“There has been some sort of a mistake,” Marissa Scott cried, precariously close to tears. She tugged against the hold of the guards flanking her, but they barely noticed her resistance. She sucked in a deep breath and tried not to sound so pathetic. “You need to release me. I am not a lottery girl.”
“Was your number chosen last night?” the smirking guard asked. There were two of the massive Kobar males, but only this one was bold enough to speak to her. The other just leered down at her lustfully. He might not speak English, but somehow she didn’t think so. They’d showed up at her house forty-five minutes ago and dragged her away at gunpoint. She’d been flown to Sector Eight’s Processing Center despite her continual protestations. The guards checked her in at the front desk then escorted her down one corridor after another. The farther they walked, the more panicked Marissa became.
“My number was called,” she admitted, “but that is the mistake. I am supposed to be exempt from the process.”
“Why?” Mr. Talkative challenged without looking at her. “Is there something wrong with you?”
His sarcasm was even more exasperating than his inappropriate humor. “My grandfather commands the largest human military. It is a courtesy to him.” Actually, her grandfather had been forced into retirement recently. Fear tingled down her spine, so she combated it with anger. Were the Kobar continuing to humiliate her grandfather by abusing her? What kind of useless cowards made war on women?
“If your number was chosen, there has been no mistake,” the guard said emphatically. “Congratulations. You won the lottery.”
This was typical Kobar behavior. They were ruthless conquerors determined to transform Earth into New Kobar. Humans were an annoyance, an impediment slowing the progress toward their ultimate goal. The only exception was young, healthy females. The predominantly male warriors had predictable uses for them, sexual service and reproduction. Marissa shuddered. The thought of being fucked by a Kobar was repulsive.
They reached a nondescript door and the silent guard pushed it open.
Marissa dug in her heels. This was clearly some sort of medical exam room, and there was no way in hell she was subjecting herself to that. As before, her objections meant nothing. The guards dragged her fully into the room and held her there.
An adjacent door slid open and a third Kobar male entered. He was dressed in a uniform similar to the guards’, except his gray shirt was edged in dark green rather than blue. “I am Senior Physician Isortis. You will not be harmed, but you will submit to this examination.” He finally looked up from the flat device balanced on his palm. Like many of the Kobar, he had caramel-colored skin and bright amber eyes. His gaze bored into hers with open hostility. His long tawny hair had been styled in a simple braid, and his features were strong without being brutish. Despite the Kobar’s ruthlessness, most humans found them esthetically pleasing. At this moment, Marissa didn’t understand why.
“Disrobe and get on the table,” the doctor ordered in the same autocratic tone.
“I’m not taking off my clothes for you or anyone,” she said firmly. “I need to call my—”
The newcomer motioned toward the guards and they lunged for her. She twisted and screamed, but the guards held her firmly while the ‘doctor’ casually pulled off her shirt and unfastened her bra. She clamped her upper arms to her sides, holding the bra in place but that basically immobilized her hands.
“Stop this immediately or you’ll hear from my lawyer!”
He ignored her and bent to take off her shoes and socks. Easily dodging her kicking feet, he unzipped her pants and dragged them down then off.
Marissa’s indignation gave way to fear and disbelief as more and more of her skin was revealed. “You need to stop,” she cried. “I did not agree to any of—”
“Are all humans such liars?” The doctor’s voice snapped with obvious disdain. “Your signature is on a contract detailing this process and the services you will provide. Why are you surprised by any of this?” He yanked her bra away from her breasts, then bent and dragged down her panties.
Paralyzed by humiliation and dread, she pressed her thighs together and stared past her tormentor. He could see everything now, and so could the guards. Dear God, it didn’t matter what she said or who she knew, these alien beasts would not stop.
No! She refused to believe it. There had to be laws against this sort of treatment, some sort of recourse she could take. Helplessness crashed over her in a daunting wave. That might have been true once, but not anymore. Humans were no longer the dominant species on Earth. They were occupied, conquered, subjugated by the despicable Kobar Empire.
“Put her on the table,” the doctor instructed the guards.
She was lifted to the padded surface and held there with wide straps. Being naked in front of strangers was horrifying enough, but what bothered her most was their utter disregard for her feelings. Tears gathered in her eyes and she frantically blinked them back. She would not give them the satisfaction of seeing her cry. She kept her thighs pressed together and stared at the ceiling, trying desperately to block out her surroundings.
