When confronted with an enemy claiming knowledge of a conspiracy between their leaders, Warden Arie Vedebel must join forces to try and stop them.
A hundred years ago, the warring Kimon used a geo-spatial anomaly to invade the peaceful Therlerians on the other side of their planet, only to be driven off by their advanced technology.
Now, a single man guards the point of entry--Warden Arie Vedebel, the best of his kind. When a storm sets the creek on fire, he discovers a man in its midst. General Dennick Ginn, highly decorated Kimon officer, claims he's come to destroy the anomaly, but as far as Arie knows, that's impossible. Then again, he's always been told that traveling through the anomaly is no longer viable.
Arie and Dennick form a wary alliance. While Arie strives to find the truth, he can't dispute Dennick is not what he expects a Kimon to be. The two men have more in common than military training. They just might have a future, too.
Warden Arie Vedebel thumbed the console to send off his nightly report with one eye on the light to signal it was gone and the other fixated on the view through his window. While nothing untoward had occurred, the weather had taken a turn in the past few hours, inky clouds rolling in to blot out the translucent moons visible in Kathtor’s sky this time of year. He needed to double-check the forecasts. Though he hadn’t prepared for upcoming storms, a rapid shift in atmospheric conditions wasn’t unheard of. What was unlikely was missing the detail on his morning reports. In the six years he’d served at Midnight Creek, not once had he made such an error.
The transmission turned green, and Arie swiveled in his seat to recall the necessary documents from storage. Today’s report was exactly as he remembered. Clear and mild. Yesterday’s was the same. While he wouldn’t receive tomorrow’s for several hours, he could take current sensor readings and create his own projections to see if it matched with his visual assessment.
The entire process took less than five minutes. His primary education might’ve been military science, but he’d been the star pupil in his graduating class in predictive analytics. Three dozen companies and organizations had offered him work, in almost every field imaginable. When he’d turned them down and explained why, he’d always heard, “What a waste.”
Arie didn’t believe so. For as long as he could remember, he knew he would be a part of the LTF—Liberated Therler Federacy—as a way of returning its generosity for pulling him from what would’ve been a life in the system. Each year, they selected only a few orphaned children for their reform projects. Regardless of how the outside world perceived them, Arie would always consider it an honor to have been chosen.
His analysis mirrored what he saw outside. Atmospheric pressure had been dropping rapidly over the past couple hours. Temperatures had been high, but measurements taken at his post’s boundaries showed a sudden cooling, accompanied by violent winds. A cold front approached the creek. Not unusual, but enough out of his normal routine to set Arie’s nerves on edge while he went out to secure his equipment.
Prior to his assignment, he’d seen Midnight Creek only in historical feeds. The nearest populated areas were the tiny farming villages of the southern border, and those were still a day’s travel by speeder to the east. For a boy born and raised in the industrial capital of Anaban, Midnight Creek was a place of dark beauty and mystery, even without knowing the significance it held in their political history.
The countryside rolled with hidden mounds, long yellow grasses wilting in the blazing southern heat, burying the gnarled roots of trees that barely reached his shoulder. His first month here he’d twisted his ankle five separate times when his heavy boots had caught on the hidden obstacles. The roots ran like threaded armor over the barren soil, protecting the treasures it shielded from outsiders. An unsuspecting man could easily get trapped or, worse, fall through one of the myriad fissures that led the way belowground. A lesson learned. A step into the wrong cut was a step to the death.
Feeds from generations past, before the invasion, showed more life. Prickly flowers in vibrant shades of crimson and orange dotted the swaying grass, praying to their sun gods as they stretched higher than the tallest branches. Birds of prey haunted the skies, searching the ground below for the vermin and small wildlife that hid amongst the vegetation. Nothing larger lingered long in the vicinity. Too many slashes cut the earth open, and the caverns below housed nocturnal beasts that threatened any who descended.
Those were long gone, too. Occasionally, Arie saw field mice or the delicate plumage of a songbird, but otherwise, he was the only animal who dared to call Midnight Creek home.
The creek itself ran underground. On a calm day, if he held his breath and strained to listen, he could hear the water flowing along its stony bed, droplets echoing in the caves that provided cover. It ran all the way to the southern sea, but it was here, at its origin, that it needed most defending. This was Arie’s job. His honor. He held the responsibility with the same deference as he did the creek itself.
The wind cut through his light shirt when he returned to the station. He locked the door and set the alarm, calibrating it more tightly so every little gust didn’t set it off. Next came the sensor lockdowns, a dozen flicks of his thumb followed by a dozen more quick taps at the console. When the control room was secured, he went through the routine two more times. Repetition ensured accuracy. His personal mantra since long before earning his commission.
