Authors: L K Rigel
Until the AG kicked back on and she hit the floor. She didn't fall, but it was a shock to the knees.
"You have arrived at your destination," said the pleasant male voice. The elevator opened at the entrance to the Blue Marble. There had been no sense of movement or feeling for the distance she'd traveled.
Char's relaxed mood returned as she heard the music coming from the bar. Either the singer had programmed the legendary Queen Latifah into her mic or she was doing a fantastic natural imitation.
The entire floor of the Blue Marble bar was clear, a window to the world below. Char had the sense she was walking on air, and it took a moment for her to believe she wasn't going to fall.
Mike kissed her cheek. "You're as beautiful as ever."
He wasn't bad-looking himself. His light brown hair was brushed straight up with the tips bleached blond. It made him seem more daring, less bureaucratic. He wrapped his arms around her and rocked her, his chest broader than she remembered. It felt wonderful -- too wonderful. He must have confused her with Sky.
"You've been working out." She pulled away and tried to act casual.
"I wish." His face was flushed. "There's never time."
He was using enhancements, then. Yes. His once-hazel eyes had turned emerald green. His exquisitely tailored suit gave him the aura of power. Was he becoming a courtier, a suck-up? Or was Jake right, and Mike was better connected than he'd let on?
"I had some clothes and things sent to your room from one of the shops on Vacation Station. I thought you'd be close to Sky's size."
Poor guy. It had to be hard for him to see the duplicate of his lost love walk through the door. Hell, all this had stirred up her pain too.
"Hey, Mike." Jake joined them from the bar, holding a drink. It seemed impossible that she'd first met him only a few hours ago, standing just so with an iced latte. "Meadowlark."
She didn't have feelings for Jake. The world was cracking up. She wouldn't have feelings for anybody. But she was disappointed when he took the chair on Mike's side of the sofa and not the perfectly good empty seat at her left side.
Jake was a little taller than Mike, and his good looks were definitely natural. His foo-foo drink had an origami dragon impaled on a floating strawberry. He swallowed half the pretty concoction in one gulp then bit into the strawberry, his lips stained by the fruit.
"I see you're taking good care of our girl."
Cripes. It made her all tingly inside when he said
felt territorial, practically a growl.
"I didn't think you'd be back so soon," Char said.
"I almost didn't make it back at all. The
's com system is buggy. I had trouble docking."
"I'll send a tech to help Rani," Mike said. "It's the least I can do. And Jake. I'm sorry about Tyler."
"Excellency. How fortunate to find you here." Without asking, a heavy middle-aged man sat down beside Char. He ignored her though he spilled out of the chair, his knee pushing into hers. Now this was the model of an incompetent mid level bureaucrat, eager for face time with his superior.
Mike leaned back and spread his arms on the sofa. "Reynaldo," he said. "I take it you received the contract?"
Char sighed. What else did she not know about Mike?
Reynaldo's young companion sat across the cocktail table from Char. When he saw Jake, he almost jumped out of his seat. His gaze darted about the Blue Marble then back. "Hello, Jake."
"Why hello there, Geraldo." Jake finished off his strawberry.
"Nervous?" Jake's chuckle was devious. "Let's see. The last thing I heard Rani say about you was 'when I see that insect again, I'm going to squish him like a fly.'"
"Ah." Geraldo blanched.
"You got lucky. She stayed at the V for some R&R."
Most Coveted Destination Not On Earth
was its false motto
The actual most coveted destination not on earth was not the V but the "I" -- the Imperial Space Station.
Geraldo seemed highly relieved that seven-foot-tall, muscle-bound, no-nonsense Rani was taking R&R on the V. He turned his attention to Char, openly examining her as if he was evaluating a horse.
If Rani didn't like this unctuous little man, then Char liked Rani more.
Two servers, a male and a female, set trays on the cocktail table. They were dressed alike as someone's fantasy of sex slaves. If you could call it dressed. Naked but for leather belts and harnesses and short leashes hanging from their chokers.
"Excellency," Reynaldo said, "allow us to celebrate."
At first, Char thought the servers were shaved, but they must be mutants, naturally hairless, as both were bald and without eyelashes or eyebrows as well as other body hair. Like Rani, they hadn't gone ghost. As of yet, anyway; the male was dangerously thin.
Supposedly, mutants were not allowed off planet. Mike avoided her questioning look, and the others didn't seem to think anything was amiss. Certainly everyone accepted Rani being in orbit.
Geraldo pulled the female server to him and buried his face in her stomach. He ran his hand over her buttocks and moaned a little. Char looked away, only to realize scenes like this were happening all over the bar.
This was why she'd always resisted coming up here. She would never be one of the sophisticated people.
Reynaldo sighed. "Not now, Geraldo."
Geraldo tweaked the server's nipple and slapped her backside. "Run along then."
Jake's face was a blank, but Char felt certain he'd be glad to join Rani in squishing Geraldo like a fly. Good. She'd help.
Mike didn't seem to notice anything amiss. He tasted the champagne offered by the wine steward and pronounced it acceptable. "To
The trays were loaded with fresh fruits and vegetables and dips and sauces. Char's mouth watered. The colors alone were exciting -- bright reds, greens, and yellows. It had been a year since she'd had anything from hydroponics. Store-bought food was so bland, sometimes she'd go for days on protein drinks and lattes and vitamin pills.
