Interstellar Service & Discipline
Kidnapped into service on the Hellsbreath, Victoria is caught between two very different men locked in their own private and erotic power struggle. And then there’s the mission…
WARNING: BDSM, Explicit!
~ Interstellar Discipline ~
First Lieutenant, Victoria Stark is an Imperial Navigations Pilot known among the sentient battleships as the Victorious Star – for sacrificing her captains to save her ships. Strong-willed and resourceful, she has never lost a ship she’s flown – and never serviced a captain she’s had.
Captain Ravnos of the Mercenary dreadnaught Hellsbreath rules his crew with an iron will. First Officer Seht is a skeldhi prince whose specialty is erotic discipline. They’re on a mission, and in need of a nav-pilot.
Kidnapped into service on the Hellsbreath, Victoria is caught between two very different men locked in their own private and erotic power struggle. And then there’s the mission…
The Moribund Company has captured the Imperial Dreadnaught Arcane, and intends to auction the sentient ship to the highest bidder. Unfortunately, Moribund himself is attending the auction and Ravnos is forced to remain onboard the Hellsbreath for Moribund has a personal vendetta against the handsome captain. It is up to Victoria and First Officer Seht to go deep undercover at the Mordred Space Station to rescue the Arcane.
To complete the mission and return to her duties as an Imperial Officer, Victoria must become Prince Seht’s rehkyt – a skeldhi pet, literally. Not allowed on the furniture and kept at the end of a leash, Victoria discovers that there are worse things than servicing your captain.
Or are there?
WARNING! This is a BDSM Fantasy!
This is a work of fiction intended to stimulate the imagination and the body. While my stories sometimes depict humiliation and/or coercion they are not meant to be anything thing more than pure sadomasochistic make-believe.
Remember there are Rules for BDSM Play.
They begin & end with: Safe – Sane & Consensual.
Praise for Victorious Star
“Morgan Hawke never met a boundary she didn’t want to push. In VICTORIOUS STAR she proves it, with one of the most remarkable erotic romances I’ve ever read. Morgan creates a complex, fascinating science fiction universe, then adds three strong-willed and sensual characters locked in a delicious battle for supremacy. If you’re anything like me, it will fascinate you, it will shock you, and it will turn you on. You definitely won’t be bored.”
— Angela Knight —
Fallen Angel Reviews
“This book kind of reminded me of the British Navy of the 18th and 19th centuries. The uniforms are elaborate, and the officers are sadistic. Hawke really pushes a lot of buttons in this story. She manages to combine a very good, complexly plotted science fiction story, with a scorchingly erotic, bisexual BDSM ménage. Warning: This book is not for the faint of heart – it is very intense and violent on many different levels. I have to admit that the sexual violence portrayed in this novel disturbed me. But I also – somewhat against my will — found it very exciting. The scenes include male/female/male sex, male/male sex, oral and anal sex, bondage, spanking, slavery … the list goes on and on.
“It’s a fairly long story (300+ pages), but it was so riveting that I finished it in one day – it was that hard to put down. I have to consider this one of my Recommended Reads for this month.”– Jean
5 Hearts –The Romance Review Spot
“…in Victorious Star Morgan Hawke has outdone herself yet again. Her characters are so real, and lively. The sex is hotter than hot and the storyline blows you away. Never have been a real Sci-Fi buff, I could definitely see myself becoming one as long as all the writing is this excellent.”
–– Paula Beaty —
5 Stars ~ Just Erotic Romance Reviews
Heat level: Orgasmic
“…Victorious Star is a fabulous novel, jam-packed with action, adventure, and sex. Ravnos and Seht are absolute alphas, in control and very sure of themselves. Their characters are dominant, yet capable of humor, and they find themselves constantly challenged by Victoria, an independent woman who’s not afraid to speak her mind. The sex was absolutely scorching, with many threesomes, and fun had by all around. Ms. Hawke pushes several boundaries throughout this book, and with very successful results, too, I might add.
I recommend this book without reservation.”
–– Barb Chan —
5 Hearts ~ The Romance Studio – BLUE
“…I’ve never read such an intense book! From start to finish, this book had me glued to my PDA. The characters evolved more than I though possible and then you realize they didn’t really change so much as their true colors just came through. The universe was very well developed, as was the language. I only wish I could have come up with it. Reader beware . . . this book is not for the faint of heart. The sex is explicit, violent and sizzling. Some things will make you uncomfortable, but in the end you’ll understand. There is most definitely a method to the madness.
“I highly recommend this book. It’s definitely going on my “keeper” shelf.”
–– Amy L. Turpin —
5 Cups ~ Coffee Time Romance
“…Ms. Hawke has created a story that tells of love, danger, and intrigue. Her characters are all strong but extremely volatile. Victoria is a woman who immerses herself into her duty and will do anything to save the ships she flies. Ravnos is the dominant Alpha male who likes nothing more than to control everyone and everything around him. Seht is also a dominant male but will also be submissive when the need arises.
“I loved all these characters and hope to see more of them in the future.”
— Sheryl —
4.5 Stars ~ eCataRomance
“Morgan Hawke has skillfully written a tale of adventure which pushes every envelope available. She has woven suspense and action with passionate (sometimes kinky) sex and domination to produce a novel which stands out in imagination and quality.
“Hold on to your pants. You are in for quite a ride with this story. From exotic locales to sentient ships, Morgan Hawke’s fertile imagination is a joy to experience. Please be aware that this book is not for everyone. It does contain explicit sex and domination and bondage. It is beautifully written and all actions keep you riveted to the story at all times.”
–– Elise Lynn —
The Road to Romance
“Victorious Star is a fantastic read. It keeps readers glued to the pages and interested it what will happen next. Morgan Hawke created an alluring tale that is well written and exciting. The sex scenes are hot enough to raise reader’s body temperature. I look forward to reading more of her work and can’t wait to see what she has in store for readers next.”
–– Claudia Maldonado —
Enchanted in Romance
“Morgan Hawke has created a completely viable universe navigated by sentient machines, a complete complex skeldhi culture, an Imperial bureaucracy and an against-all-odds daring rescue of a sentient ship. In this universe, Ravnos, Seht and Victoria find themselves each on their respective separate but united paths. This is a fully realized science fiction story enhanced with erotic BDSM and a couple of anatomical surprises. In a satisfying way, all of the characters grow and change as a result of their physical and emotional connections.”
5 roses ~ A Romance Review
“Morgan Hawke creates a world of passion between these three people and the reader has no choice but to go along for the wild ride!!! This somewhat dark, yet engrossing book isn’t for everyone but if you like hot, spicy unconventional romance, then this is THE book to buy. I highly recommend it.”
5 Blue Ribbons ~ Romance Junkies
“This story knocked me off my feet. Morgan Hawke has created a universe of interesting people and exotic aliens. Seht is basically humanoid but when you find out what his major difference is, wow – I would love to meet an alien like him. The ships are sentient and as a nav-pilot, Victoria plugs herself in and talks to them resulting in some unusual happenings. Ravnos himself is also full of surprises, including his background and the reasons behind his relationship with Seht.
This book is highly erotic and not for the feint-hearted. Please check the publisher’s warnings carefully before reading it. If you are like me, you will love this book. I can honestly say it is the best thing I have read all year, and Morgan Hawke has become a favorite of mine after reading just one book.
I can’t recommend VICTORIOUS STAR highly enough, go and buy it now.”
–– Jaynie R —
Outside the rim of Imperial Space…
First Lieutenant Victoria Stark grimaced at the image on her holographic display. “So, this is where the captain has seen fit to abandon me.” The small orbital way-station looked like a floating heap of crumbling junk that had somehow fallen together, but had yet to drift back apart. Trash and debris from wrecked ships trailed its orbiting wake. The moon it circled didn’t look much better. The surface was pocked with craters and crashed ships.
