Once Upon A Time In Space
Click on image to enlarge.
by Heather Massey
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Science Fiction
Description: In the distant future, Earth is dying. The planet is an overpopulated pit of despair. Humans dwell underground, but the crust is quickly disintegrating, killing millions. The rest have no escape. Nick Venture, a strapping mechanic with a secret heritage, faces an unjust death sentence. Desperate to avoid this fate, he accepts an offer from a rogue scientist to claim a newly-discovered planet in exchange for his freedom. To his surprise, Nick discovers he is the last living descendant of Christopher Columbus. Joined by a ragtag group of ex-military soldiers, he embarks on a mission to save humanity. This journey places him on a collision course with Raquel Donovan, the deadliest pirate in the galaxy. The sexy, patch-eyed captain of the Deathraven is on a mission of her own--one of vengeance. The last man she expected to encounter was the devastatingly handsome Nick Venture. But his ships are a bounty beyond her wildest dreams. After she enslaves Nick and his crew during a hijack, the two adversaries find themselves irresistibly drawn to one another. But Nick is far more than he seems. When he traps Raquel with a clever ruse, she has no choice but to join the mission as his protector. As the journey continues, their attraction ignites like a raging solar storm. Raquel is a mystery Nick is determined to unravel. But her secret agenda, as well as their lust soaked encounters, threaten to derail both of their missions even as humanity's time runs out?.
eBook Publisher: Red Sage Publishing/Red Sage Presents, 2011 2011
eBookwise Release Date: January 2012
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [473 KB]
Reading time: 285-399 min.
Every day--no, every hour--Raquel Donovan rubbed shoulders with death.
She frowned as she lorded over the deck, one black-gloved hand knuckling her eye patch to alleviate a phantom itch. It was a bothersome reminder of who she was, and what she had to do. Without fail, the damned thing always struck at the most grueling moments--times when she had to take on the mantle of Atlas bearing his backbreaking planetary load.
The dull thrum of the ship's well-oiled systems underscored her heavy thoughts. A landscape of sleek gray lines, gleaming consoles, and spacious, well-lit bridge stations surrounded her, the best in technology and design that the military dollar could buy. The revolting display stood for everything she didn't: power and greed and suppression. She hated the smell and the look of it. The sensory assault made each passing minute increasingly suffocating.
Her good eye narrowed to a slit. A stream of warm sweat trickled down her neck. That damned itch was driving her mad, but she knew better than to pause for additional relief. She had her reputation to guard. This operation had to succeed, for her crew's sake...and especially hers.
Whatever the outcome, it was time for her star performance to begin.
Raquel glanced down from her position behind the command station, where the Torrent's captain sat trussed and shackled to his chair. He was the enemy. His dress hat lay nearby, knocked off unceremoniously during the earlier scuffle. A lock of gray hair had escaped its confines, betraying an otherwise immaculate grooming.
And yet, there was something blatantly false about all of it, a ridiculous facade just begging to be crushed. The man sat so stiffly, his posture completely unnatural. A lie, and Raquel could think of nothing worse. Even in his current, pitiful state, he, too, apparently felt the need to maintain protocol and give the appearance of unwavering control. Ha! As if it mattered.
The pirate queen sauntered over to her prisoner, a panther to its prey. With the Torrent's bridge devoid of her crew, there was no one left to rescue him. Only three were present now--the ship's captain, her loyal second-in-command, and herself. Leaning down, she briefly pressed her cheek to Captain Jacobs' sweaty temple, bearing herself ever so still, ever so calmly. Her nostrils flared, smelling his exhaustion and outrage. Blood trickled from a gash on his forehead, framing his left eye. The blue and gray uniform he wore, formerly crisp and smooth, was now soaked with wrinkles and tears. His jagged breaths wavered through the air, a counterpoint to the idle chatter of forsaken consoles.
