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Buffer Zone


A full moon hung over the Mississippi's dark waters, meaning this was the time for hunters to arrive and take whatever they could capture. A device would be clamped to the backs of our necks and we'd never be able to shift back to human again. It was how they justified their enslavement of us; that we were only animals instead of sentient humans.

The Krelk had killed more than two-thirds of the human population, too, but they made the excuse that they'd thought them animal as well, until their High Council, wherever that was, decided otherwise.

When I heard the first yelp, even underground, I couldn't breathe. Was that a shifter? Few shifters could take on a Krelk and their weapons and either survive or avoid being stunned. That's how we were captured—frozen and only barely able to breathe while we were caged, tagged and hauled away from the buffer zone.

Another yelp—followed quickly by a third.

This was no shifter—the Krelk were the ones screaming. Terrified but still curious, I dipped into the watery entrance and slowly made my way out of my cave to peek at the river bank above my head.

A dead Krelk dropped into the water nearby, making me jump and squeak in terror.

"An otter?" Someone leaned down to look at me.

Not a Krelk—I knew their scent. This—I'd never scented someone like this before. I scrabbled backward, afraid of this newcomer, too, even if he did appear humanoid.

"Don't be afraid—I killed all of them."

I backed all the way into the water and scrambled to swim to my cave before he could grab me. Once there, I refused to come out.

"I understand," he said, loud enough that I could still hear him. "Be safe. I'll patrol farther down, tonight."

I listened, my heart beating so rapidly I feared it would burst while his footsteps, light as they were, faded as he walked southward.

He'd killed six Krelk, and I'd never heard one of their weapons fire.

Who could do that?

* * *

Earth wasn't alone it its suffering. We were just another planet in a large group of suffering worlds, and help was either non-existent or difficult to come by.

There'd be no Marines landing here to save us; that hope had died years ago. What we had was a handful of people with unusual talents, helping a few of us stay alive against impossible odds.

—Clare Coquina

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