Into The Black

 

This is the story that sparked the idea for the Hellscape series.

 

© Copyright 2007 Ally Blue

From space, the stars of the Milky Way resembled a swirl of diamond dust, shining hard and bright out of the endless Black. On Earth, their light would be dimmed or hidden altogether by the soupy, toxic atmosphere. At least that’s what Colt had heard from the old-timers who claimed to have been there before it became uninhabitable. He himself had never seen the stars from any vantage point other than here on the upper level of Hell’s End, the last space station before the void.

“Daydreaming again?”

Colt turned toward the voice with a smile. “Hi, Taz. Just looking at the stars.”

“You’re always looking at the stars.” Taz sauntered over from the lift, a rare genuine smile curving his rosebud mouth and putting dimples in his round cheeks. “I doubt the view’s changed that much since yesterday.”

“It changes.” Colt swung his arm toward the far side of the huge transparent dome, where Pluto loomed gray and menacing against the abyss. “There’s a new crater today.”

“Well, there’s a shock,” Taz said dryly. “An asteroid hitting Pluto, imagine that. Call the newsfeed, we’ve got a hell of a story here.”

Colt laughed. “Were you coming to look at the stars too?”

Taz’s smile vanished, his clear blue eyes hardening into chips of ice. “I came to find you. Boss has a job for us.”

“Both of us?”

“Yeah.”

Colt felt himself tense. If Etienne L’arisian wanted them both, it wasn’t going to be pretty. It usually meant he’d have to use his size and intimidating looks to threaten someone, distracting them while Taz did the real job.

Taz’s cherubic face and slight build caused most people to underestimate or even ignore him, and he used it ruthlessly. He’d flash that deceptively sweet smile, huge blue eyes wide and vacant, and get himself instantly labeled as harmless. He’d blend into the background, striking when his prey’s attention was firmly fixed on Colt and his perceived menace.

The quarry never knew who’d robbed them blind when their back was turned, or slit their throat. Taz made sure of that. He also made sure that Colt never had to get blood on his hands. But Colt still didn’t like these jobs. It hurt him when Taz had to kill, even though his partner did it without emotion or regret.

“What do we have to do?” Colt asked, trying not to look as miserable as he felt.

“One of the dealers on the lower levels screwed the boss’s mistress out of several grams of Rapture. She paid for one hundred; the dealer only gave her ninety. Boss wants us to convince him to give us the other ten.”

“And if he doesn’t?” Colt already knew the answer. Rapture was horribly addictive and expensive, but was nevertheless wildly popular on the space stations orbiting the Outer Planets, where the air reeked of tight-packed humanity and despair and everyone wanted an escape, however temporary. Cheating anyone, never mind the mistress of the head of the L’arisian family, out of what they’d bought was an almost guaranteed death sentence.

Taz smiled again. This time, it was the smile that everyone who knew him had learned to fear. “If he doesn’t? We off him.”

Colt turned away, his stomach churning. He’d belonged to the L’arisian family for ten years, ever since his parents had sold him at age eleven to buy their own lives, and the lives of their first two children. In all that time, he’d killed only once, in self-defense. It had left an indelible scar on his soul.

“Hey.” Taz’s arms came around him from behind. He felt the press of Taz’s cheek between his shoulder blades. “I’ll do it, if it comes to that. You know I won’t make you.”

“I know.” Colt laid his big hands over his partner’s small ones. “It’s just, I don’t like for you to have to kill people either. It’s not right.”

Taz was silent for a moment. Colt felt the rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. “It’s not a question of right or wrong. We do what the boss says, or we die. Better some fucking Rapture dealer than us, yeah?”

Colt didn’t answer. Nothing he could say would make Taz regret what he had to do to survive, just as nothing Taz could say would ever make Colt believe it wasn’t wrong.

Taz let go of Colt long enough to turn him around, then stood on tiptoe, arms raised. Colt bent and swept Taz into his arms, lifting the smaller man right off his feet. Taz tilted his head up, lips parting. Colt took the kiss Taz offered, accepting his silent comfort as the gift it was.

In all the years they’d known each other, in all the time since Taz had first come to Colt’s bed, Taz had never said ‘I love you’. But Colt knew it was true nonetheless.

“Let’s get this done,” Taz whispered against Colt’s mouth. “Then we’ll go home and fuck. You can do me tonight, okay?”

A lump rose in Colt’s throat. He could count on one hand the times that Taz had let him top in the three years they’d been lovers. Taz liked being in control in bed as much as he did in every other area of life. Colt didn’t mind. He loved the feel of Taz’s cock in him, loved being able to give himself completely to Taz.

However, the nights when Taz opened his pale, slender thighs for Colt, allowing him to take something no one else had ever taken and lived to tell about… Those nights were rare and precious. Not because Colt loved topping so much, because he really didn’t. Those nights were special because when he moved inside Taz, his lover’s cold eyes would thaw, the walls he’d built to keep the world at bay would crumble, and Colt could look right down inside to the person he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. The man who’d taken a terrified young boy under his wing, protected him and taught him how to survive in a world that had no place for mercy or tenderness or love.

Colt kept those memories close to his heart, hoarding them as greedily as the dragons he’d read about as a boy, before he was sold.

“Thank you, Taz,” Colt said softly, letting everything he felt for Taz shine in his eyes. “I l-”

“We gotta go,” Taz interrupted. He pushed on Colt’s shoulders. “Put me down.”

They rode the lift in silence. It took several minutes to travel from the Star Dome where Colt spent so much of his free time to the bottom of the huge space station. When the lift doors opened on the noise and stench of the first level, Taz took Colt firmly by the arm and led him through the crowd.

“The dealer we’re looking for is called Shilo,” Taz said as they made their way through the shoulder-to-shoulder press of hookers, dealers, and Rapture junkies. “Boss said we’d find him in the Inferno.”

Colt gulped. He’d never been to the Inferno, and didn’t want to go now. “Monk says the Sorensens run the Inferno. He says they kill L’arisian’s people on sight.”

