“Sam Caldwell doesn’t give a damn about our opinions or emotions. That should be obvious.” Bailey Mitchell had listened to her coworkers argue for over an hour before she spoke her mind. Emotions needed to be vented, but this conversation was chasing its own tail. “I explained our concerns, detailed why we are refusing to continue. His reaction was to summon a small army.”
“And make threats,” Mazie said, looking utterly defeated. She sat in the room’s only chair over by the window. Bailey sat on the edge of her bed and Frank stood near the door, arms crossed over his chest. The compact room wasn’t meant for social gatherings, which was good because this meeting didn’t qualify.
After Sam Caldwell had positioned his private army to prevent anyone from escaping, he had approached each scientist in turn. They had all been informed that participation in the Angel Fire program was no longer voluntary. If they refused to immediately perform any task to the best of their abilities, a family member or loved one would pay the price. He hadn’t been specific about what ‘the price’ entailed, but clearly it wasn’t good.
Bailey’s sister and her two small children had been on Sam’s hit list so Bailey’s rebellion had ended a few hours after it began. She would not allow her ambition to endanger the people she loved.
“We have to get the hell out of here,” Mazie stressed. She crossed and uncrossed her arms, her dark eyes wild with fear. “My kids are with my mom. She’s in her sixties. She can’t possibly protect them from armed thugs.”
“So get back to work,” Frank snapped. He’d been one of the most adamantly opposed to continuing after the disastrous test of the toxin, but his attitude did a complete about-face when Sam threatened his wife and son. “The only way we can protect our families is to refine the compound and kill every alien on this planet.”
The cold purpose in Frank’s tone made Bailey shiver. Using a biological weapon against an army of invading aliens had been an unpleasant yet tolerable concept. The Kobar took without asking. They murdered and enslaved, victimizing millions of helpless humans. But justifying a concept and standing there watching the effects of a similar weapon to the one she helped create were two very different things. Bailey could still see the test subjects’ contorted features and hear them begging for mercy as blood vessels all over their bodies burst and their lungs filled up with blood. Her coworkers had died much faster than the Kobar, but that didn’t change the fact that they’d died.
Bailey shook away the memory and let her mind drift farther back. Before the Kobar arrived on Earth, Chris Phaeton, founder of the resistance, owned one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world. He was compelling and impressive. Bailey had felt honored to be part of his top research team. Then his son, along with hundreds of millions of others human soldiers, died during the Eleven-Day War. Emboldened by grief and anger, Chris turned to science for a weapon powerful enough to destroy the monsters that threatened the human race. Bailey considered Chris a friend and mentor so his cause became hers.
Then Chris was arrested and leadership of the resistance split. Chris’ stepdaughter Tori took over the paramilitary aspects while Dr. Patricia Hess took control of Angel Fire. Angel Fire was the name of the abandoned ski resort Chris had converted into a research lab. It also became a nickname for the biological weapon. Chris promised that the angels themselves would rain down fire and cleanse Earth of the alien pestilence. Now it was up to the resistance scientists to make his vision a reality.
Bailey didn’t interact with Tori often. They had met and enjoyed a couple of casual conversations but that was back when Chris was still in charge. The guerilla raids and political protests were run out of the Colorado headquarters and Angel Fire was in New Mexico. Weeks turned into months and it became obvious that Chris was not coming back. As a result, Patricia Hess made sweeping changes at Angel Fire. She implemented protocols and developed procedures that Bailey considered reckless, even unethical.
Then came the worst change of all. Tori was captured by the Kobar and Sam Caldwell seized control over the entire organization. Patricia was abrasive and self-indulgent, but she was knowledgeable and had legitimate skills. Sam Caldwell was a hot-tempered bully who solved complications by shoving a gun into the face of anyone who disagreed with him.
“Even if you could slip past the guards,” Frank’s sharp tone drew Bailey back into the moment, “where would you go? This location was chosen because it’s in the middle of nowhere. All of the towns in a fifty-mile radius have been deserted. Are you going to walk all the way to Santa Fe?”
“Anything is better than staying here,” Mazie argued.
“They’ll shoot you in the back before you reach the tree line,” Frank predicted. “Those guards are here for a reason. We’re prisoners just like the new test subjects.”
Confused by the statement, Bailey looked at Frank. “New test subjects?”
He stared back at her, mouth twisted in a disbelieving snarl. “Where have you been? They’ve been unloading unconscious Kobar off and on all day.”
She’d been in the lab, conducting experiments and analyzing computer simulations. She adamantly believed that using a neurotoxin would create more problems than it would solve. What she really wanted to do was to convince everyone to abandon their final objective. She wanted to restore human rights, but she no longer believed that wiping out the Kobar species was the only way to accomplish that goal.
“Did you see the giant?” Frank asked, voice filled with dread. “Damn good thing he was unconscious. Can you imagine what he’s like when he’s awake?”
“Are you really going to do nothing?” Mazie objected angrily. “You might not give a shit about your family, but my kids are all I have.”
“And the fastest way to get them killed is to persist with your objections,” Frank shot back. “They’re animals.”
Bailey wasn’t sure if he was talking about Sam and his goons or the Kobar. At the moment, she didn’t see a lot of difference between the two. Sam was forcing others to do his will through threats and intimidation and so were the Kobar.
Someone pounded on the door. Everyone looked around guiltily as if they’d been caught doing something illegal. Bailey crossed the room and eased the door open. One of the lab assistants stood in the hallway looking nearly as guilty as the people inside the room.
“Mr. Caldwell is looking for you,” the lab assistant informed. “I figured I better warn you.”
