The gears of the lift clanked over. They marked the cyclical rhythm of light dropping from the top of the metal box to bathe my body in light before it hit my feet. I drew in a slow breath and straightened my shoulders. The air tasted dry, bitter, with a hint of something that burned against the back of my throat. It was familiar. I didn’t push at my memory. I didn’t want to. Hell, they weren’t my memories anyway.
Beside me, the senior manager of the project coughed.
I glanced at him. Linus Vrome, retained by my family to preserve their most prized asset…which wasn’t me. The moving band of white light dropped down over his sharp face. Sweat glistened on his forehead and a nervous tick jumped at his temple. He was nervous? He wasn’t the one who would have to walk out of the metal coffin when it finally stopped its long drop into the bedrock of the planet. He’d get to ride back up again.
“Are you aware of the full history of our connection to the Tashen-Dar?” His voice rang against the metallic walls, fighting with the clunks and clanks of the lift’s mechanisms. “Of how your progenitor captured the one known as Zaid?”
“No,” I lied.
Let him tell me what he thought that thing wanted, the thing waiting for me in the darkness. I knew. Hell, I was the woman who’d trapped Zaid there. I bit back a sour smile. Her, a thousand years removed. My family had grown me from Thirza Gerard’s DNA, readied me down the years for the moment when I would have to face him again. Because genetic memory didn’t come with a repatterning, they’d said. They were wrong.
Vrome ran his hand over the front of his expensive jacket. The faint sheen of sweat left by his palm would stain the Andain silk, the trace of salt eating at the delicat ematerial. He hadn’t given it a thought. The Girards were obviously paying him far too fat a salary. “Your family’s wealth and position depends on the Tashen-Dar’s ability to manipulate the strands of probability. That’s their skill. Why they’re hunted across the quadrant.”
The monitor above the lift doors displayed the depth and speed of the cramped box. It wouldn’t be long before it hit the bottom of the shaft. My heart tightened and the rush of adrenaline had the smooth inner lining of my synthetic armor sticking to my spine. I stretched, easing the material free. “The Girards have known impossible success since Zaid’s capture.”
“A thousand years to the day,” Vrome said. “And now you must secure them another thousand years.”
“No pressure, then.”
Vrome ignored me, obviously warming to his subject. “Thirza Gerard trapped him with guile, cunning, used their own organic technology against him to catch Zaid and bend him to her incredible will.”
“Paint.” Memory of the Tashen-Dar substance slipped over my fingertips, cold, sticky, the heavy scent of oil and another smell filling me, dipping unnervingly into my thoughts. I had no clue how the science of it worked, only that the tech bound the alien to the will of its captor. I curled by fingers into my palms, nails biting at weapon- calloused flesh. The scent faded. “She traded for it one shit-hole of a station orbiting Magal, a planetoid somewhere on the Outer Edge. Then she tracked Zaid down to the surface.”
Fragments of her past drifted through my mind. Screaming winds, dust storms scouring grit against my suit, the curve of cracked and rusted girders curving into a red sky. Feelings chased the images, the fire of her unflinching determination hot in my gut. Thirza Girard was an incredible woman. She had plans for her family, for her descendants, and the Tashen-Dar’s ability to twist and play with probability would give them a chance at power she wanted. And she’d done just that. Hell, taken on a senior Tashen-Dar male and captured him in paint, trapped him as an image in the bowels of Karchevan-prime.
I had her blood in my veins. I had no clue if I was close to being the same woman.
Vrome broke into my thoughts. “Thirza tricked him.” He laughed. “I’ve heard rumors that the Tashen-Dar have tried to unwrap the past around her. And failed.” His lips quirked upward. “Obviously. It must irritate them that a mere human can defy their gifts.”
The lift hit the floor with a dull thud and the gears ground together. My heart jumped and I pushed my will into finding a slow and steady rhythm. It was time.
“Are you ready, Ms. Girard?” Vrome pressed his hand to a plate beside the closed doors. It flashed over his palm and fingers and the metal creaked.
