by Richard Fairbairn
Note that this short story takes part after the events portrayed in the novel Beyond the Starport Adventure spoilers are very likely if you have not read the first novel in the series. You have been warned!
The funeral was a grim one. Admiral Dethvarr would have approved. The whole service lasted less than two minutes. Then Nira Guvv’s lifelong advocate was blasted into space as a flash of light and heat. Matter converted to energy, a final – brilliant – moment to honor Dethvarr’s Ascension. Now, it was Guvv’s turn to rise. Her journey was not going to be so straightforward.
After the disposal tube door was locked shut, there was a hand on Guvv’s shoulder. She knew, immediately, who it belonged to.
“I challenge your authority in the name of the gods.”
The four-barreled Quartermaster blaster was an inch away from her right hand, but she wouldn’t need that. The ancient – barbaric – ways were not without rules. No weapons of any kind. Skin on skin combat – to the death. She’d follow the rules, of course, and her challenger, Commander Keez, would do the same. Soon, one of them would be dead. There was no doubt in her mind that Keez would be the one to die.
Keer was handsome, in a crude sense. Tall, but she still could see the top of his head. Thick, dark, hair and the naturally tanned skin of the equatorial people. His eyes were dark and symmetrical, offsetting the crooked nose – broken many times no doubt – which would otherwise have condemned him as unattractive. He was one of the ship’s auxiliary officers, charged with the responsibility of replacing the main weapons exec should the need arise. She’d never seen him on the main bridge before. She’d never seen him there again.
“Accepted,” she said. Not giving him the grace of eye-contact. “Two hours in Prime Combat Arena.” She turned to address the bridge crew – her bridge crew. “Senior officers only.” She finally looked her adversary up and down, taking the briefest of moments to do so. “Two hours, Commander.”
“As you wish, captain.”
There was nothing else to be said. She was not close to any of the senior officers. If she had been, she still would not have caught anyone’s eye or exchanged a word. There was a time for words and a time for action.
Her quarters were about three minutes away from the weapons deck. Two elevator rides and a brisk march along a deserted corridor. She was forced to take a detour, avoiding a section of the ship still under repair following the battle against the men of Earth, before arriving at her quarters. Admiral Dethvarr’s personal suite was opposite her own, more modest, quarters within the mile-long warship. She did not stop to look at Dethvarr’s closed door. She stopped because footsteps were approaching from around the bend.
It was a woman – the light padding of the feet was the clue – but Guvv did not expect the person who appeared. Her personality wanted to regress fifteen years, back to the time when this woman had been her friend. But she couldn’t – wouldn’t – leave the steely mental paradigm she’d built round herself.
The frightened mouse of a creature was Hola Nann. She was wearing the thin, revealing, garb of a Pleasure Giver. The dark purple color of her flimsy outfit gave a warning that she belonged to a member of the crew and was not available for use without permission. She was bone thin, her pale skin colored too much with paint and powder. The dark hair exploding from her head was much longer than it had ever been, and the glossy shine was artificial and forced. Hola was smiling weakly and her wide eyes stared into Guvv’s with nervous hope.
“You don’t remember me, Captain?”
Guvv did not soften. “I remember you, Hola. I wasn’t informed you were aboard. Where is your master?”
“On duty, captain,” Hola put her hands out. They were shaking. “I’m not needed at present.”
“Why are you here?”
“Aren’t you happy to see—”
“Why are you here, Hola? This section is off limits to secondary personnel.”
“I wanted to see you, Nira. I heard… they said… Admiral Dethvarr has returned to the gods.”
Guvv opened her door, dismissing Hola in that moment.
“Get back to the holding pen, Hola,” Guvv said. “I’ll forget I saw you here.”
Guvv slapped her hand against the Indenti-Pad, almost cracking the plastic panel. The door mechanism zipped open and Guvv stepped through. She stopped halfway through the narrow arch. Hola was not moving and was standing, teary eyed, her hands wrestling one another.
“Nira, it’s me!”
Overcome by a sudden rage, Guvv felt her right hand moving on its own, but the knife edge of her hand stopped less than an inch from Hola’s unprotected neck. Guvv moved the thin material away from Hola’s collar, exposing more bruising and scars, old and new.
“I want to break your stupid neck.” Guvv looked up and down the corridor. “Get inside before someone sees you.”
