"Okay. I'm going reconnaissance, but I'll check in every half-hour. If I don't check in, step up the emergency signal and at the very least locate me."
Talara triggered the hydraulic catch to the c.o.c.kpit canopy and it popped open quietly in the stillness of the forest.
Slightly damp, cool green air rushed in around her and she took a deep breath and pushed the canopy open, standing slowly, a little unsteadily. She climbed out and found her footing on the gra.s.s-covered ground after a moment.
Leaning against the ship, Talara a.s.sessed her surroundings.
The ship crashed in the deepest forest Talara had ever been in, including those of her heavily forested homeworld, Diranda. It wasn't so much dark as it was green, extremely green, the light taking on a green tone, the ground covered with jade green gra.s.s, emerald moss, tiny green plants and clover, so much so that there wasn't a rock that wasn't green with moss, nor even the hint of brown dirt beneath the constant green. The bark of the trees were even a deep, brownish green, intensified by the vines and mosses growing on them.
Talara got out her tracker, activated it and began walking. There was a source of fresh water not far down the small hill she found herself on, so that was where she decided to go, at least to start with. She set the tracker to locate life-signs in the background, hoping that it would give her a little more to go on than the shipboard computer had.
The sound of running water relaxed her, the closer she got to it and as she made her way down the slight rise to the creekbed below, she smiled. It didn't look like there was anyone nearby, she was relieved to be alive and felt certain that no matter what happened here on Aquila, she'd make it out okay.
The creek was clear, sparkling water playing lightly over smooth, gently shaded gray, white and black stones scattered along the bottom of it.
Kneeling, Talara unslung her pack and got out the bottle and the purification slips. Curling the wafer-thin white square into a small straw, she poked it into the canteen bottle and pushed it into the water, watching serenely as the stream filled it.
The tracker, clipped to her belt, gave a soft hum. Talara glanced at it.
Life sign. One. Undetermined.
Twenty-five yards directly to the east.
Carefully, slowly, she turned her attention back to the bottle, capped it, shook it.
Talara watched the purification slip dissolve in the water. Shook it again. White bubbles filled the water.
Perhaps it was only the knowledge from the tracker that made Talara stiffen a bit, feeling as though she were being watched, perhaps it was an actual psionic reaction to the presence of someone unknown nearby.
She shook the bottle again.
Casting a carefully shielded telepathic net out around herself, Talara tried to determine more about her unseen companion. The white bubbles dispersed into the crystal-clear water. She opened it and took a sip. A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature crept down her spine and she felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end. That's not an Aquilan... She took another sip of water, stiffening a bit more. Ancestors... "Dirandan. Woman. Pilot." A low, wicked, masculine chuckle. "Mmm. Love that. You must have been the crash we tracked an hour ago.
Excellent." Talara took another sip of her water, not turning, not acknowledging. Friggin' Rysusi! The soft crunch of leaves, steady, getting louder as the chill increased. "Pretty. Very pretty," that low, sensually wicked voice said, "It's been a long time since I've had a Dirandan."
Talara capped her bottle and clipped it to her belt. One hand found the handle of her whip and rising, she spun, pulling her psionic energy tightly around herself in a shield.
The tall, silver-haired Rysusi man halted in his tracks, a wide grin on his angelically handsome face.
Talara stared at him a very long moment, fingers tight around the handle of her whip, its three barbed tails sparking and snapping, writhing slightly as energy crackled and danced along their lengths.
He laughed slightly. "Ah, you want to fight first, is that it?" Crossing his arms over his chest, he regarded her with sardonic amus.e.m.e.nt in his jet black eyes. "I suppose I can be convinced to indulge a little, though you do realize you have no chance of winning against me."
Talara's own deep violet eyes narrowed and she snorted at him. "That's what you think, Rysusi. I just survived a crash that technically, I had no business surviving, with only a minor scratch. You won't find me an easy opponent."
His grin widened and Talara found herself shivering, though not entirely from instinctive fear. Something about this man was unnerving, unusual, completely unlike any other Rysusi she'd ever encountered. It conjured a strange heat within her, something that curled, hot and pulsing, deep within her body. She frowned.
"Do you have any idea who I am?"
Talara's frown deepened. What kind of answer was that, anyway? She stared at him harder and he laughed softly.
He wasn't wearing a Rysusi uniform, she suddenly realized.
