“Thirty-seven percent,” she replied, just as calm, just as terse. Something must have hit them, though she hadn’t felt the jolt. The first she’d known they were in trouble was when the alarms went off, quite effectively stopping everyone mid-whatever they’d been doing. By the time she’d reached the forward cabin, power was down to sixty percent and no matter what she did to block off the leak and reroute, it just kept falling. Another ten percent and they would be dipping into life support. If they stayed on their current route, life support would be utterly depleted long before they hit the nearest friendly station.
“Options?” he asked, as if he didn’t already know.
They had three, as far as she could see. One, they stayed the current course, but unless they happened upon another merchant or passenger vessel, they would all be dead before they reached the nearest star station. Two, they made a beeline for the Gobagon wormhole, just across the Wolux’s territory line. For any other culture, a ten-year-old peace treaty would not have been considered new, but Wolux weren’t any other species and they did so like to hold onto grudges. This far out into the Reaches, the Lossa had a fifty-fifty chance of happening upon a warship, which, depending on the mood of that captain, gave them another fifty-fifty chance of receiving either a warning shot or a shot intended to be anything but a warning. Option number three: they cut across Colbear, where ships went missing.
Not all the time, though. Most ships made it through, and they made it through just often enough to make that whole quadrant seem like a good idea to idiot pilots, especially in the middle of an emergency. People like her, in other words.
Cutting through would save them almost a full lightyear of travel. Cory did the math in her head. She did it twice, just to be sure, but yes, cutting through Colbear would mean they reached the Black Star Outpost, an old military installation back during the Wolux wars. They’d be down to seven percent power when they reached it, and depending on the nature of the repairs, they might be stuck there until parts arrived, but they would make it alive.
“Shortcut,” Cory said grimly, knowing she wouldn’t need to say anything more.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” Doc’s low voice growled. Hovering in the doorway, he braced his hands on opposite sides of the threshold to help keep his balance through the ominous rumble-shaking of the ship’s rapid atmospheric hemorrhaging. “What the hell kind of option is that?”
“The lesser of three evils,” their captain replied, though she could tell by his tone that he was still running through his own mental assessment of their chances.
“I’d rather risk the Wolux,” Doc protested.
“Not with twenty-seven passengers onboard.” Captain Lohan drew a deep breath, holding it but a moment before he sighed. “Do what you need to, Tucker. Just get us there.”
The last memory Cory had before everything went tits up was of switching routes in the computer and punching the keys to take them straight through that massive and supposedly empty quadrant. Sometimes she thought she remembered smoke and shaking, multi-system alarms going off one right after the other, and a tight-chested sense of absolute panic, but those were more like the fading wisps of a really bad dream. After that, all Cory remembered was the box.
Cory awoke to a head that felt stuffed full of cotton and a mouth that tasted like a well-worn military boot. She was trapped inside a dark, tight space with cold metal beneath her naked back and pressing in on her from all sides. She couldn’t move. Not to push against the confines of the metal box she laid in, or to roll over or turn her head. Not even when her rolling stomach disgorged a gush of thick, sour paste, and suddenly she was breathing it back in again.
The bright chirp of an alarm sounded and blue light lit up the interior of the coffin she was locked in. The wall at the end of the box behind her head slid open and, abruptly, the slab she was lying on rolled out into an open room.
The alien grabbed her, jerking her over onto her side and shoving a suction tube past her unresponsive lips, down her throat. She couldn’t move to argue with it, but at least now she could breathe. Slow, steady breaths, completely unencumbered by the confusion she couldn’t seem to wade her way out of. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be lying here. He—whoever he was—shouldn’t be bent over her, his broad hand now callously wiping her down, cleaning away the sickness with cool antiseptic wipes. It took more than one. He exchanged wipes often, dry bathing her until the sourness was gone and every slow, even, involuntary breath her unresponsive lungs forced her to take was tainted with antiseptic.
She stared straight up, able only to blink as she drank in the sight of him.
Alien was right. Even with a head full of cotton and eyes so heavy they didn’t want to stay open, Cory could tell he wasn’t human. His skin was craggy. An odd grayish color that looked almost like tree bark and which contrasted sharply with the white of his uniform tunic. His hair looked more like porcupine quills, and although humanoid in every other respect, those two things were just strange enough to make him stand out.
For all that his hands looked rough, they didn’t feel that way when he cupped first her cheek and then her forehead, peeling open her heavy eyelids to check the dilation of her pupils before turning his assessing gaze to the umbilical-like feeding tube that punctured her stomach, rhythmically pumping fluid and sustenance into her from the ceiling of her box. Lastly, he checked the waste catheters she hadn’t even known were running in and out of her body lower down.
A single sharp pulse of the most intense pleasure thumped through her sex when he slipped his hand between her legs. She’d have sucked air, if only she could, but just as quickly as he’d touched her, that disturbingly erotic sensation faded back into nothing. Pinned to the slab by that inescapable weight, she had no control, not even to lift her fingers or grab his wrist as he checked both catheters to ensure they were still firmly in place.
