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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
The Space Madam’s Warrior
The LodeStar Series, Book 6
Copyright © 2016 by Cathryn Cade
Cover by Leah Kaye Designs
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission from the author or Windtree Press, except brief quotations in critical reviews or articles. To obtain permission to excerpt portions of text, please contact author or publisher.
Contact Info: http://www.cathryncade.com
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
Book Layout © 2014 BookDesignTemplates.com
Cyborg Pleasure; the Space Madam’s Warrior
LodeStar Series, Book 6
Cathryn Cade. -- 1st ed.
To All of
Readers Who Make
Sci Fi Romance
So Much Fun
In space, there are even more ways to lose your lover
She lost everything ...
Ilya Mondas once lived her dream—life with a band of space gypsies, the freedom to use her tech savvy to wreak mayhem on pirates and slavers, and most of all her big, soft-spoken warrior Var, who adored her. Then she lost him, and the life she loved.
She'll do anything to get it all back ...
Now on her own, she must take over The Pleasure Palace, a ragtag space-station casino, home to hookers, gamblers and rogues. But one or all of them want her dead, and they have the monsters to do it—human-cyborg gladiators, created for the illegal fight ring hidden deep in the center of her new home. Where the biggest, baddest cyborg of all looks eerily like her dead husband.
But can she trust him again?
Author's Note: The LodeStar Series books build on each other, and are meant to be read pretty much in order.
CYBORG PLEASURE takes place immediately after the end of CAPTIVE OF PLEASURE. To get acquainted with Var & Ilya and understand what drives her in this story, please read CAPTIVE first. You'll be glad you did.
Five Galactic Common Years ago ...
It was a cruddy little bar on Quol-Ray Station, a refueling stop mid-way between Earth II and Pangaea, also on the shipping lanes to Serpentia and points between.
Ilya meant to stay only long enough to earn credits to get to another planet. Could be Pangaea, or even Serpentia, although she wasn't keen on what she'd seen of their deserts or the wildlife, which seemed either to scuttle on lots of legs or slither—all having nasty bites.
Frontiera sounded the best, but it was a long-ass way from Earth II. To get there in under a galactic month, a being had to be wealthy enough to own a big star cruiser or to book passage on one of the big space cruise ships.
Ilya was definitely not wealthy—she owned the clothes on her back and just enough credit to eat for a few more days, if she subsisted on protein tubes.
She sure as hells couldn't afford passage on a cruise ship, even one of the cut-rate variety. To get off this station, she'd have to work her way on a freighter. She wasn't keen on this, as most of the freighter crews who passed through Quol-Ray were rough, dirty and looked at her like they either wanted to devour her or rape her.
At least on station there were hired security guards. There were also public places to duck into until any pursuers lost interest. On a ship, with a job to fulfill, this might not work.
But to stay on Quol-Ray station, she had to eat and find somewhere safe to sleep, so she needed work. The list of job openings listed on the station's holoboards was short—cooking, cleaning or refueling space craft.
She knew nothing about cooking, or refueling space craft, so this left cleaning. The only listing for this was cleaning the communal crew dorms—hells to the no, as this would make her vulnerable to being dragged into one of the private cubbies and raped.
The other cleaning job was in a bar.
Standing in the Serpent's Tooth bar, which opened onto one of the concourses, Ilya decided the place wasn't too bad. The decor was garish green and gold, shabby from constant use, and the faux wood bar was worn, but the smells from the tiny kitchen were savory, and the patrons seemed mostly amiable.
The place needed cleaning, for sure. Like most of the corridors and common rooms on the station, it smelled of unwashed bodies, stale fried foods and spilled ale—not to mention the stench that emanated from the lav units when the drunks forgot to run the cryo-cleanse cycle after use.
But, the dorms and common rooms of the crèche where she’d grown up hadn't smelled any better, and New Seattle's air was a miasma of pollution and dank ocean shores. Here, the air was at least recycled through carbons and cryocleansers.
The bar owner, a slim, hard-eyed Serpentian with flame-red hair, more cosmetics than Ilya had ever seen on one being, and a laser on the belt of her low-cut, skin-tight body-suit, looked Ilya over and sighed.
“I need someone who can clean and serve. I suppose you'll do until I find someone better. I hope you have a decent body under those ugly clothes, 'cause you're gonna have to show it. Sex sells drinks.”
It was on the tip of Ilya's tongue to say she didn't have a sexy body, but she managed to bite her tongue. She was hungry enough to finish the half-eaten snacks left by patrons on a dirty table, so she'd dress however she had to, and do what she had to do.
In the tiny back room between cases of stored alcohol and legals, she stripped off her baggy clothing and wriggled into the tiny, electric green body-suit the bar owner had tossed her.