The rest was mercifully short and impersonal. The doctor activated a series of scans, conducted a visual and noninvasive physical examination, then pressed an injector against the side of her neck. It hissed and burned for a second as he paused to enter notations into his handheld device.
“What was that? What did you just shoot into my bloodstream?” Without asking her permission, no less.
“According to your file, you have had minimal interaction with the Kobar. I injected you with nanites that will eradicate any microorganisms in your body that are harmful to my people. It will also boost your immune system so your masters don’t make you sick.”
“No injection will prevent that,” she muttered under her breath, but the doctor ignored her.
Once he’d finished with the notations, he took a different device and inserted something under the skin on the inside of her arm.
“And what the hell was that?” she demanded.
“Locator chip. For the next year, you are the property of the Kobar Empire.” His cold amber gaze locked with hers. “Don’t bother running away. The chip burrows through your muscle and attaches itself to the bone, so don’t attempt to remove it. You will cut open your arm for no reason.” He looked at the talkative guard and said, “I am finished. Escort her to station two.”
Dr. Jackass left before the guards released her from the table, but she immediately climbed down and looked around. “Where are my clothes?”
“Destroyed,” the guard said dismissively. “You will wear whatever you are given from now on.”
That turned out to be a knee-length terrycloth robe, but Marissa was glad to have it.
Station two didn’t look that different than the medical exam room. There was a padded table, inset cabinets, and all sorts of equipment Marissa didn’t recognize. A stone-faced human woman arrived much as the doctor had. “I’m going to remove your body hair,” the woman told her in a calm, cool voice. “Please, sit on the end of the table.”
Marissa had been contemplating laser treatments anyway, so she didn’t object—at first. She climbed onto the table, careful to keep her legs pressed together and the robe closed. The guards had already seen her body, but they didn’t deserve another peep show.
The procedure was painless and quick, but once the woman had finished with her legs and underarms, she tried to open Marissa’s legs. “I don’t want all of my hair gone. I’ll look like a freaking porn star.”
The woman shot her an impatient look. “The Kobar find body hair of any kind repulsive. Lottery girls must conform to their standards.”
“But I’m not a lottery girl, not really. This is a misunderstanding. My grandparents are working right now to straighten it all out.” This was the sixth time she had attempted the explanation, and it was no more effective this time than the others.
Without bothering with a reply, the woman motioned the guards forward. Marissa knew it was futile, but she couldn’t make herself surrender. She fought, twisting and bucking as the guards once again secured her to a padded table. This time her arms and legs were strapped down separately and a sharp verbal command set the table in motion. The bottom section split, dividing into three equal parts. The middle portion retracted as the other two moved farther and farther apart. When her legs were open wide, the supports lifted in the middle, bending her knees.
“Stop it!” Marissa shouted. “I will not tolerate this abuse. If you do not cease this moment, the next person you hear from will be my attorney.”
The woman paused and glared down at Marissa. “I try very hard to be professional, but I think you need to hear this. People like your grandparents are more than happy to make laws and policies, but they always protect themselves and those they love from the sacrifices they demand of others. The exemptions were never fair, and SC Byrne righted a wrong when he abolished them. Other lottery girls are being processed even as we speak. Civil Service is a privilege, an honor, or hadn’t you heard?” As the sarcasm of her last sentence sank deeper, the woman untied the belt on Marissa’s robe and casually flipped open the sides.
Furious and humiliated, Marissa tugged against her bonds. It was futile, of course, but she couldn’t just lie there and passively accept what was happening to her. Each of her agitated movements made her breasts jiggle, accenting the fact that she was naked and helpless. Worse, the obscene table offered the guards an unobstructed view of her pussy. The woman worked with silent efficiency and soon Marissa was smooth from the neck down.
“You’re human,” Marissa cried. “How can you betray your own people like this?”
The woman set the hair removal device aside and moved up toward the head of the table. “You have been treated with respect and professionalism because I supervise this facility. When the Civil Service programs began, lottery girls were routinely ‘sampled’ long before they reached their masters. My daughter was drafted during year one, and she was so traumatized by the time she reached her masters that they contacted me and nullified her contract. When I reported her abuse to Sector Leader Eight, his solution was rather creative. He told me he would prevent my daughter from being reassigned if I would take over the processing center. He gave me the authority to create real change, and I have been here ever since. Have you been touched inappropriately or raped during your induction process?”
Begrudgingly, Marissa shook her head.
“The guards are enjoying looking at you, but because of me, they cannot touch you in any sexual way.” She paused a moment to let the importance of that sink in then went back to her tasks.
