Blood Calls Out to Blood

Bel

"All yours, Belisimona."

The navi's words echo like wake-up chimes. Bel va'Caravagi snaps back into being in the usual post-'gate way, smashed shards sucking back into wholeness. The mainscreen shows distant stars and the closer orbs of planets.

Eyes front and down. Stabilise the rotation. Align the thrusters. Check the axes. "Current position gamma two sixty-seven, by mu six seventy, by zeta one zero," she announces into the fading music of Nowhere, taking the usual small pride in her professionalism as a pilot. Post-gate is a time when the impulse for everyone is always just to float, to stretch the euphoria like strands of honey-taffy, eek it out second by eon-long second. "We're on the edges of the Gatha system..."

'Gate shadows follow her hands across the consoles as time tries to catch up with itself. They give her dark skin an extra dimension as if she's briefly a part of the void itself, more real in its lack of matter than anything formed from mere atoms.

"And on an in-bound path to Gatha Prime. Expected arrival three hours, fourteen. Time passed in Nowhere--" a quick calculation--"One second, twenty." Bel glances sideways to Devi. "You overdid it."

"Was worth it," Devi whispers, her eyes closed and her skin moth-wing iridescent. The stupid flibber is pushing herself too hard. She's feverish again.

Bel still remembers the first time she met Devi and how strange the gene-controlled navigator had seemed with her blue skin and eyes full of Nowhere. It's been ten years now, and they've become as close as family, yet sometimes even now...

A movement behind the sprawling system consoles catches like a hook in the corner of Bel's eye. She still expects to see Hamlyn there when she looks over, but of course, there's a new 'facer now. She doesn't like him much. He doesn't belong.

Ifan Vor smiles emptily at her as if he can read her thoughts, his skin crinkling around his temple ports. "Systems operational if far from optimised," he says, sounding amused. That's 'facers for you, cynical autists to a one. Still, he has a good line in black leather going for him; Bel can relate to that if nothing else.

"You'll have plenty of time to get them optimal while we're here, Vor," Keld Jaquen says lazily from behind Bel.

Bel turns and watches her captain stretch luxuriously in his chair. 'Gating always makes him like a cat in sunlight, and that always makes her think instinctively of home -- back when she had a home for cats to sprawl around in, back when she had family and a life beyond the star routes and the controllers and crew of the Patchwork Princess. Wincing, she forces the memories away, back into the vault, locked tight.

What she's got now is enough. She needs no more.

Keld's looking at her with what seems annoyingly like concern, proving that, as ever, he knows her far too bugging well. Sometimes she wishes he'd keep the distance most captains have from their crew. They've known each other too long, been through too much together, for that to work.

Keld pushes his fingers through his straw-yellow hair, preening it back into smooth perfection as he raises one of his eyebrows, questioning her. She stares levelly at him. In the end, all he says is, "We'll be at Gatha Prime for a few days if all goes well. We're having a new carbreactor fitted in the aft array... among other things." Bel knows this already.

"Captain Jaquen!" Down on the rusty gangplanks that run around the console islands, the holo-AV, Patch, starts up brightly. It fritzes a little, its share of systems power perhaps returning unevenly after the 'gate. Frowning, it runs its hands down its flowered dress as if brushing away the bad signal. Then it smiles winsomely at Keld. "You asked me to remind you to visit the mechno guild centre on Gatha Sextus," it says, its high voice and lisp making the words almost singsong. "Would you like me to make you an appointment?"

"Good girl," Keld says, and Bel stares with bemusement as Patch's little girl cheeks visibly blush at the praise. What a waste of light.

Keld got the AV free, thrown in sight unseen as an incentive for a deal on black market franzibar. They all sucked hard on Nowhere when the Infanta here first appeared, its golden ringlets bouncing on its shoulders as it greeted them excitedly. Whoever programmed Patch has kinks needing urgent mind-mech attention, in Bel's opinion. But then, she's hardly a locked anchor on that one either. Best not wriggle the chain.

Keld seems to have grown perversely fond of Patch over the months since installation, but rather him than Bel. There's more than one reason she's never wanted kids.

Bel faces front again, checking her instruments automatically as she does. A fist immediately grips her guts, hunching her over the console. "Uh... Captain?"

"Yes, Bel?"

"Three ships, sir, two raptor class and a hyped-up sub-dee. They 'gated in immediately behind us. They're not flying colours, but... their flight pattern's distinctive."

She hears the creak of the chair as Keld sits forward. "Patch, confirm course of these vessels."

"Vessels are on a triangulated intercept course with the Princess, Captain Jaquen. They will be within mutual targeting range within one minute forty at current speed and vectors." There's a brief pause before the AV adds a meek, "I am very sorry."

"Bug it," Keld curses, sounding more annoyed than worried. "Bug it hard to their rim."

"Again?" Devi asks wearily, and Bel hears Mett titter at the back as if Devi just made a joke.