She looked down at herself dubiously. The thing bared pieces of her that hadn't seen daylight since ever. In her opinion, she looked like an unripe gremel fruit someone had sampled and thrown back, green and skinny and half-peeled.
And unlike Naalia's sleek coiffure, her own hair was a tangle of small braids that flopped over her face. The braids were the only way to control the fine mass of her streaky blonde hair, other than shaving her head, which she wasn't about to do—then she'd really look like a peeled gremel.
Ilya squared her shoulders and strode back out into the bar. So she wasn't the sexiest female to grace this floating hunk of junk metal—she'd be the toughest, instead.
She stepped boldly behind the bar and began serving up drinks to the patrons. She made sure they paid, too. She watched Naalia and emulated her. Soon her pace was as fast as her new boss' and by the end of the night, even faster.
By the time her shift ended, Naalia, the Serpentian, eyed her and nodded. “You're a quick learner—only screwed up three drink orders, and gave one guy double the limit of legals. Not bad for your first shift. You're hired. Since there's no shopping here, you can keep what you're wearing. I'll give you a few more of my old things, and some cosmetics. You sex up, you'll sell more drinks. You sell more, I'll pay you more. You wanna whore on the side, don't do it on my time. You steal from me, I'll hurt you and toss your body off this floating hellhole. No one around here would say a word. Are we clear?”
The woman was as scary in her own way as the crèche directress. Ilya nodded. “I need a place to sleep.”
“You can sleep in the back. Just don't bother my mawwr. She keeps the rats and roaches away—mostly.”
* * *
A year later, Ilya was still there. Dressed first in Naalia's brief, stretchy castoffs and then later in her own garments bought off a traveling clothier, she helped the flamboyant redhead attract enough customers to make the bar profitable. Ilya had credit of her own—not a lot, because the rent and food here were both jacked up as high as possible—and a tiny room of her own near the bar.
Her savings also remained small because she liked to buy tech. Small pieces, often in poor repair. The one skill set she'd gotten out of her schooling was working and repairing tech. She had a locked cubby in her room with a variety of toys, most of which could also be used as weapons if she chose.
And on nights like these, she chose to use them. The bar was crammed with crew from a freighter bound for Earth II, a table of InterGalactic Space Forces Academy grads in their brilliant red flight-suits, and a few other beings.
The bar itself was lined with singles, mostly intent on imbibing as much alcohol and legal stims or tranqs as fast as they could.
One huge human loomed in the corner at Ilya's end of the bar, shoulders nearly broad as the bar counter. He silently sipped his ale, face in shadow under his brimmed cap. Ilya was pretty sure he was watching her, but she had little attention to spare, with the IGSF reds leaning over the bar and grinning at her, attempting to flirt with her as she worked. She did her best to ignore them as she mixed, stirred, loaded and unloaded the hovertrays that zipped drinks and snacks out to patrons at the tables.
“Hey, pretty, why don't you let me take you back to my room,” one of the boys offered, leaning in her way as Ilya reached for an empty beaker on the bar. “I'll show you my big flight controller.”
His friend brayed with laughter, and shoved him out of the way. “Maybe big, but he doesn't know what to do with it. Me—the ladies all juice for my stick.”
Ilya paused, eying them from under her hair, which she'd braided to get it out of her face and caught up in a loose clip. “I'll pass, thanks. How about if you boys go sit and have another drink, instead? Blue stars, right?”
When they instead renewed their offers, this time even more rudely, she reached up to apparently fluff her hair. A small sparkle issued from her palm, then another. Electricity crackled before their faces. Both the young men straightened with a jerk, their eyes wide, mouths open, slapping at their faces and hair as if beset by stingers.
“Back. Off.” Ilya repeated. “Unless you want more?” She held up her hand, revealing the clear packet attached to the base of her finger, lights sparkling inside.
“That's illegal tech,” one of the youths protested, his face reddening nearly to match his uniform. “You better watch it, bitch. We're going to be officers of the IGSF.”
“Yeah? Come back when you make rank—I'll be scared then.” She zinged him again for the insult—this time on the lip.
With a yelp, he and his friend dove for the entrance of the bar, stumbling over a pair of Bartians in their haste. The foul smell of affronted Bartian filled the air, and the bar patrons groaned or howled, covering their faces.
“You get those boys' credits before you ran them off?” Naalia demanded, grabbing the fumigator wand from beneath the bar. She aimed it outward, and super-oxygenated scent streamed out, neutralizing the Bartians' sulfurous stench with faux citrus.
“'Course I did.” Ilya finished filling another hovertray and sent it sailing across the bar.
A deep chuckle rumbled from the end of the bar, an utterly engaging sound that Ilya felt clear down inside her. She turned. The big man's teeth gleamed beneath the shadow of his hat brim. As if compelled, she walked to him and braced her hands on the bar, tipping her head to peer at his shadowed face.
