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The Best of 2013

Naked Grief
by Arthur Chappell

Sister
by Robert Buckley



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Orbiting in Retrograde
by Kathleen Bradean © 2005



Tawdry. The first word that stuck in my mind when I saw Minat at the spaceport was tawdry, and nothing about her later changed my opinion. She leaned against the white tile wall of the immigration building and listlessly scratched her arm with her gloved hand. The only other human in customs, I figured that she was my contact, but every time I tried to catch her eye, she inspected her elbow just above her opera-length black gloves.

Scruffy. Now there was a good word too. The lumpy black stockings she wore had big oval holes and a wide run that disappeared into her thick-soled black boots at her knobby knees. One side of her head was shaved down to black stubble. The other half cascaded in a waist-length electric blue fall that hid part of her sharp face. Overhead florescent lights gave her skin a sallow cast and her eyes were like neon blue vacancy signs. She chewed gum with a slack jaw.

I turned my attention back to the uptight creature who eyed my immigration docs. Everything was in order. I checked about a dozen times to be sure. That didnít stop my slow descent into panic. A year and a half in stasis sleep, another month in the mind-numbing reality of space travel, and I was tired, grumpy, much in need of a real bath, and nervous. More than anything, I didnít want to be forced back onto the next ship out.

The creature made a tiny, preemptory noise as if it would some time soon actually speak, so I hung onto the silence and wait for the next utterance. I burned to ask, "Is something wrong," but I bit my tongue. The official guidebook said, "Never, ever, ever, ever" speak to immigration officials at the JenHuyWei space station unless asked a direct question. All those evers flashed across the screen of the guidebook in garish colors. Still, one friendly little question couldnít hurt, could it? I could clear up any doubt the xenophylum had about my papers if I could only speak. I swore if they threw me back on a ship because I failed to completely fill in a square on their questionnaire, Iíd get space psychosis. My eyelid twitched. Words bubbled up my throat and onto my tongue. I couldnít stop them.

"CiHuWan!" Minat screeched.

My head jerked around. No one else seemed to notice her fingernails-rasping-down-corrugated-tin outcry, not even her. There wasnít a sign on her face that sheíd screamed seconds before. Other xenophylums passed through customs, their optical receptors glossed over her as if she were a blank spot on a bland wall instead of a brightly colored human who shouted obscure obscenities. She was a total nutcase. Our publisher warned me about her. Minat used to be the best forward scout for the Backpack Clan and then, like Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, she descended into assimilation.

I put a finger to my eyelid to stop the tremor in case it was a sign of virulent Denburian Plague or something else that would get me kicked off planet, and was surprised by the feel of my stiff gloves. The guidebook was emphatic that gloves be worn at all times when on JenHuyWei. It hinted at dark consequences too horrible to describe if the gloves were removed. I tried to get used to being covered at all times during that month in space, but gave up after an hour every time. My hands got hot.

"Do you have work?" The immigration official asked. The glance I got from each of his optical orbs and the shape of his mouth told me that he sincerely doubted I did.

The guidebook said it was okay to answer. "Yes. I write guidebooks for Terraist who travel offworld. After reading my books, they will bring their many tourist credit chits and spend lavishly in the local economy. This will be my base while I explore the near planets." No matter how many times I practiced that speech, it still came out in a bumbling rush. I knew that I hit all the right buzz words and didnít use any forbidden phrases, yet my eyelid fluttered. I could see the gaping entrance of the space ship over the officialís shoulder.

"Have your bags been inspected?"

We looked down at my bag. As my guidebook advised, in all caps, I had not let go of it for ANY REASON. The straps were twisted around my gloved hand. Tape and tags in twenty colors, stamped and coded in every known language and cryptology, covered the surface with terse approvals. A smartass retort fired off in my brain but I condensed it to a meek, "Yes."

The computer spit out my passport. A moment of silence passed. Was I supposed to take it? Wary of all the possible ways to inadvertently insult different xenos, I consulted the screen of my guidebook and scrolled to the chapter titled "Donít screw up your entire trip three seconds after arrival, doofus," subsection "dealing with civil servants who get their jollies from your misery," paragraph "sure, no one MEANS to start an interplanetary incident..."

The immigration official shoved the card across the seriously ugly putty-pink countertop. "Welcome to JenHuyWei Station. Have a nice day," it growled as it bared its fangs at me.

I reached for the card as I slid my guidebook into my pocket. That was all it took. I heard a swoosh, and a small, white furry rat-like creature with long ears ran by on hind legs, grabbed my bag, and took off.

"Hey!" I ran after it.

My bag was twice the size of the magpie that dodged through the crowds, but the bulk didnít slow it down. I ran after the artful dodger but lost sight of it in the legs, tentacles, and luggage. Then I heard a slam. Hoots of mirth and approval filled the customs area. When I shoved through the crowd, Minat stood with her boot on the thiefís neck and the bag in her hand.

