Cin had lived for twenty-six years but could have sworn she was a hundred. Too damn old to be out in the wilds of Ripindal, trying to find the items that would buy her some supplies and eventually get her into paradise.
Thank God it was summer. At least she wouldn't freeze to death. She crouched lower, her back against a gnarled tree, and stared into the misty semidark of the clearing. She was hungry. Here on Ripindal the slow-moving, tiny birds called poes came out in bunches in winter, but in the warmer months they were harder to find.
But she'd learned patience in her many long weeks on the mining colony. Eighteen months. Seemed like years.
Her job was to mine the moon for the shrube the Gamlogi so desired. From what she'd been told, the shrube powered not only the Gamlogi themselves, but their world. Energy in the form of the curious little stonelike items was necessary for the aliens' survival, and they were stockpiling. If they'd been able to breathe on Ripindal, they wouldn't have needed to buy humans from Earth to do it for them, and she wouldn't be here now. Fucking Gamlogi.
But she scoffed silently. Like being in a prison on Earth was any better. At least here she had the hope of paradise. On Earth, in the grim prisons, there was no hope of anything more than a swift death. A painless death would have been too much to even hope for.
Yes, definitely better on Ripindal than in prison. She wouldn't have been allowed to see Alana in prison. Wouldn't have wanted the sweet girl to see her there anyway.
At least it was beautiful here, and she was outdoors. That's right. Think positively. She smiled.
The sky was a dark purple, a clear canvas against which a pale poe could be easily spotted. Her eyes were strained and tired, but she didn't dare rest them. Poes were slow, but they were cautious.
At last she saw one, its delicate wings carrying it ever closer to her clearing. She held her breath. Come on, little fellow. Come on...
Her legs began to cramp as the bird floated to a gentle landing on a lily pad not four feet from her. It stood as still as a stick, absorbing the sounds of the night, waiting, perhaps, to see if danger lurked.
Finding none, it lowered its tiny beak to sip. She could almost feel the little poe's ecstasy when the cold crystal water touched its tongue, and hated herself just a little for having to bring that joy to an end.
Drunk on the liquid to which they had little resistance, the tiny poe had no chance at escape when Cin burst from her crouch. She dived at the slow bird, her hand closing around its warm body as she belly flopped into the shallow pond.
Its squeal was horrifying, but she'd long ago learned a valuable lesson. It was the poe or her. And she was a survivor.
She didn't even allow herself to climb from the pond before she stuffed the little bird into her mouth. It got harder if she waited, if she thought about it.
Closing her eyes as she chewed, she did what she always did when she caught a poe; she imagined some delicious food from her days on Earth, and that's what the bird became.
They were special, the little poes. They didn't just keep the humans from starving; they also lent a quick energy that lasted for days. But best of all, they took on the flavor of whatever food a human imagined.
Then there was no blood, no ligaments to chew through, no soft gut or exploding heart. Only a small, chewy bar of chocolate. She moaned as she swallowed the last bite, wishing for another, but her stomach was already protesting the bounty, the tricky hugeness of the meal.
"Fucking poes," she said, sighing and then smiling for the first time that day. The food hit her system like a drug, and had she been a little less strong, she would have fallen over to the dewy grass and wallowed in the good feeling, content.
But she was too smart for that. On Ripindal, a lone human girl couldn't afford to relax. Not if she wanted to stay alive. And for some crazy reason, she did. She had her goals. She had her reasons for living.
An image of Alana intruded, and she shoved it away as quickly as she could. Forgetting about her baby was impossible, but dwelling on her brought only pain. Soul-searing, tormenting pain. In the beginning she had curled into a knot and prayed for death, too depressed to gather the energy to kill herself.
Besides, what if somehow, some day, she got to return to her daughter? At the thought, she pushed her knuckles into her eyes, chanting the litany that would allow her to function.
You can't go back. You can never go back.
Because she couldn't. Not ever. She would never see Alana again, and dwelling on the horror only made it worse. Alana was safe with Cin's mother. She'd be okay. Motherless, but okay.
She just had to keep telling herself that. And try harder than she'd ever tried for anything to stop thinking about the little girl she'd left behind.
If only she could turn back time, could go back, could change things...
"Shut up! Shut up!"
Guilt was of no use here.
She was strong. She would be okay.
Paradise awaited the strong, and she planned on getting her reward someday soon. The poe lay heavy and comforting in her shrunken belly, and in seconds, she went from exhausted and starving to full of energy and feeling invincible. This was the power of the poe.
