Now I am not early in the twenty-first century.

Now I am not early.

Now I am not.

Now I am.

Now is Monday morning, ship time, so I am against the Empire. I like the sound of that: little glam-bitch me against the big, evil, and deathly dull Empire of the New Systems. The citizens of the New Systems don’t call themselves an Empire, but I do, so fuck ‘em. Which I have—one of them at least. The Imperial Consul dozes next to me in my cabin, his sweat still drying from his well-and-thorough fucking, scratch marks and bruises still fresh and angry on his overly muscled back.

The Consul’s name is famous, but I just call him “Consul,” or “you.” My aversion to names is a minor footnote in my official diagnosis, but it’s a fixed star in my synapses, so it matters. Neuro-linguistic assholes are always trying to put their words into my brain, and names are where it starts. If they’re violating the Psych Laws, it’s not so blatantly that I can rely on others to kill them.

I also loathe my own name—fair is fair—so for the story I’ve been telling the Consul, I call myself a Countess. I’ve always believed that I really am a Countess; marvelous how dreams come true.

More to the point, a Countess is the starring character in the adventure the easily profiled Consul wants to have. It starts with a sad, sad tale of my debts and human trafficking, and why would anyone tell such a story if it weren’t true? But then the big brave Consul gets to rescue the poor aristocrat from slavery, and the grateful aristocrat fucks him, and everyone is happy for as long as they can stand it. It’s the story he’s been waiting for his whole life.

If someone more intelligent on this ship is checking the available noosphere, they’re finding all sorts of supporting background for my fairytale Countess. The data sometimes shows up immediately after I’ve told a story—one of my employers’ many tricks on my behalf. I’d love to know how they do it.

But my thoughts veer away from that question, as they are wont to do, because this is my favorite moment, when my lover is a static piece in the larger artwork of my luxury cabin. I’ve had the rooms decorated for the voyage; my own creations hang next to those of the modern masters, their proper place. I created my art under another identity, as my work doesn’t quite fit with my Countess persona. I work in human and alien body fluids for my pigments; my paintings are anatomy lessons gone wrong.

My palette runs with hungry excess to the red and black, and the mauled portions of my lover’s green-hued skin blend well with my art. The Consul’s uniform lies empty like a gold-braided trophy just beyond the reach of my stretching, low-grav-long legs.

A visual masterpiece, but too quiet. What to do, what to do? The alternatives come into focus. I can fuck him again, continuing to screw out info in pillow talk (and other less gentle talk and acts). I can kill him. So many ways, so little time. I can suborn him to another’s service. Who for again? Ah yes, the League. The League is the biggest power in the trafficking of humans and other sentients. No doubt about it, it’s Monday and I’m allied with the Para-Humanoid League.

(A) Fuck. (B) Kill. (C) Recruit. Or (D) All of the above—I’ve done it before. He may deserve it.

What to do? I light a cigarette. It’s an expensive habit; new lungs aren’t cheap. But neither are all the other body parts that I’ve worn through. Business expenses. I am ever ambivalent about the raw meat of my body. If my employers desire my expertise, they have to pay for the joyous collateral damage to my flesh. Yay!

What to do!? I don’t want to decide. I don’t have to decide. No one can make me decide. I will see what happens when he wakes up. I will wake him up now.

✽✽✽

I awake the Consul with a kiss. He returns it, sloppy wet, like some enormous dog. “You will come home with me, Countess.” His questions sound like orders.

“You have conquered me.” I hold him tightly, trembling like desire and fear. The Imperials love melodrama.

“After this voyage, you will come home with me?” he repeats, his imperative now more a question, now more a doubt.

“I can’t.” I turn my face away as if to hide a strong emotion. “I’ve told you. The League. My person is forfeit. I must give myself to them before the voyage ends.”

“Those inhuman bastards! I’ll pay your bond.”

I make my eyes water, my voice quaver. “One billion unicred.” Absurd amount. I’m worth it, but if he has any spine he will question it.

He doesn’t question. “We can leave before the conference, in my shuttle.”

“But the conference, the League. What will happen?”

He holds a salty finger to my lips. “I don’t care. Love is more important.”

