Excerpt

A chilly wind swept across the barren landscape, throwing dust into the air. Only a few tough grasses struggled for survival in Locostwa’s cracked soil.

I tore my gaze away from the bleak expanse and focused on the ramshackle town surrounding the spaceport inn we stayed in. We were here for bounties, not a lousy view of flat land with a few distant peaks.

Dad scanned the crowd of miners as they left one of the holes in the ground. All of them, other than the feathery Torfs, wore tattered clothing that did little to break the wind. Tattoos marked some as slaves.

I shivered and followed Dad. A long-sleeved shirt wasn’t enough to keep the chill away and I’d left all but my first aid kit at the inn.

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. I should have 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 unlike normal girls, I’d spent months in the Hunter Academy learning to use it.

Dad pulled his datsheet from his pocket and touched an icon. “Rumor has it this Chix is around. Says she’s dealing in black market slaves.” 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, this one 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 tail higher than the top of her head. Golden rings hung from her ears. A few even adorned the flaps of gliding skin between her arms and legs.

The datsheet read: Wanted for illegal slave trade, kidnapping, enslaving, 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. “You okay, Krys?” He watched a Torf strut by. The Torf had lost most of his tail feathers.

I shrugged. “Fine. I just wish there we could go after some sort of scammer. This one sounds like she’s dangerous.”

Dad playfully punched my shoulder. “We can do this. It’s a Chix.”

His words did little to comfort me. The Chix cavalry and armada were the reason we won the Tupra war. Thousands of years of bloody history showed they were perfectly capable of standing toe-to-to against Humans as well.

“Come on.” Dad headed deeper into town.

Most of the buildings were composed of rough stone and rusting metal. I examined every person we passed. None stood out as potential bounties.

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 any kind of trash the planet produced. 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?

Ahead, a few larger shops and inns stood. 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. A mural depicting a comet flying above lettering spelling out Comet’s Tail had been painted on the wall.

“Looks like the hub for any sort of criminal,” Dad said. “Can you go in there and scout it out?”

I clenched my teeth and nodded. Dad’s muscular build 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 scents, I guessed most of the food was plant-based, though few meat scents clung in the air.

The doors swung 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 while 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 before scanning the faces again. A bark-colored Chix with dark purple eyes sat at the bar next to a huge Elba who had various weapons and sharp claws. A family of dark sable Chix sat around one of the tables. The mother’s fur had just enough black in it 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 flitted 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.

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 its head. The left eye had been replaced with cybernetics, and 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 quickly punched out a description of the Chix. If only I had a modern datsheet, I’d have been able to scan his face. 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 illegal slave trade, terrorism, pirating, murder, illegal medical experiments, experimentation without consent, enslaving of hunters, war crimes, 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 chest. Considering he’d have been able to gut any Human-sized species 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 the datsheet?

He bumped into a Skallan with a cybernetic leg. Scars marred the Skallan’s brownish green scales. 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 taste, 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.

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 thought about 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.

A scaly hand latched onto my shoulder. The cyborg Skallan.

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