Walt turned his coat collar up, more against prying eyes than the cold breeze. He needn’t have bothered. People in this part of town didn’t make eye contact. He’d never set foot on this street in his life and probably never would have but for one simple fact: he was desperate.
He checked addresses against the scrap of paper the bartender had given him until he stood before a door painted with the likeness of a flower—an orchid to be exact. He looked around and then knocked. One of the orchid’s petals slid to the side allowing two eyes to regard him coldly for a brief moment before the petal closed again. He heard a series of locks releasing and then the door swung inward to reveal a Buluk, its massive frame and armored shell barring entry.
“What you want?” it asked.
“I, I’m here to see sreeaaccccchapth,” he did his best to imitate what he’d been told to say.
The Buluk shrugged. “Close enough.” It stepped to the side.
Walt entered and the door closed behind him, the series of locks clicking home in succession. The Buluk patted him down roughly. “You wait here,” it said, pushing past a curtain and leaving him in the entryway.
Walt did as he was told, letting his eyes adjusted to the dim red light. Before long, the Buluk returned, holding the curtain open for a small round figure that resembled nothing more than a deflated volleyball with limbs.
The being regarded him for a long moment. “I know every face that’s ever been through that door,” it said in a raspy voice. “But I don’t know yours.”
“It’s my first time,” Walt replied without meeting its eye. “Are you sreeaa—”
“Stop, please. My name has been butchered enough for one day. You can call me Orchid.” It held out a long skinny arm to shake his hand with long skinny fingers, the gesture decidedly feminine.
He shook her hand without offering his name. She didn’t seem to mind. “I’m looking for someone,” he said.
“Of course you are,” she chortled. “Why else would you be here? Follow me.”
Orchid lead him past the Buluk into the club. Sultry jazz drifted through the smoky air over the dull murmur of numerous conversations. Couples and groups chatted at private candle-lit tables or in dark booths and everywhere scantily-clad members of every race, species, and gender ferried drinks, lit cigars, sat on laps, or danced on tables. Every now and then, one of these would lead a patron or two back through one of a series of doors along the back wall. Orchid motioned to a seat at a table near the bar and Walt sat, fiddling with his wedding ring while nervously scanning faces.
“Don’t worry about them,” she said, noticing his ring and his apprehension. “None of them are here. Just ask any one of them tomorrow and they’ll tell you, they weren’t here. Just like tomorrow, you won’t have been here. Like you aren’t here now.” She smiled and Walt relaxed a little. She noticed that too and chuckled. “Good. Now, what kind of someone are you looking for? We have an excellent variety. Just about any age, size, shape, and color of someones that are human, and plenty of someones that are not.”
“Uh, well, I was told I could find—”
“Wait, let’s see if I can guess.” She looked him over again. “There are plenty of human-only establishments, none as well stocked as mine of course, but since you came here you must either be looking for a specific human or a someone who’s not. I’m guessing the latter.”
“And since you’re obviously scared silly just to be sitting here, I’m guessing the only someone who could draw you is a someone you don’t see every day, someone…exotic.” She held her hand up and snapped her fingers three times. From somewhere in the dim smokiness swayed a tall, lithe figure draped loosely in silk. The red lights of the club reflected off her angular scales, sending diamonds of light dancing through the smoke. More than one patron turned to watch her approach with an appreciative eye.
“Good evening,” she hissed. “I am Sinsa.”
Orchid eyed him with a raised brow. He just stared, slack-jawed.
“Do you desire my company?” she prompted with a flick of her forked tongue.
“No!” he blurted. “Uh, sorry, no, thank you, sorry.”
Sinsa’s reptilian face regarded him with predatory distain, then looked to Orchid who dismissed her with a gesture.
Orchid chuckled. “You should feel lucky. Few men show Sinsa such disrespect and live. If you weren’t sitting with me, she’d probably be eating your heart right now.”
Walt paled. “Oh God. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. Will you please tell her I apologize?”
The madam smiled, the red light reflecting off her thin pointed teeth giving her a gory countenance. “I want one more guess. Your manner has given you away. You’re a weak, scared little man and you need to be punished. Am I right?”
Before Walt could answer she raised her hand and snapped her fingers three times. He half expected Sinsa to return but instead another Buluk rumbled toward their table, this one in a leather garter and carrying a whip.
“No!” Walt stood. “Look, I’m sorry. I came to find a Hummer.”
It was Orchid’s turn to look around nervously. The Buluk with the whip laid a heavy hand on Walt’s shoulder, forcing him into his seat. The madam leaned across the table. “Are you insane? Do you know what would happen if the Republic thought I was sheltering a Hummer? They wouldn’t even search the place, they’d just vaporize the whole building.”