“Something funny, big guy?” she asked. Quark, her voice was all ... throaty. She didn't do flirtatious—or hadn't since she left school. She hadn't been any good at it then. Now she didn't have to be—she received multiple offers every shift, and all she had to do if she wanted a sex partner was nod her head.
He reached up with one huge, calloused hand and pushed his hat up, revealing a square, tanned face as rugged as a slab of plascrete, and a pair of twinkling eyes the blue of a clear sky.
“Just enjoying watching a pretty female take care of herself.” His voice was as deep as that laugh had promised.
She tossed her head, braids flying. “Damn straight. Been taking care of myself for a long time. Nobody messes with me.” Double-quark, now she was preening for him. If she didn't get a firm grip on herself, she'd be offering to show him more tech tricks—naked.
But instead of replying, his face went fierce and tight, and he lunged forward, one long arm shooting out to grab her. Ilya had no time to react before he yanked her toward him, head and torso over the bar, legs dangling in midair. Her face was crammed in the hollow of his massive shoulder, her mouth full of his collar, his masculine scent filling her nostrils. Shit, she'd been wrong about him.
He smelled really, really good—for a rezzed rapist, or whatever he was. This stray thought raced through her mind, followed by alarm and then fury. She opened her mouth to demand he let her go but glass smashed behind her, and his voice rumbled through her ear as he yelled over her head.
“You throw anything else at her, boy, and I'll pull that fancy uniform up over your head so far you'll kiss your own balls.”
“Out!” Naalia shrieked behind Ilya. “All reds, out—or the big guy won't have to touch you, I'll wreck you myself.”
Ilya managed to twist within his grasp just enough to see the two cadet grads had returned, along with more of their kind. And all of them looked angry. The one Ilya had zapped stood at the bar, sneering at her rescuer.
A heavy ale mug lay on the floor behind the bar in a pungent puddle of smashed Serpentian fire glass. Oh, hells, he'd thrown an ale at her.
The big guy had snatched her out of the way, and the missile had instead struck Naalia's prized souvenir bottle of Serpentian fire whiskey. That was gonna cost Ilya to replace.
And she was so going to take the inconvenience out on the quarker who'd started it all. Pissant reds, thinking they were God's gift to females.
Ilya struggled. “Let me go. Need to help.”
Her rescuer set her on her feet, but pressed a heavy hand on her shoulder. “Stay, mighty mite. Let me and your boss handle this.”
Before Ilya had recovered from the shock of a male being protective toward her, he surged to his feet, taller than the other men and twice as broad. He moved to confront the red uniforms fronting the bar. “Sure this is worth it, boys?” he rumbled. “You end up in the grids here, not gonna look good to whoever's commissioning new officers.”
“No one messes with red.” Ilya's earlier admirers were now glowering at her and the big man. “She disrespected the uniform.”
“Seems to me you disrespected a lady,” the big man returned. “She asked you to stop, offered you another drink. You should've listened.”
“Lady, huh. She's just a station whore who'd be lucky to have one of us touch her.”
The big guy was done talking. He reached out, grabbed the mouthy red by the front of his uniform, picked him up and tossed him—hard—back into the ranks of his comrades.
They went down like pins in a holopitch, taking a table and its occupants with them. These happened to be Serpentians, who made their displeasure known in a physical way.
Several of the reds and other bar patrons joined in, throwing punches, kicks and anything else they could get their hands or paws on.
The mouthy red disappeared in a tangle of bodies, but five of his comrades surged forward to wreak vengeance on the big man.
Ilya vaulted up onto the bar, balancing between the empty drink mugs, ready to toss a flasher into their midst and break them up.
But the big guy shook off three of them with seeming ease and grabbed the other two, thunking their heads together before tossing them aside. Ilya gave a whoop of appreciation and then ducked as a hovertray sailed past her head. It landed with a crash behind her, and she winced. More breakage—there went the rest of her savings.
Time to end this. She pulled her comlink from her belt and keyed in a short code, then pressed a link.
“Cease all physical contact,” thundered a voice over the grunts, thumps and cries of pain from the fight. “This is the Quol-Ray Port Authority. Cease or be placed under arrest.”
This got the attention of several of the brawlers, off-duty space crew, who looked about guiltily for the station guards on their hovercycles. The grids were an extremely unpleasant place to spend time—brutally cold, incredibly loud and stinking of the bodily excretions of drunks, not to mention the hefty fines it took to get out.
But since the reds answered to a different authority, Ilya keyed another code.
The piercing call of a military horn cut through the din, followed by another voice, this one with the cold authority of a military commander. “This is your commander speaking. All officers report to your craft. Repeat, all officers report to your craft immediately.”
