The voice giving the order was gruff, almost guttural. The guard giving it was masked. Only his eyes showed through the slits. Mean eyes of one who was used to seeing fear, and who enjoyed it.
“I said ‘turn’!”
She’d not moved fast enough, and the ropelike lash, glowing green in the dim of the block-walled room, struck across the full of her naked buttocks, propelling her forward. She landed on the rough stone floor and rose to her bruised knees, clutching her bottom, feeling the welt rise under her hands.
She took a deep breath, and tried to keep the quaver from her voice as she spoke.
“I demand an audience with Xylon Lacru,” she said. “I demand a chance to have my case reviewed. I am the victim of unlawful incarceration under Intergalactic Code…”
Her objections were met by laughter. When it died down, she felt a sharp pain at the base of her skull as a guard yanked her up by her hair.
“The only code that applies to you here is what you’ll find beyond that gate.” The guard was holding her so tightly by the hair that she had no choice but to look toward the rough bars. Beyond them she could see the denizens of the walled city filled with those forced to fend for themselves in a primal society made of inmates—some hardened criminals, others innocent like herself. She’d fought the injustice they faced, had fought her planet’s role in it. And now she was about to be thrown in their midst. Would she die at the hands of the very system she’d tried to expose?
She fell silent, knowing her objections were useless. She tried to block out the jeering as she was pushed into a line of inmates, males and females, humans and aliens, being bent over one by one for a contraband search. A wave of dizziness overtook her, but she vowed not to let herself faint. She could not show weakness. Not with him watching.
And she knew he was. She could see the small silver tubes on the wall that moved this way and that, tiny cameras that caught the action and transmitted it to anyone tuning in to the process. She knew back on Earth, the man responsible for sending her here was relishing her distress, that he would continue to do so.
Her turn came at the bench. She was stretched forward, felt her legs kicked apart. She closed her eyes as a cool probe pushed into her bottom. It was a mercifully quick procedure, save for a few lewd comments from the guards about what they’d like to push up that hole. She ignored them, her face flushed. She stood, her bottom stinging, her side still sore from where they’d implanted the transmitter.
She entered the line leading to the gate. She was behind a burly female alien—larger than an Earth man—who turned and glared down at her. The alien’s catlike green eyes moved up and down her body, and she knew what it was thinking, that she wouldn’t last.
Was it worth it? He’d asked her that the day of her conviction, his voice brimming with amusement as she sat in the cell wondering how she’d gone from the fight for galactic justice for the downtrodden to being convicted of poisoning a man she barely knew.
“Yes,” she said.
But now, as the gates opened and the prisoners waiting on the other side roared with excitement—or was it rage—at the influx of newcomers, she wasn’t so sure. All she knew was that she had to survive.
Heart rate: Elevated
White blood cell count: Elevated
Blood Oxygen Saturation Levels: Dropping
Location: Due North
Zak Steth looked up from the handheld monitor, noting the projected direction of his quarry. His square jaw set in determination when he realized she was still a good distance away—scared, possibly injured, and nearing the top of the ridge somewhere just above him.
He stood from where he’d been kneeling beside a small footprint. The length was about the size of his hand, and as he’d looked at it, he’d felt a begrudging respect for the temerity of humans who dared to flee the colony—especially this human. Since taking work tracking down those who dared escape Colony 7, he’d chased down and captured his share of them.
But this was his first human. It was also his first female.
That she’d eluded him this long both intrigued and infuriated Zak. As he’d left the monitoring base, his supervisor had made light of this particular hunt. “A female?” He’d been looking at the holoboard showing the three-dimensional intake image of the escaped prisoner—EM9011. She was small, even for an Earthling.
“You’ll have time to catch her, punish her, and still be back in time for drinks,” his colleague had said. They’d all laughed at that, even Zak.
But he wasn’t laughing now.
In the distance, he could hear the high-pitched yip of a barvarine. He’d seen its massive paw print before he’d found the human’s footprint. He’d found something else, too—three drops of her blood. Now the race was on to find her before the predator did, and this was no ordinary predator.