Sam knew they were powerless. He’d probably be amused if he found them all together crying in their proverbial beer. “Thanks. I’ll go see what he wants.” She turned back to the others in her bedroom. “Party’s over. We need to reassess and figure out a new strategy.”
“The only rational thing to do is see this through,” Frank asserted as he pushed off the wall and moved to the center of the room. “The faster we finalize the toxin, the faster we can all go home!”
Rather than continue the pointless argument, Bailey left and hurried down the hallway toward the front stairs. Angle Fire lodge wasn’t large, but there were only thirty-seven team members. And now a dozen or so of Sam’s new guards. They’d converted the conference rooms into laboratories and used the kitchen for procedures. Once the toxin had been ready for testing, they moved some of the equipment to a nearby cabin. The cabin was now referred to as the annex and all of the potentially harmful experiments were conducted there.
Sam stood in the lobby speaking with Kyle and a man Bailey didn’t know. Kyle was Sam’s lieutenant. She didn’t know Kyle personally, but she’d been well acquainted with the innovative coffee drinks his company produced before the Kobar outlawed privately owned businesses.
Their conversation paused as she approached.
“Go help Patty in the annex,” Sam ordered, making a vague gesture in the direction of the cabin. He was career military and his bearing showed it. He was on the far side of forty with dark hair and eyes. “Do whatever she requires without question or you’ll answer to me. I hear Florida is nice this time of year.” He turned back to his companions and their conversation resumed.
Bailey clenched her fists and glared at his back. Her sister lived in Florida. She was so damn tired of being threatened and intimidated. They were the Kobar’s favorite strategies. She expected more from humans.
Turning sharply on the ball of her foot, Bailey headed back the way she’d come. Patricia hated being called Patty, which was the primary reason Sam did it. They despised each other and didn’t bother concealing the fact. If Bailey had to choose a side, she would be on Team Patricia. Lately, however, she wasn’t fond of either of them. Patricia was not dealing well with losing control of her project and she took it out on everyone.
Bailey exited the lodge through the back, crossed an empty parking lot then hiked up the road until she came to the small cluster of cabins. It took about fifteen minutes on foot, but none of the researchers were allowed to use the SUVs. At least the setting was beautiful. The ski runs looked like oversized hiking trails dissecting the mountainside. Snow hadn’t fallen in weeks, but the air was still cool. Pine trees covered the rounded hills and the sky was vivid blue.
Angry voices reached Bailey’s ears and then she heard a metallic crash. The sounds had clearly come from the annex so she ran the rest of the way. Bailey would be less anxious to intervene if Patricia was the only one being terrorized by the new test subjects, but Patricia never worked alone. Four of Bailey’s colleagues, as well as three Kobar warriors, had already given their lives in pursuit of this godforsaken weapon. Bailey was determined to prevent any more deaths. Well, any more human deaths.
The ruthless thought made her hurried steps falter and brought a familiar debate surging to the surface. Like a mental ping-pong ball, alternating perspectives bounced back and forth within her mind.
No ethical scientist can sanction murder.
This isn’t murder. It’s war.
The war is over and humans lost. We have no choice but to adopt Kobar ways.
Kobar warriors keep human females as pets, subjecting them to unspeakable degradations.
That doesn’t justify genocide!
She reached the front door of the annex with the issue unresolved. The disruption seemed to have stopped, but she still pushed the door open carefully. “Dr. Hess?”
“What took you so long?” Patricia snapped, sounding angry and out of breath. As was her habit, she wore an open lab coat over dress pants and a collarless blouse. Straight blonde hair framed her face, making her look older than her fifty-seven years. Purple shadows circled her eyes and her lips were pressed into a disapproving line. Her stress level had quadrupled since Sam Caldwell took control of Angel Fire and her appearance reflected the fact.
Bailey stepped through the threshold and closed the door behind her. The main living area of the cabin was one open room and most of the furniture had been removed. Freestanding metal shelves lined the walls, though one had been knocked over. A metal table, likely used by a sous chef in the lodge’s main kitchen, now occupied the eat-in kitchen and construction lights hung from the exposed beams. Everything was uncluttered and scrubbable. The cabin’s rustic charm was gradually being replaced with the sobering esthetics of a morgue.
Two of Sam’s goons flanked the metal table, pointing their rifles at the biggest Kobar warrior Bailey had ever seen. Dressed in jeans and flannel shirts, the guards looked more like hunters than soldiers. One was named Vic. He’d been here from the beginning. The other had arrived the day before and she didn’t know his name.
The Kobar lay on his back. Wide straps at his shoulders, midsection, and waist secured his brawny arms against his sides. His feet hung off the end of the table and his legs were strapped down at regular intervals. This must be the giant Frank had mentioned with such awe. His helmet had been removed, but his head turned sharply to one side so she couldn’t see his face.
“Get over here.” Patricia motioned impatiently though she stood well back from the captive.
“He’s out cold,” Vic assured.
“Finally,” the newbie muttered, gaze locked on the alien.
Bailey crept forward, heart pounding faster with each step.
“He’s wounded, but we can’t figure out how to disengage his armor,” Patricia explained.
“I know nothing about Kobar armor,” Bailey objected. “Why did you ask for me?”
Patricia’s expression hardened. “You’re the only one around here who cares if these creatures live or die. I thought you would appreciate the opportunity. Save him or don’t.” She shrugged then headed for the door. “I honestly don’t care. Vic, you and Eli stay here until Sam tells you otherwise.”
Bailey heard the door slam but remained focused on the oversized warrior. “Are you sure he’s unconscious?” she asked as she moved closer. It was unlikely that leather straps would hold him if he wasn’t drugged.
