Chapter 1: Sight-Blur of Tawny
Though the tripod steadying Mat’s barrel helped, the rifle felt heavier than an elephant in Marc’s arms.
Sweep up the valley and secure the pass for the advancing battalion. That was the game plan, at least. He hadn’t had contact with any of his fellow forward scouts in close to a day.
Maintain radio silence.
But he hadn’t seen them, either.
This was the most boring job in the fucking universe.
He inhaled a hit of nicotine from the small vaporizer in his chest pocket, not so much out of need but as a means of passing time. The air here was thin and weak; the device delivered nicotine along with moisture and a thousand other little things the lungs and body needed to function properly. Gravity a little on the dense side, but nothing he’d not trained and prepped for.
In some ways, Horace Deuce-Niner was no worse than a rough day back on Mother. Except for the grit.
The wind picked up, shifting. Not strong, but enough to whisk the moisture off his sweat-damp cheek. He reached down, pinching dirt between his fingers to toss into the air. Watched how the wind grabbed it, the direction it scattered.
Ghastly dust. Even in the green zone, lush with life and a far cry from the arid stretches of rolling bare dunes, the grit was everywhere. A fine sheen of dust covered every inch of him and his kit. Even the scope bolted to Mat’s barrel, except where he touched the knobs to make fine adjustments to the focus. His canteen, sealed tight, was full of water tainted with sand.
Half the desert of this gods-forsaken planet had taken up residence in his gut in lieu of actual bacteria. Where the hell was the battalion, anyway? Had they stopped for a picnic? How long did it take to travel fifteen or twenty miles?
He shifted his weight, clenching and relaxing muscles one by one to ease the burgeoning ache of stiffness and cramps. Then scanned along the ridgeline again. Then the valley floor. It was a great roost, the best he’d found in two weeks’ time. Unobstructed view, line of sight almost the full length of the valley.
The first glimpse of a tawny something caught his eye on the northern ridgeline a third of the way down toward the valley floor.
He froze, every muscle tensing. Trapped air in his lungs to steady Mat as he waited for whatever he’d seen to reappear. Praying he’d been wrong.
“I’m starting to see things, Mat.”
The breeze gusted, rustling the canopy of trees behind him. Blowing fine grit in his face. He licked his lips, tasted the mineral tang of dirt, and tweaked the focus another millimeter.
Tawny dirt-colored brown. But dirt and rocks didn’t move. And weren’t shaped like heads.
Marc tracked the tango, sliding the safety off with a flick. A max-range shot for his modified M110. Right about now, his trigger finger itched for the fifty-caliber one of his fellow scouts had bitched about humping around. And never mind how loud the fucker was. The fifty-cal, not the scout.
But he knew his rifle well, how to eke the most out of what Mat had to give. Mutilate All Tangos.
“Time to play, sexy.”
When the tango shifted back into sight, the shape of forehead, cheekbone, and temple was unmistakable and definitely not one of his fellow scouts.
He squeezed the trigger, watched the tawny shape disappear in a pink mist.
“Oh yeah, Mat. Just like that. I knew you liked it dirty.”
Silent death. Only a whisper from the subsonic-glide rounds, nothing that would be audible at impact range—Mat wasn’t the type to kiss and tell. It would take at least two more—if the tawny wasn’t alone—for them to triangulate his roost.
If they even could. Preliminary scans of this planet had come back clean. No colonization, no civilized indigenes. Assets free for the grabbing, if they could hold off the hungry predators. Apparently the scent of easy meat was universal. Horace Deuce-Niner was a volatile and hostile environment despite its generous saturation of raw materials.
The predators hunted in packs, with highly developed attack skills. As a forward scout, those coordinated tactics were ones he’d studied in depth during his formative training and education. The tawnies were certainly the largest predators he’d come across in some time, though.
He watched carefully, easing the scope over the vicinity to scan for other tangos. It took a few minutes to locate them. He and Mat took out a second and third solitary in quick succession. Had to remind himself to breathe, slow and even to keep the scope steady, as he tracked along the ridgeline. Had the battalion been overrun? Were his fellow scouts dead?
What if he and Mat were alone in a valley of predators that were already in a feeding frenzy at the taste of blood? Would he be able to pinpoint the roosts of his fellow scouts and, more importantly, relocate to them? His ammunition wouldn’t last. He’d need to scavenge from the kits of his comrades to keep this up for too long.
The next tawny he scoped wasn’t alone. A group of three, treading through the rangy excuse for a forest on the south ridge. He took out the rear guard in another pink mist. Then watched in frustration as the others darted behind a rocky outcropping. Had they really triangulated his location, despite his caution? Their hearing had to be depressingly sensitive. He waited, focused and steady. Too late to relocate. At least it was a defensible roost.