Like programmed bots, the young cadets stopped fighting, gathered up their comrades who were injured, and headed at a brisk trot out of the bar and away along the concourse.
“And don't come back!” Naalia yelled after them. “I've got your credit sigs—you won't be welcome in my bar again.”
Then she turned on Ilya, her eyes slitted with fury. “You—every bit of damage is coming out of your pay.”
“Hey, I helped clear them out,” Ilya protested. “I'll pay some, but—”
Naalia snorted. “Ha. You brought the port authority down on me. Now they'll be watching The ‘Tooth.”
Ilya gestured at the now quiet bar, where the remaining bar patrons were helping right table and stools. “You see any port guards out there? No, and you won't. That was all my tech, not—” She shut up, because the regulars were listening with entirely too much interest.
Naalia was not appeased. “You're still paying for the damages.”
“Nah,” the big man interrupted, stepping forward. “I got this.” He gave Ilya a glinting look and held up a huge hand to help her down from where she still stood on the bar. “Worth every credit to see the mighty mite here in action.”
Ilya looked at him in shock. She wasn't the kind of feminine creature to whom males usually offered chivalry. But it was nice—really nice. Placing her hand in his huge, warm paw, she leapt lightly to the floor, on the outside of the bar.
Instead of releasing her hand, he held on, his grasp gentle. He was smiling down at her, like he really liked what he saw.
“I'm Var,” he said, tugging gently to bring her closer. “Var Garroc.”
“Ilya Mondas.” A bubble of cautious joy expanded in her chest. “That was worth it to, uh ... see you in action too.”
He shrugged massively. “I'm strong ... but you're bright—like a little star.”
She smiled up at him, warmth fizzing in her middle and sinking lower. “Maybe you'd like to come to my room and experience my full brilliance.”
His gaze heated, his free hand settling warm and heavy on the small of her back. “Oh, yeah. Shine all over me, little star.”
Naalia made a retching noise. “Credit links first, then you two can take your sickeningly sweet courting display somewhere else.”
Ilya's face burned. “We're not courting, so stuff it.”
Var chuckled, his breath warm in her ear. “Oh, yeah, we are, Ilya Mondas.”
Shock jolted through Ilya, but for once, not in an unpleasant way. The warm tingles spread out from the heat of Var’s touch, and the shelter of his big, powerful body at her back. He was implying—even saying outright—that this was more than just the attraction of body to body, male to female. That was … intriguing. Way more exciting than that fight.
After he gave Naalia his credit link, Ilya led the way to her room, a short distance from The ‘Tooth.
With the two of them inside, and the hatch closed behind them, Ilya realized how tiny her room really was—and how big this man was. Var could reach out and touch all four walls at once if he wanted to—or crush her in his powerful hands. In the enclosed space with no wafts of ale, fried foods and crowd, his masculine scent filled her senses, and the more she breathed in his pleasant musk, the more she decided he was worth the risk.
She just wasn't sure what to do next. She was sort of used to being a little buzzed on ale or blue stars when she brought a male back here.
She peered up at him from under her lashes, and flushed hotly when she found him watching her. He stood quietly, his hands at his sides, but under his soft cap, his blue eyes scorched her with their intensity. “Change your mind?” he asked.
Wait, what? She was no coward, and she wasn't going to start now. She shook her head, and lifted her hands to place them on his chest, solid as a slab of living cerametal, but warm, so warm. “No, have you?” she challenged.
He shook his head, his lips quirking with amusement. “Oh, no. Take a nuclear explosion to change my mind right now.”
Slowly, he lifted his hands and settled them on her waist. His fingers and thumbs met around the narrow span. He squeezed carefully, and then slid his hands carefully up over her ribs. His thumbs followed the swell of her breasts, and found the tight buds of her nipples under the thin fabric of her top.
She shivered as sensation speared through her breasts, arrowing down to her core. Hells, the tinge of feminine fear was as much of a turn-on as his touch.
He repeated the caress, watching her reaction. Satisfaction flared, his eyes darkening as his pupils dilated. Then he lifted one hand to the fastening of her top. “How does this come off?”
She reached for the fastening herself. “I'll get it. You take care of your own.”
He shouldered out of his utility vest, and tossed it behind him, then watched as Ilya drew down the hidden fastenings of her snug one-piece garment. Never had a male watched her with such single-minded focus. It was unnerving, but also ramped up the sheer sexiness of their situation ... and some other feeling that brushed against her consciousness but then evaded her, dancing away beyond reach.
She shrugged the narrow straps of the top from her shoulders and let it fall to her hips, leaving her torso bared to him. Then she bit her lip. Would he think she was too scrawny now that the top wasn't lifting and plumping her breasts? She wasn't very big anywhere. Maybe he'd find her lacking, preferring the enhanced breasts and ass that many human females affected.
