"Yeeeeehaw!" Wolf shouted as he twisted the controls on the hoverbike. This was a sport like no other; it felt mind-bogglingly dangerous to be riding this high off the ground, this fast, with the wind whipping by, with no protection around him at all, just the motorcycle-sized vehicle between his legs throbbing in the friendliest of ways a machine can manage.
Two dozen meters to the rear, Ember was grinning ferociously as she gave chase. He had no idea where he was going but she was determined to keep up, even as he tore over the beach, heading to starboard at an unreasonable speed. Wolf could see her in the rear-view display of his helmet. He had almost wanted to not bother with the helmet but after Ember mentioned picking bugs out of his teeth or a head-on with a bird, he had changed his mind.
The ocean below was crystalline blue, and he was ashamed that the only analogy that came to mind was one with toilet bowl cleaner. He would have to find a better one before he wrote his next report for Geographic. The air was still shockingly clear, and Wolf was becoming used to the notion that he was used to living on polluted homeworld. The cool spring wind whipped past his body, chilling him far too effectively. But his heart was beating a million miles a minute and if he should crash and die in the next hour the embalmer would never be able to get the smile off his face.
"Wolf!" Ember shouted into his ear. "Make a right turn!"
Wolf looked to his right, out over the water. He had been told that the mass of water contained in this ocean outweighed the entire Earth several times over, but he wasn't sure that he believed it. Still, the idea of an ocean with a surface area as great as several hundred Earths was something to think about. He had been in the middle of the Pacific once, and for days there was no sight of land, no notion of where you were or in what direction you were headed but for the sun, the clock, and the compass. To be in a much larger ocean was a mind-boggling, even if in this one you could always know you were headed in the right direction. He pushed on the left control and the hoverbike turned right, shooting out over the water. He tilted the left pedal slightly and the bike dropped down to just a meter over the waves. Wolf looked behind long enough to see the wake he was leaving, only to be disappointed that he wasn't leaving more of one. "Where are we going?"
"You'll see," she said as she took the lead. The flew on for fifteen minutes, covering well over fifty kilometers in that time, before she pointed ahead. "Slow down."
They brought the bikes to a dead hover right over a buoy. "What is this?" Wolf asked.
"Navigation buoy for a system we ended up not using after the invention of the microSDisk. We didn't need huge SDisks to transport quantities between here and where we're going."
"And where are we going?" Wolf asked.
Ember scanned the sky, her clear, curiously-shaped helmet (to mould to her curiously-shaped head, of course) tilting back and forth. "Can't see it."
"We're going off-world?" Wolf asked, surprised. There was a now-familiar blink, and as if to answer his question he suddenly found himself in a similar patch of ocean-- similar locally, perhaps, but the sunlight at an angle and the horizon in the distance told him that this was no ringworld. "Pandora?" he asked.
"You said you wanted to see things that were interesting. Wolf, I don't know what's 'interesting' to you, but I figured that you would much prefer to be the one to take pictures of our other world, the one that we keep for, well, a variety of reasons."
"Pandora stirs Pendor. Really. It's gravitational influence on Pendor stirs up the muck on the ring's oceans. It's like your tides, only a lot slower."
Wolf grinned. "I'm still not used to the idea that I make a complete trip around the sun every twenty days. It takes a year on Earth. How do you get used to it?"
"I was born to it!" Ember replied. "Come on. I want to show you something."
They flew out over the ocean, Wolf sure that Ember, at least, knew where she was going and was following some kind of navigational assistant. This time the trip took nearly an hour, but the weather felt warmer here. He chalked it up to just one more pleasure of the trip.
The sky was a crystal clear blue of the sort that he hadn't seen on Pendor. The refraction was different on the ringworld and the deepest blue he had seen there had been a pale parody of what Earth was capable. A few clouds hovered about, and on the horizon to his left he saw the obvious head of a storm brewing. The ocean was much the same color, an untrammeled sea of clean waters. The more he saw it, the more he thought that he had to go back to Earth and start cleaning it up.
A landmass came into view, slowly resolving to a moderate-sized island covered in what were obviously palm trees. The island was volcanic, like much of the land in the Pacific ocean back on Earth, and it jutted into that blue sky, its peak ringed in vapor. Ember raised her bike slightly and hopped over the treeline. Wolf followed and found her riding just a few meters over a river. They sped on past dense foliage that completely lined the riverbank and obscured any view he might have had of what lay within.
The river widened. He slowed down as he saw that they were coming up on a wide cliff face of black, volcanic rock. Ember wheeled her bike and slowly let it back up, dropping onto the first break he had seen in the jungle, a wide expanse of grass trimmed short by a herd of what looked like green goats.
He carefully dropped the bike down next to hers and turned the engine off. "What do you think?" she said, pointing behind him as he took off his helmet.
Wolf turned. When he found his voice, all he could manage was, "Wow."
A waterfall coursed past them, a thundering juggernaut of power that come down from the mountain and fell into the river below, feeding it out towards the ocean. "It's almost a kilometer high," Ember said. For that entire kilometer the water boomed, filling the basin with a roar so loud that they were almost shouting to be heard.