She snorted. “I’ve seen worse.” She had, but not by much. She shut down the holographic transmission and stroked the instrument panel. “I’m going to miss you, lady,” she said with sincere regret.
The lights in her cabin dimmed just a few degrees.
A slight smile curved Victoria’s lips. The Adamant would miss her too. Her ships always loved her. And she always loved them.
A knock came at the door.
Victoria sighed. This was it; this was good-bye. “Come,” she called out.
The door opened and a white-uniformed yeoman snapped a sharp salute. “We’re ready for you, Senior Nav-Pilot Stark.” He stared at her austere black coat. “Nav-Pilot?”
“Former senior nav-pilot. They relieved me of duty, remember?” Victoria smiled grimly. “I get to wear civilian togs.” She pulled on her supple black gloves. There was no way in hell she was going to walk onto that station in a burning white, screaming target of a uniform, especially on the wrong side of the Imperial border. She wasn’t suicidal.
“I’ll be ready in a moment.” With sharp, efficient movements, Victoria buckled the sword-belt over her floor-length black coat. She was not about to walk onto a civilian station without a weapon. The unadorned black scabbard would draw little attention. Swords were not uncommon apparel, as energy weapons were strictly regulated. Swords might cut flesh, but they couldn’t punch holes though plating to release precious atmosphere.
Although many civilians carried swords, Victoria’s saber, like the white breeches and matching frocked officer’s coat tucked safely in her personal cases, was a symbol of her officer’s status. The uniform and weapon were holdovers from a more romantic time when ships sailed the seas rather than the stars. Of course there had been updates. Instead of the archaic tempered steel of the original officer’s saber, the live steel of Victoria’s mimetic blade practically hummed with nanites. The sword would return to shape from a forty-five degree bend, would never lose its edge, and could withstand extremes in temperature, such as the absolute cold of space, without shattering. It would hold the perfect shape of its making for as long as it existed. Live-steel was said to be born, not made.
The yeoman’s jaw tightened. “Are they going to court-martial you?”
Victoria shook her head. “No, just reassign me to another battleship.” She smiled. “Trust me, they do not want me on the stand. My report would be quite embarrassing.” She strode out into the hall. She knew exactly where she was going. No one knew this ship better than she.
The yeoman followed at her heels. “Pardon my frankness, Nav-Pilot, but they gave you a shitty deal. You saved the damned ship.”
Victoria’s hands clenched at her sides. “Somehow, I strongly suspect that the executive officer didn’t want the ship saved.”
The yeoman scowled. “Why don’t I find that surprising?”
“Perhaps because you are an astute young man?” Victoria raised an eyebrow at the crewman. “As it is, if Admiral Moraine had not appeared when he did to drive off those marauders, we would have all been lost.”
The crewman frowned. “You would have found a way to keep us in one piece, even without Admiral Moraine’s fleet.”
Victoria shook her head. She said reluctantly, “I doubt that. The mercenary commander was very, very good.”
The yeoman snorted. “Which one? There were two marauder bands.”
Victoria snorted. “The second. If the first hadn’t started squabbling with the second, we’d all be in chains.”
The yeoman looked up. “Then it’s true? The second commander asked for our surrender?”
Victoria nodded. “Not that I was about to.”
The yeoman chuckled. “I bet you surprised the hell out of him when you opened fire on his flanking ship.”
Victoria smiled grimly. “If Moraine hadn’t spooked him, and he had moved just a little faster, he would have taken us anyway. He was that good, and I was running out of options fast.”
The yeoman snorted. “He didn’t have the Victorious Star at the helm.”
She winced. Would she never escape that damned title? “No, he didn’t.” She lengthened her strides. Her long skirts flared in her wake. It was more than time to get off this ship.
~ VS ~
“Why the captain stopped at this junk-heap of a space station is beyond me.” Victoria tipped the glass to her mouth and took a swallow of the harsh local beer. “He must have wanted to get rid of me pretty badly.” Her gaze drifted to the far side of the broad curved spaceport lounge. The lights were almost too dim to see the next table over. She snorted. Or the rust holding this station together.
She tipped her head back and stared at the distant ceiling. It churned with archaic fans barely disturbing the haze from imported tobacco smoke and other less sociable indulgences. Good thing my civilian flight-suit and long-coat are black. My Imperial whites wouldn’t last a day under these conditions. And Fate only knew how long it was going to take Central Command to send a ship all the way out here to collect her. A week? A month?
Once she left this junk heap and got back to base the waiting would really began. She had a reputation for being a top-notch nav-pilot; in fact, she was one of the best. However, her reputation as the Victorious Star came more from being just a little too skilled at defending her honor from her own commanders, rather than from saving ships. She scowled and her hand slid unconsciously to the officer’s saber at her side. Fuck tradition, I’m not sleeping with a superior who doesn’t deserve the title. If they want it, they’ll have to take it.
So far, not one of her former superior officers had succeeded in using the more traditional method of forcing dominance by bending her over a desk.
She thunked her empty glass down on the scarred table. “Just once, I’d like to serve a captain worthy of his rank.” She dropped her feet onto the deck and wandered over toward the bar.
~ VS ~
Victoria collected another glass of watery beer from the bartender and headed back toward her small table. From the corner of her eye she glimpsed a man wearing a shoddy dark uniform angling straight for her. At the last second, he turned just enough that his shoulder deliberately aimed straight for hers.
Victoria rolled her eyes and neatly dodged the intended impact. She smiled at her beer. Didn’t even spill a drop.
She heard the man splutter, turn and stride after her.
Damn fool. She carefully dodged through the crowd and set her glass down as the man caught up. She turned sharply to face the annoying idiot. “Can I help you?”
Her pursuer stood a full head taller and wore a poorly kept black uniform that hung off his bony frame. His skin color was off. Apparently his interior tech needed a tune-up; it was souring his biological system. He was also pissed as hell about something.
Victoria relaxed into a comfortable and unassuming battle-stance. She could smell the fight coming. Might as well prepare for it. Then she noticed his nav-pilot insignia. His ship’s symbol looked suspiciously like that of one of the mercenary ships she had faced only days ago. Shit.
Two other, bigger men in the same uniform, though in considerably better condition, came and flanked the nav-pilot. She eyed their rank. Petty officers. Their small movements told her point-blank that all their augmentation was in their arms and shoulders. Probably engineers. If they swung at her, she’d have to make damn sure their punches didn’t connect.
She almost smiled. Too bad for them, most of my augmentation is in my legs. She was pretty sure she had the advantage of speed on all three of them. Their sloppy and aggressive stance told her that they weren’t particularly skilled either.
The mercenary nav-pilot curled his lip. “You Nav-Pilot Stark from the Adamant?”
Where the hell had they heard that? Well, it was too late now. She gave them a tight smile. “Former senior nav-pilot. I’ve been relieved of duty.”
The two engineers exchanged glances. “What for?” one of them asked.
She smiled. “For kicking mercenary butt.”
All three men glowered.
Victoria had no idea which man threw the first punch, and didn’t particularly care. Two hard kicks to the knees later, and the two big guys were on the ground moaning. The nav-pilot danced out of reach and pulled out his sword.
The civilian bar crowd cleared a wide circle in a big hurry.
Victoria scowled. Piss! Blades meant one of them was going to get seriously hurt, and she knew for a fact that it wouldn’t be her. Damn it. Paying for this idiot’s funeral would cut into her vacation pay. She set her hand on her pommel but left the blade sheathed. “Look, I don’t know who the hell you are, but pulling a blade on me is a mistake.”
“I’m Nav-Pilot Richards of the Hellsbreath, and you are gonna die, bitch!” He lunged.
Victoria let him skim past her, and gave him a barehanded shove to help him along. “What the hell did I do to you?”
