A towering wall of flesh reared up in front of me as I dodged through the crowded station promenade, his vaguely insectoid body supporting itself on four legs, two manipulative limbs thrusting out from his chest.
Multifaceted eyes stared down at me like ice cold jewels as it clacked its mandibles together in irritation.
“Excuse me,” I said, moving around him and pulling my poncho a bit tighter over my shoulders.
The alien didn’t attempt to stop me.
After all, I was just another human woman on the massively sprawling Thodos III deep space station. Nothing special.
That’s always how I tried to present myself as I made my way through the crowd. The nail that stuck out, got hit.
Every human here knew that.
Sometimes you didn’t even need to stick out.
The glitzy shopping sector had everything one might want, from restaurants to clothiers to computer hardware shops. I checked the station chronometer, a holographic display hovering high above the promenade and its three levels.
“Shit,” I hissed through clenched teeth. I was running late.
If I didn’t get there in time, the Mondian who owned my contract would be furious. While he probably wouldn’t kill me or harm me for that matter—it would be a waste of his money to do so—I would find myself doing shit jobs when I wasn’t on stage.
Since I had no intention of cleaning the lavatories with a brush held in my mouth again, I tried moving faster, but it was hopeless. A teeming mass of sentient beings blocked the lanes, both human and alien forms in the mix.
I would never make it to the club on time, not with this milling throng of people in the way. A darkened alleyway drew my eyes, really just a space between two shops that allowed for a coolant pipe to run along. But here on Thodos, every space was used.
If I stayed on the main thoroughfare, I would arrive safely, but late. If, on the other hand, I took the back alleys of the space station, I would make it on time…assuming of course, I made it at all.
I stepped into the alleyway, only going a few feet when the lights of the promenade faded behind me. Someone up ahead in the alleyway coughed wetly, probably a deathstick addict. I pulled my poncho a bit tighter and tried to keep as much to the side of the alley as possible.
I passed by a trash incinerator unit, multiple pairs of red eyes peering out from under the rectangular box-like device. Moknars, scavengers rodents with a propensity for attacking things much larger than a human when disturbed, looking for scraps of food spilled and dropped by careless users of the incinerator.
Thankfully, they left me alone.
I made it through the alley and found myself in a low-ceilinged, dark passage. Sinister gazes passed over me as I traveled through. A human-sized shape stirred in the darkness. A furry face with a long snout and beady black eyes peered intently at me from the shadows.
My belly tightened up in knots as I heard the creature fall in behind me. It was an Ewani, a rat-like humanoid alien who never met a race they didn’t want to exploit. Slavers, thieves, and charlatans; they were among the least politically powerful groups on the station, and yet they seemed ubiquitous if you went even a little off the main path.
This one likely didn’t have good intentions for me.
I rounded a corner and saw the last passage I had to walk before making it to Club Pulsar. I sped up to a half run, and the footsteps behind me sped up, too.
A new shape broke apart from the deeper shadows ahead and blocked my passage. Another Ewani, half its face melted and hairless from some kind of injury, hissed at me.
“That’s far enough, preciousss,” he said, buck teeth protruding almost comically from his ruined face. “You have to pay the toll if you wantssss to passs through.”
“I don’t have any money,” I said, trying to move aside. The Ewani moved to block my path. I took a step back and turned around, only to find the original rat man standing behind me.
“We don’t wantsss your moneys…” the rat hissed. His hand darted out and grabbed the fold of my poncho, lifting it away. I yelped, pulling away from him as my miniscule club clothing was revealed by his rude gesture.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” I said, reaching behind me and gripping the handle of the knife strapped to the small of my back. I whipped it out of its sheath and waved it menacingly in front of me. “I’ll cut your whiskers off.”
The Ewani’s eyes narrowed, and they approached me far more craftily than they had before. I cursed silently. Why couldn’t they be overconfident and just walk into my knife like they did on the triVid?
