It was hell, straight from a canvas painted in the Middle Ages. Grotesque figures danced naked around an enormous bonfire to the savage pounding of a hundred drums. Dozens of horned beasts in pens on one side reared and pawed at the ground, driven mad by the sound. A row of bound and trussed virgins, both male and female, knelt on the platform, trembling, waiting to be tossed into the crowd like hunks of raw meat.
The drumbeats reached a deafening crescendo, then ceased as one.
Balam strode to the front of the platform, dragging her along by the neck with a short rope tied to a loop on the hammered gold belt around his waist. She had no choice but to crawl along at his heels, naked, or be strangled.
Tonight he wore only the gold belt, an animal skin around his hips, and a floor-length cloak of feathers. Huge feathers in shocking red and purple, iridescent blue and dazzling green.
Around his neck hung an elaborate necklace. Gold links decorated with fangs and claws and other severed bits of living creatures, not all of them from the animal kingdom.
“My people,” he shouted. “Lord Atun journeys tonight to the underworld. He will not go alone. These twenty-four slaves will accompany him, to see to his every need in the afterlife.”
He paused. “The slaves before you are untrained in the ways of satisfying a Tabun master. Tonight, I give them to you. Use them. Fill their holes. Teach them submission. Prepare them to serve their lord for all eternity.”
He yanked on the rope, pulling on Selena’s head so she was jerked upright before the crowd. “This evil sorceress had the power to breathe life back into Atun. But she refused.”
He raised his voice. “Witness the wrath of Lord Balam! I will impale this wicked creature before you all, that you may watch her cry out in shame and agony as I plunge my mighty rod into her over and over without mercy.”
Balam swept aside the animal skin around his waist to reveal his penis. She gasped. He’d dyed it a bright red. Whatever native plant he used made it swell even larger than it was when he’d stroked it in front of her earlier. And he had a leather thong circling it at the base, tied firmly around it so his erection wouldn’t fail him in front of the crowd.
One of his servants carried a heavy wooden bench to the center of the platform. Two others grabbed her and bent her over it. They pulled her legs apart and tied her wrists and ankles to the legs of the bench, leaving her naked bottom thrust up in the air. Balam stood behind her. If she turned her head to the side, she could see the crowd—and they would all witness her shame if she screamed as he impaled her or gave in to the tears threatening to stream down her face.
If she turned her head away, everyone still had a clear view of her bare breasts hanging down, the soft thatch of curls nestled between her wide-spread legs. The massive erection protruding from Balam’s body. And she’d be forced to listen when they cheered every stroke as he rammed it inside her.
She shuddered as Balam moved in, rubbing his engorged penis over her naked bottom. She felt his rough fingers dig into her burning cheeks, spreading them apart. The drumbeats began again. Heavy. Slow.
Star Portals have existed since the beginning of time. Doorways between worlds in this galaxy—and others. On Earth, they can be found at the convergence of ley lines, those invisible electromagnetic paths crisscrossing our globe. Our ancestors discovered them thousands of years ago, using them to travel to the farthest reaches of the universe.
Flourishing ancient civilizations didn’t die out. The people of Atlantis, the Vikings, 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. Iridia. And the icy world farthest from the warmth of the twin suns Phalyx and Zalyx—Gadolinium.
Earth 2734 AD
Her hands shook as she stroked the cloth over his naked body. He stirred once, and she stopped, studying his face carefully to see if any trace of awareness had returned. But his eyes remained closed, his breathing slow and labored. Still, his heart beat strong… as strong as the first moment she’d laid eyes on him, nearly two months ago.
Dabbing carefully at the dried blood, Selena assessed the extent of her patient’s injuries. He’d sustained numerous slash wounds and one vicious stab that penetrated deep into his chest below the ribcage. She ran the scanner over his body, starting at his head. Brain intact. Functions impaired due to reduced blood flow. That came as no surprise. His body was drenched in blood. She’d never seen a creature so badly wounded, yet still breathing. He must have an incredible will to live.