Satisfied, he arranged her into a comfortable position on her back with both arms straight at her sides. Poking at the readout display above her box, he rolled her back into her box. Her whimper of protest was all in her head as the light winked out, casting her into total darkness once more.
Air hissed, bringing with it a whisper of coolness that filled the box, then all fell silent apart from the sub-audible hum of distant engines far larger than the Lossa’s had been. The experienced pilot in her took note of that. She was still on a ship then. Judging by the sound of it, a bigger ship than the three-man-crew transport she was responsible for piloting. A merchant ship, then. Or a warship.
Shit, had they been captured? Was he Wolux?
Slow and steady, she breathed in the coolness, her head growing fuzzier by the second until she couldn’t remember why it mattered. Or that she ought to be scared. Or that her stomach was still roiling queasily.
Eyes drifting shut, she slept.
She jolted awake in the act of getting sick again.
Again, the chirping siren went off, twin bleeps of insistence that she be attended, which brought the light winking back on. The slab yanked back out into the open and the craggy alien grabbed her by the shoulders, but not before she began to drown.
Stomach acid burned the back of her throat, but her body was not her own. Unable to sit up or twitch a finger, unable even to cough, she panicked. Steady as a metronome, feeding her bitter sickness instead of air, her unhurried lungs forced her to breathe and choke, breathe and choke.
Catching her chin, the gray man flipped her onto her side while the suction nozzle clattered past her teeth and into the far back of her throat. He frowned when she vomited again, as if she was doing it on purpose, but her stomach would not be soothed. Over and over, she heaved, her body spasming beyond her control until her ribs and belly hurt and there was nothing left for her to disgorge but the bitterest of bile.
The alien rumbled, a sound as strangely soothing as the caress of his hand when he brushed hair back from her forehead. He suctioned until he was sure she was done, then retracted the nozzle back into the wall. It disappeared behind a panel near her blinking readout, but focusing on that gave Cory’s fuzzy brain direction enough for her to also focus on the wall she protruded from. Not a wall, rather it was a metal containment unit, stacked floor to ceiling with boxes just like hers. Each box had a door and, if the blinking medical readouts above each one could be believed, behind each door was a slab with a prisoner just like her lying on it.
Her readout was the only one flashing red, but with every fresh breath she took, that began to change. One by one, the red alerts winked off, until her display once more mirrored normal conditions like all the other containment units.
Where was she? She’d have sat up if she could have moved, but her heavy body wouldn’t let her.
Frowning, the alien braced his craggy hands to either side of her head and glared at her. A twitch of muscle pulsed beneath the bark of his skin, ticking along the strong line of his jaw. He felt her forehead, glancing once at her medical readout. His frown deepened. Comparing her display to that of the unit above her, he grunted. Not once, but a series of rumbling, coughing, syllabic sounds that her muddled thoughts eventually recognized was speech. She’d never heard anything like it, not in all the planets in the fifteen quadrants she’d visited thus far.
Another grunt-cough startled them both. Her alien looked around and out of the periphery of her own sight, Cory spotted another alien now stepping into the room from beyond the first’s white-uniformed hip. As if embarrassed to be caught with her, Craggy took his hand from her hair and scowled. He didn’t say anything, but the look he shot the second was enough to make that male burst out laughing and raise tree-bark gray hands in universal surrender.
Craggy tapped the display above her door and instantly Cory’s eyes grew heavy again. She fought to keep them open, but like the rest of her body, she had little control. Weighted apathy crawled over her like a blanket.
“N-no…” Useless refusal breathed out of her on little more than an asthmatic squeak.
Both males glanced at her in surprise.
Patting her forehead, Craggy tapped her display again and the blanket got heavier. She wallowed under it as he pulled out more antiseptic wipes, cleaning her as best he could without water. All the while, he and the other male exchanged grunts.
Don’t touch me. She didn’t squeak that time, or flinch so much as a finger when his hands moved over her stomach and she felt pulling in her guts. It didn’t hurt, not really, but it didn’t feel good either. In the end, all she could do was drift on medically induced heaviness as he gave her feeding tube a last gentle tug. It slipped free of her, dribbling gray nutritional sludge as it retracted into the ceiling of her coffin.
His rumble-cough taking on an uncertain ‘what are you doing’ tone, the second gray-scaled alien stepped closer. Craggy answered, but all Cory could think was: No! She fought with all her will to grab his wrist when he reached between her legs for the second time. When he touched her, she came. Hard. Every muscle in her frozen body seized on fluttering waves of pleasure that struck out of nowhere and would have made her scream if only she could have. No part of her moved, not even when she felt the brush of his clinical touch spreading open the folds of her sex. Feeling pulling there too, she came again. And then again as the catheter came out, retracting back into her box while he wiped her there next. Every gentle brush of his hand sent shocks of the most intense pleasure ripping through her, though the intensity of it immediately faded away to nothing the instant he stopped touching her.
Arms folded across his chest, the second alien came to stand beside her slab. He grinned, bark-like lips splitting to reveal great, block-like teeth. Whatever he said made the first male snort rude laughter, then shake his head. He reached deeper between her legs—
No, no, no!
