In a far corner of the galaxy, a deadly war rages on. The Budheya people are one of the worst affected. Once the most advanced civilization in the quadrant, they now struggle under the cruel yoke of Ketaari occupation.
Saakshi, a Budheya girl imprisoned by the Ketaari Imperial Forces, is sent to a distant space station to work off the remainder of her prison term as a server girl in an alehouse. For a girl who has known only hardship in her short life, things could be a lot worse. Until an old foe from the past walks into the alehouse. Alone, friendless and far from home, desperation forces her to turn to an unlikely source for assistance. Zoran is Hadari’Kor, notorious across star systems for their fighting prowess. Their fierce reputation as nomadic mercenaries make people wary of tangling with them.
The fallout from this improbable alliance between a Budheya rebel and the Hadari’Kor mercenary reverberates across space. Old assumptions are broken and new partnerships between unlikely allies forged. As their two worlds collide, the aftermath sets into motion a chain reaction that has the potential to alter the course of the war and the balance of power in their quadrant of space.
Saakshi succumbed to temptation, casting a surreptitious glance at the large male seated at the other end of the alehouse. His solitary presence was a stark contrast to the good-natured bomhomie of the other alehouse patrons. The corner table, away from the crowds and shaded by the awning branches of the artificial tree that bordered the Promenade, served to accentuate his distance from the other customers. She suspected that the table had been carefully selected to allow him his solitude. A brief lull in the mad crush of patrons to Trader Pik’s provided a welcome respite to the overworked server girls. It allowed Saakshi to rest her aching feet, catch her breath and restock the bar with clean goblets before the next horde of customers swamped them again. She also used the opportunity to sneak a quick peek at the Hadari’Kor male. As she had half expected, the alien male’s dark eyes rested on her. As their gazes tangled, Saakshi’s heart gave an uncomfortable lurch. She glanced away hurriedly, snapping her gaze back to the bar to resume polishing the goblets vigorously.
He was fairly blatant in his regard, seemingly unconcerned about hiding it from his fellow patrons carousing in the alehouse. Pik’s was laid out like a half moon with the identically shaped bar she stood behind as its epicenter. The open seating area circling the bar offered Pik’s patrons a view of the Promenade as well as tables tucked away in the corners to afford more privacy. The Promenade was the main thoroughfare on the space station and tended to be noisy as well as busy most days – this was not a station that slept. The Trade Sphere hummed with activity throughout the day, it’s strategic location in neutral space giving it a steady flow of traffic from all corners of their quadrant. This was his third visit to Pik’s this week – she’d been keeping count. He had patronized this particular alehouse on the station a few times a week since the second week Saakshi had commenced work here. That had been a little over two months ago.
Over time, she’d managed to glean a few details from his regular visits to the alehouse. He always timed his visits to coincide with her work hours, usually striding in by himself but occasionally accompanied by another Hadari’Kor male. He always seated himself at a table away from the crowds but assigned to the other server girl. Since Pik insisted that his girls work in pairs, there were at least two server girls on duty all the time. And he always drank Terilian ale – a pale liquid that, Saakshi knew from personal experience, burnt a fiery path as it slid down tongue and throat. He kept to himself, seemingly content to spend his time at the alehouse in silent contemplation or in quiet conversation with his occasional companion. And he watched her. Pura, how he watched her! The intense black eyes followed her as she went about her tasks at the alehouse, observing her with an intent Saakshi had been unable to decipher.
A single hostile glare from those dark eyes was enough to deter any patron who dared to approach him. She’d hear occasional whispers of HadKor around him but he never let on if it bothered him. Saakshi rather thought that it didn’t. She had never felt threatened in any way by the intense gaze. The other server girls would occasionally tease Saakshi about her silent admirer but they all agreed on one thing. He epitomized their ideal customer. He made sure to buy a steady stream of drinks, never attempted to harass or grope any of the server girls and always tipped well. Life would be a lot easier for the server girls if more patrons followed his example. Over time, Saakshi had learnt to ignore the heavy-lidded dark eyes that followed her intently. But in recent weeks, she could swear that she was starting to see his hot gaze in her dreams.
A sudden commotion at the entrance to the alehouse drew Saakshi’s attention. Four Ketaari males had just walked in and seemed poised to seat themselves at a table assigned to her.
“Sons of swines” Saakshi muttered under her breath, exchanging a look with the other server girl. Enara, who was Budheya like her, could well appreciate her sentiments.
Engrossed in silent condemnation of the Ketaari with Enara, Saakshi almost missed the Ketaari male who’d broken away from his entourage to head her way. A brief glance at the familiar face was enough to spur Saakshi to stoop down hastily, hoping that the wide five-foot high bar would hide her from the Ketaari’s gaze. Her heart pounded as she hugged the floor, praying that the Ketaari hadn’t caught a good glimpse of her. The Ketaari male’s footsteps halted on the other side of the bar, directly across from where she crouched, her heart filled with dread. The seconds droned on, the Ketaari male making no move to rejoin his entourage. From her sanctuary behind the bar, a desperate Saakshi implored Enara to attend to the Ketaari with a muted gesture. She barely knew the other server but was counting on Enara’s Budheya heritage to comprehend the situation. Over time, most Budheya had learnt to inculcate the instinct necessary to gauge the intentions of the Ketaari. And some had even perfected the art of dodging the attentions and demands of the Ketaari who ruled over their world. After all, such lessons were imperative to their very survival. That is how the Budheya had survived a hundred and fifty years of servitude to the Ketaari; helped along by a nascent but resilient resistance movement.