She'd camped out in this clearing for a week with no luck but had known her persistence would pay off. Good thing too, because she was out of items and low on supplies. Now she'd have the strength to work the caves of Manitua, where the best items could be found. Once she'd supplied herself, she would head to the mountains to search for the mother of all items, the shrube. The shrube would buy her a place in heaven. Well, ten of them would. She had one. Nine to go...
She snatched up her near-empty pack, filled her water bottle, and set off. There was no time to waste. The poe would help her stay awake for around three days and nights, and by then, she hoped to have found a shrube or ten. If not...well, she'd been here for eighteen months. She'd just keep looking. What the hell else was there to do?
In a little less than an hour, she was standing at the bottom of a tall, barren hill, looking up into the gaping black mouths of the Manitua caves. Despite the poe and the heat, a shiver wracked her body and cold chills raced over her skin.
She had her two fighting knives encased securely in leather sheaths low on either side of her hips and caressed their carved hilts with tender, calloused fingers. The one on her right was called Saint and the one on her left Satan. She hadn't named them; they'd come to her that way, and she hadn't the idiocy to rename them. They kept her safe. If she started calling them pussy names or pissing them off, they might decide she wasn't a worthy mistress and leave her to fend for herself.
Saint was blue smoke, and Satan was black fog, and both were beautiful enough to take a person's breath away. They were sinister and deadly but to a stranger looked innocent enough. At least until she pulled them from their sheaths and offered them their taste of sweet, hot blood.
She didn't unsnap the straps that restrained them. Not yet. They got angry when they were stirred up for no reason. But her fingers rested on the hilts, and she was ready.
Time to go treasure hunting.
The lone call of another being trickled down to her, and she stiffened. Of course there would be more hunters. She hoped they were all human; knew they weren't. She took a deep breath. No matter. She'd been up against the others before, and she was still standing.
She started up the hill, lips pressed together in a tight line. The sooner she found items to trade for supplies, the sooner she could tackle the mountains.
The hills to the caves were tricky, full of deep holes, mounds of hard-packed dirt, thick, twisted roots, and broken stumps. Some of them were deliberately planted traps to break the ankles--or worse--of competitors, but most were just the naturally occurring changes in the dark terrain of the mining moon, Ripindal.
Full dark descended rapidly, but in seconds, the light from the stars and overly plump moon blanketed the area with a fresh silver light. There were things to be thankful for here.
Halfway to the cave entrances, she paused for a drink of water and a quick look around. Nothing burst from the shadows to attack her, and all was silent. Too silent, really. Usually that meant there were others around, and she could not be surprised. There were always miners gathering items to trade to those who ran the trading posts.
She walked on, grasping hanging roots and available rocks and half-rotten stumps to help propel her up the steep hill. At last she reached the top. She wiped sweat from her face and took another long pull of water, then pulled a precious lightstick from her bag. The moonlight would not reach far into the black caves. She wound the stick around her head like a glowing bandanna, and it cast its soft bright light ahead of her, leaving her hands free to gather, but also, and more importantly, leaving them free to release Saint and Satan should the need arise.
Time to go to work.
Sometimes a treasure hunter would neglect the first caves, thinking perhaps that the first caves would have already been scavenged for whatever goods might be hidden there, but Cin could not pass them by.
Still, she did only a cursory search, and finding nothing, ventured deeper into the caverns. The maze of caves took up miles and miles of Ripindal. It was said that if all the miners on the planet spent five years looking, they would still not search out all the treasures of the caves, and that was just the surface area. Hidden beneath the black earth, treasures abounded, but there was little need to work so hard to find items. Surely there would come a time when the surface was raped and robbed of all its wealth, but she hoped to be long gone by then.
Something scurried ahead of her and she paused, narrowing her eyes to better see into the shadows. Probably a goblin. The hideous little things lived in the caves and selfishly hid whatever treasures they found. They didn't need them; they just didn't want the humans, or anyone else, to have them.
The cavern in which she stood was long and deep. Stalactites and stalagmites taller than she hung from the ceiling and rose from the floor in beautiful, mysterious columns. A musty, damp chill crept through the room, lending relief from the heat for only a moment, before she found herself wishing for the summery warmth and cheer of wildflowers and moss, the teasing scents of cook fires, and the gentle buzz of the nightflies that carried dim green bulbs in their globular bellies.
"Sissy," she whispered. Her words slid through the cool dark, an insidious echo that seemed to bounce from the walls of her mind, making her feel more alone, instead of reassuring her.
The caverns expanded. They looked huge from the outside, but once you got inside them, they were a whole new world. No one she'd ever talked with knew exactly how big theses caves were, or what they held. Every time she entered, she found new things. And new creatures.