She tossed my bag to me, hard. I grunted when it hit my chest. "For ANY REASON!" Minat crushed the magpieís hand under the heel of her boot as it squealed in brain-ripping disharmonies. "Damn magpies!"

"Hey! Thatís a sentient xeno," I protested as she gave her heel a hard twist.

The furry white magpie dropped a chronometer on the floor. With its free paw, it swept the timepiece back into its vest pocket.

"Yeah, yeah. I used to be all politically correct too, but you have to learn a quick lesson here. Most xenos donít have your same code of morality. So get over being amazed at the diversity of the universe and wake up to the reality that magpies, sentient though they may be, are ownership concept challenged."

"Huh?"

Her blue cascade of hair shimmied but didnít hide her annoyance. "Magpies are fucking thieves. If you arenít holding onto something, by their code that makes it salvage and they can take it. But see, because theyíre all sentient and everything, they kind of understand that it pisses off every other xeno, because the little fuckers take off like greased lightening the second that they swipe your stuff. So be politically correct and get robbed blind, or turn on your reality radar and get hip to the fucking blips on the screen, okay?"

I was struck speechless. Not by her tirade, but because eighteen feet of real live green dragon undulated between us. It was so close to the tip of my nose that I had to blink several times before I could focus on the scales before my eyes.

The dragon leaned into Minat. Minatís blue hair puffed back from her face with each snort from the dragonís nostrils. She stared ahead as if she didnít notice anything unusual, her mouth open with each chomp of her gum. The magpie under her heel grabbed its arm and tried to yank loose as its high pitched screams bounced off the hard surfaces of the immigration building. The dragon flexed the entire eighteen feet of its sinuous body, from the top of its crested head down to the tip of the spiked tail. Its iridescent wings unfolded and folded, fluttering scaly skin. I smelled something kind of good over the bureaucratic stink of the port, so I flared my nostrils and pulled it deep into my chest. As I exhaled, I felt as if the stale air of the spaceship was being squeezed out of my body. A sweet scent enveloped Minat, the dragon, me, and the magpie like the dark perfume of a femme fatale.

For a moment, all was very, very, cool in my world. My spine felt wiggly and I was sure that my feet floated off the ground. There was a disturbing time loop that seemed to last minutes but ended in a second. Minat winked at me.

The dragon dragged claws over its palm as it collected credit chits to drop into Minatís hand. Minat gave a terse nod. The dragon ambled away. Minat pocketed the chits faster than I could see her hand move. She spat out her gum on the dingy tile floor and lifted her foot just enough for the vehemently chattering magpie to yank its hand free. It kicked her ankle. As she lifted her boot again with malice in her eyes, the magpie ran, grabbed the wad of gum, held it aloft triumphantly, consulted its chronometer, and zoomed away.

It happened so fast that my head was still spinning when Minat marched ahead of me and snapped off information like gunfire over her shoulder.

"Look alive, offworld boy. Iím getting hazard pay just to be seen with you. I promised Ďem Iíd deliver you alive. I didnít say youíd be in one piece."

I didnít mind jogging several steps behind her. Nice ass, and her short pleated skirt showed the under-cleavage of her buttocks with every sharp thrust forward of her hipbones.

Minat didnít so much walk as she stalked. Part of me hadnít come out of stasis sleep yet woke up and shook off the permafrost real fast. Every nerve ending in my groin went on red alert.

She hit the glass spaceport door with both hands, letting it slam back in my face, but not before I saw enough of those sweetly rounded mounds to know that Minat wasóhow would she put it?óunderwear challenged. My grin slid to the side of my mouth as my eyebrow arched.

Outside the dreary seen-one-youíve-seen-them-all government building, my eyes didnít know where to look firstóthe pile of garbage on the ground, or the pile of garbage that looked like someone lived in it. Minat already crossed the street and was about to duck into an alley between ramshackle buildings when I called out, "Wait! Where are we? I need to get my bearings."

"Shuumalch." It sounded as if she were coughing up a hairball.

"Wait. Shuumalch? The Ďwide boulevard doted with gracious mansions and breathtaking local xerscaping?í" I read the description on the computer in my hand, glanced down the street, turned to look the other direction in case the view was stunningly different to the east. I read the screen again. There was a scraggy weed valiantly trying to push through the orange, packed-dirt street. Guess that could be the xerscaping. The reek of the street, something between dust and death, certainly took my breath away. Mansions? Hardly. Every building was either caught in a suspended state of slow motion decay, or was a depressing example of the galaxy-wide uglification project.

Minat bobbed her head. "That would be the one."

"This place is a pit!" The local architecture was similar to seedy neighborhoods on Mars ≠ all red dust, flat top roofs, and chipped stucco workóexcept that on Mars the houses were low and fat, where the ones leaning over the alleyway in front of us were anorexic and perilously tall, as if the walls of the houses sprouted fast and the structure couldnít quite keep up.