From her crouched position behind the bar, Saakshi watched Enara walk over reluctantly to come to a stand beside her.
“What may I serve you at Trader Pik’s?” Enara asked the Ketaari male, polite and formal to a tee.
“I want the other Budh female” demanded the arrogant male voice.
Enara’s expression tightened for an instant before she turned her back on the male to walk away. Saakshi guessed that Enara’s stiffness was a result of a rude gesture from the Ketaari male. It could also be the derogatory way he’d referred to them as Budh, one of the myriad ways the Ketaari had perfected the art of degrading the Budheya people.
Saakshi directed a glance full of mingled gratitude and apology at Enara and took a deep breath to steady herself before standing up to face the Ketaari. He bared his large teeth at her in a predatory attempt at a smile. Saakshi gazed back at him silently, all expression carefully blanked out.
“You look very familiar, Budh. Where have I seen you before?” he remarked, more as a query to himself than her.
Saakshi cursed her luck silently. The hand that clutched the underside of the bar turned white with strain even as she struggled to not reveal any sign of anxiety. The Ketaari’s gaze raked her upper body, the only part of her not concealed by the bar she stood behind. His eyes roved over the sun-kissed olive-toned skin, the abundant dark hair that fell to her shoulders in waves and the too-thin body dressed in the form-fitting uniform of Trader Pik’s server girls. The uniform was a garish one-shouldered red and gold top worn over red trousers. The fabric gathered in a subtle knot over the right shoulder to cover her right arm, leaving her left shoulder and arm bare. It was designed to allow the sleeve over her right arm to conceal the broad ownership bracelet she was obligated to wear on that wrist.
Saakshi forced herself to stand unflinching under the leering gaze of the Ketaari male until his eyes fell on the intricately woven tenar mesh armband that she wore high on her left bicep to identify her Pura. The Ketaari had banned all religious expression on Budheyasta. On her home world, Saakshi was not allowed to wear her armband but on this space station, she wore it with Pik’s permission. When Pik had bought her prison contract, she’d requested to be allowed to wear the symbol of her religious house openly on her bicep like her un-subjugated ancestors had once done. The Ketaari male’s expression tightened with anger at the sight of her pura tenar band and Saakshi gave up the façade of nonchalance to wrap her arms defensively around herself.
“What do you want?” she asked in Alliance Standard, abandoning any pretense at politeness.
Her words caused the male’s eyes to snap from her armband back to her face.
“What is your name, Budh?” he demanded in Ketar, the language every Budheya child was forced to learn, per the laws of the Budh-Ketaari Empire.
Saakshi remained silent, not trusting the next words out of her mouth.
The male leaned his stocky body over the bar to invade her personal space. He spoke again in Ketar, more forcefully this time.
“What is your name, female?”
“Saakshi neh Merama tik Ulmik pura Bedana” she answered proudly.
The Ketaari threw back his head to laugh loudly in genuine amusement.
“You Budh are hilarious! Two centuries of being trodden under Ketaari feet has not stopped you from clinging to your useless old traditions” he gasped out, amidst his laughter. The pale blue eyes glowed in the pasty face, his forehead ridges standing out in stark contrast to the rest of his oddly smooth facial skin.
“What do I care about your family or religious affiliation! The rebels have gotten one thing right. They’ve dropped the song and dance to adopt simpler names” he remarked, his face still lit up by amusement.
Duh, the rebels shorten their names to be anonymous and prevent bringing down any Ketaari recriminations on their families or religious houses. What a clueless son of swine!
“Speaking of rebels, I think I finally remember you” he retorted thoughtfully. “You used to run with Tilabok’s cell. Your little group imagined itself quite a thorn in my side, I know. Fancy meeting you here – what a small world it is.”
Saakshi’s heart sank – she’d so hoped that he wouldn’t remember her. There had been barely any contact before her capture and imprisonment on Budheyasta. And why would there be? She’d been a lowly new recruit to the resistance cell while he had been the regional commander determined to brutally squash the resistance.
Before Saakshi could respond to him, a loud thump rang out abruptly, eliciting a skittish jump from the girl already on edge and alarmed by the Ketaari commander’s remarks. Her heart still pounding uncomfortably fast, Saakshi glanced around bemusedly only for her attention to be drawn to the Hadari’Kor male she had been surreptitiously observing before. The male’s big palm rested face down on his table, his expression one of urgent demand. As her eyes rested on him in some confusion, he brought his hand down forcefully again to demand her attention. Saakshi gaped at him, utterly flabbergasted by his uncharacteristic gesture. In all the time she’d observed him, he had never drawn attention to himself like this before! As her astounded gaze tangled with his, he crooked his finger at her imperiously and gestured at his empty ale mug. Saakshi, still in the grip of shock, continued to stare at him blankly. Suddenly, Enara was by her side, murmuring softly to her but loud enough to be audible to the Ketaari male whose attention remained focused on Saakshi to the exclusion of everything else.