Now that his duties were done for the day, he sat and ate his evening meal in peace. Though his seniority gave him leeway with supplies, his food requisitions remained consistent in all the time he’d been stationed at Midnight Creek. Breakfast was a protein pack, lunch a plain vitamin drink, and dinner included both. Quick, simple, efficient. Sometimes, just having to take the time out of his day to eat annoyed him. He’d actually written an entire report on the projected efficacy of intravenous meals, only to have it dismissed with a terse, “Wardens have teeth for a reason.”
He didn’t bother suggesting improvements anymore. That didn’t mean he liked having to sit through protocols he felt were a waste of time, though.
His nightly Virtual Reality session was one of those. Wardens assigned to posts past a certain distance marker from an LTF command were required to plug into a daily simulation to counter the psychological effects the isolation was reported to have. The simulation could be anything or anywhere the warden wished, utilizing programs citizens paid exorbitant fees to access but they got for free. The only requirements were that it contained at least one other human or two AI personalities, and that once a week, it provided a sexual release.
Arie understood the science behind it. He’d read every report and study he could get his hands on. He’d never been able to find a viable argument why he should be excluded from standard precautionary measures for recognized neurological and physiological needs, other than, “I’m different. I don’t need it.” Even he saw how irrational that was, which was the only reason he hadn’t gone searching for a way to fool the computers into believing he was sitting through the VR sessions to get out of them. A necessary evil to keep his post.
Tonight was a sexual session. Stripping out of his clothes, he stretched out on his narrow bed and called up the VR selections to scan over the list. The impending storm had his timing off, his nerves jumbled. He could barely focus on the options, and in a moment of frustration, barked, “Randomized coitioncast, level three.”
He forced himself not to fidget as he waited for the computer. He didn’t like not knowing what was about to come, but tonight, it was a better option than attempting to extract one choice as better than another. Though a level three would be more intense, it would also be over more quickly. Trade-offs were sometimes necessary.
Plus, his superiors would probably like seeing him vary his routine this small bit. It would reflect well on his adaptability scores, which were always the weakest point of his performance reviews.
Beneath him, his mattress stiffened as the computer reset its motion sensors. Arie was ready to call up the command panel again to find out why a sex scenario was divesting him of comfort when the room went pitch black.
Too late. Behind him, the countdown pulses began.
Arie closed his eyes. Better to be relaxed and ready when the VR synched with the corresponding neural ensembles. Otherwise, the VR was more nightmarish than real, and tomorrow would be a whirlwind of vomiting and vertigo until the effects wore off.
Sweat prickled the back of his neck. For some reason, the VR had raised the ambient temperature in the station. He’d unclothed because he hated cleaning up the mess after a coitioncast, but now it felt like a smart choice for other reasons.
His arms became leaden. His legs would soon follow. While it would feel like he was moving during the session, his central nervous system was deliberately suppressed to prevent him from hurting himself.
Thunder rumbled outside the station walls. Losing power wasn’t possible, but the tiniest concern that the storm would somehow penetrate the VR’s landscape and manifest in unpredicted ways poked around the edges of Arie’s consciousness.
Immersion came instantaneously.
Arie blinked against the sudden brightness. He was used to sunlight, but that was always diffused by the waving grasses and the guttered hills. This illumination was devoid of anything living, artificial in its intensity, sterile as it reflected off the polished surface of the floor.
The gym floor. The VR had put him in the training room back in his first year in the LTF.
A thread of adrenaline wound its way through his veins as he drank it all in. He’d spent more hours within these four walls than anyone else in his unit, pushing himself to the breaking point over and over again. He’d eschewed the fancier equipment with its full-body sensors and virtual simulations for the more basic tools, all of them here now for him to utilize if he wished.
The cage where he’d gone undefeated in hand-to-hand combat.
The track that encircled the rectangular space. Running through the streets of the city was prohibited, since it was seen as a hostile act, but here, he could do whatever he wanted without fear of how it might be perceived. Here, he’d been expected to be the fastest, the strongest.
The weights in the far corner, relegated to a purgatory since he’d been the only one who’d utilized them. The others had preferred the sim weights, where there was no danger of dropping a crushing blow onto your chest or head. To Arie, that had seemed like the coward’s way out.
They weren’t abandoned now.
Curious, he crossed the training room to get a better look at the man currently lifting the largest weight possible over his head. He wore a cadet’s training uniform, a sleek sleeveless jumpsuit that went from shoulder to ankle in a dull brown material. The fabric was designed to modulate body temperature, whisking away perspiration to keep the wearer more comfortable, offering protection in intemperate weather. It also left very little to the imagination, molding over human flesh like another skin.
That was when Arie realized he was wearing one, too.
The stranger set down the weights and turned to face Arie as if he’d heard him approach. “Took you long enough.”
Arie frowned. “I only just got here.”
“Let’s get to it, then.”