With massive nasal passages designed to sniff out prey, the creature—or creatures—were already a step ahead of him. But according to the transmitter, the human was a step ahead of them, still alive and moving. He pushed through undergrowth, following the coordinates with renewed purpose. He wasn’t about to let some hunchbacked animal steal his chance for the handsome bounty the penal colony paid for returned prisoners.
Zak reached for his sidearm and clicked the setting to HiberRay. Experience with barvarines had taught him that a shot from any conventional weapon only enraged the animals. The HiberRay impacted the creature on a molecular level, flooding it with the hormones that triggered rapid onset torpor. The animal did not immediately fall into hibernation; no ray was that strong. But it dulled the creature’s senses long enough to escape or dispatch it.
He continued the climb, accelerating his pace now. If the barvarine reached the human first, he could kiss his payday goodbye. And that wouldn’t even be the worst of it. The ribbing he’d take for not having caught some helpless little female would plague him for months. There was so little amusement for the guards who spent long hours virtually monitoring the health and location of hundreds of prisoners within the walled city. The rare chase broke the monotony. A failed capture was fodder for those left behind.
The footing was treacherous on this part of the trail. The narrow pathways that hugged the rocky ridge had given his quarry the advantage. Like most Traoian males, Zak was large and broad. A small, lithe human would have zipped along the lip of rock he now had to carefully navigate. With both hands grasping the ledge, he was unable to look at the tracker. But he didn’t need to. Instinct told him to follow the cries of the predator, which had increased in intensity. The creature was calling its pack mates, letting any within earshot know a kill was pending. He hoped there were none within range, not that it mattered. One could easily do the job.
He tried to imagine the fear of a human female in the face of the huge creature, with its cavernous nostrils and protruding yellow eyes. If that wasn’t horrifying enough, the front paws functioned as hands that grasped and held victims while a double row of jagged teeth did its work of dispatching it.
Having navigated the narrow lip of the ledge, Zak quickened his pace. He removed the tracker as he walked, a chill moving through him as he checked it. Up ahead, things had gone silent, and the last known readout indicated that the human’s heartrate was elevated dramatically, indicating pain or fear or both. The barvarine had found her; of that he had no doubt. The tracker also showed erratic movement. Zak cursed, breaking into a run.
He’d entered a thicket of trees that blotted out the light from overhead. A shrill tone from the device filled him with dread. Zak looked down at the sudden flat line and the words Cessation Of Function. Fury filled him along with something else—disappointment. He’d failed. He’d failed to capture a human female. Worse, he’d failed to save her.
But still he had his orders. Like all other penal systems built on TraoX39 in a joint partnership with Earth, Colony 7 was frugal. The transmitters implanted in all inmates were reusable. Even if he couldn’t get a full bounty for return of the human, he’d get a quarter of it for returning the transmitter. Zak looked down, noting its coordinates. He wasn’t looking forward to digging the device from the remains of a dead human, but that would be better than trying to remove it from the carcass of a barvarine that had swallowed it. He picked up the pace, hoping he could make it to the scene of the kill before the animal consumed her body.
The wind howled through the trees overhead. The forests here were ancient, the tops of the trees interlocking to form patterns that were both intricate and awe-inspiring. Zak tried not to think of the human’s last, horrible moments. Had she looked up, he wondered, to note the beauty of the place where she would die?
Clouds were forming above the trees. The rumble of thunder shook the mountains and lightning flashed overhead, illuminating the lace-like canopy. Storms up here were violent and sudden. Just what he needed. He unsheathed his knife, ready to use both his HiberRay and the blade when he found the beast.
He ran now, sprinting up the boulder-strewn path, his muscular legs propelling him from rock to rock. His training in the Galactic Legion had given him the advantage of strength and stamina in such terrain; he’d fought in places like this before… Zak pushed those memories from his mind. He would not think on it, even if he did allow himself to relish the familiar rush of excitement danger always brought.
