Just something I hammered out today out of boredom.
"Hooves" / unnamed title chapter 1
Shit, I should be embarrassed to start the story off this way. It's like something out of a Heinlein novel. Or James Bond.
But it's the truth. I was sitting in a decent bar in Grissom, watching the bartender use the low gravity to mix drinks by throwing shots into the air with a deft flip of their parent bottles and then catching them in the serving glass without slopping. It sounds passe compared to a bottle-twirl or something you'd see done in heavier spin, but it was pretty damn hypnotic.
As for the rest of the bar, it was the sort of place a big budget film would fill with generated actors and a clever director would put some of the extras in rubber masks to make a spaceport bar feel more exotic.
It was, just not the way you'd think. Most people are hoping for six-titted green alien women and a sapient jellyfish pouring the drinks, while I've spent enough time up-well to see beyond the coveralls.
And yes, I was wearing one too. Pretty much everybody does. It's not that nudism isn't popular when you're in a shirtsleeve environment, it's that pockets are pretty handy, and you never know when some asshole's going to have his shop set for ten degrees or a pretty girl's going to undulate through a lock and put your brain on a track where you'd rather have pants. Case in point in a minute, but back to my digression.
Everybody wears coveralls. One piece, zip in the front, pretty much your standard poopy-suit with thigh, hip, ass, and chest pockets. Color and pattern vary. Some people wear pants and shirt like they were down-well. Some people wear something else. Thobe, kimono, bathrobe, kilt, board shorts, or even just their undersuit with the plumbing hoses detached- though this was a classier sort of establishment, and the three outside workers who did leave their interface garments on were all wearing loose knee-length pants over their skins, probably just to have pockets for their wallets.
Yes, I know, they take credit up there the same way as the rest of the 'verse- swipe your omni (or your SDT, natch) and you can EFT as quick as light lag allows. But this was Luna, and that means coins, fiat currency. Maybe it's touristy, but I kinda like it. You check your balance by tapping your pocket and listening, not clicking through your omni. The click-clack of little stellite and copper discs across a countertop just feels nice, and if you run out and don't have time to get more from a bank dispenser you can always just swipe- but then you're a flatlander and you pay list rather than get to haggle. It's cultural, I guess. Loonies are like that.
They even had a flag over the bar, up behind the four-tiered rack of liquor. Big yellow letters- TANSTAAFL and MOLON LABE, with the cannon and star between them. Flatlanders wouldn't've gotten it, but both the flag and the name predate everything- science fiction that sounded so good, and took so long to come to fruition, that people decided to go with the idea when they had the chance to make it a reality. Like how there's Burroughs and Helium on Mars, or how they play the tune to Green Hills at departure in port. It sure wasn't the kine who made it up here first, and dreamers get sentimental- or recognize they're on the sharp end of a very big pyramid of predecessors, and pay their dues back out of proper respect. Well, except for the Thars Tharkas and Ares statues at Mars Poly. Four armed fifteen foot tall science-fiction character cast in bronze in the center of the quad, and the kids decorate him up in leis, foam fingers, and christ-knows-what depending on the holiday while the Greek gets ignored. And let's not even get into how he's representing the best hard-science school in the system.
So anyways, I was peoplewatching. I'd found the place because omni said there was Raki, and I like Raki passingly well- which is more than I can say for drinking in general and liquor in particular. I don't care if hatches are triple-idiot-proof, I don't like being impaired. Besides, in a social context, it's the other assholes you really need to worry about.
The Raki came to me in a chilled glass, half full, with a glass of icewater half empty. I ignored the psychoanalyist part of my mind commenting on those measurements, dumped them together, swirled the mix through the ice in a few desultory circles, and gradually got around to nursing it as I took in the midshift crowd.
Flatlanders think just 'cause everybody's in a coverall means there's nothing to see. Hardly. The most interesting to a flatlander would be the high-irons in their undersuits and shorts, but they were all just greenhorn contract workers, talking loud and drinking piss beer at a table in the mid-front. Their conversation was mostly about how their supervisor was a hardass about seal checks- something nobody with much time outside would ever complain about. I tuned them out, and let my ears wander. It's like putting my head underwater, I just submerge my conscious, close my eyes a second, and see what filters through.
