The cigarette hung from my mouth, its end lit and glowing faded orange in the darkness of my room. It tasted like grime-covered candy that had been wrapped in spikes. Still, I held the smoke in my mouth as long as I could—even let it touch the top a couple of times—and then blew it out. The fan’s breeze pushed the grey clouds away from me.
A curved purple device was lying next to my thigh, vibrating. ‘Zzz,’ it went. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz.’ The sounds told me it was on cycle three. That I’d just finished my favourite activity. Yet my body cried out for more. ‘Zzz, zzz, zzz,’ the device continued.
I blew out another cloud of smoke; the fan made it dissipate as before.
“Fuck,” I said to no one because even though I was naked and my mid-size breasts rose and fell with each breath, I was the only resident in the apartment. “Fuck,” I repeated as I sat up and felt my red hair fall into place: tickling my shoulders and starting to move freely with each shake of my head.
My thigh wobbled as I hit it, its muscle making my smack sound flat and less imagination and movie, more real life. The carpet on the floor was thick enough to stop the chill of autumn’s air, but cheap enough that I’d felt every one of its stitches while I’d laid on it.
I wasn’t that poor, the room had a bed. But it was a made of metal and when you have my…condition, you stop lying on things that can carry enough energy to kill you. It also had an imagination player, a water one, bubbling away on a wooden chest of drawers. There were three unwatched dodecs, sitting next to it. Their green lights pulsated and reflected over their metal cases. None of them interested me; they never did on those kinds of nights. Instead, I pulled out a cardboard box from the under the bed and yanked the lid off. Inside sat…clothes. That was what they called them—someone, at some point had—but they were little more then cut fabric.
I tossed aside a green top that was triangles folded in on itself and a matching skirt that had a slit so high it would’ve showed my entire right leg. I tossed away and ignored garments with cuts in the chest region and fishing stockings. What I was looking for I found at the bottom: black silk knickers and faux-leather pants that hugged me. Also, a light blue top that left a space in the middle of the material that almost went to my belly button.
No one told me how tight my ass looked in the bottoms, no voice called out from the dingy, chemical-stained bathroom to encourage anything. Not a soul gasped when I touched the metal windowsill and sent a magical charge into a hidden motor. It whirred and opened a compartment with a poisoned knife. It was where I’d left it, and still sharp.
It was important because I was about to bring back someone to my four walls. To the only place in that world that I could say was truly mine. Not a man’s, not another woman’s, mine. It was freedom in its most condensed form. And the only price I had to pay was the occasional restless evening where I had to go out and pretend I wasn’t as strong, smart or capable as I actually was.
Fair payment, in a way. God’s joke, in another.
It took an hour to get to the populated zone by wind mage and tramcar. The breeze apprentice apologised, several times, for doubling our trip time. If he’d been as tired as he’d said he was, then I didn’t know he’d wasted his breath on us. He should’ve saved his energy and got us there faster.
Fifteen additional minutes of walking and I arrived at The Dance Space. That’s what the local government had called it. ‘Dance till you need an elixir,’ their sound promotions had said. Some people might’ve gone there for that, maybe two. The others went into the experience palaces to yell at their friends across loud sound boxes, or to shake their bodies in the hope someone more attractive would notice them. At least that’s what they told themselves when they eventually sat on the broken curb swallowing purple and green pills. The stars and bad magic would kill some, and chain the rest to an addiction that kept them coming back.
This night was no different. The people in the queues outside the palaces were pretty and shiny while the walls behind them were stained with sweat, vomit and liquid. People who’d already tired of their friends lay on the ground and mumbled to themselves about demons who didn’t exist in this world. Yet.
I ignored the first palace: too many women with psychedelic highlights and magically altered hair. It said there were rich men there, men who’d risen to the top because they micromanaged every aspect of their lives. If they’d had to have been tossed out of my apartment after I’d used them for sex…it would’ve led to complications.
