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A Number of Wrong Turns

Written by alternate_histories :: [Monday, 19 June 2017 10:28] Last updated by :: [Saturday, 24 June 2017 16:57]

Chapter 1

Here’s an interesting fact for you. Even though most cars weigh over a tonne, it’s easy to notice when a woman teleports into one while it’s in motion.

It's the way the passenger seat slams back as if it’s caught a flying boulder.

Thankfully, the speed limit was 30.

“Good evening, Ayjer,” I gritted my teeth as I struggled to keep the car on the lonely desert road; she’d misjudged our relative velocities, again. “I trust you’ll tell Rheda why we won’t get the security deposit back?”

Lounging in the passenger seat, the six foot red head removed the silver diadem from her head and cracked her knuckles. “She can take it out of my pay.”

Bringing the car back to the speed limit after its abrupt deceleration, I checked the mirrors in case the desert had suddenly spawned witnesses. “You could have caused an accident, you know?” I stated wryly.

Out of the corner of my eye, I watched her pointedly look at the barren desert. “Yep; you could have ran into a whole lot of sand.” She agreed.

Keeping my tone light, I pointed my thumb in the direction of the village I’d just passed through. “And if local law enforcement saw me swerve into a sagebrush?”

The redhead looked insulted. Lifting a hand to her modest chest, she huffed, “Are you implying that I couldn’t sweet talk some sheriff out of a mere traffic ticket?”

“I suspect you could convince him to let me get away with murder.” I conceded, switching gears and accelerating as we passed the village’s boundary.

That seemed to mollify her, “… Well, if he didn’t know them very well.” She chuckled, leaning forward as something caught her eye.

Following her gaze and seeing nothing but a stunted pine, I guessed, “… Remind you of home?”

“Kinda,” Ayjer nodded slowly, her head tracking whatever had caught her attention. “Not so many trees on Eighenheim of course.”

I wasn’t entirely sure that Eigenheim’s flora counted as trees; they were the right shape, but they were barely a meter tall. Then again, given they’d spawned on another planet, terrestrial taxonomy probably didn’t apply. “Even fewer aliens.” I gave her an amused sideways glance.

“Well, hopefully with your help, there’ll be less by the end of the week.” She smirked.

“Yeah …” I said slowly, reaching up to run my fingers through my short blonde hair. “Remind me why I’m being sent out here to help with that; I’m not a field agent?” Technically I wasn’t one of Rheda’s agents at all; I wasn’t even in university yet … but, apparently, when your best friend is an alien, her boss gets to ask you to help save the planet up to twice a year.

“You need reasons? Ok,” Ayjer started to count on her fingers, “One; you know more about the Andskoti than any other human on Earth. Two, you’ve fought Andskoti-.”

My knuckles turned a panicked white on the wheel, “Three times. And only when running wasn’t an option; I’m not Rambo.” I spoke without a hint of shame; Andskoti may look human, but the weakest of them could outwrestle a bear.

The redhead rewarded my cowardly admission with an affectionate head rub, “And so you should; Andskoti are way too dangerous for humans to fight. That said, you have fought them and while your tactics were unconventional-”

“Last time, I pushed a crate onto one of them.” I muttered, remembering the earsplitting crash. “I think it had airplane parts in it? Then I ran away while he was pinned.”

“-They were effective.” Ayjer continued, pointedly. “You remember what Rheda says about a fair fight?”

“It’s an ‘unnecessary handicap’.” I quoted with a sigh.

“Besides, we don’t want you within five miles of an Andskoti.”

“You always say that.”

“We always mean it.” Ayjer replied with a serious, but sympathetic smile. “We’re here to fight.” Giving my shoulder a gentle punch, she stated. “All we need from you is some intelligence work; read their mail, put two and two together. Stuff you’ve done before.”

My response was a grunt. I’d been doing this ‘stuff’ for Rheda since I was 16 and we’d never had a 2+2 problem; usually it was 1.1 + 0.20 + banana.

But, this wasn’t just a job. However … “I could do all that back home on my laptop.”

“No doubt in your pyjamas, before your first cup of Earl Grey.”

“Nonsense; I don’t drink tea.”

Ayjer smirked, but then explained, “Rheda’s worried about the time difference.”

“This is Nevada, not New Zealand; it’s only 8 hours behind the UK.”

“And if something happens at 5pm?”

“They have this marvellous invention called a telephone; it’s been around longer than you have.” I was … fairly certain of that; Bell made that call in the 1870’s, didn’t he?

“I meant 5pm local time, genius,” Ayjer rolled her eyes.

“What time do you think I go to bed?” I shot back with feigned indignation.

“If you’re smart, the same time your girlfriend does.” She snorted.

Despite myself, I felt my cheeks colour. My relationship with Linith was almost a year old but Ayjer … was very good at teasing me about intimate things.

I wished I was less of a geek. “I suppose that time is critical in this search for an alien ‘gentleman’s club.’” I said, dryly reminding Ayjer that this mission had been so far down Rheda’s list of priorities she’d literally considered investigating a suspiciously blonde Fox newscaster. But it’d been a dry month and, as low a priority as it was … she couldn’t ignore a fresh lead; the Andskoti used this club to reward humans they’d suborned, so it was a legitimate, if lowbrow objective.

But my tone washed completely over my friend. “We’re in Nevada honey; they’re called Ranches.” She corrected.

“It’d be nice if the Andskoti were foolish enough to calls theirs that,” I murmured; in a galaxy of worlds, Earth wouldn’t be a priority for the Empire until our tech base was advanced enough to be worth taking, particularly given our powerful neighbours, so we tended to get its … less gifted agents. Sadly they tended to be more corrupt than stupid, so we couldn’t count on seeing ‘comfort women’ in the yellow pages. “I’d be home in a day.”

“Nah; where’s the fun in that?” Ayjer shook her head. “Come on, Faré; you’re 18, free of school, and tonight you’re being paid by a fantastically rich woman to go look at stunningly attractive girls in very little clothing. You could drag that out for weeks if you were smart.”

“I do have a girlfriend.” I pointed out, knowing Ayjer wouldn’t see that as a problem.

“She won’t mind.” She replied, proving me right.

She was probably correct; I tried not to make a habit of it, but Linith didn’t get upset if I glancing at other women. I hoped that was because she knew she was the one I loved. My walking around brothels likely wouldn’t faze her either, provided it was part of an investigation but …

Frowning, I took my eyes off the road long enough to glance at Ayjer. “Why would I need to visit any of these places?”

For the first time since she’d teleported into the car, the redheaded superwoman didn’t have an immediate answer. After a second of looking lost for words she nonchalantly rolled her shoulders and waved her hand speculatively. “… Naturally we’ll need a human who’s fluent in Andskoti to case sites.”

Because aliens pretending to be humans left notes in their native tongue lying in the open? That didn’t sound right.

“Oh, oh my god,” I groaned, slapping my head into the chair rest as the truth hit me. “Rheda didn’t want me out here; you did!”

“I have … no idea what you’re talking about.” Ayjer replied with an innocence that no longer fooled me.

“Yes you do,” I continued to bounce my head off the chair back in frustration; why didn’t I see this? “You’ve been on this task a week. It’s incredibly dull; you’ve only got two agents to talk to, one … damn it, I forget his name but he’s new, and the other is Taro, who you don’t get along with.”

“I have nothing against Taro.” Ayjer responded sharply. “He’s a very good at what he does.”

“I meant you don’t click.” I shrugged. “So you thought you’d entertain yourself by seeing how many times you could make me blush walking through a brothel?” Glancing to my right again, I could see her struggling to come up with an excuse.

“You have a lot of … relevant skills.” She answered, to the sound of her foot lightly tapping the car’s floor. It was her rarest non-verbal tic, because it meant she was embarrassed.

“All of which, I could use back in England!” I showed her my watch, which, as I’d forgotten to reset it at the airport, was still set to GMT. “Without wasting most of a day travelling.”

The tapping increased as Ayjer bit her lip, stared at the ceiling, a passing cactus, and finally crossed her arms sullenly. “You can’t prove it.”

I said nothing.

“Rheda’s nearly 300 years old; who knows what goes through her head? Maybe she rolled over in bed and thought, ‘that Nevada case needs wrapping up; where’s my best Andskoti magnet?’”

I continued to say nothing.

Slapping her foot down with irritation, Ayjer confessed, “Fine! Maybe I thought you could do with a little vacation?”

The road rumbled beneath the tyres for a few seconds before I finally arched an eyebrow. “I beg your pardon?”

“You’ve got to live a bit, Faré. You’re 18 and you’re being paid to drive, unsupervised, across The United States. That… didn’t present any possibilities to you?” Still lounging in her seat, she waved a hand at the passing desert.

“Mainly it makes me wonder how much carbon I’ll put into the atmosphere.” I muttered; I didn’t really like driving.

In the dying light, I noted how the sun reddened her cheeks as she scowled, but before she could say anything, I held up my hand, “I know what you’re getting at, but I’m not going to abuse Rheda’s trust. I’ll do the job, now that I’m here.”

From the corner of my eye, I could see her expression sharpen as she leaned forward, “Oh, really now? Why?”

I wasn’t sure how to respond to that; I mean the answer was too obvious. More tarmac disappeared beneath us before I finally exclaimed, “Because it’s my job?”

My reaction seemed to surprise her a little, for she recoiled slightly before changing tack. “No, honey,” She shook her head, gently gripping my elbow. “I mean why bother? This task is bunk; win or fail, it’s not going to affect the Andskoti’s mission. At best, we might irritate some bankers.”

“Remember how we all thought Operation Enduring Poverty was a joke?” I asked.

“There’s not going to be another recession because someone didn’t get their rocks hauled.” Ayjer rolled her eyes. “My point is this time it really isn’t about saving the world. Why don’t you, you know, relax a bit?”

I just frowned, “Because it’s my job?

Ayjer gave me a sour look. “Hasn’t anyone reminded you that teenagers aren’t supposed to be so dedicated?”

“Not in the last week.” I observed, “Also; you never say that to Linith?”

“Linith is Svarthvik; heroism is literally in our genes.”

“Uh huh?” Under my breath, I counted down from seven; even looking at the road, I could see her stiffen when she realised what she’d said.

“… Not that I mean humans aren’t heroic!” Her eyes flared with alarm. “But, well; we’re raised for this. Our civilisation is based around duty and honour and … fuck, I’m just making this worse.”

When someone’s digging themselves a hole, one has the option of giving them a spade, or a ladder. I could have pointed out that Linith was raised on Earth, away from the rest of her species, but instead I shrugged. “I’m a geek; by definition, I flout heteronormative societal precepts.”

Ayjer’s expression suggested I’d been a little too esoteric, “If you’re saying that geeks can be heroic… of course they can?”

“I mean I like doing my job, and I really like helping you guys.”

“And we’re proud of you but the thing is, Faré, you’re still just a kid. Don’t you ever want to just bail out sometimes, have some fun?”

“Just because I don’t go out clubbing doesn’t mean I don’t have fun.” I tapped my chest. “Geek, remember?” What I’d said entirely true; Linith loved to go out, and I loved to be with her. It was an easy compromise.

Stretching my fingers on the wheel, I grimaced, “Not that I don’t enjoy being teased for being young and having a worth ethic, but is there a reason you’re here? …I didn’t think I was that late?”

“Oh you’re plenty late,” Ayjer said, nonchalantly buffing her nails and watching how they looked in the setting sun. “But that’s not why I’m here.”

If it was something serious she wouldn’t be playing around; Ayjer was irreverent, but not reckless … most of the time. “Ok?”

Innocently, she said, “I wanted to find out why you’re a hundred miles off course, and heading in the wrong direction?”

WHAT!” I exploded.

If it weren’t for the fact that Ayjer wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, I’d have slammed on the brakes. It’d have been very dramatic but, even though she’d have survived the trip through the windscreen, I didn’t want to have to explain the hole to the car rental people.

Instead, I very responsibly brought us to a slow stop and parked us off road before turning to face her, “I can’t be!”