Var made a deep sound in his chest, almost a groan. He reached for her, his hands cupping her ribs again, the vee of his thumbs and forefingers framing her breasts. “You're so ... dainty. Like a ... a pretty little catamount kitten.” His gaze lifted to hers, and she caught her breath at the need burning there. “I'll be careful with you. I swear it.”
Everything in her opened, blooming like a flower in the sun of his admiration. “I know you will. But ... can you do it a little faster?” If this encounter continued at this grommet's pace, she was going to lose all courage.
His groan became a chuckle, and he let her go to shake his head at her. “No game-playing with you, is there, Ilya Mondas? I'll go as fast as you need, woman.”
He yanked his soft shirt over his head, and reached to unfasten his belt.
Mesmerized by the sight of his torso, Ilya simply stared at the expanse of pale, satin skin stretched taut over firm muscle, his chest two broad, flat cushions of muscle punctuated by nipples like tiny brown coins, his middle taut, narrowing down to his waist, and the smooth muscles in his big arms as he quickly undid his snug trousers,.
When he shoved his pants down over his hips, she automatically moved to mimic the motion. He paused and held up one hand. “Wait.”
She gave him a look and he shook his head. “The second I see your sweet cunt, I'm gonna want it in my mouth,” he rumbled. “Let me get my boots off first.”
This caused her pussy to clench with such raw need Ilya whimpered in her throat, her fingers clenching tight in the soft fabric around her hips.
Var kicked out of his heavy boots, kicked them into the corner, and shoved his pants down, stepping out of them. Ilya could only gape. Clothed, he was menacing or reassuring, depending if he was grabbing a woman without warning and hauling her across a bar, or stepping between her and danger.
Nude, he was … awe-inspiring. His legs were thick with muscle, and between them, from a soft mat of dark curls, rose his cock, proportionate with the rest of his body, which meant he was quarking huge. His scrotum hung heavy between his thigh. His cock jerked as she stared, and from the broad, flushed head a single spurt of creamy fluid dripped.
He dropped to his knees. “Sweetheart, you keep lookin' at me like that, I'm gonna fire my load right now,” he told her. “And I wanna taste you first. Get your little suit off for me.”
Ilya moved, pushing the soft fabric down her trembling legs. She tried to step out, tripped, and fell into his arms. She found herself on her back on the thin airbed, the garment flying over his shoulder, his gaze on her nude body—or more specifically, the part of her between her open thighs.
With complete lack of self-consciousness, the big man pushed her thighs farther apart with his fingers curled around them, and bent to nuzzle the sparse curls on her mons, inhaling deeply. He groaned again, this time with satisfaction. “Your pussy smells so good.”
Really? She'd been on her feet for hours, working hard, and perspiring. But then he put out his tongue and swiped it slowly up the furrow of her labia, and she forgot to worry about anything but how it felt. So good. And when he licked into her, she flew straight to ah-maz-ing. It was like a sweet, sly little fucking, a tease of the real thing. She couldn't help lifting up toward him, demanding more.
His grunt, the way his hands delved under her ass and lifted her up like a fruit on which to feast, told her he not only didn't mind, he liked her eagerness. That was good, because she also couldn't help grasping his head between her hands, and holding onto him as he tasted her again and again. Finally, just when she was about to scream with need, he licked up and found the plump pearl of her clitoris and laved it with lavish attention.
Pure sweetness gathered under his tongue, harder and harder until it imploded inside her, and she came, crying out to him wordlessly.
He took her through it, then gentled his caress, lifting his head when she pushed at him, too sensitive to bear more of that particular touch.
But now his gaze was on her breasts. He turned his face to one massive shoulder to wipe off his wet lips, then surged up over her, cupping her breasts in his hands and then favoring both with gentle, sucking caresses.
“Mm-mm, you are a sweet little treat from head to toe,” he told her, nuzzling his way up to the curve of her throat.
Ilya smiled, still in a haze of repletion. Then his cock brushed her belly, a hot silky column of flesh that begged to be touched and fondled. She opened her eyes and watched his face as she closed her fingers around him. His broad jaw bulged, his nostrils flaring as she petted him, drawing her thumb over the broad head to paint him with his own arousal.
“I could taste you too,” she offered, her voice a whisper. “See if you're sweet, or salty.”
He groaned again and pushed into her hand, his body quivering with eagerness. “You could—but I'd rather save that for the second round. Right now I want inside you. You think you can take me?”
“Um—sure.” She might need gesics afterward, though. She could barely close her fingers around his girth. But his male magnificence was meant to be enjoyed by a woman, and right now she was every inch a woman—just floating down from one great orgasm and already craving another. She curled her legs up around his lean hips. “Try me.”