Jacobs had endured a lot for someone his age, but so had Raquel, and at half his years. She adjusted her red ascot, tugging it more from nervous habit than the need for a pristine appearance. She and her crew had chased this lead for over a month. Now they had him and they wanted answers. When would he break?
Raquel flicked out her tongue and tasted a drop of his blood. Beneath his stalwart resistance, she detected a shiver of fear. Good. Her lips brushed against his ear as she whispered in a dulcet, beguiling voice. "The pain will stop when you tell me what I need to know. Where is he?"
Thrum. Thrum. Thrum. The ship itself seemed to resonate with apprehension. Now it was the captain's move. What would it be? Would he find what little sense still resided in that thick head of his, or would he continue to tow the military line, dragging the entire ship and his crew down with him? The stream of sweat quickened its pace. Hurry, you bastard. Just tell me what I want to know and we're off this crate.
Jacobs managed to square his shoulders despite the strangling confinement. The haute air of an officer dripped from every pore of his abused body. Then, with a slow, deliberate movement, arctic blue eyes latticed with red rolled up to her. Even now, he clung to some false belief of heroic defiance. "God...damn you," he said. "You'll never find him. Never."
Raquel straightened while shoving back an errant strand of her ink-black hair. What asinine arrogance! It took clenching every last muscle to suppress her rage. But suppress it she must. She had to find him--the man whose crime against her family would not go unpunished. His name was so abhorrent to her she hated to think it, let alone say it.
Because of the man she was chasing, she would never again know the warmth of her family's love. Because of him, she was banished from Earth, exiled in the wasteland of savage space. Because of him, humanity's future hung in perilous balance. If the human race became extinct, there was only one person to blame--the man Raquel had long ago vowed to bring down, whatever it took.
Memories burst forth, as raw and fractured as exposed, splintered bone.
You have sixty seconds. Choose wisely. Anguish of indecision like a lance through her heart. Clock ticking. Tick-tick-tick. Dad, can you hear me? I'll free you! Cruel laughter. Impassive guards. Tell me the right code. I'll be your sex slave. I'll do anything! You've got to help me save them! Which one? Which one? Tick-tick-tick-tick-tick-tick TICK!
Raquel gritted her teeth in an effort to shove the nightmarish thoughts back into her subconscious. With so much at stake, Jacobs' evasiveness surprised her, made her feel anxious. She detested that feeling as much as she detested any public display of her weakness, for both necessitated actions that she always regretted later. But for her family, for Earth, could she do anything less?
Very well. If the little man didn't want to follow her rules, she would simply break them. Among other things.
Raquel nodded to her second, a wiry man with cracked teeth and shredded lips. They called him "Smiley," but a smile would be the last thing to ever cross his sour countenance. A veteran of one too many brawls, he had little in his life to laugh about. He was fiercely loyal, though, and Raquel valued that above all else. But like everything in her world, his loyalty wasn't given freely. After all, she'd had to earn it. God, had she ever...!
Smiley acknowledged the go-ahead with a crushing blow to Jacobs' right ear. The Captain groaned, but still refused to surrender the information, so Smiley obliged him again.
And then again. And again. And again.
Suddenly, Raquel's comm unit chirped, effectively breaking the moment. She stayed the assault with a raised hand before answering. "Report."
"We're done loading the supplies." The gravelly voice belonged to Alvarez, her artillery man. "I can spare a few men if you need any help with the, ah, interview."
She could detect his jocular tone through the transmission, but for her part kept the exchange professional and curt. "No need. The two of us can handle it up here. Easily." She locked gazes with the beaten captain, driving the point home. "Are the dogs on this scow still secured?"
Alvarez barked out a laugh "They ain't goin' anywhere."
"Roger that. We're going to be awhile longer, but keep the shuttle on standby."
Raquel snapped shut the comm, killing the transmission.
