Chapter 1

 Against the Wall

Kam had reached her boiling point. She grabbed a wrench and knocked the Rid 200 on its side.

"Dysfunction- dysfunction," it beeped while it wriggled on the floor.

"It's malfunction! You piece of scrap metal," Kam said.

Kam was the top assistant at the Rust n' Grub gas stop and garage. A room above it functioned as the local watering hole. It was a rundown cantina where it always seemed to be night. The Rid 200 was supposed to be a crowd control robot for when things got out of hand, as they often did, at the cantina. Without the robot it was usually up to Kam to stop the fights.

Kam was unusual for a 19 year old. The only thing average about her was her height and build. She had a basic hominid form, but her dark skin had an iridescent shine. Her black hair naturally grew straight with two silver streaks on either side and was cut short just below her ears. She had large dark eyes and a thin black tail. She had never seen anyone with her subtle mix of feline features and iridescent skin. Still, she had not realized she was different until it was pointed out repeatedly and loudly by customers at the Rust n' Grub.

"What we really need," she said aloud to herself, "is the 2000 model."

She sighed and looked around her dark room. It was underground and right below the Rust n' Grub. It had a dusty red haze about it from lamps powered by small glowing bugs. Kam sat down on her bed and tried not to think about the work that Juke had ordered her to do that day.

What slime, she thought. He was Squamatian, a round old creature with scaly purple skin and a bad temper. Juke was supposedly the one who took care of Kam until she started "earning her keep" at the Rust n' Grub. Kam's parents went missing when she was a toddler and the only proof she had that they even existed were two metal armbands of a peculiar design. The bands were too large for Kam's arms, but she wore them daily clipped to her utility belt. She wished she knew what planet they had come from. She desperately wanted to go there and search for her parents. She doubted she would miss the old diner or the only caregiver she had known. If Juke were responsible he would have put her up for adoption years ago instead of letting her grow up in a dump in the middle of a desert.

"I've got to get out of this dump," Kam thought aloud. She flopped back on her bed. She had coated her ceiling with shift enamel. It glowed, adding light to the dark room, and swirled around like the waves of a sea she had only seen in nature digests. Kam rolled over on her side and held her gloved left hand in front of her so she could see her palm. She wore an airy, black Ktech glove. Ktech gloves were the most common form of matter-less gear and storage on Buria. They were designed by Kinetic Solutions Technology.

With a few hand motions she activated an illustrated guide. A smile slowly crept over Kam's sullen face as she flipped through images of the Coalition's Imperial Guard Training School. The images passed one by one over the space above her palm. She smiled at the clean cut, fresh looking young men and women. They wore sleek navy and black uniforms with shining gold accents. Others were dressed for exciting foreign assignments. They wore the latest gear. It seemed so far from the isolated town she was forced to make her home.

"Once I get a job as an Imperial guard for the Coalition I'll never look back," she promised herself. It had already been two years since the time she planned to go to the training school. Her application had been denied twice, with shallow, confusing explanations.

She frowned thinking about how difficult it was to get into Imperial Guard Training School. Sometimes she really did believe in the conspiracy theories about the personal favors and inside connections needed to infiltrate the supposedly open careers in service of the Coalition. Maybe that was why she couldn't get in.

A tiny light began to blink on the wrist band of her Ktech glove. It was synced with her model 9 transcator. Since she had it silenced the trans. 9 key pad on her desk was also blinking to indicate a call coming through.

Kam sat up reluctantly and closed the school guide. With another kick to the Rid 200 she made her way to the keypad. She knew it was Juke. He called to order her around because he was too lazy to walk to her room. Not that Kam cared to see him in person more than was necessary.

"Trans. 9 answer call," she said. "Now where is that screen?"

"Kam! Kam! Get up here!" Juke's annoyed and annoying voice screamed from underneath a pile of clothes.

Transcators could deliver interplanetary calls and automatically translated the caller's speech. At times like this Kam wished she could set it to "un-translate" so she could ignore Juke's demands.

"Now! KAM?" Juke continued screaming.

"I'm coming!" she said, digging out the small handheld screen. She could set the screen to project a larger image but Juke's face in miniature already made her skin crawl.

"What?" Kam asked, setting the screen on the desk by the keypad.

"We've got a brawl goin' on, want to break it up?" Juke's scaly face grinned unnaturally at her from the trans. 9 screen.

"Not particularly. I'm on my break," she added, crossing her arms.

"Get up here or you'll be out on the sand looking for a new home," Juke snarled.

"I already am," Kam said under her breath.

"Kam, now!" he yelled.

"I'm coming," she responded. She flung the screen back on the pile of clothes and with a slight wave of her gloved hand the trans. 9 turned off.

