“Watch your step there, Lovely.”
Whynzee smiled a wide, face-spanning smile. He had called her that at least three times tonight, and each time it had set her heart thumping. It was his touch, though, as his hands reached from behind and warmed her sides with the firm, seasoned grip of a gentleman, that turned her blood to fire.
“Slowly, now,” he said, his liquored breath trickling across her neck. A chill spread out across her body, like ripples on a still lake, lingering in places that made her gasp.
“Alright,” she breathed. Looking down, she struck out with one silver stiletto and planted it in the center of the board that bridged the muddy creek-bed. The drop was only a foot or so, but her nose crinkled at the prospect of drenching her feet—or more—in that slick mess. As if mounted on pins, the board wobbled under her weight, and she gulped at the air, almost regretting that last vodka. Her hands slapped down on top of his, but the makeshift bridge steadied before she wavered too much. She giggled.
“There we are,” he said. “You’ve got it now.”
Whynzee, buoyed at his words, teetered across like a lark on a rolling log, squealing the whole five steps. Reaching the other side, she bounded, on her tip-toes, to solid ground and spun about with a hop. The cool night air swirled through her thighs, and she tugged down on the hem of her dress. Rorche stood grinning at her from the other bank. His mocha skin devoured the moonlight that speckled him through the leaves overhead. He was like a spotted panther, regal and piercing. Behind him, a council of ancient oaks twisted up from the earth and branched forth with thick, black arms, like vast primordial octopi. Hints of laughter and the faintest orange glow filtered through their trunks from the party beyond.
Before she breathed again, Rorche had traversed the board and clasped her by the wrist. “It’s just up there.” His eyes flicked behind and above her, up a gentle slope. “Another minute.”
She turned, and he urged her upward, his palm against the small of her back. “How could you fit it in between all of the trees?” she said.
“My ship? Well, it’s quite agile, you see. Odd angles come easily. And, honestly, it really isn’t that large, as interstellar vessels go.”
“Oh!” She draped a hand over her cleavage. “A man like you? Here I was expecting a big one.”
He chuckled, and his hand slid a little lower. Tingles rose up through her stomach, like bubbles in champagne. “I assure you, Lovely, you won’t be disappointed. It’s a finely tuned instrument, you see, not some cudgel. I use it to travel the stars, but I could just as easily use it to slice bread. And butter it too.”
She flushed, wishing his hand even lower. “So then, what is someone with a ship like that, who could be anywhere in the galaxy, doing here tonight?”
“Oh, here is quite nice, actually. Savannah is rather charming. Few places out there are as welcoming as Earth.” He looked to the sky and breathed deeply as the ground flattened out. “I regret I’m not here more often. Then when I am, it is usually on business. It was refreshing to relax a bit tonight. The doctor is a good friend of mine… a colleague in some ways.” He removed his hand and clasped it to his other behind his back. Whynzee side-stepped closer to him. Her high-heels flashed in the moonlight under a break in the canopy.
“And as for you,” he said, “how do you know the doctor?”
“From his parties, of course,” she said, bumping against Rorche’s shoulder. “And his get-togethers.” She grinned and glanced at him, searching for a glimpse of mutual recognition, but his expression didn’t budge. She wasn’t all that surprised; actually, she was glad in a way. She imagined that a man like Rorche, if he even knew of the doctor’s excesses, would never partake in them, and she admired that. Still, she wouldn’t have objected to finding him at one of the orgies, nude and rabid as everyone else, licking long globs of hallucinogenic gel from polished slabs of marble. Her fingers trembled. Rorche looked at her as if expecting more of an answer.
“Uhm… my friend Vairna, really,” she said. “That’s how I know him. She used to work in one of his offices.”
“Mmm.” His voice was warm syrup. “I take it Vairna was the one in the yellow back there?”
Her lips flexed. She couldn’t blame him for noticing her; it was hard not to notice Vairna, especially for men. Her ivory legs were long and firm, her curves traced the path of a serpent, and her face was that of a fairy, full, smooth, and innocent. But it was something in the way Vairna touched her own body, Whynzee had determined, like a connoisseur of fine silk, running her hands over the choicest of bolts that captivated everyone without their even knowing. Whynzee had tried it once, but had felt the fool.
