Iridia, 2718 A.D.
Eli got to her first. Running a hand down her body, cupping a naked breast, pinching her nipples between his fingers. All the while staring into her eyes with a mocking smile on his face, reminding her that this time she was tied up, powerless to resist. He drew in the crowd, looking to them as if for approval before he ran one hand up her inner thigh to disappear under the scrap of cloth tied around her waist…
Lexi tried not to show any emotion. But it was impossible to disguise her body’s reaction. Her reddened nipples jutted out in hard little peaks. Despite her revulsion for the man, his probing fingers between her legs made her breathing quicken.
Meanwhile, Balek stayed true to his feline character. He rubbed his body sinuously against hers, then swept her hair off her neck. Sticking out his long tongue, he wiggled it suggestively, then licked the spot just below her ear. He worked his way down her neck, all the while making low rumbling sounds like a tiger in heat.
Balek dipped his head lower, running his tongue in lazy circles around her breast. Nazery and Khan tried to shove him away, but Balek growled at them, baring his fangs. They both backed off. To save face, Khan stepped behind her, lifted her skirt to her waist, and began running his hands over her bare bottom.
Lexi closed her eyes. She couldn’t bear the sight of the crowd any longer—their eager faces watching everything these men were doing made this ordeal all the more humiliating. She wished she could make their voices disappear too. The raucous cheers, the lewd cries of approval when one of the men made her squirm or jerk.
Worst of all, though, was the shameful way her treacherous body responded. Despite her embarrassment, the sensation of multiple hands running up and down her body sent shivers all through her. Balek’s hot tongue laving her breast made her nipples swell. She dreaded the thought that he might fasten his mouth over one of them and suck it. She was powerless to stop him. Yet a wicked streak she’d only discovered tonight had her aching to know how it would feel.
All the while, Eli’s insolent fingers stroked between her legs. She’d never been touched there before she came to Iridia. Now everyone seemed bent on violating her most private places, poking and probing, setting off wild cravings deep inside her.
At first his fingers were rough. Lexi didn’t know whether it was the unfamiliar effect of strong drink or all the stimulation she’d had, but now his hand slid smoothly over her vulvar folds, eased along by the wetness flooding her vagina. When he slipped a finger up inside her, Lexi gasped. He made a harsh grunting noise and drove it deeper.
Behind her, Khan ground himself against her backside. His penis had grown hard. She could feel it poking between her bottom cheeks.
Nazery dropped to his knees between her legs. He gave a sharp tug and her skirt came away in his hand, exposing her completely. Her eyes flew open and she let out a wordless cry. That only inflamed the crowd more. They stomped and roared, chanting something Lexi couldn’t make out through the buzzing in her ears.
Behind her, Khan laughed wickedly, dug his fingers into her hips, and started pumping back and forth. His phallus protruded from his garment and she could feel it now against her bare bottom, hot and stiff. Every thrust of his hips sent her body jolting forward, right into Nazery’s face positioned between her legs. She felt his tongue dart out, flicking the tip of her clitoris, and couldn’t hold back a scream of pleasure.
Star Portals have existed since the beginning of time. Doorways between worlds in this galaxy—and others. They are found on Earth at the convergence of ley lines, those invisible electromagnetic paths crisscrossing our globe. Our ancestors discovered them thousands of years ago and learned to use them to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe.
Flourishing ancient civilizations didn’t die out. The people of Atlantis, the Sumerians, the Mayans—when tragedy struck their homelands, they simply migrated through the Portals to places where fresh water flowed, crops grew abundantly, and the climate was nearly perfect.
Human beings descended from our common ancestors are alive today on a trio of planets thousands of light years away. Islands of stability in the universe where vast quantities of natural resources and rare minerals abound.
Neodyma. Gadolinium. And the planet that was once a paradise, now a desolate wasteland. Iridia.
Lexi couldn’t help staring at the young couple locked in a passionate embrace in the shadows.
They’d chosen a dark corner off one of the corridors, but not so dark that they couldn’t be seen by any passerby. The male had the female pinned up against the wall, their bodies touching everywhere. His mouth covered hers, as though he were sucking the life’s breath from her. Yet she seemed to be relishing the experience. Instead of pushing him away, she drew him in. Head thrown back, eyes closed, arms tightly wrapped around his neck.
