Arndt stepped off the Huroukian hover bus back into the dry, shiftless air of the desert planet and paused to stare at the marketplace before him. He’d been on-planet for two days already, either barricaded in his hotel room, blinds drawn with the AC blasting him full in the face, or lying like a thawing chicken cutlet beneath a beach umbrella, staring out at a placid ocean the same pink color as a digestive aid, and now he’d grown bored enough to venture out to see what else this seaside town might offer. He was unimpressed. The market was stretched out as one long, thin strip before him with stalls on either side and a miasma of capitalistic activity in between. The stalls themselves featured a broad range items such as shoes and jewelry, electronics, medical apparatuses, Huroukian literature, small animals, boardgames, and “recreational” paraphernalia.
Arndt continued to stand in the hover bus’s door, unwilling to be sucked into the whirlpool of bodies before him just yet. He wore aviator-style sunglasses and a floppy, wide-brimmed hat, zinc smeared across his nose, tan Bermuda shorts, a Hawaiian shirt, and sandals with socks. The narrow band of skin where his legs protruded nakedly from his shorts—and just before they terminated into his socks—though covered with dark hair, shone brightly in the planet’s sunlight. The sweaty ringlets of his hair formed a halo beneath his floppy hat. And he reeked tremendously of alcohol. He’d splashed himself with it like cologne, though some of it had indeed made it into his mouth. There was a certain amount of distance between him and what his body was doing and experiencing, which made the bustling before him that much more aggravating.
He heard an annoyed nyuh-nyuh-nyah and peered over his shoulder behind him. A female Cycotrill stood behind him, shuffling back and forth on six pairs of stick-thin legs and buzzing with impatience. She wore the manner of dress that was fashionable with her species leaving her midriff exposed as globe of varying shades of azure and her proboscis was nearly as long as Arndt’s arm and would’ve reached to her navel if she had one. She berated him in nasally tones and lobbed a viscous wad of her spit down at his feet.
“Pardon me, ma’am,” he said, and wobbled uncertainly for a moment as he deliberated between stepping to the side or finally entering into the chaotic throng.
In the end, he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer and he pressed himself into the roiling currents of the crowd. They swept him away and he found, whether he liked it or not, he had no choice but to continue moving forward. Bodies pressed into him from behind and the greasy scent of the Pantothuun ahead of him overpowered even his own offensive odor. His ears were assaulted by at least half a dozen different dialects and his boozy brain struggled to pick out the words he was capable of recognizing:
“Here, here, you haven’t…my selection is highest…or you will find yourself mistaken.”
Gradually, Arndt was able to swim his way out of the current’s pull and into the shallower depths of the crowd. He ended up in front of a stall before an array of shiny objects that he was unable to determine whether they were meant to be worn or acted as some sort of appliance. The vendor’s multi-faceted gaze locked onto him immediately and the uni-sexed personage began to shout at him.
“You, you will buy, yes? I have…and this is…very optimal, wouldn’t you agree? Name a price!”
“I have no idea what those things are,” Arndt muttered.
He waved both hands at the vendor and side-stepped quickly away. Each stall was surrounded by its own aureole of prospective customers who stood rooted and dense with only wavering gaps appearing intermittently between them. Arndt felt like a cockroach skittering and wriggling into any opening he could find and sometimes feeling on the verge of being flattened as some individuals did not appreciate him invading their personal space. He squeezed through a gap and nearly tumbled out into a relatively open patch of dusty ground in front of doubly-wide stall that was shaped like an alcove. The walls of the alcove were formed by thin, but presumably sturdy, pieces of pegboard mounted with valet hooks. Hanging from the hooks was an assortment of Earth-imported sun dresses in a variety of patterns and styles. Appropriately, most of those who were perusing the wares and taking the sun dresses on and off the racks were human women. Their sudden appearance stirred something within the man.
Arndt tried to stand up straight and make himself as presentable as he possibly could.
“Excuse my intrusion, ladies,” he said as he crab-walked between them and stepped wherever there was room to step.
Several of the women wrinkled their noses at him and were not reluctant to show their disgust with his odor. He shrugged apologetically and flashed a yellow-toothed smile at them, which didn’t help matters.
But he was not one to give in in the face of such overwhelming opposition. “If there’s any way I can assist any of you fine specimens of the female hominid variety just let me know, alright? If you need any help getting in or out of those dresses, I’ll be right here, okay?”
