Who was Kinzie Barro? Anyone who had met her might answer that question differently. She'd been in the news three times in her life: once, as part of a group photo for a middle school track meet; a second time, a few years later, for her internship's inaugural photo op; and, finally, for her obituary, posted minutes after her detainment by Kandar authorities. Each occasion disagreed with the next on the details of Kinzie Barro. No doubt, once you started to ask her friends/family/enemies/acquaintances for their opinions, the number of little Kinzies running circles in your head might make it explode. If you asked Kinzie herself, she probably wouldn't have had an answer for you—or, at least, not a consistent one. Not the same person from year to year and barely the same from one day to the next.
Here are a few things that she might say:
- logistical rollomotive operator
- aspiring shuttle pilot
- big into movies
- healthy enough
- brain-damaged (not really, just bipolar)
- brain-damaged (actually, really, neurologically impaired, like, royally fucked in the head)
- et cetera
- single, y'know, if you're… uh, lookin'
But in that instant—and in the fifteen day-long minutes that followed—Kinzie was not a single one of those things.
Kinzie could not read or speak (aside from giggle-pocked fits of glee) or form a cogent thought. In a sane world, she had an assistive device lodged inside her skull, feeding her information, molding her personality into something socially acceptable, and helping her to make healthy and reasonable decisions.
Now, she did not have that.
What she did have were endorphins by the bucketload, a brain made of vacuum on the verge of implosion, and the sweet whispered words of caterpillar gods ready in the wings to fill the void, to hatch her into something new.
A naked, empty soul before the comedown: her brain fumed and her body pistoned, there was only the searing tongue of full-body orgasm rocketing through her hypothalmosphere. And when there was no gas left in the tank—and her body could neither produce nor process pleasure hormones—Kinzie Barro tilted back and burned up in orbit.
She lay in the heavens as bugs licked her eyebrows and whispered overhead. Gentle graspers combed through her hair and tightened her straps and toweled down her sweat and cum and pee until she was smooth and dry. They lay her in the lap of the thin-toothed 𐰽𐰚𐰺𐰄𐰣, who snapped two fingers and passed the girl along to the many-armed 𐰯𐰞𐰅𐰗.
Together, 𐰽𐰚𐰺𐰄𐰣 and 𐰯𐰞𐰅𐰗 unshackled a heavy metal lock from the back of her head. 𐰯𐰞𐰅𐰗's finger-lined lips flexed. They took the shackle and plugged it into a small black box set into the wall of the train. Then, they turned their attention back to her, and they took her and held her close, and they were warm and kind and full of love.
In a penthouse office overlooking the Sweetpine district of Den, Colleen Lynxpin sniffed beneath a narrow furrow in her brow. One of her gray-dappled ears flicked at a nonexistent fly. Her tail swung back and forth across her pressed gray slacks, and the points of her manicure (an eye-catching but tasteful acrylic nail in pink marble) fiddled with a corner of her shirt collar. At the end of her other pale, slender arm sat an unremarkable phone in a matte black case with a deconstructed Gaean flag in thick racing stripes across the back.
She tapped out a few last words, hit send, and dropped the phone flat onto a glass-topped desk with a bang.
"I'm thinking noodles!" she called toward the half-open office door, propping herself against the floor-to-ceiling windows. "Margo! Did you hear me?"
There was an exasperated cluck, and then—
"A carbohydrate? After ten? Who do you think you are?" drummed back a man's voice, deep but kind and musical. His broad-shouldered, superhero silhouette nudged through the door frame with a sconce of flowers tucked under one armpit, a tablet under the other, and a half-consumed coffee in hand. Margo jolted in place, sculpted features aghast. "Fuck's sake, you're serious! No, Colleen! Bad girl!"
Colleen laughed as Margo paced around the room: a perfect demigod, the male lead of every romantic fantasy, caught off-screen at his day job, out of place. He should have been sensuously rubbing aromatic oils up the calves of a misty-eyed priestess, but instead, he was dumping yesterday's crumpled goldenrods in the trash and swapping them for today's begonias. "Oh, come on. Why the hell did we buy a table at Medusa's, then? This year was better than ever; I know for a fact that we have the money—"
Margo clucked again, and his withering glare was fit for an execution. "Listen. Keep the tits perky, ass fat, and waist cinched until cue-two, and then, we'll talk noodles." He downed his coffee and rapid-fire tip-tapped away at his tablet.
"Margo, really." Colleen planted her hands on her hips, grinning through mock-bashfulness.