The wind gusted, shifting. Blowing at his back. He canted his head a fraction, letting the dry air slide fingers up under his helmet, a welcome ease against his hairless scalp. He tweaked the scope, adjusting for the change in wind direction.
“Wait for it,” he crooned, stroking his trigger finger over the guard. The pair eased out into the open again, only seconds later, one after the other. “Oh yeah. Right there, Mat.” He took them out in rapid succession.
The breeze kicked up again, bringing a scent he didn’t dare ignore. Unusual for new scents to just randomly surface given how long he’d been in this spot. The faint tang of musk. Something heavy and thick, though fleeting. It brought to mind the scent of soil, moist and dark, clinging to the roots of a dislodged weed. Rotting leaves in the undergrowth of a dense forest.
Nothing like that existed on Horace, not that he’d seen, anyway.
In measured increments, Marc straightened and turned, grip tightening on Mat as he brought the rifle to bear on the stretch of rocky, forested ridgeline at his back.
Another gust of breeze, the scent stronger this time. Closer? He crouched and edged away from his roost, hooking Mat’s sling over his shoulder so he could steady himself against the rocks. He glanced around. Up would make him more vulnerable—no escape route, greater risk of being sighted—but going down this side wouldn’t be an easy feat.
Marc rested his fingertips on the edge of a sharp rock at knee height as he planted his thick-soled boot. He was thankful for the Kevlar-gel reinforcement in his boots and battle dress. Impenetrable right down to the gloves.
A weight slammed into his back and shoulders, bearing him forward and down, crushing him into the rock-strewn ground. Stone gouged his upper arm, a sharp, intense counter to the concussive force of his helmeted head rebounding off a boulder.
The scent of soil and undergrowth saturated the air. So thick he could taste the dirt on his tongue. Between the tight press of rocks and his attacker’s weight, he struggled to pull a knee up. It gave him leverage to heave, loosen the hold, scrabble forward, away.
Only to have claws, sharp and heavy, rake down his flanks. Unable to penetrate his armor, or he’d be bleeding out, shredded to ribbons. Shit, he should’ve dropped Mat and pulled the knife from his boot. Too late. The creature found purchase on his hips. Not just claws, but fingers. The alien grabbed hold and pinned him.
Marc twisted, kicked, as he tried to bring Mat to bear on his attacker, fumbling with the tangle of tripod, barrel, and shoulder strap.
Screw getting a bead. He struck out with the rifle’s butt. Aiming for temple, jaw, cheek. The weapon landed true, though from the sound of it, he accomplished nothing but angering the alien.
It lifted its head, heavily muscled shoulders shifting in a ripple of white amber and tawny, with what looked like longer, mud-clotted hair hanging in thin dreads about its neck.
Old training vids of feral felines flashed through his mind. Great cats, they were called. Ruthless predators, living on a planet surrendered to the whims of Gaia. Mercy wasn’t in their vocabulary. He’d gotten a chill, watching a pack systematically isolate and bring down a target. He felt that same chill crawl over his skin as his attacker curled back smooth lips on a frighteningly humanoid face, baring sharp fangs inside a wide mouth. A growling sound rumbled up from deep within its massive chest. It carried a vicious edge of warning.
Why wasn’t it eating him?
Marc forced himself to relax. Some things weren’t difficult to understand. It had him overwhelmed, the dominant edge of authority clear in its tone. His heart pounded against his ribs, fueled by adrenaline-saturated blood. He tried breathing deep, needed to, but the air was thick with musk. It coated the inside of his nose and mouth, reaching down into his lungs.
Dark, vivid, golden brown eyes. Pupils oblong, just enough to make its gaze odd. But the intelligence was there, the awareness, buried beneath the wild sun-bleached mane tapering over its shoulders. That chimera blending. The slope of the nose, the arch of brows above deep-set eyes. The jaws distended further than normal, but the tawny had more teeth in there.
“Yeah, we’ll do the whole ‘cease and desist’ thing. When you fucking dismantle us both, you hairy fucking bastard!” Marc swung his rifle again, striking the beast in the face, followed with his elbow, drawing his knees up into the resulting gap.
Just enough to use his legs, boot soles braced against the thing’s hips, to push it away. A grunt of effort escaped him, a whoosh of breath. The alien roared, snarled, grappling at him, claws snagging Kevlar but finding no purchase. Marc rolled to his side, twisting Mat to bear on the tawny. It eased away, aggression checked by Mat’s barrel.
“We’ll take our boring job back, thanks.”