Richards tripped and landed in an untidy heap at the edge of the circle, swearing viciously.
She frowned. Wait a minute, wasn’t the Hellsbreath the command ship for the attacking mercenaries? This could mean serious trouble. If the mercenaries were still pissed, they could easily catch the Adamant. The ship had no hope of escape without a senior nav-pilot to fly her.
Richards picked himself up off the deck. “I heard you had command of the Adamant when the Revenge went nova.”
Victoria nodded. “Yep, that was me.” So the idiot did have his facts straight. Good, blame me, not the ship.
“You murdering bitch!” Richards flew at her, swinging his blade wildly.
Victoria turned, drew her sword, and batted his blade away from her. The skirts of her long coat flared like a cape. “It’s my duty to defend my ship, you moron.” She caught his ankle with her foot as he passed.
He tumbled spectacularly to the deck.
By the Fates, what an amateur. Victoria sighed. He didn’t stand a chance. She hadn’t even broken a sweat. “Give it up. You can’t beat me.”
Richards rose to his feet. “I’m going to kill you!”
Someone shouted, “Richards!” The man hesitated at the sound of his name, but flew at her anyway.
She had a split second to see the gun in his other hand. “You idiot.” She lunged and took him through the throat before he could raise the pistol. There goes my vacation pay. What a waste.
Then she saw the six inches of steel sticking out of his chest.
Richards choked on the steel through his windpipe, clutched at the steel through his heart, then slumped to the deck. The pistol fell with a loud clatter.
Victoria pulled her sword from his body and stepped back before his blood could spot her coat.
A brutally handsome man with the coldest gray eyes she had ever seen stood there staring at her. He shook back his hair. The tumbling blue-black waves revealed the silver braid on the shoulders of his floor-sweeping pitch-black cape. Underneath his cape was a captain’s coat with the insignia for the Hellsbreath on his breast.
The moron’s captain. Victoria winced. Great, this is just great!
He picked up the pistol and shoved it into his belt. His gaze shifted to her left.
Two men in a similar black uniform stepped up, grabbed Richards by the arms, and dragged him off.
She frowned after them. They looked like the same two engineers she had just thrown to the deck.
The cold-eyed captain calmly withdrew a handkerchief from his coat cuff. “My apologies. That was uncalled for.” He began to clean his blade.
Victoria turned sharply to the side and pulled out her own handkerchief to clean her blade. “My apologies as well, sir.” She had the hardest time looking at his beautiful and bitterly cold face. “I kept the strike clean. If you get him to the med-techs fast enough, you should be able to recover him.”
“I’m afraid not.” He sheathed his weapon. “His implants have been souring for a while.”
Victoria sheathed her weapon. “Suicide then?” She cautiously raised her hands to check her hair. The stuff unraveled to her waist if she wasn’t careful. Her silver clip was still in place and it seemed to be holding, even after the fight. It should. I had it braided tightly enough to last through a nuclear attack.
“Suicide seems likely.” He nodded in formal greeting. “I’m Captain Aubrey Ravnos, of the Hellsbreath, and you are?”
“Captain Ravnos.” She presented a short respectful bow. “First Lieutenant Victoria Stark, formerly senior nav-pilot of the Adamant, at your service.”
Ravnos’s brows shot up. “You’re a long way from home, nav-pilot.”
She nodded. “I’m here to await a shuttle to take me back to base for reassignment.”
He frowned. “Reassignment?”
Victoria let out a breath. Might as well get this over with, before he hears it from someone else. “During the last engagement, I took command.”
“Ah, yes, the Adamant, I remember. I did wonder why she went from basic maneuvers to sudden counter-strike.” He raised a brow. “That was you?”
She nodded. “Yes, sir. It was very close.”
“Very close. We nearly had you.” Amusement flashed in his gaze. “I must admit I was impressed. Considering your ship’s position, it was the only option you had besides surrender.”
Victoria felt her cheeks warm. The same captain that took out fifteen of the Imperium’s dreadnoughts was impressed? With her? No one had ever praised her for her skills in battle, only complained bitterly that she took their victory from them. The wave of gratitude took her completely by surprise. Fate and damnation, she’d kill to serve a captain that appreciated her skills. “As I said, it was very close.”
A midnight brow shot up. “Let me get this straight; you’re being reassigned even though you saved the ship?”
Victoria nodded and gave him a bitter smile. “It seems that the Adamant’s second in command did not appreciate it.” The little shit had bitched and moaned non-stop until her spineless coward of a captain agreed to relieve her from duty, just to shut him up.
“The Adamant’s second in command?” He frowned. “What happened to the ship’s captain?”
Victoria bit back her grin. “Fainted.” She sincerely hoped her voice would carry enough to spread that little tidbit far and wide. As revenge went, it was rather small and petty, but hey, revenge was always petty.
“The captain fainted?” A smile almost curved his lips. “You’re joking.”
Victoria shook her head. “No, sir, fainted dead away. The commander yelled ‘abandon ship’ and carted them both to the escape pods. As soon as they cleared the bridge, I took over the helm and got the ship out of your interesting little trap.”
“And they relieved you of duty.” Ravnos snorted. “Actions like that make me wonder how the Imperium got to be an Imperium to begin with.”
Victoria often wondered the same thing, but as an officer of said Imperium it would be in poor taste, not to mention downright dangerous, to say it out loud.
Ravnos sighed. “Again, I apologize for the unprovoked attack from my crewman.”
Victoria didn’t know what to do; now, the enemy captain was apologizing — to her.
Ravnos gave her an assessing look. “But it seems that I am now in need of a senior nav-pilot.”
“That man was a senior nav-pilot?” She shook her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
Ravnos raised a black brow and speared her with icy amusement. “There was some doubt as to his credentials.”
Victoria snorted. “I bet fully half the ship’s guidance functions were offline.”
Ravnos raised his chin. “You Imperials almost lost every ship to us anyway.”
Victoria couldn’t tell if he was angry or amused. She decided on amusement and indulged in a tight smile. “Not one of us would have survived if you’d had a proper nav-pilot, Captain. Pardon me, but your tactics were brilliant. The only reason we made it was because our reaction time was better.”
He nodded. “Thank you, and you’re right. I’ve rarely seen a ship respond as fast as the Adamant.”
Victoria felt her cheeks heat under his praise. If this keeps up, I’m going to have a bad case of hero worship.
His gaze sharpened. “Since you are between assignments and I am in need of a nav-pilot, why don’t you serve on board my ship?”
Victoria stared at him in astonishment. He wanted her, an Imperial officer, to serve on his mercenary ship? Was he out of his mind? He couldn’t be serious.
His gaze remained steady, and something chilled in its depths.
Victoria found his simple stillness unnerving. Shit. He was serious. She bit back a less than judicious comment. “I’d be honored to serve you, Captain,” she said softly. “But I really don’t think that would be a good idea. My superiors might not take it well if I, ah…” She flinched. How the hell do I say this without insulting him?
“Work for someone who just got finished blowing the hell out of fifteen warships?” Bitter humor shimmered in his gaze. “You do have a point.”
Victoria examined the toe of her boot, profoundly disappointed that she’d had to turn him down. “Shame, too; you’re a damn fine captain.”
He raised a dark mocking brow. “Think so?”
“If you were Imperial, I’d be begging to serve under you.” She peeked up at him. The shadows deepened the sharp lines of his face. Bloody Fate, he’s fine. She blushed and looked away. On second thought, maybe it was better this way. He was far too striking for her to serve effectively. She’d be too busy fantasizing about what he’d look like naked.
“I see. Then perhaps if we do this another way?” He glanced to her right.
“What?” Victoria looked up, sensing sudden danger. She felt a fist slam into her side, then the electric burn in her cybernetic system. They’d used a stunner on her. She dropped to her knees in surprise. They can’t mean to just take me? Darkness smothered her thoughts.