Lexi drew in a breath. Heart pounding, she wondered how it would feel—skin against skin, the heat of another body, the texture of a probing tongue. A hard cock thrust into her by a strong, virile male…
The woman’s eyes popped open suddenly and she looked straight at Lexi. Embarrassed at being caught spying on them, Lexi tore her gaze away and hurried down the long corridor, heels tapping on the synthetic marble floor. She was already running late for her final briefing from the director. Stopping before the massive double doors leading to the Hall of Science, she tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ears. Despite her best efforts, her wavy long hair refused to stay locked into the rigid bun required by the lab’s dress code.
She slipped into place in the last row next to Devon, hoping to escape notice. But the director had seen her.
“Doctor Sims, thank you for gracing us with your presence.”
“I apologize to the board for my tardiness.”
Director Nilsson didn’t bother to acknowledge her response. He’d made his point, publicly embarrassing her while asserting his authority yet again. Lexi had just turned forty-six and he seemed especially threatened by young people like her.
Despite being devoted to advancing scientific knowledge, the entire board was made up of stodgy, middle-aged researchers, mostly in their nineties. They treated science like an ancient religion, refusing to consider the possibility that there were any laws in the universe other than those they already held sacred. She was willing to bet none of them had had an original thought in half a century. Unfortunately, since the federation had no compulsory retirement age, she could be stuck with Nilsson as director of the Hall of Science for another forty or fifty years. She sighed and resolved to find some way to get along with him.
Nilsson picked up where he’d left off, droning on about the importance of their mission. Lexi had heard it all at least twenty times before and her thoughts strayed to the scene she’d just witnessed. She guessed the couple lurking in the dark corridor belonged to the new movement she’d been hearing so much about. Dedicated to restoring the ancient way of procreation, one still practiced by the primitive people of Neodyma.
Kaden, Neodyma’s new ambassador to the federation, created a firestorm when he and his Earth-born wife Amanda Norris openly shared information about and even displays of their physical expressions of love. They’d been the darlings of the InterStellar Federation, hosted at one glittering reception after another all over East Metropolis when they first arrived on Earth as a couple. People were both fascinated and repelled by the details of their life on the blue planet. Especially the sex.
It wasn’t long before an intense debate sprang up. Popular entertainers looking for publicity claimed they’d actually engaged in sex while top scientists and federation leaders issued dire warnings about the dangers it posed.
Physical forms of intimacy had died out centuries ago on Earth. When they reached the age of thirty, youngsters were taught to achieve a satisfying climax by themselves, through electro-holographic stimulation. Efficiently and mechanically, on a regular schedule, without any of the distracting emotional trauma early humans had to endure in their quest to feed their ceaseless sexual hungers.
Controlling that biological urge was a simple process. For the last three hundred years, every citizen on Earth had been receiving regular, minimal doses of synthetic hormones to suppress the body’s production of estrogen and testosterone. The primitive erotic cravings that led men and women to behave rashly disappeared, as did the threat of unwanted pregnancy that led to dangerous overpopulation.
If a couple chose to procreate, they designed and conceived a single child, artificially, in a sterile lab where the infant would spend its first months of life closely monitored by the latest technological devices. After two years, they’d be presented with a healthy toddler free of genetic defects—a far better system than leaving a child’s fate to the old-fashioned rolling of DNA-laden dice known as coitus.
Like all Earthers, Lexi learned about the archaic custom of sexual intercourse between humans in ancient history class. Her instructors made it sound like a messy and uncomfortable way to handle procreation and reminded their students how fortunate they were to live in modern times.
But with the influence of the Neodyman culture creeping in—not alien, but not wholly Earth-based either—it hadn’t taken long before young Earthers did what their ancestors had always done, seizing on a new way to shock and revolt their elders. They’d begun embracing, holding hands, even kissing right out in public like the couple she’d seen. It was rumored that rogue lab techs had found a way to neutralize the effects of the synthetic hormones, allowing the body’s crude erotic urges to resurface. One tabloid news agency even claimed a naturally conceived fetus was even now being gestated somewhere on Earth.
Devon poked her in the ribs and she snapped back to attention.
“…all be fitted with a Tellex chip. It will render you fluent in any language after only a few hours of exposure to it. Your brain will be able to seamlessly shift from one archaic dialect to the next, allowing you to communicate with any of the barbarian cultures you’ll come in contact with.”
“Told you,” Devon whispered. “Bet it’s also a tracking device. Who knows, they may have included a way to turn our brains into mush, just to make sure none of us go rogue like Commander Norris did. They can’t have another scandal like that—a high-ranking officer choosing a backward planet like Neodyma over Earth.”
