Pink, milky fluid sizzles as twin burners broil a thin pan. Before my eyes, the liquid hardens into crystals, which turn white within seconds. As soon as they do, I shut off the heat and slide out the tray to cool.
“Is it ready?” asks General Akan, his voice pouring through the intercom. He can’t see me through the massive pane of glass, but I can see him. Pacing, rubbing his finger along the trigger of his plasma rifle, he stares into my laboratory as if that will accelerate the process.
“Not yet,” I reply, moving another pan under the burners. “What’s the rush?”
I glance over my shoulder to catch the soldier’s sneer. Making a fist with his robotic left hand, he taps his steel knuckles against the safety glass. One solid punch and he could break through, but he won’t dare.
“We’re running out,” he growls.
I stop what I’m doing, walk up to the window, and look into Akan’s eyes. One’s just a black void, an artificial replacement; the other shows normal dilation, with no sign of irritation. Examining his body language, at least on the side that’s still his original human body, he doesn’t appear to be trembling or sweating. As far as I can tell he’s not experiencing withdrawal. He shouldn’t be. Stimulant X22 doesn’t cause dependency, and he’s not on anything else. He’s just impatient.
“I’m aware. The batch will be ready when it’s ready,” I say, then mute the speaker.
Akan says something else, even though he can see the connection’s been cut. I can read his lips well enough to know what he just called me.
He’s lucky. I could cook up a little neurotoxin and spike the stimulant; he wouldn’t know until it was too late. Maybe someday I will.
While more of the liquid X22 heats, I crush the finished crystals into powder with a small mallet. The powder goes into a flask of solvent for dilution, and then it’s poured into a drip feeder. Single drops of the stimulant fall onto tabs of blotting paper, which soak in the drug. The batch takes twenty minutes to finish. By the time it does, I’ve already begun the process anew.
I’m breaking fresh crystals when Akan overrides the lock on the laboratory door, barking, “Time’s up! Give me what you have, now!”
“You can’t be in here!” I shout back, raising my mallet in his face. “We had a deal. You need me to make the stimulant, and I’ll burn down this whole lab if you—”
“Save it, Nell,” says Akan. “In five minutes, none of that will fucking matter. Give me whatever you have.”
“What’s going on?”
Spotting the finished sheets, he pushes past me. Akan rips off a tab of X22 and presses it against his tongue.
“They’re coming, aren’t they?” I ask. “The Homefront?”
He hands me the rest of the sheet, shivering as the tab dissolves and enters his bloodstream. “Distribute all of it, then get to the infirmary.” An electric whine rises as he powers on his rifle. He adds, “Expect heavy casualties.”
“Hey!” I shout. “Tell me what you’ve done with her!”
His eye twitches. “She’s fine,” he mumbles, then turns to go.
“Liar! Prove it, Akan! Show me proof!”
He doesn’t stop.
I don’t move right away once he’s left. My body freezes. This is it—this is my shot to get the fuck out of here. Except a hundred different thoughts keep my feet planted. I should run, right now. I have no reason to stay anymore. But no, they’ll shoot me. I could try to help, but then I might get killed in battle. Perhaps it would be best to wait out the fight—I could barricade my lab’s outer door. But what are the odds I won’t be executed by Homefront afterward?
The base’s alarm sounds, a deafening siren that makes my heart thump.
“Red alert! This is not a drill!” Akan calls out over the base’s P.A. system. “Everyone to your stations. I repeat, this is not a drill.”
I fold up a few sheets of stimulant and stuff them into my lab coat, then shut off the burners cooking up the next batch. Using my mallet, I sweep the equipment off the table, sending everything crashing to the tiled floor. What’s Akan going to do about it, shoot me?
In the halls I hear and see panic—soldiers run instead of marching. Red and yellow emergency lights sweep back and forth, filling the base with an eerie orange glow.
“Hey, Niata!” a soldier shouts at me, rushing over. “Give me a tab.”
The second everyone else hears him, they all swarm my way. Rather than form an orderly line like usual, they bunch around me, jockeying for position. There’s not enough for everyone, and they know it.
