For International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day–satire of old pulp SF greats

Okay, I suppose I’ll post my Spaceport Brothel story (under a cut, so you can breathe again) in honor of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day. It’s the one that Unca Harlan said was just TOO much like those old pulps that I was trying to satirize, and so many others think it’s just too fey and twee or they flat-out don’t get it. Only certain people are going to get it, so I might as well offer it up today.

I can’t get any text to work with the LJ CUT command, so if you’re game you’ll have to click on boring old

WELCOME TO THE SPACEPORT BROTHEL

WELCOME TO THE ALPHANU SPACEPORT BROTHEL. PLEASE TAKE A NUMBER

Xmorth read the scrolling announcement over twice. Finally he poked his fingertip into the reader, heard its beep of acknowledgment, and plucked from the stacker the Pogchip it offered. His number was thirty-six.

NOW SERVING: 27

Not that long to wait. He had time before the troop ships headed out again.

Clasping his hands behind his back and bouncing on his heels before he remembered that it ruined his newfound military dignity, Xmorth glanced around casually; he was fairly sure no one from the ship had followed him. Though he figured none of them would set boots in here, not with most of them being so tickety-boo in their Humlerism. The empathy religion was said to be fulfilling on all levels for those willing to bond, and all it took to find out, he’d heard, was to take hold of the empathy grips connected to any public-access ‘net terminal.

And Humlerites seemed happy. Or at least everyone Xmorth knew who professed belief seemed content, eager to follow Humler’s strict guidelines to the last jot and tittle. Their ranks did not yet, however, include Xmorth. Nor, he suspected, would they ever.

The air in the waiting room was stale. Or maybe the crowd just hadn’t washed recently. A seating area through an archway to his right didn’t look particularly clean. He suppressed further speculation on which other things here might not be clean enough to suit his military sensibilities. Instead, he turned his attention to the other customers. Nope, no obvious recruits, at least not from Interplanetary. In fact, Xmorth wasn’t sure everyone here was human; then again, in this part of known space, he, as a human, was the alien. He decided not to look so closely.

Xmorth gradually became aware of a tickly feeling on the back of his neck, an itch that wasn’t an itch but usually meant he was being stared at. He turned to meet the sharp gaze of a toothless old crone nearby. The crone was silver-skinned and dressed in a capacious orange robe; there was no way to tell which of the sexes it was, or even if the crone was fully humanoid, it was so wrinkled. Light from the neon tubes bordering the ceiling reflected off its bald pate as multicolored stripes; the stripes were wiggly because its head was misshapen. It reminded Xmorth of a coconut with a carved face. It seemed about to speak to him, but as it took a breath, it was seized by a coughing fit. Its chest heaved, threatening to turn inside-out with hacking, hocking up, and spitting.

Xmorth nearly bailed out, almost marched back to the jetsontube. Back to the shopparena, maybe even back to the ship. He ought to go back to the base and its rathskeller to piss away what remained of his Cinderfella liberty, happy in his cups, safely jacked into the ‘net with the others. This place was downright nasty.

Dammit, he wouldn’t do that. He wouldn’t chickenshit out. That’s just what his older brother Wmorth would expect; Xmorth could just hear him laughing. No, he’d thought about this all the way out of Milky Way I, and he’d sworn he’d go through with it. He’d hate himself in eternity if he died a virgin.

Within days, he’d be on the front line of the galaxy’s peacekeeping operation, sent to the outskirts to guard the sands of some rock or another that orbited a foreign sun. What the hell he’d done to himself when he had–on impulse, after a fight with his mother–joined up with the spacers, he couldn’t yet tell. He’d stormed out, meaning to calm down by walking through the bustling evening streets, and ended up not at a discopub but at the recruiters. Probably the whole fiasco stemmed from his childhood fantasies of being a space hero, which was just what Tseitsra had suggested one night at the recruits’ recreation hall. She’d laughed, not guessing how close she’d hit home. But then she’d turned serious on him, and the talk had turned to what might await them on the front lines.

So maybe he’d been too hasty. Well, it was a little late for regrets.

The crone choked, then coughed louder. Xmorth looked around, hoping some official type would rush over with a medikit, or a clerk would press a button to send an oxygen mask down from the ceiling the way they could aboard ship. No one did anything. Xmorth was tempted to say something to one of the counter clerks, if he could only figure out what to say. Because it wasn’t necessarily choking, and everyone else seemed unconcerned and absorbed in their own thoughts, and this was none of his business. Besides, who knew what its metabolism was like? This might not be a coughing fit, but just a normal aspect of respiration for that species.