“Go take care of your customer” Enara advised in Alliance Standard, gesturing at the Hadari’Kor male.
“I’ll handle the Ketaari table” she declared with a speaking glance, giving Saakshi a gentle push towards the table where the Hadari’Kor male waited with seeming impatience.
Saakshi threw Enara a grateful look before making her way slowly to the Hadari’Kor male. Her heart pounded and her hands trembled visibly from her encounter with the Ketaari. Saakshi unhitched her order tablet from the uniform belt slung low at her hip as she came to a stop by the Hadari’Kor male’s table. Her grip on the tablet tightened unconsciously as she glanced tentatively into the eyes of the alien male who had spent most of the past two months blatantly checking her out. The black fathomless eyes gazed back at her, his expression impassive.
“Terilian ale, piping hot” he directed at her. His voice was deep and low with a slight husky timbre to it, almost as if his throat was scratchy.
He spoke in Alliance Standard though they were both equipped with clearly visible translator devices. Saakshi fumbled with the controls on her tablet to record his order, her hands shaking. When she glanced up from the tablet again, she caught his eyes on her trembling fingers. His dark eyes traveled back to her face leisurely, his expression still curiously blank.
“Are you serving any meals today?” he inquired.
“Yesss” Saakshi stuttered nervously, her fingers fumbling with the tablet to retrieve the menu for the day.
“Menkana meat stew and Keeyori leaf-wrapped fish” she read out, without looking up from the tablet.
“I’ll have the stew” he stated after a short pause as her eyes remained glue to the tablet in her hands.
A fleeting glance and a murmured acknowledgement later, she headed back to the relative safety of the bar. Once back behind the bar again, Saakshi used a few moments to steady herself before entering his meal order into her tablet to transmit to the order console. A quick glance at the Ketaari table showed Enara entering orders into her tablet with a shuttered expression on her face. Saakshi poured out Terilian ale to heat it carefully before heading over to the customer’s table to set it before him. He gazed at her with the same impassive expression as before to give her a small nod in lieu of thanks. When Enara returned to the bar, Saakshi made sure to mutter heartfelt words of gratitude to the other server girl. Enara responded with a smile and a gentle clasp of Saakshi’s hand in the traditional Budheya gesture of solace.
The Ketaari male did not approach Saakshi again but the occasional speculative glances he directed at her left her uneasy. The Hadari’Kor male’s eyes continued to follow her as she worked but less overtly than before. He drank a few more mugs of ale served to him by Enara and picked at his stew, leaving mere moments after the departure of the Ketaari group. Taking note of the almost full meal tray he’d left behind as she helped Enara clear his table, Saakshi couldn’t help but wonder at his unexpected and unorthodox way of jumping to her assistance this evening. He had also punched a generous tip into the payment tablet that she insisted Enara not split with her.
That night, Saakshi slumped in exhaustion on her narrow bed in the dormitory shared by Trader Pik’s server girls. Having indulged in a sonic shower, the only kind available to her, she had crawled limply into her bed. She was Trader Pik’s newest server girl. This status made her ineligible for the coveted night slot. The servers loved the late shift; the tips were better and they could get away with just one short shift in addition to a longer one. Saakshi, on the other hand, worked two of the longer shifts every day with one day off every twenty days. This left her too exhausted to do more than shower and fall into bed at the end of each long day.
On days Saakshi felt too tired to move her weary body, she’d remind herself that she could have done much worse than Pik’s. Pik was a decent enough boss. Like most Keeyori businesses on the station, he bought prison contracts off the Ketaari Imperial Forces and occasionally, girls from the slavers. This way, he could get away with providing food and board without having to pay his servers. Unlike a lot of Keeyori alehouse owners though, he did allow his girls to keep their hard-earned tips. The Keeyori were nothing if not extremely profit-minded. Pik expected his servers to work hard and show up on time. In return, he provided food and a clean safe place to stay for all his servers. He did not expect his girls to provide any other services to him or his customers and was known to growl ferociously at any patron who dared accost the girls in his presence.
While Pik’s short, bald and plump Keeyori build did not intimidate such patrons, the threat of a station-wide ban usually proved effective. The alehouses on Keeyor 9 Trade Sphere competed madly with one another for business but had agreed on a universal ban list. If a customer’s identity tag ended up on the list, he was denied access to all the alehouses and some of the other businesses on Keeyor 9. Invariably, this forced a customer to find another space station to carouse in during his leisure hours. Not a tough proposition on the face of it, for stations built primarily for recreation and leisure abounded across space for travelers with a variety of tastes. However, stations under either Alliance or Empire control were enclosed within their respective border security nets and difficult to access for anyone without the proper id tags required for entry into their respective jurisdictions. These stations were also known to strictly enforce their respective jurisdictional laws. Although widely contrasting, these laws had one thing in common – they were very stringent. Since non-aligned, carouse-worthy, everything-goes, mostly Keeyori-controlled space stations were fairly rare and scattered in neutral space, most clientele were inclined to attempt to stay off the Keeyor 9 ban list.
