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Rated: 18+ · Other · Sci-fi · #1962275
Chapter two of book one of the sci-fi fantasy.

Chapter 2

         For Gray, the night had passed without it's usual sense of helplessness and long hours of restless tossing. He spent the night reliving memories instead of the same nightmare. His eyes opened without a headache that threatened to split his skull apart. For the first time in a long time, he slept. He'd almost forgotten what that was like.
         As he laid there in the quiet, he listened to Isbeth breath. Soft. Rhythmic. Almost hypnotic.
         He could have come up with a dozen reasons why last night was different than the night before, but he knew there was only one. There was no nightmare because she had been curled up beside him. Isbeth did what she had done so many times before. She quieted the voices in his head and chased away the demons. If it had only been for a little while.
         His eyes studied the contours of her face. The delicate chin. Her full, rose-colored lips. The thin nose. Long eye lashes. The complexion of her skin. If she could have been more perfect, he didn't know how. Or maybe he just saw her through the eyes of a man desperate to feel something again. Maybe there were imperfections that he couldn't see. Flaws he was blinded to. Then he realized, if that was the case, he hoped he never saw her any other way.
         A short while later, her bright green eyes slowly opened. When she saw him, she smiled. “What are you staring at?”
         “You,” he said. “I forgot how good you look in the morning.”
         “Shut up,” she returned with a sleepy grin. Her eyes fell closed again.
         He embraced her tightly, then gave her a long kiss. “Thank you,” he said in a whisper.
         She moaned as she stretched. “I haven't slept like that in a long time.”
         He was about to admit he hadn't either, when she let out a long, low sound that could only be described as a purr. A sound he hadn't heard in a couple of years.
         He slipped his arm out from under her, against her protests. She reached out to him. He took her hand for a moment, only to let her fingers slip from his. He had a day to get started. The morning crews had been at their stations hours ago. He should have been there with them. Fortunately, that was one of the luxuries of being Captain. If he wanted to be late, he could. And who was going to question him?
         Placer got out of his clothes and strolled into the bathroom for his usual morning shower.
         After a good long stretch again, Isbeth cooed,“mmmmm, a nice hot shower sounds like a good idea.”
         “I'd invite you to join me, but I probably wouldn't make it to the bridge,” he returned.
         When he stepped out a few minutes later, he was greeted by Isbeth who was wearing nothing more than panties and a familiar smile.
         He stood there as water dripped to the floor. “It's all yours.”
         Her eyes flashed. Her smiled widened.
         Not known for modesty, Placer slid by her so he could stand under the dryer. He made sure to brush up against her as he did. Then he touched the pad that started streams of warm air washing over his body.
         Isbeth stood for a moment to watch him before she let her underwear slowly slide down her legs to the floor.  She made sure his eyes were on her when she took her turn in the narrow, translucent stall. 
         He watched her turn gracefully beneath the cascade of water. “You haven't changed at all.”
         She paused a second, gave him a look from around the panel, then replied with a wink. “Thank you.”
         As the dryer stopped, he heard her say. “You look like you put on a little more muscle since I seen you last.”
         “Thanks,” he returned, with appreciation.
         He dressed in khaki cargo pants and a dark pull over shirt. Isbeth pulled on denim shorts with a loose fitting, long-sleeved, pale blue shirt. He laced up his boots. She slipped her feet into a pair of dark flats. Together, the two of them headed to the main dining hall for breakfast.

*    *    *
         For every meal, the cook staff would set out a buffet for the crew. Breakfast was the biggest of the day. There was always a huge selection of fruits, breads, meats, vegetables and different pastries. The menu depended mostly on what was in storage, what had been traded for or what was grown in the ship's hydroponic gardens. That and a little imagination made sure nobody aboard the Dragon went hungry.
         When Isbeth saw pans of frosted sweet rolls she was quick to throw two on a plate. She grinned as she licked the sticky from her fingers. “With food like this, I'm surprised you don't weigh three hundred pounds,” she said jokingly.
         He smiled. “That's why I don't eat things like that.”
         Placer chose his usual stack of pancakes and syrup with fruit. When it came to some things, he was a creature of habit. A man who avoided change whenever he could.
         With drinks in hand and full plates, they found a quiet table in a distant corner. Between bites, the two of them recalled memories of their past together. They shared stories of where they had been and what they had done while they were apart. Isbeth tried to ask questions about Rain but Placer always changed the subject back to the two of them. Before they knew it, an hour had gone by. An hour that could have easily turned into two or three.
         When their plates were empty, Placer hesitantly announced he had to leave.
         “That's too bad,” Isbeth said, as she wiped her mouth. “I could sit her all day and eat rolls.”