There was some tech talk from the bar, and I scanned them quickly- waldos. They grabbed their drinks with hands that reflexively dipped and scooped in smoothed-out motions, and their hands were always moving split into two pairs of two fingers- the same pose they used running the remote-arms on whatever mining platform they'd just come off of. Glorified gold-panners, in my opinion, but the senior ones move with the damndest grace. It's like watching a bird catch a fish- they dip and swoop and move with the kind of smooth and controlled motion that makes a waldo arm flex like a wet noodle even if it's only got a couple articulations. One of them, probably the most senior, was a loonie native of african descent- ebony skin, long limbs, and trained poise. She moved glasses on the table like her arms were made of spaghetti and you couldn't've found a person in there who'd believe her arms only hinged at the shoulder, wrist and elbow.
I sifted through some chatter from a tablefull of military types- a couple swabbies getting loud after being decanted from a long-orbit, arguing with a couple zee-gee-marines and a civvie. Their dates were mostly silent, but for the occasional squeal or whatnot. They were your standard military bait, probably not paid beforehand, but the kind that would accept a tip to stay the night. Not judging, of course.
I liked the one, a brunette who looked like she'd spooled cellophane from knees to shoulders and then heat-shrunk it into a skintight sheath. I figured she might've been paid, but then again you never know- "if you've got it, might as well flaunt it" seems to be the rule up-well, and I approve. Especially in low-gravity, where girls can do a full three-axis wiggle that hits like five gees to the brain. Especially if they're in heels, skipping along the floor doing what the waldo girl could with her arms except with low-gravity legs.
Still, her ping was closed/private, so I couldn't tell if she was hired on or not. The rest of that table were your standard mix of public info- yehaw-fuckyeah-oorah military pings, one date was a camwhore, and the ZGM corporal had a blanket invite posted for either gender. I was surprised he hadn't paid for one, but there's always that hope you'll find something out-and-about to take back. I snorted in amusement, one of the swabbies had a flaming skull pinned to his overlay, presumably something he'd forgotten to turn off, so it looked like his head was on fire when I looked directly at him .
There was professional in the bar, but she was clearly waiting for the end of shift rush rather than just pitch to whoever. Quietly enjoying a daquiri to my left, her omni flagged as single and looking, but it was a commercial profile. Nice looking, long legs and wearing a coverall rolled up to knees and elbows and left open from throat to navel. The short hair didn't really excite me, but that's preference. She was talking to the bartender about sports, though, so I tuned her right out.
The really interesting patrons, my ears found, were a couple high-irons down the bar. They had regular civvies on, one guy in denim overalls and an undershirt, the other in a pretty nondescript shirt and pants.
Once I locked the audio to the visual, it all fell into place, though. Their gestures were deliberate, they moved slowly, and they never turned their heads. Might as well have been wearing neck-braces, the way they turned their entire body to face whatever they were doing, and always kept a hand clamped on the bar to prevent drift.
Their posture was slumped from being back in spin, but they were covered in muscles. Everybody thinks low gravity means low weight, and then they go and forget about mass. It might not make a lot of sense to people, but I've seen crews working hab construction who'll heave-ho a girder in slow-motion rather than wait for a thrust pack or cable-winch, trusting that a couple milimeters per second gives them time to sink anchor bolts before there's any rebound. That takes slow-twitch muscles, and the stringy guy with the spacer slump can crush pipe with his bare hands, even though he can't tolerate a full gee. And let's not even go into the idea of having a bolt shear or a glove pinched when you're working with fifty-ton parts you pull into place by hand a milli a minute. It takes a special kind of crazy- a mix of grunt labor, glacial patience, and spam-in-a-can technical knowledge.
These two were talking about the latest Argus coming up to speed while they were still working on it. It's not classified, of course, even though it's military. Anybody with a decent telescope can see pretty much anything you'd care to about what's going up there, if you can get the focus right or set up a synthetic aperture. But listening to overalls talk to his comrade, it struck me how insane the construction is. When your main dishes are five hundred kay bolos out in the jovian lagranges, and you spin them up before launch so the cable won't tangle, that's crazy enough. But these guys were still bolting on stuff while it was coming up to speed, what with the war effort.
