Dust hung in the stifling night air, blurring the outlines of illuminated sculptures hulking on the horizon. Pete lurked out on the perimeter, taking take a break from the relentless thumping of dance music and the sensory overload that was Burning Man.
It was his first time, and he was finding it … difficult. When Serena and Matt, his coworkers at Think.ly, had invited him to join Brainville, their camp, he thought, why not? By now, he knew plenty of reasons why not: the grit that insinuated itself everywhere, the unending noise, the filthy Port-a-Potties. But the biggest one: He wasn't cool enough.
A couple rode by on bikes festooned with fake fur and fiberoptic wire. Her long purple dreadlocks were twined with beads; her curvy body was almost entirely exposed by an iridescent vinyl bikini. Her companion sported a towering top hat glittering with LEDs. His hipster beard was coated with something that made it glow in the dark.
The cyclists paused to hand him something.
"Hey, thanks. Oh, and here." Pete gave them each a good blast from his mister.
"Oooh," she purred, making Pete feel good about his offering. But the good feeling dissipated as the fabulous pair rode off, leaving him lonely and envious. He stared bemused at the packet of vitamins they'd gifted him with.
Further on, a moving shape loomed out of the gritty night, outlined by winking pink and orange lights. Idly curious, he walked toward it. watching it resolve into a person with a complex art bike. The figure crouching beside it was a woman.
She was fiddling with the bike chain, and let out a frustrated "fuck!"
He was a bicyclist himself. "Trouble with the chain?" he said neutrally. He was schooled by bitter experience not to assume a woman needed help.
She looked up at him.
She was the kind of woman he'd never get in real life. Artsy, green-haired, tattooed. He and his friends called them the alterna-babes. She would be sexy and snarky, and absolutely unapproachable. And yet, here he was.
"Want me to have a look?"
She shrugged and rose, displaying a lanky and delicious body clad in what looked like chain mail made out of tin can lids. "You don't by any chance have an adjustable wrench, do you?"
He sheepishly pulled out his Swiss Army knife. "I've got this."
She laughed, and his balls shriveled. But the laugh wasn't derisive, it was something simpler and less intimidating. "Always prepared, huh? Don't tell me you were an Eagle Scout." Before he could answer—of course, he'd been—she added, "Have at it."
The problem was simple but not easy to fix: The chain had come loose because a couple of the cogs on the sprocket were bent. He opened the knife and exposed the pliers. They were tiny but mighty, and did the job with a bit of muscle. He levered the chain back on.
He was pleased enough with himself to say boldly, "And you laughed at the Swiss Army knife."
She laughed with him. "Never again."
In the gloom, her eyes looked bright. He sucked more courage up from the depths. "So, what are you doing?"
"Just cruising, you know?" At that point, he had no nerve left. But she saved him. "Want to ride along?"
Seconds later, he was ensconced behind her on the bike's long banana seat. After squelching a moment of embarrassment at taking the inferior position, he began to enjoy the hot, salty effusion radiating off her. He chastely gripped the side of the seat with his hands until she said, "Hold onto me. I don't want you eating any more dirt than you have to."
He slid his hands, tentatively and then firmly, onto her slim waist, resting them just above the swell of her beautiful hips.
And just like that, he was one of the cool people. Unbelievable.
"Hey, what's your name?" he said into her ear.
"Jasmine." He caught of whiff of her breath as she called back to him, melon and musk.
She rode them in toward the center, lighted pavilions emerging and dissolving like dreams. A horned metal fish drifted by, carrying a dozen or so people on its back, all of them moving to music that throbbed out of its bowels, music so loud it shook Pete's teeth. The dancing crowd waved; Jasmine waved back and, a second later, so did Pete.
It was a different perspective, whizzing along, kicking up a wake of silky dust. Pete loved it. He grinned, letting the sand infiltrate his mouth, no longer resisting the powdery coating accumulating all over him.
