As the sun was setting on Newah, it left shadows and dark patches on the forest floors. Eyes like lasers glimmered from the hollows of trees as she ran past them. The wind wailed within decomposing tree trunks, carrying the pungent aroma of wood rot as Regina’s legs moved faster.
Ignoring the briars that caught on her trousers and the damp leaves that grimed her covered arms, her eyes searched restlessly for a place to hide. Spotting a good hiding place, the cavity of a tree, she dashed towards it and wedged her body inside. Calming her breathing, she said a silent prayer and hoped the mercenaries would run past her.
As she laid her head back on the bark, the earth all around her smelt of decomposed leaves rot and was pungent in her nose. Regina clutched the rough cracked ridges inside the cavity hard, she only stopped when a splinter bit into the soft skin beneath her fingernails.
“Where did she go?” one of the Allarians chasing her said from nearby. “Bando, did you find her?” he added with an audible breath.
“I will search the area. The ouman couldn’t have gone too far.”
Regina’s skin was awash with cold sweat as she told her body to be still. She would not have been running for her life if Alex had not died. Being accused of murder for the second time was the death penalty on Earth. Her life depended on staying free and finding Samuel Beur. He was the man she knew must be responsible for her friend’s death.
Around her, everything had gone still. Even the small rodents seemed to pause like her, as if they, too, were waiting to be caught.
“Victor,” the Allarian called Bando said. His voice was sharp, but it held a note of secrecy.
They had found her, she was certain. Her fingers bit harder into the bark as she pushed herself away from the hollow and peered cautiously around the trunk.
A startled gasp left her as a large claw-like hand grabbed the front of her black shirt and hauled her from the inside of the hollow.
“You’re an agile little ouman.”
She wriggled like a caught fish on a hook as she tried desperately to escape from the Allarian, but he held her tight. Using both hands, she shoved at his enormous paws, trying to push them away from her body.
“Stop moving,” he snapped, his voice cutting like a whip around them. The Allarian looked at her hands as if they were annoying instruments.
Her heart stuttered at his tone, and she grew still. “Get your scaly paws off me,” she snarled, glaring at him.
The Allarian’s eyes flickered yellow, then black at her. “You do not give me commands.” He wound the material of her shirt tighter in his beefy hand and a sharp nail scratch her chest, stinging her.
“Two days we have chased you. I do not believe I will let you go now,” he hissed, tugging her up and closer to his face.
His double rows of shark teeth were menacing to see up close, yet she held his gaze. “Maybe you should have given up then,” she suggested sarcastically.
He lowered his head closer to hers and bared his teeth as if he were ready to gobble her up.
Frightened, she lowered her eyes, but a part of her refused to cower before the mercenary.
He was bigger than her, that was a given, at one and a half metres tall, but she would rather he killed her instantly than torture her and if this meant that she had to goad him into doing it quicker, she would do it. What was the use of letting them take her prisoner? she would end up back on earth in a prison where she would spend her last days thinking of the method of her death? This was better. At least she would die on her terms.
Regina glared up at the Allarian and he stared down at her intimidatingly.
“Bando do not harm the ouman.” His friend said, coming towards them.
Regina did not turn her head, but she heard the Allarian’s footsteps crunch rotten limbs beneath his booted feet.
“Bando, let her down.” He paused, waiting for his friend to set her to her feet. “Do you want to be paid?” he reasoned, coming closer, but he did not intervene.
Bando’s eyes never left Regina’s face.
She was afraid that reasoning would not make this Allarian stop intimidating her. Just when she thought Bando would not listen, he released her in mid-air.
“Ouch,” Regina yelped as pain shot up her leg. “For shame Allarian, can’t you be gentler?” she snarled, eyeing him with disdain.
Yellow and black eyes stared down at her. It was hard to miss the animosity.
His eyes never left her as he said, “Victor, I want to teach this ouman female a lesson,” he said, taking a step closer to her. He leaned down to grab her again.
Victor stepped nearer to her. His larger frame was like Bando’s, but instead of a calloused brown colour, he was a shade of onyx. “Leave her be Bando,” he said calmly, stopping Bando’s large hand halfway to her hand as he reached for her. “If you damage her, there’ll be no payment.”
Bando’s head straightened as his fleshy head snapped around and he stared at his friend. “Why did you take the ouman’s coin?” he muttered. His voice held his hatred.
“Don’t we have mouths to feed?” Victor commented, his eyes going to Regina. “This female bought in enough coin to feed our clan for half a month.”