She gave me a look that asked if I was honestly questioning the person who’d teleported across half the state to find me. “Well … not quite a hundred miles.” She admitted quietly. “But getting there; I have to admit, when I saw where you were, I did wonder if you were trying to pull something?” She asked with a surprisingly penetrating inquiring glance.

“No!” I shook my head, honestly horrified by the insinuation and pointed to the glowing satnav. “I just followed that!”

“I know… but I did kinda hope you were trying to pull something,” Grinning, she gently elbowed me again and pulled the unit off of its arm, “Ok, so you’ve managed to enter the correct address,” she observed, fingers caressing the sat nav’s screen as she fiddled with it, “but … I can see your problem.”

“What is it?” I asked with a sinking heart; had I somehow managed to enter a way point a 150 miles away from the hotel?

Flipping the screen around to show a massive ‘n’ shaped route around the north of Nevada, she quipped in an awful Louisiana accent, “The thing's dun brokin’, darling.”

Groaning, I let my head fall until the bridge of my nose was pressing against the leather of the steering wheel. “Seriously?”

“Afraid so, honey.” She shrugged and gave me a sympathetic look before returning to the screen. “It seems to have a hard preference for I-80.”

“Well … that does explain why I’ve been heading north for an hour.” I sighed, lifting my head and pointing to the distant, looming, mountain range, now virtually black as the sun set behind it. “I thought it was just trying to take me around that.”

“Sorry, honey,” She shrugged, tossing the unit into the back seat. “It’s not your fault; you got dealt a bad hand.”

“Thanks,” I griped, meaning it but finding my mood soured by thoughts of yet more hours of driving, just to get back where I started.

“Honey, you’ve flown over an ocean and been in the car for three hours; I’ll find you somewhere to stay the night,” Ayjer assured me, “It's kinda my fault you’re here after all.”

“But-” I started to object, then wondered why; I didn’t want to drive all night and I was a little ticked off that I’d been summoned, basically to entertain her. Instead, I tried a more pragmatic question. “Did you happen to memorise any good hotels around here?”

“For the boondocks part of a state with a less than 30 people per square mile?” She gave me an incredulous look, then shook her head. “Afraid not, sport; but … that’s why the gods gave me this.” She tapped the circlet of silver metal she’d taken off when she materialised. “Be right back.”

And with that, she was gone, literally vanishing in a flash of white light. Blinking away the spots, I gave a quick glance skyward, but it was still too bright to see the flash of re-materialisation. Svarthvik were limited by line of sight so she couldn’t just teleport back home to check TripAdvisor; given the way she’d been holding her diadem, I assumed she was literally going to look for hotels in the area.

Well … for a given value of ‘literally’; as amazing as Svarthvik were, even Ayjer couldn’t accurately check a dozen square miles with just her eyes. Her diadem, on the other hand combined breathtakingly advanced alien sensors with equally amazing pattern recognition software.

It was just a shame they weren’t Windows compatible or she could have just uploaded a travel guide.

…Which reminded me; while she was up in the clouds, I started to root through the cars various luggage compartments looking for guidebooks, pamphlets or something that might indicate the nearest American alternative to a Premier Inn. Didn’t hire cars use brochures in place of airbags?

This one, it turned out, wasn’t even equipped with a road atlas. It had the most basic medical kit I’d ever seen, the manual and … some bright pink wrapping paper stuffed into one of the side pockets?

While I was trying to phrase the complaint that would use the lack of a map as justification for reclaiming the security deposit, the car jumped as Ayjer reappeared in the passenger side seat.

“You’re in luck, sport,” The redhead grinned, her blue eyes refocusing as she slipped the diadem off and shook out her hair, “looks like there’s a place about 5 miles from here.”

“Really?” I asked, not terribly surprised to hear she hadn’t found accommodation in the village; I’d never actually been somewhere that was literally a single street.

“Yep.” Ayjer nodded, “Looks like a popular place; well kept frontage, immaculate landscaping, big neon sign out front, lots of cars in the lot; I’m sure you’ll love it.”

I had to admit, the impersonal accommodation of a hotel appealed more than a bed and breakfast … or did they call them ‘mom and pop’ places over here? “And it’s 5 miles away?”

“Uh huh,” Ayjer was already tapping on the sat nav, lining up the map with whatever she’d seen from the sky above. “You’ll have lots of fun; you have the company card, right?”

“Not likely to forget it,” I nod, padding my breast pocket; a debit card loaded with $10,000 in discretionary funds was hardly something I was going to leave on the dresser.

Lots of fun.” Ayjer affirmed.

If I’d been less tired, I’d probably have taken more notice of the relish with which she pressed the ‘confirm’ button, or how much fun she was expecting me to have in a hotel.

Chapter 2

Night had fully fallen by the time I finally reached Ayjer’s ‘hotel’, and as I nudged the car’s heater up a notch, I ruminated on the firsthand lesson I was being given in how quickly air cools when it doesn’t contain much water vapour.

I was also being reminded why I should never, ever, under any circumstances, trust Ayjer to make my sleeping arrangements.

She’d been right about the size of the place; it was a good few acres of land, enclosed by a low white fence and some attractive sandstone boulders at the end of a shallow valley. The car park was spacious, freshly painted, and half filled with quite a few breeds of Lexus, Cadillac and similar mid-life crisis cars. There was even a Ferrari near the main entrance … though I wouldn’t have liked to see the cost of repainting it after a day of driving through the desert.

In short, it looked a lot like an upscale All-American ranch; there was even a horse paddock.

There was also a sign. A bright … neon over the entrance to aforementioned car park. It was … tasteful. The lady on it was fully clothed, wearing a jacket that, while unbuttoned, was still modest and she was and not at all provocatively positioned. If it wasn’t for the suggestive up tilt of her lips, or the way her hand invitingly waved over ‘Gentleman’s Club’, it might have graced any billboard in America.

Parked on the road outside said ‘gentleman’s club,’ I repeatedly beat my head against the steering wheel.

One other thing Ayjer had neglected to mention was that when she’d said 5 miles, she meant it was 5 miles from anywhere. I didn’t even need to check the sat nav; the ‘ranch’ was located so deep in the desert I’d worried the machine had broken again.

But … this left me in a quandary. Obviously I couldn’t stay the night; even if I’d been tempted by lady’s mischievous smile, I wasn’t a member. But the sat nav could barely be trusted to tell me place names, I was well out of cellphone range and as Ayjer had said, Nevada was largely empty; I could drive around for hours and still not find a place.

That left me with the option of sleeping in the car, or girding my loins, driving into this most masculine of places and very politely asking the front desk if they could direct me to the nearest hotel.

I smacked my forehead one last time; there were so many humiliating ways this could end, and being thrown out was the least of them.

Sighing, I put the car in gear, reminding myself a few moments of humiliation were better than sleeping under my coat in the backseat. Yet I still felt like the sign girl was mocking me as I sidled under her knowing gaze.

A little to my surprise, there wasn’t a doorman, or bouncer … or whatever you call the tactically shaved gorillas who guard these places. I didn’t even need to use an intercom, and the scent that rolled out of the door wasn’t French perfume, but some kind of pine.

Noting the pleasantly non-salacious welcome mat, and rustic, but elegant interior, I was briefly transfixed by painting of a wolf pack, surprised that it was an actual oil painting. That made me start to think that maybe I’d misjudged this place, and then I saw the receptionist.

She was … not fully clothed.

To be precise, all the vital areas were covered, but not by something she could walk around outside in. Not if she didn’t want to catch a severe chill.

Suddenly not knowing where to look and resisting the urgent need to just turn around, I approached the desk. “Uh … hi,” I greeted her, steadfastly looking her in the face rather than down where my eyes wanted to go. The young blonde looked to be about 20 and was no doubt used to men leering at her, but that didn’t make it right.

“Hello.” She responded coolly, her nose delicately wrinkling as she inhaled several hours of stale car sweat. “Can I help you … sir?”

“Yes … this is kind of embarrassing,” I scratched under my watch, “I’m a little lost and I was hoping you might be able to tell me where I can find a place to sleep tonight?” Realising how that sounded in a hot flash, I urgently clarified, “Uh not here. Naturally; I mean a hotel or something? My sat nav is on the fritz so if you had a road atlas or something …?”

Inwardly cringing, expecting her to laugh or sneer, or just tell me to get the hell out, I was instead subjected to a stare so intense it made me wonder if I had a mark from hitting my head on the wheel. But after what seemed like an eternity, she relaxed, offered me a controlled smile and with a mildly Germanic accent, replied, “That is quite alright… sir; I uh, do not have a ‘road atlas’, but if you will wait in the lounge, I will get help.”

Nodding gratefully, I followed the elegant wave of her hand, trying to place her accent; it had a soft, guttural inflection which I vaguely recognised but was too tired to pay much attention to as I entered the lounge, which turned out to be a small seating area with a crackling log fireplace and open, but currently unattended, bar on the far wall.

Having successfully negotiated the conversation without metaphorically inserting a lower extremity into my oral cavity, I felt relieved enough to actually relax a little. The fire was gloriously warm and as I sank into the sofa, I felt my tension drain into the soft cushions. Maybe I was over thinking this? I just needed to wait and try not to stare at the receptionist when she came back.

To be clear, prostitution isn’t wrong. It wasn’t a nice profession, but so long as a woman was treated with respect, then I had no problem with it …I just didn’t know how to act around half naked women; it wasn’t something I had a lot of experience with. I also didn’t know how I was going to explain this to Linith, but whatever I came up with, it was going to be prefaced with ‘Ayjer tricked me’.

What seemed like a mere minute later, I heard heels clicking on the polished hallway floor and felt my eyes widen as I turned to see the blonde receptionist, flanked by two friends in similar states of undress.

On some level, I was aware I should be stunned by how the one on the left was wearing a corset one sharp breath away from a wardrobe malfunction, or the one on the right was wearing an actual garter belt with stockings, or be mesmerised by the fact that the receptionist’s top clearly offered no support whatsoever when she moved.

But instead, it struck me that all three were the exact same shade of blonde.

“I’m afraid I have bad news,” The receptionist solemnly shook her head as she stepped into the lounge, speaking with an accent that I can now quite easily identify. “We have no road atlas.”

I actually feel my heart sink as her friends follow her in, the one in stockings standing by the doorway with her arms folded, and the other taking position directly behind me. “… That’s ok,” I assured her, trying to ‘casually’ look around the room and finding that the other exit was behind the bar. “If you can just point me in the right direction, I’ll be on my way.”

“Oh, we don’t wish to be rude.” The receptionist flashed a cruel smile as she stepped in front of me, her eyes boring into mine. “Besides, you said you were looking for a place to sleep tonight?”

“I doubt that I could afford this place.” I swallowed; there was no way I was getting out of there of course, but if I played along, I could buy precious seconds that I could use to … uh, live longer in. My eyes frantically scanned the sofa and floor, but unless those pillows had some really heavy sequins they wouldn’t help me much.

Linith could probably find a use for them … but my girlfriend could punch through a brick wall; anything was a weapon in her hands. I was just an analyst, and my expertise was telling me, far too late, that the woman wasn’t human.

Nor was her friend by the door way … or the one in the corset who’d just locked her fingers around my shoulder.

The receptionist leaned down so her grinning face was level with mine. “Oh, we insist, Faré.”

Chapter 3

It shames me to admit that in the seconds that followed that imperative statement I did absolutely nothing. An action hero would likely have done … well, anything; quipped about being a captive audience, commented on her tailoring, or kicked her in the chin.

I was not so fortunate; fear had paralysed the speech centres of my brain, slut shaming was cruel and while I was filled with adrenaline, it’d be utterly useless against a woman who was three times stronger than I was, even if her friend didn’t have me literally in hand.

How did she know my name?

Presented with this most important of questions, I said the first thing that came to mind.

“Could you say that while standing to the right?”

On the face of things, that might have sounded like the word salad of a mind on the verge of fear induced cognitive collapse … and I won’t deny that was true. But as Ayjer had said, I have had the misfortune of being in this approximate position before, many times in fact, and something I’d noticed was that as Andskoti are usually very direct, non sequiturs tend to confuse them, and confusion is desirable in a captor.

I just wished I could think of a way to use it as the receptionist reared back, a frown on her perfectly symmetrical face. “What?”