“They usually drop with one dart. This guy took three,” Eli warned.
None of these fools knew anything about Kobar physiology. They weren’t qualified to administer aspirin, much less a powerful sedative. Neither was she, but Patricia was right. Most everyone else would simply let him bleed. “Do either of you know how to remove his armor?”
“No clue,” Vic answered.
She accepted the answer with a distracted nod and slowly circled her patient. His shoulders spanned the table, but his torso tapered dramatically, leaving room for his arms. He was well over six feet tall, likely closer to seven. His features were bold, yet well-balanced. He had a reddish-brown skin tone, and his hair was rich chestnut. The Kobar claimed to have colonized Earth many thousands of years ago. Their basic appearance added credence to the claim. No one could deny the strong resemblance between the two species.
“Where is the wound?” Armor covered him from neck to knee and there was no obvious injury.
“Left side.” Vic pointed in the general direction.
Skirting the table, she examined the Kobar’s left side and found blood oozing out between the protective slats. His armor was silver and red, so the blood had blended in with the abstract design.
Pounding and angry voices drew Bailey’s attention to the wall adjacent to the kitchen. One of the doors had been secured with a padlock. “Who’s in there?”
“The big one was with three others when we found him,” Vic explained. “They fought even harder when we tried to separate them, so Mr. Caldwell told us to keep them together.”
“Those three are younger and smaller.” Eli motioned toward the locked room. “The big one was very protective of them. I think they’re related. He might be their father.”
Vic made a face as he shook his head. “Goliath isn’t old enough to be their father. An uncle maybe, but I think he was their CO.”
Relative or commanding officer, either dynamic worked to her advantage. “Bring one of the young ones out here,” Bailey instructed.
Eli shouldered his rifle and crept toward the locked bedroom.
“Make sure you grab the one who wouldn’t shut up,” Vic advised. “I don’t think the others speak English.”
After retrieving a key from on top of the doorframe, Eli released the padlock and eased open the door. “Don’t!”
Bailey couldn’t see what the young Kobar had been contemplating, but Eli’s rifle stopped them from doing it.
“You.” Eli motioned with the gun. “Get out here.”
“Fuck you!” the Kobar snarled.
Bailey moved to an angle that allowed her to see inside the room. One young soldier stood near the door. The others stood farther back, near the bed. Judging by their youthful features and lack of muscle mass, the belligerent Kobar were at least ten years younger than the warrior on the table. “I need your help,” she told the apparent leader. When his hostile green gaze shifted toward her, she clarified, “Actually, your very large friend needs your help.”
The youth crossed his arms over his chest and narrowed his gaze. “Who are you?”
“I’m here to assess your friend’s injuries, but we can’t figure out how to remove his armor. Without attention, he will likely bleed to death.”
“You want him alive so you can experiment on him. He would rather die. Any of us would.”
One of the others said something in Kobar. The spokesperson’s response sounded angry, but he remained focused on Bailey. “Do I have your word that you will not harm him?”
She was part of a team of scientists actively working toward the extinction of his species. Why would he believe her even if she explained that she’d had a change of heart?
“She’s the only person on this compound that you don’t need to worry about,” Vic said from the other side of the table. “The rest of us don’t give a shit whether he lives or dies.”
She shot Vic a warning look. Even if the statement was true, it wasn’t helpful.
The youth stared back at her silently for a tense moment. “At the base of his throat there is a trigger. Slip your thumb inside the armor. You should be able to feel it.”
She stepped closer to the table and did as the youth suggested. The indentation was subtle, but her thumb fit into it naturally. It was obviously shaped for this motion.
“Squeeze firmly and the armor should retract.”
She squeezed but nothing happened.
The youth smirked at her. “Have one of the males try. Our armor is not designed for tiny female hands.”
Vic had to try twice before he was able to trigger the release, and it was obvious from his straining features that he had squeezed with all his might. “Damn. Are they really that much stronger?”
He whispered the question, but the youth laughed, clearly hearing what he’d said.
Eli slammed the bedroom door and refastened the padlock. “Cocky sonofabitch.” Instead of returning the key to the doorframe, he slipped it into his pocket.
The armor retracted, disappearing beneath or into the warrior. The physics of such a transformation were beyond Bailey so she focused on the task at hand. Wide straps encircled his shoulders, indicating some sort of backpack or case. She unbuckled the straps, but was unable to tug the apparatus out from under him without releasing his restraints. Beneath the armor, he wore a formfitting gray uniform.
Quickly gathering what she would need to dress the wounds, Bailey returned to her patient. The source of the blood was immediately apparent. Something sharp, likely shrapnel, had penetrated his armor and creased his side. Smaller cuts peppered his torso, leaving tears and discolorations in the uniform covering his chest and upper arms.
“Their armor looks indestructible,” she mused. “I thought it would do a better job of protecting them.”
“According to Sam, weapons that still use projectiles are unheard of in space. Their armor was designed to disperse blasts of energy, not deflect bits of metal. Supposedly, they’re working to fix the problem.”
Bailey just nodded. The rationale made sense, but the Kobar had been on Earth for three years. That was more than enough time to ‘fix the problem’ given the sophistication of their technology.
She couldn’t assess his injuries unless she could see them. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and steadied herself with a deep breath. Using a pair of angled scissors, she cut his uniform up the middle and bared his chest. Her breath caught in her throat. Even covered in blood and dotted with lacerations, his body beckoned her touch. She felt the attraction like a magnetic pull, drawing her closer, urging her onward. She slowly exhaled and gave herself a firm mental shake.