The Torrent, a DDG 71 class destroyer, had been an easy target while in patrol orbit around Titan. Raquel and her band had stalked them for an hour before pouncing, waiting for the right moment to scramble the ship's radar with their own special viral mix. After corralling the Torrent's crew at gunpoint down in the hold, her men disabled the main engine. Per the routine, they proceeded to strip the military vessel of its cargo. The crew meant nothing to Raquel, being of inconsequential ranks and therefore not privy to the classified information she sought. But the Captain... he must know. The trail couldn't have run cold yet again.
Casting aside her doubts, Raquel motioned for Smiley to back away as an idea formed. "Tell you what, Captain Jacobs, I'll make you a deal. An equitable one you'll find impossible to resist." She smiled coyly, for her "deals" were legendary. "All I ask is one simple question, nothing else. Just tell me where he is, and then we depart." Raquel leaned in closer. "Do that, and I won't kill your crew members one by bloody one."
Jacobs sneered at her openly. "Don't take me for a coward. Or them."
Raquel eyed him as her stomach tightened with dismay. No doubt he needed his own semblance of bravado to live up to for the sake of his men--or his career. Well, too bad. Sympathy was a rare commodity these days, and an emotion she could ill afford lest she delay her mission. "Why. Captain, I'm disappointed. I took you for a man with some sense in his head." She smirked. "I guess I was wrong."
Jacobs snorted. "I have sense enough not to reveal anything to the likes of you. The men will die if need be, so I don't know why you're wasting our time." He spat blood. "Or yours."
Crimson drops splashed her black shipsuit just above her knee. Raquel frowned again, more from annoyance than disgust. She bored into him with her good eye while her gloved hand squeezed the butt of her weapon, a vintage Enfield, resting in the holster of her gun belt. "One final chance! What's his position?"
"For God's sake! I told you, I don't know."
With cold precision, her slender fingers released the clasp. "I don't believe you."
"Even if I did know, I wouldn't talk. Kill me now and have done with it." A resolute expression surfaced past his bruised and bloodied features. "Because if you don't, I'll hunt you down for the rest of my days."
"Oooh, how scary." Raquel hugged herself in mock fear. "Smiley, we'd better start running."
The scowl on her ill-named crew member darkened. If ever that man were in a joking mood, it certainly wasn't today. Raquel silently commiserated. This face-off had lasted long enough.
Curtailing the ridicule, she regarded Jacobs in icy silence. Smiley shifted to the balls of his feet, poised and eager to continue his persuasions. She, however, was eager for the interrogation to end. By now, the captain was too bloody and broken to be of any further use, not to mention disgustingly stubborn. Despite her threats, very little about the situation indicated that even the deaths of his crew would squeeze more information from this callous man. He's willing to sacrifice them to protect him. Why? Just because he's one of the military's own? The answers eluded her as much as did relief for that plaguing itch. This was insane. She shouldn't have to resort to such lengths. But she had already slammed down the gauntlet. Retreat was impossible.
Thumbing open a channel on her comm unit, she prepared to contact Alvarez. Before she had a chance to relay the order, however, another transmission came through, this time from Norris. Odd. The Deathraven's navigator rarely had reason to contact her during a raid. As usual, she braced for the worst. "What is it?"
"Bogeys, Cap'n. Either the bastards sent an S.O.S. before we boarded, or they got lucky."
Raquel cursed, and then berated herself for letting a feeble emotion like surprise unravel before a military man, one of her sworn enemies. She couldn't risk him concluding that she feared this turn of events. Quickly gathering her thoughts, she asked for an ETA.
Damn! She had lost another chance to flush the rat from his hole. Make no mistake: I will have vengeance. I'm coming for you from the pit of your nightmares, and I won't stop. Ever. She consoled herself with the thought that at least her interrogation aboard the Torrent would reach the bastard's ears through some official channel or other. He was somewhere in known space--she knew that much, at least. The chase had lasted for seven years now, having begun the day she turned eighteen. She could pursue him until she was a hundred if need be.