         “I'll let the cook know you liked them,” he told her.
         Like the gentleman he was, he picked up her tray and carried it back to be recycled for her.
         When he returned to the table, he apologized. “I'm sorry. I'll be back as soon as I can. Until then, you have the entire ship to explore. We a theater, a gym, a shooting range, library, pool, three bars. We even have small shops on deck two if you feel like shopping. Just tell them I'm paying.”
         She glanced around nervously at all the crewmen coming and going. “I'd feel better if you showed me around yourself. I don't exactly know anybody around here.”
         “Wish I could, but I have things I need to take care of.”
         “Then let me come along.”
         He shook his head. “Nah, . . . . you'd get bored. You'd be better off just wandering.”
         She shot Gray a disapproving look. His answer wasn't the reply she wanted.
         “Or, I can find someone to show you around if that would make you feel more comfortable?”
         “Like who?”          
         He proceeded to call over a young woman dressed in dark gray fatigues. She had light brown hair pulled back in a tight pony tail that was a little longer than shoulder length. “Are you busy?” He asked.
         The young lady seemed shocked he had even addressed her. Her brown eyes grew wide. “Um . . . ,” she stammered. “Not real busy Commander, I have duty assignments to take care of this afternoon.”
         “If you'd be willing to show Ms. Isbeth around the ship for a few hours, I'll get somebody else to take care of them for you, . . . . . Ms.?”
         “Sabrina . . . . . Truman,”
         He thought she looked familiar, but he didn't know where he recognized her from. “Sabrina. I'd consider it a favor.”
         She glanced from Isbeth to Placer then back again. “Sure. It would be my pleasure.” Her posture was that of a soldier who had just been given an order.
         He reached out to lightly brush Isbeth's hand. “Is that alright? You'll be in good company until I'm done,” he reassured her. Then he nodded to Sabrina. There was an understanding in that glance, of what was expected.
         Isbeth folded her arms across her chest. “I guess it has to be okay, doesn't it.”
         “I won't be gone more than a few hours and then I'll be back.” He wanted to wrap his arms around her and give her a long kiss. But this wasn't the time or the place. Instead, he turned and walked out of the dining hall.
         She watched him leave with both anger and disappointment. She was not at all happy to find herself being babysat by a stranger. But what else was she going to do? Yell and scream about it?

*    *    *
         As Placer strolled away, he couldn't help but feel guilty. He just left Isbeth with a person she didn't know. A person he didn't know either. He would have rather taken the time to show her around himself, but that idea had it's own problems. When Isbeth came aboard his ship she caused a stir. Rumors of their past together made started some interesting conversations. The fact she hadn't spent the night in her own quarters was going to start even more, if people found out. And they would find out. There were almost twenty-six hundred people aboard the Dragon. It was a small place compared to the rest of the universe. In small places, rumors spread like viruses.
         It may have just been his imagination, but when he set foot on the bridge, he swore the air in the room changed. He felt all eyes turn his way.
         “What?” he asked, with a sense of paranoia.
         Porter gave him a curious look. “You're not usually late.”
         He chuckled. “What are you talking about? I'm always late.”
         As he strolled around the bridge, Placer looked over the shoulders of his crew. This was the main center of everything that went on in the fleet. A large, circular room. It was slightly more than a dozen meters across. Twelve stations made an outside ring of consoles. The primary ones were operations, tactical, navigation, two science, one communication, engineering and one sensor. The other four were whatever they needed to be. In the middle was a command chair that afforded the person who occupied it a three hundred and sixty degree view of the room. The outside walls were lined with monitors and screens that allowed the crew to see in all directions in, around and outside the ship.          Since it was the heart of where the fleet was operated from, Placer made every effort to make it as comfortable as he could. The floor were lined with a medium red carpet. The walls were light gray, the trim was black and the ceiling was transparent. The latter of those allowed a view of space that was rivaled only by the observation deck.
         When the ship traveled across normal space, a seat in the command chair could get painfully boring. Trips through interspace were worse. If the ship performed right, it didn't need anybody to be at the helm or navigation or the command chair. The void between realities was navigated by computer because it was too dangerous for human hands or human minds. One wrong course adjustment, no matter how small, could leave them thousands of light years from their destination. Or worse yet, put their exit point on the event horizon of a black hole or in the gravitational well of a supernova. Which left little for the crew to do on the bridge but watch the radiation flare as they skimmed along.
