A shrill scream jarred Mal Ton from a dreamless sleep. He grabbed his pulse pistol off the rickety nightstand and opened the door with a mental command. Increasing the mutant intensity of his eyes, he illuminated the hallway as he ran. A second scream guided his steps. He rushed down a flight of stairs into the bowels of Fane’s hideout.
Fane stood in a doorway halfway down the main corridor. He calmed his people with firm directives and unflagging patience, dispersing the crowd pressing in around him.
Mal Ton watched from the shadows, amazed at Fane’s unshakable composure. People liked Fane. They sensed his strength of character and obeyed without question. Few leaders ever achieved this level of devotion.
Tucking his weapon into the back of his pants, Mal Ton approached his friend. “There’s no imminent danger, I presume?”
Fane moved aside so Mal Ton could see into the small room. Sean Wylie sat on the floor beside the narrow bed with a young woman cradled in his arms. She trembled and tossed her head, babbling incoherently. Sean rocked her and brushed damp strands of hair back from her misshapen face.
“Her name is Sarah,” Fane whispered. “She made the sacrifice. She’s our most powerful dreamer.”
The sacrifice. It was such an innocuous term. Sarah allowed the Protarian lentavirus to ravage her body and mutate her mind. That didn’t sound nearly as civilized. Were prophetic dreams a fair exchange for physical well-being?
“What’s her connection to Sean?” Mal Ton looked at her face, ignoring the impulse to avert his gaze. No one sought out the Underground until they had exhausted all other options. They were all mutants in one way or another.
“Sarah is Sean’s younger sister.”
She screamed again, thrashing and arching despite Sean’s careful hold.
Mal Ton stepped back into the corridor. If there was no danger, there was no reason to linger.
“You’re restless, my friend.” Fane joined him in the hallway.
“We were created for action. Waiting will never sit well with me.”
“I suspect you’ll be back in action shortly. The accuracy of Sarah’s dreams tends to determine their intensity.”
Accepting the information with a nod, Mal Ton leaned against the cool stone wall. “Any word from Stilox?”
Though they had both been born on Stilox, only Mal Ton still considered it home. War with the Protarians had destroyed the planet, consigning Stilox survivors to scattered climate domes. Mal Ton couldn’t look at Protaria’s lush forests and elegant cities without remembering all the Stilox soldiers who had perished in the never-ending war. The Underground was better. Hidden in, and beneath, deserted sections of Protaria’s capital city, Fane’s sprawling hideout was home to mutants from a number of races. Still, Mal Ton longed for the scorched landscapes and twisted ruins of Stilox.
“Fane,” Sean called. “She’s ready now.”
Fane stepped back into the bedroom while Mal Ton went no farther than the doorway. Sarah sat on the edge of her bed, hands folded in her lap. A scarf had been wrapped around her head, concealing everything but her glowing amber eyes.
“The human test subjects are in Old Towne.” Her voice was well modulated and composed. No one would guess she had been writhing on the floor moments before.
“Old Towne is huge,” Fane said. “Can you be more specific?”
Her gaze shifted to Mal Ton and apprehension inundated his empathic receptors. He stepped back into the hallway, unwilling to add to her discomfort.
“I saw an old-fashioned marquee. I’m pretty sure it was the Paramount Theater.”
“Is there anything else?”
“You need to hurry. They aren’t reacting well to captivity.”
“I have them, sir.”
Mal Ton Adoha glanced up from his thermo scanner and turned his head toward Sean Wylie. “Send your signal to the main display.”
Sean complied. His scanner zoomed in on a dilapidated structure directly ahead of their scout ship. The windows had been sealed and there were no visible signs of life. Luckily, their search didn’t depend on visual clues. Seven life-form indicators blinked near the center of the scanner grid.
“Only four humans,” Mal Ton muttered. “Damn.”
“You didn’t really think Max would keep them all in the same place, did you?”
“No,” he grumbled. “He hasn’t missed a trick.” As if fighting the Protarians wasn’t challenging enough, one of his own kind had turned traitor and sabotaged their efforts at every turn. Mal Ton searched the other buildings visible on the display. “Can you set down here?” He motioned toward the level rooftop directly across from their target.
“Structural integrity is acceptable but we’re exposed from all sides.”
“No one down here is going to approach a police scout ship. This sector has been condemned for years.” The ship’s external shield could be modulated, creating the illusion of any number of vessels. Invisibility had been the original goal of the technology. Still, clever distortions worked nearly as well.
“Any chance of snagging their surveillance feed?” Mal Ton asked. They would only get one shot at this. Once Max learned they were on to him, it would make any rescue attempt that much harder. “These scans aren’t giving us much to go on.”
