Hand of Steel
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.
The Red Tattoo
I pulled a large rock from the collapsed mineshaft. It rolled down the pile of rocks and dirt made by the old collapse. More dirt slid down the pile of rubble to fill the hole left by the rock.
I snarled and dug harder, dull claws scraping against rock and dry soil.
Dirt from the tunnel ceiling ran down my shirt. I ignored it and pushed myself to dig faster. We needed somewhere safe to sleep, and a tent didn’t count as safe, not when the Company could come down on us at any moment.
“Savora, watch it.” My brother, Rolko, held his clawed hands up, trying to keep my spray of rubble from flying into his eyes.
I paused. “Sorry.” I stood and glared at the hole in front of me. We had to be almost through the rubble. A little more digging and we’d be into the mine system, long before Mom got back from foraging with the other refugees.
Rolko shook himself, throwing dust everywhere. Sunlight from the mine entrance illuminated the specks. He brushed the yellowish dirt from his face and the ruff along his jaws, exposing his reddish fur and black stripes. “You should see yourself.”
I looked back at my dust-covered shirt and skirt. He had a point.
I resumed digging. If only we’d had a shovel, but with the war on, even those had become scarce and expensive. Good thing we were Elbas, making us natural tunnelers.
I cleared the soil and rock away until a hole formed. I crawled through.
With only a tiny bit of light shining through the hole I’d dug, I had to rely on senses other than my vision. I clicked a few times and perked my ears. My echolocation gave me a decent picture of the shaft. Past the one collapse, the old mine tunnels seemed clear.
Rolko climbed through. “We’re going to live here?” I heard his triangular ears twitching, taking in the echoes that bounced off the walls.
“Just until the war’s over.” If only Rolko was still young enough to think we’d win the war, but at fourteen, he had to know we’d been losing ever since the space cruiser, Lusta, got attacked and the Chix threw their full support behind the Company.
Rolko touched the dry mine walls. His long ears and whiskers drooped.
I walked a bit farther down the mineshaft. Cold air blew through my whiskers. If we wanted to live here, we’d have to find somewhere with fewer drafts. That meant more digging.
I ran my claws along one of the walls. Bits of dry earth flaked off, but my claws found rock. It would be too hard-packed to dig by hand. “We’re going to need a shovel,” I growled.
“We don’t have enough coin for food,” Rolko said.
I snarled and slashed at the wall, my claws digging deep.
Rolko stepped away from me. “Easy with the temper.”
The walls weren’t what I wanted to slice to pieces. That rage needed to be aimed at the Company. “Couldn’t they have been happy with two planets? It’s not like we’re a threat.”
“Some people just like to dominate.” Rolko touched the wall. “We can’t change that.”
I went back to the hole I’d dug and enlarged it enough we wouldn’t have to squeeze through. My anger at the Company lent me the energy I needed to complete the work. My stomach grumbled. “We got the mine opened. Let’s see if Mom’s back.” Please let her have food, I prayed.
We crawled up through our hole out of the mineshaft. Bare, rocky mountains spread around us. In a valley below, ramshackle buildings and tents huddled in a tight group, as if their proximity would be able to break some of the bitter Lokostwan winds. Torf refugees strutted through the tents, their long tails swishing back and forth. Even this far north, none of them wore clothes, not that they needed them with theropodian anatomy and feathery bodies. A few wore belts and slings to support rifles while others had packs.
I headed down the hill toward the village. Rolko followed, swatting at his fur and raising clouds of dust.
A few Torf guards with rifles stood around the edges of the village, their eyes on the horizon and the sky. I doubted these guards would be much help. If the Company attacked, the refugees wouldn’t stand a chance, guards or no guards. The only way to survive the Company was to be underground.
As usual, the guards watched us. Even though I hadn’t reached my full height, I stood a head taller than almost all the females and many of the males.
“Your mother’s still out foraging,” one of the older guards said when we came within earshot. The scales on her face were rough, betraying age, and her skin hung loosely. She hadn’t been getting enough food. No one had.
I bowed my head to her, a Lokostwan custom. I couldn’t keep the names of hundreds of Torfs straight, but every one of them knew who we were. In a village of Torfs, three red Elba refugees stuck out.
The Torf wasn’t the only one on the edge of starvation. I prayed Mom would find something good. “Do you know of any jobs around here?” I glanced at Rolko. “My brother and I might be young, but we’re good diggers. We’d work for food.”
The old Torf sighed. “I’m sorry, girl. There’s no work here unless you can find some bendsteel in that mine.” She shivered and fluffed her feathers.
