A merciful pirate. A cyborg with divided loyalties. Bounty hunters out for blood.
All Krys wants is to capture enough bounties to keep her belly filled and move up in rank, but when she and her dad catch a pirate, the pirate’s crewmates retaliate. The attack kills Krys’s dad and burns away half her face and limbs.
When her relatives set out to avenge their fallen brother, Krys must choose between forgiveness and revenge, the law and the outlaws. No matter what she chooses, it will either be betraying her friends or betraying her family.
Sunlight reflected off a bulky space freighter as it flew across the plains toward the spaceport. Scraggly grass whipped in the chilly wind that swept across the cracked dirt below the ship.
I tore my gaze away from the bleak expanse and focused on the ramshackle mining town surrounding the spaceport inn we stayed at. We’d come to Lokostwa for bounties, not a lousy view of flat land with a few distant peaks.
Dad scanned a crowd of miners as they left one of the shafts near the edge of town. All the miners, other than the feathery Torfs, wore tattered clothing that did little to break the wind. Tattoos marked some as slaves. Others were workers whose lives weren’t much better.
I shivered and followed Dad. A long-sleeved shirt wasn’t enough to keep the chill away. I should’ve put a jacket in my pack, but to save on weight, I’d only packed my first aid kit and some extra ammunition.
We headed past the slaves without looking for bounties hiding among them. Escaped slaves and criminals hid because they wanted to avoid the mines, or worse, the pits. They wouldn’t hide in the very place they wanted to escape.
I brushed dust from my hair. It would have been smart to cut it short before coming to such a dustbowl, but I liked it long. It made me look younger, which gave me the element of surprise. People tended to dismiss teenage girls without considering them a threat, even if I carried a stun pistol. Lots of girls carried those, but most hadn’t spent time in a hunter academy learning to use one.
Dad pulled his datsheet from his pocket and touched an icon. “Rumor has it this Chix is around. Nasty little beast’s been kidnapping people and selling them as slaves on the black market, as well as dealing with exotics that get smuggled in.” He handed me the datsheet. “With all these workers coming and going, it would be pretty simple to nab a few.”
I looked at the datsheet. Unlike the newer models, which were very thin and folded over at least twice, it only folded once.
An image and description of a Chix appeared on the datsheet screen. Nerrini Kazini. No slave tattoo marked her lustrous black fur. She held her bushy tail higher than the top of her head. Golden rings hung from her ears. A few even adorned the flaps of gliding skin that stretched from her ankles to her wrists.
The datsheet read: Wanted for slave trafficking, kidnapping, association with smugglers, resisting arrest, kidnapping of hunters, murder of two hunters. Bounty: 4,000 Coin
My shoulders tensed. Maybe the Chix would only reach my waist if I stood next to her, but considering this one killed hunters, we’d have to be careful. I gave the datsheet back to Dad.
Dad brushed dirt out of his red sideburns. “Krys, you okay?” He watched a Torf strut by. The Torf had lost most of his tail feathers, leaving his long tail nearly bare.
I shrugged. “Fine. I just wish we could go after some sort of scammer. This one sounds like she’s dangerous.”
Dad playfully punched my shoulder. “We can do this. We’re Karzils, and she’s a Chix.”
His words did little to comfort me. Thousands of years of bloody history showed the Chix were perfectly capable of standing toe-to-toe against any military in the galaxy, other than Tupra.
“Come on.” Dad headed deeper into Port City, named after the spaceport. Obviously, whoever called it a city had never seen the shining cities of Saddat.
Stone and rusting metal made up most of the buildings. I examined every person we passed, most of which were Torfs with dirt-colored feathers. None stood out as potential bounties, but many of them watched us with suspicion. Even two decades after the war, they still had a rebellious streak. Most likely, they were followers of the radical Free Kin sect that refused to accept the Ordained were put in power by God.
We traveled through the poor outskirts and into the market area of the town where brightly painted stalls stood against smooth stone and steel buildings. A few Gorkam and Torfs tried to sell us trash, or what looked like trash to me. One Gorkam held up a bit of its own shedded exoskeleton. I moved on without pausing. Why would anyone pay for the spotted shell of a giant insect?
A few larger shops and inns stood ahead. Dad stopped and gazed at a tavern in front of us. Unlike the buildings on the outskirts, this stone building had been smoothed and painted with a mural depicting a comet. Below the comet, lettering spelled out Comet’s Tail.
“From what I know, Nerrini likes to do trade in places like this,” Dad said. “Can you go in there and scout it out?”
I clenched my teeth and nodded. Dad’s muscular build and the fact that he was a Human on Lokostwa screamed “hunter.” He’d attract too much attention.
“Don’t engage if you find something.” Dad handed me his datsheet. “If Nerrini isn’t there, see if anyone else has a bounty on their heads. Don’t let them see this.”