The blips on the tracking device were becoming more rapid. He was closer, and that was good. He’d run so long that he was just at the verge of getting winded. Zak moved from tree to tree, keeping an ear open for sounds of the barvarine. There were none, but that didn’t mean the animal wasn’t there; in the mountains sometimes winds carried sounds away.
He could see something dark through the trees—the mouth of a cave. A den, maybe? Zak stopped, cautious, then edged closer in a stalking crouch. Something was in front of the cave, a large mound. By the signal he could tell the transmitter was in the mound. He wasn’t surprised. Barvarines often stashed multiple kills in one location and covered them with debris to prevent detection.
He could smell the musky animal stench on the moist air, and waited to see if the creature returned. The thunder rumbled louder now as lightning lit the surrounding forest. He hoped the rains would hold off. Digging the tracker out of the prisoner’s body would be unpleasant enough without getting soaked in the process.
Zak tucked the gun back into his chest strap as he approached the pile of leaves and debris, steeling himself for what he was about to do. It was only when he got to the mound that he realized he’d not been looking at leaves but the brown and gray body of a barvarine itself. It wasn’t a small one, either. The creature at his feet was easily five times his weight.
No. This can’t be possible, he thought. But it was.
He stood, looking around, puzzled, now back on high alert. Whatever had killed the beast was still out there. It wasn’t unheard of for a rogue barvarine to kill another in its territory. Perhaps one had ambushed this one after it had taken the human. He circled the carcass, searching the tree line for the telltale hunched shape, but the only thing stirring the surrounding undergrowth was the winds from the threatening storm.
He returned to the carcass, remembering the transmitter. Zak knelt again, switching the tracker to manual scan. He ran it over the animal’s abdomen, but the signal indicated the transmitter was closer to the front. He furrowed his brow, puzzled as the signal indicated the location was not in the abdomen but on its chest. There was a gash there. Zak moved the skin aside and peered into the wound. There, at the mouth of it—and only visible to someone looking for the tiny device—was the transmitter.
“No,” he said. He fished it out. It made no sense. The only way the transmitter could be in the wound would be if…
He stood, puzzlement turning to anger. The human! She’d done this. He didn’t know how; it had to have been blind luck. But the beast was dead and somehow she’d dug the transmitter from her own body and placed it inside the creature’s, which explained the readings. That meant she was still alive, and given that the last known readings indicated blood loss and fatigue, it also meant something else: The hunt was back on.
Zak clicked a button on the tracker, automatically signaling headquarters that the transmitter had been found. Now he had to find the human.
Even without the tracker, it was easy to pick up her path. A trail of blood led into the cave. He followed it until the visual trail was lost in a passage that curved away from the entrance to shroud him in total darkness.
He could hear the rush of water, and suppressed a grunt of surprise when he felt shallow, ice-cold water flowing through his boots. The water of the subterranean springs here was biting cold, but the ground became dry as he entered a wider part of the cavern. Star stones studded the walls and littered the floor here, giving the place a soft, ethereal glow. He slowed down, ducking, and watched. There were multiple passages up ahead, then something else—a flash of light. Someone was moving into the dark middle passage, and using a star stone for a guide. The human!
Zak took off in the direction of the flash, but halfway to the passage felt a blinding pain impact his temple. He fell, rolled, and was just sitting up when there was another blow, this one to his arm. Blood from the wound to his head trickled into his eye. He reached for his weapon, just as a third sharp blow impacted his forearm.
And then he saw her. She was on the ground, slumped against a wall, feeding another of her dwindling supply of rocks into a crude slingshot. The light he’d chased had not been a star stone carried by her, but one fired in an attempt to lead him away. Fury overrode his pain, and with a cry designed to unnerve her, he launched himself in the human’s direction.
It worked. She dropped the rock, but picked up something else. Zak barely missed running directly into the sharpened stick, the beast’s blood still red and sticky on its lethal tip.
She was on her knees now, turning to point the makeshift spear in his direction. In the glow of the star stones, he could make out her face—heart-shaped and feminine but twisted in fear and hatred, the almond-shaped eyes narrowed. As Zak took a step forward, she tossed her head to keep the cloud of black hair from obscuring her vision.
