His most August Excellency: the President of the World Council, Duke Peter de Crecy!” *** The soldiers marched the trio into Grant’s former camp. They did not cuff any of them. Cambria looked around with interest. The wooden cabins formed a semi-circle around the mouth of a cave... no, a mine. “Gold?” She asked out of the side of her mouth.

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“Long ago, yes.” Grant replied. “Then the camp was used for forestry workers and finally abandoned. No one knows why.” “It’s nice.” She said as troops escorted the trio between the buildings to near the mouth of the cave. “Halt.” One of the soldiers said and she came to a stop. From the mouth of the mine, an officer emerged. He, too, was dressed in black. The colour matched his short hair and eyes, provided a contrast to his naturally pale face. “You’re late.” He said and Grant stepped forward as if to speak. “Unavoidable, Brad.” Teresa said and Grant paused, turned slightly. “But you have them both now. Pay up.” “Teresa?” Grant’s voice held a wealth of betrayal. “Admirable dreams, Linc, but unattainable.” Teresa sneered and walked by him. Cambria felt her blood curdle as the officer jerked his head and stepped aside. She felt, rather than heard the soldiers behind her move. Three of them shot as one and Teresa dropped, the back of her head a bloody mess. “Paid in full, traitor.” Brad sneered and approached Grant. “Cuff him.” Grant didn’t resist. His attention was on the pool of blood spreading out beneath Teresa’s still form. He stopped before Cambria. “Sadly, we’ve run out of time. I would love to... interrogate you, but... as I said: No time.” He tightly gripped her upper arm and guided her into the mine. Lights hung on the carved walls, but she clearly saw the familiar metal door. Brad dropped her arm and turned to the control pad, punched in the numbers. “Bring him up!” He called and the guards escorted Grant into the mine. “Now, then. Grant, since you’re a wanted felon, will go first. Petersen, as the grand prize, will go next. We’ll follow once we’ve destroyed this place.”

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“Destroyed?” Grant croaked. “Burned the buildings and set the charges to collapse this mine. There’s no point in leaving a perfectly viable corridor available for the enemy.” Brad smiled. “Off you go, Grant.” Grant glanced back over his shoulder at the waiting troopers, then back at the door. He heaved an enormous sigh, lowered his head as he realised all his plans had turned to ash. He stepped forward and looked down at Cambria. “I’m... sorry, Hunter, for all of this. If I’d known...” “Move it, Grant, or we’ll be taking a corpse back.” The officer growled. Grant opened the door and with one last backward glanced, moved inside and shut the door. Cambria watched the green light turn red. The red flickered, and then turned green. Cambria felt all the blood leave her face. The officer turned to Cambria. “After you.” He said and opened the door. “It’s... it’s not working properly, Brad.” Brad snorted. “Delaying won’t work. Get in there. Now.” She looked at him. “I’m telling you: the corridor is broken! We go in there and we’ll never come out of it!” “Now, Hunter, or I’ll shoot you dead.” “Didn’t you see the flicker?” The troopers cocked their weapons and Brad smiled. Dead now or dead in half a minute? With no other choice, Cambria did as he asked. The door closed with a metallic clunk and she was in darkness. No way back, she thought, only forward. Whatever happens, I can’t change it now. Cambria took a deep breath, steeled herself and took two steps forward. The dark world suddenly twisted and she tried to cry out. No sound emerged.

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She dropped to her knees, then to her belly as reality twisted and stretched, condensed and flattened. It felt as if the vortex was tearing her apart, cell-by-cell, molecule-by-molecule. Burning, stabbing agony nearly overwhelmed her. Parts of her clenched together, refused to separate. Other parts stretched and strained towards the destination. Cambria mentally screwed up her face, concentrated, blocked out everything but reaching out to the metal door. It took a lifetime. She couldn’t feel her body one moment, and then became aware of every burning, stretching cell the next. Colours swirled behind her eyelids interspersed with jagged spikes of black and gold and still she pushed herself forward. It never occurred to her to let go, to let herself and her essence spread throughout the galaxy. Her focus was on getting to the other side, to the door she knew was a couple of metres away. But she could feel her will power and strength draining away, could feel herself giving up. Not even thoughts of Nathan and his pain at her loss could sustain her. Cambria didn’t recognise the moment it stopped, didn’t struggle when hands reached down to drag her naked body out of the corridor. She finally came out of that burning hell when someone threw a large bucket of iced water over her. She rolled onto her back, suddenly aware she was naked and lying on icy-cold concrete. She opened her eyes, blearily regarded the black uniformed soldier. “Wha’?” “Welcome to your execution.” A smug guard said above her.