That was it? Let’s get to it? Level three was supposed to be faster, but he wasn’t even hard yet, not to mention the man opposite him was as interesting as a protein pack. Arie didn’t mind the occasional male partner, but the only thing this guy had going for him was a bulked-out body and a tight ass, only the latter of which Arie cared about.
He opened his mouth to argue his point when a heavy fist slammed into his midsection. Arie doubled over more in surprise than pain, but before he could straighten, his opponent connected with his jaw in an uppercut that sent Arie sprawling to the floor.
His head spun. He shook it once to clear it.
“That was disappointing,” his opponent said. He stood over Arie, wearing a scowl. “I heard you were the best.”
Arie didn’t waste words on a reply. He swept his leg to the side to knock the stranger’s legs out from under him.
Both men twisted at the same time to grapple along the floor. While he wasn’t always the biggest guy in a fight, Arie was accustomed to being the most skilled. His opponent was a true match, though. Courtesy of the VR, no doubt. He grunted each time one of Arie’s punches landed, but absorbed the blow to continue his attack, keeping Arie low rather than allowing him room to incorporate legs and gravity. His fists hammered at Arie’s weaker muscles and joints, gradually sapping the stamina on which Arie prided himself.
The world flipped when his sweaty grasp skidded along his opponent’s arm and the other man used his momentum against him. Arie landed on his stomach, arms pulled painfully back to curve his shoulder blades toward each other, a powerful knee braced firmly against his lower spine.
“Better,” the man said. Without lifting his knee, he turned the angle of his leg so his calf pressed along the crack of Arie’s ass. “But I think what I like best is that, even knowing you can’t win, you keep on fighting.”
The grip around Arie’s arms was as implacable as a pair of dracer cuffs. He wouldn’t be surprised to find bruises if he broke free. But his seething lungs couldn’t catch up to his desire, the pressure against his chest forcing him to wait rather than act. Not once in his entire career, nor in any VR cast, had he been this helpless.
“Then let me fight,” he ground out.
“Oh, I don’t think so.” Somehow, the man bent over him without loosening his hold. The shiver of his long, slow breaths raised all the short hairs on Arie’s neck. “I like you like this.”
The proof of that statement was visible at the corner of Arie’s eye. At the sight of the thick bulge, Arie instinctively clenched his ass. No way was he going to let that monster anywhere near him. Or nearer, anyway.
His opponent chuckled. “Someone’s getting ahead of himself.”
“This isn’t what I wanted.”
“Oh?” The knee moved, shifting to the side so the man straddled Arie’s hips. His new position put Arie in touching distance of the man’s cock, but he wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of reaching for it to try and dislodge him. “Your records didn’t say anything about being an accomplished liar.”
“It’s not a lie.”
“So if I were to slide my hand underneath you…” He didn’t act out his question, but the way he drew out each word in a sibilant whisper made it feel like his hot, strong fingers were doing exactly that. “Tell me the truth, Vedebel. This is exactly what you wanted.”
Another protest perched on his tongue, only to go adrift as he felt the thunderous roar of his pulse conspiring with his lungs to throw him out of control and into the chaos his opponent created. With the weight on his back bearing him down, every muscle fought against the flesh it met, but even he had to admit it was a losing battle.
His painful erection trapped between the floor and his thigh was testament to that.
He endured his own silence as if it was a bruise refusing to heal, holding completely still while he waited for his opponent’s next move. To speak would cede the last of his mastery of the situation. His mind, if not his body, had no desire to take on the role of hapless bystander yet.
“Why is it so hard to admit?” The man’s hips began to roll in tiny, sensual gyrations that sent shocks straight to Arie’s balls. “Would it be easier for you to accept if I tied you up and fucked you that way? Or maybe I should lash you to the cage and let you hang there while I did whatever the hell I wanted to your cock. You wouldn’t miss a single detail that way, and then later, when you’re alone and you’ve got your hand on your cock, you can relive it to get yourself off again.” Arie jerked when the man’s teeth clamped around the outer curve of his ear and bit down, hard enough to hurt, not hard enough to damage before he let go. “It won’t be the same, of course. A good little warden like you will distill the memories so they lose their real power. But that won’t stop you from trying.”
Everything Arie believed in ached to refute his opponent’s claims. This wasn’t what he wanted. He’d never entertained the idea of bondage, not even when he was younger and thoughts of sex got in the way of everything else. He hadn’t masturbated outside of a coitioncast since beginning his assignment. Nothing this man said could be true.
But what if it was?
All he requested was for Arie to submit willingly. This was sex, not war. Surrender didn’t mean failure. It would mean—
The lights flashed red as a klaxon began to sound.
“Shit,” his opponent muttered.
The weight disappeared.
