“Tell me you’re not afraid of heights,” the tall, slender redhead said. She stepped out onto the glass of the skybridge, pulling her Asian friend with her, eyes focused on me. All I could think was that Manhattan was below her—far below. If the glass gave way and she fell, that would be her end.
Fluorescent lights of blue and red shone through the glass floor of the skybridge, while the walls and ceiling flowed with augmented reality to give the impression of walking through space and looking down on New York. This skybridge wasn’t typical. It, like the rest of the architecture and eccentricities that made up Garrick Calsen’s sky loft, was a reminder that not only was he one of the wealthiest men alive, but that he had leveraged that wealth to become one of humanity’s greatest explorers of space.
Many of us simply referred to him as Mr. Tycoon, as he was the top of the top. The man was elusive, only seen from a distance at these get-togethers he would host, if seen at all. So far at this night’s get-together, nobody had reported seeing him.
“You’re doing it?” John asked, stepping up beside me, nodding. “Come on, man. Take the step.”
John Kim was my boss, technically, but the sort of boss that likes to hang out. The sort I felt bad saying no to, so more often than not ended up in these strange situations. For example, walking on a skybridge when I hated heights with a passion. His watch was there on display as always, a legit Draden—one of the fanciest you could find—to remind anyone he could that he was doing quite well for himself. The guy was half a foot shorter than me, half-Chinese and half-Japanese, but he had taken to calling himself John instead of his given name, Hiro, when he had studied abroad at Harvard.
He didn’t know what he was asking of me, but there was something about all this that felt so magical. Back in the halls, I’d been captivated by the images of the various space stations Mr. Calsen had helped set up, and the expeditions to alien planets. Pictures of strange ruins, metal domes with openings in them, and even the architecture of the penthouse, made to represent some of the most famous ruins found to date. It was also so overwhelming, and almost enough to make me forget any phobias I might have had.
Imagining I was Mr. Calsen and that this skybridge led to a shuttle and my own chance to explore space, I closed my eyes and focused on my breathing as I’d learned in aikido long ago. Opening my eyes, I took a step out onto the skybridge, staring into the redhead’s striking blue eyes. She’d first caught my attention on the dance floor, and she’d let me buy her a drink. Now I was upstairs, stepping out onto glass, and had to wonder whether I was the hunter or the hunted. Considering the fact that I was at the fanciest skyrise loft of the New Horizon zone among Manhattan’s most elite of society, but this lady kept drawing my attention, I think it was the latter. When she had first met my gaze, I’d had a feeling there was something special about her.
If she was able to get me to walk out over the city like this, it was more than most women could have achieved. Even so, with each step out there to follow her, I started to enjoy it. The AR stars and ships moved around us, and for a moment I stood there lost in it all, almost believing one of those ships was coming to pick us up for a great adventure. Then I looked down, watching a hyperloop train as it shot through the lit-up circles below, past massive billboards and holographic ads for the latest in fashion. One was viewable from up here, though only the front appeared three-dimensional, like a real woman applying perfume. At this angle, we could see the projection lights. Two guys on the edge looked high as a kite staring at it all; must have been some of that new orange blow. Supposedly it was like cocaine but from an alien planet, way too expensive for me even if I had been keen to give it a go.
“Stunning, isn’t it?” my redhead asked, stepping over to me.
“It is,” I replied, and looked up to see her leaning against a railing nearby, while John and the other woman were holding each other, and he leaned in for a kiss.
The redhead cleared her throat, noticing too. Stepping close, she looped her arm through mine. “I’m Verity, by the way.”
“Tommy,” I replied.
She considered, eyes on mine, then leaned in to kiss me on the cheek. “You’re cute, Tommy. A buff guy like you, needing someone like me to coax him out here.”
I grinned, hand on hers, and said, “I don’t imagine you often have problems getting men to do what you want.”
“No,” she admitted.
Our surroundings changed from stars and space to moving lights, some sort of show that reminded me of shifting, colorful gas. Maybe a simulation of an alien planet? I was considering going in for a real kiss when John called out for me.
I glanced up to see they were already halfway across the skywalk, motioning for us to follow.
“There’s something over here you gotta see,” he said.
Verity looked at me with excitement and gave me a pinch.
“What was that?” I asked, not complaining.
“Making sure you know you’re not dreaming.”