Or until her death, whichever came first.
Raquel appraised the damaged prisoner a final time. Eyes glazed over with pain, his head drooped forward. If she could have seared her wrath and anguish into his memory she would have done so. Unfortunately, this plane of existence limited her to clumsy, much less poetic alternatives. She issued one last order to her second. "Finish it." The coded command contained instructions for Smiley that would ensure Captain Jacob never forgot what happened here, or whom he had just crossed.
Groans of protest arose from the captain, but she ignored him. The least mercy given might cost her everything she'd built. Spinning on a heel, Raquel nearly ran, panting in her effort to reach the lift that would transport her down to the docking bay. It seemed that no matter how strenuously she tried to avoid them, her ghosts haunted every decision she made.
Behind her, Jacobs howled with agony, producing ear-splitting shrieks that reverberated down the metallic shaft. Apparently that fatuous, martial demeanor of his did have its limits. Limits that shattered as his right eye was taken from him.
Raquel barked out her command as she strode onto the Deathraven's bridge. Here, at least, in the familiar embrace of her ship, she had a measure of control over her environment. It made for a welcome relief because she needed all the control she could muster. Settling into the captain's chair, she keyed her console out of standby mode. Following suit, Smiley entered and resumed his station, just below hers.
The dark, cramped operations center buzzed with activity. The shuttle transporting the boarding party had docked only minutes before the military fleet swooped into that sector. Barely enough time to plan a defense strategy, but they would have to make do. In the black heart of space, the measure of a pirate was how inventive she became when life threw nothing but meager scraps at her.
Raquel swept her gaze upward. Judging by the data streaming across the main view screen, the enemy vessels had aligned into a staggered two-column attack mode and were now approaching. Sensor alarms screamed everywhere like obstreperous children vying for attention. Regardless, now back in her own ship, she felt a sense of calm wash over her. A keypad grooved with repeated use soothed her anxious nerves as she pulled in data from the other stations, studying the fleet specs.
Fenton's baritone voice reached her first, left hand momentarily adjusting his earpiece. "Captain LaRoche of the Albuquerque already made contact. He's ordered us to stand down and surrender. Twice." Muddy brown eyes from beneath a pair of unruly brows glanced her way. "Want a playback?"
"No." Raquel didn't need one. She had been down this path before. They all had.
Opposite communications, on the starboard side, her radar guru Vojtech spewed updated coordinates and routed the images to the main view screen. "They're within firing range now," he said. Pale skin and a shock of white hair bathed in the glow from his screen gave him the appearance of a ghoul. "Six destroyers and two Firebird class patrol ships against one." He sniggered, then added loudly, "Pussies!"
Ignoring the inevitable guffaws, Raquel stared through the twin rectangular viewports. She meditated briefly, calculating their odds and evaluating options. "Alvarez, any special equipment we should know about?"
"Nah. Standard munitions," replied the short, burly man. "But we're outgunned any way you figure it."
"Fenton, when do they expect an answer?"
"Five minutes ago."
"Shit, did you see that?"
Fenton's exclamation came just as a flash of light blasted the bridge, originating from the port side. Low rumbling quickly followed, and the deck vibrated.
"Sorry, Captain," Vojtech grumbled. "That one took me by surprise."
"Make sure that's the last time."
A shout arose from engineering. "Warning shot, my ass!"
"Steady, Ule," Raquel said.
"Yes, ma'am. Scanning for damages." The engineer flipped back a thick braid of brown hair studded with colorful bits of cloth and contemplated the ship's schematics dominating his screen. "A laceration in the hull. Nothing breached." He turned toward the captain's station. "Orders?"
As the crew awaited her decision, Raquel crossed her legs, studying the screen. Briefly, she attempted to block out all the noise. At that moment she wanted nothing more than to be far, far away, not only from her ship, but from this charade of a life. It was a passing wish, a fruitless, frivolous wish because years of torment dictated she could never allow such vulnerability. Not here. Not anywhere in the shadowy nether regions of space.