Wetting a stack of gauze pads with sterile water, she carefully wiped away the blood. Her hands began to tremble and her heartbeat accelerated as more and more of his smooth ginger-colored skin was revealed. She wanted to toss aside the gauze, pull off her gloves, and run her hands over his entire body. She wanted to explore his flesh with her lips and tongue.
As if invited by her inappropriate thoughts, a vivid image filled her mind. She saw herself flat on her back with the captive directly above her. She was pinned down, arms immobilized by his huge hands. His wide, amber-colored eyes gleamed with desire and possessiveness. In reality his eyes were closed, yet she had no doubt that image was accurate.
You are mine. You have always been mine. His lips didn’t move, but the words sounded clearly within her mind. He smiled triumphantly as he drove his cock deep into her body. Bailey fought back a moan. She could feel the burning stretch as her body surrendered to his. He was massive, obviously stronger than anyone she’d ever met. But he was an alien, an invader, humankind’s enemy. How could she possibly—
“He’s clean already.” Vic’s impatient comment snapped her back to reality. “Patch him up and move on.”
She cleared her throat and set aside the cleaning supplies. Most of the cuts had already stopped bleeding, but she carefully examined each one to make sure nothing was lodged inside. Three were still seeping, so she used a pair of tweezers to carefully probe each one. She removed small pieces of metal from two, and used tissue adhesive to close all three.
The worst laceration was just below his waist. She struggled for professionalism as she loosened his pants and folded down the waistband. The erotic image lingered in her mind, mocking her attempt at detachment. What would it be like to have sex with someone this large and demanding? He would take without asking. All the Kobar did, but would he be cruel or ruthlessly seductive? She’d heard stories of their sexual excesses, of how they shared women, and used pleasure and pain to control their lovers. She’d only had two sexual partners and both had been mild-mannered and analytical.
Why was she thinking about sex? This was ridiculous! Once again, she shook away the unwanted thoughts and tried to center her mind. “Do you have a suture kit?”
Vic shook his head. “Stitching them up hasn’t been a priority.”
Of course, test subjects only needed to be kept alive long enough to determine the best way to obliterate their entire species. She shivered. How could she have ever thought this was an acceptable plan? It didn’t matter how angry she was or how unfair Kobar policies were, biological warfare was never the answer.
The cut was deep, well into muscle tissue, but the glue would have to suffice.
As if of its own volition, her gaze swept upward, over his muscular torso and lingered on his handsome face. Another rush of heat washed over her, hardening her nipples and making her core ache so badly she pressed her thighs together. Yes, the Kobar warrior was appealing but she had never reacted this way to anyone, much less one of them.
She dabbed away as much blood as she could then carefully applied the tissue adhesive. Holding the edges together, she waited for the glue to take hold. The Kobar moved restlessly, muscles subtly flexing against his bonds. Shit, was he regaining consciousness?
Not wanting to be within reach if he returned to awareness, she quickly covered the wound with a fresh gauze pad and secured it with medical tape. Despite her good intentions, her fingers lingered against his abdomen, smoothing down the tape long after it had adhered.
“Should we go wait outside so you can treat the rest of him?” Vic mocked. “Slip your hand down his pants. I bet you can make him hard enough to ride. Get naked first and I’ll make damn sure you’re not interrupted.”
Ignoring his rudeness, she gathered the supplies.
“If you’re that hungry for cock, sweetheart, I’ve got one you can suck,” Eli joined in, lewdly rubbing the front of his pants. “Or do you only fuck the Kobar.”
“That’s enough.” Guilt washed over her as their ribbing continued. She had been lusting after the giant, but they were way out of line.
“How can you even look at one of those creatures with anything but contempt?” Vic’s tone hardened and his eyes turned cold.
She shot him an impatient look but didn’t bother with a verbal response.
Vic moved closer, growing bolder when she didn’t immediately repent. “Those Kobar bastards like to tag team women. If one ever got his hands on you, he’d fuck every hole in your body then pass you on to his friends.”
“Maybe that’s what she wants,” Eli muttered, resentment hardening his expression. “One cock isn’t enough anymore. She wants two or three. I say we—”
“Shut up!” She shot each of the guards an angry look. “He has a nice body. So what? That doesn’t change what his people did, and are still doing, to this planet.”
“I don’t believe you,” Vic insisted. “Your cheeks are flushed and your pupils are dilated. I bet your pussy is soaking wet.”
She started to object, but the front door flew open and Patricia Hess strode into the annex.
“The others are unimpressive, but we’ve all sensed something different about this one,” Patricia announced from halfway across the room.
“Bailey definitely agrees,” Eli muttered bitterly.
Patricia glanced at him, but didn’t comment. “You will collect blood and tissue samples,” she told Bailey. “Organ biopsies can follow if my hypothesis is correct. I know this is outside your area of expertise, but I don’t see how it matters in the long run.”
Bailey felt her jaw drop. She recovered enough to compose her expression but her voice reflected her disbelief. “None of us is qualified to perform organ biopsies on a Kobar. We have barely scratched the surface of their physiology.”
Patricia waved away her concern. “All the more reason to perform the tests. It will expand our knowledge of their physiology. Now, get busy.”
“What’s your hypothesis?” Bailey asked as the tension began to build.
“I think he is some sort of hybrid. Now, do as you’re told or I’ll report your noncompliance to Mr. Caldwell.”
Shocked by the threat, Bailey just shook her head. Three days ago Patricia had been so angry about one of Sam’s outrageous orders that she trashed her office and now she sounded like one of his minions.