“Monk’s a fucking idiot.” Taz smiled benignly at a grizzled old woman who was giving him a narrow stare. She turned away, muttering. “Yeah, the Sorensens run it. They run the whole level. But they don’t kill L’arisians on sight. Boss would have Lorena Sorensen’s ass for breakfast. She may be crazy, but she’s not stupid. She wouldn’t risk pissing off the L’arisians.”

“Why’d the boss let his girl buy from the Sorensens?” Colt wondered. “He had to know they’d fuck her over.” It was a question that niggled at Colt’s mind.

Taz’s expression turned thoughtful. “I don’t know. Maybe he didn’t know she came down here to buy. Maybe she got the whip for it.”

Colt winced in sympathy. “So what’s the plan?” he asked, slowing down as they approached the section of the station that housed the Inferno.

“I’ll go in first. You wait two minutes, then follow me. When I find Shilo, I’ll stand next to him and twirl my hair, like this.” Taz demonstrated, winding a shoulder-length golden curl around his index finger. “You come up and explain to him what he did wrong. If he gives you the ten grams, fine. You’ll take it and leave, and I’ll follow you out two minutes later. We’ll meet by the lift.”

“What if he refuses?” Colt asked, trying to keep his voice steady. “How do we get him alone so you can… you know.”

“If he refuses, punch him in the face and tell him he has twenty-four hours. Make it look good. Make it look like you mean it.”

Colt frowned, relieved but puzzled. “I thought you said-”

“Shh!” Taz hissed. He tugged Colt’s arm until he leaned down. “Yeah, I will.”

“How?”

Taz’s mouth curved into a sly, secretive smile. He reached into the front pocket of his vest and pulled out a tiny syringe. A plastic cap covered the short, thin needle.

“It’s a poison boss’s doctor developed,” Taz said, his eyes gleaming as he put the syringe back in his pocket. “I swiped it from the doc’s stash before I came to find you. I used it last month on that pimp that sent the boss’s son a girl with the rot, you remember that one?”

“Yeah,” Colt said, nodding. “But the newsfeed said he died of a brain hemorrhage.”

Taz’s smile widened. “He did. That’s what the poison does. It takes five minutes to work, and it causes bleeding in the brain. We’ll be gone when Shilo keels over and dies. We won’t be in any danger.”

Colt didn’t answer. They’d reached the other side of the station, where the Inferno huddled like a malignancy against the thick metal wall, squat and black with fading red flames painted on the door. Taz’s hand crept into his, lacing their fingers together.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” Taz promised. “Trust me.”

“I trust you.” Colt gave Taz’s hand a squeeze, then reluctantly let go. “Be careful.”

“Always.” Taz stared at him, eyes hard and cold. “Two minutes, Colt. Put your bad-ass face on.”

Taz turned and walked across the teeming street to the Inferno. Colt watched him disappear through the doorway. He tried to suppress the familiar surge of anxiety. Taz could look after himself, better than anyone else Colt had ever known, but Colt never got used to watching him walk alone into deadly danger.

Two minutes crawled by. When it was time to go in, Colt drew a deep breath, plastered on his most threatening expression and headed for the Inferno.

The second he opened the door, Colt knew something was wrong. Not one person in the crowded bar looked his way, but he felt eyes watching him nonetheless, sidelong glances from under lowered lashes or hats pulled low. The men and women packed into the place looked almost posed. Everything seemed too still, too…

“Fake,” he whispered to himself. “Shit.”

Colt sauntered toward the bar, glowering at everyone he passed. He spotted Taz perched on a barstool. Taz’s eyes cut briefly toward the door. Colt followed his gaze, making it look like he was simply perusing the room. Two tall, muscular women leaned against either side of the door. Both had the Sorensen brand, an elaborate ‘S’, burned into their upper arms.

Colt met Taz’s gaze, a question in his eyes. Taz shook his head almost imperceptibly, and Colt’s guts clenched.

Shilo wasn’t here.

Colt leaned against the bar, heart thumping. Helpless anger at the betrayal coursed through him, nearly drowning out the fear knotting his guts and making his mouth dry as dust. He shot a wide-eyed glance at Taz, silently willing him to take charge of the situation.

As if hearing Colt’s thoughts, Taz slipped off his barstool and sidled up to him. “There’s a back door behind the bar,” he murmured. “When I say ‘go,’ throw me over the bar. I’ll take out the bartender. You cover my back. Ready?”

Colt glanced around the room. Sorensen’s two women were easing toward them through the crowd. He mentally gauged how long they had, then turned back to his lover. Taz had dropped the sweet-and-innocent act altogether. His blue eyes blazed with a dangerous fury. It scared Colt to see that, because it meant that there was no longer any point in pretending. They were down to survival: live or die, us or them.

Taz always said that made things simpler. Colt recognized the truth of that, but he much preferred duplicity and complex machinations to the possibility of watching Taz die.

“Yeah,” Colt answered. He ignored the metallic taste of fear on his tongue, channeling the rush of adrenaline into increased perception and quick reflexes. “I’m ready.”

Taz’s eyes locked with Colt’s for one searing second, then focused on the bartender, who was eyeing them with deep suspicion. “Go.”

Without hesitation, Colt picked Taz up around the waist and tossed him across the bar. He had a split second to watch Taz twist in mid-air and kick the bartender in the face before the Sorensen women leapt on him. He didn’t waste time fighting them. He threw them off, planted his hands on the bar behind him, and kicked, catching each woman in the gut with a large, heavy boot. It sent them both staggering back, buying him the time to leap over the bar and slip out the back door behind Taz.

Outside, Colt slammed the door shut and ran after Taz, who was already scampering along the narrow alley between the buildings and the wall. “They’ll be after us any minute,” Colt said as he caught up. “Those two women were coming over the bar right behind me.”

“I know a place,” Taz answered, shooting a glance at Colt over his shoulder. “They won’t find us.”

They ran in silence. Taz took them on a winding course through the bewildering streets of the first level. Colt was soon hopelessly lost. He jogged along at Taz’s side, trying not to think of how utterly fucked they both were.

*****

They ran for almost two hours, near as Colt could figure, occasionally climbing one of the enclosed ladders to a higher level. Colt kept looking around and behind them, expecting at any moment to be nabbed by a group of Sorensen’s people, but he never saw anyone following them. By the time Taz led him out of the shadows to a decrepit old building on level ten, Colt had begun to relax just a little.