Raquel could feel it breathing down her neck, a colossal beast of tentacles and malice hovering in wait, salivating and greedy for any lapse of judgment that would allow it entrance into her weak human flesh. Experience had taught that a loyal crew, generous armament, and a reinforced hull were the most deceptive of safety measures.
A sigh escaped her. Despite the reality, Raquel had expectations to uphold. And after the Jacobs setback, part of her itched for a down and dirty fight. At the very least, they would have to break through the ranks of the fleet if they valued their freedom. Raquel decided an engagement was in order. Reclining, she summoned a sultry, slow burn of a grin. "What are you waiting for, boys? Your mommas' milk to come in? Blast them into dust!"
Hoots and hollers sparked like lightning across the bridge as her crew locked safety harnesses, computed targets, and opened the ship's arsenals. No doubt they were in the mood for some action as well. Over the years, Raquel had labored diligently to equip the Deathraven with the most powerful artillery the vessel could absorb. It was long and blunt-nosed, like a shark, but with hundreds of concealed weapon compartments, it boasted a hundred times the ferocity.
The fruits yielded had been well worth the effort. In the loose, cutthroat network where pirates came and went, the Deathraven was one of the few junks that had survived conflict with the military juggernaut. It was also one reason Raquel never lacked for skilled crew. Satisfied with her decision, she oversaw the attack from her command station.
Eight arrays of cannons on the exterior foredeck spat venomous, white hot plasma fire. "The house specialty," as Ule preferred to call them. The fire sliced through hulls as though they were made of cloth instead of metal. From the Deathraven's underbelly, "Shanghai Surprise" torpedoes burst in rapid succession from their shafts. Short-range scanners relayed back grainy images, but it was enough to perceive the damage. The crew watched gleefully as the projectiles punched gaping holes in the hull of the nearest destroyer. Someone quipped it looked almost as ugly as Smiley's mouth.
Despite the successful volley, Raquel grew impatient. "More! We have to hit them harder!" There were times when impulsive risk-taking had been the only factor ensuring their survival. This was one of those times.
At Raquel's urging, Norris changed course, carving a daring path alongside another enemy ship, this one a patrol vessel by its markings. As the Deathraven shot past, a cluster of pulse laser cannons on the starboard side demolished half of it with pinpoint precision. Raquel gloated openly as the vessel jumped wildly off course and collided with one of its own. Both ships fragmented violently moments before they burst apart in a fiery conflagration.
Regardless of this small victory, the battle had only begun. The fleet attacked. One vessel, which their scanners identified as the Lynx, peppered the Deathraven with a barrage of torpedoes that scarred the fore primary deck and clipped one of the main cannons. The wrenching impact forced the ship into a sudden thirty-eight degree starboard tilt. Engines screamed as navigation compensated just in time to avoid collision with a destroyer aptly named the Havoc. The Havoc wasted little time in firing a full broadside.
Raquel knew the hazards grew exponentially by the minute, but by now adrenaline had unleashed an army of devilish minions to uproot every thicket of reason. She issued rapid-fire orders, forcing her crew to attack more, to push back harder, and to show no mercy. The heat of battle was demanding but seductive, like a pair of new lovers attacking each other's bodies with rapacious greed. She demanded nothing less from the men and women under her command. They had to be ready when the time came to face her ultimate nemesis, because failure was not an option.
The fleet advanced further, tightening its noose. Let them come. Raquel and her crew had taken out three of their ships. When would they ever learn? The feud between outlaws and the Space Defense Corps dated to the birth of jump technology nearly sixty years ago. Just because the United States military instigated aggressive tactics to control the entire galaxy didn't mean the rest of humanity had to lie prostrate before it. Freedom was at stake, and not solely for pirates. If the people of Earth didn't relish eternal burial in the coffin of the decaying planet, they'd do well to shoulder weapons instead of a yoke and join the cause.