On the ground, Regina held her throbbing ankle. They were talking about her as if she were not there. It was disconcerting, but she was glad for the reprieve.
Her shoulders sagged as she thought of what was about to happen to her. She had tried so hard to escape, to get the evidence she had to someone who would listen, but she had not believed that Beur would be so wicked as to send mercenaries after her. She knew he would not kill her. Not until she gave up all the evidence.
“On your feet.” Victor peered down at her. His black and green eyes did not hold the same resentment as his companion, and she wondered if she could reason with him.
“Don’t get any fancy ideas,” he added when he saw her watching him.
Regina used the tree as an aid as she rose to her feet. Ignoring the surly Bando, she focused her eyes on Victor. “I could offer you double, no triple, what the other person is paying you if you let me go,” she said earnestly.
He shook his large head, and the sun’s last rays cutting through the trees made his black scales glimmer. “I cannot take your coin.” She heard the regret in his voice as he stared at her. “Although I admire a female that can escape us Allarians for this long, I cannot oblige you.”
“Why not? no one would know you caught me.”
Victor shook his head as if he could not believe she was trying to negotiate with him. This was her last chance. If they rejected her offer, she would not escape that imaginary noose she felt getting tighter around her neck. “Please.” She let the helplessness she felt come out in her voice.
“Victor, do we have to listen to the female’s whining?”
Victor’s eyes flickered from black to green two times. “Your attempt to bargain with us is interesting. But we cannot oblige you.”
Disheartened, she bit the inside of her lips to stop them from trembling.
“Put the cuffs on her Bando,” Victor said to his companion. “We must leave before the sun sets in the sky. The Newahans have allowed us to hunt only until then.”
She did not have to look at Bando to feel his delight. He was one of those aliens who hated humans. It was not too dissimilar from the countless alien species that felt animosity towards Earthers in the Cehimu System. It was not unlike how she had felt when she was younger and had joined Beur’s purist movement. It was because of her poor judgement why she was now in this predicament.
“Give me your hand, female.” Bando pulled out a pair of titanium cuffs from the utility belt, with a holster around his rotund waist.
She did not want to. In the back of her mind, she was thinking of running again.
“Now,” he snarled, getting impatient.
Dejected, she held out her wrists.
Bando leaned closer to put one bracelet around one wrist when he stopped and turned to stare into the trees behind him.
“What is it?” Victor asked, his eyes peering into the trees, searching them.
They were not paying attention to her now. There was a tightness in her gut as she took cautious side steps and edged along the root of the tree. Her leg throbbed harder as she inched along and kept a wary eye on the Allarians’ movements.
“Where do you think you’re going, ouman?” Bando snapped.
Startled, she froze.
Bando grabbed her by her arm and tugged her back to where she was before. She had been so close; she thought as he snapped one bracelet on.
Regina looked at Victor, hoping he would reconsider her offer, but he was still staring into the trees. It was the intensity of his gaze that made her forget what Bando was doing and follow Victor’s eyes.
“That can’t be good.” Unaware that she has said the words aloud.
Immediately, Bando turned around. A wolflike creature bounded out of the forest, close to them.
Regina felt more than heard the Allarians’ fear. This creature was a native to Newah. She had heard about these creatures before; they were like the white wolves on earth. But this was where the similarity stopped. On Newah, these creatures could transform into humanoids. She would not think it shocking if this animal could also change.
“What do you want, Karan?” Victor said to the wolf. He could not hide the animosity in his voice.
Her eyes went to the creature. It cocked its head and peered back at them.
“We have a right to hunt in this forest,” Victor added, but she noticed that his hand was going towards the utility belt at this waist.
The Newahans did not allow aliens on their planet with weapons that fire rounds or blasted things. This, she knew, was because of the Cascade. It was why it had taken the Allarians two days to catch her. If they’d had weapons, they would have caught her sooner. Newah was not their home planet and if they wanted to return, they had to follow the rules, especially since it legalised them as mercenaries.
They had almost forgotten her again.
Let them fight it out with that thing. She needed freedom more. Thinking fast, she watched the Allarians. Taking one, then two steps backwards, she willed herself to forget anything but the need to escape. The mercenaries did not seem to notice her movements, but she could not feel any sort of relief until she was far away from them. Even with her sprained ankle, she could find a good place to hide.
The wolf kept them distracted until she slid agilely over the hurdle-sized root of the tree. When Regina turned and hobbled into a denser part of the forest, making as little noise as possible, she was unsurprised when Bando yelled for her to stop.