Saakshi’s next day at Pik’s proved uneventful, although very busy. Trader Pik’s, even during slow hours, usually attracted considerable patronage. The busy late shift had four server girls working simultaneously. And Saakshi had heard that most days, the servers were still run off their feet despite their numbers.
She heaved a huge sigh of relief as the Ketaari officer stayed away from Pik’s for the next two days. The Hadari’Kor male also failed to make an appearance though that wasn’t unusual. Hadari’Kor were mercenaries and worked for hire. Saakshi guessed that the male came to the station for recreation between jobs.
Two days later, the Ketaari commander cornered Saakshi as she stumbled back to the dormitory after her usual double shift. She was one day away from earning her day off. Busy daydreaming about the forthcoming day of leisure, she failed to watch carefully enough for groping extremities on the main thoroughfare. She had noted early on that the Trade Sphere seemed to attract a particularly sleazy set of patrons. Taken unawares, Saakshi gasped as a hand gripped her wrist to yank hard, causing her to stumble into the wall dividing two of the establishments by the main walkway.
“Let go of me” she hissed angrily at her assailant.
He let go to bare his teeth at her in a macabre semblance of a friendly smile. Saakshi felt her heart sink as she recognized him. It was the Ketaari regional commander. She had even remembered his name – Urm Ghesh. Golar Urm Ghesh, that’s what he liked to be called by the Budheya forced to live under his control.
Forcing the Budheya to kowtow to him isn’t enough for him. The son of swine is eager to rub his position as the highest military commander for the area into our downtrodden faces. Swine!
“I hope you’ve managed to recall my name, Budh female” he remarked conversationally, an expression in the pale blue eyes that made her blood run cold. A wisp of black fear unfurled slowly in the pit of her stomach, soon to envelop her in a brackish fog of terror.
Even by Budheya standards, Saakshi had not had an easy life, having survived some tough circumstances in her young life – a childhood as an orphan, dependent on the generosity of neighbors; scrabbling for survival like all other Budheya in her village; joining the rebel resistance as a recruit to fight Ketaari oppression; mounting guerilla attacks on the Imperial Forces and even a short stint in a harsh Ketaari prison until her contract had been sold off by them. Despite the past, Saakshi realized with a sinking heart as she faced the Ketaari officer that tough as her short life had been, her experiences might yet pale in comparison to the trouble headed her way. She went cold, a hard knot of fear and anxiety twisting deep inside her. As terror tightened its steely grip on her, she fought to steady herself. The need of the hour was to keep all her wits about her, she reminded herself. She was resilient and had faced worse before. With a cool head and some luck, she might yet manage to wriggle her way out of this, relatively unscathed.
“Golar Urm Ghesh” she responded quietly, refusing to show any fear.
The Ketaari smiled happily at her answer, seemingly pleased by her response. He stood a few inches taller than her and a couple of decades older, if she recalled correctly. Stocky with a deep chest and the bulging neck and upper arm muscles so common in Ketaari officers, he was unremarkable in appearance with his sallow complexion, forehead ridges, cropped white blond hair, watery blue eyes and seemingly bloodless lips. The Ketaari home world was an ice planet. Rumor was that the only way the Ketaari could survive the hot and arid desert world of Budheyasta was due to the military uniform that sheathed them from neck to toe. The specially designed uniform regulated body temperature and help to retain moisture, thus helping Ketaari posted on the Budheya home world to acclimatize and survive the alien and inhospitable conditions.
“I have been promoted to an Unta-Golar. My friends and I are here to celebrate my new rank.”
He stared at her hopefully but Saakshi made no response. It was all she could do to not flinch away from his thick body positioned so close to hers.
“I was not planning to be on this station very long but I changed my mind after I saw you.”
He paused again, waiting for a response from her.
“I have applied for a month’s leave before I start my new assignment. I would like you to spend some time with me.”
This time, he managed to get a response. Saakshi studied him coldly.
“I cannot” she declared tersely.
The pale blue eyes narrowed at her words.
“Cannot or will not?” he inquired in a tone sharper than any he’d used so far on her.
He glanced around the busy thoroughfare as if gauging the crowd. Saakshi tensed in response, gathering herself to sprint away from him. Her tough childhood and years in the resistance meant that she was not incapable of defending herself when the need arose. But she knew well that a one-on-one confrontation with the Ketaari in close quarters would not lead to a good outcome for her. On the other hand, she was quick and knew this part of the station well. She’d have a far better shot at evading the commander if she made a run for it. Saakshi waited nervously, poised for flight, her eyes scanning his expression carefully. Finally, the Ketaari stepped back from her as if he’d come to a decision.
“I will give you two days to think about this, Budh. Then I come for you – willing or not. It is your choice” he declared.