One pulsating beat gradually dominated all the threads of dance music pounding through the dark. Jasmine was heading them right toward it, long legs pumping now. A disco in the dirt, adorned with red and purple neon. Inside, half-naked bodies writhing in rhythm.
Jasmine stopped the bike. "Wanna dance?"
Oh, how he wanted to dance with this gorgeous woman who'd magically taken him in hand. He followed her into the middle of the scrum and let her lead, trying to match her style, which involved an undulating pelvis and gracefully waving arms. He settled for gentle hip thrusts—not wanting to seem aggressively sexual—and shoulder shrugs. He didn't think he could pull off full-on arm waving. Body smells mingled with the scent of herbs, marijuana, spilled beer and the pervasive tang of burning fuel.
Jasmine half-fell toward him, wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself. She didn't let go. He felt her groin bumping against his instant erection and tried to pull away. But she held tighter, rubbing her breasts against his chest, gently circling her stomach against his cock.
Pete had a moment of panic. This couldn't be real. It was too good to be true. There was no way a beautiful woman like Jasmine would be interested in him.
But this wasn't real life, he reminded himself gleefully. This was Burning Man—and anything was possible. Even that an alterna-babe like her might be momentarily dazzled by the playa-wear sheen of his carefully curated clothing.
He relaxed into her, still trying to keep it respectful while his entire body burned for her. This was a dream come true.
An hour later, Pete was panting—overcome by desire and the simple exertion of dancing in the hellish heat.
Jasmine looked up into his face. "Tired, baby?"
His heart jumped. She'd called him baby. "Yeah, I'm beat."
"You are so adorable," she said, taking his face in her hands. She was peering up at him with affection, but she made him feel like a puppy—not a man.
He mustered his pride and kissed her. Her lips were dry and chapped; so were his. But it was a firm, good kiss, and after a moment, she opened her mouth to him. He fell in.
"Whoah, cowboy," she said after a minute, but she was smiling. "You're a good kisser. Let's get you home."
He felt a second of terror. Where were they? He had no idea how to get back to his camp. But he remembered the landmark. "We're next to 3SP. Unless … you want to go back to your camp?"
She grinned. "You are adorable. But no. Hop on."
He mounted behind her, and she quickly navigated them back to his pathetic camp—three adjoining pop-up shade tents and a small RV with a bathroom they all got to use. She put her feet down, didn't get off the bike. Oh, well. He slid off, stood for a moment, uncertain.
"Come here, you." She put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him over for a kiss. A quick one this time.
He twitched on his air mattress for hours.
The sun broke over the hazy horizon, and Pete's mind broke with it. He struggled out of his tent, ass first, and stood blinking in the glare. Jasmine was out there somewhere. In the seven square miles of Burning Man, some 70,000 people milled around. How would he ever find her again?
He staggered over to the kitchen area, bleary from the restless night. Matt was sprawled in the hammock outside the RV, eyes heavy-lidded but awake.
"Dude," Matt croaked.
Matt's eyes opened. "Dude! I knew you had some party in you."
"Whatever." Pete fished in a cooler and brought out an iced Starbucks latte. He chugged it and reached for another. "Guess I'll head over to Playa Central." He was thinking about the message boards there. Would that be too pathetic? Or would it be romantic? Either way, it seemed like the only possibility for finding Jasmine again. Why oh why hadn't he asked her where her camp was?
"Take a bike," Matt said, drifting off again. "The green one."
The camp's bikes weren't particularly cool, but they were functional—beater fixies, spray-painted in fluorescent colors. Pete's playa-wear for the day was purple-and-white-flowered board shorts and a vintage Billy Idol t-shirt.
Now, he was seeing everything though her eyes. What had she seen in him? Probably nothing much. Just an aimless Burning Man flirtation. But he couldn't let it go. She'd said he was adorable. That had to mean something.
Pete returned to Brainville two hours later, as the heat turned from broiling to murderous.