Kam snapped her utility belt on over her khaki cargo pants and headed to the bar. Outside the sun was blazing, and with each step up the stairs Kam felt as if the temperature increased 20 degrees. A cell on the back of her glove gathered energy from the sun as she shaded her eyes. The steps were positioned on the right side of the Rust n' Grub. Looking straight ahead from the top of the stairs you could see sand, dust and lots of it. It was quiet outside, almost peaceful. A hovering hexagon of translucent panels flew toward her and buzzed around her head. Kam swatted at it, groaning irritably.

I hate that spy 'bot, she thought while glaring at it. It flew back a good distance from her hand as if it could sense her resentment. The little robot had learned from previous experience the damage her open palm could do to its delicate framework. Kam turned the corner to stand at the entrance of the Rust n' Grub and heard glass break. A chair went tumbling through the second-floor window. Kam's tail twitched out of the way just in time to be spared the crushing effect of a ten-pound iron stool. Kam sighed and started to climb.

The building was made of sandy clay and every few feet a long thick piece of wood stuck out from it. Nobody knew the purpose of this, but Kam used it to climb and swing herself to the second floor. She crawled through the broken window and had to duck immediately to avoid a glass mug that flew past her head and smashed against the wall. Her fast reflexes had saved her a crushing hit from the mug that had been charged with energy from a Ktech glove. The shards glowed for an instance after impact then faded back to their normal coloring. Apart from the stream of light coming from the broken window, lighting in the "Grub" section of the Rust n' Grub was slightly less dark than at night. Lamps glowing yellow lit a small area around everywhere they stood. Each small table had a lamp, and a few hung from the ceiling and around the counter seating area at the far end of the room.

Laughter rang out through the diner. Kam saw that most attention was drawn toward the counter at the far end. A bearded middle-aged man dressed in a worn-out tunic hopped back and forth on the countertop trying to catch in his mouth whatever liquid was thrown at him. Kam shook her head sadly at his ragged appearance and stumbling behavior. He was obviously drunk.

Small fights had broken out between the few people who objected to the waste of liquor and the ones who thought this mockery was a grand lot of fun. A young man about her age was at the base of the counter trying to pull the older man down. It was not unusual for boys her age or younger to show up but this one was different. For one thing, he was wearing at least three layers of unusual clothing. The final layer was a hooded jacket made of a smooth, gray material Kam couldn't identify. The unbuttoned jacket revealed a worn but elegantly designed grayish-blue vest and an equally as remarkable short metal embossed staff secured diagonally across his chest. Every couple of minutes someone would come to keep him from pulling the man down only to end up shamefaced and sneaking away.

Kam watched as a dark red Squamatian man approached and reached out to tap him on the shoulder. In a moment, without even turning around the young man had the startled Squamatian belly down over a stool which he then kicked away.

The Squamatian man crashed into a nearby table. The people there laughed and helped him up. He regained his balance and glared at the young man who didn't seem to pay him any attention. The Squamatian clenched his gloved hands into fists. He relaxed one and made a quick motion by his thigh. He reached down then pulled up as if removing a physical whip claw from a holster.

Kinetic Solutions Technology had made most physical gear obsolete years ago. With Ktech any object could be charged with stored energy to become useful or dangerous. Ktech also designed their own versions of traditional combat gear. The Squamatian's motion activated a Ktech whip claw. Once materialized they cut like a sharpened claw and maneuvered in fluid motions like a whip. The Squamatian swung it toward the young man who deflected it with the unusual short silver embossed staff. The whip claw swung back around and hit the Squamatian in the face before retracting to its standard form.

The Squamatian turned a brighter shade of red in his anger as the cut on his face split and began to drip violet blood. Another Squamatian decided to help him. He was more of a maroon shade and taller than the first. He came from behind the young man; whip claw drawn.

Kam was sidetracked from the scene when she saw a figure in the crowd make a cowardly move. Rather than making a direct attack, he slyly picked up an animal shell plate then used his glove to charge it with solar energy that was readily available on Buria. It glowed powerfully on his gloved palm. Kam shook her head as he took aim to aid the two Burians. Then, out the corner of her eye she caught yet another Squamatian trying to push through the crowd toward them.

"Four against one? Not fair," she murmured. She looked around for some way to help. She smiled as her eyes lit upon a shell plate on a nearby table. Unfortunately, a Murodean woman was eating chips out of it.

"Excuse me," Kam said, grabbing the dish and dumping its contents onto the table.

"Hey," the woman said. She looked irritated but Kam had already picked it up and charged it. She threw it at the Burian's makeshift weapon. The plates collided then shattered in a splattering of glowing confetti. Quickly Kam grabbed a chair and slid it across the floor right under the foot of the Squamatian who had pushed his way through the crowd. The man slipped backward hitting his head and passed out.

When Kam turned back toward the bar, she thought she saw the young man grin at her, but it was only a second before he had to redirect his attention.

He had stunned the tall maroon Squamatian. Kam had missed what happened but the maroon Squamatian was picking himself up off the ground. The first attacker had recovered and reactivated a whip claw. The young man tucked his chin and took a defensive stance but looked unconcerned. The maroon Squamatian also regained his stance and grinned criminally. He stuck out his gloved hand activating an automatic device.