Hola gasped in surprise, smiling as she ran into Guvv’s quarters, leaving a wake of musky perfume, stale sweat and alcohol. Guvv followed Hola, the automatic door closing tight.
“You never tired of the bruises?” Guvv spoke coldly. “For me, I decided long ago it was better to give them, instead of taking them.”
“You’re a legend because of it,” Hola said. “You’re inspired hundreds of women to—”
“Take your lips off my ass, pleasure giver. I want to know what you want. I don’t have time for this.”
She’d made a mistake letting Hola into the room, but seeing the bruises and the helpless – hopeless – expression staring at her had been too much. But feeling sorry for Hola was a weakness she couldn’t afford to have, and served no purpose. Hola had decided her fate decades ago. The bruises and scars were a result of choices she’d made. Or were they?
Her anger rose again, fueled by the conflicting thought that she crushed before it could fully manifest into a cruel sympathy for this pathetic wretch. “Dammit, Hola, speak. What do you want?”
“When I heard my master was being transferred to Devastation, I was excited. I knew I’d get to see you again.”
“You’ve seen me, Hola. Now you can leave.” Guvv did not turn away from Hola, but searched out the door panel with her hand behind her back. “Goodbye, Hola.”
Guvv shook her head. Her patience was exhausted. She snatched Hola’s thin wrist and pulled her towards the door. Hola grabbed Guvv’s arm with her free hand and tried to pull against the much stronger woman. Guvv shoved her out the door.
“I want you off ship by morning,” Guvv said. “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.”
Hola began to speak, but Guvv turned away. It was over. Hola would leave the ship, or she’d be thrown out and sent back to whatever hell-hole Pleasure Givers would up at when they were too worn out to satisfy even the lowest of their disgusting clientele. Hola did not belong to her thoughts anymore. That younger, naive, part of her was gone and needed to stay gone – especially now. The door slid shut, Hola’s voice cut off in the middle of a rapidly whispered Sorry.
Guvv’s right hand stung and she noted a spot of blood on her wrist along with a fragment of Hola’s fingernails. She brushed the fingernail away and licked the blood away. She did not check to see if the bleeding had stopped before she went to change for the fight.
She took a quick drink of water before changing into loose-fitting black training pants and a tight-fitting, sleeveless, tank top. As she dressed, she considered the way she’d kill her challenger. She was strong and fit, but his mass exceeded her own by a good ten to fifteen percent. His upper body strength would be greater than her own, but her powerful legs would give her the edge. But strength and agility would not win this fight. Cruelty and ferocity would be her greatest ally, along with a speed uncommon for someone her size.
There were fifteen minutes to go before the challenge would commence. She drew a deep breath, suddenly feeling a slight chill. She bumped her shoulder against the side of her door as she moved through it. Another deep and heavy breath. More shivering. She was nervous, or so it seemed. But she didn’t feel nervous. She was impatient to get this over with, or at least to get the fighting started. But she didn’t feel afraid. So why was she shaking? This was a fight to the death, but Keez was no real match for her. He’d think that he was, but that, as always, would be his undoing.
The Prime Combat Arena’s door was open. Guvv didn’t remember how she’d got here. She’d skipped an elevator ride, or a corridor. There was a commotion inside the fighting room, restless spectators waiting to see someone die. They would not be disappointed. Keez was a good officer. His death would be unfortunate, but it was a choice he had made for himself. The fight would be brief, but glorious. Keez would die with honor. His challenge would only strengthen her right to the ship. There would be no reason for Imperial Command to overrule her ascension to the mighty warship’s command seat.
Her face slammed against the floor. She tasted blood and there was a dull ache in her abdomen. She was lying on the floor, face down. Voices were shouting, screaming, calling out for her to get up and fight. But the fight hadn’t started yet. When it did, she’d—
Strong hands snatched painfully under her armpits, nails digging into her flesh. Someone was pulling her from the ground. It was Commander Keez, his breath thick with liquor. “The first female captain in the fleet! What a triumph!” He had her by the shirt, tearing it open at the right sleeve. Her legs felt weak. She was falling away from him, catching a glimpse of the senior officers in the observation lounge above the arena. Angry faces, bridge officers snarling and cursing as Keez tossed her aside, his laughter echoing dully in her addled senses. The floor cracked her shoulder and elbow and the breath flew out her lungs. She was choking, seeing double, trying to take in air but finding a mouth filled with blood and a tongue that seemed too large. Keez was pulling at her clothes, tearing them away. She couldn’t stop him. She rolled onto her back, gagging and gasping. The bright lights burning down on the arena blinded her for a second. The crowd of officers – men she’d worked with for years – cried for her blood. Amongst them, Pleasure Givers huddled together in their weightless pastel garments; pinks, purples and topaz floating around their desperately thin bodies.
