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by Rob Ashcom
Before my first kill I watched every man I passed in the corridors. If they glanced at me I always looked away whether it was a potential lover or a potential rapist I saw in their eyes.
But the killing freed me. I started seeing men as candles -- I could purse my lips and blow them out. And since a dead woman would not have the power to kill, I was alive.
The handsome, brown-haired man in front of me watches carefully as sip my drink and then carry food to my mouth with an ornate fork. He's more than a little awed. It's obvious after a busy year of this. And playing my part, I laugh and enjoy his company just enough for my expression to seem completely real. I play act a dream date -- the first time together but without awkwardness, and a sparkling, electric desire in the air.
His eyes have touched me everywhere while maintaining a reasonably polite eye contact, but I know he hasn't really seen me. I can feel a little tingle from all this looking ... but that's the part I'm playing.
Because I'm beyond my old fears and hopes for men, I'm not afraid of being exposed by my clothes. Part of my new power is in revelation. The silk dress is fitted perfectly-slitted high enough to be bordering on slutty, it keeps a constant smooth contact with my body that always feels erotic. My hair's too short to worry about. It's actually an advantage to occasionally run my fingers through it -- a nice languid gesture. Casual. And my laser-pen waits in the soft little bag hanging off the right side of my chair. My right hand is like some sort of infinitely precise and mindless factory robot ... moving food barely keeps it occupied.
"If the Colo beans do any better, we're gonna be eating the surplus for years to come." The man frowns at the idea. "I might try another habitat," he says and grins at me. Suddenly I'm thinking he's going to ask me to go with him.
"But Clarus is the best," I say in mock-loyalty.
"It's big. I'll give you that. It's big." Still wearing that secret grin, he looks up through the transparent ceiling to the monorails and moving sidewalks above the restaurant. The silent activity up there is like a show for us in our quiet isolation at this expensive table.
I look at his neck stretched tight by the weight of his head thrown back. It looks vulnerable and I like it.
"Another drink?" he asks, looking back at me.
"Please," I say. He presses the tab on the sidecart and two frothy drinks rise up out of the tabletop: a retro drink -- sloe gin fizz.
I'm thinking I could swallow about ten of these weak drinks and not metabolize any of the alcohol, just adjust the normal reaction by a conscious decision (and a lot of bio-feedback practice) and get drunk later after the business was done. But I act out the first stage of drunkenness for him. I smile brighter, laugh louder, and my face begins to warm up.
"Have you tried the new Virtual Extremes suite?"
"No," he says unable to keep that grin off his face. I must look amazing by now-the color in my pale skin offset by my hair. Real blondes are pretty rare.
"I never liked virtual stuff," he says. "I think my stomach must be weak or something. They make me nauseous."
He says this with the same directness he's shown since I drew him in. I'm just noticing how what he says is so different from what I'd expected by looking at him. I'd thought his face was just handsome, maybe dangerous, another weapon like his thick wrists or the hidden animal strength beneath the camouflage of his clothes. I hadn't marked the quick shifts in it, probably mirroring thoughts beyond my ability to guess.
"What do you do for entertainment, then?"
"I read, play racquetball-regular stuff."
I laugh. I can't help it.
"I'm so unstylish," he says. "That's what you're thinking, right?"
"No, it's okay. I'm proud of being out of touch with Clarus society. A month goes by without paying attention and you're out of fashion. It was too tough for me. I like to fantasize in my own mind, in the privacy of my apartment; play a physical sport against another human being-that sort of thing."
"It makes sense to me," I say truthfully. "It suites you-how could you be yourself and be like everyone else? It wouldn't work."
"You really are interesting," he says suddenly, looking at me and then away as if embarrassed. "I'm just walking along and there you are . . ." He shakes his head. "I travel two million miles and nothing ever happens to me beside work, work, work."
"And now you," he says. "You're not like I expected you to be. Maybe I wanted you to be like this ... but expect? I don't know. My expectations are diminished these days, as they say. All I knew yesterday was you were too beautiful to walk away from. I'm sorry if that sounds insulting, because now I know you're smart and funny, too. And that's really seductive."
I can feel a real blush creeping up out of the neck of my dress.
"So you asked me out because of my looks?"
"I don't know why. I just walked up to you when I saw you. You were watching that gravity fountain and the colors were splashing all over you. I don't know. It was like magic. Does that sound stupid?"
I take a deep breath and sigh. The breath squeezes my breasts against the low front of my dress and captures his attention; the sigh gives him another dose of the pheromones I'm drenched in. Magic, indeed! He came because I called, he stays because I will it.
"Jonathan," I breath so he can imagine the feel and sound of his name on my lips, "you don't know anything about me. And I don't know a thing about you. Not really." And while I put him off with my little speech, I slide my foot alongside his under the table.
There was a book a long time ago. A paper book. I think it was called The Rules or something like that. A collection of reverse psychology for catching and keeping a man. And a lot of it works. At least for me. But then, beyond the first or second date, I don't have to actually endure the relationships I create. So you might say I'm adept at catching and untried at keeping.
"What's going on inside that beautiful head?" he asks, ignoring my foot, leaning forward on his elbows. "I can't tell from looking at you. Your hair is perfect, your body is perfect. Every detail ... your skin is so fine...."