Marissa lay silent and still as the woman applied a cool cream to every inch of her now smooth body. She squirmed and muttered pointless protests as the stranger’s hands glided over her breasts, pausing to massage the cream into her nipples. She looked at the guards and a fresh rush of shame cascaded through her. They stared boldly, lustfully at her nakedness displayed before them so completely. The woman slipped one hand between Marissa’s thighs and rubbed the cream over her mound and folds. The touch wasn’t sexual, but being helpless and on display was doing strange and unwelcome things to her senses. One of the guards licked his lips. The other adjusted the front of his pants.
Marissa’s nipples hardened and her inner muscles clenched. She couldn’t explain the odd reaction, but she definitely felt restless and achy. She twisted away from the unwanted touch with a cry of frustration. Never before had she been touched without her permission, much less in such intimate places.
When the woman finally stopped, Marissa thought the worst was over. Instead, the woman set down the cream and picked up a smaller jar. Without warning or explanation, the woman smeared some sort of gelatinous goo all over Marissa’s nipples.
“What is that?” she cried as her nipples began to tingle. The woman ignored her and moved between her legs. Utilizing the same casual efficiency with which she had done everything, the woman parted Marissa’s folds and applied the gel to her clit. Her nipples were burning and her clit began to sting. “Oh, my God, what is that shit?” She twisted and bucked, refusing to think about the sensations ricocheting through her lower body. It hurt, for God’s sake. So why was she getting wet?
Gradually the pain subsided, leaving her feeling empty and hot. Through it all the woman just stood there silently. Confused and feeling battered, Marissa didn’t struggle when the guards flattened out the table then turned her over onto her stomach. Her legs were no longer splayed obscenely and they hadn’t bothered with restraints. She released a sigh of relief, thinking the torture was over.
Then the woman flipped up Marissa’s robe and casually pulled her bottom cheeks apart.
“Wait! What the hell do you think—” The goo was smeared over her puckered back entrance before she could finish the objection. “Why are you doing this?” she wailed, torn between fury and self-pity. The guards held her down as her bottom hole twitched and tingled, making her squirm and groan. It felt strange, slightly naughty, but mostly just wrong. The sensations gradually intensified and she clenched her butt cheeks hard. “You twisted bitch! What in God’s name is that?”
“I’m not allowed to tell you,” the woman finally admitted. “Your masters will demonstrate.”
No one stopped Marissa when she sat up and snapped the robe closed, so she climbed down from the table and tightened the belt. This had been the most horrific experience of her life. It hadn’t mattered what she wanted, what she demanded. They didn’t care about her feelings or her rights as an American. She had never been in a situation before where she had no control. Is this what she had to look forward to for the next year? No wonder they chipped lottery girls. Doubtlessly they all ran away in the beginning. Who would put up with this?
Well, she wouldn’t have to for much longer. Her grandfather was Admiral Lenard Scott of the Unified Military. He would—he wasn’t an admiral any longer. The wretched Kobar had forced him to retire and confiscated his sprawling estate. They had humiliated him just like they were humiliating her. But surely there was someone left in his network of powerful friends with the authority to stop this.
Disquieted by her thoughts, Marissa sat passively while her teeth were polished, and her fingernails and toenails were trimmed. Echoes of her body’s reaction plagued her memory. Why had being bound and helpless been so damn arousing? She couldn’t explain it. Nothing like that had ever happened before.
Once the perverse spa treatment concluded, Marissa was led to a small, windowless room. “You will wait here,” the talkative guard told her then both left.
Okay, was that good or bad? The guards had remained with her through everything else. Not sure how to interpret the development, she looking around again. Four bare walls, one door, a table with two chairs, there wasn’t much to see. She moved to the door, not surprised to find it locked. So she sat back down and brooded.
Was this where she met her owners? No. She gave herself a firm mental shake. She would never have owners because this nightmare would never progress that far. Her grandparents were frantically working to right the wrong. And even Lenard and Daphne Scott’s casual acquaintances were rich and powerful. Marissa would sleep in her own bed tonight, and there would be serious ramifications for everyone involved in this fiasco.
Comforted by the thought, Marissa sat at the table and tried to arrange the short robe as modestly as possible. She’d been running on anger ever since she arrived. Now that the trauma had paused, other emotions welled inside her. She missed her old life. Hell, she missed the old Earth, the Earth that existed before the Kobar took control. Thinking back now, she couldn’t believe how much she took her freedom for granted. Saying whatever she liked, going anywhere she wanted, the simple ability to say no and have it mean something, were all things denied to her now. Had it only been three years? It seemed much longer.