“I gave it all to General Akan!” I lie, fending off pawing hands. “He has it!”
“Bullshit!” someone yells. Someone seizes my shoulders. I spin out of the grasp and swing a fist wildly, not caring who it hits.
“Back off!” I shout. “Get to your stations!”
Finic, a lieutenant with a thick bandage over his nose, flashes me a severe grin. He grabs my wrist and squeezes it hard. “We don’t take orders from you, bitch.”
“It wasn’t my order. Now let go.”
“All of you, to your stations,” Finic says to the mob. “You’re with me, Niata.”
Taking my other wrist and holding them both, he ushers me back toward my lab.
“What the hell is going on?” I ask, starting to sweat through my shirt. When he sees the state of my lab, or if he finds the stimulant hidden on me…
“Homefront,” Finic grunts.
“But why attack here? Why not Firebase Delta? Isn’t that what Akan expected?”
“Who tells you this stuff?” he asks, swiping my ID card to get us into the outer door. I try to jam my foot against the frame, but he tightens his grip until I scream.
“Look,” he says, cupping my chin in his palm and pointing my face at our reflection in the mirror. “You want that pretty face of yours intact? Let me in and give me what I want.”
“I told you, there’s no more—”
He presses me against the glass, pinning me in place. I can smell the chemical cleaner used on his black uniform; it fills my senses as I struggle to inhale.
“The war is about to end,” he whispers. “We’re gonna lose, so let’s just stay here until then. I’m not dying for Akan.”
“Then you don’t need any X22,” I argue, trying to push him off me.
Finic laughs. “Nell, you know that’s not true. You know what your drug also stimulates. Let’s have a little fun before the end.”
I can’t dislodge him, not with my arms pressed against the glass.
“Fine,” I spit, almost sorry General Akan isn’t here right now. He’d shoot Finic for this, on the spot.
Trembling, I tap my code into the inner door’s lock. Realizing what I have to do, I take a deep breath. I’m only going to get one shot at this.
“What the fuck happened here?” Finic says, seeing the wrecked equipment scattered across the floor. He knocks away a glass shard from a broken flask, scanning for stimulant until he turns back to me. “Did you do this?”
“Yeah,” I say, propelling my foot as hard as I can. Finic has no time to react—my small brown shoe drives into his crotch with full force. Though his uniform features built-in armor plating for his chest and legs, nothing protects his cock from a swift kick.
Finic’s groan comes out as a dry wheeze. His face turns purple as he doubles over, then falls to the floor. Glass cracks under his heavy, muscular body. Somehow he manages to reach for his rifle, but I clutch it first, ripping it away from his hands.
Gasping like a caught fish, Finic rolls onto his side—right toward a pile of pink crystals.
“Don’t move!” I say, fumbling a finger into the trigger guard.
Finic pops a crystal into his mouth and bites down.
Eyes widening, his cheeks returning to their normal pale hue, he starts to get up. Legs shaking, he takes a step forward.
“Stop! I’ll shoot!”
He lurches ahead once more, teeth bared, his face drawn in pain and fury.
“Stop!” I shout once more, but Finic keeps coming.
I almost don’t pull the trigger in time. He halts in his stride, fear and surprise in his eyes, then falls. He just goes down, like he could have tripped. There’s no blood. A thin trail of smoke rises from a black mark on his chest; it smells terrible, but familiar.
“Sorry,” I mumble, blinking fast for tears that aren’t coming. “I had no choice.”
In a cabinet below one of the lab tables, I have tarps for covering my equipment—I consider getting one to cover Finic’s body. I likely don’t have much time, but it would be the least I could do. I’m about to when the ground shakes underneath me, as a blast rocks the base.
Ears ringing, stunned, I don’t realize at first I’ve fallen on the still-warm corpse. Shrieking, I roll aside, get up and run.
I have no plan. There’s no secret exit for me to find, or anyone coming to extract me from the compound. All I can do is flee and hope I make it.
