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Prologue – Iris
Iris couldn’t take any more.
Every inch of her skin burned, ached, or stung. The vicious Krezlians had been experimenting on her for hours. A blur of injections, incisions, medical instruments, hideous lizard-like aliens in lab coats… She didn’t want to remember it. She wanted to bury those memories deep, deep within, but she knew it would be no use. It would all just happen again the next day.
Two guards appeared and roughly grabbed her by the shoulders to take her out of the laboratory. She slumped into their grasp, too afraid and tired to struggle or even support her own weight.
The Krezlians dragged her through the metallic hallways of their base, to a familiar corridor lined with cell doors. Behind one of those doors was the tiny, filthy, windowless room they had caged her in for weeks.
Except they didn’t bring her back to her cell.
Iris started to perk up when they took her around a corner and into another wing of the cellblock. What was going on? With the Krezlians, the routine had been the same, day after day. Experiment after experiment in the lab, and then a disgusting jug of simulated meal replacement in her cell. Over and over.
But this was different.
Did they have some kind of new, horrible experiment in store for her? Her insides turned cold at the thought. She wouldn’t survive it, she was sure.
They had already taken several vials of blood samples from her earlier, and she hadn’t eaten or drank anything since then. Several injection sites, scrapes, and bruises were still healing. Plus, she has pretty sure she was running a fever, but the burning and lightheadedness could also have been from her slow starvation.
The guards came to a stop and exchanged words in the raspy Krezlian language. Then, one of them dropped his hold on her and the other moved to restrain her by pulling her arms behind her back, gripping her wrists with his clawed hand. Iris sagged against the guard, her legs faltering.
Did they really think she was going anywhere in this state?
The one who had let go of her opened the door to the nearest cell, scanning his identification card. As soon as the door cracked open, the guard behind her shoved her through the gap. She landed roughly on the floor, her muscles protesting the movement.
Then, the cell door slid shut behind her.
Iris was in near complete darkness. She kept a hand on the door to both steady herself and as a physical anchor in this unknown space. Blinking, she tried to get her bearings.
The only light in the cell came from a single strip across the ceiling, but the lighting must have been failing or running out of power somehow, because it was only giving out just enough light for Iris to see that…
She swallowed, flattening herself against the wall.
She wasn’t alone.
When she listened over the sound of her own beating heart, she realized she could hear something breathing. A hulking shadow filled the cell just a few feet from her. As her eyes adjusted to the low light, she made out two monstrous horns rising from the head of crouching figure.
Whatever was in the cell with her, it was giant and definitely not human. Had the Krezlians decided they were done with her? Was the plan to feed her to one of their twisted genetic experiments?
The figure stood to face her, and the failing light illuminated more of its face.
Not it, she realized. Him.
As soon as she saw the mane of dark hair, the horns, the somewhat humanoid features of his face, and the broad shoulders and muscular body, Iris realized that she hadn’t been thrown in a cell with a monster.
This was an Ezak-X, a hybrid alien species created by the Krezlians for the sole purpose of being an ultimate soldier to aid them in universal domination. That was, until the Alliance had swooped in, rescued the Ezak-X, and put an end to that plan.
But now, the Krezlians had some other nefarious scheme, and somehow the plans involved Iris and… and this Ezak-X.
She felt like she should be afraid – the man looked more or less like a demon out of Earth horror stories. But instead, the sight of an Ezak-X made her breathe a guarded sigh of relief.
The Ezak-X were on her side. The Alliance had rehabilitated them after their horrendous experiences at the hands of their makers, and they often worked military jobs in the universe.
Not that she had really interacted with any of the species, at least not since she was captured originally during her time in Trade Negotiations on the planet Agaria. A few Ezak-X soldiers had been involved in her rescue then, but that was the extent of her interaction with them.
There was no rescue happening now though. That was plain to see. This Ezak-X was just as trapped as she was.
Even though her heartbeat had slowed and she was slightly more relaxed, Iris was still hesitant to approach the man. The Ezak-X could be under Krezlian control again, somehow, or simply a cruel person. There was the question of how he had even ended up back in Krezlian captivity in the first place. Was he a soldier? He wasn’t wearing the uniform.
It was wrong for her to trust him blindly, she knew. She needed to be smart to survive – unlike she had been before. If she had been smart, she would have gone straight back to Earth after her capture on Agaria, and she wouldn’t have been abducted again. Not for the second time.