But for now, the dispute was manifesting on a much smaller scale, between the Deathraven and this meddling fleet. Raquel studied her screen. Which one to destroy next? The bridge felt warm and stuffy as exertion pumped sweat and heat from their overworked bodies. Or maybe it was the adrenaline coursing through her. She peeled off her gloves and wiped her damp forehead. There were so many tasks to juggle. She felt enormous pressure to process every single report and track each new development as the battle unfolded--whether she needed them or not.
She ordered her crew to target the next destroyer in their sights, one by the utterly pretentious name of Fair Windham. They ripped into it like wolves feasting upon a corpse. Each successful round of artillery fireworks brought triumphant shouts, gleeful dares, and swaggering one-upmanship... until the real damage reports began piling up.
"Moderate damage to the middle gun deck."
"One of the port torpedo shafts collapsed."
"Sensors indicate a hull dent, aft, approximately two meters. Negative on a breach so far."
"Four laser cannons are out of commission, Captain."
The damage wasn't extensive for a vessel the size of the Deathraven, but it could multiply like hives, given enough time and miscalculations. Though they could hold their own for a few more rounds, the cost far outweighed the benefits. It was imperative that her ship remain in peak operating condition at all times, ready to face the showdown for which she had been preparing all these years. Raquel weighed her options, and they all pointed to a strategically timed retreat. This pirate had bigger game to catch. After relaying the new order, she inquired about the nearest escape route.
Norris jabbed hard at his console for a few moments. Then he swiveled around to face his captain. "I recommend we jump to Nereid. Now."
Raquel nodded in approval. The eccentric orbit of Neptune's largest, outermost moon would help mask their presence. "Get us there in one piece." Though she and her team had demolished nearly half of the enemy ships, the recollection of the failed interrogation made her feel as though she had accomplished very little this day. Now she wanted nothing more than a cold, desolate rock where she could quietly lick her wounds.
The countdown began. As the main engine served up a distinct grumble, the military fleet redoubled the attack, no doubt picking up the jump sequence data spilling from the ship's core. Thrusters firing, the Deathraven angled sharply to whiz through the closing ranks of the opposing vessels. In a matter of seconds, it blinked out of existence.
Amid heavy turbulence, the pirate vessel emerged from the jump straight into the vast shadow of Nereid. The harsh depths embraced the Deathraven like a black-winged fiend from some ancient, forgotten dimension. While the crew shook off residual headaches and disorientation, Vojtech conducted a radar sweep that offered the desired information. They were alone.
After a brief respite for food and sundry personal matters, the crew began repairs. With every twenty-two of their complement pulling a shift, Ule projected a completion date of two days. Minor damage incurred from the abrupt jump added several more hours to the workload. Regardless, they wouldn't stop toiling until they restored the black-hulled vessel to its former health, with neither a conduit out of place nor a microprocessor exposed.
After contributing her share with a ten-hour stint, Raquel left the final tasks to her senior crew members. Throwing herself into the backbreaking work, she had acquired more sore muscles than she cared to count. Even the brief ride on the private lift to her quarters atop the bridge tested her body's limits, and the sweat alone must have deducted several pounds. Right now, she wanted to wash, eat, sleep, and with any luck, clear her weary mind.
She desperately anticipated the break. With the supplies netted from the Torrent, it might even promise some relaxation. She would eat downright swanky for a while, at least until the next raid. After distributing some of the pretty baubles among her crew, many still remained that could be traded for parts or anything else they might need or want--particularly information on a certain man's whereabouts. She made a mental list of the best underground shipyards at which to hawk their wares. After that, her quest would continue.
Raquel stepped from the lift and paused, taking a long moment to breathe in the fragrant air of her cabin. The sweet scents alone were a soothing balm for her aching body. Drinking in the sight, she reflected it was perhaps the least appropriate decor for a notorious outlaw such as herself, at least in terms of what was expected. She missed it sorely whenever duty called.