“Yes, it is.” What a wonderful man he is. Just his neoclassical title makes me swoon, and his representing all those long enormous ships from the most militant part of the human diaspora—well, what woman wouldn’t surrender to that? A shame it won’t last. They always have to go in the end.

“We’ll leave on Saturday,” he says. “We’ll meet at my quarters.”

“I’m afraid.”

The Consul touches my face, wiping a tear aside. “I’ll save you. On Saturday, we’ll be free.”

✽✽✽

Once upon a time, there was a stupid little girl named Robynne Owen. Robynne preferred living alone in a shithole apartment on Earth and flitting about the planet rather than studying Classics at her offworld all-twat college. She certainly couldn’t return to her manipulative Martian parents. Some doctor of theirs had tagged Robynne with an official diagnosis: borderline personality disorder (post-World War III definition) with severe emotional amnesia component and very strong anti-social tendencies. This meant she could change her mind about people quickly and violently, and then change her mind again.

Robynne knew this was true, but she resented the imposition of someone else’s definitions on her psyche. It was the least of her parents’ sins, so she kicked the dust of the family estate off her boots forever. Grandma had set up a nice trust fund, and though the family lawyers tried to keep as much of it from Robynne as they could, thousands of credits still leaked out.

Robynne sometimes missed her Nanny though. Nanny had never lied like Robynne’s parents, and she had somehow made the oldest bits of old Earth’s history come alive in the cold isolation of the Owens’ Martian compound.

Robynne did fine amidst the fascist klepto-oligarchies and neo-fund theocracies that still throve on humanity’s homeworld. Living and traveling alone meant that she was a center of gravity for all kinds of people and things to spin around and fall into. She had her own stage for an always changing, always appreciative audience that hungered for color in the ambient beige oppression.

Being alone, Robynne could be a virgin for her body fluid art. (An artist needed a room of her own, even if it was a shithole.) Alone, Robynne could fuck her way through all the genders, human and alien, new ones discovered every day.  The only universal was that she preferred them young, at the very threshold of adulthood, before skin, scales, and shells thickened and made them less vulnerable, before regen treatments made them fake. She often fell in love and hate. Others often fell in love and hate with her, but that wasn’t her problem. It was all their own fault.

Alone, Robynne could sample every drug. She had a thing for the new opioids in particular.

Robynne’s thing for the opioids got a little out of hand. When they found her, she couldn’t tell them whether she had deliberately or accidentally OD’d. Or maybe that charming boy had tried to kill her. What did it matter anyway?

✽✽✽

On Saturday, freedom with the Consul sounds shitty, so I go to the SS Olympus’ ship party. Both outside and in, the Olympus is a rococo mess of nonfunctional detail: birdlike wings and fishlike fins, eyes painted on the prow, and inside a ballroom with the aesthetics of long-gone Versailles. This excess is possible because so little of its structure has anything to do with how we move through space, and the Olympus neither wants to fight nor to look like it could.

I love parties, except when they bore me, which is often. I always love to dress for parties, because I’m good at it. My credo: a secret agent should always dress as colorfully outrageous as possible and accentuate her controversial features. I have many controversial features to choose from; I am as meta-aware of my body as I am of my psyche. I am low-gravity tall, with simply endless legs with which I affect a fragile (yet still sensual) quasi-lameness in high grav, as if I were always in heels that were too high. My breasts are ample in absolute terms, but my tall frame allows me to control their emphasis. My fingers are long like extended claws.

But my most controversial feature is my face. Despite whatever array of piercings I sport, it remains the face of a precocious, prurient child, the kind of face that makes the most innocent of lollipops look naughty. All the genders with a taste for human females find me repellent and irresistible at the same time. I am the bad thing that they aren’t supposed to have.

Other than some casual self-cutting, I never vary my physical form—major body alteration is a sport for others. I never vary my gray eyes. I vary hair, long and red tonight. I vary dress and identity. Clothes make the woman.

I sweep into the gloriously retro-aristo ballroom, its lavender walls a wonderful contrast against my shimmering sunset dress. A pert little crewgirl (what’s she doing later?) announces me as the Countess from the blah blah system beyond the spiral arm. Exactly where beyond doesn’t matter in my Countess legend so long as it’s too far away to be relevant to this provincial audience. The Countess story pleases all; only an aristocrat can screw and be screwed with impunity.

