Bane (A Strain Novel)

Bane (A Strain Novel), by Amelia C. Gormley
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-284-4
eBook release: 
Sep 21, 2015
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Print ISBN: 
978-1-62649-285-1
Print release: 
Sep 21, 2015
Word count: 
75,800
Page count: 
279
Cover by: 

This title is part of the Strain universe.

Ebook $6.99
Print $17.99   $14.39 (20% off!)
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The weapon that nearly destroyed humanity may be their only salvation.

Rhys Cooper’s unique immunity to all three strains of the virus that nearly annihilated humanity has brought him the unwanted attention of Clean Zone scientists. They’ve summoned him for testing—ostensibly in the hopes of finding a vaccine—but Rhys’s partner, Darius Murrell, has good reason not to trust any government. He and his comrades in Delta Company were unwitting test subjects for Project Juggernaut, the military experiment that gave them superhuman abilities and unleashed the pandemic. Doubting the government’s intentions, Delta Company refuses to let Rhys go alone.

Fear of infection has kept Zach Houtman and his lover Nico Fernández apart for a decade. They meet rarely, just long enough to coordinate their spying on the head of the government’s virus research division. Secretary Littlewood is a vicious predator, and they suspect he’s trying to acquire the strain of the virus that would make him superhuman. To stop him, they need the perfect bait: Rhys.

For Rhys, helping them might cost him his relationship with Darius—or his life. For Zach and Nico, even if their plan succeeds, they still face the ultimate question: can infected and uninfected people ever live together safely? 

Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:

Chapter One

Transitions

“What are you doing?” a low voice growled behind Rhys. He smiled to himself, abandoning the piano keys to fiddle with the buttons on his shirt.

“Taking advantage of the fact that we’re in an area that’s already been patrolled.” He shrugged out of his shirt and turned to face Darius, leaning back against the piano in the lounge of the Denver hotel they were camped at for the night. Delta Company’s operational protocol dictated that when camping in areas that hadn’t been patrolled for revenants and rogue survivors, everyone slept in one barricaded room with guards posted to prevent them being cut off from one another in the event of an attack. But Colorado and most of the surrounding states had been swept long ago, before the Jugs had been exiled from the Colorado Springs Clean Zone.

Which meant that for the first time since he was nine years old, Rhys could venture away from the safety of other people without fear of being shot or eaten. Whatever his misgivings about the reason for their journey, the lack of an audience and the ability to roam freely while on the march was a luxury he could get used to.

Darius walked slowly forward until his body brushed Rhys’s, reaching out to tweak a bared nipple. Rhys gasped and shuddered, his body tensing, his cock filling. The look Darius gave him was half-heat and half-amusement. “I meant the piano. I didn’t know you could play.”

“Oh . . . that.” Rhys blushed in the dim light of the setting sun as it filtered through dust-and-cobweb-covered windows. “There was a piano at the monastery. My mom used to play the flute, so she knew how to read music, and, well, there wasn’t a lot else we could do for entertainment, so she taught me and Cady to play. The music in hymnals is pretty easy. Or it was until we had to burn them.”

Darius smiled, and there was something tender in it, something that only ever came out when he looked at Rhys. This hard-bitten soldier, fierce and world-weary, always had a soft regard for him. He cupped the back of Rhys’s neck with one hand, his skin warm. “Wish I’d known. We had plenty of time to find you a piano at Fort Vancouver. I’ll make sure we get one for you when we’re done with this business in the Clean Zone and go catch up to the rest of Delta Company at Lewis-McChord.”

Discomfort trod quickly on the heels of Rhys’s affectionate surprise at the offer. There was no sense to Darius even suggesting such a thing. Even if Jugs could probably move pianos single-handedly, Rhys probably wouldn’t get much use out of it before life or fate or what-the-fuck-ever came along and screwed things up. “You don’t have time to worry about that. It doesn’t matter. I’ve been too busy to think about playing, too.”

It had been almost a year and a half since Rhys had become Delta Company’s de facto supply officer. He’d needed something to occupy himself while Darius was out patrolling with his squadron, so the assignment made sense. The fact that he didn’t have the abilities of a Jug meant that taking him along was asking for trouble. If he took charge of inventory and provisions, then another Jug was freed up to help their comrades sweep the formerly populated areas for revenants and pockets of survivors instead. Rhys was happy to be useful and grateful for the opportunity to pull his weight in the face of the muttered criticisms some of the other Jugs leveled against having a civvie in their midst. His contribution to their operation was now quantifiable, and he worked his ass off to make sure no one could accuse him of doing a sloppy or inaccurate job of it.

The past six months had been particularly demanding. Last fall, the squadron that had escorted a group of civilians to Colorado Springs had brought back word that the Clean Zone’s Department of Pandemic Research and Prevention had summoned Rhys to have his apparent immunity to the Bane virus tested. While technically the Clean Zone didn’t have the authority to command him or the Jugs to do a damned thing—and the fact that they apparently didn’t realize it was more than a little troubling—Rhys had been unwilling to decline the opportunity to understand why he wasn’t infected.

He should have been, a dozen times over. Since the day the revenants had attacked the monastery where Rhys, his family, and a handful of other survivors had sheltered for seven years, he’d been exposed to various strains of Bane more times than he could count. He’d been in close quarters with people dying of the Rot, the illness that manifested with the Beta strain. He’d grappled with revenants, the feral, cannibalistic victims infected by the Gamma strain. He’d gotten rev blood all over him while trying to keep them from eating him. He’d even been bitten by one.

And he’d been exposed hundreds of times to the nonlethal Alpha strain of the virus that gave Darius and the Jugs their superhuman speed, strength, and reflexes. To no apparent effect.

He wanted to know why, especially if finding out came with the opportunity to help prevent another outbreak. When his summons had arrived, though, Delta Company had just begun preparations to leave Fort Vancouver and move their base of operations closer to Seattle. He’d had to quickly prepare their inventory for transport and make sure they had enough supplies to get them through the transition from a well-established base to someplace entirely unsettled. And in the process, he’d had to catch his replacement up on where everything stood and prepare her to oversee the transition to Lewis-McChord in his absence.

“It wouldn’t have taken long,” Darius argued, interrupting his musings. He swept a finger through the light film of dust on the lid of the piano at Rhys’s back.

That was the other nice thing about traveling to areas that had already been patrolled. The Jugs had established way stations along the common routes to Colorado Springs and maintained them diligently during their semiannual treks to escort uninfected survivors to join the rest of the population in the Clean Zone. So their recent lodgings hadn’t had the same derelict feel that being out on patrol often did. If not for his unease about their destination, this journey would almost feel like a vacation.

“I’ll make sure you have a piano to play at Lewis-McChord if you want one,” Darius added.

Rhys swallowed and looked away. “Assuming I get to leave Colorado Springs with you.”

“Hey.” Darius wiped the dust on his fatigues and hooked his finger under Rhys’s chin, forcing Rhys to meet his eyes. “Ain’t no way I’m letting them make you stay.”

“What if they order you to?”

Darius snorted. “They exiled us, remember? Told us we weren’t citizens, so they can’t order us to do shit. If they want to take you from me, well . . .” Darius’s lips twitched. “I’d like to see them try.”

Rhys’s mouth curved in an answering grin. He loved Darius’s sense of humor. It was wry and understated and didn’t shine through all that often, but when it did, he always made Rhys laugh. Even though he was a big, scary-looking guy who could be downright lethal.

Darius’s smile faded and his face softened. His lips brushed Rhys’s. “Not leaving you behind, boy.”

