I feel my way along the damp stone walls by my fingertips. I repeat to myself, silently, that I have seen these walls in the light, and there is nothing here to fear: there are two hundred paces between me and the heavy door, made of metal. The door leads to another corridor. The walls there will be damp as well, but it’s only water: sulfuric-scented, but delicately so.
I’m not in hell, I repeat to myself. It’s too cold to be hell.
My fingers are beginning to feel numb from the cold. If there were a single proton of light in this corridor, I would see my breath. It isn’t freezing; it’s the sort of wet cold that I remember from my last—hopefully not final—trip to the United Bretons on Earth, in northern winter.
I’m counting carefully, walking as stealthily as I can. I have counted these steps what seems like a thousand times, planned for this moment for what seems like years, and now that I’m here, the darkness has swallowed my thoughts. I want to run and scream. I can hear my heart in my ears, and it is so loud that I fear someone will hear it.
A step in a cold puddle startles me. The icy liquid spreads across my toes. I gasp, but cut myself off immediately. Fear seizes me for only a moment, but I’ve become used to fear. One ninety-two, three, four… it’s just water… this is not hell… ninety-nine, two hundred.
As I move my hands around in the dark, at first they don’t find the shapes or the material I’m looking for. Panic rises up in my throat again. I realize that my numb fingers have found the door, and the curiously old-fashioned lock. I turn it, and it sticks, making more panic rise up in my throat. For a moment, the darkness seems to grow and swallow me completely.
The lock turns. I pull hard on the door, and a rush of slightly warmer, but still damp air rushes in to meet me.
I put a hand to my right and strain to imagine this final corridor the way I have seen it when it is lit. There is nothing here but the stone and dirt floor, both black as night. The sand-like consistency of the corridor crunches beneath my feet and I walk steadily forward, one hand on the wall. I’m blind as a bat and every nerve is screaming panic to my brain, but I manage to stay calm.
The moon we are on is sun-side, so the glaring blue of Zastraga will be visible soon, its methane vapor lit by the sun. Just a little further. My heart is pounding.
When the first dim light of the planet reaches my eyes, showing me the shape of the tunnel exit, a throb of emotion swells in my chest. But it’s unexpected: not the relief I would have anticipated, not the jittery elation of having something you planned for just within your reach, not the fear that so often comes to me of having something snatched away when it is just within my grasp.
I actually stop and turn my face around, back to the darkness. Just enough light filters into the tunnel that I can see a sliver of gray-blue light caught on the door, which I left open. A strange thought flutters through my head, driven by the feelings of conflict in my heart. For some reason, there is something that almost, almost pulls me back. I still have time: I could return, the way I came, slip into my bed, and remain.
I turn sharply back toward the light, shaking my head as though I could shake the thought from it. This is Stockholm syndrome, I tell myself. And I’m stronger than that. That’s what I’ve been telling myself since I was brought here, and this moment is the moment I have been planning for, deep inside my heart, all along.
The Kirigok clan are powerful monsters, and I’m a pawn to them, nothing more.
Deep in my abdomen, something stirs. It’s a cold feeling, one that I almost enjoy: a feeling of attraction, arousal—pleasurable and wild. It’s an amplification of the kind of flutter that would erupt in my adolescence in the presence of an older classmate, an attractive skasball player, a musician.
Nothing more, I tell myself, than adolescent stupidity. And Stockholm syndrome.
I walk. I can hear my breath; it’s shaky. I don’t know what will happen to me if I’m caught, and I put my chances of being caught at about fifty percent. I also think this is an underestimation, but one I must cling to. If I didn’t try…
The blue light is getting stronger, beckoning me. My memories pull at me, trying to tell me to go back, but theirs is a grip of emotions I don’t understand. I’m a rational person. I must keep walking.
It isn’t Zethki. The hard contours of his face, his yellow-green eyes with their frightening reptilian pupils, the heat of his body, all flash before my eyes, breathe a ghostly memory on my skin.
I won’t miss Zethki—his nickname, to my English-speaking ears, a disingenuous diminutive that belies his brutality, his dominance, his cruelty. In my mind, I think of him as Zeth—though if I used that name he would punish me. ‘Ki’ in his language is an indication of his status, one with no translation. The best I can think of is ‘badass.’
It isn’t him, I know, that pulls at me, leaving me with a faint, uncomfortable pang of regret as I step into the planet-lit night and survey the view. My path to freedom is before me: a succession of trees among the others in the forest, their bark silver and faintly lit by what I’m told is a harmless biological component. If I follow them, they will lead me to the water, and if I follow the shore in the direction of the dawn, for many days, I will run into the small city of Zastra. I have only a knife and a piece of what seems to be flint, but I’m confident that I can make fire and stab fish. The rest of the plan is not finished; it will depend on what I find. But if Trasmea is to be believed, there are many in Zastra who will trade what I have for passage to Mrekevya, and there I will turn myself in to the System Authority and hope for the best.
My stomach turns. The ‘something’ I have is my body, and even though Zeth has claimed me in every way that seems possible, there is something repulsive about selling myself for passage.
I’m gripped, again, by the desire to turn back. I pause in the arched entranceway and survey the forest. From here, high on a hill, I can see over the steep slope, the enormous, glittering trees, and the sudden craggy bursts of black rock to the shimmering sea. The methane blue-green of the planet we orbit sparkles on its surface. An enormous bloom of red, iridescent algae glows like spilled paint further out, miles and miles of the plant.