Feeling aristocratic, I decide to screw a Para-Humanoid Leaguer. The Leaguers trade everywhere, and their preference for deep space over planetary surfaces has allowed their bodies some interesting alterations from Terran norm. I don’t know yet tonight whether I am for or against the League, and I don’t care how I felt before. I only care that that the League is a major power. I’ve told the Imperial Consul that the League covets me, and it isn’t nice to lie. Perhaps he’ll think I’m trying to pay my debt.

A League representative will be more difficult to ensnare than the Consul was. That dull fuck was mine with a sad story, some dirty words, and a smile. Despite my title of Countess, if I try such a direct approach with a Leaguer, he’ll assume I’m the ship’s whore, and a quick and simple money transaction doesn’t suit my purposes. Still, I’ll need a trader’s mindset. The merchant-dominated Leaguers have a mania for possessing things others desire. I have to show a Leaguer that everyone desires me.

I begin my campaign. I accept a dance with the ship’s Captain, a lovely woman who has let her hair go gray to appear more distinguished. I dance with only technical proficiency; too much strength and ease in my low-grav legs would seem threatening. I make my partners feel graceful, so all desire a turn.

“My sweet Captain, can’t you do something about this music?”

“Don’t you find it pretty?” she asks.

“Yes, but pretty is boring. Why not music compiled from the notes in the dying screams of a thousand species—something you can really move to?”

The Captain’s laugh is belly deep. The Countess is already notoriously outré.

“Is it true, Captain, that you are barred from intimacy with your passengers?”

“I think you know, Countess.”

“Oh damn. How tedious for both of us.” I bend and kiss the Captain full on her tight-lipped mouth. A jealous, disapproving murmur simmers in the crowd.

The Captain’s blush is not very distinguished. “Of course, once the voyage is over, it’s a different matter,” she whispers.

“Of course. But now our dance is done.” And I bow and go on to select my next partner.

From the Leaguer delegation comes snatches of trade talk and only glances in my direction. I can read the tiniest cues of word or expression, but these damned hucksters instinctively avoid flashing their interest in anything and thus driving up the cost. Such discretion means covering much of their beautiful translucent skin, lest the visible beat of their pulses betrays their desires.

I choose one of the Consul’s aides in the Imperial delegation, who snaps to attention when I approach and falls into the dance with nearly a marching cadence. Young and tender, strong and stupid, like the Empire. His hair has the blond curls of an Alexander with chlorophyll-infused skin. His poorly repressed desire will help with the Leaguers, and I can poke at the Consul through him.

“Your ram ships remind me of triremes. Do you know about triremes?”

“No, Madame.” Oh great, he’s another dull one. “I believe the Consul was expecting you at his cabin this afternoon.”

“How is the Consul’s back? I’m afraid I left it messy.”

“I’ve never seen his back, Madame.”

“Really? I thought the Consul would enjoy showing his back to a boy like you. He must be embarrassed.”

“He likes boys?”

“No, dear, he likes you.”

The Imperial sense of honor is only exceeded by the numerous Imperial phobias. I feel the innocent boy gulp, and his pale green cheeks darken with red shame. Charming. Perhaps him and the crewgirl—later.

“Of course, you’d have to pilot that ship,” I add. “I begged him to show some fight, but he didn’t leave a mark on me.”

Before the last note of the song, the aide furtively bows and exits. If he doesn’t hold his tongue, all will be well.

A Leaguer’s eyes swing toward me, then away, perhaps considering an approach. I turn away from his furtive gaze of acquisition and select a dancing master to help me put on a show.

I let go of any restraint; we propel athletically across the floor. A marvelous slashing pain shoots up my straining legs as I dance. Red shoes syndrome takes me whoosh, whoosh, whooshing. Faces, alien and human, blur together, all looking at me. Wanting to be me or fuck me—never a clear distinction.

But Consul Dull Fuck has arrived—did he see me with his aide?—and he trails me across the ballroom floor. Not the attention I want. “Where were you?” he hisses. “You said you loved me. You said you’d leave with me.”