Rhys closed his eyes as they started to sting and grasped twin handfuls of Darius’s shirt, pulling him closer and giving him a deep kiss. Darius’s tongue slipped between his lips, and Rhys sucked on it greedily, trying to convey his devotion and gratitude with something more effective than words, which always failed him anyway.

With a lurch, Darius had Rhys off his feet and seated atop the baby grand. That was better. More familiar than Darius’s tender solicitude. This was something he knew how to respond to. He leaned back and lifted his hips while Darius worked at his buckle and fly, sweeping the fatigues down his thighs. He stripped off Rhys’s boots with impatient jerks and tossed the lot of it aside before Rhys grabbed his neck and pulled him down for another ferocious kiss.

“Not letting you go,” Darius muttered urgently, his mouth traveling down Rhys’s throat to his chest. He paused at Rhys’s nipples, tongue flicking, teeth scraping, then his mouth closed in a careful bite. Rhys yelped, his hips coming up to push his hard cock against Darius’s chest, but Darius wasn’t inclined to take the hint and move lower. He bit again, slowly increasing the pressure until Rhys’s moans became pained and he shoved at Darius’s shoulders, his body instinctively trying to escape the agony even as his libido reveled in it.

“Yes,” he whimpered, caught in that eternal struggle between resisting the pain and embracing it. He could never surrender without a fight, no matter how badly he wanted it. It was as though it took his reflexes a while to get on board with what was happening.

That, and it was also just sexy as hell to fight Darius and be overpowered. He needed Darius to defeat him, to make him take it. The conclusion was foregone, but that didn’t stop them from performing the steps of their well-rehearsed dance.

Darius waited for Rhys’s cries to escalate to a scream and then switched nipples to repeat the process on the other one.

“Darius!” Rhys clutched his shoulders, his fingers digging in. His body was warming up to the game now, and the pain was no longer something he needed to resist. “God. Yes. Hurt me.”

Darius’s head came up, his lips shining with saliva and his rich brown eyes sparking fiercely in his mahogany face. “How bad you want me to hurt you, boy?”

“Bad,” Rhys gasped, panting as the ache in his nipples began to fade into the background of his arousal. “I want . . .” Rhys’s voice trailed off, and he fought against his inability to ask for what he wanted. Even after two years with Darius, it was a struggle for him, shame choking off his words. For as long as he lived, he would hear voices in the back of his mind, condemning him for the desires (perversions) that had always come naturally. But he knew he wouldn’t get what he wanted unless he said it. Except when they were playing their game of Darius overpowering Rhys’s token resistance, the days when Darius would truly force him had ended when Rhys’s life no longer literally depended upon it. “I want marks.”

Darius growled, his hands tightening on Rhys’s hips. “You sure about that? They won’t fade before we get to Colorado Springs.”

Rhys shuddered, but he held Darius’s gaze. Darius knew that was his greatest challenge, owning up to the things he craved. When they were alone together, he could behave with utter abandon, but he struggled when someone else might think him deviant. He licked his lips, his throat tight as he said, “I need it. Need to feel it before we get there.”

“Feel what?”

Rhys closed his eyes and whispered, “That I’m yours.”

“Damn right you are.” Darius abandoned his chest and crushed his mouth against Rhys’s, driving him down flat against the piano again. He grabbed Rhys’s dick and began jacking him like he meant business. He drew back and pinned Rhys with a glare. “Don’t want to wait before I fuck you tonight, but tomorrow on the march, we’re gonna find a nice switch for me to whip your ass come night. Leave welts for a week. Ain’t no one gonna doubt you’re mine.”

“Yes! God, please!” Rhys thrashed, trying to thrust up into that stroking, but still pinned by Darius’s torso. It was too much, so intense he didn’t think he could bear it, so perfect he wanted to demand more. “Darius!”

Then Darius’s weight was gone, and Rhys was cold and free, sprawled out on the piano.

“Flip over, boy.”

He rolled eagerly onto his stomach before Darius had even finished pulling the lube out of his pocket. The piano pressed uncomfortably into his midriff, but he was beyond caring. At least he could bend over it without his feet dangling off the floor. Darius had been right in the prediction he’d made two years ago: once Rhys had received proper nutrition, he’d shot up in a late growth spurt and now he was one of the tallest men in Delta Company, second only to a gentle, soft-spoken man-mountain named Joe.

A swipe of oil, the sound of Darius slicking it over his cock behind him, and then his body was against Rhys’s, nudging at his hole, breaching him with a stretch that always bordered on too much in the beginning. It was a pain Rhys had come to love, a pain he knew Darius would push him through until it all became searing, mind-breaking, soul-shattering pleasure.

Which it did by the time Darius was balls-deep inside him. They groaned together.

“Fuck! Darius . . .” Rhys pleaded, and Darius began to stroke. “Yes! Oh God. Right there. More!”

“I got you,” Darius muttered, then grabbed Rhys’s hips, hauled him back until he was bent over further, and slammed into him again.

So full. So right. Pleasure too great to endure. Beads of sweat popped out of his pores and trickled down his forehead until he wiped his face on his upper arm to keep it from dripping into his eyes. Darius’s hands were slick where they gripped his hips, his fingers leaving bruises. He hammered against Rhys’s flanks with the slap of damp skin on damp skin, grunting each time. Unable to wait any longer, Rhys grasped his cock, stroking quickly.

“Yeah, that’s it. Shoot for me, boy. Let me feel it.”

Rhys threw back his head and jerked harder, straining to reach the edge. Sometimes it was quick and easy, but other times he had to work for it, and those were the times when the resulting climax threatened to melt his spine and liquefy his brain. “Oh God. Oh, please. Please. I need it. Need to come. Darius . . .”

“Do it. Come on, do it . . .” Darius’s voice had a hitch that said he was close to losing it himself, and Rhys could tell by the way Darius changed his angle and rhythm ever so slightly that he was trying to hold off. The shift helped him nail Rhys’s prostate more directly, though, giving Rhys the extra push he needed to get over the top.

He yelled and dropped his head to his arm on the piano lid, while his other hand clutched his pulsing shaft, drawing out another stream with each pull. Darius shuddered and gripped him harder, groaning low in his chest before he collapsed against Rhys’s back. He only paused a moment before he began pressing fervent kisses to the side of Rhys’s sweaty neck.

“Jesus. Never get enough of you.”

Rhys smiled against his forearm, reveling in the openness Darius shared with him and no one else, not even his closest friends in Delta Company. Two years ago he’d been a terrified virgin forced to do things he didn’t think he should want in order to save his own life. And Darius had been the gruff soldier who Rhys didn’t think had a sympathetic or tender bone in his body. Along the way, though, grim necessity had become passion and then something even better. Darius hadn’t just kept Rhys alive. He’d taught Rhys how to live.

A familiar knot tightened in his chest, comprised of words Rhys couldn’t untangle to thank Darius for giving him that. To let Darius know that, however they started and for whatever minuscule amount of time they might have together, he appreciated what they had now. The sentiments tangled around themselves, threatening to choke him until he gave up the idea of trying to give them voice.

Slowly, Rhys became aware of the prickly itch of dust clinging to his sweat-damp skin and tried to straighten, forcing Darius back.

“I need a bath,” he announced, gathering his clothes and debating whether or not to try to get dressed.

Darius smirked and tucked himself away, fastening his fatigues. “Do you now? Seem to recall crossing over a stream a mile or so up the road, if you don’t mind walking.”