Smaller blasts continue to crash from too close—it feels like it’s right underneath me. Chunks of rubble fall from the ceiling, trailed by clouds of grit. I cover my head as I make for the stairs. I’m lucky Akan allowed me some freedom of movement while keeping me here, or I’d never know how to reach the surface.
Plasma rifle shots sear the air as I emerge. Seeing bodies, I keep low, making a break for cover, a pile of metal crates. Soldiers scream as they fire over the high compound walls. Homefront units strafe the Akan army lines, hovering in the air on high-powered jump jets. Akan’s men go down, but no one retreats. They keep shooting, even the injured. Powered by X22, they don’t stop fighting until the stimulant in their blood’s all used up—or they’re dead.
I reach into my jacket, feeling for a tab. If I’m ever going to try taking it myself, now’s the time. I tear a few off and hold one to my lips.
No. I can’t.
I put them all away, slipping them into my go-to hiding spot: a tag inside my shirt that works as a tiny pocket. Peering over my cover, I see a giant hole blown in the compound wall. I could get out that way—I just have to cross a battlefield to do it.
Energy bolts pock off the sides of the crates, sending me scrambling back down to safety. I raise my rifle over the side and fire a few shots, not even looking where I’m aiming. I don’t know if I even hit anyone.
My body wants to go into shock. Heart practically palpitating, sweat pouring down my forehead, every instinct’s telling me to hide. Abject terror fixes me in place like an anchor.
Doors open in front of me: the compound’s hangar. A hover jet! I could take a—
Except someone else thought of that first—a squad of hover jets zips out into the air. Three of them break off and circle back, trading fire with the flying Homefront jump jet soldiers. The last hover jet disappears from view as it flies away.
Maybe there are more jets left. I start to run for the hangar, but I don’t make it; a missile flies into the gaping doors, and an explosion throws me off my feet once more. My head throbs, though the rifle fire peters out.
Before I recover, I hear two heavy thuds, as a pair of Homefront soldiers land right behind me. I reach for my rifle, but a big black boot kicks it away. When I look up, my jaw drops. I recognize them both. Everyone in the nation-state of Candos knows who they are.
“Nell Niata, what the heck are you doing out here?” says Rune Mannis, a big grin spreading across his pretty face. “You do know this is a war zone?”
“It isn’t safe,” says Kozsa Aerv, a mountain of a man whose biceps are wider than my hips. “Let’s get her out of here.”
“Commander, this is Mannis,” Rune says into his transmitter as they take my arms and start dragging me toward a waiting Homefront dropship. They’re both massively muscular, heavily armed, and a foot taller than me—there’s no way for me to escape their grasp. Considering the scene around us, I wouldn’t get far anyway.
“Go ahead, Mannis, report.”
He looks at me with his famously mischievous grin, pursing his lips and blowing me a kiss.
“Mission accomplished,” he says. “We have her. We have Nell Niata.”
Kozsa lets go of Nell as we board the ship, prompting her to tug on the arm I’m holding, trying one last time to get away. She squirms and wrenches as I retrieve a set of power cuffs and slap them around her wrists, forcing her arms behind her back.
“Keep making this difficult,” I say. “That just makes it more fun for me.”
She huffs and lets out a sexy little growl. Nell Niata looks much cuter in person; maybe it’s the tousled hair and sweat-streaked, pale skin. She certainly looks like she’s been through a battle—and that she doesn’t get out much. According to her file, she finished her degree in neuroscience by twenty-one; in the six years since, her work at Candos University has led to one breakthrough after another. Clearly, she’s brilliant—and judging by her appearance, a fighter.
All the more reason to handle her with care.
“Kozsa, give me another pair of cuffs,” I say as we lift off, leaving the rest of our forces to finish the raid. “Our VIP here is going to be trouble, I can tell.”
Wind whips past the ship’s open sides. Nell digs into her seat. I’d understand if she’s afraid of falling out—she’s the only one on board not wearing a jetpack.
Once we’re stable, she shifts her attention between us, back and forth, constantly staring. Of course she knows who we are—but is she star-struck, or sizing us up? Gears are turning beneath that cute blonde hair. She blows a tuft of it out of her eyes, and I can’t help picturing other ways she could use that mouth.