“Useless,” I hiss back, enjoying the word’s ambiguity. I’m insulting him, but perhaps he’ll think I’m bemoaning the futility of escape. The enemy annoys me by always trying to induce some petty form of dissonance (usually guilt). I say lots of things. My words only have meaning in terms of my assignment. Tonight I don’t care about the Empire. I need to talk to someone else to keep the Consul out of my face and get a Leaguer’s attention.

I bow toward the dancing master and leave the floor. A cluster of squid-like Floaters hovers nearby. More uselessness: they have no interest in ancient literature, modern art, or my other soirée gambits that mysteriously elicit the political views of others. And a Leaguer will place no value on Floater sexual tastes. For fucking, Floaters’ tentacles have enormous potential, but hanging by suspension boots while waiting to become a tedious alien’s sandwich/sex sacrifice is not how I hope to end this voyage.

Will the Floaters abide by one of their conflicting treaties and enter a regional war? Unknown.

But beyond the Floaters stands a smirking problem. I knew the Hegemony would send an ambassador, but I didn’t expect it to be this person. He’s remained out of my sight until now, as if waiting for the most precarious moment. I met him on a previous mission under some other aristo ID. My report on him then: “He is a hawk-nosed, squat little man from a high-gravity world, ugly and stale-minded, without poetry in his soul—not usual for a frequent spacefarer. He enjoys addressing his lady the Hegemon without ceremony or flattery, which leads to disputes with less direct courtiers. His form is dull, his thought sharp, and neither ever varies. Despite his efforts to hide it, he shows evidence of childhood trauma. Perhaps in response, he decided his loyalties as a young man and will not change them come hell or psychosis.”

I’ve known him well. And I knew his wife well. He may hate me because of his spouse’s death and his own bullshit. He’ll see through my minor changes. Better that he try to kill me than question my identity and spoil everything.

I relax and defy augury. The straightest path to disaster is the most fun. He might actually help by causing a scene. Leaguers covet the paleo-Terran apotheosis culture and tastes of the Hegemony, but can never master the casual disregard of wealth and price that comes naturally to the Hegemonians. The Consul’s rage means little to the League, but if the Hegemonian Ambassador freaks out over me, that’ll mean I’m worth attention.

Before I can approach the Ambassador, he’s striding toward me, and I allow it. Oh, but he dresses so atrociously plain. His suit’s color is a static black, the fabric shows signs of manual labor. He halts, face tilted up toward me, and he’s already talking. “My lady—Countess, is it?—you’re particularly stunning this evening.” He never stops smirking; even I can’t tell whether he’s sincere.

“It reassures me that you look the same as always, Ambassador. What the hell are you wearing? Are you being paid enough?”

He doesn’t miss a beat. “I see the Consul is hot on the chase. Should I be jealous?”

“You can be whatever suits you. But it might suit us both to find another place to drink.” He’s not causing a scene yet, so best to leave our tête-à-tête to the Leaguers’ imagination.

We leave the Consul as he attempts not to smoke with rage in public. We walk arm in arm into a private viewing parlor, which shows the stars as they would have appeared if the ship were in real space instead of FTL. Delightful artifice. Yes, a Leaguer will definitely assume that the Ambassador is seeking a liaison with me. And perhaps he is

As the liaison could be murderous, I press my right hand into a fist for three seconds, signaling a subtle shift to the molecular structure along the edge of my nails that will make them sharper than diamond. A double click of my teeth commences a similar dental shift. I admit that my teeth and claws are as much affectation as weaponry, but I’ve no blade on hand.

I’m ready for combat, but the Ambassador doesn’t strike. Instead, with his usual lack of delicacy, he breaks the silence. “My lady, do you know what you are?”

“A rhetorical question, Your Excellency? Am I to be called fascinating, impossible, a goddess, a Messalina? You’re on a well-worn path, but that doesn’t mean I’ll let you walk there.”

The Ambassador shakes his head. “I apologize. Some of you have a meta-awareness of your condition. I thought you might be one of them.”

The enemy, the enemy, the fucking enemy. Of course I have meta-awareness—I’m all meta all the time. “My only condition is that I cannot stand the importunities of small, peevish, presumptive former bedmates.”

“Again I apologize. I have learned much since your visit to the Hegemony, much that I would share. But it was wrong of me to offer now.”