Being in essence a mini-greenhouse, her quarters sheltered a variety of plant life. In every available space, tiny shrubs and other greenery were stowed in pots and containers. From dandelions to lush grass to a bonsai tree that had cost her a year's worth of spoils, the cabin bloomed with living relics from Earth's past. A few flowers dotted the array, rich with velvety petals and spiked with vibrant colors. Raquel glanced about her, assessing the battle damage. Dislodged, some of the inhabitants lay strewn across the deck, but she would attend to them soon enough.
The idea had sprung a few years back when she had learned about a soil alternative in which plant life could easily grow, coupled with specialized lighting that mimicked the benefits of sunshine. It was a poor substitution for life on a healthy planet, however. Like her, the plants would never know such a luxury.
She knew why the seeds were so scarce. Very few varieties of flora had been salvaged from the scorching heat of an unbearable climate that destroyed all of Earth's vegetation in the mere span of a century. As the ecological crisis escalated, leaving a cancerous blight in its wake, humans began seeking refuge in subterranean caves. Fear and instinctual need for survival overrode the development of alternate living arrangements. As a result, nations around the globe poured funding and technology into two projects that bled all others dry--a mass underground relocation project, and the development of space-faring technology.
But within decades, Earth's crust began to weaken. Every time Raquel thought about the colossal tunneling machines burrowing into the planet's innards, she couldn't dislodge the image of a giant, viscous parasite that had sunk its rapacious hooks into the planet, sucking the very life from the formerly blue-green jewel.
Locating another habitable planet became all the more urgent. Yet for some mysterious reason, the rise of the Space Defense Corps had led to a moratorium on colonization enterprises. Despite her best efforts, Raquel had yet to discover the political reasons behind the military's stranglehold. Its propaganda merely served to perpetuate the myth that pirates were intent on destroying the human race. Ironically, most pirates were military defectors.
With Earth's future jeopardized, many would undoubtedly consider Raquel's verdant sanctuary to be an eccentric, antiquated hobby. Nevertheless, she had to have it. The botanic refuge was an unparalleled haven and her one indulgence. Being rootless, and lacking a partner with whom to share her life, it was really the only place she could call home. In company with her greenery, she didn't have to keep up her guard. She didn't have to worry about others judging her. If any of the crew thought the botanical explosion a queer hobby, nothing was ever said.
Rather, they didn't say anything if they valued their tongues.
Reluctantly, she pulled back her fingers from the soft petals of a yellow rose so she could strip off her work clothes and bathe in the sani. These days, the technology made bathing a mechanical act. Robotic. Lifeless. Nearly a decade had passed since she had taken a real shower. It didn't matter that her only access to one had been in a communal bathhouse. Setting the controls for a three-minute chemical spritz, Raquel regretted having ever taken the experience for granted.
The memory still clung like dew. The shock of the hot, gushing water had instantly aroused her. She closed her eyes, recollecting the feel of the silky liquid dousing her naked skin. The water had coursed over her breasts and belly like a lover's hands caressing her naked flesh. Around and around she turned, allowing the warm spray to coat her hair, her thighs, her buttocks.
The thin wafer of soap in her palm was little more than an excuse to rub the tender mound of her sex with increasing urgency. The water pounded away at her. All she could think about was that elemental joining. Working her fingers rapidly, she'd brought herself to a sharp orgasm that left her trembling. When the shower ended, she reveled in the fresh, clean sensation as glistening droplets slowly evaporated from her body. She had felt reborn.
Once, her father had shown her images, frozen in the depths of the net, of people taking baths in tubs practically overflowing with water. Life-giving water flowed freely from inexhaustible sources, or so it seemed at the time. Not only that, countless shots of skimpily clad bodies swimming in lakes and oceans taunted their beggared descendants. Instead of anger, she felt only sadness. Do you realize what you've done?