“I didn’t mean to interrupt; you’ve very clearly put some thought into your menacing speech, but as you were standing right in front of the fire … I couldn’t see you very well. If you’d like to try from the left or right-”

She punched me.

That … was unexpected. Or so I mused when my head stopped rocking and the pain receded enough for me to string two thoughts together.

On top of being direct, Andskoti I’d met previously had military self control which took more than a disingenuous comment to break. But beyond that, it just didn’t make any sense for her to punch me in the face. The stomach? Sure. Maybe the chest, but if she broke my jaw, I couldn’t talk!

Thankfully she had pulled the punch enough to merely bruise, but I could already feel my face starting to swell, though as I reached up to rub the welt, I felt new pain as my wrist was roughly grasped and forced down to my side.

“I don’t have much of a sense of humour.” The receptionist scowled, drawing back her hand, only to lower it when I cringed.

“So … I see,” I muttered thickly, working my jaw and tasting blood though I was fairly sure she hadn’t loosened any teeth. “How’d you know my name?”

I was expecting her to tell me ‘I’M asking the questions,” perhaps with another blow for emphasis, but again I was surprised when she merely sneered down at me. “Being stuck in the ass end of this planet means I have plenty of time to read those bulletins the military puts out.” She crowed, cockily putting her hands on barely covered hips. “And when a guy comes in smelling of crimson skank, it’s not hard to put a name to a face.”

From her victorious smirk, I assumed she wanted me to show shock, but another reason not to hit someone in the face, is that swelling paralyses muscles. When I failed to react, her face soured, “…Which brings me to my first question,” Slowly drawing her arms up and folding them, she demanded, “Why are you here?”

“Would you believe my sat nav broke?” I grumbled; most people say I suck at lying, so why bother?

“You’re serious?” She stared at me incredulously.

“Do you really think I’d walk in here if I knew what was inside?” I shot back, wishing her friend would let me rub my jaw. “If we knew you were here, your first clue would be when Svarthvik knocked the door down.”

“True … so, they don’t know you’re here?”

For half a second, I debated whether to tell the truth … and earned a hard slap for my hesitation. “NO!” I hissed. The word felt sloppy, as if I was drooling, but it wasn’t until I saw red flecks fly through the air that I realised my mouth was bleeding freely. “Zwei came to find out why I was late; that’s why you could smell her.”

For reasons that should be obvious, we don’t refer to the Svarthvik by their actual names.

“She knows you’re here?” The receptionist pressed.

“… No.” I tried to make it sound like a reluctant admission. “She told me to find a hotel in the area; this was the first place I came across.”

“You drove a mile into a random valley, just in case you might find accommodation?”

Damn; this was why I didn’t like to lie. “… She saw this place from the air; thought you looked like you might serve guests.” As her face registered shock, I hissed, “Again. If she knew you were here, we wouldn’t be having this conversation!” An Andskoti could crush me, but Ayjer would struggle to notice them; they had to know that as well and I was keen to emphasise they didn’t need to make any rash decisions, like … kill me.

Apparently I succeeded because the receptionist didn’t order her friend to break my neck … though that might’ve had something to do with the older looking woman who’d just entered the lounge.

I say older looking because Andskoti age slower than humans; the mature woman looked 40 but she might have been as old as Ayjer.

Grimacing at me as one might dog filth, the Madame snapped her fingers at the receptionist. “Kill the gods, Amararie; get him a towel before he bleeds on the upholstery.” As the younger woman departed, the Madame roughly pinched my chin and rolled my head about in a way that almost made me think she was looking for brain damage, until I realised she was actually checking to see if I’d stained her furniture.

Apparently satisfied I’d kept my filthy blood out of the fabric, she briskly ordered the woman behind me to “Take him,” before marching out of the room.

The ‘him’ had no choice on whether he was taken, naturally, as nails were driven into his flesh and nearly lifted him bodily off the sofa. I fear he made most unmanly screams as this happened, but fortunately the experience was brief.

Before shoving me out into the corridor, the Madame made another snap decision and had me roughly frisked, and I watched, impotent, as my wallet, phone and car keys walk away in the arms of another scantily clad lady. The phone would be useless; even if they could get through the encryption, it was only loaded with ghost numbers, but without keys, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Rolling my shoulder as I was guided down a wooden hallway, I decided that despite the five burning punctures, it probably wasn’t broken, nor dislocated though, if I made it to morning, I was going to be sore.

Halfway down the hallway, ‘Amararie’ caught up with us, green paper towels in hand and looking more than a little annoyed to see her errand had been unnecessary. I bore the brunt of her frustration as she roughly ground the towels over my split lip while we walked.

“How long until the whoreslut realises you’re missing,” The Madame asked, without any apparent trace of irony.

“Not long. She’ll expect me to phone as soon as I arrive; she worries.” I answered, lying about every particular except the last.

Opening the door to another, darker room, presumably one with more privacy than the lounge, Madame ordered me inside with a toss of her head. Despite an unnecessarily hard push from her minion, I managed to remain on my feet and quickly assed my surroundings.

It was a dark room; there was one door, and behind me there were three women who could turn me into a pretzel. The fact that my hands were free was not much comfort given the only furniture consisted of a chair and telephone table.

“Ok,” I said, eyeing the phone, “before this gets unpleasant, could I make a proposal? If you let me call my friends, I’ll tell them that this place … doesn’t accept guests. The nearest town is what, five miles away? That’s a good fifteen minutes in my car; you can keep my mobile so you’ll have plenty of time to disappear.” Rubbing my jaw again, I grimaced as my hand came away stained red and added, “I could even give you 30 minutes if there’s no more … unpleasantness.”

Madame strode forward, her flat shoes sounding hollow on the bare floorboards, “That is a ‘generous offer,” she mocked, the hallway light making her dishevelled hair look like tarnished brass, “but it does assume that we’ll let you go once you tell your friends you’re declining our hospitality.”

“Naturally, we’ll both be operating on the honour system.” I retorted, and from the way their faces harden, immediately realise it was the wrong thing to say.

“Honour is not something any man who’s crossed our boundary has understood,” Madame said, so darkly that I protectively raised my hands.

“Ok, how about simple pragmatism then?” I countered sharply. “If you have reports on me, you know who my friends are? Now imagine what they’ll do if I’m hurt; I’m sure you read what they did to Ishikido?” There was a brief flash of recognition in Madame’s eyes so I pressed on. “They don’t care about this place; it was literally the last thing they wanted to do. Hell I’m only here because Zwei wanted someone to talk to. Let me go and she’ll return the favour.” Taking the time to look each and every one of them in face, I reiterated. “If you don’t let me go, all of you are going to die, and tearing me apart won’t change that.”

I hadn’t realised how hard I was breathing until I stopped speaking. Please make no mistake; I was absolutely terrified and given that they held all the cards, I have no idea where I’d found the gall to try negotiating, but if it meant walking out of there, I was going to run with it.

For a few seconds I actually dared to think it might work, but then Madame’s lips curled, “And how long will it be before your friend starts to look for you?”

A dozen possible answers flashed through my mind. Of them I chose to answer with a question of my own. “… Perhaps I wasn’t clear? She’s expecting me to call within 10 minutes.”

“And even if that’s true, it will be at least half an hour before she realises something is wrong.” The Madame answered coolly. I had the impression that if she’d been smoking, she’d have disdainfully exhaled smoke in my direction. “That’s more time than we need to take you out to our bunker in the hills and see what noises you make while we break your fingers.”

I think I actually went white; I’ve met a lot of Andskoti and it’d be fair to say that most of them didn’t like me. But that was because we were on opposing sides; it wasn’t personal. The Madame’s smile belonged to someone who set snares in a horse paddock and that was downright petrifying because I’d never met an Andskoti who would enjoy hurting me.

In face of the sadistic glee on her face, it took every drop of courage I had left to point out, “… You can’t be sure she won’t find you. There’s no cover out there and Svarthvik are really good at digging out bunkers.”

Cocking her head in consideration, Madame bit her thumb, “How about a counter proposal? You call the whoreslut and tell them that you have decided to take advantage of our hospitality.”

Swallowing that instinctive reaction and trying to keep my voice strong, I pointed out. “You could still torture me.”

“Yes. We could.” She said, that malicious grin making her teeth seem to glow in the room’s dim light.

My heart sank to a place I didn’t even know it could reach. Every other Andskoti I’d met had been honourable; they were military professionals after all. That Madame wouldn’t even bother with the pretence did not bode well. “And the reprisals don’t phase you?” I ventured, genuinely confused.

“Our bunker is deep; your friends will have to take their vengeance out on someone else.” She snorted and gestured to the phone. “Now, call her or I’ll have Claire here start with your pinkie.”

To her right, the one in the corset, presumably Claire, stepped forward and very deliberately cracked her knuckles. She had to have taken it from a movie because Andskoti synovial fluid doesn’t cavitate.

The absence of sound didn’t make the sight of a tall, very powerful, woman stepping towards me with a positively sadistic smile on her face any less intimidating, and it took all of my remaining nerve to look past her and cry, “You’re going to have to give me something.”

Much to my relief, the older blonde’s eye twitched. Capitalising on her surprise, I snapped, “You read my file! Either give me a better option than torture in five minutes, or do it now and to hell with you when Zwei gets here!”

If I wasn’t so desperate, I’d have been surprised by how level my voice remained. I’d also have been disappointed, because telling your captors to do their worst is a terrible cliché … but what other option did I have? If they were just going to torture me anyway, I didn’t see much advantage in delaying that by the length of a phone call; even if I yelled ‘help’ down the line, I’d still be dead a dozen grizzly times over before Ayjer got to the Ranch.

The Madame’s expression curdled like someone who’d bitten a grape and found it sour; she was still going to chew and swallow, but she wasn’t going to enjoy it.

“Fine.” She uttered in a low hiss. “Maybe you’ll be worth more undamagedg. Make the call and we’ll leave you alone until the shuttle gets here in the morning. They can have the pleasure of making you squeal.”

Despite my best efforts not too, I cringed; I’d hoped that they’d keep me planet side for a while, but if they were willing to risk a shuttle, then they knew exactly who I was.

But I had some time; hyper advanced technology or not, Andskoti ships weren’t totally invisible to radar. Waiting until morning meant they were waiting for a terrestrial aircraft that could mask their presence.

“Ok,” I nodded, agreeing to her terms.

Waving her hand to the phone, she made a ‘hurry up’ gesture with her fingers, “Well go on then.”

I’d hoped they’d let me use my mobile, with its home brew ‘duress’ phone app, but no luck. Still, there were other ways of-

“And keep your sentences simple.” Madame snapped. “If you start asking her how your pet dog is, or anything that even sounds like a password, your call will end with your bicep being torn from your arm.”

Well … damn; she’d thought of that too.

All of Rheda’s agents had certain phrases to indicate they were in trouble, one of them was, in fact, asking how a non-existent pet was doing, but there were also specific words … none of which were innocuous enough to insert into a ‘simple’ phone call.

I tried another tack, “I have to give a password; otherwise she’ll know I’m in trouble.”

Unfortunately, my bluff fell flat as the blonde merely shrugged. “Then you’re going to have to think of a reason why you’re not giving it; you’re supposed to be a smart human, but if you need inspiration …” She looked past me and I had a microsecond’s warning before Claire’s nails raked my arm, tearing ragged holes through my shirt and drawing enough blood to instantly soak my sleeve.

OK!” I gasped, clenching my teeth and blinking furiously as the pain brought tears to my eyes.

You can snicker at a man crying if you like, but being beaten hurts. If my body wanted to release some tension by making my eyes water, I could live with that; being a geek meant I’d discovered really early on, well before I learned about aliens hiding on Earth, that pride wasn’t worth much.

Besides, there’s a difference between looking weak, and being weak.

“Good,” Madame purred, her point made. “Now go ahead. And remember, Claire’s going to be right behind you.”

As if I could forget? The corseted woman was so close I could feel her heat against the nape of my neck.

As I reached for the phone, I noticed the other woman, not the receptionist but the one in stockings, doing something to the wire with a pen knife. No one seemed ready to explain it though, so I lifted the receiver and started dialling.

