His breath was hot against her neck. “You want to be here, illiana. Tell me you don’t.”
“I don’t see where you have given me a choice.”
“You have a choice now. You don’t even flinch away from my touch.” His rough finger tips traces the outline of her shoulder as his hand slid down her arm. “Tell me you don’t want to be here.”
“I don’t want to be here.”
He chuckled then. “And mean it. Tell me that you want to be back at your sweet dinner parties batting you eyelashes at miner managers for ore processing plants. Tell me that your blood runs as hot for them as it does for me. Tell me Illiana. Lie to me.”
She woke alone. Illiana did not know if she welcomed or regretted that fact. By the time she made it across the room to the sink she decided that it was for the best. She passed her hand across the mirrors sensor. Her reflection faded into view. Large, blue eyes circled by dark rings of fatigue stared back at her. Her hair was unpinned and cascaded in a silver-gold flood around her shoulders and body. Irritated at the unfamiliar feel she pushed it out of her way and froze.
Under her left ear was a tattoo. If she were not so pale she might not have noticed it for it was still new and a pale grey. It started under her ear and swept across her neck. SHe twisted in the small mirror and saw that it crossed her beck as well.
He had branded her. She swallowed. Such a tattoo told its tale more vividly than the best story master. She did not know what it said. Cellular brands were triggered to change the skins pigmentation. That is why she had not noticed it until now. It would grow darker and darker each day. A reminder of where she had been. It cost a fortune to remove them. A fortune she did not have.
Nauseous, she pushed away from the sink. It was to strange. The soft, light weight fabric that she had to wear felt like wind against her skin. She missed the heavier, thicker fabric she had always worn. She shared a bed with someone. Each night she returned to it. To him. Heat flared across her cheeks as she pushed the thought back.
She had tried to escape at first. Once or twice she had tried the coms. It seemed futile. She had just accepted where she was. That she had no control. In a way, it had been fine when it was the two of them on the ship. She had even followed him onto a station. Jaya might have tried to escape then. She, Illiana, had just sat and hoped that he did not mean to sell her to one of the men that leered at her. To the ones that asked him how much he wanted for her after he tired of her.
The arrival at the station had been unexpected. He had escorted her through a maze of travel tubes and hallways and deposited her in this room. Here she had been for the last day. Alone in her thoughts and confusion. They had eaten together. They had been together. Now, she was alone.
The ugly bleet of the door buzzer snapped her out of her thoughts. Illiana stared at the door. The buzzer sounded again. The sound jerked her to her feet and towards the door. It was impolite not to answer. She keyed open the door, which to her surprise opened.. It slid back to reveal a slender, golden skinned women with large almond shaped eyes. A splash of freckles was startling against her skin but Illiana found herself staring into the white, opaque orbs of the woman’s eyes. “I am Salia. I came to find you.” Her voice held a soft accent that Illiana did not recognize. She was not Amarr or Minmatar but something else. Pale green fabric draped her body like dozens of exotic scarves that created a swirl with each breath.
The woman smiled. It transformed her expression to something soft and wondrous. “Yes,” she said. “I felt you arrive. I don’t always find you in time. I am glad I have met you. Come.” She held out a hand. Illiana looked at her, paused and then reached out to accept the gesture. Staci’s hand was warm and strong as she wrapped her fingers around Illiana’s and pulled her from the room. “There is not always enough time, my child. Come.”
Illiana followed. Her perspective of the station had been limited to Kruul’s room. Now, Staci led her into a small hallway that opened up into a broad open atrium. It swept both up and down, the center anchored with travel tubes. Illiana followed as Salia led her into one of the tubes.
“Where are we going?”
“To eat.” Salia’s grip was firm but gentle. “I am sure that he had not thought to feed you or that you would not know where or how to find food. Men are often forgetful in their own homes.”
They stepped into the tube. For a moment she had the same feeling she always had with tubes, that she would fall. However, the gravity unit caught them and she found herself moving up even as she felt that she was standing still. People flickered past in other tubes. Illiana lost track of how many levels they had passed when they came to a smooth stop and Salia pulled her out.
They were in an obvious common area. It teamed with people. Many nodded to Salia. Some looked at Illiana in curiosity or with knowing interest. They threaded their way through the people. Some were dressed as Salia in a swirling mist of fabric while others wore so little that Illiana cast her eyes down in shocked embarrassment. She was relieved when Salia pulled her through a door and into a small dining area. Never had a food processor looked so familiar and safe.