“Do we have a problem?” Patricia crossed her arms and lifted her chin, attempting to look imperious.
Bailey stepped back and removed her gloves. “If you want your pound of Kobar flesh, you’ll have to cut it out yourself. I’m not a doctor. And despite your title, neither are you.”
Patricia scoffed and motioned toward the Kobar. “You’ll play doctor to dress his wounds, but not to collect tissue samples? That’s rather hypocritical.”
“I don’t want to be here,” she stressed. “I’ve made that clear to everyone. I no longer agree with the goals of this project. I won’t be part of it.”
“Vic, remind Bailey that participation in Angel Fire is no longer optional,” Patricia directed in a cold, emotionless tone.
Vic walked around the table and pointed his rifle at Bailey’s knee. “Do what she says or you’ll be limping for the rest of your life. I don’t want to hurt you but I will.”
It was a bluff. She was too valuable to the program to seriously harm. “You’re going to have to shoot me. I’m done.” Recuperating from a gunshot wound would take weeks, perhaps months and the program couldn’t afford that sort of delay.
Her sister’s face flashed through her mind and Bailey’s rebellion faltered. Would they follow through with their threats to punish her loved ones? Was her pride worth finding out? This wasn’t just about pride. It was about principles. She might have lost her way temporarily, but she believed in the sanctity of life.
An animalistic growl rumbled through the room. Bailey was so focused on Vic that it took her a moment to realize the Kobar was making the menacing sound.
“I don’t think he likes you threatening his woman,” Eli said sarcastically.
The jibe sent a chill down Bailey’s spine and the words You are mine. You have always been mine echoed through her mind.
“Where is the dart gun?” Vic demanded.
Before Eli could answer, the Kobar let out an enraged roar. His sudden thrashing shook the table so violently that it nearly toppled over. Then he yanked one arm free of the restraints.
“I want him kept alive!” Patricia shouted. Then like the coward she was, Patricia turned and ran out of the annex, leaving her subordinates to deal with the escalating danger.
Vic shoved his rifle into Bailey’s hands as he said, “Don’t let him escape.”
“I don’t know how to use a gun,” she objected, holding the weapon away from her body.
The guards frantically searched for the dart gun while the Kobar freed himself from the rest of the restraints. He swung his legs over the side of the table and pivoted to face her. Not knowing what else to do, she swung the rifle like a bat. He blocked the swing with one brawny forearm then wrested the weapon out of her grasp.
The deafening report of a rifle snapped her attention to the guards. Eli had intentionally fired high and to the right, missing the Kobar entirely. At least, she thought the miss had been intentional. Vic held the dart gun, but his hands were shaking so badly he was struggling to reload.
“Get on your knees,” Eli ordered. “Hands behind your head.”
The Kobar laughed, the sound sharp and caustic. Without warning he lunged at the humans, yanking Eli’s gun out of his hands and incapacitating Vic with a backhanded punch. Eli turned, clearly meaning to run, but the Kobar grabbed the back of his shirt and spun him around. The Kobar’s fist was waiting when Eli faced him again and Eli joined Vic on the floor.
Turning toward Bailey, the Kobar asked, “Where are my trainees?”
Terrified, yet unable to look away, she pointed toward the locked door. With glowing amber eyes and a fiercely possessive expression, the giant looked exactly like he had in her… fantasy? Vision?
“Qhid? Elvit? Besinas?”
She wasn’t sure if the words were names or Kobar commands, but the ‘trainees’ immediately started pounding on the door. She was about to tell the giant that she couldn’t unlock the door, but he strode across the room, grasped the lock, and yanked the latch free of the wood with little effort.
Hoping to take advantage of his distraction, she crept toward the front door.
He whipped around and closed his long fingers around her upper arm. “You stay with me.”
The giant rattled off a series of orders in Kobar and his trainees started scrounging for supplies. One located a large canvas bag and they shoved anything potentially useful inside. As they finished searching each set of shelves, they toppled them, creating a massive pile of debris in the middle of the room. This also blocked the easiest path to freedom, the one leading toward the lodge rather than into the mountains.
The giant released her arm, but one of his trainees grabbed her while the giant discarded his ruined uniform top. He refastened the shoulder straps of his armor’s case/backpack then slipped the device onto his back. All four of the Kobar activated their armor. Surrounded by massive battle-ready warriors, Bailey felt utterly helpless.
Taking charge of her again, the giant led the small party out of the cabin through the kitchen door.
“Please, just leave me here,” Bailey begged, pulling against his restraining hand. “I’ll only slow you down.”
One of his trainees seemed to agree with her, but she didn’t understand his Kobar words.
The giant ignored them both, so she started struggling, digging in her feet and yanking against his hand. The sound of approaching people spiked her emotions and intensified her struggles. She went wild, hitting and kicking and finally screaming. “Help! Please, somebody help me!”
With a frustrated grunt, Macar bent and tossed the thrashing female over his shoulder. He banded her thighs with one arm, anchoring her firmly in place. She arched and beat against his back. Her upside down position muffled her cries for help.
“Keep up!” he called to his trainees. The mountainous terrain was challenging and the human soldiers weren’t far behind.
Shots rang out, the rapid-fire popping of multiple primitive guns. Qhid cried out and blood ran down the side of his neck. He tried to keep pace with the others, but his legs wobbled, finally giving out beneath him. Macar started to order the other trainees to assist him, but Elvit and Besinas were already there. They helped Qhid to his feet then draped his arms across their shoulders.
“Is he conscious?” he asked Elvit, the oldest and most experienced of the three.
