The roads of Rajeev were packed due to the mass exodus to the docks, and presumably, off-world. My skimmer was resting quietly on the dusty pavement, the hours–no, days, it had been days, hadn’t it?–spent idling had left the poor conveyance without enough fuel to keep it hovering, much less actually moving. Not that it mattered. A road filled beyond capacity has a tendency to turn into parking lots, and this one was creeping in that direction even before I showed up and nudged my way in.
If I hadn’t been hauling someone else’s life, I would have gotten out and walked.
I heard the fuel peddler before I saw him. His progress down the line of non-moving vehicles was slow, but his amplified call carried far across the grassy expanse.
“Keep you moving! Keep you moving! Solid, liquid and atomic! Chemical means of forward motion! Keep you moving!”
It seemed like an eternity until he reached me, his progress determined solely by the whims of the mule that pulled his cart. From the way the man sat, it was evident that he had long resigned himself to the fact that while he sat in the driver’s seat, it was his four-legged partner that handled all the controls. I searched in my pocket for a sugar cube. The mule pulled back its thick lips and stopped.
“Howdy,” said the fuel peddler, doffing his Shanghai Lions baseball cap. “You look stuck.”
“I am,” I said. “And you look like just the man who can get me moving.” I inquired about the price of fuel for my skimmer. With a straight face, he told me.
“That hardly seems fair!”
“No, it’s not,” said the peddler with a grin. “But you ain’t moving without it.”
“Then I’m not moving at all. I don’t carry that sort of dosh on me.”
“No matter,” he said. “I am an adaptable man. I see that’s not air you’re hauling.” He motioned to the load on the back of my skimmer, the clocks and pillows, the flatware and picture frames.
“None of that is mine to give. It is someone else’s life. I am merely removing it from this planet before the cataclysm.” The mule was attempting to fish another sugar cube out of my coat pocket. I gave him a carrot instead, which he munched noisily.
“Because I was asked to. Because I did not arrive in time to remove the woman who owned it.”
“So you’re stuck here, ” the man said, sandpapering his thick fingers against his stubble. “Possibly going to get caught in the cataclysm because someone wanted the remains of a life?”
I scratched the mule behind the ears and under the chin. “That’s the long and the short of it.”
“That hardly seems fair.”
“No, it’s not. But I ain’t moving without it.” I gave the mule another carrot. “If you are as adaptable as you say, I think we can arrange something…”
It took the rest of the day to reach the docks by mule. And while I was out a skimmer, I did manage to get the old woman’s life off the world, before it ended. That skimmer couldn’t run over grass, anyway.
And I had plenty of sugar and carrots.
Behind the wire, inside force fields and walls of concrete and steel, lays The Bomb Shelter. The Bomb Shelter is referred to as the warmest place on this side of the galaxy. In the Bomb Shelter, Captain Jaylean Rael tossed back his third Jack and Coke and continued to hold court within the Green Zone on Mahtomedi.
â€œTrouble with this war is,â€ he said, one finger upraised to indicate the importance of the pearl he was bestowing upon the barâ€™s patrons. â€œThat we cannot afford to lose.â€
â€œNo shit,â€ Arnie said. Arnie Boldizsar was not military; no one in The Bomb Shelter was, not even its proprietor, Captian Rael, despite his claims as a former commissioned officer in â€œHer Majestyâ€™s Royal Space Force.â€ Not that it mattered, even if anyone believed him; there hadnâ€™t been a RSF ever since Europe united with the rest of the world against the Knesek. But The Bomb Shelter was his bar, and the best place to get a drink in the GZ, so he could call himself whatever he liked.
â€œPiss off,â€ Captain Rael said, spitting whiskey and cola across the table at the diminutive bioware technician, staining eight of Arnieâ€™s sixteen security ID tags. â€œYouâ€™re just grumpy because that little tart Simona at the coffee bar still wonâ€™t got to Kaliszewskiâ€™s with you!â€
Kaliszewskiâ€™s was the only decent place to eat in the Green Zone that didnâ€™t ask you if you wanted French fries with your meal. Simona was not the only decent girl in the Green Zone, but the selection was certainly limited.
â€œEase up on the poor boy, Jaylean,â€ said Nelson Litsinger, nibbling on Captain Raelâ€™s left earlobe. â€œNot everyone enjoys the manflesh with your fervor.â€
â€œThat is a misfortune that I am keenly aware of,â€ said Captain Rael. â€œNow, back to what I was saying, if you lot wouldnâ€™t mind?â€
The entire bar encouraged Captain Rael to continue. No one wanted to be kicked out and forced to drink at The Watering Hole.
