"Putting chauvinistic romanticism aside, consciousness is merely a pinprick of light shining through a chink in the curtains."
The recorded voice, a last ditch attempt by Fyche, my faithful AI, to tempt me to resuscitate my faltering career as a sex reporter, roused me from a deep, satiated sleep. Losing his body to the supernova that atomized Jones's World had not diminished one iota Fyche's compulsion to fuss over me. He had insisted that he awaken me with the audio of a lecture given by the celebrated sexologist Professor Simon Bok. It had been Fyche's idea that I should at least give the illusion of working at the career which had given me fame and fortune. He'd set me a project to write a popular guide to the psychology of sex. Despite all that had been going on these last few months, Fyche insisted I had to keep my publisher happy and maintain some hold, as tenuous as it was, on my day job.
I was lying on the floor, evidence of a good night, and with some effort I focused on the professor's sententious tone. "Behind the curtain the scene is awash with intense actinic light, a seething cauldron of neural activity. That is the unconscious, controlling the autonomic nervous system, keeping the body alive as well as processing the constant influx of sensation, assessing the salience of the data for any threat, directing flight or fight reactions with lightning speed, distinguishing pleasure from pain, as well as performing the more sedate activities of laying down new memories and overwriting the old. This hidden inferno is the core of your being."
I turned down the volume on Bok's lecture. The aged sexologist did go on sometimes. To be honest I was sick to death of his curtain analogy.
The sleeping male beside me stirred. He was good looking in the usual way; square jaw, strong body with hard, rippling muscles under golden skin and, not least of all, a big throbbing cock. Last night his bright eyes, burning with youthful machismo, had been captivated by my split skirt that had strategically fallen open when I'd perched myself on the barstool, exposing my thigh in the classic manner designed to attract any buzzing bees loitering in the vicinity.
I couldn't remember his name but recalled he was a navy lieutenant from Scalion. He was a fighter pilot, I think. My memory of last night was a tad hazy. I glanced at the uniform strewn across the floor and sighted the embroidered wings on the shoulder patch. Yep, a fighter pilot, one of the brave, one of the few, a pulsating bag of testosterone secure in his cockpit playing with his joystick.
His being a pilot hadn't interested me as much as his accent.
I'd been sitting alone at Haze Bar and Grill nursing one of their boutique beers. He'd sat next to me, already swaying with a tad too much alcohol.
"Can I buy you a beer?" he said a little too loudly.
The accent, only slightly slurred, stabbed into my consciousness. It was familiar. More than it should have been. I gave him the onceover, liked what I saw.
"I already have one."
He didn't miss a beat. "You can always have two." Perfectly white teeth flashed in a boyish smile.
"That's very true."
As I tried to figure out why the accent should strike me as important, he signaled to the arthropod bartender. "Two more."
He held out his hand. "I'm Kel."
I took it. "Peri."
He took my hand to his lips, turned it and kissed the sensitive skin at the wrist. As corny as it was, the gesture sent a tingle through my flesh. My wrist is one of my erogenous zones, as is most of my body, but the wrist is one of the special ones.
"Is that customary on Scalion?" Somehow I knew where his accent originated. How, I had no idea.
His face contorted in an exaggerated frown. "Darn it to hell. I've been working on my accent for months."
I couldn't help but laugh. "Why change it? It's nice."
He took a swig from his beer. "It's like a tattoo across my forehead marking me as a provincial. If I want to get ahead, I have to sound civilized."
I detected a slight tone of bitterness. "Is getting ahead so important you have to change who you are?"
His jaw had set firm and he fixed me with his bright blues. I sensed he'd debated this already in his own head. "I'm only changing my accent."
I tapped his bottle of beer with mine. "That's just the beginning."
"The slippery slope to mediocrity. If you sound like everyone else, how will you get noticed?"
"By being the best pilot."
I shrugged. "I know nothing of being a pilot, but I bet there are a lot of good ones around. Unless you possess superhuman reflexes how can you guarantee you'll be the best?"