The Ambassador never loses his smile, but I smell something dirty from him, something that stinks like purity and past failure, and there’s something in his eyes, and if it’s pity, I will kill him.

But we are rudely interrupted by the lightest of sounds: the footfall of a League representative. No door in most commercial ships can keep a Leaguer out. To say he’s both rich and politically important is particularly redundant within the League. He has opened his coat; negotiations are over. His ever-young skin is so fine and translucent that, in this perfect light, I can see the outlines of his organs and ribs. His hair is like tinted glass. So cold. To touch him will be like etching crystal.

“Lady, you must dance with me.” And he takes my hand and leads me back out and onto the floor.

Oh my, yes, I am allied with the League.

✽✽✽

Once upon another time, when stupid Robynne recovered from her OD, the doctors told her that she was pregnant. She told them to get it out of her alive and give it to someone else, please. So they did.

Those who paid her doctors were not her family. She saw her parents only once more. They came all the way from Mars to the hospital just to sign some legal papers. They were happy to be rid of her, especially her mother—the whore. She missed her daddy, though.

They gave her a lot of psychological tests. She was pretty sure she fooled them. They gave her some drugs, which didn’t seem to do anything good or bad. Then they offered her a job.

✽✽✽

After the party, Boy Toy the Leaguer leads me back by the arm to his cabin. Before anything else, he brings out a border scanner—the luxury model, of course, a rectangular diamond with faceted corners and platinum trim. The hand-shaped depression is a functional illusion; the device doesn’t require contact, but works best within arm’s length.

“Interesting sex toy,” I quip. “Planning to visit some new world?”

“Please. Our Insurers insist.”

“Already answered everything before boarding.” Most everyone undergoes a psych scan before boarding a vessel and on arrival at a planet or major station. But I allow the repetition. This machine has never stopped me crossing a border, and no one ever wins an argument with the League’s Insurers.

Most of the time, I’m a Schrödinger’s cat of uncertain intention, though unlike that probabilistic feline I stay uncertain when someone is peeking at my thoughts.

Instead of the usual list of questions, Boy Toy has one. Well, actually two. “Do you intend any harm towards me or the League?” I answer “no.” And the scan confirms I’m not lying. Yet.

We have sex, and I mentally note all the wonderful details for my report. Sex doesn’t tire Boy Toy—I don’t think Leaguers sleep much—but it does seem to loosen him up, so we sit on the bed in full lotus postures (Leaguers are very flexible) and talk.

I haven’t done my homework for this mission because I enjoy spontaneity (though I hate surprises). So I have some sincere questions. It helps that I’m acting a little dim. Everyone enjoys feeling superior, but Boy Toy wouldn’t talk to someone who’s a complete fool. A little dim is the sweet spot.

“Why are you bothering with peace talks?” I ask. “Everyone knows you could beat the Imperials.”

“Real war is bad for business.”

“That’s not what I’ve heard.”

This triggers his full professorial mode. “True, the preparation for wars is great business, and other people’s wars create plenty of opportunities in some of our core areas.” Those areas are weapons and trafficking in sentients, but I’m not judgy. “But a war with the Imperials is projected to be, at best, a net loss for both sides. The optimum for interstellar trade is peace. Wars kill customers. Sometimes, they kill whole worlds.”

His heartrate spikes on the last bit.

“Whole worlds?” I laugh a little, incredulous. “Since when in the past couple of centuries is anyone killing planets?”

“More recently and more often than you know. But we know who’s responsible, and we’ve taken measures.”

I’m intrigued. I’ve certainly caused some damage during my career, but killing off an entire world or an entire people sounds literally divine, and so like my favorite music. Yet something bothers me about the aesthetics, and the competition. “Who’s responsible?” I ask.

“That’s an agenda item for our talks with the Imperials,” he says.

And not for me. I pout to hide my rage. He unfolds out of the lotus posture and pulls me toward him. Oh good, some rage sex is just what I need.

✽✽✽

Later, Sunday evening, I have time to relax and report. With a quill pen, I write on an image of parchment generated by my compad, a stolen family heirloom that I wear on the back of my left hand. All that my employers ask is that I send timely, clear, and accurate reports. My employers always give positive feedback on my compositions, and let me do whatever else I want wherever they send me. My employers are not League, Empire, or Hegemony. Once, when I began my work, I asked who they were. They said, “We are the ones who pay the bills.”

