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Earth. A world quarantined since its discovery by the Far-Reachers of Jota’s history. And where the fortunes of slavers and chemists have been made ever since. It was to Earth that Kanetus E’Var, the son of Jota’s most ruthless slaver, escaped to make Vahst, a powerful drug manufactured from the human brain.
And it was to Earth that Tagen Pahnee, Fourth-ranking officer of the Jotan Off-World Security Fleet, was sent to bring the criminal back to justice. Neither of them could have anticipated that at that moment, E’Var’s hunting grounds were experiencing the worst heat wave in years, triggering the Jotan breeding cycle in both males.
”Home” is not an option for either of them. Both are determined to find a way to work on this hostile planet, surrounded by humans, surrounded by dangers, surrounded by Heat. Adult readers only, due to graphic gore, violence, and explicit sexual situations.
The Gate was hidden among the moons of the sixth planet, and no one native to that solar system knew it when it powered up and the ship came through. It was an old ship, originally a mining cruiser, later bought by the Jotan Off-World Security Fleet and turned into a prison transport vessel. There was still one prisoner on board. The transporters were long gone.
The prisoner's name was Kanetus E'Var. He was a smuggler, a chemist, and a slaver, trained to his trade from the age of two, and he wasted no time in orienting himself. Before the glow of the Gate had even subsided, he had turned the ship and set a course for Earth.
The ship. He supposed he owned it now, and certainly he controlled it, but when his business on Earth was done, he had no intention of keeping it. It was a ship, it would serve his purposes, but it wasn't his. His ship was the Yevoa Null, which was even now decaying in some impound port, awaiting the day when it would be re-fitted into something the Fleet could use. It would make a damned good response cruiser, but whatever they turned it into, for Kane, his ship was gone.
His, not just because he had lived and worked there, but because the man who had commanded it was the man who had taken Kane from the Child-Halls of Jota and given him the name of E'Var. It was a name already made known throughout the darker reaches of Jotan space by Uraktus E'Var. Most knew him as a murderous fugitive. The crew of the Null knew him as their leader, a ruthless man who ensured unswerving loyalty through fear and force. And Kane had known him as father.
It was a set-up. Such things happened. The Fleet had come disguised in a So-Quaal ship to buy the slaves Urak had just bought from a breeding facility. The ambush was completely unexpected. The Fleet were on board before any alarm could be raised and then it was nothing but a firefight. Kane remembered smoke and noise, and then Urak running at him out of the smoky corridor.
"Out, boy!" he'd snarled, catching Kane's arm and throwing him�actually lifting and throwing him�toward the rear of the ship. "Get to the lifepod! Move!"
He had not said he would join Kane later. In Urak's eyes, Kane had seen that he meant not to. Uraktus E'Var was commander, and the commander fought for his ship.
He had gone, and he'd been lucky enough to escape detection as his lifepod fired out of the Null's back bay. Kane had waited at the pre-programmed landing place for three days, but no one joined him. When his coded distress call eventually flagged down a So-Quaal contact, he learned that they were all captured. Pax, Dashenke, Sitka, all of them. The crew Kane had known for so many years, some of them literally his entire life, had been taken and were even now sitting for their trials or were already imprisoned. All but one, and that one was dead.
Urak was dead. He'd taken seventeen of the Fleet-raiders with him before he fell, but they had killed him in the end.
Kane couldn't think about that too hard. Every living thing came into life owing a debt of death. Every son knew he would outlive his father. Kane had learned to walk aboard a smuggler's ship and he knew better than most how short a life could be. He had survived, that was the important thing. He had survived, and he had spent the next half-year at a So-Quaal breeding facility, planning his imprisonment.
The trickiest part had been finding the right accomplice. Not that there weren't plenty to choose from, but Kane trusted none of his father's contacts in the wake of Urak's death. He was careful. He took his time. And eventually, he'd found Bota Isk.
Isk was a prison transporter, a Fleet rookie too young and too ambitious for that dead-end job. His Fleet record was spotless, which was not surprising, since there were few opportunities either to fail or to shine when one's sole duty was driving from one port to another. But there were other things in the young pilot's history, things not a matter of Fleet record. Honest young Isk would seem to have expensive tastes, and often tried to live beyond his meager salary. Too, he made frequent calls at the Flesh-Halls nearest to the docking stations during his stopovers, and if the time stamp on his access card were anything to go by, the females even there had set their standards higher than some anonymous transporter.