That night, Saakshi lay frightened in her narrow dormitory bed while she desperately pondered her limited options. She could run. This was not a particularly well-guarded station and she was reasonably sure that, with a little effort, she could escape it. But once she was off this station, where would she go? Going back to Tilabok and the others on Budheyasta would only bring down more trouble on them for she would be an escaped Ketaari felon. In effect, escaping to any part of the Budh-Ketaari Empire as the Ketaari ironically called their slice of space would be too dangerous for her. It would also endanger any Budheya who helped her. That left her with only two choices – Alliance space or neutral territory. Traveling through neutral space was easier but her chances of survival on her own without allies would not be very high. Alliance-controlled territory was a much safer option for her but the Alliance had stringent border patrols and didn’t allow anyone in without the proper tags. She could attempt to acquire the appropriate identity tags to allow her access through Alliance territory but that would take a lot longer than the two days she had. And it would need currency that she lacked! Eventually, she drifted into restless sleep only to wake up exhausted. It was the start of another long day of double shifts. Saakshi consoled herself with the reminder that tomorrow was her day off as she made her way tiredly to Trader Pik’s.
An hour into the first of her shifts, Pik asked to see her in the back room. So rarely did Pik ask to speak to a server girl in private that his request pierced through the cloak of apathy that Saakshi’s fear and anxiety had built up this morning. For a moment, she pondered furiously whether she was in trouble – if she’d somehow shirked any of her duties at the alehouse. The back room was a small airless chamber that doubled as Pik’s office as well as stock room. It was also where his server girls ate the meals that Pik provided for them. Pik shut the door behind him to direct a penetrating look at Saakshi. Pik-u-Aak had been a trader for four decades and had a reputation on the station for being a male of his words and for treating his servers well.
“Do you know a Ketaari Unta-Golar by the name of Urm Ghesh?” he asked Saakshi, coming straight to the point. Pik was never one to beat around the bush.
Saakshi closed her eyes on a weary sigh. “Yes.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants me to spend time with him” she responded wearily, too tired to dress up what the Unta-Golar wanted.
“Hmm … how long does he plan on being here?” Pik inquired, clearly unsurprised by her answer.
“He says that he’s applied for a month’s leave and plans to spend it on the station.”
“A month” Pik exclaimed, clearly astonished. “I could’ve scared him off for a few days, possibly a week but if he plans to be here a month, I’m not going to be able to help you.”
Saakshi’s expression blanched in response, prompting Pik to explain the situation plainly, though not unkindly, to the anxious young girl before him.
“He could have my contract on you revoked and have you assigned to him. There is nothing I can do to prevent that.”
At the blunt words, Saakshi stared back at him in renewed alarm, her eyes huge with worry and exhaustion. Pik sighed softly.
“I’m guessing that you do not want to spend time with him.”
She shook her head mutely.
“Are you sure? He’s only planning to be here a month. Could you perhaps stomach him for a month?” he asked hopefully.
“No! I’d rather die” she said vehemently. “Not with Ketaari, not with him” she burst out.
“Alright then. What about the HadKor Captain?” Pik asked.
Confused by the abrupt change of subject, Saakshi could only gaze back at the Keeyori trader in blank incomprehension.
“The HadKor that hangs around here looking like he wants to eat you up” Pik explained a tad impatiently.
“What about him?” she asked, her bewilderment making it clear that she was all at sea.
“He has a starship and a mercenary army under his command. Make a deal with him.”
“A deal?” Saakshi exclaimed. “But I have no currency to pay him.”
“Do not be a fool, girl! You couldn’t afford his fees even if you had any currency to bargain with. Offer yourself to him in return for his protection.”
“Offer myself …” she repeated slowly.
“If you can stomach him, offer to be his lover in exchange for protection from the Ketaari Unta-Golar.”
Pik paused briefly to muse over his own words.
“My advice would be to make the offer even if you cannot stomach him. You either go to him or to the Ketaari. For what it’s worth, I haven’t heard anything bad about his treatment of females. He’s been coming to the station for the past couple of years, although he never came here as often as he does since you showed up. He’s not particularly friendly, keeps to himself and stays off the pleasure houses and game pavilions.”
“What if he doesn’t accept my offer?” Saakshi asked haltingly.
“He will” Pik was confident. “The way his eyes follow you around, he will. I may be past my prime but I would be willing to bet currency that if you make the offer, he will not tarry to accept.”
Saakshi mused over his words thoughtfully. “And you think that he will be a match for the Unta-Golar?”
“Oh yes! Zoran Hadari-Begur-Kor has quite the reputation in this part of space, for himself as well as his mercenary army. He’s a merc like all the HadKor but this one doesn’t just live rough from fight to fight. He has himself a fancy war ship retrofitted with the latest weapons, commands a loyal army and is currently on contract to the Alliance. There’s a reason for the popular saying – when you need serious ilhantu shit cleaned up, you hire a HadKor merc. These Hadari’Kor are bred to fight – they fight dirty and they fight to the death, if necessary. You’ve probably noticed how everyone in Pik’s is careful to steer clear of him. If you make a deal with him, he’ll handle the Ketaari Unta-Golar without breaking a sweat.”
Pik stared hard at the young girl to make sure that his words had struck home.
“Alright, back to work” he dismissed her.
Pik waited until she was almost to the door, her back to him before he spoke again.
“Saakshi Budheya” he called out gently. “I hope you understand that if you run, I will have no choice but to report you to the Ketaari for breach of contract.”
Saakshi nodded silently with her hand on the door. She felt a sudden spurt of gratitude for Pik. Brusque, impatient and currency-obsessed Pik – who’d tried, in his own way, to help her out of a sticky situation. She had a lot to mull over and not much time to make a decision.