He positioned himself and pushed carefully inside her. Whoa, that was tight— like he was trying to force his giant, male body into her tiny cat suit. He quivered with what felt like sheer need, his head down, jaw gritted, perspiration springing out on his forehead and shoulders. On such a massive scale it was frightening, to say the least, but the set of his hard face told her he had his lust on a tight leash.
“Am I ... too big?” he managed, his voice gritting through his teeth.
Just that, his care for her first before his own lust, made everything in Ilya open and blossom, drenching her even more in arousal, and easing her way to arch her back and take him in farther. She dug her short nails into the long muscles of his back and tugged. “No, c'mere.”
He allowed her to take him in a bit deeper, then slowly, watching her face like a holovid map of uncharted stars, he thrust home, deep inside her. The delicate flesh of her opening burned as she stretched to accommodate his size.
Then he moved, pulling back cautiously and forward again, and the broad head of his cock raked a magical place high inside her pussy.
She whimpered and dug her heels into his firm ass, arching herself up against him, around him.
Var tipped his forehead down to hers, and groaned again. “Little star, I was right. You burn brighter, hotter than any other female. C’mon, burn me up.”
“Oh, my God,” was all she could reply. “Just don’t stop.”
He thrust one brawny arm underneath her, held her close and complied enthusiastically with her command.
* * *
When Ilya woke tangled in Var’s arms, she was, for the first time since she could recall, warm. Too hot in places, even. The man gave off heat like a furnace. Their skin was dewed with sweat, and sticky with sex. She ached in places that made her smile to herself even as she winced.
Uncurling her leg from between his, she leaned up on one elbow and pushed her tangle of braids back from her face, watching him with mingled wariness and smugness.
Her lover gave a massive stretch, straining the confines of her sleep cubby, and smiled sleepily at her. His short, light brown hair was matted to his head with sweat, he had sleep drool dried at the corner of his mouth, a heavy beard shadow on his lower face, a crease in his cheek from sleeping on one of her braids ... and he was the most gorgeous thing she'd ever seen.
“Morning,” he rasped.
“We don't have morning out here,” she pointed out, watching with fascination as he reached up to scratch the fine, light brown hairs curling over his broad chest. It was such a masculine gesture.
“We have morning where I live,” he told her. “Frontiera sunrise is beautiful. The sun comes up in the west and lights the sky real gradual, so it changes colors from the black of night to a pale gray, then blue, and if there are clouds, they turn all kinds of colors ... soft, like your skin, some of them bright as your hair.”
Longing filled Ilya, so strongly his compliments barely registered. She wriggled into a more comfortable position. “And then what happens?”
He curled his arm around her, his hand settling on the small of her back and stroking down to cup her ass, his gaze softening on her face. “The stars disappear—they're real bright at night, so bright you can see the constellations all the way to the Lost Princesses if all the moons aren't full. The mountains lighten first, the snow-capped peaks turning all the colors of the sunrise. Then the prairie begins to brighten, green and gol. And the river—we usually camp beside a river—lightens up and the water’s so clear you can see down into it.”
Ilya sighed deeply. “Sounds ... incredible.” She'd say unbelievable, except she'd seen the travel holovids, and she knew Frontiera was real. “Maybe I'll go there one day.”
Once she saved enough credit, that is. Which meant she'd have to stop buying tech toys.
“It’s an incredible place,” he agreed. “I live with a band, a group—friends, companions. We live wild and free, mostly. Travel wherever we like, stop where we find ourselves, stay as long as we want and then move on.”
“How is this possible?” she whispered in awe. “What d'you live on? For credit, I mean.”
She knew there were beings who foraged for subsistence on Frontiera, but this man certainly didn't have the look of one who ate only what he could gather.
He gave her an odd look. “We, ah ... have our ways.”
She gave him an encouraging look, and he grinned crookedly. “How law-abiding are you, Ilya Mondas?”
Ilya grimaced. “As much as I need to be to stay unnoticed, that's all. Been in trouble most of my life. The rules seem to be made by those in power, and benefit them more than the rest of us.”
It was Var's turn to encourage her. “Tell me. I wanna know all about you.” The coaxing look on his craggy face made her grin. She sighed.
“Okay, I'll tell you. It all began when my dad died. Dear old Dad used to shill me, use me to draw in marks for his cheap cons, 'cause I was little and innocent looking—all eyes and hair, he used to say.”
“You still are.”
She gave him a look. “You wanna hear this, or not?”
He nodded, and she began to talk. “It all began in New Chicago, Earth II …
Earth II, Ten Galactic Common Years ago …
“We pride ourselves on helping unfortunate children become productive citizens,” the crèche directress said, her voice as cold and precise as cubed ice. “And our success rate is high. Of course there are always one or two who are too clever for their own good. They'll end up in a gang, or worse. That's what happens to the ones who think rules are for everyone else.”