“Stay back,” she said. Her voice was shaky. She jabbed at the air with the spear. It was shaky, too. Zak glanced lower. He could see the blood on her side where she’d dug out the transmitter.
“Let me help you.”
She moved back against the wall, clutching the spear tighter. “You aren’t here to help me.”
“You’re injured.” He kept one hand stretched forward. With the other, he sheathed his weapon and moved his hand to the pouch at his side. “I can fix it. I can close the wound.”
“I don’t want it fixed.”
“If I don’t fix it, you’ll die.”
“Maybe I want to die.”
He shook his head. “It takes a strong will to slay a barvarine. If you wanted to die, you’d have done it outside the cave.”
Her response was another threatening jab in Zak’s direction. “I’ll kill you, too,” she said. “If I have to. I’ll kill you before I let you take me back. I’ll kill anyone before I let them put something in my body that allows them to track me like an animal.” She shifted, and another rivulet of blood seeped from the wound.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Zak said. This was, a course, a lie. But she was a criminal. And a payday. If it took a lie to get her to drop that spear… “I was passing through, saw the body of the …”
“Liar!” Her anger gave her strength. The spear wasn’t shaking now, and she was bracing herself on the rock wall behind her with one hand. “I’ve been watching you follow me, from the tree line.”
Zak cursed himself. Of course you were.
“You’re hurt.” He tried again. “If you’ll just let me…”
He lunged forward in midsentence—a different tack—and grabbed the spear. It was easy enough to wrest it away from her, and when he fell on the human he expected her to be weak. But desperation had infused her with temporary strength. She wriggled like a trapped wildcat, and scratched and bit like one. But even a furious and frightened human was no match for a Traoian male who dwarfed her as if she were a child. Once he’d trapped her hands, Zak merely lay with his weight on her until she stopped moving, his stern eyes locked on her defiant ones.
“Are you done?” When she neither answered nor moved, he raised her up, pressing her hands at the small of her back as he reached into his pouch for a small, gelatinous disc.
“No!” She objected vigorously, but could not stop him from holding it against the back of one hand. Zak patiently waited the short moment it took for the disc to react with her skin and expand to wind around both wrists, preventing movement.
He laid her back down, straddling her, and grabbed her chin. She was spewing curses at him. His face was inches from her when he spoke. The placating tone he’d been using was gone now.
“Shut up,” he said. “Unless you want to draw the beasts in with us.”
She laughed at this—the high, mirthless laugh of someone gone half mad. “Let them come,” she said. “There’s no beasts in this forest half as despicable as the ones who run your camps.”
Zak bit his tongue. He wasn’t about to argue with some little female with no appreciation for the real horrors he’d seen, before…
“Perhaps you should have thought about that before you broke the laws on your planet. Now shut your mouth or I’ll seal it.”
She fell silent, her eyes saying all she dared not speak.
Zak turned his attention to her injury. Blood had soaked her ragged shift down to the middle of her hip. He reached up, hooked his fingers in the neckline and ripped the garment, exposing her body to his gaze. She was fit and lush, but he did not take time to appreciate her form. The wound needed attention. When he saw it, he was both horrified and impressed at the strength it must have taken for her to dig into her side to remove the transmitter.
“You used a knife?” he asked, wondering if she had a blade why she’d not used it on him.
She still was glaring at him, and answered through clenched teeth, the pain on her face evident now. “I had no blade. I used a stone,” she said. “A sharp one. If I hadn’t dropped it out there, I’d drive it into your heart.”
There was his answer.
“I’m sure you would,” Zak said, and he meant it. She was a fighter, this one.
He reached into his medical kit and extracted a syringe with a rounded tip. She screamed when he pushed it into the wound. He was not gentle with the human who’d just threatened to kill him. With the wound flushed, next came the Mending Wand. It was small, but it fused the cleansed flesh neatly, even though he was forced to put his hand over her mouth to stifle the screams. Usually an anesthetic was applied first, but he could hear the thunder outside and wasn’t about to allow time for additional steps. He needed to hurry. If he left now, perhaps he could get them both back to the camp.