"Where are we?"
"The name for this place is The Sojourn," Ember said. "Nobody's quite sure why, although one story says that it's where Ken and Oeonone spent their last night together."
Wolf nodded briskly. He had heard the story but still didn't know what to make of it. The idea than Shardik had somehow been chosen by aliens who otherwise had left no trace bothered him. Ember saw the look on his face.
"What is it?" she asked.
"Why that guy?" he asked.
Ember shrugged. "Why not him? More than that, look what he did with it! Most people given that much power might have gone crazy and tried to accumulate power. Grandpa.. gave it all away." She smiled.
Wolf nodded. Still, the explanation didn't sit well with him. It didn't really explain the whole situation so much as excuse it.
Ember walked back to her bike and opened up the back. "Catch!" she said, tossing him a bottle. He grabbed it and opened it. It tasted like a blend of mango and orange juice. "What is this?"
"Fruit called a sikee, which might not sound pretty in Anglic." She grinned. "It's got vitamin C and potassium. Hard to beat."
"You could sell this on Earth. I'm sure someone would like it."
"Dave? Make a note."
Wolf blinked. "Dave is here?"
"I am always here," came the tinny reply from within his helmet. He had to lift it to his ear to hear clearly. "Ember takes me wherever she goes."
"Actually, he's back at Shardik Castle, but there is always an AI with us wherever we go. There's no AI in charge of Pandora, but all of the AIs visit here with remotes. This is where they get ideas for the future terraforming of Pendor."
"Terraforming? Isn't it Earthlike enough?"
Dave answered, "Of course it is. It will stop being Earthlike after several hundred thousand years of erosion if we AIs do not constantly work to make it Earth-like by creating upheavals, moving earth, shifting plates, and the like. It would be a very boring place of flats and sand."
"Oh," Wolf said. He wasn't sure what surprised him more. The idea that Pendor was still undergoing modification or the idea that the AIs were planning things out for "hundreds of thousands of years."
"Sandwich?" Ember asked.
"You came equipped."
"Picnics are one of Ken's favorite forms of recreation, and it's something a lot of us share with him." She stood close as she offered the paper bag. He took it from her, leaning over to give her a kiss on the cheek. "That's all?"
"Later. You don't want me to pass out from lack of food, do you?"
"I don't think that would happen to you," Ember said with a grin as she retrieved something for herself. She bit into hers with enthusiasm, and sighed with pleasure. "This is life."
Wolf nodded, agreeing enthusiastically as they sat on the grass together. "This is the best vacation I've ever had."
"Vacation? What's that?"
"That's where you go away from work."
"You mean, rest?"
"Something like that," Wolf said. "Only you do it for longer."
"Oh," Ember said. "But I thought you were working."
"It's hard to imagine I'm working, not even working hard, when all I have to do is bring my camera and the landscape will do the rest. And to have such good food, such amazing toys, and such a beautiful guide as yourself..." He sighed. "This isn't working. This is living."
"I thought you liked what you did," she said, her face becoming ever more fetching in its confusion.
"I do!" Wolf said. "But it's been a long time since I had this much fun. But you're right. If I weren't with Geographic I'd probably go crazy trying to figure out what to do with myself. I can't imagine doing anything other than being... me."
She grinned. "Good!"
They ate for a little bit, finally putting away the paper wraps the sandwiches had come in. "Wolf? When you go home, what will you say about us?"
"I don't know. I thought about it. Obviously I'm going to be talking to a lot of people about what I did and saw while I'm here, so I'm still trying to figure out what kind of message I want to bring back. I'm wondering if maybe Lisanne's got it wrong."
Ember tilted her head exactly the way a kitten does when its confused. It was so cute that it momentarily scrambled Wolf's thought processes. "What did she say?"
"She said that Pendor was trying to set an example to the Earth about how people are supposed to live. Like the way Europe and America are trying to set examples for each other and I think the American way is doomed," he explained. "Americans act as though every encounter must be initiated by at least one person; it's the result of their expectation of uncrowded cities and vast open plains. Europeans act as if they're aware that for every action one can't help but involve others. Americans talk about personal responsibility, but Europeans are the ones who think about who will drink when pissing in the river."
Ember rewarded his ending rhyme with a giggle. "And what about Pendorians?"
"I think you have an AI to remind you every time you're about to piss is the river, and you like having that reminder. It means you don't have to carry it around as a habit of thought. You're free to think whatever you like, but the AIs manage to keep order without being facisistic. Or, maybe it's just the most subtle facism ever to exist."
"Grandpa calls it a well-run anarchy. That's probably the best explanation. Everyone thinks they're free, can see everything going on that may limit their freedom, and eventually they'll be free to rebel against it. We just need enough starships and a place to go."
"They'll tell you that the 'meek' are going to inherit the Ring."
"So?" Ember said. "What do 'they' know? The question is if The Taboo will break and when." She stood up, reached into the basket on her bike, and pulled out an apple. While she methodically cut it into slices, she said, "I'm an AI designer. I think about these things a lot."