Hola was there, a thin slice of serenity in the mad crowd. Her expression was cold and serious, but there was a confidence in her eyes that made no sense. But Hola was looking at Keez and Keez was smiling back wolfishly. There was something going on between Hola and Keez. Guvv spat out a lump of blood and rolled onto her side, struggling to get to her knees. But Keez was coming at her again, stomping across the small arena to crush the small of her back with her knee.
She avoided what would have been a crushing, finishing, blow. Somehow, her momentum took her to her haunches and, wobbling for a moment, she remained there as Keez stood looking down at her, scornfully.
“I’d heard you were some great warrior,” Keez said. “Instead you’re a foolish woman who lacks the sense to cover her shame.”
Her head was clearing. This was good. The drone of voices above had separated into individuals she could identify. Commander Jammzon, the navigator, hissing at her under his breath. Lieutenant Commander Hanntzorr, the tactical officer, cursing her to the gods. Lieutenants Punntab and Thoole, openly shouting for Keez to break her neck. But it was all good. With each fragment of time, Guvv’s senses were returning. She was aware of her right breast hanging loose of her torn clothing. It was catching Keez’s eye, inciting a disgusting smile from his cruel mouth. Keez had blood on both hands. Her blood. Otherwise, he did not appear as if he’d been involved a fight at all. His broad chest moved easily and his posture was relaxed and confident. He might have been about to begin his duty in the secondary weapons control room, had it not been for the glistening red on his hands and the dark stains on the chest of his tight-fitting black shirt.
Keez looked up towards his cheering audience. “Have you seen enough?” he called.
There was silence from above, followed by a low murmuring. There was only one other woman amongst Devastation’s senior officers – the young Lieutenant Joowell. Guvv had thought her absent from the throng of faces glaring down at her, but the Junior Tactical Officer’s poked through the tight shoulders of Punntab and Thoole, pushing aside Hola and the two faceless Pleasure Givers gawping mindlessly from above. Guvv shivered at the disappointment in Joowell’s eyes, then she felt herself hardening. A coldness, beginning at her core – perhaps even her very soul – solidifying into a familiar energy that radiated through her chest and out through her arms, ending at her clenched fists.
Keez must have seen this new change in her demeanor as his smirk faded, his eyes hardening. He made fists of his own, massive, hands. There was silence above now. Guvv, her mind cleared, knew that Keez had been showboating. Whatever had caused her senses to dull, he’d taken full advantage of the situation. Keez had humiliated her in front of the senior officers. Guvv held Keez’s hot stare and, with the steel grip of her left hand, tore the remainder of her shirt from her body. The ice in her chest turned in upon itself, becoming a furnace and began to consume her. Keez glanced nervously at her exposed womanhood. She began to form something that might have been a grin or a snarl – she’d never know which – but then Keez charged at her.
She sidestepped easily, light on her feet again. He flew past, as she’d expected he would, but his powerful right arm deflected the hard jab of her own left. He surprised her with a hammer-fist blow, which landed just under the left side of her ribcage. She twisted on her hip, kicking out at his knee and striking him a painful – but not critical – blow. He gave a reflex shout of pain and a bloody hand reached, clawing, for her throat. She ducked under his arm, driving her shoulder hard into the dead center of his chest. The blow drove him back, but she was losing balance and falling with him. Using the downward momentum, she aimed her elbow for his throat and slammed it down with the full force of her shoulder and hips. His eyes were wide with surprise – which she shared, as she had expected him to dodge away – and then Guvv’s hard xxx bone crushed his larynx and windpipe. His left hand scratched weakly at the side of her face as his right went uselessly for his own throat. Guvv took him to the floor, straddling him with her powerful thighs, and grabbed his shoulder tightly with her left hand. There was no hesitation. No showboating. The powerful fist of her right hand smashed the remains of his already destroyed windpipe. His left hand slapped frantically against the floor, begging for mercy that she would not give and the Prime Arena would not allow. She continued to strike him until his left hand stopped moving. Only then did she realize that his right hand was attached to her own neck. She pulled his hand off slowly and coughed into Keez’s dead, staring, face.