Cory couldn’t feel the pressure of the waste catcher embedded in her bowels until he took firm hold and tugged it out. The mortification was worse than the pinch of pain when it left her, and neither stopped the next and final orgasm from crashing over her. Every muscle twitched and spasmed as he wiped both it and her down, then let the nozzle retract back into her box.
That was it; Cory was done. Unable to move, there was no stopping him from sliding his arm under her shoulders and then her knees, gathering her up to his chest. His smell wasn’t unpleasant—earthiness tainted her next breath as her head flopped limp against his shoulder. She could feel the bulge of his muscles, the hardness of his flesh beneath the coarse fabric of his tunic. After so many orgasms, she could also feel the tickling trickles of her own body’s natural lubricant dribbling out of her, but that was it. No ripples of latent pleasure had lasted beyond that moment when Craggy took his hands from her sex. There was no pulsing, no wanting… nothing. She was numb to everything but the humiliation of being naked and carried like a babe in the arms of a stranger. It burned up the back of her throat into her eyes, forcing tears that under no circumstance would she ever have allowed herself to cry.
He rumbled, clicking his tongue against his teeth as he carried her to a long metal table in the middle of the room. The entire sloping top was a bank of computers, buttons, and knobs. Some were lit, some blinked, but most were dark. At Craggy’s cough, the second alien fetched a blanket out of a compartment hidden behind a wall panel. He spread it on the floor beside the single chair and then she was laid down. Rolling her limp body onto her side, they folded a corner of the blanket over her and tucked the edges in to keep her warm.
The second alien said something, then laughed, winning a withering frown from Craggy. Snapping something back, he then took his place on the chair above her.
Humiliation burned hotter, brighter, an un-ignorable lump that she could do nothing to excise. Her limbs refused to cooperate. It took all she had just to make her finger twitch, but she was determined to fight back.
She heaved her arm, ignored by the two males who grunted and conversed, paying her no mind at all. As she strained to make her drugged body move, Cory realized why they couldn’t care less. It took everything she had to drag her hand the six or so inches that separated her from him. Once she’d managed it, her arm collapsed, her fingers on his ankle, her strength utterly spent. Relaxing made her roll a little and her cheek touched his boot. His foot became her pillow. She panted, resting—a few seconds, that was all she needed, then she was going to bite the hell out of him.
Wilting, exhausted by the strain of her rebellion, she fell asleep instead.
“That,” Vullum said, cocking his head in surprise, “is adorable.”
Demin felt the ruffling of his head quills arching, but he quickly flattened them again.
“Unexpected,” he said, by way of agreement.
The female creature’s cheek pressed down on his boot. He should take it out from under her, but he didn’t. Rather, he found the urge to pull away mitigated by the stronger urge to leave her be. She wasn’t encumbering him. Who did it harm to let her stay this way if cuddling his foot gave her some measure of comfort?
“I think she is asleep.”
“Come now, be truthful,” his friend scoffed. “Even you have to admit that’s cute.”
“Don’t encourage her. She’s done nothing but vomit since we collected her.”
“So you say.” Vullum winked. “Personally, I think you simply wanted to take one out of containment.”
Demin stiffened, annoyed that his friend would think so little of him. “That’s illegal.”
“Technically. But so long as no one knows, then no one will protest too loudly if you did find an attachment. Being a collector has to have its benefits somewhere. If it didn’t, there’d be nothing to attract one to the job.”
“Don’t you have a ship’s computer to scour for pertinent species and planet information?” Demin scrolled his stasis readouts, pretending to be absorbed by them until, laughing, Vullum left.
“Deviant,” Demin called after him, but his parting barb hit only the closing door.
He had so much work to do. Thirty previously unknown specimens had been collected, nineteen of which were male. Each would need to be evaluated and profiled with a full diagnostic taken, then ultimately ranked by procreative value. Age, health, sperm count, and reproductive viability had to be assessed. The last thing he had time to do was sit here, contemplating how he felt about the insignificant and sickly female resting on his foot.
What he felt didn’t matter, anyway. If she couldn’t keep food down, chances were good she wouldn’t survive, so where was the point in growing attached? Not that he would be allowed to keep her even if he did. She wasn’t for him. Like all females, she was bound for the Lottery, to spend the rest of her life easing the physical and emotional needs of some Me’Kavaian male who would have never been allowed a Me’Kavaian female to mate with.
Through his boot, Demin felt two tiny fingers twitch. He frowned, then bent to tuck her back into her blanket. After checking to make sure the healing salve he’d applied to her belly button was working as it should, he then went back to work. He had too much to do and the last thing he needed now was to fall behind.
Demin had the bloodwork drawn on all but three of the new-species males when a beep from the computer signaled that Vullum had completed his analysis of the alien ship called the Constellate Lossa and translated the foreign language into something they could all read. At last, he could now classify them for their records, all of which was a phenomenal accomplishment considering the faint scent now permeating the Medilab. He couldn’t identify it, couldn’t pin down where it was coming from, but it was distracting as hell.