She patted my head. "Welcome to the real world, doofus."

"My name is Matt."

"Yeah. So our publisher told me. Right after they explained that I was off the payroll." She put her hands on her hips and seemed to be thinking hard.

I didnít like the curl at the corner of her mouth, but with her hands balled up and her shoulders scrunched, I could almost see if she was shaved or not in front. I felt myself listing to one side for a better look.

From the expression on her face, she knew my gaze was creeping up the inside of her thigh, tickling across the top of her stockings, and groping under her skirt. She already called me a doofus, so I thought Iíd try to act like sex wasnít the only thing on my mind. New planet to explore, countless new xenos to meet and write about, new job, and I fixated on the one thing that matteredóa woman in a short skirt. A very short skirt. With no panties under it.

My hand rubbed over my chin and lips to check if I was drooling.

"So youíre leaving the planet? Why, if you donít mind me asking?"

"As if you canít fucking see that for yourself." She threw her arms wide and danced in a circle that made her skirt flare up.

Instant hard-on. She wasnít completely shaved. She had a small patch left that was dyed to match her hair. Her skirt must have been holding her scent down, because I got hit with a strong dose of unwashed, heat-fermented pussy. She was ready to go, no sweet talk or flowers necessary. My tongue just about fell out of my mouth.

I knew that I had to say something other than, ĎCan I lick you like a lollipop until I get to your cream center,í so I stammered, "How long have you been waiting to go home?"

"Since I first set foot on this shithole." She did a neat military turn on the ball of one foot and marched off again, her hands balled into tight fists. I guess she knew Iíd follow.

I scurried across the hard-packed red dirt road. Trying to keep her scent in my nose, and that ass in view, I followed three short paces behind her. My dick dowsed for the cleft between her butt cheeks.

She stepped into a narrow alleyway lined with scruffy orange stucco buildings. Light from the planetís primary star bounced off green and white stripped awnings over the entrance to small shops. I stumbled over bits of trash. Xenos slammed against my shoulder as they passed by, intent on their shopping and conversations. Merchants eyed me as they reclined on overstuffed pillows and lush carpets that were strewn at the entrance of each shop. I closed up the gap between Minat and me.

Big, brown, muscled xenos, armed with spiked clubs, stood suspicious watch by a big interplanetary NO sign with the black silhouette of a magpie. When I balked at the xeno guards, Minat grabbed my shoulder and jerked me into the alleyway.

With the buildings so close, the air was hot enough to sear my lungs. I choked on the dust kicked up by the hundreds of xenos, each a different species, moving through the streets in the bazaar. The noise was unbelievable. Smells like bleach mixed ammonia burned away the hairs inside my nose.

"Um, howíd you know the magpie was going to snatch my bag?" Girls liked conversation, right?

"Two steps onto this planet, my bag got snatched."

"The guidebook clearly statesó."

"Who do you think wrote the guidebook, doofus? Do you think I just guessed at those things? That guidebook was written from experience. Hard experience. Thatís the reason we guidebook writers exist, right?"

"You made up the description about Shuulmach Boulevard." I winced. Accusations so werenít the way to get laid.

Luckily, Minat seemed to think I was funny. "I figured out very early on that if I described this charming dystopia as it was, no one would ever visit. And since yours truly is fucking marooned in this shithole, well, I thought the least I could do was trick other humans into traveling a year and a half each way for conjugal visits."

"Marooned?"

She spread her arms and walked towards me. Her blue eyes opened wide and she spoke very slowly. "My bag got snatched by a fucking magpie. Have you forgotten that already? I told you, what, two seconds ago? Everything I owned was taken from me, including my return ticket. Iíve been trying to earn my way off this planet ever since."

"Canít you ask for an advance from our publisher?"

Her laughter was so bitter that small animals for sell two stalls over yelped in pain until she stopped. "Oh please. Stop. Youíre killing me." She wiped tears from the corners of her eyes. "Thanks. I needed that. Listen doofus, youíre going to be lucky if your paycheck clears, or if it reaches you within a solar year."

"No, theyíre supposed to deposit it in my account back on earth."

She doubled over. "Oh jeeze. Oh jeeze. Donít be such an offworlder. Theyíll mail it to you. As things are looking desperate, youíll needlecast pleas back home, and their accounts receivable department will tell you that until they get the original back, they canít re-cut the check. And oh, yeah, they are so sorry about the misunderstanding, but thatís the rule. Meanwhile, a year later, the mail finally arrives and behold ≠ the check is not in the mail! You, at great personal expense, needlecast them again. They put you on hold while they go get their supervisor. Whatís that going to cost you? Another weekís rent? They donít care. They put you in hold hell while bad elevator music riffs to you from back home, and youíll cry because itíll be the only human music youíve heard in a year. When she finally picks up, the supervisor will apologize profusely. Of course they didnít send the check. They were supposed to deposit it to your account on earth. Should she change that? ĎNoíóyouíll cry out, ĎNo! Just deposit my pay. Iím eating my shoes!í And sheíll say, ĎOkay, weíll get right on that.í If youíre lucky, before youíve resorted to dirt soup, theyíll make the deposit. With the money you borrowed to pay for the needlecast, and the interest on it, youíll be lucky to have enough left over to buy back the picture of your mother."

