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The ship landed roughly, and Kenzie Fletcher clutched the hard edge of her seat and sent up a prayer that she survived. She hadn’t been to church in the better part of a decade, and even then she hadn’t been paying attention. But the ship came to a stop with her still breathing, so maybe someone up there had her back.
She ran her tongue over the strange bumps on her palette. She’d been fitted with one of the best translators on the planet back when she was doing security on Earth Colony 3, but even after nearly seven years, it still felt a little strange when she remembered the implant was in her mouth.
There weren’t many humans on this transport. She was a long way from home and the territories humans liked to prowl. But that didn’t matter. She wasn’t looking for an entire settlement of humans.
She only needed to find one.
She slung her bag over her shoulder and joined the crowd of people getting off the ship. Guerran was a weird place. It was a land full of criminals, but also welcomed newcomers from across the stars with few questions. It was the kind of place someone could get lost and make a new life for themselves… if they knew how to use a knife.
Kenzie’s favorite dagger was in a sheath on her thigh. She had throwing knives on her belt and a baton in another sheath on her thigh, and her bag carried more weapons than clothes. Three planets back, one of her contacts had asked her why she didn’t use a blaster, and Kenzie had shown her the scars on her left arm that came when a malfunctioning blaster nearly killed her back on EarthCol3.
There was no customs post on Guerran and no immigration check point. Kenzie hated to think of the things people could smuggle in, but the planet had been functioning like this for hundreds of years. It wasn’t her place to question things.
She wasn’t here to change society, just to find out if her sister had ended up on Guerran and when. She had to have been here. Kenzie didn’t have any other leads.
A man wearing a wrinkled guard uniform beckoned her and the few other human passengers over. He wore a leather pouch around his neck that clashed with the black uniform. Strangely, the pouch almost seemed to glow.
Weird alien shit.
The guard had to be Kru’dari. They looked human, if humans were regularly nearly seven feet tall and brimming with muscle. And power emanated from him. She almost believed he could shoot fireballs out of his hand.
But Kenzie had studied the Kru’dari as best she could when she figured out she was going to Guerran. They didn’t shoot fire or lightning. They were strong and violent, and could be possessive.
The text hadn’t used the word, but it had flashed before Kenzie’s mind, and nothing else fit. They were a warrior people. On their home planet of Krudare, they might have pretended at civilization, but that was all forgotten on Guerran, where the strong ruled and the weak did what it took to survive.
Carise, I hope you’re okay.
“We have control of the Green Zone,” the guard was telling her and the four other humans from the ship. “It should be safe enough for all of you and the guards will assist you if you find yourself in danger. The exiles in this quadrant are closely monitored and will be punished if they do you any harm. But if you leave this area, your safety is no longer guaranteed. The criminals on this planet are in exile, not prison. We do not attempt to control them. And you will find some are especially motivated to take humans captive.”
One of the humans shivered at the guard’s tone and leaned against her companion. She had pale skin and red hair. Her companion put an arm around her and clutched her tight to him. Beside them there were two young women who still looked like teenagers. The taller one had light brown skin and straight, black hair, and had as many visible weapons as Kenzie, while the smaller, frailer one with dark brown skin and short curly hair reminded Kenzie of Carise. This girl had a protector.
Did her sister even know she was coming?
“Why do they want us?” the man with his arm around his companion asked.
The guard absently ran his hand over the pouch. “They will steal your vital energy. Humans brim with it more than other species.”
“Vital energy?” the redhead asked.
“It’s nothing you can control,” the guard continued. “But it is something Kru’dari need to function on Guerran. We’re…” He stroked his pouch again. “It doesn’t matter. You simply must know that you’ll be hunted by the worst of the worst outside of this safe area. Don’t leave.” He turned and abandoned them on the landing pad.
The two girls glared after the guard while the two adults followed in his footsteps after a minute, as if he could lead them to safety. For a moment Kenzie wondered if she should offer to help the girls. They were children and this was a dangerous place. But the taller girl stared at her, her eyes daring Kenzie to say something.