“Fuck off!” one of women spat at him.
“Woah, woah! No need for language like that, girly, I’m just trying to be amenable.” He hiccuped. “Is that the right word? I’m just saying that I’m ready to serve as your obedient servant, is all.”
He did his best to bow in the limited space afforded to him between flowing crowd and the small gang of women who were all regarding him with the same look they’d give a festering open wound. He just about tipped forward and sent his head through the pegboard wall.
“Leave, will you?” another of the women said.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m going. It was a joke. What? None of you can take a joke?”
He extricated himself from the ladies’ presence and wriggled away further along the ribbon of stalls and crowds and so many oddly specialized commodities. He passed a stall with an assortment of mismatched deitic statuettes, and then another that was nothing but off-brand peripherals for outdated gaming consoles. The sun blared down on him and he experienced a rising wave of nausea, whether from the alcohol in his system or heatstroke, he couldn’t tell. He saw a gap between two stalls that almost concealed the entrance into a shaded alleyway and he ducked into it before purging the watery, bile-ridden contents of his stomach. His sinuses burned and his nose ran and he spit as much of the foul taste as he could out of his mouth.
“Feeling better now?”
Arndt had propped himself against the wall of the alley and now he turned to see whoever it was that had appeared behind him. He or she was of the Kinseis species and stood seven high and was maybe nearly as big around, with purplish skin the same bumpy texture as an avocado and four pairs of eyes arranged on its face in two crescent-moon patterns. They took up most of the space in the alleyway and had come in behind Arndt, effectively blocking his escape if he should need to make one.
The man stood up straight. “Much better,” he announced. “In fact, I feel like I could run a race!”
“Could you?” the Kinseis asked, grinning with a mouth filled with nothing but fangs and narrowing its eyes down to slits.
Arndt thought for moment. “No,” he eventually admitted.
A massive appendage was thrust toward the man and he couldn’t help but leap back from it. It turned out to be Kinseis’s tubular-shaped arm and its sixteen digits that were like the biggest sausages Arndt had ever seen.
“Polykleitos,” the Kinseis said.
“That’s my name. And yours?”
“Arndt, I couldn’t help but witness the catastrophe that is your species’ mating ritual.”
“Mating ritual?” The man laughed. “So you witnessed that, huh? Well, I always appreciate having an audience. But, sorry, I don’t think I’ll be giving any repeat performances this afternoon. If you’ll just allow me to…”
Arndt attempted to squeeze around and leave the alley but Polykleitos didn’t budge.
“I have a proposition for you.”
Arndt rocked back on his heels and wondered where the other end of the alleyway might open out into.
“A proposition, huh?”
“See, I am a businessman who deals in the sale and dispensation of certain…substances…which might allow a man to alter his physical makeup in such a way to, let’s say, make him irresistible to the opposite sex of his species.”
“Hmm.” Arndt scratched the side of his face. “Sounds dangerous. Sounds illegal.”
Polykleitos widened his eight eyes. “Sir! You aren’t suggesting that my pharmaceuticals haven’t been lab-tested and approved for use by the proper authorities, are you?”
“Depends. Are you suggesting that they have been?”
The Kinseis displayed his fangs once again. “I can ensure you that whatever alterations you may experience to your body chemistry are entirely reversible.”
“Alright. Let’s see this magic pill you’ve got for me. Wait, it’s not going to be a suppository is it?”
“Would you like it to be?” Polykleitos chuckled.
The Kinseis herded the man deeper into the alleyway until they came to the exit at the other end which opened out into a much more secluded lane than the one the market resided in. Another Kinseis, this one thin like a snake supported by two equally thin legs, pushed off from the wall opposite it had been leaning against and approached them.
“This man’s in the market for our most effective aphrodisiac,” Polykleitos told the other Kinseis.
The alien’s partner nodded, reached into an inner pocket on the slim jacket it wore, and took out a little zip-lock baggie containing three gel-capsules. The capsules themselves contained a gunmetal gray powder suspended in a clear liquid. The powder seemed to be continuously swimming in laps around the capsules’ interiors.