â€œHave any of you seen the inside of a Knesek ship? I donâ€™t mean the gutted transport they have in that museum in Pittsburgh. I mean one of their fighters.â€
â€œOf course not!â€ Shurvo Chose said. Shurvo worked security in the Green Zone, since soliders were needed for actual fighting. This meant he could drink and order people around. â€œNo oneâ€™s seen the inside of one! Though I suppose you want us to believe that you have.â€
â€œOnly because it is true,â€ said Captain Rael, stroking his gigantic white mustache. â€œI was seeing a rather handsome member of the uppity-up at the timeâ€”this was before I met you, Nelson, darlingâ€”lovely fellow. Young, but driven. You know the type. And he showed me the inside of a Knesek fighter.
â€œNow, when one of our boys gets into a fighter, heâ€™s all balled up in safety equipment. Helmets, airbags and the like. Safety of the pilot is paramount. You know what the Knesek have?â€ Here, Captain Rael paused for dramatic emphasis. The entire bar was silent.
â€œNothing,â€ he continued. â€œNothing at all. Their carapaces are welded directly to the vessel. They are merely a part of the ship, from the moment they get in until the day they die.
â€œThat is why we cannot lose. Right now, we are within a fortress within a fortress, but that fortress is on an alien planet and the inhabitants of that planet have no problem turning their best and brightest into mere tools for destruction. What do you think they are going to do with us?â€
No answer was spoken from the patrons of The Bomb Shelter, though a great many more drinks were ordered. And that particular corner of the galaxy got a great deal colder.
Hijet dreamed of breasts, as he did every night. And once again he awoke with his sheet stained. Once more he would endure the sharp tongue of his mother holding the stained sheet as evidence of Hijetâ€™s unclean body, and crying to the gods why she was cursed with a son.
Hijet endured this as he always did, with his head down.
Hijet was of the age most boys apprenticed themselves to their fatherâ€™s trade. But Hijet had no father, so he sat by the village fountain in voluminous robes and head-covering with the other men who had no trade to speak of. There were more begging for work than usual; most construction work was now done by the new mult-limbed robots from Betleguese Prime. Only the soon-to-be completed temple required non-steel hands, but the temple could only afford a handful of workers. The rest of the men stood by the fountain, waiting to be told to work.
By noon, two dozen men were still waiting by the fountain, and it was looking like Hijet was going to face another day of no work and another night of curses and beratements. The square was already filled with merchants and businesswomen, and Hijet resigned himself to staring through the eye-slits on his head-covering at the short skirts and ample cleavage on display. He was so intent on a fruit merchant and her tight pants across the square that he didnâ€™t notice the woman standing in front of him until she tapped him on the shoulder.
â€œYou. Boy-Eyes. Turn around.â€ She was tall and strong, and her tank-top was stretched tight over her proud breasts and muscular stomach. The veins on her hands stood out blue against her tanned skin. â€œYou deaf, Boy-Eyes? Turn around.â€
The other men turned away, their own eye-slits finding purchase elsewhere. Hijet, cowed by this womanâ€™s forcefulness, hung his head and turned. He had no idea what she wanted, and a he let out a gasp behind his head-covering when she did something he never in a million years would have expected.
The womanâ€™s strong hands found Hijetâ€™s rear through his robes and were feeling it. Evaluating it.
â€œYouâ€™ll do,â€ she said. â€œCome with me, Boy-Eyes, and Iâ€™ll pay you twice what youâ€™d get shoveling dirt or pulling weeds.â€
Hijet looked at the other men for advice, but he only received the blank silence of heavy robes and slitted hoods.
The womanâ€™s house was as bright as the square; it seemed to Hijet that there she owned no walls, only windows. Even deep within his robes, Hijet felt exposed.
â€œTake your robes off.â€
â€œButâ€¦I am male,â€ Hijet said.
â€œThatâ€™s why I brought you here. You want the money? Off with the robes.â€
â€œIâ€¦I am a man.â€
â€œDonâ€™t flatter yourself, Boy-Eyes.â€
â€œThatâ€™s why Iâ€™m using mud,â€ the woman said, unwrapping plastic sheets from around am immense amount of clay. â€œLook, I canâ€™t sculpt you if you donâ€™t take the robes off. You can leave the head-cloth on, if you like. I just need your torso.â€
Hijet relented and removed the heavy robes, but left the head covering. The light streamed through the many windows, hitting his body at every possible angle. Hijet had never felt the sun on his bare skin before. And yet, it didnâ€™t feel near as hot as the womanâ€™s eyes. Hijet felt her gaze on his rear, on his stomach, on his chest.