If there was steel in that mine, this town wouldn’t have been left vacant until we fled here.
A downy Torf who couldn’t have been older than seven ran to me and stretched out his clawed fingers, silently begging for food.
“Sorry, I don’t have anything.” I looked away, but not in time to miss the kid’s frown deepen in disappointment. The Torf kids had to be getting pretty hungry if they’d risk begging from someone who stood at least a head taller than their parents.
At the edge of the village, a half dozen Torf children near Rolko’s age hopped around a pile of rocks that had once been a building. All of them carried short spears.
“Bet they’ve got a hornsnake,” Rolko said. He took off toward the rock pile. “Come on. We can help get it!”
My mouth watering, I ran after him. A feathery hornsnake was the best we could hope for with the area too cold and barren to support many things bigger than insects.
Rolko ran through the Torfs and knelt on the pile of rocks, his huge ears twitching. I watched from the bottom of the pile. A second Elba would only get in the way of the quick-moving Torfs. Besides, my height could intimidate them.
The Torfs focused on Rolko, their heads cocked like they hoped to hear the hornsnake.
Rolko pounced and rolled a large rock to the side. The Torfs came in behind him, their spears lifted. Rolko kept rolling the rocks. The Torfs wouldn’t be able to hear the hornsnake, not like Rolko could.
Rolko rolled away a small boulder.
A hornsnake that had to be at least as long as I was tall zipped from under the rock, its six little legs skittering as it slithered. One of the Torf kids stabbed at it with a spear. The snake lost a few feathers but kept going.
An older Torf child lashed out, striking the snake with her three-toed foot. The snake went flying, hit the ground, and bounced. It tried to crawl again, though the Torf’s long inner claw had injured it. A third Torf leaped off the rock pile and speared the snake through the neck.
The snake writhed, its tiny legs flailing.
The children cheered, happy to have found food at last. Not only was the snake long, but it still had some meat on it. The winter had been kinder to it than it had been to us.
Rolko approached the snake as the Torf teen pulled his spear from the snake’s neck. He looked at the Torfs around him, three of which had the exact same shade of tan feathers as him, most likely his siblings. He turned on Rolko and the Torf who had kicked the snake. “There’s not enough for all of us,” he hissed. “My family gets it.”
I stormed toward him. “Everyone worked to get that snake. Back off.”
He raised the spear and pointed it at my chest, which was nearly level with his head. His three siblings, all younger than he was, lifted their own spears, though they looked at him for leadership.
The Torf who had kicked the snake lifted her own spear. Her hackles shot up. A younger Torf cowered behind her, but at his age, he’d only be a hindrance in a fight.
I charged the leader. He sprang back, but not fast enough. I jerked the spear from his grasp, snapped it over my knee, and threw the two halves at his feet. He backed away, his eyes wide and feathers flattened. He knew he didn’t stand a chance against me.
The youngest of his siblings started crying, her skinny frame shaking with every sob.
“We’ll still give you half the snake,” Rolko said.
The Torf boy dipped his head to Rolko. “Thank you.”
The eight of us quickly plucked the snake and cut it into sections. If we mixed it with native roots, we’d each have enough for a meal.
Rolko and I headed for our tent. We’d pitched it a short distance from the Torf tents. Back when we’d lived in a city, there’d been enough non-native species the Torfs were used to Elbas, but here, our large size tended to set our feathered allies on edge.
I ducked through the tent’s door and into our tiny home. A couple spare pots sat on the earth floor while our worn clothes hung from the ceiling. The only decent thing we had was an elecrorifle hidden under a thin rug. Mom had the other rifle, an older model that shot a supersonic slug instead of electrobullets. Everything else had been left behind or sold in exchange for food, including the books on tactics I’d become obsessed with when the war started. Back at that age, I’d still believed I could change the world.
I dropped the snake meat in a pot of broth from our breakfast, then started a small fire to cook it. I’d be able to surprise Mom with something to eat when she got back. As I stirred the pot, my stomach growled at the scent. Hopefully, Mom would be home soon.
Rolko stood in the tent opening, his ears twitching. “Do you hear that?” he whispered.
I stopped stirring and listened. Engines rumbled in the distance. Maybe Mom and the others had found something when they went out hunting. They’d probably taken a transport of some sort.
The rumbling intensified, echoing off the mountains. Spoon in hand, I scrambled from the tent.
Engines roared. From the sound of it, they were huge transports, not the small ones a few of the lucky refugees owned.
The Company was coming.
Cold fear pulsed through me. I dropped the spoon and ran to the nearest guard, an elderly male. “I hear transports. They’re coming!”