From the author: Author note: Caution: This story includes alien sex and dentistry (also alien). This was my first fiction sale ever, to David Pringle at Interzone, in the remote former lifetime that was 1994. I'll see if I can get the OK to post the gorgeous illustrations here.
Michael met the Grakyn woman on a night out at the gel-clubs.
The first thing he noticed about her was her smile: mouth slightly broader than a human’s, lips fuller. The shiny pearls of her teeth threw back bright reflections from the copper and glass of the gel bar.
He politely disentangled himself from shop talk with an unemployed emigre from Azerbaijan, rinsed his axe (Russian-make, silver handle with simulated pearl grip, ultra-soft orbit-spun bristles for low abrasion), spat into the glittering sink, and pushed his way through the crowd of jobseekers and relief-partiers, to the sinks at the far side of the bar.
The mouthwash was laced with Cinema. It silvered reality with shades of black-and-white, cast venetian-blind shadows, and supplied the occasional jump-cut in time. Michael smiled at the entertaining effects. He was a great believer in using the products he advertised.
The Grakyn woman wore colorful, loose neo-rave clothing strategically draped for the New License. It somehow emphasized her shapeliness without clinging or exposing.
For Michael it was lust at first sight, spiced with a tinge of ambition. In this economy, getting friendly with the Grakyn was a smart career move. He didn’t have to tell his wife Helen about the lust.
Thoughts of Helen summoned her. His phone vibrated against his hip.
“You said you’d be home by now.” Helen’s voice had a flat, accusing quality that Michael was getting to know very well.
“Sorry.” He had to shout to be heard above the third-hand mixes. “I told you I had a client to meet.”
“I thought I was the one who handled that end.”
“He wanted to talk to me,” Michael said.
“And he hasn’t shown, right?”
“No, as a matter of fact, he hasn’t.”
“You missed the last bus home.”
“I’ll stay with a friend,” Michael said.
“I’m sure you will.” Click.
Michael shrugged and holstered the phone. Now, where was the Grakyn?
For a panicky moment Michael thought he’d lost her. The few Americans who’d forged personal relationships with the Grakyn tended to get rich and famous quick. But the Grakyn usually didn’t mingle with humans. He wondered what this one was doing out on her own. She must be looking for something.
Getting through the crowd was tough. If the crush of neo-ravers, punk revivalists, Agers, Edgers—plus pimply teens who got in on pirate ID chips—weren’t going wall to wall on the dance floor, they were lining up at the bars, running fresh brushes under the pastel snakes hanging from the gel dispensers or filling up with rinses by the shotglass.
He found her talking to an executive type wearing an expensive Russian suit. Michael damned himself for answering the phone; now somebody else had a shot at her. Not everyone was here because of the breakdown in water-fluoridation services, after all, and Michael wasn’t the only careerist out tonight.
The suit said something funny; Michael didn’t speak Russian but the Grakyn evidently did. Her laughter exposed canines sharp and white as virgin Antarctic ice. She freshened up her axe with pink gel and ran it seductively over her front teeth.
She caught Michael’s glance. She paused in mid-brush, arched her eyebrows, and gave Michael a long, elaborate wink. She stretched her lips to display her teeth. As Michael smiled back, he figured she must be a recent arrival. Grakyn who’d been on Earth since first contact generally had basic human gestures down pat.
He couldn’t help it; he felt the pull. He figured he must have a thing for ice queens. No wonder, he thought, I married one, didn’t I?
The Grakyn woman tossed her raven hair, spat into the sink, and abruptly vanished into the crowd. Her sudden departure left the Russian speechless. Green fluoride foam dribbled down his chin; the handle of his axe dangled like a lollipop stick from his mouth.
He spotted her again, on the other side of the floor, huddled against the bar with a group of five or six of her own kind. They were well over two meters tall (low gravity on those generation spindleships), and moved with practiced elegance. Their fluid yet slightly artificial gestures, combined with their almost completely white skin and starless-black hair, reminded Michael of the Japanese animatrons that had been a fad in shops and restaurants when he was growing up.
He’d always wanted one of those trons.