“VIP?” Nell says. “Are you kidding? General Akan was there, and your mission was to get me?”
“Wait, Akan was there?” I ask Kozsa.
“Damn,” I say. “We didn’t know. Our mission was to get you, Miss Niata. Thanks for not dying in the fight, by the way.”
Our ship pulls up sharply, heading for the upper atmosphere’s relative safety. Unprepared, Nell nearly falls, forcing Kozsa to grab her arm. Instead of thanking him, she snarls and turns her body to shake him off. Grunting a soft chuckle, he lets go.
“Don’t be like that,” I taunt. “No one here would mind if you fell.”
“You’re a pain in our asses. Most of us would happily toss you out,” Kozsa adds.
“But not you?” she says.
“He’s kidding,” I cut in. “Or is he?”
“So you know who I am. You came for me,” she says, brows narrowing. “And you know what I do, right?”
“That’s right,” Kozsa replies.
“Then let me save you some time: I’m not making stimulant for you, or anyone else, ever again.”
I laugh. Squeezing Nell’s chin with my fingers, I lift it so she has to look at me.
“We’ve lost a lot of good soldiers because X22 gave your people an edge. We’ve lost battles we should have won, prolonging the war and getting people killed for no good reason. You don’t want to make your drug anymore? That’s fine. You can rot in a cell.”
She sneers at me, but tears collect on her cheeks.
“Hold still,” Kozsa growls. “We have to search you.”
I grab her arms, immediately causing her to buck, but Kozsa pats down her sides.
“No guns,” he says, reaching into her jacket. “Excuse me.”
She shrieks, but he pulls his hand out immediately, holding some kind of paper sheets.
“Hey, I need those!”
“Oh, I know,” says Kozsa. “I can’t wait to see how you feel without your fix.”
“Fuck you, I don’t use them!” Nell snarls. “And they’re not addictive!”
“We’ll see about that.” He reaches into his armor and retrieves a swab. He wipes it across Nell’s forehead and then seals it in a small plastic pouch.
“I’m telling you, I’ve never taken one. And even if I did, there’s no chemical dependency. I’m not going to suffer withdrawal.”
“So then why do you need them?” I ask, taking the sheets for a closer look. We’ve confiscated stimulant tabs from fallen enemy soldiers plenty of times, but I haven’t seen this much at once. These must be fresh out of the lab.
“To sell. So I could get—” She stops, and fresh tears drip.
“Hey, so you could get what?” I ask.
I reach for her, but Kozsa blocks my hand. He shakes his head, so I relent. Nell can’t stop blinking her red eyes as she cries. I give my friend a look; he crosses his arms in front of his chest.
“You can sit,” I tell Nell. “We’ll talk later.”
When we return from a mission, we’re often received by an assembly of cheering Homefront soldiers and support staff, but with our captive in tow, we opt for a discreet docking.
“Nell Niata,” I say, “welcome to the Iris.”
Part base, part prison for Akan forces, the Iris serves as an op center for me, Kozsa, Commander Berck, and our army.
Nell grunts. With the hood we’ve put over her head, it’s not like she can see anything right now anyway. We march her not to the main prison facility, with the rest of Akan’s people, but to a private block reserved for the most important acquisitions: lieutenants, high-level strategists, and, someday, Akan himself. Each unit is fully self-contained for solitary confinement.
“Return to your duties,” Kozsa orders our escort. They nod and go, eager to debrief and get some rest.
I pull off Nell’s hood, but I leave her hands and arms bound.
“What were you about to say on the ship,” I say. “What were you trying to get?”
“It’s none of your business,” she says. Her hair’s a mess from the hood, and she looks like she could use a day or two’s worth of sleep, but her voice doesn’t waver.
Kozsa sighs. “Are you aware of how we discipline disobedient prisoners? Has that bit of information reached Akan’s ears?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“We do things in an old school way,” I cut in. “We believe in the tried and true, which means we will whip your ass raw.”
She shivers, glaring at me.