So Kane made a cautious overture, hinting that he would like to surrender himself, and the ambitious Isk had leapt at the opportunity to arrest such a notorious fugitive. Capitalizing on greed came easy to Kane; he lured Isk alone into So-Quaal space for a meeting.
There, Kane showed Isk the highest time of a criminal's life. He spent money like a madman, introduced him to Vahst and D'gren oil, and at the end, bought him a tour through a Kevrian sex-house and watched while Isk sampled slavery in a less-lawful atmosphere. By the time the second sun rose, Kane knew he had his man.
The plan was simple. Kane would allow himself to be arrested. Bota would arrange to be one of the Fleet pilots taking him to prison. Bota would free Kane and Kane would take the two of them to Earth to harvest Vahst. They'd split the profits down the middle, and Kane had sweetened the offer by indicating there might be room for a certain accomplice on his crew once he'd traded his share in for a new ship. Soon, he'd said, Kanetus E'Var would be the sole supplier of fresh human stock to the entire universe, and would Bota like to get in on that trade?
Bota Isk, his Fleet jacket hanging open and his eyes glazed with D'gren oil, had only grinned.
His arrest was kept quiet�Jotan media had already claimed that all of Urak's crew were in custody�and the trial was brief. He was sentenced to the Tyuk prison station in the Far-Point sector, which suited him fine, and Bota Isk was waiting when Kane was put on the transport vessel. Bota took care of his co-pilot. Kane took care of Bota. And now here he was, back in familiar territory, alone.
Kane could handle the controls of the prison ship by himself just fine. The human homeworld had no defenses, even after all the years that Jotan and So-Quaal had been coming here. Kane scanned for interceptors out of habit, but saw only Earth's own media satellites and a few thousand chunks of derelict debris. When he switched on the channel feed, he heard only the usual deluge of human chatter bleeding over every radio wave. It was a miracle the humans hadn't attracted more attention than they already had. In Kane's opinion, any race this arrogant deserved an occasional picking-over.
He was in view of the planet now, hanging in orbit around its yellow sun with its single grey moon dangling before it. It was a pretty planet, he'd always thought so, so much more colorful than Jota, with all that blue and green and white. It was too bad such a pretty planet had gone by luck of universal draw to such a clueless clot of natives.
Kane didn't think much of humans. But Uraktus now, old Urak had loved humans. As long as Kane could remember, Urak had been fascinated by the flimsy little things. He'd even tried to keep them as personal pets, despite the high price of human slaves in other parts of the universe�a price that was about to climb even higher.
But Kane hadn't come to Earth for slaves this time. In the blood-stained seat beside him was Bota's last gift to him�a chemist's pack containing forty ampoules waiting to be filled with Vahst, and all the materials Bota had thought he'd need to make it. All, of course, excepting dopamine, which would be supplied by the humans.
Some of Bota's preparations were exceedingly strange. He'd apparently believed Kane would need to run a full tox-filter on every harvested human and he'd laid in enough Jotan pharmaceuticals to stock the Null's medical bay, but he hadn't thought to store any food or water. That was all right. Urak had schooled Kane thoroughly in survival. He'd make it long enough to make his Vahst, at any rate, and that was all that mattered.
Kane laid in the co-ordinates for Urak's favorite hunting grounds by memory. It was a good spot, cool and green and wet, well-populated without being overrun, and easily navigated by foot. When he saw the trees rising up to envelope him, Kane imagined he could feel Urak's hand resting on his shoulder, hear his father's rough voice saying, 'Feels like coming home, boy.' And it did.
It was dark where he touched down. There was no one to see his ship land, and of course, once the shift-shield was on, no one would be able to see it even if a human were to walk right into it. That would probably present a whole new batch of complications if that ever were to happen, but in all the years Urak had been coming to Earth, it hadn't happened yet. Some things you just had to learn to leave to fate.
Kane gathered his pack, matched the locater on his wrist to the ship's coordinates, synchronized his computer to Earth's peculiar mode of time (why twenty-four hours, for hell's sake? They didn't even count all twenty-four, they counted twelve hours twice), locked everything down and stepped out into Earth's warm, pleasant night. He was calm, he was organized, and he was ready to hunt.
When day broke, it would be the first day of what the human media would call the Summer of Hell, and Kane would be partly responsible for the name. It was the sort of thing that might ordinarily give him a tickle, if he were aware of it. But when the sun came up, it would also bring the first day of the worst run of record-breaking temperatures in more than a hundred years for that part of the world, and that being the case, Kane would soon be about as far from ticklish as a Jotan could get.
