The following is a preview of a new Cherry Pickett story, appearing exclusively in On the Pleasure Planet, a new anthology of dystopian m/m SF romances!
Andrew wasn’t sure what he hated more: slow nights or the ones where he was run off his feet. On slow nights, he spent time staring at the clock, vainly wishing four a.m. would come sooner, so it could release him from the mental prison of his own thoughts.
On busy nights, he didn’t have time to think, too caught up in the whirlwind of chatter and laughter, maybe flirting with this patron, pouring drinks for that one, gritting his teeth as an unseen assailant smacked his ass on his way by a rowdy table.
It all sucked, he decided at length. There was no good in working for La Chef at any one of her several establishments. Tonight, he was lucky enough to be at Saveur, which was better than Gastronomique or Bella Bella Flavoreux or—worst of all—The Pub.
But Saveur was terrible in its own way; The Pub was rough and tumble, the drinks were cheap, the food bad, and the tips worst of all. Saveur prided itself on being an “elevated” experience, but that meant it attracted a particular subset—the hoity-toity, the snobs, the would-be riche who were eager to impress people with their newfound wealth. They wanted to be cooed over, but Andrew couldn’t count the number of times they’d skipped a bill or stiffed him on a tip.
Didn’t help that La Chef was a cunning bitch—she gave everyone a bigger cut of the profits at The Pub. By the time you got to Saveur, where the prices were padded out with plenty of zeroes, you were lucky to get two percent—less, after La Chef’s favorite bean-counter deducted your tips and a hundred other things, like his administrative fee.
It was bullshit, all of it. Andrew wondered why he hadn’t seen that before. Maybe he’d been naive; maybe he’d just hoped that there was some good, some justice somewhere in the universe.
He sighed as he looked down at the polished wood of the bar, his own reflection mirrored back at him, distorted. He should have left ideas about justice and fairness back on Althide, when Uncle Sal had skipped out on Andrew and his sister after getting caught embezzling funds from the Althidean mob. Sal had made off with the funds and hung Andrew and Lu out to dry.
Which was how Andrew had ended up working for La Chef anyway.
A cool breeze made him glance up; someone sidled close to him and whispered in his ear, “Double threat, twelve o’clock.”
Andrew glanced up and saw Mugs strut through the door, smug smirk plastered on his ugly face. Mugs was one of those guys who thought he was hot shit. He was a pirate, basically, but he hated the word, acted like he was a cut above. Like he had morals or something.
As far as Andrew understood, he had some kind of license or sanction from his home planet’s government, which made him think he was better. Privateer—or profiteer—that was what he called himself. Like it made any difference; trafficking slaves was still trafficking slaves, no matter what fancy label you tried to apply to it.
Mugs was made even more insufferable because he thought he was good. His government sanctioned him; he was getting rich off a disgusting trade, but he felt he was justified, because he was better—bigger, stronger—than the peoples he was trafficking. They deserved it, in his opinion; it was just the natural order of things. Might makes right, that kind of shit.
It made Andrew’s blood boil, but he couldn’t let on. Mugs, disgusting as he was, was one of the few who tipped well—’cause he actually bought the bullshit that the acronym was “to improve service,” figured he could impress folks if the hosts at Saveur fawned all over him.
That meant it paid to laugh at his jokes, to cozy right up to him and his guests, batting eyelashes, a brush of the hand—
Andrew glanced at Sassa, who was still standing beside him, her eyebrow quirked. There was a question in her glowing, yellow eyes—was he gonna deal with Mugs or did she get to take the table?
Andrew glanced around for the time. It was almost close. He didn’t want to deal with Mugs. He had half a mind to let Sassa take the task—even if it meant he had to forego the tips—when Mugs bellowed, “Andy!”
Andrew gritted his teeth, turning his head to hide how he rolled his eyes. He hated Andy (and Drew was right out the window), which Mugs knew.
Schooling his face into customer service mode, he turned back around, letting a smile curl his lips, fluttering his lashes at the burly purple alien who strutted right up to the bar. “Evening, sugar,” he purred as he leaned across the wood. “Awful late. Did you just get in to port?”
Mugs gave a nod, then gestured to the alien beside him. “It’s been a long haul. I want to show my compatriot a good time.”
“Of course,” Andrew agreed, barely sparing the other alien a glance. He noted that the stranger was even taller and broader than Mugs—shaped almost like a box, with long arms and disproportionately huge hands.
Andrew sidled out from behind the bar, menus in hand. “Right this way.” He led them swiftly through the almost-empty restaurant, to the private booth in the back Mugs called his table, like he was important enough to have his own box at the opera.
The floorboards almost seemed to shake, and Andrew wondered if he’d had too much bubbly with his last table. La Chef told them to keep it to a glass or two—their job wasn’t to get drunk with the customers, but to make it seem like they were and convince the patrons to buy more, drink more, eat more. The higher their bill, the bigger Andrew’s cut—and the more that went into La Chef’s pockets.
Andrew stopped by the booth and gestured to it with a flourish. Mugs leaned right up in his face, grinning, all teeth and bad breath, then slid into the round, faux-leatherette booth.
The stranger alien looked at it, then did the same on the other side, bashing their knees into the table, nearly upsetting all the crystal. Andrew’s eyes went wide as he imagined the cost of that coming out his earnings tonight.
The crystal stopped jiggling, though, and the alien put one of those giant hands around the stem of a wine glass. It looked comically small, like it belonged to a doll.