“I don’t mind.” The distance decided the matter of whether to dress or not. No way was he walking a mile barefoot. Reluctantly, he pulled on his pants, socks, and boots, though he decided to forgo the shirt. “I like this.”

“What’s that?”

“Being able to venture out whenever we want to. Go for a swim after dark.”

“I do too.” Darius caught him by the arm and tugged him close for a long, slow kiss that had Rhys ready for another round. “Did I mention that the place where we’ll make camp outside the Clean Zone is right on a lake?”

“Sounds perfect.” Rhys pulled away and paused by the door to the lobby, waiting for Darius to shoulder his assault rifle. Even now, he wouldn’t go anywhere without it. The region might have been patrolled for revenants, but bears, wolves, and mountain lions might still be an issue.

On their way out, they passed Schuyler, who was standing first watch in the lobby of the hotel. Rhys averted his eyes, unwilling to meet her scornful look. She hadn’t forgiven him for his role in the events that had led to her lover Kaleo’s death. For that matter, Rhys hadn’t forgiven himself. He ignored the bitter ache of disappointment that always accompanied his awareness of Schuyler’s hatred. One of the last things Kaleo had ever said to him was that Schuyler would love Rhys once they had a chance to get to know each other. But that had been before Jacob’s vendetta against Rhys had led to him blowing Kaleo’s head off. It would never have happened if Rhys had been honest from the start about how far Jacob was willing to go to indulge his malice.

Now Rhys just tried to stay out of her way.

Normally, it wasn’t difficult since she was usually out on patrol. They had only ever bumped into each other when he was provisioning her squad for another sweep. It was his bad luck that the squadron Schuyler commanded had been tapped to deliver this batch of uninfected survivors to the Clean Zone. He hadn’t had a choice but to travel with her. The only thing that made it bearable was that he wasn’t actually under her command. Darius had refused to let Rhys go to Colorado Springs alone, so his own squadron had split in two. Some had stayed to help with the transition to Lewis-McChord and the rest had gone with Darius and Rhys, accompanying Schuyler’s squadron on the escort detail.

Xolani had been one of those to come along, at her own insistence. And where Xolani went, so did Titus. Joe still considered himself Rhys’s bodyguard when away from base, which meant he and Toby had come as well.

In the parking lot of the hotel, they crossed the path of the other member of Schuyler’s squad standing first watch. Emilina Cruzado waved and grinned, jogging over to greet them.

Rhys gave her a smile. “Hey, Emmy.” Of the three civilians Jacob had abducted, she had been the only one to survive. A full-fledged Jug now—and with none of the odd effects that had turned Jacob from a tyrant into a monster—Rhys was fond of her, and he often wished she had been assigned to Darius’s squadron to replace Kaleo, but Schuyler had insisted Emmy join her squad instead.

“Ay ay ay! When’d you get those muscles, papi?” she demanded, giving Rhys’s naked chest a friendly leer and laughing when he blushed. He’d bulked up somewhat from working in the warehouses, though he didn’t think anyone but Darius had noticed. Except, perhaps, Xolani, who was as smug about it as if she’d raised Rhys up from a runt by tirelessly hand-feeding him.

Darius’s arm came around Rhys’s waist and pulled him a little closer, making Emmy laugh harder. For all that he teased Rhys with the possibility of sharing him around—it turned them both on to think he had the right to exert his claim on Rhys to that extent—it was all talk. Darius’s possessive streak was well-known. It had grown intractable once Rhys had no longer required multiple partners to try to pass on the sexually transmitted Alpha strain that they had thought would save his life, and it didn’t appear to have a sense of humor where even the most harmless flirtation was concerned. Which made it ridiculously easy for members of Delta Company to get a rise from Darius.

“We’re going swimming,” Rhys called over his shoulder as Darius propelled him toward the road.

“Have fun!” Emmy gave him a knowing wink and waved, then continued her patrol.

It was gearing up to be another sweltering summer. The thaw had come early to the mountains, leaving the stream swollen and just barely slow enough to bathe in. The evening air was muggy, but the water was frigid, and if not for the dust clinging to his skin, Rhys wouldn’t have dared it.

But Darius’s body was hot against his in the water, his hands deliberate as he helped rub away the sweat and grime. When they finally mounted the bank again, he was shivering, but Darius surrounded him, squeezing warmth back into his flesh.

“Hey,” Rhys murmured, turning his head to kiss Darius’s jaw. “Is that shadow over there a willow tree?”

A soft chuff of laughter brushed his damp shoulder. “Yeah, it is.”

“Then why wait until tomorrow?” Rhys turned more fully for a thorough kiss, his hands sliding down Darius’s broad back to cup his ass. Darius groaned and set him back.

“Go get a switch.”

 

Chapter Two

Hauntings

Rhys’s first assessment of Colorado Springs was that it looked more like a demilitarized zone than a clean zone. Miles of trenches had been dug around the suburb that was being resettled, but the rest was desolate and empty. That shouldn’t have been unusual after all the ghost towns he’d seen while traveling with Delta Company, but he’d never before seen what appeared to be an old battlefield. A couple of areas they walked past had been damaged during the skirmishes that had taken place when the Jugs and the surviving civilian population had overthrown the military government.

They paused for a moment within sight of a cluster of apartment buildings that had been demolished. The rusted-out remnants of several tanks stood nearby. Rhys watched the people he’d lived among for two years bow their heads and pay their respects to the comrades they’d lost in that long-ago battle, and then they’d turned away and continued on.

The path Darius’s and Schuyler’s people took through the rubble also led them past the burned-out skeletons of some old employee-housing tenements. The sight of them made Rhys shudder. Within those massive complexes lay thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of corpses. People who had been denied the opportunity to quarantine themselves and had wound up wasting away inside their own bodies from the Beta strain, or waiting to starve to death or be cannibalized by revenants.

Sometimes it seemed that the whole world was haunted, but if there were any places that were truly, actually inhabited by restless and vengeful spirits, it would be the tenements.

“Creepy, aren’t they?” Xolani asked, startling Rhys. He’d been so absorbed in staring at the charred remains of the buildings that he hadn’t heard her approach.

He nodded. “Looks like they had a fire when they were sealed off by the National Guard.”

“Not quite,” she said. He glanced sideways to see Xolani’s lips tighten, the scar down her cheek growing pale. “When the military government at Cheyenne Mountain first established a quarantine for the survivors, they were put in those buildings. Predictably, though, all it had done was enclose the uninfected population with the infected, and when they decided the plague was beyond containment, they firebombed the buildings rather than risk anyone getting out.”

“What?” Rhys gasped. “But . . . how did the civilians rise up and overthrow the military government, then?”

“That was the second wave of survivors to arrive. The military government got smarter about how to quarantine them, put them in pens on an old fairground and delivered rations there. It was still a squalid setup. There was no climate control.” Xolani shook her head, her mouth twisting in disgust. “People were dying of heat stroke in summer and freezing to death in winter. The latrines were badly dug, the water supply was compromised, and the rations were barely enough to survive on. But believe it or not, it was an improvement.”

Rhys took a moment to study her. Xolani could be bitter about the plague under the best of circumstances, but the closer they’d journeyed to Colorado Springs, the worse she’d become. In fact, she’d been violently opposed to Rhys answering his summons in the first place.