He pushed his way next to her. The tender was an antique auto-plant robot retrofitted for service in the entertainment economy. Michael smiled at the campy antique; it went well with the reputedly genuine Wurlitzer jukebox. Only Grakyn buyers could afford such luxuries these days.
He ordered green-tea rinse with a deprenyl chaser and “accidentally” elbowed her in the small of her back.
Slowly she turned to look at him. He smiled at her and said:
“Excuse me, Miz.”
She looked up at him. “Yes?”
Michael knotted up inside. That catlike face filled him with longing and wonder. He saw a natural innocence and a kind of native cleverness. The Cinema had worn off; he saw her clearly and without shadows, effects, or background music. Nothing but her was making him giddy.
His memory tossed up Helen’s face, disapproving frown and all. He shoved the sense-impression aside. When he landed the account he would show her. Really, he was doing this for her. Them.
Both of them. It was strictly business. Everyone slept with someone, sometime, to get to the top.
Almost everyone. And anyway there was a first time for everything. The whole damn generation had come of age in a global depression.
Quick, though: he had to speak up. She was turning her face away from him, looking perhaps for someone in the far corner of the club. From the corner of his eye he caught the puzzled Russian suit nudging through the crowd.
“Do you come here often?” Michael blurted.
(And winced. Five billion years of evolution for this …?)
She laughed as if he were joking. In his limited experience with Grakyn, her laughter sounded comparatively natural. He sighed and relaxed.
“May I buy you a rinse?” he asked.
She nodded. She smiled but—disappointing to Michael—she showed no teeth. Damn. He signaled the tender; it brought her a ginger-flavored fluoride paint laced with extra hexanes.
He clicked tumblers with her. She closed her eyes and swished the liquid around in her mouth. A small animal seemed to be struggling from inside those cheeks. Suddenly Michael envied that small animal.
He swished the rinse in his mouth. He could almost feel the deprenyl osmose straight to the old brain.
He let her spit first: a delicate green fountain rang in the copper sink. All this public spitting used to gross Michael out, when the gel clubs skyrocketed in popularity. But he’d gotten used to working for the Russians, to the arrival of the Grakyn space caravan, to not working for the Russians and struggling to establish a fledgling independent agency with Helen. He supposed he could get used to the spitting, too.
She looked up and said “Thank you.” Her breath: a warm ginger breeze. She showed dazzling incisors. They were sharp and enticingly bright as Michael could have wanted. Being even this close to them made him feel tingly and alive.
“My name’s Michael,” he said. “Michael Balsinger.” He offered his palm stretched flat.
She placed her palm atop it. “Thani,” she said, and rubbed a thumb—one digit of four—across his fingers.
The mix volume went down a notch or two. “Last call!” squawked the ‘tender.
“Care for another?” he asked Thani.
“Yes.” Nice sibilance there, the s-s-s-s-s passing over sharp pearls that seemed never to have touched Streptococcus mutans or any of its bioengineered bastard strains. He imagined her nipping his shoulder, his neck, his earlobes ...
One of Thani’s group, the tallest of the tall males, lay his hand on her shoulder. He rat-tat-tatted to her in Grakyn.
Thani spun to confront him, letting go with a torrent of syllables, throat-clicks, and snapping of teeth.
“Michael,” she said, turning her back on her companion, “my three-sibling wishes to know what you do for a living.” Her accent was musical, lilting.
He froze. He recovered. He could not have planned better. This was his chance.
“Advertising,” he said.
She raised her thin eyebrows in a stage-like gesture. She said something in her own language; her sibling made questioning phonemes.
“What have you worked on?” Thani asked Michael.
He gave her a quick rundown of his accounts. Cars, drugs, music.
“Pastes?” she asked. “Gels?”
“White Noise,” he said. “And Blue Sparks.”
Her smooth round jaw fell open. “You worked on Blue Sparks!”
(Me and Helen, that is, Michael thought. She handled the business end, I did the creative. No reason to drag Helen in just yet.)
“Yep,” he said. Thani reported this excitedly to her sibling. They argued for a few minutes. Thani ended the discussion with a throat-click that had a so-there finality to it. She took Michael’s arm.