Even if they needed help, they wouldn’t take it.
She gave the girl a warriors’ nod and headed toward the large building she assumed was the launch terminal. She was starving, and there was sure to be some kind of food inside.
Meal eaten, she left the launch port and wandered around the Green Zone for a while. It looked like a military base. There were guards everywhere. She wasn’t sure they outnumbered the regular people, but she wouldn’t be surprised. Were they worried that the exiles would overrun them and chase them off the planet?
Not her problem.
The edge of the Green Zone was marked by a thick line in the road covered in green paint. Apparently the Kru’dari were a literal people. Kenzie didn’t hesitate as she stepped over it. No guard tried to stop her.
The blocks outside the zone looked basically the same as those inside of it, except for the lack of guards. But as she walked further down the road, things began to fall into disrepair. The people looked well fed, though, and she saw people laughing and talking like they had no problems in the world.
Were they exiles?
Kenzie didn’t waste time thinking about it. Obviously not everyone on the streets was an exile. She saw plenty of aliens who’d probably never set foot on Krudare. And none of them were who she was looking for.
She checked the note she’d written before boarding the transport to Guerran and then looked up at the stone building with a roaring lion carved above the door. It probably wasn’t actually a lion. It was some cat from Kru’dari legend that resembled a lion back on Earth.
Whatever—it roared like a lion, it was a lion.
Inside the building was a restaurant, and she found an older Kru’dari woman who seemed to run the place. The woman was a head and a half taller than Kenzie and could probably bench press a horse. Kenzie had to stop herself from reaching for one of her weapons. Feeling small wasn’t a reason to lash out.
“I’m here to talk to Layala,” she said.
The woman nodded and pointed to a table in the back where a woman sat cloaked in shadow.
Kenzie was a little shocked to see Layala was human. Or, at least, she looked human. Plenty of alien species looked vaguely human or could shapeshift to impersonate them. Kenzie didn’t ask if Layala was showing her true form.
It seemed rude.
Layala was maybe thirty with curly brown hair, beige skin, and a dark green bodysuit that clung to her curves and would have made Kenzie look twice if she swung that way.
Her blue eyes were cold.
She was a killer.
Kenzie didn’t see weapons, but that meant nothing. Layala had chosen this spot. She knew this area. And if she wanted to end Kenzie, it wouldn’t take any effort.
“I’m looking for my sister.” Kenzie didn’t have time to be afraid. Layala had agreed to meet, so Kenzie would assume she was acting in good faith until she proved otherwise.
“So I’ve heard.” Layala waved at the Kru’dari woman Kenzie had seen earlier. “Would you like tea?” Layala asked Kenzie.
There was a kind of rhythm to these meetings, no matter the planet, so Kenzie nodded. If she tried to rush Layala, she’d get nowhere.
“Two teas, Ifan. And we’ll take some snacks. Thank you.”
Ifan nodded and left them alone.
“Did you have any trouble finding this place?” Layala asked. “Were you followed?” She said it gently, but there was a threat laced in those words.
“No trouble at all. I was careful coming here, and I didn’t see a tail. No one knows who I am, and if they followed me, it wasn’t because I was meeting you.” Ifan came back and placed the drinks and a plate of fruit, cheese, and bread with a red dipping sauce on the table. Kenzie nodded her thanks. She waited for Layala to grab the tea before reaching for her own and sipping.
Sweet. She drank more. It was good.
Layala grinned. “Did some do-gooder guard give you a warning about the scary exile territory? Were you told they eat us out here?”
Us. Layala was human.
Kenzie shrugged and reached for a slice of cheese. “What’s this about vital energy?” she asked between bites. Her father would have slapped her for her bad manners. She took another bite to spite his memory.
“You know the legends of vampires from Earth?” Layala asked, like it wasn’t a hugely popular myth.
Kenzie nodded. This deep into space there was no guarantee that a human was directly from Earth. There were settlements dotted across the stars, some of them made up of refugees who’d been abducted over the years, others made up of the descendants of space explorers. “Yes, I’ve heard of them. You’re saying Kru’dari drink our blood and live forever?”