“But that’s for discipline. To correct bad behavior,” Kozsa explains.
“And we’ll do it to unruly prisoners, but also our own officers when we have to,” I continue. “But we don’t like doing it for the sake of interrogation.”
“So tell us what we want to know,” I finish.
She shakes her head. “I can’t.”
“You have to. You belong to us now, Nell. This war will be over in weeks, if not days. General Akan’s finished. He can’t protect you.”
Gazing up at the paneled ceiling, she turns her back on us. I immediately turn her around again.
“You know, I now believe what you said before, about not being on X22. If you were, you’d be trying to charge us, to fight us—or you’d be begging us to bend you over and fuck you silly. Isn’t that right?”
“Yes,” she replies, blush coloring her cheeks. “I mean, that’s how it works. But I would never…”
I chuckle, watching her squirm against her bonds. If I reached into those tight pants of hers I can imagine what I’d find between her thighs. She wouldn’t be the first.
“That’s a shame,” says Kozsa. His lips barely move when he grins, but I’m sure he knows what I’m thinking.
“What?” she gasps. Her jaw hangs.
“We were hoping withdrawal from X22 would badly cripple Akan’s army,” I say. “Robbing him of his supply will have to do.”
Nell shuts her mouth.
“It will,” she says, the hint of a smile growing on her face.
Is she glad? Why? If Akan wins this war, taking over Candos like he said she would, Nell would be a hero. She provided the miracle drug that led to victory. Why would she want Akan to lose?
“Nell, what you were trying to do?” I respond, holding her shoulders. “Why did you have all that stimulant?”
“I can’t tell you,” she says, hanging her head.
“Rune,” says Kozsa, holding up Nell’s hood. “She has a reason. Let her decide if it’s still a good one.”
“Okay, sure. We’ll give you time to think about it,” I say to Nell. “Plenty of it, in fact.”
Before she can react, I take the hood from Kozsa and slip it over her head. She yanks her neck side to side, trying to get out, but I pull a cord that automatically tightens the hood and seals it in place. Nell screams something at us; I can’t make out the words, but her meaning isn’t hard to decipher.
“Breathe,” I say, lowering her onto the bunk. “And sit tight—I don’t want you to fall on the floor and hurt yourself.”
Nell growls, but settles herself down enough to sit mostly still. She looks so beautifully helpless, fidgeting and testing her restraints. There’s no chance she’ll get out of her cuffs, but I could watch her try for hours.
Kozsa shuts the door, though, and we make our way from the prison wing to the command center. We walk silently. I imagine Kozsa’s making mental calculations about Akan’s reaction to losing a base and, more important, his source of stimulant. How will that affect the numbers of soldiers lost in each engagement? Will it push the margins far enough that he’ll surrender, rather than continue fighting? I’m not interested in the numbers—I know Akan won’t quit. Kozsa is aware of my belief on the matter.
Commander Gencic Berck welcomes us into his office and pours us each a tumbler of scotch.
“Well done, guys,” he says, gesturing for us to have a seat at his desk. Old enough to be a father to me or Kozsa, Berck carries the stresses of this war in his graying hair and creased face. Yet he’s never short of energy—when the Akanian invasion began, he once stayed up fifty hours straight directing the defensive efforts. He stayed sharp and calm when most panicked—without him, Candos would belong to Akan and the Homefront wouldn’t exist.
“Despite the base being more heavily fortified than anticipated, squad leaders report minimal casualties,” he says. “You secured the objective and dealt a blow that will ensure this war ends soon. It’s a good day for the Homefront and the people of Candos.”
“Akan was there, sir,” Kozsa replies. “If we’d known, it could have ended today.”
“But we didn’t know,” says Berck. “So don’t worry about it. We have dozens of Akanian captives to interrogate—maybe one of them can tell us why he was there. And you’ll ask Miss Niata the same thing. Until your next operation, your objective is to find out everything she knows.”
“It’ll be our pleasure, sir,” I say, knocking back the glass of scotch. Its rich taste lingers on my tongue and warms my chest.