The number was disposable, naturally; it would invisibly connect to the Factory switchboard without giving away where our home base actually was. Once that was done, I asked to be put through to ‘Zwei’ and really, really wished we did have to give a non-duress password we had to tell the operator; I was certainly going to suggest it if I got out of this. US Marines had a nice one; they only answered ‘things are fine’ if they had a gun to their heads.

Instead, the Operator recognised my voice and put me straight through. That was the downside of being part of an organisation with less than 35 people in it; everyone thought they could trust you.

When Ayjer spoke, I learned what the woman by my feet was doing, because the moment my friend said “Hiya kid,” the line quality went to hell. I could still hear what Ayjer was saying, but there were so many pops and clicks that any hope I had of convincing Ayjer something was wrong through tone of voice were shot.

“Uh… hi.” I mumbled, turning away from the Madame’s victorious grin.

“What was that? Where are you calling from; the 1950’s”

“Sorry. This place is pretty far out in the… ‘boondocks.’” I answer, guessing that if I couldn’t give the duress password, maybe I could get her attention with out of character words.

There was an electronic gurgle of noise that I assumed was her chortle, “Oh! You’re at the ranch? I thought you found a place quickly; so how is it, are the ladies treating you right?”

“It’s…” My voice jumped an octave as Claire’s nails prickled the skin of my neck. “Fantastic; though you were supposed to be finding me a hotel.

Through the popping and hissing I could hear her snort, “I figured that nowhere else would have comfier beds.”

The funny thing was, even though she was laughing, she was serious. “Yes… well maybe you’ve got a point.”

“Oh?” I could hear her surprise. “You’re… staying?”

Holding my breath, I went for broke. “Actually… I was thinking I would.”

My heart soared as I heard the sudden suspicion in her voice. “You are?”

“Yeah…” quickly, before Claire or one of the other Andskoti could try and cut the conversation short, I went on. “Remember how you said I needed to live a bit? I figured, why not take your advice?”

“… How long were you thinking of staying?” She asked. “What about the mission?”

“What about it?” I scoffed. “You said it was bunk, right; I mean weather girls rank higher than this place. You don’t need me to find it, for a few days at least?”

“I suppose…” Ayjer allowed, sounding uncertain enough that I wondered if she’d caught my improper use of tense. “Are you sure?”

Before she could say something like ‘this isn’t like you,” I interrupted, “I’m 18 years old, Zwei; did you think you could lead me to a brothel and I wouldn’t uh,” I wasn’t sure how to end that without sounding unbelievably crass, “make… use of it?”

That must have amused her, because there was another belch of electronic laughter, “Fair enough. Ok, enjoy yourself, but not too long, kid; I need you.”

“Three nights?” I begged. “Come on; let me live a little, Zwei.”

“Three…?” She repeated, sounding unconvinced, “I suppose I did encourage you; ok, three nights and I’ll cover things with the others. But then you’re on the job, ok mister?”

“Sure thing.” I agreed, resisting the urge to breathe a sigh of relief. “I’ll look forward to it and, uh, give my love to Drei, ok?””

“I’ll let her know how much you miss her.”

“But not where I am?” I begged, like every guy who’d realised they were somewhere their girlfriend wouldn’t approve.

“That… is up for negotiation.” She chuckled devilishly. “I’ll keep quiet for now, but remember; you owe me, Mister.”

“Anything.” I agreed without hesitation; if she got me out of this, I’d buy her Dolly Parton tickets for life.

We said our goodbyes, I put the phone down and Madame slapped me. As I recoiled, clutching my face, she dragged me up by my shirt’s lapel and growled. “You lied.

While I tried to work out exactly which lie she’d noticed, she spat. “You said you needed a password to identify yourself.”

Ok … so she hadn’t noticed; she was just looking for an excuse to hit me. That explained why she’d hit me across the face, and not the room. Trying to ignore the fresh welt on my already stinging cheek, I winced, “Would it help if I apologised? You were talking about breaking my fingers!”

When she didn’t hit me again, I dared to hope I’d scored a point, but the hardness in her eyes said I just wasn’t worth raising a hand too. Instead, she asked, “Why did you tell her you were staying here several nights?”

I couldn’t tell her it was because I couldn’t think of anything less like what I’d normally say, so I exclaimed, “If I didn’t argue with her, she’d have thought it was odd.” That earned me a disbelieving glare, to which I exasperatedly roll my eyes. “You honestly think this is the first time I’ve gone off mission because pretty girls batted their eyelashes my way?”

Ok, again, I was calling on popular stereotypes, but given their poor opinion of men, if I didn’t pander to their preconceptions, my head was literally going to roll. So I stamped my foot and tried to act like every horny teenager I’ve ever seen in film, “She gave me ten thousand dollars and then pointed me at a w-whore house; quite clearly she didn’t expect to see me for a while!”

I was sure my stutter had done me in, either for revealing my inexperience, or insulting them, but after two long seconds, Madame merely laughed mockingly, “She was more right than she thought.”

Chapter 4

The ranch, it turned out, had a dungeon.

An actual dungeon.

Admittedly, the rough stone bricks were made from papier-mâché, and the chains looked like they’d been bought from a garden centre and painted black, but it was a dungeon.

It’d just never been intended to hold a person before … at least, judging from implements of sensual fetishism on the walls, not for more than an hour. But as one of my escorts pointed out, when I voiced my incredulity, it had locks, and the only way out of the dungeon was back up the flight of stairs.

Deciding not to mention the obvious fire hazard in having a single exit, I focussed on the dungeon itself; it’d been converted from a cellar into a short underground corridor which branched off into multiple cells. Presumably this was intended so it could ‘service’ multiple clients, but I had the impression that this place didn’t see a lot of activity. BDSM wasn’t one of my kinks, so I had only what I’d read to go on, but I was fairly sure that if someone had gone to the trouble of buying a display rack, then whips and crops shouldn’t be tossed haphazardly into a crate.

I filed the neglect as another oddity. As mentioned, I don’t have a lot of experiences with brothels, but this place was downright strange; it was supposed to be where Andskoti rewarded loyal humans. Bondage wasn’t as big a kink as Hollywood tried to suggest, but it was one of the more popular ones and unless they had another sex dungeon, this one’s disuse didn’t make much sense.

…Unless I factored in the women’s misandry and lack of discipline.

“You’re civilians!” I stated, drawn up short by the revelation.

“We’re contractors.” Claire growled, in a way that suggested she found the distinction both important … and depressing.

“Of course,” As her friend prodded me back into walking, I apologised lest they amuse themselves by bludgeoning my head against a wall. “I didn’t know there were any … ‘contractors’ on Earth.” I was trying to remain polite

The one who wasn’t Claire snorted. “Like an officer is going to work in a whorehouse?”

I had to grant her that; we’d pondered the paradox ourselves. But that did explain why we hadn’t been able to find which personnel had been assigned to the ranch in the records we’d stolen. However, the revelation merely underscored the direness of my situation; the Andskoti military was an honourable and well paid profession, one that, thanks to ample labour from conquered worlds and mandatory National Service, employed a majority of their species.

If the military didn’t want them, then they’d either failed to handle the discipline… or they’d been kicked out. Neither possibility boded well for me.

I grunted as a hard hand slapped between my shoulder blades, shoving me into the rightmost cell. The dust was thicker here, stirred up by the doors opening and I coughed twice as my eyes adapted to the low light.

Something was before me; it was narrow, made of rusty iron, hanging about two feet off the floor …

“You’re kidding me.” I straightened with a jolt, finally recognising the cylindrical cage. It was about five feet tall, looked like a gibbet and hung from a single chain. As I was staring at the disturbingly solid looking metal bands, I heard the scrape of metal on metal and turned to see Claire withdrawing a key from a low set of steel drawers.

“Get in.” She ordered with a merciless smile.

I won’t describe all of what happened next; it could have been described as amusing, given the cage had no anchorage. The women certainly laughed a lot, at least until, on one particularly haphazard backswing I was able to crack Claire across the side of the head. Sadly the rusty metal didn’t so much as graze her and earned me a sharp punch to the gut.

In the end, though, I was ‘safely’ secured and left to hang like some bizarre piñata inside the far too small cage. Thankfully, the bars were wide enough apart to let me stick my arms and legs through, though this hardly added to my dignity, particularly when Claire started taking pictures on her mobile.

Yet, as the little camera clicked, and her friend posed next to the cage, I was getting a little concerned. Svarthvik can defend planets because they move very quickly; if Ayjer had understood me … she should have been knocking the door down before I entered the cellar. It was possible she’d asked Rheda for backup, or they were both waiting for Linith but … it didn’t add up? A hundred Andskoti weren’t a match for one blindfolded Svarthvik; she had no reason to call for help.

The feeling only intensified as the minutes continued to pass. From the way the padded walls drank every creak the cage made, I could tell the room was soundproofed, but I’d literally seen Linith level a town before. If they were upstairs, I’d have noticed.

The Andskoti didn’t take my watch when they were frisking me. I’d assumed it was simple ignorance on their part, but as I watched the glowing numbers stacking minutes into hours, I wondered if they’d wanted me to know exactly how long I’d been hanging in the dark?

My faint glow of the dial was the only illumination I had; there wasn’t even a crack under the door to give some texture to the darkness and though the soundproofing no doubt added some insulation, I found myself clutching my knees to hold off the night chill.

Unable to sleep, and with nothing to do, or see, nor even the feel of the ground beneath my feet, I had a lot of time to think.

Ayjer wasn’t coming.

It … wasn’t an easy revelation. It meant no one knew I was stranded in the middle of a desert, surrounded by aliens who, at their most generous, saw me as a big reward payout, and in a few hours I was going to be taken off planet, where I might have the luxury of being tortured to death before I spilled too many secrets.

I didn’t cry. I felt fear, desperation, even anger at the unfairness of this, but I wasn’t going to let this tiny cage break me.

God, I wanted to see Linith again; her eyes were such a pale shade of blue that when she laughed, or smiled, they seemed to glow. I would have given anything to see them again, or to feel her coppery hair running through my fingers.

Had I told her how much I loved her, before I’d left? I couldn’t remember; in fact, in a sudden cold sweat I wasn’t sure I’d even said it during our last evening together. It suddenly seemed inconceivable that I could’ve wasted what might have been my final hours with Linith talking about the television, or muttering about being called over the States on short notice. Why hadn’t I spent even two seconds reminding her how special she was to me?

I swore that if I survived, I’d dedicate my life to telling Linith how much I loved her.

But to do that, I’d need to get out. The first step, would be to escape the cage, but that was easy; I’d worked that out within half an hour.

The reason I hadn’t done so was that’d only get me into the dungeon. Getting from there to the car park would mean slipping past my guard, a locked door, and god knew how many other Andskoti. I’d also need to find some car keys.

But … positive mental attitude.

I did have two elements in my favour, or to be more accurate, two elements that weren’t totally against me. The first was that the cage bars were wide enough for my arms and legs; it wasn’t comfortable, but I could stretch, so I didn’t have to worry about cramp.

The second was that I was fairly certain there wasn’t anyone out in the dungeon. The air was achingly cold and while professional soldiers might have bore it out, my guards were ‘contractors’ and Andskoti body temperature ran a degree hotter than mine did.

That wasn’t to say I was unobserved. According to my watch, one of the Andskoti opened the cell to check on me every fifteen minutes, but I took that as more evidence they were actually seated in the warmth upstairs; why would they bother to check otherwise?

However, that limited my time.

Judging from the rust on my prison, and the general lack of care, I had the impression someone had said, ‘we need BDSM stuff’ and bought everything from … wherever you buy BDSM gear from, without giving much thought to fitness for purpose.

The cage plainly was not built to hold a full sized man. It probably would’ve struggled with a regular sized woman, but since I doubted it’d ever been used, no one had realised they’d bought one of those prop cages you see in the backgrounds of certain films. I couldn’t see how it was suspended, but it had to be from some kind of pulley because I could see the winch attached to the wall.