The door slid open, and Marissa whipped her head around, afraid that the guards had returned. Instead, Anna Corvina, one of Marissa’s friends from college, strolled into the room. Marissa stood, heart fluttering wildly, but confusion quickly extinguished her initial spark of excitement. Why was Anna here? She was dressed in a calf-length skirt and contrasting blazer. The outfit was too casual for official government business, but she was obviously not a lottery girl.
“Did my grandparents send you?” Though Anna worked for the Department of Civil Service, she was head of human resources in another sector. She had no authority here. Maybe she knew whoever ran this processing center. “Are you going to get me out of here?”
Anna gave Marissa a quick hug then sat and motioned Marissa back to her chair. Anna placed a datasheet on the tabletop but didn’t turn it on. “The first thing you need to understand is that this isn’t going away. Supreme Commander Byrne canceled all the exemptions. Every human female in her twenties is now subject to the lottery. There are no exceptions.”
“I don’t accept that.” She lifted her chin and sat up straighter. “My grandparents will—”
“Emily Delacroix’s number was also chosen last night. If the president can’t keep this from happening to her daughter, do you think your grandparents will be able to save you?” Anna reached across the table and squeezed Marissa’s hand. The no-nonsense set to Anna’s jaw was softened by the compassion in her blue eyes. “Take a deep breath and listen closely. I’m here to help you, but they haven’t allowed me much time.”
“I don’t want help accepting this.” Marissa snatched her hand back as tears blurred her vision. “I want to go home!”
“That’s not going to happen.”
The gentle finality in Anna’s words sent a chill down Marissa’s spine. “I don’t understand how I got drafted. My grandfather promised that my number would never be called. Why did those monsters do this?” Marissa shook her head, furiously blinking back tears. She couldn’t think past the ringing in her ears, and sparks of light started dancing before her eyes.
Anna came around the table and rubbed Marissa’s back. “You’re hyperventilating. Slow down your breathing. Inhale, nice and slow. Now exhale.”
Focusing on Anna’s voice, Marissa gradually pushed back the emotions threatening to overwhelm her. She was still shaking, but her mind reengaged, allowing her to process the new information. “They took Emily as well as me? Have they lost their minds? Her mother will go to war over this, and if she doesn’t, my grandfather will.”
“We tried that once,” Anna reminded as she returned to her seat. “It didn’t work out well for us.”
It was hard to argue with that. Shortly after the Kobar arrived, the human world had united as never before. They’d combined their forces and used every weapon in their arsenals, even the dreaded nuclear bombs. The Kobar had laughed it off, allowing the attacks to go on just long enough to show the humans beyond doubt that fighting them was pointless. The Kobar lost several thousand soldiers, but human casualties numbered in the millions, hundreds of millions to be exact. The entire uprising was now known as the Eleven-Day War because that was how long it had lasted. The resistance, however, continued to this day.
“Was it just bad luck that we were both chosen? Aren’t the lotteries completely random?”
Anna shot her a ‘you know better’ look. “There was nothing random about last night’s lottery. You and Emily were among the first, but there will be many more. The Kobar are ruthless, but they’re not stupid. They’re determined to end the resistance, so they have targeted females with influence over the rebels.”
“But that’s not me. The only influence I have is over fashion trends and makeup techniques. I have nothing to do with the resistance.”
“What about your grandparents?” Anna paused as Marissa worked through the implications.
She didn’t bother denying that her grandparents were actively involved in the resistance. It was common knowledge that both Lenard and Daphne Scott were key players. And they would do anything to protect Marissa. “If the Kobar control me, they control my grandparents.” And as long as they had Emily, they could manipulate the freaking president of the Unified Americas. Of course, that didn’t mean near as much as it used to. The real power now was Supreme Commander Byrne and his sector leaders. “I don’t want to be a lottery girl,” she said passionately, yet the inevitable fate hovered in the distance like a building hurricane.
“As I’m sure you learned today, they don’t care what we want. They are in control regardless of what we feel about it. We must adjust our behavior to their expectations if we want to survive.”
“I can’t be someone’s sex slave. I just can’t!” She pushed back from the table and stood, but the room wasn’t really large enough to pace. “There has to be something we can do, someone we can call.”
“Marissa, look at me.” Anna waited until their gazes locked to say, “Six weeks ago, I was in a processing center just like this one wondering how in the world it happened to me. This is going to happen. The only choice you have is how you react.”
