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2: Paradise Lost

Paradise was burning.

The Tigertail came in from the night side of the planet, and the continent-wide fires glowed like a red eye in the night. Daylight came as a tear-blinding crescent as they pulled into orbit and took up a geosynchronous position over the day side. Thick layers of smoke obscured most of the destruction on the planet, but the remains of spaceships were raining down in visible contrails.

Turk found it hard to count this as a human victory. He and Mikhail had visited Paradise when they were young; it had lived up to its name.

Lieutenant Grigori Belokurov lifted his hand to his ear and cocked his head, listening closely. "Commander Turk, we're finally getting a response from the planet. A minor spaceport says that they're still operational. There are sellers liquidating their prides to pay for evacuation costs, but we have to come down to get the Reds." Belokurov turned for his orders, adding, "It will be a rough ride down."

Turk growled his irritation. Going down to the planet would make them more vulnerable, but the attack probably took out much of what could climb out of the gravity well. "Fine. Tell them we'll be there shortly, and then plan a path down. Wait for my mark."

"Yes, sir."

Turk keyed open the security lock between the cockpit and the Red pit. It was good to see that his veterans were lounging easily together with no clear division into warring camps. No fresh blood, although some of the betas looked unhappy.

"Suit up," Turk said. "We need to land to pick up the replacements. We're going to treat this as a hot zone."

"But the nefrims pulled out." Rabbit protested.

Turk cuffed the yearling to shut him up. Lightly, because Rabbit was right. The runt of his litter, Rabbit was the cleverest red Turk had; at his size, he had to be, else he wouldn't have survived the crèche.

"This may be a real sale," Turk explained. "Or it might be a ploy to lure down stupid bargain hunters with a space worthy ship."

"So we might be fighting humans?" Smoke smiled, showing off his sharp teeth.

"Yes, but only on my command," Turk said. "Anyone disobeying orders will be left behind on this hellhole. Do you hear me?"

"Yes, sir!" They roared back.

He suited up with them and checked their armor, and saw them locked into place. "Okay, Lieutenant Belokurov, take us down."

As the shuttle bucked and rocked through reentry, Turk closed his visor, shut his eyes, and blocked out the world. If he was going to be dealing with New Washingtonians, the more human he appeared, the easier his mission would be. Luckily, he was fluent in English, while a crèche-raised Red would only know Standard. The hardest part of passing as human was convincing his own soul.

"I'm human," he whispered as he forced himself to change. "I'm human. I'm human. I'm human . . ."

* * *

The spaceport's Red pits were full. Turk stalked through them, glancing into the cages, looking for replacements. In cruel irony, the Reds of Paradise had fought the nefrim off their world only to be locked up to be sold so their owners could flee. The healthiest would sell, but the sick and wounded ones would probably end up abandoned. Turk forced himself not to think of it, not to care. He couldn't take them all. He had only enough money to replace Svoboda's dead if he found a good bargain, hence the reason he was here, at Paradise, instead of at a crèche getting yearlings.

What made it harder was that the Reds knew the score and resented it, but couldn't help watching him with pleading eyes. Take me. Save me. Get me out of here. Don't leave me trapped in here when the nefrim return.

Damn New Washingtonians! They treated their lap dogs better than this.

"Commander," Lieutenant Belokurov's voice murmured in this ear. "Rabbit's disappeared. He was walking patrol and I lost track of him."

Turk cursed and turned to retrace his steps. Any other of his Reds he would have suspected of going AWOL voluntarily, but Rabbit was both cautious and responsible, a result of being tiny for a Red. Hell, he was small for a normal human. If he was missing, then someone had taken him. "Activate his tracking signal."

* * *

It took Turk an hour to find the yearling huddled in the corner of a large general holding cell. He was cut and bleeding.

"I'm sorry, sir." Rabbit pressed against the bars but didn't meet his eyes. "I didn't see them coming. I mean—I saw them—but—they were humans and they were moving some crates. They had their hands full. I didn't pay any attention to them . . .and then they hit me from behind."

Mostly likely the crates were empty and the work all fake to throw the young Red off guard. "How many were there?"


"You give them hell?"

Rabbit looked up then, his eyes full of despair. He believed that Turk would leave him behind. "Yes, sir."

"Good. I'll get you out."

* * *

"You have my Red in lockup, I want him back." Turk pushed the data-stick with Rabbit's DNA registration numbers and record of ownership across the desk.

The human manning the terminal slotted the stick and grunted. "He was fighting with humans."

"He didn't pick the fight—he was jumped."

The human scoffed.