I was seriously disliking Minat. Still wanted to fuck her though. After the scouring my nose suffered, I wanted to sniff her hair.

Then she was off again, pushing past the merchants who rose off plump cushions to come to me. I felt like raw meat at a hyena convention. Picking up the pace, I managed to hang on Minatís heels as she twisted left, left, left, right, left again in the narrow maze. The heat radiating off the walls made me sweat. I felt it trickle along my spine. My shirt stuck to my back in damp patches.

"Where are weÖ.Where are weÖ.Where are we going," I asked, demanded, and finally pleaded in breathless bursts as I jogged to keep up with her. Those months in stasis sleep did a number on my muscles, and the heat drained away my reserves of energy. Even if I did manage to get her into bed, I was afraid that Iíd fall asleep on her.

Minat ignored me. We raced along, dodging between tall, fat blue tentacled creatures and short, thin, seafoam green quadrapeds. I set my sights on a high tower like a minaret over the shops and by the fourth loop, began to recognize the stalls. The merchants recognized me too. After the third time, they refused to leave their hookahs. I tried to gawk and keep Minat in sight, but obviously put a little too much time in my gawk, because I plowed straight into her. Sheíd stopped at an intersection.

Tilting her head so that her long flow of hair shimmied back from her face, Minat stood, panting and sweating, in the full light of their primary star. Minat saw the sweat streaming down the side of my face. Her gloved hand reached for the trickle. "If only women sweat like men do. Youíre very lucky. You should do very well here."

A wheezing, pasty fleshed xeno like a worm with too many eyes oozed up to Minat. She gave it a nod. I whipped out my hand-dandy guidebook and flipped to the Xeno ID pages. Pictures popped up on my screen as I waited for the wheezerís phylum to display.

The wheezer seemed to be looking at me with some interest with most of its optical orbs. It moved closer to me.

I took a step back.

"Donít move," Minat growled out of the side of her mouth.

Terrified, I froze.

The wheezer sniffed at the dark stains under my armpits and trilled a remarkably pleasant song. I wondered if that was a blessing over a kill. I wondered if it had sharp teeth. I wondered if it ate its meal while the meal was still screaming.

Minat wheezed agreeably while shimmying her shoulders. More trilling followed as the snout worked across the nape of my neck. I was about to piss my pants.

The xeno made noises, more wheezing, only faster, and then, suddenly, coughed loudly. It shuddered. My pictures flashed past but I was so close to an alien phylum that I couldnít concentrate. The wheezer smelled of deep earth.

The wheezer handed Minat some chits. She wheezed back at it angrily. A few more chits went into her hand. She stomped and made a gesture that, judging from the expression on her face, was very rude. Merchants laughed and shouted out encouragement. The wheezer ambled on. Minat angrily searched through the chits.

"Not nearly enough. Cheap bastard." She wagged a finger in my face. "Never break a sweat for less than twenty. Donít say I never gave you advice." She sighed and rolled her eyes to the smoggy brown sky as her lips moved. I heard her whisper numbers. Minat shook her head hard so that her hair covered both her eyes. "Not nearly enough to make up for the hours I waited for you at immigration. Here, chew this gum." She slapped a stick into my hand.

"I donít like gum."

"Chew it, asshole."

Those empty blue eyes of her were frightening enough that I put the stale stick in my mouth and crunched it around until enough of my saliva worked into it to make it chewable. The red dust was already in my mouth and I could feel the grit between my teeth. "Why?"

"íCause I said so, and Iím, like, your native guide." She was off again, haring through the twisting alleyways. I raced to keep up. Then, finding a shop full of bronze platters, she dropped onto a cushion and gestured for me to do the same.

I sank down cautiously.

She sat in lotus position on a dusty scarlet cushion. I could see right up her skirt, so I wasnít gonna move an inch. Her elbow on her knee, she cupped her chin in the palm of her hand and leaned close. She smelled like sex and calamity. "Keep hold of your bag. Magpies sometimes break through the security." Then she jerked away and her skirt flopped down enough that I had to be obvious if I wanted to catch another glimpse of her pussy.

"Whatís with all the chits? You like a loan shark or something?"

Minatís eyes got hard. "Yeah. Or Something. Donít you know that writers are supposed to be silent observers? Silent. Shut up and observe."

The owner of the shop slithered out of the back. Another dragon. When it saw Minat, it puffed tentative smoke rings out its nostrils. That one was plum colored and it seemed fascinated by me.

"How do you do that," Minat asked in a softer voice.