All the horrible things she’d heard about lottery girls came rushing back through Marissa’s mind and a harsh sob broke free from her throat. Anna stood and hugged her, but Marissa was too agitated to accept the comfort. She twisted away. “Who bought your contract?”
“My master is Sector Leader Six. There are a total of three in the cadre.”
Sector leaders were second in authority to the supreme commander. Most would consider Anna incredibly lucky to serve such an important cadre. “I’ve only had four lovers in my entire life. How am I going to… I can’t do all of the things…” She covered her mouth with her hand, fighting back a fresh rush of tears.
“Just follow their instructions. They will tell you what to do.”
As the initial panic ebbed, Marissa looked at Anna more closely. She appeared vibrant and elegant, poised and happy, not at all like an abused sex slave. Slowly lowering her hand, she asked, “You’ve been a lottery girl for six weeks?”
“I’m no longer a lottery girl. My cadre claimed me as their mate, but our relationship began six weeks ago.”
Marissa’s eyes widened and she sank back onto her chair. “You tied yourself to those alien dogs for the rest of your life? Why in God’s name would you do that?”
Anna smiled, apparently unfazed by Marissa’s reaction. “I’m here to explain your choices, not detail mine. My story will make more sense to you in a month or two anyway.”
If there would be no cavalry rushing in to rescue her, then Anna was right. Marissa needed to assess her options and make decisions based on logic, not emotion. She took a deep breath and focused her mind. “Fine. What are my choices?”
Activating the datasheet, Anna triggered a holographic grid in front of Marissa. “Generally lottery girls are assigned to whichever cadre buys her contract and that’s the end of it. As a courtesy to your families, you and Emily are being allowed to choose between three potential buyers. Each has been carefully screened using a variety of criteria, including the personality of each male. You seem concerned about serving a large cadre, so I’ll start with the Traatis brothers. Traditionally cadres contain at least three warriors, but they lost their third and chose not to replace him.”
Marissa looked at the image of the two Kobar warriors and shuddered. With cinnamon-colored skin and pale-yellow eyes, they looked vicious and alien. At least there were just two of them. “Where do they live?”
“Off-base housing in Dallas. They are mid-level officers, so your life would be on the simple side for the next year.”
“If being forced to have sex with two aliens can be considered ‘simple,’” Marissa grumbled, but she understood Anna’s point. She was used to luxury, to fully staffed households and being pampered. Her grandparents’ estate in the heart of Baton Rouge had been confiscated a few months ago. They were assigned a three-bedroom house in a crime-ridden section of Dallas, a city none of them had ever seen before. Her grandparents never complained in front of her, but Marissa knew they were miserable. Just like her.
“If you’d like something a little more exciting,” Anna replaced the first image with the likeness of four Kobar males, “the Weltsik cadre commands—sorry, I’m terrible at pronouncing the names of their ships, but it’s one of the large destroyers.”
“I’d be living on a spaceship?” The thought was tempting for a millisecond before she realized the limitations that would put on her life. How would she continue her vlog from outer space? And spaceships were so cramped. She’d be stuck in their quarters waiting for them to stop by and fuck her. “Not interested.”
“Well, then the final choice is the Oseff cadre.”
Marissa gasped when the image came into focus. “That’s Sector Leader Eight.” His territory encompassed Oklahoma, Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana, though the Kobar no longer referred to anything by its human name. Why the hell would he need a lottery girl? Females followed him around like a rock star. All of the sector leaders were notorious, but Sector Leader Eight had a cult following.
“His name is Darvik Oseff,” Anna said thoughtfully. “Do you know him?”
“I know of him. His fans are like the paparazzi. They literally risk their lives for one glimpse of him. It’s disgusting.”
Anna pulled up several images before she decided, “He has nice features. I can see the appeal.”
“He’s one of them,” Marissa said bitterly. She found nothing appealing in any Kobar male or female. They were responsible for ruining her life and demoralizing her precious grandfather. She wanted nothing to do with any of the Kobar—ever!
It doesn’t matter what you want, her inner voice reminded. As of last night, you’re a lottery girl without rights or an opinion that matters.
“I know this feels like a prison sentence, but which cadre will make you less miserable?”
Marissa started to say it didn’t matter, that nothing mattered for the next year. But the logical side of her personality pulled her back and forced her to think objectively. If she served one of the richest males in the world, maybe she could convince him to make her grandparents’ lives more bearable. Truth be told, she was tired of doing without, of being too afraid to go jogging or sit on the deck and watch the sun go down. Sector Leader Eight controlled Louisiana. If she pleased him well enough, maybe he would give back their Baton Rouge estate.
