1.16 The Scream

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Margo threw herself down into muck, deafened and blinded by explosions, desperate to keep her grip on the floor beam. Goo exploded in black fountains. Alex was causing hammer blows of destruction, decimating the airborne fleet, but outside the protection of a ship, Margo felt like an ant underfoot in a battle of titans.

Ummins began to shout and scream. There were blasts. She risked a peek.

Refugees struggled in nets of chains, desperate to escape. Most of Margo's ummin friends crouched in muck and remained free, but as she watched, ball-like devices careened through the air with splayed mechanical legs. Any that landed on a refugee grabbed on and immediately spat out chain links. One grabbed onto Dugwon, Cherise's friend, knocking her backwards and unspooling chains in a mechanical way, ratcheting tight around the terrified adolescent.

Margo flipped onto her back and hurriedly unlocked her glove. She looked for enemies to shoot, but instead of Torth, she saw a troop of twelve or fifteen nussians hurling chain-balls at the refugees.

"We're on your side!" Pung yelled. He must be shouting at the top of his lungs, but his volume was partially drowned out by the storm.

"We are not your enemies!" Kessa pleaded.

The nussians sneered, their spinal ridges fanned in a sharp sign of aggression. Like all members of the guard species, they were naked, without so much as a slave collar. Their pebbly gold-bronze skin gleamed like armor. They continued to throw chains—but reared in confusion when ummins aimed blaster gloves at them and opened fire.

A blast hit one of the nussians. He or she spun, bellowing in pain, forearm blown off in a bloody gout. Another nussian toppled off the edge of the floor and smashed into whatever was far below.

Margo aimed her glove. She didn't want to kill anyone, especially not slaves, like she used to be. But she wasn't going to be a helpless victim again.

Nussians roared, as if tormented by the sight of ummins wearing blaster gloves. As far as they knew, slaves never touched weapons.

The big nussian in the lead snorted with contempt. "They're runaways," he said in the slave tongue, with a harsh accent that must be local to this harsh planet. "They stole those gloves. Rip off their arms if they refuse to cooperate."

Tank-like nussians barreled towards the refugees like a deadly stampede of rhinos.

The battle became more savage as refugees defended themselves. Wounded nussians fell and died, but the rest of them were berserk, hurling chain-balls at victims and roaring. They must have been threatened with torture in the Isolatorium if they failed here.

Margo figured they must have sneaked across the unstable floor, dropped off by a cargo transport. Other transports might be hovering on the far side of the tower and dropping off more troops.

Cannon fodder. Margo almost felt sorry for the nussians. They were probably meant to sow chaos and add to the dangers, but they were massively large targets. Nussians roared in pain. If the refugees failed to kill them all, then Alex would probably swat them dead as soon as he got a chance to turn around and notice them. So many explosions hit his invisible shield, he glowed; a giant encased in molten fire. Bullets or missiles must be melting in that furnace of destruction.

But Margo doubted the Torth would send nussians as a mere pointless, harmless threat. There might be a purpose to it.

She scanned the storm-swept area, peering into shadows, wondering if she was missing something. That was when she noticed figures creeping on the edge of the battle.

They blended in with the monochromatic dead city, their smooth armor stippled in hues of gray. Eyeless helmets gave them an insectile alienness, and their forearms were bulked up with guns, but they were humanoid.

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