The caves themselves seemed to live, to breathe, to watch and wait. But they hadn't killed her yet, and she wasn't planning on letting them start now.
She reached out and caressed a slimy, cold wall. Closing her eyes, she waited. At last it came, as it did nearly every time she touched them, an indescribable feeling of...power, somehow, that seeped through her fingertips and into her body.
Not even power, exactly, more like a sensation of warmth and emotions that traveled up her arm and into her mind, giving her the feeling that she was accepted here. That the caves recognized and welcomed her into their damp depths.
But it might all have been her imagination.
Finally she straightened her shoulders and walked quietly on. She kept a sharp eye out for shining treasure and her ears tuned for the sounds of lurking specials, as she thought of them.
The specials were treasures she could trade that were possessed of a certain intelligence and life. They moved, breathed, sometimes bit and pinched, and she could get more for them than for most of the items the caves held.
Two hours later, she'd found and deposited into her bag three decent items. One was a yellow rock that glowed and let off the most pleasant of scents when you touched it. The inside of her bag would retain that scent for months to come. There was no scent like it on earth, and she couldn't have described it had she wanted to.
The second item was a water rock, and she considered keeping it for herself. The water rocks would last for about five sucks before they lost their potency. If one were stuck without access to water, the rock would deliver a long, cool drink from merely placing it in the mouth and sucking.
The third item was the most interesting. About as long as her index finger, it looked to be an ordinary stick until she touched it, when it became a tiny humanistic figure with a carved face that glared at her quite menacingly as she looked at it.
It revolted her. The cold blackness of it seeped into her skin and sent a feeling of evil deep into her heart. She shuddered and quickly threw it into her bag. Some of the strange items of this world were best left alone.
Deeper and deeper into the caves she went, until she'd found seventeen items and decided she had enough to outfit herself for a trip to the mountains. She pulled from her pocket the cavern map and found the nearest exit.
To be caught in Manitua caves without a map would mean wandering until you fell dead. No one came into the caves without the supplied maps.
When brought to Ripindal, all prisoners were given certain things that would help them supply the bosses with the items they so desired. The shrube were the most desired, not only by the Gamlogi who now owned the miners, but by the miners. The shrube would buy the miners entrance into paradise.
Her exit was close. She judged she'd reach it in less than two minutes and couldn't wait to get outside into the fresh, warm air once again.
She headed toward the door, her footsteps light and silent out of habit. The cave floor squished beneath her boots with dampness and a variety of things she didn't want to examine too closely.
She'd nearly walked into the exit room before she became aware the room was occupied. Quiet groans and whispered words slid through the cool, dark air, and she reached up quickly to unwind the lightstick from her head.
Its light dimmed and extinguished as soon as she stuffed it into her bag; the light generated by its contact with her skin turned green, then cold and nearly black, before she'd withdrawn her hand.
She was glad of the quickness of it, for the hoarse voices in the exit room were growing louder, more intense. Still, she hesitated to draw Saint and Satan. There could be no more threat than a couple of goblins or a human just like her, gathering items for trade.
Slipping into the exit room, she kept her back to the wall and carefully felt her way, small step by small step, more deeply into the room. The murmuring voices and rustling sounds were just around the corner, behind a particularly large, gently glowing stalactite.
In seconds she saw them: two people having what she could only guess, due to their whispers and urgent movements, an impatient and passionate encounter.
She felt a brief stab of envy. How long had it been since she'd felt passion's forceful embrace or had the warm lips of a lover against her skin?
But the two lovers weren't planning on continuing their sex inside the dank and dirty caves, full of creepy-crawly things and goblins that might smell their desire and come to investigate.
They groped their way out the exit through which Cin planned to leave, and she cursed under her breath. She rested her fingers against the comforting hilts of Saint and Satan.
When one of them pushed open the loud, heavy rock door to the exit, her stomach clenched. Light from the outside poured in, framing the lovers in a bright silhouette and chasing back the long-fingered shadows of the caves.
She tensed, but they were too involved in their romance to glance back and see her. Before the door could shut them out and her in, she sprinted to the door and through the opening. The door was so loud it covered her sounds, but had she been trapped inside and forced to open it again, they would have heard her.
The hours she'd spent inside the caverns had seemed fewer than they actually were. She'd gone in at early night, but now it was morning, and the sun was a striking, bright light of heat in the dewy day.
Time was different inside Manitua caves.
But her thoughts were distracted by the lovers. She slipped behind a tree and spied, unashamed and quite interested. Blinking in the harsh light, she waited for her eyes to adjust.