Some of the options Illiana had never seen before. She picked a simple bowl of soup and a small roll from the basket that sat besides the processor. Salia gathered a plate of fruit and led her to a table. The soup was delicious and Illiana had eaten half of it before she was able to slow and ask some of the questions that ran around her frantic, overwrought mind. “Who are all of the people?”
“Some would call us the lost. We are the unlabeled. The unknown. The remnants of people left behind and people conquered. The children of slaves and their masters. The lost crew that will never make it home. We are none of the Empires and all of them at the same time.”
“Do you think that the entire universe is only composed of your four empires,” ashed a warm rich voice. Illiana turned to stare up at a tall, dark skinned woman. Her white hair flowed around her shoulders, accenting the rich chocolate sheen of her skin. Her voice was like velvet laced with venom and her eyes hard as she stared at Illiana. “Why are you here?”
“Because, I brought her here, Cylan” Salia said. “She does not know where to come for food.”
“Then let her starve.”
“As we should have let you starve?” Green eyes met opaque white. Cylan dropped her gaze first. She was uncowed and Illiana found herself trapped in a poisonous green gaze. A flash of green fabric flickered between them as Salia stood. “Go, Cylan. Control your anger.”
The other woman looked as if she wanted to object. Her full lips tightened and she turned on her heel and left the room. Salia watched her leave, her expression sad. She slid back into her seat and picked up a piece of bread. “Cylan has had dreams. Dreams I have not been able to quench with the cold waters of reality.”
“She hates me.”
“She hates that she does not have her way. The two are not the same. You cannot make yourself Cylan’s way. She is a strong, brave woman. She will recover and perhaps, she will now be able to see that Kruul is not for her. All the wanting in the galaxy does not make what is not to be, be.”
“Why did Kruul bring me here, Salia? I don’t understand it.”
“Oh child,” Salia’s voice was deep with sadness. “Do you see this pull between you? Even I can see it. You are called to him as he is called to you.”
“Is it? Do you love him?” Illiana started. Did she? She didn’t even know him. A few chance meetings. He was the one infatuated with her. He had stolen her. But, the rational side of her made herself ask, what had she done to try to get away? She sat here, an empty bowl of soup before her, with what seemed to be complete freedom and she had no desire to flee. She looked up at S alia and back down at her hands. Nor did she wish to admit that she wanted to see him.
Salia’s eyes softened. “If you loved him, you could answer yes or no. Love is the richest passion and the deepest loss. Don’t answer. You will only say what you think you should say and not what you mean.” Illiana found her hand caught up once again and she was led out of the small dining area.
“‘Pleasure Hub,’ is a label attached to us by those that spend their time labeling and controlling,’ Salia said as they looked down over the meadow. “These are not stations visited by the immortals. Their ships cannot dock here. Their computers do not interface with our own. The labelers, your empire, hates us for not laying down in neat rows.”
“What is the universe? Men try to condense it into neat, practical numbers. Yet, it eludes them time after time. Who is to say what exists? How time is defined? If things are not meant to always find each other? If you like science child, you should know that they say everything is composed of the same things in different ways. Why should not that affect us? Because we wish to define it? To define is not to control. It is just to seek understanding. And the seeking of understanding? It does not grant us understanding no more than labels do.”
A peal of laughter caught the attention of both women. A child ran across the meadow to join into the play in the sand. His mother walked behind him, a basket cradled in her arms. The other women called out greetings. To Illiana, they did not look like slaves.
“We are not slaves,” Salia said. “Although that is another label given to us. Because we do not walk the paths made by the labelers they give us yet another label. These children have never known empire space. They have no number, no label to tell them who they are.” Illiana watched the small group play in the sand. A flock of birds whistled and sang as they flew over head. “None are Kruul’s,” Salia said. “He had never been able to settle down with one woman long enough to father a child.”
“I didn’t ask such a thing!”
“Was it not in your thoughts?” Illiana’s blush was an answer. “He is considered a leader here and many women would wish to father his children but he had always held himself back. He is the one that arranges the work that brings the money needed to keep our waypoint alive.” Salia touched her arm. “Child, this is the home you have been looking for just as you are the woman he has been looking for. We are all caught in the circle of existence, bound to always be part of something. For you, this pull is stronger. It always brings you back to him and him to you.”
