She was particularly pleased with this incarnation, and she told them so. Credit where credit’s due, after all. She paused, wondering when she’d picked up that phrase; it was definitely an earth-saying. The nose was lovely, narrow and straight and flared at the nostrils. Suggestive of something, she wasn’t sure what. But she liked it. And the skin, several shades darker than her normal choice, a dusky tan, felt exotic and dangerous. Something was off with the breasts, though. She leaned into the viewing plane, focusing on the chest area of the naked body. Her naked body. Remembering to use the possessive pronouns was tough. They felt unnatural. No one seemed to mind; her slight accent, distinct but difficult to place, covered her language missteps. After the first few weeks, the language wasn’t a problem.
The breasts, though, were definitely less than perfect. One was bigger than the other, by maybe an ounce. She cupped them both, squeezed. Yes. The right one had almost a full ounce of volume on the left one, and they both drooped too much. The viewing plane operator noticed where her attention was and tapped on the microphone. “The volume disparity and the gravity response is purposeful, Honorific. It’s for realism. We’ve been testing this methodology of late, and data shows that it’s the realism that works best. Those 100% perfect incarnations end up with less collection. Overall.”
He tapped off the microphone and sat back in his little booth. He wanted to say more. Something like, “When you wait several centuries between incarnations, things tend to change,” but this one needed careful handling. She had power, even if she was a little out of it, with the trends. He looked down at the floor of the viewing area. The stylist, colorist, and molecular geneticist were backing him up, he could see. They stood in a respectful semicircle around her, nodding their heads and gesturing. The geneticist had some sort of diagram hovering in the air.
A few more minutes and they’d be done. It was only the old ones who expected the traditional ceremony, the crowd of experts for the first viewing, and a honest-to-goodness viewing plane lit up for one incarnation approval. Ridiculous, a suns-awful waste of energy, but what was he supposed to do about it? File a complaint? He snorted, then panicked and double-checked that he’d turned the microphone off. Good. Okay. He’d better hold it together. This was stressing him out more than he wanted to admit.
Now they were discussing the last few formalities of dress and scheduling the transport. The geneticist excused himself. The stylist was flicking through a dozen images of the latest in incarnation wear. Ah, suns, this could take a while. The outfits had changed in the last two centuries or so, and he could see a look of confusion on the beautiful, perfect face. The face was perfect. He’d tried to get them to add in a bit more realism there, a few lines, or one eye narrowed, or for suns’ sake a birth mark or some freckles. But Genin had talked him out of it. “No realism on the face,” she said. “These old ones, they’ve got to like the face first, and they’re not used to the realism. But if they like the face, they’ll accept whatever you’ve done with the rest of it. The face has to win it.”
And it was an exceptional face. The dark skin glowed, the pores were tiny and even, the mouth full and supple without pouting. It was a powerful face, but soft around the eyes, so you got drawn in. They put you at ease, face-to-face with a being you shouldn’t be at ease with. That is, not if you were an earthling, he thought. Or, suns, not if you’re me, either, and you’re pushing four hundred years of incarnation design and getting kind of stale around the edges. He looked down at the platform. She’d made a selection, looked like, one of the most conservative styles, a one-piece suit that fit and moved like a second skin.
Moments later she was ready; the washing and dressing process, prior to transport, hadn’t changed in eons, so there were no pauses. No need for lengthy explanations. She walked through the air stream, then through the water bath, feeling the nerves in the new skin – her new skin – respond to both pressure and temperature changes. It was interesting, to feel through one’s skin again. So many years since the last time, it was exhilarating. She began to feel that tingle, the energy of anticipation. It had been such a long time. Why had she waited so long? She could hardly remember the last time. The young operator was saying something to her again. He kept at it with his explanations; she wanted to assume they were from kindness, but his manner was too pragmatic for that. Their whole race was too pragmatic. He wanted her in and out of his area as quickly as possible. She nodded, letting him know she understood. Yes, she realized that many things in the earth culture had changed in the last centuries. Yes, she would maintain her shield for some time until she felt comfortable with the changes and able to blend with the population. No, she would not like to go to a less populated area to begin. She looked at the world map that he had brought up in the air between them. She spun the digital globe with her fingers, then tapped at the northern hemisphere. Hemisphere. That was a word she liked. A particular favorite. She felt like being cold for a while, first. She tapped on the European continent, then checked the small screen embedded in her sleeve.