“That’s her.” She flipped her green-tipped hair over her shoulder. “I guess the doctor has good tastes in employees, wouldn’t you say?”
His hand found its spot again above her ass, and her tongue went limp inside her mouth. “Oh, I don’t know,” he said, guiding her ahead. “I’d say that Vairna has a good taste in friends.”
The ship was an obsidian arrowhead nestled between the oaks, a hundred feet long. As they approached, its edge began to glow a ghostly gray, and the air purred with an immense contained power. Whynzee stumbled, gazing at it, her ankle swaying as she stepped, but Rorche caught her. His fingers squeezed her upper arm, steadying her.
“Don’t hurt yourself, Lovely.” He flashed a glimmering smile, relaxing his grip as she regained her footing. “And so close to your destination.”
Her eyelids fluttered, and she shook her head. “I must have had one too many. Thank you.” She slid her arm through his and giggled. “I would have been face down on the ground. Can you imagine?”
“Oh, I can.”
They passed beneath the port-side lip of the vessel, and the rest of the world seemed to fall away. The razor’s edge of light circumscribing the ship overcame the glow of the moon, and the trees and the shine of the party dithered as if seen through a dark, oily waterfall. The sound of the grass crumpling beneath their feet, before all but absent in her ears, now whispered clearly to her in a vacuum of noise. A beating vibration tickled at every follicle of hair on her body.
She reached up as they made their way deeper beneath the craft, and her fingers skated along its hull. It felt like glass at first, but a texture of sorts took shape as she pressed more firmly. It was like the hide of a shark, or so she imagined—like the skin of a great fish whose ocean was the void. But from that sleek coating, a warmth emanated that seemed to her unnatural. She drew her hand back and rubbed her fingers along the strap of her dress. It was the first time she had ever touched an interstellar ship.
“Here we are, Lovely,” Rorche said, stopping and holding his hand out and up.
Whynzee smiled anew and followed his gaze. A halo of yellow light, a few feet across, appeared overhead in the shell of the craft. It was a soft and welcoming light, very much at odds with what had greeted them at the perimeter. Soundlessly, a circular platform descended toward the ground and came to rest inches above the grass.
“Please, ladies first.” Rorche clasped his hands and tipped his head forward.
“What a gentleman!” Whynzee straightened, smoothed her dress, and cast a sly smile at him, but he only blinked in return. She chided herself for such a comment—just like a little girl. Of course, he already knew what he was. Her face warmed. “Well,” she said, “I’d love to. It’s my pleasure.”
He followed her the few steps to the platform, and they both mounted it. It was as solid as the earth over which it hovered. In a second, it began to rise.
“Ooh.” She tittered as her stomach dipped with the acceleration.
“Hold tight.” He wrapped his arm about her, and she moaned under her breath.
Thus they ascended into the belly of the craft. The warm yellow light that had been pouring over them from above blossomed all around them as the platform rose up and came to a stop inside the ship. They had arrived in a small circular room, about four feet in radius, fifteen tall, and entirely featureless. As she looked up, the room seemed to lengthen and slim, yet she knew it hadn’t. A twinge of claustrophobia crinkled her brow. She felt like a bullet in the barrel of some clogged cosmic gun. But at once, there was a sucking of air, the walls glimmered into semi-transparency, and then vanished with naught but the sound of a needle falling on tile.
Whynzee gawked. A wide, tapering room spread out before them, all cream and gold. Sconces clutched the walls like moths, oozing buttery light. A thick-armed couch wrapped around an oval glass table, marking the center of the space. Two leather stool-tops floated, legless, in front of a natural wood bar hugging the far wall. A spot-lit shelf of liquor jutted out from the wall itself. Two darkened passages framed either side of the bar.
“A drink?” Rorche unbuttoned his blazer and strode into the room.
Whynzee looked down and took a step from the platform, which had blended seamlessly into the floor. “Uhm… yes. Sure.”
“The same.” Tugging at the hem of her dress, she made her way to the couch and sat while Rorche worked at the bar. The furniture breathed out around her. She crossed her legs and ran her hand over the cool suede-like fabric. The feel of it made her want to undress and stretch her body across it. And, if he wanted, Rorche could stretch his body right atop hers. “Maybe,” she whispered, smiling at the thought. “Maybe.”
