Man’s World by Angela Caperton

ebook $5.99
ISBN 9781613900086
54,981 words

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The battle of the sexes has never been sexier until the new erotic sf novel from Angela Caperton.

For the wealthy, or the lucky, the universe is a vast and wonderful place. There are planets to visit, luxury space ships to patronize, designer drugs to take, and luxurious sex to purchase. However, for Stella Blue Darter, courtesan and gambling addict, the universe is just filled with accidents waiting to happen. When her beautiful body and chronic haplessness land her on Moulton, a planet ruled by a patriarchy and plagued by various female uprisings, she’s not terribly surprised by the trouble she’s in. But she hadn’t counted on meeting Harker Merman and his dashing, dominating siblings. Stella’s in over her head, and she’ll have to find a way to survive on nothing but her wits and looks in Man’s World.

Angela Caperton’s eclectic erotica spans many genres, including romance, horror, fantasy, and what she calls contemporary-with-a-twist. Look for her stories published with Cleis, Circlet Press, Drollerie Press, eXtasy Books, and in the indie magazine Out of the Gutter. Visit Angela at http://blog.angelacaperton.com

Hot excerpt:

Chapter One: The Shangri La

Stella Blue Darter stared into the blackness, the endless strings of light from distant stars like a notes in the sky, reminding her again just how fucked she was.

How in the hell did Ruchbah’s Sandy Sir lose? The damned Cidrean charger was a sure thing! Cidrean chargers never refused jumps. What curse had fallen on her that the bastard would pull up and throw his rider right before the home stretch?

She pressed her forehead against the cool glass, willing the clear divider to open up and welcome her into blood-boiling death. Better that than to go back to Filo. Even on a ship the size of the Shangri La, Filo would have heard about Stella’s meltdown when Sandy Sir lost the Bohr’s Intergalactic. Filo, her manager, would gloat, and remind her that she might as well just get used to the idea that she was never going to buy her way off the Shangri La.

Stella stood on a parapet above the big room of the main casino. She turned from the glass, away from a view of nothing less than the universe, and looked down into the main concourse of the Shangri La’s casino, a teeming ocean of light, bright flashes of color, the sparkling clothes, jewelry and accessories of the guests, bioflare ads, the shining teeth of aging politicians and merchants, and the iridescent beauty of a thousand companions among the shoals of tables and gambling mechs. Laughter, cries of elation, and desperate shrieks of ever-hopeful disappointment rose up like the lament of an army of drowning drunks. Stella knew those cries. The same sounds had so often passed her lips when she watched the holotrack or sat at the poker table. She saw a dozen races and species in the milling throng–Cidreans, the damned horsemen–Caarbons, Litnach, Masplines, even a few Sajoks; but mostly the ship teemed with humans from home worlds as varied as Pas Moran and Old Earth itself.

Looking over the rainbow-glittered revelry, Stella leaned back against the glass and renewed her wish to be swallowed into the blackness behind her. Damned if she couldn’t see three different men she’d slept with in just a single glance. And the Baroness from Papillion IV. Stella had been her paid companion through four orbits around the Dolrini Sar system.

Yeah, Stella thought, with a little laugh at herself. She’d been around the world, too many worlds, too many times.

She pushed against the glass and took the first steps toward the stairs that led down into the inevitable. Among the crowd, she plastered her “fuck me” smile on her face, nodded pleasantly to everyone she passed, stroked an ass or two in the hopes of prompting the purchase of her services, and wended her way out of the casino. Outside the crowded hall, she let her shoulders sag as she found the lift that would take her to Filo’s quarters on Three Deck–where she would find his condescending chastisement, his “mercy” fuck, and then her next assignment.

As the lift doors closed, Stella mentally prepared herself.

“Sure thing, my ass,” she groaned as the lift dropped her steadily toward hell.

Stella walked through the door of Filo’s suite and stopped to pick up the ap-card on the ornate blackwood bar. She brushed her hand over the board’s security strip and brought up the lists. She stared at the vids of potential clients with almost desperate speed, hoping for a golden egg somewhere in the ranks of passengers and crew willing to pay for her companionship and, of course, sex. She saw a Honker among the clientele vids, the nearly bald head tattooed with cultural markings. Of course, he wore the distinctive silk mask over the protruding monument that was the excessively sensitive olfactory organ of his species. She willfully forced her stomach back down into her gut. A Honker had once paid her five thousand credits to blow his nose. She would never do that again, no matter how tough times were.