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Chapter Twenty-Four Caparossi felt an insane urge to applaud such theatrics, but the atmosphere cooled as the man who ran the council stepped out on stage in the full military regalia of a general, resplendent with medals and awards Caparossi knew damned well he hadn’t earned. De Crecy stepped to the centre of the stage. A microphone and lectern rose from the stage and de Crecy cocked his hip, rested his forearm on the lectern and stared out at the crowd. Caparossi shifted his attention to the President’s image on the two screens, each showing him in near profile. His carefully combed black hair gleamed with a slight curl allowed to rest playfully against his forehead. Artfully applied grey streaks at both temples gave him a trustworthy and mature look. Crystal blue eyes stared out of the screen, filled with an expression of admiration Caparossi also knew he didn’t feel. This was theatre for the people. “This is a great day for the People.” The President intoned in a mellow, selfsatisfied tone. “We have achieved great things in this past year and I doubt anyone could be prouder of your hard work than I.” Caparossi realised de Crecy wasn’t speaking to the assembly, but to the global population, to those who actually did the work and his mouth twisted with disgust. De Crecy’s gaze swept the room, a smile playing about his mouth. “It is typical of this day for the President to single out Provinces who have worked the hardest, exceeded expectations and produced the most for the People; but I shall decline that tradition and speak to something else.” The assembly quietly shifted with interest. Rarely did a President veer from tradition and Caparossi wondered if he was going to mention the American Province after all. The President’s expression turned serious. “Long have we fought for the People and their place in this world. Long have the Council administered fairly and justly to

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the People. But in this perfect society we have created for ourselves, there will always be those who are dissatisfied, who feel they deserve more than what is just or what they have earned with the sweat of their brow.” Caparossi felt a thrill go up his spine. The President was going to mention the insurrection! And he found his hands trembling with expectation. The crowd shifted again, this time with consternation. Given how many had authorised troop deployments to the province, Caparossi had to wonder if de Crecy was going to name names and have those Councillors arrested immediately. The President allowed the pause to lengthen, to intimidate, as if he did know who was engaging in seditious behaviour. “It grieves me, as I know it grieves you all, that this should happen when we have, for centuries, worked together to bring the world together. Indeed, it was the hard work of the People, together with their nominated leaders, who accomplished a long held dream of one world. One nation, one government, one currency, one goal: to make every life count, to look after those less fortunate, to know that no one is special and we are all of equal importance.” He relaxed into a smile at the last part, knowing, as President, the falsehood of which he spoke. “And yet...” He paused again, his gaze sweeping the room again. He paused, tilted his head as if listening to someone in an earpiece. Then he nodded and continued. “And yet... we all know, we have all understood the sacrifices we constantly make to ensure all have enough. Enough work, enough to eat and drink, the clothes we wear, the furniture in our houses. Everyone has made sacrifices, but none more than those who have fallen in the struggle to ensure we have those things. “I stand before you today, humbled at the outstanding efforts of our People to pursue justice wherever it is needed. No matter how long it takes, they are the true defenders of truth and justice.” He flicked a glance to his left and his image faded,