“Excellent. I can still see the fall leaves. Send me here, please,” and she indicated the city she wanted. “I’m ready.”
During the transport, before she slept, she thought about names. Of course, she could have a name and a full history assigned; the Storied Level was never empty. She could even choose a history with prior relationships, could slip into a ready-made community of earth-people. Memories altered enough to add her to the mix. Storied incarnations were new, but new in terms of eons rather than in terms of centuries; she’d used it before, several times. She didn’t like it. Sure, it made things easier; there were no explanations or introductions to come up with. But inevitably the history included drama, or created it, the exact kind of humo-emotional drama she liked to avoid. Some liked that element, the psychological games. They got a separate thrill from entering and manipulating the complexity of the small societies. But those games were not for her. They felt superfluous, a kind of unnecessary prelude to the real event. She was, after all, a hunter. And a hunter does not need to befriend her prey any more than necessary to lure it in.
She woke in bed, as usual. It was always safest to wake in a private, secure area. Just in case. Sometimes the transport left you dizzy, no matter how many times you’d done it. Some younger ones woke disoriented and had to earth-sleep for several days to adjust to the gravity and atmosphere. She was ready in minutes. She watched out the window, which overlooked the street, to find out how to costume herself. Things had changed, they weren’t kidding. Women in pants and boots, like the men. Sometimes she couldn’t tell which gender was which, from their garments. She liked it. She’d incarnated as both male and female, many times in each gender, but she preferred the female body. It felt truer to her nature, her core. She disliked, however, the dismissal and disregard that seemed to come with the female aspect in so many of her visits. Not always, true. And she found ways around it. But it rankled her. Perhaps the improvement in clothing wear, the lessening of gender difference, signified an improvement in societal roles, as well. She hoped so. It got wearying to smile and nod when you could just as easily kill a man, but it also got wearying to clean up so many bodies. She wanted to feast, that was all. No violence this time.
She walked down the narrow staircase and out the door, a thick wooden one that stuck a bit when she pushed it. The wind was sharp and almost cold, and she was glad for her choice of costuming. She’d converted her transport outfit to winter clothing, mimicking what she saw on the street. Tight-fitting pants, heavy lace-up boots, a thin shirt with a long, loose sweater over it, and a long, thick scarf. She wound the scarf around her head, covering her ears, and walked down the street. She’d shadow for a while and get the feel of things. With her shield up, no one would be able to notice or remember or feel curious about her, at all. It was the best way to settle into a new incarnation without raising too many inconvenient questions. She still hadn’t decided on a name, either. Time enough to do that. She would get a feel for the language, first.
She felt pain in her abdomen and slowed, confused for a moment. Ah, yes. How could she forget. Hunger. Hunger for food. Hunger itself, she felt, was unpleasant but ignorable. But it was fun to sate the hunger. The food was so varied and interesting. She turned aside to a small alcove, where a line was formed in front of a small metal cart. The man beside it was talking fast, handing out paper-wrapped bundles that smelled delicious. She couldn’t catch the language yet; she hadn’t spent enough time here. She tapped below her right ear to turn on the syphone. His words came into focus as the man in front of her ordered.
“I’ll take two dozen, please,” he said, in a pleasant voice.
“Ah, taking some home for the little Miss, are you?”
The man nodded back. “That’s right.” He handed over a bill in exchange for the two bundles and she realized: no money. She hadn’t gone to get any yet. She let out a sharp breath of frustration and the man turned back to look at her.
“You okay, ma’am?” His eyes were gray and his hair was brown, cropped short. His skin was a lighter brown, a pleasant sunny color like the bark of a tree on a summer day.
