Anna Ch. 09byCarizabeth©
Hi guys! To all my long-time readers, you are a very patient group of people, and I appreciate all the words of encouragement you've given me. Finally, the last chapter! Don't blame me for getting sappy at the end, I couldn't help it. To those of you who haven't read any of the precious chapters, it will help, but hopefully there's lots to enjoy here. So, enjoy!
"What do you mean, she didn't come home?" Varan asked with barely-concealed rage. He was sitting across from Madame Ko in her office, dressed in a conservative grey suit, an unusual choice in wardrobe for him. His face was paler than usual, skin strained and drawn tightly across the bones beneath it as he clenched his jaw in an effort to control his temper. "I thought you had some way of monitoring her position."
"I thought you did as well," she countered, uncommonly defensive. Madame Ko never became discomfited, but she was close to it now.
"The mechanical tail can't follow her into inhabited buildings, and if she left, it didn't have time to pick her up before she was taken away. What's your excuse?"
She brushed off his rudeness. "The cameras surrounding every inch of habitable space in Ceyla City should have been sufficient to show what happened to her. They weren't. Apparently there are numerous blind spots in the system, which are being corrected now. Her communication strip was found lying on the ground in the loading docks behind the convention center."
"Interesting. And useless." Varan's huge hands clenched briefly into fists. "Do you know anything useful, or should I go and find her myself?"
"Good luck trying," Madame Ko replied coldly. "The city has been searched, every residence invaded but your own, but I already knew she was no longer on the asteroid."
Varan stared at her for a moment, and then understood. "Subdural tags are illegal."
"But necessary. Without it, we would have absolutely no idea where Elsiane is now."
"So where is she?"
"I'm not sure."
Varan closed his eyes. "Madame," he said with as much calm as he could manage after a few seconds of tamping down the fear and fury coursing through his body, "now isn't the time to try my temper. If you want my help, tell me what you know. If you want me to take care of it so you can sit here like a reptile sunning itself beneath a heat lamp, tell me what you know. If you want me to go to hell, tell me that, but don't fuck with me right now."
"I can find her as soon as the ship carrying her stops moving," Madame Ko said, once again ignoring his threats. "Right now the signal is too broken up to get anything useful. They're moving too fast. When they slow down, it will be possible to find her. Then we can follow and retrieve her."
"They'll find the tag," he said slowly, thinking about it for a moment. "If they're any kind of observant, they'll find the tag. The signal coming from it will mess with their equipment, especially if it's strong enough that you can track her across systems. They'll also feel the heat of it if they touch her in the right place."
"True. We'll have to move very fast."
"Who is 'we'?"
"You and I. No one else need be involved. The police of this city are less than interested in the disappearance of a whore, even an expensive one. You have an extremely fast private ship, which we'll need to catch her. Part of my contract with her is a guarantee of her safety and appropriate compensation in the event of personal damage, so I too must be there."
"To do what?" He looked at her cynically. "My personal ship is fast but useless for combat. The shields are only good for environmental hazards. If they have a decent combat system, they'll rip my hull open."
"I'll take care of it."
Varan shook his head. "I can't trust you with this. Elsiane's life is in the balance. She might—" He swallowed against a sudden splash of acid in the back of his throat. "She might already be dead."
"I doubt it. Elsiane is a commodity to them."
"And if you're wrong?"
"Then we still go and I will take revenge on her killers. I'm sure you'll enjoy watching."
She seemed completely serious. "You can really do that?"
Madame Ko nodded, keeping her eyes on his. "I can and I will. In fact, I probably will even if we recover her alive. This sort of behavior needs to be made an example of, to dissuade others from similar reckless endeavors." She was as cold as space, this woman. Varan had no idea what kind of life produced a person like this, and he didn't really want to know.
"I'll go get my ship ready."
"I'll let you know the moment I get a reasonable lock on her position. We'll leave as soon as possible."
Varan stood up and left without saying anything else. A number of Stars were waiting outside Madame Ko's office door looking worried, but something in his expression warned them away from asking him any questions. He stalked down to the flyer he'd left parked out front. He'd waited for her. Five minutes, ten minutes, fifteen...finally he'd gone inside, impatient, irritated, but mostly worried. Had she changed her mind? What he'd learned had hurt far worse than her rejecting his offer would have.