The second one was down an alley, looked tempting and almost lured me in: until I saw an old boyfriend, Andrew Marshelli. The last time I’d seen him, he’d been captured by a competing gang of pirates. He was supposed to have been dead; yet, there he was shoving a drawing of me in everyone’s face. “She promised me nightly foot massages,” he said.
It’s possible I had said that, I said lots of things when I was out and in need, but feet massaging seemed overly generous. Hell, I’d of even seduced him once more if he hadn’t locked me in a cage on three separate occasions.
The third palace had bright neon light bricks that lit up to a rhythm only they could hear. Several heads turned when I stood at the front and inspected the frosted glass doors—most of the heads were men, three were women. In another world, with another me, the females might’ve had something. Their hungry eyes and subtle body movements couldn’t change my predisposition though, I only had one gender that made the urge go. A disappointment for both of us.
As I approached the two bouncers who appeared to be popping out of their tight cotton tops, I put on a fake stagger and twirled my hair. When I pretended to trip, one of them caught me. A giggle escaped my throat.
“Hey there,” I said to him, reaching towards his square face. “Good things happening inside?”
“In The Den of Chance, all things happen.”
“Ooh.” He helped me stand so I bit at the smallest fingernail on my left hand. “Think I could go in? For a little?”
As my body rubbed against the bouncer’s pants, something hardened. He was either new or terrible at his job. Possibly both.
“There’s a queue,” he said.
“Are you it?” I wiggled my hips and ran a finger down his shirt, it felt like a Clarice 9. Expensive, but not unreasonable. “Want to go in together?” I paused, twirled my hair again and then said, “Want to go somewhere together?”
The other bouncer coughed, ruining the moment and breaking our connection.
“No,” my target said as he stepped back. Then he pointed me to the door and sneakily grabbed my ass as I walked past. If sneakily meant obviously, and raging hormones implied satisfying sex.
Inside the doors was a poorly lit staircase followed by a large room full of crammed people trying to synch their body movements to a pulsating beat. Bright greens, yellows and blues swept across the crowd and revealed party-goers who thought their skin was more alluring than custom made clothes. Flesh, sweaty flesh, slid across other patron’s 67% uncovered bodies and neon-coloured liquids in transparent containers disappeared in single gulps.
I stopped twirling my hair and tripping over non-existent wires; instead, I straightened my posture and used my hips to propel myself along the floor. The heels I’d chosen clicked against the wooden boards as I sauntered to the bar. Even though there were women with less on, who had larger breasts and more clearly defined figures—I felt eyes on me. Some of them were desperate, others predatory and the occasional one jealous.
Once I’d found a stool, I tried faking boredom as my opening gambit. The ‘girl who wants to be shown a good time’ pedestal that so many men wanted to climb. Sexually insecure, uncertain about her figure and wearing club clothes for the first time. All she needs is a man to guide her past her doubts, make her believe in herself.
I didn’t even get through a quarter of my drink before I’d had a taker.
“Hey,” he said as his first move. Which was his, mine was to note the pointy shoes that showed aggression and insecurity, the wear on his shirt’s buttonholes that indicated him either being poor or believing in the power of habit, and the blue the base of his fingernails. He made Linther for a living, low-grade trips you could afford on a budget. Or make if you’d been removed from a magic academy during the first year.
I crushed him before he would deter a better catch. “You wouldn’t want to be picked up again, would you?” I said as I pretended to reach inside my blouse for ID.
He swallowed, his eyes jumping about the room trying to calculate where the raid was coming from. It took him five seconds longer than most dealers to realise I was ‘off duty’, and not interested in runners. He spun on his left heel and walked away, the music drowning out the noise of his shoes clicking against the ground. If he was lucky, he’d be murdered within a year. Six months if he wasn’t.
The second wasn’t much better: a fiancée wishing to have one last fling because his in-house lover couldn’t satisfy him, but he appreciated her money too much to let bad sex get in the way. The third had a good opening line, “I can see your soul, and it’s crying out for sexual empowerment.” But his name was Abner and he believed his goodness had to be balanced with occasional moments of darkness. Split knuckles told me he hit woman, faint scars on his arms whispered he’d killed at least one. The nominations of the notes he used and the wallet they came in screamed parents who’d forgotten there were laws even their children had to follow. On the third drink, he tried to put something in mine. I let him feel my breasts, and then returned his rape pill. I was already moving seats when he fell onto the floor and cracked his skull.
