1

Topic: Flotsam

Flotsam
Chapter One: Halley-24

I gasp as my new eyes open for the first time.

I have no idea how I got here. I'm panting, can feel one of my panic attacks coming on. Ohshitohshitohshitohshit. I can't afford this right now. I close my eyes and count to ten, making an effort to breath just like my therapist taught me. Calm, just be calm. Zen. Okay now Halley, let's try that again. Open those eyes.

I'm laying on something soft like a mattress. It's comfortable, some kind of memory foam. That is okay. I'm also naked, which is less okay. I choke back a whimper and take a deep breath. Panic never solved anything. My skin is pimpled from an odd, dissipating chill. I try not to shiver. I stare at the ceiling, a smooth, white molded plastic like the inside of an airstream trailer I had been in once. I wiggle my fingers and toes, test my arms and legs. They seemed intact and not at all restrained. That's positive. Things are looking up already!

I sit up. Yep, definitely on a bed in a bedroom. I look around the bedroom and it is not the nicest room. For one, it's small. For another, it's messy. The half made bed stretches wall to wall and completely fills half the room. The rest of the room is filled mostly with discarded laundry: dresses, bras, underwear, and various other femme garmentry. So probably a messy woman's room. I sigh in relief, another mark in the win column.

Not seeing any immediate threats I decide to take stock of myself. I run my hands and eyes over my body. It looks normal: too pale, slim but not skinny, vaguely fit without being athletic, just a sliver below average height. Hi Halley. I'm encouraged by a lack of bruises, broken bones, or signs of injury to my lady parts. While I'm still mysteriously naked, it doesn't look like I've been abused or injured.

So to sum up, I am naked, but apparently unmolested, in a strange woman's bedroom.

I awkwardly scoot myself off the bed, plant my feet, and stand. And... have to steady myself for a dizzy second of light headedness. The smoothest escape ever! I prod a pile of laundry with my feet. Nothing alive in it moves so I rifle through it a little. A promising looking t-shirt dress comes to hand. It is black and made with a slick matte fabric that is definitely not cotton. I give it an experimental sniff: it smells faintly of a pleasant smelling shampoo. I'll take previously worn dress over nudity in unfamiliar territory any day, so I pull the dress on. It's too loose, but it covers me and isn't a terrible fit so it will do. I feel substantially less about to completely lose my shit.

I am solving problems, one manageable part at a time. My therapist would be so proud.

I walk to the door. It is made of the same polymer as the other surfaces in the bedroom. I put my ear against it and do not hear anything outside. I look for a door handle and can't find it! What kind of bedroom door doesn't have a handle?  (Answer: a cell.) I start to feel a panic attack brewing again. Until I notice a touch pad looking thing mounted on the wall next to the door. It glows faintly, as if it is in sleep mode. Tentatively I reach out and touch the screen with a finger. It snaps on! And I snap my finger back.

A menu is on the screen with a cartoony "Hi Halley!" greeting on the top. Fuck me. I see an icon marked exit and reach out and quickly poke it. A static charge leaps from the screen and up my arm. My borrowed dress writhes on my body. I yelp as it cinches tighter, hugging my body, hemline creeping up a bit. My pilfered dress now fits me perfectly, becoming upsettingly flattering. The door to the room snaps up into the ceiling with a hiss. I squeak, not quite able to scream.

Trying not to panic I peak out through the doorway.

And there I am! Another Halley! Except... not? This Halley is completely naked and has eight breasts on her chest and kitty cat ears and a little pink nose and whiskers and huge luminous green feline eyes and paws and a furry tail that idly flicks in the air behind her. I am looking at myself as a catgirl! Naked catgirl Halley!

I scream!

Naked catgirl Halley regards me with a kind of bored contempt. "Master!" she yowls, "we have another Halley!"

Master? I scream again.

"Pussy?" A throaty alto woman's voice asks blearily.

Pussy? I whimper.

"Master, another Halley has spawned in the bedroom." Pussy tips her head and cooly looks at me, a disturbingly feline gesture. "I don't think she is doing well," she sniffs.

I hear strange clopping sounds and another person comes into view. It's another bizarre woman who is at least wearing clothes. She has hooves for feet, hence the clopping, and legs that bend oddly giving her a posture one part animal and one part leggy woman wearing heels. She too has a tail, peaking out of her plaid pajama pants, except this one is long and sinuous and covered in human looking skin. Her tight tank top is stretched by three! heavy breasts. She has a gorgeous face framed with silver, pearlescent hair that shimmers with a rainbow of colours when the light hits it. She has long, black rams horns growing from her scalp that curl from her temples and swoop back around long, vaguely elfin pointed ears. Her eyes look tired, like she hasn't gotten enough sleep. She is beautiful. Aaaaand there is something familiar about her that I can't quite place...

The woman shifts self consciously and I notice her pants have a decidedly large, decidedly masculine bulge in the front. Which in this context is an upsetting development. Hello again panic.

"Hi Halley," the woman says gently, "everything is going to be okay." She spreads her hands non-threateningly. "I know you are confused, but, it's me Clem."

Clem? This woman is my boyfriend Clem? That's absurd.... but.... she does look a little... and...

Fuck me! This bizarre woman is my boyfriend Clem!

I scream again!

...Aaaaand then promptly faint.

Attagirl Halley.

***

(I've hit a LoB writers block lately and seldom have time to write. I wanted to write something long in a new setting of my own devising so here is the first part. Updates happen when they happen. Hi again.)

2

Re: Flotsam

oh, i wonder where this is going!

3

Re: Flotsam

Great to see you writing again! Looking forward to seeing where this goes!

4

Re: Flotsam

Ooh, this looks really interesting.

And it's great to see new stories from you again!  I really understand writer's block.  Best of luck with your current projects!

5

Re: Flotsam

Seconded.
Just where in the hell is this going? I want to know.

"Nothing gets me going like good world building"

6

Re: Flotsam

Flotsam
Chapter Two: Hank's Hideaway

I am sitting in a bar on an alien planet drinking what is not, but can passably be described as beer.

I take another sip. "Run it all by me again."

Hank The Bartender chuckles. "You are Halley Rochelle Houston. You are not the original Halley Rochelle Houston, but a clone. A new instance of Halley created by an insurance policy that produces a back up Halley if something happens to the previous Halley. You will note that I said the previous Halley, not the original. You are the twenty-third instance of Halley Houston to be decanted in Clementine's trailer since the disappearance of the original Halley. Which makes you Halley-24 in the parlance of Halley clone track keeping."

I nod. This part mostly makes sense to me. The last thing I remember from before I woke up was a midnight argument with Clem in a field outside the trailer park. It was the usual fight about living in a trailer park, squandered potential, all of that; at least until a sudden wind kicked up and a shockingly bright blue light snapped over us. I remember a weird humming noise filling the air and then feeling incredibly drowsy and just sinking to the ground... and then I was in a bedroom looking at a nude catgirl named Pussy who looked like me and called the hermaphrodite Clem “Master”. Clearly I had missed some important developments. I take a long, hard drink.

Hank takes that as his cue to continue. “We are on an alien planet. It has an official name, but the human community here just calls it Flotsam. There is a...” Hank did the swoopy hand thing. “Network of wormholes, we call it the Nexus, that lets spacecraft travel between solar systems really quickly. It’s artificial but no one I’ve met knows who made it. We call this place Flotsam because all the wreckage, trash, and whatever else that gets lost in the Nexus eventually gets dumped in this solar system. Most trash just circulates around the solar system as garbage asteroid belts, but a bunch of it ends up falling onto the system planets. Flotsam is absolutely littered with various mysterious space trash. It’s kind of the galactic dump.”

From the trailer park to the dump. “Sounds nice.”