“I – I realized I left my money. My wallet. At home.” She stammered a bit. How was he noticing her? She double-checked. Yes, the shield was in place. Active.
“No problem,” he was saying. “Allow me.”
“Oh, no really, it’s fine,” she said, but he was already handing another bill to the vendor, who looked at her and said, “How many?”
“Um, one dozen, then.” She smiled at the man. It felt stiff and uncomfortable, the smile, and she hoped it looked better than it felt. It felt like her face hadn’t been used in a while. He gave her a small smile back but his eyes were lined, his eyebrows drawn together, and she had a sudden, horrible thought. What if this was a hardship for him, to share his money? What if this were a large amount? But he’d offered it so freely. The vendor handed her a bundle and she peeled back the paper to breathe in a hot, sugary scent and see twelve lumpy, fried balls of dough.
“Nothing better than hot donuts on a chilly morning, right?” The man smiled and turned to go.
“I’m… oh. Thank you.” She said to his back, watching him go as she popped a donut in her mouth. They were delicious.
It was several months before she saw the man again. The donut man, as she thought of him. And she had thought of him, many times, even as she busied herself learning the culture and the language, finding prey and pursuing them. It was easy enough, all that. The learning was quick; her intellect consumed and collated the information, and she recalled it as needed without hesitation. She felt that the hunt itself was missing something. It was too easy. The culture that she’d arrived in had given up, apparently, on many of the social demands and rigid moralities that used to exist. Finding prey was as easy as going out to any populated area, particularly in the evening. Luring them in took only a few minutes more; she found herself prolonging it on purpose, pretending there was more of a challenge than there was. It was boring, she realized. Every conversation held the same basic content, and every proposition ended with agreement. Quick agreement, and then a hurried discussion about logistics. Since she kept a comfortable apartment near the city square, the logistics usually worked out in that direction. She preferred her own turf, anyway. She hated to be interrupted by insensible roommates or pets when she was feeding.
Never the same one twice, that was her rule. Others, she knew, had different self-imposed guidelines. Some would find an attractive earth person and stay with that one for months, or even years; but she felt that the feeding was best after a first-time experience. Certainly the humans got more excited with that rush of newness, and whatever got them excited worked in her favor. After it was all done, as far as they were concerned, they collapsed into a satisfied sleep, aided only a bit. Then she could lay still beside them and breathe in the aura, pull in the energy, the post-coital glow that was, in her opinion, still the best concentration of positive earth energy. At least in most cases.
There was one boy – not boy, she corrected herself; one man. But they all seemed so childlike – who wept when they were finished, and she grew alarmed. Had she hurt him somehow, unknowing? But he promised he was fine, and happy, even, and that it was “so beautiful he couldn’t help it.” Those were his words. She had to give him more than the usual amount of aid to get him sleeping, and then his energetic off-throw was a strange mix. Positivity, happiness, satisfaction, yes, those were there; along with that bit of ego, the cockiness almost always mixed in; but there was also a sadness, a hovering grief, and it ruined the flavor. She counted that one as a loss, and sent him away in the morning with the kindest words she could think of.
When she saw the donut man again, it was at one of her favorite spots. A small corner restaurant near the city center, it was empty during the day and packed as soon as darkness fell. She had yet to figure out why. The food was good. She’d long ago learned, though, that food quality was often the last motivation when humans chose which restaurant to visit. She was sitting in her favorite spot, at the end of the bar. Her back was almost to the wall and she could, with a slight shift of her head, scan the entire room. It wasn’t busy. The afternoon was still a fading, dingy gray when he walked in, the gray-eyed man, holding a small child by the hand. It was mid-winter by now. They took some time getting off hats and scarves and coats, hanging them on hooks by the door. Then he looked up, straight at her, and led the child – it was a little girl – to the empty stools beside her. He situated the girl, then said, as if they were still standing by that small metal cart on her first morning, “So, how do you like the donuts, then?”