“What’s this place?” Colt asked as Taz picked the lock with his knife and pulled him inside.

“Old apartment building,” Taz said, shutting the door behind him. “It’s condemned. I hid here once. The Ortegas fucking own this level. Sorensen’s people don’t come here.”

“Oh. Okay.” Colt turned in a slow circle, taking in the stained and crumbling walls, the floor thick with dust, and suddenly it all hit him like a sledgehammer. He sat down abruptly on the floor beside the gray metal staircase, shaking all over. “Taz, what’re we gonna do? What the fuck are we gonna do?”

Taz laid a hand on Colt’s head, absently stroking his hair without looking at him. “We’ll be fine.”

“How the fuck you figure, huh?” Colt demanded, frustrated and a little angry. “We got the Sorensens after us. Our own fucking boss sent us in there, knowing they were gonna try and kill us. We got no place to go, Taz! We’re fucking dead!”

Taz’s eyes went wide with surprise, then all the heat bled out of them, leaving them cold and empty. Colt felt a thrill of fear. He’d seen that look leveled at many men and women in the last ten years, but he’d never been on the receiving end before, and it was terrifying.

He held that blank gaze as steadily as he could. Either Taz would kill him, or he wouldn’t. He’d much rather die quick and easy by Taz’s hand than spend weeks in agony in Lorena Sorensen’s legendary torture chambers. He was surprised and very much relieved when Taz’s lips curled into a rueful smile.

“Yeah, it seems that way, doesn’t it?” Taz shocked Colt to the core by sinking to the floor and crawling into his lap. “I’m not giving up, though. I’m gonna find a way out of this mess.”

Colt raised a tentative hand to stroke Taz’s back. Taz sighed and leaned his head on Colt’s shoulder. Colt took it as an invitation. He wrapped both arms around Taz and held him close, cheek pressed to his hair.

“We could go into the Black,” Colt said softly, voicing the wish he’d harbored ever since he’d been brought to Hell’s End. “Steal a ship, go and explore the galaxy. Just you and me.”

Taz laughed without humor. “Can you pilot a ship?”

“I can pilot a shuttle. Done it for the boss once or twice.”

“The shuttles won’t go any further than Pluto and maybe a couple of the deep space stations between here and Neptune. We’d need one of the interplanetary ships. And even then, we could wander around for the rest of our lives without ever finding anyplace we could set foot on.”

“Oh. Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Colt sighed deeply, feeling a little deflated.

Taz lifted his head and twisted around to meet Colt’s eyes. “Don’t look like that,” he said softly, resting a hand on Colt’s cheek. “I’ll think of something.”

Colt couldn’t bring himself to smile. “Like what?”

Taz didn’t say anything. His eyes burned into Colt’s. They moved at the same time, Taz rising to his knees astride Colt’s lap, their mouths meeting in a deep, hungry kiss. Colt crushed Taz against him, hands roaming over the wiry body that he knew so well. Taz grunted and pressed even closer, his erection digging into Colt’s ribs through the butter-soft material of his pants.

Colt let out a moan. It sounded as desperate as he felt. That same desperation rolled in waves from Taz. Colt wormed a hand between their bodies and started undoing the buttons on Taz’s vest. “Taz,” he whispered, his voice rough with rising excitement. “Need you.”

Taz pulled back with a visible effort. His blue eyes were heavy-lidded and bright with need. “Upstairs. There’s a bed.” He scrambled to his feet, one hand linking with Colt’s. “Come on.”

Colt let Taz tug him to his feet and lead him up the stairs. At the top of the steps, Taz turned right down a narrow, dingy hallway. He opened the last door on the left and pulled Colt into a tiny one-room apartment. Motes of dust turned lazily in the dim light that filtered through the single small, grimy window. The room was completely empty except for a narrow bed tucked into the far corner. Even the food synthesizer was missing, broken bits of wire and smashed electronics trailing from a gaping hole in the wall.

“This place is filthy,” Colt observed.

“You got a better spot in mind, Princess?” Taz shoved him onto the bed and plopped down on top of him. “Quit bitching and get your fucking clothes off.”

Home would be better, Colt thought mournfully, but didn’t say it. He obediently began the process of undressing. It wasn’t easy with Taz still on top of him, kissing him and generally getting in the way, but he didn’t care. He was used to having to get them both naked while they were tangled together. Once Taz got started, there was no stopping him. He was all hands and lips and tongue, aggressive and demanding, and Colt wouldn’t have changed that for anything.

Several minutes later, their clothes discarded in a heap on the floor, Colt pulled Taz up to straddle his hips, responding to Taz’s silent signals. Taz’s slightest sound or movement held worlds of meaning for Colt. He knew instantly what Taz wanted, always, and right now Taz wanted to be taken. To ride Colt like one of the extinct creatures he was named after. Colt was more than happy to oblige.

“We don’t have any lube,” Colt said in a lust-tight voice, petting Taz’s hair as they kissed.

“Use spit.” Taz bit Colt’s bottom lip, then sat up, hands brace on his chest. “Hurry.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You won’t.” Taz cradled Colt’s face between his palms. “Please, Colt. I need you inside me tonight.”

Colt’s chest went tight. Taz’s eyes were wide and hot and wanting, all the barriers gone, and Colt wanted to cry at the raw emotion he saw in that beautiful but usually mask-like face.

“Taz…” Colt stroked Taz’s arms, longing to give voice to everything he felt but afraid of doing it. “Why?”

He didn’t know how to articulate what exactly he wanted to know, but Taz seemed to understand. He leaned down and rested his forehead against Colt’s, his delicate fingers smoothing the shaggy dark hair away from Colt’s face.

“If this is our last time,” Taz whispered, “I want it to be special. For you. For both of us.”

Colt didn’t know what to say. It was the closest Taz had ever come to telling Colt how he felt, and it was the only time Colt had ever heard him admit to the possibility of defeat. It made him feel warm and cold at the same time. Lacking the vocabulary to say the things he ached to say, Colt answered the only way he knew how- with kisses and touches and the heat of his body. Taz responded in kind, and Colt knew they understood one another.