Bel turns and glares at Mett, letting her gaze burn with the promise of pain 'til the girl sits back in her chair, full lips pulled tight in sullen silence, arms folded under the liquid curve of her barely covered breasts, dark hair falling over her eyes. The silly whore's going to get her arse spanked if she doesn't behave. Why the fuck Keld insists on having everyone on the flight deck during 'gates, Bel will never know. It's no place for cargo, especially not silly bits of shimmer like Mett.

The ice in her guts drags Bel back to her console displays. The other ships are closer. It's them, got to be. Her fingers twitch with the urge to redirect power to thrusters. No point in running, of course. Even at her top speed, the Princess would be a wounded dolphin amongst sharks.

"No, not again. Not if I can help it," Keld says, answering Devi, but his relaxed drawl seems a soothing hand on the prickled fur of Bel's fear. She swallows and straightens in her seat as Keld announces. "Prepare to 'gate, everyone."

"Captain, I must protest." Brother Harmold, of course -- another pair of idle hands on the flight deck, but at least he's not entirely pointless, being their med-tech. "Devi simply isn't strong en--"

"Brother, are you able to use the weapon controls you've sat yourself in front of?" Keld snaps.

"No, I... It's forbidden."

"Then bugging well prepare to 'gate!"

Bel frowns. Keld's too far away to have noticed Devi's rapid and shallow breathing since the last 'gate. The navi just hasn't been right since the disaster that was Megron 5. "I could probably take them out," Bel says slowly, though she knows really that trying to use a pilot's console as a weapons interface is tantamount to suicide. "Perhaps--"

"Do you, of all people, truly think now is the time to find out just how good a shot you really are?" Keld is sounding increasingly angry.

Of course he is; he hates running. He's doing this for her and the rest of the crew. If it were just him, he'd turn and fire, no matter the odds. He owes them for his brother. They all owe them.

Part of Bel wants that too, but she won't let the arse-crawlers finish the job they started. The best revenge she can get on them is to live. While she survives, their attempt to rewrite history can't succeed. She's proof of their genocide, proof there was once a House called Caravagi.

Vor looks up from behind his nest of consoles. "I could probably take out all three," he says casually, smiling in that warmthless way of his. "In circumstances like these, pointless traditions can surely be wavered."

Bel frowns at him, her nostrils flaring. As a new and unproven member of the crew, Vor doesn't get weapons access, and he knows it, judging by his comments.

"Coming into range in ten seconds," Patch says. "Nine, eight... Captain Jaquen, the nearest ship is signalling!"

"Let's hear it," Keld snaps.

A horribly familiar accent fills the flight deck with its sibilance. "Unidentified merchant craft, this is Vardeschu cruiser Empire's Might. You will power down and prepare to be boarded."

Bel feels her teeth grinding together and has to fight with herself to part them. "Fight or flight, Captain?" she asks tensely. Just the sound of that voice, of that hated name, has set something foul slithering up her spine. Fight. Let it be fight. She's fed up with running. She wants blood. She wants to bathe in it. Without letting herself think about what she's doing, she lets her fingers move, opening manual weapon controls on her console.

"Wait." Bel hears Keld stand up behind her. "Patch, open a direct channel. Everyone else, shut up."

"Channel open, Captain Jaquen."

"Vardeschu Cruiser whatever," he says. "Bollocks I'll power down. What in Nowhere do you want with us, eh?"

"Unidentified craft, you are transporting a dangerous criminal wanted for crimes against House Vardeschu and the Tzartane Empire."

Against the Empire itself? Bel twists around to glare at Keld in disbelief. What? Has her crime of surviving genocide suffered an inflation rate?

The voice continues. "You will immediately power down and prepare to be boarded."

"I said bollocks to that!" Keld's in his element really, telling authoritarian bullies to go bug themselves. "What dangerous criminal, anyway? I only have my crew here. You've received faulty information. Give me names, descriptions."

"The outlaw is--" The voice suddenly cuts off.

Floating over from the systems interface station comes a sardonic, "Oops. Now, that was unfortunate." This is followed quickly by the faint shakiness that means the dampeners are smoothing out a shockwave or similar impact upon the Princess. To start with, Bel actually wonders just what the new 'facer has done. It's only very slowly that she realises that it's she who has done it.

"Vardeschu sub-destroyer has been destroyed, Captain Jaquen!" Patch exclaims, all but jumping up and down and clapping its little hands.

"What? How?" Keld's down the steps behind Bel now, his hand on the back of her chair while he peers at her instruments.

"My fingers, er... They slipped," Bel says, staring at her hands as if they're not hers at all. She hears a chuckle come from Vor's direction and sees her hands clench into fists in reaction.

"What?" Keld clearly can't believe what he's hearing. "Patch, visualise!"

The mainscreen zooms in on an image of swirling debris, the glow of internal flame soon dying in the vacuum. Some of the spinning flotsam is clearly people-shaped, bits-of-people shaped.

Patch cries, "Captain Jaquen! Remaining Vardeschu ships are firing!" and Devi moans quietly beside Bel, who doubts the navi is the only one remembering their last disastrous battle against superior Vardeschu forces, the attack that took Hamlyn from them.