“Thank you” she acknowledged softly as she let herself out.
Saakshi ruminated over her conversation with Pik as she went about her tasks. The alehouse was unusually busy for the slow shift, yet Saakshi’s mind constantly mulled over Pik’s suggestion to approach the Hadari’Kor male for assistance. After the first shock had subsided, Saakshi found herself giving the Keeyori trader’s suggestion serious thought. And a few hours of sober reflection made her appreciate his advice. Under other circumstances, nothing would ever convince Saakshi to even consider striking such an intimate bargain with anyone, let alone an alien stranger. But the Unta-Golar’s threat had thrown such considerations out of the window. Beset by panic and terror, Saakshi clutched at Pik’s suggestion like the last hope of a condemned soul. She knew nothing about the Hadari’Kor male except for his propensity to drink alone and his ability to put away copious amounts of lethal alcohol. Yet, she’d rather take a gamble on him any day than go to the Unta-Golar. At least, with him, she’d stand a chance. Or so, she tried to convince herself. Saakshi knew the Unta-Golar – he was cruel and vicious. In contrast, she told herself, the Hadari’Kor mercenary was a blank slate. The Hadari’Kor male had never tried to accost her or even approach her during all the months when his hot gaze had followed her around Pik’s, she consoled herself. He’d merely looked his fill. His gaze had certainly made her self-conscious but never uncomfortable. She could do this! The mantra kept reiterating in her mind, an attempt to shore up her wavering inner voice on the few occasionas it raised its inconvenient head to remind her of the bargain she would have to make for protection from the Unta-Golar.
The mercenary was attractive enough, in a big Hadari’Kor way. He was the first Hadari’Kor she’d ever laid eyes on. Although since then, Saakshi had observed his occasional companion and a few other Hadari’Kor males and even one female aboard the space station. They were built on generous lines as a race with massive light-gray-skinned frames, dark eyes and jet black hair. Saakshi had heard the rampant rumors of adolescent Hadari’Kor tattooing every available part of their bodies with colorful designs. But she had never suspected the whispers to be true until she’d caught a glimpse of the tattoos on the back of the male’s hands and his neck during his visits to the alehouse. He was always attired in a plain black uniform with an insignia on the right shoulder and trousers tucked into sturdy black military-style boots, the tattoes on his arms covered up by the long sleeves of the uniform. He carried no visible weapons on him, probably because the station’s auto entry sensors were stringent in stripping all weaponry from incoming clientele. When thoughts of the dangerous gamble she was contemplating made her heart beat a little too fast for comfort, Saakshi tried to reassure her inner voice that Pik, who was generally well-informed about station gossip, seemed to not have heard anything bad about the Hadari’Kor male.
By the time Saakshi was well into her second shift of the day, she had almost convinced herself to approach the Hadari’Kor Captain. When he strode in, accompanied by his occasional companion, Saakshi took it as a sign from the Pura. The Budheya were a spiritual people and their unshakeable belief that their Gods continued to watch over them despite the daily depredations and hardship wrought upon them by the Ketaari occupation, had been the only solace during these dark years. The silent blessing of her Pura renewed Saakshi’s confidence, helping to silence her inner disquiet while she waited for a lull to approach him. She did catch the occasional glances he directed at her but they seemed more tamped down and less overt than before.
At the first opportunity that presented itself, Saakshi hurried over to his table before she could lose her nerve. As she approached him from behind, it was his companion who observed her making her way towards their table. He murmured something to the Captain that caused the Hadari’Kor male’s back to stiffen subtly.
“Umm … Captain?” Saakshi spoke in Alliance Standard, unsure about how to address him.
At her softly spoken greeting, his dark eyes snapped up to meet her gray ones. A blaze of hunger slid unchecked into the dark depths for just an instant before he used his heavy lids to screen them from her. When he allowed himself to meet her gaze again, his eyes were carefully devoid of all expression. The blaze had been successfully tamped down. That fleeting look though, was enough to give Saakshi pause. Her doubts over the sensibility of this course of action she seemed poised to embark on, resurfaced inconveniently. As she hesitated, one dark eyebrow arched up fluently in inquiry at her continued silence.
“Could I have a moment of your time tomorrow … if you please? Any time is fine. I have the day off from work” she finished in a hurry, rushing to commit herself before she could change her mind.
He assented immediately, his eyes a tad puzzled. He glanced around the crowded establishment.
“Here?” he asked.
Damn, I didn’t think about the where. This is what comes of not thinking it through. Perhaps he knows of some place in this blasted station that is private.
“Umm …” Saakshi hesitated with a quick sidelong glance at his companion who was staring at her in bemusement. “Somewhere private, if … if you know of a place.”
The Captain studied her, taking in her obvious discomfort.
“My ship?” he suggested, careful to make his invitation sound like an offer.
He was giving her a way out if she felt uncomfortable meeting with him on his ship, she realized. And suddenly, Saakshi felt a little better about her decision.
Thank the Pura; it’s going to be all right.
She accepted his offer gratefully, only for her expression to fall as she remembered the restrictions on her.
