The door slid upwards and the room behind it attacked. It was a barrage of smell, light and heat that made her gag, squint and tug at her collar all at once. In her days serving she'd been victim to chemical weapons with less potency.
She entered. The smell got worse but her eyes adjusted quickly. Flailing bodies were tossing one another about beneath strobe lights, enacting various questionable interpretations of dance. A good number of them boasted an extra limb or two. Or mandibles. Or scales. The culmination of interplanetary peace amidst the worst each People had to offer. Den of iniquity times ten.
Erica skirted away from the insectoid creature looking at her, briefly seeing her reflection in its multi-faceted eyes. It made a clicking sound and followed, reaching out to tug at her sleeve.
"How about a drink for the human?" The voice came out with a high whine, followed by another click. His kind were undoubtedly half the reason for the odor. They were voracious scavengers that carried the scent of their dinners around with them in a sickly-sweet perfume.
"Oh, but the human is so pretty. The human has such nice features." The tug got more insistent as the thing's pincers clamped down.
Erica gritted her teeth. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile, but she guessed brawls and gunfire weren't terribly uncommon in a joint like this. Sweeping her hand around, she brought her gun up right beneath the thing's massive jaw, leering at it as its antennae flattened against its hairy head.
"No means no on my planet, buddy," she growled. "Don't know what it means where you're from, but I'm not here to play games. Touch me again and you won't be reporting back to the hive tonight."
"Nnnno disrespect was intended, human," the creature replied, letting go of her arm and putting up its hands. The clicking got more prominent, anxious. "You will get no more trouble from this one."
"See that I don't."
She turned away but kept the guy in her peripheral. If she flashed her badge she could probably clear a swath through the crowd in an instant, but she couldn't play it that way. Even if Hensen already knew she was here, she could at least use the throng to blend in.
The music kept flipping between different preferences. Now it was a high keening, some sort of wind instrument or other that was utterly irritating. Nearby a couple fell to the floor, doing what she assumed was a quickie. Erica gave them as wide a birth as she could while holding down bile.
She didn't like to consider herself racist, but as quickly as everything had evolved, everyone was having a difficult time adjusting to all the new faces and customs. It had taken centuries, after all, for earth to gain peace, and that was just amidst one species. There was no telling how much longer it would take for everyone to get comfortable again.
Erica looked towards the voice. It had a distinct drawl to it, the sort she only heard in old westerns she'd watched on boring evenings off.
"Have a drink with me?"
The man smiled at her. He had quite the smile, she noted. Dimples and everything. She was immediately leery. There were all kinds of cues that he was out of place: the whiteness of his teeth, his clean clothing, the quality weapon on his hip. She supposed he could be another agent sent looking for Hensen, but she doubted they would have been kept in the dark about each other if that were the case. It would be too dangerous to cross paths and mistake an ally for an enemy.
She slid into the seat beside him, nodding at the bartender. "Just a water for me, thanks."
She got a downright condescending look from him, but he slipped off to retrieve it anyway, his spindly wings fluttering uselessly on his back.
"Sorry critters, Malorites."
Erica arched a brow wordlessly, but the man just continued to smile.
"I'd be pissy too, if I got that close to flying. Like they got caught in the transition of evolution and kept the souvenir for laughs. Not like it has good looks to rely on either."
Pursing her lips, she watched the back of the Malorite's pale, bald head. He returned, bearing his gums in his estimation of a smile, watching her with wide black eyes. Once he trotted off to cater to some other patron she subtly pushed her water away.
"Scared it got some of its slime in there?" The man asked, chuckling.
"Some might take offense to your comments."
"You don't appear to." He winked at her. His eyes were blue and bright, the sort of eyes sappy adolescents wrote poetry about. She immediately disliked him.
"I should be going," she said. There wasn't likely much she could get out of this guy. She should be probing others for answers, not cavorting with someone just because they made her less uncomfortable. Because they were human.
"That's the crux of the matter, isn't it?" He tapped a finger on the glass of his drink. "They're not human. Not like you. They're just too different, aren't they?"