Lexi shushed him, unwilling to incur further displeasure from Director Nilsson.
“As you know,” the director was saying, “modern communication devices can’t survive the bombardment of electromagnetic forces unleashed in the Portal. Rather than trust your mnemonic skills for storing unfamiliar information, you will need to record all your field notes using a method that’s been obsolete here on Earth for centuries—inscribing written words on sheets of paper. We’ve secured a supply of paper from the federation’s archives and you’ll each have an opportunity over the next few days to familiarize yourselves with these recording devices.”
He held up a slim yellow cylinder about six inches long with a point at one end. Several people in the group tittered. He allowed the ghost of a smile to flicker across his face.
“I know, I know. It seems woefully archaic but pencils and paper have proven the most reliable way to transmit data through the Star Portals.”
His smile disappeared. Lexi hadn’t known his voice could become any more somber.
“I must warn you, many of the behaviors you will witness on Neodyma will shock you. The inhabitants live like barbarians, eschewing all modern advances in technology, including our ability to regulate our most base physical urges. No doubt you’ve all heard by now of one of their most disturbing practices. They engage in numerous bizarre forms of physical contact, including…” He paused dramatically, his face wrinkling into an expression of disgust. “Sexual intercourse.
“I tell you this now since as field scientists, you may have occasion to witness some of these gross primitive behaviors first-hand. If so, there is no need for alarm. Earthers are genetically superior to the inhabitants of Neodyma. They will be wary of you, unwilling to engage you in any type of physical contact, whether it be combat or coitus. But you have another safeguard. Your Tellex chip will allow you to reject any improper request or suggestion using their own language. Just say ‘no.’”
What if I don’t want to say no? The forbidden thought popped into Lexi’s head unbidden. The young woman she’d seen certainly hadn’t said no—and it looked as though she very much enjoyed the consequences. Lexi had never been kissed. Or fondled or hugged or even touched by another human being since she was a toddler. She forcibly dismissed the idea, pushing it out of her mind entirely. If the psychological evaluators decided to do one last mental scan and picked up a thought like that, she’d be cut from the team.
Lexi very much wanted to be part of this groundbreaking mission. Her role was to study first-hand the long-term effects of technological intervention on various life forms by comparing them to their primitive counterparts. As a biologist with a doctorate in genetic algorithms, she’d spent countless hours on an evolution simulator. But now that Neodyma had agreed to open their tech-free world to a carefully chosen team of Earthers for scientific study, she’d be able to test her theories against real-world counterparts. She was determined to let nothing stand in the way of this opportunity to get out of the lab and into the field.
She took her place in line, stomach fluttering. After years of study, months of rigorous training, including countless hours in a simulator, now she faced the real thing. The Star Portal. It didn’t matter how many lectures she’d attended, how many questions she posed to people who’d already experienced transport. She was about to go hurtling through space to a distant planet.
One without a climate-controlled environment.
That made her more nervous than the thought of seeing strange species of animals or witnessing a bit of fondling between humans. She’d never experienced a temperature variation of more than ten degrees in her entire life. The city of East Metropolis was shrouded in an artificial atmosphere. Winter and summer did not exist.
For her time on Neodyma, she’d been fitted with a cylerian. Thin, flesh-colored, and nearly transparent, it fit her like a second skin. She felt naked wearing it. Naked and nearly bald, since it fit closely over her head, covering her unruly head of hair. But as long as she wore it, her body would be protected from fluctuations in temperature up to 150◦ Fahrenheit plus or minus, as well as from discomfort due to wind or rain. Over the cylerian, a simple one-piece white garment that reminded her a little of an old-fashioned spacesuit covered her body from head to toe. It provided not only modesty but an additional layer of protection, including a built-in oxygen rebreather in the headgear. Neodyma had an atmosphere similar to that on Earth, so she wouldn’t need to use it except in an emergency.
Lexi had never felt uncontrolled wind velocity but she’d witnessed the toll it took on her planet. As a student, she’d visited the all-glass observation deck on the 450th floor of the federation building. There people could see beyond the boundaries of the city, witness the ravages uncontrolled nature wrought on parts of Earth not protected by the barriers. Fierce storms raged. Lightning bolts struck the earth. Tornadoes spun along the ground unimpeded, wreaking havoc on the few buildings remaining in abandoned settlements.