As it turned out, this new species had four ways by which they identified themselves: Human Being seemed to be the most prevalent, followed by Terran, Earthling, and lastly, Asshole, which was discovered almost by accident on several pieces of inter-ship correspondence between the passengers. Considering the infrequency and perhaps derogatory nature of use, he made a note of the word, but selected the most popular ‘Human Being’ by which to draft his reports.
Individual identifications came next and that was made easy by the humans themselves. Each was photographically identified in a file marked Manifest. He found names, fingerprints, even blood types. Family contacts, destination coordinates, and payment verifications weren’t worth keeping track of, although he did note the coordinates of each origin provided.
Interesting. The name of their planet translated into ‘dirt’ or ‘ground.’ It was located far across the outreaches of their own maps, in a quadrant where life, intelligent or otherwise, hadn’t been suspected. Not that anyone would plan a collecting trip that far out, but it would give Vullum another chance to get his name accredited in yet another set of scientific journals. Hopefully they would prove genetically compatible. So far, that looked promising.
Identification reports now started on each viable male, Demin collected DNA samples so the computer could begin untangling the complexities of the human genome. Once those lights were blipping and blinking their way through the process, he started collecting sperm count samples. Almost immediately he cut their payload by one male. Sterile. Damn it. The genetic signature of a past disease was scarred upon his genes and Demin felt an immediate kinship with the unconscious man. Although aggressive treatment had left its mark, the disease remained. A cell scan found several small pockets of malformed growth in the deep tissues of his lungs and within the marrow of his bones. He didn’t have much longer to live.
Closing the male back into his drawer, he noted his discovery on the human’s identification file. If he didn’t have time to map out a cure for the cellular illness, then perhaps someone on Me’Kava would. If not, then the unfortunate male’s fate would be either the preservation asylum, where he would be made comfortable until the end, or a mind-wipe before he was shuttled home. They weren’t monsters. Although easier and far more cost effective to put the human down, the suggestion would not even be raised. From the moment of his collection, Me’Kava had become responsible for the human’s care. They would do what they could for him. Even if all they could do was pat him on his partially bald head and give him another dose of sedative.
Speaking of which. Returning to his desk, Demin bent to make sure the sickly female was still breathing. She was, but she’d spit up again.
That shouldn’t have happened. He’d taken her off the feeding tube hours ago. There couldn’t be anything left in her stomach to disgorge, though she seemed stubbornly determined to prove that wrong. Why was she still getting sick?
Medically, the males were more important. He should take care of them first, but he stopped long enough to locate her identification—Cory Tucker; interesting arrangement of syllables—and ran a few tests. A screen for illnesses and abnormalities came up clean, but he did find something odd in the slurry protein provided by the Council of Procreators for the collected Product. A bacterial infection, perhaps. Her feeding tube must not have been cleaned properly.
“Damn it.” He sighed and promptly gave her a shot of antibiotics strong enough to kill everything, including whatever invasive bacteria must be attacking her system. Then he cleaned her up—again—and went back to work on the captives that mattered.
Two hours later, he had half the human genome mapped, bloodwork on all the males collating—including that of the youngest of the lot who, if he continued to maintain his current erection rate while under the sleeping sedative mixed in with their sustenance, was sure to become the darling of the procreation facility. He was just noting the young male’s file when Cory awoke in time for her entire system to purge.
Of course it would. The antibiotics he’d given her were to blame for one mess, the food poisoning the other, and Demin was responsible for both. Once again, he stopped what he was doing and cleaned her up, throwing the blanket into the incinerator. Wipes weren’t going to do it this time. Her groan when he picked her up was as pitiful as her stench was sour, and he carried her from the Medilab into the adjacent surgery.
Demin rarely used this room. It was quicker and easier to install feeding ports and waste collectors after the Product were drugged and neatly laid out in confinement drawers. On the rare occasion when a death occurred in transit, however, it was his job to oversee the necessary dissection. The table that dominated the center of this part of his lab was more of a sink, with deep sides and a center drain that fed into an isolated collection port, which helped maintain the sanitary requirements he, rather than the Procreators, preferred.
Cory mewed a feeble protest when he laid her in the bottom. It had been hours now and the sedative should be well on its way to being cleansed from her system, but her struggles remained sluggish and weak. She rolled from her back onto her side, grabbed the top of the sink, and tried to pull herself out. He shooed her hands and feet back from the edge, and she was just drugged and sick enough to allow her meager escape attempt to be foiled.
When he turned the recycled water on, her mew escalated into a miserable wail. Corpses didn’t care if it was cold; sickly Cory did. She flopped onto her belly, but a hand between her shoulders pinned her to the bottom of the sink while he sprayed her down.
Knowing the water would never warm, he made it quick. With Cory squeaking and gasping throughout the ordeal, he washed her. She grabbed the side of the sink again, and he caught her wrist, helping her upright long enough to spray down her front, under her arms, and between her legs.
“Be good,” he ordered when she splashed water at him, then flopped into an unhappy huddle in a corner of the deep sink, arms crossed over her naked chest and shivering. Her teeth chattered. Her nipples, glimpsed between her shielding fingers because she was too drugged to know she wasn’t as covered as she thought, were a pale pinkish-brown and puckered into buds that only peaked tighter when the harsh spray hit her belly and breasts. He tried not to look, only a deviant would, but she wasn’t that much smaller than he was and, to be honest, her form was quite alluring. Soft everywhere, especially her hair, which flowed like liquid sunshine down her back as the water wet it.