No, he was dressed in what looked like a hodge-podge of Dirandan and Rysusi uniforms and Aquilan clothing. His tunic was a soft, deep orange color, a basic full-sleeved, open necked Aquilan design, complimenting the warm coppery color of his unusually tanned skin; she'd never seen a Rysusi who was tanned; beneath a clearly Dirandan jacket, an elegantly tailored sable-black Captain's coat trimmed in crimson, falling to mid-thigh. His pants were the only piece of Rysusi uniform that she could recognize, rust colored, tight to powerful thighs and legs, tucked into simple, mid-calf black leather boots that were Aquilan in design and laced with leather thongs.
He chuckled. "Still want to fight me, my s.e.xy Dirandan pilot-woman? It seems we might be on the same side."
"I doubt I'd be on your side."
"Oh, I don't know. Your people abandoned you after the battle. Didn't even bother to send a search party after you."
"They probably thought I'd been killed in the fight."
He snorted. "Who won? I'm laying bets that the Rysusi Legion did."
"Don't you know?"
His grin faded. "Don't tell me you really don't know who I am."
Talara's fingers flexed on the handle of her whip. "No. As far as I know, you're the CO of the local Rysusi outpost with eclectic tastes in clothing, off-duty."
His lips twisted into a smirk. "You don't know very much about Rysusi culture, do you, Dirandan?"
"Even in as remote a possession as Aquila, Directorate clothing is pushing the envelope in permitted attire, no matter how elegantly styled it is."
That blow to the head must have done a little more damage than the medic program detected.
The pieces suddenly clicked together...
This oddly dressed, silver-haired Rysusi malcontent in the remote back-woods of Aquila...
Not too long ago, a major event occurred in Aquila-s.p.a.ce between the Union and the Rysusi...
"You're Damon Ziomar, the Renegade!" she blurted. "You're supposed to be dead!"
Damon laughed. "As you said earlier, it takes a lot more than a crash to kill me."
Talara felt everything that was previously rock-solid inside her body turn to quivering jelly. The hand holding the whip trembled. She swallowed hard and fought that reaction back under her control. Deep amethyst eyes narrowed, turned to icy slits.
"You'd best back off then, Ziomar. I've got a tracker on me and once my ship's distress signal is detected, the Directorate will send a retrieval team to get me. If you want to live, you'd better get away from me."
Damon smiled. "I don't think so, little Dirandan. For one thing, Aquila is deep enough within Rysusi lines that the Directorate won't risk infiltrating for one pilot, and for another, as I'm sure you're already aware, this area is magnetically and magically shielded. Life signs won't properly register and I doubt your ship's beacon can penetrate the net we have set up around this area."
Talara just stared at him, a long, long moment.
"N-no..." she breathed, aghast.
Damon chuckled villainously. "Oh yes, little Dirandan. Face it, my pet, you've been abandoned. You're at my mercy."
Talara stumbled backwards, raising her whip. "Don't you come anywhere near me, Rysusi sc.u.m!" she snarled, "I swear, I'll attack."
Damon snorted. "Pet, if I wanted to, I could flatten you with less than a thought. I don't want to. You're too pretty and your scent is devastatingly s.e.xy. I haven't had a woman in months."
"I won't be your dinner, you sick b.a.s.t.a.r.d!"
Damon laughed deeply. "I wasn't thinking of blood, pet. I've got more than enough of that. No... I'm thinking of something much more fun than c.o.c.ktails." He took a step towards her, his deep, onyx eyes sliding slowly, sensuously over her figure.
She flushed slightly, realizing that the deep-red Directorate flight-skin left little to the imagination, designed as it was, to seal her into the ship's systems like another component of the ship itself. It was barely opaque, a fact she noticed Damon had realized now that he was closer to her, by the glint of light in his eyes as his gaze leveled on her full, round b.r.e.a.s.t.s. She swallowed hard, that curl of hot flame in her belly rising, little sparks of electricity making her twitch. Heat began to build between her legs and she forced herself not to take another step backwards, away from him.
"I won't have s.e.x with you," she said in a low voice.
"Blunt, aren't you?" Damon said with a soft chuckle. "Mmm... I always have liked the Directorate flight-suits, particularly on such a delicious female as you."
"Talara," she said through gritted teeth. "My name is Talara."
He dragged his gaze up, grinning at her. "Lovely name. Very Dirandan. Suits you."
"If you're going to address me, I'd prefer you use my name rather than 'Dirandan' or 'pet'. I really hate being spoken to like a slave."