“What’s that, Lovely?” Rorche circled the table and sank down next to her.
“Oh, nothing. I was just admiring your…”
“Appointments?” he said dryly, handing her a drink.
She sipped; the roots of her teeth ached at the sweetness. “You don’t like them?”
“No, it’s not that; they’re perfectly fine. It’s just… they’ve lost a bit of their punch. I spend so much time surrounded by them. Between the stars, that is.” He glanced around. “They’re not much for conversation.”
“Well.” Whynzee rested her arm on the back of the couch and leaned in toward him. His coffee eyes, alert, searching, impenetrable, fixed on hers. She let her lips hang parted for a moment. “It sounds like you need a companion.”
He lifted his glass to his mouth and drank, his gaze never breaking. Thin fibers of foam rushed toward his upper lip and gathered there like gauze. Swallowing, he lowered his drink, and covered her hand with his. “Maybe, Lovely.”
With each cocktail, she had advanced on Rorche—a hand on the knee, a thigh against a thigh, a finger-stroke through the hair. Now, well into the fifth drink, she leaned against him, her mouth at his ear. Her breasts crowded his arm. Liquor sloshed in her glass as she talked and laughed, her body flush and her stomach warm. Her shoes lay toppled together a few feet away, resting in the yarns of the broad cream rug that hosted the couch and its table. One strap of her dress had leapt from her shoulder and hung limp at her bicep like a broken harp string.
She took a swig and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. “So what did you do that made you so rich?”
Laughing, he leaned forward and set his drink on the table. “I don’t think anyone has ever actually asked me that.”
Whynzee poked him in the chest as he reclined back into his spot. “Well, it’s about time you answer for all of this, mister.”
He held his hands up, as if at gunpoint, but grinned. “Alright… alright.” Whynzee pursed her lips and cocked her head. He breathed in and lowered his hands to his lap, pausing to knead open the top button of his shirt. Her eyes dropped and lingered on the chocolate patch of chest that he had revealed. She wondered how it would taste… salty or sweet?
“It wasn’t something I alone did,” he said. “I inherited a significant sum from my father. To be honest, though, luck was the largest player in it all. My father left me, among other things, a small bio company with some patents that were recently found to be—what should I say?—complementary.”
Her gaze climbed slowly back to his face. She hadn’t heard all of what he had said. “Patents?”
“Mmm hmm. For specialized microbes. One mean. One nice.” He reached out and cupped the back of her head. “The nice one eats the mean one.”
“Oh, really?” She grabbed his wrist, brought his hand around, and spread his fingers. “Like this?” She wrapped her mouth around his index finger, swirling her tongue about its rigid core, feeling the bulges of his knuckles and every crease that lined them. Closing her eyes, she groaned and bobbed her head.
But he slipped his finger free. She looked up to find him standing. “Come, Lovely, I want to show you something.” He spun about, shrugged off his jacket, and tossed it on the back of the couch. It clung there briefly, but slid off to the floor. A pendulum of spit swung from Whynzee’s chin.
“What?” she asked. Her brow creased, and she hugged her arms about her chest. “What is it?”
Rorche swept around the table and headed toward the right-hand passageway next to the bar. The corridor lit from within, a smoky gray, like the strip of light on the hull. The hall curved inward, so only a few feet of wall was visible. He stopped at the entrance and turned, gesturing for her to come. “A collection I want you to see.”
Her gaze fell, downcast, to the floor.
“Now, now,” he said, chuckling. She looked up, her lips drawn thin. “I promise it will just take a moment; then we can get back to where we were. Is that alright, Lovely?”
“Hmm.” She tossed her hair back. “I suppose.” A grin broke over her face, and she stood. The room spun from left to right, jerking back to its starting point every second or so, like a short video loop. She held out her arms, and looked at Rorche, her mouth forming an O. Once the motion eased, she started toward him. The rug was a bed of soft, furry worms beneath her feet, but in a few steps, it gave way to hard, waxy deck.