         When Placer wasn't watching the light show, he spent time in the gym working out or running training drills with his security teams. He could also be found in the shooting range firing off several hundred rounds of ammo to relax. Once in a while he would check in on engineering or stop by the medical bays. When he got really bored he would visit other sections of the ship he hadn't seen in a while or forgot were there. After all, the Dragon was one thousand four hundred and ten meters in length (4,625 ft). It was two hundred and eighty-seven (941 ft.) in width. She stood a full seventy meters (229 ft.) in height. It was made up of eighteen decks. An enormous feat of engineering that always impressed him. The only thing he found more impressive than it's size was the fact that almost two thousand and six hundred people called it home. Unfortunately, he didn't know most of their names.
          What he did know, was that the men and women of his crew were mostly mercenaries. People who had been hired on from different ports, stations and worlds that his ship visited. Some were people he had taken off the streets, given them a home or saved from a life that was destined to be short and miserable. Many of them were wanted by authorities, governments or some other organization that thought they had a right to dictate how people lived.
         Declared outcasts, rebels and outlaws, they all came with some label attached. But Placer never gave much credence to labels. Especially, those put on by others. His own opinion was the only one he cared about. And that, he based that on what he saw. Character, honesty and loyalty meant a lot. His gut feeling meant even more.
         When he first took in the unwanted, he use to ask why they were here. It was a habit he quickly grew out of. The tragedy of their stories simply started to run together into one long tale of regret that became painful to hear. His philosophy when it came to tragic stories was simple. You can't care about one if you don't care about them all. Before long you find yourself asking who's more deserving of your sympathy, your understanding and your pity? In the end, he decided, none of them were. He had nothing to do with their lives before they showed up on his doorstep. If their lives became terrible, soul shattering wrecks after that, then he could have sympathy. He would step up and take responsibility. But in the world he made, that wasn't something that happened often. 
         Today, Placer assumed his seat on the bridge for a few hours. Mostly because he needed time to think. He needed to ask himself honestly about the journey he had brought all these men and women on. For what reason? So he could chase what may only be another ghost? Another rumor? Another dead-end? All he could do was hope not. He hated to waste their time more than he hated to waste his own.
         The path he was on made less sense to him everyday. Was it the right one? Was he where he wanted to be? Was he where he was supposed to be? How did he turn it around if it wasn't? Where was the path he needed to be on to find himself again? Maybe that path walked onto his ship two days ago. Maybe the Universe was making the decisions, he wasn't brave enough to make on his own. Just like Nash always said it did. Maybe, . . . . there were too many questions. Too few answers.
         Before he knew it, minutes had turned into hours and his time on the bridge had passed. He realized he'd failed to make any major revelations about his life. Except the sad realization, that he had no clue what he was doing.
         The bridge doors slid open.
         “Commander,” exclaimed Newton as he stepped off the lift.
         Placer rubbed a hand roughly over his face. “What?”
         “Nothing. I'm a just little surprised to see you here.”
          The Captain tipped his head back with a yawn. “I'm obligated to be here just like everyone else.” His tone carried a sense of frustration.
         “If I'm bothering you, I can come back later,” Newton told him.
           Placer pressed the palms of his hands hard against his eyes. He rubbed as if he were trying to scrub away some vision better left forgotten. Slowly, he shook his head. “It's just not a good day. You know how that goes.”
         “Yes sir, I do,” he replied sympathetically.
         When Placer took his hands away from his eyes, he saw genuine concern in his helmsman's face. “I'd do the same thing for any one of you that I'm doing for Rain,” he said sincerely.
         “We know you would.”
         The Captain stood up from his chair. “If you need anything, you know where to find me,” he told the helmsman.
         They exchanged handshakes. Then Placer stepped over to the lift. The doors slid shut behind him. When they opened again on deck seven, he looked out into the corridor that led back to his quarters. Usually it was a walk he dreaded because he knew when he got there, it would be empty. But not today. Today, somebody would be there. The scent of someone else would be in the air. The sounds of someone else would grace his ears. He wouldn't sit in the quiet alone, consumed by his own thoughts.
         When he stepped through the doors of his quarters he found Isbeth with her feet propped up on the coffee table diligently painting her toe nails. “Nice color,” he complimented. It was the first thing he could think of to say.
         “You think?” she replied as she flashed the deep red polish at him.
         He wasn't sure he really cared what color she painted them. She could have been sitting there watching movies, drinking beer and covering the sofa with food crumbs for all he cared. It was just the fact she was there that brought him a sense of peace.
         “How was your day?” he asked.
         Her attention was focused everywhere else but him.
         When she didn't answer, he changed the question. “How did you and Sabrina get along?”
         He walked over to where he kept the alcohol.
         Isbeth's reply was short, to say the least. “Fine.”
         Placer got into the cabinet and pulled out a glass. “And . . . . ?”