She never felt the deck.
~ VS ~
Victoria snapped awake slumped in a chair. A vicious bolt of pain stabbed through her temples. She shut her eyes and groaned. Her delicate navigational implants did not appreciate the power-surges caused by stunners. She leaned forward in a futile attempt to relieve the agony in her skull, but jerked to a halt. Her wrists were fastened to the arms of the chair.
She winced past the pain in her skull and eased back into the chair to sit upright. The weight of her sword-belt was missing from her hip. She felt disturbingly naked without it. She looked up. Ah, shit, please tell me this is a bad dream.
Less than six feet in front of her, Captain Ravnos sat comfortably in a red velvet chair with one booted leg extended over a cushioned hassock. His cape and long coat were gone, showing the sleeveless brocaded waistcoat and the black lace cravat knotted around his high-collared silk shirt. He’d propped his elbows on the arms of his chair and folded his fingers together across his lap in an attitude of amused patience, though he lacked even the hint of a smile.
From the look of things, she sat in the middle of his public appointment chamber. Expensive rugs covered the deck and a real wood table sat by his chair. His desk wasn’t in front of her, so it had to be behind her, but she was in far too much agony to turn her head that far to see. However, she could see through the broad window to her left. They were still docked in the spaceport. Let’s not panic yet. Maybe this isn’t what it looks like.
“Are you in pain?” Ravnos inquired politely.
“Yes, sir,” she replied respectfully and slowly twisted her wrists, testing the cuffs’ strength. A quick glance showed that they were designed with heavy-weapon cyborgs in mind. Regardless of her physical augmentations, she was not going to be able to break them. Damn it, damn it, damn it!
She saw him flick a finger and sensed movement to her immediate right.
A crewman with a hypodermic in his hand bent at her side.
“Whoa, hey!” She tried to jolt away, nearly dislocating her shoulder. The cuffs held her fast to the chair.
Ravnos snorted. “Relax, it’s for the headache.”
The crewman pulled her coat’s lapels wide, then unfastened the buckles on the collar of her flight-suit.
She eyed the needle with extreme doubt. “Isn’t an injection a little archaic?”
“We are somewhat backwards out here past the Imperial rim,” Ravnos said dryly.
The crewman pressed a finger to her pulse and stabbed her bare throat.
Victoria hissed. She hated needles.
The crewman stepped away, and out of sight.
Victoria winced. That needle had stung. She looked around for her sword, but didn’t see it. “Where’s my sword?”
“You won’t be needing it.” Ravnos dropped his foot on the rug and leaned forward. “Your new uniform is in your quarters. You will begin your duties as senior nav-pilot as soon as you have dressed.”
Bloody Fate, and damnation… Victoria winced. This was exactly what it looked like — a kidnapping. Bitter betrayal burned in her stomach. And I really liked him too. She glared at him with all the fury in her throbbing temples. “With all due respect, sir, you’ve kidnapped me. I do not owe you duty.”
“The original term for taking on unsuspecting crewmen is ‘pressed’.” Ravnos’s expression chilled to bitter winter. “And you will serve to the best of your abilities, or you will be disciplined.”
Victoria bared her teeth in a feral grin. “Then you’d better space me now!”
“Great Mother,” a voice drawled with amusement. “What have you brought home this time, Captain?”
Victoria looked sharply to her right.
A tall, slender man wearing an ankle-length captain’s coat with an awful lot of silver braid lounged in the doorway. His skin was moon-pale; his frost-white hair was pulled back into a long straight tail exposing gracefully pointed ears. His blue eyes, the color of the heart of a flame, roved over her breasts straining against the buckles of her black coat, then focused on her exposed throat. A lethal smile graced his full lips. “Whatever it is, I approve.”
Victoria couldn’t stop staring. What the hell is a skeldhi doing on this ship? They hate humans!
Ravnos tilted his head toward her. “First Lieutenant Victoria Stark, this is my executive officer, Commander Seht.”
Victoria looked from the very human captain to the decidedly not human, perhaps even anti-human, second in command.
“Number One,” Ravnos continued, “this is our new senior navigation pilot.”
“Senior navigation pilot?” The skeldhi commander stalked in with poisonous grace and circled Victoria. He looked over at Ravnos. “What did you do with our last nav-pilot?”
Ravnos’s ice gray eyes focused on Victoria. “Our current nav-pilot shoved a sword through his throat.”
Victoria ground her teeth. “My sword wasn’t the only blade shoved through him. I distinctly remember yours sticking out of his chest, Captain.”
The skeldhi raised a silver brow. “Spirited. I like that.”
Victoria stared at the circling skeldhi, stunned. This close up he was breathtaking. His blue gaze seemed deep enough to drown in and his mouth looked…kissable. She looked away and shook her head. What am I thinking?
Seht smiled. “I see, by the cuffs, that you haven’t changed your method of procuring officers.” One of his hands brushed across her shoulder.
Victoria stiffened. “What?”
The skeldhi stopped at her elbow. “Oh, he grabbed me the same way.” His smile deepened. “It’s a habit of his.” A long nail traced a path along her jaw.
Shivers followed his tracing fingertips. She took a sharp breath and jerked away. His touch was doing odd things to her already disturbed insides. “I can’t serve him. I’m an Imperial Officer.”
The skeldhi snorted. “Not for long.” He turned and strode gracefully toward Ravnos.
Ravnos tilted his head toward her. “We’re negotiating her terms of service now.”
Victoria jerked at her cuffs. Negotiating, my ass. At least her head didn’t hurt so much. Whatever was in that needle worked fast.
Ravnos focused on his executive officer. “Did you need something?”
The skeldhi abruptly straightened and his expression lost its humor. “No, captain. I’m off duty at the moment. I thought I’d drop by to see your new acquisition.”
Victoria focused on the commander in astonishment. Was that fear? As a skeldhi he was biologically far stronger and faster than the average human. Moreover, his body language spoke volumes about years of hand-to-hand fight training in addition to subtle physical augmentation. Technically, he should be able to twist even a heavy-weapons marine into scrap. What did he have to be afraid of?
“I see.” Ravnos nodded. “Very well then, you’re welcome to remain.”
“Thank you, sir.” The skeldhi let out a soft breath.
Ravnos turned back to Victoria. “I need you to fly this ship for a three-day mission. At the end of that time, if your orders have come through, I’ll return you to the station. If your orders have not come through, you will remain until they do. You will, of course, be paid for your services.”
Victoria shook her head. “If I serve on your ship for even one flight, I will be court-martialed as soon as I get back.”
Ravnos snorted. “This is not the Imperium. We do not keep those kinds of records. Trust me, no one will know you served on this ship.”
Victoria gritted her teeth. Just what she needed, blackmail material. “You will.”
Seht winced and took a subtle step back.
Ravnos lunged to his feet with his sword naked in his fist so fast that even with her enhanced eyesight she hadn’t seen him draw it. “Do you doubt my honor?” His eyes blazed with frigid unholy violence. He looked like a dark avenging angel about to strike.
Oh, that’s why the skeldhi was impressed. Victoria swallowed and dropped her gaze. She couldn’t look at his far too beautiful, far too frightening face. “No, sir, I do not.” If she’d said anything else, she had absolutely no doubt that he would have killed her right where she sat.
Ravnos nodded. “Good.” The violence in his expression retreated as though it had never been there. He sheathed the sword and sat. “I already have your messages flagged at the station. As soon as your orders arrive, you will be returned.”
Victoria stiffened her spine. “And if they arrive tomorrow?”
His expression chilled. “Three days, Nav-Pilot Stark.”
Victoria chewed on her bottom lip and shifted uncomfortably. Sometime during that last exchange, her crotch had gotten annoyingly moist. What the hell had brought that reaction on? She sighed in disgust. “I don’t have much of a choice, do I?”