“Ah, Stella. I was just telling Pernai that I could almost hear your footsteps crossing the casino,” the self satisfied chuckle raked Stella’s spine. “I told you: stick to the andros-races. Machines are much more reliable than flesh.”

Stella put the ap-card down and turned to Filo. He wore his standard red microsilk robe, unbelted, an enhanced cock swinging between his legs, his belly a little flabby from too much food and booze. He smiled widely, superior and mercenary, and his piebald eyes–one almost black, the other a sickly white–glittered with predatory amusement. His mussed hair and the angry red scratch marks that laced his throat gave her hope. Maybe the mercy fuck wouldn’t be necessary.

“Speaking from experience, Fi?” Stella said with petty venom.

He almost purred as he stepped to her, his shoulder-length, thin blonde hair floating over his face as he kissed her, the tip of his tongue forceful in the guise of tenderness.

“I guess this means you’re with me for a while longer, Stell. I hear you lost four figures on that jumping steak.” His hand covered her breast without any pretense of seduction or pleasure, the gesture purely possessive. Bo, Stella’s plesomesh, turned the passionless caress into something nicer than it should have been and her nipple stiffened, the ripple caught in sensory feedback that moistened her pussy under her abbreviated dress, even though she had rarely felt less like fucking.

“Any special requests, Fi?” Stella droned, too tired and depressed to take Filo’s bait.

“Well, there’s the Honker,” Filo started.

“Not this side of hell,” Stella growled.

Filo shrugged and stepped away from her, his hand sliding under her short, short skirt, finding her wet slit and running his finger lightly along it.

“I’m your agent, Stella. It’s my job to let you know the best offers,” he said, managing to sound almost indignant. “He’s offering ten, Stell.” He lost interest in Stella’s pussy, picked up the ap-card and casually looked over the vids.

Ten thousand credits. Even after Fi’s commission, her pay would give her the buffer she wanted. She could buy her contract and still have enough creds left to get settled someplace quiet, someplace far away from the liners and casinos, someplace with a garden maybe, and an honest sunrise and sunset.

But a Honker?

Stella shuddered.

“What else, Fi?”

The popping of his fingers on the board played harmony to Stella’s tapping foot. “You know, Stell, there’s a Blackjack match later this evening. I could bankroll you. Say, maybe a grand?” Fi said, his voice almost bored as he scoured the shifting list of potential clients.

Her gut twisted and a low flame began to burn her blood. A thousand creds. She could make up for the loss on the race, maybe even win enough to pay off Filo. A thousand creds? Hell, with that she could win ten times the amount! She could break the bank, buy her contract and live on Warren Moon! Euphoria driven clouds formed over her brain but, through it, Ruchbah’s Sandy Sir rode to a disappointing conclusion.

Her foot stilled.

Her mouth watered, her vision dimmed, and her knees trembled as her heart threatened to explode from her chest.

“N-no thanks,” She barely whispered. “What job, Fi? Besides the Honker.”

Fi glanced at her, devilish delight sparking his eyes. “Got a good one here. A Celestial Sexton, apparently. Wants a girl that can… be still. Pay you top cred, Stell. Three k, but if he’s satisfied, a good bonus.”

“Still?” Stella looked at Fi.

“Yep. Says here he’ll tip you good if you satisfy him.”

“Still?” Her brows furrowed.

“Some guys just like the hole, Stell.” Filo dropped the ap-card on the bar. “That’s the best deal. Take it, or don’t.”

Stella dropped her head to her chest and closed her eyes. “What room?”

“Five-one-three.”

She brushed past Filo and headed toward the lift.

“Remember, Stell,” he called after her. “One grand and you’re back in!”

She took the lift to Five Deck, and stepped into the lounge to touch up her makeup and check her dress. The holomirror and Bo linked and adjusted as she turned in front of the screen, the skirt lengthening a little to match the esthetic expectations of a Celestial, the bodice changing to a web that teased and stimulated her nipples, leaving her shapely breasts almost bare.