         “And what?”
         He got the feeling something was wrong. She wasn't talking. “What's the matter?”
         With her eyes still on the small tube of color in her hand, she replied with a chill in her voice. “Nothing.”
         He poured himself a glass rye, then went to sit next to her on the couch. “Doesn't seem like nothing.”
         There was a moment of silence while she finished up the last of her nails. She sealed the tube. Slid it across the table, then turned to face him. “You pawned me off on the first person you could find,” she chastised. “You didn't even give it any thought. You just reached out, nabbed whoever came along and expected me to say thank you very much! Did you give any thought to how that was going to make me feel?!”
         In his head, only one thought came to mind. “Crap”.
         He was being accused of something he wasn't even sure he understood. Granted, he had done exactly what she seemed to be upset about, but not for the reasons she thought. His concern had only been to make sure she had a good time and got a chance to see the ship without any problems.
         “One night curled up on a couch,” she continued, “and you're already tired of me. Is that it?”
         Gray stood up, downed his drink, then sat the glass on the table. He wasn't accustom to being talked to like that. Only one other woman had ever been able to get away with it. And she wasn't here.
         “I have a fleet of seventeen ships out there,” he said as he tried to keep the tone of his voice in check. “There are thirty thousand people on them. I'm the one responsible if anything happens. I didn't think you had a problem with that, but evidently you do.” He took a breath to check what he was about to say. “You're right. Maybe I should have thought things out a little better this morning. I didn't think it mattered who showed you around. I just didn't want you to get bored while I was off playing Captain.”
         The two of them shared an awkward, silent stare.
         She stood up. Her jaw was set. Her eyes had narrowed. “Maybe I should just go to my own quarters.”
         With steel-gray eyes he gave her a stern look, but said nothing.
         She picked up her shoes and without a word, walked out the door.
         When it closed behind her, Placer found himself alone again.
         He picked the empty glass up off the table. “Shit never changes.”

*    *    *
         The next morning, he didn't see Isbeth. She didn't knock on his door. She wasn't in the dining hall for breakfast. She wasn't in the gym or anywhere else that he was. He would have gone to her room, but he didn't feel like it was his place. After all, he wasn't the one who got upset over nothing.
         He went to the gym to get a workout in. Then proceeded to go to the bridge to see if there was anything urgent that needed his attention. As usual, there wasn't. He paused at a communications console. He had a friendly chat with Rose as he got her opinion on a few things. Afterward he talked to Edge, captain of the third sister ship, The Saint. A man, to whom Placer was not as close to as he was Rose. He respected him as much, but he didn't make a habit of getting very close to other men. He preferred the company of women whenever he had the choice. It seemed to help him avoid any chance of a testosterone fueled pissing match. The last few times he'd gotten into one. He either killed something or blew something up.
         The rest of his day went as normal. He'd thought about going to Isbeth's quarters several times but fought back the urge. He figured at some point she would come find him. If not, it was going to be a quiet trip to Gan Haith.
         At the end of the day, he found himself in his own quarters. He pulled a book off a shelf to read. Turned it in his hand. Studied the leather-bound cover. Felt the weight of its pages. He even held it up to his nose so he could smell its unique scent. There was just something about a book that was warmer and more inviting than a cold digital screen with dead black words scrolling across it. Emblazoned on the cover in gold letters of this particular one were the words Valley of Wild Horses. By his favorite author Zane Grey.
         He poured himself a drink of his favorite rye whiskey. Then stared at the bottle a minute. Eventually, he sat it on the table next to his glass. Tonight, he would read a good book. Feel a little sorry for himself. Then drown those feelings with alcohol. It wasn't something he often did, but tonight just seemed like a good time for it. Especially since tomorrow wasn't going to be any different than today.
         “The Panhandle was a lonely purple range land, unfenced and wind swept. Bill Smith, cattleman, threw up a cabin and looked at the future with hopeful eyes.”
         Placer took a drink. “I'm glad one of us can Bill.”          

*    *    *
         The next morning Placer took his usual shower. Got dressed. Then started down toward breakfast. A small voice in the back of his mind told him he should go see Isbeth first. He wanted to ignore it, but knew from experience that was usually a bad idea.
         A short time later he found himself standing outside her door. He had chimed several times but nobody answered. He touched the keypad again. Still, nothing. After a minute, he tapped the numbered panel with his security code. Isbeth's door slid aside.
         He stepped into her quarters not knowing what he would find. The ship's sensors monitored everyone's life signs, so he knew he wasn't going to find her with her wrists slit. She may not even be there. She may have already gotten up and was wandering about the ship for all he knew. She may have been drunk, passed out on the floor. It wouldn't be the first time he'd found her like that. He knew her history well enough to know that she may have been anywhere with anyone, doing anything. Bent over a conduit in engineering. On her back in a storage closet. Biting at the sheets in someone else's bed.