It was hard to drive with visions of murder floating like bloody stars across his vision, but he made it to his company's compound without running into anything. His workers were clearly surprised to see him; he had made it clear that he was taking some time off, starting today. He ignored their curious stares, hating every moment of scrutiny and question. Their questions made him imagine his own, and he didn't want to think about those right now. So many questions that he might never know the answer to. His lips curled in a silent snarl as he made him way with long, impatient strides to his personal ship.
It was totally different from the ship he'd taken Elsiane up in before. This ship was a cruiser model, built for speed. Variations on it were used all over the universe for transporting government diplomats, heads of state who didn't care too much about luxury, and playboy space jockeys. Varan wasn't any of these things, but he was practical. It was the best small ship money could buy for speed, and when the time came he didn't want to be left wanting. Times like now.
Varan did as much prepping of the ship as he could without actually turning on the engines. He checked the fuel, checked the stores, went over all the safety systems and electronics. He stayed as busy as he could for the first two hours of waiting. After that, there was nothing else to be done but wait, and that was torture.
He kept seeing her...he saw her every night when he went to sleep. He heard her voice in his dreams, felt the softness of her skin and the long silky strands of her hair. He breathed her sighs of pleasure, drank the vision of her beauty and grace with his eyes time and time again. Her soul revived his, made him realize that he still had one, every single night since they'd been together. He hadn't slept since he'd placed his bid, and cursed himself for a fucking fool over his anxiety. Anticipation of another sort had filled him when he'd received a communication saying that she'd accepted. There was no way he could have slept. He spent hours poring over maps and star charts, picking a place for them to go. No work this time, for once just pleasure. He had finally decided on Griffyn, the water world, a place like she'd never seen before. He would have taught her to swim...
Maudlin fucking idiot. Varan's temper was frayed to the breaking point, and he was so close to losing it that soon he'd have to smask something. It was a bad way to maintain his twisted sanity, but it was all he had. Just then, though, Madame Ko came in over his comm. "I've found them. I'll be there in ten minutes. Are we ready to leave?"
"We will be in ten minutes."
"Good." She cut out. Varan let out a huge breath, trying to calm himself, refocus his energies. His blood still thrummed with pent-up energy, but now he could spend it on finding Elsiane and getting revenge instead of tormenting himself. Far more productive.
Her head hurt. That was the first thing Anna realized as she slowly regained consciousness. Her head really hurt. Things would have been unpleasant enough if they had stopped there, but the throbbing pain in her temple beat at a counterpoint to the shooting agony in her arm. It was a torturous duet and her vocal cords wanted to groan the refrain, but she stopped herself. Barely. Noise meant attention, and she didn't need any more attention. She'd had plenty of that. First she needed to find out where she was, what had happened.
Her eyes were gummy and stuck together, but rubbing them against the cold metal floor eventually loosened her lids and let her see. The floor was very cold. She was still wearing her jumpsuit, but it was shredded in certain unpleasant places. Oh no, no, they hadn't...she hadn't been...Anna couldn't tell. She felt a rising panic in her mind and squashed it ruthlessly. There'd be time for tears later. Right now she had things to do.
Her arms were bound behind her back. It felt like cord, rope or cloth, not metal. She cast her eyes around without moving her head, in case someone looked in to wherever she was being held. Where was she? And why did it seem slightly...familiar?
Memory flooded in in a rush, and suddenly Anna knew where she was and who she was with. Raiders. Pirates. The same people who had killed her family and kidnapped her; it seemed so long ago now. The people she'd escaped from. The people Stefen was working with.
There was no other way, she recognized that now. Stefen wasn't a victim, he was an accomplice. He had helped them in the very beginning, and he had helped them find her now. He had probably been the one who'd attacked her earlier, trying to drag her back to them. Why he did it all she wasn't sure, but there was no other explanation that satisfied all her questions. The thought steadied her some. It was a betrayal, and that hurt, but anger was a powerful motivator. It helped her focus her body and her mind on something other than pain.