“You don’t know what it was like, Rhys.” Her husky alto was rougher than usual, and he thought he saw a sheen in her eyes as she stared fixedly at the tenements. “We didn’t know what they were doing to us when they gave us the nasal spray. If we had, I’d like to think we would have refused, but we’d probably have faced court-martial, so maybe not. But once we started noticing the Alpha changes, they briefed us medics. I was there when they fed us a line of bullshit about what the virus was supposed to do, and I could tell from the way the R&D brain trusts dodged my questions that corners had been cut in the testing process.” She turned her bleak gaze to him. “We weren’t chosen for Project Juggernaut because we were the Army’s elite forces. We were chosen because if it went wrong, we were expendable. They could terminate us and try again.”

She growled, a feral sound Rhys had only heard her make once before, when she’d snapped Jacob’s neck.

“And then the fuckers brought us in to put down a rebellion by the few civilians who’d managed to survive the death and destruction we had caused.”

“You didn’t cause this,” Rhys murmured, reaching out to squeeze her shoulder. “You know that.”

“I don’t think any of us know that, Rhys.” She huffed a soft, bitter chuckle. “Not truly.”

He stood there at a loss for what to say to comfort her, but after a moment, she straightened, and he watched the Xolani he knew reappear.

“C’mon, kid. Let’s catch up with the others.”

Rhys fell into step beside her, his longer legs easily keeping up with her brisk pace. As they walked, Xolani began speaking again, her voice as steady and brusque as ever. “Listen, Rhys, I don’t know who the scientists studying the virus here are. After the overthrow, when we were exiled from the Clean Zone, there weren’t many scientists left to speak of. A couple of the Pentagon R&D types had made it to Cheyenne Mountain, including McClosky himself, but they were tried and executed for their roles in bringing about the plague. I tell you, the thing that pissed me off most was that we were exiled before the trials, so I never got to see those fuckers die.”

“What are you saying?” Rhys adjusted the straps of his rucksack, watching their surroundings. He thought he could see the first hint of the perimeter fence in the distance. “You think the researchers might not be qualified?”

“I don’t know.” She grimaced. “A number of scientists were among the survivors the Jugs have recovered and brought back to the Clean Zone for the last ten years. We’ve known that since the Clean Zone announced the formation of the DPRP about six or seven years ago, when they asked us to relay our observations of the virus in the field. That’s why I wrote that report about you after we realized you hadn’t been infected, despite your exposure. I knew you would be of great interest to them because if you are immune, rather than merely asymptomatic, it might help them understand this thing.”

“But?”

“I don’t trust them.” Xolani stopped abruptly and faced him. “Don’t believe anything they tell you. If you don’t like what they’re saying, if you get so much as an uncomfortable feeling about anything they’re doing, come to me immediately.”

Rhys blinked. “What do you think they could do to me?”

“I don’t know. But knowing what I do about the Bane virus, if I were a scientist completely lacking in scruples and I found someone who was immune . . .” She looked away and began walking again, leaving Rhys to scramble to catch up. “The first thing I would do is imprison you to harvest your immunoglobulins and produce a crude antiserum.”

“What’s that?” Rhys asked, frowning.

“It’s a serum containing your antibodies. It’s not a vaccine; it wouldn’t teach someone’s immune system to make its own antibodies. So it wouldn’t be a practical solution for widespread inoculation, as the passive immunity would only last a few months and then everyone would need to be injected again. Depending on how much serum we could harvest from you, you might not naturally produce enough blood to cover the whole population.” She shot the words at him in a rapid-fire torrent, rattling off the possibilities. “So I’d probably give you the maximum doses of drugs to accelerate your blood production, which wouldn’t be good for you long term, and you’d feel like shit. In the meantime, I’d be trying to isolate the antibody and synthesize it. I doubt the DPRP has the technology or expertise to do that effectively, though. I’d also look into seeing if your immunity was genetic, and if it was, I’d harvest your sperm to begin inseminating as many people as possible.”

“You really think they’d try to do all that?” Rhys swallowed hard, stopping her and asking her to face him with a hand on her bicep. “Xolani? Do you really think that’s a possibility?”

“I don’t know, Rhys.” She sighed, tugging her silver-shot braid over her shoulder and fiddling with it. “I don’t know these people. It’s possible this new civilian government hasn’t gone corrupt the way every other government seems to, but . . .” She shrugged. “You know that if they try, we’ll fight them. We’ll get you back.”

“Can you do that without risking the civilian population? I mean, if you’re wounded and there are civvies around . . .”

Xolani licked her lips. “Probably not. But if that’s the sort of corrupt shit they pull, I’m not sure we’d care. Not after everything they’ve already done to us. We’ve dealt with being exiled. We understood the why of it, even if we don’t like being denied a home with the rest of humanity.” Her mouth pressed into a tight line and she folded her arms over her chest. “We’ll bring them the survivors we find to help grow the population, and we’ll even share information about the virus when we see it in action. But we won’t put up with them making one of our own a lab rat.”

“But—” Rhys looked down, shuffling his feet “—if it’s the best way to prevent another outbreak, can I really refuse?”

“Aw, Christ, Rhys.” His gaze snapped back up when she groaned loudly. She closed her eyes, a pained expression on her face. “Look. For once, just once, can you not be so fucking self-sacrificing? I know it’s who you are. You’ll always think of the greater good before yourself. You’ve been doing it since the day we found you. But think about Darius and what it would do to him to lose you. And to the rest of us. You’re our brother. We need you, kid.”

His eyes began to burn, and he quickly leaned forward, pressing a kiss to her scarred cheek. Xolani gawped in surprise, but Rhys turned and began walking again before his blush could incinerate him on the spot.

His cheeks had cooled by the time Xolani caught up. “You’re not getting out of this that easily. Promise me you won’t play the heroic martyr.”

“I promise,” he said, his throat tight. “I won’t let them take me from you.”

***

Fences surrounded the perimeter trench on both sides. Anyone trying to get into the Clean Zone without going up the causeway and through the checkpoint would need to scale twelve feet of razor-wire-topped fence—now electrified, since they’d gotten the power plant back online—traverse a steep gully twenty feet wide and filled with more razor wire sharpened, rusty shards of metal, and wooden stakes; and then scale another electrified fence. The measures were intended to keep out both revenants and potentially infected survivors trying to bypass the mandatory quarantine, but they made the Clean Zone look and feel like a prison camp.

Within the outer perimeter was the quarantine ring. It wasn’t much different than what Xolani had described, though houses had replaced the tents, and the revival of the hydroelectric plant on the river had provided climate control. Each residence had two fences and ten yards of space between it and its neighbor. Groups that arrived together were housed together in as few units as possible, and kept separate from other groups. If any member of a group turned out to be infected and began to manifest symptoms, the entire group would be euthanized and the residences they’d inhabited would be burned to the ground and rebuilt. Or so Joe explained to Rhys.

Luckily, since almost all of the survivors had already been quarantined for up to six months by the Jugs who had recovered them, this was more a case of planning for the worst rather than a procedure that was habitually instituted.

A causeway passed through the quarantine ring and into the suburbs the survivors had claimed. A large building with an adjacent guardhouse was set up fifty yards before the gates, staffed by armed forces in hermetic suits. They greeted the Jugs and the civilians being escorted, and for all their precautions, they welcomed the Jugs like old friends.

“Hey, you made it! You’re our first batch this spring!” The first one out of the guardhouse cheered before he introduced himself. “Gillett Morris, Chief of Clean Zone Perimeter Security. Glad to see you!”

“Delta Company reporting. We’ve got fifteen survivors for you to take off our hands,” Schuyler said as Darius and Xolani hung back with Rhys. She didn’t bother to look their way, but her voice held a note of disdain as she continued, “And, as requested, we’ve brought in the asymptomatic survivor we’ve been sheltering for testing.”