He took another breath, watched the tawny’s nostrils flare as it matched his rhythm, chest expanding. Sun-dark skin smooth and hardened with muscle, only a trail of white amber hair arrowing down the meridian of its torso to a very well-endowed groin and a pair of faintly hairy legs, sinewy muscle cording in its thighs.
Of course they’d have to tangle with the largest, meanest tawny on the planet.
“You’ve got great taste, Mat.” Marc’s skin started tingling. Everywhere. At this range, one round could tear off a sizeable chunk of flesh. He eased his finger inside the trigger guard; the male’s gaze dropped, catching the move.
The air became too thick to breathe. No oxygen left—he inhaled nothing but musk and pheromones. He had trouble focusing. His arms felt heavy, his brain thick. All the blood was heading south, and he couldn’t think. The tawny roared, fangs bared, twisting Mat’s barrel off to the side and pouncing back on top of him, claws raking at his gloved hands.
Things started getting hazy. Marc’s muscles felt limp. His trigger finger finally squeezed, but it was too late, too much delay, harmless. The male flinched at Mat’s kick and report, but only ratcheted his grip tighter. He should drop Mat. Pull his knife. He knew that, but didn’t care. The desire to resist, to struggle and fight, at least on a lethal level, faded into the background. Desire of an entirely different sort surged to the fore in his mind and body. There was something horribly wrong with this, he knew there was, but he couldn’t hold onto the thought long enough to make any sense of it.
Yeah, it had been a while since anyone had cuddled up to him like this, but he wasn’t that desperately horny. This was wrong, all wrong. He wouldn’t do this, not in the middle of a life-threatening situation.
Okay, maybe. But not on a mission. Not like this. Something was going on.
He couldn’t let go of Mat. Mat and him, they went back a long way. Mat wouldn’t be offended by his arousal. The tawny seemed offended by Mat, though, which was a problem. Slowly easing his rifle down to rest against his stomach and thigh was the best he could do.
The solid cylinder of alloy, radiating warmth from recent discharge, pressed against his cock. That he was even hard sparked confusion. But the contact, the weight and pressure of the rifle, only made him twitch more. The tawny rumbled again, more vibration than sound.
Marc squeezed his eyes shut, white-knuckled his grip on Mat, and took another deep breath. It didn’t relax him at all. If anything, it made things worse. He groaned and rotated his hips, the rifle’s barrel and scope resting on either side of his erection.
The fucking tawny was doing this. He didn’t know how, except that scent.
Mineral-rich soil, dark and damp. And it had gotten stronger, thicker.
With every breath, Marc’s resistance weakened in favor of . . .
Another rumble of sound, a growling cadence. A firm grip on his shoulder, Kevlar sparing him from claws that leveraged him to his feet and guided him forward over the uneven, rocky ground. Marc made no attempt to resist, stumbled, body still tingling, aroused almost to the point of pain. The alien’s hold steered him with ease, checking and redirecting his momentum with sharp pressure points from wicked claws the length of his hand.
An interesting predatory weapon: inciting arousal so strong it short-circuited the ability to think of anything else.
Chapter 2: Kit-Snarl
Hamm’s claws had drawn no blood-scent. The lack baffled him, but it fit with what others described of the invaders. Its skin covering had repelled his attempt to penetrate as surely as the exoskeletons he encountered on prey. Odd little creature, and its inability to control its arousal, to think past it, was a decided weakness.
Hamm inhaled deeply as they walked, tasting the air against his upper palate. The alien hadn’t shown any control over the scents rolling off it: sweat, dirt, and pheromones. Faintly strange, but far from unpleasant. Quite the contrary, he discovered, as his shaft twitched with the rush of blood to his groin, skin suddenly tight. Why was he having such a response to its scent? How had it done that? Was it a weapon his scouts and squads hadn’t encountered yet? Problem was, it didn’t seem to work in the alien’s favor in the least.
This alien represented the first successful subduing short of lethal injury. Hamm wondered if it were male or female. Its voice had a soft, genteel quality, which made him suspect it was female. His nose told him a different story, the pheromones conflicting.
Maybe it wasn’t male or female. Maybe none of the aliens were.
Hamm rubbed at his jaw where it had slammed the weapon into his face. A dull ache, more annoying than painful. He sniffed his hand, then, and growled. Its scent was all over him. There was something tangy in the thing’s musk. Reminded him of ’nip. Maybe the alien had trod through a patch of the stuff somewhere. But still, it irritated him that he wanted to bury his face in the thing’s strange pelt and inhale. He should not be having that kind of reaction. He didn’t want to.