Andrew stared at the other alien for a split-second too long, before the giant looked at him and he snapped back to reality. He slid the menus to Mugs and his guest. “Drinks?” he asked, hoping he could get them started quickly—and get them out of here sooner. It had been a long day already, and Andrew didn’t fancy staying any longer than he had to.
Mugs waved a meaty hand. “The usual,” he said gruffly, lowering his head to scan the menu.
“Of course,” Andrew agreed, then flicked a glance at the other alien. “And yourself?”
The alien grunted, but Mugs spoke. “Start him with the same—oh, and bring some of the crickets ‘n dip to start.”
“Absolutely,” Andrew said, then whisked off to the bar. Sassa was still standing there, staring at him. Oz, the bartender, was with her.
Oz nodded. “Who’s Big Blue over there?” he asked, not taking his eyes off the table.
Andrew glanced over his shoulder, then shrugged as he looked at his co-workers. “No idea. Some buddy of Mugs.”
Sassa gave him a curious look. “You’ve seriously never seen a yeti?”
Andrew frowned. “A what?”
Sassa waved a hand as she leaned over the bar. “A yeti,” Oz said, glancing down at Andrew’s tab screen for the drink order. He rolled his eyes and moved to the taps. “Big, burly guys covered in blue fur and horns—like that. From Rurark. Live in the mountains.”
“Some say they’ve got antifreeze in their blood,” Sassa said.
Oz grunted. “Not too many of them around, definitely don’t see many of them this far out from Rurark.”
“Then why would you think I’ve ever seen one?” Andrew asked, loading up the cocktail glasses and the bottle of grog Mugs had ordered. “Tell Vee they want the crick-dip.”
“Aye-aye,” Sassa said, and Andrew glared at her, before making his way back to the table.
“The Dryden,” he announced, sliding the drinks across the table to the two aliens. “And the—”
Mugs caught him around the waist and dragged him in to sit on his lap. Andrew forced himself to giggle instead of following his first instinct, which was to punch the fucker in his horned face. He reared back as Mugs leaned forward.
“You didn’t get yourself nothing,” Mugs said in a low voice.
“Don’t you worry,” Andrew replied, swatting at a wandering hand. “I’ll get myself something real nice once dinner’s served.” He traced his fingers down Mugs’ cheek; he always expected the alien’s scales to feel vile, but they were warm, velvety, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to hate the sensation. “Have to take care of my best patron first.”
Mugs grinned broadly; he loved being buttered up like that. Despite that, he didn’t release Andrew. Instead, he dragged Andrew closer, murmuring, “Andy, I got a proposition for ya.”
Andrew redoubled his squirming. “Oh, Mugsy,” he practically cooed, forcing himself not to gag over the words. “You know that—”
“Hear me out,” Mugs said, taking him by the chin and turning his head to face the silent giant sitting across the table. “My buddy Tor here has heard a lot about you humans, and he’s real curious, wants to know if the rumors are true—”
Andrew shoved at Mugs’ arms. “C’mon,” he huffed, hoping he was putting enough whine in his voice to sound pathetic rather than angry, “you know I can’t, La Chef doesn’t—”
“Fuck La Chef,” Mugs snapped. “We both know you really work for me—”
He squeezed Andrew a little harder, and Andrew clawed at him, tried to get a knee up so he could hit the fucker in the chest. This wasn’t the first time Mugs had propositioned him, nor was it the first time he’d had to basically fight the guy. “There’s lots of humans over at the zoo,” he argued. “And if you wanna do that, there’s a bunch at the club—”
Mugs’ lip curled, showing his yellowed fangs. “You think I’m gonna tell my buddy to go get one of them diseased sluts?”
“Hey,” Andrew protested, and they both stopped when the other alien—Tor—banged his hands on the table, making everything jump. Andrew’s heart was in his throat.
“Enough,” Tor growled, showing off his own fangs. “This is inappropriate—Mugsley von Baron, I thought you were better than this.”
Mugs released Andrew so quickly, Andrew practically landed on the floor in a heap. He picked himself up, eyes glued to the altercation between the two aliens.
“Ah, c’mon, Tor,” Mugs said, but Tor shook his head, his horns just barely missing the chandelier above the table.
“If I wanted you to proposition someone on my behalf, I would have asked,” Tor growled, and Andrew’s pulse did triple-time for a new reason. An alien who actually respected indentured workers, listened when they said no?
That was a novelty.
“Tor,” Mugs protested, but Tor was suddenly on his feet. Andrew glanced up at him, letting just how much larger the guy was sink in as he stared up at the towering alien.
Tor lifted one massive hand, displaying a sharp, blue talon. “No, Mugsley,” he thundered. “I am capable of propositioning someone on my own, and as the human has said, this is not the appropriate place. You are being rude, and I won’t tolerate it!”
With that, he turned around, narrowly missing that chandelier again, storming off toward the door. The floorboards were definitely shaking as he stomped off.
“Hey!” Mugs cried. “Hey—hey, wait!”
He floundered out of the booth, not even sparing Andrew a dirty look for blowing up his latest game of schmooze. He almost knocked Andrew over as he scrambled after the giant blue alien, bellowing, “Tor! Wait a star-flicking minute!”
The doors banged shut, and Andrew stood there, staring after them. Seconds, then minutes, then all of eternity ticked by. Slowly, reality percolated into Andrew’s brain, and he realized they weren’t coming back.
He looked forlornly at the table, a couple of shattered crystal glasses in shards across it, the barely touched drinks and the unopened grog still there.
All that was coming out of his paycheck—probably put him back in the red on the night. He screwed his eyes shut and clenched his teeth, but he couldn’t quite hold back the disappointed “ah, fuck.”