There was one last possibility. Despite Marissa’s grandparents’ dedication to the resistance, she had never allowed herself to become directly involved. Now that the Kobar had chosen to use her as a weapon, maybe it was time for that to change. If she lived with a sector leader and his cadre, interacted with them on a daily basis, there was no telling what she might be able to learn.
Not wanting Anna to realize the actual reason for her decision, Marissa asked, “Which one pays the most?”
“Oseff cadre, by far.”
“Then that’s my choice. If I have to be a Kobar whore for a year, I’m going to make damn sure my grandparents are as comfortable as possible. They have lost too much already.”
Anna nodded and deactivated the datasheet. “I’ll let the supervisor know.”
As Anna turned toward the door, Marissa saw the sly gleam in her eyes. “You knew which cadre I would choose all along, didn’t you?”
“It’s not like the options were even,” Anna said dismissively. “Anyone would have done the same.”
Marissa didn’t argue, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Anna was part of this.
“They will offer to inject you with translator nanites. Don’t refuse. Not all of the Kobar will admit that they can speak human languages, but they all do. Understanding them is more of an advantage than you realize.” Anna made it to the door before she paused to add, “I learned the hard way that defying them hurts no one but me. You will surrender for the simple reason that you have no choice. The sooner you realize that the easier this next year will be.”
Marissa waited until the door closed behind Anna to roll her eyes. Clearly, Anna Corvina had been weak and malleable from the start. The blood of Admiral Lenard Scott flowed through Marissa’s veins, and Scotts never surrendered.
She clung to that thought as a private shuttle flew her to the outskirts of Austin, or City two-eight-six. The side of her neck still stung from the injection she’d been given and she was adorned in a simple knee-length dress and slip-on shoes. What the clothing lacked in stylistic flair it made up for in practicality. The fabric was breathable, a must in Texas, and the basic style would be comfortable without appearing dowdy. A wistful smile curved her lips as she realized she’d been critiquing the outfit like she would on her social media channel. The simple pleasure of creating content suddenly seemed very far away.
She’d survived the processing center with no real damage. She suspected that wouldn’t be true of her time with Sector Leader Eight and his cadre. Kobar warriors used painful and humiliating techniques to discipline those beneath their authority, and like it or not, she now qualified.
Scooting closer to the window, she peered out as the shuttle zoomed past neat rows of buildings and winding roadways that were all but deserted now. The Kobar flew from place to place, and humans were only allowed to use public transportation, so bumper-to-bumper traffic no longer existed. She had never been to this part of the state before, had never been to Texas until the Kobar assigned her to a job in Dallas, or City two-eight-nine. Her humiliating career assessment ranked her as an unskilled worker despite her master’s degree in marketing, so she ended up in a warehouse stocking shelves. Apparently, the Kobar didn’t put a lot of value in consumer trends and advertising strategies. To complete her demoralization, the Kobar refused to issue her a car. Leisure travel was a thing of the past, at least for humans. They were allowed to move about freely within their assigned city, but without personal vehicles, that didn’t mean much. Control. Every fucking thing the Kobar did demonstrated their power over humans. The current situation was the best example of all.
Austin looked small after the sprawling metropolis that had once been Dallas/Ft. Worth. The shuttle slowed as it banked over Austin and headed west. A river, likely the Colorado, curved like a serpent through the grayish-green countryside. Turning again, the shuttle angled toward the ground. The speed and agility of Kobar shuttles never ceased to amaze her. Unlike the Kobar themselves, it was hard not to appreciate their technology.
She spotted a golf course and the massive houses surrounding it. No, these were mansions by anyone’s definition of the word. Why should it surprise her that her ‘master’ lived in a mansion? He controlled one-twelfth of the Unified Americas.
The shuttle set down on the wide circle drive in front of one of the massive houses. With a dark tile roof and blonde stone walls, this one reminded her of a French chateau. She had grown up on an estate with a traditional ‘plantation’ house. It had been large, but not nearly this lavish. And she hadn’t even seen the inside yet. Tension banded her chest and her mouth went dry. Would she be treated like a guest or a servant? She had gone out of her way to avoid interacting with the Kobar, so she didn’t know what to expect.
The pilot activated the hatch and she stepped down from the shuttle, pausing to look around now that her view was no longer obstructed.