Four hooded heads turned to stare at Rhys. The sun reflected off their masks, making them seem featureless. He suppressed a shudder.

“You’re the one they sent the report about?” Morris asked, stepping closer. “Possibly immune?”

Rhys’s words abandoned him, his tongue sticking to the roof of his mouth. He looked from Darius to Xolani in alarm, and Xolani strode forward, putting him a little behind her as she spoke.

Possibly. The extenuating circumstances were explained in our report. We don’t want anyone getting false hope about the chance of immunity when we have no idea what’s going on in his cells.”

Morris nodded. “The DPRP scientists will deal with that. Secretary Littlewood himself issued the order; we’re just here to give the refugees their intake interviews and questionnaires. But it’s damn good to see all of you again.”

“Order?” Xolani’s voice grew cold. “We’re not Clean Zone citizens, remember? We don’t answer to the DPRP. We brought Cooper here as a courtesy because we don’t want to see another outbreak, but let’s keep in mind that he’s here voluntarily, okay?”

“Right. Of course.” Morris actually sounded embarrassed. Rhys didn’t know what had happened when the Jugs had been exiled, but he got the impression that they had been pretty much shafted by the new government. If the way he cleared his throat and shuffled his feet was any indication, this Morris guy agreed. “At any rate, I know no one wants any false hopes raised, but they’re all really excited about the potential here. Wallace, go to DPRP headquarters and let them know he’s arrived.”

One of the suited guards left, and the others escorted them into the building. The interior was fairly spartan. A large lounge with comfortable chairs and sofas led off to a series of glassed-in cubicles. Rations and water had been laid out and the Jugs were told to make themselves at home, and then the civilians were escorted—with the exception of women with children—into separate cubicles. More people in hermetic suits arrived with clipboards and sat down across from them, presumably conducting interviews.

“I thought you guys didn’t get along with the people in the Clean Zone,” Rhys murmured as they settled in.

Darius shrugged. “Perimeter Security’s a little different. We fought beside a lot of them during the overthrow, and they weren’t much happier than we were when the new congress kicked us out. They’re mostly good people, usually happy to see us.”

Rhys sat on a sofa between Darius and Xolani, twisting his hands nervously in his lap, until he felt Darius lay an arm across the back of the sofa behind his shoulders.

Xolani patted his knee, speaking with the guards who remained with them. “Since when does the DPRP interview the incoming civilians?”

“Started after that business with Charlie Company,” Morris said. He looked rather absurd sitting there, still in his hermetic suit, as if he were having tea with them. His voice was strange and muffled. “I’m not sure what all the DPRP techs ask them. Probably making sure there’s not any chance that they’ve, y’know, become Jugs themselves.”

The Jugs all tensed, though Rhys wasn’t sure if it was because of the implication that the Jugs were infecting their charges or the reminder of what had happened with Charlie Company six years ago. The company had gone rogue and started enslaving the civilians they were supposed to be protecting and escorting to the Clean Zone. The rest of the Jugs had been forced to take action, going to battle against people they’d considered their brothers and sisters.

“We don’t mess with the survivors,” Darius rumbled. The guard looked rather pointedly at the way Darius had his arm nearly around Rhys’s shoulders. “What happened with Rhys here is a different story. No one in Delta Company has touched a civvie except for that situation, and the reasons why we made an exception in those circumstances were included in our report.”

“Well.” Morris cleared his throat again, the sound echoey in the small speaker that transmitted his voice. “That may be the case, but we can’t be sure all the other companies are holding to that. It’s just a precaution.”

One of the other guards snorted. “Ask me, they should be worrying more about the people who have been leaving the Clean Zone.”

“What?” Xolani sat up straighter. “Who’s been leaving the Clean Zone?”

“Just a few here and there,” Morris said dismissively. “Tucker here is just worried because one of them was a friend of his.”

“Why would they leave?” Schuyler asked, sitting forward in her chair. Rhys noticed Emmy was watching her almost as closely as Darius tended to watch him.

Morris shrugged. “Not sure why. I think some of them think that since the region is now completely free of revs, they’ll be okay living elsewhere. Guess it doesn’t matter, so long as they don’t come back.”

“There’s also been a lot more protest about the Genetic Diversity Mandate as the population grows,” the third remaining guard said. “Not everyone likes being forced to spread their genes around, even if it’s just by donation.”

The guard Morris had called Tucker gave the third one a look Rhys couldn’t read through the mask. “Yeah, try having a uterus and bitching about that, Alvarez.”

“What?” Xolani went rigid beside Rhys. “Have they expanded the GDM to require any citizen with a uterus to gestate?”

Tucker nodded. “The claim that they wouldn’t attach that requirement to the GDM went out the window pretty quickly after the mandate was signed into law. My name’s in the lottery again next year for being inseminated. It’ll be my third time, and my wife isn’t at all pleased to have to deal with a pregnant husband again.”

Every Jug in the room with a uterus looked ready to shred something, and the others hardly seemed any happier. The tension grated across Rhys’s already frayed nerves, and he desperately wanted to ask what they were talking about, but one glance at Xolani’s and Schuyler’s faces convinced him silence was the better option.

“I did not,” Schuyler growled, “help overthrow the Cheyenne Mountain Martial Law Committee so that the civilian government that replaced them could start forcing citizens to act as incubators!”

“Jesus. Thank God Jamie isn’t here,” Toby muttered behind Rhys, referring to one member of Darius’s squad who had stayed behind to help with Delta Company’s move. “He’d mount an assault on the Clean Zone single-handedly if he heard about this shit. All the times he’s had to have an abortion when he wants a baby so bad his heart is breaking and they’re forcing people here to be pregnant against their wills?”

“He’ll surely hear about it when we get to Lewis-McChord and fill the rest of Delta Company in on what we’ve heard here.” Xolani spat a curse. “How widespread are the protests?”

“Rumblings here and there,” Morris answered. “You know, mostly the people are still devoted to rebuilding, though a lot of the nationalist sentiment we saw after the overthrow has faded. Not everyone’s happy with the way things are being done. My wife doesn’t want any more children, either, especially since we’ve maxed out our particular genetic pairing so any others we have will be by insemination from other donors. But no one is discussing any drastic measures.” He rubbed his face mask, an almost unconscious gesture, as though he would have been scratching his cheek if the hood hadn’t been in place. “The Clean Zone Congress has assured us that the expiration clause on the GDM will not be extended. Ten more years and we’ll be well into the second generation reproducing, and it won’t be necessary anymore.”

“It’s not necessary now! The GDM was instituted back when the population was a fraction of what it is today, but even then you still had more than enough people for genetic sustainability.” Xolani’s clenched fists came down on the arm of her chair hard enough that Rhys heard the wood under the upholstery crack. “It was a knee-jerk reaction to an astronomical death-to-live-birth ratio. But that was a direct result of mismanagement, and lack of supplies and infrastructure, when the Martial Law Committee was still in charge.”

“The suicide rate for survivors after the pandemic wasn’t helping either,” Toby muttered.

Xolani nodded a distracted agreement. “True. But the point is, it was a call made by politicians who didn’t know jack shit about science. And now, with better living conditions and all the survivors we’ve recovered, there have to be, what, ten thousand adult citizens in the Clean Zone?”

“Close: 8,954 at the annual census; 12,572, total population,” Tucker replied. “We’ve got close to a thousand babies being born each year now. People who were just children when the Clean Zone was established are starting to hit reproductive maturity, and we’ve got a couple hundred new refugees coming through quarantine every spring and fall.” He shook his head, sounding disgusted, or so it seemed from what Rhys could tell through his suit. “The only reason the congress hasn’t repealed the GDM is because no one is protesting very loudly. They feel secure. They have adequate shelter, comfort, enough to eat. No one wants to risk that.”