I pause, give my decisions a final reflection. I could stay: the parts of me that betray me the most insist and claw inside of me, trying to make me turn around. But I resist them. I have stayed strong for this long, and I’m stubborn. I’m going.
I pull the Kerz cape I have stolen from Zeth over my head. It’s gray and black and blue, and looks to my human eyes as if it would camouflage nothing. But here, it is like the shadows of the forest. If I move slowly through the small clearing to the forest—no more than twenty paces—the guards will not see me. My heat is better cloaked than the heat of the Kerz; the cape is designed to block out their warmer bodies. The camouflage will hide my form. The only other thing that could give me away is rapid movement.
I step in micro-steps, each one no longer than half the length of my foot. It’s excruciating, as I thought it would be; I have to summon all of my strength not to walk faster. I’m so close.
I reach the forest, and begin to move more quickly. The dense foliage blocks the light, and the ground is treacherous. Slow and steady, I repeat, and the mantra takes on a meditative hum that guides me forward.
There is a patch of blackness ahead. Rocks? I put a hand out to feel in front of me, and feel only cool air. I’m almost blind in this dark, but I can see, in the distance, what looks like the faint silver glow of a guiding tree. I move carefully, touching the ground before me with one foot before stepping.
My foot comes into contact with something on the tenth step into the darkness. I have just enough time to reassure myself that it is the root of a tree, and start to feel around it. My hands are before me; there is nothing in the blackness.
I feel something first: a warmth, tingling along my spine. I have a moment of free-fall, as I realize in the most primordial part of my mind that something is there. I think of animals first, and I’m not entirely wrong. Fear freezes me before he even touches me, so I simply stand there and wait for him, like prey, to come up behind me.
I know that whatever it is, it is Kerz. A guard?
My mind is too slow, fear having gripped me so intensely that not even my thoughts will move. I reach for my knife too late, but I stand no chance against a Kerz guard, anyway. This alien race has an average male height of nearly seven feet, and their strength is—literally—otherworldly.
He won’t kill you, I remind myself. There is even a part of me that is relieved as I feel the hard muscle of his physique against my back.
He doesn’t put his arms around me to restrain me; he simply stands against my paralyzed body. The heat of his body feels good in the chill air, and I become aware of how cold I am only at that moment. A hand grasps the fist in which I hold the knife, and squeezes slowly, gently, until the building pressure forces my fingers to pop open and the knife falls to the ground with a heavy thunk. I feel that his claws are emerging, their hard, fearsome lengths slowly spreading from his fingertips.
To my right I catch a glimpse of the kryth on his forearm. It’s green-yellow, the scaly patterns of it glowing like embers in a fire. I recognize the pattern immediately. For a moment it is silent except for our breath: mine, rapid and shallow; his, steady and strong. Now I smell him, too—in this respect, he’s more human than in any other way: a clean, musky smell tinged with something barely sweet and hard to describe, unique to him, hovers just above his skin and starts a cascade of arousing feelings in my core.
For a moment—however brief—I feel like I’m in a dream. A sense of deja vu invades me, and strangely, it wells up in my chest as a calming warmth.
“Do not scream,” he says. His breath is warm against my neck, caressing my earlobe, sending a ripple of gooseflesh down my shoulder blades and a hot flush across my cheek. He must be bent down to speak so close to my ear, his lips inches from my skin. Low in my abdomen, arousal pools and snakes through my body.
Damn it, I think. God. Dammit.
I exhale. In the glow of his kryth my breath forms a pale yellow cloud. With the only breath I have left, I say—and I don’t know why:
When his arms move around me, I sink into his chest and give up.
“No. Sound,” he says.
I see nothing but streaks of faint light as he picks me up; I can only sense the sudden distortion of the forces of gravity and then the solid muscle of his shoulder at my hips. I’m over his shoulder, tossed there with such ease, like a sack of potatoes.
“Wait,” I say, and even I’m not sure what I mean by that. I have nothing to bargain with, no ability to fight him, and even my desire to do so seems to be melting away like ice in a desert. I feel his hand beneath the cloak and the heavy, oversized robe I wear, along my calf, moving up, hot and gentle, but with a terrifying strength—I know—coiled in its muscle. His claws are out fully now, and they graze my skin in their journey upward, to my inner thigh.
My traitorous body is gushing now, and my pussy pulses with wet warmth as a single finger and its razor-sharp claw press slowly and gently against my skin where my femoral artery travels. This sends mortal, black fear coursing through my body but also arouses me so much that I feel I could climax without another movement of his body. Just the flick of that finger could kill me in a second, and I’m gushing out juices like a crazy whore.
I squeeze my eyes shut. We begin to move. His strength supports me so that I barely jostle as he walks.
The ramifications of what I have done reach my consciousness. A phantom heat spreads over my bottom, a reminder of the searing heat of his hand when he spanks me. I go back to where I started when I first came here: Rys’ dungeon, to be broken with his brand of sexual torment. But now he knows that my submission was a lie all along.
Tears well up in my eyes and arousal wells up in my pussy. What is wrong with me, I wonder. I don’t even care that much, I only want to get away.
But very slowly, as we move, I realize:
We are not returning to the fortress.
My heart is jolted to wild life and ice water pours into my veins.
As though reading my thoughts, he squeezes my thigh, firmly, but not painfully.
“I’m not going to kill you.”
But that is not what I fear.
Three Earth months earlier
“Is that what you’re wearing?”