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even as he spoke, and another more appalling image came up on both screens. “Yes, it has been years, but we have finally brought the most heinous of criminals to justice. I give you the murderer of the most beloved Senator Heinrich Dortmund and co-conspirator in the disappearance of Judicar Ranald Bolingbroke.” He turned toward the screen. “The criminal, Cambria Petersen.” Ice rocketed through Caparossi’s veins and he nearly bolted to his feet in protest. Only Tim’s tight grip on his forearm stopped him. Around him, he heard barely cut off protests and the murmurs of satisfaction. Dear God! How? When? Why? The protestors knew the truth; de Crecy must have convinced - or bribed - those filled with satisfaction. But... what the hell was he doing? And then he recalled the conversation he had with Lord Montague about de Crecy’s smug happiness that disturbed so many members of Council, that he thought it was personal business – and the murder of a Council member was very personal indeed to de Crecy, given how close they were. Fuck. Caparossi watched the President with narrow-eyed intensity as the man waited patiently for the murmurs to subside. One screen now showed the President, the other a naked Cambria, in a cell, struggling to stand. There seemed to be something wrong with her balance. Every time she got to her knees, she swayed. Any further and she toppled over. He leaned towards Tim. “Find out where she’s being held.” He whispered and Tim lowered his head to his notebook, began to search the databases for detention facilities. Caparossi’s attention kept flicking between the President and Cambria. What happened to her? How had de Crecy caught her? De Crecy’s voice rose over the murmurs and all talk subsided. “While it is customary for convicted criminals to be taken elsewhere for execution,” de Crecy’s

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gaze settled on Caparossi and the President’s mouth tightened with disappointment, but he didn’t look away, “I feel it is important that all the People see justice done. The crime is most atrocious and this execution will serve as a lesson to any out there who seek to run from their crimes. Who seek to change the direction of this most esteemed assembly by assassinating heroes of the People.” He leaned on the lectern, his gaze stern as it swept the assembly. “And I assure each and every one of you, I shall execute all those who assisted this criminal in escaping justice for so long. This is my pledge.” Caparossi’s heart began to pound in his chest and he felt the trickle of sweat down the side of his face. “Hurry, Tim.” “Working here, sir.” Fear for Cambria chilled him, worked at his guts, even as he knew he could do nothing to help her. “I, as your President, will not, will never countenance assassination; will never forgive murder. And so, my Lords and Ladies I beg your indulgence in this matter and warn that your sensibilities may, indeed, be offended. However, I cannot, in all good conscience allow you not to be witness to the justice of the people.” Before any Council member could discern his meaning, de Crecy turned to the screen and lifted an arm. Machine gun barrels shot out of holes high above Cambria’s head and she looked up, startled, her expression confused, even as she still struggled to stand. Caparossi held his breath, clenched his teeth. De Crecy brought his arm down and the guns fired. Caparossi turned away as the crowd gasped with horror at the sight of the bloody execution. Some fainted – men included – while others simply refused to look. “And that, my Lords and Ladies, is what we do to traitors of the people.” The President announced.

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“Got her.” Tim whispered with satisfaction and then looked at the screen, at the dissipating smoke and Cambria, lying bloody and full of holes on the cement floor of her cell. “Oh, shit.” He turned to Caparossi. “I’m... I’m so sorry, sir.” “Get our people there, the medics, post haste. I want her back within the Hunter facility A.S.A.P. Do it now and do it fast.” Caparossi said through gritted teeth. “Yes, sir.” Tim murmured and began typing into his notebook again. Oh, de Crecy had gone too far this time, Caparossi snarled to himself. Too fucking far and there he was, all smug and content as he turned back to the assembly. “I regret the violence, my Lords and Ladies, but I do not regret that you have all seen justice done in the name of the People.” He stood tall as if to attention. “Long live the will of the People!” He said loudly and a few replied. Most were still shocked and the President smiled as he walked off the stage. “Miserable fucker.” Caparossi muttered and then saw the glowing green light on his console. “Tim? What does that light mean?” “The President’s Call, sir. He wishes to see you. Personally.” “Christ.” Caparossi said and rubbed his forehead. “That prick is the last person I want to see.” “No one refuses the call, sir.” Tim flicked him a glance. “And you might glean some useful information.” He said and returned to his work. Caparossi sighed and leaned back in the chair. Lord Montague would want to know all the scuttlebutt, and what the President had said. “Fine.” He said and stood, as others around him were standing. “I’ll see the mangy cur.” Tim glanced around. “Not so loud, sir.” Then he, too, rose from his seat. “Here, sir, you might need this.” Tim made to adjust Caparossi’s uniform and replaced one of his ribbons with an identical one, except with a tiny rosette.