“How old do people have to be before they go into the lottery to gestate?” Schuyler demanded.

“Sixteen,” Morris answered. “My wife’s eldest was four at the time of the rebellion, so she just came of age. But she got pregnant by her boyfriend before we had to deal with her going into the lottery. As long as any able-bodied citizen is carrying a pregnancy to term at least once every four years, or has had six live births—no more than three of which can be with the same genetic partner—they can stay out of the lottery.”

Xolani hissed between clenched teeth, looking as furious as Rhys had ever seen her. “Fuck. There’s absolutely no reason for these draconian measures. Is there any way I can address the Congressional Science Committee while we’re here? If no one has filled them in on the realities of genetic diversification, then I will.”

“Perimeter Security is under the DPRP umbrella since quarantine maintenance falls under pandemic prevention, but I know someone on the congressional clerical staff who works for the Science Committee. I’ll pass on your request.” Morris gave her what looked like a grateful nod. “My wife sure would be happy not to have to carry another one—” He broke off when the door opened and two people wearing hermetic suits walked in. “Wallace, is this . . .?”

“One of the DPRP medical techs,” Wallace answered. “He’s supposed to take the subject to one of the quarantine units and get some intake information before testing begins.”

Quarantine unit? Rhys trembled and fumbled beside Darius until he brought his hand down from the back of the sofa and laced their fingers. “Relax, boy. No one’s gonna hurt you.”

“Mr. Cooper?” The other suited man stepped forward, extending a gloved hand. After a moment of hesitation, Rhys stood and wiped his palms on his fatigues before shaking it.

“I’m Zach,” the man said. “I’m going to be interviewing you, settling you into your quarters, and drawing some blood. Nothing scary at all. Once we get the results of your blood work, the DPRP researchers will have a better idea how to proceed.”

Rhys looked rapidly between Darius and Xolani, trying to unstick his tongue from the roof of his mouth to protest, but Xolani spoke up first.

“He’s not going alone,” she said firmly. “And he’s not staying in the quarantine ring. We’ll bring him in for testing, but he makes camp with us outside the Clean Zone at the end of the day.”

“The DPRP has set up quarters specifically for testing him, including putting him on the same ventilation circuit as animals known to be able to contract the Bane virus,” Zach explained. “If he doesn’t stay there, we won’t know whether he’s capable of spreading the virus in its airborne form.”

“Too bad. Come on, Rhys, we’re leaving.” Xolani rose and gestured for him to accompany her, and Rhys followed.

Darius stood and fell into step beside him. “Let’s go, people,” he barked. “Schuyler, you’ll stay here until you’re done handing over your civvies. We’ll meet you by the lake.”

Titus, Toby, and Joe all rose and spread out behind them, surrounding Rhys as if afraid that they would try to take him by force.

“You can’t leave, Xolani,” Schuyler protested, coming to her feet. “We can’t. Not yet. Not until you talk to the Science Committee. They’re turning people into incubators.”

“Goddamn it.” Xolani hung her head, muttering to herself as Darius made an irritated sound beside Rhys. Then she turned to look at him. “She’s right, Darius. Permission for me to detach and remain here while you take Rhys away from here?”

“Granted,” Darius said with a short nod.

Please—” Zach held up a hand in what Rhys assumed was meant to be a placating gesture. It would have worked better without the hermetic suit. “I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all how important this might be, if Mr. Cooper is immune. What can I do to reassure you that he’ll be all right staying in the quarters we’ve prepared for him?”

Rhys looked between Darius and Xolani again, distressed. He didn’t want to cause any worry, and Xolani was right. He needed to consider how they would feel if they lost him. They had taken so much time and care to get him away from the monastery and bring him back to health and give him a home. He couldn’t risk himself, and yet he couldn’t turn his back on the possibility that he might be able to somehow help prevent any future outbreak of the plague. The United States population had been reduced to the twelve thousand people here, not including the Jugs and survivors not yet recovered. Another outbreak could ensure the complete extinction of humanity on the North American continent.

He straightened his shoulders, lifted his chin, and cleared his throat as he faced Zach head-on. “I won’t go alone. I want these five Jugs who accompanied me to come as well, and only until you don’t need me to breathe on your lab animals anymore.”

“Hey, now!” Wallace stepped toward them, his gloved hand tight on the strap of the weapon slung over his shoulder, as though he thought he might need to grab it. The other guards—except Perimeter Security Chief Morris—flanked him, looking equally alert. “Jugs aren’t allowed past the outer perimeter. That’s the law.”

“Stand down,” Morris snapped at him. “We don’t threaten Jugs. These people did us a favor bringing Cooper here. They don’t answer to us, especially after the way we treated them. If Cooper wants to walk, we let him.”

The Jugs gave Morris looks of varying surprise, but Rhys’s attention was focused on the DPRP stooge. He turned a cool look toward Zach. “You asked what you could do to assure me I’d be safe. This is it. If the DPRP wants to test me badly enough, they’ll make an exception. The quarantine ring is safe for keeping potentially infected civvies away from the population, so it should be safe for keeping Jugs away, as well.”

Zach shuffled uncomfortably. “I can—” He cleared his throat and began again. “I can take this back to the department. It might require Secretary Littlewood’s approval, and that could take a while.”

“Then I guess you’d better get a move on, son,” Darius snapped. “We’re not going to wait around forever for the DPRP to get their hands off their dicks and decide. You’ve got seven days, then we leave. We’ll be camped by the lake until then.”

 

Chapter Three

Assessment

Zach took a breath to brace himself, then knocked on the door of the quarantine unit that had been remodeled as a testing facility for Rhys Cooper. The number of refugees coming through quarantine had dwindled in the decade since the Jugs had started their operations, so the unit was in an all-but-abandoned portion of the quarantine ring. It kept the other uninfected separate from this one survivor, since they had no way of knowing yet whether or not his exposure to the Bane virus made him contagious.

He pressed a fist against the knot that had formed just below his sternum and closed his eyes, whispering a brief prayer until he felt calm again. He needed to let God guide him to the right thing to say. This was too important to let his fears and doubts sabotage him.

Secretary Littlewood had been livid when Zach had brought word that Cooper and the Jugs were digging their heels in about where Cooper would be housed. At first, the intensity of his rage had left Zach deeply uneasy because he didn’t know if his failure to persuade Cooper would undo his years of work ingratiating himself with Littlewood and the upper echelon of the DPRP. But while Littlewood had arranged for Cooper and his Juggernaut escort to be quartered together within the quarantine ring, more profound misgivings had taken root in Zach’s brain.

Littlewood’s fury went beyond the frustration of clinical and scientific ambitions. While his excessive irritation could actually result in an amazing breakthrough in bringing to light the secret agenda Zach suspected Littlewood of advancing, it could only benefit Zach if he was willing to risk putting Rhys Cooper in harm’s way after he’d promised the young man he’d be safe.

Zach’s churning thoughts were interrupted as the short, olive-skinned Jug with the scarred face and silver-shot braid answered the door. She was familiar, as were several other Jugs; he was sure he’d seen her around in the months it had taken for the military personnel barricaded inside Cheyenne Mountain to surrender. She probably wouldn’t recognize him even if she saw him out of his suit, though. Ten years had passed, after all, and he hadn’t interacted very closely with many of the Jugs during the standoff when he’d lived with Nico. Right now, she was looking at Zach like he was something she would snap in two if she didn’t like what he had to say. She was every bit as formidable this afternoon as she had been the day before when she’d refused to let him take Cooper to his quarters.