Fiona is impossibly stunning in a black dress made of real zeotlak skin, her white-blonde hair (natural, of course) flowing in a perfect, silky mane that moves as one body. Single strands of Fiona’s hair never, ever go rogue. She delivers this question with a sweet tone, undercut by her unmaskable disdain. She takes pleasure in this sort of thing, but she’s also embarrassed by me. The conflict plays out on her face in a contortion of her features, leaving her ethereal beauty intact, but marred by a snarl and a dark look in her eyes.
“Lovely,” I say, “to see you, too, dear sister. Cut me a break, okay? My shuttle just docked an hour ago.”
Fiona snorts haughtily and surveys my room. The room is small and economical, crammed away in a far arm of Sector A like an afterthought. A lot like me. I suspect that my father forgot to reserve quarters for me, and that someone installed a bathroom in a closet only a day before my shuttle arrived, and probably only because my mother threw a fit.
Not because she really cares, but because of how it would look if I had to be stashed in an economy sector.
“But that is what you’re wearing,” Fiona says, with a disapproving shake of her long mane and a roll of her eyes skyward.
“I’m space-lagged, Fi, and I don’t even want to be here,” I snarl, rifling through the contents of my suitcase, which are scattered all over the bed. “So just be happy I’m even wearing a dress.”
Another haughty snort.
“It’s made,” Fiona sniffs disdainfully, “of cloth.”
She’s still on my dress.
“Actually, Fiona,” I say, pushing my still un-coiffed hair from my face. I’m sweating a little, entirely caused by stress—Fiona standing around in my ‘room’ with her ice-blue eyes judging everything with icy criticism. “It’s made of single-filament titanium fiber. So fuck off.”
I look at her to see how this went over. Her arms fold across her chest and her left eyebrow arches as she assesses the dull gold (polymer, not titanium) dress with renewed interest.
“Hmm,” she comments. Then she steps forward to touch it.
I slap her hand away. “Hands off!”
“It’s still just so… boring,” she retorts. “I have loads of extras. This is a very big deal.”
I stand up straight, letting out an exasperated sigh, and turn to her.
Fiona is almost six feet tall, and she’s the sort of well-sculpted skinny that trophy wives confer upon precisely half of their progeny. She also inherited every other possible trophy-wife trait my mother possessed: a tiny upturned nose, plump lips, big blue eyes, full boobs where the only fat in her body resides.
My mother also gifted her a terribly snotty, boring coolness that reeks of wealth. I’m talking to you, Fi always seems to be saying, but it’s frankly beneath me.
I, on the other hand, am not a goddess at all. I’m average height, average build, and decent-looking. My hair is blonde, but a reddish shade, and my eyes are… well, gray. Errant flecks of yellow and brown speckle them the way errant freckles speckle my skin. I look a little bit like an unfinished version of Fiona. Like someone ran out of the good paint, and had zero varnish to polish it off.
Whatever. Fiona is a dizzy bimbo and I wish her all the best in her life as an intergalactic socialite twat. From the pool of genetic material available, I drew what I tell myself were more important qualities: I have a brain, a heart, and a fucking personality.
However, in the world of trans-system mineral speculation tycoons, appearances are (evidently) a big deal. A show of family values, my father says, demonstrates trustworthiness to some of the more conservative species.
Or barbaric clans. Take your pick of descriptor.
The point is, whatever rare-species, gold-infused dresses that Fiona has ‘loads of’ will look idiotic on me. Too tight, too long, too obviously tailored for a paper doll and not a human being.
“Thank you, Fi,” I say sweetly. It’s my new tactic with her. Overloading the sugar until she gets sick and leaves me alone. “I really appreciate it. I simply don’t have time.”
She sniffs. “Well, at least do something with your hair. I have a marvelous robot—”
“—or you could use one of those… what are they called? The wig-skin things. I never use them, myself, I just have some. You could have a lighter color of hair—well, no, that really wouldn’t suit that color.” She frowns. “It’s just that… the dress is almost the same color as your hair, Anya.”
She says this like I have murdered a baby.
“Okay. Whatever,” I say.
Fiona’s eyes pop out of her head, and she claps her hands together with glee. “Really?” she squeals.
And she’s gone, before I have time to stop her.
My mother kisses me on the cheek the way rich people do, by putting her face next to mine but not touching. She has a glass of weird shit in her hand and she’s intoxicated as hell, which is par for the course. “Anya,” she says. Then she arches a little to look me up and down. “Lovely.”
My father sees me from across the room. He doesn’t scowl, so that’s as good as gets. I doubt I’ll even talk to him on this whole trip, which is pretty much fine. There is nothing new in his being too busy to talk to me. When we do speak, he just rattles off mineral speculation statistics that would put a cup of Jycran coffee to sleep.
It stinks of weird perfume in the enormous ballroom. I take a flute of the blue stuff my mother is drinking from a passing drone and look up at the glass-domed ceiling. It’s a spectacular view, all stars, a crescent of the intense red planet we orbit glowing angrily at the horizon.
“Darling, please be careful,” my mother says, leaning in to speak quietly, in her dos-and-don’ts voice. “It’s very strong. We don’t want a scene.”
“How long do I have to stay?” I say, sniffing the drink. “What is this?”
“Oh,” she says, waving a hand. “Plant extract from Zanora, it’s like Eskara but stronger. You’ll feel… very warm.”
She’s high as a kite.