Sean activated a holoconsole directly in front of him, allowing him to access several systems simultaneously. “There’s nothing to jack. They’ve gone completely low-tech. I might be able to amplify their voices, but we’d do better with one of my bugs.”
A smile quirked one corner of Mal Ton’s mouth. Sean loved his tiny contraptions, spent hours improving and modifying the miniature, remote-controlled spies. “Send its signal to the main vidscreen.”
Sean hooked the control strap over two of his fingers and adjusted the thin pad across his palm. His thumb animated the bug with smooth, almost imperceptible movements. He launched the device through one of the munitions tubes. The image bobbed and bumped as the bug zipped toward the shabby building. A warped window frame provided a gap big enough to facilitate the bug’s insertion.
Water-stained walls and the dim glow of a portable light source filled the vidscreen. Mal Ton heard muffled voices but couldn’t make out their words. A rhythmic hum pulsed through the transmission, lending a surreal quality to an otherwise gloomy scene. Presented from the perspective of Sean’s newest invention, the image shifted and panned as the bug turned its tiny head.
“I’ve got to take a piss,” one of the men announced. He pushed to his feet and ambled toward the door.
“Thanks for the update,” one of his companions muttered. He was dressed in threadbare garments and his face was smudged with dirt. The unconventional uniform would help him blend in with their present surroundings.
“See if you can locate the women,” Mal Ton suggested. According to their intel all the captives were female.
Sean maneuvered the bug along the perimeter wall and down one of two adjacent hallways. The first three rooms were snugly sealed, but Sean managed to slip the bug under the fourth door. Mal Ton caught a glimpse of a windowless cell before the bug abruptly ascended, causing the scene to blur.
“I need him, Lorelle,” a slender blond woman cried. Mal Ton’s nanites allowed him to assimilate any language to which he’d been exposed. His recent interaction with humans had given him a rudimentary understanding of Earthish. “My head is pounding. If I move, my muscles cramp, but I can’t stand still. I have to do this.”
The blonde faced a dark-haired woman dressed in a khaki uniform. The insignia on her sleeve identified her as Protarian militia, but her ivory skin and the shape of her eyes assured him she was human. An odd sense of awareness stirred within Mal Ton as his gaze settled on her full-lipped mouth. Had he met this woman while he was on Earth? Surely he would have remembered someone so striking. Shaking away the disconcerting thought, he tried to assess the situation objectively.
The brunette finger-combed her hair out of her eyes and gestured toward the door. “Those bastards did this to us.” Filled with compassion and fury, her gaze was more violet than blue. Unique yet familiar. Where had he seen her before? “Do you really think they give a damn how much we suffer?”
“He helped me before,” the blonde argued. “You didn’t see how bad it got. I can’t go through that again. I’m not as strong as you are.”
Three agitated steps took the blonde from one end of the room to the other. Two simple cots and a composite food tray were the cell’s only furnishings. The blonde was alone with Lorelle, so where were the other two humans?
“He didn’t cure you.” Lorelle slipped her hands into her pants pockets and took a hesitant step toward the blonde. “The hunger came back. For all we know, giving in to him is what’s making you sick. Maybe humans are incompatible with their… Oh, my God, maybe this is why we were taken. They could be trying to impregnate us! You have to fight through the urgency, see if you can break the cycle for good.”
“You don’t understand. It gets worse each time. I have to have him now!”
Sean carefully maneuvered the bug out of the room and resumed his search for the other humans.
“It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what that was about.” Sean’s tone was heavy with frustration and regret. “Is she infected?”
“They both are,” Mal Ton admitted. “The guards have been treating them.”
“Why weren’t they given the vaccine? This doesn’t make sense.”
Even if Mal Ton hadn’t been able to understand their words, the symptoms were unmistakable. Anxiety, muscle cramps, and sexual frenzy. If Max had infected these women intentionally, Mal Ton would—He needed to focus on the mission. Max would pay for all his wrongs, but rescuing the humans took top priority.
“I can’t get into any of the other rooms.” Sean sent the return code to the bug and deactivated its transmitter. “How do we proceed?”
“Get into position and wait for my signal.”
“The blonde was pretty far gone. We better wait until after her next treatment. I’m not sure she’ll make it back to headquarters if we don’t.”
Mal Ton tensed. He despised abuse in any form. Seduction had his wholehearted support. He even stooped to deception from time to time. But this was different. Like a chemical addiction, the lentavirus created an uncontrollable urge, an artificial hunger that robbed its victim of choice.
“She has to have it, sir. The virus has seen to that.” Though his tone was firm, compassion softened Sean’s expression.