Xmorth could never leave well enough alone. He took a step toward the creature. “Are you all right?” As soon as he spoke, he could’ve kicked himself. One would think that after boot camp, a soldier would learn to mind his own business. Volunteers for the filthiest jobs were the suckers in formation who didn’t take one step backward.

The crone stopped hacking and turned its unexpectedly bright eyes on Xmorth. “Fine, fine. But, dear citizen, enjoy my gratitude for asking.” The idiom wasn’t quite spot-on, but Xmorth figured he’d never be able to do even that well in whatever language was native to the crone. Amazingly, it seemed to have a normal, though gravelly, voice. Of course, the voice could be a synth. “Excuse me if I have misbehaved in public. I am not often among humans in crowds.” A drop of spittle landed on Xmorth’s cheek; apparently, the crone’s precise diction took effort.

Xmorth resisted the humongous urge to wipe his face immediately. Grammy would have been proud. “No need to apologize. I merely thought you might be in distress. Sorry to disturb.” Deliberately he broke eye contact and, weaving through the crowd, marched to the wall of windows and pretended to be interested in the spectacle outside.

Aircars floated in and out of the port like butterflies through the wildflowers back home in Texas-1. He was always amazed at the smooth appearance of their flights from outside, when the ride was so bumpy within. Like the legendary zeppelins of ancient times.

Traffic was heavy as the mid-day eclipse took place on the tri-planetary configuration, and the sunset/sunrise was pleasant to gaze at; it was, he knew, even safe to view directly through the treated synthetic windows. Behind him, too close, he heard the crone clearing its throat. Hurriedly he dodged into the seating area.

Brushing the peanut shells and parasmoke wrappers off the seat, he settled into one of the typically uncomfortable chairs. The chair groaned when he sat down. “Easy, please. I’m overtaxed by your excessive weight.”

“I’m only a regulation sevenstone.” He knew for sure, because it hadn’t been that long since he’d had fifteen extra gravunits beaten off him in boot camp.

Instead of molding itself into the ideal ergonomic shape for his physique, the chair lumped up and folded, bending into the most uncomfortable position possible for his lower back. Everyone else sitting looked equally ill at ease, grumpily punching at the screens of their personal information providers and avoiding others’ gazes. Beep, flash, blip.

“So another solar-wind sailor comes here for the ultimate experience, eh what? Look here, youngseed; I speak to you.”

Xmorth twisted in the chair, only to find the crone, or, rather, geezer–or whatever it was–folding itself down, hunching into the next chair. Its voice was even raspier, more torn-up than before. “I often see your type. Well do I know it. You are underage, but you think it is ridiculous to be old enough to fly, yet not to feel the night explode with sex.” It emitted what passed for a chuckle. “A callow, virgin youth, determined to have a defining experience before shipping out.”

Xmorth looked away, frowning. “I’ve done it plenty of times.” Unfortunately, he was a spectacularly untalented liar. He squirmed, trying to get into some comfortable position.

“On the ‘net.” The crone had guessed right, and it knew it. “Not the same.” It chuckled again. “Not at all the same, me droogle.” It spat something into a wipepaper, examined it carefully. Xmorth looked away, shying as far to the other side of the chair as possible.

“Please adjust your weight evenly,” the chair complained in a grumpy tone. “You are damaging my mechanism.”

Rather than argue with it, Xmorth stood. Any excuse to escape the crone, anyway. He’d seen some weird races since he’d left home, but this one made him uneasy, the skin prickling on the back of his neck up to the crown of his recently-shorn head. He felt too easily read by the crone, as if it could play with his thoughts. As he stepped away, he caught a fragment of its parting sally: “Not to be impolite, boy. But hear me. You don’t really want to, you know. You mustn’t do things just because you think you should want to.”

The creature was obviously lonesome–probably the major reason it had come here–but that wasn’t Xmorth’s problem. Besides, it was wrong.

Xmorth paced away, hands clasped behind him in reverse figleaf position, the way he was used to now for inspection and drill. This room was a half-round observation chamber. Curving windows showed a colorful panoramic view of the spaceport and the dual moons hanging overhead. Moons? Aircars floated by, just as in the other room, but on the opposite wall this time, the one that should have faced the blank screen wall behind the clerks, where the brothel proper should be. . . .

There was no way of knowing, he suddenly realized, that what he saw was real-time, or nearby, or even the actual outdoors. In fact, he reasoned, it couldn’t be; he’d come down plenty of levels in the tubes to get to the narrow atrium that led to the entrance. He was actually levels “underground” by now, deep within the spaceport city’s docking levels, not near a spaceview at all. It had to be a simulation, or at best a reflection of somewhere else. For some reason, this made him feel cheated and at the same time angry at his own innocence, his willingness to accept things too quickly at face value. Losing interest, he turned to the opposite wall.