Hank smirkes, “It’s not much, but it’s home." He moues a little when I don't laugh. I’m kind of a tough room right now. "Anyway, Halley-prime and Clem were abducted by aliens, I don’t really know who or why. We can’t be sure because Halley-prime and Clem were in stasis, but since they both ended up on Flotsam, it’s safe to assume something went wrong in the Nexus and the ship was marooned here.” The man shrugs. "And several misadventures later you exist."

I take another sip of my not-beer. When I regained consciousness after fainting it was to a concerned and very beautiful Clem and a bored and judgemental looking Pussy. Clem shooed the catgirl away, which was an enormous relief. She told me to try to relax, to focus on my breathing, and that she would take me to someone who could explain what was going on. I nodded and silently continued panicking a little. But I did let her take my hand in her dainty, perfect one and lead me out of her space-trailer, a repurposed derelict spacecraft thing, onto a street straight from a mid-budget science fiction serial. It had all of the tropes of a cowboy western town: red desert dust and shale, narrow streets of packed earth lined in places by makeshift raised walkways, and a warren of frontier style improvised buildings. Except everything was very future, made of repurposed metal spaceship chunks or brightly coloured plastic with a riot of glowing screens and holograms and real live aliens. I was gawking like a tourist who was also a time traveller. Clem kept making apologetic faces as I stared, and more than a few humans and aliens we passed gave me a knowing, pitying look. Apparently, recurring Halley's was an open secret in these hurr parts Pardner.

Clem led me down a few small streets, dragged me onto a larger thoroughfare with bigger screens and louder holograms, and zipped us down a tiny alleyway to "Hank's Hideaway". Which was a bar fashioned by welding together a half dozen shipping-container looking pod-things to make a small ground floor tavern with a smaller apartment above. "You brought me to a bar?" I'd asked. "You look like you could really use a drink," she had answered, deadpanning in a very my-boyfriend-Clem kind of way, "who better to talk your worries through with than a bartender?" I must have given Clem The Look because she giggled and played with her hair in a not-at-all-my-boyrfriend kind of way. "Hank is a great guy," she said, "and he can explain your situation better than anyone else I know... except maybe me, and I bet talking to me is super weird right now." I couldn't disagree with that, so me and the gorgeous hermaphrodite woman who was my boyfriend walk into a bar. Where I was bought a reasonable facsimile of beer and put in the care of a handsome man who is patiently explaining that I am a clone on an alien world.

"So I'm Halley-24."

Hank nods, obviously pleased that I'm catching on.

"I think I can at least try to deal with that..." I smile ruefully and look at my alien brew, "You know you're having a day when learning you are the  23rd clone of yourself is not the weirdest thing to happen to you."

Hank chuckles, "What do you consider the weirdest?"

"Learning my boyfriend looks like a cartoon alien princess has been pretty fucking strange, but I think I'll give the nod to finding out that another clone of me is a catgirl sexslave. That's just too fucked for me."

Hank nods sympathetically, "Pussy is hard to reconcile with, isn't she? Although technically she's a petgirl... more like an anthropomorphic pet cat than a person. It's still a strange choice, but not like, unheard of here." He shrugs, "Here is kind of a weird place."

I polish off my beer. Something else didn't quite add up. "Aside from why any version of me would decide to become someone's sexual pet, the thing I still can't figure out is why Clem brought me to you. You seem like a nice guy, but why are you *the* expert I just have to talk to?"

Hank smiles, "I have all the booze."

I unholster The Look at Hank. "Seriously, why do you know so much about me and my situation?"

"It's simple, I'm Halley-2."

...

"I think I'm going to need another beer."

***

(Thanks for the kind words, it's nice to be back writing instead of lurking. Hopefully I can keep y'all intrigued.)

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Re: Flotsam

Okay, I am super intrigued right now. 

This also seems like the rare sort of setting where I may actually want to live. 

I am a bit surprised that among her very first questions wasn't 'who's paying for this Haley insurance thing?'

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Re: Flotsam

Good to see you back. smile

Belial or not, its nice to see a new story of yours.
Keep it coming.

9

Re: Flotsam

Flotsam
Chapter Three: Halley-2

“I bet you have some questions,” says the man who was once me.

I stifle a typsy, manic giggle. “Where do I even begin?”

Hank clears his throat, “Standing up when you pee is pretty convenient and more entertaining than you might think. Plus shaking instead of wiping is so much better. I don’t know why that doesn’t get talked about more...”

"Really?" I groan, "You start with peeing?"

Hank smirks, "Well, it's an obvious question. And I am kind of an expert on urination styles now."

I give Hank another burst of The Look, which since he is apparently an earlier clone of me has little effect. "The obvious question is why the fuck are you a guy!?”

“Well that is a bit complicated...” Hank takes a deep breath.

***

“I was confused when I first opened my eyes. The last thing I remembered was Clem and I fighting in the trailer park and that sudden, weird light. And then jump cut to me lying naked on an unfamiliar bed, a man sleeping next to me. I screamed, waking the man, who yelped in shock. Fortunately for me the man was Clem, still regular old skinny whiteboy Clem, with his scruffy hair and stupid goatee. But I was still a panicking mess.

Clem, meanwhile, was pretty freaked out too. Here he was on an alien planet and his girlfriend, Halley-prime, had disappeared weeks ago and now here she was in bed in the middle of the night screaming her head off. I was the first Halley clone and I had appeared without any warning so he had no clue what was happening. He thought I was the original Halley, returned from wherever it was she went, suddenly back and inexplicably losing her shit. He was startled and confused, but also elated to see me. Which all resulted in an unfortunate comedy routine: I didn't know that I was missing months of memories or that we were on an alien planet and Clem had no idea that I was a clone and not the original Halley.

Somewhere in our confusion we ended up having sex. I was using it as an emotional crutch to avoid dealing with whatever the fuck was happening and Clem was just desperately glad to see me alive. It wasn't until after we had fucked, cuddling together in that cramped bedroom of his, that we started to figure out what had happened. As Clem gently cupped my breasts he asked where I had disappeared to and whether I had figured out why we were abducted. As I nuzzled against him, enjoying his slick cock on my back, I realized that the seeming gap in my memories was significant. When I explained that the last thing I remembered was the trailer park, Clem finally figured out I wasn’t the genuine, or at least, the original Halley. And so Clem explained that we had been abducted by aliens and were stranded on a strange, alien planet.

Clem also filled me in about what I, or rather Halley-prime, had been doing since they arrived. When we first arrived Halley-prime had an anxiety driven breakdown and refused to leave her charity supplied room. We Halley’s have always struggled with our anxiety, but the combination of being kidnapped and appearing on a hostile, alien planet was too much for her. I imagine she worried that the anxiety would just go on and on, crippling her, or that she had somehow lost her mind and this was all some strange episode of psychosis. But eventually, at some point, Halley-prime turned a corner on her fear and resolved to find out why she and Clem had been abducted.  She decided she would leave no space junk unturned, would interrogate every terrifying alien until she knew who was responsible for what happened and find a way back home to Earth. And in doing so she could find a purpose on Flotsam and maybe take back control of her life. You know, fix one small problem at a time and work towards a goal, as our once therapist said.

By the time Halley had pulled herself together, Clem had managed to find a steady paycheque and a home for them. Through a combination of hustling small jobs, being an obvious charity case, and blind stupid luck, Clem had found he had a valuable, marketable skill. Clem was a Shaper... you know what? I should probably explain something...

Okay, this next part is going to be a bit hard to swallow, but, Humans aren’t native to Earth. Not really native to anywhere. Humans are a synthetic species made to be adaptable, self-replicating, sapient servants. No one seems to know who made us, but it was a long time ago and we have since mostly gone feral. Humans live on all kinds of planets with all kinds of aliens. In most places we are a tolerated minority species just living our lives, in other places humanity has managed to eke out its own self-governing polities, and in a few places humans are mostly kept as servants or even slaves. Earth, it turns out, is kind of a human nature preserve, an experiment to see what a native human society would look like if it developed organically. It’s part of a debate between some of the more prominent local aliens about whether or not humans should be considered a full sapient species. I  can’t help but feel we Earthlings are really cocking it up for the rest of humanity.