“If they harm her in any way, we move in.”
“Understood.” Sean unfastened his safety restraints and stood in the narrow aisle between the two seats. His eyes clouded then flashed with amber light. He spread his arms as visible particles of energy swirled around him, building in speed and intensity. The light expanded, encompassing his face and then his body. His corporeal form disintegrated, leaving only mist.
Lorelle pressed the back of her hand against Karla’s forehead. “You’re burning up.” Carefully schooling her expression, Lorelle hid the dread twisting inside her. Had the other captives developed this bizarre illness? And how much longer could she ignore the burning inside her own body?
Karla moaned and tossed her head. Crossing her arms over her chest, she pressed her thighs together, shaking. The nature of her distress was more apparent with each movement. “Make it stop. Please make it stop.”
“If you… relieve the pressure yourself, will that help?” She’d never felt so useless in her life. Fourteen years of military life hadn’t prepared her for a sexual crisis. Karla was the youngest of the captives and her easygoing demeanor called to the protector in Lorelle.
“I’ve tried,” Karla wailed. “Nothing works. I need Luke!”
Despite her determination to be difficult, Lorelle pounded the heel of her hand against the locked door. “Hello! Luke, get your ass in here!” she shouted in Standard. Even these imbeciles understood the intergalactic trade language. “We need your help now!”
The guards refused to reveal so much as their names, interacting with them as little as possible. So Lorelle had assigned them names, starting with the oldest and meanest. Matthew ignored them for the most part, delegating their care to Mark and Luke.
Luke burst into the room, weapon drawn. Mark was half a step behind. Taking up a defensive position in the doorway, Mark let Luke take the lead.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” Luke snapped. “You made it sound like someone was dying in here.”
“What’s wrong with her?” Lorelle indicated Karla with an angry sweep of her hand. “She’s climbing the walls.”
The men exchanged knowing glances but said nothing for a long, tense moment.
Luke took a step toward Karla and Mark caught him by the arm. “We can’t.”
“Will—he be angrier if we fuck her or if he returns to find her feral?” Luke’s expression echoed the challenge in his tone.
“Who said anything about fucking her?” Lorelle wasn’t as surprised as she sounded. Karla hadn’t spelled out what happened on the ship, but Lorelle knew it had been sexual. “She needs a doctor.”
“She needs our seed,” Luke said bluntly. “The urgency will continue to escalate until she gets it.”
Lorelle’s stomach clenched and her chest burned. “How convenient.” Wrapping her arm around Karla’s shoulders, Lorelle offered what comfort she could. They’d been kidnapped, drugged, and terrified. They’d been fed a steady stream of half-truths and outright lies. Before they reached their destination, their ship was shot down. And now they were imprisoned in this slum, waiting for only God knew what. Scrubbing a hand over her face, she tried not to lose control.
Karla twisted out of Lorelle’s hold and threw herself against Luke’s chest.
Mark aimed his rifle at Karla’s head and ordered, “Back off.”
Driven by instinct as much as anger, Lorelle snatched Luke’s pistol out of his hand and jump-kicked Mark’s rifle. The weapon clattered against the far wall as Mark lunged for her. She spun around and kicked him in the head with all the force she could muster. He swayed then sank to one knee, clutching his head between his hands.
“This is pointless.” Luke wrestled Karla’s hand away from his crotch. “We haven’t reported your outbursts because we knew you’d be disciplined. Is that what you want?”
Why would they care if she were disciplined? His vehemence made her pause. “I want my life back.”
Karla sobbed, clutching the front of Luke’s uniform with both hands. “Please. I can’t wait.” Her meaning easily transcended the language barrier.
Lorelle crept back, covering both men with the pistol. “Will fucking her make this stop?” Tension gripped her belly, spiraling down between her thighs. Where was Matthew? Why hadn’t he responded to this ruckus?
“It doesn’t matter.” Mark managed to look at her, but his voice remained tight. “Luke already fucked her once. He can’t risk it again and I’m tempted to let you both rot after that little stunt.”
She deactivated the safety and aimed the gun at his face. “Answer the question.”
“Yes. Fucking her will send the virus into remission—temporarily.” Mark revealed each word with obvious reluctance. His eyes narrowed and he struggled back to his feet.
“Are you trying to get her pregnant?”
Her hostile gaze was fixed on Mark, but Luke replied, “I don’t think we could get her pregnant even if we wanted to. Conception is a lot more complicated than what’s going on right now.”
“What happens if you fuck her more than once?”
“Some people absorb our—”
“It’s forbidden.” Mark shot Luke a scathing glare. “That’s all she needs to know.”