She could have speaking of anyone. And yet, Ilya Mondas knew exactly who the woman meant. Her.
Ilya's back might be turned, but she could feel the woman's gaze searing across her back like the strap she wielded when sufficiently riled.
All the other children herded into the long, chilly room knew, too. None of them dared turn their heads and alert the directress that they weren't focused on their tasks, but the gazes of those nearest darted her way.
Ilya's small, thin hands clenched on the guides of the small loom she was operating. She'd like to hurl the quarking thing at the directress' pinched, pale face, see how the bitch liked that.
“Hmm,” answered another voice, this one male. “I see. What are they doing here?”
“This is our craft room,” the directress said. “The children create small mats and rugs for sale. They are learning the importance of working to support themselves, and helping to pay for the operation of the crèche.”
“Surely bots could do this with more precision?”
“Well, yes, but this is a pleasant diversion for the children, just for a short time each day, and a help to us, so we needn't depend too much on the kindness of our donors. There are those wealthy patrons who will pay for the sentimental value of work done by children.”
Ilya's lip curled. Here to do 'pleasant crafts', hells. They were slave labor, more like. Although the rest of the children had come and gone, she'd been in here since early morning, and it was now well after noon. Ilya's belly ached with hunger, and her fingers were sore from constantly pulling the heddles that held the vari-colored cords that made up the patterns.
But she'd figured out a way to get a little revenge, which the crèche directors would discover when they tried to sell her mats.
The cover of her loom was pulled partially down, with a carefully finished mat draped over the top, so her current work couldn't be seen. And when it was finished, she'd bundle it into the nearest crate underneath other mats finished this morning.
She knew, because she'd watched, that the older kids responsible for inspecting the finished work were careless, and didn't bother to look at more than the top few before closing the crates and loading them onto the hovercart for transport.
They could leave her in here all day and night, but they wouldn't get any profit out of her.
Nobody got anything from her she didn't choose to give. She might be small, but she was tough. And in the two years she'd been in this place, she'd learned that she could either let the harsh system beat her down, or she could find ways to hit back.
“Interesting,” said the male voice, closer to Ilya now. “And do the children's fingers generally bleed while they're doing these pleasant crafts? Or is this one an anomaly?” A hand reached over Ilya's shoulder and grasped her wrist, lifting her right hand, turning it to expose her palm and the pads of her fingers, both raw and red.
“Well,” the directress said, her voice thin and pinched. “Ilya is an exception. She is here as a consequence.”
“A consequence of what?” the man asked, still holding Ilya's wrist as dispassionately as a stick, her hand elevated. The gazes of every child in the place were fastened on Ilya's hand, fear and repulsion writ on their pinched, pale faces.
“For modifying the equipage in our tech training class to play a cruel trick on your predecessor,” the woman answered, and Ilya's skin crawled at the satisfaction rich in her tone. Uh-oh.
Only one reason Ilya could think of that she'd be so happy to impart that intel.
This must be the new tech instructor.
“I see.” The man let go of Ilya's wrist, and she pulled her hands into her lap and hunched her shoulders protectively, holding her breath, waiting for whatever would happen next.
What happened was not good. The man reached to push back the cover of her loom, and expose what lay beneath.
The directress drew in a sharp hiss of sheer outrage, the sound carrying over the quiet clack of the other looms.
Ilya peered at her mat, and a tiny surge of triumph cut through her chill of fear.
In the middle of her soft blue mat were woven in nearly matching darker blue, the words 'Quark U'. This was one of her favorite sayings. Some of the other mats said 'Help Us' or 'Eat This'. Once she'd woven in 'I'm Hungry', but only once, because while that was nearly always true, it was also pathetic. And she was not pathetic, she was pissed.
Not that any of her mats would ever make it to the sale rack, but creating them assuaged her hunger pangs. She missed a lot of meals as punishment for infractions against the many rules in the crèche.
This particular infraction was gonna get her tossed in the dark confinement cubicle the children called 'the hole', probably for at least twenty-four hours. Worth it, she told herself stubbornly. And when she got big, she was gonna come back and beat the shit out of the bitch that ran the place.
But first, she had to live through whatever they did to her.
Her hair was seized in a painful grip as her head was wrenched back.
“Get up!” the directress demanded through her teeth, her face livid. “You're going into confinement. And while you're there, you may consider whether you wish to continue being fed and clothed here, or trying your luck on the streets. You know what happens to little girls out there, don't you?”
Ilya did, because the adults here made sure all the children heard every horror story of pedophilia and abuse they could glean from the news.