Anyway, Clementine, Clem, has a rare, valuable skill. She is what is known as a Shaper. Whoever created humans wanted the ability to customize their servants for a variety of tasks, to maybe make them mermaids to work on a water planet, or make them super strong and durable to serve as soldiers, or to make them horny and multibreasted and hyperfertile to be power breeders. To do this they invented some sort of nanomachines, which are so advanced and weird that no one really understands them. It’s science indistinguishable from magic stuff. Shapers can produce and interface with these machines to sculpt other humans to remake their body in all kinds of amazing ways. But it isn’t just anyone who can be a Shaper, it’s this rare innate ability that some tiny number of humans have. Clem, while hustling janitorial jobs for a Shaper, was exposed to the nanomachines and it became apparent that he was one of these rare Shapers. Which landed him a decent paying job learning how to Shape.

And it isn’t just that Clementine is a Shaper, it’s that she is a massively, hugely powerful Shaper. A freaking space wizard. Most people who can Shape, only have a tiny amount of talent. They can, say, change someone’s hair or eye colour, maybe make them a little slimmer or busty working a little bit at a time. Make minor cosmetic changes like Earthling plastic surgeons. People with enough talent to be professional Shapers, who are very few in number, have the ability to make larger changes, say, grow a new limb or give someone animal traits. But this is very taxing for them, and takes many hours and repeat sessions to do anything major. A tiny fraction of this small group are quite powerful, they can make big changes easily and with work, can alter bodies far from their human baseline. But these Shapers are very, very rare. Maybe 1 in a billion humans has this ability. Clem is among the most powerful group of Shapers who can rewrite a human almost completely in a single session, giving them physical and mental changes that defy the laws of biology. And she can do the very rarest of things: she can Shape aliens, albeit slowly, painstakingly over many sessions. This is such an enormously rare ability. Only a handful of people in the entire known universe are as talented at Shaping as Clementine is. Which makes her a very, very valuable commodity.

Halley-prime, all fired up to discover the reason for the abduction, initially thought that Clem's Shaper abilities were the reason they were abducted. Except... looking into it she found that it was pretty unlikely. Clem's boss, themselves a powerful Shaper, explained that the Shaping ability is completely dormant until someone is exposed to the Shaping nanobots. In civilized parts of space where Shaping is common this would typically happen when a young person first visits a shaper for a minor medical or cosmetic procedure. Or in many places parents routinely test their children at a very young age for ancient talents: Shaping, psychic abilities, telekinesis, prophecy. But on a place like Earth? The Shaping nanobots are strictly forbidden from the planet  meaning that any Shapers on the planet would be latent and nigh undetectable, especially from orbit. Which means that the abductors couldn't really have known that Clem is a nigh-omnipotent Shaper, and when you add in the very steep penalty for violating the Earthling preserve experiment.... it doesn't seem very plausible. Which, all together, was enough to convince Halley-prime that Clem and his Shaping abilities were not the driving force between their abduction. And no offence to Clem, but he wasn’t really remarkable enough to warrant a highly illegal abduction without that.

But then again, what was special about us? About Halley-prime?

So Halley-prime set off on a quest to learn why she and Clem were taken by aliens. She learned who the information brokers were on Flotsam, those people and aliens that seemed to know a bit about everything. She started working for them, doing favours, paying for information when she had to. She insinuated herself into that world and became known as a broker herself and began to earn a modest living from facilitating deals. Halley made friends with the order-obsessed cyborgs who contract for security at the spaceport and in parts of the city. She started visiting the alien consulates in the nicer parts of the city, learning what other species knew. She cultivated contacts in the Syndicate that runs organized crime on the planet, sometimes even working for them a little to earn their trust. Halley-prime visited alien Oracles, had her own potential for ancient human talents checked, and ventured out into the Junk Deserts with Scavenger crews to chase leads. She even went to the Far Outlands, the quarantined zones, and prospected for forbidden artifacts that might give her new insights. Most impressive though, is she gained entry to the Forbidden Enclave of the Greys, the compound of the enigmatic administrators of Flotsam who typically forbid outsiders from entering their home, and learned what they knew. It took Halley-prime months, but if anyone actually knew anything about why we were abducted it was her.

Which is why it is so frustrating that she disappeared.

As Clementine tells it, it was just another day. Still Clem, he had another day of apprentice work for the Shapers, doing minor, boring changes, like removing unsightly blemishes to learn control of his new power. He had breakfast with Halley-prime who was excited about chasing down a new lead, but there was nothing remarkable about that, she was always excited about a new angle on the truth. She did say that if the lead panned out that she might be away for a few days, but that he shouldn’t worry. They kissed goodbye, I love youed, and went their separate ways. And that was the last time Clem, or anyone, remembers seeing Halley-prime.

Clem did search for her, of course. He hounded all of her contacts among the information brokers, but they didn’t know about the lead she was after. He asked the security folks, the consulate staffs, and the Scavenger crews that Halley most often worked with. But no one there had seen her either. Clem made a formal request to see what tracking data the Grey’s had on Halley, but they never responded. He even confronted one of the lieutenants of the Syndicate, fortunately one who respected Halley, who could only express ignorance and remorse at her disappearance. Without any leads Clem had to give up and hope she returned, there was just no other way forward. Clem still doesn’t know what happened to her, whether she is dead or still alive, whether she maybe was abducted again or escaped Flotsam, or whether she maybe found what she was looking for.

I personally hope she found her answers.

Weeks passed and then suddenly I appeared, naked and confused and having no memories of the two years Halley-prime spent on Flotsam.”

***

I sit and think about what Hank has just told me as he serves some customers. Customers who are a hardy looking group of men that I decide have an air of futuristic desperation; very motorcar, very dystopian. They sit on chairs fashioned from cleverly bent pipe around one of the repurposed cargo canisters tables and drink beer analogue. The background music alternates between 1950s Rockabilly and very cheesy 1970s disco, presumably the only authentic Earthling music on Flotsam. These roadwarriors wear armour studded coveralls plastered with dust and wide streaks of rust. One of the group wears a cybernetic looking monocle thing, which might actually just be his eye. All of them have thick tattoo like lines of something metallic running through their exposed skin. "Scavengers?" I ask Hank when he returns to where I sit at the enormous steel structural beam serving as a bar.

"Sort of," Hank answers. "Gauld and his boys are Salvagers, which are a bit more legit."

"And the difference is?"

"A Salvager stakes a claim on a particular plot of land within the Administered Zone, usually for something like a fairly intact derelict spacecraft. Their goal is to systematically strip the thing for everything its worth, reselling functioning parts, maybe scrapping any high value metals, and auctioning off any exciting technology. It's dirty, honest work; kind of like the mining industry of Flotsam. Scavengers, on the other hand, are more like prospectors, they are looking to find something valuable and strike it big all in one go. They essentially wander the Junk Deserts looking for rare artifacts or sexy tech, often without much regard for the official rules of Salvage or other sapients claims. They also have a tendency to enter the Outlands." Hank leans in, "Salvagers don't much like Scavengers, so try not to get them confused... or call my customers Scavengers, okay?"

I nod and try not roll my eyes. Wake up on an alien planet just to find out people are just as tribally petty as back home. It seems human nature transcends Earth.

Hank pours me another not-beer and asks, "Where were we?"

"You still haven't told me why you are a dude, oh formerly-known-as-Halley-two."

"Right...."

***

"So I wake up naked in Clem's bed, and we both flip out, like you do. After much confusion and some sex we figure out I am not the Halley-prime, or if I am, I am missing a ton of memories. So of course we try and figure out what the fuck is going on.