Arie’s eyes flew open to an eerie throb. An alarm blinked on and off at the top of the nearby console, mutating the retained image of the LTF training room into a hellish landscape. Each strobe sliced bloody streaks against the utilitarian walls, glistening against the gray polish for that split second before plunging into darkness again. He couldn’t orientate himself without the familiar to bring him back, and his body still heaved from the effects of the aborted seduction. When he tried to rise, he fell back against his bed with a clumsy thud.
He gulped at the hot, stale air. In. Out. Close his eyes. Try again.
The room didn’t spin quite as much when he attempted to sit up a second time. Though he’d had a VR session interrupted by an alarm before—they were designed to kill any cast in progress to minimize the warden’s delays in responding to what triggered the disruption in the first place—none had been a coitioncast before tonight. The tension threading through him drained his concentration, leaving him scrambling to center his thoughts on the moment. His cock ached for release. His shoulders tingled from the residual pressure of his opponent’s hold. The sweat his virtual training suit had whisked away in the simulation now was very real, beading all over his skin, rolling into the crease of his thighs, behind his balls, down the side of his neck.
Everything conspired against his rational thought. All the while, the klaxon continued to sound.
As soon as the desperate order left his lips, Arie cringed. Voice commands didn’t work on the alarms. He knew that. His frayed nerves didn’t seem to care, though.
Swinging his legs over the bed, he ignored his wobbly knees and staggered across the room to the console. Being upright helped clear his head. He was able to quiet the alarm and turn the lights back on without getting sick.
The video feeds were useless. The clouds had opened in the time he’d been in the session, and rain pelted against the cameras to obliterate the view. It was possible the storm had activated the alarm, but he would have to be dead before he’d make that assumption and not follow through investigating.
Arie switched over to the secondary sensors. The heat register for the cave housing the creek’s origin blazed white. Whatever had turned the cave into an oven had set off the alarms.
Training took over. He dressed in record time, heedless of his flagging arousal and the perspiration that still clung to his skin. That much heat suggested fire, so he threw his pack over his shoulder and grabbed a pair of riov rods. When he unlocked the door, the winds ripped it out of his hand, crashing it against the wall to ring out into the night. He had to bow his head against the rains to get the door shut again, remaining hunched over as he ran for the creek.
He was halfway there before he missed the weight of his weapon against his thigh. His step faltered. Though he rarely used his tak gun, it was required when checking out irregularities. The problem was, he’d lose valuable time if he went back to get it.
His indecision lasted until his next breath. Arie broke into a dead run, barreling over the sodden grass for the creek.
The smoke hit him first. It tickled the back of his throat, caught on tendrils of the wind that whipped past him as he raced for the cave opening. It leant a sweetness to the saturated air that wasn’t normally there, unnatural without being offensive. The closer he got, the thicker the smoke became.
As he struggled not to choke on the cloying scents, the chill disappeared, the temperature climbing to levels higher than they’d been before the storm. Arie started to sweat again. His shirt stuck to his nape and back when he finally reached the cave and scrambled down the loose gravel to the banks below.
The entire cavern was filled with smoke.
Dropping to his knees, he tossed one of the riov rods onto the opposite side of the creek. Riov absorbed oxygen and would help suffocate the source of the flames, which from the look of it was the creek itself. He’d known it was possible. The invasions had altered the water’s chemistry, though none of the LTF’s scientists could predict whether or not it was a permanent change. Every specialist since the invasion had testified that when it came to the creek, their only choice was to wait it out. But knowing it was possible didn’t make seeing water burn less weird, nor did it help Arie understand what could’ve caused it.
Before he could determine that, he needed to get it under control.
He set the second rod next to him, to work with the winds above that were acting like a vacuum to suck out the smoke. His eyes watered as he dug around in the pack, so he had to wipe them clear before slipping the mask he pulled out over his face. Once on, it was easier to concentrate, giving him freedom to scan the creek for any clues about what had caused the conflagration.
Under normal conditions, the water was a sullen black, which was yet another reason why it had been renamed Midnight Creek after the invasions. Even though it rose only to his knees, Arie had never seen the bottom, just like he’d never seen his reflection in its surface. Looking at it now, though, streaks of orange danced beneath the flames and turned the creek translucent. The bed churned with viscous fluids, marbling the small stones that lined it. It definitely wouldn’t have any life in it now.
Worse, the fire wasn’t contained. It was already edging farther down the cavern, on its way to the sea.
Forget about finding the cause. His first priority was preventing the fire from spreading beyond his reach. The creek traveled unchecked for tiacks before it began to resemble normal water again. That gave the fire almost unlimited fuel. If any of the flames breached the cavern’s ceiling, there was no telling what they could do to the land.
Halfway up the incline leading to the open air, Arie spotted a misshapen lump out of the corner of his eye. He squinted through the smoke, but his hesitation lasted only a moment after it moved.
A man. Where none had ever come before.
Not since the invasions, anyway.