         Gray didn't see anything out of the ordinary in the living room. The door to the bathroom was open. She wasn't in there. Then he heard rustling in the bedroom.
         He walked over, put his hand against the door and pushed. “Isbeth?” he called.
         “Wait!” A familiar voice shouted. But it was too late, the door swung open.
         Through the shadows, Placer saw Isbeth sitting up on the left side of the bed. She quickly pulled the sheets up under her chin to cover herself. He was about to say something when he saw someone else in the shadows. He didn't immediately recognize who it was. The other person had their back to him. But that whoever it was, had long hair that hung in sweat matted tresses half way down their back. A woman's back. Whoever it was tried to keep her face averted from him. That was, until she pushed the hair back out of her eyes.
         There stood Sabrina. Her waded up shirt clutched desperately to her naked breasts.
         Placer raised an eyebrow. His eyes went from Isbeth to Sabrina then back again.
         “And here I was afraid you'd get bored.”
         It was obvious Sabrina wished she was anywhere else right then. “I . . . I . . . ,” she stammered.
         “Don't worry about it. It's not the first time I've walked in on her.”
         Sabrina's face flushed a deep red. Placer felt sorry for her. He didn't know her story or what she was like, but this obviously wasn't something she did a lot. Or at least, didn't get caught doing.
         Isbeth sat up, the sheets still held over her chest. Her hair was stuck to her forehead with still glistening sweat. Her usually bright eyes had dimmed. She started to say something, but stopped herself.
         “This doesn't surprise me,” he said callously.
         Sabrina rose to her feet and hurriedly collected the rest of her clothes.
         Placer turned his attention to Isbeth. “Your taste has improved a lot from fat, bald transport pilots.”
         The little five foot five soldier, clothes in hand, rushed past him into the living room.
         “I'm sorry,”  Sabrina whispered in a broken, tearful voice.
         He pretended not to notice her sheer pink underwear with small blue stripes or the tattoo of a twisted dragon running up her left thigh. He could smell the scent of sex on her as she passed. Isbeth had not only been occupied last night, but she was occupied this morning too.
         “That's not fair,” the woman in bed snapped hotly.
         “Not fair?” he laughed. “I'm just making an observation.” From behind, he could hear Sabrina rush to get dressed.
         Isbeth jerked one of the pillows from behind her back and flung it across the room at him.
         “GET OUT!” she screamed.
         It didn't take long before the outside door slid open and allowed Sabrina to escape back into the world. Then it slid shut again. The two of them were left alone.
         Placer stood in the doorway. He blocked out most of the light that spilled in from the living room. Through the strange, distorted shadows, his eyes remained locked on the figure that sat up in the bed. A figure that now seemed much smaller and more fragile. Her shoulders were slumped. Her face was turned slightly away from him. Her eyes were locked on something he couldn't see. It was the same thousand yard stare he'd seen in the eyes of hundreds of young men pulled off the battlefield. Or she was very good at faking it.
         Gray turned away from her.
         In a shy, mousey voice he heard the word “no”.
         He paused, his back still to her.
         “Stay.” She sounded almost like she had no breath left to push the word out.          
         She let the sheets fall away from her as she leaned forward. Her feet were pulled up under her. With a beckoning hand she reached out to him.
         In the back of his mind, Placer had a feeling he was being played. He didn't believe she was really as wounded as she let on. This had nothing to do with dignity or modesty. Years of being a prostitute had left her with very little of either. He'd seen her with both women and men before. And a number of each. He'd even seen her with a species that wasn't sure what sex it was. Not to mention a number of small, four legged animals. So, the question he had to ask himself was “what game was she really playing?”
         Reluctantly, he took her hand.
         She pulled herself up until she could slip her arms around him.
         He pulled her off the bed, tight against him. “Get a shower and dressed,” he told her. “We have things to do.” He put his cheek against hers. The smell of sweat, sex and another woman's perfume where strong. He found it exhilarating. He wanted to breathe her in. But if he stayed any longer, he was in fear of giving in to desires he would regret later. “I'll wait in the living room.” Then he let her slip out of his arms.
         As he stepped out of the bedroom he pulled the door shut behind him.
         He stood there quietly, reminded by what he felt, that he was nothing more than an animal. A two legged creature with opposable thumbs who'd barely learned what tools were for. The scent of Isbeth played against his most basal needs. Hormones rose. His heart pounded.
         “Son of a bitch,” he whispered quietly to himself.