* * *
It was never a good thing to get a summons from Fleet Command first thing in the morning. It was worse to get one on the first day back from deep-space duty. And worst of all was to receive the addendum that one had just been promoted to sek'ta, which qualified one for top-risk solitary duty.
Tagen Pahnee, fourth-rank officer in the Jotan Security Fleet rolled over in his bed to find just such a summons (with just such an addendum) flashing on the monitor of his media station. He stared at it for a long time.
His off-world tour had lasted a full year this time. There had been no homeworld leave. This was his first opportunity to sleep in his own bed. He could still feel the vibrations of the ship's engines humming in his bones, and now he had to wake up to this.
"Congratulations," he muttered, flinging back the covers. "You have just become expendable." He rose to look for a clean uniform. If one was about to be drafted into suicide detail, one might as well dress for the occasion.
Too short a time later, Tagen walked into Fleet Headquarters and was swiftly ushered to a private debriefing room. He was the only one there. That was disconcerting.
Tagen sat down and waited, thinking quiet and rueful thoughts of his bed at home. Eventually, the door hissed open and admitted two figures. One was a female, wearing the white robes of a High Magistrate. The other, a harried-looking male holding a sealed supply pack. Intriguing. Tagen stood up and began to raise his hand.
"Don't salute," the Magistrate said, looking pained. "Formalities would be grotesque, all things considered. I've seen your record. I imagine I got you out of bed. Were you alone?"
The question caught him off guard. For a moment, he wondered if she were flirting with him. "Yes," he said warily.
"You have no personal obligations tying you to Jota at this time? No adoption procedures underway? Are you breeding?"
Short of asking him if his death would inconvenience anyone else, this was as straightforward as could be. "No," he said.
The Magistrate flicked her eyes at the man accompanying her. "This is vey Venekus, from the Human Studies division," she said, and sat down. She did not bother to introduce herself. "There's been an incident."
Tagen took his place at the table and folded his hands atop it patiently.
"I'm sure you know who Kanetus E'Var is," the Magistrate said. She passed a hand wearily over her eyes and then takked her claws hard against the table. "You may not know that he was arrested several days ago."
"I did not." But he had known that E'Var had not been captured when the Yevoa Null was raided, which put him head and shoulders above many of his colleagues. If the 'incident' involved E'Var, it was going to be a scratchy one. Leaving aside the simple danger of the man, most of the public believed him already imprisoned. Of course, since the Magistrate had just admitted E'Var was in custody, Tagen couldn't imagine how anything serious enough to qualify as an 'incident'�
"His ship never arrived at Tyuk station. Our initial investigations prove his ship never came through the Far-Point Gate."
Ah. Tagen leaned back in his chair and considered her. "Do we know how the escape was managed?"
"I have not said there was an escape." The stiffness in her words belied the frustration evident on her face. She looked away. "The council's official stance is that his transport vessel broke up mid-Gate. Even now, the Fleet is searching for his wreckage, but�" She trailed off, lifting and dropping one hand to show the futility inherent in that effort. Space was wide and wreckage from a mid-Gate explosion could materialize just about anywhere. "I just want to be sure."
Tagen considered the wisdom of asking his next question, but ultimately decided that truth would serve him better than tact in this situation. "Why so much interest in E'Var's whereabouts? He has no ship. The rest of the Yevoa Null's crew is safely imprisoned. His father's reputation may afford him some protection for now, but smugglers have short memories and little loyalty. He'll turn up."
"Perhaps." The Magistrate continued to glare at the far wall.
"What makes you think he's gone to Earth?" Tagen asked finally.
She answered like a bureaucrat, with another question. "Did you know that the council has agreed to decommission Earth's Gate?" Without waiting for an answer, she stood up and began to pace around the small room, her magistrate's robe flapping around her ankles. "It's going to come down next season. Part of the new government's self-proclaimed 'war' on drugs. Ha. As if there weren't enough humans hidden away in breeding facilities all over So-Quaal space to keep the Vahst trade alive and thriving for another thousand years."
The Magistrate shot another glance at the scientist who had accompanied her, and then returned to her seat, "What I say now is never to leave this room." She stared Tagen down for a second or two in silence, and then said, "Uraktus E'Var was constructing his own Gate."
Tagen rocked back, genuinely shocked. "How?"
