My face pressed against years of grime, and the strong smell of iron and rot filled my nose. Her knee kept my arm against my back as one of her hands held my head down and the other stuck something cold in my ear. I tried to cry out, but a hand muffled my voice. Whatever she put in my ear was now moving, crawling like a small insect, nesting deeper inside my ear.

I flipped out.

Shouting against her hand, I writhed on the ground, desperately trying to break free, but she held me tight and had far more strength than I suspected. She was saying something, but it was incoherent, foreign. It was only once I started running out of energy that her words began to make sense.

”Hey, can you hear me now? Calm down, Im not going to hurt you. ”

I stopped, struggling to catch my breath. My heart thundered in my chest.

She spoke again. ”Do you understand me now? ”

I managed a slight nod.

”Okay, Im going to let you go. ”

She moved off me, finally releasing my strained shoulder, and I sat upright, massaging it.

”Whatd you put in my ear? ” I asked, jamming a finger inside to feel for it. I wanted the creepy crawler out.

”We call it a NAT. Its a Native Audio Translator. ”

”Translator … so its true, you aren from Sola? ”

”No, Im not. ” She held out a hand to help me up.

I stared for a moment before taking it, and she lifted me up with ease. As I rose to my feet, a blow of nausea came over me. I knelt down, my hands on my knees, eyes shut tight, as my stomach turned. A sharp bolt of pain sliced through my head. Her hands took hold of my head again, and I was glad she was being gentle this time. With a firm fist she hammered the side of my head and suddenly everything felt right again. The nausea left as quickly as it came.

”Sorry, sometimes the NATs get stuck, ” she said.

When I opened my eyes I found her examining me up close. Her gray eyes scanned my face with a concentrated furrowed brow. My breathing slowed. Now that she wasn getting me in trouble, sticking things in my ear, or hitting me, she was kind of beautiful. More than kind of, actually. I couldn help but notice the small details about her now that she was right in front of me. The brown of her hair was the same color as the sand cliffs I used to live next to. They would shimmer in the sunlight at a certain time when the suns were at the perfect angle. My eyes traveled down her straight nose to her high cheekbones that gave her a sharp but alluring gaze. I watched her pink full lips part slightly, and suddenly I could feel her studying me as well. We made eye contact, and she quickly let go and backed away.

”So, ” she continued from afar. ”What
e you doing here? ”

”Wha … what am I doing here? ” My mind suddenly got back on track. ”What am I doing here? Isn this all your fault? ”

”Well … yeah. ” The girl crossed her arms and leaned against the stone wall, turning her head so her long hair flipped over her shoulder. ”I mean, I meant to get caught. I was supposed to take the fall for stealing the money, and yet here you are. You must be pretty popular to get blamed for something you had nothing to do with. ”

”Im not surprised. Yules had it out for me ever since I became Uriens slave. ”

”Yeah, he looked like he was up to something when I first saw him, but this messes up the plan now. ”

”The plan? ” My head was swirling with questions. ”Just who are you? ”

The girl was silent a moment, clearly contemplating her response.

”Well, I guess I have time to tell you and maybe come up with a new plan. ” She kicked herself off the wall and ripped through a layer on her shirt. Out popped a small, thin holodisk apparently missed during the quick frisk from the guards. Clever. ”Im a Crux Galaxy bounty hunter here to capture the slave trader Vaughan for crimes against humanity … and other illicit stuff. ”

Sure enough, Vaughans image popped up from the holodisk in her hand along with information about him and what I could only assume was a hefty bounty amount.

She continued, ”The original plan was to make a ruckus and get caught stealing from one of Vaughans highest profit-making underlings to flush Vaughan out of hiding. Although I did get caught, the blame was put on you. ”

”You
e after Vaughan? The master of masters? The most protected man on Sola? ” Although I wasn surprised news of his crimes had reached all the way to Crux, the galaxys central government planet, I wasn convinced that this girl could capture him.

”You saw him yourself. He doesn look intimidating at all, ” she said.

”It doesn matter what he looks like. The man is rarely above ground, and hes protected by the most famous bodyguard on Sola, the greatest fighter on the planet, the Quwallie. ”

”So, its true he only comes topside for the arena challenge? And that his famous bodyguard always participates if theres a public execution? ”

It was true, and I realized that thanks to this girls interference, there was now a public execution planned. Right now would be the perfect time to capture him, when hes exposed on the surface and his bodyguard was the farthest away from him. My faith in her was rising.

”But what was the point of getting yourself captured? Wait … don tell me … you were going to fight the Quwallie? ”

She crossed her arms again, this time with a huff of disdain.

”Looks like I won be needing to now. ” She gave me a half-sarcastic, half-true smile. ”Thanks for volunteering. ”

My mouth dropped. Thats right; that role fell on me.

”No, no, no, no. Wait! ” My voice rose

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