Nothing in the literature had suggested that.
But Layala waved a hand in dismissal. “Not quite. There might be bloodshed involved, but it’s not necessary. Apparently back home they’re all connected to this massive source of power that’s generated by their planet. They can carry the power in these little leather packs, but they don’t last for long. All the guards have them and they guard the shipments of those things better than they’d guard the king if he ever dared to appear here. But apparently fighting generates a power kind of similar to it, so the Kru’dari love to fight amongst themselves. Pit fights are a big form of entertainment. And humans are also brimming with energy. Luckily, most of the Kru’dari find it distasteful to feed off of unwilling humans. But some of them will hunt you down, put a chain around your neck, and drain you dry.”
Kenzie didn’t mean to, but her hand rose to her throat and felt the bare skin there. Was that what had happened to Carise? “How long does it take to drain a human?”
Layala shrugged. “If they’re careful, taking energy won’t kill someone. But if they insist on constantly feeding, day after day, and so on, never giving the human a chance to recover, the human will last a few months, a few years if they’re very strong or regenerate their energy quickly.” Layala reached down and pulled out a photograph that she placed on the table between them. Pictured was a Kru’dari man who kind of looked like a politician, middle aged, smiling, and slimy. “This is Jadirel. He’s an exile king two territories east of here.”
“Exile king?” Another thing not mentioned in the literature.
“The guards hate the term, so they don’t tell you about it,” Layala explained. “There are hundreds of territories in the city of Orion. Almost all of them are ruled by exile kings. There are a few that are ruled by egalitarian councils, but that’s a whole other thing. Jadirel has a large territory, and he’s known to keep humans for their energy. According to my sources, he purchased new humans three weeks ago. And here—” She pulled out another picture.
Kenzie wanted to snap the picture up and hold it tight. Instead, she forced herself to keep still and look. The two years since her abduction had weighed heavy on Carise. There were dark circles and the beginnings of wrinkles under her eyes. Her hair was cropped short, as if whoever had kept her couldn’t be bothered to deal with curly hair. Her brown skin was sallow and her face was as blank as an automaton’s. Kenzie couldn’t see her eyes, and she feared the spark of life had gone out of them.
Carise was a gentle woman. She wasn’t hard like Kenzie. And the torture she had endured might have broken her.
But she was alive. And as long as she was alive, Kenzie could find her and get her the help she needed.
“This was taken outside of a known slave auction site. I couldn’t confirm if your sister was sold to someone, but Jadirel was there that day. He’s your best hope.” Layala took both photos off the table, and Kenzie was left looking at the blank spot where her sister’s image should have been.
“Any advice for approaching Jadirel?” Kenzie asked. She ate more of the cheese. Food wasn’t always plentiful, and she ate when she could.
“Don’t.” Layala’s face grew serious. “He’s powerful and cruel. Do some more investigation to see whether or not he even has Carise before you risk it.” She stared at Kenzie for several seconds and sighed. “But since you’re not going to do that… he respects power, as long as it doesn’t directly challenge him. Don’t show weakness.”
Kenzie could have figured that out on her own.
Their business concluded, Layala took off. Kenzie took the bread and fruit, wrapped it in a napkin, and shoved it in her bag. Her credits were running low, and she wasn’t about to let food go to waste.
Then she headed east. After twenty minutes of walking, a sign announced she was entering Jadirel’s territory. How convenient.
If she’d thought the other territories were in disrepair, they had nothing on Jadirel’s. There were no laughing people in the streets here. They kept their heads down and moved swiftly between buildings that looked like they might be blown over with one strong wind.
She hated him already, but she had to find him.
After a few more minutes of walking, she realized she was being followed. And a minute later she realized she wasn’t just being followed, she was being herded. If only she had realized that before she’d turned into an alley that terminated in a dead end.
Kenzie turned around just in time to see three Kru’dari block off the entrance. The one in the middle leered. “I saw her first, boys, I have first claim.”
Kenzie reached for her baton as the men charged.
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