Which.. actually doesn't take all that much effort. It turns out the apparent resurrection of a loved one is a feat only a handful of groups on Flotsam can accomplish. Clem asked some of Halley-prime's info broker contacts and the next thing I know we are at the very swank law offices of Luminous Intergalactic, the front company of the mysterious Annunaki aliens. The Annunaki are a *very* advanced and reclusive species who definitely don't live on Flotsam or spend much time in this galaxy. They do have a company though, and it has offices on Flotsam to pay top dollar for any weird or interesting scavenged technology. Luminous Intergalactic has their offices in a handsome stone building with beautiful marble everything and staffed by a human man and woman who look suspiciously like Carl Sagan and Linda Salzman Sagan. They were very eager to help, to a point. The woman Sagan clone was able to confirm that I was a clone of Halley generated by one of their insurance policies. But the man-Sagan explained that they have strict client confidentiality and could not discuss the particulars of said policy. Clem asked if my presence meant that Halley-prime was dead. The Sagans told us they couldn't comment on this particular case, but that death is often the condition triggering the policy. Although, they added, the insurance policy could depend on other more nebulous conditions too. Which, since we are two real live Halleys sitting in a bar talking about this, I suspect death is not the main trigger. Anyway, Clem kept peppering the LI employees with questions about Halley that they politely rebuffed while I thought about the thing I wanted to know most. Who the fuck was paying for this?

I knew the Sagans would never tell me, so instead I asked how much a resurrection policy cost. The answer, converting from our local currency, is too much fucking money. The Annunaki charge an absolute fortune for this kind of insurance, enough that virtually no one on Flotsam could afford it, especially Halley-prime. I felt a tickle of anxiety in my stomach. What kind of sicko was I suddenly beholden to? A rich, anonymous weirdo or a soulless interstellar corporation or worse, maybe I was in hoc to the Syndicate. I was fending off a panic attack when Clem asked if the Annunaki accepted other forms of payment. The woman-Sagan pointed out that Luminous Industries was more interested in technology or interesting artifacts than money, since what did the Annunaki need with the local currency? The man-Sagan continued that an artifact of sufficient value could easily be used as barter for a resurrection insurance plan, although he of course couldn't comment on this particular policy. I was relieved to hear this, since it was at least possible that Halley-prime managed to find something really cool on one of her trips into the Junk Desert and traded it for insurance. But that was only a possibility and it didn't really explain what might have happened to Halley, or why I had such a big gap in my memory, or why Halley-prime felt she might need insurance in the first place. It really was still wide open.

We eventually left the offices of Luminous Industries almost right where we started out from: Halley-prime was still missing and I was a clone paid for by someone. Clem, lacking any new leads had to accept that Halley-prime was out of the picture, either dead or long gone, maybe off planet. But he did have me, Halley-two, wide-eyed and naive to this brave new alien world. So Clem decided it was time to stop chasing Halley-prime and focus on helping me.

And he really steered into it, making me feel like an absolute princess in my first weeks on Flotsam. He took some time off work and showed me around the city, taking me to all of his favourite places and introducing me to his exotic friends. He cooked me strange alien delicacies and bought me amazing futuristic gadgets and generally taught me what I needed to live here. And Halley, I was so in love. I mean, I never stopped loving Clem, having just been resurrected, but this was like it was when we were first together, everything new and fresh. And the sex! He was so grateful to see me alive and he tried so hard to please me. It was the second greatest whirlwind romance of my life.

And for a few months it was enough.

But... curiosity started to get the better of me....

For the sake of Clem I really did try to stay out of trouble.... but the mystery of Halley-prime disappearing and my cloned existence was just too juicy to ignore. So when Clem went to work with the Shapers, I tried to pick up where Halley had left off, introducing myself to her contacts and interviewing all her friends to figure out where she might have gone. And, unsurprisingly I didn’t learn much, except maybe something about the Syndicate and something about a journey deep into the Junk Desert. I couldn’t really act on either of those leads without putting myself into danger and I couldn’t do that to Clem. But I was invested in solving the mystery. What was I going to do?

It turns out I didn’t have to worry about it, because that’s when it happened...

I came home from a jog to find a woman crying in our bedroom. She wasn’t anyone I’d met, a lanky brown haired gal wearing too large clothes, awkwardly hugging herself on our bed. She looked up at the sound of me entering the room and our eyes met, and I suddenly realized I was looking at Clem. I must have looked shocked, because blushing the woman whimpered “It’s me, it’s Clem.”  I had no idea what was going on, but my good person module kicked in and I went straight to poor Clem and gathered her thin body into my arms and held as she cried.

‘What happened,” I eventually asked. “Why are you a girl?”

Clem sniffled and I combed her newly long hair out of her eyes and mouth. “It... it was an accident,” she sniffed, “sort of...” Clem explained that another Shaper had dared her into transforming herself into a woman. Clem had balked at this, he wasn’t trans and didn’t harbour any secret fantasies about being a woman. But the other Shaper kept after him, calling him chicken, questioning whether he could even do it. The bullying didn’t really get to Clem, you know he has had much worse, but the challenge intrigued him. Could he make that big a change all at once? He knew he was powerful, but he was still learning and a complete gender swap was a substantial transformation. And, well, maybe it would be fun? He could surprise me and we could spend the evening like gal pals, maybe do something silly and girly like paint our nails or go shopping. And maybe we could fool around or even have sex. With the option on the table, the idea of trying out sex as a woman, if only once, was actually kind of intriguing. So Clem decided to go for it. He reached out to the Shaping nano machines that lived in his blood and pushed them with his mind, reshaping his body, not into the weird space princess she is now, but just a baseline female version of himself. He, now she, had succeeded.

At first Clem had been elated, she had just accomplished something incredible. But then he felt something different about his nanites and his body. He touched them and tried to Shift his body back.... and couldn’t. Something had gone wrong. “I’m stuck!” Clem cried in my arms before breaking out in sobs again.

What no one had told Clem was that when a Shaper transformed themself, the change was permanent. No one was entirely sure why things worked this way. One theory is that it’s a safety feature: Shaping takes a physical toll on both the Shaper and the person being shaped, a shared cellular burden that leaves both parties exhausted by the experience. When a Shaper works on themselves, that burden falls entirely on their own body and if they had the ability to make multiple changes to themselves they would risk serious injury or death. Another idea people have is that it’s a security element, a purposefully designed limitation to prevent Shapers from altering their shapes and acting as doppelgängers and stealing other peoples identities. Regardless of the underlying reason, someone had really needed to inform Clem of this rule, but everyone had just assumed he had known since it was common knowledge. The Shaper who had goaded him was jealous of his power and when they noticed his ignorance decided to use it against him and so now Clem is stuck being mostly female.

As I held Clem, trying to soothe her, an idea came to me. “Clem,” I said, “I want you to make me a man.”

I don’t know where exactly the idea came from, but I knew it was the right thing to do. If Clem was going be stuck with a new sex and gender, then I could too. This way I would be going through the same dysmorphic roller coaster as Clem, giving us a chance to support each other. Part of me thought we could even make it into an adventure, that we could teach each other about our new genders and make a game of it. Besides, for me it would only be a temporary change since Clem could change me back when we were ready. Worst case scenario I suffer through a few months of body hair and sat on balls to make Clem feel a little better. “Clem, I’m completely serious. Make me a man.”

Clem looked at me, her wide eyes shining with admiration and tears. “Okay,” Clem said, pushing herself out of my arms and sitting up on the bed. “First, you’ll need to take off your clothes and lie down.” I did as instructed, touching my Key to command my clothes to relax. I slipped out of everything and dutifully laid down on the bed. My skin prickled in the cool air and I felt a wave of nervousness wash over me. I stroked my stomach and cupped my breasts in a goodbye gesture. What the fuck was I volunteering for? What did Shaping even feel like? “Last chance...” Clem told me as she kneeled over me, a concerned, but excited look on her face. “Just get on with it,” I growled, worried that I would try and chicken out of it. Clem leaned down and kissed me hard on the mouth....