Despite Taz’s frantic hurry, Colt took his time getting Taz ready. Taz’s words had crystallized in his mind the possibility that they might not make it out of this alive. If it was to be their last night together, Colt wanted it to be perfect.

Taz threw his head back and gasped when Colt wormed a fourth finger inside him. “Fuck, Colt. Now. C’mon.”

Colt reached through the V of Taz’s thighs to grasp his own cock, holding it upright. Taz spit into his palm, slicked Colt’s cock and impaled himself in one stroke. Colt’s body arched up, his hands reaching to hold Taz’s slim hips. Taz drew a deep, shaking breath. Then he began to move, and Colt’s world shrank down to heat and sweat and the smell of sex.

They fucked silently, harsh panting breaths and the slap of skin on skin the only sounds. They kept it slow and unhurried by unspoken agreement. By the time Colt felt the orgasm coiling in his belly, his body was wet with sweat, all his limbs shaking.

Taz was close too. Colt could tell by the way his breath hitched, his thighs tightening around Colt’s hips and his shaft swelling in Colt’s hand. “Colt,” Taz panted, fingers digging painfully into Colt’s chest. “Now. Now.”

Colt bent his knees and dug his heels into the mattress, hips snapping up and down, slamming himself as hard as he could into Taz’s body. A few thrusts later, Taz went perfectly still. A drop of sweat rolled off the end of his nose and dripped onto Colt’s cheek.

“Oh…” Taz breathed, and came, coating Colt’s fingers and belly with semen. His eyes stayed open, locked with Colt’s, and the depth of feeling there sent Colt tumbling over the edge. He came deep inside Taz, staring into those eyes that he loved so much.

Taz lifted up, letting Colt’s softening prick slip out of him. Colt drew Taz silently into his arms, and Taz went without hesitation, resting his head on Colt’s chest and slinging a slender leg over his thighs. Colt didn’t care that they were both sticky with spunk and sweat. He’d watched Taz come undone, something no other human being had ever witnessed, and now his love lay warm and sated in his arms. He smiled, blissfully happy in this one perfect moment.

“Mars,” Taz mumbled, tucking an arm around Colt’s waist.

“Hm?” Colt stroked Taz’s bare back, fingertips following the crisscrossing pattern of whip scars. “What about Mars?”

“We can go there.” Taz wriggled a little, tucking his head under Colt’s chin and planting a soft kiss on his throat. “The newsfeed said they’re growing crops there now. There’s families and towns and stuff. Plenty of room to disappear.”

Mars. The first planet to be terraformed. Colt had seen pictures on the newsfeed. It looked like paradise, green and blue and alive. So different from Hell’s End where he’d spent the past decade of his life, or the domes on Pluto where he’d been born and spent his early childhood. What would it be like, he wondered, to breathe air that hadn’t been recycled a thousand times? To feel the sunshine on your face and the free wind in your hair?

“Okay,” Colt said, leaving for the moment the question of how they were to get there. “We’ll go to Mars.”

Taz hummed and curled tighter around Colt, his body already relaxing into sleep. Colt kissed Taz’s hair and let his eyes drift closed. Whatever tomorrow held for them, at least they had this. Right then, he couldn’t bring himself to care about anything else.

*****

Colt jolted awake. He lay staring at the ceiling, every sense on alert. Someone’s here, he thought. He tried to scan the room without letting on that he was awake. Maybe he could take the intruder by surprise.

The stealthy scuff of a soft-soled boot sounded from the inky shadows beside the door. A piece of darkness detached itself and slinked toward the bed, and with a shock of fear Colt knew that Sorensen’s people had come for them.

Taz didn’t make a sound, but Colt felt him wake. As carefully as he could, Colt squeezed Taz’s hand where it lay across his chest. Taz tapped Colt’s palm once with his index finger, paused, then tapped twice. The signal meant that Taz would take out the person stalking toward them in the dark, and Colt would be ready to take down any others. Colt squeezed Taz’s hand again, indicating that he understood.

The shadow crept closer. Colt watched from under barely-opened lids. A black-clad arm reached out, and Taz struck. Quicker than thought, he clamped a hand onto the person’s wrist, using the leverage to pull his would-be attacker down and kick them in the throat. The intruder gurgled and collapsed, writhing on the floor, and all hell broke loose.

The door burst open, letting in the dim light from the hallway. Easily a dozen people in black poured into the room. Colt growled and surged to his feet. Their attackers had clearly wanted to take them by surprise. Kill them in their sleep. Colt smiled grimly as his fist connected with someone’s jaw. They clearly knew nothing at all about Taz if they’d thought they’d take him – or Colt – that easily.

They fought grimly, but they were naked, unarmed and outnumbered. There was only one way it could end. Colt knew it and he knew Taz knew it. A strange sort of peace seeped into Colt’s mind. So this is how we die, he mused. It could be worse.

“Oh, what, you assholes want some of this?” Taz shouted. “Not even if you paid me!”

Colt glanced over and was stunned to see two men and one of the women from before lunging at Taz, trying to lay hands on him. They appeared to be attempting not to kill him, but to capture him. Colt blinked, then turned just in time to kick a stunner out of the hand of the man behind him.

A gasp and a sudden stillness from Taz’s direction made Colt turn around again, just in time to see Taz pull a small dart out of his neck. Taz staggered, shook his head and collapsed into the arms of one of the women as Colt watched.

“Taz!” Colt easily threw off the man who’d grabbed him from behind and leapt to Taz’s side. He ignored the people seething around him, all trying to take him down. All he could see anymore was Taz’s white face and limp body, carelessly slung over the woman’s massive shoulder. Taz’s lips were tinged blue, and for a heart-stopping second Colt thought he was dead.

Everything went still and silent. Colt forgot to breathe in the horror of that moment. Then Taz’s chest hitched in the slightest of breaths, and the world started to move again.

Colt lunged and grabbed the woman’s arm in an iron grip as she turned to leave. A pop and whistle sounded to his left, but he ignored it, all his energy focused on stopping the bitch who was trying to take Taz from him.

“Don’t you fucking touch him,” Colt growled, putting every bit of menace he could summon into the command.