He gathered it in his fingers, but she pulled away and slapped clumsily at his hand. Not known for a high level of tolerance at the best of times, he was a little surprised at his own lack of irritation when she shoved at the spray nozzle and grumpily turned her back to him. She wasn’t trying to vex him; she simply didn’t feel good. He frowned, but he wouldn’t have taken what he was doing to her with half her chilled acceptance.
Still, assault was illegal and bad behavior wouldn’t be tolerated once she was on Me’Kava. Taking her wrist, he gave her misbehaving hand a prim slap.
“No,” he told her, as if he—a murderer—had any right to lecture her on breaking the law. She wobbled, growling, her fingernails scraping the bottom of the sink as he dragged her back into the center of the sink. Surprisingly, when he let go of her, she stayed. “There’s a good little human.”
Shutting off the water, Demin exchanged the spray nozzle for hand soap. It wasn’t gentle, but it wouldn’t eat through her skin either, unlike the scouring paste he usually used when he cleaned his equipment after use.
He rubbed the soap first between his hands and then all over her. It didn’t lather well, but it did help wash away the lingering sourness of her smell. Maybe in some drug-addled part of her mind, Cory realized he was only trying to help. Her eyes closed and her head drooped. With her chin nearly touching her chest, her only movements were bouts of shivering, the occasional chattering of her teeth, and the gentle rocking of her body as he washed her—from belly, to breasts, to the slippery curve of her buttocks and down her legs. She gave no indication that she was alert at all, not even when he slipped his fingers between her thighs, soaping the folds that gave her worth only as a Lottery prize for some other Rager back on Me’Kava.
“Disease is a devastating thing,” he told her bowed head. “It’s all right. I understand.”
She didn’t respond and barely roused when he rinsed away the soap with another cold spray of water.
Had she fallen asleep again? He checked her pulse. It was steady, albeit a little faster than he would have thought one as drugged as this would—he caught himself in the surprising act of bending over her and breathing in.
He jerked back, swiftly clearing his nose, but there it was, the source of that unmistakably alluring scent that had been tickling his nose all day. It was coming from her.
He shouldn’t, but almost against his will, he reluctantly bent over her again. Trailing his fingers through the golden softness of her wet hair, he lifted it and breathed in again. Fresh and clean, with only a hint of soap to cover the aroma, he savored the unfamiliar scent. Whatever it was, it teased his senses, kicking up the beating of his normally quite practical heart and creating a blossom of heat that bloomed in the pit of his belly, warming him.
Interesting. He liked it.
Not that he had any business ‘liking’ anything about her. If allowed to be honest, though, there were a lot of things he liked about her strange little body.
Though he shouldn’t, he caressed her wet hair, so much finer and softer than his own. It flowed down her bare back, each strand a single hair without quill or barbule. Wet, it hung in a curtain of clumps that got wavy just past her shoulder blades. It even curled at the tips. As much as her scent, he liked the uniqueness of it.
Not that he hadn’t seen hair before. Ijabon had hair. Or rather, they had thick manes of fine quills on their heads and across their shoulders, and on the females—especially around the pubic region—one could also find a dozen or so thicker barbs, each one capable of imparting a nasty sting and enough paralyzing agent to knock a careless man out for at least three hours. Before one could turn an Ijabon female over to the Lottery, one first had to surgically remove those barbs and burn the follicle so it wouldn’t regrow. Ijabon males had no barbs. They were disagreeable in other ways.
Dalek had hair too, though it was short and spiky, and extremely coarse. More pelt-like, and it certainly didn’t curl.
Turlaki had curls. They also had feathers, though of a primitive variety that nevertheless came in a veritable rainbow of color. The shinier the better. Turlaki were never surprised to find themselves collected. Rather, most seemed to expect it. Still, if one could stomach the fact that every conversation should and would revolve around the beauty of their feathers, then keeping a Turlaki was fairly easy. Give them a cushion to sit on and a mirror to gaze in, and the females at least were perfectly content to be kept by whoever complimented the loudest and most often. Demin didn’t know about the males. They were solely the responsibility of the tight-lipped Procreators, but he doubted they were any different. They might even be worse, considering their plumage was longer and the colors shone brighter.
No, Turlaki never gave their keepers any trouble. Dalek, on the other hand, never gave them anything but and usually someone got hurt in the mating process. Only half the time it was the Dalek.
“But you’re not one of those,” Demin soothingly said as he gathered her long, wet hair, soaping liberally even though he knew it was already more than clean enough. All of her was clean enough, and yet he was loath to stop touching her or to move away, even long enough to get a towel to dry her with. What was it about her scent that kept pulling at him? He stroked her hair, releasing another faint wave of that intoxicating scent. His whole hand—both hands—came away smelling strongly of her.
