Monday, May 21, 2012

Short Story: The Next Best Thing

As I work on my next novel I've been doing a lot of short stories to help flesh out the world and the characters. I've debated a lot about posting them here on the website and come down on the "share them" side of the debate."

So here we have a chance to meet the novel's protagonist Mercy Lyons when she was still at the Naval Academy and still just a first year Midshipman. This was originally written for the Good Reads website Weekly Short Story Contest Group.

"The Next Best Thing"
1600 Words

I was in my second year at the Academy.

Alexandria, this beautiful thing from Tyson 4, dumped me that morning because she said she knew her cat better than knew me.

Commander LeGrange had just lit me up in front of my entire Terraforming seminar for missing two equations in my draft term paper.

My roommate was back in our bunk with the Hanover twins, and he let me know that I was not to come home that night.

So there I was, at the junior officer bar, two beers into my charted course to complete inebriation.

Down the bar from me was an Allusian. It’s probably better to say that “Down the bar from me was the Allusian.” Only one I’d ever seen up close. When I did a training tour my first year at the Academy we’d run afoul of one of their raiding parties: three light schooners with more guns then sail. It was a hell of a scrap. We nearly lost the entire bridge crew when integrity fields started to fail. It would have been a lot worse if a merchant hadn’t wormed in just behind one of the raiders. She was lightly armed but it was enough to give them a spook and they left us to lick our wounds. I’d heard a lot about the Allusian Cartel, their domination of the the Union of Independent Systems, and their general disregard for all interstellar law.

She was hard not to look at. You hear stories about the Allusian pleasure girls, that they’re these paragons of sensuality, these avatars of beauty. But what always struck me about the one at the Academy is that she was really rather common. She was pretty, no doubt. One of the prettiest of the class. Thing is it wasn’t the kind of beauty that you really remember why it was beautiful. Honestly, if it weren’t for her green hair and bleached white skin, you could almost swap her out for any of the other pretty girls in our class.

Of course she caught me staring at her. I swear women have a 6th sense for that sort of thing. She had two hands wrapped around a small glass she was taking sips out of when she turned to look my direction.

The moment of truth. Eye Contact.

I wasn’t really drunk enough to try a “come-hither” look, but I was plenty drunk enough that efforts to look confident were going to fail too. As an internal compromise I settled for raising my glass slightly and nodding my head. She smiled, a tiny smile, and raised her glass just off the bar in response.

But she didn’t look away. Neither did I.

* * * * *

She was looking down at me when I woke up. She’d pulled up the sheet to cover her chest, and propped up her head on one hand. Her other hand was tracing a figure eight on my own chest. I understood why her hair was shorter than most; even after sleeping it looked good on her. Everything about her looked good.

First thing in the morning and she even smelled good.

She spoke first. “Good morning.” There was something about her smile when she said it. I couldn’t place it at the time but it seemed off. I didn’t think much of it; I was just glad she hadn’t slipped out in the night.

But then again, we were in her room. That would have been awkward.

“Light sleeper?” I asked. I put a hand behind my head and tried to look casual about everything.

She nodded. She didn’t say anything, just kept watching her finger move over my chest, along the bottom edge of my neck, and then back down towards my navel.

“I guess you kind of had to be, right? Waking up in strange places.”

She nodded again. She didn’t say anything though, just kept tracing idle lines on me. Soon as I’d said it, I realized how much of an ass I had to sound like, bringing up her past.

Then came that horrid silence. I hate silence.

“So, back rub?” It was my standard silence-killer. If we’re not going to say anything at least I could try to win some points by rubbing her back and shoulders.

She looked at me a moment and laid down on her chest, resting her cheek on her hands, looking away from me. It took me a moment to get my bearings. I sat up, and pulled down the sheet to the small of her back to give myself some room to work. Her bare white skin was flawless, almost glowing in the light of the sunrise. I put my fingers to work along her skin and tried, desperately to think of something to say.

“Your back is gorgeous.”

Well at least it was a fairly safe observation.

She sighed out a “Thank you” and left me more or less to my work.

“I mean from what I’ve heard I would have expected some scars or something.”

Once again my foot found that wormhole connected directly to my mouth. Had it been the night before I could have blamed it on the beer. If I’d had more beer I could have blamed it on being hung over. Instead all I could do is blame it on being a moron.

Her eyes were closed still, but she did let out a sigh. “It is very hard to scar a pleasure girl. We are bred to heal almost completely.”

“Oh.” My mind raced with things to say, sympathies to offer, curiosities to explore. Instead I managed a single sound and then froze as thousands of things to say flashed through my mind and were rejected almost instantly. She noticed that I had stopped my ministrations.

“If you look very closely you can probably see a white line on the left.” She remained still under me. I leaned down and if I looked I could just make out small mark. A long scar, running from her shoulder across the middle of her back. But it was so thin and so light that against the white of her skin I never would have found it without knowing where to start looking.

“Wow,” I said without thought. I really wasn’t thinking much at all that morning.

“No one likes to be reminded when they break their toys,” she said. Her eyes opened and she stared off into the distance. “Scars are reminders that you broke someone. We weren’t allowed to get scars.”

What do you say to that? My mom would give me a good bare hand to the cheek when I mouthed off enough that she’d had it, but that was the worst I’d ever had. I had no point of reference at all for this. I settled for resuming my massage. I was more gentle than I usually was, but I couldn’t find in me to really work at her muscles. She stared off into the distance, as though the point on the wall next to us were miles away.

Accursed silence. My mind was racing. This time I gave up and let my curiosity simply take the bridge and set course. “Is it hard to be with someone after all that?”

“What do you mean?”

It was my turn to sigh in contemplation. What had I meant? “Just, to sleep with someone by choice after so long, you know, not choosing.”

She nodded. “I didn’t think I’d be able to.” I remember how low her voice was, as though she were whispering to someone else. I felt like I was intruding on her as I listened to her talk. “I swore I’d wait until I was loved by someone. I didn’t want to be another pleasure girl again. I wanted someone to love me and I wanted to love them.”

I paused my kneading for a moment. I wasn’t sure how to say this delicately. “Sure I like you, but this isn’t really love.” Maybe she had gotten bad intel about humans, figured that what had happened between us was our way of showing love. It may be for some but hardly for all.

“I know,” she sighed. “But you don’t hate me like they do.”

“Hate you?” I barely knew her. She was a year behind me and I think I’d seen her twice in the halls. I guess I could have hated her for what her people had done but that was a tough sell for me. Of course I was lucky. I’d lost the occasional shipmate, classmate, to battles with the Allusians. A lot of my class lost a lot more. But I couldn’t blame her.

Or could I? Had I the night before? I thought about the empty stools on either side of her at the bar. The lounge was packed with junior officers and our various “Mating Rituals”. Yet there was one void in the place, a halo of nothing around her where she sat. Maybe I did blame her a little for what her people had done and would continue to do. She wasn’t human. She wasn’t one of us. She was one of “them”.

I stopped working her back and laid down next to her, putting my arm over her, like I could protect her from all of them. “You’re right,” I said, willing it to be true. “I don’t hate you.” I paused. “But you wanted to wait for someone to love you, didn’t you?”

“I did.” She said and pulled my arm tighter to her. I could feel the softness of her bare skin under my fingers. “But right now, this is the next best thing.”

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