I take a sip. The flavor is strong, and I immediately see what she’s talking about. “Whoa.” I resolve to hold this in my hand all night without having any more of it. “When, Mom?”
She blinks. “Oh, yes,” she says. “He wants to introduce you to the delegation from… oh, Brynek or Steagard or, I don’t know…” She sighs. “Then you can leave. Petlola!” She screams this last part suddenly, and departs, squealing, toward another woman of extraordinarily well-preserved trophy-wife looks and—incredibly—less body fat than my mother.
I’m left in the middle of the room, alone, looking stupid. As usual.
There is so much food here—expensive, crazy food—that it boggles the mind. I snatch something from the first passing drone and inspect it. Disappointing. It’s a tiny green dot on a tiny plate. I laugh under my breath and hesitate, before holding a finger above it. My plan is to stick it to my finger and eat it.
I don’t see what else I’m supposed to do.
“I wouldn’t,” a voice says from behind me, to my right. I’m startled: no one was there just a nanosecond ago.
The owner of the voice comes into view, moving without seeming to move. He is enormous, almost seven feet tall. I have to lift my eyes and tilt my head to look at his face.
His eyes are yellow-green and glitter as though they are a mosaic of jewels. Something about them sends a frisson of fear through me and it takes a moment for me to analyze it. The pupils of his eyes are curved diamond shapes, remnants of some reptilian lineage. I notice, then, that this lineage is also visible on his skin—an inky blue, deep and almost translucent. Streaks of golden-green scales transverse its branches, like a tree. The marks, scaly in some ways and yet almost like jeweled paint in others, stretch from beneath the collar of his black and imposing suit—heavy, expensive robes that fit snugly on his muscled frame—up his neck, cradling his jaw. A glimmer of the markings sneaks out from beneath an ordinary mop of rakish black hair. They travel across his forehead for a few inches, like a beautiful scar, before fading into his dark skin.
Otherwise, he seems like a human. Like a very fit, very strong, very attractive human man.
My jaw falls open, and I hold the plate with my finger hovering above it, like an idiot, while I rack my brain for what he is. It’s in there somewhere, and as it emerges from my subconscious slowly, it brings a cold, dark cloud of fear with it.
He takes the plate from my hand while I think, stunned.
After that, everything happens very quickly, and at the same time, in slow motion. The plate leaves my hand; the fear spreads cold throughout me. I wonder if I could be attracted to a guy like this, and if maybe Fiona has slept with one, so she can give me some pointers. In my peripheral vision, figures begin to fall to the floor. Plates clatter on the faux stone floor, I hear gasps.
Ah, I think. Eureka.
There are maybe twenty people still standing in the room. The remainder are crumpled on the floor. The drones, eerily, are still humming about, trying to deliver food. Cleaner drones are taking the spilled plates away.
I turn, slowly, to take the scene in. My alien companion has friends: inky blue-skinned, golden-streaked giants wearing black suits that look like robes. They are holding weapons that seem to have appeared out of nowhere and take a moment to process: they’re swords. Ultra-light, ultra-sharp titanium swords that some of them are expertly swinging in some kind of impressive display of martial arts. The only people still standing are my father, my mother, Fiona, the woman my mother attacked with her nasal screaming, and a few others. They are all, like me, frozen in fear.
I look down at my empty hand, and then, sheepishly, turn my head to look up at the Kerz next to me. He has no sword in his hand, but I see now that he has one in his robes.
“Fyodresk Mann,” a voice says, loudly and confidently from the middle of a cluster of Kerz who must have only just arrived. They are walking from the entrance, stepping over crumpled guests. I wonder if they are dead. I wonder if they are better off that way than the rest of us. I have no idea what is going on here, but I do know this, because everybody in the galaxy knows this: Kerz are not to be trifled with.
My father has a glass in his hand and it is shaking.
I look over at the alien, whose hand jumps out faster than I can see, like a karate chop. I expect to be hit in the chest, hard, and I think I see my whole life flash before my eyes. But when he touches me, in the center of my chest, it is gentle and warm.
But firm. And a clear message: don’t move.
I look down in disbelief. His hand is enormous, and the veins of gold scales are glowing now, pulsing. Something seems very dangerous about that, though I can’t say why.
The group striding across the room is headed for my father, who drops his glass. Fiona shrieks. My father puts a hand out to her to quiet her. “It’s fine, Fiona.”
He steps forward, his business face set to ‘high schmooze.’
“General Kirigok,” my father says. He sounds, actually, pretty confident, given the situation. “What is the meaning of this—”
“Silence, human scum.” The general says this calmly, but it does something I rarely see: it shuts my father down.
I see movement in my peripheral vision, off to the right of where I’m standing. It’s a security officer, pulling a gun from his clothing. The Kerz next to me barely seems to move, and the plate seems to depart from his hand of its own volition, sailing with frightening speed in a clear and direct line straight to the man’s forehead.
It’s moving so fast that it embeds itself into his skull. Blood pours from the wound, rapidly, as the man freezes, then staggers slightly, eyes open and dead to the world, jaw slack. He falls face forward onto the stone, and his face crunches with the impact.
The Kerz’s other hand is still on my chest. He doesn’t look at me, but I know that when he speaks it is for me. His voice is low, commanding, calm. Terrifying. “Do not move.”
Fiona is staring at the scene, and starts shrieking.
“Fiona Mann,” the same voice from the cluster of Kerz booms.