“The portrait is located beyond the identification barrier. Once your ident is recognized, the vacuum seal will break and air will fill the chamber. You’ll find a vial of paint with which to resecure him.” His face sobered. “It came at great cost.” He rubbed his hands together. “They disturbed Thirza Girard’s tomb. Took the vial from her hand. It was the only way.”
The lift doors parted to reveal a spotlit, metal-lined room. Cool air brushed against my skin. I lifted my shoulders, denying the fear cramping my stomach. I’d trained for this moment since I was a small child. They’d grown me from a baby to give themselves the maximum amount of time. The Girards had instilled weapons training, strengthened the thousand-year-old DNA with extra little touches of muscle strength, dexterity, a sharpness to fight the monster the other Thirza had captured.
They’d prepared me for a replay of the fight as they believed it had happened…but other visions, memories—I didn’t know what they were—grew more detailed over the years, said he’d want something else. Something that frankly scared the shit out of me. And hell, I’d compensated for that fear. Maybe too much.
“Good luck, Ms. Girard.”
There was a finality in the way Vrome said it and it spurred me forward. He’d broken into my thoughts. Yes, best not to dwell on what strangeness my mind had twisted Thirza’s memories. The doors clanged shut behind me. With a long groan, the mechanisms encasing the narrow metal box engaged. In the space of a few heartbeats, the lift was gone.
Silence grew around me. “No escape.”
My voice echoed, a hollow sound that made me feel more alone than the heavy silence. I pulled in a cold breath and turned to the arched doorway built into the solid black metal. The doorplate glowed. Well, there was nothing else I could do. Time to play with my destiny.
I pressed my hand to the chilled sheet of identifying material. Light flickered over my palm and the metal creaked. The hiss of gas cut the silence. I waited, watching the wall of dark metal fade back and become transparent.
The huge portrait beyond it was a blur. I knew what it showed. The Tashen-Dar were as fluid as the opportunities they manipulated. Thirza had given me memories of his shape, of a monstrous beast that was the stuff of nightmares…of my nightmares.
I pressed my lips together to deny the hot rush of fear. And the other feeling. The one that tasted like anticipation. It was for my trial to be over. That’s all it was. Nothing more. Because I knew I wouldn’t have to fight the monster trapped by paint if everything went sideways. If I failed, I had to fuck it.
With a slow creak and the thin fall of dust, the door to the chamber vanished. Chilled air pricked my skin. I stared up at the vast canvas and heat bloomed in my chest. Hell, I wasn’t prepared for the reality caught against the material.
The work didn’t look painterly. There were no brush marks, no sign of a hand forming the shapes, just the clear, bright sheen of oil over the hyperreal image. Everything about the scene looked familiar, one that pushed out from my dreams in fleeting images and the flicker of half memory.
The sky burned in streaks of red and orange, the distant glare of three suns sharp points low on the flat horizon. Cracked domes, blistered and with metal support frames rusted and flaking, covered the middle ground. I recognized the half-hung signs of bars and the route maps to the hangars and the transport rails. It was Magal. The abandoned outpost where Thirza—where I—had captured Zaid.
He stood in the foreground, wearing the heavy black atmos-suit with its mirrored visor shielding his face. My gaze darted over him. Somehow, he looked familiar…and not. Tall, but the suit didn’t have as much bulk as I thought I remembered, though his frame screamed strength and angry power. A power I knew and had felt. I crushed that thought. I had to focus.
A flicker of movement caught in the corner of my eye…but that was impossible. Until I watched the curl and uncurl of the fingers on his right hand. The tough synth material of his glove creaked, and for a brief moment the burn of Magal’s acrid air mixed with the stink of the paint and the clog of the planet’s bitter dust filling my lungs. Zaid was breaking free.
Training kicked in. All right, the threat was real.
The vial of glistening paint was suspended in a shield of light to the right of the painting. I grabbed it. It burned cold against my skin, seeking to bond with me. I let it and tightened my grip, pulling back my arm. The viscous fluid sloshed in its thin container. They’d robbed my grave for this. I hoped it was still viable after nine centuries. When Zaid broke free, I had to fling the paint and capture him. Timing was crucial.