*    *    *
         (Twenty-four hours earlier.)
         Isbeth sat in her room and waited for Placer to show up. Which he never did. It was a fact that bothered her even more than she realized herself.
         She didn't know what to do. He was an enigma. He had a moral code that only he understood. But one he lived by faithfully. One moment he would give a fortune to someone who had nothing. The next, he would wipe out a city to prove a point.
         Through the years she had learned his tolerance had limits. Just like his patience. His reputation for loyalty was well-known, but he wouldn't hesitate to shoot a friend if he had to. He respected honor above all else, but had disgraced himself more times than he could count. Yet, if someone else disgraced him, they would suffer a slow, agonizing death. He was easy to read. But nearly impossible to understand. Just when she thought she could predict what he was going to do next. He proved her wrong.
         As she paced around her quarters, she recalled the first time the two of them met.
         She was seventeen, working in a “club” as a greeter and doing laundry. When she was sixteen, her mother had sold her to pay off gambling debts. Part of the job, besides washing bed sheets, was to take turns working the streets to bring in business. One particular night, Isbeth and a friend of hers were sent out to “advertise”, as it was called.
         While they were handing out fliers, a pair of drunken transport workers grabbed them. Kicking and screaming they were dragged into an alley. Just for amusement, the men bounced them off the walls. Slammed them into locked doors. Flung them against barred windows. Eventually, when the men tired of the game, they started to rip the girl's clothes off.
         Isbeth tried to put up a fight, only to be repeatedly punched in the face for her efforts. She screamed as loud as she could, but nobody was brave enough to enter a dark alley to help her.
         Her memories of that night were spotty at best. She was thrown down on her back in a cold puddle of dirty water. There were pieces of broken glass or sharp rocks under her. Whatever it was hurt as much, if not more, than the blows to her face. She felt wet cold against her legs, her arms, her bare back. The three hundred pound drunk who had her, left her wearing almost nothing.
         He kept her pressed to the ground with his weight-bearing down on her. He was drooling in her face while trying to stick his tongue down her throat. His loud, crude laugh echoed tauntingly in her ears. His breath, rancid with alcohol, made her physically sick. Her stomach lurched over and over. She tried to throw up, but every time she did, she would be punched in the face again. Her left eye swelled shut from the pounding he'd given her.
         She fought until she was exhausted. There just wasn't any more push in her arms or kick in her legs to fend off his massive weight. She could taste salt in her mouth above the taste of bile. Her right eye was the only one she could still see out of. Somewhere amidst the abuse and brutality, she reserved herself to the fact she was going to be raped. There was nothing left. All she could do was hope the piece of crap on top of her let her live through it.
         As he tried to get his pants undone, she simply let her arms fall to the ground. Tears trickled down the side of her bruised face. She closed the one eye that was still open and waited for the inevitable. She felt him thrust against her. She stiffened up expecting pain. Then he quickly jerked upright. She thought he was trying to find his way inside her. He did it a second time. She cringed as her back was drove harder into the ground. A pause followed. She peered up at him through the tears. His hands were around his own throat. His eyes were wide. His mouth gaped open. She expected yells or screams to come out, but he made nothing but gurgling sounds. In the darkness, she could see shimmering streams of deep red run from between his fingers.
         A strange man's face appeared over her attacker's shoulder. He leaned in to say something into the fat man's ear but she couldn't make out what it was. After that, the fat man stiffened. His eyes rolled back in his head. With the help of a push, he fell with a splash into the shallow, greasy water at her side. His chest heaved one last time. Then he was silent and motionless. 
         Isbeth was picked up off the ground by a strong hand. She wasn't able to stand on her own. She remembered feeling somebody wrap something warm around her. A woman's voice said whispered, but it became just noise in the background. As she was held there, she caught a glimpse of her friend who sat motionless against a wall. Two men were leaning over her looking at her wounds. It wasn't long after that, everything became a hazy blur. Then black.
         The next day she woke up in a shelter. Word quickly got to her that a fire the same night destroyed where she'd been working. Tragically, the owners both died in the flames.
         She asked several times who brought her to the shelter. No one would tell her.
         It wasn't until months later she found out a large amount of money had been left for her care. That was when she heard the first rumors that her rescuer had been Placer Gray himself. A man whose name was rarely spoken, for fear it would bring the darkness. 
         The cold chill of that memory still ran down her spine.
         After she collected her thoughts, she pulled herself up off the couch and into the shower.
         “He's not going to turn me down forever,” she mused to herself as the water cascaded over her.
         Then she slipped on her last clean shirt. Light, gauzy tan with a deep V neck. She pulled on a pair of jeans she'd found while “glancing” through the closets. Jeans that were a size too small.