I laughed, but that joy faded when I remembered how far above the city we were walking. Everyone knew a skybridge like this wasn’t likely to break; maybe it wasn’t even possible according to some. Still, no amount of redheads could get me to smile while knowing that sort of fall was beneath me.
She was going on about something—maybe how her friend had been checking out John all night—but my focus was completely devoted to my curiosity. A place like that, what could John want to show me that he would prioritize above making out with that woman? They’d been using some heavy tongue, so I knew for a fact it had to be special. John wasn’t the type to give up tongue. Not for anything.
Once, I’d seen John making out with a woman in the middle of a hurricane, and even when the river flooded up to their feet and she tried to run screeching, he picked her up and kept going. At least, until a heavy gust of wind blew them over. He was technically my supervisor at the Titans Rising hedge fund, but we’d hung out enough to make it clear we were more buddy-buddy than anything else. For example, your supervisor shouldn’t get a tug at the dinner table when you’re there on a double date, but that had happened no fewer than three times in our case. Awkward every time, but it also brought us closer together.
“Tommy?” Verity said, pulling me from my thoughts.
We were off the skybridge, and into what I could only think of as the entrance to an opera box, complete with curtains and a couple of stairs that led to an area out of sight still.
“Sorry, distracted,” I replied, then nodded to John and his date.
“I was asking if you’re ready,” John said.
“For what, exactly?”
“To have your mind blown.”
I chuckled, wondering if this was all part of some elaborate ruse of his to get us both laid. If so, who was I to interfere?
“Always,” I said, giving Verity a comforting smile. Maybe this was about to happen, and if so, I needed to get my mind right. Start setting the mood.
“You’re killing me here,” she said, motioning to the curtains. “What is it?”
John eyed her, then his lady, and shook his head. “Nah, get lost.”
“What?” they both said at once.
I balked, too, adding a grunt of confusion.
John walked over to me, put an arm around my shoulder, and said, “This is for me and my boy, Tommy. You two can meet us back by the elevators later. If you want.”
“Seriously?” his woman said.
“Your friend is kinda being an ass,” Verity added, looking at me with arms folded.
Here’s where it got awkward. As mentioned, John was my supervisor. My boss, you could say. So, while we were buddies, moments like these made the power-matrix a bit skewed. Even more so when he leaned in and whispered, “It’s a work thing, bro.”
I let out a sigh, put a hand on Verity’s shoulder, and said, “Do you mind? We won’t be long.”
“We might,” John countered.
My glare his way made it very clear what I thought of him not being helpful, but I shrugged, turning back to Verity. “At least let me get your number?”
“You two have fun,” her friend said, already walking off to the skybridge.
Verity hesitated, then shook her head in disgust and walked off. Before they walked out of sight, she put her hand on her hip and stuck out her ass, as if to say, “For the record, you could’ve had this. All of this.”
Then they were gone.
“John, what was that?” I asked, shoving his arm away and wondering if he was actually about to make a move on me. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d wondered that about him, but nothing ever came of it.
“Told you, work related.” He took a step toward the curtain, nonchalantly motioning for me to follow. “You won’t regret it, not one bit.”
Without another word, he vanished past the curtains. I thought of Verity, of her cute little plaid miniskirt, and wondered how the hell I wasn’t going to regret missing out on the chance to be with her. John hadn’t led me wrong too often in the past, though, so I stepped in after him.
Passing under the thick, red curtains, I entered an atrium-type room with all manner of trophies and pictures. This was the true collection, not all the other showy stuff back in the main party rooms of Mr. Tycoon’s house. Red rock from Mars formed pillars at the door leading into another room. Before going in there, though, I turned, taking this one in.
Several crystals were on display in glass cases with tiny movements inside—some of his first discovered alien life, perhaps? It was a blur, but I thought I’d read something about his expedition and that early discovery. One wall was decorated with a mounted rifle above a picture of a team of hunters with him at the center. Considering the circles of ground that rose past them, one with hanging purple plants that curled up at the bottom, I had to guess that was one of his other intergalactic missions. He even had a bit of the tech that had made Faster Than Light (FTL) travel possible. An invention of either his father’s or grandfather’s, if memory served.
There was more, but none of that mattered when compared to what came next. I passed the Mars pillars and found myself standing at the entrance to this massive room with no windows. Nothing covered the walls. All there was in this area was the skull that stared down at me, suspended from the ceiling to make clear this was the center of attention. Not some deer or elephant skull, mind you; I’m talking huge. This thing had to be at least fifteen, maybe twenty feet in diameter. The type of animal it had to have come from was beyond me, but I knew without a doubt it had to be alien. It had similar characteristics to a giant squirrel, but with a series of spikes along the top of its forehead. Each tooth was as long as my arm, and they looked like they’d been sharpened.