They had a much better chance of escaping if they left him—but the Kobar did not abandon their wounded. He was shamed by the selfish impulse. If anyone was to be abandoned, it needed to be the female. But he had no intention of releasing her either.
“We should go, sir,” Elvit urged. “Humans are slow and tire easily, but hate is a powerful fuel.”
Macar agreed with a tense nod then started off again. Weaving through the trees, they half-carried, half-dragged Qhid up one hill after another.
“Put me down and I’ll lead the guards in the wrong direction,” the female lied.
Macar swatted her upturned ass. The firm curve felt so good beneath his palm that he smacked her again. “Be silent.”
More shots sounded, even closer this time.
“He is not going to make it,” Besinas whined. “We need to leave him here.”
“Is that what you want us to do if you are injured?” Elvit snapped.
Macar liked the youth. He was smart and ambitious with natural leadership instincts.
“And the woman?” Besinas persisted. “Why are we bothering with her?”
“The woman is my concern. Do not ask again.” Macar accented the directive with a warning look.
He didn’t fully understand his reaction to the female, but he would not be parted from her.
Her faint, spicy-sweet scent had penetrated the darkness in which he’d been trapped. It had drawn him, caressing and soothing him. Gradually the darkness had abated and he’d felt her small, warm hands. They’d moved over his chest and belly, arousing his cock even though she wasn’t touching him there. His imagination stirred, reaching out for the source of the sensations. He needed to feel her beneath him, arching in helpless pleasure as he thrust his cock into her pussy, claiming her as his.
With a frustrated sigh, he forced the thoughts aside. He could not think about this now, could not afford to be distracted while the danger was still imminent. They hiked fast, or as fast as their burdens allowed them to move. They changed course often, creating an erratic trail that would be harder to follow. Reaching the summit of a hill, Macar looked back down. He barely felt the female’s weight, but Elvit and Besinas were struggling with Qhid. If they took off his armor it would lighten the load, but it would also make him even more vulnerable.
“Pick up the pace or we will all die.” He sharpened his tone and spoke in Kobar so the female could not take advantage of their temporary weakness.
“Can’t we just rest for a moment?” Besinas panted.
Macar moved closer and wrapped his hand around the younger man’s neck. “Use this to strengthen yourself.” He pushed raw energy through the physical connection and Besinas let out a deep moan.
“Thank you, sir.”
Macar looked at Elvit, but he shook his head. “I am fine, sir.”
Suspecting it was pride and not stamina that was driving Elvit, Macar accepted his decision and started down the hill.
“I can’t breathe,” the female complained a short time later.
“Relax.” He stroked her leg and ass, unable to resist squeezing the resilient mounds. “Every muscle in your body is tense.”
“I wonder why,” she muttered, but a bit of the tension released. “If I promise not to struggle, will you put me down? My head is really pounding.”
Reluctantly, Macar allowed her body to slide down until her feet touched the ground. “If you break your vow, I will make you regret it.”
She looked around, clearly thinking about trying to run away. Then she sighed and whispered, “I’ll behave.”
Macar slowed his pace until he was even with the others then motioned Besinas out of the way. He helped support Qhid with one arm while he maintained control over the female with the other. As Macar feared, Qhid was completely unresponsive. It was unlikely he would survive.
“Why didn’t his medi-bots activate?” Elvit asked quietly. “For that matter, why didn’t yours?”
Macar glanced at the woman. She was clearly listening, but he didn’t think she understood their language. Still, it was never good to reveal a weakness to an enemy. And despite his odd reaction to her, he would be a fool to trust her. “I don’t know,” he answered in the same whisper tone.
The possibilities were endless. They could have been exposed to a small amount of the toxin the rebels were attempting to produce or it could be a side effect of the sedative. Perhaps they had abandoned biological warfare in favor of some sort of genetic manipulation that would rob them of their abilities. He would not verbally speculate until he knew for certain whether or not the female could understand Kobar.
They crested another hill and Macar tensed. The sun hovered on the horizon, threatening to rob them of light. Ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem, but their helmets had been confiscated when they were captured.
Captured. The word alone filled Macar with frustration and rage. He was the supreme commander’s second, part of the most powerful Kobar cadre in existence. How in all of destruction had a group of ragtag humans gotten the better of him? His shuttle had malfunctioned, which gave the rebels the opportunity to attack. The pocket of disruptive energy had also affected the weapons in their armor so they had basically been unable to fight back. Still, to be overtaken by such an inferior enemy was humiliating.
On and on they hiked. Miraculously, the female kept pace and didn’t pester him with questions. Steep mountains gave way to rounded hills and the trees became sparse and scraggly. Still, there was no sign of civilization. Then they came to a road. Macar hesitated. It would be much faster to walk along the flat surface, but the humans had land vehicles. Deciding not to take the risk, he crossed the pavement and led their small party back into the trees.
An hour passed and then another and there was still no sign of pursuit. They reached a tiny stream wending its way through a narrow valley. Macar sent out a psychic pulse, scanning the valley for potential dangers. He sensed nothing of concern. The only thing that didn’t belong in the tranquil setting was them.
“Take a quick break,” he ordered. “Ten minutes. No more.”
“Thank the gods.” Besinas sank to his knees and brought his cupped hands to his mouth over and over. They all needed water, but his utter lack of caution was reckless.
Macar and Elvit carefully lowered Qhid to the ground, then Elvit joined Besinas at the water’s edge. Unlike Besinas, Elvit crouched and drank slowly, continually assessing their surroundings.
The female tugged against his hold, motioning toward the water. “Please.”