I jerk back a little at his unexpected touch. Not good letting the body react on its own. Now the damn thing is blushing again from the warm, intimate contact of his hand on my neck. I feel the heat in my breasts and the tips of my ears. Why did I just let him touch me? I must have allowed it at some level. Not good. My neck is certainly more vulnerable than his. Those big hands could damage it easily if he read what's on my mind.
Which he can't. Dinner's over. Time to maneuver.
"I'm sorry, Jonathan," I say, "but I have to wake up early for a business meeting. Dinner was great."
And I start to stand up, which involves bending forward, and his eyes are looking into my dress. The blue silk. Never fails. The Sisters were partly right when they started warning me about men as soon as I had a glimmer of breasts. Without reflecting on it, I bend over a little more and quickly kiss his forehead. He tastes like I imagine a man should. But it's all part of the game.
"I can't just let you leave," he says. Of course he can't. "Let me walk you home."
"We only just met, Jonathan. I'm not bringing you back to my bed. Not tonight, anyhow."
Ouch! I can feel the lust in his face. Like the growl of a hungry stomach, but not at all funny. Now it's time for him to beg, and for me to allow him along with me for part of the way-the part that leads into the Underdeck where no one will see him fall.
"Then I'm gonna stay here and drown my sorrows," he says with mock dignity. This isn't part of the script, but I have to play along. No lapses in my presentation. That's my rule.
"Alright," I say, "I'll stay a little longer. One more drink." And I sit back down with what? Relief? Disappointment? Time to re-set the hook, I guess.
He smiles as I sit, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm scared. It's not his usual grin. Is it a winner's smile on his face? A wanter? A taker? I'm afraid I don't really know this man. Afraid that I'm the victim, instead of him.
Damn, it's just a smile. But complex. I don't like complex. The stranger in the corridors is necessarily complex. Mystery makes them complex for a while and familiarity breeds contempt.
I'm confusing myself.
I have a dossier on this man. I studied him at a distance for six days before reeling him in. There's little or nothing I don't know about him. And he's not a hard read-a businessman, unattached, no hobbies but work. He said so himself-boring. Everything's fine. I just need to get him out of this restaurant, unsuspicious, preferably out of his mind with lust for me.
"Tell me about your business, Jonathan."
"I buy and sell futures in commodities," he says with a shrug. "What's to tell? It's boring work. I think I'm gonna quit. Any success I have just makes my clients hungrier for more money. The pressure rises with each victory, each time I think maybe I can relax a little, enjoy life."
"But you have money, why don't you just take a vacation or something?"
He laughs, and it's a real laugh full of bitterness and sardonicism. "I can't leave it for a day. For an hour even. Look." He slides back the sleeve of his soft jacket. There's a wristband with what looks like some sort of datalink computer mounted on it. "Constant contact with the market," he says with a sour grin.
"I'm sorry," I say and the truthfulness doesn't shock me anymore. I am sorry. I can picture this man on a beach somewhere planetside -- tan and reckless. But I can't picture myself with him. Not anymore. Maybe two years ago, but now I'm pressed forwards in time by my own pressures-life and death pressures. 'To stop is to perish,' says the shark.
"Shit," the man says, "I can't do this anymore."
He lays his hands palms upward on the table and stretches them to me. My hands move to his like traitors, and his grip is far more exciting than it should be. My act and my reality are blurring. And in one breath, everything seems real: this is a real person, I'm a real person, the activity above us through the glass ceiling is real ... there's significance, weight, gravity, a past and a future. I feel heavy and mortal.
"Just tell me," he says quietly, and I wonder if he's trying to hypnotize me because his eyes appear to be changing colors from brown to green and back again. "Tell me if you're the one they sent me to find. Nikki Poole is her real name. She was raised in the Catholic orphanage of the Clarus habitat and she's been a contract killer for a year."
"Who are you?" I try to pull away, but he holds my hands easily. I guess I don't try too hard.
"You first." He smiles and this time it's only that charming grin again, taking in the situation and me and himself. What the hell happened to my pheromones and my deadly charm? Is he a rock? No, a reasonable voice within me says, he's one of us.
"Please let go, you're hurting my hands," I lie. I've never retreated before, but it comes to me easily enough. He looks at me for a long moment when maybe worlds shifted in their orbits-but distantly and beyond my understanding-then he lets me go with another shrug as if to say 'oh well.'
"I really thought we could come to an understanding, Nikki," he says and idly fishes a filter out of his left nostril and drops it onto the remains of his dinner.
My stomach clenches beneath the blue silk and I feel like vomiting. But as he reaches up for the other filter with his right hand, a warning bell goes off: the left wrist with the datalink computer is now pointing at me.
My hand is already in my bag. I fire at the same time he might have seen the hurt look on my face (though what I have to complain of is a murky thing certainly not his fault), and the pulse of invisible light burns up through the table into a spot just beneath his left eyebrow. And like a wonderful toy which has been switched off, he slips down in his seat and onto the floor as dead as dead ever gets. And I wonder if I just killed the best man I'll ever meet out of paranoia (forgetting about the contract, you see).
Standing up, I feel something like a spike through my upper chest, and see a singed hole in the blue dress over my right breast. I can breath and the wound is cauterized, but as I leave the restaurant I'm certain that I'll always feel it.
No one seems to notice me as I go.