My heart thudded as I watched every one of his slowly awakening movements. His other hand stretched. He rolled his head from side to side, grit drifting in the sudden stink of air and bitter heat. With a slow turn, he focused on me. I could almost feel the burn of his gaze, the memory of terrifying red eyes searing down through time. And through my dreams. Whatever that suit hid, I was determined that it wouldn’t touch me. The thought leaked. Not again. I would secure him for another thousand years and walk away to wait for the lift to take me back to the surface and my hero’s welcome.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Thirza.” There was a pause and, shit, it sounded as if a smile lurked in his synthesized voice. “You haven’t changed. Though,” another pause, “you’ve done something to your hair.”
A beast with a sense of humor. Wonderful. And still I waited, waited and watched the slight movements of his body, the creak of his heavy suit. Every shift brought with it the burn of Magal’s air, the stink of paint and decay. The vial was fire and pain against my palm, but I ignored it.
“Nothing to say?” His torso turned and the film of oil coating the portrait shimmered and bulged outward. “Your past self was almost garrulous. But in all her talk she made a deal, knowing she would never have to pay the price.”
I ignored the fear skittering down my spine. It wouldn’t be a price I would pay either. Not in reality. I had the vial and I had reflexes honed by very specific tweaks to my genome. My strength and speed would secure him for another long period of Girard prosperity.
“Her body for my use, she said.” He took a step forward, his boot crunching against grit and the brittle iron of Magal’s broken surface. My heart squeezed. Seconds now before he broke free of the old paint and I caught him with the new. “The promise of sweet human flesh. I’ve been patient. I take the deals I make very seriously.”
“Thirza talked? It’s a wonder she got a word in edgeways.”
Zaid stilled. “Sarcasm. That’s new.”
I counted down the silent seconds. The glistening film surrounding him had almost shrunk back, exposing him to the reality of the chamber buried so far beneath Karchevan-prime. My hand was a fist of pain, but I continued to mark the remaining time in the solid beats of my heart—then I flung my arm forward.
An arc of liquid shot through the air. Paint splashed over his atmos-suit in a rainbow of wet color. It slithered over the heavy material, claws reaching out to grab at the thickened collar, his visor, surging over his body in a quick, grasping rush. It had him. Had caught him and was already creating a new image, picking out the shadows of the chamber, the metal, the spots of light as it sought to trap him in a new vast portrait.
Joy fired up through my veins and I grinned. I had him. I’d trapped him with one perfect, perfect throw.
So why the fuck was he laughing?
His laughter rang around the metal of the room, the burr of the synthesizing voice module pricking my skin with goose bumps. Zaid rolled his head and his hand brushed over the paint splatter across his chest. It…changed. The glisten dried, growing dull against the black material of his suit. Cracks spidered and then the stuff fell from him as so much translucent dust.
The great metal frame that had held him for a thousand years stood empty. Only Zaid in his atmos-suit remained. “Your scientists played with your blood, altered you, played with your strength, your speed.” He stepped over the dull metal to stand no more than two meters from me. “Paint has to be attuned to both of us.”
“They did that. Matched it to my code. It bonded before I threw it.” This made no sense. It’d caught him, begun to change the canvas to its environment. Yet he’d simply wiped the stuff away and crumbled it to useless flakes.
“It was perfected for you.” He pushed up his mirrored visor. “But not for me.”
I stared. Thirza’s memory, the growing dreams had started when I was eleven years old. The sharpened ones of the previous ten years had shown Zaid as a beast with leathery skin, fangs, fur and eyes that had burned down into my soul. What he was now… “You changed.”
“The Tashen-Dar can shift shapes as easily as we manipulate reality.” A sharp smile curved his mouth. “I’ve had a thousand years to decide what manner of body I should wear to fuck you.”
I took a step back and then stopped myself. “You’re human.”
His smile deepened, found a wicked edge. “Maybe.” Zaid disengaged the locks of his helmet. Air gusted and the seals clunked. He pulled it free and pushed gloved fingers through his bronze-gold hair. “One interesting line humanity could have followed.” His gaze pinned me. Golden brown but with a hunger that made me want to run fast and far to find any way to escape him. He appeared flawlessly beautiful…but no, he wasn’t human. My human. “A very interesting line.”