Berck rubs the whiskers on his chin and reclines in his seat. “I have no doubt Akan will try to reacquire Niata. Extract everything you can as quickly as possible.”
“Sir, judging by what we’ve seen, we’ll need to develop a rapport,” I explain. “Nell… Miss Niata won’t open up.”
Berck grins. “Better get to it then.”
Of all the horrid things Akan ever did to me, he never left me bound and blind in a prison cell. In truth, his deeds are incomparably worse—crimes for which I hope he pays dearly—but at the moment, all I can think about is being fucking pissed off.
Does my cell not have bars? Wouldn’t that have been enough to confine me here? They had to leave me like this?
I can’t tell how long it’s been. I haven’t tried. Time moves slowly when all there is to do is be alone with one’s thoughts. Dwelling on it only makes the ordeal worse. I spent enough time as Akan’s prisoner to know better. At least all those times I could see—I could open my mouth and breathe. This is just cruel.
Rune and Kozsa no doubt expect this to break me, that I won’t want to endure such treatment again. Depending on how long they keep me like this, it could work. My arms ache from the unnatural position; my limbs beg to flex and stretch. When they first left me here, it took forever for me to stop squirming; all that did was make me sweat and get hot inside the hood. I had to stop. I’ve been dying for something to drink ever since; my mouth feels papery, and my throat scratches when I swallow.
Worst of all, though, is that I’m hot elsewhere too—wetness has coated my inner thighs the whole time, and my thoughts have strayed toward my two captors. Being manhandled by two hulking, powerful warriors…
I’ve been a prisoner for far too long—that’s all it is. I haven’t had a chance to enjoy myself or be in a relationship. My body’s producing hormones that are calling for a response. It’s basic biology, and I don’t have to answer that call. I’m the one in charge of how I feel, and right now I’m furious.
Kozsa and Rune may be handsome and brave, but they’re my captors—my enemies. Not because they were trying to defeat Akan—for that, I thank them. After what Akan’s done to me and my mother… But given the chance, won’t the Homefront and Commander Berck do the same? I have to assume they will. They’re defending their nation—they’ll do anything to win.
After what feels like hours, but could be less than fifteen minutes for all I can tell, Rune and Kozsa finally return. I try not to startle when I hear them, and bite my tongue to keep from reacting strongly when they remove the hood.
“Back so soon?” I mutter, crossing a leg.
They’ve showered and changed—their combat uniforms and gear are gone. Matching white muscle shirts offer me a good look at their physiques: Rune is built but toned, like a martial artist, while Kozsa bulges with muscle from head to toe. His shaved head and short, dark beard make him look like he could wrestle down a bear with ease. Conversely, Rune boasts thick, bouncy brown hair too long for military regulations, but admittedly it looks too good to cut it short.
Rune laughs. “We could give you more time if you’re not ready.”
“You know what? Do what you want,” I say. “How dare you assholes leave me like this! I told you there was nothing to talk about, and that hasn’t changed. So just leave me here. That’s what Akan did. You’re just the same as him.”
“That’s not true,” says Kozsa as he sets a hand on Rune’s shoulder. “We understand you’ve been through a lot.”
“Oh, don’t give me that shit,” I snap, unable to keep myself from struggling against my bonds. “You could let me go, that would prove me wrong. But you’re not going to. You’re going to pump me for information, then probably put me on some kind of show trial for my work with Akan.”
Snickering, Rune sits down next to me and starts unlocking my cuffs. “We’ll do what now, for information?”
Blood rushes to my cheeks. I wish I hadn’t said ‘pump.’
“She’s so agitated,” Rune says. “Don’t you think?”
Kozsa nods. “Nell, are you sure you’re not experiencing withdrawal? Can I get you anything? Some water, something to eat?”
“I’m not in withdrawal!” I shout. “You’re treating me like a fucking war criminal!”
I expect Rune to take umbrage and tell me I am a war criminal, but he slips off my cuffs and lets my arms go limp at my sides. He holds my back and gently lowers me to the bunk. I’d rather not be lying down with the two of them here, but it feels incredible after being bound for so long.