"I know my Red. He keeps his nose clean and his claws in. Your people started this fight and he defended himself."

"Doesn't matter. Unrestrained Reds fighting with humans carry a mandatory fine. We keep him as collateral until you pay it."

Turk locked his jaw against his anger. "Half the Reds on this planet will be toast when the nefrim come back. What benefit would you get from keeping him?"

"If you pay the fine, that means more of us get off."

By us, he meant humans.

"How much is the fine?" Turk reached for his credit chip.

"Fifty thousand."

"Zeny?" Turk frowned. Even with the dropping exchange rate, that seemed high.


"You've got to be kidding. I could buy five Reds at a crèche for that." It was half of the money he'd brought with him.

"In times like this, everything gets expensive," the man said. "We don't like having unrestrained Reds running around. They're too dangerous. The fine is to discourage people from ignoring our leash law."

In other words, it gave them an excuse to pick up Reds, and blackmail the owners to pay a jacked up fine or sell the Red at discount to bargain hunters. Turk wondered how many of the Reds in the holding cells were shanghaied in the same manner.

"I'll pay ten thousand," Turk offered. "That's his market value."

"This isn't Novaya Rus. A fine isn't negotiable. Either pay the full amount or get out of my face."

His claws sprang out in anger. He dug them into the counter to keep from tearing said face off the man.

The Svoboda had taken heavy losses the last few battles. Turk needed twenty Reds to bring them back to full strength, a near impossible task except for the bargains he could get on a planet about to fall to the nefrim. He'd reassured Mikhail that dropping him on Paradise alone would let them maximize their efforts, allowing Mikhail to meet with the U.C. while Turk got their replacements. He would need every Standard he had to do so.

But he told Rabbit that he'd get him out.

No one would blame him if he walked away from Rabbit. The little Red made the fatal mistake of underestimating humans. Turk had warned his Reds to stay out of trouble or he'd leave them behind.

In upcoming firefights, they'd need all the able bodies they could throw into the mix. He shouldn't be wasting half his money on one undersized Red.

No one will buy a runt like Rabbit. He'd be locked in that cell when the nefrim return.

And the nefrim never left anything living in their wake.

He couldn't do that to one of his Reds.

"Fine. I'll pay." Turk keyed in the fine amount and slid his credit chip across the desk.

* * *

He took his Reds back to Tigertail and had them form a tighter parameter around it. If anyone was to pick a fight with one, they'd have to take them all on—and he suspected even the scum of Paradise weren't that desperate.

"Pardon! Hey! Attention!" someone called in Standard.

Turk turned to find a tall blonde woman coming across the tarmac. She wore a flowing silk dress, cut high on one side, so that when she walked, she flashed one bare leg. She lifted her hand to catch his attention. The wind molded her dress to her and brought him her pheromone-drenched scent. He felt his groin tighten in response. A female wearing catnip perfume and looking like sex on heels meant only one thing: a cat fancier.

"Do you speak English?" She asked when she was in range.

"Yes, I do." Turk said.

"Yes, you do, very well too." She slinked up to him. "Are you the Red commander from the Svoboda? I've heard quite a bit about you."

He could imagine. Cat fanciers exchanged information on forums that crossed the galaxy. It wasn't the first time one of them tracked him down. He didn't have time for what someone like her wanted. "I'm busy."

"Rumor has it, that you're looking to buy Reds. I have some for sale."

"I need a pride of seasoned fighters, not house cats."

She laughed, showing off canines sharpened to fangs. "Unfortunately, I don't have any house cats. I have a combat pride, though, and it's for sale. I'm Rebecca Waverly." She pressed her hand to his stomach, just under his chest armor. "You're Volkov's un-neutered house cat, aren't you? How purrfect. You almost pass as human—it's your eyes that give you away."

She wasn't the first to say it.

He clenched his jaw to keep his tone level. She was kneading his stomach. "What are you asking for your pride?"

She gave a smoky laugh full of promise. "Oh, I know it's a buyer's market, so let me sweeten the deal."

"What do you have in mind?"

"A few hours in my shuttle," she whispered, "just the two of us, and fifty thousand for my Reds."

The price was insane for Reds, even in a market like this. He might be handing her money, but she was buying him.

She sensed his hesitation and taking his hand, slipped it into the slit in her skirt. Staring up at him, parting her lips to breath out a throaty groan, she guided his hand up her bare thigh to her firm buttocks. Against his will, his body reacted to her silky warmth and heady perfume. She pulled his head down and opened her mouth to him. His fingers discovered she was wearing an anal plug with a cat tail prosthetic, which twitched realistically.