His smooth, deep voice ran unexpected warmth under my skin. I blinked and willed myself not to show the weakness of moving. Zaid was tall, strong, but then so was I, and the scientists had done more than make a faithful copy of Thirza Girard.
“Are you thinking you can fight me?”
He dropped his helmet and it hit the metal floor with a dull thud before he tugged at his gloves. They followed the helmet to the ground. His hand moved to the seals on his shoulders and chest. Air hissed. The front flap dropped away to reveal a smooth white shirt. The beauty of his face followed in the lean, muscled perfection of his chest. Damn it, I would not be distracted. Under the pleasing shape, he was still a monster.
“I should warn you, I’m Tashen-Dar, with the power and strength of my primary caste.”
A wry smile tugged at my mouth. “I don’t need that reminder.”
Zaid shrugged himself free of the top half of his suit. The shirt he wore was short sleeved and I tried not to stare at his sleek muscles…and failed. I forced my gaze up and found amusement in him. “Need or want?”
“So this,” I waved a hand over his body, biting at the inside of my cheek as he dropped the rest of his suit to the floor and stepped out of it, “is deliberate?” He wore shorts, the material wrapped tight around his muscled thighs. I couldn’t stop the rise of heat in my cheeks. Hell, this wasn’t me. I didn’t get hot from staring at a hardly naked man. I pulled in a calming breath and stopped. His scent. Warm male skin, but unlike any man I had tasted or kissed. And the idea of pressing my mouth to his neck, licking him, sinking my teeth—I took another step back. “What are you?”
Zaid wet his lips. “Ah, you’ve realized the difference.” He pressed his palm to his chest and eased it down over his abdomen. I watched him, my heart beating too hard, as his thumb teased along the band of his shorts. “This particular human race spread out across the galaxy taking everything that had a pulse.” He paused, but I only saw the slow stroke of his thumb. “They left every pleasure in their wake.” The easy, hypnotic movement exposed hard muscle and the tease of skin. “Unsurprisingly, they rule with ease.”
My heart was in my throat, the ache for him to bare more skin tightening my flesh. Bastard was making me look, but I was not staring at his cock. I was not staring at his cock.
“Thirza, you’re staring at my cock.”
My head whipped up, heat flaring in my face, and I met his golden gaze. The hunger I found there caught me in a wave of shock. He’d chosen this form deliberately. An irresistible human. Done a deal a thousand years before to fuck whoever tried to restrain him again. “Why do you want this?”
“It’s what I’m due. You’re what I’m due.” He closed the short distance between us. “The woman they grew you from made a deal. Her family would have chance worked in their favor. In return, she’d return to me and submit to my will.”
I lifted my chin and my mouth thinned. “And what do I get from this?”
A spark danced in Zaid’s eyes. “You weren’t listening.” His finger stroked my jaw and I jumped. He focused on my mouth and I ignored the urge to lick my lips. Already his scent sank into my flesh, bringing with it the need to taste him, kiss him, tease his skin with my tongue. I swallowed as his fingertip traced along my bottom lip. “Nature selected this body for pleasure.”
“I’m here to secure another thousand years of prosperity.”
Zaid’s wicked laughter heated my blood. “No.” His mouth dipped, his warm breath mixing with mine, his lips almost, almost touching, and the sweet ache of it was a pained pleasure in my flesh. “I have you now. You’re mine to do with as I please.” His soft sigh rippled a shiver over my skin. “I’ve waited centuries for you. The reign of the Girards is over.” His lips brushed mine, brief, tantalizing. “My pleasure, on the other hand, is about to begin.”
Thirza Girard is a clone. Her mirror image founded a thousand-year dynasty that spans the quadrant. The Girard family power is no accident. The original Thirza made a deal with an alien, a Tashen-Dar, who could manipulate probability. He changed reality so Thirza and her descendants are favored with opportunity; the chance, if they grab it, of achieving great wealth and power. However, it comes at a cost.
Paint—an organic technology—binds the alien Zaid in the bowels of the planet. Paint has captured him as an image for a thousand years. The time of binding is almost at an end and Thirza Girard’s clone must pay the price for the power her family has enjoyed. She must rebind him, capture him again in paint, or pay another, more carnal price.