"What?"

"Chew so damn suggestively. You tease!"

I had no idea what she meant. I didnít know if I should look at the dragon or glare at Minat.

"Keep chewing that cud, Bossie." Minat pinched me.

The dragonís head drew closer to mine. It had incredibly long eyelashes that fluttered. Its narrow face and angular eyes reminded me of a cat, but the folded iridescent wings were scaly like a reptile. The thing huffed sweetly scent breath over me.

"Is it a boy dragon or a girl dragon," I asked out of the side of my mouth as I felt that pleasant floating sensation wash over me again.

"Boy. Girl. Thatís limited thinking for this planet. This particular xeno starts life in a liquid environment. All babies are females. Then they hit adolescence, and boom! They all turn into males. At the age of maturity, some of the survivors become female again, depending on the existing male/female ratio and after some pretty ugly dominance fights, the winners mate. The losers are lunch. Other xenos have three sexes, five sexes, whatever. Whyíd you ask if it was a boy or girl?"

"It seems to like me." I wanted to scoot backward across the pile of jewel-toned pillows.

"Oh yeah, it likes you all right. Keep chewing. Youíre doing fine."

"But why?"

"Less talk, more chew."

We left after we got sprayed down with that weird perfume again. I didnít mind, for as long as the little trip lasted. I gave the dragon a sly smile of thanks for the brief high. The dragon dropped a huge pile of chits into Minatís cupped, gloved hands. Minat pirouetted away with a smile. Every time her skirt lifted, I caught a glimpse of a tattoo high on one firm ass cheek, and I was determined to examine it up close.

We ran in circles through the bazaar for another hour until I staggered to keep up. The only time she stopped was to accept some chits from different xenos. My hair got pet, I was sniffed, and at one point Minat cocked her head to the side and asked me if I could possibly belch on cue. She was serious. She had me scratch, do armpit farts, even pick my nose. Finally, I was out of weird male human tricks and she seemed to sense that I was getting pissed off.

She threw her arm over my shoulder and ruffled my hair. "I think Iím warming up to you. You got some potential, laddie. You know what? Iím going to buy you a drink. Come on."

She hurried on again. This time around we sidled into a shaded alleyway. The second door down was cerulean blue. She kicked it open and dropped inside. It was so dark I couldnít see anything but glowing green eyes in a corner. Cool air rolled up to my face. Minat reached outside for me, yanked me down the huge first step, and slammed the door shut. It was so dark inside I could barely see, but I would have bet a million chits that we were in the seediest bar in the universe.

The place smelled musty and sweet in an unhealthy way. I tried to hold my breath. Minat shoved me down at a table. Clicking her tongue in what sounded like a grandmother scolding, she addressed a shadowy figure at the bar. It clicked back. Minat clicked some more.

Creatures laughed.

"Whatís funny," I asked.

"My accent. Shut up."

Two drinks plopped in front of us. I waited to see what sheíd do. Minat quaffed it, leaned back in her chair, disappeared under the fall of her hair, and sighed forever.

A hulking black xeno bristling with hair came over to our table. Minat pointed to me. It stood close enough that the coarse hairs on its belly rasped my arm above my gloves. I tried to ignore it. I sniffed at my drink. It smelled okay. I took a small sip. Very minty, so sweet it was almost syrup, but it was cold, and it was wet, so I drank more.

Minat seemed to be waiting for something. I took a big sip.

"Wanna fuck?"

I did a classic spit-take, spraying the hulking black xeno. As I looked up at the hairy beast, I decided that I was going to die. It sure looked pissed. It stared at the glistening droplets on its fur with fixed concentration, and then threw back its head and gave out a yowl that made my nuts pull up into my body. I closed my eyes.

Nothing happened, so I opened one, then the other, eye. The creature was next to Minat. It dropped chits into her cupped hand. She fanned them and then dropped them somewhere into her tiny outfit. I held my breath until the xeno oozed away, leaving a tart scent like orange peels in its wake.

Minat leaned on the table. Her face rested on her gloved hands. "Youíre a natural."

"Natural what?"

She seemed to change her mind. "Nothing. So, how about that fuck?"

I scrunched down in my chair. "Quiet!"

She seemed to notice the other in the dark bar for the first time. The alcoves were so shadowy that I could barely see the red velvet curtains pulled over recessed couches. I shuddered.

Minat pointed to the other bar patrons. "Them? They donít give a ratís ass, doofus. Xenos could be wanking off right in front of you, and youíre such an offworlder, youíd never know it."

I tried to look very sophisticated. "I think that I could tell. Some things are obvious."

Her smile told me that she knew a hell of a lot more than I did. She spread her legs. I couldnít see under her skirt, but I could smell her again. The heat of her body infected mine. "Do you want it?" She peeled off her top to reveal the most perfect small mounds of natural breasts Iíd ever seen.

I covered my eyes. "Put your shirt on."

