Sommer Bastian had fled her safe house in North Carolina, and now
nowhere was safe.
She raced through a thick forest, gasping in the humid air. Sweat drenched her, crawling down her forehead, stinging her eyes. Dogs barked a quarter mile behind, the deep-voices of mastiffs. Her vision reeled from fatigue, and she struggled to make out a path in the shadows.
Fireflies rose from the grass ahead, lugging their burden of light, lanterns in shades of emerald and citrine that pushed back against the gathering night. Eighty thousand stars wheeled through otherwise empty heavens. Without even a sliver of moon or the glow of a remote village, the stars did not shine so much as throb.
She could run no faster. With every stride, Sommer stretched her legs to the full. A mastiff keened, not far back now. It was almost upon her.
Her pursuers were faster than any human, and stronger than her. At nineteen, Sommer was in the prime of her life, but that made no difference. A desperate plan was taking form in her mind.
The dogs were trained to kill. But she knew that even a trained dog can't attack someone who surrenders. Nature won't allow it. And when a dog surren-ders completely, it does so by offering its throat.
That would be her last resort-to lie on her back and give her throat to these killers, so that she could draw them in close.
She raced for her life. To her right, a buck snorted in the darkness and bounded away, invisible in the night. She hoped that its pounding would attract the dogs, and they did fall silent in confusion, but soon snarled and doubled their speed.
The brush grew thick ahead-blackberries and morning glory crisscrossing the deer trail. She heard dogs lunging behind her; one barked. They were nearly on her.
Sommer's foot caught on something hard-a tough tree root-and she went sprawling. A dog growled and leapt. Sommer rolled to her back and arched her neck, offering her throat.
Three dogs quickly surrounded her, ominous black shadows that growled and barked, baring their fangs, sharp splinters of white. They were huge, these mastiffs, with spiked collars at their throats, and leather masks over their faces. Their hooded eyes seemed to be empty sockets in their skulls.
They bounded back and forth in their excitement, shadowy dancers, searching for an excuse to kill.
I can still get away, Sommer thought, raising a hand to the air, as if to block her throat. By instinct she extended her sizraels-oblong suction cups that now began to surface near the tip of each thumb and finger. Each finger held one, an oval callus that kept stretching, growing.
Though she wasn't touching any of the dogs, at ten feet they were close enough for her to attack.
She reached out with her mind, tried to calm her-self as she focused, and electricity crackled at the tips of her fingers. Tiny blue lights blossomed and floated in the air near her fingers like dandelion down. The lights were soft and pulsing, no brighter than the static raised when she stroked a silk sheet in the hours before a summer storm.
She entered the mastiffs' minds and began to search. They were supposed to hold her until the hunters came, maul her if she tried to escape. Their masters had trained the dogs well.
But a dog's memories were not like human memories, thick and substantial.
Sommer drew all of the memories to the surface-hundreds of hours of training, all bundled into a tangle-and snapped them, as if passing her hand through a spider's web.
Immediately all three mastiffs began to look around nervously. One lay down at her feet and whimpered, as if afraid she might be angry.
"Good dogs," Sommer whispered, tears of relief ris-ing to her eyes. "Good!" She rolled to her knees, felt her stomach muscles bunch and quaver. She prepared to run.
"Where do you think you're going?" a deep voice asked.
There are more dangerous things than mastiffs, Sommer knew. Of all the creatures in the world, the man who spoke now was at the top of the list.
She turned slowly. A shadow loomed on the trail behind her. In the starlight, she could make out vague features. She knew the man well. He was handsome-not as in "pleasing to look at," but so handsome that it made a woman's heart pound. His beauty, the clean lines of his jaw, the thoughtful look to his brow, hit her like a punch to the chest even now, though she knew he was a killer.
His name was Adel Todesfall, and he served as the head of security for the man who had held her captive for most of the past year, Lucius Chenzhenko.
"Don't hurt me," Sommer's hand raised protectively. "Please don't hurt me. Tell Lucius that I'll be his poppet. I'll be his toy. I'll do anything."
Adel drew a gleaming piece of metal from a shoul-der holster, a pistol. Sommer was powerful in her way. Even at ten feet she presented a danger, but Adel remained outside her range.
"You're ill-suited to be a poppet," Adel argued. "Nor would you be very entertaining as a toy. Besides, we have a problem here, one not so easily solved. You stole something from him...."
She peered up, bewildered. "No," she begged. "I took nothing from the compound, not even spare clothes."
Adel smiled, amused. "You don't remember?" She shook her head. "You don't recall carrying a child in your womb for these past eleven months?"