         When she stood in front of the mirror she noticed a line under the jeans where her underpants showed. She slid them back off again. Panties were tossed into a corner. When she slipped the jeans back on again, she took another look in the mirror. “You do have very good taste Rain.” She said with a smug satisfaction.
         She stepped into a pair of thin, brown flats she'd brought with her. They were the closest thing to being barefoot she had. Then she ran her fingers through her hair one more time before she stepped out the door.
         The previous day, Sabrina had taken her to the ship's lounge for drinks. That's where she was going to go tonight. If she got lucky and Placer was there, she'd spend the night at his side, laughing and joking. She would work her way deeper into his life. But if he wasn't ,. . . .  well, then who was to say what could happen.
         She strolled through the doors of the bar with her usual attitude. Like every eye in the place was expected to turn her way. Seven other people besides her were in the lounge. Seven pairs of eyes watched her enter. Five of them were male. Two were female. She walked up and ordered a glass of Drujan brandy. The bartender poured it, then asked if she wanted water.
         “Of course,” she replied.
         As she took her second drink, a man in his later thirties stepped up to buy her another. He introduced himself as Ben. He was cordial, polite and every bit the gentleman. He started to ask her questions about herself. To which, she was more than happy to answer. At least, the answers he wanted to hear. 
         A few minutes later she felt a hand on her right shoulder.
         “Yep,” said a woman's voice from behind her. “This is Ben. He'll charm your socks off then try to charm your pants off too. I know because he's tried with me so many times I've lost count.”
         Isbeth turned to see the big brown eyes of Sabrina looking back at her.
         “That's not true,” Ben retorted. “That little girl would crawl right up my pant leg if I let her. But I keep telling her she's too young for me.”
         Isbeth flashed him a broad smile. “As handsome as you are? It's no wonder she wants you. If I could get drunk enough, I'd crawl up your pant leg too.”
         He looked at her curiously. “How much is enough?”
         With a coy wink, she replied, “One more than I'm going to let you buy me.”
         Ben's face colored up a little as he laid money on the bar. “Here. That's for the next round. If you get lonely, I'm on deck eleven, cabin one seventeen.” He was very polite as he bowed his head, then walked away.
         “Sorry bout that,” apologized Sabrina as she stepped up to the bar. “Some of these guys haven't been on a planet for a couple of months. Usually, when that happens, they get one of two ways. Either a really horny, or really aggressive.” She reached over to pick up the money Ben left. “Stay away from the aggressive ones. They're dangerous.”
         “And the horny ones?”
         “If you just blow on them they're happy,” Sabrina laughed.
         Isbeth chuckled. “I know the kind.”
         The ladies had several drinks while they discussed men and bitched about what little boys most of them were. They eventually, brought up the topic of Placer. An interest the two of them had in common. Much to Isbeth's surprise.
         A couple drinks later Sabrina began to tell the tale of how she joined up with The Dragon. It started when she walked away from her University. Alone and broke, she became a thief. She stole mostly jewelry and expensive stones. It wasn't long before she had a price on her head. Since years on a prison colony mining ore didn't sound like much fun, she sold what she had and bought a ride on an outbound transport. Two years later , she made her way to Taurus, the home of Placer. It wasn't long before she earned a place on The Saint as security. When everyone figured out she wasn't an assassin, a government spy or crazy, she was allowed to apply for a spot on the flagship.
         The longer the story went, the more impressed Isbeth became. A young woman managed to do in two years what it had taken her a decade to accomplish. She couldn't help but admire the tenacity. Although, admiration wasn't the only thing she felt. There was also, jealousy, envy and a certain amount of hatred.
         As they sat there drinking, laughing, smiling and sharing in a good time. Only one word kept running through Isbeth's mind . . . . . bitch!
         A couple of hours turned into a couple more. Sabrina started to show signs of the alcohol getting to her. Her speech became slower, her balance was unsteady.
         “I think I'm going to go back to my quarters,” Isbeth announced. “This has been fun. We'll have to do it again.”
         Sabrina placed a hand on her arm. “Giving up already? That's too bad. I forget the last time I've had this much fun.”
         Isbeth paused. “Well, . . . we could go to my quarters? I've got alcohol too.”
         Without hesitation the younger woman stood up, “that's a good idea. Let's go.”
         The two of them headed out of the lounge like best friends. They staggered down the corridor to the nearest lift. Isbeth had started to feel the effects of the drinks too, but she was in a little better shape than the other. Sabrina found herself leaning against the wall while they waited for their ride.
         Once it arrived, the two women stepped inside, their teen-like giggles echoing back through the halls.