"Bel, evasive!" As Bel swerves the Princess through a series of erratic moves, Keld rears away from her chair, no doubt heading back to his own. "Everyone, prepare to 'gate. 'Gating in ten, nine..."

"I could take out the other two just as easily," Bel offers, wondering vaguely if something in her brain fused back wrong after the last gate. She calculates targets, thinking this one's for you, Mama, but suddenly that part of her console is blank.

"You've done more than enough already, thanks." Keld's voice is tight and unfriendly. "Four... two..."

--

--

All Bel's particles shoot back into place with an urgency that leaves her gasping. Where are they? What have they been-- ah. There's a star looming large on the mainscreen, blindingly bright even with auto-compensation, almost near enough to warm her hands on. Bel pulls the Princess back in a hurry before they get close enough for the star's gravity to bug everything to Nowhere.

"We're moving into orbit around, uh, Eptin Minor, Captain," she says, hoping she doesn't sound as shaken as she feels. "No current sign of pursuit."

"Uh. Right. Well done, Devi..." Keld sounds a little jumbled too. "Good choice of locale. Everyone all right?"

"I hit my head," Mett whines from the back of the flight deck.

"Then you should have stayed sitting down and kept your mouth shut like you were ordered, brat," Bel snaps. She doesn't have what it takes to deal with the child right now.

There's a cough, also from the back. "If I may ask, Captain," Brother Harmold says gruffly, "where in the Lady's name did they come from?"

"They can't have followed us 'gating, not unless..." Keld groans. "Patch."

"Yes, Captain Jaquen! I have already mobilised all bots in the hunt for possible tracers. Estimated time for completed search, ten minutes thirty seven."

"Good girl. Bel, find us somewhere sensor-unfriendly while we wait this out, eh?"

Not quite trusting her fingers to do what they're told, Bel locates a good spot in the outskirts of a dust ring around the fifth planet and begins moving the Princess towards it, max speed.

"Are we safe here, Keld?" Devi asks wearily.

"My guess is they won't follow," Keld says. "Taking out the command vessel like that will leave them headless and running for a while. They'll need to report back to mummy."

"All systems remain constant at barely operational," Vor reports. "Except that one of our missile bays is unaccountably empty. Can't think why."

There's silence then; Bel tries to stop her shoulders hunching as she corrects their course unnecessarily. She's broken the Deal or come close to it.

The Princess Cara, as she was first known, had been Bel's personal yacht, a luxury gift from her father on the eve on her ascension. It was pure luck and wilful disobedience that had meant Bel was out of the House system when the Vardeschu leviathans came. Just before the channel died, she'd heard her father scream for her to run and keep running

These days Bel sometimes doubts there's anything of her original ship left, so much has been extended, replaced and cannibalised. The Patchwork Princess has earned her new sobriquet many times over.

Back then, Bel had run until she found Devi, Keld, and Keld's brother, Hamlyn. She gave captaincy of the Princess to Keld in return for the opportunities the others represented; she knew she couldn't make it on her own. She was already at breaking point, financially and emotionally.

They fitted a legal nav-drive and a highly illicit systems interface and made her yacht into a high spec freighter. Keld promised careful revenge against the Vardeschu. In return, Bel vowed solemnly to be crew, to obey him no matter what, to forget that she was ship-owner.

That was the Deal, and it isn't that she wants to renege now; just that, suddenly, dead Vardeschu seem more important than anything else. There's a planet worth of ghosts in her head calling out for Vardeschu blood. She's the only Caravagi left, the only one to avenge them all.

"I thought we'd seen the last of those hole-creepers," Keld says quietly. "At least, for longer than this. I thought we'd have time to get ourselves ready to re-kick their arse before they'd be trying to kick ours again."

"The Vardeschu attack you often?" Vor asks, sounding doubtful.

"Oh, we're old friends," Keld tells him. "We go way back."

"Really. Why would that be?" There's a very unpleasant edge to Vor's voice now. "Strange how you didn't tell me about this when you waved that contract around."

"Captain Jaquen!" Patch bursts in.

Everyone ignores it. Keld says, "If you've a problem with your contract, you're welcome to renegotiate when we next reach a safe port of call."

"Who knows when that might be when your crack shot pilot seems to want to use the ships of supremely powerful Houses for target practice."

Bel stands up abruptly, leaning forward with her hands on her console to glare at Vor. "You were every bit as thirsty for their--"

"Pilot va'Caravagi!" Keld's voice is an anchor catching, halting her midstream. "You will sit quietly back down at your console, or you will take yourself to your quarters and lock yourself in. Those are your two choices. You have no others."

Oh, she does. She has that one unthinkable choice that they both know she'll never take as everything, the whole Deal, will really be over then. Gritting her teeth, she sits back down and checks her instruments. "We're in the middle of a diffuse particle cloud, Captain," she says, devoid of tone. "It was the only thing in proximity to hide within."