This shuts Fiona up. She is quivering, but silent, as she looks over at the Kerz who is speaking. I notice that her hair, finally, has been dislodged from its perfection, and a strand of it is stuck to her face. She is sweating.
Well, I think. Nice life while it lasted. If Fiona’s hair is running amok, this is definitely the end.
I glance at the exit: piles of bodies and a dozen Kerz are in my way, and anyway, this plate-flinging psychopath still has a sword and gods know what else in his robes.
I’m strangely unconcerned about my family. I don’t want them to die, but I’m so cold with fear inside that I’ve gone into self-preservation mode.
Mainly, I just don’t want to be tortured. Anything else seems like a good deal.
I consider this. Maybe a run for it isn’t the worst idea. Knife in the back, lights out.
“What is the meaning of this, Kirigok,” my father says. His face is getting red, and his carefully cultivated business demeanor is gone. Does he look… nervous?
All jokes about Fiona’s hair aside, this is a very bad sign. It’s a sign that, whatever these Kerz are here for, my father knows what it is and he also, possibly, knows that he screwed up.
I look at the Kerz who steps away from the group, sword in hand. My stomach knots into a painful ache as he steps toward my father, raising the blade to point it at his throat. The tip stops, right at his jugular. My father is shaking now. Fiona sobs. My mother is high, so she’s having trouble focusing and a strange smile remains plastered to her lips even though her eyes are wild with fear. Assorted squeals and muffled shrieks are emitted from the motionless huddle of guests who remain standing in the room, but no one moves.
Me? For some reason I just stand there, mouth open, and really, I feel remarkably calm.
“Mr. Mann, such a silly question from a silly man. Your debts have come due, as you are aware. And I am here to collect them.”
My father sputters. “My, my… the payments… this is… the payment is due—”
“The payment was due,” the Kerz says calmly, “at ten-two-oh-three-six hours, system time.”
For whatever reason, everyone seems capable of moving to consult a time device at the end of this sentence. I lift the fingers of my left hand, without raising it, so I can see my embedded timepiece, on my left pointer fingernail.
10236:05, System Time.
Horror takes over the faces of the guests.
It does seem like a bit of an overreaction.
“I can amend this,” my father says jovially. But his voice is shaking. He raises his arms and moves his hands, palms down, to request calm. “I have… I simply forgot to transfer… if you please allow me to—”
“I will slaughter you like a pig if you continue speaking, Mr. Mann,” the alien says. His voice is quiet, his tone deadly. “The deadline is passed.”
My mother steps forward. “General,” she says, in her rich woman voice, “certainly there is—”
The blade of the Kerz’s sword shifts from my father’s throat to hers in an instant. It requires the Kerz to step toward her, almost ten feet, and he does so with a speed that is terrifying. A thin red line of blood appears on my father’s neck and begins to spill—a nick, it seems—down his skin, and he slaps a hand to it.
My mother shuts up and trembles, then looks at my father. “You!” she spits. “I told you not to—”
The Kerz moves his sword. It’s only a flash of steel, and I close my eyes to shut out the image that I assume will follow. Hot tears build up behind my eyes. When I open them, my mother is still standing, but now the Kerz is holding her by the throat. I blink, surprised. Her dress, sliced neatly from the collar to the bottom hem, is sliding away from her body.
Luckily, she has a skinsuit on underneath, or she’d be mortified. She’s well preserved and would pass for thirty Earth years anywhere, but in this wealthy bubble that’s crusty and old, and I know her skin isn’t quite what it was when she was born. Which is about the only acceptable state in this stratosphere of inter-systemic finance.
“Please,” I hear someone saying, realizing only too late that the hoarse, whispery voice is my own. I put my hands to the blue hand on my chest and close them around it. His skin is warm, pulsing with strength and life. The scaly-looking streaks feel surprisingly silky beneath my palms, and they are the source of the pulsing, which becomes stronger with each beat of his—I guess—heart. “Please don’t hurt her.”
The face that turns to me is cold. And incredulous. The air leaves my chest and I cannot breathe again. For a moment I think he has done this somehow. What the fuck am I doing? The water that has been slowly building in my eyes spills over from my right eye.
Always my right eye. I blink it away.
He says nothing, but his look says it all. Shut up.
But to my horror, I discover that I’m not shutting up. “This is against all treaties and protocols, whatever debts my father has accrued they can be settled by the—”
I stop talking—thank the universe—because against my skin, hard, cool, sharp claws have extended from the alien’s fingertips. I look down: they are golden, shimmering, and utterly terrifying. One extends even more, slowly, into my skin, and a very sharp but minor pain, like a paper cut, stretches out from its contact. It doesn’t bleed.
Not yet, but it will.
Anyway, I get the picture. I snap my mouth closed. I’m aware that my hands are still clasping his, that the pulse threading through his scaly tattoos is even stronger, and when I shakily look at his eyes again, his pupils are enormous and predatory. But I’m afraid to let go, because for some reason, I sense that the contact with him is the only thing keeping me standing, the only thing connecting me to reality. It’s almost as if a calm is entering my skin through his markings, pulsing into me. My heart begins to match his pulse. If it’s a pulse. I don’t know.
It’s slow, steady, and unafraid. It’s having the curious effect of making me feel the same.
“General,” my father stammers. “Please, this all just a simple mistake of accounting—”
“The Kirigok clan doesn’t make mistakes of accounting. You have no assets, and now I’m here to settle accounts.”
We are all going to die.
