“Screen’s lit up in Lab A.” Burke Jamison steps into the break room from the bright white hallway and taps the wall behind my head. I spin on a metal stool bolted to the floor as the display built into the wall lights up, then shows me the same alert he saw through the transparent wall of the primary lab: a blinking red dot headed straight for us. “Shuttle incoming,” he reads. “ETA: ten minutes.”
I shove the last mini chocolate chip cookie into my mouth and speak around it. “Any idea who they’re coming for?” I ask as I wad up the empty package and toss it into the recycle bin built into the wall.
“Believe it or not, Sotelo, the evil scientists don’t generally let me know which of us they’re coming down to poke and prod on any given occasion.”
“A simple ‘no’ would have been sufficient. You let Coleman and Lawrence know. I’ll tell the lovebirds.”
Jamison snorts. “Dreyer will twist your balls off if she hears you call them that.”
“If Dreyer could break out of her cell, she’d have better things to do than play with my balls.” Right now, the only thing she has to do is Thiago Zamora.
I follow Jamison into the hallway, where he turns right, heading for the lounge, and I turn left, toward the other end of the facility we’ve been locked up in for nearly two solar cycles, here on the prison planet Rhodon.
There are only six prisoners in all of zone X. The other five were once under my command, deployed for several years to the planet Erebus. Fighting in someone else’s civil war. But now…
Dr. Brennan and her team of mad scientists don’t come down from Station Delta much anymore. They still have us on camera twenty-four hours a day, but after the first year, during which we practically lived under the microscope, the initial procedures were declared a rousing success. Now we’ve moved on to the live-action phase of the super-soldier design process, and we only get poked and prodded on occasion. Mostly to check various hormone levels.
But we’re still stuck here in the lab facility, though we only have access to the residential areas, including ten prison cells and a communal bathroom.
All nine of the standard cells are standing open because their sliding doors are recessed into the wall, and they won’t slide closed until someone orbiting the planet up on Station Delta presses a button. Or fucking sneezes too hard. Seriously, sometimes the opening and closing of doors around here feels that damn random.
The tenth cell is at the end of the hall on the right, across from the bathroom. That cell is three times larger than any of the others, and it has a private restroom. It also has a real bed, with a mattress and everything. Sheets. Blankets. Two hypoallergenic pillows.
The bed is a double.
Tirzah Dreyer claimed that cell for herself the second it was unlocked for the first time, a year into our imprisonment. For a while, Lawrence insisted that the lack of a Y chromosome didn’t entitle her to exclusive use of the only real mattress. The two of them used to fight over that bed like siblings bickering over the last damn cupcake.
Then Dr. Brennan and her team started locking one of us in that room with Dreyer once a month, and we decided that the only woman on our team has every fucking right to a real bed for the other three weeks.
Because we’re also in the breeding phase of the super-soldier design process.
The front wall of Dreyer’s cell is transparent. This entire facility is built out of an alloy that can be rendered transparent with the tap of a button, which means that Brennan could turn this whole place into a giant window. She could give us a view of trees, and natural light, and the two other planets in this solar system, which are often visible in the sky. But she doesn’t. Ever. Yet she leaves the entire front of Dreyer’s cell transparent all day, every day. Which is fucked up—a viewing window in a bedroom.
But then, this whole thing is fucked up.
I pass by the nine open cells—we only use five of them—and stop in front of Dryer’s clear wall. I don’t want to look. But an imminent shuttle is one of the reasons we’re allowed to interrupt, so I tap the intercom symbol on her transparent door, then I knock with one knuckle.
Dreyer is lying on the bed with her head thrown back, her long brown hair splayed out across both pillows. Her prison-issue tee is pushed up to expose one breast, but that breast is completely covered by Zamora’s large right hand.
I can’t see the rest of him, thank goodness, because Dreyer has the sheet pulled up to her waist, and he’s…below that. Between the twin points that are her bent knees.
They haven’t heard me, so I knock again, and this time Dreyer lifts her head to scowl at me. She grasps for something with her right hand, then she throws her shoe at the wall.