"Va'Caravagi," Vor repeats quietly, his voice strangely soft, wondering. "And suddenly it all makes sense. I wasn't told..."

"It really wasn't any of your business," Keld snaps. "Patch, how much longer to the all-clear?"

"I tried to tell you," Patch says plaintively.

"Tried to tell me what?" Keld asks.

"The bots found a void-tracer on the hull by following an incongruous subsignal. I told them to disable it and bring it in for cannibalisation."

"Well done, m'dear. Make a hull sweep part of standard procedures every time we leave a system from now on, at least until we get a new mechno."

"Aye aye, Captain Jaquen!" Patch says, drawing itself up to happy attention.

"Full stop, systems on standby. Maintain sensor sweeps. Harmold, help Devi to med-bay for a once-over." Bel hears the steps as Keld walks down from his island to approach behind her. "Right, pilot. I take it you no longer wish to remain part of my crew."

Oh bugging fuck. "Keld, I'm sorry. I don't know what happened. I--" She makes her mouth close tight, thinking, not saying, 'They took everyone from me, Keld. They took my childhood. They took mama. They took your brother...'

Keld shakes his head. He leans over her consoles, pressing a few pads as Harmold appears to their side and starts helping Devi from her chair. "You blew up a well-defended ship," Keld says. "With a single missile according to this readout; that shouldn’t even be possible, but I expect miracles from my crew so we'll let it slide for now. What I won't let slide--"

"There's a fatal flaw in the design of those old B-class imperials," Vor interrupts unexpectedly. "Anyone with an understanding of the variables and quick enough synapses could hit it. Much easier through the interface, of course; real skill is needed for a manual bullseye." Was he actually standing up for her? Praising her?

"Anyone could hit it who knew about it," Keld says dryly. "Bel, did you know about it?" She nods, although she hadn't remembered it until Vor spoke, and Keld snorts. "Well, that's hardly the point, though useful for the future. You disobeyed orders."

"Yes." Well, what else can she say? While Keld didn't precisely forbid weapon use, he did tell her to wait. "I'm sorry. It wasn't really a conscious decision."

"Is that meant to make me feel better?" Keld laughs, slapping his hand down on the back of her chair. "Am I meant to believe you're actually capable of opening weapons controls on your console without meaning to?"

"No. No, that part was deliberate. I wanted to be ready. I wanted..."

He sighs, turning her chair to face him. "I know what you wanted, Bel. Who knows better than me? You think I didn't want it too? But in the end, that's not an excuse, is it?"

"No, Captain." He's right; it doesn't matter how just her need for revenge. The moment she disobeyed orders her actions became unjustifiable. What in Nowhere is Mett making of all this, seeing Bel humbled by her own stupidity?

Keld looks at her levelly for a few more seconds then simply gestures with his head towards the door from the flight deck. "Quarters and stay there."


Mett

This sucks. This totally implodes.

Mett has been standing facing the wall now for what has to be hours. Hours and bugging hours. No way is her backside, no matter how plump and perfect, worth this level of attention. This is punishment, plain as bargain rate. The pencil she can hear scraping the surface of 'genuine paper' behind her is just Bel's excuse.

Mett knew she was really in for it the moment the Captain sent Bel to her cabin in disgrace. Bel's tendons were tensed so sharp and tight they looked like they were about to fray through her skin. Mett knew then just what it meant for her.

So here she is, skin-to-air naked on aching legs, facing the blank space of the cabin wall. Not that much in Bel's cabin is anything other than blank space. The woman don't exactly collect possessions, more fool her. What in Nowhere's the point in life if not to gather all the nice shimmer you can manage? The winner's the one who's got everything by the time they hit the flat-line.

Mett's big ambition is to fill luggage, to arrive places with hoards of the stuff, and plenty of slavy types to steer it for her and all. It's Mett's fair reward, really, this future. No one can tell her she ain't earned it. Flat on her back, or yeah, up against a wall. Bel's just a different kind of client, that's all, with a different wall.

Bel's the type of client Mett's mum had told her all about -- keepers, who take a jilly in, feed and clothe them in return for all the usual shit but on a regular basis. Course, they're meant to give the jillies plenty of shimmer too, these keepers, but Mett's seen precious little of that from Bel so far.

Still, better than the concourses. She always needs remember that. Keepers are the way up, the ladder to climb, and so what if Bel's the bottomest rung? She's got Mett's feet out of the mud and got her that little bit closer to the top.

Mett shifts her weight to her other leg. "I'll get a haemorrhage," she says, not really believing complaining will help. "All the blood'll collect in my calves and get all clotty, and then when I sit down, the clots will rise up and block all my vital organs, and I'll die."

"Better not sit down then," Bel says from behind her, sounding amused. Well, 'amused' is better than the all-but-murderous behind Bel's eyes when Mett first dared knock on the cabin door.

"Ha ha. So not funny. My legs hurt. I'm cold too."

"There's not a trace of gooseflesh on your body, girl, and I should know." Well, it's nice Bel's paying attention, anyway. "Now if only your temperament were as sweet as the view filling my pages here, all would be good."