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Caparossi lifted an eyebrow. “I’m pretty sure I only saw service on Paradisio once. Twice, I’d remember.” “I know that sir, but the President doesn’t, and Lord Montague thought you might like an extra set of eyes and ears.” A bug? The tiny rosette was a surveillance device? “Best hurry, sir, the President doesn’t like to be kept waiting.” “Thank you, Tim.” Caparossi said quietly. “Get her home for me, please.” “Yes, sir.” His aide promised solemnly. *** This one has become careless. A familiar voice said and she mentally groaned. Not again! It speaks! A second voice gasped. Just... send me back; it’s what you do. Cambria thought. She tried to open her eyes, but they felt weighed down. Did she really want to see these inter-dimensional beings? Oh, yes. She wanted to get up and kick their asses. We do not send you anywhere; you do. The first voice. I am of you, but not from you; I have no control over what you do to me. She replied bitterly. Mmm, no. But we also, have no control over you. We only study, give you information as you give us information on your species. Not deliberately, she muttered. You would rather we send ships? A wry voice asked. You know what I did to the last one, pal. It has a point. The first voice said. Why aren’t I healing? Cambria asked. Then paused. What was going on here? She remembered the awfulness of the corridor, but she’d come out alive. Then the... A puzzle. The first voice said and Cambria waited. Let us examine your exploits. Ah, yes, a clue! Your molecules did not reconstitute properly! How did this happen?

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Cambria thought back. Grant’s corridor. She’d warned him it was faulty, but he hadn’t believed her. But that took care of her inbound journey, not her outbound one. Yes, yes! Do you know what this means? The second voice said, excited. Could it be? We must test; send an emissary, a sacrifice to our cause! The first voice said. It was obvious to Cambria they were off on their pursuit to find a way to terminate themselves. Hey. HEY! Yes? Why do you interrupt us? The imperious tone of old returned. What about now? Why aren’t I truly dead? The corridor malfunctioned. Totally. Look at my memory. Silence greeted her question as the images of her journey through the corridor and execution replayed. Guys? Scaring the lesser being here. I see, the first voice finally said, disappointed. Your return journey should have disassembled you, yet did not. How is this possible? Curiosity filled the voice. What is it about you that defies logic, that defies the laws of the universe and dimensions? You’re the higher beings, work it out! She said. Indeed we will. It... He sounded confident, and then the images of her execution replayed over again. But why the attempt at terminating your existence? Do they not know of your... unique nature? No. She said and refused to say or think more. The being sighed with exasperation. Your species are the most violent I have ever had the misfortune to come across. And that’s when we’re not even trying, she replied smugly. I find it curious that you are like this, given your limited life span. I would have thought life more precious to you.

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And so it is. As a rule, we do not give up our lives cheaply, but we do punish the most awful of crimes in this way. Usually, she said, off planet since certain members are squeamish and would rather remove the problem, than confront and detain permanently. She felt a tugging in the region of her belly. What is that feeling? You are becoming more aware of your corporeal body’s need for its’ soul. Is that what I am here? A soul? She asked, surprised. Another sigh at her question. Perhaps I should have said consciousness. The word ‘soul’ has meaning in your culture that I had not understood until you thought of it. It is your consciousness, wanting reunification with your... physical shell. O...kay. Not real sure what you mean, but okay. Now answer the question. What happened with the corridor? Why am I still alive... ish? You are unique in the universe. Any answer we may give is pure speculation. Speculate away. She invited. It is the most demanding of creatures, is it not? The second voice she was beginning to hate. In answer to your question, we do not know. You are a part of us and when damaged, we heal. You had the added benefit of a piece of our technology that integrated into your DNA on an organic level. The voice expressed disgust at the word ‘organic’. We can only presume that the faulty resonance of your travelling device stripped the healing factor from you, or failed to integrate properly. However, our part is responsible for your so-called resurrection. The second journey... requires more thought. We will have to research this phenomena – it is not a part of us. We do know your species is wilful. So... that’s a ‘no idea but we’ll look into it’? We. Do. Not. Know! The second voice was raised, aggravated, as if annoyed at not knowing everything. Okay, okay. You did say I was unique. Maybe I just wasn’t ready to die. The beings didn’t reply, but she felt their intrigue at her answer. Right. Fine. You can let me go back now. She suggested.