He loosened his grip, allowing her to approach the stream. She moved to Elvit’s other side and knelt, bringing water to her lips with one cupped hand. She looked around, uncertain yet alert. Untrained and afraid, her instincts were better than Besinas’.
Before this crisis, Besinas’ performance had been acceptable. Macar had had more confidence in Elvit and Qhid, but he’d had no specific concerns about the younger trainee. Now Macar was starting to wonder if Besinas possessed the strength of character needed for command. Macar only trained the best and brightest. He hand selected each trainee and trained around twenty each year. His trainees had gone on to lead entire sectors and command elite battleships. This crisis was revealing elements of Besinas’ personality that Macar found troubling.
Elvit found a cloth in the bag of supplies and used it to bring water to his wounded friend. Besinas sat down on a rock near the stream and closed his eyes. The female rose and returned to Macar, remaining just out of reach.
Macar found her subtle resistance amusing but didn’t see a reason to provoke her. She was behaving well, all things considered. Besides, this was neither the time nor the place to begin her training.
“You need water too,” she said softly.
Her concern shocked him. Why would someone who was actively working to wipe out his species care if he became dehydrated? Before Macar could respond, Elvit drew his attention.
“I think Qhid has passed beyond,” Elvit announced with obvious regret.
Sighing heavily, Macar went down on one knee beside the wounded youth. Activating his forearm display, he scanned Qhid. Damn it. Elvit was right. There were no life signs whatsoever.
There was no longer a reason to slow their pace if Qhid’s spirit had left his body. “Say your goodbyes. We cannot linger.”
Elvit and Besinas stood on one side of Qhid’s body, while Macar and the female stood on the other. Again, she remained a step back, but Macar kept her in his peripheral vision.
“Goodbye, my friend. You were brave and fought well. You will be remembered,” Elvit began.
“You will be remembered,” Besinas echoed, apparently having nothing personal to add.
“You showed great promise,” Macar told the fallen youth. “You were loved by your cadre and will be avenged. Rest well, and may your next life be long and happy.” He paused for one final moment of respect then activated the ion blaster inset in his gauntlet. The weapon sputtered then emitted a sluggish stream of energy. Luckily, it was enough.
“Do you ever bury your dead?” the female asked. her voice hushed and solemn.
Elvit looked at her and shuddered. “We find the custom disrespectful and morbid. Why would anyone plant their dead and allow them to molder in the ground? Even the thought of it is disgusting.”
She smiled faintly. “How do you really feel?”
“You asked for my opinion, so I gave it. If you find that objectionable it is not—”
“Trainee.” Macar filled the word with warning. “You will be respectful to the female.”
“That’s a good place to start. Will you tell me your name?” Her tone remained soft, but it took on a hopeful catch.
She’d been looking at Macar when she spoke, but Elvit answered, “Why do you want to know?”
“I’m just curious.”
He shrugged. “Tell me yours as a show of trust and then I will tell you mine.”
She glanced at him then back at Elvit. “My name is Bailey.”
“Bailey? That is an odd name for a female.”
Her brows arched and color rose into her cheeks. “How would you know? Are you an expert on human names? And you promised to reciprocate.”
“My name is Elvit,” the trainee provided.
She looked at Besinas expectantly and he obliged her.
When her sky-blue eyes shifted to Macar, he smirked. “You will call me Master.”
The trainees found that amusing, but Bailey did not.
He motioned toward the trees on the far side of the stream. “We have lingered longer than I intended. Move.”
They hiked up the hillside and had just started down when Macar heard the growl of mechanical engines. He raised his hand, warning the trainees to stop. Bailey paused as well, for which he was thankful.
A two-lane road curved around the base of the hill. A dark blue SUV approached then stopped abruptly. The doors flew open and four rebels jumped out. Macar raised his gauntlet, but a barrage of bullets rained down on them before he could fire.
Besinas cried out, grabbing the side of his head. Elvit dragged him behind a fallen tree as Macar shoved Bailey behind a thigh-high boulder. She landed on her side and glared up at him.
“Do not try to escape,” he growled out. “There is nowhere I cannot find you, and you will regret it if you make me hunt you down.”
“Why would you want to hunt me down?” she objected. “That’s irrational.”
He returned the human soldiers’ fire with both hands while keeping an eye on the tree sheltering Elvit and Besinas. Elvit’s head popped into view from time to time as he rose to fire, but Besinas remained hidden.
How badly is he injured? Macar asked Elvit telepathically. Without their helmets, communicating mind to mind was their only option. Elvit did not respond, so Macar sent the inquiry directly to Besinas’ mind. Again there was no answer. What the hells?
Macar looked at Bailey, ensuring that she’d remained at his side. She huddled against the rock formation, legs drawn up to her chest.
The boldest human charged straight up the hill. The others disappeared into the trees obviously hoping to flank them. Macar applauded their bravado, but both strategies were flawed. His party held the high ground, the more defensible position. They could simply wait for the humans to approach and pick them off one at a time.
The charging bull was an easy target, so Macar left him for Elvit. The trainee’s shot was true. The human fell backward down the hill, either unconscious or dead.
Movement on Macar’s left drew his attention and he instinctually fired. The second human fell out from behind the tree he was using for cover. When the third reached out to draw his fallen comrade back, Macar fired on him as well.
Elvit’s blasts echoed Macar’s. He couldn’t see where the trainee aimed, but an eerie silence descended on the hillside. Their surroundings seemed to pause, waiting to see what the combatants would do. When nothing happened, the breeze resumed and the forest creatures began to chatter as if discussing the outcome of the fight.