The fact that Claire and her friend hadn’t known the cage could be lowered to the floor was more evidence it’d never been used, and also quite fortunate because if they had, they’d have seen how much strain my weight was putting on the winch.

It took a little while to get going, but by shifting from side to side, it was possible to get the cage swinging, and every time it reached its zenith, I used what little space I had, to make a sitting hop, producing the tiniest squeak from the winch.

After a while, I got so caught in the rhythm of swing, pull, heave and creak, that it was almost enjoyable. I could forget about the humiliation and the beatings because all that mattered was that mouse like squeak.

That focus almost proved my undoing because when I finally remembered I had to worry about the guard, I found I had only a minute or two to stop the cage from swinging.

Frantically, I threw myself at the bars, trying to counter the oscillation I’d spent nearly fifteen minutes building. My shoulders bruised on the cold metal, but I ignored it, certain the door was going to open any moment and an incredulous face was going to ask what the hell I was doing.

So frenzied was my attempt to stop the cage from swinging, that, ironically, I very nearly succeeded in bringing it down! As I threw myself at the bars, my heart juddered at the sound of screws snapping, causing the cage to fall 6 inches.

With the winch only holding on by a figurative thread, I had to stop; even if the cage was still moving, I couldn’t risk bringing it down while the guard was so close.

When the door cracked a few seconds later, spilling painfully bright light into the cell and revealing Claire’s unwelcome face, I was certain that was it. How could she fail to spot the way the cage was spinning? Or that the winch was literally pulling away from the wall?

If nothing else, surely my guilty expression would give away I was up to no good?

It never occurred to me that, with my fingers gripping the bars, and legs dangling inches from the ground, my dirty face made me look more like a monkey in a zoo than someone in the middle of an escape attempt.

Whatever she saw, Claire’s cruel smile certainly indicated it was something she liked.

Fortunately, she didn’t stay to gloat, because a bare two minutes after she’d slammed the door behind her, there was a sharp SPANG and the winch flew from the wall, ricocheted off the dropping cage and slapped against the ceiling with a terrific crack.

It was only a two foot drop, if that, but the impact was hard enough to make my bones ache and leave me wanting to vomit as my stomach, inner ear and eyes argued about which way was up.

My senses still hadn’t reached consensus on the nature of reality when I forced my aching head to rise. I had to get moving, but that was easier thought that done. The cage had fallen on its side, and not only was it surprisingly heavy, but the scrape of metal on concrete was literally painful as I bloodied my fingers crawling towards the door, wearing my prison like a turtle’s shell.

Fortunately, after encaging me, Claire had dropped the key back into the drawer rather than take it with her. I still wasn’t sure why, though I’d guessed it might have been something to do with the fact that although she was my current guard, I’d had two previous ones; maybe they’d been afraid someone might walk off with my key?

With shaking fingers, I unfastened the big padlock and released a long held sigh as the rusty door creaked open. Danger and death might await me outside the cell but, in a very limited sense, I was free.

…At least until the next guard check; I had less than 15 minutes to think up a way of escaping a cellar with only one exit.

While I was doing that, I started to look for a weapon.

Unfortunately, while I could see a number of devices intended to inflict pain, several of them in ways I didn’t really want to think about, a short wicker crop wasn’t going to help me overpower someone with three times my strength.

With faint hope, I looked behind the display rack for a baseball bat … or something.


Far sooner than I would have liked, I heard the sound of feet on the dungeon steps.

With nowhere else to hide, I pressed myself to the faux stone on the far left of the stairs and held my breath, barely daring to look in the direction of my jailer, lest she somehow feel the weight of my gaze.

Fortunately, Claire was focussed on her task and turned right, towards my cell. Guard duty must have exempted her from whatever she normally did because she was wearing something that was actually comfortable; that was problematic because I’d hoped the click of her heels would mask me sneaking up behind her.

My blood was pounding in my ears as drew close to her and smashed the slender display rack as hard as I could into the side of her head.

20 odd pounds of pine, swung as hard as I possibly could, proved no less devastating to an Andskoti skull than it would be for a human; the blonde dropped like a rag doll.

Grinning tiredly, I allowed myself a small pat on the back for remembering Rheda’s lesson about how anything can be a weapon.

Then, as the blonde shook off the blow and started to get back up again … I realised I’d forgotten what terror felt like.

“Oh … god damn it!” I swore.

As Claire groaned, I desperately tried to remember what else I knew about fighting an Andskoti. Sadly, It largely boiled down to ‘don’t do it’.

That wasn’t a useful answer so … positive mental attitude?

I wasn’t exactly helpless; even if it was damaged, I did still have the rack, and I wasn’t opposed to hitting a woman who’d kill me as soon as she got back on her feet.

Unfortunately, two blows was more than the rack could withstand and it shattered across her shoulders like any chair in an action movie … leaving me with two short lengths of laminated wood and an even angrier Andskoti.

Only sheer luck meant that when she lunged for me, I was holding one of the broken legs in the correct position to thrust it at her. It was too much to expect my shattered ‘weapon’ to be pointed, but driving the jagged end into the meat of her shoulder did deflect her lunge enough for me to jump aside.

She was quick though. She didn’t compare to Linith’s lightning reflexes, but still frighteningly fast as she rebounded off the wall with a haymaker punch that would have left me a good deal shorter if I hadn’t ducked under her arm, jabbing hard into her side with the spar.

Shrugging off the blow, she came at me again, a lightning juggernaut with fire in her eyes. I don’t know how I avoided her hands; there wasn’t time for thought, only sidestepping and evasion. If I’d had time to think, I’d have used it to thank Linith for the hours she’d put into teaching me to fight.

Admittedly I wasn’t so much injuring my opponent as frustrating her, but those lessons kept me out of her reach. The blonde was simply more than I could handle; in a matter of seconds she’d broken my defence and it was mere good fortune that meant her blow was glancing; it still left my arm feeling like it was full of broken glass.

Reeling back from the pain of this single hit left me rapidly losing ground. Advancing with fingers like claws, and face a mask of fury, she looked ready to tear flesh right off my bones.

It did not reassure me that this was still preferable to whatever fate awaited me on the Andskoti ship.

Swallowing blood and blinking away the spots dancing before my eyes, I found I’d dropped one of my improvised spears. Holding up the other, I gasped, “WAIT!”

To my surprise, she did.

“My friends WILL pay to get me back!” Another cliché, but again, it bought me time and I gabbled, “We can even get you off planet if you need it.” That wasn’t true, but it was a mute point as the blonde’s eyes flashed.

“I may be a whore,” She growled, “But there is no price on my patriotism.”

“What about common sense?” I asked, more to buy more seconds than seriously bargain. “I know how big the price on my head is, but you’re not going to see more than a tithe of it. Your Mistress,” I spat the word, “is going to take the Queen’s share. If you let me go, I can get you 30,000 sovereigns.”

That was actually true, although it’d take 6 weeks, interplanetary banking being what it was, and it certainly seemed to interest her. Stepping forward with a look of profound curiosity on her face, she repeated, “Thirty thousand; this is the truth?”

“Honest to g-” I cut myself off; Richard Dawkins was downright placid compared to most Andskoti. “I swear on my life; literally.”

“I’m glad you told me,” She dipped her head, but lifted it with a feral smile. “If I’m going to blow a year’s pay before sunrise, I should make sure I enjoy it.”

I saw her nails coming for my eyes and managed to deflect her hand by striking her across the wrist with my spear.

Dancing away, my left arm nearly useless, I grimaced. “You’re going to lose more than that if you kill me.”

She merely snorted, “I’ll keep my head so long as yours is still intact; they don’t need the rest of you.”

Not quite true, but so long as I was breathing, I doubted she’d get more than a slap on the wrist, and that’d be largely for denying some officer the pleasure of beating me half to death; clearly I wasn’t going to bribe my way out of here.

But I didn’t know how else I was going to escape. She was swaying on her feet a little, but so was I, and despite everything I’d done to her, she’d hurt me more with one misaimed swing. I needed a new strategy and yet as I panted and tried to think something up, I was distracted by the knowledge this was still all wrong; I shouldn’t have been able to land any of these attacks. It was like she didn’t know how to fight at all.

…But, she didn’t? I was still thinking of her as a soldier, but she was a civilian; she hadn’t had the thousands of hours of military drilling that should have left me a stain in the first ten seconds. It would certainly explain why she was telegraphing her attacks so much that even I could spot them.

Feeling an irrational surge of hope, I tried to think how I could use this. None of these women had the control other Andskoti demonstrated, so maybe that was her weakness?

“You’re just mad the Empire is willing to pay more for my head than they charge to sell your body.” I taunted, spitting a globule of blood on the floor.

Getting her even angrier was a gamble, but, again; if she killed me, it was still better than the alternative.

With a wild screech of rage, she leapt for me in almost exactly the way I’d hoped. Stepping left and bringing the baton up, I smacked the tip under her chin, snapping her head back with a pain filled shriek.

Disorientated from the blow, she stumbled, letting me drive the wood into the back of her head, knocking her to her knees and finally giving me an opening to swing the baton like a club.

Yet even though I struck her squarely in the temple, it still wasn’t enough. Grimly, I remembered that like Svarthvik, Andskoti bones were strengthened by micro-pockets of a gel-like protein that, unfairly, both absorbed and deflected kinetic energy.

That wasn’t to say head strikes were bad, just … less effective, as I moved it to hit her again, she nearly caught me in a bear hug that would have crushed ribs.

Skipping back out of range, I was pleased to note she was having a harder time than ever getting to her feet, but so long as she could rise, that didn’t mean much.

Working my jaw and flexing my neck, I caught sight of the crate in the corner again; earlier, I’d dismissed it as too bulky, but it looked solidly built and I needed anything I could get my hands on.

Of course, she was between me and it, but her eyes were a little unfocussed as she staggered towards me and I feigned right, left and … was punched into the far wall with a swat of her hand.

Grey papier-mâché exploded around my eyes as my head cracked smacked into the faux stonework. That was probably the only thing that kept me conscious as I slid down the wall, my ribs aching and lungs struggling to draw in air.

That hadn’t been a glancing blow, but again fortune was on my side; she’d been so disorientated she’d struck me while trying to grab my shirt.

Coughing, I thought about trying to trip her, but opted to roll aside as she tried to stamp on my leg. If I’d been a better fighter, I’d have made a break for the stairs, where she couldn’t flank me and I’d have a height advantage, but instead I headed for the crate.

I must have had some kind effect on the blonde because she didn’t instantly catch me. Maybe she catching her breath, maybe she just didn’t feel like doing anything complicated while her head was spinning; I wasn’t looking behind me to see.

Grunting as I reached the crate, I heard feet behind me and grabbed the crate, narrowly avoiding her foot as I rolled aside, ending up on my back. As I dropped the crate’s feathered contents to the floor, I glanced up and saw brief confusion on Claire’s face, followed by a flippant eye roll as she drove her fist down towards me.

There was a crack as her knuckles impacted the hard wood, and intense pain in my elbows as the blow drove them back into the concrete, but it was nothing compared to what she must have felt as she reeled back, clutching her hand.

Seizing the opportunity to scrabble to my feet, I slammed the crate’s corner into her arm, drawing a hiss of pain, which turned into a grunt as I drove it into her face, and finally a muffled moan as I upended it over her head.

As she tried to pull it off, she left herself open to a kick to her solar plexus which … frankly, ended the fight. Andskoti need more oxygen than humans and I’d just winded her; still blinded by the crate, she couldn’t even scream as I kicked her again, inadvertently causing her to slip on the whips, crops and handcuffs I’d scattered over the floor.

The crate bounced free as she fell onto her back, but she was in no state to resist as I laid into her, swinging the baton with both hands until, finally, her eyes rolled up and she went limp.

I felt like collapsing myself; the victory rush was almost more exhausting that the battle itself. How the hell had I won? I mean I was a geek; Linith had only taught to me to fight as protection from bullies … which, admittedly, was a good description for these women, but come on; she’d been three times stronger than I was! A single good punch or grapple should have ended this.

But she’d never landed one. I felt like Mr Miyagi, but only a little; I wasn’t so doped on endorphins that I thought one fight made me a kung fu master.