“What am I looking at?” I asked, taking a step closer, trying to ignore the way my heart pounded. My breaths came short, a line of sweat moving along my temple. This thing was long dead, but it still freaked me the hell out.
“That, dear boys, is my grand prize,” a deep voice said, and we turned to see another man in that room with us. I recognized him instantly as Mr. Tycoon himself, AKA Mr. Calsen. The old man had a full head of snow-white hair, and though I knew he had to be in his seventies, could otherwise almost pass for being not much older than myself. He stepped forward, eyes moving up to his prize. “A kill I’ll never forget. There’s something about conquering a beast of this enormity that makes you realize how great man has truly become. We have ascended to near godhood, gentlemen.”
“Sorry for wandering,” I blurted out, but noticed the humor in John’s eyes, the upturned lip. Hissing to John, I added, “You knew he’d be here?”
John grinned, and it hit me. Holy shit, he’d planned the thing with the ladies, used them as bait to lure me up here. He could have just told me he wanted me to meet someone, but no, this was his way. Always the type to make a show of life.
“Mr. Calsen here has agreed to let us see his collection on one condition,” John explained. With a nod to Mr. Calsen, he waited, hands behind his back, all very formal.
Suddenly, my going-out-on-the-town outfit felt very out of place. It was a suit, yes, but not the type we’d wear to meet with clients.
“I got my trophy here on a safari,” Mr. Calsen said. “Not a safari to Africa or anywhere like that. No, this is far more…” His eyes went up to the skull, then past it to the painted stars on the domed ceiling above. “…More exotic.”
“He’s invited us to go,” John said. “On his next expedition. Can you believe it?”
I blinked, totally caught off guard. Me, go out into space on what? A hunting expedition? There were so many reasons I felt that would be impossible. At first, anyway. Then it started hitting me that I really had nothing tying me down here for the moment. I’d recently gone through a nasty breakup—half the reason John was able to convince me to go to the tycoon’s party to begin with—and my lease on my apartment was up next month. Last I’d heard from my mom was over three years ago, when my brother had been reported dead with the Space Marines. I’d always envied his bravery, and now I had the chance to do something… well, not similar at all, but something that would at least make me feel some of what he must have felt.
Still, this was a huge step.
“What about work?” I asked in a hushed voice, hoping Mr. Calsen wouldn’t hear me.
John winked, then motioned me to join him a few paces away, our backs turned to the tycoon. “First, don’t fuck this up. Smile, show excitement, and nothing less. Second, this is work—we land this guy as a client, and we’re set for life. That means you, baby. You will be set for life, and I’ll personally see to it. Understand?”
“So you’re in?” he asked.
Part of me wanted to say no, but I knew I couldn’t. “Sounds like a plan to me.” I plastered on my best smile. But as we turned back to the tycoon and John told him we were on board, the smile became increasingly legit. By the time we were shaking hands and retiring to the party to celebrate over bottles of Scotch, I was downright giddy.
I, Tommy Kurbratski, was going into space with the chance of seeing real-life giant animals. That thought was only made better when Verity and her friend found us later that night, acting as if we hadn’t completely snubbed them, and spent the rest of the evening with their tongues enjoying our tongues. When we told them we were going into space with Mr. Calsen, their first reaction was to call B.S. on us, the second was to get us back to their hotel rooms for a nice send-off.
If only I hadn’t passed out in the cab and found myself waking up in front of my apartment building, alone, that might have been awesome. Even less great was the text I got the next morning—a picture of John with both ladies, all three topless, and him with a bottle of whipped cream.
“Missed you tons,” he said in the text message.
I was hungover as hell. Deleting the pic, I almost ignored the next text from him. Good thing I didn’t because it read: “Get ready, sunshine. We’re shipping out in three hours.”
My coffee went up my nose and out, and I had to reread the message again. Sure enough, we were really doing this, and not wasting any time at that.He then sent instructions for where to go and what I’d need. I poured another cup of coffee, started the shower, and leaned against the wall as I focused on my breathing to clear my head.
This was about to be the greatest experience of my life, or the worst. Either way, I was damn thrilled to be part of it.
COMING SOON to Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.