I was pulling data from their public feeds when she came in.
Now for all that I said that low gravity lets a girl wiggle, this was weapons grade. The hatch cycled and there was a silhouette that probably spiked the climate a couple degrees.
She came in like she owned the place, and if presence is nine tenths she could've. My initial impression gets a little jumbled, because it was like a three rings military boost had just pulled the blood from my brain as she rolled in.
I'd say she was probably only one-seventy, maybe. Seventy kilos, and trim but not one of those usually-asian paperclips that spacers love 'cause they fit in a locker. Flaming red hair, enough radiation to have the full coat of freckles, and a nice body. Not one of the Synthi Cyndi types where they genemod themselves into a completely artificial bimbo, either. I daresay she was born with it, until I noticed her feet.
It took me a while to get there, though, because she was coming right at me down the bar, moving in a very deliberate swim that just barely clicked the tips of her platform heels off the floor as she pedaled in slow motion, swinging her hips and shoulders and letting the titan mane flare out behind her like a comet's tail.
And the dress. It wasn't just impressive for all the kinetic activity it was rather selectively regulating, the material itself was challenging my already diminished faculties. It was some sort of synthetic cut in a pretty generic lines, with a scoop neck and extending to mid thigh, but it clung to her body like a couple-milimeter thick layer of used motor oil, forming a black filmy sheen as flawless as a mirror.
She oozed onto a stool with a grab of the bar and slide-spin worthy of a pole dancer, but managed to make the transition seem as slow, fluid, and graceful as a cat. She crossed her knees and leaned forward as the bartender came over to take her order, and it gave the patrons a good look at the other side of her.
Conversation had died as completely as if somebody had decompressed the whole place, but the audio system picked up the slack and auto compensated with background music that just provided her a soundtrack.
She scooped a few coins from a hip pouch that seemed merged with the fabric of her dress, tossing them on the bar as she accepted her drink and took a pull from the straw.
Pure exhibitionism, of course. As she leaned forward her dress seemed not to move with her, and for a few seconds I was puzzled by how the backline neither pulled away or stretched as she moved, but my proximity let me figure it out even before the material started parting, pulling apart to reveal skin down her spine and to the small of her back.
As if she were somehow unaware that her wardrobe was doing its best to abandon its post, she straightened with a wiggle, spun around on the barstool, and leaned back, surveying the bar and taking another pull from the straw between her cherry lips.
Everyone who had been staring either tried to pretend they weren't, or just figured they'd be lost in the sea of eyes. Nobody was standing anymore, or at least nobody that wasn't also sitting, and I was having my own issues, since she was close enough I was catching the edge of the pheremone cloud with every breath and could make out details the others were only speculating on. The Raki was long forgotten, and I was having trouble focusing on anything but her. I felt like one of the chimps at the beginning of 2001: A Space Oddessy, except now the monolith had some much more interesting geometries.
The dress was starting to split down the sides, peepholes of flesh appearing as the dress reconfigured itself again, the neckline changing from a modest scoop to a halter as it flowed over her body like black oil and she surveyed the bar like a queen.
Rather than just give up and lose limbic coordination the way millenia of ancestors had in order to successfully made subsequent ancestors, I tried to look anywhere else, and that's where I was struck by her most unique feature. As if a stacked redhead in a shapeshifting little-black-dress wasn't unique enough, her shoes fit her strangely. They were your usual impractical combination of narrow straps and polycarbonate, hardly suited for anything but posing their wearer for display in anything approaching a full gravity, but she was different.
They say redheads have a devilish streak, but this girl had hooves.
Sure, genemods aren't that complicated. Synthi Cyndis abound, where they get spliced for depil and a 7-5-7 hourglass figure, or some stupid shit like scales or pointy ears. This girl was probably all natural, or as close as comes when you've got enough modern medical technology to ward off ugly, fat, and usually even stupid.
Her legs weren't that great, objectively. She had good muscle tone and there was a lot of them displayed very nicely, with a spattering of freckles like she'd tapdanced through a mudpuddle, but they were a little short and thick- doubtless the original equipment. Not that anyone would've picked fault. But where they ended in those elaborate presentation platforms, she had hooves.