Had none of the others considered implementing pheromones? Not that he’d done it consciously; the thought hadn’t occurred to him. It was a weapon restricted to dominance displays. For position, hierarchy disputes, and heated domestic squabbles. Not deadly combat. His chemistry had shifted to match the alien’s strong scent all on its own. That disturbed him a great deal.
As though he weren’t disturbed enough. The thing had just slaughtered his entire squad back there. He’d watched, unable to stop it from killing Erri and Kail. Not close enough.
The hiss of the weapon. The foreign odor burning his nose. The sun-warmed rocks beneath his fingers as he’d flexed his claws, testing his balance and grip as he coiled to pounce. He’d been too slow, too late. Picked off one by one by this tiny excuse for a warrior and its death stick.
His vision tripped over into thermal. Hunt, kill. The world around him became a landscape of blues and greens, his prisoner a bright beacon of reds and yellows that pulsed and shifted. He flexed his hands, claws unsheathing to their full length, lips curling back to expose his fangs.
He wanted blood. But more than that, he wanted answers. A submissive thing like this, prone to grinding against its death stick instead of firing it, he could work with that. He wouldn’t assume the alien lacked a vicious streak. That would be a mistake. No, he was counting on that warrior belligerence resurfacing. The alien’s resistance would give him a little of what he needed—a fight, some kind of struggle, a reason to vent.
He clamped a hand on the prisoner’s shoulder, claws snagging on the material and straps. His own lack of forward movement was enough to make it jerk to a halt and spin around so suddenly that there was no opportunity for resistance before Hamm got a good grip on the weapon.
The alien made a sound resembling a kit’s attempt at a snarl—high-pitched, gargled, throaty and all wrong—as it tried to pull back. Hamm tightened his grip on prisoner and weapon, weighing the odds on which would explode first as he created distance between them with steady, implacable force. He wasn’t deliberately looking to inflict injury. Just yet.
Without warning, the thing moved toward him. Into, instead of away from, the pressure. It vented a string of unintelligible, harsh language as the thicker length along the dangerous end of the weapon pressed into Hamm, digging into the tender flesh where thigh met groin.
He knew what this innocuous cylinder of metal could do. It didn’t take much effort to force the weapon toward a harmless target. And then, while the alien made hilarious, futile attempts to extricate the death stick from his grip, Hamm took a deep breath.
It gave him a tasty mouthful of the thing’s still-thick, ’nip-tainted pheromones. Oh. Hamm couldn’t resist the urge to inhale again, more deeply, felt the triggers tripping as his body immediately responded in kind. He hated that it felt so good, yet at the same time he was counting on that breakdown of his own self-control. The alien had demonstrated a consistent vulnerability. Hamm intended to make good use of it.
Who’s the alpha now, you scrawny little thing.
Had another furr witnessed this, his lack of self-control would’ve weakened his position irrevocably. Thankfully, they were all back at headquarters, waiting for him and his squad to return.
Anger flared up again; sight that had been fading back into normal ranges shifted back toward thermal. Hamm inhaled again, gaping his mouth to encourage the scent response in his own pheromones. Even a weakness could be a weapon if used the right way.
He growled, a sound so low it was more chest vibration than audible noise. His mane hackled, hair standing on end all along the length of his spine groove. Arousal swamped him hard and fast, happily coexisting with his other emotions. His pheromones released so quickly the oily musk clung heavy to his skin and weighed his mane down like a drenching from a sudden winter cloudburst.
Sure enough, within seconds the alien’s eyes glazed and it swayed, all resistance diffusing.
Hamm tightened his grip on the death stick and gave a none-too-gentle tug.
The warrior still didn’t let go. As though physically attached to the weapon, it moved forward. Stumbled forward, really, to check its momentum against Hamm’s body, the weapon trapped between them. Hamm encircled its shoulders with his arm and tried again. Determined to separate soldier from weapon. Not willing to risk any more furrs to its prowess.
He had to consciously count the number of shafts he could feel between himself and the alien. Either the alien had another weapon, which wasn’t entirely impossible, or it was a male. A very generously endowed male, considering its relative stature.
The ragged rise and fall of the male’s chest pushed against his arm, each breath a warm puff of moist air ruffling the edge of his mane where it tapered over his pectoral, and the sensitive hairs hackled to attention at the stimulation. The sensation made him shudder, and the desire to purr felt like a stone trapped in his throat. A very large stone. Obviously it had been much too long since he’d indulged in some recreational rutting.
Chapter 3: Taste-Bitter Surrender
Marc resisted the tawny’s constricting embrace but couldn’t find a fraction of play no matter how he struggled. He desperately needed to escape.