“Good job, Bo,” she said with a genuine smile. The Beau Brummel plesomesh had been an extravagance when she bought it, high on a short-lived big win at the Wheel. The purchase seemed just reckless enough to satisfy her need for a fresh rush without the risk of losing her ass in the casino. She wasn’t sure where the moment of clarity came from but, looking back, she wished she could have held on to the sobriety. Had it only been a year since she slipped the colorless, shapeless mesh over her head the first time to synch with the Binding Mirror? For six hours she had camped out in the velvet draped Synch Room at the nanotique, bonding with the mesh. As colors and textures flashed rapid fire in the mirror that first time, Stella smiled as the mesh’s personality quivered to new life. The nanotique’s mirror had given Bo basic designs and several nice outfits that the shop’s owner added at no charge.

Bo would evolve with Stella, change and grow with time. Stella added designs when she could afford them and used free Binding Mirrors whenever they were offered. Filo paid for a session with the Shangri La’s main bank, and the new plesomesh spent thirty gluttonous minutes swallowing designs intended to further Stella’s career across a galaxy of lusts.

A good mesh aged like fine wine, gained nuance and depth with exposure and companionship. Stella did not know if meshes were gender specific, but to her, what she wore seemed decidedly feminine, and that had always given her comfort–even when the siren call of the Wheel drew her back into the cycle of loss that seemed to chart her life like an astrogator working the Milky Way run. Bo. She called her mesh Bo.

Now, preparing for her engagement with the Celestial, Stella took considerable care to apply her make-up the old-fashioned way. She freshened her lipstick to match the frosty azure fashion streak in her platinum hair, touched up the sharp lines around her blue eyes, and added a spot of color to the beauty mark on her cheek. If she had understood Filo correctly, she might be wasting her time. The client might not even care what she looked like, but professional licensing standards required her to at least make the effort. Satisfied with the look, she headed out of the lounge and down the hall to five-one-three.

The door scanned her and opened, emitting the sound of a brass gong to alert the Sexton that his girl had arrived. Stella recognized him. She had seen him gambling at the whist table many nights since the ship left Gruene orbit. She wouldn’t have guessed he had any interest in girls at all. Extremely tall and even more skeletal than most of his race, the Sexton resembled an offended marble bust, the genetically sculpted lines of his face giving him the look of a man who has just discovered excrement in his caviar; but he smiled when he saw Stella.

The room was sparsely furnished, though that was a matter of personal preference. Like all the rooms aboard the ship, the furnishings were fully plastic and could be extruded and morphed at the tenant’s whim. For the moment, the Sexton had chosen only heavy red curtains that hung floor to ceiling on every wall.

“I was hoping they would send you,” he said in a nasal whine. “You may remove the dress now. Do not talk!”

She let the plesomesh flow off her and pool on the floor and saw his eyes widen as they swept her from the graceful curve of her throat, across the perfect pears of her breasts, down her flat stomach, to let their gaze linger on the strip of silky blue hair that pointed to the moist cleft of her pussy.

A pedestal sprouted from the room’s white floor and spread out to make a settee, coloring and texturing in a pattern like snakeskin. She sat on the new furniture and then stretched out, awaiting his instructions.

The Sexton nodded his approval and rested his palm lightly on her belly, shuddering a little when he touched her. “No, no, no,” he huffed. “Much too warm!” He snapped his fingers and the ceiling sprouted a nozzle that sprayed her with a chill mist. She tried to hide her shiver but she felt like an icicle.

He touched her again and smiled. “Now,” he said. “Whatever I do to you, you must not move.”

Two hours later, Stella emerged from the Sexton’s room, her plesomesh formed into a garment that covered her shapelessly from neck to below her knees. She realized Bo was doing her best to make Stella unsexy and she felt ridiculously grateful for the effort.

Never again, she told herself. She was beyond tired of the whoops and the trogs, the amphiboys and the girly-girlophages. Of thrown horse races and crooked dice. She’d remained still as the Sexton made his deposit, several of them in fact. She focused on the ten thousand creds in her account, and told herself that was all that mattered.

