The Song of Sqia'lon Seven, by Alyce Caswell

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If glass instead of a thrumming forcefield had filled the Slidden Hangout's front window, the fall onto the concrete road outside would have hurt a lot more than it did.

Winded but not beaten, Captain Rantha Jones didn't waste time wallowing on the ground after her inelegant ejection from the bar. She threw up her legs, rolling back against her shoulder blades, and then carried her momentum forward, springing onto her feet within moments. Her legs wobbled alarmingly at first, but there was no chance she was going to fall back down. None whatsoever.

Her hand dropped onto her holstered gun — a battered fourth-hand item she'd bought off some seedy dealer on some seedy world. Emboldened by the weapon's presence, Rantha taunted, 'Had to throw me through a freaking window because you're too afraid to go one-on-one with me, huh?'

The legless squid-like aliens on the other side of the window bristled. Well, the Lrowas might have been shaking the tentacles hanging from their gaping mouths because they wanted another drink from the bartender. It was hard to tell.

Rantha leered and threw them a one-fingered salute, but they didn't follow her out. Human gestures weren't exactly universal — and nothing less than a grave insult would induce them to leave the humidified air their species loved so much. Out here, the suns burned like lasers on Rantha's skin. It'd do far worse to the Lrowas.

They didn't know her. They didn't have a beef with her. There was no reason leave the bar.

Rantha almost howled in frustration.

She'd spent the last Sol year holding her breath and looking over her shoulder. Interstellar Precious Gems & Metals (IPGM), her former employer, had hired the best bounty hunters the

galaxy had to offer to hunt her down — and all because she'd made the rather dumb decision to help an alien species that was being exploited by the company.

So it turned out that making people pay fair prices for raw materials was a death sentence. Well, according to IPGM anyway. There were no laws in space so the Terran-affiliated company could do all manner of dodgy stuff out here. They wouldn't even cop a fine for hiring murderers — if the aforementioned hiring had occurred on a starship instead of a planet.

Anyway, the tension was driving Rantha nuts.

And she was spoiling for a fight. A fight with anyone.

Rantha opened her mouth, preparing to tell the group of Lrowas that their birthing sac had been contaminated with the failures of previous hatchlings, but she never got the chance to hurl the insult. Because a hand swiftly clapped over her mouth — a hand that wore a ring with a fairly sizeable diamond set into it.

'My friend is very drunk,' Jenna Prules, Rantha's former aide, declared in a stern voice that carried far further than it needed to. 'You know that humans cannot hold their liquor. A tragic circumstance of biology. I will take her to the nearest clinic immediately and have her flushed.'

The Lrowas waved their tentacles, but they were clearly less agitated now. They had even started to emanate a chorus of clucking sounds. Laughter. At Rantha's expense.

Incensed, Rantha began to struggle forward with her fists extended, but Jenna swiftly wrangled her away in a grip that could make a six-armed Spratani whimper — no doubt something Jenna had learned at whatever martial arts academy IPGM had recruited her from. The pair were a full block away before Jenna released Rantha.

'Friend, huh,' Rantha said, smirking. 'Fiancée too much of a mouthful these days?'

Jenna flicked her a look, one that held no trance of amusement. 'It is not a word they would have understood. Mating rituals among the Lrowas consist of brief greetings, a mating session about

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