Ravnos raised his brow and amusement flashed fleetingly though his expression. “No, you do not.” Moving with elegant grace, he rose from his chair and came to stand beside her, looming over the chair where she was bound. His boots didn’t make a sound. He drew the sword from his waist scabbard.
Victoria barely stopped herself from flinching back.
“I want your sworn word as an officer that you will serve me to the best of your abilities until you are returned.”
He wants my oath? Victoria clenched her fists impotently. Damn him! Of all things, she had not expected a direct challenge to her honor. He was a mercenary. No one expected him to keep his promises. As an Imperial officer, if she swore fealty, she would be honor-bound to keep it.
“Nav-Pilot Stark?” His soft voice traced an icy finger down her spine. The naked blade tapped the side of his boot.
There was nothing she could do. She could swear and try not to betray the Imperium, or she could die. “I will serve.”
“Excellent.” He knelt at her side and released her wrists then stepped away. “Kneel and swear.”
Victoria rubbed her wrists and stood with as much grace as she could muster. She dropped to one knee at his feet and placed one hand flat on the deck. The black skirts of her coat flared around her. She bowed her head.
Victoria looked up and the edged tip of his sword touched her bare throat. She took a shallow breath and stared at Ravnos in unconcealed alarm. Her treacherous crotch grew wetter.
An unholy smile curled his lips, and his eyes gleamed with heat. “Swear.”
“I, Victoria Stark, solemnly swear on my honor to serve.” She took a tiny breath, and her voice tightened to an embarrassing squeak. “I don’t know your full name, sir.”
“Captain Aubrey Laslo Ravnos of the ship Hellsbreath,” he said softly. “From the beginning, please.”
Victoria decided against nodding. Warmth trickled down her neck. She was pretty sure that it was blood. However, her real concern was that the moisture in her crotch seemed to be soaking through her suit. What the hell is going on with my body? She took a deeper breath and her voice steadied. “I, Victoria Stark, solemnly swear on my honor to serve Captain Aubrey Laslo Ravnos of the ship Hellsbreath with all due honor, loyalty, and respect.”
Victoria’s temper flared and her teeth clenched. That was not part of the oath.
He raised his brow, daring her to omit his addition. The blade on her throat shifted.
Victoria actually felt the burn of the blade’s keen edge. She stubbornly kept her eyes on Ravnos’s face, but that was definitely blood dripping down inside her suit. “And obedience,” she ground out. “Until death or the captain shall relieve me of my duties. By the grace of Heaven and the glory…” She hesitated. She damn well couldn’t say by the glory of the Imperium. “And the glory of the Hellsbreath,” she improvised. “May I serve with distinction.”
“Very good.” He removed the blade from her throat and stepped away.
Victoria stayed down on her knee. According to protocol, she had to remain in that position until her new captain gave her leave to rise. She didn’t even try to stop the blood that was dribbling down her breast.
He tugged a handkerchief from his coat sleeve and wiped the tip of the blade. The white fabric came away stained with red. “As I mentioned earlier, your uniform has been set out in your quarters by your assigned petty officer. You will report to the bridge as soon as you are appropriately dressed.”
“Yes, sir.” Victoria flinched. The bridge! She did not want to antagonize a man with a naked blade in his hand, but the last thing she wanted was her full name announced on the bridge in front of over a dozen different people. “Pardon my frankness, sir, but we cannot use my name.”
Ravnos glanced at her briefly. “What’s wrong with your name?”
“I am a well-known code-certified specialist. If even a whisper gets out that I served under you, I will end up in prison.”
“She has a valid point, Captain,” Seht mused. “Victoria Stark. I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”
Victoria looked over to where the skeldhi leaned against the back of Ravnos’s chair. She had completely forgotten about his presence. She noted his interested expression and strongly suspected that her new executive officer was going to be a problem.
“I see.” Ravnos sheathed his weapon then reached for a small bottle and a cloth set on the table by his chair. He poured some of the contents of the bottle onto the cloth. “You may rise.”
Victoria rose to her feet and assumed a full attention stance, chin up, heels together, hands at her side.
Ravnos approached her with the damp cloth in hand. His fingers brushed her throat as he tugged her suit’s collar further open. “A name,” he whispered. He unfastened the suit buckles, nearly to her heart. “I’ll keep the Victoria, but the Stark?” He daubed the wet cloth on her naked throat.
Whatever was on the cloth smelled strongly of antiseptic, and burned like a son-of-a-bitch. Victoria clenched her fists but held perfectly still.
“Victoria Stark, ah, yes.” The Commander sighed dramatically then turned to gaze at Victoria with open amusement. “Captain, do you realize who you’ve grabbed?”
Ravnos tugged at her collar, examining her throat. “The nav-pilot of the Adamant.”
“Oh no, you’ve done much better than that.” Seht strode with predatory poise to Ravnos’s side. “This is the famous Victorious Star, notorious for sacrificing her captains for their ships.”
Victoria clenched her jaw. Where the hell had he heard that? Technically, she had only lost the occasional captain while saving the ship, but still…
“She’s never lost a ship she’s flown.” Seht’s voice dropped to a sensual whisper. “And never serviced a captain she’s had.”
Ravnos’s brows shot up. “Never?”
The skeldhi focused on Victoria and his eyes narrowed to a hungry blue gleam. “Our new nav-pilot is in possession of an unsullied, never been fucked, virgin ass.”
“Really?” Ravnos turned to study Victoria with a calculating expression. “How interesting.” His cold eyes flared with sudden heat.
Victoria shot the commander a glare that promised bitter revenge.
The skeldhi smiled broadly, showing the over-long points of his incisors. “Oh, we are going to have so much fun disciplining this one.”
Ravnos’s mouth curved into a blood-curdling smile. “We’ll call her Chaste, Victoria Chaste.”
“Chaste?” Seht nodded. “I like it. Very pretty, pristine and sweet.”
Victoria’s mouth fell open. “Chaste?” Of all the insulting epithets…
Ravnos’s expression turned frigid. “Are you questioning me?”
She flinched as though struck. “No, sir.”
“Good. You are dismissed, Senior Nav-Pilot Chaste. A yeoman is waiting outside the door to take you to your quarters.”
Victoria turned smartly on her heel and marched toward the door. A glance to her right showed that she had been right. His desk had been behind her the whole time. It was huge, ornate, and archaic. She had a sudden and disturbing image of being pressed face-down on that broad shining surface.
Victoria jerked her eyes back to the exit, and nearly pulled the handle from the door in her haste to get out of that office.
~ VS ~
Victoria stopped just short of slamming the door. Instead she pressed it closed, like a respectful crewman, and stared at it, nearly overwhelmed by a strong desire to kick it for good measure. Bleeding Fate! Those two pricks!
Victoria nearly jumped out of her skin. Jerking her chin up a fraction, she pulled herself smartly together and turned sharply to her left.
A grizzled older man in a very plain black uniform stood in the hall not two feet away. He watched her with a cool, dead-calm gaze.
She scanned the petty officer chevrons on his sleeve. “Yes?”
“I’m Crewman Munin, your yeoman. I’m here to show you to your quarters.”
Victoria nodded. “Thank you, Crewman Munin. Lead the way.”
He nodded and took off down the narrow hall at a smart clip.
Victoria followed, back straight and jaw set. She spared only a fleeting glance at Ravnos’s door. This is not over yet.
Victoria’s quarters were spare but sparkling clean. Even the decorative brass appointments gleamed. A tightly made narrow bunk was tucked against the left inner wall, and a closet with drawers for her belongings spread across the opposite wall. The outside wall had a tiny private desk set with an interlink info unit. A doorway leading to a very small but private bath facility shared the wall opposite the bed on her far right. Luxury indeed. She’d had to share the bath facility with another nav-pilot on the Adamant.