She ran it over his torso. Just as she feared. His liver and spleen had been ripped in half by the stab wound. She sealed the wound temporarily with her laser wand. He’d need a new liver and spleen, but their functions could be taken over for now with her lab equipment. Growing the new organs, however, would take a few months. Until then, she decided, he’d be best off kept in sleep mode. She continued on, the scanner beeping ominously over and over, alerting her that organ after organ was nearing failure.
She thought back to the handwritten note clasped in his hand when they brought him in. Two guards had burst into her lab, gasping for breath after running full tilt while lugging his huge body on a makeshift stretcher.
“We found this man lying on the floor of the Star Portal when we reported for work this morning. Thought he was dead at first, but then he groaned. I don’t mind telling you, it scared me half to death.”
The younger one looked as white as the uniform he wore.
“We brought him here as fast as we could. He’s in such bad shape we didn’t dare risk waiting for help. We don’t have the equipment down there for medical emergencies. Never needed it before. Transport through the Portal is the safest mode of travel there is.”
Selena rushed over, scanning his vital signs while the other guard babbled nervously.
“Is he gonna make it? He’s from Gadolinium—that’s the really cold planet, isn’t it? I guessed it from that fur cloak he’s wrapped in, even before we found the note. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Looks like something from one of the exhibits at the Museum of Planetary History.”
“Note? What note?”
The older guard handed over a wrinkled scrap of paper smeared with dried blood.
“He had this in his hand when we found him. Had to pry it loose from his fingers.”
Selena snatched the paper from him. She could barely make out the hastily scrawled message.
This is Haldor. Viking warrior from Gadolinium. The planet has been attacked by the Tabun. We’ve managed to repel the invaders but this man was mortally wounded saving the life of King Sigrun. We don’t have the technology here to heal him, so I’m sending him to Earth.
I’ll file a full report soon. Right now there are other wounded to tend to.
Talia Anderson, ambassador to Gadolinium, InterStellar Federation
The ambassador had added a line at the bottom.
I vouch for him. He’s a good man. A hero. Save his life. I know you can do it.
An hour had passed since then. The longest hour of her life. She shooed away the chatty guards and got to work. Stripping off the torn remnants of his clothing, she’d assessed the extent of his wounds, then put in an urgent call to her two best lab techs for help.
James and Mindy arrived at almost the same moment, stopping dead in the doorway of the lab. Mindy let out a startled scream at the sight of the massive blood-soaked body lying on a table in the center of the room.
Selena masked her own fear with the take-charge demeanor befitting her position as director of medical services. Her mentor, Luther, had recently retired, appointing her to his position. High time, since he was nearly one hundred thirty. But she missed him right now. Missed his wealth of knowledge, his acerbic wit. No doubt he’d have some choice comments on the sight of her hands trembling as they roamed over the body of a naked man for the first time in her life.
“An impressively well-endowed naked man, at that,” he’d point out, lessening the tension in the room. Then he’d grin at the blush on her cheeks.
Selena shook her head, trying to drive away the frivolous thoughts flooding her mind, the paralyzing fear making her heart pound in her chest. You can do this, she told herself. I know you’ve never seen anyone hurt so badly, but remember—you’ve had years of training to prepare you for this moment. Your people need you to guide them. They’re frightened too. So step up and do your job.
“This man is from Gadolinium, sent here through the Portal,” she began. “He’s been mortally wounded in some primitive form of battle—a swordfight, from the looks of him. James, we need to replace the blood this man has lost. Use the synthetic fluid for now. Once he’s stabilized, I want you to begin replicating his blood. We’ll need to replace all of it with a fresh supply.”
She turned to the young woman still cowering near the doorway.
“Mindy, prepare a pod for him. I’m going to keep him in sleep mode as long as possible. He’ll need an increased flow of oxygen, along with a gravitational adaptor. His body is much larger than that of our typical male patient and I want the strain on his damaged organs lessened. Set it at sixty percent for now and we’ll reevaluate in six hours.”
“Yes, Doctor Reston.”
Well-trained, her assistants did as they were told, but she noticed they kept a wide berth from the table, as though the unconscious barbarian might rise up and attack at any moment.
As she busied herself with familiar tasks, Selena’s pulse returned to normal. It was her duty to remain calm, she told herself. It wouldn’t do for the director of the East Metropolis Medical Center to collapse into a wailing heap on the floor, hands dripping red like some modern-day Lady MacBeth.