He paused to smell them, and a few minutes later caught himself still just standing there, savoring the scent of her on his wet skin. He gave himself a stern shake. What was he doing? Cory still sat in the bottom of the sink, head bowed, meekly waiting for him to finish with her.
He made himself get back to work. He washed his hands in the icy water, but the scent was heavy in the air now and instead of hanging up the sprayer and grabbing a towel, he went right back to washing her. His heart was beating harder than normal. His blood pulsed warm in his veins, marching in his temples in a strong and steady beat. He couldn’t take his hands off her, and the more he rubbed her, the more she leaned into him and the stronger that marching beat became. It was all very seductive, and very unnerving.
Stop, he told himself, and finally tore his hands from her wet skin.
She made no sound of protest, not even when he turned the water back on and doused away the last of the soap in another chilly blast of water. From her head to her chest, and all the way down between her legs where he caught himself touching her again, this time slipping his hand between her legs to open her genital folds. Not because he was a deviant, he told himself firmly, or because he hadn’t had a woman in… ever. But because he was being clinical and thorough. And because in the condition she was in, she could hardly do it herself.
When he sprayed between her legs, her breath caught and her whole body shuddered violently. His breath caught too, but not before he felt the tightening that tangled from his belly to his cock as he imagined how she might look kneeling like this before him of her own volition, with her head meekly bowed and the pale pink of her strange body glistening wet as she slipped her own fingers between her splayed thighs to bare herself for his inspection.
His cock throbbed all over again, only to be killed by a sharp jolt of reality. This was illegal. He was her guardian, her protector—the one assigned to protect her from the moment of her collection until they reached Me’Kava and she passed into the care of the Procreators. He was a Rager. Tainted blood pulsed in his veins and though mandatory sterilization meant the disease in his line would spread no further, she was not for him and never would be. He would never be allowed to put his chip into the Lottery for a chance to win her. He had no home to take her to even if by some miracle the Councils did permit him to take a Lottery prize. Him, a convicted murderer—the killer of a fertile female, no less. No, this female and every other just like her, slumbering away in their containment drawers, were prizes meant to ease the loneliness of some other Rage-stricken Me’Kavaian male. The stars alone knew there were plenty of men like that for the Lottery Council to choose from.
There were no bloodlines left on his home world unmarred by either the stigma of disease or the sterilization scars. Fewer than six hundred breed-able females remained, and although at last count there were still twenty-three males showing no sign of the disease, none would be allowed to breed. The disease flowed too prolifically through the male line, and Society had grown so far beyond being merely desperate that for two decades now, they had taken to doing the unthinkable—they’d begun collecting males from other races in a last-ditch effort to cleanse the genetic illness from their lines.
How low the mighty had fallen.
Demin let go of her. Snorting the intoxication of her scent from his nose, he put a half-step’s much-needed distance between himself and her small, wet body, but every instinct he had cried to get closer again. His pulse was in his ears, his heart pounding hard. He could practically feel the rush of his own blood thrumming through his veins, flowing powerfully until every corner of him, every nerve and nuance was throbbing along in time. For her.
This wasn’t normal. What was wrong with him?
Vullum was right, no one was meant to live in perpetual celibacy, and he’d lived with it for years. That must be it. Otherwise, this female would not be triggering him in ways he never knew he could be triggered and which he had no idea how to combat.
He had so much work to do.
He needed to stop this nonsense, end this distraction, and get back to the job he’d chosen so he could atone for the life he’d taken.
And yet his feet refused to move. Her scent wasn’t just in his nose anymore; it was in his lungs, his head, his blood. The room had taken on a decidedly pinkish tint. If he looked at himself in a mirror, he knew his eyes would be turning red. He needed to find a quiet corner. Now. He needed to meditate until he’d worked this heart-pounding, blood-heating—he looked down at himself; fuck—cock-rousing problem out of his system.
Ever so slightly, Cory lifted her bowed head. It was such a small movement that, in his highly distracted state, Demin almost didn’t notice it. But no, through the curtain of her wet hair, he caught a glimpse of one baleful blue eye glaring back at him.
His fingers twitched to reach for her. His cock twitched even harder, and before he could stop himself, he let both his nose and manhood drag him back to her.
Her scent… He fought to stop himself, but his hand was moving of its own accord, reaching for her to part the golden curtain of her wet hair with a single finger.
Hours from now, when the addling effect of this scent was finally cleared from his nose, perhaps his normally analytical mind would again be sound enough to decipher which in his massive litany of mistakes might be most responsible for what now happened. It could be he’d slipped; she had splashed at him and the floor was wet. Significant quantities of soap were also involved and humans, as he very quickly discovered when she launched herself out of the sink to attack him, were slippery little devils.
Teeth bared, tiny hands curled like claws, his thus far yielding, obedient alien female bellowed a warrior’s cry if ever he’d heard such a thing, and then she tackled him. It startled him so badly, Demin tripped, lost his balance, and fell flat on his ass.
The view as she took him down flat to the metal floor grates was nothing less than stunning. She flopped gracelessly on top of him, all warrior wet, naked, and half-drugged, and barely able to get her uncooperative limbs to obey her, and it was as breathtaking as her pheromonal aroma was invigorating.