Since then, Raquel had acquainted herself with much more evidence of humanity's wanton exploitation of natural resources, but she still couldn't imagine such indulgences. She badly wanted to live "on" Earth again, even if it meant languishing deep beneath the planet's surface. The lakes and oceans and swimming could stay in the past if it meant having her feet on solid ground. No matter how overcrowded Earth might become, Raquel would give anything to return. Even two feet of space would feel like paradise. If she had someone to share it with, that would be even better.
But there was no time for yearning. Not when he was still at large.
Once clean, Raquel slipped on a nightdress and radioed for Chef to serve up a meal. Thanks to the raid, instead of flavored bar rations she would eat true, re-constituted vegetables, soy products, and grains. Raquel often wondered how the military came by such delicacies. Habitats ravaged by corporate neglect and personal irresponsibility couldn't possibly sustain plant life. Obviously, the military had access to some sort of classified technology, which they probably justified hoarding in defense of their desire to protect citizens from outlaws such as herself. It figured.
Once sated, she dimmed the lights and curled up in bed. The ordeal had left her emotionally and physically depleted. Before long, her eye grew drowsy. But she couldn't sleep. Thoughts stirred. Restless memories surged forth, thrashing, bashing, crashing through her defenses....
Trembling, eyes blinded by sweat. Which code? Pressure like a jackhammer splitting her skull. Choose wisely. Time is up. Up, up, up! Press the key. Do it now! Hope, then... familiar faces, faces she loved, slumping to the floor, one by one.... Gone from her sight... unconscious... never to rise again. Failure. Loss. Shock.
Failed them. Failed Earth.
Raquel gasped as she abruptly exited the flashback, her phantom eye burning like hellfire. Guilt followed, branding her with its black mark for infinity. Only with a few rounds of disciplined meditation did she achieve a state resembling calm. She burrowed under the covers. When sleep came, it wrapped her in a tight cocoon of inescapable horrors.
A cycle began of repair, eat, sleep. "Stay vigilant or stay dead," went the pirate saying. Close to fifty hours later, repairs neared completion. Raquel had been asleep for only a short while when Vojtech radioed to request her presence on the bridge. She picked up coffee on her way, a preciously robust and smooth brew compared to the sludge they usually had. If one could call what they drank coffee.
Covered mug in hand, she approached Vojtech at his station. "What is it?"
He directed her to three bright blips on the screen. The data indicated the presence of space-faring vessels. Non-military. Minimal weaponry. Highly unusual. Projecting their course, Vojtech predicted the mystery ships would sail right past the Deathraven's current location in a matter of hours. Raquel quickly ordered him to maintain a vigil as she took her station. Then she asked her second to assemble a boarding party.
An unexpected shudder passed through her. Fear? No. Giddy anticipation? Yes, most definitely... but there was something more. A puzzle, and one Raquel very much wanted to solve. Her beverage grew cold as she considered the ramifications of this new development. A very good development. Quite a change, she reflected, from the usual bounty.
She and her crew were accustomed to preying upon two types of vessels-- military craft and the junks of other pirates. A fragile code of ethics prevented the sacking of the hidden shipyards, which in turn left precious few options for outlaws or entrepreneurs who strove to survive in the harsh, bleak landscape of uninhabitable space. It was a wonder that incidents of starvation and cannibalism didn't surface every week. During raids, Raquel had stumbled upon more derelict tombs of emaciated corpses than she cared to count.
That's a fate we must avoid.
As she focused her attention on the screen, a predatory anticipation tightened her lips. Undoubtedly the travelers, whatever their identity or purpose, were completely unaware they were barreling straight toward an ambush.
Unbidden, the memory of her father's face rose in her mind. He was frowning. Frowning at her. Raquel winced slightly before pushing the vision away. In its place, a shrewd, venomous black spider unfurled its long limbs to weave its deadly web.