"Delicious." She bit into a red-orange cherry tomato. "I can taste the nutrients."
"We stock from orbit when we can," Jake said. "Food up here beats anything grown in the ground."
"I've always wanted to see the new hydroponics annex." The thought of it brought Char's old life back.
"I'll take you after dinner." Mike ran his fingers over her wrist.
"You're into hydroponics?" Jake looked surprised.
Why shouldn't he be? Why shouldn't he think she was an unproductive ornament, saved from the chaos below because she was related to Mike's fiancée?
Mike pulled his hand away as if he again realized that she wasn't Sky. "Char helped design the annex."
"That's generous. I was an intern. I was in my doctoral program working with the design team, but I quit before it was installed."
"Quit?" Geraldo practically sneered.
"Char's sister was with Tesla," Mike said. "She's been in mourning."
"Half the planet is in mourning," Geraldo said. "And the other half soon will be. No one has the right to withhold their … gifts anymore."
"Artless." Reynaldo licked his fingers. "But true. The survival of the human race might well come down to one woman's refusal to give what she can. It's what this project is all about."
The two tipped their glasses to each other.
"The land around Corcovado is blessed." Creepy coming from Geraldo, hardly the reverent type. "We've discovered a natural artesian aquifer. Clean fresh water. A pristine environment to keep the girls healthy. We're calling it
He must have come up with the name himself, he was so proud of it.
"Blood City," Char said.
"A sanctuary for fertile females."
"But no one has a natural pregnancy anymore."
Women's fertility had long been undependable. In the Gulf Spill of 2010, the oil company used dispersants in their attempts to conceal the gravity of the disaster. Those chemicals infused endocrine disruptors into the ecosystem. At first the local fish, plankton, and birds were affected. But the slick spread to currents that channeled the whole mess into the Atlantic, and the tainted birds and plankton and fish were subsumed into the food chain.
Within ten years half the women on the planet were infertile. Another quarter suffered from incompetent uterus syndrome at six to seven months. A generation later, some said the infertility had tapered off. Some said it was getting worse. The Imperial Census knew the truth, but the information was classified.
To be safe, most babies were baggers now, engineered at dedicated hospitals.
"Sanctuary." Char said. "Safekeeping from pollution?"
"Pollution. Mischief. Fertility wasted on the undeserving." Reynaldo licked his fingers again. "Raptors."
"Raptors? But that's just a rumor!"
Jake shook his head and Reynaldo chuckled.
Geraldo said, "If you don't see it on the television, it must not be real?"
Char was beginning to feel hopelessly naïve.
Mike's com sounded in his ear, so loud she could hear it. His self-important vibe put a stop to the group's conversation until he ended the call.
"Something I have to deal with." He stood up. "Reynaldo, Geraldo, you need to go back down. Keep away from the Pacific Zone. In fact, stay completely south of the equator."
So her guess had been right. IHS was going to quarantine the Pacific Zone.
"Char, I'll contact you after I take care of this. We'll go see the hydroponics annex." He left through a side door followed by a security detail that must have been watching them the whole time.
The station had gone into nightside over an uninhabited stretch, but now the dark blank beneath them gave way to a jewel-like phantasm of light. Char had no idea which city they were over or if they were north or south of the equator. This was an entirely new way of being alive in the universe, with night and day changing every ninety minutes.
The light from below reached into the Blue Marble's nooks and crannies. With Mike and the Blood City boys gone, the open groping in the bar was harder to ignore. Jake didn't seem to care for it; he was playing with the origami from his empty drink.
"You said you
"No. I said it was interesting." He displayed the paper figure on his flat palm. "I do like the dragons."
The sex in the
had been a one-time thing, that's what she'd told herself. At the time, she never expected to see Jake Ardri again. But she hadn't been with anyone since Brandon, and she found herself thinking about how good Jake had felt.
Jake stood up. "Let's get out of here."
In truth, she was very glad to see him again.
Below the window to infinite space, Jake was spread like a feast on Char's bed. Maybe the erotic activity in the Blue Marble had stirred her up. Maybe all the talk about fertility. But evidently her long self-imposed celibacy had come to its end.
Or maybe Jake alone had brought her out of it. Sitting between his legs, she ran her hands over his thighs and leaned forward to kiss the skin below his navel. He fondled her breasts, and she reached up to his shoulders, stretching alongside him like a cat. She inched up to nuzzle his neck and pressed her naked skin against his.
She slipped under him and pulled him over. His warm strength poured into her, filling her with a sense of well-being. He was melancholy and grateful -- or she read her own bittersweet pleasure in his sad groans.
She pulled him in, arching her pelvis and urging him to the deepest place he could find.
When they were exhausted and satisfied, Char lay quiet on Jake's chest. She listened to the strong bu-bump of his heartbeat and the air moving through his lungs. He needed a shave. One of her favorite things about a man, that stubble at the end of his day.
He was easy to be with. He didn't want anything from her. Not like Mike -- not that she had feelings for Mike, cripes.
She liked Jake's independence. Sex usually complicated things with men. Either they couldn't wait to get away from you afterwards, or they wanted to keep you in a pumpkin shell. Jake promised neither.