I also wasn’t so stupid as to assume that I could just leave the woman where she was. Even in humans, trauma induced unconsciousness rarely lasted more than a few minutes, and I simply wasn’t capable of inflicting serious harm to her.

Fortunately, my captors had provided me with a solution.

After slamming the cage door on my still unconscious, and now handcuffed, opponent, I spent a couple of minutes going through her equipment. No … that’s not true; after securing Claire with as many handcuffs as I could fit around her arms and legs, I actually spent the first few minutes resting against the wall and trying not to cry out when the opioid hormones stopped working and I started to actually feel the damage she’d done to my body.

To my immense relief, the fact I could still use my left arm meant it wasn’t broken; the pulverised muscle tissue merely made it feel that way. Aside from that, I was bruised, bleeding and beaten, but I’d live … assuming I could actually get more than 10 feet from my cell.

Incredibly, the guard had been carrying a pistol; a quick test on the floor in one of the empty cells showed it was some kind of laser or particle beam projector, but since it wasn’t heavy enough to be one of the anti-Svarthvik BIS weapons, I assumed it was a civilian grade gun; I could only guess why she hadn’t used it during the fight. Arrogance maybe?

Aside from that, she wasn’t carrying anything useful. She’d had a cell phone, which raised my spirits until I saw it was password protected; I wasn’t willing to wait for her to wake up, nor willing to trust she wouldn’t scream the place down if I tried to ask her to unlock her phone.

Discarding it and holding the pistol like I’d been trained, I ascended the stairs.

Chapter 5

Claire had actually locked the door behind her when she’d entered, but that meant nothing now I had her key; beyond the door, the corridor was quiet and still, thankfully, as the only cover was a stool. Pausing with one foot on the threshold, I strained to hear any sign of movement, but there was nothing, not even the creak of timbers settling.

That puzzled me until I glanced at the clock on the wall and realised it was 2am! No wonder no one had heard our scuffle; they were all in bed.

Letting the pistol lead me, I headed back the way I’d been taken, pausing only to peer around junctions. Unfortunately, the Ranch was either a lot bigger than I remembered, or the trauma and tiredness were affecting me again, because I ended up walking down a lot of corridors without finding the entrance.

I did find the breakfast bar though, which was good as I hadn’t eaten anything in about 10 hours.

Taking some apples from a basket on the counter, I looked around as I chewed. There were more oil paintings adorning the walls and it suddenly struck me that like the one in the lobby, they too depicted wolves … but instead of noble hunters with grey fur and proud muzzles, the creatures looked more like lanky, almost emaciated, coyotes prowling darkened forests with lowered heads and feral eyes.

As I wondered whether the Ranch’s clients ever realised the insult, I swept the room with the pistol, just in case I’d missed one of the workers enjoying a midnight snack.

I was halfway through my second sweep when the half eaten apple dropped from my suddenly nerveless fingers.

The most beautiful sight in the world was before me.

A phone.

A perfectly ordinary, utterly mundane phone, mounted on the wall

It was a blocky beige relic of the 1980’s, cracked and faded, but in that moment I thought it was worthy of the Louvre.

Nearly tripping over my own feet to reach it, I almost didn’t dare lift the receiver for fear this was another of the universe’s cruel tricks. Yet as I held it to my ear, I could hear a faint dial tone over the thunder of my heart.

It was actually working! I felt like yelling it out loud; I was safe!

Naturally, I didn’t shout. In fact, I suddenly felt incredibly self-conscious; certain that this was the moment Madame would burst in with her scantily clad entourage.

Clutching the receiver to my chest, I ducked behind the counter, taking some comfort from the solid oak at my back while I punched in Ayjer’s number. Not one of the factory ghost numbers, her personal you’d-better-be-dying-if-you-ever-use-this, number; I didn’t want any delays.

My heart actually lurched when the phone started to dial; in the tomblike kitchen, each ring sounded as loud as church bells and I nervously jabbed my pistol around the counter, sweat making my neck itch as my ears strained for the sound of footsteps.

My paranoia increased with each and every ring the phone made; had something happened to Ayjer? Maybe she had got my message but she’d been caught trying to reach me?

A thousand hellish scenarios ran through my head as I tried to guess what might have happened; the Andskoti had the satnav. If they’d had a team in the area, it was unlikely but … god, what if they’d simply nuked the town she was staying in?

That was the ultimate worst case scenario. Ayjer and the other Svarthvik were simply too strong to ambush; the only guaranteed way of killing them was a weapon of mass destruction. Even Rheda couldn’t survive an antimatter explosion, especially if delivered via a missile launched from orbit.

I’d always believed it was too extreme; something the Andskoti could never cover up. But if they were willing to sacrifice their anonymity …

“Mmm … who is this?”

The familiar muzzy, half asleep voice derailed my fearful theorising

Where the hell are you?

The exclamation exploded from me. It came unbidden, as much as a surprise to me as Ayjer. I’d been kidnapped, beaten, threatened with torture, hung in a cage and my only hope of rescue, had been pinned on someone who’d been asleep. In bed!

Clearly that hadn’t been the answer Ayjer was expecting because her next question was sharper. “Faré … is that you?”

“Yes. Of course it’s me!” I hissed through clenched teeth, my ragged emotions seizing control as I over exaggerated every syllable. “Where. Are. YOU?

One thing you couldn’t accuse Ayjer of being, was a slow thinker. I heard bed sheets rustle as she sat up, adrenaline washing all traces of sleep from her voice, “Are you in trouble?”

Yes!” I spat. “This ranch you so kindly directed me to is full of Andskoti!”

“What!” Over the cry, I thought I heard someone in the background murmur a question, only to be urgently hushed into silence.

“This is the frickin’ place we were looking for!”

“But you said …”

Rolling my eyes, I growled, “Did you really think I’d blow off a mission to spend time in a brothel? Me? There were three Andskoti ready to literally tear me apart!” When her only answer was a guilty silence, I let the incredulity flow. “Did you really believe I would cheat on Linith?

I could have gone on berating her for hours; every ache, graze, cut and sleep deprived minute fuelled the irrational fury. Madame herself could have walked into the kitchen and I wouldn’t have stopped; I couldn’t until I’d stabbed every cruel word and sharp retort that’d brewed within me through Ayjer’s invulnerable hide.

Fortunately, she was more sensible. “Faré. Stop.”

The command was so sharp that it shocked me into doing just that.

As I stared at the receiver, chest rising, ready to bellow my outrage, she cut me off. “Faré, I’m sorry you’re hurting, truly, but this isn’t the time. We need to get you out of there. Are you safe?”

“No.” I said, still burning, but with resentment tempered by her logic. “I’m stuck in their kitchen.”

I’d half expected a snort of laughter but I got a matter of fact, “Do they know you’re free?”

“No.” I shook my head and, again, heard more rustling sheets, followed by low voices. She was talking with someone.

“Ok. Faré, we need you to-“

But as they’d conferred, it came to me in a sudden flash that my life wasn’t the only one in danger. “No,” I shook my head, “It’s not just me; Taro and the other Agent-“

“Are fine.” She assured me. There was more background noise; someone was speaking urgently, but not to Ayjer. “They checked in snot long ago.”

“You don’t understand!” I hissed down the phone, staring into the darkness beyond the kitchen door, certain a squeaking floorboard had been someone moving around. When nothing came screeching out of the gloom, I swallowed and confessed, “… I screwed up; they got my sat nav!”

There was the briefest of pauses before Ayjer replied, “That doesn’t matter. No, really,” she cut off my objection, “I told you, they’re safe; Rheda’s giving them their scram orders now and they’ll be out of the house in five minutes. You didn’t screw up.” She took a slow breath. “I did.”

“… Rheda’s there with you?” I asked, hope sparking.

“No …” She sounded guilty again. “I’m with her. In New York.”

Hope fizzled; she could have been here in seconds if she was still in the state, but she was twenty two hundred miles away…

The hitch in my breathing must have transmitted down the phone because Ayjer immediately promised, “We’ll be with you inside of 18 minutes.” Both she and Rheda were moving now; doors were squeaking, people shouting. I guessed that was the sound of the Factory reacting to the scram orders.

After an eternity of darkness, knowing that the breaking of the dawn would bring only pain and death, a mere 18 minutes should have been laughable. But there’d been safety in that cage; its iron bars might as well have been my shield.

Now I’d escaped, I was an outlaw. Fair game for hunters whose lives had pounded the mercy out of them.

But on the heels of that thought, I felt a flicker of hope as I remembered that the hunters were asleep, unaware that I’d slipped their bonds. All I needed to do was keep quiet for less time than a Saturday morning cartoon and –

A siren began to sound.

It sounded like a fire alarm, but it wasn’t. It was sharp; the kind you used when someone noticed a missing guard.

The hand I was using to train the pistol on the door began to tremble as I clutched the phone to my ear; the tears I’d been holding back all night started to blur my vision as fresh terror populated my imagination with Andskoti pouring in through the doors.

“Faré.” It was Rheda. Her tone was at the same time softer, and more authoritative than Ayjer’s; a song to the younger woman’s club. When she spoke, Presidents listened. “You've been in this situation before and these women won’t be trained to search. You know what to do; find a hole, keep your head down and don’t be afraid!

Her words, at the same time kind and authoritative, made my heart pound a little less harshly and I swallowed, feeling the trembling in my gun hand cease. She was right; I had been through this before.

“Fear is the mind killer.” I closed my eyes as I centred myself on the mantra.

“And you don’t have time for the little death,” Rheda almost audibly smiled. “15 and half minutes. Now go.”

My legs feet were turning almost before the command registered in my brain; in the moment of clarity she’d given me, I’d seen the paths before me. One of them led back to my cell … which wasn’t as suicidal as it sounded since the Andskoti weren’t likely to search a place they’d already looked.

The problem with that was I didn’t think I could find my way back to the dungeon, and if they were feeling smart, they might have left a guard, or if they did come back, there was no backdoor. Another alternative was to simply surrender; they might knock me around a little, but then they’d just throw me back in my cage. However, I’d broken the no blood no foul rule; they’d want to take reparations out of my hide and I enjoyed having functional legs.

That left simply running for it. Like every kitchen ever made, this one had a door to the back of the property.

Par for my luck this evening, it was locked, but the window wasn’t.

Crouching beneath the sill, mildly ashamed to realise I was crushing a flowerbed, I survey my surroundings.

Unfortunately, that was depressingly easy as powerful flood lights washed over the grounds. Beneath the brilliant glow, even my merely human eyes could pick out individual leaves on the curled tail of a topiary pig a hundred yards away and I couldn’t count on the Andskoti being stupid enough not to have a couple of people outside by now.

As I was debating whether to slip back into the ranch and see if I could find a cupboard to hide in, my eyes fell on a large gazebo like trellised structure to my left; it was some distance from the main building, but cast an impressively long shadow. As I was trying to guess whether it was better to chance sprinting the distance, or try to find another way to the fence, I realised I was looking at the ranch’s fuel tank.

That made sense; this place was meant to be off the grid and though I doubted any of the women enjoyed relying on something as ‘dangerously volatile’ as gasoline, they couldn’t risk using any of their own technology. Was that why it was so far from the house, or was it next to the car park simply to make refuelling the enormous tank easier?

…Which gave me an idea.

I had to accept that, no matter how good a sprinter I was, I’d never make it to the fence without being spotted.

But if their eyes were elsewhere, I might have a chance.

The weapon in my hand called to me.

The very first thing I did, was remove myself from the immediate vicinity; I had no desire to test the minimum safe distance for a fuel tank explosion using my own precious flesh.

Poking the pistol around the edge of the ranch, I trained the targeting laser on the mound and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened.

By which I mean nothing spectacular happened; no retina scorching fireball, no world ending kaboom. Nothing.

The pistol’s beam was near invisible, but I knew it’d discharged because I’d heard the capacitor whine, so… why hadn’t the tank erupted? The pistol, with typical Andsktoi overkill, had drilled through three of floor inches of concrete floor so it shouldn’t have had much trouble punching through a few millimetres of steel?

Just in case I’d missed, I peered around the side of the building again, but, no; there was a neat, inch wide hole in the upper third of the tank.