“Hi,” he said, his hands sweating inside his gloves. “I’m Zach. You might remember me from the other day? I came to make sure you are all settling in okay, and to see if Mr. Cooper is ready to begin some of his tests.”

He sucked in a breath to keep himself from babbling further. He hadn’t been prepared for the resistance he’d encountered from the Jugs, or for the fact that Cooper was clearly much more than just another survivor they had custody of until they could turn him over. Zach had to proceed carefully with these people or they’d take Cooper and bolt. Well, not bolt. They’d walk out, and there wouldn’t be a damn thing Zach, or the DPRP, or Perimeter Security could do about it. Short of shooting them, of course, which was an option of mutually assured destruction.

Zach blinked slowly, letting his sense of God’s guidance and wisdom fill his soul before he smiled through his mask. It probably wasn’t the disarming expression he’d hoped for, but the suit could be blamed for spoiling the effect. He remembered his own time in quarantine all too well and how disconcerting the copper-toned, polarized coating on the masks could be.

“Of course I remember you,” she said flatly. “Rhys is napping. He was too anxious to get much sleep last night, thanks to the shit you people tried to pull. You try to separate us from him again and we’re out of here, no negotiation, no second chances. Got it?”

“Yes, ma’am.” Zach nodded enthusiastically, and Xolani stepped aside to allow him to enter. He couldn’t begrudge her resentment. His limited association with the Jugs had been more than enough to allow him to witness firsthand how devastating congress’s decision to exile them had been.

The communal living quarters spread out before him as he crossed the threshold. Beyond them was a small hall that led to the bedrooms and lavatory. Normally, two small families or up to six adults would live in one of these units. It was useless to put furniture in a house that might have to be burned down if its inhabitants turned out to be infected, so the great room was sunken, with benches built in around the edge like a conversation pit. In their spare time, some of the citizens of the Clean Zone made cushions for the benches, to help make the newly arrived survivors more comfortable while they waited out their quarantines.

Around the dining table—also built into an alcove—three men sat with cards in their hands. They had paused their play, abandoning their game to fix their attention on Zach.

Their CO—the tall, forbidding black man named Darius—sat on one of the sleeping mats that would usually fill the bedrooms but were now spread around the living room floor. He had his assault rifle laid out on the mat in front of him and a small unassembled sidearm was in his hands as he cleaned it. On the mat beside him lay Rhys Cooper, curled into a fetal ball with his head almost in Darius’s lap.

For all his stature, Cooper looked young. Way too young.

Oh, yes. Littlewood’s interest made perfect, sickening sense.

“Rhys,” Xolani called softly, stepping over to him and crouching to touch his shoulder. “You got a visitor, kid.”

Cooper bolted upright, blinking at Zach in semiconscious alarm and distrust. Then he drew a shuddering breath and nodded, pushing himself to his feet. He pulled his shoulders back, standing almost at attention.

“Hello. Thank you for arranging for everyone to stay with me. I guess you want to start those tests now?” The greeting was stilted, abrupt. Like a kid trying to mask his nerves by appearing mature and dignified but falling short of the mark. Or maybe someone who had lived in isolation so long that he really didn’t know how to act with new people. He didn’t glance around at any of his companions, either, as if he were deliberately making himself face Zach without their backing.

Zach nodded soberly. “If you don’t mind. We have one of the bedrooms all set up for you. You can—”

“Thanks, but I saw that thing. The bed is barely wide enough for one person.” Cooper grimaced. “I’ll sleep out here, where I belong.”

Darius lifted his eyes at that and finished reassembling his sidearm while glancing up at Cooper’s back. It was only a split second, but in that unguarded instant before a stern, threatening look settled on his face, Zach saw everything he needed to see to understand that situation. Zach had seen similar looks before. He’d even been the recipient of them, once upon a time.

Much more than just another survivor, indeed.

“Um, if you would consider at least spending a few nights in that room, it would help us very much. The test animals are set up in there, well within the twenty-foot hot zone for airborne contamination. At least spend as much of the day as possible there, please?”

Cooper dropped his chin, sighing. “I’ll think about it. I’d prefer to just get this over with.”

Zach nodded again, holding out an arm to gesture down the hall. “After you.”

Cooper didn’t move. “Xolani?”

“Go on, Rhys.” Her voice was gentle, though Zach thought he heard a note of reluctance. They were paranoid, and the hell of it was that Zach couldn’t even blame them. “I doubt they’ll want a Jug near the test animals. If I happened to be wounded or menstruating, it could fuck up their whole experiment. But we’ll be right out here. If you need us, yell.”

“Okay, look.” There was understanding the reasons for their distrust, and then there was letting himself be the whipping boy for it. “I’ve been in the Clean Zone since before the overthrow. I know, probably better than anyone else here, that you Jugs have no reason to like or trust us. But I don’t devour unsupervised children or ritually sacrifice fluffy little bunnies, and I don’t mean Mr. Cooper any harm.” He swallowed, glad they couldn’t see his face. Technically, at least, the claim was true. “I’m just here to do some tests, okay?”

Six pairs of eyes all fixed on him, and from each set Zach thought he saw a spark of something other than mistrust. Dare he call it respect?

Then the grizzled one playing cards at the table with the short redhead and the giant of a man chuckled. “I think this one might actually be worth the powder and lead to shoot ’im dead.”

A ripple went through the room, and everyone relaxed in its wake.

“Maybe I should introduce everyone,” Cooper said, sounding less wary. “You know Xolani and Darius. That’s Titus.” He pointed toward the one who had made the quip and then to the man next to him. “And Toby, and the big guy is Joe.”

“It’s nice to meet all of you. I’m going to be around quite a bit, doing periodic tests and blood draws. I’m sure we’ll all get to know one another better in time.”

They each murmured a greeting, and Cooper drew a breath, then straightened his shoulders and preceded Zach down the hall.

***

Never had Zach been so grateful for his mask, which kept the blush threatening to incinerate him from showing. He cleared his throat and shifted, readjusting the position of his clipboard, checking the list of questions he was supposed to ask.

“I’m sorry, how many of the Jugs did you say you had intercourse with each day?”

He tried not to cringe at the intrusive questions. The Jugs’ report on Rhys had been classified, and he hadn’t even been allowed to see the questions the DPRP researchers wanted him to ask until right before he’d put on his suit. They obviously hadn’t been written by anyone with an ounce of tact. The only consolation was that Cooper was blushing nearly as vividly. “Um, I’d say an average of three while we were on the march . . . Once we got to base I’d say it was more like five or six. Not including Darius.”

“So you were exposed to Bane Alpha up to six times a day.”

“No. Probably closer to ten.”

Zach blinked. “But you just said—”

“I said I was with up to six Jugs a day. But I was usually with Darius at least two or three times, and sometimes the other Jugs would want to have sex more than once.” Cooper heaved a frustrated sigh. “Look, I’m really not comfortable talking about this, especially with a stranger. After a while, it wasn’t so bad, being with all of them, but I was glad when I didn’t have to be with anyone but Darius anymore. I don’t like to look back at the rest. Didn’t Xolani cover all this in her report?”

“I, um, I think the doctors wanted to confirm or clarify some of the details to better ascertain your level of exposure.” Zach shifted again. What Rhys was describing was very far from what he would normally find arousing, but it had been way too long since he’d been with anyone, which meant his body was primed like a teenager’s and any mention of sex was enough to get its attention.

