A Glimpse

by Joel Van Valin

Kreb Harati, second Excursionist on the Blue Flame, lathered more soap and massaged it into the back, shoulders, and breasts of Layola Lattimore, head Geologist of the Fortune. The mist from the hot shower partly clothed their bodies, and made tears run down the narrow door of the close tiled chamber.

"Have I ever told you of showering under the waterfalls on Baron 7?"

"Kreb, I've only known you for nine hours."

"Oh. Yea. Well that water was so hot you couldn't bear it for long. Come to think of it, the entire planet was that way ... "

"I've got to slip out to the toilet. Hold on a sec."

Her naked back and buttocks vanished into the outer mist, and trickling sounds came from around the corner. He adjusted the shower head so that only a spraying drizzle was exhaled. The world had grown delightfully small--it was bounded by slick white tiles and a sensual fog. He stood waiting in the thick mist until Layola's sleek body slid back into his vision; he caught her in a tight embrace and gave her wet kisses on the lips and throat until she pushed him away, laughing. Layola was ticklish, it would seem.

*

They had met in one of the darker corners of the Crux del Sol, that bar, famous in story and song, where space mariners would congregate during their brief overlays on Tarrymore. Layola had come into the bar just behind him. She had been strolling around the fountain, sizing up the crowd, mindful of those who were appraising her. Something tasteful about him perked her interest, and she watched him check in his dustcoat and disappear into the darkness. She ordered her daiquiri and stepped through the tiny cells in the back, the dim band room and upper balconies, scanning the shadows for his presence. Her hair was a rare blond that fell into her eyes, so that she had to frequently push it back; her appearance was not dressy but clean, and her strong, ice-blue eyes often (unbeknownst to her) discouraged away propositions from the shyer men.

The circuit was almost complete, and she had begun to consider a second candidate for the evening's company, when she found him sitting alone behind a small table overshadowed by a brick wall and ivy. She sat down across from him, half a smile playing across her lips.

"Evening, sailor."

He looked up, startled, and sat several seconds saying nothing, gazing spellbound.

"Heaven!" he muttered at last.

"What?"

"A mariner as well, I take it, by your dress."

"The Fortune," she replied, wetting two fingertips with her lips.

"Oh, that's grand. I mean, last time, a girl I met was actually a native and just liked to pass herself off with our kind, and after she kept calling me and annoying me in fifty other ways. You smoke campacha."

Layola lit up and surveyed him lazily. "A minor drug," she replied.

"Rate--you're a smasher, aren't you?" he said, returning her smile. Her intuition had been right. He was the best type--quiet and amused, with just enough conceit to be charming. Medium height, dark, thinning hair, beautiful eyes. He was not used to being made much of by women, she observed, and so it would be all right for her to make much of him, and that was her style.

"Now that you've descended from the heavens to grace my humble life, do I have to dance for you? Do I have to go into how beautiful you are, call you an angel and say how you have captured my soul with those Earth-blue eyes, or will you just agree to come with me without being flattered?"

"I don't like flattery," she whispered, leaning over to kiss him on the lips.

*

They began to talk shop. Kreb had been an engine specialist first, sailing through the Durango cluster. He had visited the Hades House caverns on Epsilon Indi 3, drunken Mashah with the colonists on Theron, and been on the Laxness when it crash landed on Brikell. Layola had been on the Fortune for five years, had been there when the Bec delegation went to Taurus 17.

"Damn!" Kreb responded. "Now I'm really impressed. What were the Bec like?"

"I only saw them at a distance. They are very short. They're sort of fox-like."

"Weren't you frightened? I mean, they say they could end our civilization with the wave of a hand."

"They don't have hands," she pointed out. "Really, they're not frightening at all. They're very curious about us, friendly in a guarded way. They kind of smell, though."

The evening drifted on, story-filled. Combined, they had been in space for almost nine years. It was their life, and everything else seemed provincial and hackneyed. But sex was discouraged on the star ships, and with crews of only a hundred or so ship-board affairs soon became vexing and stupid. It was easier to simply fantasize about off-ship encounters; both of them had been looking forward to Tarrymore for weeks. And so when the combination of daiquiri and campacha began to give Layola that sweet, drowsy expression so delightful to men, Kreb led her out of the Crux del Sol and over to an oceanside hotel. A replica of an old seaship was grounded in the front of the hotel, and they interrupted their progress briefly to climb and play on the wooden decks and rigging.

"Avast there, sailor! Unfurl the jib, or I'll have thee walk the plank!"

"None of thy swaggering, wench, or thy backside shall taste leather!"

They held hands in the elevator.

*

It was not like a fantasy, of course. It was both more and less satisfying, in the way that reality is always more and less than a dream.

The atmosphere in the room was different than the bar. Suddenly alone, in well-lit silence, they found they were strangers again. He sat in the chair, and she across from him on the bed, and they were both awkward, not knowing what to say. Then she persuaded him to smoke campacha with her, and she became lazy again and started to undress. She enjoyed undressing in front of strangers, wearing a silky white blouse that came to her lower thighs and keeping it on until the very end.

But then Layola slipped in the middle of her private strip-tease, prancing from a chair on to the bed. It made Kreb laugh out loud until he saw the dark red blush on the face of the nearly unclad woman. She took herself seriously, this one. So then he talked of all the stupid things he had done in life, such as boarding the wrong ship once on Tau Ceti and getting trapped under a falling tree that he himself had cut down.

At first the sex was gentle. He didn't want to ask if he was hurting her, it sounded so stupid; but he was afraid she had been bruised in her fall.

"It's good, darling." she reassured him between breathing. "A little more now."