There was no difficulty in getting to her feet – Keez’s hold on her throat had lacked the strength to do any real harm – but she stopped halfway and turned back to her challenger. His body was limp and heavy. She slipped one heavy bicep through the sleeve of his shirt, then another. When she was done, Keez’s body lay face down with his foolish mouth oozing blood. She pulled on his shirt before looking up to the watching, silent, group of officers.
“The challenge is over,” she said. “Return to your positions. Lieutenant Thoole, you will inform Imperial Command that Commander Keez’s challenge to my succession has been addressed.”
“Aye, Captain!” Thoole snapped the response without hesitation, disappearing without another word. The other officers left too, taking their Pleasure Givers with them, and only Joowell remained, staring down at her captain with loving pride. There was no sign of Hola.
The medic seemed nervous, but it was unnecessary. He hadn’t been amongst the officers at the arena, though his rank would have permitted it.
“You were right,” the medic said. “There are traces of a hallucinogen in your system. Essence of Jaysam. It’s widely available in the coastal markets, captain. Occasionally, the Pleasure Givers bring it on board.”
“I’m aware of that.”
“There’s a trace amount in your blood, captain. A very low dose, but enough to affect your performance in the arena.”
Essence of Jaysam. It had been so long that she hadn’t recognized the effect it could have. Whatever had happened in the first moments of Keez’s challenge, the drug had omitted it from her memory. But she remembered the visit from Hola and the scratch on her hand.
“Thank you, Lieutenant.”
“It’s likely this has been administered by someone sympathetic to Keez’s challenge,” the medic said. “Some of the men have difficulty with senior officers of the opposite sex.”
“Yes,” Guvv allowed herself a smile. “They do. And you, Lieutenant?”
“Captain Guvv, in my opinion you have proven yourself fit for command many times over. The issue of gender is an unfortunate—”
She left, then. Hola was easy to find. She had decided not to run or hide. She was in Keez’s quarters, collapsed on the floor, the lower half of her body saturated in blood from deep wounds she’d opened up on each arm. But she was still alive, even if her skin was the porcelain white of a bloodless corpse.
“He said he’d be good to me,” Hola whispered. “He said he wouldn’t hurt me if I did it.”
Guvv pulled her weapon from its holster. Hola was opening her mouth to speak, but the Quartermaster’s bullet tore off the top of her head and the words were frozen in time. Guvv squeezed the trigger another three times, sending the last of her bullets into Hola’s chest.
Guvv left Commander Keez’s quarters without hesitation, loading four new bullets into her sidearm as the door hissed shut behind her. The security detail was waiting outside her quarters; a tall man and a shorter, much older, woman. The man was unknown to her, but the female was Corporal Horrzinn, the highest-ranking female in the security team. Guvv walked past them both, entering her room without breaking stride.
She regarded herself in the mirror for a few seconds. Then she unhooked the Quartermaster’s holster and allowed the whole rig to slide down her hip to the spongey-soft covering on the floor. She tilted her head to the side, examining the bruising from the punch she did not recall. Then she pulled her shirt over her head and tossed that aside.
The automated system in her room acted immediately and a bright light, comparable to the sun at noon, filled the room. Every bruise, cut and scratch from the fight was clearly visible. The medic had only sealed the deeper cut beneath her collarbone. The others were untouched, untreated. Guvv examined herself, surveying the scars she’d carried since Hola had been her closest friend. They’d earned their scars together as teenage girls, fighting off the attentions of academy applicants, young and oversexed, trying to stick their cock in anything that moved.
Guvv remembered some of her scars, but not all of them. There was the one from the handsome, blue-eyed pilot applicant called Hanntzz. When she’d rejected his clumsy advances, he’d thrust the handle of a stainless-steel spoon deep into her abdomen, narrowly missing her liver. There was another wider scar slightly lower, approaching her pubic bone, a six-inch weal left by the red-hot barrel of an energy weapon that a physical training instructor had threatened to thrust inside her if she would not take him into that same place. She remembered that man more than any of the others – he was the first person she was to kill in open combat. There were many more scars, many more moments of pain and grief etched on her body. Some had faded completely, others remained.
She turned from the mirror, leaving the memories behind. Before she returned to the bridge to command her ship, she wanted to shower. She wondered if she’d shed a tear for Hola as the water blasted away the day’s events, but in the next second she knew she would not.