"It's harder than ever to be a woman in politics, and I'm not about to let you slip over a scampi. By the way…" He lay the tablet gingerly on her desk, leaning over to point at something, his hand carefully positioned, aware of his weight on the tempered glass.
Colleen let her eyes wander down the shoulder of his sweater vest to the line where his shirt hung just low enough to reveal a thin gap of skin. The hint of collarbone and wiry chest hair. She was pretty sure that he was gay, not that she'd ever ask. Like, it wasn't a big deal. But gay or not, he oozed sex appeal, and Colleen had relieved at least a gallon of liquid stress to the thought of him. Getting him worked up like this was good food for thought.
"Porters agreed to meet about the MHI, so we might be getting somewhere, and the FMA got back to us this morning; they want an extra quarter-million to replace the leaning benches with the kind that have the little bumps all over them. Also, DeSamzo's office—"
"Fuck him," Colleen said.
"—has been running ads on the encampments again—"
"Fuck him," she hissed.
"—and he got ten minutes of airtime with NesTV. Early Bird."
"That bitter asshole." She stomped her heel into the floor. "He'd give us all to the fucking bugs if he could. Sweep the park; we can't afford Nest vultures taking off with this so close to Idyll Days."
Margo clucked his tongue and made a face but kept his voice even. "I could move yoga tomorrow morning back to lunch… get you on with Commissioner Buckson at nine-forty-five?"
"No. Burn someone this afternoon; I don't care who. We need to get ahead of this." Colleen flipped through the documents on the tablet, signing off on a few and sending most back for revision. Margo found a quiet corner of the room to get yelled at by a rep of the Den Labor Safety Board.
After she was done, Colleen paced for a grand total of forty-seven seconds before she knuckled Margo in the ribs and hissed, "What do we have on paper?"
Margo scowled and shuffled through his pockets for an envelope the size of an index card. He shoved it into her hands and pressed a button on the black metal shell clamped to the back of his skull. "Sorry about that. No, no, that wasn't her. But if you can do nine-forty— … — No, we take public safety very seriously. It's just, — … — You know how it is right after a campaign, we're still — … — yes, right, so, nine-forty-five?"
The sonorous tones of his pleading voice trailed off behind Colleen as she strolled out of the office, tucking the envelope into a butt pocket of her slacks. Her heels clacked on marble floors through a hallway, the war room (nod to bodyguard), another hallway, the meet & greet lounge (nod to bodyguard), where, finally, she pushed through an interior wall panel into a concealed panic room.
A heavy steel door with lock bolts the size of her forearms hissed shut behind her, and when it was fully closed, Colleen grabbed a bottle of cucumber sparkling water from the minibar and smoked half a rose petal cigarette while idly inspecting herself in a circular mirror mounted on the wall.
"It's fine," she said and lit the lighter and snuffed it out and lit it again. "Everything is fine. Margo is a gem, and there's too much money on the table for Quartex to fuck me. Everything is fine."
Colleen dashed the butt of her cigarette into a crystal ashtray and stepped up to the only unadorned, unfuzzy, un-cream-colored furnishing in the room: a plain, gray, metal booth with a small ladder on the front and a round hatch on top. Anyone of influence in the Gaean colonies would recognize it immediately as a Privacy Box: a necessity for doing Gaean business on the evil planet of Kandar.
She flicked a look back toward the panic room door, which was still inevitably sealed, and emptied her lungs with a big huff. Colleen plucked the envelope from her pocket and slotted it into a thin gap in the side of the Privacy Box, where it thunked into a compartment out of sight. The slot snapped shut. She straightened her spine, inhaled slowly, and stripped off her blouse in three quick but angular movements. She kicked off her heels and gripped the fluffy pink shag of the rug between her toes as she unbuttoned her slacks and stripped them down her legs.
A chill spread out from the base of her spine. Her wispy gray forearm hairs and the bushy gray tail fur stood on end while she unclasped her bra from the front and shrugged it down her arms, prying it from her elbows and tossing it across the room. She kicked her gangly knees out from the leg holes in her panties and kicked them away too.
Denuded, Colleen rubbed at her lip with her thumb, picked at a bit of skin, and blew another low, harsh breath out through her teeth. So commenced the awkward, naked staredown with the Privacy Box. Every time, it got a little harder. She had gone from four or five seconds of hesitation to a full minute now, complete with ongoing internal discussions about whether or not she should add some pacing to the mix. Okay, yes, today was the day for pacing: ten or twenty steps couldn't hurt.