Here, certificates were arrayed electronically on the flat optic screen that served as the inner back wall. Health departments of various jurisdictions serving this area certified on-line that as of the last hourly scan, all workers were free of transmittable diseases. Xmorth tapped a couple of vidbuttons and desultorily watched the multimedias, soon learning more than he’d wanted ever to know about sex worker safety, ethics, and lubricants.

“Thirty-six.” A generated voice oozed out of the walls, as sultry as any mehitabel behind the strip clubs of Titian. The sound licked into his ears from all directions. He started and looked around before he realized it only meant it was finally his turn.

The red-rock counter separating him from the bored clerk scraped his elbows. He rubbed them ruefully. Any time he tried to be nonchalant, it made him extra clumsy. He dug in his pockets for his ID, hands shaking.

But just as Wmorth had said, there was no reason to worry. The bored female humanoid, with her tall white beehive, tie-dyed complexion, and blue eyeshades–looking just like every middle-aged clerk back home–paid no attention to his age. She barely glanced at his shiny new military ID. “Newly conscripted, I take it?”

“Left Earth only last week.”

The lights flickered, then dimmed; after a moment, they brightened to their former level. Power problems plagued some of these remote stations, or so Xmorth had heard.

The clerk glanced up momentarily, then shrugged off the interruption. “Oh, frot.” She adjusted her bifocal contact lenses with a double-blink and shake of her head and peered into the compscreen. “Come on, you ischtfrap. Not you.” She threw Xmorth a glance. “This damn inputter.” She jiggled a cable and frowned. He wondered why this order entry system was still so low-tech. Probably this far out in the boonies, the home office could get away with shipping you the most antique equipment. Where else were you going to shop? Plus there must be issues of power consumption and maintenance.

“Okay, no outstanding warrants. And you have honorable status in the Corps, if I trust what this says.” The clerk punched up something, nodded, brought up another screen. “How will you pay?”

“Military poscreds.” He gave her the card to swipe.

She nodded as she pulled the card through the slot. “Worked the first time. Just got paid, eh, sailor? Got you a pocketful of change. Helloooo, sailor.” She laughed at her own joke. Xmorth could feel perspiration beginning to form under his shirtback. It itched, but he resisted scratching.

She reached under the counter. Broke open a fresh stylus. “Which finger?”

Without thinking, he held out his left index. She poked it once briskly with the point and squeezed a drop of his blood into a pipette. His fingertip burned, but he was fascinated by how rubylike the drop seemed as it rolled down the glass. The military medics were careful never to let him watch.

She plugged the end of the pipette and poked it down into an open cylinder. A flat analysis graph appeared on her screen. She gave a satisfied nod. “Nimrod-clean. Now, then, let’s settle the details of your visit.”

Behind her, part of the wall lit up with a form containing all his information. Reflexively Xmorth glanced around again, thinking how his mates would never tire of mocking him if they read all his secrets. For some reason, he remembered the time in grammar school he’d been caught looking up the store “Condoms-To-Go” (as a prank) in the phone search-tables under S for SEX, and how humiliating it was to be publicly paddled for it. He’d almost never lived that down.

Coming here probably justified their saying he couldn’t make any time with unpaid females. It wouldn’t be good if one of his mates knew about this visit. Or, worse, Tseitsra. Truth be told, she was one of the forces that had driven him here. He’d love to ask her to recreation shift sometime, but what if things went his way and she wanted more than friendship?

She’d laugh at him, nothing but an inexperienced fumbler. No, it wouldn’t do to make a fool of himself if he did get a chance with her. The thought made him step forward in the line, eager again.

The clerk reached around and twisted the smaller of her screens towards him, adjusting it so they could both read it. “Up to you how you fill in the rest of the blanks. Your choices are on the picklist. First things first. Male, female, or neuter?”

“Female.” He picked at a hangnail. “Definitely female.”

The clerk rolled her eyes. “First time, eh?”

“No!” He shoved his hands into the pockets of his flightsuit and glared at her, then put on a look of diffidence. “I . . . I just like women–I mean, females, okay?”

“It’s no crime. Not yet, anyways.” She almost smiled. “Humanoid?”

“Yes.” He hadn’t given that much thought. “No furries,” he qualified, plucking at his shirt sleeve.

“Nervous, are ya?” She muttered it half to herself, so he declined to rise to the bait, merely frowning in what he hoped was a meaningful fashion.