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It is not we who send you; it is you who go! We do not control you, though I wish it were possible; you are the most aggravating, annoying, ill-mannered, violent... the list of her sins went on, but Cambria ignored them relaxed, as if going to sleep and the voice faded into nothing. But she didn’t awaken immediately; instead, she drifted in a warm, dark, comforting nothingness. She’d been here before. To her, it meant safety from either dimensions, a freedom from the pain to... Her back arched and she automatically dragged in a breath as electricity shot through her nerve endings. The skin around her mouth drew back in a rictus grin and her muscles strained to breaking point. Then the agony receded to a bodypulsing ache. “Fuck me, I hate that.” She muttered and breathed deep, waited for the pulsing of life to fade from frantic to natural. Cambria opened her eyes, but it was as if she was blind so complete was the darkness. She lifted a hand, but her knuckles banged onto a metal ceiling. “What the...” She tried to spread her arms, but met the same metal. Oh, my God! I’m in a metal coffin! *** Caparossi marched into the President’s opulent office, with his cap tucked under his arm. For a man of the People, he thought, de Crecy certainly managed to suck off an awful lot of luxury. Silk curtains with matching covers on the furniture, an enormous, hand-carved desk of... was that teak? A near extinct wood. Gold trim, hand beaten leather chair and on the walls, masterpiece paintings of centuries gone. The President himself came in behind and went to his desk. He did not invite Caparossi to sit. “Colonel Caparossi, isn’t it? I was sorry to hear of Lord Montague’s illness.” De Crecy said as he leaned back. “I’d been looking forward to seeing him today.”

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“I’m sure he’ll be on his feet in no time, sir.” Caparossi replied cautiously. The President nodded. “Yes, I’m sure he will be. Just as I’m sure you’ll be reporting today’s events back to him.” “Yes, sir, he is my boss.” The man sighed. “And I’ll have to be satisfied with imagining his reaction.” “Sir?” Caparossi wondered if there was more going on than met the eye. “Lord Montague denied me my justice when I first demanded he hand Petersen over to me.” The President said with a nasty smile. Caparossi frowned, but didn’t speak. This maniac could misconstrue anything he said. “Did you know Judicar Bolingbroke was a friend of mine? A very dear, personal friend and business partner?” “No, sir, I did not.” But it explained a whole lot. “We were about to embark on a new, potentially profitable venture – for the people, of course - when he disappeared.” He said with a bite to his tone. “And when he did disappear, so did the venture. I was most put out about that.” Again, Caparossi said nothing and the President watched him with calculation. “Senator Dortmund was also a friend, a trusted ally. I never believed the rumours of his corruption and I never believed the bullshit in that file.” “What file, your Excellency?” Caparossi wracked his brain but he couldn’t recall any file that would interest the President. Instead of answering the question, de Crecy posed another one. “What did you think of Judicar Bolingbroke?” “I never knew him, sir, but I believe he was most... aggressive in punishing traitors of the people. More so than any other Judicar. That made him a hero of the people, sir.” Caparossi lied. He knew the story of the Judicar well, but to confess was to die.