Mr. Four wore a stained white shirt and thought his half-smile attractive. “I want to say something, but I don’t want you to take it the wrong way,” he started, his perfume mixing well with his natural odour to create a pleasant smell. “I’ve been watching you.”
I shrugged and took in his tight stomach line, square shoulders and the scar just under his right eye. It was barely noticeable: childhood accident or friendship gone wrong. He worked with his hands, and could defend himself if in a tight spot, but didn’t like fights.
“You’re a cop,” he said, sitting next to me. “Looking for a good time.”
“I don’t know, do you like cops?” I rotated around and leaned forward, letting gravity pull my top down so he could see the treasure to be had. His eyes flicked down twice, then stayed on my face.
“I don’t hate them.”
“Know what’s the worst part about upholding the law?” He ordered me a drink instead of answering the rhetorical question, the same one I’d requested from the previous target. “This is my workplace. Tomorrow I’ll be down here busting heads for the greater good.”
“But you’re here with friends this time. Doesn’t that make it better?”
I tilted my head to indicate I didn’t understand what he was saying. “Your aura’s saying you’re not here alone,” he continued.
He was a reader. One of those humans who’d deluded themselves about rays, cosmic energy and colour. I smiled, weakly, and adjusted my narrative to the desperate cop. “Friends. They mean well. But sometimes they think…they think I need something I don’t. So they take me here, forgetting what I do.”
As he paid for our drinks, I could see his wallet wasn’t full, but it wasn’t empty either. The notes were all average denomination and when we were served, he tipped the bartender. “Cheers,” I said as I clinked my bottle with his.
“What is this?” he asked after a sip, the first one not to lie about how awful the alcohol was.
“It’s an acquired taste. The kind you order when everything’s…shit.”
“That’s a bit grandiose.”
“Maybe. I’m not big on understatement.” We drunk the rest of our drinks in silence; the man, to his credit, not asking for specifics. Only the mumble of the crowd and the earsplitting trance music crashed into our world.
He took the initiative after ordering a second round. “I can go, if you want.”
“I guess you could, it’s not like I’m ever getting lucky again. Not with my job.”
His eyes drifted down my body once more, making sure he hadn’t imagined my breasts being as good as they were. “I find that difficult to believe.”
“Why? We don’t get to wear fun clothes and be ignorant. Look at this,” I pull at my top. “I had to buy it yesterday just to fit in. Guys get scared, run away. They think I’m tough and empowered, but I’m not. Not in some areas.” I touched his hand resting on the counter and softened my gaze.
“Why’d you come out then?” he queried.
“Some things you can’t skip. They’re special, even if they’re stupid.”
“Your friend getting married?” he said, coming to the conclusion I hoped he would.
“Yeah. Some jackass with a smile and pretty blue eyes. Promises her lots of things, cheats on her twice as often.”
“I like to think not all men are assholes. That we grow out of it.”
I leaned against the counter, my skin touched cold wood and a sticky substance, both of which I ignored. Slowly, I ran a thumb down the open part of the top, playing with the material hiding one of my breasts. “Plenty say that. Then, just when you expect them to deliver, they leave you alone and on a bed with recently purchased lingerie.”
“I don’t…” He stopped, trying to hide the number of women he’d had relations with.
“What’s your name?” I asked to maintain the momentum.
“My friends call me Ken.”
“I’m Maria. You were saying you don’t leave women hanging?”
He picked up the drink, uncertain how to play it. I knew then he was my mark because all the signs indicated he’d gone by morning. The outcome: a poorly written note about how he’d had to dash off to work on a Sunday.
“I try not to,” Ken said.
“I’m not searching for a pretty virgin boy who blushes when I take my pants off,” I reassured him. “I’m a cop, I want someone who knows the biology. Someone who knows how a woman’s body works and screams.”