She clicked a few keys. “Teeth?”

He could feel the blankness of his own expression. She grinned, displaying her own miscellaneous array of gold and silver dentals. “Pointy, filed, none?”

He wiped at his forehead, then held up a palm. “Let’s simplify this. Just a regular Earth-issue type female human. Okay?”

She looked disappointed. “I guess it takes all kinds.” After another moment she looked up again, seemingly amused. As if she would enjoy seeing his reaction to the question. “Regular session or fantasy special? Costs about the same.”

Xmorth shifted his weight to the other foot.
“Er. . . .” He ran his finger around inside the collar of his flightsuit. “Um. . . .” It was so damned hot in here. What was wrong with the climate control?

“Fantasy,” she answered for him, touching the box on the screen. “Private duty nurse, aircar mechanic, drag queen, biker chick, doggie empath, Vilkon poet. . . ?”

“Nurse.” It came out as a choked whisper.

“You and the entire Seventh Fleet.” She popped shut the inputter. It emitted a thread of plasticized fax paper. “She’s amusing enough, I suppose. Here’s your door ticket. You’ve been debited 318 poscreds. Too late to turn back now.”

He snatched the ticket and fled like salt from a sea of pepper. Before he could realize he didn’t know where to go, she called after him, “Through the double iris on your starboard side, and have a good time.” He spun and by luck passed through the proper doors. They irised shut after him.

Another bloody-damned waiting room, this one blue with smoke. He hadn’t realized that particular vice still existed. Maybe it was only hemp. He coughed and was rewarded with several chilly glares.

“Sex is fun! Enjoy your visit!” said a sultry voice overhead. He jumped, glancing up, but the next moment wished he hadn’t; he realized with embarrassment that it was just another synthesizer. The same words were scrolling by in red over on the wall; nothing but advertising. His unwilling companions, the other customers, stood around, bored, cracking their knuckles, studying their boot-toes, and looking irritated.

What a dump. The place had looked completely, respectably high-tech from the outside. How Tseitsra would laugh if he told her. Of course this wasn’t the kind of thing he’d tell anyone about, especially a decent soldier who went by the rulebook. The thought made him solemn again, and he turned to the window.

Xmorth shoved his hands in his pockets and wished for something to kick. This waiting around was ridiculous. As bad as a military supply window. He was ready to just get it over with. He’d lost all anticipation, excitement, or eagerness; there was no longer even any delicious guilt. This wasn’t a fun introduction to pleasure, but just another chore to tick off his list. Wrote letters home, check; arranged for forwarding of mail, check; had first sexual experience, check.

This was insane. What had he been thinking?

“Number thirty-six?” A strident, nasal voice came from a suddenly jerked-ajar door behind him that he hadn’t realized was even there. “Thirty-siiix.”

The door opened all the way to reveal a young woman impatiently tapping her foot and looking cross. After twelve weeks away from home in boot camp seeing only the rumps of the leaders in front of his sweaty face, Xmorth drank her in greedily with his gaze.

She was beautiful, curvy and Rubenesque; sashaying her hips slightly even as she stood there, it was obvious she was built for pleasure. And dressed for it, all in black leather outlined with what looked like some kind of flexible tubing light. She gleamed in outline, a figure-eight curve. Her breasts swelled out of the top of the tight halter bodice, and at the bottom of her skirt–where the curled ends of her flaming hair peeked out from behind–started her shapely tanned thighs, dimple-free knees, and on down to tiny feet squeezed into stilettos. Her big purple eyes were fringed with thick sets of lashes, and her full lips were parted to reveal perfect pearly teeth. With such packaging, one could easily forgive the fingernail-scrape voice.

Xmorth could hardly contain his excitement. His knees refused to bend; words wouldn’t form in his mouth to answer her.

The ghoddess’s voice became more endearingly irritating as she swiveled around, searching the room. “Thirty-six, triska-siesa, holding number thirty-and-six: get up here now or forget it. Going once, fair warning, going twice, losing your place in line, buddy. . . .”

He leaped to the doorway in one virile bound. “Sorry. I was . . . er, thinking.”

She looked him up and down the way he imagined a vulture from the old legends would evaluate its dinner while it circled. Then she smiled a half-smile. “No problem. Come along with me.”

Oh boy oh boy. He almost tripped over his own shiny boots following her into the narrow, twisty corridor. It was so dark he could hardly have followed her had it not been for the lighted clothing. This area made him feel he was in one of those hotsheet hostels he’d made fun of at home; he made a mental note to write Wmorth about the myth of high-tech bordellos.