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The President nodded. “Yes, yes, that’s exactly what he was. A hero of the people. And a tragic loss to the Judiciary. He’s been most difficult to replace.” The President took a deep breath, and then shook off whatever thoughts he was having. “Well, enough chit-chat. I’m sure you’re busy with the Retrieval Unit.” “Yes, sir.” “And you spend a great deal of time off planet?” “I do, sir.” Caparossi said and wondered where this was heading. “Ever get tired of it?” “Some days.” He nodded. “And some days I see the most spectacular of planets and feel rather smug about my job.” The President leaned across and planted a card in front of him. “Should you get tired of the unit, call that number. I have plans that need a man of your... extraplanetary experience.” Caparossi picked up the card, but did not look at it. “Thank you, sir.” “Good day, Colonel and please express my good wishes to Lord Montague.” Caparossi set his hat and saluted, left the sickeningly plush office at a slow, measured pace. Once the valets closed the doors, he picked up his pace. Outside the building, his aide stepped out of the car and held the door open. “Let’s get the hell away from this cesspit.” Caparossi growled. “I need a shower to wash off the stink.” Tim leaned forward and tapped on the windowed partition. The car moved off into traffic. “Did you get her?” Caparossi asked and opened his hand. He’d crushed the card. “Yes, sir. Through some serious effort, promises and bribes.” “We don’t bribe people, Tim.” “More an offer of a date, then, sir; with a rather homely specimen in charge of the Presidential Security Unit’s Detention Facility Morgue.”

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“Sometimes Tim, I appreciate that you go above and beyond the call of duty.” “And at other times?” Tim asked brightly. “And other times I wonder why you’re in the military and not government business. You are just too damned good at it.” “Morals, sir. I have morals.”

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Chapter Twenty-Five Cambria hated the waiting. Encased in some sort of rubber shroud, she couldn’t move much, nor could she gain enough purchase to bang on the door. When someone finally opened the door to remove her, well, she was going to scare the tripe out of the poor attendant when she moved. Unfortunately, body bags didn’t come with zippers on the inside and she was without any tools whatsoever. Well, except for the bullets that pressed out from her flesh and lay scattered around her. And wasn’t that its own special torture? The bullets and wounds itched like mosquito bites and she didn’t have enough room to reach the areas and scratch as she wanted. At least her healing factor had returned, like the beings suggested. She tried her altered vision. Thermal showed cold blue all around her, but another vision saw through the metal to the empty autopsy room beyond. Satisfied she had the talents back, she tried the encyclopaedia. Entries for Ragnarok. A list came up in her eyes and she smiled, went through the information while she waited for someone to open the door. Cambria was halfway through reading about Martha Chen’s work when she heard the click of the handle. She shut down the encyclopaedia. “Here we are. Body number 79347.” A woman’s voice said. “Executed criminal? Why does the Retrieval Unit want the body?” Cambria eased out a quiet breath. Oh, Caparossi I love you more than I can say. She wouldn’t have to give the attendant a heart attack after all. “Disposal off-planet.” A young male voice replied. “Can’t have criminals remain on planet, now can we.” The metal platform on which she lay rolled out from storage. She felt someone tug at the foot of the bag, and at the head.

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“Fair enough. Ready?” The woman said. “One, two, three.” And Cambria rose off the platform onto another. “Sign here, please, Lieutenant Morgan.” “There. All sign, sealed and delivered.” Cambria suppressed a gasp as the trolley moved, held herself still. “Tell Tim I look forward to seeing him tonight.” The woman said. “Sure thing, ma’am.” She felt the trolley turn a corner, heard the squeak of rubber-soled shoes the person wore, but no more voices, no other sounds either. The trolley bumped. “Sorry.” A man muttered and she nearly snickered. The drop in her stomach indicated a lift and she became more curious about her destination. The elevator stopped and she went backwards, then left and finally to a stop. Noise soon reached her ears, people and vehicles. “Give me a hand, Jack.” Lieutenant Morgan said and she felt her body shift once more, this time onto a corrugated surface. She heard an engine, felt the movement of the vehicle. The drive seemed to take forever and she dropped into a light doze. Cambria woke as someone dragged her out of the van. Her body settled onto another trolley, Morgan rolled her inside another building and down in another elevator. “All yours, sir.” Morgan said and she heard him walk away. “Do you need any help?” A beloved voice said and she grinned. Excitement, relief, overflowing joy, surged through her. “No zipper on this side, lover of mine.” He fumbled with the catch and slowly drew it down from her head to her toes.