"Theyíre just glorified sweat glands. Donít get your panties in a twist. Other xenos donít get turned on by them. They donít even notice tits. You, however, like them." She pinched her nipples and ran her pink tongue over her pale lips.

My dick pressed against my pants.

"You want to touch them."

I went five shades of red.

"You want to squeeze them and name them and smear your come over them." She flicked her tongue out. It didnít quite reach her nipple, but man, did that visual ever work for me.

I cupped my hand beside my mouth and leaned close to the table. "Are you always so open about it?"

She put her thighs together. "Okay. Maybe Iíve been away from humans too long, and I donít lift my pinky anymore to show how much class Iíve got, but I can see your hard-on, and I need it, so do you want it?"

Yes! God yes! "Um, sure."

She pushed our drinks onto the floor and patted the tabletop. "Hop on up, cowboy."

"You arenít serious."

"Sure. Like I said, they wonít even equate it with sex, and they wonít get off, and they probably wonít even watch. Come on," she pleaded. "I havenít been with a human in two years. Iím so fucking horny Iíd screw a videoscreen with a picture of a human on it. Male, female, doesnít matter. I just want the taste of human flesh in my mouth." She flipped back her hair.

I glanced around the dark bar. No one seemed to care about us. "Okay."

"Great. Sign this." She shoved a handheld computer in my face. "Lick the strip at the bottom. Itís a DNA signature."

"What am I signing?"

"Consent form for the exchange of bodily fluids."

I was going to read it, but she came around the table, leaned over, and squeezed my dick. Her tongue lapped the sweat off the back of my neck.

"How long since you bathed," she asked, breathless.

"Couple days."

"Deoderant?"

"No."

"Perfect." She yanked off my shirt, lifted my arm, and tasted my armpit. Her snorts felt good against my skin. No girl was ever so wild about my body before. "Do you shave?" She grasped my nuts through my pants, so I was pretty sure I knew what she meant.

"No." Oh man, did her fingers know how to work it.

"Good. I like a hairy guy." She ran her gloved fingers down my chest. "You smell so human," she said in wonder, as if my travel stink were a good thing.

Next thing I knew, I was on the table with my pants bundled at my ankles. She insisted that I keep my grip on my backpack even though the bazaar zone was supposedly magpie safe.

Minat didnít so much fuck me as devour my body.

Shoving me harshly onto my belly, she buried her tongue in my ass while her padded fingernails clawed at my butt. She sucked my balls until I cried for mercy. When she finally climbed over me and surrounded my hard-on in her unrelenting, wet grasp, she covered my mouth with hers and forced her tongue down to my tonsils. I could smell my scent smeared all over her face. My head banged against the table as she lifted her slim body up and slammed back down to engulf my dick as I came.

She bent over my mouth again and forced what I thought was a mint between my lips. A rush went down to my groin and the need to fuck seized me.

"Come on doofus," she dragged me over her prone body.

"Call me Matt," I begged as her fingernails raked flesh off my back.

"Shut up and fuck."

Hours later, I was drained. Sheíd taken every last drop from me. My dick was raw. No matter how wet she was, there was only so much glorious friction I could take. I rolled off the table, clutched my groin, and held up a hand to ward her off.

"Okay. JustÖ No more." I kept my eyes on her while I pulled up my pants.

Her eyes glistened and she panted, but even she looked a little worn out. Smiling one of those know-it-all woman smiles, she pulled on her blouse, shook her hair out, slipped back into her chair, and calmly ordered another round of drinks.

"Whew! Needed that!"

"Youíre insane."

"No, Iím sated." She nestled back into her chair. "Seven times! Iím proud of you, boy. Youíre going to do well here."

I was pretty damn proud of myself too. I wondered what was in that pill she gave me. Not that I needed it or anything. StillÖ."That last time, I donít think I so much came as surrendered."

"Like I fucking care." She accepted the drinks and paid for them with a single chit.

A slim xeno waded into the bar. Others gave it room. Minat sat up straighter and moved her chair just a bit to the left where there was more light. Her hair glowed. I saw her finger the buttons at the wrist of her glove.

I lunged over the table and grabbed her wrist, squeezing harder than I meant to. "Youíre not supposed to take your gloves off here, ever."

Minat shoved my hand away and regarded me with a sip of her drink.

"Xenos are watching."

She played more with the button. We fucked on the tabletop for a couple hours non-stop and didnít get the quiet, watchful surveillance she got just by her touching her wrist. Minat seemed to be looking over my head. "Iíll be back." She rose from the table and drifted off into an alcove with the slim xeno.

I had to follow. My curiosity was killing me. Theyíd drawn the heavy curtains around their couch but I could see a sliver of light. I peeked through the slit.