They came to what seemed to be a dead end. She cursed softly and felt around the wall for some kind of switch or catch. Somehow she got hold of a lever and forced the mechanism manually so that the door irised open. “Sometimes we have to help these things along,” she muttered. More often than sometimes, Xmorth noted; they had to force doors twice more as they proceeded down the mazy, sloping passage.

She stopped, finally, at a shabby-looking wooden door on the right. An old-style rectangular door. “Here we are.” She worked at the keypad for a moment, then the door swung outward. “Step inside, sir.”

Accustomed to obeying, Xmorth preceded her into a room that was even darker than the hall, unsure which was the gallant way to open this conversation. He supposed he shouldn’t expect to get to kiss her first, but he hoped for some clues about the etiquette of how to proceed. Was he supposed to undress first, or what?

Before he had time to feel awkward, she whipped out a sheaf of forms. “Before you start your experience, I need you to sign a release. Just as a formality, of course.”

“Of course.” In confusion, he took the paper she proffered and patted his pockets for a pen. She produced one. He skimmed the convoluted legal language and extracted the gist of it: they were not to be held responsible for any disease or injury that he might claim proceeded from his visit. He scribbled his name and handed the form back.

“May I have your door ticket?” He handed it over. Without even looking at it, she stuffed it into her cleavage. She cracked her gum and retreated into the hallway. “Enjoy your visit.”

. . . it wasn’t going to be with her?

Confused, Xmorth turned around. The door closed behind him as if daring his ass to be in its way. The room was small and high-ceilinged, only a little larger than his bunk aboard ship. As his eyes adjusted to the dimness, he could make out a figure reclining on a plump brass bed.

Oh, well. If they were all that beautiful, no problem. He didn’t even know whether he was supposed to take his shoes off. “Hello?”

The minute he spoke, he knew it had been stupid, what a novice would do. Liquid laughter bubbled up from the direction of the bed, and he strained to see the shadowy figure thereon. All he could see was a vague girlish-shaped lump on some kind of fake-plush coverlet, and maybe a shadow of long hair coming down off one shoulder. Suddenly feeling bashful, he ducked down to start unlacing his boots.

“Doesn’t a gentleman caller usually introduce himself?” Her voice was pure sex, and it excited him a bit again. But he had his bootlaces all in knots, and had to jerk the boots off his feet, scraping his ankles with his nails.

“Sorry. Call me Xmorth.” He nearly forgot where he was and held his palms vertical for her to meet in the international gesture of greeting, but worked it into a gesture of pushing back his hair. This wasn’t the suavest way to start out. He felt his face redden, fumbling around for words. All at once he was mortified to have come here and embarrassed to peel off his starched black flightsuit, like a little boy caught with his hand down his pants, wanting to spacejump to anywhere to get away.

“X-morth.” His name in her fluid tones sounded like something synthesized on the fly by a cheap processor. “Come on over here, X-morth.”

He halfway tripped and ended up perched on the edge of the bed. He coughed and folded his hands in his lap, unsure how to proceed.

“Weight warning,” the mattress suddenly complained. “You have exceeded the maximum allowable weight. Remove excess weight immediately.” It sounded a series of threatening beeps.

“What the hell?” Xmorth jumped to his feet. “All the furniture around here is miscalibrated. I’m no heavier than the average guy.”

“It is all right.” The whore’s voice was soothing; she lowered her eyelids. “Easy to fix.” She reached around back and did something to the wires. The bed emitted a final squawk and was still. The mattress seemed a bit deflated, but at least it had quieted. She patted the furry surface of the sheets next to her. “Come, make yourself comfortable.”

Gingerly he sat on the bed again, this time at its foot. He found himself drumming his fingertips on his knees and waiting for her to make the next move. This was ridiculous; he cleared his throat. “I thought there was supposed to be . . . I mean, when will the scenario start?”

She raised one eyebrow. “You chose a scenario?” She poked at a few buttons hidden in the headboard and squinted at the ceiling. “Can you read that message? I have misplaced my visual correctors.”

He followed her gaze. The ceiling was a flat panel display like the walls in the anteroom; he realized it probably had monitoring devices for the safety of the working girls. Shit, he hadn’t counted on his moves being recorded. He couldn’t help but imagine a room full of security staff crowded around the room’s monitor, having a good guffaw at his expense. He didn’t relish the idea of being part of the next video routed around the ‘net for all the kids on the sailships. He tried to banish the thought from his mind.