He was silent for a moment. He'd battled the same thoughts no doubt. "I'm betting on my ability and dedication," he said finally.
I clinked bottles again. "Good luck with that."
He bristled at that. "What? You don't think I can be the best?"
"I have no idea, but Marketing 101 says that to compete in a highly competitive market you accentuate your differences. That is called your competitive advantage."
"What are you? A teacher?"
"Hardly, but tell me, as good as you are, what makes you a unique pilot?"
He looked into his beer for a few moments before his expression clouded slightly and became a little despondent. "I'm working on a new way of fighting pirates. The problem we have is that if we are lucky enough to catch them in the act, as soon as they see us they just jump into quantum space. Tracking their engine's tachyon signature is next to useless because they have inbuilt randomizers, which are illegal but that's their game, isn't it?"
"So what is it, this new strategy?"
"I'm still working out the details, haven't tried it out yet, but it involves taking them head on and combining their spatial inertia at the instant they make the jump and adding to my own, so they cancel out. Depending on their mass I'll have to alter my attack speed to compensate. I finished the mathematics of it this afternoon. It should work."
"So you're celebrating tonight?"
He clinked my glass. "You got it."
Of course, he intended for me to be his prize for this youthful endeavor. Not that I was completely averse to the idea.
"What do you call this strategy?"
"You have to have a name for it."
"I haven't thought that far ahead. I haven't tried it out, you see."
"You have to have a name. The Kel Maneuver? The Scalion Maneuver? Or something boring like the Spatial Inertia Maneuver?"
"Oh, I see what you mean." His eyes slid over my face like a caress and settled on my lips. "I could call it the Peri Maneuver."
My belly gave a little flutter. Oh, he was so cute. "Will my maneuver work?"
His expression became doubtful. "Nothing like it has been tried. Too dangerous, you see. The timing has to be absolutely perfect to the twentieth decimal place and there are a few other variables that need to be controlled."
I patted his hand in commiseration. It didn't sound like a profitable idea. "What else makes you unique among pilots?"
He gave a shrug. "The only pilot in the fleet from Scalion?"
Poor diddums. His enthusiasm had suddenly plummeted and it was my fault for being sarcastic. He needed bucking up. "I can't imagine the barriers you've had to clear before getting your wings, being from a poor world on the periphery. I'm not being patronizing when I say that. You obviously worked harder than the ones that come from influential families in the central worlds. If it was me, I'd make the most of the difference. You won't be as popular with your fellow pilots. They want you to be just like them, part of the tribe. If you're different, you're a threat. So, if being one of the guys is enough for you, change your accent. But if you want more, if you want to be a leader, then you have to be more."
He finished his beer. "So, what do you do?"
I was impressed. Despite the alcohol he showed some skeptical insight. "Do I practice what I preach is what you mean."
"Something like that."
"I'm a writer."
"A unique writer?"
I answered the challenge in his gaze with a smile. "I have been described as different. I've won my share of awards, gained a certain notoriety."
He tilted his head and frowned. "I can't place your accent."
I started on the beer he had bought me. "That's because I don't have one. I grew up on a lot of worlds. Lost my native tongue before I knew I had one to lose."
"But you spent time on Scalion," he said. "That's how you recognized my accent."
Now that was the sixty-million-credit question. "When I was young my mother and I were refugees from Nova Town. We ran to a dozen different worlds. Scalion wasn't on my list of memories, but it's clear we must have been there. I recognized the accent immediately. Tell me about it."
"You said it all. A poor provincial world on the periphery. Nothing of note ever came out of Scalion."
I touched his hand. "Your competitive advantage is all the greater for that."
He looked at my hand for a moment then raised his eyes to meet mine. "So, what was your competitive advantage?"
"I write what I know."
"And what's that?"
The words were out of my mouth before I knew what I was going to say. "Come with me and I'll show you."