“This way, Miss Scott.” A human woman spoke, drawing Marissa’s attention to the covered entrance. Flanked by stout columns, it protruded from the front of the house and created a small balcony above. The speaker appeared to be in her fifties with salt-and-pepper hair and friendly green eyes. Her neat burgundy dress flattered her full figure, and she wore sensible shoes. “Master Shaedon and Master Varren are waiting for you in the safari room. You shouldn’t keep them waiting.”
She nodded and hurried up the wide stone steps. Hadn’t Anna said the sector leader’s name was Darrik or Devin? Something that started with a D?
“My name is Elsie. We’ll speak after you’ve met the masters.”
Responding with a tentative nod, she followed Elsie into the house and tried hard not to gape. The entry hall soared thirty feet into the air and was capped by a decorative dome. A staircase constructed of the same black and cream marble as the foyer curved up to the second level and led to a railed gallery. She’d been in homes like this for parties and fundraisers, but her grandparents’ house was most often described as charming. This was unapologetic luxury.
“This way, dear,” Elsie prompted with a patient smile. “And don’t let the trophies scare you. They came with the house.”
Marissa wasn’t sure what that meant until she moved through the archway Elsie indicated and saw the safari room. Warm wainscoting and decoratively carved thresholds gave the area an old-world charm, but the room was also liberally decorated with mounted animal heads. She shuddered and quickly looked away. She hated trophy hunters almost as vehemently as she hated the Kobar.
“Don’t blame us,” one of the masters said. “They were here when we moved in.”
“You could take them down,” Marissa pointed out as she dragged her gaze toward the speaker. The first thing she noticed was his smile. The Kobar never smiled, so it caught her by surprise. He had curly hair that looked silver one moment and gold the next depending on the light. His skin tone reminded her of clarified honey, and his eyes were lemon-yellow.
He ambled toward her and stuck out his hand. Shaking hands was a human tradition. Most Kobar refused to conform to human culture in any way. “Varren Oseff. I’m Darvik’s number two.”
“And Darvik is?” She was pretty sure that was Sector Leader Eight but wanted to confirm it.
“Your master.” The other Kobar’s voice was much less welcoming than Varren’s.
She turned her head as he crossed the room and felt her eyes widen. All of the Kobar were larger than humans, but this beast was massive, unnaturally tall and heavily muscled. His hair hung to his shoulders in tawny waves and did nothing to soften the brutal arrangement of his features. He narrowed his gaze, making it hard to tell his eyes’ exact color; amber, or maybe light brown. “I didn’t mean it as an insult. I know him only as Sector Leader Eight.”
“His name is irrelevant,” the grumpy mountain said. “You will address him as Master and only Master unless he directs you to do otherwise.”
“All right.” She licked her lips, wishing she were alone with Varren. For half a second, he had been a pleasant surprise.
“My name is Shaedon,” Grumpy told her, “but you will address me as Sir.”
“You can call me Varren. I don’t get caught up in all that—”
“You will address him as Sir too or you’ll insult your master. Varren might not care about formality, but Sector Leader Eight insists upon it.”
“Yes, Sir. Thank you for the warning.” She kept any hint of emotion from her voice and tried hard not to reveal the fear bubbling up inside her. She’d always thought of herself as bold, self-assured, and adventurous. She loved the outdoors and enjoyed pushing herself physically. Still, Shaedon’s size alone was overwhelming. And knowing he had no reason to temper the cruelty she saw in his eyes was rapidly eroding her composure. These males could, and likely would do whatever the hell they wanted with her.
“I’m sure it’s been a long day.” Varren drew her attention back to him. His pleasant features and easy manner helped ease the tension coiling inside her. “Did they feed you on the shuttle?”
She nodded. She’d been too upset to eat much, but there was no way she’d be able to eat now either.
“All right. Then would you like a glass of wine? Maybe something stronger?”
He said the last phrase with such drama that she couldn’t help but smile. Varren wasn’t at all what she’d expected. Shaedon, on the other hand, was everything she’d thought a Kobar would be: cold, demanding, and utterly dislikable. “Wine would be lovely. Thank you.”
Varren crossed to the bar along one wall. A sleek beverage dispenser had been installed, but the glasses were real. “Red, white, or rosé?” he asked as he took down a wineglass and placed it on the dispenser.
“I don’t care as long as it’s crisp and light.”
He nodded and said something in Kobar.
Her language nanites translated the words ‘chilled’ and ‘glass,’ but nothing else. Was there no English equivalent for whatever he’d requested, or weren’t the nanites fully functional yet? The woman said it could take several hours for the nanites to integrate with Marissa’s brain.