The panel’s message read OUT OF MEMORY — SCENARIO HALTED. When he told her, she punched a few more keys behind her, then frowned. “The system seems to be malfunctioning. It will take some time to repair. Would you like a refund?” She fluttered her eyelashes at him.

“Never mind the scenario. I don’t care.” He shifted his weight and turned toward her. “Doesn’t matter. They had a list of stuff like the nurse thing, and they just had me choose something at the front desk.”

“Nurse?” She shimmered all over for a moment. He thought his eyes were going crazy, or that it was a trick of the light. But as he watched, she melted into another form. He found himself next to a beautiful cocoa feast in a white uniform with a name badge reading STARLET FERN, L. V. N.: Private Duty Nurse.

Xmorth gaped. She flowed out of the bed and undulated up behind him. Her soft cool hands landed on the sides of his bare neck. He felt his lips parting.

“That’s the way.” She slipped around front and loomed over him sternly, seemingly ready to push him down. “It’s time for your rubdown, little boy. Get out of those clothes for me.” She reached for his flightsuit’s zipper.

Normally, this would be a great fantasy. Not the one he’d have imagined himself, of course, but fairly great, anyway.

But he found himself completely lacking in interest, except to observe her morphing as a curiosity. His earlier arousal, left over from the lady in leather, had completely wilted. “I’m afraid I’ve lost the mood.”

“You are nervous?” She emitted a liquid laugh.

“No . . . well, maybe a little.”

“Don’t be. Why don’t you get out of this starchy uniform? You have no reason to be uneasy with me. Here, I’ll show you.” She again emitted a soft laugh that repeated itself and gradually got louder, and then she began to change. As he watched, slack-jawed, she shimmered again, then dissolved around the edges, finally re-forming. When it was over, she’d morphed down once again . . . into the old crone from the waiting room.

“Hee hee,” came the raspy old voice from before. Xmorth almost jumped through the ceiling. His heavy belt buckle whapped him in the knee as he hastily jerked his flightsuit back up, nearly ripping the crotch out. “It’s only me. Surprised?”

“No.” It was true: he really wasn’t that taken aback. This place was crazy, all illusion. What had he expected? The cheapest virtual experience on the ‘net would’ve been better. What the hell had he been thinking coming to an armpit like this? He should have known better. Blast that Wmorth anyway. His brother was full of beans.

“I see this form doesn’t please you.” She dissolved back down to the form of the nurse. “Still, I sense a problem. Displeasure. Agitation. Revulsion. . . .” She spoke progressively slower. She continued in a stiffer tone. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t realized. This is, after all, my true form.” She–it?–sounded wounded.

“Forget it, it’s not that. I can’t. . . “ He jerked his flightsuit up. “I just can’t.”

“Your spirit is willing, but your physical apparatus will not cooperate?”

“Er . . . no.” He quickly sat on the bed to hide the evidence from possible scrutiny.

“Pity.” She spread herself out behind him on the fuzzy covers, pillowed her head on her hands, and lowered her eyelids knowingly. “You are a Humlerite?”

“Hell, no.” He stopped buttoning his collar to glare briefly at her. He knew that, for them, unlicensed sex was a mortal sin, only marginally forgivable. “That’s not the problem.”

“I wonder.” After a pause, she began to look a little shimmery, as if thinking of morphing. “Possibly you made a choice too hastily. Is there another of the scenarios you would prefer?”

He’d only grabbed for something familiar. Now that he thought about it, he’d have preferred the biker chick. But, no, that wasn’t the problem at all. It was the morphing itself that had bothered him the most. In fact, it made him a little queasy now to see her in between forms. She was kind of blobby around the edges, her torso beginning some kind of shape change, melting like a fistful of plasticlay in a baby’s warm grasp.

She noticed his gaze and gave him a Cheshire smile. “I am what is termed in my culture a queen”–what a strange way to translate whatever the word was, he thought–“which means that I can take any form you desire. Only name one, and I shall take it.”

“No. I mean, please don’t.” He realized there was no telling which, if any of them, was the crone’s, er, queen’s, true form. He hadn’t counted on this, and it wasn’t his bag. If he’d wanted to stick it into a jar of pickled chopped liver, albeit sentient liver, he could as well do that back on the base. He had keys to the galley, what with all the KP duty he’d pulled.

“But you have paid for my services, and an ox should receive a proper share of the grain from his treading.”

Xmorth could hardly imagine how much trouble it must be to translate mentally from its idiom to his own. “Forget it. I can afford to spare that much.” He shook his head. “It’s nothing to do with your professionalism or anything. Keep the fee.” If only he could figure out a graceful way to exit. He had grown to like the creature, and didn’t want to hurt its feelings.