"With money, I imagine." She bared her fangs at the wall and began to tak her claws on the table again. "But that's the meat of the matter, and the whole reason we devoted ourselves so unremittingly to taking him down. We believe we stopped him before he could complete his Gate and it's unlikely he shared its location or the secrets of its construction with anyone else. With the possible exception of his son."
Tagen felt his jaw tighten. "Who has gone missing," he concluded.
"Who is probably�" She stressed the word carefully and then turned to face him again. "Dead. But in the event that he is not, I assure you, he has gone to Earth. As you say, he has no ship, no crew. His resources must be limited. There is only one place he could go to strengthen them. It is, in all likelihood, a fool's chase."
Right. And Tagen knew exactly the fool she had in mind.
"You are going to investigate the matter," the Magistrate told him. "I have written orders, if you require them."
Tagen wanted to bare his teeth, but this was a ranking female. Instead, he said, "I do not. Your word is enough to satisfy me."
"I'm pleased to see you appreciate the delicacy of the situation." The Magistrate showed her own fangs in a hard smile, but then, Tagen was only a male, and a sek'ta at that. She didn't have to be nice. "The quarantine has never been officially broken�and it never will be. You understand?"
She was disavowing him right to his face. "I do," he said.
"Good. You leave immediately." She stood again and turned, her robes snapping out behind her as she made for the door. "The council is watching you, sek'ta Pahnee. Success in your mission will be most favorably rewarded."
Of course it would be. Because failure would probably end with death. And even if it didn't, it would still end with him as a damned sek'ta.
The doors hissed open and shut, and Tagen was alone with vey Venekus.
"I am so jealous," the scientist said.
Tagen glared at him.
Vey Venekus cleared his throat and began again. "Do you speak any human?"
"Panyol." He was quite fluent with that one. "Some N'Glish." It was more than enough; Tagen's duties as a fourth-rank Fleet officer rarely brought him into contact with humans, and the ones he did encounter were often muted and seldom responded to words anyway.
"Only some? Most of the slaves E'Var trafficked spoke N'Glish. It's likeliest his son will go back to hunt in the same place. Here. I have�" The scientist put his pack on the table and turned it so that he could display its contents to Tagen. "I have language discs. You can study them on your flight. Once you've mastered the basic rules of speech, it's all about vocabulary. What do you know about Earth?"
"I know it's quarantined," Tagen retorted, and then heaved a mental sigh. "Earth was the first planet the Far-Reacher program contacted that was inhabited by a sentient species," he said. "I'm not sure of the date. Some five hundred years ago. I would have studied if I'd known there was going to be a test."
"That's good enough," vey Venekus said mildly. "All of the information we have comes from the Far-Reacher's reports, before Earth was quarantined. It may be a little out of date, but it should still be workable. You can find most of them in these debriefing programs, but it makes pretty dry reading. And it's nothing but a contingency plan, really. The human populations are widely scattered. It's unlikely you'll encounter any of them, but even if you do, they shouldn't give you any trouble. They're aggressive in large numbers, but they're hardly dangerous. I assume you've seen one close up before."
"Yes." In his first deep-space tour in the Fleet, Tagen had been involved in a raid on a mining facility that used humans as laborers. They'd been a sorry lot, hobbled, muted, and half-starved, but Tagen remembered them well enough. They were eerily similar to a Jotan in structure and features, but smaller and less durable overall, like a reflection in some freakishly warped mirror. Most of them had died before they could even be taken to a preserve. In the years since, Tagen had seen many humans, but nothing quite compared to that first sight.
"Then you know how easily they can be subdued. Your greatest problem is probably going to come from Earth's atmosphere. They burn a lot of carbon there."
Tagen frowned. "They can breathe that?"
"No." The scientist laughed shortly. "They die from it, but they burn it anyway. They don't seem to be capable of making the connection between pollution and cancer. Have you ever been to one of the preserves?"
"Then you might know we've never been able to keep one in captivity for very long. Under our direct supervision, I mean. They're too�" Venekus raised a hand and rolled it through the air as though groping for the next word on an invisible set of shelves. "Unstable," he said at last. "But put them by themselves, and they do just fine. To a point. If it wasn't for the filters we have in place, the entire moon would be practically uninhabitable by now. They have an uncanny knack for self-destruction." He said this almost fondly.
Tagen takked his claws on the tabletop.
Venekus took the hint and returned to business. "In any event, you'll have a full medical kit, and I encourage you to take daily scans and anti-toxins whenever necessary. You're up to date on your vaccinations, I assume?"