“I won’t.” I did my best to shove the apprehension down. I’m sixteen. I can handle this.
I pushed open the steel door and stepped into the tavern. The noise of various species talking and shouting assaulted my ears while starchy smells enveloped my nose. From the earthy aroma, I guessed most of the food was plant-based, though a few meat scents clung in the air.
The door clanged shut behind me.
Local Gorkam and Torfs made up at least half the patrons. A few families sat around tables in the center of the room. The edges had rougher customers, most of which kept their backs to the walls. Some even wore their pistols in the open. Another group of the rough bunch stood at the bar or perched on stools.
I hurried to a dark corner near the doorway and sat at a small table. My chair wasn’t as close to the wall as I liked, but it would have to do. I scanned the faces again. A bark-colored Chix sat at the bar next to a huge Elba who had various weapons and sharp claws. A pair of Chix and their children sat around one of the tables, their fur dark sable. The mother’s coloring was black enough to be Nerrini, but this Chix had a family.
Two more Chix, both with reddish brown fur, sat in a dark alcove. No other Chix were in the tavern.
A young Torf trotted to my table. “What do you want to eat?” His sandy-colored feathers were shiny, hinting that he got paid well enough to care about his appearance.
A menu had been carved into the metal tabletop. I read the first thing on the list. “Fried sarga root.”
He scurried away, his claws clicking on the floor.
I leaned back and pulled out Dad’s datsheet. I kept it in my lap, hopefully out of sight of any patrons.
The Chix at the bar turned his head. While the right eye was dark purple, the left had been replaced with cybernetics—not a cybernetic eye either. A lens took up most of the eye socket. From the looks of the metal around it, the thing could telescope.
I punched out a description of the camera-eyed Chix on the datsheet. If only I had a modern datsheet, I’d be able to scan his face from a distance. Still, this was better than our really old one.
The info popped up. Only one Chix had an eye like that so I didn’t have to scroll through various icons to find the right one.
Chril Korishi: Wanted for slave trafficking, radicalism, terrorism, pirating, murder, illegal medical experiments, experimentation without consent, enslaving of hunters, war crimes, desertion, espionage, and smuggling. 20,000 Coin. Known aliases: Doc. Known associates, Klate, captain of the Deathhorn.
I stared at the number. Twenty thousand? That’s more than we get in a year.
I touched Klate’s name. An image of a dark brown Elba with black stripes and green eyes appeared.
I froze. My gaze moved to the huge Elba next to the Chix doctor. The stripes on his face were identical to the image on the datsheet. Two thick weapons belts crossed his furry chest. A knife and ammunition hung there, along with a pistol at his hip. Considering he’d have been able to gut any Human-sized person with one swipe of his sharp claws, the weapons were overkill.
The young Torf hurried back with a plate of twisted roots. I stuffed the datsheet in my pocket. The Torf dropped the food on my table and scrambled away before I could pay him. Had he seen Klate’s image on the datsheet?
He bumped into a Skallan with a cybernetic leg. Scars marred the Skallan’s brownish green scales, indicating he’d likely been in the Tupra War. The Torf paused and said something I couldn’t hear over the tavern noise before darting into the kitchen.
I picked up a root and bit into it. Under the dirt flavor that most Lokostwan foods carried, it wasn’t that bad. I took another bite and forced myself to look at my food. My hands weren’t shaking, that was good. I just had to act normal and avoid getting caught staring.
The Skallan with the cybernetic leg looked at me, rose, and headed for the exit. Like many of his species, he stood a few inches taller than most Human men, though I doubted he weighed much more.
I glanced back at the two pirates. Klate swigged some sort of purple juice while the Chix stuffed a large roast bug into his mouth. If I’d only been dealing with one of them, I’d have considered drugging a drink. Trying to take two would likely get Dad and me killed.
I pulled out my datsheet. It still had Klate’s profile on it, which included the murder of multiple hunters.
These pirates needed to see justice, but Dad and I couldn’t risk it. Maybe we could find some other hunters who were willing to take the risk and give us a cut for the tip-off.
A scaly hand latched onto my shoulder. The cyborg Skallan had somehow snuck up on me.
I grabbed the Skallan’s thumb and yanked his hand off my shoulder. Before he could react, I sprang to my feet and bolted for the exit.
The Skallan snatched my wrist. I spun, my shoulder protesting at the yank. With my free hand, I struck at the Skallan’s throat.
He swatted my hand away, then twisted my arm behind my back. He grabbed my stun pistol from my belt then wrapped his gangly arm around my neck, not tight enough to cut off my air but enough to tell me he had complete control.
I froze. If only I’d fought back instead of knocking his hand away, I could have escaped.