Actually her body was experiencing more than pain right now. The base of her right calf felt hot. It was a relatively small amount of skin, but her lower leg felt like it was on fire. Had she been injured there as well? She took a chance and shifted slightly. Movement didn't seem to cause any discomfort; the area was just feverish. Well, she'd worry about why later.
Oh yes, this storeroom was familiar. There was a ring set in one wall that had once held a chain, a chain attached to her. She'd been pinned there for week after week, released only far enough to get to a rudimentary toilet and back. Unclean, unhappy, going mad with grief and desperation...no, think of something else. How had she escaped last time? Their stupidity. Poorly restraining her one night, she was able to pry the locking mechanism on the manacles apart using a piece of metal she'd been bending on for a week, fatiguing it until the sharp little triangle of hope came free in her hands. Free hands and free feet, and then a run for freedom that had resulted in a very different type of slavery.
The interior walls of the ship were pathetic, corroded and rusted in places. If she strained, Anna could hear voices, could make out words. And the words she caught weren't happy ones.
"She's not a virgin."
"But...but, she was before! You checked her before!"
"A lot can happen in the time she's been gone, idiot. We already fucking sold her, we've already gotten half the money. How happy is the buyer going to be when they find out she's spoiled? You should've found her sooner."
"Can't you...just...can't we fake it? There are lots of ways to fake it, right?"
"You think this girl will agree to that? After the shit she's been through, you think she'll want to give you a hand? Want to play pretend to save you?" There was a moment of rough laughter. "No fucking way, kid. I told you, get the girl back or get me the money we're out. Only way left to do that is to sell your ass and hope someone doesn't mind a whiny bitch for a laborer."
"No." She could barely hear his words. "No. Let me...let me talk to her. Let me try to work things out with her. I can do it, I can make her reasonable."
There was no reply that she could hear, but then hard footsteps sounded against the grates. The door to her prison opened, and Stefen entered with a lunge, as though he'd been pushed. Anna watched with slitted eyelids as he stared down at her, shuffling his feet for a moment. She could smell him from five feet away, the stink of sweat and shuddering nervousness.
Finally he crouched down next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. "Annie."
She couldn't contain her revulsion and jerked away from him, staring into his pale, thin face. "Don't ever call me than again."
"Annie, I know things look bad, but I can explain—"
"I said don't call me that!" Anna brought her feet around and slammed them into his near leg, just below the knee. Stefen crumpled to the floor next to her, grimacing in pain.
"Fucking bitch!" Leaning towards her, he drove his fist down at her face. He wasn't a very good shot, and managed to graze her with his knuckles but nothing more.
"Good," Anna laughed as he cradled the hand he'd just driven into the floor. "Yes, call me that. Call me a bitch. Hit me. Hurt me. I want you to make me feel terrible so I never feel tempted to want to help you again, you lying, kin-killing, evil piece of—"
"You don't understand," Stefen interrupted quickly. "That was never supposed to happen, I never wanted anyone to be hurt! They were just supposed to come down, steal the supplies and take me away with them. If I'd thought they were going to kill everyone else, I would never, never have given them the landing clearance codes. You think I wanted my own family dead?"
"Stefen." Anna sighed. "You moron. What did you expect? You're dealing with pirates. They work to make the most they can out of any situation. You sold our parents lives along with the supplies and, and...for what? For what? So you could be like them? So you could kill and rape and steal?"
"No! I just...I didn't want to end up like our parents, Anna. Like our fathers, working themselves to death for nothing on an empty rock in the middle of the fucking universe, months of travel away from anyone else. I didn't want to end up like them. I wanted something else for me. For both of us." He lowered his eyes, looking to the side. "I was going to make some money, enough to come back and get you out of there too, so we could go and make lives for ourselves somewhere else, somewhere better. I always loved you, Annie. You know I love you. And there's still a way for this to work, it's not too late for us. There are just a few things you have to do, to help me, and then we can be together."
Anna shook her head tiredly. "Oh, Stefen. You never got it, you never did. I was happy there. I had a family that loved me and wonderful friends and a boy I knew that someday I'd marry." Hope brightened his eyes momentarily, but then she went on. "But now Annie is dead. She died with her family, she died when she was taken away to be sold as a sex slave. I ended up doing that work anyway, but at least the way I went about it I had some choice in my path.