“We don’t have a choice,” Luke stressed, ignoring Mark’s hostility.
Lorelle shook away the unanswered questions and focused on the crisis at hand. “Karla, are you sure this is what you want?”
Karla nodded. Tears streamed down her cheeks even as she rubbed against her captor. “I can’t… I can’t go on like this.”
“This is not your fault,” Lorelle insisted, terrified that she was watching a preview of her own fate. “You’ve done nothing wrong.”
Luke took Karla’s face between his hands and whispered into her ear. Karla didn’t understand Standard, but it didn’t seem to matter. Of their three captors, Luke allowed them the most dignity. It was Luke who had seen they had clean clothes and were allowed to shower.
Mark took a step forward. Lorelle waved him back with the gun. “You sit against the wall.”
“She’s bad. She needs us both.” Luke met her gaze, his expression tense and serious.
She glared at him without shifting the gun from Mark. “Why?”
“Each time the virus flares it takes more of the antigens to counteract the symptoms. I can’t create a strong enough reaction alone.”
Lorelle fought back a frustrated scream and clasped the gun with both hands. “Try. If it doesn’t work—”
“It will only waste time she can’t afford.” The sexual frenzy had driven Karla beyond modesty. She boldly stroked the front of Luke’s pants as she guided his hand to her breast. She pushed her fingers into his wavy hair and parted her lips for his kiss. Luke hesitated, obviously waiting for Mark.
“Where is Matthew?” Lorelle asked.
“He went outside,” Mark told her. “It’s now or never.”
His smug smile made her finger flex against the trigger. She would die before she let these bastards touch her, but Karla had made her decision clear. She could always shoot Mark after…
“If you hurt her, I will kill you.” Lorelle followed him with the gun as he crossed the room. She widened her stance, ready to act at the first sign of trouble. Restlessness crept over her in scorching waves. She needed to lie down, spread her legs wide, and thrust her fingers into her throbbing pussy. Would a screaming orgasm push back this madness? Karla said it hadn’t helped her. It didn’t matter! There was no way she’d reveal weakness to the enemy.
Mark pulled Karla’s shirt off over her head. Then Luke lifted her against him while Mark rid her of her pants. Her undergarments followed in quick succession and Lorelle had to look away. Murmurs and gasps teased her imagination. How would they take her? Did they secrete these antigens or was it a reaction within the victim’s body?
“Why don’t you join us?” Mark’s deep, throaty tone made her insides clench.
“I’m not that desperate.”
She shot him a quick glare and her wayward gaze lingered, refusing to budge from the erotic scene. Luke had turned Karla, bringing her back against his chest. He played with her breasts, firmly rolling her nipples. She arched her neck and angled her head, offering Luke her mouth. His tongue snaked out and traced her lips before delving inside.
Lorelle’s lips tingled as she watched the consuming kiss. Their lips didn’t quite meet and she could see their tongues sliding against each other. Mark knelt in front of Karla and bent his head toward her mound. Using only his tongue, he pushed into her slit and caressed her clit. Lorelle barely suppressed a moan as fire burst between her thighs. She wanted to be licked, needed—No! Not like this. Not with them.
Ruthlessly flicking his tongue against the tender bud, Mark drove Karla to a fast, hard orgasm. She tore her mouth away from Luke’s and tangled her fingers in Mark’s dark hair. “More! Fuck me with your fingers. Do it again.”
Mark caught her clit between his thumb and forefinger and glared into her eyes. “Protarian men don’t take orders from females.” Luke caught her elbows and held her arms back while Mark plucked on the sensitive nub. Karla twisted and gasped, unable to escape his punishing caress.
Had he understood her words or just her tone? None of the guards had spoken in Earthish, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t. Lorelle shook away the possibility. Earth was new to intergalactic trade. There was no reason for these men to know their language.
“Turn her around,” Mark snapped. “I want to spank her ass.”
A lazy smile parted Luke’s lips as he turned Karla to face him. “You earned this, sweetheart. Take it like a good girl.” Luke bent her slightly forward, giving Mark a better angle for the spanking.
Mark swatted one of her round white cheeks and then the other. Karla tossed her head, hair swishing onto her back as she bent even farther forward. Was she enjoying this?
“Hold on,” Lorelle called. “There’s no reason to hit her.”
Mark simply ignored her and went right on with the spanking.
“The sensations help focus her mind on something other than her desperate need. She’s damn close to feral already.” Luke shifted his passion-bright gaze back and forth between Lorelle and Karla’s rapidly pinkening ass. “Look how wet she is. He’s not hurting her.”