"Sweet manners cost extra."

"Extra than the none I'm currently paying you?"

Mett hears a page turning, a scraping sound, too loud in the cabin. "You pay me," she insists. "Wouldn't be here if you didn't. Just not enough for sugar-tonguing."

"Prefer honesty. Lean forward and put your hands on the wall." Does Bel sound a little cross again? Huh. If the crap about honesty is true, Bel shouldn't give a wharf rat's arse if Mett points out she ain't obliging Bel's every desire out of selfless love, should she?

The synth-coated metal of the wall is cool under Mett's hands. She makes her back concave, pushing her arse up in the air. She knows what Bel wants. Same thing they all want, after all -- free access to the honey. "Legs ok?" she asks, knowing they ain't quite. It makes Bel happy to command.

"No, a little further apart. Yes, that's it. Stay like that." Bel sounds warmer again. Well, as warm as she ever gets, which ain't even enough to melt the frost off the dome-top on Shellover. "You look good enough to eat, little girl."

"Do I?" Mett tries to peer back over her shoulder at Bel, unexpected hope for a little low-grade shimmer starting up. "I mean, really do I?"

Craning her neck, Mett sees Bel nod, pencil to the corner of her mouth. Bel looks like a dark stone sculpture to Mett, always has done, but one done by a carver with no time to finish the job. She's all sharp angles and edges, nothing smoothed by fat or feminine curves. That's Bel under the skin too, hard and sharp.

"You look good," Bel says, "but you're not good. When you can sit on the flight deck, quiet and still, for as long as I expect it of you, that's when you'll get treats like that."

Mett never gets nothing nice, not even the transiwotsity pleasure of Bel's tongue, let alone stuff that lasts. She lets her head hang through her arms as she stares at the floor. "Nothing buggin' pleases you, do it?" she hears herself say. "You'll always find some reason not to be nice to me 'cause that's what you need from me, ain't it? To play the crim in the dock for you."

"That's not true," Bel says angrily, but they both know it is, otherwise why the anger?

"You want me to lie to you, it costs extra, remember? S'okay, anyway. Every jilly's used to being a body stand-in."

"It's not fucking true!" Bel is up and striding about the cabin now; Mett can hear her. Mett keeps position though; she's a professional. Bel says, "You just make no effort to be good, that's all."

So unfair. "One of these fuckin' days, I'll really misbehave. Then you'll see."

"Don't curse, girl."

Like that's the only word she heard out of all Mett said? Well, there's an answer to that. "Why the fuck not? You fuckin' do."

The blow smacks sharply against Mett's bum and making her flesh judder, making her jump forward and squeal. "Next stop, Mett," Bel says from close behind her, and it sounds like a promise. "Next stop and I'll put you back where I found you."

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, bugging fuck. Why can't Mett ever learn to guard her tongue? Mum said that her wicked tongue would be her undoing if her pride didn't get her first. Despite everything -- and there's been so much everything -- Mett still can't submit. Still can't allow 'the client's always right' to be true.

She tries to sound resolute. "I'll find a new keeper. This body'll open doors, just like it opened yours."

"Like all those gaping wide doors that surrounded you back in the concourses of Shellover Third-port, you mean?" Bel snorts. "Get back into position."

Mett don't want to do this no more. It ain't exactly been fun from the start, and now fun has 'gated well away. She shifts backwards, returning to the arse-up posture. Her bum stings. "You mistreat me."

"Leave then," Bel says dismissively. Least she ain't talking about forcibly offloading Mett now. "You're a free woman."

"I'm your buggin' slave." And her mouth just keeps on talking, don't it? Why can't she stop herself? Why can't she just shut up like everyone wants? Just be a body, a soft space for them to lose themselves in. "I do whatever I'm told, or get hit, and I don't even get buggin' shimmer for it."

There's a scary silence. Finally, Bel says quietly, "That really the way you see it?"

Now Mett's really gone and done it. Bel only ever gets quiet like that just before she pounces. Mett ain't learnt nothing from what happened with her Mum. Not a bugging thing.

"I'm sorry," she says in a small voice. Too squeaky -- it's gonna wind Bel up even more. "Don't be angry. I'm really sorry. If I didn't like you touching me so much I wouldn't get all uppity when you refuse, would I? I like being your... girl." She don't know what else to call whatever she is to Bel without making things worse.

The quiet this time goes beyond scary. It's a vacuum demanding Mett's sobs. It wants to drag them unwillingly from her body for all to hear. But it won't get them. She's trembling, and she don't think it's from the strain on her legs no more, but she ain't going to cry. Not for Bel, not for no one now Mum's gone.

Begging though, she'll do that. Part of the job, that is. "Bel, please. Tell me what to say or do to make this be over? I got a big mouth; you know that. Maybe... maybe you could put it to work?"

Suddenly, she's being pulled back against the leather, steel and stiff fabric of Bel's clothes and held by one arm over her belly, the other tight between her breasts. "Stupid flibber, you are," Bel says roughly, close to Mett's ear. "Stupid, stupid girl."