Who’d have thought the old man had so much blood in him? The line from a Shakespeare play she’d read as an undergraduate popped unbidden into her mind, one of those useless bits of information she stored. They made her a formidable Trivialities opponent, but right now the words weren’t much comfort as she dabbed at endless pools of blood welling from the man.
Later, hours later, after her assistants had been dismissed for a much-needed break, she allowed herself a few moments to unwind. She’d had James drag a chair in next to the glass pod in one of the private recovery rooms off the main lab. Sinking down wearily, Selena stared at her patient. For the first time, she studied the man in front of her as a whole, instead of taking stock of injured body parts.
Haldor the Viking. From Gadolinium. She knew very little about his home, other than the fact that it was bitterly cold most of the year. Nearly twenty years ago, explorers had ventured into the first of three newly rediscovered Star Portals. Over the last two decades, they’d traveled through the other two Portals as well. Each led to one of the trio of planets settled by ancient tribes from Earth over two millennia ago. Planets where the inhabitants knew nothing of modern technology.
They lived as their ancestors had: in pristine worlds untouched by the havoc that warfare waged with superweapons, combined with reckless pollution and overpopulation, had ravaged on Earth. Rich in rare minerals, the planets were immediately placed under the protection of the InterStellar Federation. Access to them was closely guarded to avoid the plundering that Earth’s natural resources had suffered.
She fingered the torn scrap of paper. A rarity, seen only in museum collections. So fragile. Yet it survived transport through the Portal, a journey that destroyed the functioning of all modern devices. She was no physicist, but she’d been taught it had to do with the electromagnetic anomaly that created the Portal. Ancient writing instruments making markings on pressed, dried wood pulp proved to be the only reliable method of communication between her world and that of her patient.
Mindy had overcome her fear of the huge man long enough to gently rub away dried blood from a wound in his scalp and rinse the long locks clean. His damp hair lay around his head on the pillow, shoulder-length wavy strands of warm deep brown shot with a few streaks of gray at the temples. Odd. She’d always thought the ancient Vikings were blue-eyed and blond.
She studied him clinically. He was slightly above average height by Earthly standards, probably about six foot seven inches tall. Impressive body mass, though. Well-defined musculature. All that unregulated testosterone, no doubt. She shook her head. The same potentially dangerous hormone that led primitive males like this one to solve even minor conflicts with combat.
With that chest, those arms, he obviously spent his days in hard physical labor. Civilized males didn’t have muscle like that. It was one of those archaic physical traits men no longer needed, now that they spent their days doing nothing more taxing than manipulating holographic screens.
Younger than she thought at first, though, despite the streaks of gray in his hair. Selena found it hard to estimate the age of humans from other planets who hadn’t had the advantage of rejuvenating therapies, but she guessed he was around forty. Just a kid by Earthly standards, where most of the population now lived to one hundred seventy or more.
Strong jawline, covered with several days’ growth of dark beard. Another result of all that testosterone. Chiseled cheekbones in a face bronzed by long periods outdoors with direct exposure to the twin suns of his galaxy. He had a few minor wrinkles at the corners of his eyes but the rest of his face was unlined and peaceful now. The deep furrows on his brow that made him look old and worn when he arrived had disappeared as pain medication flooded his system.
But his body—that certainly didn’t look old and worn. Although he needed no clothing in the temperature-controlled pod, she’d insisted that Mindy cover him with a sheet, at least from the waist down. Despite her medical training, she’d been shocked and secretly fascinated by the sight of a completely naked male body. She was certain Mindy would be affected as well and Selena couldn’t have her assistant distracted every time she came in to check on him.
They’d all had classes featuring holographic male and females, both with and without skin covering the muscles and organs as part of their medical training. But with current surgical techniques, she’d never found a need to have a patient disrobe. Illness was nearly unheard of. Routine organ replacements required only a tiny patch of skin to be uncovered. Baring one’s body in front of another person for any reason was looked upon as a barbaric practice.