It was quiet, although he heard snoring from one of the tents. He checked the chalkboard they used for messages. Nothing beyond the usual gripes about trash and food. He grabbed a beer and fell onto the battered couch they'd hauled in. Was he going to spend the rest of his time at Burning Man sitting in camp, hoping Jasmine would return? That would be ridiculous. He sank into the couch, fanning himself.
An hour later, he was dozing. Serena skidded her bike to a stop, dropped it and walked over. "Hey, Pete. Some girl was here looking for you."
Joy steamed his veins. "Jasmine?"
Serena wrinkled her sunburned forehead. "I think so. Yeah."
"What did she say?"
"Uh oh. Someone's crushing."
"Cut it out. What'd she say?"
"Hmmm … " She made an exaggerated thinking-face.
"Aw, I'm just fucking with ya. She said to meet her at the Black Rock Roller Disco tonight."
"Jeez, Pete. Burning Man time."
It was unbelievable. Jasmine wanted to see him again. He spent the early evening riding around, jacked up, sampling the festival's gifting economy. He stood in line for forty-five minutes to get a grilled cheese sandwich, lucked into a mint julip, and gave away a couple of the beeswax lip balms he'd brought along. He saved the nicest flavor, pomegranate mint, for Jasmine. Maybe he could tell her he wanted to taste it on her lips. Oh, god. Was he a fool, or what?
What is the cool time to arrive at a roller disco in the desert? He didn't want to miss her. The first time Pete rode by, it was dusk. A few people skated around, hanging onto each other and laughing. He made another tour of the camps, forcing himself to stop, look and talk to people.
He watched a woman flogging a man tied to a wooden cross. He saw a circle of men, each stroking the genitals of a woman lying next to him. He took a turn riding a Ferris wheel made from oil drums.
When he arrived back at the roller disco, it was full dark. Blinking lights and corny Seventies music—it looked like fun. And there she was, pulling off a passable dance step, right in the middle of the crowd.
Jasmine was wearing tie-dyed short shorts and a silver lame halter top. She'd put her green hair into tiny braids, each tipped with a piece of glowing plastic. She was amazing.
He grabbed a pair of skates and clunked his way out to her. When she saw him, her face lit up. He couldn't believe it. He could feel his own face grinning wildly.
"It's my cowboy. Hey, handsome."
"Jasmine," was all he could say.
"Come on, baby." She took his hand and began to roll, adding a funky wiggle to her skating.
Pete skated as a kid on the frozen lakes of Minnesota, and once he got used to the four wheels, he wasn't bad—although he didn't dare attempt any dance moves. He was maybe the happiest he'd ever been in his life.
They stopped for tequila shots at the bar, attended by a beautiful being, six feet tall and covered with glitter. Jasmine slung her arm around Pete's neck, downed her tequila and said, "Hey. Want to have an adventure?"
As the kaleidoscope of flame and light whipped past them on the bike, it filled Pete's head with fantasies. The two of them together in San Francisco, living in a warehouse co-op. He wouldn’t quite fit in, but her artist friends would be kind to him, because he was with Jasmine. He'd make his own art bike, and they'd cruise to the dive bars he'd never dared enter. He'd fund her elaborate art projects, and she'd love him all the more.
Jasmine slowed the bike in front of a nondescript enclave. Instead of the glitter and glamour that advertised most Burning Man camps, with their ragtag assortments of RVs, tents and shade structures, this one was closed in by a stretch of identical canvas tents, each big enough to sleep ten people, each turning a blank face to the public.
"What do you think?" Jasmine asked.
"I dunno. It's kind of … dull."
"Not inside, I bet. This is Camp Beau Soleil. It's a private camp. No proles allowed. Let's check it out."
They dropped the bikes and walked around to the side of the camp where a dim orange light shone. A tented tunnel, floored with Oriental rugs, led to a desk staffed by a dead ringer for Fidel Castro. Cool air and the scent of weed wafted out.
Jasmine swaggered ahead. "Hey, dude."
The guy nodded but didn't crack a smile. Jasmine leaned toward him. "Can we check it out?"