Damon snickered. "Well..." He tilted his head to the side. "If I was still Legion, I'd probably already have subdued and collared you by now... but we'll play it your way. 'Talara' it is. For now." He winked. "You'll probably change your mind eventually. They always have in the past."
She swallowed hard then. "Your Dirandan slaves?"
Damon nodded, though his smile seemed to have become slightly chill. "Yes. My slaves. I only took Dirandan slaves."
Talara looked at him a moment, trying to figure out that reaction. "Why?"
"Because Dirandans make the best slaves, of course. They're the smartest, the most attractive and the most fun to play with. They enjoy s.e.x in a way no other slave race does. And I don't take slaves who hate s.e.x. As a rule." Then he did frown, his eyes narrowing. "Rather, I didn't. d.a.m.n the f.u.c.king Legion to Androl."
Talara's eyes widened at the Dirandan curse and she shook her head slightly. "Ancestors, you are the most contradictory Rysusi I have ever met."
Damon regarded her coolly. "I'm not your typical Rysusi. Why else do you think they kicked me out?"
"The way I heard it, you left on your own, after taking several followers with you."
He shrugged. "Who are you going to believe? Your Directorate press as well as the Legion's have a rather nasty habit of twisting the facts until there is very little left of the truth."
Talara lowered the whip, hooking it back onto her utility belt.
He watched her with interest.
She sighed a little, eyeing him warily. "I think you're right. I'm probably stuck here until I can figure a way to get home on my own."
Damon c.o.c.ked an eyebrow at her. "I rarely lie, pet."
She winced at the nickname, opening her mouth to protest but Damon reached out and put two warm fingers against her lips and she felt an electric jolt go through her at his touch. Her entire body stiffened and heat suffused her, enough to bring her nipples to hard little nubs beneath the skin-tight flight-suit. His gaze flickered down and then back to her face, with a wide, wicked grin. She flushed in embarra.s.sment.
"Your body seems to have its' own opinion about me, pet," he purred, deliberately stressing the word and she groaned softly, twitching.
She raised a hand, to push his own away from her mouth. The moment her fingers made contact with his arm, another jolt of heat lanced through her and she groaned. Even so, she pushed his hand from her.
"Don't," she protested in a low groan, "don't do that to me."
He chuckled. "Pet, I'm not doing anything to you. It's your own body's reaction, trust me. You want me, your brain just hasn't registered it yet."
She shook her head. "No. You must be doing something to me. Rysusi always do nasty mind tricks on Dirandans to get them to do what they want. You already said you wanted to have s.e.x with me, so you're making me believe I want it too."
Damon shrugged. "I'm not. There's no way I can make you believe me, Talara. I do want you a" very much. But I'm not doing any kind of magic or Rysusi hypnosis. Your body reacts because I am what I am... and because you find me seductive..." He grinned. "I'd like to have a free Dirandan woman for once in my life. A woman who came to me of her own accord. Believe it or not, I'm not one for Dirandan c.o.c.ktails."
She blinked at him. The closer he got to her, the harder she was finding it to control her breathing, or the trembling in her body. She extended a telepathic sensor, slowly, carefully, lowering her shield only enough to try to sense him, to see for herself if he was telling the truth.
Which he was.
And that made Talara even more nervous than if he'd been trying to manipulate her, hypnotize her, seduce her into baring her neck for him so he could drink her blood a" in short, do anything a typical Rysusi would have by now.
"You're a right b.a.s.t.a.r.d, you know that?" she muttered.
He nodded, grinning enticingly. "Ah, yes."
"n.o.body's going anywhere for a while, Talara," Damon said softly, "certainly not for a few days, at least. If what you're hoping actually does happen and the Directorate sends a squad to extract you, I'll insure nothing happens to get in their way. However, if what I suspect has happened, you will need me, I think. A lone Dirandan woman, particularly one as lovely and well, scantily clad as you, on a Rysusi-occupied world is dangerous, is it not?"
She nodded, wordlessly.
He reached out and stroked her cheek, eliciting a low groan from her that made him smile and step closer.
"My protection will be valuable to you. The Legion hasn't detected me for several months now. I've got some of the best minds of the Rysusi with me, which is why they haven't. This place is a haven for the Renegades, until we can find our way back into s.p.a.ce again."
"And you want me toa""
"a"yes. Simple as that. You need me as well, I think. How long has it been since you had a good toss, Talara?"
She paled. "A-awhile..."
"A-a year," she whispered, flushing pink again.
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