There’s nothing to worry about, she told herself for the hundredth time. As long as you have the cylerian on, you’ll be fine. A synthetic material, cyleria regulated the body’s temperature automatically, heating or cooling as needed. It also absorbed dead skin cells and human waste products, neutralized them, and secreted them through artificial pores. There’d be no need to take the suit off. Ever. Not to bathe, not even to take care of bodily functions. Lexi was especially happy about that. She’d heard horror stories about the primitive toilet facilities on Neodyma.
Now, as she stood in line, she shuffled forward in silence. Though they’d worked together, trained together, eaten every meal together for months, there was no good-natured banter going on today among the team members. Each scientist knew the danger of what they were about to do. Star Portals were unregulated by modern technology. Though there were many theories, modern science still did not fully understand how they worked. People had stepped through them, never to be heard from again.
The Portal she was about to enter ended on Neodyma. Two others had been discovered on Earth. One led to Gadolinium. That planet had already been the focus of several studies. The third Portal hadn’t been used for centuries. It transported the user to Iridia.
Once a planet as lush as Earth, Iridia had suffered a global catastrophe. With their vast deposits of elements like yttrium and samarium, known as rare earth minerals, Iridians developed powerful lasers, superconductors, and nuclear batteries millennia before they were invented on Earth. But along with life-saving creations and cutting-edge technological devices, they also learned to create superweapons.
Long ago, a minor league terrorist group on Iridia got hold of a cache of the weapons. They nearly wiped out all carbon-based forms of life on the planet, leaving behind a desolate wasteland. The planet’s badly damaged atmosphere was left with a permanent reddish tinge, bombarded by continuous radiation from the twin suns Phalyx and Zalyx.
Centuries later, the federation sent a scout through the Portal, a single soul who bravely volunteered. He reappeared weeks later. Starving, horribly disfigured, he died without uttering more than a few words to the startled guard who found him lying on the ground outside the Portal.
Government officials interviewed the guard who found him and heard testimony about the scout’s dying declaration. Then they gathered together heads of state from all the nearby planets and met behind closed doors for three days. When they emerged, the InterStellar Federation was born. The first act of the new federation was to order the Portal to Iridia to be sealed for all eternity. The second was to outlaw development of weapons made from any of the seventeen rare earth elements anywhere in the galaxy.
Her thoughts were interrupted by a low murmur from the line ahead. Devon had stopped at the entrance to the Portal. He turned to face his remaining team members.
“Friends and colleagues, we know not what faces us on the other side.” The somber tone of his voice surprised her. It wasn’t like him. Always irreverent, Devon could be counted on to inject a note of humor, say or do something to liven up any situation.
“We travel now to a new world, a world filled with primitive beings, creatures who engage in bizarre erotic rituals such as we’ve never seen. I say, let’s get this party started!” With a whoop, he whirled and disappeared through the Portal in a flash of light.
From his spot on the observation platform, Director Nilsson’s voice rose, sputtering in outrage.
“You will disregard that unsanctioned outburst! This mission is of the gravest importance. Remember your goals, ladies and gentlemen. Remember your duty to the federation.”
The low buzz rose, blocking out the rest of the director’s remarks. Lexi grinned. She hadn’t known Devon was a proponent of the movement. No wonder he’d jumped at the chance to go to Neodyma. She bet he was already planning to experiment, engaging in the act of coitus the first chance he got. He must have kept his support of the movement a carefully guarded secret—even from her—as he knew he’d be cut from the mission if it became known.
Transport halted while a trio of psychological evaluators was called in to do a last-minute brain scan of the remaining members of the team. Lexi used the time to empty her mind of all those rebellious thoughts she’d been having, all the images she’d conjured up of how physical contact might feel. She had no doubt she’d be banned from entering the Portal too if any such mental activity was detected.
During the delay, she saw one of the technicians monitoring the Portal slide up onto the platform next to the director. With a worried look on his face, he murmured something in Nilsson’s ear. Nilsson shook his head and waved the man back to his place.
Finally the psych evaluators arrived. Nilsson gave them hurried instructions. They surrounded the next person in line, closed their eyes, and began the process of entering the mind of their subject. The room fell silent for what seemed like hours. Finally they opened their eyes and nodded in unison to the director. That team member vanished through the Portal.