"I'm not going to pretend to be a virgin to save you, Stefen." His face blanched as he realized that she had heard him. "I'm not going to lie to spare you pain. I hope you feel lots and lots of pain. And I told you," she jerked herself suddenly into an upright position, "not to call me Annie!" She rocked back and thrust her heels into his face as hard as she could.
Stefen's head snapped back against the wall. He screamed and clutched at his mouth, blood pouring from between his fingers. A man came in, someone Anna vaguely recognized as the leader of this group. He stared for a moment at the tableau, then chuckled. "Told you so."
Stefen turned his head to the side and spit out a piece of a tooth. "Fuck...oh, ow..."
"Your usefulness is at an end, boy. And you," he glanced down at Anna, his gaze speculative, "you've just become a lot less lucrative, but a hell of a lot more useful to the rest of us." He grabbed her by the ankles to swing her off of Stefen, and suddenly stopped. "Your skin is hot." His fingers honed in quickly on the source of the heat in her leg. "You're not injured. It's a subdural." Fury flashed across his face. "You've got a motherfucking subdural. Some wealthy patron like to know where you spend your time, slut?"
A subdural tag? When had that happened? Anna didn't have time to speculate. The man's hand flashed at her face, and he was a lot more accurate than Stefen. Pain erupted in her cheek, and she fell with a numbing thud to the floor. Someone else came to the door, someone she couldn't see through the haze of tears.
"Get him out of here," the leader spat. "Lock him up someplace. This bitch has a subdural tag planted in her leg. Someone's tracking her. I'm going to cut it out." He pulled a knife out of a sheath at his hip.
"You want some meds for her, keep her calm?"
"No." His voice was cold and cruel. "Should be able to fish it out in two or three cuts. I don't think she needs meds for that."
Varan was pushing the engines of his ship as hard as they could be pushed without going into overdrive. The ship they were tracking was a bouncer, able to go pretty fast over short periods of time, then needing to slow down to keep the engines from dying. It was an old, inefficient model, and with every passing hour they closed the distance between them.
Madame Ko seldom lifted her face from the tracking monitor she'd brought along. Not a hair was out of place, and watching her obvious serenity grated on Varan's nerves. Finally he spoke up. "Do you ever sneeze?"
She lifted her eyes to meet his. "Excuse me?"
"Sneeze. Cough. Rub your eyes to get the grit out, stretch your back to ease the pain caused by your goddamn ridiculous high heels."
He stared at her for a long moment. "What, never?"
"Why waste my energy?" she replied casually, dropping her eyes back to the monitor. "Besides, my back feels perfectly fine. Everything feels fine."
"That's inhuman," Varan muttered, turning back to his console. He missed the small smile that flickered over Madame Ko's face. "How much longer?"
"At our current rate of speed, we should be upon the ship within half an hour, perhaps less. That's assuming they don't hop any further, but I doubt they can. Their engines aren't built for sustained hyperspeed."
"That's an understatement," Varan said. "And when we pop out of space and confront them, what's your plan for that?"
"We hail their comm. We try to bargain for Elsiane. If she's still alive, they can probably be persuaded to make a deal, and I'm prepared to offer a great deal of money to secure her release."
"Have you considered that they could try to take our unarmed ship hostage? Why release Elsiane to us when they could just threaten to kill her unless we comply?"
"We're not helpless," she said. Varan stared at her for a long moment, but she didn't seem inclined to expand on that cryptic statement.
"So you want to buy her back and let them go?"
"Not at all. One way or another they're going to face retribution. I'll give them the option of following us voluntarily back to Ceyla City and remanding themselves to the law for justice."
Varan barked a brief, harsh laugh. "You know as well as I do that they won't agree to that, and frankly, I don't know how you can make them."
"You'll undoubtedly find out, then." She turned crystalline eyes towards him. "I answered your questions, now answer one of mine. Why is Elsiane so important to you? What is it that attracts you to her? She is, after all, nothing exceptional. Many women are more intelligent, more beautiful, more skillful. Many of these exceptional women would welcome a patron such as yourself; I know that several in my employ would. So why Elsiane?"