The woman didn’t answer. Hands grabbed at Colt, pulling him away. He struggled free, lunged for the woman’s retreating figure, staggered and fell. It wasn’t until that moment that he noticed the bright, aching pain in his left thigh and realized he’d been shot.

He started to push to his feet and run after the woman who was carrying Taz out the door. Then inspiration struck. He rolled his eyes back and let his body go limp, dropping to the floor.

Feet shuffled toward him. He concentrated, forcing his heartbeat and breathing to slow to a crawl the way Taz had taught him.

“Is he dead?” a voice asked.

Someone’s fingers pressed against his neck. Not long enough, thankfully. “Yeah. Must’ve been a heart attack or something, your shot only hit his leg.” The fingers went away, and Colt felt the person rise. “Let’s go. The boss is getting impatient.”

A rough laugh to Colt’s right. “The twins better thank their lucky stars that L’arisian didn’t want this one anymore. He’s gonna be like nothing they’ve ever had. Those two ain’t used to having a toy with any spirit left.”

“I don’t want to fucking know,” a woman’s voice growled. “They give me the creeps.”

“Let’s get the fuck out of here!” The man sounded half panicked. “We’ll get the whip or worse if we’re not back soon. If the Ortegas don’t catch us first, that is.”

Colt heard the scurrying of boots across the floor, then the door slammed and silence descended.

Colt let his heartbeat and breathing return to normal, scrambled rather unsteadily to his feet and immediately started pulling his clothes on. A sense of urgency like he’d never known prodded him. Etienne L’arisian had betrayed them. He’d sold Taz to Lorena Sorensen’s sadistic twin children, and given her people license to kill Colt.

He couldn’t find it in himself to care that he had been so expendable. All he could think of was getting Taz back before the twins got hold of him. He’d seen one of their victims once, when he was twelve. The vision of the body, horribly tortured and mutilated, had haunted his dreams for years. The twins had only been seventeen at the time.

Colt pulled his boots on and headed for the door. Then stopped. He knelt on the floor and searched through Taz’s clothes until he found Taz’s knife and the little syringe of poison. He pocketed both weapons, stepped over the still body of the man Taz had killed and slipped silently out the door.

*****

He wasn’t sure how long he followed the people who’d taken Taz. He trailed them all the way back down to level five, keeping to the shadows, his feet sure and silent. The wound in his leg didn’t appear to be serious, but the injury to the muscle slowed him down and he’d lost a fair amount of blood. By the time the group entered a huge, forbidding structure that had to be the Sorensen mansion, Colt’s heart was racing and his breath coming short.

Crouching in the shelter of a grotesque statue outside the building, Colt considered his options. Every cell in his body screamed at him to charge inside, snatch Taz and run like hell. But he knew that to do so would be hopeless. If he could have taken on all of them, he would have done it back in the apartment. He couldn’t. There were too many of them. He’d have to use stealth instead of muscle.

Reaching into the back pocket of his pants, Colt drew out the small pair of multi-purpose lenses. He slipped them on and adjusted the magnification. A tiny blue light beside the front door told him what sort of system protected the mansion. Colt swore under his breath. Lorena Sorensen had always seemed too megalomaniacal to invest in the most high-tech, foolproof security system available.

Doesn’t matter, Colt thought with grim determination. I’ll find a way in. I’ll die before I’ll leave him there.

Sweeping the imposing face of the structure with his lenses, Colt found himself hoping that he managed to live long enough to get Taz out.

*****

Nearly twelve hours later, having investigated every possible way in, Colt leaned wearily against the station wall behind the mansion. He’d been hoping to find a window that he could open by disabling the security system, or simply break, but that hope had been quickly dashed. The windows were made of the latest glass-plastic hybrid, a perfectly transparent compound with the tensile strength of steel. Nothing could break them. The ones that actually opened, as well as all of the doors, required a DNA sample scraped from the skin plus a voice scan and a password.

He might be able to overpower someone for the DNA sample, but he knew he’d never be able to force Sorensen’s staff and slaves to give the voice command or the password. They were far more afraid of their mistress than they’d ever be of him.

Colt eyed the small, unassuming door that opened onto the back alley where he crouched behind a discarded box. He’d seen several people leave in the time he’d been watching the door. So far, no one had entered that way, but the faintly glowing touchpad beside the door combined with the number of staff who clearly used that entrance made him suspect that this was the weak point in Sorensen’s defenses.

As he watched, a group of girls in crisp white uniforms approached the door from the other end of the alley. One of the girls pressed her thumb to the touchpad. A dull red beam shot out from an aperture above the pad, directly into the girl’s eye. A moment later, the door slid open and the girl entered. The other staff members went through the same process each in turn.

Colt grinned as the last girl went inside and the door closed behind her. This door worked on a combination of thumbprint and retinal scan. He wouldn’t need a conscious or cooperative victim to get in. All he had to do was wait.

That turned out to be more difficult than he’d ever imagined. Having finally found his way in, Colt practically vibrated with impatience. The need to find his lover was so intense it hurt. With nothing to do but wait for someone to approach the door alone, Colt couldn’t help imagining the things Taz might be enduring. The Sorensen twins, Lorelei and Orlando, had a reputation for cruelty surpassing even that of their mother. Colt’s hands twitched, aching for action.

Colt was on the verge of charging the door and trying to break it down with brute strength when he heard whistling. He went still, concentrating all his energy on the sound. A second later, a young man appeared, strolling toward the door. With a shock, Colt recognized one of the men who’d taken Taz.

Colt didn’t wait any longer. He slid along the wall, keeping to the shadows. Just as the young man reached for the touchpad, Colt leapt on him. He wrapped one muscular arm around the young man’s throat and held both his wrists in the other hand, immobilizing him.

“You brought a man in here earlier today,” Colt said softly. “You were taking him to the twins. Where is he?”

The boy’s throat worked against Colt’s arm as he swallowed. “I don’t know,” he gasped.

Colt tightened his grip. “You’re lying. I saw you there when you took him. Tell me where he is, or I’ll kill you.” The threat rolled easily off of Colt’s tongue. He didn’t want to consider whether or not he actually meant it.