“Blue Sparks ... Michael, buy me another rinse. Please.”
He was startled by the strength of her grip. “Well, they’re closing up. But—”
She tightened her grip. “I know a place,” she said.
He saw the first signs of warmth in her eyes. The ice queen shows signs of melting, he thought.
His therapy software always said that was why he pursued the women he did.
She led him out into the dark evening.
Her perfect smile drew Michael across the night like a handful of iron filings towards a toy electromagnet.
The city was jumping tonight. A few more hits of Cinema did artful things to the all-night drizzle. Neon signs burned into Michael’s retinae club logos, advertisements for paste and rinse and the semilegal newsrap stations the Grakyn were also buying out. Busfuls of relief-partiers delivered their subsidized consumers of the entertainment industry to and from public housing projects. Suburbanites scuttled between armored vehicles and adults-only v-parlors that took you places you couldn’t reach on the public nets. Jaded citydwellers, proudly sporting immunity icons tattooed on their foreheads, trolled the sex shops and practiced a studied disdain for anyone who hadn’t taken the “Grakyn sixpack” series of inoculations. Michael had, but to flaunt it was the height of trendy tackiness.
His phone kept vibrating against his hip. He did not answer.
At the Golden Floss he almost lost her in an unscheduled blackout. You could never tell these days if it was a crash in the city power grid, or if the club management was having a little fun with its clientele. At the Filling Station they ordered snacks that were literally decadent. At Acres they rinsed and took some low-abrasion cleaning in a dentist’s chair for two, while the couples to either side of them made out shamelessly. At the Fissure King they danced to the strobing DJ mix-mixes. At the Crown of Creation they hung out at the sinks (Michael enjoying the envious attention of other jobseekers), Thani running her pink tongue over gel-capped bristles or the tasty edge of a glassful of rinse.
“Michael?” Thani said, shouting to be heard above the pulsing mix.
“I live not too far from here. Would you like to come up for a last brush?”
“Sure.” Michael smiled.
“I have something I want you to try.”
“A little something from home,” she said. “Something you can’t get anywhere else.”
Michael had a sudden misgiving. “What about your siblings?” he asked.
“They’re working,” she replied. “I don’t expect them till morning.”
And her smile still drew him. She shined it on him like a spotlight.
A couple of blocks from the Crown, he followed her up a dark, narrow stairway. As he watched her move, he wondered exactly how Grakyn females were put together.
The phone purred against his hip. Finally, he shut it off.
“What is it you want me to try?” he asked again, to put Helen out of his mind.
Bright light flooded her small apartment; she turned a knob to dim it. He had expected some gleaming alien compartment, but it was a cheap rented room with unmatched furniture. The rugs were something like yellow. The armchair had seen rounder, fuller days. It was quiet inside: soundproof? She touched another knob; soft, rainlike rhythms pulsed from hidden speakers.
He followed her to the sink. It occupied the place of honor as the focal point of the room that a NorAmer would reserve for a holoset or v-rig.
Facing the sink was an antique dentist’s chair, full of lamps and trays and drill attachments. Worn leather straps hung from the armrests. Michael chuckled nervously.
She looked up at him with one raised eyebrow as she squirted a gob of pink paste across the bristles of a vintage inlaid-silver Bavarian-manufacture axe.
“That’s it?” Michael asked. He’d rather been expecting something more alien, something exotic.
She tugged at his hand. “It’s a new gel. It’s in the test market phase. Come on. Try it. You’ll like it.”
Michael took out his own axe, clicked in a fresh brush, and went to work. Together they foamed up. She eyed him expectantly as she reached back to stroke her molars. Her strangely jointed hips swayed, suggesting new possibilities. She grinned, immaculate white through pink paste.
She opened her mouth invitingly. He thumbed his axe into whirring activity and shoved it in her mouth and let it stir up pink froth. They laughed together as she wedged her weapon between his teeth and he felt it vibrate against his tongue.