Not satyr hooves, or the eohippus type where some giant capybara was halfway done evolving from a rat into a horse, but hooves nonetheless. Where your average person would've spliced out their god-cortex or sprung for a full-body depil and better muscle tone and called it good, this girl had also had her feet rebuilt.
It made sense, actually. Like I'd said, what she was wearing would've killed in full gravity, mashing toes like a well born chinese noblewoman a few centuries back. But instead, she was digitigrade. It explained the muscular ankles, too. Whoever did the work was a genius, and I'd almost bet it was an AI splicejob, because she had four toes and a remodeled foot above the platform and spike. She probably didn't even need to put weight on her heels with the new feet. One main toe, one smaller on the inside of the foot, and two on the outside. Dainty, balanced, but definitely not the default this-little-piggy Sapiens Sapiens model. And, by the looks of it, probably way more durable.
I tripped my records for the past minute into archive, just on novelty alone, as she looked over at me and gave a knowing smirk, pulling on her drink straw again as that damned dress started flowing back down her body. The former halter straps were giving up on her neck and rolling down her shoulders like they'd been snipped, but melted back into the neckline as it started rolling down the tops of her breasts, while the hem dropped everywhere but her nearer thigh, leaving a long slit of leg exposed.
There was a collective groan that I can't say I didn't add to as she braced her elbows behind her on the bar and surveyed the crowd speculatively, rocking her hips side to side slightly on the barstool as if daring the audience to take their chances.
And, shockingly, one of them did. Standing up with a grate of his chair that not even the audio system's piped in music drowned out, Mister Flaming Skull straightened his whites and picked his way to the bar.
Coins clinked on the bar, that weird clink-pause-clink of low gravity bounces, and the bartender poured up something and passed it over. The swabbie pounded most of it in one shot, and then turned to her and tried to start a conversation.
I'm not sure what he said, since the music was up loud enough to be noticeable and he was facing away, between her and I, but she laughed a musical laugh and responded encouragingly.
A mild mob-like sense of outrage began to pervade the bar, a sort of communal jealousy that welled up out of nowhere at the thought that it could be that easy. But after a moment, it was clear that the swabbie was being pitied, if not simply humored by our new goddess.
I was close enough to hear him as he launched into a he-man story about being a gunner on a corvette, and how he could personally tag an infantry combatant from orbit, and how many gravities he could pull in combat acceleration.
Apparently he said something disparaging about groundpounders, because the ZGM corporal came up ostensibly to freshen his drink and butted into the conversation, pointing out that Swabbie did his fighting from an acceleration couch a couple dozen kliks up, and basically just pressed the go-ahead button after the CO gave the order to fire and the ship found the target.
This lead to a chest-thumping fifty-kilos-of-armor and stare-'em-in-the-eye speech from the ZGM, culminating in the claim he'd once popped a smuggler with a powerhead in hand-to-hand somewhere on Titan.
Goddess looked mildly impressed, taking another pull from her drink and then licking her lips as the two started trying to one-up each other, and pretty soon the rest of their table had come up to the bar and begun to tell their stories in competition, while the maybe-paid girls skulked on the periphery waiting to get their pick of the runners up.
Finally the discussion got heated, though I was impressed it took so long. A groundpounder and a swabbie started into the perpetual animosity, spurred on by an audience, and got into it.
"Yeah, well you try hitting a hot LZ with nothing but a suit and a rifle, no sound, different gravity, hoping spall doesn't hole you even if the other guy misses!" The marine started off with, but the navy countered right back.
"Spam in a can, man. Stuck in a track, just waiting for a massdriver to drop a load of buckshot in our path, praying we don't get hit by a flare out in the black, hanging there with a big SHOOT ME sign for all the worlds to see and sight on... And if they punch the drive, luck's choice if we drift out to die in an unrecoverable orbit, bleed out our atmo, or burn when our path decays. At least you get a clean blowout in a suit." He countered, raising what was left of his drink and draining it.
Things were starting to get out of hand. It was that precipitous moment where the whining drunk suddenly thinks it's a good idea to take a swing at somebody, and everyone but the involved parties knew it. Somebody had to break things up before we had a 1/6 gravity slap-fight.