To his surprise, the boy laughed, the sound tight and wheezing. “If I tell you, she’ll give me to the twins.”

Colt took a deep breath, forcing himself to stay calm and think. He knew the young man was right. What was more, he’d no doubt get the same answer from anyone else he managed to catch. And time was running out. The longer he stood here, the more chance he had of being caught himself. Which left him with very little choice.

He was going to have to be scarier than Lorena Sorensen and the twins, something he would’ve never thought possible.

Summoning every ounce of menace he possessed, Colt let go of the boy’s arms, drew Taz’s knife and shoved the tip into the young man’s groin. The razor-sharp weapon sliced through the synthetic leather like it wasn’t even there. Colt felt the change in texture and resistance when metal met flesh. He tried not to flinch when his captive yelped and jerked in his grip.

“Tell me where he is,” Colt demanded in his coldest voice, “or I’ll cut your fucking balls off.”

In a startlingly quick move, the young man twisted out of Colt’s grip and scampered out of reach. Time seemed to slow down. Colt watched with a detached calm as the man lunged toward the door. Clearly he hadn’t believed Colt’s threats, and with that, Colt had only one choice left. There was no room for doubt, no time to mourn the loss of the last hoarded piece of his innocence. Taz’s life was on the line, and Colt would stop at nothing to save him.

When Colt threw Taz’s knife, embedding it in his enemy’s throat, his only regret was that he still didn’t know where to find Taz.

Colt caught the young man before he hit the ground. Resting the back of the dying man’s head against his own forehead, he took a still-twitching hand in his and pressed the thumb against the touchpad. He shut his eyes and held his breath, hoping the man’s eyes would stay open until the retinal scan finished.

A soft chime sounded and the door slid quietly open. Colt shuffled inside, dragging his victim with him. The young man’s weak struggling and tortured gurgles had stopped altogether by the time Colt got them away from the door and around the corner into what looked like a storage room.

He yanked Taz’s knife free and dropped the body on the floor. A moment’s searching turned up a towel, which he used to clean the knife. He refused to look at the dead man’s face as he left the room and went to find Taz.

The task of finding his lover kept him from brooding over his first deliberate kill. The place was huge, a vast maze of zigzagging hallways leading to unexpected places: a tiny, bare bedroom, a luxurious meeting area, a training room full of weapons. So many others that they soon began to blur together, and every one of them empty. Colt was glad of it, but the brooding quiet unnerved him.

He first heard the murmur of voices as he crept up the stairs to the third floor. A man’s voice, followed by a high-pitched female laugh that sent cold chills shooting down Colt’s spine.

The twins.

Moving quickly yet silently, Colt followed the voices down a short corridor to a black metal door which stood partway open. His heart thundered against his ribs, the blood coursing hot and fierce through his veins. The pain in his injured thigh faded to a dull ache, lost in the sudden surge of adrenaline. He sidled up to the metal door and peered inside.

He’d expected it, but nothing could have truly prepared him. Taz hung by his wrists from chains set in the ceiling, his toes barely touching the floor. He was naked, his slight body limp in his bonds. Blood trickled down the insides of his thighs, shockingly bright against his pale skin. Numerous tiny cuts covered his chest and stomach. They were an ugly purple-red and badly swollen. Telltale white crystals told Colt that the wounds had been rubbed with salt.

Pocketing the knife, Colt rushed forward and lifted Taz gently in his arms. Taz’s eyes shot open, his body tensing. He went perfectly still when he focused on Colt.

“Colt?” he whispered. “What… how did you…”

“You didn’t think I’d leave you here, did you?” Colt pressed a kiss to Taz’s lips. “Where are the twins? I heard voices.”

“There’s another room back there.” Taz nodded toward a closed door in the back of the room. “They went in there to rest and eat. If you’d shown up a few seconds earlier, they would’ve caught you too.”

Colt ran his gaze over the length of sturdy chain, now puddling on Taz’s belly. “How do I get these things off you?”

Taz lifted his bound hands. “The cuffs have a clip that attaches to the chain. I think they were afraid to unchain my hands long enough to move me anywhere.” He glanced toward the closed door, then back to Colt. “Hurry.”

“Can you stand up?” Colt tried not to see the flinching horror hiding behind Taz’s cold eyes. He couldn’t focus on that right now, or they’d never get out.

Taz nodded. “Yeah. Just… just let me lean on you for a minute, okay?”

Colt swallowed. As gently as he could, he set Taz on his feet. Taz sucked in a breath, but held his own weight. He leaned against Colt’s chest, his sweat-matted curls resting on Colt’s shoulder. He lifted his cuffed wrists without a word. Colt found the clip, flipped it open and let the chain drop.

“What about the cuffs?” Colt wondered.

“Key’s hanging on the wall there,” Taz answered, eyes darting between the room where the twins lurked and the open door of his prison.

Taking Taz with him, Colt shuffled across the room, snagged the key and unlocked the cuffs. Taz tossed them aside as if they burned him.

“Come on,” Taz said, rubbing his red and swollen wrists. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Oh, but you’ve only just arrived,” a feminine voice lilted. “And we have another guest, how lovely!”

Colt turned toward the door in the back of the room. Lorelei and Orlando Sorensen stood there, masculine and feminine mirror images, tall and beautiful and terrifying.

Instantly, Taz sprang away from Colt and into a fighting stance. He radiated cold, confident menace, but Colt knew better. He’d felt the fine tremor in Taz’s body, seen the fear glaze his eyes. That, more than anything else, sent anger flooding like a red tide through Colt’s brain. These two spoiled, sadistic little bastards – literally, if the rumors were true – – couldn’t be allowed to put that look in Taz’s eyes and live.

For the first time in his life, the thought of killing made him glad.

“I’ll kill you both,” Taz said, very softly.

Lorelei’s bell-like laughter rang through the room. “Of course you will. You and your lover.” She turned her ice-blue gaze to Colt, smiling appreciatively as she looked him up and down. “Did you kill Ross? Mother called us just now and said one of the downstairs staff found him in the pantry. She thought we did it.”

Orlando’s lips curved into a sadistic smile. “As if we’d use such unrefined methods.”

