The ebook edition is also available at: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, Kobo & AllRomanceEbooks.
The editors at Circlet Press present a cherry-picked collection of only the best of erotic fantasy and science fiction. From over 300 entries, they have chosen the top 16, including the stunning winner by Allison Lonsdale “Vaster Than Empires.” Vylar Kaftan’s “Fulgurite” and Jason Rubis’s “Now I Live On The Street of Women” were the runner-ups. The stories in the anthology span many genres and sexualities, at times defying such categories. Entries were judged on writing quality, originality, and eroticism, the three virtues Circlet Press values most in all publications.
“Circlet Press publisher Tan (Best Fantastic Erotica) and debut editor Zaiatz present a variety of erotic tales both sensual and brutal. … The relationships are as varied as the settings, and the best stories are those with a strong emotional core.”
—Publishers Weekly on Best Erotic Fantasy
Including stories by:
Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff
Eric Del Carlo
Paige E. Roberts
Vaster Than Empires
The installation was called Viriditas, after Hildegarde of Bingen’s writings on the divinity immanent in green things. It was a church as much as it was anything else. Synthetic voices whispered Dylan Thomas’ “The force that through the green fuse drives the flower” while flowers made of nanofabric opened and closed like sea anemones, like hungry mouths, breathing out molecules that sang of fear and longing when they hit the olfactory bulb, the oldest part of the brain. The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bloomed with scarlet orchids, followed by fruit in the shape of beating human hearts.
The infrastructure was built on military/law enforcement wares, very expensive when new and very cheap once obsolete. I was running this off a massive lie detector. Each person inside my little world was monitored: breathing, heart rate, pupil dilation, and skin temperature. Based on their reactions, I controlled lighting, air temperature, sound, scent, and the motion of the flexible structures.
If I coded, I could have written the whole thing in sensory markup and had it compiled into a VR. But it’s illegal to do olfactory stim in virtual reality, because of how strongly that part of the brain reacts to direct input. It’s perfectly legit for me to release pheromones into the air through one of my creations, though. Every olfactory chemical in my projects is legal.
They shouldn’t be. In the hands of a competent artist, those molecules are dangerous. I have made sociopaths weep with compassion. I have made rational, efficient, gray-suited managers fall helplessly in love with a color of light. Once I even got someone with Asperger’s Syndrome to understand the concept of “spontaneous empathy”, though she said she couldn’t hold it in her mind after she left the gallery.
Once I killed a man.
* * * *
Only a few people are allowed into one of my projects at a time. I can only manage so much, monitoring them through the interface. And after a few weeks working an installation, the people start to blur together, much as I love their reactions. This one made me sit up and pay attention, though. His body temperature was a big dark blot on my input: he was cold. I checked his breathing (fast and shallow) and pulse (too damn rapid). He was in the Field of Lilies, near the entrance; I couldn’t figure out his reaction. Medical issues? A phobia? Who would keep a phobia in this day and age–and why walk into a gallery of what they fear? That would be about the only explanation for his responses.
The pupil monitor made it clear to me. Very dilated. I flicked back to the body temp. Yes. One pocket of fever heat on a body that was otherwise doing a classic fight-or-flight.
His cock. He was so aroused it was probably physically painful–and he was scared shitless.
Discretion may be the better part of valor, but I am a reaction slut. I had to see the look on his face. I flicked to straight visuals.
He was not handsome, but if a generation of cheap cosmetic surgery has taught us anything, it is that the packaging is only marginally relevant. And in the backlash against lovely, bland uniformity, many people are now wearing the faces and bodies that the genetic lottery gave them, flaws and all. I was looking at one. Unless his surgeon had a particularly quirky and minimalist esthetic sense.
Pale skin, dark brown hair worn long and tied back. Clean-shaven. Tall oval face. Thin nose too long, gray eyes too bulbous. No cheekbones to speak of. Lips whose shape would never be compared to anything luscious. So why was I getting wet?
Because beauty is surfaces, beauty is art. People are what’s under the surface. And there were huge and terrible things under his surface, angels of the vast abyss doing battle. I saw the ripples of their combat across his face. Forgetting that he was being monitored, he did nothing to conceal the signs. Longing and fear were trying to rip him apart, and he was four rooms away from the pheromone spray that should have triggered those feelings. This was all his own.
I wanted to reach out and comfort him. I wanted to amplify those emotions until they tore him apart, just to see what shining thing rose from his bloody husk. I wanted to taste his sweat.
I checked the memory left on the system. There was enough. I had it record him in 3-d for the rest of his trip through the installation. I locked the main doors, not letting anyone else enter. When the guests ahead of him left, he was alone in here with me and my beautiful machines. He was mine.
As he moved through Viriditas, his reactions got more powerful. I raised the temperature to comfort his cold skin, cut back on the awe-inducing subsonics, mixed home-safe-comfort molecules in with the other pheromones. He calmed, but not much. He was visibly trembling as he approached the Tree, and watching it made my nipples go hard. I had the visuals zoom in on his face. I did not quite believe what he did next. He took one of the scarlet, face-sized orchids between his hands and buried his face in it. He was kissing it, as though it were a woman. Then he backed away, sweating, and wiped his face on his sleeve. He looked as though something inside him had broken and he was drowning. I had already made my decision, and now I recorded and modified sound files and moved robotics-control sequences into my system’s main memory. He almost staggered as he entered the Rose Cathedral.