         “I haven't done this in a long time,” confessed the younger of the two. “The women aboard this ship are stuck up cunts. They . . . are too busy trying to screw every new guy that comes on board.”
         “Really?” inquired Isbeth. “And you don't?”
         “Me?” laughed Sabrina. “Look at me. I'm cute, petite and what every, . . . umm, man is looking for.” She leaned against her new-found friend. Her voice fell to a whisper. “I can have any one of them I want. They're like puppies. I can take my pick. I just don't because, you know, . . . . it's more fun to, . . . . make them chase me.”
         “And what do you think of the Captain?”
         “Oh, I'd sleep with him in a heartbeat,” she confessed.
         As the lift doors opened, they stepped off into the arms of two male crewmen.
         “Excuse us,” Isbeth apologized with a chuckle as she stumbled her way around them.
         Sabrina eyed the two men up and down, then commented rather loudly, “I'll take the one on the left, you can have the one on the right.”
         The two men could do nothing more than stare with bewildered looks on their faces.
         Isbeth smiled. She knew how to play the game. “What if I want the one on the left?”
         “Then we'll switch later.”
         One crewman leaned into the other to exchange whispers. They stood there a moment, like they were waiting for an invitation.
         Sabrina gave them a little wave, along with a blown kiss. “That oughta get'em all hornied,” she proclaimed.
         Isbeth took a step back give Sabrina a thoughtful glare. “You have an evil streak.”
         The younger woman smirked. “Yeah, but don't tell anyone.”
         The two of them strolled on toward Isbeth's cabin. When they finally made it inside, Sabrina claimed her seat in the big chair. Her host went to the cabinet to pull out two glasses and a new bottle.
         Sabrina took her ponytail out to let her hair down, then proceeded to undo the top two buttons of her shirt. “I think it's a little warm in here,” she announced.
         Isbeth was quick to agree. “I'll turn the heat down.” For a minute, she disappeared from the room.
When she returned, she went back to the counter to finish pouring their drinks. “Let me know if I need to turn the temp down a little more.”
         With drinks in hand, the two women proceeded to pick up the conversation they had in the bar. They jumped from topic to topic, unable to stay focused on any one thing. Yet, they always came back to Placer, the Dragon and Taurus.
         Before the first glass was emptied, Sabrina put a hand to her forehead. “I . . . ,” she said, “I think I've had enough too drink.” She tried to set her glass on the table, but instead it fell from the edge and tumbled to the floor. What little emerald colored liquor that remained splashed the bottom of her pants and across her shoes. “Damn,” she exclaimed. “I'm . . . ummm, sorry bout that.”
         Isbeth laughed. “No big deal.”
         “Guess I better go . . . .”
         “Sit.” Isbeth was quick to say.  “You're not going anywhere.” She bent down to slip off Sabrina's damp shoes. “You couldn't make it to the lift if you had to.”
         The younger of them draped an arm over her friend's shoulder. “Yeah,” she half muttered. “Your prob . . ably right.”
         “Come on,” Isbeth said as she slid her arm underneath Sabrina's. “We're going to get you in on the bed.” She lifted her up to help her get her balance. “One step at a time,” she coaxed, careful to steady her.
         When they made it to the end of the bed, she set her down gently. With a giggle, Sabrina toppled backwards.
         “I can't let you sleep in these pants. You spilled your drink on them.” she told her half conscious friend. “Let's get them off.”
         The young woman reached up to stroke her friend's arm. “You . . . you . . . really are a good . . . friend.”
         Isbeth undid the buttons. Slowly, she slid Sabrina's pants down her legs. With a firm, but gentle tug, they slipped off and they fell to the floor. For a moment Isbeth stood there looking down at the young woman prone on her bed. Her bare legs were muscled. Smooth and soft.
         Isbeth put a knee up on the bed and started to undo the rest of the buttons on Sabrina's shirt. One at a time until there were no more. When the shirt fell open, a flat, muscled abdomen was exposed.
         “You really do take care of yourself, don't you,” Isbeth complimented softly. She lightly rubbed her hand across Sabrina's stomach.
         “Mmmm hmmmm,” the younger woman cooed.
         Isbeth bent down to run the tip of her tongue around the bare, exposed naval. Then she sensually licked her way up Sabrina's stomach to the plain black bra she still wore. There was a pause to take in the scent of her perfume. Deeply she inhaled. “Mmmmm,” she moaned, in a breathy tone.
         Slowly, she moved her way up the younger woman's chest. Isbeth had just started to kiss her neck when she felt a hand begin to caress her hair.
         Sabrina's eyes may have been closed, but the rest of her was very much awake.
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