“Your personal belongings are already in the closets, Nav-Pilot,” Munin rasped dryly.
Victoria started. Her personal belongings? She strode for the closet and opened the door. Hanging inside were her few civilian clothes, but not one Imperial uniform. Her dress boots were tucked next to her two cases. How the hell had they gotten hold of her personal cases?
She frowned. How the hell had they gotten her off of that space station and onto this tub in the first place? The fleet should have… She scowled. That’s right, those fools stopped at the first space station they found. They didn’t even bother to get us into Imperial space. The closest Imperial station was at least two whole jumps away. Even if they had tried to stop Ravnos from walking off with her, the Adamant was outnumbered — one Imperial ship to Fate knows how many mercenaries docked there, including the ship that nearly blew them to begin with: the Hellsbreath.
That was, if they noticed that someone had walked off with her. She closed her eyes. Then again, they might have seen everything, and not cared. They had intended to leave her there anyway.
Victoria took a breath for calm. One thing at a time. “Crewman Munin, where are my uniforms?”
“Pardon me, ma’am, but the captain said to put your…” He coughed. “Your other uniforms in safe storage.”
Victoria nodded. She didn’t need the cleaning crew to see her Imperial togs anyway. “Where are my new uniforms?”
“I have one set ready, ma’am. It’s on the bunk and freshly pressed. The rest will be delivered later. I’ll have them put away for you by the time you return to quarters.”
Victoria turned toward the bed. A velvet waistcoat in stark black trimmed with silver braid lay by a long-sleeved shirt made of very fine midnight silk. The shirt and the matching cravat were both trimmed with black lace. Lace? She didn’t have the rank to wear lace.
She let out a soft sigh. This is a mercenary unit, not an Imperial unit. If the captain wants me to wear lace, I wear lace. At least the uniform is a practical color. Fate only knew what else was different. Better find out.
“Yeoman, I’m going to need a copy of the regulations for my personal upload as soon as possible.”
She frowned. Some of her new uniform was missing. “Do I have a coat? And where are the trews?”
Munin shifted just a hair. “There’s a skirt under the vest, ma’am. The coat is not ready yet.”
Victoria stiffened. A skirt? She moved the waistcoat aside and picked up a very small amount of black velvet. A pair of sheer stockings and some kind of satin contraption to hold them up was folded beneath the skirt. Then she saw the rest of her underwear. More lace and more satin.
This did not look promising at all.
Victoria took a very deep breath and pulled off her long coat. “Are you telling me that all of this is regulation?” She tossed the coat on the bed.
Munin cleared his throat and stared at her skin-tight flight-suit. “The captain was very specific, ma’am.”
Victoria sat down on her desk chair and unbuckled her boots. Did her new captain think he could prove his dominance by having her dress like a female? She smiled grimly. A costume change would not change anything. Once she integrated with the ship’s systems, life would be very different indeed. She stood up and started jerking at her suit buckles.
The yeoman headed for the door.
She speared him with a venomous glare. “Crewman, I did not give you permission to leave this cabin!”
He spluttered. “But you’re undressing!”
“Then you will keep your back turned like a gentleman until I tell you otherwise. I am going to need assistance to get into this… getup. Stay right where you are.”
Munin did a hasty about-face and stared hard at the wall. “Yes, ma’am.”
She skimmed out of her bodysuit. “Towels?” She practically ripped her hair out getting it loose from her braids. The deep red waves fell to her waist in a thick cloak.
“In the facility.”
“Thank you.” Stark naked, she strode toward the facility to take a shower.
~ VS ~
The cycle-shower had been hot enough to cool her temper, the soap pleasant if not luxurious, and the towels had been large and soothingly plentiful.
Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.
Victoria faced her new uniform with grim determination. The underwear would irritate her. She could tell as soon as she picked it up. The stockings were a total nightmare. Thank Fate one of her subordinates from the Adamant had showed her how to use the belt-thing that held them up.
Grumbling at the sub-hearing level, she dragged on the silk shirt and buttoned in haste. Then came the skirt.
It wouldn’t go over her butt.
She checked the size. “Yeoman, this skirt is two sizes too small.”
Munin stiffened, but remained steadfastly staring at the wall. “I’m sorry, ma’am.”
“Go and get me another from housekeeping.”
The yeoman’s hands clenched at his sides. “I can’t, ma’am.”
Victoria’s eyes narrowed. “Is there a problem?”
“I’m under orders from the captain to tell you,” he swallowed audibly, “that you are to wear what is provided, or do without.”
Victoria knew a set-up when she saw one. That son of a bitch! She nearly ripped the skirt in half. She eyed the yeoman. He looked about the same height. “Very well then. What size trousers do you wear?”
~ VS ~
Victoria smiled grimly as she walked onto the bridge. Crewman Munin’s trousers fit surprisingly well, and he was an excellent hand at tying cravats.
The bridge was enormous and long rather than broad. The command chair sat high in the back, with the piloting pit and her chair one level down directly before it. The lower deck level was crammed with crewmen headset-linked to their stations.
She eyed the headsets with distaste. The last nav-pilot had been poor quality indeed. Every one of those crewmen should have been using an interactive holographic display. Clearly far more than merely half of the ship’s functions were offline. How the hell had he flown her at all?
“Senior Nav-Pilot Chaste reporting for duty, sir,” she called out.
Ravnos stood slowly, eyed her trousers and exchanged a significant look with his clearly amused Commander. “Take your place, Nav-Pilot Chaste.”
Victoria mounted the stairs to the pit. “Greetings, pilots.”
The four young pilots, two on the left and two on the right with a narrow walkway between them, each interlinked into their swivel chairs, turned to look at her. “Greetings, Nav-Pilot Chaste,” they chorused.
“Welcome to the Hellsbreath,” one offered.
Victoria smiled. “I look forward to flying with you.” She stepped onto the walkway, then sat back into the heavily augmented chair. She felt the grab at the back of her skull that marked the ship’s direct entry into her mind.
Data streamed in with a tentative inquiry.
In that instant, Victoria knew that the ship was not happy. She opened her functions and offered her codes by way of introduction.
The ship digested her information and presented about a third of the systems’ accesses.
Victoria frowned. The ship was reluctant to fully connect. Gently, she invited a closer link. She was not the other nav-pilot, and she would await the ship’s further investigation of her functions.
The ship remained disinclined to connect any deeper.
Victoria expressed patience. The ship was a very sensitive and sophisticated entity that deserved extreme respect from her pilots. To demand would be rude. It was up to the ship to take advantage of her functions, not the other way around.
The ship tentatively investigated the respectful interconnections and accesses offered.
Lights went on in dark berths and seals opened to formerly locked areas. Engineering gained access to previously blind functions.
Victoria relaxed into the ship’s embrace, allowing deeper investigation and interneural linkage.
Accesses opened and systems came online with a satisfied hum.
Victoria sank deep into the comforting virtual reality of the Fortitude. The Fortitude? Confusion skittered across Victoria’s data system.
The ship understood with a trace of electronic embarrassment that it was operating under a different name, the Hellsbreath, and updated its databases.
Victoria offered a deeper access to her personal data by way of apology.
The ship was pleased to find the nav-pilot so accessible and forthcoming. Information confidently streamed into Victoria’s piloting array.
Victoria sighed. Much better… She could perform her proper functions as the cerebellum for the ship’s entire computerized system. Every jot and dot of information the ship possessed, from external sensors to power levels in engineering and the weapons array down to the temperature setting in every berth, streamed through her piloting array. In addition, every order from the ship’s captain, from course changes to weapon firing, would go through her to be translated to the rest of the ship.
She processed the information and channeled it to the pilots who were her nerve center.