Whatever was in the paste, it went straight to his head. He felt dizzy. Reality split itself into glittering shards, like an overdose of Cinema. In the new light, her body tugged at his like some sucking gravitational vortex. Maybe it was the paste, or maybe it was her, or maybe it was both, but he had never wanted any woman more. Her skin, white as a whitewashed wall, flushed and glowed with excitement. She grinned: the row of bright shiny squares, hard and glassy and with just the hint of a point at each diamond-precise tip, was the most irresistible sexual display he had ever seen.
And all he had to do was reach.
He yanked the axe from his mouth, tossed it aside, and pulled her closer. He tugged the brush from her mouth and pressed his lips to hers. Their kiss lathered and foamed. He fondled a firm breast; squeezed a tight buttock.
He felt her pluck the buttons off his shirt. His erection felt like it was burning a hole in his pants. He fumbled around the back of her tunic but couldn’t find any buttons or clasps or zippers.
“Allow me,” she said. She pulled a cord somewhere near her collar. Her clothes fell to the floor.
Michael stepped back to admire.
She was female, all right. It was reassuring at this late date to have that verified. Her frame was very long, and she seemed to have a slight, extra set of curves at the hips, but she was by no means unattractive.
Michael doffed his coat, slacks, and tunic.
She knelt before him and bit him everywhere he wished she would. Each small wound left a pink, astringent sting.
He moved to topple and enter her. And hesitated. The paste—it must have been the paste—gave him strange associations. A snake entranced by a charmer. A deer caught in the headlights. An insect hovering over a Venus flytrap, pondering descent. He could still leave, he realized. He could still walk away.
She flowed to her feet and sank a score of tiny points into the soft spot between his neck and shoulder.
She pushed him back into the chair. She climbed on top of him. He plunged ahead and let her engulf him. Time slowed. The light shifted. He felt her tighten around him as she drew him in deeper, deeper.
Grinning mischievously, she grabbed the armrest straps and bound his wrists. He tugged but could not disengage them.
“Oh dear,” he said, “trapped.”
She giggled, lifted herself, fell back, and spun a tray of glittering instruments in front of him.
“Open wide,” she said.
He leaned back to laugh—and felt something bite.
“Mmph,” he said, brushing her lips. “My mouth’s numb.”
“Aww. I shall fix that.”
She picked up another instrument, one he did not recognize. “Open wide.” She wrenched her hip in a way that made Michael gasp with pleasure, and in that instant, steady-handed, she stuck the instrument in his mouth. Something pierced his unfeeling gums.
She pushed the tray away and shrugged. She seemed to shift gears, concentrating more intently on lovemaking. She smiled slightly. It seemed to Michael a smile not of satiation but anticipation. Something else, clearly, had yet to occur.
That was fine with Michael. He tried to wrap his arms around her, and found that the straps now gave way. She nestled in closer. He lost himself in the interplay of lips, tongue, and teeth. He was starting to get some feeling back in his mouth.
Was he ever ...
He felt direct erotic sensations, there, in his mouth—at the roots of his teeth, throughout the enamel, and deep into the soft pulp. She lifted, he thrust, she fell, he thrust, she lifted. Each time waves of pleasure spiked along his gumline.
So this was the treat from home. It was as if his senses were scrambled, his nervous system rewired. God, Michael thought, the marketing possibilities ...
White light and blue sparks exploded in his mouth.
He woke to find himself alone on the chair. He sat up and immediately regretted it. He had a hangover the size of a generation spindleship. The Cinema had long since worn off, its comforting shadows giving way to an unforgiving headachy glare.
Assorted siblings of Thani lay on furniture or floor. The Grakyn slept loudly. Michael recognized the three-sibling Thani had argued with the night before.
Michael found his pants, slipped them on, tightened the drawstring, and stumbled to the sink. God, his mouth tasted terrible. It wasn’t until he got his axe whirring, and foamed up with a familiar brand of gel, that he realized the pain was not in his head.
It was in his teeth. The pains were quite specific. He counted. Thirty-two little novae of pain burned along the inside of his mouth; no, twenty-eight; he’d had his wisdom teeth extracted years ago because they were all coming in crooked.