Fast and hard, Mark rained down slaps on Karla’s ass. She squirmed and cried out, but it honestly looked as if her wiggling was trying to draw his attention rather than avoid the barrage of swats. Her breasts hung down and each impact of Mark’s hand sent them swaying.
Heat pulsed between Lorelle’s thighs. She’d never thought of spanking as particularly arousing, yet her body responded all the same. If she let Luke spank her, would it draw her mind away from this building need? The thought sent a thrill through her with the opposite result. She ached even worse.
“Enough.” Luke spun Karla around and brought her back firmly against his front. “Fuck,” he muttered. “Her ass is so hot, I can feel the heat through my pants.”
Mark sank to his knees again and nudged Karla’s thighs. “Open up and accept your master’s touch.”
Master? Was it just a figure of speech, or did these men always dominate their lovers? Perspiration gathered between Lorelle’s breasts. The room was chilly and dank, so why was she sweating?
Gradually Karla obeyed. She moved her feet apart and gave Mark access to her pussy. Luke took one of her nipples between his fingers and pulled hard enough to make Karla gasp. He twisted then released and Karla gasped again. Disconcerted by the harsh treatment, Lorelle shifted her gaze to Mark, but his fingers pulled and released Karla’s clit much as Luke was doing with her nipple. Without mercy they worked her to a fast, hard orgasm. She cried out, arching against their hands as pleasure shuddered through her body.
When Karla finally relaxed and rested against Luke’s chest, Mark parted her folds with his thumbs and captured her clit between his lips. His cheeks hollowed as he carefully sucked on the sensitive nub. Karla cried out again and was soon shaking with another orgasm.
Lorelle’s body rippled and clenched. Why was she watching this? They were obviously no threat to Karla. At least not physically.
“My turn,” Luke said breathlessly. “I want her to ride my face so I can shove my tongue right up inside her wet hole.”
“Get on with it,” Lorelle snapped. “This is not a game.”
“The concentration of antigens in our seed is determined by the level of our arousal,” Mark explained, suddenly sounding more like a doctor than a soldier. “And the more turned on she is, the more effective our antigens will be once she receives them.”
Luke spread out on his back and guided Karla down on top of his face. She rocked back and forth, grinding her pussy against his mouth. Lorelle crept toward the doorway and checked the hall. How would Matthew react if he arrived in the middle of this display?
When she turned back around Mark was kneeling on the other side of Luke. He bent Karla forward. One hand held the back of her neck and the other was buried between her thighs. Lorelle couldn’t see what Luke was doing, but Karla’s cries told the story.
Mark raised his hand to his mouth and licked Karla’s juices from his fingers while his gaze bore into Lorelle’s. “You’re next.”
Her mind balked against the taunt, but her body burned even hotter.
Mark unfastened his pants and angled his body so Lorelle could see exactly what he was doing. He stroked his cock with one hand and carefully pulled on his balls with the other. His abdomen tensed and his eyelids drooped. He better not waste his seed when Karla was so desperate for it!
Focusing on her indignation, Lorelle fought back her response to the carnal tableau. Had the virus been engineered or was it naturally occurring? Were men affected by it or did it only make women sex-crazed animals?
A sharp cry drew her attention back to Karla. Luke squeezed her reddened ass with both hands then scooted out from under her. “Good girl.” With a passion-dark smile he moved in front of Karla and raised her torso so she was on her hands and knees. He pushed his pants past his hips and offered her his cock. Lorelle only got a glimpse of his erection before Karla sucked it into her mouth. There was nothing tentative or shy in her desire. She turned her head this way and that, taking as much of him as she could.
Lorelle’s nipples rubbed against her bra with each agitated breath. Regardless of the reason for this exhibition, she had never seen anything so arousing. Mark stroked himself with one hand while he fucked Karla with the other. Lorelle watched his fingers slide between Karla’s dusky folds and push into her core. Every thrust made Lorelle ache and throb. Karla’s muffled cries and eager wiggles sent fresh waves of lust through Lorelle.
“Are you desperate yet, soldier girl?” Mark jeered. “Come over here. Brace yourself against my shoulders and I’ll lick your pussy while I fuck your friend. Are those long legs flexible or just strong? Let’s find out how wide you can spread them.”
“Shut up!” She averted her face, knowing her flushed skin and dilated pupils were giving her away. The torment continued in her peripheral vision despite her determination to remain unaffected by the scene.
Karla raised her bright red ass toward Mark as he prolonged her orgasm with his clever fingers. Were they really that good or was the virus making Karla ultra-responsive? Lorelle’s pussy tightened painfully, craving even one of the orgasms Karla had enjoyed.