"This better be fucking good," Colleen growled under her breath and wrapped her soft, square palms around one rung of the ladder, then another, up to the top of the box. Her heart climbed in her chest alongside her until the two of them reached the top and found a perch on the edge.
The hatch on top of the Privacy Box was round with two releases: a lever and a wheel. Colleen flipped the lever with a bit of effort to unlock the hatch and spun the wheel to open it. The hatch released with a hiss, and with a bit more effort, it lifted up. A thin membrane stretched across a circular hole that was left in its place. The transparent, yellow rubber was otherwise black underneath, the hollow chamber as dark as a first trip to the basement in a grindhouse thriller. The yellow rubber membrane glinted with red shine, a hint at the nearly invisible copper microlattice woven throughout the membrane.
At the rim of the circle, Colleen hooked a manicured finger through the ear loop of a respirator that hung there on a hook and lifted it toward her face. A breathing tube trailed along with the mask, and Colleen carefully secured the mask to her face. She took a deep breath to make sure she could breathe, and with no excuses left, she planted her feet down on the rubber membrane that covered the entrance of the Privacy Box.
A subtle shift of weight was all it took for Colleen to slip forward against the resistance of the membrane. It stretched beneath her weight, molding to the shape of her body and hugging her limbs close together. First, Colleen's ankles locked in place; then, her knees/wrists/hips/elbows sank into the humiliating, gooey trap of the full-body condom. When it engulfed her head, her pulse quickened, and she gasped in and out for fear, though the mask ensured a steady supply of oxygen.
The last few moments felt the longest. Colleen hung there, suspended, toes only an inch off the ground, as the rubber settled. When the machine was fully satisfied that she was contained in its embrace, the lid of the hatch fell closed overhead.
Darkness: complete. Air hissed. Rubber coating compressed tight, then tighter. Vacuum-sealed: completely immobile. Colleen's heart pounded in casual, self-inflicted terror. A low hum began in the base of the booth. Colleen struggled despite herself. An irresistible, primal fear response overtook her and forced her to jerk and kick. The hum rose in pitch. The chamber filled with the scent of chlorinated pool water at six-ay-em, before the crowds have arrived, when it's just you and your mother, for the first time, as she tells you not to rub your eyes, and you stand there in your onesie and eye the water with sleepy apprehension and wonder where your floaties are and—
Searing, fiery violence burned through every inch of Colleen's musculature for a three-count. The shock came from every direction as electricity pumped through microscopic circuits laid throughout the vacuum-sealed rubber. Random signals flared between muscles. Her body was a firework exploding through spine and tail straight up into her brain. Her muscles pulled taut in every direction at once. The smell of ozone was everywhere.
Then, it was over except for a few stray little zaps, and at least she didn't piss herself, and she heaved for breath, and sweat beaded between her and the rubber, and even the most microscopic of Kandarosian spies (if that was even a thing?) ought to be dead. A square of silent, fluorescent light cut through the dark chamber around her. The rubber had stretched thin enough to be nearly transparent, but even still, it left a filmy, yellow screen over everything such that Colleen was grateful for the large screen with its big black and white letters that displayed the following words.
FROM: YOUR CONTACT AT THE LAB.
YESTERDAY'S EMERGENCY IS UNDER CONTROL.
NO RELEVANT DETAILS TO SHARE.
MORE UPDATES NEXT QUARTER, AS SCHEDULED.
—END OF MESSAGE: WOULD YOU LIKE TO REPLY?
"You motherfuckers!" Colleen screamed, unbidden rage flapping between heaves of her angry lungs. The screen in front of her mirrored the sentiment:
If Colleen's endurance hadn't already been completely exhausted by the ordeal of reaching that point, she may have crafted a longer and more thoughtful reply; however, as it stood, she only found a handful of more expletives to gasp out before she let the message conclude. The screen went black, the lid of the Privacy Box hissed and released to allow some light in, and the vacuum pressure that sealed Colleen inside the box went silent. The rubber around Colleen relaxed into a thin-stretched sack that looked about as worn and wrinkled as her emotional state. She grasped the edge of the hatch exit and hauled herself out. She slipped over the edge of the booth, lowered herself to the ground, and lay face down on the rug. Somewhere up above the shhhunk sound of the hatch shuttered closed. From the slot in the front of the privacy box, a little manila envelope the size of a credit card tumbled and flitted to the ground. Colleen had a little time until the top of the hour, when Margo was certain to come banging on the door.