...and I felt a jolt; an electric tingle ran through my body radiating from where our lips touched and out through my limbs. My body began to warm, taking on a feverish quality as the Shaping nanomachines that had invaded my body powered up. The heat concentrated like a welt in my breasts and I gasped as I watched them recede into my chest. This was, this was actually happening. My chest reshaped itself, gaining muscular pecs, as the sculpting heat marched along my now washboard stomach and down to my hips which squeezed, narrowed, and reformed trading fat for muscle. These changes rippled out over my limbs which bulked up and lengthened, gaining muscle and strength. Waves of heat crawled over my head and face and I felt it reshape like putty, gaining rugged masculine features. Finally I felt a sharp burst of heat in my vagina, alerting me to the largest change. I moaned, a new deep, male sounding moan, as my clitoris and vulva began to push out and merge into a phallus. I gasped as my vaginal cleft fused and sealed before ballooning out into a scrotum. I felt my guts writhe as my mutating ovaries migrated out of my body and became my new testicles. I had grown a cock and balls and ohhhh, my cock was so hard and...

And I realized that Clem had pulled off her shirt and had grasped my new cock in her dainty hand and was jacking me off. I writhed at the alien sensations of my engorged hard cock being held in a tight, pistoning hand. I was panting, feeling a new pressure building, myself narrowing to a point. Clem saw me look at her, and held my eyes a moment before ducking forward and popping the head of my penis into her mouth. The warm moisture of her mouth coupled with the kinky visual of my femininzed boyfriend sucking my cock pushed me over the edge and I came, ejaculating. Clem, inexperienced as she was, sputtered and chocked on my cum and slipped off my cock giggling a little. I had only been a man for a few minutes and I had already had my first male orgasm.

And as I basked there on the bed, I realized I liked it.

What followed was a strange and kind of wonderful phase of our relationship. Clem made a game of steering into gender norms, experimenting with being a ‘stereotypical’ woman. Clem had her hair styled in ringlets and bought a very girly wardrobe of dresses and rompers and other very femme clothing. She insisted that among my lessons about feminine hygiene that I also teach her how to do makeup, and she adopted lipstick and nail polish into her life. We went on dates, holding hands as she tottered uncertainly in heels, where we ate dinner while she played with her hair and giggled. When we went to watch the gladiators, she pressed herself into my strong arms and squealed at the violence. She was being, for all the weird heteronormativity, super cute. And I was finding myself falling into the game. I enjoyed how she relied on me for strength and comfort, and I started to look for ways to touch her protectively or clutch her posessively. I started to lift her up, not for any practical reason really, but as a macho display of strength and because she always cooed appreciatively. Performing being a man was, I was finding, fun.

And then there was the sex, which was actually fairly complicated. Despite Clem being gung-ho about playing with my cock when she changed me, she was actually quite shy about her new genitals. For weeks all we did was make out like horny teenagers, grinding crotches while she took off her top and let me play with her small, high tits. I would gently push for more, offering to teach her how great a female orgasm was, but she would keep her pants or underwear on and demur. To distract me, I think, she steered into giving me oral sex, performing awkward, but improving, blowjobs to keep me happy and away from her strange new vagina. Eventually, and it took a bottle of berry wine to get us sufficiently relaxed, I got Clem out of her pants and onto my face. I went slowly that first time, lazily caressing Clem’s vulva with my tongue and raining her cute little clitoris with kisses, before slowly, slowly ramping up my licks and finally slipping a finger into her snatch to stroke her. She writhed and gasped and panted and swore, her thighs boxing my ears and shoulders, before finally with a whoop she squeezed my head and bucked through her first orgasm. As she lay panting I asked if she wanted me to keep going and breathlessly she nodded.

Three days later we finally fucked.

And after that our sex life was launched like a rocket, both of us addicted to our new sexual experiences like a couple of dumbass horny teens. Clem was and is an absolute whore in the sack. It was really, really fun and was absolutely the greatest whirlwind romance of my life.

This isn’t to say it was all sex and gender fantasy roleplaying. It wasn’t unusual to find Clem sitting sadly at night, maybe clutching a sheaf screen with an old picture of her male self on it. And when she had her first period, she broke down completely, fingers bloody wailing at the unfairness of it all. She even cried when I grew my first beard, jealous of my display of masculinity. Clementine really did struggle with adapting to her forced new gender.

I knew Clem had finally reconciled herself to her new body the day she told me to call her Clementine. I mean, it was kind of already obvious. The crying jags were gone, or at least about other things when they happened. Clementine had also stopped trying so hard to be girly and had settled into a new persona. She still was more femme than before, but gone was the elaborate makeup and styling and pink frilly clothes and in its place was a more mature and comfortable palette of simple, muted modern womenswear. Clementine had really grown into herself and seemed ready to carry on with her adjusted life.

Which was the beginning of the end of our relationship.

You see, while Clementine was willing to experiment with a dude and will still occasionally take a man to bed, she is still mostly attracted to women, be they all-natural or the penis-having kind. I noticed she started to check out girls when we were out on the town, and her enthusiasm for our sex life started to cool a little. But I, maybe foolishly, didn't think too much of it until the day when she asked me if I was ready to turn back, to be Shaped back into a woman. And well...

I balked, I didn't want to change back.

I like being a man, I like being Hank. Some of it is the body itself; just like Clem, I had grown into being Hank and learned to enjoy my male body. The size, the strength, sex, the works, being a dude was great. But it was more than that. I liked that I was someone different, that I was Hank, a new identity that I owned, instead of Halley-two, an insurance clone of another woman. I finally felt like I was a real person and not just a redo. So I really didn’t want to change back into plain old Halley.

Which meant that there was only one thing to do.

I wrote Clementine a letter, explaining our impasse and then joined a Salvager crew headed into the Junk Desert. I know it was kind of a shitty thing to do, running away like that, but I’m still pretty sure it was the right thing. We couldn’t stay together and both be happy. Rather than drag things out, I decided to do the bandaid thing and get it over with at once. This way we would both get to move on and live our new lives, me having macho adventures in the Junk Desert and Clementine would get to move on and find a nice new girlfriend and get past all the Halley nonsense.

Little did I know a month after I disappeared into the Junk Desert that a new Halley would appear.”

***

Hank smiles apologetically at me, “and that is the sordid tale of why I am a dude.”

***

(A double long chapter also known as "The Backstory" or "The Never Ending Exposition". Next up "World Building" or "Yet More Exposition". Enjoy!)

10

Re: Flotsam

Wow. This is impressive in all dimensions. Great work! Thank you for sharing it.

11

Re: Flotsam

I have to admit, this last installment was a bit to get through, but it's worth it!

It's very rare to see gender change tackled so... well, sensibly, in this sort of literature.  I'm actually looking forward to Yet More Exposition.  You've left me interested in this world and these characters.

12

Re: Flotsam

This is legitimately good stuff.

13

Re: Flotsam

Very high quality writing! I'm impressed.

14

Re: Flotsam

This stands as good writing and a good story even without the kind of kinky shit we all know and love (and are here for); it's not excellent because of that stuff, but standing on merits of its own! (That stuff is great, too, but I think I've said my point well enough. Some smut can be good to read, but because of the way the kink/content/porn aspects of it are. This is good even beyond that!)

15

Re: Flotsam

Flotsam
Chapter Four: Goodnight Moons

I am drinking something wickedly alcoholic called Rocket and staring at an evening sky with two moons.

My drinking companion, Hank the bartender, is another clone of Halley who swapped his gender by choice. It’s a lot to take in. I mean, I just learned that one version of me went full on trans. Did I secretly want to be a dude too? I give Hank a good long look. He is sprawled in a lawn chair here on the rooftop garden of his bar, casually sipping his booze. He is certainly handsome, suspiciously so with his access to a body sculpting Shaper. Chiselled jaw, dark curly hair, a muscular body that bespeaks too much gym time, a cute smile. He looks good. But I’m definitely more in the camp of wanting to be with him than actually be him. Although, no, nope, definitely no fucking your male doppelgänger. Can he guess what I’m thinking? And now I blush...