I look at the exit again. If I run, I’ll be killed, but at least I’ll have tried. The only thing I cannot figure out is how to let go of this Kerz I’m holding onto. Without trying, I know that my hands will not unclench.
The general, or whoever he is, releases my mother and sheathes his sword.
“You are fortunate, Mr. Mann. You are a sleaze and a fraud, human business scum who has hoped to—” He turns, smiling, and speaks a few words in his language to the men behind him, who laugh and say something to him.
He turns back to my father. He now seems more dangerous than before, because he’s being playful. Playful psychopaths are bad news. I’ve seen movies. I look at the Kerz next to me. He, at least, is unsmiling. This is somehow reassuring.
“Pull the skin of sheep over our eyes?” the Kerz finishes, laughing. “This is a stupid expression.” Then he’s suddenly serious. “Kerz are not fools.”
Suddenly cheerful again, he steps up to the platform they are standing on and moves toward Fiona. “Do you know why the Kirigok clan is so successful, Mr. Mann?” He puts a finger—clawed, frightening—beneath Fiona’s chin and smiles. “Because we are sensitive to opportunity.”
He sniffs Fiona, and scowls. Words are exchanged in Kerz between him and the Kerz behind him. The Kerz with his hand on me contributes a few serious words, which end the discussion. I’m sensing a theme, and it’s making me queasy because his claws are so close to my heart: the general may be in charge, but the guy next to me is quietly bossy.
Quietly bossy people are usually powerful. I expect this is true for the Kerz as much as any race.
“I will join our families,” the general shouts jovially, after this discussion. He looks Fiona up and down.
A sound escapes my throat. When it leaves my mouth, it sounds like a laugh.
This will all be fine. Fiona, with her infinite physical charms and her lust for strong aliens and money and power, will marry this freak, and all will be well. I’ve heard of this: the whole universe has heard of this Kerz predilection for clannish, Earth-medieval methods of doing business. It’s a little bit mafia and primordial, but Fiona’ll probably get off on that.
Even Fiona, bless her dizzy soul, is seeing this.
The Kerz is sucking her in with his good looks and alpha-male bravado. She even smiles.
My mother is relaxing.
My father is sensing opportunity.
The Kerz next to me speaks again after a few moments of this awful display of animalistic mating rituals between my sister and the monster.
He speaks his own language, not loudly, and without looking at anyone in particular.
I look at him.
All Kerz eyes and heads turn, simultaneously, toward him. Including the general’s.
Except… they aren’t really looking at Quietly Bossy, here.
They’re looking at me.
There is a moment of very tense silence.
The general looks me up and down. He says something while he stares.
Quietly Bossy, who I’m still clinging to, speaks again. He’s not big on words, in English or Kerz.
Whatever he says seems to take all of them aback.
But then… the general smiles, and shrugs. “Very well,” he says in English. He turns to my father. “This is Anya?”
No one understands.
“Anya Mann, this woman,” he points to me as he looks to my father, “your daughter. Is this her?”
“I don’t… I… she… this is Anya…” my father stammers.
“Anya Mann will be married to the Kirigok clan. This is acceptable to all.”
The general swipes a drink from a drone that is still passing, uselessly, among the slumped guests, and slams the whole thing before smashing it on the floor. “I look forward to our close business relationships, Mr. Mann!” he shouts.
The whole scene changes almost immediately. The Kerz sheathe their swords and begin swiping drinks from the drones, my mother turns to my father and starts whispering frantically. Fiona looks over at me in a murderous rage.
I haven’t really processed what has happened.
“Her?” she practically screams, petulantly. “Anya?”
For the first time in my life, I’m in total agreement with Fiona.
A shaky breath leaves my chest and my knees feel like they are going to give out. “Um,” I say, and then I turn to look at Mr. Quietly Bossy. I’m shaking my head, and I can feel myself smiling. “Uh, this is… a mistake, I’m not really… so much… on the market…”
Halfway through my sentence, he rotates his head, very slowly, to look at me, and his feral stare makes every word of the English language disappear from my head in a puff of smoke.
I look back at the rest of the room in disbelief. My knees really do give out when I see that everyone is actually… relaxing. My father is nervously clinking glasses with the now jovial general and smiling, and I hear something about the guests not being dead, just sleepy. Fiona is scowling with her arms crossed over her chest, and my mother, who seems to have forgotten entirely that her dress has been cut clean off her skinsuit, is consoling her.
As I feel myself falling, I hold on tighter to the hand I have clasped onto. Pretty soon all my weight is hanging from his arm. He doesn’t even seem to notice. I’m not saying I’m a big person, but this place is adjusted for Trygar-17 gravity and so it’s no joke holding onto something as big as me like it’s a glass of wine. His forearm doesn’t even drop a centimeter, and his muscles don’t shift.
My father looks over in my direction, narrows his eyes, and marches forward. As he approaches, his face goes through several transformations. By the time he reaches me, he has settled on pleading.
“Dad,” I start to say. I regain my footing and drop my hands.
The Kerz lets his own arm drop to his side, gracefully, as though we chose this movement together. “I am not—”
“Just one moment,” my father says to the Kerz at my side, reaching for my elbow. He is smiling, and shuffles me off to the side with what is probably a forceful grip, but feels like putty compared to Krazy Kerz here. I jerk my elbow out of his grip when his face becomes serious.
“Anya,” he hisses. “Listen to me. Listen to me.” He repeats this three more times, like I am arguing with him.