He bowed his head, swallowing against the wave of melancholy that crashed over him. Even knowing why he had to be alone didn’t make it any easier, sometimes. He missed Nico so intensely it ached.

“How about for now I just document your physical condition, and if we need to go over more of the questions, we’ll deal with that later, once we’ve had a chance to become more comfortable with each other?” he proposed.

“That sounds good.” Cooper gave him a small smile that held a hint of warming. It seemed that Zach was making headway through some of the mistrust.

“Perfect.” Zach tried to make his own answering smile as inviting as possible. “If you wouldn’t mind stepping over here to the scale . . .?”

He took Cooper’s weight and height. Pulse. Blood pressure. Respirations. This part was easy. It wasn’t hard at all to slip into the familiar routine. Zach would always miss his days working to aid the sick and injured survivors, but he’d never been able to bring himself to go back to it. The people he’d trusted back then had betrayed him, turned their backs when he’d chosen to be with a Jug. They’d supported exiling the Jugs, forcing the separation he and Nico had suffered the last ten years.

Working for the DPRP wasn’t anywhere near the same. He didn’t get that sense of truly helping people. He was just a drone, doing busywork and keeping his head down and ears open. Still, it was nice to at least be in the position of dealing hands-on with a patient again, even if he wasn’t offering comfort and healing.

“Okay.” He straightened his shoulders and gave Cooper another smile. “I’m going to need to do a visual examination, report on the condition you appear to be in. The doctors will do a complete physical later, but for now, would you mind taking off your shirt, Mr. Cooper?”

Cooper nodded and drew a deep breath, then reached for his buttons. He wore the same fatigues as the Jugs he accompanied, no doubt scavenged from the military installations they came across in their travels. It made it harder to remember that Cooper was a civilian, a bystander who might be the recipient of a very special, very dangerous gift from God.

“You can call me Rhys, you know,” he said as he stripped off the shirt, exposing a healthy, well-muscled chest. Zach made a note that he appeared to be receiving good nutrition and had no visible maladies.

“Well, Rhys . . .” Zach’s voice died when Rhys turned and he got a look at his back. “Dear God!” A chill ran through Zach, followed by a wave of rage. “Who did this to you?”

“What?” Rhys peered over his shoulder and flushed. “Oh, that. It’s okay. I asked for it.”

“Rhys.” Zach gentled his voice and stepped forward, setting his clipboard aside as he laid a gloved hand on the young man’s shoulder, just above the welts. Some of them had at one point been open enough to scab over. It wasn’t Rhys’s first beating, either. Beneath the stripes on his back, Zach could see a few faint, silvery scars from previous whippings.

Damn. Any thought of using Rhys to trick Littlewood into exposing his scheme fled. He couldn’t possibly subject an abuse victim to what Littlewood’s keen interest in the young man might very well portend. “Look, I know abusers try to make their victims blame themselves, but no one asks for this. It’s not your fault. And if you want to confide in me, I’m here. Maybe I can help get you away from him.”

The crimson flush that had worked its way up Rhys’s pale shoulders and neck deepened. His voice was a reluctant mumble.

“It’s nice of you to be so concerned for me and all. I don’t expect you to understand, but it’s what Darius and I—” He turned, looking Zach directly in the face for the first time without a room separating them, perhaps getting his first good look past the coppery shimmer of the mask, and his hazel eyes grew huge. He paled and stumbled backward until he pressed up against the wall, staring at Zach in horror. “Darius! Xolani!”

Footsteps thundered down the hall, and the door crashed open. Zach found himself pulled away from Rhys and flung across the room, slamming into the opposite wall with enough force to knock the wind from his lungs and daze him. Within their enclosures, several ground squirrels and an opossum squealed and scrambled in alarm. By the time Zach cleared the fog from his head and tried to stand, Darius and Xolani were between him and Rhys, looking at him with blood in their eyes. The other Jugs clustered in the doorway, ready to lend aid.

“What’s wrong, Rhys?” Xolani asked, turning her attention away from Zach to look Rhys over, checking him for injury.

“What’s wrong?” There was a quaver in Rhys’s voice, and he was staring at Zach as if he were something out of a nightmare. “Look at his face. Look at him!”

Darius didn’t move, but Xolani stepped closer. Self-preservation told Zach to stay very still as she drew near enough to get a good look at him through his mask.

She hissed. “Houtman. You motherfucker.”

Zach licked his lips, quivering but otherwise motionless, as all five Jugs growled nearly in unison. “H-how did you know my family name? No one has called me that in years. I don’t think I’ve even used it, except when filling out the annual census.”

“How’d you manage it?” Xolani demanded, and Zach shook his head in confusion.

“Manage what?”

“Manage to arrange for Rhys to be summoned. Do you have that much pull with the DPRP?”

He swallowed hard. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Please. I haven’t done anything. I’m just doing my job.”

Her hand snapped up, grabbing his throat through the fabric of his suit and squeezing until Zach felt his air cut off. “You can start leveling with us or I can rip your fucking head off the way I did the last Houtman we met.”

Understanding dawned. Jacob! he mouthed, unable to speak with her hand closing off his airway. Her grip loosened just a fraction, enough to allow him to rasp, “You knew my brother? Please, I can’t—”

She released him abruptly, but she didn’t back down, and Zach wasn’t foolish enough to think for a second that she wouldn’t tear him limb from limb in an instant if she didn’t like what he had to say.

“Jacob was your brother?” Rhys asked cautiously, staying well behind Darius.

Zach nodded, wishing the suit wasn’t in the way so he could rub his bruised throat. “I haven’t seen him in years, though. Since before I left Indiana, before the overthrow. I couldn’t stay with my father and brother, so I made my way to the Clean Zone while they headed to the Northwest.” All of them eased off a fraction, though Zach by no means believed they had let down their guard. “Please. I had no idea you had met him. Or them.”

Xolani’s eyes narrowed. “I put all that in my report.”

“I haven’t read the report. It’s classified. Only the highest-ranking officials of the DPRP have access to it.” Zach straightened a little more, meeting her eyes. “I’m just a tech. They told me to draw some blood, gave me a list of questions to ask, told me to do a preliminary exam. That’s all.”

It was Rhys whose gaze Zach sought, and after a moment, the tension left Rhys in a visible rush. “I think he might be telling the truth.”

Darius glanced back at him before glaring at Zach again. “I want the whole story.”

He nodded eagerly. “Of course. But, if you don’t mind, can we go out to the other room? It’s a little crowded in here, and as Xolani observed earlier, you’re really not supposed to be around the animals . . .”

from TTC Books and More

Definitely a must read in my opinion, but I will warn you, it's a dark dangerous world in the Strain universe. The characters are devious and disturbed at times, the plots are strange and twisted, and the sex is down right raunchy, but addictive!

from MM Good Book Reviews (by Tams)

Definitely a must read in my opinion. . . . The characters are devious and disturbed at times, the plots are strange and twisted, and the sex is down right raunchy, but addictive!

from Prism Book Alliance

The entire story is so well done, but the finale exists on another level, all its own. . . . To say I’m satisfied is the epitome of understatement.

from Fangirl Moments and My Two Cents

The action and romance are great. The struggle is real. Elements of chance, karma, fate, luck, destiny, politics, religion, revenge, sacrifice and love are present. The mix of everything together keeps it interesting, and the end is satisfying.

from Crystal's Many Reviewers

The world building and writing is like no other and grabs the reader’s attention and holds tight.

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