As she drew near, he took her hand and led her into the hall. She watched his shirt bunch and stretch over the muscles of his shoulders while the two of them passed between the frosted glass walls. He had to stop and turn to her before she noticed that they had entered into a round room about ten feet across. A hiss sounded behind her, and she looked to find that the way they had come had been covered over by wall. There was no other outlet.
“Ready?” he asked, and the lights went out.
She gripped his arm and sucked in. Slowly, the hazy glass panels began to glow from behind, just as they cleared, and revealed an array of strange and colorful masses held in suspension, each in its own display.
She squinted and crept forward to study the nearest. “What are these things?” The specimen before her was a deep purple spheroid, like a beet, complete with stalks—or tubes—which sprouted from its top.
“That right there is a heart.”
She jumped at his voice, closer to her than she had expected. Her mouth turned down. “What kind of a heart?”
“An animal’s… a plant’s. A bit of both, actually. It’s from an off-world species: a long, slender thing that lives in tidal pools on Whetherling’s World. It’s like a sea cucumber, but upright; it buries itself vertically in the sand, you see?”
She nodded absently. “I think.” It surprised her that such an organ could look so clean, almost manufactured. When she thought of a heart, she pictured a veiny glob of muscle, encased in a kind of translucent film, spurting blood. This was rather pleasant, though… beautiful even.
“And these here,” Rorche said, looking into the next panel over, “these are borlisle stomachs.”
Whynzee stepped over to see, sliding her hand along the glass.
“They’re a docile breed. Like cows in a way.”
A chain of pink, pearlescent wineskins wound about one another, forming a bulbous boulder of sorts, tapering at the top and bottom to a pair of truncated, rubbery hoses.
“Wow.” Gaping, she waited for a wave of disgust, a reflexive recoiling, but it never came. “It’s…” She shook her head.
She turned to him, cogitating the drunken epiphany he had revealed in her. “Yes…”
“Let’s enjoy the rest, then.”
They came at last to an empty display next to the dark panel that guarded the way they had come. Rorche stared into it for a long moment, his hands in his pockets. Whynzee laughed and slid between him and the bare exhibit. “What do you see?” Her arms wrapped around him, and she looked up into his face.
At that instant the floor began to quiver with a low, gentle rumble. She stiffened. “What’s that?”
“That, Lovely, is the main engine. We’re taking off.”
Her eyes widened.
“You said I needed some company.”
“You’re taking me with you?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Oh!” She gripped the back of his head and ground her lips against his. He tasted like mint and rum, and it set her aflame. She pressed him against the wall and thrust her groin against his. Her fingers searched his neck and chest. She wanted him to touch her, every bit of her.
Leaning back, she yanked at the remaining dress strap and fed her arm through. Threads stretched and popped. Though freed, her dress still clung to her. She peeled it down, exposing her bra, which she unhooked in the back with one hand. It flung open and fell to the floor. She looked up at Rorche, her lips burning and puckered. He stared back, his face placid in the indirect light of the displays.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked, grabbing him by the wrists and planting his hands on her breasts. He grinned. She pulled against the back of his head and kissed him again. His fingers began to squeeze and work at her flesh. Her eyes closed, and she groaned into his mouth.
And then something stung her, like a wasp. She pushed away and staggered backward a step, looking down at her right breast. A dot of blood swelled just above the nipple. She scraped it off and brought it up to her eyes, struggling to focus on it. A coldness spread out from the surface her breast into her body and up her neck.
“Wha’ was tha’?” she asked. Her tongue and jaw felt like dead slabs of meat.
“That, Lovely, was a compound that will put you to sleep and stop your heart.” Rorche held up his left index finger. Something glimmered at the tip of his fingernail, like a strand of silk.
She fell to her knees, and tried to scream, but nothing came out. Her head wobbled as she fought to keep herself upright.
“I know what you were expecting. I’m sorry to disappoint.” Rorche knelt down in front of her. “But I have standards, you know?”
The white of his smile flashed before her, and she fell backward, her legs folding beneath her. Her head cracked against the floor and lolled to the side. The empty display yawned down at her.
“But I’m sure you’ll go well with the rest. At least pieces of you will.”
He stepped over her and began to drag her across the floor by the arms. Darkness overtook her.
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