“I’m not marrying,” I begin, “…anyone. But definitely not some mobster Kerz—”
My father emits a shrill whispered hiss to quiet me and takes my elbow again, moving me further away from the Kerz.
“Anya, you have no idea what is taking place here.” He looks behind his shoulder and lowers his head. “This deal… I’ve made mistakes. I have no funds to cover them. This is… if the Kerz will do this, this is… this is… this is quite simply the only solution that we have.”
Oh, I’m not listening to him anyway, because the general himself is walking toward us, his eyes on mine, the same reptilian yellow gaze as Quietly Bossy burning a hole of fear and—again—arousal through my chest. When he reaches my father, he pushes him out of the way and stands just in front of me.
I’m as frozen as a rogue planet.
He takes my hand. Like Quietly Bossy, his hand is unusually warm, almost hot. It’s an odd sensation when coupled with the visuals of his reptilian markings, which are glowing like the others. He, too, is strikingly good-looking, as if he were human, and the same absurdly normal shock of black hair sits atop his head, but his is wild and spiky.
“There is no problem,” he says, looking at me, lifting my hand to his lips. When he kisses the back of my hand, the heat of his mouth travels through my body, along the underside of my arms, down my ribs, and then to the center of my legs, where it throbs. Salaciously.
He smiles. It’s a somewhat insane smile, impish without a trace of real fun. The wave of heat is chased by a cold shudder of fear, which also throbs in my groin. It’s sexual, arousing, and all wrong.
Still holding my hand, he explains to me in a hypnotic voice:
“Anya Mann, you desire to marry me.” This first bit is sensual, and it wraps itself around my insides.
It doesn’t last long.
“…because if you do, you will live in a palace like a princess on Zastrathk Mor. You will breed my children, and our families will be joined—”
He cuts me off with a dangerous shift in his features, to a darkness that eats me alive. “This is the first thing,” he says quietly, “I will train out of you.”
A cold, sexual quiver rolls through me, lower still in my abdomen.
“This is… not legal,” I whisper. It’s a last-ditch effort to… what? I don’t even know why I said it. I wish I could take it back.
He smiles. Then he laughs. In Kerz, he yells something over his shoulder. It makes all the Kerz laugh. Except the quiet and dangerous one.
I shift my eyes, filled with anger and pleading, to my father. He looks away. “Honey, I’m sorry,” he mumbles.
“Take Fiona,” I say. “Tell them to take Fiona!” I look back at the general, who is still holding my hand, smiling in a smug, amused way.
He doesn’t want Fiona, his face is saying. Gods know why. No one ever wants me over Fiona.
I can see, also, that I have shot myself in the foot, because my plea has only made him want me over Fiona more.
“This can’t be legal,” I whine. I mean, it can’t, right? There are treaties. I don’t know what they say, this was never any of my business, but my father has always assured me…
More laughter. Scariest of all, from the general.
“It’s not legal,” he mocks.
My father looks at his feet.
I see it all now, clear as a bell. Nothing here is legal. I’ve always known it, deep down inside, but I’ve looked the other way. People don’t get to this level of wealth, this level of inter-systemic power and wealth, through legal means.
Behind every great fortune is a great crime, isn’t that the saying?
“I’m not…” I stammer, shaking my head. “I’m not… I won’t. I won’t do it.”
“You will not,” the general repeats. His tone is dangerous. His markings are on fire. I rip my hand from his grip. I feel myself shaking my head. Or maybe my body is shaking and my head is still.
“No,” I say. I sound weak. It’s like a croak from a dying frog.
“No,” he repeats. He takes a step backward. “Okay,” he adds, with a shrug and a smug smile.
Then he yells something in Kerz.
Chaos. Glasses fall, swords glimmer in the air, a woman screams, and I hear a sickening thud as a body hits the floor. The general steps to the side, extending an arm, and I look past him to the scene on the raised floor where my mother and sister were last still standing.
Blood is everywhere, and for a moment that is all I see. The first person I see is my mother, and I go into a state of shock, because blood is soaking into her skinsuit, a huge stain, spreading out, and I think she’s been sliced in half. But the blood is on the floor.
There is a body on the floor—who? Petlola? A woman, I gather. She appears dead.
The Kerz is still smiling at me.
“What did you do?” I scream. I start running toward her. The Kerz grabs my skig, but I keep running, insanely, in the direction of Petlola. She’s obviously dead, so I don’t know what I think I’m going to do there.
Fiona is screaming at the top of her lungs.
The skig is attached to my head by this device you have to release at the back of your neck. I throw my hand back and release it, and this sends me flying forward. I fall, slipping on blood, and begin slipping and crawling toward Petlola.
I’m relieved, a little, when two black boots step slowly, deliberately in front of me, blocking my path to the body. I sit back on my heels and look up at their owner.
It’s him again. Quietly Dangerous. He stares down at me, features unmoved. I think I see his head move side to side, the tiniest shake, meant only for me.
The general walks calmly to my side, his footsteps heavy and deliberate. He crouches, resting his arms on his knees. He’s bouncing a little, giddily. I turn to look at him. He is smiling, but it fades slowly as he jerks a thumb in the direction of the body. “Petlola Aniuruska. She owes me a favor. So you see, this is really something that would have happened anyway.” He looks at the body, smiles again. He points, and in his hand is a dagger. He points, curving the knife as he does, as though he’s the one who has committed the atrocity. “Knife to femoral, knife to carotid, kschetz kschetz.” He looks back at me, grinning maniacally.