“No, you must not waste your money. At least let me release some of the tension from your shoulders.” She reached out and began massaging his neck and shoulders with a surprisingly strong grip. That did feel good. “Such big, manly shoulders.”

Her hands sneaked under his clothes and proceeded down his body, and he let her undress him. It felt comforting, as though she really were a masseuse. She turned him over and got him positioned on the mattress; it smelled sweet, maybe an artificial aphrodisiac. He melted into the feelings aroused by her touch, floating in pleasure for the first time since the first hour of boot camp.

Before he realized what was about to happen, she had him in the first position. She began to explore him, and after a moment of fumbling with his zipper, he didn’t resist. She knew the entire classic Clinton-Lewinsky maneuvers, and his body began to respond despite his previous state of mind. In fact, he could have sworn she–er, it–no, she–was enjoying the sensations. He groaned and leaned back at her touch. Maybe this would work after all, he thought.

But just as he was losing himself in the surf of physical feelings, he also lost all sense of up and down. He opened his eyes and flailed his arms as he rose toward the ceiling. The spaceport had lost part of its artificial gravity; its rotation must have slowed somehow. He threw up his hands just in time to keep from bumping his head on the ceiling.

“It is all right.” She was floating in another direction, but she managed to grab a set of leather straps that were attached to hooks in the walls and ceiling. “This happens sometimes. We strap in and we can continue.” She made it sound like they were in the middle of a science experiment.

He took the straps she handed him, bemused. “What do I do with this?”

She showed him how to strap into the apparatus, got them strapped together and positioned in a swing on the wall. He felt like a basket hanging off a two-wheeler. But before anything further happened, weight returned to his limbs, and he felt his stomach rise–no, he was falling. The gravity spin had returned to normal. They both grunted as they reached the ends of the leash. He would be bruised in embarrassing places tomorrow.

“Oof.” He disentangled from her embrace, unclipped his buckles, and dropped to the floor. “This just isn’t working.” In the dimness, he started to search for his shorts.

She disengaged herself from the swing more elegantly and was somehow dressed again. “I must apologize for your substandard experience. All my efforts have availed naught.”

“Wasn’t your fault. It was all these malfunctions.” He found his socks on top of the coat rack.

“No, it’s more than that.” She mused aloud. “I am surprised to hear you deny you are a Humlerite. This is exactly the reaction many of them have when brought here by fraternity brothers or challenged by a wager. They lose their money, to the mirth of their brethren. The fools shouldn’t let themselves be pressured.”

A thought came to Xmorth. “You aren’t a Humlerite. Or are you?” When she shook her head, looking amused, he pointed a finger at her. “So how do you know so much about them? You wouldn’t think about them all the time–unless you’re a Yelmerist.” The similarly strict competing sect thought the Humlerites hopelessly lost. The word on the street was that Yelmerists got points for all Hummers they converted or corrupted; either accomplishment, it was said, amounted to the same thing to them. “You’re kind of getting off on this, aren’t you?”

She laughed. “Of course not. I am merely an observer of my clients. For me, this is the easiest job in the galaxy, and the most profitable that does not involve space combat.”

He couldn’t help laughing. “You’ve got it all figured out. Smarter than I was.”

“But this event is touching the strings of your innards”–her varied diction amazed him–“and has affected you. I think the reason you cannot perform your duty here is that you do not want to. To lose your purity to one you do not love is the thought in your mind, but not the desire of your soul.”

He stopped tugging at his socks and blinked. “Let’s not get metaphysical here. I’m just not in the mood.”

She moved her gaze back to him with a compassionate expression. “I told you earlier that I judged you didn’t want this.”

“It’s not that. If you mean I think it’s a sin like the Humlerites do, you’re way off. I’m not very religious.” Even as he said it, he wondered if it were true. Maybe a little empathy was just what he needed. He decided he might try those grips sometime for the hell of it. It never hurt to keep an open mind.

She seemed to read his mind. “But could they not be correct in a sense? You’d agree it is ignorant to discard every aspect of a philosophy merely because the bulk of its tenets are foolish or wishful.”

He only stared at her. Where did she come up with these heavy thoughts?

She smiled. “It’s not shameful not to want something you think you should. It is how you feel inside that makes the difference.”

His face burned. He always blushed when somebody got too personal. “Do you always speak in sappy platitudes to your reluctant customers?” He managed to get his stuck zipper past the binding point and closed it all the way to his collar.