Escape the heat radiating from the alien’s form.
The thick taste of soil coating his tongue with every breath.
The tingling sensation pooling in his gut, the pulse pounding in his cock, his erection pressing along Mat’s length with every twitch.
The heavy length of alloy, trapped between them almost deliberately.
He couldn’t think through the surge of arousal that strengthened with each inhale. The tawny’s scent was maddening in a way he didn’t understand. Weakness in his legs, his muscles rubbery. Only his groin retained any tension, and the painful edge of sensation made him moan, rotate his hips in search of counterpressure.
The barrel offered a modicum of relief.
Anything to think straight for a second. A half second, even. More than enough to squeeze the trigger.
The mantle of coarse shaggy hair tickled his cheek and jaw as he struggled, sent a tingle prickling over his skin.
Sound rumbled from deep in the tawny’s chest. He could feel it, the vibration traveling into his arm, shoulder, chest, down through his body. Resonating with the hum of arousal, heightening it further. Marc shifted his hand from the barrel to the hairless expanse of toned stomach.
His eyes slid half shut, the world blurring. All his brainpower focused on the relief from the rifle’s pressure against his cock. Anchor, grounding. He rolled his hips forward again and groaned at the diffusion of sensation as a wave of almost-orgasm flooded through his entire body.
Another rumble of sound, this time with an edge, as though to communicate a message Marc wasn’t receiving. The tawny’s grip persisted, implacable, and Marc’s body overrode the disarray in his mind. He relaxed into the tawny’s solid warmth and let the scent of musk drown his senses as the larger body enveloped him.
Sun-heated silken fur and sweat-slick, warm skin beneath his palm and fingertips. Marc could taste the sweat and skin on each breath, entrancing and intoxicating.
It was too much, the press of the weapon against his cock. The thick, pervasive scent. The tawny moved its hips in rhythm with his and Marc took it for encouragement. He had no idea what was going on. Knew nothing beyond the arousal, built up so far there was no diffusing it short of orgasm.
The musk became so heavy it was the flavor of soil on his tongue and lips. Like the earth found deep in the heart of some untouched wilderness. He’d rarely encountered those types of places, that scent, but fuck if it didn’t push him over the edge into one of the most intense orgasms he’d ever had. Every muscle in his body tensing, ramrod stiff in the creature’s embrace, as wave after wave of pleasure flooded along his nerve endings until finally, gasping raggedly, he came. Hard. Head falling back, spiking climax, he screamed in relief.
In the aftermath of that intensity, he couldn’t move. He let his body struggle to breathe, closed his eyes against the blurry world that took too much effort to focus on.
That had felt too good to fight away.
His body jostled; Mat’s strap slid down his arm. Judging from the form of shifting muscle and bone that pushed into his stomach shortly thereafter, the tawny had slung him over his shoulder.
Marc opened his eyes a fraction, blinked a few times. His brain’s reboot sequence felt like slogging through a knee-deep swamp the consistency of half-cooled porridge, but he determined two things immediately:
Mat was a prisoner as well. The tawny’s fingers wrapped around the stock and hefted the weapon with obvious ease. Marc felt a surge of gratitude that Mat hadn’t been destroyed and left as twisted scrap somewhere. His captor wouldn’t have any difficulty doing that, judging by the large hands and heavily muscled arms.
The other thing—if the blood hadn’t already been rushing to his face thanks to his inverted position, Marc figured he’d be blushing furiously. Nothing quite like shooting at a target to make a first impression . . . except shooting on the target.
The inside of his leg was warm and wet. Soaked would be more accurate. If he’d not experienced the last few minutes, he’d have sworn he’d pissed himself. He was probably really lucky that the tawny hadn’t ripped his throat out and left him dead in the valley back there. As embarrassing as the prospect sounded, he’d settle for having offered a measure of amusement or entertainment, if it kept him alive.
Marc went limp in the male’s grip. “How the fuck do I get myself into situations like this?”
Granted, he’d never been in one this bad.
The male rumbled something in cadence again. He wished like fuck he had some idea of what the tawny had said. It wasn’t threatening, judging from the way the male butted his head against Marc’s hipbone, rubbed his face there, and inhaled.
“Enjoyed that, did you?” A chill running along Marc’s spine made him shiver. “In that case, I’m just royally fucked.” He grumbled and glared at his rifle.
“Any other forward scout would have their ass handed to them and book it back to the battalion. But no, Mat, not us. That’s too simple. We find the one random predator on this arse of a planet that decides we’ll make an interesting plaything. Toy with your food much, tawny?”
The alien eyed him strangely when he started laughing, but he couldn’t stop.