Mark guided his cock to Karla’s entrance and buried himself to the balls with one hard thrust. She cried out around Luke, but it didn’t disturb his steady rhythm. Like a moth drawn to a flame, Lorelle turned her head back around. Hooking his arms beneath Karla’s elbows, Mark clasped his wrists at the small of her back. He pulled her away until only the tip of Luke’s cock remained in her mouth.
Long, thick, and shining with saliva, Luke poised within the circle of her lips. He took Karla’s face between his hands and tilted her head back, his fingers tangling in her hair. Mark drew back too. They paused, teasing her with a hint of their fullness. Lorelle trembled. They held Karla as securely as any restraints, positioning her for the taking.
Lorelle had never been overpowered by a lover. She knew danger excited her, but her military career had prevented her from exploring the sorts of pleasure teasing her imagination.
Mark violently impaled Karla, filling her passage as Luke shoved back into her mouth. Lorelle pressed her hand over her pounding heart. She’d never seen anything so… savage, yet so beautiful. They moved in perfect synchronicity, Luke rocking in and out of Karla’s mouth while Mark fucked her wet cunt.
Swiping her forehead with her uniform sleeve, Lorelle focused on the wall directly in front of her. It didn’t help. The slap of flesh against flesh combined with muffled cries of pleasure kept the image alive in her mind. Her body felt hollow and hot. She couldn’t wait until they left so she could ease this ache!
Boot heels rang in the hallway outside the airless room. Damn it! Matthew was back. She spun toward the door, steadying the gun with both hands. But the sudden movement, combined with the urgent desire pounding through her body, sent vertigo spinning through her head. Matthew threw the door wide and batted the pistol out of Lorelle’s grasp before she could restore her bearings.
“Wer… orten… nottric… craa,” Luke panted out in between deep thrusts.
“Figal hastaminet ordentez—”
“Explain that to her.” Mark continued the rapid shuttle with his hips. “We refused to touch her until Lorelle pointed the gun at us.”
Lorelle laughed. What a load of crap!
“How did she get a gun?” With a disgusted shake of his head, he turned his angry gaze on her. “Even if what he claims is true, how the hell am I supposed to convince my supervisor you forced them to fuck your friend?”
Luke cried out and buried himself in Karla’s mouth. She bucked wildly and Mark drove deep one final time. He came with a strangled yell then released his hold on her arms. Karla shoved Luke back and wiggled away from Mark before either man could catch his breath.
“Are you all right?”
It was an odd question. Matthew generally showed no interest in their well-being. Still, Lorelle repeated it in Earthish so Karla could understand. The younger woman nodded and frantically gathered her discarded clothes. Accepting her assurance with a stiff nod, Matthew aimed his pulse pistol at Mark and pulled the trigger. Karla dove for cover with a startled yelp. Lorelle scrambled for the gun she’d lost moments before as Matthew turned his gun on Luke. When his comrades lay crumpled on the floor, Matthew returned his attention to Lorelle.
She crouched near the bunk, pistol tightly clutched between her hands. Amber light burned through the darkness in his eyes, casting his face into shadow. He seemed to shimmer around the edges then illumination burst through his skin. Lorelle shook. What the hell was this? A ripple began at his feet and swept up the length of his body, transforming his shape and sculpting his features.
He grew taller and broader. A supple brown vest accented his brawny arms and well-defined chest. Black pants of the same material hugged his lean hips and muscular thighs before disappearing into calf-high boots. His dark hair lengthened, becoming tiny dreadlocks that swept away from his face and fell to the middle of his back. Smooth, caramel-colored skin stretched over arrogant features. Unlike Matthew and the other guards, his skin tone was more gold than bronze. Was this man a different species or from a different region of this world? A short beard shadowed his jaw and authority emanated from his bearing.
Lorelle swallowed hard and focused on his eyes. The amber light faded leaving behind glistening teal. “Who are you?”
“There will be time for explanations later. Where are the other two humans?”
He hadn’t refused to answer, just postponed her curiosity. He’d incapacitated the enemy; she wasn’t about to argue with him. She pushed to her feet and tucked the pistol into the back of her pants. He watched the action in silent approval, waiting for her reply.
“The others were locked in a room across the hall, but we haven’t seen them in several days.” A shiver raced down her spine as a shadow separated itself from the wall. She took an automatic step back. “How many of you are there?”
The shadow darkened and solidified, becoming a man in the blink of an eye. Unlike the shapeshifter, this man materialized out of thin air. It was all Lorelle could do not to rub her eyes. The shadow-man was as light as the shifter was dark with burnished gold hair and a slightly tanned complexion. The ink-black center of his eyes receded, revealing pale green irises. Was he making himself appear more human or did the transformation indicate something she didn’t understand?