Illiana watched the children play in the grass below. Salia allowed her the peace of her own mind. If only the other woman knew that peace was not what she felt in the buzzing swirl of confused emotions. It was only after the children ended their play and their mother’s collected the remains of the lunch that Illiana followed Salia back out into the station.
Salia reacted before the sirens began to blare. The woman leapt forward and grabbed Illiana by the arm. They were at a flat out run before Illiana heard the first raid siren scream. For an instant, as they ran, everyone was still. Illiana watched faces flash by. Wide eyed shock. Astonishment. Fear. It all flickered by as Salia ran and she followed before, like a burst dam, people began to move.
There should have been screams, she thought. Instead there was the sound of her own stressed breath. The rasp of fabric against skin as they ran. Illiana did not have breath to question. She stayed on her feet as they fled through hallways. It was Salia who caught her as the first salvos slammed into the station and knocked them off their feet.
Illiana skid across the floor and slammed into the wall. The pain was brief and instant. She believed that she screamed but she was again on her feet. Salia moving the two of them into narrower corridors. They stooped, Illiana wheezed a grateful breath. She saw Salia’s face. Sorrow. Tears.
“Salia?” she asked, reaching towards the other woman.
Salia caught her hands. She kissed her fingertips. “Remember what you know,” she said. Before Illiana could ask her what it meant Silia pushed her backwards. She fell. Forever. For an instant. Her gaze riveted by the low, green row of lights above her. The acceleration cocoon automatically activated and webs snapped around her body. The door closed and the acceleration of the escape pod slammed her into unconsciousness as it ejected from its rack.
Around her others pods activated. Dozens of them. Then hundreds. They flared into life and threw themselves away from the station. Away from certain death into the arms of probability.
Mar had not expected the sensor’s to trip as quickly as they did. But, again, his Raven was not a subtle ship. Energies poured from the engines as it dropped out of warp and landed near the edge of the pleasure hub. A response party was already on grid. Mar was amused at the motley fleet of frigates and cruisers that approached him. He launched a flight of combat drones into place even as the Raven’s vast launches began to cycle.
Behind the station, half a dozen battleships dropped into view. He angled his Raven around and ou. Torpedos streamed from the launches their energy flares streaks of brilliance across the darkness. Round after round roared from the Raven as the battleships, menacing in the right circumstances buckled and heaved from the onslaught. His drones destroyed the fighters and went after the cruisers as the Raven kept range and chewed away at the battleships.
He somehow didn’t notice the cruiser until it was ontop of him. The Raven’s shields dropped for a moment before he activated the booster. The shields shimmered and the energy knitted together as the onslaught spent its energies against themselves. The internal powerplant quickened until it reached a steady beat of power to reinforce the shields.
Kruul pulled away from the Raven as his shields faded. He pulled range fast. The combat drones had finished off his fleet. Hundreds of people that he knew were now dead. They had seen the Raven enter the system. He had tripled patrols the last few days. He knew they would come for Illiana.
The drones were after him as well. Only the shattered caracas of his ship would satiate them. His cruiser responded, arcing away in a smooth pattern to deflect the energies of the endless torpedos the Raven seemed to have. The entire ship must have been nothing but one massive torpedo bay it seemed.
Still, he distracted it. There was a small chance that they would be saved. One last trump card he had to play.
Mar didn’t expect the other Raven. It’s dark hull was invisible to his cameras. He did not need them. The overview told him everything he needed to know. Zor, the rogue capsuleer enjoyed murdering his fellows. A pure pirate that even the pirates no longer associated with.
But he had been to long away. Mar switched his torpedo types and activated his microjump drive. His Raven’s drive spooled up as he launched as heavy offensive attack at Zor. The drones harried the other cruiser causing it to take range. Range that he needed to destroy it.
Capsuleer to casuleer it would be. He banked the Raven and ignored the swarm of support ships. He’d pick them off as he needed to. Zor was his only rival. However, the problem with becoming an outcast meant that Zor didn’t keep up with technology. His Raven was old. His skills were antiquated and his ammunition amusing.