That's right- your average slugging match relies on inertia and traction, and without a full gee, you tend to skid backwards when your fist makes contact, unless you've got a fistfull of the other party's lapel in your other hand. In which case you start counter-rotating from the centrifugal force...
So time to end it.
I grunted and slid off the barstool, my Raki largely consumed, throwing my balance just a little as I navigated the three short steps over and tapped a couple spectators shoulders to make my way in.
Now, a meter-eighty doesn't seem like much, and other than flatlander muscle I may not look like much, but the sudden appearance of a newcomer always throws the dynamic akilter and makes everybody stop and reevaluate.
"Boys." I said, calm and even. "Just remember how you got there." And then I rolled up my left sleeve. Thankfully, I was wearing something loose enough I could- old fatigue shirts might not be vogue, but at least they're comfortable.
They say it's tacky having ink these days, and I'm inclined to agree, but the liquid-crystal stuff is nice for moments like this. I tripped the reflex switch on my omni, and the pigments flared up all up and down my left arm, the campaign stripes up my forearm like a tiger's tail, and then the inverted coffin with the skull and peregrine wings on my bicep.
Then the graphic shifted to the spread-winged vulture perched on a skull, and the immediate crowd backed off a step. The ZGM drained his drink, wiped his mouth with his sleeve, and touched his glass to his forehead in obeisance, before nodding to the rest of the crowd and moving down the bar towards the short-haired companion in the cutoffs.
The spacer looked like he was about to try something stupid, since we do get a lot of crap from the sailors about being bus-drivers and shuttle-pilots, but as I rolled my sleeve back down I twisted my forearm a little, showing the muscles and the stripes clearly enough to let him know I was not to be fucked with. He backed down like a good swabbie, grabbing his Synthi Cyndi and scurrying off to fantasize she was the redhead while his projected flaming-skull overlay mask guttered and trailed wisps of holo flame behind him as he fled.
I was shocked, however, when she looked up at me from less than two meters away and laughed. Just a quiet little laugh, but genuine amusement as she straightened and rose up.
That damned dress had continued metamorphosizing, and was presently a sleeveless neck-to-knees sheath as black as lunar shadow, skintight and rippling as the nanomechs reconfigured to her every movement while also going through their preprogrammed series of patterns.
Damn thing had to have cost a couple months salary, but up close I couldn't say it was a bad investment.
Her feet clicked to the ground as she slid off the stool and swished her hair back over her shoulders in a slow-motion waterfall, like somebody'd blown out the back of their helmet and all the freezedried blood was roostertailing out the breech, but a fountain of liquid copper instead of gray-and-red powder.
She looked at me speculatively beneath arched eyebrows, smirked, and tapped her hip, where the integrated changepurse and I presumed omni were located, then drew a line down her midsection with one black-enameled finger, a slow sensuous motion that damn near polaxed me even before the dress peeled apart a centimeter in its path and laid bare even more skin.
Reaching down to her middriff, she pulled the right side back about level with her navel, and up lit a tattoo, even as her dress shifted colors like a rad-badge in drive wash.
It was a masterpiece, a phoenix curling down from her collar to her middriff. The tail started along side of her breast, and the wings wrapped behind it like the barbs of an arrow, the head frozen in mid-cry, curling back up around the underside of her navel, while the smart pigments made the stylized feathers flicker and shift like tongues of flame.
Meanwhile her dress had rippled and begun to glow cherry around the edges, tongues of smoulder and flame flickering along as the dress sealed partway back up the front with a belt-band and melted off her shoulders, leaving only a few fragile tendrils of support.
"So, you're Vulture." She mused, as the dress flickered like kindling and she drained the last of her beverage and set it behind her on the bar. She smiled and offered me her hand, which I took, dumbfounded, and shook. Her grip was frighteningly strong, and the smirk turned into a devilish grin as she saw my reaction.
Still a little dumbfounded, I let her hand go and strugged for something intelligent to say. The best I could come up with, unfortunately, was still pretty weak.
"That I am." I agreed. "So, can I buy you a drink?
Amazingly, she nodded.