The wall of roses unfolded. Inside them were the faces of angels: modeled from averages of as many human faces as possible, they possessed unearthly beauty and symmetry. They opened their luminous eyes–all made of synthetic jewels, and none of them in the colors of human eyes–and sang the Duruflé arrangement of “Ubi Caritas”. I had given them the voices of castrati, the power and richness of full-grown male lungs and throats fuelling the high voices of boys. He was transfixed. I let them complete the vocal piece, down to the final “Amen”, and then I made all of their eyes fix upon him, and dilated their pupils. His own dilated in response. In chorus, they told him:
“Rappacini, Rappacini, Rappacini,
desires your company
at the Rose of Monday.”
Then their faces settled into the repose of sleep, and the giant petals slowly folded back into buds, concealing them. His heart was racing, his pupils were still wide and dark, and his ragged breathing told me everything that I wanted to know.
* * * *
Back when I was a struggling aesthetic engineer trying to build a reputation, and he was a sensory coder working for a game design company, and we still used the names we were born with, Rex Monday and I were lovers. Together we tried Fuse, a cutting-edge (for its day) VR. Fuse was one of the short-lived genres of augmented VRs, meaning that you took a measured dose of a custom alkaloid before you plugged in, and the sensory input was designed to heterodyne with the drug’s effect. Fuse was supposed to dissolve ego-boundaries, and it did a good job. Augmented VRs were later outlawed due to the number of people they put into psychiatric hospitals. Rex and I spent time in padded rooms, and neither of us can remember much of it. But when we came out, I had absorbed the artistic sensibilities of a brilliant sensory coder, and he had acquired my intuitive knack for manipulating an audience’s emotions with memes on multiple levels. We reinvented ourselves, and took on the names under which we would both do our best work.
I became Rappacini, after Hawthorne’s story. Not Rappacini’s daughter, the passive vessel of her father’s destructive brilliance, but the old doctor himself, shaper of beauty and death. Because what have so many people worshipped, and killed for, and died for, but one who hung on a Tree, who died and went into the ground like a dry bulb and came back again like the narcissi pushing up through the earth in spring? Jesus, Osiris, Adonis, John Barleycorn–there’s a rich memetic language of beautiful sacrifices who are linked to the green heart of the world. Crowned in lilies or lotuses, hyacinths or hops, these beautypainlovedeath memes play deep chords on the place inside us that can be molecularly mapped, transmitter by receptor, but cannot be compassed or comprehended by reason. Which is why I am a designer of interactive aesthetic environments instead of a scientist.
My old lover had also absorbed my fondness for dead languages; Rex Mundi, the king of the world, was an old name for Satan, used by the sort of Christians who believed that the kingdom of God was entirely separate from earthly experience. Who remembers that now? Those who recognize the joke at all think it points up the irony of VR fans that start to feel that simulated sensory input is the real world, and that the shadowy place where their bodies eat and shit and sleep is somehow false.
In the process of reinventing himself, he built the Rose of Monday, another Latin pun. It was a shrine to me, and to the shared universe we had created inside the Fuse construct. Hosted on an offshore server, it used sensory coding illegal in the US. After all, what is the point of a garden in which the flowers have no scent?
* * * *
I came home from the gallery with a data spike full of recorded images in my sweaty fist. Normally I go straight to the shower after a shift at the gallery, but I skipped it, feeding the spike into my home system and then throwing myself on the bed and plugging the connector into the socket behind my ear. I dropped out of my body into my office. The key to Rosa Mundi was in a bud vase on my desk; code sent periodically from its home server altered its composition. Today it was made of steel, but its petals turned to glass at their outer edges. I lifted it from the vase, brushed it with my lips, and felt the shimmer of connection begin. Once, I would have had my home system enabled for illegal olfactory codes just so I could smell it, because the Rosa Mundi keys change scent as well as appearance. But experience with my own art had made me wary of pheromones. When I visit Rosa Mundi, I have my wares disable olfactory input. I miss a great deal of the beauty there, yes, but in Rex’s domain I have to be careful. The construct was built, in large part, as a map of the inside of my head–as it was fifteen years ago. I never enter it without taking a firm grip on my sense of self.
I appeared in the antechamber, its floor tiled in a compass rose of precious stones, its walls the wings of angels with each feather a petal. I was wearing the masque Rex had designed for me, a pre-Raphaelite painting made grass-green flesh, with flowering vines for hair and a gown of leaves. Into the still, hushed air of the chamber (I still find it eerie how subtly the sensory textures of that place are coded), I said the words to summon him: “Sic transit gloria.”
Rex manifested in his classic masque, with top hat and tails, little horns, genteel white gloves, and polished hooves. His face was that of an archangel as Tamara de Lempicka might have painted it–if she’d been shooting up Yoshitaka Amano’s RNA.