“There are only two of us,” the blond answered her nearly forgotten question. “That should be enough.” He softened the boast with a playful wink.
“Move out.” Expectation filled the shifter’s tone.
Questions flooded Lorelle’s mind. Knowing the shifter would be annoyed by any hesitation, she postponed the inevitable barrage.
“Don’t you have shoes?” the blond asked as they moved into the corridor.
“Our possessions were discarded before we left Earth,” Lorelle told him.
“We’re not going far,” the shifter said.
Lorelle kept Karla in front of her and watched for any sign of ambush. What had the shifter done with the real Matthew? She had so many questions.
A blast from the shifter’s pistol opened the door Lorelle pointed out and they found the other two captives huddled in the back corner of the room.
“It’s all right,” Karla assured them in Earthish. “They’re going to take us out of here.”
A lump formed in Lorelle’s throat as she heard Karla’s words. She wanted to be rescued as badly as the others, but how could they be certain they were being rescued and not captured by a rival force?
Adrenaline had given her a momentary reprieve from the burning, but she knew it was just a matter of time before the virus reared its head again. She would never get through this unless she focused on one thing at a time.
The shifter hurried them through the building and up to the roof. A cool evening breeze caressed Lorelle’s face and her curious gaze swept her surroundings. Crumbling buildings pressed in on all sides, decaying and forgotten. Yet in the distance a massive metropolis rose against the hazy sky. Why had this section of the city been abandoned?
“Let’s go,” the shifter prompted.
He pointed to the ship waiting on the adjacent building and Lorelle’s heart fluttered with hope. This was real. They were being rescued! Nine humans had survived the crash along with two crewmembers. But they’d been divided into three small groups and taken to separate locations. Had these men located the others? As the shifter had said, there would be time for questions once they reached safety.
A daunting gap separated the two rooftops. On her best day she might be able to make the leap, but they’d been basically sedentary since leaving Earth. As if on cue, a hatch in the side of the ship opened and a ramp extended, providing a narrow walkway between the two buildings.
The blond man led the way. After crossing the ramp, he stood inside the hatch and helped each woman as she passed into the interior of the ship.
As Lorelle prepared to cross, the shifter proffered his hand. She accepted the assistance with a wan smile and his warm fingers enveloped hers. Damn, the man was big! She gained her footing and he stepped onto the ramp behind her. A warm tingle spiraled from the nape of her neck to her nipples and on to the apex of her thighs. Was the virus flaring again or was she just attuned to him?
Needing a distraction, she nodded toward the crest on the side of the ship. “Are you law enforcement?”
“Something like that.” He ducked through the hatch behind her and turned to retract the ramp.
The two men took their seats in the cockpit, leaving the women to secure themselves to the bench in back.
“Are we being arrested?” Karla’s tone was shaky and uncertain.
“We’ve done nothing wrong,” Lorelle stressed. “Why would they arrest us?”
“Did he kill those men?”
“I’m pretty sure they were just stunned.” She had no idea why Karla would care one way or the other. In Lorelle’s opinion, the guards’ only value was the information they might have possessed. She’d hardly glanced at the fallen men after the shifter blasted them.
“Are you their leader?” the blond man asked, amusement sparkling in his gaze.
“I was just unfortunate enough to speak Standard,” she explained.
The shifter’s mouth curved in a subtle smile, but he didn’t say a word.
The ship shuddered then banked sharply as they left the rooftop.
“Are the others being rescued as well?” They’d only been airborne a few moments when Lorelle lost the battle with her curiosity. “How did you know where to find us? Why were you looking? What planet is this and why were we taken from Earth?”
The blond swiveled to face her, flashing another breath-stealing smile. “I’m Sean Wylie, that’s Commander Adoha, and this should answer the rest of your questions.” He motioned toward the display across from them and Doctor Andrea Raynier’s image came on screen.
“I’m sorry I can’t be there in person to explain this,” Andrea began, “but rest assured you’re in capable hands.”
The captives had realized Andrea was their common tie shortly after they were taken from Earth. Each had been a patient of Dr. Raynier’s. Most had been treated for some form of infertility. Was Andrea responsible for their abduction or had she been abducted too?
Easily anticipating the question, Andrea’s message went on. “I was abducted by the people of this star system. Our information is rather sketchy. We’re not sure if you were abducted or if you volunteered for some fictitious scientific program. Regardless, we’re certain you didn’t intend to be shot out of the sky.”
“Why isn’t this interactive?” Lorelle asked, and Sean paused the message.
“An interactive transmission, regardless of how well it’s encrypted, could reveal your location. Until all the captives have been recovered we’re not taking any chances.” He reactivated the vidscreen.