The four pilots’ accesses suddenly streamed with data. Excited and pleased sub-vocal chatter erupted among them as they disseminated previously inaccessible information to crewmen throughout the rest of the ship.
More functions came online. More data streamed.
Once upon a time, when ships sailed oceans of water rather than stars, her rank would have been Master Chief Petty Officer, with her position known as Chief of the Boat. Interneural space flight combined the traditional posts of pilot, navigator, and master chief petty officer into one position: navigational-pilot.
She scowled. I might have had fewer problems with senior officers if my position had remained non-commissioned.
The pilot chatter abruptly stopped and they looked up at their senior nav-pilot in concerned alarm.
The ship noticed the junior pilots’ uncomfortable silence and expressed that the senior pilot should restore harmonious intercommunication between the pilots.
“It’s all right to talk among yourselves, pilots,” Victoria said with warmth. “Private speech will not affect the ship’s functions.”
One of the young pilots bit her lip. “But the last pilot didn’t like it.”
“I am not the last nav-pilot.” Victoria felt the smile curve her lips from a great distance. “Pilot communications are necessary for proper flight functions.” Her smile broadened. “Even silly chit-chat is essential for continued morale.”
One of the pilots turned to another. “I like her.”
All four pilots went to work with a will and enthusiasm that transformed them into the perfect systems nerve center they were supposed to be.
The ship investigated, assessed, recalibrated, and corrected long-standing malfunctions. Hacked systems rerouted back to their proper courses, and more data streamed.
Victoria’s thoughts stretched and expanded throughout the ship. Navigational grids appeared within her mind, charting the levels of gravitational fields around the nearby planets and measuring distances between stars.
“Stand by for holographic display. Please remove all headsets,” Victoria announced over the intercom system throughout the entire ship.
Everywhere on the ship, headsets were yanked from terminals and holographic displays appeared. The crewmen reached for their displays and began recalibrations. More systems came online.
Victoria’s array streamed data on all channels. A soft sigh escaped her lips. She opened her eyes and vaguely noticed the glow from her holographic halo, marking her full integration with the ship. “All systems fully functional, Captain.” Her voice echoed through the loudspeaker system. “We proceed at your command.”
The commander whispered to his captain. “Now that is a nav-pilot.”
Victoria smiled. They had no idea that a nav-pilot of her skill level was so deeply integrated with the ship that even the tiniest whisper in the farthest corner of the ship was hers to hear. How would they know? They were mercenaries, after all.
The captain gave her his orders and Victoria set the requested course coordinates.
“Take us away,” Ravnos said in his cool voice.
The ship disengaged smoothly from the dock, turned, and dove into the rippling tides of space. At the appropriate point, Victoria engaged the fusion reactors in preparation for quantum-space manifestation. She double-checked her coordinates and frowned. The series of planned jumps were awfully small for the distance Ravnos wanted to cover. “Captain?”
“We are set for a course six jump. We have capability for a course eight. Do you wish to adjust coordinates?”
Ravnos leaned forward in his chair. “Course eight?”
Seht frowned. “Has this ship ever done a course eight?”
“Not under my command.” He turned to face the pilot’s pit. “Are you sure the ship has the power to make an eight?”
“We are capable of course ten in an emergency, but it would be inadvisable as power would be routed from necessary systems. A course eight is well within acceptable range.”
He nodded. “Very well, then, adjust for course eight.”
“We’re going to be early,” Seht said softly. “Very early.”
Ravnos’s expression frosted. “Good.”
Victoria reviewed her calculations at the speed of thought and the ship reset systems for the longer jump. “Adjustment complete. Ready on your mark, Captain.”
Victoria opened herself to quantum consciousness. “Activating Phalrium hull grid and opening quantum teleological space-time manifold at factor eight.” She could feel, through the ship’s sensors, the fabric of reality shifting into a spiral of crushed star-space, a shimmering field that enclosed the ship. “Jumpspace gateway open and stable, Captain.”
Ravnos stood. “Advance drive, speed four. Proceed into jumpspace.”
“Proceeding into jump.” Victoria took a deep breath and the ship stabbed through quantum-folded space as a needle thrusts through tight folds of cloth. She smiled, secure in the symphony of information and eternity.
~ VS ~
The Hellsbreath stepped back into real-time at advance speed four. Two hours had passed within the ship, but the light from the stars they had left behind would take millennia to catch up with them.
Victoria relayed the ship’s sensor data concerning the star system they approached without bothering to examine it herself. She didn’t particularly care where she was, only that the ship was where it was supposed to be, and not in danger. On the captain’s orders, she brought the ship into a calm orbit in sync with the dark side of a moon circling a class-four humanoid world.
“As soon as all systems are stable, disengage and report to my appointment chamber.” He stepped from the command post and disappeared into the lift with Seht at his side.
Victoria frowned. Disengage and report? She had access to far more information while interlinked. She shook her head. It didn’t matter, really, since the ship could access her or vice-versa just about anywhere on the ship. She couldn’t actually fly without a direct link, but she could grab hold of any number of minor functions. She smiled. Such as lighting and temperature control in any given cabin or corridor.
Victoria did a final systems diagnostics in preparation for disengagement.
The Hellsbreath expressed pleasure with the pilot’s accessible and respectful functions. The ship looked forward to continued intercommunications.
You’re a grand lady, and I am pleased that you find me compatible, Victoria returned politely. She smiled as she disengaged direct link.
~ VS ~
Victoria felt pretty damn good when she left the bridge and got into the lift. The dreadnought was obviously decommissioned. She was just a touch on the archaic side in some of her systems, but the rest of her functions seemed to be closer to state-of-the-art. The engineering crew was top-notch and responded very quickly to the ship’s needs. The pilots were a well-matched team. There had been no crossed messages or data lost in transfer.
All in all, the Hellsbreath flew like a dream.
She stepped out of the lift and reviewed her internal map of the ship to make sure she was headed the right way. A side effect of being integrated was that the ship’s schematics were imprinted into her mind. She was now incapable of getting lost.
Victoria stopped in front of Captain Ravnos’s door. She felt a sudden shiver of apprehension and tried to shake it off. She should have nothing to be worried about. The flight was fine; in fact, from what she had overheard he’d been pleased. So why was she suddenly so nervous?
She wiped her damp palms on her trousers and flinched. The damn trousers. That had to be it. She took a deep breath to steady her nerves and knocked.
Victoria strode through the door, chin up, shoulders back, and with fine military precision. Please don’t be sitting at the desk. She glanced to her right.
The chair she had first seen him in was empty.
She turned to her left.
He was sitting behind his massive desk busily typing something while reading his holographic projection monitor. Once again Ravnos sat without his coat, but this time his waistcoat and cravat were missing too. His shirt collar had been unbuttoned.
Seht, also coatless, stood by his shoulder, grinning like a demon about to snack.
Victoria straightened her spine and walked over to stand before the desk to await his notice.
The holographic display evaporated. Ravnos turned in his chair, kicking one booted foot out to lounge with a cool expression. “So, Nav-Pilot, what do you think of the Hellsbreath?”
Victoria relaxed, but remained at attention. “She’s a grand ship, very responsive.”
He tapped his fingertips together. “You had no difficulty flying her?”
“She was a little shy at first. I think your last nav-pilot may have been a bit harsh with her.”
“You are a code-certified navigation pilot. Unusual,” Ravnos mused. “What exactly are you code-certified for?”
“Initial integration of a ship’s interneural system,” she answered without hesitation.
He raised a brow. “So, basically, you teach a ship how to fly with a pilot?”
Victoria gave him a short nod. “When a ship is made they can be flown mechanically, but to achieve quantum consciousness, and jump, the ship needs interaction with a living mind. I create the initial impression for the ship’s consciousness which allows for interneural piloting.”
Seht frowned. “You put in the ship’s sentience?”