Kam inhaled sharply, recognizing the illegal device. It was an automatic that held leech rounds. Kam shook her head. She had seen a demo of the leech rounds on a small fruit tree. The open wound dripped sap of an abnormal color as the tree was rapidly poisoned. The young man took one step backward so that his back was to the counter. They thought the action was a sign of fear.

The first Squamatian slashed at the young man's legs with the whip claw. The youth reached backward and leaned against the bar lifting himself above the path of whip claw. Quickly, he snapped his feet around the Squamatian's wrist twisting it. As the Squamatian dropped the whip claw the young man kicked it up to his own hand just in time to catch it and snap it the other direction as the maroon Squamatian fired his device.

With two quick flicks the young man hit the leech round midair snapping it into dust. Then he knocked the automatic out of the maroon Squamatian's hand and into the air. It was over in seconds, all before the first Squamatian recovered from his twisted wrist. Before he could activate another device, the young man swung the whip claw around his attacker restraining him. He pulled the Squamatian man toward him as the maroon Squamatian caught his automatic and took aim. Just before he fired, the young man pushed the first attacker into the second and they both fell to the ground. The maroon Squamatian fell hard and had the wind knocked out of him. The fired leech round went straight up in the air then fell into his open mouth.

Friends of the injured men moved closer knowing they needed to rush them to medical help but hesitating to approach the young man. He stood and said something that obviously allayed their fears. They rushed forward looking at him with puzzled expressions. Again, he could focus his attention on the dazed man who was now on the floor dancing sloppily for a small laughing crowd that encircled him.

Kam bit her bottom lip. She hoped the Squamatian man would be okay. If they get the leech round out of him soon and get him the right treatment... he should be okay, she thought watching them sneak out.

Her gaze returned to the boy, but his back was toward her. She had never seen anyone like that in a place like the Rust n' Grub. Why didn't he finish them off? And there was something else strange about him. For some reason each time he moved she was reminded of the first time she saw fresh water. It was a small stream that soon dried up. She had been mesmerized by the shifting color of the smooth liquid and its perplexing movement. It seemed to move in parts but still as one. It was a riveting memory she'd never forget.

The little hexagonal robot circled around her head and she swatted it hard. It crashed into a mug. It buzzed sporadically as it wobbly struggled to regain flight. Kam finally snapped out of her thoughts when she heard Juke's gruff voice behind her.

"You gonna stand there all day, missy? Or are you gonna earn your pay?"

Kam had been so deep in thought that she hadn't noticed the rest of the room becoming more aggressive. If things got much more out of a hand a unit would be sent over to shut them down and it could be weeks getting back to business.

"Just watch," she said without turning around. "This'll be quick."

She curled her tail around her waist as she usually did especially when her defenses were up. Then she pushed through the crowd breaking the few hands that dared try to pinch her cheek, face or otherwise. She climbed up onto a table at the center of the room and projected:

"Okay ladies and non-ladies alike, party's over."

The crowd booed back at her.

"Hey, party's over when I say it is," said one man. He was Murodean. He had large bold eyes, a blunt nose and large ears. His elongated head was covered in short dull gray hair and multiple scars.

"Hey scar face, why don't I make you the first to leave?" Kam retorted and the crowd jeered.

"Don't mess with her," one female Murodean with a pointed nose warned. Her eyes reflected red in the dim light. The short blue hair covering her body was smooth and glossy like her red nails.

"I've been in here before. She'll hurt you," the woman said. She was a habitual customer and seemed to enjoy the noise of exchanged blows and zip darts whirring past her head as she nonchalantly sipped a cold drink.

"Oh," Scar face responded, "now I'm scared."

Kam sighed deeply. "I hate my job," she mumbled.

Kam jumped in the air tucking her legs and flipped to land on his table. While he stared up at her with a startled expression, she bent down and grabbed him around the collar.

"How about now?" she asked.

The Murodean woman laughed and took a sip from her mug. "I told you," she said.

Surprised comments went through the dimly lit room. Kam smiled and she unconsciously swung her tail in amusement.

"Is that a tail?"

"She can't be Peran. Where's her fur?" someone asked too loudly.

"What is she, some kind of mutant half-breed?" Kam heard a slurred voice ask.

Her tail snapped back around her waist. Her eyes narrowed and scanned the room quickly, but she couldn't find the owner of the comment. She had heard those type of comments often enough. Still, they always reminded her of the hole in her past and tore through her like a blade with a serrated edge. She reminded herself that she had more immediate problems to deal with. The scar faced Murodean was squirming in his seat.

"Hey, hey, I don' want no trouble little lady," he said looking over her shoulder. "I just wanted a quick drink."

His gloved left hand slid down his side trying to activate his whip claw.

"I don't think so," Kam lifted the man by his collar before he could complete the motion and activate the device.

"How can you..." he stuttered as his feet left the ground.

In one smooth arch Kam threw him against the wall.