“You’re saving yourself for love. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Saving himself? It sounded like a line from a bad flicker-film from a century ago. “Nonsense. I’m just all out of the mood.” But even as he spoke, he thought, my first time, with a true love. . . . She’s right. He did want it to be different. Private. Special.

And the person who came to mind was Tseitsra. All those crazy thoughts he’d had about being too inept for her seemed ridiculous in the light of day. What made him think she was so experienced? Hell, she almost surely wasn’t, judging from her demeanor and attitudes.

He’d acted like a fool. He could see her now, her innocent laughing eyes widening in shock at the thought of his having come here, against all spacers’ regulations. She wasn’t into breaking or even bending the rules, saying they were for the greater good of the force. And she had eminently good sense: She probably wouldn’t want someone who’d been three laps around the whole galaxy.

It was twenty-four forty–just enough time to make it back to where his ship was docked and still swing by a bar to grab up a couple of bottles of ChocoHoot soda pop to stuff in his duffel for later, when he could talk to Tseitsra. He could pull her aside and surprise her with the drink; he remembered how often she’d lamented the rationing of chocolate. If not one bar, then another, surely one in this port. Finding the ChocoHoot–and maybe a couple of souvenir holocubes–was the only thing he really wanted to do with the remainder of his liberty.

The old whore nodded at last. “I will tell them you are owed a refund.”

“No, don’t bother.” He knew that would get her into trouble; he didn’t want that. “I’ve taken up your time. I owe it.”

She–he? Not “it”–frowned. “We have rules that say if I do not satisfy, I am not paid.”

“But you have.” He’d lost some dignity instead of his virginity. Yet it was a fair trade; he’d gotten more than he expected. “You’ve satisfied me plenty. I came here to learn something, and I did. I needed to decide something, and you helped me.”

“Then I am pleased.” The crone–she had morphed back; that must be her true form–stood in front of him and held up her palms, flat in front of her at shoulder level. He met them with his, smiling. As they parted, she bowed. “I thank you for your visit. I wish you a pleasing life, young Xmorth, and safety in the coming battle.”

He bowed back. “Thank you. I wish you the same.” He finished lacing up his boots and shoved at the door. On sudden impulse, he poked his head back in before the door irised completely closed. Over its protesting squeal as it halted around his face, he called, “And think about another career. You can do so much better than this place.” He winked. “Have you thought about enlisting?”

He thought he heard her soft laughter as the door irised closed behind him.

If he died a virgin, then so be it. But somehow he didn’t expect that to happen.

Whistling, he hopped into the jetsontube. He knew where there was a bar that was open 24/7/365, an old-fashioned floating rig that reminded him of an old Goodyear blimp, and he somehow knew they would have ChocoHoot.

To go.

–30–

Yeah, that was silly. So? Life is pretty silly. We can’t possibly take it seriously. So be it. As you wish. So it goes. Poo-tee-weet?

Go read the really worthy stories that are linked to Jo Walton’s entry ici.

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Author: shalanna

Shalanna: rhymes with "Madonna" and "I wanna," and is not a soundalike with "Hosanna" or "Sha-Na-Na." Aging hippie with long hair, husband, elderly mother, and yappy Pomeranian. I've been writing since I could hold a crayon. I started with fiction, which Mama said was "lying." “Don’t tell stories,” she would admonish, in Southern vernacular. “That's all in your imagination!” When grownups said this, they were not approving. So, shamed, I stopped telling stories for a few years--rather, I stopped letting anyone read them. I'm married to a fellow computer nerd who doesn't really like hearing about writing, but who reads sf/fantasy and understands the creative drive. I'm actually a nonconformist/hippie still wearing bluejeans and drop earrings and the Alice-in-Wonderland hair with headbands and sandals. Favorite flavor is chocolate/orange, favorite color is either Dreamsicle orange (cantaloupe) or bubble-gum pink, favorite musical is either Bye Bye Birdie, Rocky Horror, or The Producers . . . wait, I also love The Music Man. Is this getting way too specific and irrelevant yet? Obvious why I don't sell a ton of flash fiction, isn't it? To define oneself, I always say, it is good to make a list. How about a booklist? Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, Cheaper by the Dozen C.S.Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (all the Narnia books) J.R.R.Tolkien,The Hobbit/LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy Gail Godwin, The Odd Woman F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby J. D. Salinger, Catcher in the Rye (before dismissing it, actually read it) George Orwell, 1984 Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle Donna Tartt, The Secret History Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn James Allen, As A Man Thinketh Mark Winegardner, Elvis Presley Boulevard James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times The Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum Winnie-the-Pooh/House at Pooh Corner, A. A. Milne Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie The KJV and NIV Bible (each translation has its glories)

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