â€œI think,â€ Hijet said, raising his chin, â€œIâ€™m going to take my head-covering off.â€
Her ass was blinking blue when I walked in. Thatâ€™s how I knew she wanted me. The light was only slightly diffused by her skirt, a new material that changed from black to transparent when her cheeks glowed. The whole skirt was affected, giving me a clear view of her naked thighs. I thought about luming my crotch, but that seemed to be the wrong tact with this girl. Unlike a lot of the girls at the clubâ€”and some of the guys now, I noticed–she didnâ€™t have any lumes on her thighs, only on her rear and calves. I always thought that made girls look slutty, anyway. I lit up my forearms green, and I moved closer.
She smiled a shy, pastel smile at me, the colors rippling across her teeth. I had my glow crawl up my shoulders and curl around my neck, only to jet down to my feet. Itâ€™s a pre-set routine, sure, but when you ask a girl to dance, itâ€™s best to keep in simple. I mean, I didnâ€™t even know her yet. I only just started to go through her sexual history, for cryinâ€™ out loud.
Her toenails strobed and her smile got brighter. We moved to the dance floor, her fingertips glowing blue. I lit up my fingernails and handspirals, a charged the lightning for my forearms. Her sex-hist checked clean, and I could see by the dancing lights on her temple that said mine did too. She was a angel, this girl. And then she became one, glowing holographic wings and neon halo spreading bright. My lighting was on, now, and was cracking in time with the dj. She rubbing her cheek against my arm, the sparks jumping in out of her her pink-lumed hair. Her network nudged mineâ€”forward, but I like that in a girlâ€”and I let her in. Her probes caressed my net, neurons firing as my hair intensity gained. I knew everything about her, and her eyes rolled backing into orange-and-red-strobing neurons as she savored an old memory of mine. I felt the phantom nuzzle of her last boyfriend against my chest, and felt my assured confidence as a lover enhance my arousal. I let my crotch glowâ€”nothing too flashy, just so sheâ€™d noticeâ€”and she moaned quietly at itâ€™s sight, orgasmic lumes waving across her cheeks. She clawed at my back, her fingertips leaving strobing tracking of green and blue. We kissed and the intensity of the glow of both our faces forced me to shut my eyes.
She came like fireworks, like napalm, like holy flames. Our light incinerated us both.
For all its 8 minutes, one of the best relationships I ever had. When we broke up, I was crushed, but I understood the relationship had run its course. After crying green-glowing tears in the ladiesâ€™ room for a few minutes, I adjusted my dress, re-set my eye blinkers, and went back into the club.
There was a guy at the bar who had purple leopard spots that cascaded down his back like rain. Thatâ€™s how I knew he wanted me.
Marcus crooked his fingers around each of his eyeballs, and plucked them out with a small “pop.” He unceremoniously placed the squishy orbs in a small jar of salt water on his desk.
“Marcus! Look at me when I’m talking to you!” Stella was leaning against the door frame as she yelled; she hadn’t quite gotten used to the half- inch diameter pole that now connected the top half of her ribcage to the lower half of her pelvis. It was still a bit of a balancing act for her to stay upright.
“I can’t look at you,” Marcus said, slowly spinning around in his chair. The light glinted softly off the modular plugs deep within his empty eye sockets. “I’ve removed my eyes. In a minute I’m going to do the same thing to my ears so I can play Galactic Conquest Online. I just got to Level 546, so if you’ll excuse me, I have a spaceship to select.”
Stella looked at the game module in Marcus’s lap and seethed. “You spend more time on that game than you do with me! I go through all this surgery so I can look beautiful for you–”
“Don’t start that! I never asked you to remove your midriff! That was your decision! You’re always getting things removed. You know what I miss? Your toes! You think I like feeling those cold stiletto monstrosities you call feet up against my legs at night?”
“You know what I miss? I miss you! You’re always plugged in to this goddamn game!” Her multicolored eyes blazing orange and red, Stella snatched the game module away from her boyfriend.
“You bitch! You fucking whore!” Marcus waved his arms blindly. His left arm made contact with Stella, but only succeeded in knocking her up against his chest of drawers. The game module skittered across the floor. Stella found her body crumpled and unresponsive; the impact had broken her torso pole in half. She tried to get up, but only succeeded in spastically kicking Marcus’s desk.
Marcus got out of his chair in order to better feel about for the game module. He heard Stella kicking his desk, but he didn’t turn around to her until he heard the crash of glass, as a jar fell off his desk.
It wasn’t until he heard the squish and pop underneath his boot that he realized what the jar had held.