Minat sat on the red velveteen couch with her legs primly together. An overhead spotlight focused tight on her hand. Slowly, she ran her hand down the length of the other arm. It was weird, almost hypnotizing. The slim xeno was certainly transfixed. For at least five minutes, Minat ran her hands down her arm, teasing her fingers over the buttons at her wrist, and then trailed them away. Whatever. It was doing it for the xeno though. Minat flicked open a button, exposing the barest sliver of her skin. The xeno shuddered. She yanked open the middle button. He started making noises. With agonizingly slow motions, she unfastened the third button of her glove and showed the xeno her naked wrist. He bent down to sniff her skin and shot a wad of blue glue on the upholstry. He trickled chits into Minatís hand. She pocketed them. They exchanged a few words in a language I recognized but they spoke too fast for me to follow the conversation.

I forgot to pretend Iíd been waiting at the table the entire time. She brushed past me as she stepped out of the alcove.

Horrible understand was followed quickly by an accusation. "Youíre a prostitute!"

"Hey! Sex worker. Please."

"How could you?"

She fixed those hard-ass blue eyes on me. "Youíre one to talk."

"What do you mean?" My raised voice got the attention of a few xenos, but I didnít care.

She put her boots up on the table and leaned back on the back legs of the chair. "Youíve been putting out all day, bitch-boy. Peddling your ass through the alleyways of the bazaar."

"What!" My voice hadnít broken like that in years.

"The LeGuin Precept, baby. Youíre a pervert to every xenophylum except your own."

I almost choked on my words. "You mean Ió."

"Mamaís little Ďho." She clapped her hands as she laughed at me.

I sank down into my chair. Humiliated. She humiliated me, and she was glad to let me know it. I hid my face in my hands. "What have I done?"

"Things so filthy to their cultures that even their crack whores refuse to commit those acts. By the way, the dragons are totally into you. Can you blow bubbles with the gum? I think I could charge extra for that."

I groaned. "Is this revenge for taking your job? Itís not my fault you turned into a local."

"The dirt of this planet will creep into every pore in your skin, and then get under it. I defy you to live here as long as I have and not turn into a local. Yeah, Iím assimilated. Completely. I probably couldnít survive in a purely human environment anymore even if I wanted to. The worst part isnít that I canít go back; itís that I canít move forward. Do you have any idea how many planets donít have guidebooks? Why should I update the latest edition for this planet when I could be writing the fucking Bible for a new one? Am I jealous of you? Only because itís all new to you. I havenít had anything new in years. Its all just rehash."

"Youíre a terrible person."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah, blah, blah. Talk to me in a couple years."

Firmly grasping my bag, I staggered out into the super-heated afternoon air in the bazaar. I never wanted to see her again. I was a big boy. If she could survive the planet, so could I. After all, I had the definitive Backpackerís guidebook to show me the way.


Three years later, I leaned against the wall at customs and lazily scratched my arm. The dust of the planet dried out my skin so I was always scratching.

A human waited nervously in customs. He smelled like sex. I had such a hard-on for him. Minat was right about one thing. Male or female was too limited of thinking for a planet like the one I was stuck on. Okay, she was right about a lot of things. I had yet to see a paycheck. I almost resorted to eating my shoes. And the dragons totally dug my gum chewing act.

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. Human. I wanted a taste of that in my mouth. Fuck. I was going to come just watching his big man titties swinging under his loose purple t-shirt. From the way he pulled at his clothes, he was uncomfortable about his size. If he only knew how incredibly sexy he looked to me. Once I got him under my control, I was gonna shove those fleshy mounds together and fuck them until I sprayed come over his wide, hairless chest.

When I opened my eyes, I saw that he was about to crack under the strain of immigration bureaucracy. I could see him about to speak. If he did, his ass would get thrown back onto the spaceship and Iíd never get my hands on all those lovely flesh.

"CiHuWan!" I screamed in frustration.

I caught the furtive movement of magpies out of the corner of my eye. My eyelid twitched. One thing Minat and I differed on ≠ I thought magpies were useful. If they did steal a humanís bag, and they nearly always did, rescuing the bag was the best pick-up line in the universe. Minat didnít want to be anyoneís hero.

Sure enough, a moment of relaxation, and a magpie swooped in for the bag. I crushed the fucked under my boot and waited for my new friend to come to me. Man, was he going to be grateful, and I was going to let him show it.

Ignoring the squealing magpie under my boot, I gave the human a long, slow head-to-toe look. My shorts were painted on and my shirt was cut off to show the hard muscles on my stomach. I turned to let him get a good look at my ass as I led him out of the port building. He followed, mesmerized.

After I jogged my new buddy around the bazaar a few times, I pocketed enough chits to buy him a drink. I didnít have a place to live anymore, so taking him back to my bed for an uninterrupted fuckfest was out of the question. Luckily, I knew a cool, quiet bar with sturdy tables and a no questions asked policy towards human mating rituals.