If the transparent metal pane weren’t there, she’d have hit me right in the forehead. She never misses.
Dreyer lets her head fall back again, without alerting Zamora to the fact that they have company, so I knock harder.
This time she rises onto her elbows, her face flushed and damp with sweat, and yells at me. “Never interrupt the man while he’s working, Sotelo!”
Zamora’s head pops up, and he throws the sheet off. He wipes his mouth with one hand as he twists to face me, brows arched. “Sotelo? What’s up?”
“Shuttle inbound. Eight minutes.”
“That’s half the time I need.” Dreyer plants her palm on his head and directs him back to where she wants him. Well, to where she needs him. It’s not her fault. Nor is it his. “Thanks, Sotelo,” she calls as she lies back again, effectively dismissing me.
But Zamora rises onto his knees and drops her underwear on her stomach. “If there isn’t time for both of us, there isn’t time for one of us.”
“Damn it.” Dreyer glares at me as she sits up and steps into her underwear. But this isn’t my fault either. She scratches at her wrist as she heads toward the window, picking at an already bloody scab.
“Any luck getting that thing out?” I nod at the inflamed section of skin.
“Fuck no. It’s too damn deep. And it itches like hell.”
“It” is an intramuscular time-release capsule designed to deliver a steady dose of a hormonal stimulant over a seven-day period. Once a month, when her bio-chip tells someone up on Station Delta that she’s ovulating, we all get sleepy from breathing gas pumped through the air circulation system. When we wake up, one of us is locked in that room with her, and we both have brand new, itchy lumps in one of our arms.
Poor Dreyer’s skin is scarred from all the scratching. And from the three times she’s tried to dig the capsule out with her bare fingernails.
They leave us there for a full week, with a big stack of MREs, fresh bedding, and a raging hard-on.
“How you holding up?” I ask her.
“How do you think I’m holding up, you giant clit-block?” She presses her bare thighs together, trying to ease an ache I can only imagine, and I decide to forgive her grouchiness. The rest of us are only in rotation every five months. Twice each, so far, for me, Jamison, Lawrence, and Coleman. This is Zamora’s third shift. But poor Dreyer is locked in the “breeding room” every month without fail.
“Maybe you should just give them what they want,” I whisper. “They’re not going to give up until they get it.”
She gives me a bitter look. “You volunteering to play daddy, Captain?”
“Well, no, Lieutenant, I’m not.” Not like this—locked up like a human lab rat. And not with Tirzah Dreyer. I don’t think of her as a sister, exactly. But I don’t think of her like that either.
At least, not when I don’t have a time-release capsule keeping my dick hard for a solid week.
“Yeah, well, neither is anybody else. And this isn’t exactly how I pictured the conception of my child. So fuck all of you sick motherfuckers!” She flips both middle fingers at cameras mounted too high up for us to reach. “You can make us rut like animals, but you can’t make us do it in any way that could get me pregnant!”
“Which is the only way we haven’t done it.” Zamora snorts as he heads toward the window, clad in only his shorts, a prominent erection tenting the material. I don’t have to imagine how he feels. “So, what’s up?” He runs one hand through dark, wavy hair that would have been way out of regs, when we were soldiers. “They unlock the playground? Are we going hunting?”
“No.” The door into our outdoor recreation area—a huge, walled-in section of forest—is still shut tight, restricting us to the indoor facilities. Which means the Universal Authority scientists and researchers who run this place probably aren’t on their way to drop off a new “challenge” to test our abilities in the field.
“Shit.” Zamora grabs his pants from the floor and sinks onto the bed to shove his feet into them. “Then they’re probably picking someone up.”
Dreyer sighs. “Well, it won’t be either of us.” After Zamora heads into the bathroom and slides the door shut, she turns to stare up at me through the window, a pleading look in her green eyes. “I can’t do this much longer, Captain.”
We’re no longer on active duty. Officially, in fact, we’re all deceased—executed as war criminals more than two years ago. These days, Dreyer only calls me Captain when I’m being an asshole or when she’s feeling bitter and sarcastic. And when she truly needs my help.