Filo already had his cut and that left Stella with plenty to pay him what she owed and buy passage on a drop ship. To where? She wondered.

Just how far could she afford to go?

* * * *

“Moulton?” she repeated. Bernie, the conductor, nodded.

“One thousand two-hundred and forty-three credits will get you to Moulton with enough left over to have a meal.” Bernie was one of the few Earthers Stella knew beyond a bed. She’d eaten dinner with him in the galley several times during the weeks the Shangri La laid over in orbit around one gas giant or another while the crew and engineers worked her over between voyages.

Bo had assumed a modest, businesslike style and Stella bloomed with more determination than she’d ever known in her twenty-six years of life. “Moulton it is then. You ever been there?”

“Not past the port. Primitive, settled by some cult a few hundred years ago.”

“Am I going to have trouble there?”

He laughed. “You’d have trouble anywhere you go, Stella.”

“No, I mean getting out of the port? Are offworlders welcome there?”

“Never heard they weren’t,” Bernie said. “Just not a place anyone wants to go.”

“Do they have sunsets there?”

He tapped his board. “Every day, on average once every twenty hours, local time. Pretty standard R and R.”

Rotation and revolution. Two concepts Stella barely remembered. “Perfect,” she said. “Get me on the next drop ship that will take me to Moulton.”

Bernie tapped the board and a thin transparent film uncoiled from it. Stella extended her hand and the cellite curl dropped into her palm and vanished, fusing invisibly with her skin.

“Twenty-six hours,” he said. “Your palm will itch four hours before departure time, then again at two, and, one hour out, it will start itching and not stop. Your ship’s the Icarus. She’s often late, but I wouldn’t count on it. Best to be here at least an hour early unless you want to ride by the drives. Catch it at dock three.”

She nodded, hardly believing the moment wasn’t a Mutitan dream.

“Say, Stella, before you go, how about we get together?” Bernie asked “I’ve always wanted to and I’ve got some credits saved up. I’ll buy dinner and we can spend a night together? Ok?”

She thought about it a moment and then smiled at him. “How about we start with dinner and see where we go from there?”

He looked puzzled but then he grinned and nodded. “I hate to ask, but I have to know if I have enough…”

“You’re buying dinner, right?”

He nodded.

“That’s enough. Let’s see what happens.”

He studied her a moment. “Can’t you lose your license?”

She took his hand for just a moment and squeezed.

“I sure hope so,” she said and winked at him.

* * * *

Two hours later, when he signed out of the travel lounge, Bernie bought Stella dinner at Moo’s, up on B-deck.

“Wish I could afford a meal topside,” he told her, “but I hear Moo’s is almost as good.”

“A-deck is overrated,” she assured him. “This is nice.”

One wall of the restaurant was a holoscreen vista, so real she almost felt the wind blowing from it. The expanse of hyper-real scenery she recognized as old Earth, the sky blue as aquamarine, the clouds wispy pearl, great red mesas and buttes dotting the distance. A digital herd of bison raised three-dimensional clouds of dust.

“They grow the buffalo right here in vats,” Bernie told her, indicating the bleeding steak on her plate. “From Earth stock. You can get Realcow too, but I wanted to try the bison.”

She smiled around the mouthful of juicy meat, wondering if it really tasted anything like the haunch of one of the ancient animals whose simulacra thundered by on the distant, illusory plain. She’d been to Moo’s before with clients, but she felt no need to tell Bernie that. They shared a bottle of red wine subtly laced with sensation-enhancing supplements so the meat’s flavor grew richer and more interesting as they ate.

Bo had dressed down for the occasion, becoming a black, knee-length skirt and a frilly red blouse with an open bodice and a lace choker. Stella appreciated Bo’s restraint and, judging by the way Bernie’s gaze met hers, by his smile, he did too.

“I’ll miss you, Stella,” he said. “You’ve always been easier to talk to than most of the working girls. You never seemed like you belonged in that line of work.”

She laughed and reached across the table to take his hand. His hand turned under hers and he gripped with tender strength. Her senses enhanced by the wine, his fingers teased like little instruments of pleasure. “What’s a nice girl like me doing on a ship like this?”