“Or stoop to using Mother’s goons when we have such a nice new plaything.” Lorelei shook her head sadly. “Pity. We were training Ross in the art of torture. He was coming along nicely.”

Taz shot a quick, shocked look at Colt. “Colt?”

He nodded. “Had to.”

“Oh. Fuck.” Sorrow flashed through Taz’s eyes, swiftly replaced by a fine, hot fury. Deadly gaze fixed on the twins, Taz held his hand out.

Colt knew instantly what Taz wanted. He slapped the knife into Taz’s outstretched palm. Taz threw the weapon with a quick flick of his wrist, and it hit its mark with a thunk. Lorelei gasped and dropped to her knees, fingers closing over the knife handle sticking out of her chest.

Orlando let out a wail and rushed at Taz. Colt met him halfway, caught his wrist and threw the smaller man to the ground. He knelt on Orlando’s back, twisting his arm behind him. The bones broke with a loud crack. Orlando shrieked, writhing under Colt’s weight.

Taz leapt forward and grabbed Lorelei by the hair, pulling her head back to expose a long expanse of graceful white neck. He wrestled his knife from between her ribs and pressed it beneath her chin. Blood trickled from under the point, winding down to join the red river pulsing from the hole in her chest.

Colt barely heard Taz when he spoke, but he knew what Taz was saying. Those blue eyes held his, wide open and blazing with all the things they never said to each other.

“This,” Taz murmured in Lorelei’s ear as he slowly slit her throat, “is for Colt. For what he had to do to rescue me.” Lorelei clawed at her throat, eyes impossibly wide. Taz didn’t even blink as the blade dug deeper, sending a red geyser spraying across the floor. “I wish there was a hell, so you could suffer forever the way you deserve.”

A horrible gurgling whistle filled the room. Colt’s stomach rolled, but he refused to look away. Not this time. Not ever again. Lorelei thrashed for a few more seconds, then went still. Colt watched the spark go out of her eyes, and was glad. Under Colt’s leg, Orlando had stopped squirming and lay crying silently. Colt shook his head, disgusted. The man was nothing but a coward.

“Give me the knife,” Colt said as Taz staggered toward him.

Taz’s eyes flicked to Orlando’s face, then back up to meet Colt’s gaze. When he spoke, his voice held an unfamiliar note of tenderness. “You don’t have to.”

“I want to,” Colt answered, and meant it. He let go of Orlando’s broken arm and held his hand out. “Give me the knife.”

Taz stared at him. Colt stared back, letting Taz see his resolve. Everything had changed now. There was no going back, and no point in regrets. After a long, still moment, Taz laid the knife in Colt’s hand.

“I’m sorry, Colt,” he whispered.

“Don’t be.” Colt yanked Orlando’s head up by the hair and held the knife poised over his neck. He bent down, putting his mouth near Orlando’s ear.

“Your sister died for me,” he said in a calm, measured voice. “You’re dying for Taz. To pay for making him look like that.”

“What?” Orlando whimpered. “Look like what?”

Haunted, Colt thought. Hurt. Afraid. Like he’ll wake up screaming every night for the rest of his life. But he couldn’t say it, not with Taz right there, shaking and bleeding and trying so hard to hold onto his icy, pitiless mask.

“You’re not fit to breathe the same air as Taz,” Colt said, and killed Orlando with a swift slice of the knife.

Orlando gurgled and went limp in his grasp. Blood spilled hot and thick over his hand, the smell of it mixing with the sudden sharp tang of urine as Orlando’s bladder let go. He wiped his hand on Orlando’s shirt, then cleaned the knife as best he could with an unstained corner of cloth.

He rose to his feet and stood contemplating his handiwork. His second murder in less than an hour. He thought he should feel something about that, pain or regret or… something. Anything. But he didn’t. All he felt was relief that Taz was still alive, and a fierce, grim joy that his tormenters weren’t.

“Colt?”

He raised his head to meet Taz’s gaze. Taz’s face was paper white, his eyes just a little too wide. Without a word, Colt reached out and pulled Taz into his arms. Taz pressed his cheek to Colt’s chest and let Colt hold him. His skin felt cool and damp under Colt’s hands.

“Let’s get out of here,” Colt said. “We have to find someplace safe and find a doctor or something. Maybe one of the girls down at Miss Mary’s knows somebody who can help, the spacers are always knocking ’em around after they’re done, they can-”

“No,” Taz said sharply. “No doctors.”

“But you’re hurt.” Colt ran his hands carefully down Taz’s bare back. Taz hissed and went tense when Colt’s fingers gently stroked his buttocks. Colt fought down a surge of pain and sorrow and pure blind anger. “Fuck, Taz, what’d they do to you?”

A violent shudder ran through Taz’s body. His fingers clutched Colt’s shirt. “Don’t ask me that. Just… just clean the wounds and don’t ask. Please.”

“Okay,” Colt promised, though it hurt to say it. “C’mon, let’s find you some clothes and get the fuck out of here.”

Taz let go of Colt and stood gazing up at him as if he wanted to say something and didn’t know how. He shook his head, took his knife from Colt’s hand, and walked a bit unsteadily toward the back room where the twins had been before. Colt followed him, one eye on the other door.

The room was small but plush, furnished with a huge bed, an old-fashioned wardrobe, and an overstuffed sofa. Taz opened the wardrobe, rummaged around for a moment and pulled out a pair of soft red leather pants and a long-sleeved black shirt. He pulled them on. The bottoms of the pants dragged the floor and the shirt sleeves hung several inches past his fingers, but he was no longer naked and his injuries were covered. They could walk around in public without drawing undue attention, which was all that really mattered.

Taking Colt’s hand in his, Taz led the way through the torture chamber and out into the hallway. Colt kept his eyes moving, expecting at any moment to be greeted by Lorena Sorensen or some of her muscle. But as before, the place was eerily empty and silent. Colt couldn’t help wondering where the girls in the crisp white uniforms had gone.

They made it all the way to the back door where Colt had entered without seeing a soul. They glanced at each other and ran to the door. Taz thumbed it open. On the other side stood the two women who’d nearly gotten them in the Inferno, another lifetime ago.