Another drink of Rocket, short for Rocket Fuel. Burns down my throat, takes me to the moon. Moons. Fuck.

New topic. Hank's rooftop garden is surprisingly nice. The 'second floor' of Hank's Hideaway bar is split between Hank's apartment and his garden, meaning that he has space for a patio for getting hammered on Rocket, and room for plants. And it seems the good barkeep also has a green thumb. The edges of the patio have wide planter boxes bursting with bright and exotic looking flowers, most of which I don't recognize but smell kind of amazing. Around this, Hank has garden beds filled with vegetables, some climbing up metal frames, others in sprawling vines. I think I see zucchini and English peas, which is comforting. Although, I doubt they call them English peas here... Hank even built a small greenhouse and seems to be growing purple tomatoes in it. I had always wanted to have a proper garden, and it seems that Hank realized that dream. I'm a little jealous. Of the garden, not the penis.

After Hank's customers left for the evening he closed the bar, fetched a bottle of Rocket, and led me up to the roof. He explained that today was the First Night of Shift Change, the five day Flotsam weekend for the human community, and people by custom spend First Night visiting family or close friends. And so he always closes the bar to enjoy some quiet before a hectic bar crowd descends for the rest of the holiday. Plus he added, pouring Rocket into a couple glasses and directing me to a lawn chair, it isn't everyday you get to drink with new family. We toasted, drank, and have been enjoying some companionable silence since.

I take another sip of my drink and enjoy the city views from the rooftop. The city, imaginatively named Flotsam City, is built onto a large, almost cylindrical mesa of red stone. Thie city perched on its mesa sticks right out of the Junk Desert and is surrounded as far as the horizon with twisting piles of mostly metallic space junk debris. The only other feature that breaks through the trash heap is a second, shorter but wide-topped mesa that serves as the city's spaceport. I secretly hope it's called Jetsam. Jet...sam. Like an airplane. I'm hilarious.

From my vantage point on the roof I can see the city seems like it has three parts. The top of the mesa is dominated by a single structure, some sort of large, reflectively silver building that is separated from the rest of the city by a sheer drop of naked cliff. Next there are a series of terraces cut into the mesa like steps, home to an attractive assortment of stone buildings that seems to perch possessively over the lower city. Finally, where the mesa transitions from vertical to sloped, is the random looking warren of improvised buildings that make up the rest of the city. Which is where Hank’s Hideaway lives and where our heroine, me, is getting drunk on Rocket.

Under a two moon sky.

Hank sees me looking at the towering mesa and points at the silver structure on the top.  “That,” Hank says dramatically, “is the Enclave of the Greys, the forbidden city of the administrators of Flotsam.” I give it a long look and realize it is a perfect sphere sprouting from the flat top of the mesa, smooth and reflective, like a bead of mercury glinting in the evening sunlight. It definitely looks forbidding and futuristic and chillingly alien.

“Our alien overlords?” I ask.

Hank laughs. “Hardly. The Greys are a pretty hands off bunch.” He pauses and looks thoughtful. “The Greys are the most technologically advanced, powerful species on Flotsam and probably in our galaxy. They have the best tech, control the most space, and have won every war with an upstart species that thinks they can...” and he switches to a cartoon voice, “Conquer the Galaxy! But they mostly want to be left alone to do their thing... which is, well, kind of mysterious. They're a private bunch. Their Spawning Worlds, their homeworlds, are completely off limits to outsiders, and on shared planets their huge arcology cities are private. That isn’t to say the Greys are xenophobic, they are super cool with aliens living on the majority of their planets and Grey Space was one of the first places that tolerated free humans. Aliens just have to follow their laws and respect their boundaries.”

“So they are more like our alien landlords?”

“Yeah, kinda. And also kind of like the galactic cops. The Greys have an Enclave on Flotsam mostly to keep an eye on it. Since the Nexus wormhole network dumps trash into the star system, the Greys have decided to administer Flotsam to watch out for any strange, dangerous technology that shows up and confiscate it. They aren’t really interested in governing Flotsam, so all of us are pretty much free to do as we want as long as we don’t kill, harm, or enslave sapients or do anything that interferes with their mission to interdict dangerous space relics. It’s basically a free port.”

“Cool” I say, for lack of anything more intelligent. ‘What do they look like?”

Hank snorts, “Right, duh, okay. The Greys looks like stereotypical aliens. You know Roswell aliens? Like that. Big, bald, teardrop heads with huge black eyes, slit mouths, and nostrils without a nose. They are short, like four feet tall and almost always wear sequin jumpsuits when you see them in public.”

I do my best little alien voice, “Take me to your leader! Prepare the anal probes!”

Hank laughs, which I decide somehow makes him more handsome. “They don’t actually talk.” He touches his head with a finger. “They are psychic. Also they are weird. They don’t seem to have like, a cognitive model like us humans. So they tend to be cryptic and obtuse if you ever interact with them.” Hank makes his thoughtful face, "Talking to the Greys is like being a deaf person trying to describe colour to a blind person who only wants to talk about music. It is equal parts trippy and frustrating. But they mostly keep to their enclave, so you probably won’t have a lot to do with them. You are way more likely to interact with their drones and AI officials.” Hank points at a silver sphere flying lazily over the city.

I suppress a shudder. I’m not sure I like the idea of being spied on by little aliens and their robots. I drink another mouthful of Rocket. At least drone surveillance isn't anal probes.

I point at the terraces with the fancy stone buildings, “Is that where the fancy people live?”

Hank nods, “Some wealthy sapients live up there, yeah. But it’s mostly corporate offices and consulates.” Hank makes a very Halley frowny face as he organizes his thoughts. “Most of what makes the local economy work is collecting the valuable salvage the Nexus spits out. A bunch of that comes from mining the Junk Desert here on Flotsam, and the rest comes from crews that scour the debris fields in space. The salvage generally breaks down into three types: valuable metals and materials that get collected in bulk and shipped to other planets for recycling; functioning tech, especially slightly illegal weapons, which mostly get sent to blackmarket shipyards that do shady refits; and advanced, unique alien artifacts that get sold to tech companies for reverse engineering. Up on the terraces are the corporate offices of salvage brokers that buy scrap from the Salvagers and ship it to other planets. There are also offices of most of the big tech companies, since a single cool tech artifact can be a huge, wildly profitable discovery. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s enough of a game changer to make having staff on Flotsam a necessity.”

That all makes a kind of sense to me. ‘Why the alien governments? Looking for cool tech too?”

Hank nods, “That’s part of it, the first consulates opened on Flotsam just to buy cool tech directly from Salvagers. Any tech advantage, especially military stuff, is worth a lot to some species. But the main reason there are so many consulates here has to do with diplomacy and the Nexus. The Nexus is a weird kind of travel network. Different locations that access the Nexus have different... potentials? Which means that it’s very easy to make certain trips and difficult and very time consuming to travel to other places. In kind of a random way? Because Flotsam is the trash heap of the Nexus, it has a really convenient potential. Basically you can get to Flotsam quickly and easily from pretty much everywhere in the galaxy. There are other Hubs, other common convenient places to travel, but they tend to be nice places with strict governments. Flotsam is a free port with administrators who don’t really care what the locals get up to, so Flotsam has become a place where different governments can meet on the downlow, and have backchannel communication. So pretty much everyone started to keep consulates here. Flotsam is the best secret diplomatic hotspot that every knows about.”

“Cool,” I say, because this time it actually is cool.

Hank nods, “Yeah, there is a lot cloak and dagger spy stuff. The ease of getting to Flotsam also makes it a hotspot for crime and smuggling too. It’s an interesting place to live.”

Says the guy who is another clone of the woman I am also a clone of. “So alien landlords up top, then the fancy people, then the rest?”