"Yeah. Yeah, I'm stupid. You wanna put me over your knee? Know I deserve it."

Anything's better than the silence, the promise of real violence. Not that Bel ever has, not to Mett, but others have, and Mett's seen Bel beat up portsiders too when they got too uppity, so she knows it's in Bel. Bel's no different than all those other psychonauts who lose it on their jillies... except that she is. Bel still sees, well, some people at least as being human.

Mett just don't want to cross over to the other side of that invisible line. Then it'd be the seedbrain monger all over again with his demands and fists and filthy cock...

"I think," Bel says, voice still rough and low, "that you and me need to set up a new rule."

Mett tries not to groan at the promise of more ways in which she can mangle things. "I'm not very good at rules," she says tentatively.

"Really? I'd never have guessed. Not talking about those sorts of rules, my girl." Bel's hands move in small circles where they rest on Mett, almost like she's trying to be soothing. "Talking about rules to make sure you don't feel like a slave."

"I don--"

"Shut up." Bel briefly tenses her arms, jerking Mett, but then the stroking starts again, so it don't feel like anger. "Now listen. We've already got the safe-word, not that you use it, but here's something more. If ever you want out of our arrangement, I'll not just dump you on the nearest inhabited, I promise. I'll find somewhere friendly for you. Not only that, I'll make sure you have enough credit to have time to find someplace good. No more working the concourses, right?"

Does Mett dare ask for that in contract form? Best not push it for now, not when things are taking a turn for the much better. "Okay," she says meekly. "Thank you."

"Also, I want you to get your arse in gear and study those manuals I called up for you. Get that Basic Space Tech exam passed. Then I'll go begging to the captain and get you put on the roster as Ship's Apprentice. You'll get a wage, small but regular. You'll have a proper place here then, not just as my... girl."

Mett sighs. "I'll try, Bel, but you know I'm really only good at one thing."

"Oh no, sweetie," Bel says with a bark of laughter. "You have at least three or four particularly fine talents. Don't undersell yourself."

As if Mett would. She knows her own value just fine. "You're mean," she says mildly.

"I know. We ok then? Do you have any words, safe or not, you want to say before I take control again?"

At what point did Bel let go of control? Must have been real 'blink and miss it' stuff. Mett looks down, smiling to herself, and sees Bel's hands still gently circling. "Can I ask for things?"

"Always."

"Can I ask for things with at least a skinny rat's chance in a meat-slicer of getting them?"

"Always that too." Bel laughs, the movement pushing her buckles and belt fobs into Mett's back. "What is it you want, my girl?"

"Oh, intergalactic fame and all the shimmer that's going." Mett grins even though Bel can't see it. "And just at this moment..." She lifts her arms and puts her hands on top on Bel's. "I'd really like for you to be wearing your gloves."

This time Bel's laugh sounds delighted. "You're as crinkled as me in your own way, aren't you?" She lets go of Mett and begins to move around in the cabin. "Stand in front of the mirror."

Eager to obey for once, Mett goes to the panel that hides the clothestore. She touches the sensor to open it and stands a pace or so away from the full-length mirrored surface it reveals when it slides aside.

She frowns a little when she sees herself, her dark hair looking ever so slightly lank against her domer-white skin. Running her fingers through it, she manages to restore some body. The delicate seed jewels at her crotch need redoing, but that'll take hours of uncomfortable work with the bonding iron; there's nothing to be done now. Mett pulls the stool from the small vanity unit nearby, and leaving it to the side of her, puts her foot on it, displaying herself.

Movement to her side signals Bel's appearance behind Mett in the mirror, smiling over Mett's shoulder. Then cool leather-gloved hands are sliding around Mett and moving over her skin. "Oh."

Mett doesn't know what it is about leather, about the feel of it touching her flesh like this. It's just dead herd animal, after all, and not that different from wearing old meat. She only knows that, when Bel wears the gloves, there's no chance of acting a role, of being a professional. Every moan and uncontrollable shudder is real.

And watching the gloved hands move -- black over palest cream, sheathed fingers pinching her nipples out, flat palms rubbing them back in again -- it feels like something grabbing at her womb and pulling her forward.

"Shimmery enough for you?" Bel asks, smirking at her in the mirror as Mett begins to writhe to the touch.

"No," she answers honestly, because nothing Bel can ever give her will be that, but then she adds, "Don't stop."

Bel doesn't. "You got any idea how beautiful you look when I make you move like this?"

"Course I do," Mett claims breathlessly, but it ain't true. Her eyes seem to slip over her image in the mirror, not wanting to see how she appears when not pulling her own strings. "More. Please more."

"More what? Be precise."

"More fingers. On me, in me. Please."

"Mmm, my best of girls," Bel purrs, bending to nibble at Mett's neck. "Watch as I do this. Don't take your eyes from my hand." With that, Bel moves her right hand down, slipping over rib and belly to rest on top on Mett's mound. "Watching?"