So… why no explosion?

I slapped my forehead when I remembered that fire was fuel + heat + OXYGEN. Of course the fuel hadn’t ignited; there was nothing for it to burn in!

Grimacing, I looked to my left and right, in case the pistol’s tiny purr had attracted attention. When it was obvious it hadn’t, I made a second shot, this time into the underside of the tank and felt a small stab of victory when I saw a thin trickle of fluid start to pour onto the concrete base.

Remembering that liquid gasoline is surprisingly difficult to ignite, I held my breath and forced myself to count to thirty.

I made it to 28 before deciding to hell with it and turned the side of the tank into a colander of leaking fuel; I didn’t have time to wait. Once a puddle had formed, I started to play pistol over it, cursing every second the volatile liquid needed to evaporate and mix with the air.

I can only guess what happened next, because the moment I saw the tiniest flicker of flame, I tried to put as much distance (and building) between myself and the fuse I’d just lit.

Presumably the flame I’d ignited made its way back to the tank because the next thing I knew, I was brushing pebbles off of my forehead and wondering why I was flat on the ground.

A bleary glance over my shoulder at the roiling column of fire stretching up into the clouds answered my question. More troubling was the fact that I was considerably further from the ranch than I remembered being. Retrograde amnesia was not a good thing, but it was better than being on fire. As I picked myself up and staggered into a run, I reasoned that Ayjer had no excuse to miss me now.

The valley was fairly shallow, with the surrounding hills probably not rising more than a couple hundred yards above the floor, but I’m more sprinter than a runner and … hell, I didn’t know the last time I’d slept. That was on top of the physical abuse and possible concussion, so I excused myself for panting like a horse as I staggered to the rocky hilltop, tiny pebbles cascading behind me, and collapsed to my knees.

Drawing in raw lungfulls of dry air, I found myself actually tugging open a couple of my shirt’s remaining buttons, desperate to feel the night’s chill. Embracing the night after having spent most of it fending off hypothermia was an irony that wasn’t lost on me as I fanned my hand, trying to cool my face before I passed out.

…Ok, that was an exaggeration, but I did feel utterly beat; it was good to know that in a few minutes it’d all be over.

More stones skipped down the hillside as I turned back to the ranch; it wasn’t so much that I wanted to see the scorching comment I’d left on their customer service, as I knew that Rheda and Ayjer would appear there first, and I really needed to see that.

That’s why, when I looked down into the glowing valley, I saw the receptionist and five friends scrabbling up the scree towards me.

Oh why won’t you just leave me alone?

I’m not actually sure if I vocalised that thought, but in the next moment the women had lifted their hands, and I just barely managed to roll back over the protective crest of the hill before the rocks I’d been sitting upon burst into vapour.

Crap, crap, crap CRAP!’ I thought as I kept my head down. The freshly ionised air felt like being too close to a thunder storm; every hair on my arm stood on end as I reached over the ridge line and returned fire.

An energy weapon might be the ultimate spray and pray firearm, but actually hitting something without aiming took more luck than I’d demonstrated; the most I could hope for, was that it’d keep their heads down, and slow their ascent while they sought cover … but only until they realised how easily they could flank me.

A few more pot shots and then I yelled as the rocks before me turned black and spat red hot fragments of stone into my flesh. Pulling back and rubbing my stringing arm, glanced behind me. After the blazing glow from the ranch’s, the night on this side of the hill was impenetrable and it occurred to me that, inhuman eyesight or not, it’d be no less dark for the Andskoti.

That presented an idea; while I could shroud myself in the night, the sky above the ranch was pulsing orange and easily bright enough to silhouette my attackers as they mounted the crest.

It sounded like a good plan, but it made me grimace. I’d killed once before … in circumstances not dissimilar to this, but as much as I didn’t like these women, I didn’t want them dead.

That might sound odd, given I’d been shooting at them, but that was mere self defence; if one of my shots happened to hit one of them in the head, too bad. This would be a deliberate ambush; little better than premeditated murder.

Not that I had much of a choice; my feelings weren’t reciprocated.

Knowing I might have only a minute of grace, I surrendered the ridge and skidded down the much steeper incline. Before I’d descended thirty yards, my foot hit something unyielding; a rock! It was barely 12 inches tall, the product of some ancient fracture in the valley’s birth, but any kind of solid defence felt taller than the walls of Troy.

Feeling my legs protesting the burden of carrying me even so short a distance, I took a breath, trained my pistol on the knife edged ridge … and knew this wasn’t going to work.

I could hear stones cracking from the impossible heat of the invisible beams, but the Andskoti didn’t need six pistols to keep my head down; one woman could be doing all the firing while the rest crept up to the left and right.

If they were spread out, I might get one of them as they crept over the crest, perhaps two, but then the others would realise the danger and I’d be in the same situation again, except … I wouldn’t be running anymore.

That wasn’t a grandiose boast; it was a sad admission of reality. The moment I’d flopped down behind my little shelter, I’d known I wouldn’t be getting up from it again; I was dead tired, my knees were aching and my left arm was good for nothing more than propping up my right as I aimed. One way or another, this would be my final stand, because I didn’t have the energy to move.

But as one minute passed, then two, my already frazzled nerves started to unravel. What were they waiting for? Was this some kind of trick; were they trying my patience?

The pistol shook and I thought of Linith again; she could warm the world when she smiled. That, in turn made me think how devastated she’d be if I didn’t make it out of this one; that, more than anything else, gave me the resolve to pull the trigger on the first blonde head to pop over that ridge.

The firing abruptly intensified and I squeezed the pistol’s grip, certain that they’d finally worked it out and any moment, I’d see a figure crest that hill. Forcing my ragged breathing to slow, I fractionally lifted the pistol and jumped as, right next to my ear, someone whispered, “Faré.”

Before I could jerk around to face the threat, an impossibly strong hand wrapped around my own and pressed the pistol effortlessly to the ground. With nothing else left, I kicked at my assailant and bit down on the scream as my foot bounced off something even harder than the rock I’d been hiding behind.

“Faré!” The voice called, more insistent than before, “Stop! It’s me; Ayjer.”

“Ayjer?” I blinked, not trusting my ears.

There was a movement in the darkness and then we were bathed in an eye pleasingly low red light. “Believe me now?” Ayjer asked softly, her usual smile tinged with guilt and worry as she released my wrist and rested on her haunches.

“God yes,” Grinning like a little boy, I straining to sit up… and found my beaten body really wasn’t going to play along. Almost delirious with joy nonetheless, I resorted to merely squeezing her hand, “Thank you!”

My gratitude however, only seemed to worsen her guilt as she pulled her hands into her lap, “I am so, so sorry.”

“You’re here now,” I dismissed the apology with a wave, which was about all I could manage, “Believe me, I am very grateful”

Again, my words seemed to sting her more than sooth, “We were only just in time.” She observed grimly.

Glancing back at the hill’s crest, and remembering the brief moments of intense firing, I asked,“You got all six?”

“We did.” She nodded solemnly, "Rheda’s taking the ranch; I wanted to make sure you were ok.”

"Thank you. Uh, you didn’t… you know?” I hesitated, not sure how to voice the dark thought that’d just crossed my mind.

“We don’t kill civilians, honey.” Mild disapproval briefly appeared on her face, transforming into a grimace as she played the soft light over my body, “Although we can make exceptions… where aren’t you hurt?”

It was probably a bad sign I couldn’t localise aches and pains to anything smaller than a limb, so I shrugged, “I think one of my big toes is fine?”

"I only left you six hours ago.”Grumbling, she thumbed through a handful of tiny ampules. Selecting and shaking a green one, she broke the tip and jabbed it into my wounded arm, mumbling, “This’ll make you feel better.”

It did more than that. The pain washed away like sand before a hose; not merely numbed, but gone as alien nanites selectively switched off my ability to feel pain.

The relief was so sudden that I couldn’t stop the shudder of relief that ran down from my shoulders to my feet. "Oh god…” I sighed.

Flexing my left hand, I noted that although my arm didn’t hurt, the damaged muscles shook like high tension wires. Trying to put the disquieting sensation aside, I admitted, “I… was beginning to wonder if you’d find me.”

Absently flicking her head towards the fiery clouds above the Ranch, Ayjer didn’t take her eyes off my spasming arm. “You left a pretty good signpost.”

Feeling a pulse of pride, I chuckled. “Like it?”

In the dim red light of her torch, Ayjer frowned, “That was deliberate?”

“I thought it’d distract them.” I boasted.

Ayjer gave me a much more familiar mocking look. “Good work; you only had 6 after you.”

And just like that, my sense of accomplishment vanished. “… It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“I’m sure you caused a lot of confusion,” Ayjer ruffled my hair affectionately, "But how were they supposed to deal with that inferno?”

"Oh… “ I flushed; that’d never occurred to me. Also, prisoners would later reveal that lighting up the valley had only made it easier for them to spot me.

“Next time, try setting the kitchen on fire,” Ayjer advised. "They’d have tried to fight that, and the guests would have kept the others too busy to think about you.”

“… I never even thought of that.” I admitted sheepishly.

“Also, weren’t you complaining about the carbon your car was pumping into the atmosphere earlier?”

For that, at least, I had an answer. “I was objecting to needless pollution.” I sighed, but without much conviction; had I done anything right tonight?

Ayjer’s strong finger lifted my chin, "No recriminations, mister.” She said sternly. “You got out; you survived and if you made mistakes, so what? They outnumbered you 30 to one and they still lost!”

I smiled; thinking of it like that did make me feel better. “Thanks.” I said again.

Please don’t mention it.” She besieged, “If I’d done my job and checked this place properly you’d never have had to try.” Starting to shake her head with self recrimination, stopped and glanced at the ranch as if distracted before announcing, “Rheda needs me to help clear the building; you should avail yourself of the shelter over there for the next twelve minutes.”

The flashlight notched up to nearly searing intensity as Ayjer directed it southwards, highlighting a man sized tree growing out of a crevice between two boulders in such a way that I’d be almost invisibler.

“Twelve minutes?” I repeated, after mentally kicking myself; I’d run right past the perfect hiding spot.

Ayjer smirked. “Your girlfriend just cleared Quebec.”


It turns out that even solid rocks can be comfortable to someone crashing out of an adrenaline high after a night of no sleep; I was half unconscious when someone stroked my face.

Blinking up into a pair eyes the colour of the sky at the edge of space, I felt the last coil of tension unwind and murmured the first thing that came to mind. “Ek trúa dauethadagr; ek sjá reginkunnr manlíkan.

Half crouched over me, Linith beamed, “I guess I don’t need to worry about a concussion then.” Her brow furrowed faintly as she flicked a pen thin light between my eyes. “Uh, you do remember how to speak English, right?”

Waving the torch away, I half-heartedly groused, “I express my true feelings, and you assume I’ve got a head injury?”

Wryly cocking her head, Linith replied, “Well I could have commented on your syntax; I mean, ‘divine in human shape?’” She arched a reproachful eyebrow.

My chuckle turning into a spluttering cough that had her immediately reaching for me. “Don’t make me laugh,” I begged, “it hurts; and sue me if your language doesn’t have a word for ‘angel.’”

“It was very sweet,” She assured me, gently pushing my hand away so she could point her flashlight at my eyes again. “But nanites don’t cross the blood brain barrier so I really do need to check if any of those bruises did lasting damage.”

Laying back, I let her play doctor; she had the training and I didn’t like hearing about head injuries I didn’t remember getting. Once she’d confirmed my pupillary responses were normal, we tried some memory games until some of the worry disappeared from her face and I felt confident enough to ask how bad it was.

The nanites Ayjer had injected me, had done more than merely remove my pain; as they’d washed through me, they’d also catalogued the various hematomas, which Linith could now see through her diadem. The look on her face told me I’d been luckier than I deserved.

“Bad enough that you’re going to need some time in the shop.” She sighed, referring to the Factory’s medical suite. “But there’s nothing life threatening, this time.”

“Some of my favourite words,” I couldn’t help but grin, reaching across to squeeze her hand, “but they can’t compare to ‘I love you.’”