He grabbed her back when she seized the front of his tunic, very nearly toppling herself straight over to face-plant against his chest. Her clumsy, uncoordinated state should have made regaining control over her easy, but he didn’t take advantage of it. His senses were heightened, spinning, roused higher and hotter than they had been in a very long time. And never in his life had he ever had a woman behave like this toward him. It was thrilling. It was beyond thrilling; it was erotic as hell, and instead of grabbing her hands and pinning them behind her back, he caught her around her waist and helped her steady herself.
Every jerky movement as she pushed herself up to sit on him made his pounding blood sing. He needed her like he had never in his life needed anyone or anything.
Get away from her. It was the last coherent thought Demin had before she, shaking her head once to bring him back into focus, balled up her fist and in one clumsy swing, reawakened the Rager that had taken him years to put to sleep.
She shouted as she swung, her little warrior’s cry heating his belly beneath the warm bare curves of her naked buttocks. A quick jerk of his head meant her fist connected with nothing more vital than his shoulder, but his Rager blood still sang and he shoved her hips, bringing the burn of her female core to sit directly over the bulge of his throbbing cock. Only the thin barrier of his uniform tunic and pants remained between them.
Drugged as she was, she almost fell sideways off him just trying to see what she was now sitting on. She growled in the back of her throat and glared at him again; how adorable. He growled back, enjoying the visual of her breasts heaving as she seethed one shaky breath after another. She wasn’t at all cowed by his response; that was adorable too.
Letting his hands slip lower down her hips, he tipped his upward, stroking the heat of her with his uncomfortably contained cock. She wiggled, looking down again as heat flushed her cheeks. Her next growl came in the recognizable starts and stops of foreign speech patterns. He didn’t know her language any more than she knew his, but he liked her fire.
“Was that a threat, I wonder?” he rumbled, shifting his fingers until he could feel the lush curves of her bottom filling up both his hands. Unable to help it, he squeezed and then groaned when her instant squirm to escape resulted in her wriggling atop his already iron-hard cock. “Yes, more. Threaten me again, tiny one. It arouses me.”
She grabbed at his throat, but he blocked her arm and immediately grabbed her by hers instead. Just as quickly, he rolled them both over, capturing her smaller body beneath his own.
The instant he crawled on top of her, two things happened. His blood roared, a fiery surge of Rager lust so potent that it made his chest and head both pound. For a second, everything turned red, washing her out just inches in front of his face. It was like the day he’d committed murder all over again. If he weren’t so aroused, so lost in consuming fire, he’d have been horrified.
But just as immediate and as volatile was her response. The instant her back touched the floor, she bucked and kneed. That she connected with nothing more vital than the outside of his hip was due only to his heightened reactions. He retaliated, his hand delivering a single sharp swat to as much of her bottom as he could reach with her on her back.
“Do not—” was all the warning he managed before her balled-up fist met his nose with a mighty crack.
His head snapped back and the world washed out red all over again. He shook his head, forcing the room back into focus.
She’d hit him!
Shocked, enraged—enchanted—he laughed out loud. Was he bleeding? Grabbing his face, he checked his fingers. He was! That little bakushk’ja devil had drawn his blood!
He laughed again, the craving need to lick the taste of it from his fingers sending his Rager half battle-mad. Lowering his hand, he smiled at her. “My turn.”
He grabbed her misbehaving fist, and she promptly punched him with the other. She didn’t just draw blood. This time, she broke his nose.
Cartilage crunched, and the wash of red grew murderous. He threw himself backwards off her, grabbing his face while the redness cloaked everything behind its blinding, throbbing crimson wave. He only just felt the slippery scramble of Cory kicking away from him.
Shaking his head helped to clear it, but by the time he crunched his crooked nose straight again, growling through the pain of it and blinking his eyes clear of blinding water, she was gone.
He’d just lost a Product down the corridor of the ship, and still the pulsing throb of his cock pounded through his heated veins. Consuming need obscured every rational thought in his head but one: he needed to get her back beneath him.
Demin threw himself after her. He wasn’t laughing now, but the exhilaration of physically hunting her down was undeniable. She had drawn his blood. That was a challenge that would not go unanswered, but he had to catch her first. Preferably without anyone onboard finding out that he’d just done something even a rookie collector knew better than to do.
That hope was dashed before he reached the end of the hall. He heard her high-pitched alien scream an instant before an all too familiar voice echoed back to his ears, “What is this doing out of containment?”
For just a moment, Demin’s irritation swelled just as hot and throbbed just as hard as his cock. He quickened his step, following the sound of both cries around the corner. A flare of hot temper shot up his spine into the back of his skull, momentarily blinding him all over again when he saw his—the, rather—human in the clutches of his captain.
Bruwes was an idiot. That in and of itself wasn’t a crime, but someone on the Council of Procreators had put him in charge of a spaceship. It had been six months since Bruwes had gone from being an idiot of no real consequence somewhere on Me’Kava to being Captain Idiot of the Reaver, and now Demin had to deal with him. Every single day. Sometimes more than once. Convicted of killing two people already, there were days Demin wondered how much worse things could get were that tally to climb to three.