"Sorry. Registered guests only."
"I'm a friend of Austin Broca."
"Are you on his list?"
Jasmine shrugged, giving it up. "Probably not."
Jasmine dragged Pete back around the tents, clinging to him and giggling.
"What was that all about?"
"I just felt like seeing some real assholes."
"You know them?"
"Austin is one of those tech billionaires. Sold his company to Uber a few months ago."
Jealousy flashed him. He couldn’t help himself.
“How do you know Austin?”
“I kind of started the company with him.”
“Yeah, then he stole it. Come on.”
They walked the perimeter of the camp, Jasmine shining a tiny flashlight along the unbroken expanse of canvas. "That is completely contrary to the spirit of Burning Man. It's supposed to be an open, equal society. But it's like everything else. The rich are more equal than us commoners." She played the flashlight up and down one of the tents. "And yet, anyone could get in there with a box cutter."
Pete dug in his feet. "You're not some kind of Burning Man terrorist, are you?"
"Oh, baby. You're so funny. Let's find someplace to dance."
They danced for hours, Pete absorbing the heat of her body like a sun-worshipping lizard, his reptile brain awash in love and lust chemicals. A pattern to their dancing emerged. Jasmine would get more and more sexual, inviting him with every movement. He'd draw closer and closer until there was a glorious moment when they were skin to skin. Then Jasmine would slither out of his grasp. Pete was beside himself with longing and pleasure. When he was completely rung out, she again delivered him to his camp.
This time, he was more together. "Where's your camp? How can I find you?"
She put her arms around his waist, looking into his eyes. Behind her, dawn was breaking. "I'll find you. I promise."
Pete thought of himself as a pragmatic, down-to-earth guy. So he was trying really hard not to get carried away. Jasmine was incredible—and way too hip for him. How could he believe she wanted him? But the way she looked at him …
"Petey, why are you dressed like that?" It was Serena, decked out in a white-lace steampunk outfit. "Aren't you coming to the Temple Burn?"
Pete groaned. All he wanted to do was mope around camp, hoping Jasmine would turn up. But the Temple Burn was the second-biggest event, and everyone would be there. Blind hope fought with reality, and reality won. "Sure, I'm coming."
"But don't wear that. Wear that cape thing you bought."
The cape had seemed perfect at the bazaar where he'd bought it, but now it seemed ridiculous. "I'm just going to wear the black shirt."
"Serena. It will be fine."
Minutes later, they were in a bike procession toward the temple, a vast wooden construction of swooping spires, Pete's heart sinking. Without Jasmine, everything seemed garish and annoying.
Then, above the hubbub of music, laughing and shouts, he heard the ougha-ougha of a bike horn. It was Jasmine's elaborate bike, emerging from the haze like a fabulous beast. He was dazed with joy.
"I'm stealing your friend," she called out to his group, eliciting a knowing smirk from Serena. "Come on, boyfriend."
Boyfriend! She was more dazzling than ever in some kind of sparkly temple-dancer outfit, her face frosted with shimmering powder. Pete felt stupid for wearing his plain black shirt, but Jasmine looked him up and down and said, "You look perfect. Let's go."
She veered away from the main road leading to the temple. Pete didn't care; he'd follow her anywhere.
They ended up back at Camp Beau Soleil, but at one of the rear corners. Jasmine's eyes glittered brighter than her outfit as she pulled something out of the pouch at her waist. "Look. This time I've got a box cutter." She put her ear to the tent and listened, then sank the blade into the canvas and slashed. The blade was so sharp it barely made a noise.
Pete balked. "Jasmine. What are you doing?"
“I’m going to get what’s mine.”
“What do you mean?”
“Call it collecting a debt. Call it payback.” She stepped close to him, put one hand on his heart and the other at the back of his neck. Her kiss made him weak. "Don't be a pussy. I need you."
Those were the magic words that got him through the slit and into one of the forbidden tents.