The last two Premiers had been assassinated by Hummers and they were collectively banned from the system. As a people, no one seemed to know much about them. They had a reputation of being fiercely independent and they claimed no allegiance to any particular planet or government. That’s probably why, when they surfaced at all, they were usually mercenaries or spies.
“Please.” Walt struggled against the crushing grip of the Buluk. “I can pay. Ten thousand credits for the rest of the evening.”
That caught the madam’s attention. “That’s a lot of money. Are you good for it?”
“Check.” He held out his hand, palm up.
Orchid snapped her fingers three times and a woman appeared with a credit scanner. She swiped Walt’s palm, clicked a few buttons, and then nodded to her employer before retreating back behind the bar. The Buluk’s hand lifted from his shoulder although it stayed planted behind his chair. Orchid regarded him for a long moment. “Why a Hummer? Why take the risk? Or the expense?”
“That’s my business,” Walt replied, trying to sound more mysterious than he felt.
Orchid smiled her grim smile. “Very well. Follow me.”
She and the Buluk escorted him through one of the doors in the back of the club and down a long hallway bathed in green light. They stopped at the last door, which Orchid unlocked before motioning Walt inside.
“Wait here,” she said. “She’ll see you if she wishes.”
“But I paid you,” Walt protested.
Orchid held up a hand. “She’ll see you if she wishes.”
With that she left him. He could feel the Buluk’s mass stationed outside the door. He took a seat on the bed and waited. Besides a small table, it was the only furniture in the room. On the table sat a large vase holding a single flower. Light danced across its thousands of filamentous petals, casting off a different array of colors depending on the angle he looked at it.
“You’re beautiful,” he said.
The flower shuttered and then stilled. He thought he’d imagined it until the flower shuttered again. Then, squirming, it seemed to grow. As it grew it lost its flowery form and poured like liquid mercury out of the vase, across the table, and onto the floor. He could only stare, transfixed, as the puddle rose up into a humanoid shape and solidified before him, featureless.
“Few men would enter a brothel, seek the attention of a fugitive, and then comment on a floral arrangement.” No mouth spoke the words and no eyes met his gaze.
“I’m not used to places like this. I just came here to find you.”
She, Walt decided it must be a she, reached toward the vase, part of her limb elongating like a hummingbird's bill to dip into the liquid it contained. It must be the nectar he’d heard about—a super high calorie syrup that gave Hummers their nickname. It took a lot of energy to shapeshift.
“Many men seek me out,” she said. “Most desire someone famous.” A quick ripple and a Hollywood starlet stood before him, the one in the news for all the drug problems. “Someone out of their reach,” she said in the actresses’ voice. Another ripple and she was a famous tennis player, then a well-known country-western singer. The effect of having a different beautiful woman stand before him every time he blinked made Walt dizzy and he was glad he was already sitting.
“What do you really look like?” he asked. “I mean, what’s your real shape?”
“Whatever I want it to be.”
“But why are you here? In a place like this?”
She rippled and Walt found himself looking himself in the eye. “I find it interesting,” the other him said in his own voice. “You can learn a great deal about people by what they desire most.”
To his relief, she rippled back to her featureless form. “What is it you desire?”
Walt studied the creature, so very alien, more so even than the Buluk or Orchid or Sinsa or any other being he’d ever encountered. The thought of being with her, with it, terrified him. But then again, he hadn’t come to be with her. He pulled a series of photos out of his breast pocket and handed it to the Hummer.
She flipped through, studying each picture. “Who is she?” she asked.
Walt pulled out his cell phone and dialed his voicemail before handing it to her. The Hummer only held the phone. Perhaps since she didn’t have a proper head she didn’t need to hold it to any particular auditory organ. After a long moment, she handed the phone back. “Are you sure this is what you want?”
“It was a year ago tonight. I need this. Just once. Just for tonight.” He hesitated. “Please.”
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, and then another. He tried to clear his mind, to forget where he was and who he was with. He tried to push aside the fear and to suspend doubt. Just for tonight he needed not to question. Just for tonight, he needed to believe.
He opened his eyes. His breath caught in his throat, his heart pounding. He tried to speak but failed. “Hello,” he finally managed.
She wasn’t perfect. Her eyes weren’t quite as blue as the woman’s he’d fallen in love with. Her left ear didn’t have that small scar she’d gotten while diving on their honeymoon. She didn’t sit quite as tall as his wife had before the accident left her broken. Before her long lingering end.
He clenched his eyes shut and forced the doubt from his mind. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He flinched as a hand rested on his arm. “Walt,” she said. Amanda, his wife, said. “Walt, it’s okay. I’m here. Just for tonight. Just this once. I’m here.”
And when he opened his eyes, she was.
We'd love to hear what you thought of this story! Please leave a comment below, and/or review this story at Amazon or Goodreads!