All eyes in the bar turned to Kris the instant she ducked inside the front door. Music with a thumping bass beat assaulted her ears, a flood of new scents washed over her with the shift in air pressure, and blinking lights dazzled her. Every muscle went tight, and fear buzzed along her nerves. Power surged though her flesh, pooling in the muscles, thickening her skin.
Her pacifier beeped a sullen warning, responding to the pheromone release that accompanied the power. Then the chilly metal circlet vibrated a secondary alert, and needles emerged to prick her skin. She put one hand to her throat and struggled to calm herself. The device could penetrate normal armor, and hers would never harden further while she was wearing it. The sedative would drop her first.
This was not a place she wanted to be unconscious. Most of the bar patrons were big-bellied, broad-shouldered men in plaid and denim. A few were partnered with women in plaid tops and short skirts. Ten gallon hats and feed caps went head to head with bandanas in a battle for headgear supremacy. Not even the largest of the men would have a chance against Kris in a fight, but the lack of any familiar faces still left her dizzy with anxiety.
A young woman behind the bar at the back of the room called out, “Hi, beautiful! You must be here for the party. C’mon over, grab some pitchers for your friends.”
The sound of a friendly voice, female and cheerful, tipped Kris off the nervous edge of panic towards calm. She took a deep, cleansing breath, the way she had been taught in therapy. The odors of stale beer and stale bodies filled her nose, but the familiar routine did the trick. Her nerves settled, the pacifier fell silent, and she dredged up the courage to move forward.
A promise is a promise, she thought. She couldn’t say no to a birthday girl, even if Amy was turning fifty-five. Besides, she couldn’t hide on base forever. She still had at least thirty-one months in her hitch.
The crowd silently stared at her as she passed by. They had to look a long way up. Kris kept an eye on the light fixtures. She had cleared ten feet before her rollover ended in a T-series designation and compulsory military training. The height had come with metallic armored skin and massive musculature that still felt strange to her, five months along. For this occasion, she had on the one tailored civilian outfit she owned now, but she knew the clothes only accentuated her strangeness.
No one looking at her would guess that she had suckled two children at her breasts, or that her hips had passed them into the world. The breasts were flat, the hips so altered that walking properly again had taken weeks of practice. The other patrons were staring at the monster that Kris saw when she looked in a mirror. She tried to avoid mirrors.
The one on the wall behind the bottles at the bar taunted her with glimpses of bronze skin and gold eyes full of worry. That was her new face. The red silky shirt below it hung loose on her chest. The faces behind hers looked unhappy. They looked dangerous. They all looked away when the bartender said, “Shut yer mouths before flies get in.”
The tension broke with an intangible pop. People started talking again. Billiard balls hit one another with a clack when someone took a shot at the pool table.
“Hi,” Kris said to the bartender. “Thanks for that.”
“You’re here for Corporal Goodall’s birthday, yeah? Here ya go. This is her favorite. James doesn’t have it on tap back there.” She slid two pitchers of frothy amber liquid across the bar and pointed to a closed door near a hall marked RESTROOMS & PHONES. “That’s our accommodation zone. We’ve a big door around the side, too, if you want to go direct next time. Most of the grunts do.”
Kris glanced into the mirror, saw unfriendly faces people looking away from her again. “I can see why. I’d say sorry, but—” But she wasn’t sorry. Angry, embarrassed, helpless and frustrated, all that, but not sorry.
The woman’s lips twisted in a wry smile. “No worries, honey. You’re welcome in my place any time. I’ve got a cousin out west with Empire Company. Eyes front, now. Forward, march.”
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