He raided Thani’s cabinet, looking for anesthetics. Or maybe that rinse they’d shared. The oddly-shaped pink bottle was nowhere to be found.
He heard tapping. He looked and found a door to another room. He tiptoed over a pair of sleeping Grakyn and pulled at the knob.
Thani, wearing a white blouse and blue slacks, sat at a design box. She turned at his approach, flashed him a bright, bright smile. She ignored the sleeping siblings around her, and nodded towards the console.
“For the new rinse,” she told Michael. “Take a look.”
Michael shambled over to peer over her shoulder at the display. It was a sketch for an ad campaign. Headlines and body copy too. The effect praised and flattered the new product. It made the viewer feel good about the very thought of purchasing it. It promised delight and transport, rapture and oblivion. It did so in a way that was at once tasteful and suggestive. It did everything an ad ought to do. It did so in exactly the way Michael would have done.
“It’s mine,” Michael said. His voice had taken on a slightly different quality because it hurt to move his mouth. “I did this!”
Thani’s smile brightened. “We,” she said. “You and I did this.”
“The hell ‘we’ did! You took this from me!”
“Really?” Thani closed her lips but continued to smile, and smile. “You dreamt it, perhaps?”
He shook his head. “But it’s my style, it’s got my touch.” He tapped his forehead. “It was in here, somewhere. How’d you get it out?”
“Look at the ad, Michael. How would you rate it, compared with the rest of your work?”
“It’s the best thing I’ve done in years.”
She nodded: still a practiced gesture. “You’ll always be working at your peak from now on. It’s what we get in return.”
He stormed out, found the rest of his clothes, and put them back on. He barged for the door. He touched the knob. He looked around. He was forgetting something. Thani’s siblings snored and hissed in their sleep. He found his gaze drawn to the sink. No, he told himself; do it later, you idiot ...
Thani, from the doorway, tossed him a bottle. He caught it. It was made of pink glass and had a vaguely obscene shape. He could not have designed a better package himself.
“Our rinse,” Thani said. “Take it. Come back anytime. Say, when you run out.”
He slammed the door on his way out.
Somehow he managed to hide the pink rinse from Helen. He kept it tucked away in a drawer under a batch of last year’s socks. He stole nips, waiting hours or sometimes days for her to leave the flat.
He could not bring in any clients. Helen did. He found he could not create anything for them.
Only recycled clichés poured forth.
One day she did not come back. She left a note. She could hardly stand to look at him or touch him. She could not sleep with, let alone respect, a man who did Russian work, who used a Russian rinse. She wished him much luck with his pink bottle.
Michael tried to snag clients on his own. He thought if he timed his doses of pink rinse, the creative spark would jump back.
His ad for pink rinse was everywhere.
He returned to Thani’s flat the day he ran out.
A few Grakyn snored and wheezed on floor and couch. A naked man slept strapped to the armchair. Bright new dental instruments glittered on the shelf above the sink. Michael tiptoed across the room and opened the door to Thani’s study.
A Grakyn male in work clothes tapped away at the design console. Music came out. Michael didn’t follow postmillenium classical, but he recognized the style of a hot symphonic star. He guessed that was the guy in the chair. Sounded like his next work would get an early release.
He found Thani asleep, her face pressed into a pillow on the floor. He nudged her awake. He rattled the empty bottle.
“I’m all out,” he said.
She shook her head with a sad inflection. Her humanoid gestures had improved.
“It’s not the rinse,” she said. “It’s the rinse, and me. And us.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Of course you do, Michael. You get me, and I get you.”
“And you get my ideas.”
“It’s not fair.”
“Life’s not fair,” said Thani. “It wasn’t to the subspecies we used to bond with, and it wasn’t to the space travelers who made contact with us—they still build our ships for us, you know. We’re not all that creative on our own, you know. But at least you get something out of it. Here,” she said, getting up and moving towards the cabinet as she unbuttoned her blouse. She handed him a pink bottle with the safety seal still intact.
He took a swig and reached for her. He loved the way his teeth touched hers. He hardly noticed when her siblings slowly woke up, and removed the musician from the chair, so that there’d be room for him when the time came.
This story originally appeared in Interzone.