“This isn’t right, and you know it. They’re going to keep trying to breed me until I die of exhaustion or give them a baby, and I’m not going to let them turn my kid into a lab rat.”
“I know. I’m working on it,” I assure her through clenched teeth. But the truth is that I’m failing her on a daily basis. It’s my job to lead and protect my men—even now—and I’m failing all of them. And just thinking about that makes the anger perpetually simmering inside me flare so hot that I burn from the inside out. My skin begins to itch, and I realize I’m scratching the underside of my left forearm, where a long, vertical seam in my skin wants to open. I ache to indulge that impulse. To let the beast loose.
Fight. Defend. Destroy.
The phantom scent of spilled blood spikes my pulse, and I feel the weight of a blunt force weapon in my hand. The ghostly sensations are so strong that my left hand actually closes around nothing, expecting to find a rough-hewn wooden handle in my grip.
“Lock it up, Captain,” Dreyer whispers. “You lose control, and they’ll just poke you with more needles. Captivity is a puzzle to solve, not a bone to break. We’re not going to fight our way out of here.”
She’s right. My second-in-command is always right. And she deserves better than this.
“I swear, I’m going to get us out of here.” They’re all here because of me. Because I told them to take the deal. At the time, volunteering as test subjects seemed like a reasonable alternative to execution. But now…
“I’m not kidding. Captain, I’ll end this myself before I let them breed me.”
“No.” I capture her gaze through the wall. “Dreyer, don’t do anything stupid. I will get us out of here. So just stay hydrated and—”
The bathroom door slides open, and when she hears Zamora step into the room at her back, her eyes fall closed for a second. Then she looks up at me again, and her mental armor falls back into place. She turns, hands propped on her hips, spine straight. “Whatever’s about to go down out there won’t include us,” she tells Zamora. “So I say we fix the immediate problem, then take a fucking nap. You can go first. Blowjob or hand job? Gentleman’s choice.”
He gives her a mischievous grin. “I have a better idea…”
I turn away from the window and march back down the hall, giving them a little privacy in which to temporarily relieve a constant, brutal ache. The door will unlock in four more days and they’ll emerge, sweaty, exhausted, and pissed off, but alive.
As for the rest of us…I have no idea what’s coming down from Station Delta.
“Jamison! What’s the shuttle’s ETA?” I call as I head down the hall. He, Lawrence, and Coleman emerge from the lounge, but before he can answer, a red light begins flashing in the hallway.
“Prisoners, you have thirty seconds to enter your cells. After that, anyone found in the common areas will be rendered unconscious with a tranquilizer mist.” Because darts won’t penetrate Coleman’s skin anymore, and they aren’t taking chances. With any of us.
I don’t know who they’re coming for, so I give them each a nod as they file into their cells. Then I step into my own.
Three seconds later, the cell doors slam shut.
There’s a deep grinding sound as the lab’s main entrance slides open halfway across the building. Dread crawls over my skin as I stare through my transparent cell door, waiting for someone to appear in the hallway. Like the rest of this place, our cell doors are made of that transparent alloy—a clear metal, basically—which is stronger than steel but lighter than aluminum.
They can be made opaque with the click of a button. They can’t be punched out—I’ve tried—and they can’t be cracked, shattered, or broken. Not even by Jamison or Coleman.
Boots clomp toward the residential hallway, and six guards appear, clad from head to toe in reinforced black riot gear. Including helmets with clear alloy face shields.
The seventh member of the team is significantly shorter and thinner. She hangs behind the others until one of them gives her the all-clear hand signal. Then she takes off her helmet.
Dr. Maryann Brennan, the scientist in charge of Project Vetus.
Brennan marches past the guards, glancing into each of the occupied cells on her way to Dreyer’s. She never misses a chance to glance into the breeding room, in hopes that whoever’s in there is finally going to give her what she wants. But this time, Zamora is ready for her.
The second she steps in front of the window, a white glob hits it, right in front of her face. His timing is impeccable, and his aim is almost as good as Dreyer’s.
Brennan jumps back, startled. “Classy,” she mumbles, and I laugh. It’s a shame none of the other guys can see the show, from their cells.