“Sir, are you all right back there? Why didn’t you respond to me?” Elvit called out from behind the fallen tree.
Easing upward, Macar searched the trees with his senses and then his scanners. He located the four humans. One had already passed beyond. The other three were unconscious, but one of those would likely die as well.
What a waste. It was exasperating that these humans squandered their lives so foolishly. The Eleven-Day War should have been more than enough to prove that fighting back was pointless. Well, as usual, the humans had started this confrontation. All he and his trainees had done was defend themselves.
Confident that it was safe to move, he grasped Bailey’s arm and dragged her to her feet. They crossed to where the trainees huddled. Besinas slumped against the tree trunk. The side of his head, half of his face, and the front of his armor were covered in blood. He was fighting to remain conscious.
“Stop the bleeding,” Macar ordered Bailey. “Do whatever you did to me.”
She looked confused, but motioned for one of the bags the trainees had loaded with supplies. Elvit handed it to her. “You aren’t taught how to dress a wound? What happens when you’re injured during a battle?”
“Our medi-bots are not functioning properly,” Elvit told her. “Injuries usually heal within minutes.”
“That must be nice,” she muttered under her breath.
“Less talk,” Macar urged. “Focus on Besinas.”
She dug through the bag, found a simple shirt, and handed it to him. “Could you tear that into strips for me? And you’re right, we need to hurry. Head wounds are notorious for bleeding profusely.”
Macar tore up the shirt while she cleaned the area. The bullet had plowed a deep furrow from Besinas’ temple to the back of his head. Worse, a quick scan indicated that the bullet was still in there. Their top priority was to stop the bleeding and get the hells out of here. A more comprehensive assessment would have to wait. Bailey folded one of the strips into an oblong pad and Elvit held it over the wound while she wrapped another strip around Besinas’ head. She tied it tightly, then reached for the final two strips and repeated the process.
“I think the bullet just grazed his head,” she said as she tied off the bandage. “All things considered, he was lucky.”
Macar knew that wasn’t true, but didn’t bother correcting her.
She looked longingly at the waiting SUV. The engine was still running.
“You’ll never make it before we catch you, and I will punish you severely if you try.”
“Is that your answer to everything?” She cleaned her hands with some sort of moistened cloth that she pulled out of a plastic dispenser. “Are threats and intimidation the only strategies you know?”
“I have many, as you will learn as soon as we locate an acceptable shelter.” Besinas had lost consciousness, so Macar picked him up and headed down the hillside. “Bring my woman,” he told Elvit in Kobar.
Elvit rushed to catch up, dragging Bailey along with him. “Do you intend to make her your pleasure giver or your mate?” he asked in the same language.
“I’m not sure yet, but her touch awakened me and my hunger for her is building steadily.”
Elvit’s grip tightened visibly. “Does this mean she is the supreme commander’s mate as well?”
“If she is my mate, she will also bond with Daehan and Jesorax. So make damn sure you don’t lose her.”
The hillside was steep and littered with loose rocks, so each step was a struggle. “I attempted to contact you during the fight. I take it you did not hear me either?”
“No, sir. I heard nothing.” Elvit switched back to English and accusation narrowed his eyes. “Did you do this to us intentionally?” he asked Bailey. “Is it some sort of suppressant or an aftereffect of the sedative?”
Confusion knitted her brow and she tried to pull her arm free from his grasp. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The sedative used in the darts is common and has no lasting effects. Were you injected with anything before I arrived?”
“We were unconscious,” Elvit reminded impatiently. “Anything could have been done to us.”
“I don’t know anything about it. I’m sorry.”
They finally reached the vehicle and Macar placed Besinas across the back seat.
“You should ride back there so you can keep pressure on the wound,” Bailey instructed.
Macar took her arm as Elvit followed her suggestion. He positioned Besinas’ head on his lap, immediately pressing his hands over the bandage. Macar closed the door then walked around to the other side of the vehicle and closed the other back door. He drew Bailey along behind him. She resisted each step but didn’t really struggle.
“Where are you taking me?”
He ignored the question and motioned to the front passenger seat. “Get in.”
“Leave me here,” she pleaded. “You no longer need a hostage. In fact, I will only—”
He scooped her up, meaning to deposit her on the seat. She grabbed the doorframe and blocked the opening with her legs. He pivoted, inserting her headfirst. She still tried to stop him, but he set her down, pushed her legs out of the way, and slammed the door before she could escape him.
She opened the door. He slammed it shut. “Do not open it again!”
Her fingers were still curved around the handle, but she just glared at him.
Pinning her in place with his angry gaze, he rushed around to the driver’s area and quickly climbed into the vehicle. “Where is the nearest town?”
“I have no idea,” she muttered then looked out the window.
Exhausted and determined not to lose another trainee, he fisted the back of her hair and brought her head back around. “This is your only warning. Do not lie to me again. I expect accurate answers to my questions. Anything else is a punishable offense.”
“I am not one of your trainees,” she sneered, glaring at him again.
“You are something much, much worse. You are my prisoner.”
“I saved your life! The honorable thing is to set me free. You can drive away now. There is no reason to drag me along.”
“I decide what is honorable. Now answer my question or continue to defy me and pay the price.”
“You’re a bully, and I hate bullies.” She stared past him rebelliously. “I will tell you nothing!”
“I don’t have time for this,” he snarled as he threw open the door. He dragged her over the raised console as she kicked and slapped at him. “I do not make idle threats. That is the first lesson you must learn.” Her feet barely touched the ground before he spun her around and bent her over the driver’s seat. “I hope you’re a fast learner because my lessons are painful.”