Hank fiddles with a glowing wristband. A hightech smartwatch? After a moment he looks up and nods. “Basically, yeah. Below the Terraces are the main neighbourhoods of the city, spread out in a ring around the mesa. The lower city breaks down into a few districts, based mostly on the main species that live there." Hank points at the spaceport Mesa in the distance. I look and see an arrowhead shaped spacecraft cruise in toward the mesa, execute a smart little turn, and then gracefully drift toward a landing space. I also notice that the spaceport is linked to the main city by a suspended rail system that supports large cargo trams that shuttle between the two mesas. "The part of the city closest to the spaceport is the Port District," Hank explains, "and its pretty much what you'd expect. Lots of bars and hotels and boarding houses that cater to visitors and the hardcore Spacers that spend months in the black between port calls. It's home to the main entertainment district on Flotsam with most of the clubs, taverns, bordellos, casinos, and theatres in the city. It's also where you'll find the Arena. You should definitely make a trip out that way soon, but make sure you bring a grownup, it can be a pretty rough neighbourhood."

"Aye, aye," I say. "I wouldn't want to get shanghaied"

Hank makes an uncharacteristically serious face. "That's not really a joking matter. The Greys might forbid slavery, but enforcement of their rules ends at orbit. Seriously, be careful around the Port."

Fuck. "Noted."

"Next to the Port District we have The Human district. Humans make up more than a third of the population of Flotsam and are a mixed bunch coming from all over the place. Most humans are from other Grey territories, here to try their fortunes on Flotsam, but there are members of all kinds of interesting human subcultures. You get escaped human slaves, members of weird cults exiled from their home systems, and members of splinter groups that really challenge what can be defined as human." Hank winks, "Rumour has it there are even a few Earthlings here."

Hank points off the roof to the footpath right in front of the bar. I crane my neck to see a troop of four armoured humanoid shaped beings. They are wearing what looks a lot like combat gear: armour plates on their torso, nylon-esque webbing, so very many pouches, and heavy rucksacks. Under their gear they are coated in a dull, gunmetal grey substance that looks skintight. The substance covers their heads too, forming a smooth metallic shell that completely hides their faces. “Those are Ürnauts,” Hank says. “They are one of the more extreme human groups on Flotsam.”

“What makes them extreme?” I ask.

“The Ürnauts are heavily into cybernetic body modification. That grey coating on their bodies is their actual skin; those helmets are their heads. And inside of that skin their body is riddled with implants and enhancements. Many of the Ürnauts you see are more machine than man.”

I giggle, and say lustily “I always love meeting people who are more machine than man.” Fuck, what? I gotta slow down on this Rocket.

Hank chuckles, “Hale’s you outta ease up on the Rocket throttle there.” Dork. “Another serious bit of advice is to maybe give them a wide berth.”

“Why? Will they assimilate me?”

“No. The Ürnauts are extremely lawful people. But in a lot of Flotsam they are also The Law, being in charge of security in the human district, at the port, in the terraces, and in many businesses around town. They are basically fair, but they take order very seriously, and will absolutely punish anyone they catch breaking pretty much any rule. No exceptions, no second chances, no nuanced leniency. And their justice can be... well, it can be pretty harsh and a bit disturbing. I wouldn’t want to experience it firsthand. Often the easiest way to stay on their good side is just to keep out of their way.”

“Okay,” I say.

"Anyway, the diversity of humanity on Flotsam makes the human district into more of a collection of smaller neighbourhoods that each cater to a certain flavour of humanity. Hanks Hideaway and Clementine's place are in The Purple Quarter, which is the neighbourhood furthest from the Port."

"Purple District?"

Hank stands up, a little unsteadily, and waves me over to one side of the roof. He points at a plaza covered in outdoor restaurant seating, which I realize is actually the roof of a downslope building that must be a cafe. I look at the patrons and notice something odd about them: they're aliens. "Those are Blues," Hank explains. I take a longer, harder look at the alien patrons and immediately notice that they have blue skin. Hence Blues I guess. Otherwise they are humanoid enough to almost but not quite pass for human. They are taller and thinner, with angular lanky bodies that look kind of like someone took a picture of a human and stretched it vertically. They have narrow, elongated faces with striking cheekbones; thin, almost lipless mouths; big crescent nostrils on thin noses, and large dark eyes. They don’t look like they have any hair on their bodies or heads and instead wear shawls or amusingly pointy Sci-if hats. The Blues don’t seem, at least from this collection of them, to have more than one sex or gender: no breasts or curves or size differences.

“Just one sex?” I ask.

“Blues have females and males just like humans, but they don’t really have secondary sexual characteristics or dimorphism. Male and female Blues basically look the same, even when they're naked. Their genitals are internal, unless in use, so they have closed slits that only open to show a penis-like or vagina-like organ when they couple.”

“Sounds confusing...”

“Not to them, Blues use scent cues and pheromones to convey gender and sex signals. For them it’s not how they look, it’s all about how they smell.”

“So we just sniff them?” Gross.

Hank laughs and shakes his head, “Humans can’t process their signals, so it’s mostly polite to just use neutral pronouns when speaking to them. Blues only refer to each other by gender for sexy times and courting, so calling them “they” or whatever actually matches their custom.”

"That's very PC of you."

"Well, it wouldn't do to insult the neighbours." Hank points off in the opposite direction of The Port, "Because the next district over is the Blue District. Blues make up another third of the city and have a much more unified culture than Flotsam's humans. Their part of the city is centred on their Congregation Hall, which you can just make out the top of..." Hank points and yeah, I can see a tall spire sticking out of an onion shaped dome painted in a mute, aquamarine. "That's the centre of Blue life, with pretty much everything organized around it. The most important shared buildings and wealthiest neighbourhoods are built right next to the Hall, and the poorest or most uncouth are hidden on the edges of the district."

I frown. "That sounds kind of shitty."

Hank does a kind of shrug sway, "Well no more so than anyone else in the galaxy. Blues are generally pretty good sapients. I mean, individually they are like anyone, some good sapients, some assholes, but as a species they are tolerant, peaceful, and socially minded. They really do make an effort to look out for every member of their species, it's part of their Contract of Social Responsibility... which, fuck," Hank takes a drink of Rocket, "I am both too drunk and too sober to get into it. But basically, the Blues are alright. They also get along great with us humans. So much so that this neighbourhood, The Purple Quarter, is a mixed one that is shared pretty equally by humans and Blues."

"Purple because Blue and Red... for humans?"

"Exactly! The Purple Quarter is the squishy interface between Human and Blue districts and caters to both species. There are marketplaces that swap cultural items between species, restaurants with human and Blue dishes, and clothing printers who carry designs for both species, and a bunch of other businesses that cater to everybody. The Purple Quarter also gathers a bunch of weirdos, outsiders, and artists from either species which means the neighbourhood also features a bunch of galleries and experimental theatres and giving everything a bit of a bohemian vibe."

"I've always been a sucker for that kind of twee shit."

Hank ignores my barb and I pout a little. "The Purple Quarter, probably because of its inclusivity, also attracts other aliens. Most of the more gregarious and human-friendly species make their homes in the Purple Quarter. They may only make a tiny fraction of the sapients on Flotsam, but there are some remarkable aliens living here among us."

Hank's smart watch thing beeps at him and he walks over to the side of the roof. A kind of shitty looking quadcopter drone buzzes into view and hovers above Hank. Emblazoned on the drone is the logo of a centauress wearing a cowboy hat who looks a little too much like me, like Halley. I try not to read too much into this. The drone seems to scrutinize Hank for a moment before releasing a plastic cargo pod from its underside and lowering it on a cable into Hank's waiting arms. Hank unhooks the cartoon, and the drone flies away, spooling its cable as it goes. Hank pops open the cargo pod and a rich food smell hits me. My stomach growls, I realize that I, this clone iteration, has never eaten a meal. Me hungry.