When he moved his hand, she fell quiet. Her anger seemed to have overridden her pain and she just lay there, glaring, while he pulled her torn and bloody garment away and fetched a fresh one from his bag.
“Prepared for everything,” he said. “Although this may be a little big.” He glanced down at her. “You’re a tiny thing.” He lifted her up to sitting. “I’m going to undo your hands so you can get covered up. Try anything and I’ll beat your bottom. I expect you’ve been punished before, in holding. I hear it’s standard—a beating even if you don’t need it.”
“A beating,” she said. “That’s the least of my worries, although it’s been my experience that Traoian males seem to enjoy meting them out.”
“There are rules for females here,” he said. “Especially female prisoners.”
Zak looked down to see that her eyes were locked on his, her gaze bold.
“I’d let you beat my bottom if you agreed not to take me back.” She paused. “I’d let you beat me, if it pleased you. And more.”
The intent was clear, and Zak tried to avoid dropping his eyes to her chest, where the cool air of the cave had teased her nipples to firm peaks. Outside, a peal of thunder rent the air, followed by the static crack of lightning.
He smirked. “Why would I bargain for something I could just take?”
She nodded toward the tattoo on his shoulder—the row of symbols an indelible symbol of a brotherhood he carried along with the pain of its loss.
“You’re in the Galactic Legion,” she said. “All Legion warriors take an oath to be principled. You wouldn’t break it by forcing yourself on an unwilling woman…”
“Was,” he snapped, correcting her. Zak found himself unnerved by this human. How did she even know about the Legion? And how in the hell would she know about the oath? “No oath binds me now, but even if it did, violating my orders to bring you in wouldn’t be principled either.”
He removed a smaller metallic wand from his pouch and touched it to the gelatinous cover binding her hands. It melted away to reform into a disc, which he placed back in his pocket. Zak avoided looking at her nakedness as he slid the shift over her lithe form. It had been a long time since he’d been with a female.
“What if violating your orders saved a life?”
“Shut up.” Zak had not meant to raise his voice. But her words were hitting too close to home. Not again, he told himself. Never again.
She looked away. “Never mind. Ultimately, if I die in prison I still escape.” She inclined her head toward the entrance of the cave. “But when I killed that beast, part of me regretted it.”
“Because the prison camp is horrible, and the forest would have been such a beautiful place to die.”
Zak thought back to the moment he’d had that very thought. Who was she?
“Self-preservation.” She sighed. “It’s my weakness.”
The prisoner looked back toward the entrance of the cave. The soft light caught her profile. Zak found himself studying it, but quickly forced himself to look away. He thought of the pay, his responsibility.
“It can be your weakness back at the camp. Move.” He stood, pulling her with him, and pushed her toward the entrance. Another crack of thunder could be heard outside, the force of it reverberating through the mountain itself. This time the noise was accompanied by the static crackling of lightning and the smell of smoke and ozone. The storm was directly over them. Leaving the cave now would be suicide.
Later, Zak would wonder if suicide was her intent when she broke away from him, dashing toward the strobing flashes visible through the distant entrance. She was quick, but his long legs gave him the advantage and he caught her before she could reach the mouth.
She kicked and screamed as Zak’s long arm wound around her waist, cursed and railed as he sat on a nearby boulder and threw her across his lap. Between the flashes of lightning and the glow of the star stones, he could clearly make out the perfection of her shapely bottom as he pulled up the shift. Round, full buttocks crowned with dimples at the top, a pale canvas awaiting some well-earned color.
She’d been right; Traoian men did enjoy the art of correction, especially when that correction was applied to human females with pert, shapely bottoms. It was one of the reasons that humans were prized as mates for Traoian elites. But this was no mate; this was a criminal, and Zak wasn’t going to go easy on her.