“I’m not allowed off the station” she informed him haltingly, using her other hand to pull up her right sleeve and show him the ownership bracelet on her wrist.
The Captain’s expression tightened while his companion let out a gasp.
“I’ll take care of it” the Captain stated quietly, his eyes on her bracelet. “Does early afternoon work for you?”
She let the sleeve fall to hide the bracelet again before agreeing to the time, unsure of what he meant by his cryptic words.
“I’ll meet you here” he said, the dark eyes steady on her.
Saakshi skipped away, not daring to believe that she’d committed to an appointment with the Hadari’Kor Captain. There was no going back any more. She would, at the very least, have to make him her offer for she had run out of time.
That night, Saakshi studied her reflection in the small cracked full-length mirror attached to one side of the dormitory. She saw a young Budheya female of average height and a slight body – produced by a lifetime of not having enough to eat, followed by a three-month stint of near-starvation prison diet. Her best feature was a glossy and thick mane of dark brown hair that had been forcible cut short at the prison. Her first tips from Trader Pik’s when she had arrived at Keeyor 9 had been spent on quality hair wash. Since then, her hair had grown to her shoulders. Decent skin, nicely-shaped though not spectacular gray eyes, a small nose, lips with the bottom fuller than she’d like and, she’d been told, particularly pretty shell-like ears with the slightly pointed tip that characterized the Budheya, completed the picture. As she watched the thin girl in the mirror, Saakshi hoped fervently that Pik knew what he was talking about because she was not entirely sure that the Hadari’Kor Captain would consider taking on the Ketaari male an appropriate exchange for the dubious pleasure of her body.
Saakshi waited with trepidation at Pik’s the next day, attired in a fresh pair of Trader Pik’s uniform. The only other clothing she owned was the prison work-suit she had on when Pik had first brought her onto this station after buying her prison contract. Too nervous about the upcoming meeting to truly enjoy her rare morning off, she had nevertheless managed to sleep in and enjoy a leisurely shower. Seated at a corner table in Pik’s, it felt strange for Saakshi to watch the other server girls try to keep up with orders and carry out drinks. She kept a watchful eye out for the Hadari’Kor Captain, not quite ready to have any of the servers or patrons observe her leaving Pik’s in his company.
She needn’t have worried after all for the Captain proved to be the soul of discretion. He strode in punctually, glancing casually around the open seating area to catch her eye before walking out unhurriedly. It was done so smoothly that Saakshi felt immediately at ease. Obedient to the discreet signal directed at her, Saakshi waited a few minutes before slipping out to meet him, away from the curious glances of Trader Pik’s patrons. The Captain greeted her with a silent nod, directing a curious glance at her uniform. He plunged onto the walkway bordering Pik’s, gesturing at her to stay close to him. Treading the station in the Hadari’Kor male’s company proved to be a very different experience from Saakshi’s daily commute between Trader Pik’s and her dormitory. Necessity had taught her to be extremely vigilant and very creative in avoiding various groping extremities that many of the male and even a few of the female population seemed to feel was their right on this station. The worst behavior was on the lowest ring of the station that housed the pleasure houses and game pavilions on the Trade Sphere. The Captain cut an easy swath through the crowds; his size, aggressive mien and intimidating stare successfully routing people from his path. Saakshi made sure to stick close to him, following in the wake of the path that his aggressive attitude automatically opened up for them.
He walked them to the upper ring of the Trade Sphere which provided access to the station’s numerous docking ports. As they approached the station’s auto exit sensors, he pulled her into a little alcove by the pathway. The exit paths that led to the docking ports teemed with people but the crowds here were thinner than the hordes that jammed the main walkways of the station. The Captain used his big body to shield her, providing them with a measure of privacy in their little nook.
“Show me the ownership bracelet” he directed quietly, his eyes on the sleeve of the uniform that hid her bracelet.
Saakshi pulled up the sleeve just enough to expose the broad bracelet welded to tightly encircle her wrist. The Captain pulled out a tiny, circular and silver-colored disk to attach it efficiently to her bracelet, before tugging down her sleeve to hide the bracelet again.
He clasped her palm firmly in his larger one to tug her gently towards one of the exit paths. Saakshi resisted, fearful at the knowledge that she was liable to be carted back to prison in breach of contract if any exit sensors detected her presence. That would entail serving out the rest of her sentence in a Ketaari prison and possibly a longer prison term.
As she hesitated, the dark eyes glanced down at her.
“Trust me” he said simply, in his deep husky voice.
As her eyes tangled with his, Saakshi reminded herself exactly why she was willing to risk being carted back to a Ketaari prison. Here she was, about to make the riskiest and most dangerous gamble of her young life with this stranger she knew nothing about. Was it a gamble worth attempting, she asked herself one last time. As the picture of the Unta-Golar she would have to face soon rose in her mind, Saakshi hardened her heart. Perhaps, this was another sign from the Pura. If she couldn’t even trust this stranger’s word to get her through the auto sensors safely, she might as well give up right now and return to her dormitory.