"I've never-" had a child, she thought. But she remembered Lucius, that sadistic monster, forcing himself upon her....
Sommer's people, the masaaks, took longer to gestate than humans did. Sommer could not imagine having carried a child to term, much less forgetting about it, unless ...
Adel offered, "You've had the memory ripped from you."
"I don't recall having a child!" she said. She hoped to stall while she gathered her wits. Sommer could not reveal information that she didn't know. Yet if another memory thief had pulled vital information from her, Sommer knew that they might not have been thorough. Each memory in a person's brain is laid down tens of thousands of times, through multiple connections between neurons. Stray thoughts, random feelings, might still be hiding in her skull-clues to the mystery of her missing child.
A moment ago she'd thought that she would have done anything to get her freedom, but she couldn't betray an innocent babe.
Adel stiffened, and as his composure vanished, a snarl escaped his lips. Frustrated, he took aim quickly and the muzzle of his pistol flashed three times in rapid succession. Dogs yelped and dropped to the ground, muscles quivering. The odor of blood and burning flesh arose. Dogs kicked and whimpered as they died.
"You!" he growled, "you ruined my dogs!" Adel's eyes widened as he pointed the gun at her face, steadied his aim. Sommer prepared to die. Adel had been an excellent shot for at least five hundred years, since the very invention of the hand cannon.
Adel gritted his teeth.
Suddenly a fierce protective instinct took over. Sommer argued, "I heard ... I heard a few weeks ago, that Lucius killed one of his own sons. He didn't like the child's ... features." She said it accusingly, incensed.
At least she knew now why she had run.
Adel shrugged. "He didn't like its nose. A good eugenics program requires that we cull ... defectives."
Sommer knew that Adel considered her to be "defective." She was a masaak, like him, but she wasn't one of Lucius's well-bred Draghouls. She was from "feral" stock. She was an Ael. Her ancestors had been hiding from Lucius and his Draghouls for hundreds of years.
An image flashed through her mind, an ancient memory. It was from an incident that had occurred eighteen hundred years before she was born. She didn't recall who had given the memory to her.
She saw Lucius, dressed in a fine red-silk toga, sitting in the balcony at the Roman Coliseum. He conversed with a general as he devoured a breast of swan. Down in the arena, a brutish Christian with a crude ax was trying to defend himself while a pair of hungry lions circled. It was only a minor pre-show, before the gladiatorial combats began. The Christian was a missionary named Titus who had preached in the streets of Rome, hounding the philosophers.
"Ego dont 'have ullus problems per homines," Lucius jested, "I don't have any problem with humans," he waited before delivering the punch-line, "hunting them is such fine sport." He laughed.
Just then, the crowd roared as a lion lunged. With one swipe of its paw it jerked the Christian's feet from under him, while its hunting partner pounced.
In those days, Lucius looked much as he did now, but there was a vitality to him, a light in his eyes, that had since burned out.
Lucius no longer had that "fire in the belly" one needs to be a global dictator. Sommer hoped that Lucius and his empire would soon crumble like a log that has turned to ash.
"Sommer," Adel said softly. He crouched. "I'm not angry. But I need you to make this right. We must find this child. Perhaps you cannot recall what you have done, but you should be able to tell me what you might do. Where would you take him, given the proper provocation?"
Sommer shook her head. She couldn't imagine. "Home?" she moaned, guessing. Immediately she wished that she'd held her tongue. She wouldn't want to lead them toward her family.
"We've checked," Adel said.
Sommer's heart pounded. They'd been to her house? They'd found her mother? Her father and sisters? What would Lucius have done to them?
Gone, she realized. They're all gone. The news left her sickened, shocked. Her mind seemed to shut down.
"I have an offer," Adel suggested. "Cooperate. Help us find the child. You can have ... money. A few million? And life. We'll give you a thousand extra years. Imagine what you could do with both?"
"I don't want your money," Sommer fumed. She set her jaw. "And I'd rather die than live among you."
"Then ... perhaps you'd barter for your sisters' lives," Adel suggested, as if he'd grown tired of her games.
"They're still alive?" she asked. She wasn't sure if she believed him. She certainly didn't trust him. But she realized that she had no choice. In order to earn mercy for her family, she'd have to do both.
The gun in Adel's left hand flashed as he waved it in the moonlight. Such was his skill that Sommer did not see the Taser in his right hand until the electric arc shot toward her, and she fell into darkness.
Three thousand miles away, an infant woke in the night, and cried for his mother.
Sommer Bastian had fled her safe house in North Carolina, and now
nowhere was safe.