“Yeah,” she managed, her voice small and thin. “They use kids however they want, like you—but they least pay us for it.”
The directress made a noise like one of the big steam cookers in the kitchen when it was boiling its contents to an unidentifiable mush, and her face darkened even more.
The man’s cool voice cut through the suffocating tension. “Give her to me. She's clever enough to parse a way to work that design in while creating these little ... pieces. I can channel that, and I will.”
“She must be punished first.”
“I'll handle it,” the man said, and his quiet voice sent a chill deep into Ilya's heart.
But whatever he planned couldn't be any worse than what the directress would do, she told herself.
And at first, it wasn't.
* * *
“Did he beat you?” VX asked, his deep voice rough, his heavy brows drawn together.
“Nah,” Ilya said, patting his chest. “That wasn't his style. Master Perro was more the type to freeze with a look. I think he must've been part Indigon, or something. He had a dry wit, could goad you on with a look or a few words, but when it came down to it, he was about as warm and cozy as an ice gelpac.”
“Why did he save you? Did he use you for sex?”
Ilya lifted her head and gave him a look of disbelief. “Uh—no. Why would he want a scrawny little kid who was all eyes and hair?”
Then she correctly interpreted the look on his face. “Oh, you mean was he a pedophile? Nope. Not sure he even had any interest in sex.”
“Then why did he want you?”
She leaned her chin on his hand and petted the heavy curve of his bicep with her other hand. “He figured that if I was smart enough to pattern the weaving loom at random, I'd be skilled at tech. Turned out he was right. See, there were four of us kids that he'd found in the crèche, all of us with a knack for tech. After his other classes were through, he taught us advanced skills. Enough to manipulate tech, and begin inventing our own.”
“Ah, gotcha. How long did you study with him?”
She traced a line across the broad plain of his pectoral. “Four years, until I was seventeen. We started small at first. He let us mess about with the tech in the crèche—locking the bitch out of her office, turning the lights on and off and in classrooms, that kind of thing. Then we moved on to the streets.” She grinned reminiscently. “Blazed a path through Michigan Quadrant till the cops upped their patrols.”
“Then what happened?”
Ilya sighed. “Then we learned why he really wanted us—to steal for him. He started us out small, like it was all just us clever techs joking around. But our targets got larger and larger, until we were breaking into scrapers and stealing valuables. Some of the small stuff he let us keep. The larger items he sold. Then he told us we were gonna break into a jewelry store—one of the most exclusive in the city.”
She shook her head, gazing bitterly into the past. “We were so stupid—so gullible. He had our egos so inflated we thought we could do anything, right under the noses of the cops and private security. But we weren't that smart—we got caught.”
“You went to prison?”
“Not me. When the cops showed up, I hid under a display cupboard. I was the smallest. While they were rounding up the other kids, I managed to crawl around the edge and slip into the hovie of one of the private security guards. Zipped down to the street, and into the markets. I figured if I could just get to Master Perro, he'd help me make a plan to rescue the others. Spent the night hiding in the markets, and waiting for him to answer my link ... but he never did.’
‘The next day it was all over the news, how Master Perro and the crèche had been betrayed by a band of rogue kids. He'd turned his back on all of us. So I sold the pieces of jewelry I had in my pockets, bought different clothing at a recycle mart, stole a comlink off a drunk and used her credit to get on a transport out of the city.”
“He betrayed you.” VX's massive torso was rigid under her now, his face a mask of disgust. “I can go look him up and smash him, if you want.”
Ilya leaned up on her elbows and cupped his broad,whisker-rough jaw in her hands, shaking her head. “No, no, big guy. That's just history now. Hells, he's probably long gone.”
He shrugged. “All right. But I'd enjoy messing him up.”
She moved, wriggling up and over him in a sinuous motion. “Yeah, but right now ... how about we work out that aggression of yours in a more ... fun way? If you want to, that is.”
He placed his huge hands on her bare ass and squeezed carefully. Underneath her, his cock stiffened. “I want to. With you, think I’ll always want to.”
Her heart melted even as excitement squeezed low between her thighs. “That's good. 'Cause I feel the same.”
His gaze heated, and she felt a hard shape stiffen and twitch beneath her bare belly. “Yeah, you'd fit right in. Ilya—come with me. Back to Frontiera, out to the plains. See it all for yourself.”
Ilya gaped at him. Her heart skipped a beat, and then began to beat double-time. A thrill ran through her, and that bubble blossomed again in her chest.
“Uh ... me? C-come with you? Like—like ...” She wasn't even sure how to finish the question. Didn't dare to hope she knew what he meant.
“Like lovers,” he said. “And friends. Like anything you want, little star.”
“But ... you don't even know me.” She couldn't seem to wrap her mind around the immense, glittering possibility he was offering her.