I explained my situation, and he was very pleased for me. He is generally of the opinion that I spend too much time hunched over an array of components, and should get out of the studio, have a massage, do some drugs, and fuck something. “A prey animal worthy of your refined tastes?” he said cheerfully. “Felicitations!”
“You know that I disapprove of that term, my friend.” One thing I had absorbed from him in Fuse was the tendency to divide the world into predators and prey animals. This bothered me, and I had gone to great trouble to eradicate it in myself.
He sighed. “Then shall we call him–an herbivore? Surely that would be appropriate!”
“As you wish. I’ve invited him here. I want to make sure he’s on the guest list.” I sang a certain note that transferred a file from my home system, and the sound coalesced into an image I had recorded in the gallery.
Rex’s laughter told me that the man used his real face online, as I had hoped. “A member of long standing, dear. And the scion of a wealthy, if tedious, family. In fact, he’s a bit rich for your blood. It has never been your style to seek patronage.”
“His finances are not relevant. He understands my work.”
“Considering the amount of time he spends worshipping it here, I should think so. In fact, if he were a trifle less controlled, you’d have a stalker.”
“And you didn’t think of warning me because…”
“…you are a big girl and can take care of yourself. Besides, he’s harmless. None of the wares here have picked up danger signs from him. He’s courteous, well-behaved, respectful of others, and absolutely smitten with your work.”
“I think you’re jealous.”
“Of course I am.” Rex flashed me a mathematically perfect smile. “He sees how much of my talent is really yours, but he doesn’t acknowledge how much of your talent is really mine.”
* * * *
My wares alerted me when my invitation was accepted, some hours later. He was waiting for me in the Hall of Contrasts. Replications of Georgia O’Keeffe’s vivid and monumental vulva-flowers alternated with enlarged images of Robert Mapplethorpe’s clinically precise black and white photographs of plant genitalia.
He heard the rustling of my masque’s leafy dress and turned to face me. He wore a dark, archaic suit, perhaps nineteenth-century.
“How have I offended you?” he asked contrition loud in his body language.
“You have not.”
“Then why–I don’t understand.”
“I know what you are,” I said, watching fear and desire war on his face again. “I know what you are, and I invited you here. Do the math.”
Something tense drained out of him. He looked like a bud tentatively opening. “Oh,” he said, blinking in surprise.
“Rex tells me that you have spent a lot of time here, looking at images of my work and what inspired it. And he tells me you are rich, easily rich enough to buy a ticket to the most expensive aesthetic engineering installations. Why did it take you so long to attend one of my gallery shows?”
“Working up the nerve, I suppose,” he said softly. “Trying to get the self-control.”
“Afraid you might do something like, oh, try to make love to one of the orchids?”
He froze, looking at me with the eyes of a rabbit in truck headlights–but a sentient rabbit, quite aware that it was about to die.
“Do I look like I’m offended?” I said. “It’s quite plain that you’re wired.” I used the street term for a VR addict, but I meant it in another sense. “With bonsai wire,” I added. “I am fascinated.”
“I am…flattered. I think.”
His reactions had been reading close to fully human, meaning that he had his expression transfer fully enabled. Time to fire a dart and see what it hit.
“Look at me,” I said. I spoke a Word, which emerged into the presumably fragrant air of Rosa Mundi with the sound of silk tearing. After an argument about appearance versus reality years ago, Rex had coded this for me, a variant on the unmasque command.
The botanical body stiffened, greens turned to browns, silken leaves harshed to flaking paper. The skin cracked, split, peeled away in fragments, vanished. Under it, the bare skin of my own body was revealed: not a masque, but a face, scanned and coded to match me flaw for flaw. I wore a short dress of white linen. I watched him watch me, saw my harsh unbeauty reflected in his eyes. My hair cut close to my skull, just a coating of black texture. The heavy lips, the broad nose, the round face. The thick legs, the flat breasts. My wares and I watched him closely. He was reacting–but not with revulsion. His own choice, then, to wear what he was born with. Not just a distaste for medical nano, but values like my own: the container is not as important as the contents.
“My name,” I told him, offering a much more profound nakedness, “is Catherine Sorayama.”
“I would unmasque for you, Catherine,” he said, “but I am wearing my face. My name is Gavin Revell.” He reached towards me, a wreath of leopard-spotted orchids unfolding out of nothing in his hands. A lovely piece of code, that, and I wished for a moment that I could smell it. He crowned me; I caught one of his hands after they released the crown and I planted a kiss in his palm. He froze again, but it was something very different from a rabbit in headlights that looked out of his eyes at me now…
To read the rest, download the ebook today!
A compilation of the very best speculative erotica Circlet's editors could find. Circlet remains one of the houses where readers who enjoy a mixture of erotica with fantasy or science fiction can find the highest quality. Sixteen stories by Kal Cobalt, Jason Rubis, Jean Roberta, Connie Wilkins, Eric Del Carlo, Paige Roberts, Beth Bernobich and more, including Allison Lonsdale, this year's winner. Also available in paperback.