Mar’s jumpdrive ignited and his ship skipped a hundred thousand kilometers away. Zor’s torpedoes extinguished at where Mar had been. The other Raven was out of position and Mar used that to his advantage. He threw his ship to the side and launched salvo after salvo at the other ship. It buckled and twisted the shields shooting sparks of prismatic light as energies tore through them and stripped long slices of dark armor off of the hull.
Mar knew his Raven. He knew it from one side to the other. Zor had picked the wrong ship to do battle with. His evasive maneuvers were ineffective. His defenses inadequate to the fight. His support ships drained their capacitor reserves as they tried to reach Mar and instead found themselves plucked off one by one.
He was calmer than he expected as Zor’s Raven exploded. His own ship, crippled, was alone. His fleet was gone. His friend was gone. Gasses and flames gouted from his home and the capsuleer paid to destroy him launched another volley of torpedos.
It was astonishing how easily he accepted his loss. He should never have taken Illiana. He knew that. In one singular moment of passionate emotion he had doomed thousands of people to their death.
But he had no regrets.
Even as the last missiles ripped through the splintered armor of his shields and exploded in a ball of pure, nuclear fusion, he thought only of Illiana and the sweet scent of her hair as his ship was obliterated.
The final missiles did not find their target. They trailed and died in the cold darkness. Mar didn’t notice. The hub shattered under the onslaught of his ship. Escape pods puffed out. Brilliant bursts of energy as they launched into the darkness. Distress signals sounded as one by one he captured each pod and scanned the contents.
It took a moment to find what they were looking for. Once he was sure that the pod contained Illiana Damsel he finished off the hub. It shattered, a brilliant burst of energy that flared out burning matter. It reflected off the dark, matte of his hull as the Raven banked as he fed it a new series of coordinates.
Other information came to him. The chill flickers of probes tastes his shields. They read his ship signature. Four of them. Combat probes. His own directional scanner was quiet. He knew better than to trust it. Better than beliving he was alone in the unrelenting darkness.
“Scoop the loot,” Mar ordered his crew. “Tend to our cargo and get secured. We’re being scanned down by some pirates. Time to bail.”
Pain woke her up. It drove away the comfortable darkness of sleep. She shuddered once and stilled. She hurt. It soaked through her body and radiated out. She could not say where the pain came from or what kind it was. It was persuasive and as she clung to the painfree darkness it pushed it away and demanded that she acknowledge it.
“The light is down,” someone said. “Open your eyes. I want to make sure that they are working.”
Illiana let her eyes open with reluctance. It required a moment of thought to remember what to do. Darkness was stripped away and she blinked until color resolved into a concerned, brown face above her. She took a deep breath it hurt as if she was unfamiliar with breathing. The sharp, medical scent of healing gel filled her mouth and nose. She coughed and took another breath and a third as she remembered something she had always known.
“Good. Hello. I am Dr. Halemel. Welcome back to the land of awareness.” He pulled back from her field of view. “I had the medvat remove that tattoo,” he continued. “The slave stamp had not fully integrated with your DNA. You should not need any further treatments to remove it. Also, we had to abort a fetus.” His voice was grim. “You can claim a full fertility certificate still as well as an exception clause from the priests.”
She didn’t care about her purity status. What fetus? From somewhere, she found her voice. “What happened?” Her voice sounded like rust and splinters.
“You managed to get into an escape pod somehow.” She remembered Staci’s face twisted in sorrow. “A few others managed but not many. Sadly, its not uncommon in those places.” Laughter as they dressed her tinkled through the empty air “But you were not secured upon ejection and you got banged up pretty badly as the pod’s AI got you out of there. The designers figure it’s my job to piece you back together and their job to get you here in the first place.”
“That is one dead bastard. You don’t have to worry about him again. We have already sent word to your father that you are safe and sound.”
“Oh.” Her eyes slid back closed. Darkness did not bring any relief. It did nothing to cool the burn that had ignited in her chest at the doctor’s words. She should have been glad. She should have been worried about her father. Yet, all she felt was the heat of the tears as they escaped her eyes and slid down her cheeks.
“Just know you are safe and going home. This is over. Sadly, some people can never escape from their pasts. Just rest. We’ll have you back to your father soon.”
Words did not come to her. In the darkness, behind her eyelids, Illiana mourned for the part of her soul she had just found and now lost again.