Colt whirled around, Taz’s hand still in his, ready to run for the front door. Lorena Sorensen stood there, smiling beatifically at him, and he felt his last hope die.

“Surely you didn’t think you could simply waltz in here, kill my children, steal their toy, and waltz right back out again?” She swayed towards him, still smiling. Her eyes gleamed with a mad light.

Colt didn’t need to turn around to know that the two women behind him were preparing to take him and Taz both. He steeled himself for a fight, however hopeless it might be.

Then he remembered the syringe.

In a flash, Colt had moved behind Lorena Sorensen and grabbed her around the throat with one hand while pulling the syringe out of his pocket with the other. She struggled, but he was bigger and stronger and absolutely determined. He pulled the cap off the syringe with his teeth and plunged the needle into the side of her neck.

“Back the fuck off, now!” he bellowed at Sorensen’s women. “Or I shoot your boss full of poison!”

The two women stopped, wide eyes flitting between Colt and their mistress. “Do as he says,” Lorena said, sounding remarkably calm.

She didn’t believe he’d kill her. Fine with him. She’d find out.

“We’re going,” Colt growled. “And we’re taking this piece of shit with us. You two are gonna wait one hour, then come to the Inferno. She’ll be there. Got it?”

The two women glanced at each other, then turned identical questioning gazes to their boss.

“Do it,” Lorena said, and the two moved aside.

Colt smiled grimly to himself as he dragged Lorena through the door. Lorena’s people were obviously afraid to move a muscle without their mistress’s say-so. Perfect.

Taz took the lead once they were out of the house. Flitting from one bit of cover to the next, he led them across the level to a rarely-used lift. They rode in silence, going up. They stepped out into a noisy crowd on level twenty-seven, the one just below the Star Dome. Thankfully, none of the throng seemed to take any notice of the strange trio, most of them too high on Rapture or homemade liquor to care.

“This way,” Taz said, motioning Colt forward through the crowd. “I know a place we can go.”

“But… but the Inferno!” Lorena gasped. Her face was grayish and beaded with sweat. “You said…”

“Shut up,” Colt ordered, pushing the needle deeper into her neck.

She shut up. Colt hauled her bodily along, following Taz into the narrow space behind a public toilet. Dark stains covered the walls and floor, and the air reeked of urine and worse things.

“You have to take me to the Inferno!” Lorena insisted, sounding panicked now.

Taz fixed her with a cold look. “You didn’t believe we’d kill you. That was a mistake.” His eyes met Colt’s. “Colt?”

He knew what Taz was asking. But he no longer needed Taz to protect him. He didn’t know how to feel about that, and he didn’t want to think about it.

“I’m okay,” he said.

Taz nodded, accepting Colt’s decision. Still looking into Taz’s eyes, Colt pushed down the plunger. Lorena keened and struggled in his grip. Colt dropped her onto the dirty ground, yanked the syringe out of her neck and tossed it behind a pile of trash a few feet away.

“You have five minutes,” he told her. “I hope it fucking hurts.”

They left the filthy alleyway hand in hand, without looking back. They didn’t talk; there was nothing to say.

Colt followed Taz without asking where they were going. He thought he could guess. When the docks came into view, Colt knew he was right.

“How do we get on board?” he asked, staring through the huge viewports at the enormous starship hovering on the other side of the airlock.

“The chief engineer owes me one. I saved her ass in a bar fight once.”

“You’re sure she’ll help us?”

“She’ll help.” Taz turned his intense blue gaze to Colt. “We’re going to Mars, Colt. We’ll never have to see this fucking place again.”

Colt had daydreamed for years of going into the Black. But in the end, it was only a vague dream of escape. Mars was a whole new life. A chance to start over. It sounded good.

“We’ll get work there,” Colt said softly. “Save up some money. Buy us a little place somewhere, out where there’re trees and rivers and not another soul for miles around. Grow our own food. Live off the land.”

“We don’t know how to grow stuff, Colt. We don’t know how to do anything.”

“Doesn’t matter. We’ll learn.”

Taz laughed, and Colt wondered if he’d ever heard that note of childlike excitement in Taz’s voice before. Rising on tiptoe, Taz wound his arms around Colt’s neck and lifted his face.

The kiss was soft and sweet and full of promise. Colt cradled the back of Taz’s head in one palm, keeping the other hand protectively around his waist. When they pulled apart, Taz sagged in Colt’s arms, pain creasing his brow.

“Let’s go find your engineer friend,” Colt said. “I want to get you on board and settled. I need to see how badly you’re hurt.”

“It’s not so bad,” Taz said softly. “They’d barely gotten started on the torture. They’d been spending most of their time trying to scare me. Wanted me to beg for my life or something, I guess.”

“Did it work?” Colt asked, knowing the answer already.

Taz arched an eyebrow. “What do you think?”

“I think you probably pissed them off pretty bad by not breaking down the way they wanted you to.” Colt ran a finger down Taz’s cheek. “I think it’s a good thing I found you when I did.”

“I think you’re right.”

Colt gazed at the starship, then turned a thunderous look toward the interior of the station. “L’arisian fucked us over, Taz. Sold you to those monsters, and told them to kill me. We can’t let him get away with that.”

Taz took both Colt’s hands in his, lacing their fingers together. “I’d love to rip his guts out and feed them to him. But we can’t. If we go back now, we’ll die there. It’s not worth it.”

“Not worth it?” Colt gaped at him. “After what he did to you?”

“I don’t want to die, Colt. I don’t want you to die. I want us to leave Hell’s End, together, and start over.”

Colt’s anger at Etienne L’arisian burned in his belly, but he knew Taz was right. They couldn’t have both their revenge and their new life. There was a choice to be made, and they both knew what the right choice was.

“Okay,” Colt said, stroking the backs of Taz’s hands with his thumbs. “You’re right. We’ll go to Mars, and forget all this.”

Taz stared up at him with a solemn expression. “Colt, I know I’ve never said so, but… but I….”

He trailed off, but Colt understood. The unspoken truth shone bright as starlight in Taz’s eyes. Colt leaned down and kissed him.

“I know,” Colt whispered. “I know.”