I shake as his left hand, its claws gleaming and razor sharp, moves toward my neck. He drags his fingers over my throat, down to my chest, over my dress, rending the fabric but not tearing it completely. When he hovers over the fabric between my legs, a queasy, sickening, and also absurdly arousing sensation swells deep in my abdomen.
For real? I think. I’m holding my hands out, palms up, and they are red with Petlola’s blood. There’s a madman alien with a knife in one hand and claws hovering over my pussy, and I’m… slightly turned on?
I shake my head.
“I understand if you don’t want to marry me,” he says. “I am, I must tell you…” he looks over at Petlola, “unaccustomed to rejection.”
Behind me, I hear my father’s voice, a hoarse whisper. “Anya, please…”
I shoot him a dirty look, my mouth hanging open.
“We can settle accounts many ways,” the general says, dragging the claw back up my stomach, to my jaw. He traces a leisurely path across my jawline, my cheek, and over my earlobe. I hear a shearing sound, and close my eyes.
I’m dead, I think. I don’t feel any pain, but I suppose I’m just in shock.
My hair falls from the net that retained it beneath Fiona’s stupid skig. That’s what he sliced, I think, with relief that is immediately taken over by renewed panic.
He grasps some of my hair in his fingers, but unexpectedly, he plays with it gently.
I exhale, realizing only then that I haven’t been breathing. I gulp in fresh air to ease the suddenly fiery pain in my lungs.
“So. Anya Mann,” he says, bouncing up to standing. I look up at him, still shocked. “Princess in a palace? Or shall we settle your father’s accounts the…” He looks up at the ceiling, and then mutters something in Kerz.
“Old-fashioned,” says Quietly Bossy.
“Ah, yes. The old-fashioned manner?”
I don’t have the time or the inclination to correct this guy’s idiomatic English.
My lips tremble. I look around. Everything is horrifying. My eyes settle on Fiona, who is now looking quite happy to have been rejected in favor of me, which is the last thing I’d have ever expected in this lifetime.
“Why not… why me?” I mumble. “Fiona…”
“Fiona,” he repeats. He looks over at Fiona, who starts sobbing and blubbering incoherently again. “You wish me to kill Fiona first?”
“No!” I shout, holding up my hand. “No, wait, no. Don’t… just that, it’s just that…”
I’m lost. Fiona is the pretty one. Fiona is the submissive, money-grubbing one who would turn any trick in the book for money and power. This is all completely backwards.
“Fiona is the one everybody wants,” I say quietly, stupidly.
He looks at Fiona and shrugs, screwing up his face in an expression that is identical to a human’s. “Fiona is nice,” he agrees. He jerks his head in the direction of the quiet and dangerous Kerz, who is standing, like a mean sentinel, in front of me. “But he says I take you.” He puts a hand on the Kerz’s shoulder and wallops him hard. The Kerz’s body doesn’t move an inch. “Very smart, son of my father’s brother. He has my ears. He says take you. I listen. This is deal.”
I look from one impassive face to the other. “But surely—”
“This is deal.”
“Anya,” my father whimpers from behind me. I look back at him. He’s a diminished man. He’s also a complete bastard. But I don’t want him dead.
I also have other plans for my life.
I wait, to see if my father has anything else to say. He just pleads with his eyes.
“Anya!” Fiona screeches. “Don’t be an idiot! They’re going to kill us all—”
“Fi,” I say, and shockingly, this shuts her up. “Shut up. Shut up, shut up, shut up, for just a minute of your fucking life.” My hands drop into the slippery blood and I stare at them and the coagulating mess, wondering why I’m not puking all over the place. I’m panting, my thoughts are a blizzard and I cannot grasp a single one.
I look up, for some reason, to the very smart son of the general’s uncle. I don’t know why. He’s scary as fuck, but he seems less scary than the general. “Why?” I ask him.
“This is good question,” the general agrees. He rests his arm on the cousin’s shoulder, something he has to lift his elbow considerably to do. He’s a mad, mad, mad man. “But Rysethk is Kerz of mystery. He should be in charge, you know. I should kill him, to be honest. He is too smart. Very good warrior. But he’s son of father’s brother. Cushion. Kerz don’t kill family. Unlike you dishonorable skeept.”
Under any other circumstances, this hilarious mix-up between ‘cousin’ and ‘cushion’ would have tickled me to death.
He gives this milliseconds to sink in, then abruptly sighs. He seems… bored. “We are on tight schedule. I wish to leave. All that remains is to determine if this is a family affair… in which case, Mr. Mann,” he looks at my father, “I apologize profusely for disgraceful interruption.”
His gaze lowers to me. “If it’s not family affair, though, Anya Mann, I really must proceed with settling of accounts. So tell me. Is this family matter? Or business?”
“Anya,” a chorus of voices whispers and sobs.
I stare at my hands.
“Can I… at least change my clothes?” I hear myself say.
A laugh. And then I’m in the air, being lifted, and before I realize what is happening, I’m thrown over someone’s shoulder. I feel the hot hand, the sharp claws, on my inner thigh, midway up my dress. I struggle to look around as I’m carried away, in a sea of blue-skinned, enormous, dark-robed Kerz. The general is not carrying me. It must be his cousin.
I lift my head to look behind me. The scene is too gruesome, and the faces of my family are unreadable; their mouths are open in shock. But also relief.
I go limp and close my eyes.