One of them spun in a tight circle, his tail lashing out with a whip crack. I screamed as a blazing pain tore across the back of my hand. The knife pinged down the metal deck plating and I decided to yield to the better part of valor and make a run for it.
No such luck.
A furry hand closed on my wrist. I lashed out with my free hand, my feet, my knees, clubbing the Ewani with vehemence, but it didn’t do a thing to free my wrist.
The other Ewani came from behind, its furry arm snaking around my throat and pulling tight. The choke hold squeezed off the flow of blood to my brain, making my vision dim at the edges.
Nightmarish despair rolled through me in a wave. I was going down, and most likely, I would never get up again. After the Ewani had their ‘fun,’ there probably wouldn’t be enough of me left to bury.
A voice cut through the din. Deep and cold as outer space, and filled to the brim with revulsion. The arm around my throat loosened slightly, enough that I reclaimed my fading consciousness.
I looked toward the voice, and found a tall silhouette with glowing red eyes standing there. From the pointed ears and the eyes, I knew what it was.
If you’d grown up watching old vids from Earth, you might be tempted to think of a vampire.
That would be a mistake.
The Vinduthi were very real.
They were very much alive.
And very, very much feared.
It wasn’t just for their considerable physical prowess, either.
They were known to control at least a third of the organized crime on Thodos III. People who crossed them tended not to live very long.
The Ewani were either too worked up, or too stupid to realize the danger they were in.
“You go away, sssscum,” hissed the Ewani in front of me, his fingers holding the drawstring on my halter top. “Or waitssss your turnsss.”
The Ewani yanked the cord and my breasts came bursting out of my top. I renewed my struggles, digging the point of my elbow into the ribs of the Ewani holding me. A wet, crackling sound ripped through the air and the first Ewani screamed.
“Your filthy hands do not deserve to touch such perfection.”
I looked up from my struggles to find the Ewani staring at the bloody stump of its wrist. The silhouetted Vinduthi casually tossed the severed appendage to the side, where it jumped and spasmed of its own accord as if it had not gotten the message it was no longer attached.
The Ewani grappling with me threw me to the ground, pulling an energy pistol from its dirty waistband.
“Now yous diesss,” it hissed, pointing the gun at the Vinduthi.
The silhouette disappeared. I blinked, not even having seen my rescuer move. A second later, I heard a choking sound, and looked up to see him holding the rat man by its throat. The Ewani’s legs kicked in the air as its eyes bulged out.
“As if I would allow myself to be done in by the likes of you,” the Vinduthi hissed.
Now that he stood in a pool of radiance cast by an overhead lighting panel, I got my first good look at him.
My heart caught in my throat. I’d never seen one this close before, and I found him darkly beautiful.
The strong muscles around his jaws and his prominently pointed canines did nothing to detract from his handsomeness. In fact, they even enhanced it a little, giving him an almost bestial quality belied by his fine silken vest and pants.
A row of small horns ran back from each temple, drawing my eye to the marks on his cheek.
One bare arm glowed with the same purple designs, much like terran tattoos, but were not. They were natural markings, highlighting the play of muscles in his arm as he squeezed tighter. The rat man struggled frantically for a few more seconds, and then hung limply, its tongue thrust out to the side of its fanged mouth.
The Vinduthi tossed the Ewani’s body aside like it was some filth he had accidentally touched. Then his terrible, compelling eyes fell on little old me.
“Are you all right?” he asked and incredibly, offered his hand.
I almost took it, but then I remembered two things.
One, my status on the station was so low, the Vinduthi could kill me just as easily as the Ewani.
Two, I was running later than ever and my boss would be furious.
“Thank you,” I stammered, scrambling backwards and to my feet. The Vinduthi gave me a puzzled frown as I turned to flee.
I had never run so hard in my entire life. I didn’t stop running until I was back under the bright lights of the station’s ‘safe’ zones.
And even then, when I thought of those purple markings and the flashing, hungry eyes, I shivered.