He blushed. “I’m sorry. You must hear that all the time.”

“Not really. Most of the clients I’ve had on the Shangri La never bothered to talk much, unless it was to give me bad advice about the next bet or to tell me how many estates they owned on some world I’d never heard of.”

“You told me once you came from one of the outer belts, I forget which planet.”

“Palen XIII, one of the new Earths. Just another world where ninety-nine percent of the people never leave.”

“Why’d you leave?”

“I had to. I lived near the spaceport. If I’d stayed there watching the orbiters and the drop ships falling like stars, I think I would have killed myself. My dad had been a rover in the last days of the fifth migration and he told me too many stories.” She looked at the artificial frontier on the holoscreen. “It really wasn’t what I expected at all. My first trip off-world, I fell in love with a welterweight Scrimshank fighter. He had a match on a gambling ship, one much smaller than this one, and less… regulated. He died in the fight. I was stranded and in debt for my passage. I discovered I had some skill at the tables and there were plenty of men who wanted to cover my bets. One thing led to another…”

The wine had lit a little fire in her stomach and she stroked the palm of Bernie’s hand with one sharp fingernail, affectionate but intended to send him the signal that he could have anything he wanted. “What about you?” she asked him. “How’d you end up selling tickets to desperate girls?”

The robo brought their dessert, a whipped confection of sweet Subworld fungi, the flavors almost unbearably intense.

“Not so different. Earth ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. The old world, though I guess there are two or three others that claim to be the original, so who knows? Anyway, I lived in one of the ocean cities, never even saw the sky until I was sixteen. Once I saw it, well, I had to go there. Because I was ocean, no one would even talk to me about pilot or crew school, but I did some favors for one of the travel bureaus and it stuck. The Shangri La is only the third ship I’ve worked on, so I’ve been pretty lucky.”

“I hope your luck is better than mine, Bernie.”

“I feel lucky,” he said. “Luckier than I ever have been before.”

* * * *

“My berth is tiny,” he told her as they left Moo’s. “There will hardly be room for both of us. I can probably get us one of the empty passenger cabins.”

“No,” she said, leaning up a little to kiss his cheek. “Let’s go to your place. I don’t think the size will be a problem at all.”

She’d been right. Bernie was sweet and the wine had set both of them afire, so the narrow room seemed, if anything, too big. Bo pretended to be fabric and let Bernie unfasten the buttons, the frilly blouse opening to reveal creamy skin and a lacy brassiere, blood red mist that accented the hard poke of Stella’s little nipples. The plesomesh loved to stimulate Stella’s breasts and was not above caressing her clit, though such attentions were not needed now and Bo seemed to know that.

Bernie removed her bra and her skirt and Stella posed for him, clad only in a g-string of clinging plesomesh satin. “Now you,” she told him.

He smiled, his dark eyes burning with lust for her–not for a paid whore, not for the endlessly complicated reasons patrons had sought her in the past three years, to change their fortune, to prove their virility, or feed their tastes, but simply because he wanted her.

When Bernie removed his shirt, he wasn’t muscular, though his chest was broad, lightly thatched with blacker hair than the coif on his head and his stomach lay flat and hard. She helped with his trousers and his underwear, tender but hurried, eager to have him inside her.

Bernie’s cock was a nice size and it felt like satin as she stroked him to full erection. His hands wandered over her back, down to her butt, firm but a little tentative. “I won’t break,” she told him, smiling.

“You’re just so… perfect,” he replied, and she saw in his eyes a kind of heat she had never seen there before.

Can it really be this easy? She thought, kneeling and licking the beaded head of his hard cock, her hands on his bottom. Was it just a matter of letting herself make love to someone who really wanted her, not to someone who paid her? Was this all it might take to be happy? She took him deep, relaxing her throat and letting her palate work on the veined silk, her tongue cradling him, then pulling back, lapping and suckling. His hands tangled in her hair, no longer gentle, as she pulled him toward the cliff.

Stella prided herself on the fact that, to date, no man could resist her mouth for long and she hungered to taste the warm gush of his seed, but she wanted other things first. Cupping his balls, she eased back, releasing his cock and licking the last stickiness from its tip. Bernie moaned.