The room was lit by a dim yellow bulb. Jasmine stood listening, and Pete looked around at the thick rugs, brocade pillows and wooden four-poster bed. Opulent. Even the ever-present dust was at a minimum. She peeked out through the tent's entrance flap.
"Almost everyone will be at the Temple Burn. Anyone still here will be out of it."
She took his hand and led him outside. The central yard was deserted except for a couple sprawled on a pile of pillows, halfheartedly making out.
Jasmine crept from tent to tent, peeking into each. Every time Pete protested, she shushed him. Once, a guy in a black t-shirt saying "SECURITY" came out of a tent. Jasmine threw herself onto Pete and sagged against him, head lolling. Her other hand grabbed his crotch as she gave the security guard a sloppy smile. He nodded curtly and walked on, evidently mistaking Pete's expression of wide-eyed terror for a drugged-out, glassy stare.
Even through his fear, Jasmine's touch stirred him. He followed her helplessly as she peered into the tents until, halfway around, she paused, pulled the flap wider and motioned Pete in with a jerk of her head.
The tent was furnished just like the one they'd broken in through, but there was a lot more personal stuff thrown around: expensive cameras, a bank of battery chargers, a plastic bin holding top-shelf liquor, and men's clothing strewn on the bed and rugs. Jasmine knelt by a large backpack on the floor and rummaged through it.
She pulled out a laptop, razor-thin and glistening. She opened it and began tapping keys, muttering to herself. "Shit."
Pete's ardor for Jasmine winked out. "I'm not—"
Just then, the tent flap opened. He heard a scuffle, a gasp, and the tent was illuminated by a flashlight. A man, lean, attractive face under a thatch of bedroom hair, shining the light into Jasmine's eyes. Pete watched his face go from confusion to recognition to anger in an instant.
Jasmine looked up at him from where she crouched like a panther over her kill. "Austin. Brilliant as ever."
Pete reeled as reality shifted. Austin looked Jasmine—Irene?—up and down. "You've changed," he said.
She stood up, proudly displaying her gorgeous body to Austin's gaze. "Getting dumped by you was good for me." Then she flashed the box cutter.
Austin sneered and moved toward the bed. "Come on, Irene, don't be dramatic."
Pete wanted to smack that superior expression off his face. But he just stood there.
"I see you have my laptop," Austin went on. "Were you planning to hack into my crypto wallet?"
"I'm taking what's mine."
Austin gave her a sly smile. "All you had to do was ask." He smoothly fished into a pocket of his cargo pants and pulled out a small pistol, aiming it at the middle of Jasmine's chest. "Of course," he smirked, "I would have said no."
Jasmine lunged at Austin, brandishing the box cutter, knocking him back onto the bed. The gun went flying toward Pete. Pete flinched away from it. Jasmine, pressing the cutter against Austin’s neck, hissed, “Get the gun.”
He reluctantly picked it up, holding it loosely at half-mast. Jasmine jumped up, wrapped her hand around his and pulled his arm upward until the gun was pointed at Austin's chest.
"If he moves, shoot him."
"I'm not going to—"
"Alright, then just hold it.”
She picked up the laptop, hit a couple of keys and turned to Austin. "What's the password?"
"I'm getting into it one way or another."
"Over my dead body."
"Fine." In a single fluid motion, Jasmine grabbed Pete's gun hand, slid her finger in and pulled the trigger. A black hole gaped in Austin's chest as he sprawled back, then it flowed red. She jumped to the bed, took the corpse's right index finger and pressed it against the laptop's fingerprint reader. The screen lit up.
Already, footsteps were running toward the tent. As Pete stood stupefied, Jasmine began to scream.
"He shot him. He shot him. Someone! Help!"
The three burly men who rushed into the tent didn't hesitate. They piled onto Pete, taking him down. Jasmine's screams rang in his ears as the guards wrestled him into submission. As one of them socked him in the jaw, Pete had time for one final thought before he blacked out.
Susan Kuchinskas likes to smash genres. She's the author of the science fiction/detective novel Chimera Catalyst.