“You gave aid to an invading army,” says Kozsa. “But in Candos we don’t mistreat our prisoners.”
“We’re different from Akan,” Rune adds. “Very fucking different.”
“Prove it,” I say. “I’ll take that water and food. I haven’t eaten. Start with that.”
Kozsa watches me as he taps a com device on his wrist and speaks into it. “Please tell the cafeteria to send something up to Cell A95.”
I stare back. That’s something, I guess, but far from enough.
“Nell, let’s start with something easy,” says Rune. “What were you doing at the center of the battle? You’re not a soldier. Why weren’t you hiding somewhere safe?”
Sighing, I sit up on the bunk and massage my sore wrists.
“I was trying to escape. In a ship, if possible, but I’d have just run if I had to.”
Rune takes my hands and pins them together against the wall, above my head. With my wrists wrapped in his palms, his grip feels like hot irons. His body looms over mine like a wall, making me inescapably aware of my helplessness. He leaves just enough slack for me to jostle my wrists, but to no avail.
“How do we know you weren’t ordered to evacuate by Akan? He’d have wanted you to avoid capture.”
I laugh, trying to budge my arms from his grasp.
“Akan ordered me to the infirmary to help the wounded. That’s the truth. If he knew he was going to lose, he probably would have taken me with him. I swear, I have no loyalty to him. I just wanted to escape.”
“Rune, let her go,” says Kozsa. “Nell, we want to believe you. But we have to trust you first.”
“And we’re just not sure we can,” Rune adds. “You have a really convenient story—too much of it secret.”
Standing up, my legs throb, but it feels good to be on my feet.
“Then how can I earn your trust?”
Rune and Kozsa turn to each other. Whatever they’re communicating, they don’t need words.
“Give us something of value,” Kozsa says. “Actionable intelligence.”
Tears sting my eyes, despite my efforts to keep them away. My body screams for rest—I need to eat and sleep, but I can’t. I’ve had enough of this. I didn’t risk my life to escape Akan just to wind up a prisoner all over again.
“They didn’t tell me much,” I say. “I wasn’t privy to Akan’s war room. You would know more than me.”
“Then this will take a while,” Rune replies. Kozsa grimaces.
“Weeks. Maybe months.”
“Developing this kind of relationship takes time,” adds Kozsa.
No. I can’t do it. Not again.
The door to my cell opens—a woman in a Homefront uniform carries a tray with cups of water, cheese and crackers. I don’t wait—I run.
Rune and Kozsa move inward to cut me off; I dive to the floor, slipping underneath them, and then rise to my feet and keep going. Barreling over the woman with the food, I hang a sharp right and break into a sprint.
I have no idea where I’m going. It doesn’t matter. I have to try.
Hoping to throw off pursuit, I make another turn. Heavy, rapid footsteps sound off from behind. I pass confused personnel, weaving around them. My hairs rise as I spot a security camera. No alarms have gone off yet, but I’m sure they will.
Seeing a door without a security lock, I try it and find a stairwell. My heart leaps at my luck, until I see Rune on the landing below.
“Hey, Nell,” he says, grinning.
I head up, taking stairs two at a time. Is this base underground, or above? Am I making my escape harder by going up? I have no clue. At this point I’m not even thinking—I’m reacting.
Of course, I’m doing exactly what they expect—when I get to the next landing, Kozsa’s already waiting. My momentum sends me straight at him, and he catches me in his arms. His grip tightens, pressing my arms into my sides, and then he lifts me off my feet.
“Gotcha,” he chuckles.
“How?” I shriek, kicking my feet uselessly. “How did you get here… so fast?”
“You took the long way around,” says Kozsa.
“And this helped,” adds Rune, holding up his wrist com showing a camera feed of the hallway. “If it makes you feel better, that was a nice move, ducking under us. Really caught us off-guard!”
“We’ll be more careful,” Kozsa finishes.
He carries me all the way back to my cell.
“Face the wall,” he says after letting me go. “Arms up, over your head.”