But Margo never came. Ten-past, then fifteen-past, then the half-hour, and restlessness crawled in. Colleen pushed herself up off of the ground, and her post-traumatic exhaustion gave way to a quizzical annoyance, which gave way to quizzical worry.
Coleen yanked her clothes back on with all the grace of a grudge, then pressed the wrinkles neat and straight like a bad itch. She looked at the envelope on the floor, encoded with every curse word she knew, then grabbed up her shoes. She whirled around, laid her hair down serviceably flat, and tugged her heels up around each ankle with one hand while she slapped her other palm against the panic room's biometric reader. The vault bolts unlocked, and she peeked out into the empty meet-and-greet lounge.
No Margo, no guard. Colleen flicked her ear.
"Hello?" she called out. The doors leading to her office were wide open, as were the ones leading onward to the elevator bank.
From the elevator side, an eight-foot tall figure in a glossy black helmet leaned into the lounge and caught sight of her. Colleen did not move away from the panic room doorway.
"Governor Lynxpin, we're all over here. By the exit. Would you join us at your leisure?”
"Fuck!" she choked. Then, she cleared her throat and squared her shoulders. "What's this about?"
The soldier rolled a few clicks of its voicebox back toward the exit and stepped into the lounge. It reached one of its smaller arms out toward Colleen.
"Don't you dare touch me," Colleen snorted. "Not until you tell me what's going on. Where are my people?"
The Soldier froze at a respectful distance, though it kept its hand proffered. From the other room, the voice returned. "They're all downstairs being interviewed. No one has been detained; everyone has been quite cooperative. We're here regarding the explosives we uncovered in the March-nineteen raid on a Transzone Shipping detail. I'd like you to come speak with me."
"Don't bullshit me; you already have our fucking statement, so get this tarantula-fuck out of my face." Colleen managed the miraculous feat of keeping her volume below a shout.
In response, there was a bout of silence from the other room; then came a sigh and a few chirps. The Soldier immediately relaxed and moved out of the way, much like the guards who'd stood vigil around the penthouse until just recently. The chirpy voice transitioned effortlessly again into Gaean. "Governor Lynxpin, consider this an excess of generosity. Report to the elevator bank by your own volition, please."
A wary sneer splayed the corners of her lips, but Colleen did as she was bidden. What she encountered there nearly broke her tenuous composure.
Lined up along the elevator banks stood a phalanx of twelve glossy, beetle-black Soldiers in their stiff armor with a lithe vanguard at the fore, clad in a blouse and pencil skirt and predatory, if indifferent, expression. It looked like a woman—close enough that the average Den-dweller would never tell the difference—but Colleen had met Ambassadors before. She'd seen the classified reports. Once you knew what to look for, the seams amidst the mimicry were unmistakable.
"Ambassador Kirik," the bug said with a hand outstretched in diplomatic courtesy. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, Governor Lynxpin."
"What do you want?" Colleen kept her hands to herself. She had no inclination to give the bugs a single skin cell if she could help it.
Ambassador Kirik stared and licked its lips. Its outstretched hand did not waver, much like the tarantula-fuck just before. "The Queen has sent a Drone to speak with you. She awaits in a vehicle outside. You will come with me to receive the Queen's message. I believe it is in regard to your unmanageables."
"Fuck off," Collen choked. A Drone meant business. It meant that shit had hit the fan on a level of interstellar politics that was about to fuck her over for the next decade of her career, if she didn't get fired and mulched before then. Colleen cleared her throat and scanned the row of Soldiers. "This looks a lot like an act of aggression. Will you arrest me if I don't comply?"
The Soldiers stood by, alert but unphased, as the Ambassador ignored the claim of war.
"Yes, on both accounts," Kirik said, sweeping to the side and swinging its outstretched arm around in welcome.
Frazzled and fried, Colleen patted her butt pocket, and frowned. "I want my phone," she said and stepped into the elevator. The growl in her voice was about all the protest she could maintain.
"Then you'll have it," Ambassador Kirik gladly obliged and followed her inside. "Where is it?"
"In my office. On the desk. If Margo didn't pick it up already." Colleen slumped against the handrail on the back wall and stared dully past the Ambassador.
"I doubt he had the chance," Kirik said from one voicebox while it busily translated orders back to its Soldiers with the other. There was a shifting of the black beetle-shell phalanx as each of the soldiers began to move in different directions.
One joined them in the elevator, while a handful traipsed off toward her office, and the rest made for the stairwell. Colleen briefly thought of the Privacy Box and the panic-vault door that she'd left open. The manila envelope too. Fuck'em. Maybe if the bugs hacked the damn things, then she'd never have to shock herself again, and the big-brains back on Gaea could come up with something better.