"Yes," Mett breathes. How can things that were going so wrong suddenly be going so right? Don't question, stupid girl, just live it. "Yes," she says louder.

Two black-sheathed fingers form a single hook and slip between her outer lips, sliding back and forth over her clit and beyond. Mett moans and flexes, pushing her pelvis out and trying to get the fingers to go further, move faster, something.

"Like this so much, don't you?" Bel murmurs, somehow making sure all Mett's movements achieve nothing. "Like my fingers, like my leather. Want all you can get and then some."

"They're... okay." As Mett sounds about as casual as a dreakhead on a withdrawal freak, the damned-with-faint thing just ain't happening. "Could do with a little of that 'then some'."

Bel laughs and begins to flick over Mett's clit with the loose tip of a glove finger. Mett pushes forward to meet it again, and Bel must be feeling kind after all the fuss 'cause this time she lets Mett get away with it.

"Ahh." With the firmer touch, Mett seems to ignite inside with a heat so intense it melts her leg bones. She falls forward, bracing herself with her hands to either side of the mirror. The chair her foot rests on scrapes back a short way on the floor.

"No," Bel says firmly, though she doesn't stop her movements between Mett's legs. She uses her other hand to pull Mett up straight again. "Lean back on me. Don't spoil my view like that."

Mett looks in the mirror to see her own chest heaving, her breasts juddering as Bel's fingers move slick and wet between her jewelled lips. Mett can smell herself, musky and a little sharp.

"Should holo me," she says, eyes glued to her reflection. "Holo this, us. We're like a porn mogul's spontaneous ejac together... uh... oh Bel, we're like..." She pauses briefly for breath, getting carried away some with what she's thinking. "We're like matching pieces, everything opposite -- our skins, height, even you so thin and me the best buxom credits can buy. Look at us, Bel."

"I am," Bel said almost calmly, moving her upper hand to Mett's mouth to be kissed, licked, the scent of leather filling Mett's nostrils. "You naked and soft, me in my armour. I'm looking." She pushes down further with her lower fingers, entering Mett briefly, who groans, her legs threatening to fail her again.

"Bel..."

"Yes, sweetie?" Bel moves them both a bit so that Mett's leaning heavily back against Bel now, the flesh of her back being sculpted by the hard edges of Bel's gear. Mett's all the more on show in this position, all the more open to the black fingers dividing her flesh.

"You treat me good. Was rubbish what I said. Never want to go back."

"Shh, girl. You know you're special to me. Never taken anyone else in, have I? One look at you though and I had to have you. You're just so... faultless."

Course Mett is. Mum didn't spend her life savings so that Mett would die broken in a cranny somewhere. Mett has a future. She also has a present, and fuck, it feels good. "Bel, Bel..."

Bel slips her knee through Mett's legs, more black leather surrounded by creamy white plumpness. Then she slides her upper hand over Mett's ribs and belly, over the first hand already at work, and beyond.

Fingers push inside Mett roughly -- multiple fingers, two then three, stretching her, hurting her a little but that's just fine. She can feel the rough contours of the leather seams. Leather fingers inside her making thick, wet noises. Oh stars. Oh fucking stars.

And all the while, the other fingers work her clit, and the tears Mett fought against earlier are nearly back again, and this time she has no defences. "Bel... Bel, am I your girl? Am I?"

"You're my girl. My best girl. My perfect girl." Bel's croon is honey and sand. "Not letting you go, Mett. You're safe with me. Come for me now, doll. Let me see it."

Mett's already obeying before Bel gives the command, such a good girl is she, and she's still obeying when the words fade from the room, replaced by her yips and gasps. Then she feels herself lifted as if she weighs nothing and carried to the small bed behind the curtain at the back of the cabin.

They lay together, Bel on her back, still fully clothed, Mett snuggled close at her side as she recovers, head on Bel's shoulder. Bel likes to feel protective so Mett has to act vulnerable at times. It's part of her job, a role.

Bel's arm wraps around Mett's shoulders, pulling her closer still. "How are you feeling?"

"Shimmery," Mett says truthfully. "All slick and glittered. Bel, I really lo... like being in your good books again," she finishes in a hurry, refusing to even consider what her mouth had started to form there.

"When you're ready," Bel says, "you can get in my better books."

Much better to work than to lie here feeling stuff for no reason as if she's a brainwipe. Mett sits up and smiles down cheekily at Bel before moving lower. "I'm ready now. I'm all for a library upgrade."

It's just as new sounds of wetness and heavy breathing are filling their small space that the door tone breaks through with its creditsaver peel.

"Fuck," Bel swears, and then yells out, "Go the fuck away!"

"Now, Bel," comes Keld Jaquen's voice through the com. "Is that really how you want to speak to your captain?"

Bel bangs her head back into the pillow. "Bug it."

"Don't worry," Mett tries to soothe. "Soon as he's gone, we get to play catch up."

"He's come to rip me a new one," Bel says, making no effort to get up.