“Nano-machines,” Polykleitos informed Arndt, “programmed by the user’s own thoughts, unhackable, untraceable, they will self-destruct and destroy themselves completely at a moment’s notice, if need be. And they’re just the thing to solve your ‘lady problem’.”
“How do they work?”
Polykleitos shrugged. “In the most immediate sense? They’ll alter your pheromones accordingly to whomever you’ve made your current target, making you literally irresistible to that person. Given a long enough time period, they’ll improve your musculature and bone structure, change your hair and eye color, if that’s what you desire, regrow missing teeth…it truly is a miracle drug!”
Arndt regarded the little baggie of pills. “Hmm. Sounds not too far removed from a date rape drug.”
The larger Kinseis grinned. “But you don’t strike me as a man who cares too much about such things, am I right? And there are other applications, of course.”
“Sounds like a person, human or Kinseis or otherwise, could use these nano-machines to alter themselves in such a way as to conceal their identity.”
“There are less-than-moral uses, yes.”
“There’s restrictions on what nano-machines can be used for.”
Arndt sighed. He reached into the pocket on his Hawaiian shirt and produced a badge. “I’m going to have to arrest both of you.”
Polykleitos growled. Then his sixteen-fingered hand came around in a right hook striking Arndt in the face. The blow landed squarely on the man’s sunglasses and they broke and cracked apart and ground and cut into the flesh around his nose and eyes. He was immediately knocked onto his ass, losing the floppy hat, and his face bled but his vision remained unimpaired. He watched as the two Kinseises fled down the lane, and then apart, going in two different directions. Arndt pulled a gun from where he’d kept it concealed in the waistband of his Bermuda shorts. He chose to go after Polykleitos as the more valuable target and gave chase.
Polykleitos had ducked into another alleyway, heading back toward the marketplace, and Arndt followed him. He saw the big, purple alien burst out at the other end and crash into the stream of commerce flowing past.
“Stop!” the man shouted.
But the Kinseis proceeded to trample others under his immense size and used an aggressive freestyle stroke to swim to the opposite shore. Arndt dove in right after him, twisting his body around again and again in a corkscrew motion in order to move through the bodies as quickly as possible while hopefully doing the least amount of injury both to himself and others.
“I said stop!” He fired his gun into the air, which had the effect of parting the river of bodies and making his life a little bit easier.
But by then Polykleitos had already managed to batter his way into the alleyway opposite and the man watched helplessly as he disappeared from sight at the other end. He approached the end of this alleyway with caution. The alien was nowhere to be seen in the next lane, but there were distinctively large footprints leading away to a door which had been kicked in and hung askew in its frame. Arndt kept to the wall to the left of the doorway.
“I know you’re in there,” he announced. “Give yourself up now and I can make things easier for you.”
There was no answer.
He sighed, and swung himself around the door-frame, his gun out in front leading the charge. Polykleitos appeared directly in front of him, knocked the gun to the side, and mashed a fist into Arndt’s abdomen. All of the wind went out of the man’s lungs immediately. But, more importantly, there had been something in the alien’s fist. Arndt looked down to see Polykleitos gripping a knife plunged hilt-deep into the man’s stomach.
Arndt grimaced and grunted and tried to remain standing, but as soon as the alien let go of the knife’s handle he fell backwards. He landed on his back with a whump in the gray-brown dust just outside the busted-in doorway. He swore he feel the tip of the knife tap the hard-packed ground beneath him and he shuddered with the vibration of it.
“No hard feelings,” Polykleitos said as he retreated deeper into the building. “I’m a businessman, protecting his business, yes?”
“I suppose,” Arndt grunted through clenched teeth. One whole side of him was wet with blood it seemed.
“Looks like you’ll bleed out in no time at all. It’s too bad you didn’t take me up on my offer. Seems the nano-machines would come in quite handy right about now, yes?”
“You read my mind.”
“Oh well.” The alien shrugged.
“I said, I’m still in play.”
Arndt had managed not to drop his gun when the alien knocked it away, not even when he’d fallen backwards into the dirt, and he raised it now and took dead aim on Polykleitos’s chest. The alien’s eyes widened with alarm. The man didn’t hesitate, probably didn’t have enough time left to him to hesitate, and pulled the trigger. The gun jerked in his hand and used up the last of the strength he had in his arm. Then he closed his eyes and allowed his head to fall back.
“That makes us even,” he spoke to no one.