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Cambria sat up and drew in the handsome, gorgeous, beautiful features of Caparossi. He winked at her and pushed the rubberized material aside, stepped into her freed and open arms. He gripped her hard as he ran his hands over her back. “Oh, I have missed you.” She whispered in a choked, tear-filled voice. “And I, you, Bella.” He replied thickly into the side of her neck. Cambria held on to him as if to never let him go. He rubbed a hand over the fluff on her head and eased back with a little resistance from her. She sniffed at his expression. “It will grow back.” She said. “I promise.” “I know. I know. It’s just... what you’ve been through, how close you were and yet I couldn’t get to you, no matter how much I wanted to.” “I knew you were looking for me, Caparossi, I knew you’d...” A knock on the doorframe interrupted them and she saw a young soldier, in dress uniform. He had light brown hair, cut very short and playful, humour-filled blue eyes. “Sorry to interrupt, sir, but Lord Montague needs you.” Caparossi ran a hand over Cambria’s hair again. “I’ll be there shortly, Tim.” He said and turned back to her. “Duty calls.” He said and brushed his mouth over hers. She gripped his upper arms, meant to deepen the kiss, but he resisted. “Clothes on the chair, join me when you’re dressed.” He said and turned away from her. “Nathan?” “I love you so much, it hurts, Cambria, but we have work to do before we can have a proper reunion. And if I touch you like I want to, well, the whole medical unit is going to know what we’re up to.” “And there I’d changed my mind.” He turned at the door, with a frown. “About what?” “I decided I preferred Italians and wouldn’t want and Englishman or Spaniard, after all. Now, though...”

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He flashed a smile at her and she knew he remembered. “Oh, Bella, I’m going to show you exactly why you love Italians.” “Then I’d better hurry.” She said and climbed off the trolley in all her naked glory. She heard Nathan sigh with longing before the door closed to give her privacy. She quickly dressed in – hallelujah! – underwear, jeans and a light blue shirt before sitting to pull soft black boots on. Whatever Lord Montague wanted must be important for Nathan to dash off like that, she thought, but she’d have her reunion and nothing and no one was going to interfere. If they did, well, there’d be blood on the ground. Cambria walked out of the room, but no one spared her a glance. It was as if they were used to her returning from the dead, or they simply didn’t know. They might suspect when they saw the body bag. “Ma’am?” An orderly came up to her as she pressed the elevator button. “Yes?” She turned to him; he seemed vaguely familiar. But... she’d been here on a number of occasions, so that might be the reason. “If you are looking for Colonel Caparossi and Lord Montague, they are that way.” He pointed back the way she’d come. “Lord Montague?” She asked and felt a spurt of fear as the orderly nodded. “Yes, ma’am. He’s not been well for a while. I’ll take you to him.” “Thank you.” She walked into Montague’s room. Nathan stood at the foot of the bed. The Lord lay pale against white sheets, wires attached to his chest and arms, an oxygen tube under his nose. He looked more the old man, than a powerful Lord. Montague caught sight of her and smiled. “My Hunter returns.” He rasped and Cambria approached. “Always, sir.” She replied softly, then shook her head and smiled. “You look like shit.”

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Montague wheezed out a laugh. “As if you haven’t looked like death warmed over.” “True. So, you gonna brief me on what’s been happening while I was holidaying in America?” “No, Cambria, that job now falls to Caparossi.” “Sir?” They both gasped. She looked at Nathan. He appeared shocked. “Sir, I don’t know anything about running a facility like this!” “Oh, piffle. You’re head of the Retrieval Unit, integrate and consult with the Hunters. You’ve managed a war not of your making – and you need to continue that – you’ve stepped in for me with the Council.” “But I... I don’t have the contacts you do.” Nathan protested. “You will. I have left you instructions, complete with files and contacts. You need to shore up support for your endeavours. Use Cambria.” He said with a crafty look in his eyes. “Me?” “How do you think our supporters will react when they see you alive and well?” Lord Montague’s white eyebrows rose. Nathan grunted. “They’ll think de Crecy set it up. That it was all a lie to keep them in line.” “Indeed.” Montague agreed. “And?” “Hopefully, it will harden their resolve.” Caparossi said. “So what are you going to do about it?” Nathan chewed his bottom lip. “Use it in small, jagged pieces and hope he chokes on it.” “Yes.” Lord Montague said tiredly. “And now, I have to rest. Oh, don’t look at me like that. I’m not ready to drop off the twig yet. I want to see the look on de Crecy’s face when he finds out just who brought him undone.” He closed his eyes,

