She was caught. Taken.
Her arms pinned to the wall. Her legs, too. Limbs twisted at an impossible angle. No manacles necessary. Just the cruel indifference of spinning, plummeting centrifugal force.
Cadet Ava Davies struggled to get air past the terror squeezing her lungs. One moment she’d been hustling down a rocky cliff on Dragath25 with her guard, Pratt, at her side, her mind racing with excitement over her recent soil findings, and then…nothing.
She’d woken up here. To searing heat and ear-shattering screams. Her body flung into something hard, her right cheek slammed against what felt like a wall. Unable to move. A painful burn beneath her skin. Twisted bodies flashing in and out of visibility.
“Davies? What’s…happening?” The voice was distorted, but she recognized the speaker. Pratt. The soldier assigned to guard her while she collected ore samples.
He’d never warmed to her. Nor she to him. Still, right now, his familiar voice was the most beautiful thing she’d ever heard.
“Not…sure.” It was hard getting the words out, the force of the drop driving her tongue to the roof of her mouth. “Other…crew?”
There was a momentary pause. As if Pratt was assessing whatever he could see.
“No.” The soldier’s single word was laced with despair.
“For…the…better.” She didn’t want the others in more danger.
First the crash. Now this.
A few moons ago, she’d risked everything and bribed her way onto the scientific mission headed to Dragath25. Then, her shuttle had been brought down and she, along with the few surviving crew, had been forced to run from the planet inmates, murderers and rapists marooned on the planet by the New Earth Council government.
Her crewmates had complained of hunger, and terror, and the cloying red dust that found its way into every crevice and rubbed the throat raw. But not her. Grime and dust didn’t bother her. The threat of death was as familiar as her own heartbeat. She’d lived for years on New Earth with clean skin, a soft bed, and ample food and never felt dirtier.
On Dragath25’s surface, yes, there’d been numerous dangers, but at least she’d been one step closer to finding what had brought her to the prison planet in the first place: freedom.
Now that had been taken from her. Again.
“Where…are…we?” Pratt’s bellow reverberated off the walls, ripping her from her dark thoughts.
She strained to turn her head a quarter inch and caught a quick glimpse of the material against her cheek. Dull gray. Rough. Like the metal back home.
Bile burned at the back of her throat. Maybe she was twisted, but she would have preferred unfamiliar technology. Anything that might suggest whoever had stuck her on this plummeting hell wasn’t human. Because while the possibility of encountering unfamiliar alien life was terrifying, she already knew how monstrous humans could be.
“P—pretty.” As if to prove her thoughts, the ominous earthly word issued from close by.
The next flicker of light revealed an outstretched hand near her nose.
Her gaze traveled outward. It was attached to a massive body. One covered in tattered scraps of fabric. One with the words 225 PROPERTY carved across the torso.
Her heart slammed harder against her ribs.
225 was head of the largest Dragath25 prison gang, his “property” a mob of rapists and killers exiled from Earth, who preyed on anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.
Sure enough, with the next flash, beady yellow eyes glittered at her with lust and the promise of pain.
It was a look she knew too well. One she’d encountered long before the crash and her time on Dragath25.
“You will do as you’re told.” Strike. Fire licked across her skin as he raised the birch cane, his gaze sharp with lust. His row of blank-faced scientists with their charts and instruments huddled behind, playing with their dials as they recalibrated the magnitude of the experimental technology he’d ordered shoved into her brain. Excruciating pain inside and out—along with horrific, humiliating forced pleasure. “You have been engineered to comply, Ayanna.” Strike. Strike. The punishment stick, well-polished and supple despite its advanced age, showed no sign of breaking. No matter how she prayed. But then again, Councilman Gregor Hollisworth took exceptional care of every possession he acquired, except for her, his new bride and breeder.
The lurch of the container smacked her back to the present.
She shook off the memory. Buried it deep. The past couldn’t touch her now.
Whatever happened next, she was no longer Ayanna Talis. No longer the reluctant fifth wife of the most powerful Councilman on New Earth. No longer the plaything of a twisted monster. No longer a bruised and broken pawn with no choice but to submit.
She was Cadet Ava Davies, a trained Academy scientist and low-level Council female whose proud, progressive parents had allowed her more freedom than most.
It was a bold cover—an expensive one she’d paid for with every bit of dowry credit stolen from her husband. But it had held up well these past two years. After all, who would look for a runaway breeder, whose presumed value was between her legs, living among the most respected minds of the universe?
The giant’s outstretched hand twitched, his ragged fingernails stretching toward her. “Pretty…green eyes.”
Green? Her stomach twisted, a new fear taking hold. No wonder her skin was burning. The camouflage and eye dyes had lasted through the crash and the last few hellish weeks, but the extreme heat must be short-circuiting the cheap facial disguise technology.
She was exposed.
“Condemned of Dragath25.” A disembodied, nasal voice filled the hold, heralding a more immediate problem. “Each one of you has been embedded with a tracker while unconscious. You are now the property of the Council mining prison.”
Roars of protest shook the hold. Hers among them.
“Your sole purpose,” announced the mechanized voice, “is to excavate the veins of silver ore found in the caverns. Meet your quota of fifty kitloms per rotation and you will live. Fail and you will die. Descent will end in forty nanosegments.”
“And…you’ll…be mine.” The second comment was human and much closer.
Her gaze locked with Yellow Eyes.
From the way he looked at her, she didn’t think she’d make her quota. Frankly, she wasn’t sure she’d survive five metrals past release from the wall.
And, maybe, a tiny part of her screamed, that was better. Maybe dying fast would be a mercy. Because stuck down here, her chances of finding the ore that would destroy what her husband had put inside her had just been reduced to nil. And whatever hellish fate Yellow Eyes had in store, it couldn’t be as horrific as what the Councilman would do if he learned his runaway bride had resurfaced on his prison planet while searching for a way to gain her freedom once and for all.
The taunt roused her like a slap to the cheek. No! No more begging. No more submitting.
If she hadn’t been searched before she was stuck in this hold, the small homemade spear Bella had insisted she carry was still tucked inside her boot. It might not be enough, but it was something.
Her rotations of folding without a fight were over.
Then a flare of heat licked along her insides, her center cramping—and the fallacy of her bold claim hit hard.
Her husband’s sadistic toy was busy working, the hormonal fever building, and she only had two pills stashed in her uniform pocket. The rest of the homemade meds were still in her hidey-hole at the crew site.
She sucked down a breath. One challenge at a time.
The container shuddered once more. The lights flickered and blinked out.
The hold lurched to a stop.
She tumbled to the floor, pain ricocheting up her wrists as her hands shot forward, saving her face from slamming into metal.
Around her, the thump of other bodies echoed.
She fumbled for her spear.
A meaty hand closed around her ankle.