Linith actually blushed, “… This isn’t the time to be sappy.” She tried to scold, but I shook my head.

“No; I mean it. I really thought I wouldn’t get out this time; I promised myself that if I did, I’d never stop telling you how much I love you.”

Linith pressed her lips to mine, then to my forehead, whispering, “And I love you. But maybe we should do those memory tests again. You said the same thing last month”

I shrugged, “I think it every time.”

Sitting back on her haunches, Linith blinked several times, but it wasn’t until she reached up to wipe moisture away that I realised she was on the verge of tears. As I opened my mouth, she held up a hand while she composed herself with deep breaths.

“You have no idea how worried I was when I heard you’d landed in another nest of snakes. And when Rheda said you’d been hurt …” she shook her head again, turning and roughly rubbing her cheeks to stop the tears. “Your bicep looks like it’s been tenderised with a crowbar!”

“I’m sorry.” I said. “I don’t mean to.”

“I know.” She stroked my forehead. “But do I need to remind you that you’re human? You’re not even combat trained.”

“I am starting to think I should take courses in escapology,” I admitted, caressing her fingers. “I feel it might be necessary if I’m going to be the S.O. of a superheroine.”

“Don’t joke,” Linith sniffed, tapping my cheek reproachfully. “Don’t you know what it does to me when I hear you’ve got in trouble, I mean it’s like … like …”

“… Every time I watch you go off on a mission?” I suggested as softly as I could. Linith was strong, powerful, and well trained, but she wasn’t invulnerable and the Andskoti did have the technology to kill her; they just needed to be lucky once.

“That’s not the same,” She shook her head, “I outnumber them, honey; you … you’re …”

“Fragile?” I suggested.

“Not trained for this.” She muttered.

“It’s not like I go looking for trouble,” I reminded her. “This time, I was after a hotel.”

Linith shot me a brief, dark, look that said, even though she knew this, intellectually, deep down she wondered if I was doing something to cause it, like juggling black cats under a ladder.

“Sorry.” Was the only response I could give.

“You’re forgiven,” She teased after a long sigh, kissing me once more. “I know it’s not your fault; but it doesn’t make me worry any less.”

Not much was said for some time after that because our lips were otherwise occupied.

The enforced silence might have gone on for a good while longer, but eventually Linith broke contact, looking in the direction of the ranch with a sour look on her face.

“Rheda says it’s time to come in; all the Andskoti have been accounted for.”

The way her lips parted slightly as she read whatever message Rheda had sent, suggested her boss had said something more colourful, probably something along the lines of ‘please stop molesting your boyfriend and put your clothes back on; we need you,’ which would have been horrific slander … though perhaps not if she’d sent the message five minutes later.

Helping me to stand, a second, somewhat curious expression overtook Linith’s face and she said, “Rheda also asks … why there’s an Andskoti in ‘fuzzy pink handcuffs trapped in a cage in the dungeon’?”

It was my turn to colour; I’d actually managed to succeed in forgetting my guard. Looking pointedly down at my arm, I answered, “… She was the one who did this to me.”

“Oh,” Linith answered with dark relish, “Really now?”

Chapter 6

“Are you sure about this? I mean… doesn’t this construe cruel and unusual punishment?” I bit my lip, looking down into the vengeful eyes of the guard who’d beaten me.

“Oh I hope so,” Linith grinned, broad enough that I could see her teeth behind the cellphone. “Now, you in the middle, one half-step to the right.” She ordered, batting her hand in the traditional photographer’s wave.

The subject of her attention, the Madame, lifted her chin and started to say, “My name is-”

“I don’t care.” Linith snapped, with considerably less affection. “Now move; head down, eyes up.”

If it’d been possible to ignite people with her eyes, my girlfriend would have been a rapidly expanding cloud of vapour, and there’d be a glowing trench stretching 70 miles through Nevada’s mountains. But as such measures were beyond her, the Madame grudgingly inched to the left.

Like each of the 33 Andskoti in the dungeon, she was on her knees, hands secured before her in the fluffiest handcuffs that Linith could find.

The only exception was my guard, who had been moved, still in her cage and baring her bruises, to place of dishonour in front of the kneeling prisoners.

Standing next to the cage, kept safe from reprisal by the weighty glares of all three Svarthvik, I tried again, “This really isn’t necessary.”

“Yes it is,” Rheda assured me, slowly unfolding her arms to twitch her finger, “lean against the cage, baby; imagine you’re a big game hunter.”

Doing as instructed, trying not to flinch as the woman within growled, I asked, “Really?”

“Baby,” Rheda cooed, “these people hurt you; they have to learn how wrong that was.”

“Yeah, I know but… well you beat them up; isn’t that enough?”

"Their friends in orbit should also realise what a bad idea it is,” Rheda continued, briefly glancing away from me to stare down a scantily clad Andskoti until the woman actually whimpered.

That was an understatement; in certain ways, Andsktoi are extremely prideful. They enjoyed their physical superiority to humans and being beaten by one, whether in a game of wits, or with a weapon, was intensely embarrassing. What Linith had suggested would probably count as a warcrime.

“Even so…”

“Baby, you’ve done us a huge favour today.” Rheda assured me, tilting her head to look at the image on the phone’s screen and nodding. “… That’s good.” To me, she said, “And you were hurt in doing so; we have to do something in return.”

I started to shrug, but an annoyed gesture from Linith had me leaning back against the cage while she snapped pictures. “But it’s not like I planned this. It was an accident.”

Rheda rolled her eyes, “If you knew what this place was and I said you had to go scout it for us, would you have refused?”

“Of course not!” I shook my head then, as I caught sight of Linith thumbing through images, asked. “… I wouldn’t have had to… do anything with the women, would I?”

“Of course not,” Rheda echoed my own words dryly. “But you’d have still come here, even if we’d be out of contact?”

“… I’d have taken some more precautions.” I nodded, mentally adding, ‘Like a bath.’

"And that kind of dedication, quite aside from the fact we like you, is commendable.” Casting an aside glance at Ayjer, she continued, “I wouldn’t want you to think that we would waste your time on a whim.”

While Ayjer inspected her feet, I cleared my throat, "Thank you… can I move now?”

“Sure,” Linith nodded, gesturing to something on the phone I couldn’t see. “This one?” She asked her boss.

The older Svarthvic squeezed her shoulder, “Duckling, after watching you snuff out a fuel tank with an antimatter grenade, I thought you’d learned there’s no such thing as overkill.”

“Sorry,” Linith grinned, her fingers working, “‘Send all’ it is then. 10am?”

“Eleven,” Rheda shook her head. “Jone’s MIB’s are government agents after all.”

While they were distracted, I allowed myself a relieved smile; I might think they were going a bit over the top, but it was good to know that my friends appreciated me.

As I mentioned, Andskoti don’t like losing to humans. Linith’s plan, however, was to bring that to the next level; after they’d taken the Ranch, she, Rheda, Ayjer and myself had scoured it for intelligence. Normally, cellphones were extremely low priority assets since, like us, the Andskoti used disposable handsets and never recorded anything important on them.

However, even if their phonebooks were useless for identifying targets, they were still a way of sending a message… or, in this case, a picture (or a lot of them, from what Linith said) of a mere human, standing victorious over the superwoman he’d obviously beaten, not merely with a gun, but his hands. Rheda had insisted on using the 33 other Andskoti as a backdrop, to drive home the fact that I’d not only managed to escape these ‘superior beings’ but by virtue of surviving to contact my friends, outmatched them. Some choice close ups of me standing over the kneeling Madame, whose face was still recognisable, if somewhat less attractive after she’d tried to take a VIP hostage, and been reminded that Svarthvik can teleport, was mere icing on the cake.

Personally I thought they were being a little too subtle, but I couldn’t deny their logic; despite not being part of the military, and fulfilling an ignominious role, these women were still Andskoti and once Linith clicked ‘send all’, their embarrassment would be felt by every member of their species on this planet. For the women personally, I lack the vocabulary to articulate the scale of their humiliation, particularly Claire’s, but I thought they were all going to be looking for new employment in the near future; something that I did not have a problem with.

Of course, quite how they were going to get off planet was another question; military personnel were usually paroled on the condition they’d never return to Earth, but these were civilians. Maybe the US government would take them?

I shrugged it off; now that phototime was over, I did actually have a job to do… sort of. As a clandestine lot, Andskoti had the frustrating habit of burning (sometimes literally), sensitive data when they were attacked. Occasionally my friends were fast enough to save something, but that was rare.

We’d never before recover a fully intact database.

I could say this phenomenal accomplishment was achieved because my friends were relentlessly trained to use their insane strength, technology, whip cracker reflexes and total situational awareness to dominate a battlespace.

That’s all true, but the reality was most of these Andskoti hadn’t realised they were under attack; they’d been too busy wiping sleep from their eyes and trying to herd scared VIP’s away from the roiling column of fire to wonder why the radio’s were going quiet.

When confronted with the reality of their situation… the VIP’s put up more of a fight because they didn’t know how outclassed they were. The Andskoti certainly hadn’t given any thought to destroying their database and while it wasn’t exactly super sensitive stuff, it did have records of every single ‘VIP’ who’d passed through the Ranch’s doors. I’d only scanned a few pages, but the numbers were high enough that I’d felt a stab of sympathy for the women who’d been obliged to ‘service’ these leading men of business, law and media.

Not enough that I was going to ask Linith not to send those pictures, I mean they did beat me up and hang me in a cage, but I could see where their misandry came from.

Ironically, despite my fears, my sat-nav was not among the devices we recovered. Questioning the prisoners revealed it was still in my car; they’d never even thought to look at it.

However, as important as analysing all that data was, Rheda had ordered me to wait until I’d had some sleep. She had a ‘far’ more important task for me; guarding the VIP’s since, ironically, that was the one thing she couldn’t do.

Svarthvik lacked the authority to arrest humans. Their mandate was purely extra-terrestrial threats and their superiors had never clarified the position of collaborators, so Rheda had resolved it by handing ‘custody’ over to another human, that is to say, me.

It made zero legal sense, given I wasn’t a US citizen, but sounded like it might and, more importantly, amused her. It’d only be for a couple of hours though; Rheda’s Pentagon friends were scrambling to get some very discrete members of the Nevada National Guard to race out here to resolve the legal situation. The USA didn’t officially recognise extra-terrestrials, but they could still prosecute collaborators by defining aliens as ‘a hostile nation’.

They’d likely have some MIB’s in tow to try and grab Andskoti technology. Rheda usually turned a blind eye too that, but I doubted she’d do so tonight; it was unlucky to hang around an Andskoti facility after it’d been taken as they tended to spontaneous combust.

Linith was there for me as I stumbled away from the cage, yawning.

“Not long now,” She assured me, though she looked almost as tired as I did, both the late hour and stress having taken their toll. “Then we can find a nice comfy bed to slip into.”

She meant merely to sleep, but I didn’t care; there were few things more intimate than falling asleep holding someone you love in your arms. “I’d take some rocks, provided they were flat.”

“We’ll try and do a little better than the Palaeolithic,” She assured me with a tiny smile, “you did a good job here, really; hard drives, prisoners, maybe a shuttle? We haven’t got this lucky in months.”

“Yep,” Rheda agreed, not taking her eyes off the prisoners returning to their cells, “I was thinking that next week, after you’re healed, we could throw you out of a plane with a parachute and see what Andksoti you land on.”

“Knowing my luck the chute would tear and it’d be with a splat.” I replied.

“Works for us; one less Andskoti in the world.” Ayjer shrugged.

“Not quite what I meant …” I answered dryly.

“Tell me you haven’t lived through less likely circumstances.”

I couldn’t, sadly, but as I was guided out of the dungeon, I caught sight of Madame. The loss of a few teeth, not to mention a fist sized red welt, hadn’t diminished her look of righteous contempt and I suddenly remembered that look she’d had when describing what they were going to do to me.

“Do you want to know an interesting fact?” I asked, stopping just out of arm’s reach, “I really had no idea who you were when I stopped here; if you’d just pointed me in the direction of the nearest motel, I’d have driven on and you’d be snug in your bed right now.”

From her scream of rage, I gathered that she hadn’t known that.


The End

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