“That’s not everything right?” He leaned in, his right arm only centimetres from mine. His face was close and he tried to smoulder even though the music was making him speak too loud for it to work. “You want it on demand. You want to come home and know it’s there.”
“And you’re looking for certainty?”
“I’m looking for someone to prove they’re worth a damn. No waiting six dates and then bailing because they want to make love to some idealised fetish. Today, now. Teach me, show me the world’s better than I think it is.”
He took my hand and kissed me. It was solid, with a questioning tongue that took its cues from my reactions. I told him it would take an hour to get to my apartment; he was already standing before I could finish the sentence.
Ken wasn’t selling me an untruth. His hands were confident; they glided over my body and tested each area. The slightest murmur and they’d be back, plying their trade to see the level of ecstasy they brought. A couple of times they faltered: massaging when they should have prodded or pushing when they could have caressed.
“Put your hands here,” he said as I heard his last remaining clothes come off. I did, against the wall. The heat of his crotch raised mine, his dick finding the right place and sliding in. Like everything, it was measured. He penetrated only with his nip and and waited for a response, then continued. Each movement was accompanied with a micro-second evaluation.
He told me how perfect the arch in my back was before groaning. His hands showed me how much they loved my curving nipples and mid-size breasts. When I came, he paused…waiting for the right moment before continuing. Then he pushed on, building until even his precise movements eroded into grabbing.
If his body looked nice in a shirt, it looked better naked and on my bed. His chest was hard, his abs defined even while he sucked in air, and his leg muscles twitched rhythmically to his motions.
After several seconds, his gaze shifted and hovered over me—glancing up and down my frame with its tattoos and scars that had been difficult to make out in the dimly lit experience palace.
“You see a lot of action?” he asked, a perfectly manicured eyebrow raised.
“More than I want.”
“I didn’t think they took officers with affiliations,” a hand ran gently up and down a tattooed spiralling circle. It was on the inside of my thigh, near my vagina.
I should’ve tossed him; I’d had my fill. Very few people outside of pirate clans know what that mark means, even less make it home to tell someone else. He wasn’t who he’d said he was, but, I argued, neither was I. And even though I didn’t need anything extra that night, and could’ve gone weeks without another man, he’d been good. I wanted him in my mouth; I wanted my legs around his waist as we crashed around the room. So I replied, “They do.”
I rolled over and let my fingers tickle his hairless balls. He tried to say something, but then I licked all the way up his leg, stomach and chest. Just before our lips melted into each other, he gurgled sounds resembling English. When I slid down and made his shaft rise through the flicking of my tongue, he stopped trying to communicate entirely.
Rather, his body arched back and his hands started to grab at the same place on the wall where mine had.
I woke the next morning to running water and the sun streaming through the frosted windows of my apartment. Ken’s clothes were neatly folded on top of my desk. Several scrunched up pictures lay assembled in piles next to them. I guessed they’d been the farewell notes he’d tried to write before leaving.
His failed attempts didn’t concern me, the fact he was still in the apartment did. As if on cue, the shower stopped, and he stepped out—wrapped in my white towel with three orange stains.
“You’re a pirate,” he said.
“So are you,” I replied, dropping the game. I needed nothing else from him; if we were to be enemies I intended it to be on honest ground.
“Not getting married then.”
“What’s it to you?”
“My name’s Aiken Irawa. I’m—”
“I know who you are,” I replied, getting up. “Raider of the South. Terror of the Southern Skies. You’re an ‘A’.”
He tilted his head to the right and squinted his eyes trying to understand what I meant by the last part. “I’m looking for a journey partner,” he continued.
“A plundering partner. Someone who gets what I do and isn’t a liability to the team.”
“Someone who can handle themselves,” I replied as I inched towards the windowsill.
“That’s not exactly what I mean, but don’t you want to try? Surely you know my reputation?”
“Humane?” I dropped the sheet—sent a volt through the metal—and grabbed the knife. The sound of his feet pushing off the floor reached my ears, but he was too late: the blade was already pointed at him.