I write about the party. “Darlings, I looked fabulous. The Consul was my dog. The Ambassador applied for the position of friend and loyal satyr, but no nymph for him. And the Leaguer, the Leaguer, the Leaguer. Yum. I could see the fluid build up inside him, the muscles straining and relaxing to hold back, even the final explosion before it happened. His blood was a rosé, his come a dessert liqueur.”

It makes me wet just thinking about it. I don’t need to touch myself for the rest; I get myself fully off just with a finely tuned set of squeezes. I climax over and over again, screaming invective against myself and Mommy and Daddy and all others.

✽✽✽

Tuesday afternoon, and I am finally getting up. The Empire is OK today. But the Hegemony has to go. The League can go fuck itself, because I’m not interested. As if considering a purchase, Boy Toy looked at my art collection, particularly at my own paintings, and asked how much they cost. “Everything,” I said, and he didn’t understand. Thank all gods he didn’t know I’m the artist.

It’s just as well I’m against the League. My family’s motto is “no compromise with enslavers,” and that’s the one thing my heinous ancestors had right. It’s not a moral question; slaves are boring, and the League’s trafficking in sentients makes interesting toys into boring ones.

The shipcom has been trying to get my attention for who knows how long. Something about a disturbance outside my cabin.

I open my door, still in my negligée. Half the ship seems to have crowded into the corridor to watch the drama, and I’m late to the show. The Imperial Consul is shouting at the bare-chested Leaguer and waving a pistol in the air. Boy Toy the Leaguer stands still, trying to look impassive, but all can see the outline of his heart beating faster behind his rib cage.

“I won’t let her fall into your hands, you inhuman bastard,” bellows the Consul. “I’m taking her off this ship.”

Everyone is always talking about me, but this time it’s not satisfying.

“You’ll take her no place, Imperialist,” hisses Boy Toy. “She’s under League jurisdiction. Do you understand what that means?”

Oh, this is really too, too much to bear. “Stop trying to be my fucking parents!”

Stunned silence. OK. Perhaps I sound just the tiniest bit nuts.

The Consul glares at me and Boy Toy. “This isn’t over. Not by a long shot.”

I touch his cheek. “Don’t be huffy, sweetums, it brings out your manly clichés.”

He marches off. Probably going to leave the ship. I give a little wave. “Ta-ta, dear. I hope you’ve enjoyed your stay. Come back when you can. Give your Emperor a kiss for me.” Oh, that last is excessive, and I feel the ground drop out from below me with the need for this man to still covet me, whatever I feel about him. With once last play of the fairytale fishing line, I shout, “You’ll always be my prince.”

He turns, and I give him big eyes and pass a kiss on my fingers toward him, as if this has all been a noble act to spare him from my downfall. He gives the barest of nods, and resumes his march. He’d better come back, or this isn’t going to be a fun voyage at all.

The crowd is beginning to fade away. Good. But one person isn’t moving. I confront the Leaguer.

“Time to go home, and take your boy suit with you.”

“I don’t understand you.”

“Try thinking of it as evolution, not a sell-off.”

Quicker than thought, his hands grasp my wrists, tightly restraining them as he did when we fucked. “Not this time, Border Crosser. You and I are going to spend the rest of your life together.”

Border Crosser. Though I’m unsure of their meaning, the words fit me like a slipper with razor blades. This is getting interesting.

Oh drat. That pedantic Ambassador is here, too. “My lady, do you require any assistance?”

Before I can answer, Boy Toy bolts, again with that enhanced speed that makes him a blur. How interesting—something about the Hegemony makes him skittish.

“Damn your interfering stale soul,” I growl. But my words only brighten his face.

“The stalemate between League and New Systems has kept the regional peace for a hundred years. The conference we’re rushing towards is all that stands between them and total war. Doesn’t that concern you?”

“No.”

“Direct. That’s good. How about the term Border Crosser? Does that concern you?”

I hesitate, then speak in a child’s voice. “Yes.”

The Ambassador nods. “Good. You’ve started another countdown. I have to tell you what I know, now. Come with me.”