Yet she couldn’t help staring at the Viking. There was something so… compelling about seeing a live, nearly nude male. Even with all his wounds, that expanse of smooth skin covering powerful upper chest muscles and sculpted abs, the prominent outline of his genitals under the thin sheet—it set her pulse racing, the way it had when she first touched him.
Earlier, when she saw the size of this man’s flaccid penis, she couldn’t help wondering just how big it would get when he was aroused. A damn sight bigger than anything you’ve ever seen, replied a wicked new voice in her head.
She chased the thought away and tried to remain detached. Clinical. A primitive culture, no doubt his people still performed the act of sexual intercourse on Gadolinium. She shuddered. What would it be like, having sex with this man, being physically penetrated with his thick shaft? Coitus had been done away with hundreds of years ago on Earth. Selena had never met a human who’d actually engaged in sex. Physical forms of intimacy had been replaced by electro-holographic stimulation.
She herself had a perfectly adequate holographic partner back home, to use with the accompanying vaginal probe designed to fulfill her sexual needs. Modern technology guaranteed her a satisfying climax every time, without any of the distracting emotional trauma early humans had to endure in their quest to feed their ceaseless sexual hungers.
At least that’s what she’d been taught in school. But the sight of him, so virile, so powerful even in slumber… Perhaps I’ll question him about his sexual practices if the subject ever arises, purely from a scientific point of view, she told herself.
That had been nearly two months ago.
He’d been at sustenance level in the pod the entire time. They’d replaced the synthetic fluid, replicated and replaced all the blood he’d lost within the first thirty-six hours. Then, one by one, she’d cloned nearly every major organ in his body and replaced them.
Meanwhile, James performed a number of cosmetic procedures, erasing all traces of the slashes on his torso. Her patient still had a ragged scar from the stab wound. She’d been waiting until after she replaced his liver to do away with that one, planning to make the laser incision in that spot. The surgery, performed four days ago, had gone well. He had a new liver now, cloned from a piece of his old one. Unlike ancient transplant surgery using bits of organs from others, there was never any danger of the body rejecting a cloned organ.
Physically, he was as good as he’d been before his injuries. Better, really. She’d even replaced the poorly healed bones she found in a scan of his left arm and shoulder, no doubt the result of a childhood injury. Now he had a strong new humerus and clavicle, grown from splinters she removed. There was really no excuse to keep him sedated any longer. He could be awakened, put through a course of physical therapy, and sent home through the Portal. Back to his people.
She’d gotten several messages from Ambassador Anderson, inquiring as to his condition. Selena had requisitioned a supply of pencils and paper from the archives and replied to each one, trying to list in layman’s terms the complex procedures she’d performed, each time ending by saying he was stable and resting comfortably.
The InterStellar Federation sent an official representative on a regular basis as well. He showed up at the lab two days ago, impeccably dressed as always in his purple uniform with gold braid on the collar.
“How is our Gadolinean visitor this week, doctor?”
She snapped to attention and saluted. Though she was director of medical services, this man outranked her. “Welcome, Minister Symon. He’s recuperating well. The cloning process is complete and I’ve replaced all of his damaged organs with new ones, sir. I did the final transplant a few days ago.”
“I’m glad to hear that. Ambassador Anderson has been most insistent that he receive the best care possible. Apparently he’s the foster son of the king of Gadolinium. A beloved member of the family, as well as a national hero. His people are anxiously awaiting his return.”
He looked down at the slumbering figure. “Did anyone give you the details of how he was wounded?”
“No, minister. All I know is what I read in the note he had clutched in his hand when he arrived.”
Apparently Symon was in a talkative mood. He seemed in no hurry to leave.
“We’ve reviewed a lengthy report from the ambassador,” he said. “Apparently she arrived on Gadolinium in the midst of an invasion by the Tabun, a warlike tribe of Neanderthals driven from Earth thousands of years ago to a planet outside our galaxy. They poured in through another Star Portal on that planet, captured the king and kept him a prisoner in the dungeons of his own palace.”