"Humans catch everything, so if you do come into prolonged contact with one, you might want to scan and inoculate it as well. We wouldn't want to start a plague the same day the quarantine is broken. However, all I have are basic immuno-boosters. No one knows what E'Var's been using all this time, but we can't come close to duplicating it, so keep contact to a minimum. What wouldn't I give," Venekus muttered, "to have had just one day to pick that man's brains. What a waste. If only you people weren't so eager to see the color of his blood."
"Twenty-five officers lost their lives in that raid," Tagen said.
Vey Venekus glanced up, but he didn't look terribly apologetic. "That's tragic," he said. "But let me tell you something. One of the humans recovered from the Yevoa Null showed evidence of massive internal reconstruction. Closer analysis indicated that its liver had been damaged and then regrown. Now Uraktus E'Var had enough knowledge to recognize the organ's failure and enough skill to repair it. I don't even know where the liver is in a human body."
"That's tragic," Tagen said coolly.
The scientist's eyes narrowed and his voice grew steel. "Yes, it is. Because at this moment, there are more than a quarter-million humans in preserves, and no one has any idea how to take care of them. Hundreds of them die every day. Hundreds more are being born because they breed like bacteria. The average age of the humans in a preserve right now is twenty-one years and that number is dropping."
Tagen's simmering outrage fell away and he stared back at the scientist, openly appalled. "I had no idea."
"It's estimated that there are two million more humans unaccounted for in deep space, and as many as twice that number among the So-Quaal and the Kevrian, and the only people who know how to take care of them are slavers like E'Var. Now whether we like it or not, when we rescue a human, we accept responsibility for it, and the restrictions on our research methods are crippling us. I could be arrested for running a simple osteograph! I�"
Venekus broke off and looked down into the supply pack. When he looked up again, he had achieved a semblance of calm so complete it was nearly indifference. "So we'd appreciate any new information you might pick up while you're there," he said evenly. "And if you have to talk to one, use this."
Tagen took the loaded dermisprayer the scientist offered him and turned it over in his hands. "What is it?"
"A mild sedative we've developed while working with the recovered slaves. It makes them very compliant for about half a day. It won't hurt them," he added when Tagen frowned. "But it will make them sick if they try to move around too much too soon. You have enough for five doses there, and that's more than you should ever need. Do you have any questions?"
"Yes." Tagen placed the dermisprayer into the pack, then shut and sealed it. He stood up. "Where's my ship?"
* * *
The sun had not yet reached its zenith before Kane realized he was going into Heat.
The thought stopped him dead in his tracks, and he stared in mute disbelief up at Earth's sky, as though he could accuse the yellow star to its face. Heat. Full-blown Heat. He could feel the itching starting up already. Heat.
"Fuck," Kane growled, not entirely unaware of the hideous irony in that particular epithet. He yanked the chemist's pack from his shoulder and took a swift inventory of its contents. Hormone extracts, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals for making Vahst. Anti-toxins, anti-virals, antibiotics, dermal restoratives and nanozymes in case of disease or injury. One, and only one, protein boost. Three doses of Ti, a stimulant powerful enough to keep Kane awake and moving for forty of Earth's hours, and which he had absolutely no intention of taking. No suppressants. Nothing that could even be made into a suppressant.
Kane ground the heel of one hand against his forehead, snarling at empty space. No suppressants. Son of a So-Quaal. No, strike that. No true son of a So-Quaal would ever go anywhere without full laboratory facilities.
In that instant, Kane was genuinely sorry he'd simply shot Bota Isk out the airlock. He wanted the tactile pleasure of ripping the fucker's flesh off.
'Take your time,' Urak remarked in the back of Kane's brain. 'Sit around. Feel sorry for yourself. I'm sure the humans will take pity on your predicament and come here to harvest themselves.'
"They'd better," Kane grunted.
'You give up too easy, boy. You just ask yourself what's harder, your will or your cock?'
Kane breathed low laughter and shook his head, still covering his eyes. "Easy for you to say, you're dead."
Kane gave his pack a final irritated glare and then closed it up and shouldered it once more. Maybe he'd get lucky. It would be a few hours before Heat became unbearable, and in that time, it might grow cooler. He could handle Heat without suppressants for one day. Hell, he was an E'Var. He could handle it for two.
'Don't play tough with me, boy.' And in the only prophetic streak that Kane would ever have, that part of him that spoke in Urak's voice added, 'You're only tough if you can take it for twenty.'
Ha. Twenty days of Heat. Kane grinned at the voice, striding off through the woods with great confidence.
As if there could be such a thing.