Her cries rose above the thunder as he began to bring his hand down on the springy mounds of flesh. Zak spanked her briskly, feeling the cool skin turn warm, then hot, under his callused palm. She was so small that his large hand nearly covered the entire breadth of her bottom; after half a dozen blows he could see even in the dim light that the globes had taken on a reddish hue. The little prisoner who’d been so defiant and self-assured was breaking before his eyes, her curses turning to sobs, then pleas, as her spasms of pain finally ended and she went limp over his lap.
He felt his cock jutting against the confines of his pants as he looked down at her prone form draped over his lap, the shift hiked up to the small of her back. It was hard for him to marry this sobbing human with the one who’d dug a transmitter from her own body with a sharpened rock, the one who’d killed a barvarine, the one who’d managed to fight him when he found her. Her taunting him, had it been because she wanted this?
I’ll let you beat my bottom. And more.
He pulled her to sitting, chiding himself for the thought. Even if she had been, what did it matter? She’s your prisoner. He could feel the heat of her punished nates through the leather of his tight trousers. She was letting him hold her, cradle her as her storm of rage subsided. But how long would it last, this acquiescence?
A loud crack of thunder rent the air, the loudest one yet. Zak knew they would not leave, not for a while. He murmured awkward words of comfort, distracting her as he reached into the pouch at his side. When the tranquilizer hit, she flinched and moaned, but had little time to do anything else. The human went completely limp in his arms, her head falling back, her eyes closed. She looked entirely innocent, like a sleeping child. It was, he knew, necessary. She needed to sleep. And he needed to put her down, to distance his body from hers before his needs took over. They’d leave after the storm. Until then, they’d shelter here, and he’d watch over her. He’d protect her.
Zak laid her down on a bed of moss by the edge of the cave. As he did, he heard the ping of the communication device on his belt, and cursed himself. By logging in the located transmitter, he’d triggered a callback. Now he could make out the officious tone of his supervisor, Halyrn Brax.
“You’ve got the transmitter, Steth?”
Zak clicked a button on the communicator, staring down beside the human as he answered. “Yes.”
“I take it the prisoner is deceased if you deactivated it?” The question hung in the air for a moment. Brax didn’t wait for an answer. “It’s a shame. Warden Lacru is furious that a female escaped. He wanted to make an example of her. Before I got the signal about the transmitter, I was going to call to let you know the bounty was being doubled. How did she die?”
On the ground, the human stirred in her sleep, arching her back. Zak could see the shape of her breasts under the shift.
“I dug the transmitter out of a barvarine,” he said. “They still owe me for that.”
“Yes. And you’ll be paid,” Brax said. Outside the lightning struck, sizzling the air. “But the girl? Did you find any trace of her?”
Zak swallowed. “Nothing salvageable,” he lied. “Other than the transmitter.”
There was silence for a moment. “It’s a shame you weren’t quicker, Sergeant. You’d be a rich man. Now you’ll be returning to a lot of ridicule for letting her get away.”
“I can live with that,” Zak said. “Out.” He clicked off, turning his attention back to the human, wondering at what he’d just done.
Had he really turned down a double bounty? Had he really just blown the chance to get his hands on enough money to fund a trip off this planet, enough money to… to what? To keep running from memories he couldn’t escape? He’d gone from Galactic Legion to mercenary to salvage operator to guard. Maybe it was time to stop running, to find some contentment in a life outside the brotherhood that had banished him from its ranks.
But was this the way to do it? With her? A human who’d tried to kill him? He rubbed the stubble on his strong jaw and he considered the possibility. And why not? Traoians with money—males who’d never shed a drop of blood for their kinsman—were able to enjoy the pleasures of a human. A mate was a mate, and on another planet, who would be the wiser? He could sire children, take up a trade, build a home for the two of them. Sure, she’d resist at first. But training her would be easy enough. He’d proven that already.
But even as Zak told himself these things, he knew there was more to it. He could do all those things legally. He didn’t know what it was about this small, helpless female that compelled him to lie, to justify another risk that would change his life. He only knew that by doing so, he’d just committed a crime that could land him in the very same colony he’d been sworn to oversee.