Varren returned with the filled wineglass and handed it to her with a smile. “We call this auline. Judging from your request, I think you’ll enjoy it.”
Swirled through the golden liquid were threads of vivid green. She held the glass up to the light, and the thin spirals shimmered. “It’s so pretty.”
“It’s made from a variety of berries. Different combinations create different colored swirls.”
She took a tentative sip, not sure what to expect. The initial taste was similar to chardonnay, but the longer it rolled across her tongue, it became more complex and intriguing. “The swirls are sweeter than the rest of the wine.”
“Shall I come back when you are done with the winetasting?” Shaedon grumbled, beefy arms crossed over his chest.
“This is why we don’t trust diplomacy to soldiers,” Varren told her.
“Or why we don’t let diplomats fight our wars,” Shaedon countered.
“So you’re a soldier and he’s a diplomat?” she asked Shaedon. Her soothing interaction with Varren made her less afraid.
“We are whatever Section Leader Eight needs us to be.” Shaedon unfolded his arms, but his posture remained tense.
“I’m the brains. He’s the muscle,” Varren elaborated. “If Darvik needs heads bashed together, he sends Shaedon.”
“And he sends you when he needs somebody talked to death.”
The comment made Marissa chuckle, which earned her a glare from the grumpy mountain. “Sorry, Sir. That just struck me as funny.”
“You’re supposed to be amusing us, not the other way around.” Shaedon moved closer, not exactly threatening but making his presence known.
“He’s not wrong.” All playfulness vanished from Varren’s tone.
Apparently, the icebreaker was over. She took several sips of her wine, suspecting she’d soon need the liquid courage.
“You may finish the wine, but lose the dress,” Varren directed. “Department of Civil Service insisted on top dollar for you. I want to see if you’re worth their exorbitant price.”
Marissa tensed. “What are you talking about? Each cadre set the price for my contract, not the DCS.”
He laughed. “The amount of compensation offered to the lottery girl is determined by the cadre, but DCS sets a price for the execution of the contract. They provide us with a valuable service, and they make damn sure we know it.”
“DCS is charging money for lottery girls?”
“Vast quantities of it,” Shaedon confirmed.
Why was she surprised? The Unified government was even more corrupt than the U.S. government had been. And that was saying a lot. “I had no idea. I… That’s not right.”
Varren seemed surprised by her attitude, but he let the subject drop. “Undress now, or you’ll lose the wine. I don’t like repeating orders. None of us do.”
“You just did,” Shaedon pointed out in Kobar, likely thinking she couldn’t understand. “She should be punished for not immediately obeying. Establish her conduct now, or we will be correcting her defiance for the next year.”
Varren responded in the same language. “She can’t be held accountable for rules until she is aware of them.”
“The staff at the processing center should have informed her of our expectations,” Shaedon argued impatiently.
Were they always like this? Marissa didn’t have siblings, but she had three cousins that fought continually. By the time they were teenagers, she was so sick of it that she stopped spending time with them.
Needing the intoxicating rush, she downed the rest of the wine and set the glass aside. She’d known this moment would come. She just didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. Her hands trembled as she raised them to the front of her dress. A nearly invisible seam ran from the simple scoop neck to the hem, and the fastener worked more or less like Velcro. All she had to do was peel the overlapping edges apart and the entire dress opened.
Her respirations sped and her heartbeat thundered. If she bared herself for their inspection, she would be admitting that she was their lottery girl. If she refused, they would punish her. There was no doubt about that. Still, she couldn’t make herself pull on the seam. “What happens if you’re disappointed in me?” If they returned her, would that nullify her contract, or would she be given to one of the other cadres? She hadn’t thought to ask at the processing center.
“They will apply our credits toward another contract. There are no refunds.” The bitterness in Shaedon’s tone made his dislike for the DCS obvious.
“And what will happen to me?” Her heart fluttered as hope sparked to life inside her. Had she stumbled onto a way out of this nightmare?
“You will be given to another cadre,” Varren told her firmly. “Civil Service is inescapable once your lottery number is chosen. I gave you an order and I’m still waiting for you to obey. This is not a good start to our year together.”
The spark fizzled out, leaving her cold and empty. If escape was not an option, then a soldier must survive, regardless of the cost. Her grandfather had taught her that. A dead soldier couldn’t rejoin the battle or seek vengeance on her enemy. Refusing to cower, she stared straight ahead and slowly opened the front of her dress.