“Lie back,” she said, pointing to the narrow bed, not plastic and mutable like the guests’ rooms, but solid metal and soft fabric. He obeyed her, stretching, his knees bent slightly, his prick a swollen flagpole ready for her salute. Stella straddled him, letting the shaft ride along the line of blue fuzz above her pussy, moving against him so that he could feel how wet she was. She arched her back, offering her breasts to him and he gripped her offering, his thumbs working stiff nipples into sensitive nodes of pleasure.

Stella rose and settled on him, taking him all the way in, savoring the full penetration and, even more, the look in his eyes. She rode him, his fingers finding her clit, his broad chest rising in frantic breath, the rod inside her gloriously hard and pulsing. The orgasm approached, the moment shining before her like a frozen tear. She released her control, let it fade on the ragged edges of her panting breath. She was not a professional anymore, not paid to please, but reveled in being only a woman.

They came together in an explosion of juices and hushed cries, sweet music that made bad luck something that happened to other people. For the moment, she forgot her obsession with gambling, Filo, and the quirks of her most bizarre clients.

Even a Honker couldn’t trouble her now.

* * * *

Her palm itched right on cue and she made the departure easily, sweetly sleepy after an exhausted nap entwined with Bernie. He’d bought her two more splendid meals and after each of them, they adjourned to his quarters and made simple, uncomplicated love, each time more comfortable and more intense.

“You have to go?” he asked, right after a long tender slow-fuck, as they lay in his bunk.

She hated the question. “I do,” she’d said, aching at the love in his eyes. “If I stay on the Shangri La, I’ll get back in the wrong pool or at the wrong table and end up so deep in debt to Filo or someone like him that I’ll never get clear again. I need a clean break.”

“On Moulton?” he asked doubtfully.

“It’s a place to start,” she said and kissed him. The plesomesh crawled up onto the bunk and draped her. “I’ll keep in touch.”

“Good. I have thirty days leave coming up. Maybe I’ll visit you there.”

“I’ll write if I can and let you know if I move on.” He met her kiss with fresh enthusiasm and she almost imagined her dress sighing as it slid off her again. She stayed absolutely as long as she dared and then Bernie squired her to the dock and saw her into the tube with a lingering hug and a wistful kiss.

The tube spat Stella into the low-grav cabin of the Icarus in plenty of time to get a seat in one of the pods near the rear of the ship. She settled in and let the seat adjust to her. Bo had dressed her conservatively in muted blues, a layered outfit of rubbery plastic, fashionable on many of the Earth-settled worlds. She’d change once she was planetside and could link to a local mirror.

Vehicular disengagement passed flawlessly and the Icarus hung in orbit, letting the Shangri La go. Stella almost wished she could see the enormous pleasure barge recede into the void of space, bound for Spedway and Keller and the other rich worlds of the inner spiral. She’d miss the ship and Bernie, even if she wouldn’t miss Filo, Sextons, and worse.

After half an hour, the hyperdrive began to whine and the Icarus trembled. Stella’s eyes tried to crawl into her skull and her stomach imploded. If she’d been nearer the drives, she would have thrown up. Sometimes people too near the drives died or vanished or worse–the chance taken with cheap hyper travel. Most drop ships held licenses from worlds with no concept of civil damages. Ships sometimes came out of jump with passengers unspeakably crippled or blind, many of the unlucky ending their lives as beggars on whatever world or ship they landed on. Luckier ones were euthanized outright. A person didn’t planet hop lightly unless they could afford their own private ship.

The warping lasted somewhat more than ten seconds and slightly less than two weeks, and she felt almost instantly the grind of the engines and the slow suck of gravity, pulling her out of shock and into the slow fall of the ship to a port somewhere below.

“Moulton,” a woman’s amplified voice purred throughout the cabin. “All ashore. Departure in twelve standard hours for High Marston and the Babel Belt.”