He waited, the black eyes on her, seemingly content to allow her to make the decision. Something in the stillness of his body and the attitude of infinite patience pushed Saakshi to acquiesce mutely. He reached for her hand again, the act slow and deliberate, clearly giving her the chance to change her mind. Saakshi took a deep breath to hold on to the warm hand that clasped her smaller one so confidently. He walked them safely through the exit sensors and into a tiny pre-programmed shuttle. Once in the shuttle, Saakshi heaved a sigh of relief, her heart slowly ceasing its incessant pounding. She slumped against the wall to watch him punch in their destination. Soon, they were on their way, being zoomed directly to a docking port.
Cocooned in the privacy of the tiny shuttle and almost dizzy with relief, Saakshi turned her awestruck eyes on the Hadari’Kor male.
“How’d you do that?” she asked him, awed by the ease with which he had circumvented the station’s exit sensors.
He changed his stance slightly to glance down at her, his eyes glinting with amusement.
“Managed to impress you, hmm?” the husky voice was slightly teasing.
Saakshi nodded mutely, amazed by his ingenuity and resourcefulness. Over time, the Budheya rebels had learned to circumvent a lot of Ketaari technology, mostly because it was Budheya technology adapted for and packaged up to look Ketaari. But she had never seen anyone bypass auto sensors so easily and with such little fuss.
“It’s called a suppressor” he explained. “It masks sensor data with its proximity. In your case, it took your bracelet out of the equation, rendering all the information embedded in it invisible to the exit sensors.”
“Then what … how did the sensors allow me to exit? Saakshi stammered, confused by his words.
“Space travelers now carry mountains of data embedded in them” he answered easily. “All sensors are calibrated to detect certain tags from an individual passing through them. The suppressor allowed other data embedded in you to override the tags from your bracelet. In essence, it fooled the sensors into allowing to pass, based solely on the information from your id chip. The sensors treated you like everyone else – allowed you to exit after recording your id data into their logs. No one will know that you left the station unless they explicitly search through the station exit logs.”
“How could you be sure I had an id chip?” she asked curiously, puzzled by this aspect. Wouldn’t the exit sensors generate an alarm if they couldn’t read any information from her, she wondered. She was aware that the Ketaari Imperial Forces had embedded a standard Budheya identity chip into her when they’d sold her prison contract but he wouldn’t know that. Not for sure, anyway!
“That bracelet on you cannot function without a basic id chip” he responded with quiet confidence.
He certainly knows his tech! Hmm, so a mercenary needs skills other than simply being a terror on the battlefield. Or perhaps, he’s savvier than the average Hadari’Kor mercenary since he commands an army of them.
Either way, Saakshi was seriously impressed with both his expertise and resourcefulness. The whole idea was ingenious! Every space traveler had an identity chip embedded into his body, encapsulated with all the information required by planetary and space station automated sensors and other territorial border controls. The chips were even known to occasionally function as credit cards for those who chose to not carry a personal tablet device for such purposes. Saakshi’s wrist had been shackled with the ownership bracelet when her prison contract had been sold to Pik. Embedded in the bracelet were details of her contract and prison term as well as a locator signal that could be activated to enable the Imperial Forces to track her down if she ever made a run for it. Once the suppressor made the tags embedded in the bracelet invisible to the station’s auto sensors, the only information the sensor would read from her was that encapsulated in her id chip which did not specify her travel or movement restrictions. The suppressor had allowed her to successfully masquerade as a normal traveler on the space station.
“How … where did you get the suppressor from?” she asked.
And how did you acquire one so quickly?
“I called in a favor from the friend of a friend” his eyes were still lit with amusement at her awed reaction.
“Wow” she murmured softly.
For a moment, she stared down at the bracelet on her wrist, now hidden under the sleeve of her uniform before holding out her arm for him to detach the suppressor device still attached to her bracelet.
Saakshi followed him onto his sparkling ship, where the Captain ushered her to an empty ante-room off the main hallway. He closed the door behind them for privacy and invited her to be seated. Seats thronged the chamber though the Captain parked himself by the wall to lean against it, his stance casual with his arms folded across his chest.
“What can I do for you?” he inquired blandly, his face impassive. The teasing male from the shuttle who had indulged her with an explanation while enjoying her undisguised admiration and wonderment was gone.
Saakshi’s courage almost failed her as she stared at the big alien with the inscrutable face. She had come this far, she reminded herself, jumping to her feet to pace nervously in a tight circle before him, her arms clasped defensively around her waist.
“I have a proposition for you” she directed at the ground while continuing her perambulations.
“I’m listening” he responded unhurriedly, the dark eyes watchful of her jerky movements.
“It’s a little awkward” Saakshi muttered.
“Take your time” he invited quietly.
Saakshi paced a few more circles before taking a deep breath. She faced him, not quite managing to meet his eyes, all the while conscious of his gaze tracking her.
“I … uh … I’ve noticed how you look at me in Pik’s.”
She chanced a fleeting glance through her lashes at him. The dark eyes held an arrested expression in them as he stared back at her, his big body held rigidly still. His gaze collided boldly with hers.
“And …” he prompted.
“And I was wondering if you’d be willing to protect me if I … umm … agreed to become your lover” she managed to stammer out, a far cry from the polished speech she’d spent most of her morning practicing.
“What!” the big male barked, coming off the wall aggressively to lunge at her.
End of Excerpt
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