The process sped up as one after another of her group disappeared into the glowing opening. Lexi noticed the light emanating out into the room seemed to have taken on a slightly different hue in one corner of the Portal, a faint greenish cast. She was about to bring it to someone’s attention when she caught the reflection of the emerald green gown worn by one of the board members watching the proceedings from the platform. Since none of the technicians seemed concerned, she dismissed the phenomenon as a simple refraction of light.
The evaluators did find unacceptable thoughts in the minds of two of her team members, and they turned them away from entering the Portal. Lexi’s heart sank. She could see the disappointment on their faces and vowed she wouldn’t be the third. When her turn came, she closed her eyes, relaxed, and concentrated on visualizing the complex equation she’d created for her doctoral dissertation.
She knew the moment they invaded her mind. The probing, the foreign presence rifling through her most private thoughts and memories, stripping her psyche bare. This mind scan was much harsher than any she’d ever experienced. No preparation, no time to become accustomed to the sensation. She felt violated. Lexi wanted to scream for it to stop, but she forced herself to breathe slowly and remain calm.
Suddenly her mind was a void. They’d withdrawn their presence as rapidly as they entered. She felt a moment of sheer panic, then her own consciousness flooded back in. The trio nodded in unison and waved her by.
Her stomach in knots, Lexi squared her shoulders and moved into place. She took a deep breath and one big step—and found herself hurtling through an endless black void at a terrifying speed. Flashes of light across the entire spectrum of the rainbow appeared at random, some far across the galaxy, some so near she swore she could reach out and touch them. A powerful force tumbled her head over heels, pulling in every direction at once, threatening to tear her limb from limb.
Lexi opened her mouth to scream, but the void sucked the air from her lungs. She’d heard of black holes, those wormholes that devoured everything with which they came in contact. Even light could not escape. She wondered if she’d somehow fallen into one, if she’d be ripped apart until even the atoms in her body were reduced to free-floating protons and neutrons and electrons.
She couldn’t breathe, had no control of her body. She lost all sense of time or place, all feeling. There was only the ceaseless void, the incredible pressure. Bizarre images flashed past her—formless clouds of gases in a whirlwind of colors, strange worlds in every size, orbited by dozens of moons whizzing by at a dizzying speed, some ghostly gray, some gaudy.
The whirling stopped abruptly. Lexi fought down a wave of nausea. Her head felt like someone had imbedded an axe in it. She stretched out her arm and gave a sigh of relief when it came in contact with a solid surface. Her fingers scrabbled, clutched something gritty and crumbling, like sand or dirt. She shifted her body and became aware of a hard surface beneath her, studded with lumps digging into her back. Rocks?
She waved a hand in front of her and felt nothing. Gradually, her mind began to process the information. She was lying on her back, on a patch of very real, very hard ground. She flexed fingers and toes, arms and legs, moved her head from side to side, then stopped when another wave of nausea threatened to overcome her.
She took a few deep breaths and cautiously opened her eyes. A double glare pierced her brain, making her head ache even more. Of course. The twin suns. Phalyx and Zalyx. She turned her head to the side and narrowed her eyes to slits, staring straight ahead.
A reddish-brown substance with the texture of coarse sand stretched out in front of her as far as she could see. Here and there, huge jagged rocks protruded from the surface. Coal black and drab brown and gray. She reached behind her and felt a jagged surface beneath her head. That explained the crippling pain in her head. She’d apparently smacked down onto a rock when she landed.
She struggled to a sitting position and took in her surroundings. More sand. More rocks. And she was seeing everything through an odd reddish haze. She rubbed a hand over the clear visor in her headgear, thinking maybe it was coated with a fine film of dust, but the haze remained.
Slowly she pushed herself to her full six-foot-one height and turned in a complete circle. No sign of her team. In fact, there didn’t seem to be evidence of any human habitation in sight. Apparently she’d missed the mark and ended up outside the Portal’s landing zone.
Tamping down a rising surge of panic, she forced herself to make another slow circle. That’s when it began to sink in. Not only were her teammates nowhere in sight, there was also no sign of the crystal blue mountain range that crisscrossed the planet of Neodyma. No sparkling lakes or rivers. No trees. Not even a cactus or a gray-green patch of desert sage. And everywhere, all around her, that weird reddish haze covering a landscape straight from hell.
Something was very wrong. The strange greenish glow she’d seen just before she entered the Portal must have been due to a glitch, an anomaly. Gradually the truth sank in. With an anguished howl, Lexi fell to her knees. She was alone. And this was not Neodyma. Somehow, she’d been transported to its sister planet, the desolate wasteland known as Iridia.