By now, her vision had adapted to the lack of light as much as it could. She couldn’t see very well, but she could make out the Ezak-X’s features in more detail. Bruises and cuts covered one side of his face and neck. There was a long, bloody slash over his nose and he’d clearly been hit hard in the head. His wrists looked rubbed raw, probably from restraints.
“Are you okay?” The words left her lips before she had time to think. What an idiotic question, she thought. Clearly, neither of them was okay.
“Fine,” he said, though the rough edge to his voice told her otherwise. “You don’t look so good yourself.”
His fluent, natural Alliance Standard caught her off guard, though she realized that was her ignorance showing through. The Ezak-X had been rescued years ago and had plenty of time to acquire the language. Still, the speech seemed incongruous coming from a man with sharp teeth and horns.
“What’s going on here?” he asked her when she didn’t say anything more. His pitch-black eyes were trained on her, though his gaze looked somewhat glazed over. Had he been drugged? “Where are we?”
Iris sat on the floor of the cell and he followed suit. There was barely enough room in the cell to leave a space between them. She swore she was close enough to feel his body heat, but that also could have been her fever.
“Some kind of Krezlian lab or base,” she said. “I don’t know where. I’m sorry.”
“The bastards,” the Ezak-X hissed. “What are they–? Why do you have all of those wounds?”
Iris blinked. He must not have been here for long, then. The Ezak-X would find out soon enough. “They’re experimenting on us. Me, and there are other women here, I think. I’ve heard them.”
Heard their screams in the lab, she thought, but didn’t elaborate out loud. Her head swam. She wanted to be able to answer this Ezak-X’s questions, but it was getting harder to stay conscious.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“I lost count of the days,” she said. “But I don’t think more than a month.”
“A month,” he repeated, his eyes flashing. “A month…”
She shut her eyes, resting her head against the wall.
“I’m Zeon,” the Ezak-X said, breaking the silence.
“Iris,” she said, not opening her eyes. Talking about her situation just made her feel hopeless and terrified about what the future would bring. Instead, she wanted to let herself sleep. There was no way of telling what time of day it really was, but her body wasn’t going to let her stay awake much longer.
“Iris,” Zeon repeated. “You… I don’t know how much you know about the Ezak-X, but I can sense just how hot your temperature is. You’re burning up.”
“I know,” she said. Anyone could have told her that. But it did remind her of other things she had heard about the Ezak-X. They could see in the dark, for one. She wondered just how much of a mess she looked. “I just need to sleep.”
“There’s a cot back here,” Zeon said urgently. “Take it. I mean, if you want…”
He was so awkward about his concern, but Iris appreciated it all the same. As an answer, she got to her feet unsteadily. The Ezak-X flattened himself against the wall of the cell so she could get back.
Sure enough, a small cot was shoved into the far end of the tiny room. She hadn’t been able to see it because of the low light and the hulking Ezak-X in the way.
Gratefully, she crawled onto the cot and curled up in the fetal position. There wasn’t room to spread out – the thing was about big enough for a ten-year-old child. Still, the thin mattress on a metal frame beat the cell floor.
The Ezak-X moved so he was sitting on the floor next to her. “I don’t know what the Krezlians are planning, putting us together like this, but I want you to know that I’m getting out of here at my very first chance, and you’re coming with me.”
Iris almost laughed at that. The idea of escape had lost its appeal long ago, because she knew it was impossible. The compound was heavily guarded, and every Krezlian she had seen was armed. Even the scientists carried plasma guns or other weapons she didn’t recognize.
She was going to die here. If not soon, then sometime in the near future. At this rate, she wasn’t going to be able to survive the experimentation. The Ezak-X’s talk of escape sounded like a nice dream, but not like something that could or would every really happen.
Still, it was oddly comforting to hear him talk about getting out of there.
Even though her new cellmate was a monstrous-looking Ezak-X, just the fact that she wasn’t alone anymore gave her just the tiniest trickle of hope. She started to half drift off, listening to him growl about the Krezlians. Weren’t Ezak-X usually supposed to be the strong, silent type? She thought she had heard that somewhere.
She turned over on the cot onto her back, bending her knees so she could fit. Her eyes were open toward the darkness of the ceiling. She needed to sleep, but her feverish mind was racing. What if Zeon’s talk about escape wasn’t just a far-fetched dream?
Maybe this turn of events was the start of her luck changing.
Maybe, just maybe, this nightmare was nearing its end.