She smiled. She was better at it now, and she saw her skill reflected in his eyes, which crinkled at the corners in a full answering smile. The girl’s head poked around his side, her brown hair messy from the hat and scarf she’d removed. She smiled, too, then announced, “I’m hungry.”
“Me, too,” said the man. “What should we eat?”
“I think… well, what do they have here?” The girl looked back at her. “Do you know?”
“I do, actually,” she said. Her voice was smooth and melodic; she’d practiced to make it so and now it was effortless. There was only the hint of an accent, which she’d polished into something that could sound South African, a bit, or be mistaken for British. The gray-eyed man watched her, his expression serious but his eyes crinkled at the edges.
“I come here quite a lot. The burgers are terrible; they always burn them,” she said. It was true. They were overcooked each time. “But the salads and soups are delicious and fresh. And they make a great hot chocolate.”
The girl’s eyes were wide and hopeful and she looked up at the gray-eyed man. He laughed.
“Yes, yes, you don’t even have to ask. Hot chocolates for both of us.”
He turned to her.
“And for you? A hot chocolate as well?”
“That sounds lovely,” she said. “I take mine with a little extra something.”
“Excellent,” he said, and gestured to the bartender. “Two adult hot chocolates, and one for this young lady.”
They drank their chocolates together, and then ate their meal together, and talked about nothing in particular. The man was back in town after a long trip, he said. The girl was getting better after a long illness, she said. Things were looking better all around, they both agreed. By the last swallow of chocolate, the evening was pressing in dark through the windows and the restaurant was crowded. People were waiting to take their seats. She often stayed past the first evening rush, but when the man and his daughter stood to go, she stood with them. She felt sated, both in body from the meal and in soul from… what? She focused on their energy, for the first time, watching their auras halo and merge, spin and collide. It was joy that marked them both. And – she tasted carefully – a deep sense of relief. It was refreshing and satisfying, and she realized that she’d been feeding the entire time.
They walked down the street until the man and the girl stopped at one of those tall, narrow, stone buildings that house an impossible number of apartments.
“Here’s us,” he said. The girl was already hopping up the steps. “Hey, aren’t you going to say goodbye to our friend?” He asked her, and the girl hopped back down and wrapped her in a tight little hug.
“Bye,” said the girl. “I like you. Eat with us again soon.”
She stood very still and felt a kind of prickling in her face and her stomach.
“Bye. I like you, too.”
The gray-eyed man was fumbling for the right key, distracted. She turned to go but had only taken two steps when he said, “Wait!” with an irresistible urgency. She faced him.
“Do we get to know your name?” He was smiling at her and his aura was glowing with something else, something pale orange and kind of shaky. Nervousness, she realized. Anxiety. But not the kind of anxiety you feel when you want to impress someone or look a certain way. No, this was the kind you felt when you realized you’d lost something important and weren’t sure how to find it. Or when you got lost, yourself, in an unfamiliar place. She knew that emotion well. She felt it herself, looking at him, and she realized that he was the unfamiliar place. And she… was she getting lost? Or was he something important, something she’d lost?
“My name,” she said, speaking slowly, letting her accent come through. “My name is Aio.”
She gave him her true name; it was a gift, and a test. He recognized that somehow, as he took it from her. He spoke as if it were fragile, a precious thing he could break if he didn’t pay enough attention.
“Aio,” he said, the sound of it hovering the air between them. His aura shifted again, the nervousness bleeding out and a new energy, the color of spring rain, filling the space. It was hope. Anticipation. She felt the tingle in her belly, too.
“Aio, would you like to come in for a while?” She smiled. In all her time on earth, it was the first time she’d waited long enough. The first time she’d been propositioned by the prey, rather than the other way around. His eyes were smiling at her and she decided that she didn’t mind.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I would.”
They walked up the steps and into the small apartment. Later, when the girl was asleep in her own room and the lights were low and the moon was hanging by the window, he didn’t seem to mind the realism of her breasts, not at all.