The other passengers were a mixed lot. Some were undistinguished losers who had been cleaned out on the Shangri La; but some were not gamblers, just tourists who had taken the cheap passage a gambling barge offered to passengers willing to play a few games or turn a few tricks. The ragged manifest shifted around her, gathering their pads and packs. Stella carried a medium-sized bag and had another smartcase in cargo that would find her on the ground. As the ship descended, the plesomesh had chosen to clothe her in a lime green jumpsuit with oval cut-outs that bared most of her thighs. She hoped the Moultonians had a sense of humor.

Stella exited the Icarus under a sky the color of aquamarine, an orange sun low on the horizon, mostly hidden by wispy clouds. She had no sense of morning or evening; either was equally possible. In her years of traveling, Stella had been on nine worlds, ten if she counted the time she had been in the hospital on Fletcher Three after a plague outbreak on the Shangri La. She’d learned that every planet was different. It took anywhere from a day to a year to acclimate enough even to understand what a day or a year was.

Moulton seemed primitive, as Bernie had hinted it would be. The Icarus’s passengers departed onto a metal gridwork of platforms and stairs that moved into place along a track after the ship landed. The air stank like the oily smoke of a Veegan’s pipe, or an experiment she had once seen in a science class back on Palen XIII, a lifetime ago.

She shared her descending platform with two Bosnitzes. One of them seemed elderly and male, though Stella had trouble telling with Bosnitzes.

“That’s the petroleum. Gasoline,” he explained helpfully, perhaps noticing Stella’s wrinkled nose. “Moulton uses it to run everything. There aren’t many worlds that do that.”

“Thank you,” she said, smiling at him. The Bosnitz with him was probably female, might have been younger, and did not seem to approve of her companion striking up a conversation with Stella. “Do you live on Moulton?” she asked hopefully. A guide, even for a few minutes, would be valuable. She’d find a binding mirror soon enough and program the plesomesh to help her with local customs, but until then, she’d take any help she could get.

“We work here,” the younger Bosnitz said, her wide mouth curling in a superior smile. “Not at the port, but out of Scion City. We are importers.”

“That’s the capital, right?”

“It’s the only city, really,” the older creature said with an altogether different sort of smile. “The rest of the planet is savage wilderness. Well, unless you count the Fumblar slums and Debtown, and they are almost more savage than the wild lands!” He jiggled with laughter. Stella had gambled with Bosnitzes but she had no familiarity with their ways. They often seemed to laugh at inappropriate times.

The platform reached the bottom of its descent and she walked with the two creatures into the concourse of the port, smoky with exhaust and rich with the scent of a dozen races, some of whom violated the galactic hygiene laws with impunity. Over everything, she smelled the stink of burning that the Bosnitz had called gasoline.

She followed the pair of unpleasant creatures out of inertia, looking for signs to the baggage claim and hoping maybe they would offer to buy her a meal. Her smartbag would check itself out of cargo and find her in the port but, if possible, she would try to meet it halfway, so she could get away from the port before she was tempted to try and pick up some credits the easy way.

The Bosnitzes walked a little ahead of her, muttering to each other. They looked back at her and the male laughed. “You want to go with us?” he asked. “How about that?”

A little tingle of alarm ran up her back as she realized she had followed the pair into a deserted hallway, but she shoved it aside, dismissing it as new-world paranoia. The Bosnitzes waited for her to answer then shrugged and walked on. She caught up with them, looking back, hoping her smartbag was on its way. “What do you import?” she asked, hoping to break their determined, stumpy-legged stride.

The old one smiled at her, distinctly lecherous, and the young one drew a bulbed syringe from her bag and laughed with a kind of whinny.

“Off-world whores,” she said, squirting, and Stella tumbled into darkness, deep and nauseous as warpspace.

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Man's World
by Angela Caperton

For the wealthy, or the lucky, the universe is a vast and wonderful place. There are planets to visit, luxury space ships to patronize, designer drugs to take, and luxurious sex to purchase. However, for Stella Blue Darter, courtesan and gambling addict, the universe is just filled with accidents waiting to happen. When her beautiful body and chronic haplessness land her on Moulton, a planet ruled by a patriarchy and plagued by various female uprisings, she's not terribly surprised by the trouble she's in. But she hadn't counted on meeting Harker Merman and his dashing, dominating siblings. Stella's in over her head, and she'll have to find a way to survive on nothing but her wits and looks in Man's World.

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