Victoria shook her head. “No, the ship already has a sentience. I create the pathways for interaction between the ship and a living pilot. I give it some of its first memories.”
Ravnos’s eyes gained a dark gleam. “Out of curiosity, can you reprogram a ship that refuses to acknowledge a pilot? One that has been, say, sabotaged?”
Victoria felt a rush of violent anger. “Each ship is a unique being in its own right. To sabotage one to that extent is criminal!”
Ravnos’s brows shot up. “Oh, I agree, but could you reprogram a ship that has been hacked into and get it to respond to you?”
Victoria bit back her temper. “In most cases re-impression is not necessary. Most ships know when someone is hacking them, and will lock that person out. If the threat is great enough, the ship may lock out everyone until someone can go in and talk it into opening back up.”
Ravnos frowned. “Answer the question. Can you reprogram a ship’s sentience?”
She stared at the deck. “Yes, I have the capability. Officially, I’m certified to initiate a new ship for flight, or recover a ship that has retreated into lock-down. Occasionally a ship will retreat too far for me to reach, or be too severely damaged to respond. If that is the case, I can go in and reset. That means wiping the original impression or personality and impressing a new one.” She looked up. “It’s not something I like to do, because in effect you are killing the ship.”
Seht’s mouth fell open. “What you are saying is that you can fly any ship that you are linked to, whether it wants you to or not?”
Victoria nodded once. “I have rarely needed to reprogram a ship. Most ships will talk to me. They like me.” She gave them a tight smile. “It’s their captains that I have problems with.”
Seht raised a brow at Ravnos. “Which explains our nav-pilot’s tendency to sacrifice the captain for the ship; she likes the ship more.”
Victoria snorted. “Well, of course.”
Both the captain and the commander turned sharply to stare at Victoria.
She swallowed. What did I say?
“That reminds me.” Ravnos leaned forward in his chair. “You have disobeyed a directive and are here to be disciplined.”
Victoria stiffened in shock. “What?”
“Senior Navigation Pilot Chaste, you are out of uniform,” Seht said with great relish.
Victoria set her jaw. It was the damned trousers. Well, she was not going down without a fight.
Ravnos radiated amusement but his mouth remained a thin line. “I distinctly remember providing you with a skirt, not trews.”
Victoria raised her chin just a fraction. “The directive I received was to wear what was provided.”
Ravnos nodded. “Correct.”
Victoria raised her brow. “I was provided with a yeoman, and the yeoman provided me with his trousers, because the skirt was two sizes too small. Therefore, I am wearing what was provided.”
Seht choked then cleared his throat. “She has a valid argument.”
Ravnos’s ice gray eyes flared with heat. “True, but unfortunately for Nav-Pilot Chaste, I am not in the mood to argue semantics.” He stood up with smooth grace. “Remove the trousers, Nav-Pilot. At once.”
Victoria knew a losing battle when she saw one. She jerked at the belt of her trousers and unfastened the waistband. But damn it, I had to try!
“Those boots will have to come off first,” Seht said dryly.
Victoria froze, then looked at Ravnos.
He nodded. “You may remove your boots, Nav-Pilot.”
Victoria removed her boots with as much grace as standing on one leg would allow. Thank the Fates for my physical augmentation. She dropped the pants and stepped out of them. Her shirt fell to mid-thigh so she didn’t feel all that exposed.
“Remove your shirt, Nav-Pilot.”
Victoria’s head shot up. “Sir?”
Ravnos raised his brows. “I want to see just how far out of uniform you actually are.”
Victoria seriously considered refusing. Then she saw the blade at his side and remembered the speed of his sword-draw. She reached up to unknot her cravat and calmly contemplated what kind of havoc she could play in his personal quarters. She could easily get the ship to drop the temperature. Maybe a little frost on his bed-sheets would do him some good.
She dropped her silk shirt on top of the trousers and stood stiffly at attention wearing the lacy and irritating bra, the skimpy panties, and the belt thing that held up her stockings.
“Well now, that is nice.” The skeldhi’s expression clearly showed his sincere appreciation.
Victoria felt her cheeks heat with profound embarrassment while a tiny trickle of pleasure curled through her. It’s nice to know I’m appreciated, but damn it, this is unprofessional in the extreme.
Ravnos turned to Seht. “Take down her hair. I want to see what color it is.”
The skeldhi grinned and strode towards Victoria. “With pleasure.”
Victoria gasped in shock. My hair?
Rubbing his hands together in undisguised satisfaction, Seht circled around to stand behind her. “Hold still, Nav-Pilot.”
Victoria felt his fingers grasp the silver clasp that held her mass of hair, and panicked right then and there. “Captain, this is not regulation.”
“And this is not the Imperial fleet.” Ravnos had the hint of a smile curling at the edges of his mouth. “Remain as you are.”
The clasp slid free and Seht’s long fingers burrowed into her hair, digging out the pins that held her mass of braids. Her hair slithered free and spread across his hands to fall in a rich cloak to her waist.
“By the mother,” he said softly. “I believe it’s red!”
Ravnos’s brows shot up. “Red?”
“It’s brown,” Victoria ground out. “Dark brown.”
“This is not even close to brown.” He leaned close to her ear. His blue eyes gleamed and his lip curled to show a long incisor. “Believe me, I know red when I see it, and this is a deep, dark blood red.”
Victoria closed her eyes. By Fate, could this get any worse?
“Hmm.” Ravnos tilted his head. “Seht, take off her panties. I want to see what that virgin ass looks like on my desk.”
“Good idea!” He reached for the lace at her hips.
Victoria’s control snapped. Oh no, you fucking don’t! Death was preferable to being ass-fucked. She dropped hard to a deep crouch and lashed out along the deck, aiming for the skeldhi’s legs. When he jumped over her sweeping leg she lunged up and followed with flying fists and slashing feet.
Seht ducked and danced smoothly out of her way, grinning. “That did it.”
Ravnos snorted. “Took her long enough.”
She caught Seht with a hard kick to the chest, using every drop of power in her augmented legs, knocking him up into the air and back almost to the far side of the cabin.
Seht turned gracefully in mid-air and landed smoothly in a feral crouch. He bared his long teeth in a grin. “Damn, she’s good.”
Victoria spat a vicious oath. She had strained the piss out of the leg muscles around her augmentations in that kick. What the hell is he made out of?
Seht came to his feet and jerked off his waistcoat. “So you want to play?”
“Shit.” She bolted for the door.
Ravnos lunged to his feet. “Don’t let her out!”
Seht lunged for her. He slammed the door shut just as she got it open. “Going somewhere?”
Victoria ducked his grabbing hands and whirled out of the way. There was nowhere to run. The cabin was too damn small and Seht stood against the only exit. She focused on the door.
Seht tilted his head and smiled. “If you want out, you’ll have to get past me.”
“Fine.” Furious beyond caring, Victoria dropped into a crouch and lunged with every drop of power in her legs. At the last second, she twisted and turned, flying at him with both feet.
He rolled away.
Her feet slammed into the door. The metal crunched but held. She dropped to the deck in another fighting crouch.
Seht closed on her with shocking speed.
She lashed out with a flurry of lightning-fast punches.
He ducked and dodged grinning. “Fast, but not fast enough. Try again?” He closed the distance with a rushing lunge.
Victoria sidestepped and whirled out of reach.
He swore and lunged again.
She knocked him back with a vicious kick. “Was that fast enough?”
Ravnos tackled her from behind, wrapping her in his arms and lifting her off the deck. “I got her.”
Held off the ground, Victoria couldn’t get her feet under her for any kind of kicking leverage. She punched, kicked and gouged, but he was a solid mass of powerful steel under warm flesh. She could not break free.
They hauled her screaming, kicking, and fighting across the appointment chamber.
~ VS ~