My boss, Banek Mari, glared at me as I entered the club.
“I was attacked.”
Whatever retort he had prepared was cut off by my shakiness and terrified expression.
That was all it took to convince him it was no bluff. He came over to me immediately, taking my chin in his hands and turning my face this way and that.
I was perfectly aware Banek had not one whit of sympathy within his scaled, crimson body. He only cared if his merchandise had been damaged.
“No obvious marks,” he mused to himself, and then he noticed the reddening mark on my wrist from the Ewani’s hand. “Except for this. Cover it with a bracelet, and get on stage three.”
I kept my scowl hidden from him as I moved off. That was it. No kind words, no request for an explanation of what happened. Just a cold dismissal.
Worse, he’d told me to dance on stage three…where the patrons were close enough to touch me if they wanted. The bouncers were decidedly lazy at Pulsar, and unless one of the patrons looked as if they were going to cause legit harm to the ‘merchandise,’ they would be left alone.
It was what it was.
I could do this. I’d already promised myself I could put up with almost anything to find Mera.
Until then…I had no choice but to do as I was told.
I headed through the smoke-filled, darkened club. Another dancer swirled about on the stage, a Nazok with six exposed breasts.
The patrons cat called, and offered ‘favors.’ Favor chips weren’t as good as credits, but could be used to purchase privileges from Banek.
I’d used my latest accumulation to purchase three days off in a row to look for Mera, all to no avail.
I pushed through the beaded curtain into the dancer’s dressing room. Another dancer, a strawberry blonde named Amy, smiled as I entered.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I got jumped by a couple of Ewani, but I’m fine.”
She frowned, looking worried. “Did they hurt you?”
I snorted in reply.
“No, someone intervened.”
“Who? Station security?”
“No.” I remembered my darkly handsome rescuer and shuddered. “One of the Vinduthi stepped in and saved me…and before you ask, I have no idea why.”
“What color were his tattoos?” Amy asked without skipping a beat.
For a moment, I froze, thinking about him more clearly. His face, those eyes. The way he’d reached for me…
“Um, purple.” Her eyes went wide.
“Only one Vinduthi on the station has purple markings—the leader of the Fangs, Alkard. Did he say anything to you?”
The low growl of his voice still echoed in my ears.
I swallowed hard.
“He asked me if I was all right. I thanked him and then ran like hell before I wound up next on his menu.”
“Like running away would have saved you if he wanted you.”
That wasn’t encouraging.
But thinking about it anymore didn’t do me any good. Shoving the whole incident to the back of my mind, I removed the poncho and halter top, checking my reflection in the mirror. Now I wore only a leather harness on my torso, a sparkly bra and panty set, and high heeled, knee high boots.
A vulgar outfit, but I had no choice in the matter.
Dressing comfortably didn’t get me favors.
I put on leather cuffs, covering the bruise on my right wrist, and spruced up my cosmetics before rushing toward the curtained door.
I stepped up on stage just as the emcee did my intro, wearing a smile I didn’t feel, sauntering toward the pole in the center of the long, narrow stage. In this moment, I knew that I wielded a kind of power. Too bad I could not reap the benefits of it myself.
A slimy tentacle ran up my thigh. I laughed and playfully smacked it away, even though it disgusted me to be pawed like a piece of meat at the market.
I’ll do this, I thought. I’ll do this to find Mera.
In my mind, I tried picturing the handsome Vinduthi staring at me instead of the scumbag patrons.
The frightening, cold eyes, the purple tracery visible on his left arm and the side of his neck, the tight black clothing revealing his fantastically chiseled physique…
As if my thoughts had summoned them, four Vinduthi walked in through the entrance.
Leading them was Alkard, the one who had saved me. The other three walked carefully behind him, though they looked quite fearsome in their own right. Fangs.
I tensed up a bit. The Mondians and the Vinduthi were technically on good terms, but they also tended to stay out of each other’s territories. What were they doing here?