“Treat us like animals, and it’s animals you get!” Zamora shouts, stepping into sight, without a stitch on.
Dr. Brennan turns to the nearest guard. “Knock them out and clean that up.”
The guard grumbles as he taps on his wrist com, and I hear a soft hiss from the breeding room as gas flows through the vents. “What’s the point of all that, anyway? Why don’t you just genetically engineer a baby hybrid, same way you got these six?”
He’s new to Project Vetus. Still wet behind the ears.
“That isn’t how we got these six,” Brennan spits, sauntering toward him with both hands clasped at her back. “These six soldiers are the result of hundreds of trial-and-error splicing procedures. They’re prototypes—the only specimens that have both survived the procedure and been declared useful to Universal Authority, which makes them each more valuable than fifty men drawing your annual salary. And even if we had a baby to slice up on a genetic level, that would cost a fortune. The goal, ultimately, is for these ‘super-soldiers’ to be a self-sustaining resource. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
The guard holds his ground as she approaches, but I can practically see him trembling. Small as she is, Brennan is one scary bitch. At least, to anyone who hasn’t met Dreyer.
“She’s saying that in the long run, it’s cheaper to breed us than to keep splicing together alien-human super-soldier hybrids,” I call out through my cell door. But that may not be true, as long as there’s only one woman among our ranks. Especially if Dreyer doesn’t give them something to work with soon.
I have to get us out of here.
“That, and we want to know how these genes are passed down without scientific interference,” Brennan admits. “When given a fair chance, nature almost always does things better than we can manage in a lab.” The doctor stops in front of my door and looks up at me. “Captain Sotelo.”
“It’s just Carson now,” I remind her. Even if I weren’t officially deceased, we were all stripped of our ranks when we were dismissed from the Tethys military in disgrace. Thanks to Universal Authority.
“I suspect your men will always think of you as their captain.” She gestures to two of the guards. “Sotelo will do, for today.” She turns back to me. “You know the drill.” Then she steps into the center of the hallway, and one of the guards opens a narrow slot in my door at waist height, while the others aim rifles at me.
I stick my hands through the slot, and the guard slides a set of wire cuffs around them. The wire is thin but strong, and should I piss off one of the guards, he can run electricity through it, effectively shocking me into compliance. That particular method of subduing prisoners is still effective on all of us, despite the various physiological changes we’ve undergone.
“There are some investors in our corner of the galaxy tonight,” Brennan says as the guard opens my cell door. “They’ve come out to watch the first gladiatorial match of the season, and while they’re here, they’d like to see what their credits are paying for. You will put on a little show. Nothing fancy. They’ll be happy with an exhibition of your more obvious new traits. If you perform well and follow instructions, I’ll open the back door and let you and your men play outside for a while.”
“And if I don’t?”
“Then I will let the guards knock you out, beat you senseless, then isolate all six of you in individual cells for the next week. No showers. No sunshine. No sounds from beyond those walls,” she says with a glance into my cell.
Aside from outright physical torture, there is little in the world worse than total isolation. Than going a week without seeing another person or hearing another voice, locked up in a space hardly big enough to stretch out in.
The last time they pulled that, it took us hours to bring Lawrence out of his own head. Next time, we might not be able to.
“Fine. But if I play nice, you have to let Dreyer and Zamora out of that room.”
Brennan rolls her eyes at me. “Not as long as she’s ripe for implantation. Unless you’re volunteering to take Thiago’s place. It would only take five minutes, Carson. You’re strong enough to…make her cooperate.”
She scowls at me. “What Lieutenant Dreyer is going through is exhausting and no doubt humiliating. You could relieve her of that burden.”
And saddle her with another one. Against her will.
Even if I were willing to do that—and the word “never” doesn’t even come close to expressing my thoughts on the subject—I will not conceive a child, only to turn the poor thing over to a Universal Authority lab, to be studied like a rat in a cage.
“Fuck off,” I spit at Brennan.
Her eyes narrow, but surely that’s the answer she expected. If any of us were willing to do what she wants, we wouldn’t have waited eleven long months to volunteer.