“Three factions are at war and we’re caught right in the middle. The Protarians are the bad guys. We’re pretty sure they’re behind your abduction. The Stilox rebels have recently joined forces with the Mutant Underground.” She rubbed the bridge of her nose and shook her head. “And then there’s Max. He’s one of the mutants, but he turned against the Underground. He’s the one who shot down your ship and has been holding you captive.”
A soft, masculine chuckle sounded somewhere beyond the transceiver’s range. “Focus, kitten,” the man said in Standard. “Don’t try and explain everything that’s happened, just tell them what they need to know right now.”
Kitten? Lorelle tensed at the endearment. Had Andrea been seduced by one of these off-worlders? Were females intentionally infected so they could be more easily controlled? It wasn’t the first time the possibility had crossed her mind.
“They need to know the truth.” Andrea’s gaze connected with the unseen man and obvious affection glowed in her expression. “I owe them that much at least.” She shifted her attention back to the transmitter and continued in Earthish. “The Protarians used a biological weapon against the people of Stilox. The virus killed millions, as the Protarians intended, but the survivors developed a wide range of mutations. If you’re hearing this message, you’ve encountered people with these mutations. We have a counteragent for the biological weapon. It restores the person’s health. Unfortunately, it doesn’t reverse the mutations.”
“Hold on,” Lorelle interrupted again. “Is this weapon what’s making us sick? Can Andrea cure us?”
“Yes and yes,” Sean said. “A vaccine has been available for years. We have no idea why the Protarians didn’t inoculate you.”
“Obviously they wanted us to develop these mutations and the other delightful side effects,” Lorelle snapped, her pulse keeping time with her rising temper.
“The onset illness is extremely dangerous,” the shifter said, not bothering to turn around. “Why would they abduct you and bring you to another planet just to watch you die? It’s far more likely that Max screwed up their schedule when he shot down your ship. You’ll all be treated as soon as we reach our destination.”
“Treatment better not mean what it meant to the guards…” Lorelle felt the rapid rise and fall of her chest and knew she was breathing too fast. Heat bathed her skin like the midsummer sun, followed immediately by icy chill. Her teeth chattered and perspiration beaded on her brow. How much longer could she fight this?
Sean released his safety restraints and crossed the cabin. “How long have each of you been battling the symptoms?”
Lorelle quickly translated for the others.
“Karla has been sick the longest,” she told Sean. “She was already infected when I was kidnapped. I’m not sure about the others. As near as I can figure we’ve been on this planet fifteen days.”
“Are you the only one who hasn’t had sex since leaving Earth?” He touched her face and she jerked away.
“I’m fine.” His lightest touch sent prickly sensations dancing across her skin.
“Sure you are.” He returned to his seat and spoke to Mal Ton in a hushed, urgent tone. Anything they said in their native language couldn’t be good for her.
“Can you turn Andrea back on?” Lorelle desperately needed to think about anything other than the pressure building between her legs.
Sean reactivated the message, his worried gaze lingering on her face.
“Mal Ton is taking you to Fane.” The recorded image of Andrea came back to life. “At the moment, that’s the safest place for you. Fane is the leader of the Mutant Underground.”
Mal Ton must be the shifter. Sean had introduced him as commander something-or-other. Why was Andrea so familiar with these aliens?
“Max is fighting Fane for control of the Underground. The Protarians want to combine selected mutations with… with the alteration I made to your DNA. We’re not sure why Max shot down your ship. He might be negotiating with the Protarians or hoping to manipulate Fane. Both Max and the Protarians will fight like hell to get you back. But you don’t need to be afraid. Fane’s people will make sure nothing happens to you.” She paused for a friendly smile and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I’ll come to you as soon as I can.”
The screen went blank and Karla turned on Lorelle. “She kept saying ‘us’ and ‘we.’ Who is she aligned with, the Stilox or the Underground?”
“She said she’d altered our DNA,” one of the other captives pointed out. “What did she mean?”
Barely able to think past the pounding in her head, Lorelle forced her mind to focus. Was it possible she was the only one who had figured it out? “You honestly don’t know?”
Her question was met with a chorus of, “Know what?”
Looking at Karla, she asked, “How long ago did you participate in the RENA program?”
“Andrea transcribed my DNA for the second time nine years ago.”
Most people had some sort of cosmetic alteration performed at least once a year. If Lorelle’s security update hadn’t required a complete DNA profile, she might still be wondering why she looked so young.
“Andrea ran the second sequence on me eighteen years ago,” Lorelle admitted. “And according to my DNA profile, I haven’t aged a day in all that time.”