Then she narrowed her eyes. The lovers were two men, and they seemed caught in a half-turned on, half-enraged moment and paid little attention to their surroundings.
That was just stupid. No one could afford to let his or her guard down on Ripindal. She bit her lip and smiled.
Their bags were lumpy and large, as thick and bulging as the muscles on the two men. They'd had a productive time inside Manitua caves, and if she was lucky, she could slip off with at least one of those bags without either of the hapless men any the wiser.
But her gaze was drawn from the bags and back to the men when one of them cried out in pain, and she slid carefully to her knees to watch.
The clearing outside the exit door was small, surrounded by trees and bushes and exotic plants that she would have no more trusted near her tender private parts than she would have trusted her bag to a stranger.
The men seemed to have no such compunctions, however, and threw themselves into their lovemaking with an abandon she'd long since forgotten existed. Maybe they, being men and not alone, were simply aware they were more than capable of taking on whatever threat happened to show itself.
The larger of the two men grasped the other man by the back of his neck and shoved him against a rough tree, and again the smaller man cried out.
The big man had dark hair that ran in a straight fall down his broad back, and something about him made her clench her legs in desire. Maybe it was his forcefulness, the way he tossed the other man about with an alpha's disregard for any but himself.
When he stripped off his shirt and showed his tanned, smooth body with its bunching back muscles and tree-trunk-size arms, her mouth watered and thoughts of robbing them became less of a priority.
He called to something primal and dark inside her when he reached around and jerked his lover's pants over his hips, his manner almost angry. Once again he shoved the smaller man into the tree when he had the nerve to move, bringing forth another cry of pain.
Bully. Assholes like that pissed her off. But she clenched her legs together and swallowed hard as liquid heat bathed her pussy. Pressure almost too extreme to ignore made her want to reach between her own legs to relieve it.
The big man unfastened his pants and turned toward her just enough so that she could see his cock spring free--angry and red and so very hard. Huge. She barely had time to smother a gasp. She couldn't remember wanting to do anything as much as she wanted to run to him, shove him to the ground, and ride him until she fainted.
Get a grip, Cin.
"Mock," the smaller man cried.
She stiffened at his voice, then realized he was calling out the big man's name. Not mock, but Mach.
Mach bent his knees slightly and forced himself into his lover, and Cin cringed at the pain that must have caused. But the smaller man's voice, though it held pain, also held a deep, uncontrolled pleasure.
He was exactly where he wanted to be.
Mach pulled the other man away from the tree and forced him to his knees, following him down in a smooth, practiced gesture.
"You want this, Elder?" Mach's voice was low and guttural, his words clipped and awkward, as though he hadn't quite grasped the English language.
Mach wasn't human, not fully. She could see that in his profile and his hulking, enormous body. She didn't know what he was mixed with, but either his mama or his daddy hadn't been human.
Elder. Mach and Elder. Strange names for a couple of sexy strangers, but ones she was sure she'd heard sometime before. She didn't care to think about it right now, though, as all her concentration and will was needed not to throw herself to the ground and masturbate as she watched Mach fuck Elder.
Her fingertips ached, and she realized she was holding on to the rough bark of the tree with a death grip. Her breath came fast and hard, but she didn't worry about the men hearing her.
Mach's hips pumped as he shoved his cock into Elder, and she couldn't take her stare off them.
Then something made her look at Elder's face. He was on his knees with his upper body on the ground, his face turned toward her.
And as she peeked around the tree like a sex-starved voyeur, Elder's gaze met hers.
She couldn't pull back, couldn't tear her guilty stare away, couldn't get up and run. Frozen, she knelt there and watched him come as he held her captive with his dazed eyes. He cried out his orgasm to her as the big man fucked him so hard he would have rammed his head into the tree had Mach not secured him.
Elder's climax held a little more edge because she watched; she saw it in his eyes. She also knew that when his orgasm eased and his body was once more his own, he'd be coming after her. Those two would rip her apart and steal her goods, then forget she'd ever existed. It was the way of life.
Even so, her pussy throbbed, and she could not look away. The thrill of her predicament and the awfulness of the risk, combined with two mostly naked male bodies slamming against each other stamped her will into the ground and held her helpless and trapped.
Mach groaned and drew her gaze. He threw his head back and gave two more slow, heavy thrusts into Elder, then collapsed half atop the other man.
"Mach," Elder murmured. "We have company."
Mach was halfway to her before she even realized he'd moved.
And by then it was too late.
By then it was much too late.