The Soldier tapped for the lobby. The elevator shut. Colleen white-knuckled the handrail. Kirik pretended not to notice. Gravity shifted. Locked in a chamber with Kirik, Colleen could smell her, and the scent was unmistakable. Fear, love, respect. It made her seem bigger than was rightly possible.
The elevator opened into the wide and dim lobby of the office highrise. Diagonal struts cut high and odd angles through the dizzying space overhead. A bank of glass doors two stories tall dominated the entry wall of the building and let in the cool gray light of late afternoon. Concrete floors gleamed with high-gloss lacquer — a fuzzy, mirror shine. Chrome and dark wood accents poked through the fog of concrete and glass.
None of the lights were on. It had to be right around five, and normally there would be a few small pockets of workaholics chit chatting by the coffee bar or the salad machine or the arcade cabinet. Instead, there were mostly bugs. Soldiers held stiff positions, alongside their smaller, more delicate cousins: the Friends. Friends were four-armed and spindly, standing on two crooked legs to a height of maybe five feet tall. Unlike the Soldiers, they wore no armor and carried no weapons, dressed only in the plain red and white jumpsuit of the Kandar, with a pink Rosian lily on the lapel.
But they were also quite unlike Ambassadors: beyond the bipedal stature there was no attempt to mimic the Gaean form. They had cone-faced heads with oblong eyes, and a pointed chin split in half by two hard-shelled mandibles. If one looked closely, a weave of pedipalps flexed in the shadow of their jaws, like a curled fist just out of view. Thick, black antennae adjusted to taste the air.
About twenty bugs filled the lobby all-told, and between them, a handful of office workers that Colleen had seen around were being questioned by the Friends. Stragglers, probably the last to leave.
One looked up, saw Colleen, and quirked his eyebrow. Colleen made a big show to roll her eyes, and he chuckled and shrugged. Relief. Good. Colleen relished her ability to charm people, put them at ease, even in the middle of a shit show like this. She twisted her thumb and nodded toward the Ambassador with a flare of her nostrils. 'Get a load of these assholes. Bugs will be bugs. What can ya do?'
The man curled his lip, nodded, and then the two seconds were over and Colleen was being escorted through the back halls of the building toward the service entrance. Sleek and modern design sensibilities gave way to fluorescent lights, scarred sheetrock, streaky rubber siding and battered double-doors, aged card-reader locks held together by little more than paper clips.
As they convoyed along, Kirik began to speak; halfway down a hall, halfway between breaths: an uneasy cadence that did not match the perpetual confidence that Ambassadors had been genetically designed to exude. "Have you met with a Drone before?"
Colleen could not will herself to give a shit. "You know I haven't."
The last time a Drone had visited Den would've been prewar, and the last time any Gaeans had made contact with one at all…? Hard to say. The GA shareholder committee played things like that close to the chest — Colleen put the odds that Nest had seen one in the last decade somewhere around ten percent.
"They're… fragile," Kirik pondered over word-choice with a level of artificial consideration that made Colleen gag, "and this one in particular — I've traveled with it for the last eighty-six hours to reach you. And I've developed a… fondness for it."
"So take it out to dinner once we get this over with. You can chat romance over a dog carcass or whatever it is you people eat. Hell, do it on my dime, if it gets you the fuck out of the city." Colleen said.
"Trite." Kirik said. The Ambassador, paused at the final door to the back alley behind the tower, where a tall, broad limousine (almost a moving van in proportion) idled mere feet away. Kirik laid a hand on the handle to the door. "But it would be very meaningful to me if you kept this short and respectful. She deserves every kindness you can afford, and it would be very upsetting for me if you mistreated her."
"Is that a threat?" Colleen narrowed her gaze at the nape of Kirik's neck.
"No," Kirik said.
The bug pushed through the doors into the open air, and led Colleen to the polished black minivan. She levered open a handle and the door slid open.
The pair of Soldiers that had followed them this far kept a tactical distance, hands on their weapons, heads scanning but never letting the VIPs leave their periphery. More guards stood at either end of the alley. Big black shadows against the gray and silver of the modern world. Kirik gave Colleen an expectant look and cleared its throat. Round, black eyes. A sliver of black between the lips. Black hair cut in a bob like an ant's head. Everywhere she looked, there were bugs crawling all over the picnic basket.
"Fuck it," Colleen said into the big black rectangle of the open and waiting vehicle. She climbed inside, and the door slammed shut behind her.