He gestured to the glass-enclosed pod. “Haldor here went on a rescue mission with Sigrun’s trusted guards. A raid planned by none other than our own ambassador. She allowed herself to be captured by the Tabun and kept their leader busy while Sigrun’s men sneaked into the palace. They engaged in battle, during which this man threw himself in front of a sword meant for King Sigrun. Anderson made the rash decision to send him to Earth through the Portal, alone, in a desperate attempt to save his life. Those primitive Gadolineans don’t have the advantage of your excellent medical knowledge.”
She inclined her head, acknowledging the compliment. “My predecessor Director Luther was an inspiring teacher and role model.”
“Luther, yes. A fine man,” he responded automatically, looking distracted. Symon glanced around the empty lab, then lowered his voice, as though fearing that the unconscious man might hear him. “I think there’s something going on between Anderson and the king’s son Kylar. She’s never said anything directly, but the tone of her reports…” His voice trailed off.
“Just between you and me, I’m getting a great deal of pressure from above to get this matter resolved quickly.” He shook his head. “Every time we send someone to one of those cursed planets, they start acting strangely. Come back with all sorts of seditious ideas. Lust, that’s what it is. Hormones raging out of control. Causes people to behave in the most irrational ways. Engaging in senseless battle. Putting their lives in danger. That’s why we did away with all those nasty, troublesome urges here on Earth.”
Symon’s voice rose. “Anderson knows her prime directive is solely to observe and report. Sigrun had plenty of Viking warriors to rescue him. Why she had to insinuate herself into local politics—well, there’s just no excuse for it. If it were up to me, I’d recall her immediately.”
He stopped suddenly, as though realizing he’d gone too far. “Doctor Reston,” he went on, his tone formal now. “I am here to inform you the federation wants this man returned to Gadolinium as soon as he’s capable of withstanding the journey through the Portal. They would like your estimation of when that will be, so we can inform his people.”
“Well, Minister Symon, as you can see, he’s still in sleep mode. Once he’s awakened, it will be weeks before he’s fit to travel. He’ll need physical therapy, certainly counseling to deal with the emotional trauma he’s endured.”
Symon gave her a stern look. “There will be no counseling. Once he’s awakened, the federation has decreed that contact with him be curtailed as much as possible. This man is a barbarian. A dangerous, warlike creature. He has been determined to pose a threat to our way of life. The federation wants him sent back to Gadolinium, Doctor Reston. See that he’s ready to leave. Soon.”
Now, as she ran the warm cloth slowly over his body, she realized Minister Symon was right about one thing. Proximity to primitive beings apparently did cause Earthers to think and behave strangely. Over the past two months, being so close to the barbarian, she’d found her thoughts constantly dwelling on coitus. She’d become increasingly intrigued with just how his people went about engaging in the forbidden sexual activity.
And touching him seemed to awaken strange desires in her.
She thought her response might be caused by the unaccustomed physical intimacy required to care for him. The clinical technician in her theorized that her reaction was probably the result of hormonal imbalance. Being exposed to all that uncontrolled testosterone may have affected her own hormones, normally kept under control by the regular injections all Earthers were required to receive from the time they became adolescents.
Over the past few weeks, she’d taken over even the most menial of tasks required to care for her patient. Selena told herself it was her duty as head of the facility. She couldn’t risk having Mindy affected the way she had been. The young woman would be traumatized by such intense sexual urges.
But deep inside she knew it was because she couldn’t bear the idea of another woman’s hands roaming over his body.
Though she could have used her instruments, Selena laid two fingers on the vein pulsing in his neck, tracking the steady beat of his heart. Strong. Healthy. She’d ordered him moved from the glass-enclosed pod to a regular bed right after the minister’s last visit. And over the last few days, she’d begun lowering the dosage of the drugs that kept him asleep, weaning him off them gradually. She looked down at the peaceful slumbering man and sighed. She hadn’t admitted to anyone, least of all Minister Symon, that he was ready to be awakened.
Rather than heading home to her sterile, empty apartment, she’d gotten into the habit of spending time with the Viking at the end of every day. She’d started out taking his vital signs, checking on his recovery.
As time went on, she spent hours sitting by his bedside, just as she had when he first arrived. Listening to his breathing. Laying her palm against his chest, as though she could feel his heart beat there with her bare hand. Following the movement of his eyes, flickering back and forth as he slumbered. Wondering what he dreamt about. Yesterday she even shaved him clean. His beard had already begun growing back, a dark shadow on his jaw.