Tearing up, livid and exhausted, I do as he says. They’re just trying to intimidate me. That’s how these animals assert dominance. A little show of force, a bit of chest thumping—it’s so typical. Don’t they see how transparent they are? Do they really think this will impress me?
I’m still trying not to roll my eyes at them when Rune pulls down my pants. I twist to punch him, but Kozsa holds my hands in place.
“What the hell are you doing?” I snarl, feeling the cool air on my bare backside. My nervous system shoots into overdrive, and time almost seems to slow down. I feel laser focused on each passing second, my tongue turns to chalk, and my palms heat with sweat. Classic fight or flight response—except I can’t do either.
“Disciplining you,” says Kozsa, brushing my ass with his big, rough hand. “For your escape attempt.”
Is this really happening? They’re going to spank me, like I’m some kind of petty criminal? Who does that? When I displeased Akan he withheld my rations, took away my books, and confined me to my lab—he never even suggested using a humiliating physical punishment.
My pulse pounds loudly and my lip trembles, imagining what’s to come. How badly will it hurt? Are they just trying to teach me a lesson, or will I be feeling this for days to come? Will I be able to face them with my held head high after this? It’s impossible to imagine, after suffering such a flagrant indignity.
I cry out as Kozsa smacks my ass for the first time. Though I writhe against their grip, I can’t get free.
He slaps my ass again, this time on the other cheek, evening out the stinging sensation.
“This is… ridiculous!” I gasp as he catches my entire backside with one more hard slap.
“Is it?” Rune laughs. “We’ve found it pretty effective in discouraging future escape attempts.”
Kozsa holds me steady so that Rune can take a turn. He uses both hands to spank my ass, punishing both sides at once.
“I won’t do it again!”
“See? It’s already working,” says Rune.
I growl, tears dripping faster than I can shake off. Though the spanking hurts a bit, their laughter burns me a hundred times worse. They’re joking around? How dare they! This isn’t supposed to be fun!
“Screw you both!”
Rune swats the underside of my rear, causing me to jump from the pain.
“That can be arranged,” he whispers into my ear.
My face heats, and I press my legs together instinctively. Warmth grows in my core, flashing unbidden images of the two men, naked, standing over me…
If Rune can tell where my mind went, he doesn’t say anything. He just gives my ass another slap, then steps aside so Kozsa can continue.
Sweaty and exhausted, I grit my teeth and steel myself against the punishment. There’s no point in fighting it. Maybe they’ll show me some mercy if they see I’m finished.
Somehow, when I stop resisting, the spanking bothers me less. Each slap still makes me hiss or wince, but the humiliation of the whole thing can’t get any worse. Facing the wall, I don’t have to look at Rune’s and Kozsa’s gorgeous faces—and they don’t crack any more jokes. My ass burns like crazy, but I breathe deeply and slowly.
I survived a year of being Akan’s prisoner. I’ll survive this.
“Okay,” says Kozsa. “That’s enough.”
“Oh, yes. Look at that ass. So pink all over. Very, very nice.”
“Go fuck yourselves,” I spit, pulling up my pants. The brush of the fabric over my ass sends fresh jolts through my body. I don’t know how I’m going to sit down for at least a day.
Rune takes a cuff out of his pocket and binds my wrist to a rung on my bunk.
“What’s this for?” I ask. “You’re just going to lock me in here.”
Rune points to the platter of spilled cheese and crackers from before.
“That’s why. Don’t do that again, or you’ll clean it up with your tongue. Understand?”
I give him the finger with my free hand.
Rune shakes his head. “Is that any way to build trust?”
“Listen, Nell,” says Kozsa. “We’ll send you a fresh meal in a minute. Eat it, then go to sleep. You’ve been through a lot. Tomorrow we’ll give you a chance to start over.”
“Do yourself a favor and don’t fuck it up,” Rune finishes as the two of them turn to leave.
He seals the door to my cell, and then I’m alone.
Their warning echoes in my mind again and again, each time making me angrier.
Don’t fuck it up.
Do they think I’m an idiot? This is a game. They’re fucking with me.
I’m never getting out of this place.