"Bel," comes through the com again. "I'm going to use the overrides unless you've opened the door by the time I've counted to twenty. One... two..."

Bel sighs and pushes Mett from her, lifting her hips to drag her trousers back up as the count continues. "Stay behind the curtain," she instructs before leaving the bed and slouching off to the door.

Mett lies back on the pillow and tries to listen to the conversation, but she hears nothing. She sticks her head out through the curtain to look around. The door's open, but Bel and the captain ain't even in sight.

Looking around the room aimlessly, Mett spots Bel's sketchbook on the floor in the centre of the cabin. She slips out of bed, creeping over to it.

Bel's always been a good artist, but Mett likes the pencil drawings more than screen images. She crouches naked beside the pad and carefully turns the pages, each one holding a picture of her.

On top is a sketch of her raised arse, complete with a darkened welt across it and delicately detailed lips showing between her thighs. On the page before that the pencil marks curve around the line of her back, one breast just showing to the side. Before that is the first pose from today, facing to the side, arms lifting her hair messily up above her head, breasts in pert profile, large and natural-looking but not remotely saggy. Money well spent.

The pictures are brain-frying. Mett knows she's hot; she's been rebuilt for sex, after all, but Bel has made her beautiful.

She pages back though the pictures, through previous sessions, noticing something strange as she goes. On these older ones, Bel has added backgrounds. Maybe she means to do the same to the new ones when she has time. But the background ain't the angles and emptiness of the cabin here. They show some fantasy of an old money interior -- all real wood, candlesticks and big old clocks. Mett's the finest thing of all, the possession in pride of place in every picture.

Mett's lying on a grand bed with four posters, sprawling wantonly in too many sheets, one pulled up tight between her open legs as, judging by her face, she gets off on it...

Mett is leaning back against a bookcase of real books. You can tell they're real as one is open, pressed to her breasts by one hand, the other hand pushing fingers between her legs as if she's read something unbearably hot...

Animals that might be cats are slinking around Mett's spread legs as she displays herself by a real fireplace, her wrists tied to her ankles...

The last picture seems so real Mett can almost feel the cats' long fur, the binding cords, the heat and crackle of the flames. She runs her fingers over the image, wondering. There are enough pictures in the pad that locations get repeated. Enough to know Bel ain't making this up. This is a real place, somewhere Bel knows well, and for some reason she's put Mett in it, made her live there in a funny kind of way.

The last picture in the pad, the first one, presumably, that Bel drew, is of Mett asleep and curled up on a bed, the pillow way deeper than the slim pieces of padding they have here. Mett's hair is spread over that pillow, and her hand is curled up near her mouth. She looks so... innocent.

Abruptly, the bugging tears are back again.

Standing, Mett drops the book, not caring if she damages it. She walks back to the mirror and makes herself look at her body -- her real body, not that beautiful, pure thing that Bel seems to see. Mett's a tough whore of the Shellover concourses, child of another tough whore, both of them born and bred in the Establishment, the best bugging brothel this side of Hub-central... least 'til that arse-creeper monger took over.

There's this big list of things a good jilly must never do, according to Mett's mum. She mustn't argue with or steal from her clients, or hurt them in non-contracted ways. She mustn't refuse to fulfil a contract having agreed to it, and must give nothing but her best no matter how ugly the client or how gut-emptying the contract.

But the biggest no-no, the sin that has been the fall of even the greatest whores, is to fall in love with a client.

To clients, even keepers, jillies are just flesh, just holes and cocks and breasts. Don't matter how kind a client seems or how generous, they'll always dump a whore in the end for someone purer, someone not pawed at by every stranger with the credit. A whore should never forget it's just business, never let the act become real, and never ever let anyone mean more to her than the next rung up the ladder.

The urge to cry vanishes under the mantra of her mother's teachings. Mett smiles a cold smile at herself. What's wrong is that she's been dawdling too long here at the bottom. She's made the mistake of feeling grateful for Bel's 'rescue' when in reality Bel's been getting a full time, top class whore for next to bugging nothing.

This ain't Mett's home, and Bel ain't a new mother for her. It's time to start looking for the next rung up.

There's movement out in the corridor. Mett turns to see the captain in the doorway, filling his eyes with her flesh. She smiles, letting her tongue tease the corner of her mouth, and slowly moves her hands to her breasts and mound, parting her fingers to make sure nothing's really covered.

The captain stares, his blond hair falling over his eyes; he don't seem to notice, and Mett smiles all the more. Then Bel pushes through, interrupting the transaction. "Thought I told you to stay in bed." She scowls at Mett. "Get some fucking clothes on. You're not his to be looked at."

The captain shakes himself and disappears off down the corridor, leaving Mett with a thunderous looking Bel.

Mett's in trouble again; she's been caught being naughty. Might even get that spanking this time, but she don't care. No, she don't give a wharf rat's arse 'cause Mett's following a legacy left by her mum, who never wanted nothing more than to know Mett was ok. And Mett will be ok -- 'cause she's found the next rung to the ladder, and she's on the way up.

All the way to the top.

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