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then they popped open again and he pointed a gnarled finger at Caparossi. “Just remember: you’re taking over is only temporary.” Nathan smiled. “Yes, sir, of course, sir, anything you say, sir.” Lord Montague snorted. “Get your obsequious arse out of here and get back to work.” Nathan grasped Cambria’s hand and touched a finger to his forehead in farewell. He dragged her out of the room and further, dragged her to the elevator. He tapped his foot as he waited. “Nathan?” Cambria asked, unsure about what she was asking. He gripped her hand tighter, hauled her into the lift when the doors open. Again, he waited impatiently for the doors to close. And when they did, when the sight of the medical unit finally vanished, he spun her into his arms, slid his hands down to her butt and pressed her against his straining body, laid his mouth on her. The thrill of arousal shot through her, electrified her nerve endings as he near ravished her. Oh. My. God! She thought hazily and then let him take over. She vaguely heard the elevator bell ping and Nathan hauled her out of the lift, tucked her under his arm and raced to their apartment. And then... and then... she indulged in the type of reunion she wanted with him, happy to be home and working on showing how much she missed him.

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Epilogue President of the World and Duke of Europe, Peter de Crecy drummed his fingers on the mahogany inlay of his desk. “I think, Colonel James, that I need to take a more... proactive approach to the American Province.” He said as he coolly gazed at the commander of his Presidential Security Unit. Guy Marche, a Frenchman by birth, gave him a Gallic shrug. “It is not the farmers who are in revolt, Your Excellency, but invaders into the countryside.” “And do you know from whence they came?” Guy shook his head. “From the reports I have received, the invaders were certainly military trained, but they rarely spoke, so we cannot ascertain their countries of origin.” “No. They would not betray their Governors if they could help it. But it matters not. I need the Underground crushed, the County Commissioners purged and I have called in the American Governor. Those in positions of responsibility must, ultimately, take responsibility.” He said and turned in his chair to face the thin faced, balding man. “I will initiate the purge immediately.” Guy promised with a gleam in his eyes. “And conduct the interrogations in our facility.” De Crecy allowed a small smile. “I will make room in my schedule to observe.” “Of course, sir.” Guy waited for dismissal, but de Crecy wasn’t through with him just yet. “We need to find out who of the Governors and Councillors would seek to betray me... and the People, of course.” He flashed the colonel a charming smile that made the Frenchman nervous. And so it should. “I’m sure you have the capacity to pressure the Security Units of the Councillors and Governors both.” “Yes, Your Excellency, I believe I can winkle out some information.”

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“Good. I need to put a stop to this...” He waved a hand. “Bad behaviour. Otherwise, I cannot expand our influence beyond the borders of our atmosphere.” “I shall get started immediately, Your Excellency.” Guy dipped his head and saluted. De Crecy watched him leave. Was the man loyal? Or did he pay lip service to the Office of President. He made a sound of disgust. He had to trust the commander of his own protection detail, anything else was paranoid thinking. He’d brought Guy Marche with him when he left the Secretary’s position and set up in here. Guy was unimpeachable and shared his thirst for more. With the Nexian corridors, the Earth no longer seemed enough. There were so many worlds out there, in need of his brand of justice for all, in need of discipline and direction. In need of organisation and increased productivity, of a single government with one overall President, or, he allowed, king. And once he’d crushed all opposition to his rule here on Earth, he would take on the mantle of king, have his Security unit evict those parasites from the World Council and start work on the empire. His empire. One that spanned the light years, and the generations. The Inter-galactic Empire of Man. No. The Inter-galactic Kingdom of de Crecy. He smiled at the thought. But first, I need control of all the corridors. How, then, Peter, do you pry the Hunters and Retrieval Units out of their underground fortress and get their database?

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