The entrance to Dreyer’s room opens and the new guard steps out, wearing a ventilator. As the door slides closed again, I see Zamora’s bare legs from the shins down. He’s passed out on the floor from the gas they pumped into the room. I can’t see Dreyer, but she’s no-doubt in the same state.
The wall is sparkly clean.
The guards lead me down the hall and out the thick front door of the laboratory into the wide-open space that makes up the majority of zone X. I’m surprised to realize it’s cold and dark outside.
We’re not allowed out here, except when we’re being loaded onto or off of a shuttle, restrained and under armed guard. Not that there’s much to see, other than empty fields full of waist-high rust-colored grass and a huge metal wall in the distance, defining the boundary of zone X. Red beams of laser wire trace the top of the wall—as if any of us could climb it, even if we could break out of the lab—and moonlight reflects off the smooth surface.
Beyond that wall is yet another metal wall dividing zone X from the other zones. The space between the two walls is a buffer, for security purposes. Neither wall holds a gate, which means the only way into or out of zone X is on a ship.
The pilot lowers a ramp, and the guards march me onto the shuttle, where they cuff me to the far-left seat in the back row. The last two rows are arranged to face each other, presumably so that the scientists can discuss new ways to torture and humiliate us during their commute to and from the lab facility. And so that the guards can keep an eye on prisoners during transportation.
One guard sits next to me and two sit in the row facing mine, while Dr. Brennan and the other three guards sit up front.
I stare out the window as the pilot runs through his checklist. I’m sick of the sterile metal surfaces of the lab, and it’s been nearly a week since we were allowed out into the playground. And despite the nighttime chill, the fresh air feels amazing. Until they seal the door and start blowing canned air into my face.
The shuttle lifts off and we glide smoothly over the barrier walls and out of zone X. I can’t see much of the ground in the dark, but I stare at it anyway, because there’s no telling when I’ll be outside again.
Several minutes into our flight, all six of the guards’ wrist coms begin beeping at once. Dr. Brennan frowns at her tablet, and through the crack between the seats, I can see that an alert is flashing on it as well.
The pilot swivels to face us—there’s no real cockpit on a shuttle this small. “Dr. Brennan, we’ve been ordered to make an emergency stop along the way.”
“No, that won’t be possible. Zone X prisoners are only to be transported directly to Station Delta and back—”
“There’s been an incident,” the guard directly across from me says, staring at his wrist com. “The party yacht has gone down in zone three. No fatalities reported yet, but there are over three hundred civilians on that ship. Most of them high level investors and Universal Authority executives. The rescue mission has been given top priority.”
“Son of a bitch,” Dr. Brennan swears.
One of the guards glances from me to her. “Doc, your zone X investors might have been on that ship.”
“Either way, we have orders,” the pilot says. “Every ship in this hemisphere that’s below the pyro-shield has been ordered to go directly there to start ferrying passengers up to Station Alpha.”
Brennan twists in her seat to look at the guard across from me. “But we have a prisoner on board!”
“Is the prisoner secure?” the pilot asks.
The pilot glances back at me. “Is he the really strong one?” He means Coleman. “Or the one who can make you see things?” That’s Zamora.
“Ma’am, if he’s not a danger to passengers, we have no choice but to comply.”
I’m a huge danger. But only to guards and evil scientists. And I’m not about to point that out.
“They want five of us to stay and help with the evacuation,” one of the guards says, staring at his wrist com. “To free up more seats on the shuttle. More men will be available to help you unload the prisoner when you get to Station Delta.”
Dr. Brennan shakes her head. “Protocol requires a six-to-one ratio of guards to—”
“That’s only when the prisoner is on the move, Doctor. And there will be six guards with you before he’s released from that chair.”
She grumbles something beneath her breath. Then she makes an impatient gesture at the pilot, wordlessly ordering him to get on with it.
A shipwreck in an open population zone, terrified civilian passengers, and a lower-than-average guard-to-prisoner ratio. This is the best shot I’m ever going to get. And if I can get away with the shuttle, maybe I can get all my men off this planet in the chaos…