The guyóhe had a name, but what the fuck did I careóstumbled into the darkness with me. Iíd been playing brush and grope through the day with him, so I knew that he was worked up for a bit of the nasty. Iíd gotten lean and mean in the past few years and made sure that every move I make was an invitation to the rutting ball. The way he licked his thin bottom lip when he watched my ass, I knew he was no vegan in the meat market.

I got him tucked away in a dark alcove, in case he was shy about his clunky body. As if it mattered. Another two hundred pounds wouldnít have stopped me from sucking on his toes like they were sweet grapes and running my tongue across his forehead. I needed a human touch more than I needed oxygen. He was absolutely beautiful. It was hard to stay cool and chat when I needed him so bad.

Then I saw her. Occasionally, I ran into Minat at dank bars or in the spaceport. Sometimes I bumped into her a couple hundred times over the course of an hour until we both crawled away clutching our smoking groins. Other then that, we kept clear of each other.

Minat fumbled with the buttons at her wrist, seemingly lost in thought behind her blue veil of hair. I yanked a chair over to her table and plopped down.

"I can smell him," she told me. Minat never bothered with small talk.

"We might not care male or female, but he does. You donít have a prayer."

She took a deep breath and shook back her hair so that I could see the wicked smile on her face. "Shipping out."

So she finally earned her ticket money. Good. I didnít need the competition. Maybe I could pick up a few of her clients. There were things she did that were so esoteric that no matter how hard I tried to steal away her customer base, I never caught the subtle xeno fetish out of her everyday human moves. If she was pissed off that I took the dragon trade from her, she didnít mention it.

"Earth?"

Minat snorted. "Fuck no. I heard of a placeÖ" She fumbled with her buttons again. "I got a contract for a new guide. Iím forgiven. Sprung. Bailís been set."

I caught the eye of my new friend and gave him a sign that Iíd be over to service him soon. He happily sipped his mint drink, thinking he was the lucky one. I checked to make sure I had two pills, one for each of us.

"A new planet guide. Good luck, Minat. Hope you donít have to lie through your teeth next time."

She smiled that way that made me want to scream.

Slowly, she worked her glove down her arm. I grasped her wrist. "What the fuck are you doing?"

"Retiring, rent-boy."

"But the gloves! The guide saidó."

She rolled her eyes. "Like I needed other humans running around and giving it away for free when wrist striptease was my best paying trick. Seventy credit chits."

In awe, I let out a low whistle. Seventy. No wonder she rigged the game. That was food for a couple days. That was a bath and socks. That was one hour closer to home.

I glanced over at my friend and waved to him. He lifted a gloved hand and waved back. They always had on their gloves. The guidebook said so. It said it in all caps. It said it with flashing skulls and crossbones. Everyone knew not to fuck with a warning like that. I wondered what other little bits of ritual we followed blindly on planets just to suit Minatís humor or her ends. I leaned back in the chair and simply laughed.

Under the table, her unclad fingers deftly unclasped the buttons at my wrist. Over the table, our gazes locked. Both her hands slid up my arm. Her fingers curled into the top of my glove. Gently, she teased the stiff, grungy fabric down my arm. The air was moist and cool on my skin on as she rolled my glove down. Every hair stood on end. My nerves crackled like static electricity. I think I gasped.

Minatís fingers traced down the inside of my arm. When she touched the inner elbow, I jumped back, but she held tight. I couldnít see what she was doing; I could only feel, and even that was too much. Sliding, stroking, caressing, she inched the remaining glove down to my wrist. Her thumb pressed on my pulse. My feet scraped across the floor, an imitation of running.

Grasping each fingertip in turn, she yanked the glove off and draped it across my knee. First my pinky, then my ringer finger, she lightly brought her fingers up and down the length of each of my fingers. My eyes half closed. Her palm pressed flat to mine. We compared finger lengths. Her palm was hot; mine was sweaty.

Every touch sent shivers through my body. It was too much sensation. My fingers moved over the back of her hand, greedy for tiny bumps and delicate lines too fine for the eye to see but possible to feel. Her hand was hairless, smooth. Her knuckles were hard bone with a strong tendon running over the top of each one. Each fingernail was jagged. Some were long. One felt recently broken.

Minatís fingertips brushed gently across the pads of my fingers, and then she was gone. She pulled back. I groaned.

As she drifted around the table on her way out, she touched her bared hand to my face. The human touch was a taste of heaven. Minat caressed my cheek. "The best native guide makes sure that you come back from your journey, Matt."

Then she was gone. I stared at the tabletop, ignoring for a moment my human sitting patiently at the other table. I flexed my hand. Seventy credits. One hour closer to home. Taking the glove off my lap, I slowly pulled it back over my hand and started to cry.

_______
© 2005 Kathleen Bradean.†All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

Bio:† Kathleen Bradean's stories have appeared on Clean Sheets, and in Blood Surrender and Best of Best Women's Erotica.

Authors live for feedback!†
If you enjoyed this story, please send comments to
Kathleen Bradean

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