Hank pulls out a few of small, plastic cartoons and hands me one, along with a utensil that resembles a cross between chop sticks and tongs, a kind of hinged food pincer. Eagerly I open the carton to find a box full of noodles smothered in sauce with cubes of some sort of meat. I scoop up some noodles with my pincer and lift them to my mouth. Hesitantly I take a nibble and am rewarded with a burst of savoury and spice, something like cinnamon/peanut with tamarind. I take a bigger bite and it definitely reminds me of Thai food. "This is good," I say before jamming a larger pincerful of noodles into my mouth.

Hank smiles, "I thought you'd like it. It's from a Blue noodle shop a few blocks away, and is kind of Blue/Human fusion joint. The meat is Vat Meat, in case you were wondering. Flotsam has greenhouses out by the ocean, but we don't have a lot of livestock, so we eat a lot of vat grown meat. It's a bit bland on its own, but it works just like chicken in things." I could only agree as I continued to wolf down my noodles. Food food food food! Say one thing about Halley, say she has a healthy appetite. Especially when she is drunk.

I finally come up for air. "The Port, Humans, Blue District... what's left?"

Hank hands me another carton with something like pickled cucumbers in it. "There is only one major district left and it belongs to the Reptilians."

"Reptilians?" I ask, mouth full. "Like... the lizard people aliens who are secretly the British Royal Family or the rich people who run the world?"

Hank smirks, "Actually kind of, although they never ran the Earth. And the only Reptilian to have anything to do with the Royal Family was a defector who had infiltrated Earth to make a deal with the Nazis but instead fell in love with a duchess."

"You're fucking with me!" Right!?

Hank shakes his head. "The Reptilians are one of the only alien species that still keep humans as slaves or indentured servants. They thought WW2 and the invention of atomic weapons would end the Earth experiment, which would end the protected status of Earthlings, opening up the planet to be exploited. So they sent an agent to Earth to try and trade alien technology to the Nazis for slaves. But he fell hopelessly in love with some minor royal and went native. And then the war ended and the Earth experiment was allowed to continue, either in peace or in an anthropologically interesting mushroom cloud."

"Wild," I manage with a mouth full of pickled-whatever.

"You'll know a Reptilian when you see one," Hank continues, "they look almost exactly like you would imagine: big crocodile looking people with green scales, fangs, tails, and stocky, bulging muscles. They are big and mean, fairly technologically advanced, and very xenophobic. The Snakes think they are a superior species and that other sapients, particularly humans, are inferior and deserve to be subjugated. Hence, I guess, the human slavery. The Reptilians believe they should be running the galaxy and even waged a war against the Greys to display their dominion. A war that fortunately they lost: the Greys totally, completely kicked their ass. So now here they are, another client species to the Greys, rooting around on Flotsam with the rest of us." Hank and I both shovel a tong-load of noodles into our mouths, synchronized eating style. He chews, swallows, continues: "The Reptilian's claim to fame is running the Syndicate, the organized crime on Flotsam. Most of the drugs, vice, and smuggling on Flotsam run through the Syndicate and basically every Snake on the planet works for them in one way or another." Hank gives me smouldering serious eyes, "I cannot emphasize enough that these are bad, violent sapients who will jack you the fuck up if you cross them." Dramatic pause. "They are forbidden by the Greys from taking Slaves on Flotsam, but they will indenture anyone they can. Do. Not. Make. A. Deal. With. Them." Smoulder. "Ever!"

"Okay" I say. "Reptiles equal bad."

Hank nods. "The Reptilian District is also home to a few other alien species. The Reptilian Empire remains vast and contains a bunch of vassal species, some of which live with their rulers here on Flotsam. And, since the Reptilian District is quiet, some of the more private alien species have compounds there too. It's definitely not the friendliest part of town for humans." Hank gestures broadly, encompassing the entire city, "And thus concludes my oral tour of Flotsam City."

And seemingly right on cue a voice shouts, "Hail! Barkeep!"

What the fuck? I Follow Hank over to the edge of the roof and look down. Standing on the ground in front of the bar stands a remarkably massive woman of some sort. The first most obvious thing about her is that she is very tall and very muscular, easily a seven foot tall amazon. The second most obvious thing about her is that she has four arms and four very impressive breasts.  The woman is blonde and beautiful in a vital, handsome kind of way, and smirks at us roguishly. "I have travelled far to slake my thirst!" She thunders. "I shall not be denied!"

Hanks smiles and rolls his eyes. "Freya, you know the door recognizes you," he calls to her.

"What? I shall have to take your castle by force?" She booms a jovial and slightly frightening laugh and runs towards the bar door. "I shall take no prisoners!"

Hank looks at me and blushes. "So, uh, that's Steadfast Freya. She's kind of my... lover?"

Woah! "Your girlfriend is an Amazonian Alien!? Kinky!”

Hank blushes darker. "First of all, she isn't an alien. She's a Nordic, which is kind of like a breed of Human. Second, she isn't my girlfriend because Nordics don't really do the whole monogamous relationship thing."

"That is because Pair Bonding is for the fearful," Freya says grinning as she bounds into the rooftop garden. "Fear of being alone and fear of competition with romantic rivals. The Courageous live in the moment and take what succour fortune provides. Life is too short." She smiles broadly as she takes me in. "Oh-ho! Another Halley!" She is suddenly hugging me, crushing me to her large breasts with a fearsome amount of strength. "What number are you?"

"Twenty-four," I gasp into her chest.

"Well, 24th, it is a pleasure to meet you. I always enjoy meeting a new Halley," she releases me from her four-armed embrace. "Fair Hank, do I need to be jealous?"  Hank blushes darker still. I worry he might faint.

Freya booms another laugh and sweeps up the smaller man into her arms, kissing him hungrily, her extra arms roaming his body. Hank returns the kiss, the world falling away from him as gives into her passion, hands clutching her muscular, but somehow still soft ass. Freya starts to stroke the front of Hanks pants and reaches up with another hand to unclip the coils of her tightly braided hair, letting it fall over her shoulder. Hank makes a kind of growling noise deep in his throat. There is frankly something primal there, a wild abandon to a hunger that I’m finding intimidating but more than a little hot. Maybe i should start taking notes?

This tangle of kissing and fondling goes on longer than I am comfortable with starts to seem like it might be about to level up to full blown sex. I make a kind of coughing sound and then, when that's ignored, I make a louder almost retching noise. Which does the trick, the two lovers pull apart and blink at me. Hi I'm Halley, time displaced clone? Hank grins sheepishly at me and blushes and Freya just smirks happily, unembarrassed.

“Sorry....” Hank says a bit breathlessly. “We, uh, having some catching up to do...”

“Dont be weak!” Freya booms merrily and slaps Hank playfully on the back making him stumble. “We are going to fuck! I have been in the cold embrace of space since last Shift Change, with naught but my greasy, stupid crewmates for company.” Freya licks her generous lips and I get the message. Girl is gonna get hers.

I paste on a forced smile, trying to be cool and not maybe a little jealous. Which is stupid because it's not like I was planning to have sex with my male clone or the muscular not-actually-an-alien woman. That would be a stupid decision. Not least because Hank is one of the only people I know on a strange planet and I don’t really have any other place to go... I cough a little, “I’d tell you to get a room, but, well, I think I might need to find a room of my own...”

Hank smiles easily, “I have an extra bedroom you can crash in tonight. It isn’t much, but it’s a room with a bed. Sound good?”

I realize that I am both quite drunk and very sleepy and that bed sounds like a wise solution. "Yes please."

I am shown to what would generously be called a closet with a cot in it. But fuck it. I crawl in and lay down and close my eyes on an alien world with two moons and try to ignore sounds of loud, athletic sex.

Goodnight moons.

***

(And here is "So Much Worldbuilding Exposition!" Thanks for all of the kind words! I'm glad people are digging my attempt at writing something a bit more substantial. Don't worry though: there will be smuttier chapters and weirder TFs ahead.)