I was so distracted, I nearly stumbled off the edge of the stage.
One of the other dancers caught me with a hand on my hip.
“Quit fucking up, you’re going to get us all in trouble,” Lola snapped.
I tried my best to perform, pulling off my harness, playing with the straps, but my gaze kept gravitating to Alkard and his bunch of its own accord.
The music ended, and I bent over to pick up my discarded clothing while swiveling my hips to the side to avoid another tentacle caress. Once off stage, I redressed to take a shift on the tables when Banek loomed over me.
“No,” he said. “Don’t get dressed. Get in the booth.”
My heart skipped a beat, my breath catching in my throat. This was bad.
So far, I’d avoided the booth.
My best friend worked at this club when she disappeared. That made it a natural place to look.
We’d grown up together in the Under, watched each other’s backs our whole lives.
When she’d signed the contract to work at the Pulsar, she’d been excited. Not for the work, but for the eventual payout. Enough to get an apartment, nothing big, just something we could call our own.
I’d worried, but she laughed and hugged me.
And then she went missing.
People went missing all the time of Thodos III. Swallowed up by the station, by the gangs or smugglers.
But I couldn’t forget about her, couldn’t let it go. Even if I had to put up with being leered and pawed at, if I could just get a clue to what had happened to her, it would be worth it.
But if Banek put me in the booth, it meant that I’d performed a little too well. One of the patrons had inquired about purchasing my contract.
I steeled myself, setting my jaw hard. Life on Thodos III was rough, but I hadn’t broken yet, and I wouldn’t break now. Head held high, I went to the booth, trying for a defiant stride rather than a meek, hunched simpering walk.
The booth rose up from the floor, one of the clear paneled walls opening for my ingress. I stepped inside, hanging my clothing on the safety rail.
The booth closed me inside, and a gaggle of patrons of all different species gathered around. Most of them likely couldn’t afford my contract, but they were still going to gawk.
“Don’t just stand there, Tessi,” Banek growled. “Entice them or something.”
“She can entice me with those big tits,” said a squid faced alien, and the others laughed.
“No way am I going home with a walking plate of calamari,” I said. The squid grew angry, but the other patrons laughed.
“She’s got spunk,” said another alien. “I like her. Too bad there’s no way I can afford her contract.”
Yeah, it wasn’t really bravery. Just terror making my mouth run faster than my brain.
More and more of the aliens crowded around, interested in the ‘new meat’ for sale. With every moment, my heartbeat sounded louder in my ears, my breaths becoming shallower until I was almost dizzy.
“Who wants a lowly human, anyway?” sneered another patron. “I hear they’re hard to train properly, and aren’t very smart.”
“Smart enough not to wear two clashing patterns,” I snapped, eying his hideous garment with disdain.
Shut up! I chided myself. Shut up, shut up!
The other patrons enjoyed my antics. Banek did not. He crossed his arms over his chest and stood staring with a glare on his draconic face.
I wondered where the Vinduthi had gone. I could not see much of the club with all of the leering aliens gathered around my booth. Thank goodness they couldn’t touch me through it.
The booth featured a credit chip slot affixed to the side, where my purchase price could be inserted. Then the booth would open and I would belong to the person who bought my contract.
I had stopped paying attention to it. There was nothing I could do, other than be trapped here, and spit out my fury to the crowd around me.
The feistier I acted, the more the patrons seemed to think I was just hamming it up and teasing them.
Banek wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity. He got on the house mic and worked his salesman’s magic.
“Just look at this tigress,” he said. “Only a real man can hope to tame her. Looking around here, I’m not sure if any of you have the guts to try.”
“I have the guts,” said the squid. “Just not the credits.”
“Words cannot express my disappointment,” I said icily.
The sound of metal clinking into the slot caught my attention, and the world stopped around me.
Someone had put their money in the booth.
I’d just been sold.