He reached around and grasped her from behind, and buried his face in the deep scent between her breasts. And afterwards he kissed her lingeringly on the lips and thighs and in other places. And she had him lie on his back and straddled him like a jockey, laughing at her own wildness and abandon.

"This is the best sex I've had in a long time," he admitted, as they lay resting in the darkness. "You're so beautiful ... but why did you want me? I'm no stallion."

She moved her hand from under his stomach and began caressing his shoulders. "It's not like that," she whispered, "you're good. In bed, you know. But I sense that you're good too in other ways. In life."

He let his hand lazily stroke the small of her back. He was strangely moved. The darkness was transparent and cool around them. "I have an idea," she whispered again, sliding on top of him and kissing the hollow of his neck. "Let's take a shower."

*

She was bright and jocular under the warm rain of water. "I always think of my father when I'm in the shower. I guess it's because he always used to bathe me."

"Is he living, your father?"

"Dead. He was almost an old man when he sired me. Mom's young still."

"So. My parents are both still living; in the Himalayas. I pop in when I can."

Kreb turned off the water and handed her her towel. He stood, wet still, and watched her dry off. She didn't dress but arranged the towel skirt-like about her lower body. Then she demanded a back ride into bed--was lighter than he thought she would be. They wanted to have sex again but were too tired. Drifting off to sleep they heard a ship land, it's central flares making a hissing noise that would have been like the sea save that it was steady, with no crash and fall.

*

A big ship departed early the next morning, and most of the motel's inhabitants were afoot, tramping up and down the stairs with cases and packs and making a racket in the halls. When Kreb woke he found he was using a sheet for a pillow; she had his pillow wrapped over her face, shielding the bright light that was pouring in through the translucent curtains. He pulled the drapes to so that only a few stabs of sunlight broke through, from the thin strip blinds of the ceiling windows. He coaxed the pillow from her arms and lay there for some time, just looking at her soft skin and tousled, stranded hair, and the moving play of the light upon her body and the rumpled sheets that outlined her form. Layola woke softly; she opened her blue eyes once and then was fully awake.

"Mmm ... last night ... " she said, stretching as she rose from the bed. "Your name is Kreb and you're delectable, right?"

In answer he gave her a kiss. "You want to go down to the shore and search for some coffee?"

"Sure ... I didn't have too much campacha last night, thank god. You get that awful, stretched out feeling in the morning. Hey, loverboy, before you put those pants back on, why don't we get reacquainted again?"

Their morning lovemaking was light and brief and candid, and they dressed quickly and walked down to where the fish and chip shops and cafes observed the tumultuous, purple sea from a safe distance.

"I don't usually stay on with the guys I sleep with," she said, wiping some butter from the corner of her mouth. "You must be special."

"We seem to be good company," he conceded. "You've charmed me somehow--I don't want to let you out of my sight ..."

"Then let's make it a day--hey, do we dare go out and mix with the tourists at the ruins?"

"Let's. The Blue Flame doesn't take off until the sixth day."

"Then we could spend another night, too," she replied, smiling. "The Fortune doesn't fly till tomorrow. That is, unless you have another sailor-girl you want to spend it with ... "

"My one and only," he said, taking her hand and leading her out to the trolley.

They sat holding hands on the way out, among the old couples out for a once-in-your-life tour of the colonies, the rich young couples with their expensive holographic recorders and skirmishing children, and people from Tarrymore, with their broad windbreakers and distinctive, clipped accents.

And after the ruins they had lunch, and then tossed a Frisbee in the central park. They stayed away from the Mariner's Quarter that night, drifting far up towards the base of the mountain, where the natives ate their dry, crumbling herb bread with goat's milk. They didn't wear their dustcoats, and the men and women in the dance halls thought they were a closed couple, come to Tarrymore to try their luck. Late at night they crept up to the graveyard on 3-Mile-Bluff, where it seemed all of the voices and music and door slamming from the whole town was echoed up to them. They were watched by a band of shadowy children, open-eyed and fairy-like, who were out for their nightly adventures.

"Layola, do you think you'll ever slow down, some day?" he asked her on the way back to the hotel.

"Well, I want to have children," she admitted. "Some day ... it's so hard to stop."

He nodded, in the darkness. "Did I ever tell you of the time I almost got killed, in the hold of the Brooklyn Bridge? The oxygen generators failed ..."

"Did you think about giving it up, then?"

"No. In a strange way, it made it harder to quit," he said, putting his arm around her waist. "But at other times I feel like just walking away. Fading into the background of some dusty colony like Tarrymore here. Times like now."

And that made her stop and give him a kiss, almost at the very doors of the Crux del Sol.

*

They did not have sex on that night, their second night together. But they slept in each other's arms, and had to be roused by the cleaning staff at midmorning. He walked her down to the docks, where the huge interstellar crafts perched like birds of prey on their delicate landing supports. They tried to figure out if their ships would cross again in the near future, but wound up only with Proxila base, two years hence. He carried her bags and kissed her on the ramp, and refused to turn around and look at her that one last time. Everything seemed mechanical, dream-like.

Kreb Harati spent the rest of the day morosely, sitting on the model sea ship in front of the hotel. The next day he boarded the Blue Flame early and stayed there until takeoff. Layola Lattimore went about her pre-launch checks in a daze, and for weeks afterwards her crew thought her distant and rather dizzy. They had crossed the unimaginable spaces from star to star, and would do so again; they had seen the richness of the universe, as well as its great emptiness. Of that other journey, the journey of the heart through the dark brightness of life, they had seen almost nothing. But they had caught a glimpse.

2002 by Joel Van Valin. All rights reserved.

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