When he began talking in his sleep, she’d had James install a Tellex chip behind her left ear, just like the ones used by travelers through the Star Portal. After a few hours of exposure to his speech, the device seamlessly translated his language into her brain, allowing her to understand his words.
He often dreamt of battles, calling out commands, curses, taunts to his enemies. Tossing and turning as though dodging blows all the while. She found that the sound of her voice and the touch of her hand on his brow lulled him back to peaceful rest. She began talking to him more and more whenever she was with him. Lately, she’d even found herself sharing the highlights of her day, as though they were a couple.
She hadn’t realized how lonely she’d been all her life until she thought of facing the days ahead without these hours by his side.
Torn by guilt, Selena looked down at her patient. The federation wanted him gone. His king looked forward to a reunion with a beloved foster son. And what if the Viking had a family of his own on Gadolinium, waiting anxiously for his return? Occasionally he muttered something she couldn’t understand when she touched him. Perhaps it was a name. The Tellex chip wouldn’t translate names if they had no modern equivalent. An unaccustomed wave of sadness hit her and she blinked back a tear. A man as handsome and virile as Haldor probably had a beautiful Viking woman back home, desperate to have those strong arms wrapped around her again.
Selena knew she couldn’t stall any longer. She’d have to awaken him. Tomorrow, she decided.
She dipped the cloth into a basin of warm water. Wringing it out, she ran it gently over his face. He breathed in and out, slow and regular. She moved to his torso and then down, tracing the ridges of muscle on his abdomen, her mind filling with more of those strange, forbidden images. Images of the Viking running his hands over her body the same way. Leaving her breathless and aching… wanting something for which she had no name.
Selena never knew what demon possessed her to do what she did next. Always rational. Always proper. It was so unlike her. But they were alone in the lab. He’d be gone soon. She knew she wouldn’t have another chance like this. So she seized it.
Sliding the sheet down his body, she stared at his penis, then ran the warm cloth over it. It stirred, as though it had a life of its own. She’d seen this reaction before when she bathed him. But this time, she wasn’t content to feel it through a piece of fabric. Selena tossed the cloth into the basin and put her bare hand on his member.
Such smooth warm skin. She wrapped her fingers around the shaft. Instantly, it began swelling in her hand. Selena felt a shiver of arousal deep in her belly, like the sensation she felt when her vaginal probe started vibrating inside her.
She ran her palm up and down, fascinated. His penis grew and hardened, until her fingers barely closed around it. He made a low rumbling sound deep in his chest and she stopped, terrified. But his eyes remained closed and she couldn’t resist touching him again.
Hot. Still sleek and smooth, but now rock hard underneath. A drop of seminal fluid welled up from the opening at the tip. She knew all about that, could recite the exact chemical composition. Had even harvested sperm cells from specimens of donors to create genetically perfect fetuses.
But she’d never seen it like this, glistening there at the tip of an erect penis. She touched it with a fingertip. Rubbed it around the head of his organ. So warm and slick. The texture of his skin was different there, too. She explored, circled the head.
His penis jerked in response. Boldly, she traced a bulging vein down his shaft with the same fingertip, all the way to the base. And then lower still, curving her fingers around his testicles. He made another noise, a cross between a sigh and a rough growl, that drove all clinical thoughts from her mind and sent a bolt of lust straight to her core.
Selena brought her hand back up, closed it around the shaft, and stroked. Slowly. Long, deep strokes from the tip all the way down to the dark thatch of hair at the base. His penis grew even harder in her hand. His breathing quickened.
When his body tensed and began quivering, she stopped, shocked at the intensity of his reaction. Shame flooded through her. She’d taken advantage of his unconscious state to satisfy her own raging curiosity without a thought to how it would affect her patient. She took her hand away—and choked back a scream as an iron fist shot out and closed around her wrist.
“So—a wanton wench looks to toy with me as I sleep? Come here, then, and I’ll show you what such wicked behavior deserves.”
Before she could move, the Viking dragged her body face-down across his. His broad palm came down squarely on her bottom, the harsh smack echoing off the walls.