And it could. Very easily. Especially when he saw Bruwes bend his head to savor a long draw of breath from her hair. Nostrils flaring, he shook his head, but then he locked his darkening frown on Demin. “Why is this female running through the ship?”
Irritation prickled up Demin’s back, raising his quills. The urge to charge his captain just for touching her was crawling over his shoulders.
Bruwes tipped his head, studying him closer. “Your eyes are red. Why are your eyes red?” He backed a cautious step, dragging Cory with him by her hair despite her twisting struggles to pry out of his grip. He cuffed her, barely flinching when she jabbed her elbow into his midriff. “What happened to your face? Why are you not calm?”
“I’m calm,” Demin growled, his throat so tight he could barely force the words out. He moved closer, his hand itching to grab Cory away from him.
“Ha.” More an expulsion of breath than a real laugh, Bruwes cautiously backed another step. “That’s close enough.”
Demin eased a step closer anyway. He held out his hand. “Give her to me.”
In one swift motion, Bruwes bent to hook the female around her waist, throwing her up and over his shoulder, despite her yelp and renewed kicking. He slapped her naked rump, startling her into stillness and releasing a wave of that same intoxicating scent that had so beguiled Demin back while he’d bathed her.
Both he and Bruwes shook their heads, but the scent was in them and there was no coughing free of it.
They glared at one another, a gleam of pink beginning to tinge the whites of his captain’s black eyes.
“It’s illegal to free collect Product outside the presence of the Procreators,” Bruwes said, his lingering hand now rubbing the flank he’d just swatted, sending prickles of territoriality bristling up Demin’s back.
He fought not to bare his teeth, or clench his jaw, or show his fast-rising temper in any way. His head was throbbing; the red haze in his vision now washed everything in bloody darkness and it was only growing darker with every marching pulse throbbing in his temples. He couldn’t think past the crackling irritation crawling up his spine and across his shoulders until it filled his tightening biceps. It spread through him in jumps and jolts until not charging the other man took every ounce of willpower he had.
“She is ill. I am trying to treat her.”
“She doesn’t smell ill.” Eyes locked on Demin, Bruwes turned his nose toward her hip. He breathed in. His hand rubbed. His eyes were dilating, and there was little white left in them. They were red now.
“She has been voiding from all ends for hours. A bath was required.” Demin held out a demanding hand. “I’ll take her back now.”
He and Bruwes locked narrowing eyes. From the moment of collection until processing, when male Product were passed into the care of the Procreators and females given over to the Lottery Council, she belonged to Demin the way the ship belonged to Bruwes. She was the sum and whole of his job. Her care, feeding, cleaning—her everything belonged to him, and they both knew it. There was no precedence that allowed Bruwes to usurp Demin’s responsibilities; they both knew that, too.
And yet his captain held onto her. Tipping his head again, he savored her scent anyway. “Are you sure she didn’t slip your custody in protest of liberties you were taking?”
Shoving at his head, Cory tried to roll off Bruwes’ shoulder and he promptly swatted her again—a sharp, crisp slap that made Demin’s irritation jump hotter. His cock jumped too as the reddening handprint brightened upon the otherwise paleness of her skin.
“Are you accusing me of sampling the Product before it can be delivered?”
“I wasn’t accusing, I was insinuating. She smells well used.” Catching her thigh, Bruwes dodged her jabbing knee while he made a show of burrowing in for a loud sniff. The whites of his eyes were not completely crimson. “She smells very well used,” he repeated thickly.
Unable to stop himself, Demin surged another step closer and in the next instant, Cory was on the floor and Bruwes was standing toe-to-black-polished-boots-toe with him.
“Don’t forget to whom you answer, Rager.”
“As if you’re any better,” Demin growled back. His fists were clenched, an electrified crackle racing just under his skin. It snapped through his nerves, faster and faster, until every urge of movement he fought to keep back was one of explosive violence. He swallowed, only just holding himself in control. “Don’t think I don’t know how you got your captaincy, sir. You’re every bit as diseased as I am.”
Bruwes snorted, trying to clear his nose. “Watch your words,” he warned, but Demin was beyond heeding it.
“The only difference between us is my father is dead and yours sits on the Council of Procreators. I hear he was so embarrassed by the failing of his bloodline that he couldn’t stand to have you on the same planet.”
Head lowering, Bruwes clenched his fists. The tightness in his back had spread and his quills were rising to stand on the back of his neck. “Watch. Your words. I’ve killed for less.”
“So has every man on this ship,” Demin countered. “It’s why we’re here, and why no one will care if I add your death to my tally. Who knows, your father might even thank me for saving him all future embarrassment.”
For a species that once valued knowledge, art, and learning above all other things, there was nothing intelligent or valuable about the punch Bruwes let fly. And in true Rager fashion, once it was thrown, his captain lost all control. Demin held off the encroaching blackness long enough to duck that first swing and land one of his own.
Never had hitting someone felt so good, or carried so many grand and overreaching consequences. Not the least of which revolved around the human female, Cory. Just before he lost control to his disease, he saw her look back over her shoulder at him once and then she took off running again.