"My god, you're a kinky bitch." He growled.

"I'm not a dog, I'm a cat. A queen," she whispered into his ear, as she arched her back like a female presenting herself to a tom. "Your sticky kitty cat."

He was going to regret this. He always came away from such women feeling dirty and low. But it would make up for the money that he spent on Rabbit, and he'd promised Mikhail that he'd get the Reds they needed. Considering the number of times Mikhail had refused to sell him to cat fanciers, he owed Mikhail to put up with this.

"Fine. Let's go check out your pride. If they're acceptable, we can do the transaction and then go to your shuttle."

* * *

Her pride was in a cell block not far from where Rabbit had been held. Turk was almost disappointed to find them large, well-fed, and well-exercised. One thing you had to give cat fanciers, they took care of their Reds. Their papers said they came out of Eden Crèche, which meant they'd be well-trained in standard combat action. A lifetime of waiting meant most of them were napping, sleeping away the idle time. Others were doing calisthenics, burning off energy in order to nap.

They all took note of Waverly, eyed Turk intently, but only one slouched forward.

"You got a new fucktoy?" The Red asked Waverly. "Shouldn't you be doing something about getting us off this planet? Before the nefrims come back?"

She laughed. "Shush, Butcher. I'm working on it. I'm selling you dirt cheap with a good lay thrown in to this prime piece of meat."

The tom studied Turk closely. "You? Where's your Red commander?"

"I am Red commander."

"Pft." Butcher said. "Humans are Red commanders, not Reds."

Meaning: I won't obey a Red. Turk had run into that trouble before, all with the same reason.

"You top Red?" Turk asked. While genetically varied to keep diseases from spreading unchecked through crèches, the Reds were controlled—in theory—in size both by breeding and identical diet. Still, the Reds varied in height and muscle mass. Rabbit was on the small end. Butcher was one of the tallest Reds that Turk had ever seen. Turk suspected that if you could check actual food consumption, the big Reds took the food from their smaller littermates. Over time, the differences became profound.

"Top red was killed," the tall red claimed. "We haven't sorted that all out. Didn't really see the need, not if we don't get out of this trap."

That didn't ring true to Turk. Reds always seemed to put who commanded who above all else. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was a side effect of all the conditioning they received for following chain of command. How could you follow chain of command if all of you are interchangeable, disposal grunts? By fighting it out so there was a distinction. Or maybe the crèches were trying to inspire the Reds to excel by ranking their performances and the Reds were taking away something more, something their makers didn't intend. Someday, Turk would have to visit a crèche and see exactly how they trained the growing Reds. Someday.

"Do we have a deal?" Waverly ran her hand down Turk's front to rub his groin. There were no humans around, only the score of Reds. Butcher watched without comment, his eyes narrowing at Turk. Had she been fucking her combat Reds?

"I'll take them." Turk had no real choice. He'd have to deal with dominance later.


* * *

The title terminal was in a crowded public area. Waverly acted cool and distant as they finalized the details. The tail was well programmed and it showed her excitement, twitching provocatively under her skirt. She stayed remote the entire ride to her shuttle.

Maybe this time it would be different, Turk thought and then laughed at himself. Cat fanciers wanted to sleep with an animal that could use flush toilets. They sought Turk out because crèche-raised Reds were clueless about sex and sometimes became erratic when molested by their owners. The last thing cat fanciers wanted Turk to be was a normal man, a person with desires beyond a good fucking.

* * *

"Tear my dress off me!" Was the first thing she said once they were out of prying eyes, safe in her shuttle. "Use your claws."

The material shredded away easily, revealing a supple body. At least this wasn't going to be all misery. He paused to take off his armor.

"Bad cat!" She slapped him hard. "Where's your fur?"

He controlled the reflex to hit her back. Besides the fact that he'd probably break her jaw, cat fanciers didn't like bruises—they were too hard to explain once their playing at being a cat was done. If she called the authorities, his shuttle was far away, and his pilot didn't have money to buy him out of trouble. He let his stress trigger his natural tendency to fur.

"Now lick me. Make me ready."

Silently he knelt before her. She looked down at him with smug satisfaction and then made a ridiculous attempt to purr and meow as he lapped at her heavily perfumed skin. Of course she wanted him to enter her from behind, mimicking what animals did. Cameras filmed them for later, projecting the feed onto a full size screen which she watched intently as he moved in and out of her. "Oh god, that's so perverted," she moaned. "So disgusting it's sexy! I'm letting an animal fuck me! An animal has its cock in me!"

If she wanted disgusting, maybe he should cough up a furball. God, he hated cat fanciers.

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