“I found the other weapons,” he told me. “Bet that’s poisoned too.”
“I’m not going to kill you. I try not to murder the people I’ve just fucked. But I want you to get the fuck out and stay away from me.”
He kept adjusting his body, trying to find a position that would obtain an advantage. The tip of the knife followed him. “You want me to walk away from one of our most dangerous enemies?” he said. “That’s what you are if you don’t join me.”
“I’m not part of the Vertigos anymore. I’m out.”
He laughed, and continued searching for a leverage point. “No one leaves. That’s their motto. We’ve found their members strung up on a buoy with shark bites out of them.”
“Maybe they don’t have a choice. My name’s Joelle. If I want to walk the fuck out, I can.”
It took a while for him to process who I was, his pupils dilating and then expanding as he absorbed the information. After all the pieces seemed to click together in his head, Aiken stopped trying to find my weakness and stood still, his shoulders slumped.
“Will you join my crew?” he asked, quietly. “It’d be an honour to have a strategist like you on it.”
“No I fucking won’t. Get out. Stay out. Never see me again if you know what’s good for you.”
He did, taking his taut body and erect penis with him. He did for a whole day.
Like every man whose name starts with an ‘A’ and has dated me, Aiken reappeared like something out of a nightmare. This time it was in the shopping centre, just me spending money on clothes and poorly scripted imaginations.
“Joelle,” he said, his pitch higher than our pervious encounter. “I dreamed about you last night.”
I turned around and took him in—he was wearing the same clothes as he’d had when he’d left. His hair was disheveled, his eyes sunken and jittery. The only difference was that he came with weapons: swords and bows.
“The gods want us to be together,” he continued. “The spirits. They told me so.”
“You can’t really believe that shit,” I said as I tried to refocus on some silks.
“There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s how we win raids.”
“And they’re telling you we’re going to get together?”
“That’s what they said.”
“What if I say ‘No’?” He’d worked his way over and stood next to me. I felt the heat of his body and the warmth of his breath.
“Then I have to take you. They told me to take you. You’re our salvation.”
I punched him in the jaw and ran. My fist hurt, the skin red and cracked from a lack of practice. It didn’t deter him though, his footsteps could be heard behind mine—crunching against the stone floor of the markets.
People were pushed out of the way, a man with a scimitar yelled at me and threatened my children in nine languages—I ignored him and kept going. Over baskets, through frames and down alleys—nothing shook Aiken. He kept coming, like a devil from a story told to children who needed to be aware they weren’t the toughest kids in the city.
As I had no tools for murder, I ran towards the stream. Maybe you know it as Death’s Beam? Some people say it’s where our magic comes from, I don’t know. Perhaps I don’t care. It’s not something you want to cross if you can help it. Don’t have a high enough magical ability? The stream takes you in a second. Aren’t quick enough to dodge the bursts of energy flowing through it? You’ll lose a limb, torso or leg. No one goes through it if they can avoid it.
I stopped once I’d reached it, looking at the glowing lights whizzing past and feeling their energy flow coarse me. People were yelling, saying I needed to come back and get away from where I was. I would’ve, if I hadn’t heard Aiken unsheathing his sword and the sound of his boots getting closer and closer, I would’ve. Except I had heard them, and so I jumped.
One light flashed passed, then another and another and another. They shot past me, my easily damaged frame missing them by millimeters. Roll, jump, dodge and so on went the actions until I was surrounded by people on the other side.
My heart was beating furiously, my forehead dripping with sweat and my breath laboured. Then people gasped, and I turned to watch as Aiken stepped into the steam.
He made three feet before the silhouette of his left arm disappeared. His legs followed, as did his head and finally, the remaining parts of his torso. In five breaths the Terror of the Southern Skies had disappeared forever.
A man with a white beard looked at me and jingled his coin-collection cup. “What did he do to you?” he asked when I put a couple in.
“He fucked me,” I told him.
“Guess he deserved it then,” the man replied as he checked the coins.
“Guess he did,” I said as I merged into the crowd. “Guess they all do.”