Erica froze. Her mind backtracked to her encounter with the sniveling little bug, and she immediately began groping at her sleeve. She felt nothing.
"Too late I'm afraid." He flicked the glass, making a soft, high ping. The people disappeared, the bar vanished, and to her it seemed they sat alone in an empty room together, silent save for their breathing.
"Shit," she whispered. "Hensen."
The mind-reader smiled at her. His fingers formed a steeple in front of his lips, and he tapped them softly. "It's hard to pinpoint one person in a mess like this. Find one mind. If I tried to seek you out without a little direction I'd probably drive myself insane in under a minute. Thankfully people around here are easily swayed with something shiny."
Erica fumbled for her gun, but that too was gone. Or rather, she wasn't really moving. At the bar she likely looked like she'd fallen asleep, and Hensen would just be smiling to himself quietly. Nobody was going to come to her aid. She was going to have to –
"Thinking your way out of this one likely isn't going to happen, miss O'Riley," Hensen said warmly. "In that department I have you at a distinct disadvantage."
Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Erica willed herself to veer her thoughts away from certain subjects. He could get them, yes, but she'd make him shred her mind to do it.
"I could," he said agreeably, "But I find that distasteful. You're a brilliant woman, O'Riley. It would be a pity to do such a thing to you."
"I won't cooperate."
He smiled again. "Of that I have no doubt! I would be disappointed if you did. Honestly, madam, I just wanted to talk."
"Is that why you made yourself look like that? To make me come over and talk?"
The man made a wave of his hand. The visage fell away, one he'd catered strictly for her no doubt, drawing on attributes she'd find attractive. In its place, however, was a creature arguably more appealing. His eyes were purely white and peered out of a finely boned face, framed by dark braids. The rings on his hands dotted all six of his long, webbed fingers, and his ears fanned out on either side of his head, sporting gemstones. He looked like some sort of merman from an old fairytale.
"Ah," he said, and again flashed his teeth at her. "You do not find my kind so repulsive. So fickle you humans are. All about the looks."
She didn't refute it. In a way, it was true.
"In what way is it not?" He tilted his head.
"Most people can't just crack in and tell what I'm thinking," she snapped. "We haven't denied anyone alliance based on their appearance. Despite personal thoughts on the matter, everyone has had equal opportunity."
Hensen blinked in owlish surprise. Either he was a good actor, or it was genuine. "My dear O'Riley. You actually believe that, don't you?"
"Of course I believe it. It's true."
"Perhaps you are not so clever as I thought," he murmured. "A pity."
Erica felt her blood start to boil. She wanted to take one of his pointy ears and twist it until he cried for his mother.
Laughter bubbled up out of Hensen's throat. "I wouldn't dear. In my world, we consider that flirting."
"If you're going to kill me," she replied lowly, "Just do it. Like I said, I won't cooperate. You'll have to –"
"Yes, yes. Tear it out of you. Turn you into a babbling vegetable, like I have so many other people on a digital list I'm sure you have somewhere. A fiend am I, a scoundrel of the highest caliber!"
"I wouldn't say anything about you implies caliber," she hissed.
Hensen's eyes flicked suddenly to his left. Hope surged through Erica's chest. Someone was coming. He wasn't the only one who could stick a tracker on her. No doubt her superiors had…
"I was hoping to do this more gently, my dear," Hensen said. "But I'm afraid this is going to be a bit uncomfortable instead. Do find it in yourself to forgive me."
He reached out before she could pull away, hands gripping her temples in a vice. Pain shot down her spine, radiating from the base of her skull. She opened her mouth and screamed, writhing as she felt something being inserted into her head. It was a knife, she knew it. Knew it from the feeling. One cutting her down the middle, passing through every single nerve as it went.
Hensen's expression was genuinely remorseful. "Do cling to sanity now, dear," he said. "You're going to be very important later."
He vanished. The glaring lights thumped back to life, and she closed her eyes tightly against them. Feet shuffled away as she fell back off the stool, clutching at her head and weeping openly.
Vaguely she could hear someone saying her name, asking if she was alright, but it was drowned out by the train of memories barreling its way through her mind.