"Okay. I'll give. What is The Taboo?"
Ember spoke around a piece of apple. "Changing oneself deliberately and in an abrupt way. It's one of those things Pendorians don't do. We don't get plastic surgery, or have implants that change us completely, or stuff like that. It's not as strong as you think; people are getting data terminal implants and women who want to keep their breasts from drooping do get very slow nanochine alterations that do the work from the inside, but nobody would imagine getting an implant that lets you control your body, or changing the way they look so completely that others wouldn't recognize them."
She paused to swallow. "It's about being part of a community. The community doesn't know who you are if you change too radically, too fast. We don't know if someone is the same person we welcomed in initially. It's a little like dying and being born, but having the memories of the dead is a little disturbing, especially on Pendor where people don't die that often."
"That's what I would call European thinking," Wolf said.
Wolf stood up and grabbed his camera. "I'm going to get a few shots from here, and then a few more from the air, just to make sure I get a good all-around of this. Good thing I brought my tripod."
Getting pictures from the air was tricky until he finally asked Dave if he could drive and the AI willing took over. He also had trouble aiming the camera Ember had gotten for him until Dave displayed what the camera was seeing in his flight helmet's heads-up display.
Finally he landed out on the beach, Ember following him. "That's west, right?"
Ember nodded. Wolf set up his tripod and took out his best panoramic lens, fitting it on and fiddling with the adjustments until they were perfect. The sun was already heading down to the horizon. "This is going to be a beautiful shot."
"That's one of the reasons I took you to Sojourn."
"And the other?"
She just grinned at him. Wolf tried to get his mind back to the task at hand.
As the sun descended, the colors changed very little. The sunlight grew longer, redder, as the sun dipped towards the horizon. Wolf took to taking pictures every second, trying to get the perfect sunset image. The sun appeared to touch the sea. It dipped low enough that it's light was now striking the undersides of the few wispy clouds overhead, setting them on fire. Then it was going, going... and gone. "Oh, well," Ember said.
"Oh, well?" Wolf asked. "What was wrong with that? That was probably one of the best sunsets I've ever gotten on film."
Ember grinned. "Sometimes, when the conditions are just right, the light flashes emerald green for just a moment. Something about the light refracting around the curvature of the planet. It's such a startling thing that we take trips just to watch it." She pointed. "And there's another thing I brought you to see."
Wolf looked up and for a moment he wasn't sure what he was looking at. In a sky slowly filling with stars there was a stripe, a band that stretched from the darkest edge where the jungle and mountain blocked his view of the sky until it disappeared near the pale horizon he had just photographed. It was probably half the width of the moon and it crossed the entire sky. Then he scrambled for his camera, adjusting the lens, and took pictures. "Now this is something to take pictures of. I hope I get a cover!"
She grinned. "I'm glad you like it. You can't see it from here, but Dave tells me that right about there is my home." She was pointing up and slightly towards the western sky. "Hard to believe that that's a hundred terrs in width."
"How big is a terr?" Wolf asked, not sure if he was going to like the answer.
"The surface area of the Earth, if talking about area. Or the square root of that, if talking about length. It's just a unit wee use to keep things in perspective."
Wolf shook his head. "So, there are a hundred Earths in that?"
She nodded. "And you've just seen two of them. That one and this one. Hard to believe, huh?"
"Impossible, I think. I don't know how long it would take me to get used to the idea. How do you do it?"
She grinned. "By taking seriously only what's right before my eyes."
Wolf looked up and found her staring at him. He felt goofy grinning back at her even as he broke down the tripod and began putting his equipment back into the padded case in the back of his hoverbike. "Is there anything else you want to show me?"
"I could take off my clothes..."
She giggled. "Actually, yes. But afterwards I do want to get you back to our room. This is the first chance I've had to see you in nearly a month!"
"Are we dating?"
"Yeah!" Ember said. "Until you go home, consider me a firm date."
It was an offer like no other, Wolf thought, and it was coming from a fem like no other. God, what was he going to say, and to whom was he going to say it? All of the Geographic team members were planning on writing books to describe their experiences. He couldn't begin to imagine what he would write in his about Ember. But it was an offer he finally couldn't refuse. "I will do that."
"Good!" she replied. "Now, come on. I want to show you the backside of Sojourn." She straddled her bike. "Mmm. Power between my legs."
"You are outrageous, you know that?"
She grinned. "That's what grandpa says. I take after..." She paused. "Come on."
Wolf mentally filed that pause under 'other mysteries' and jumped onto his bike. He was afraid he'd lose her in the hills as she soared away, but the heads-up display on his helmet could show him where she was even through solid rock. He followed her up and around the mountain, a black mass clearly illuminated by the light reflected from the Ring. He found her hovering over what looked like another lagoon. It was most of a perfect, circular shape, a full three-quarters around, with the final quarter the opening to the sea. As she hovered over it, Jack got the impression of crater of sorts, a kilometer on a side.
"What happened here? Did a meteor land here? Or is it the volcano?"
"Neither," Ember said quietly. "A thermonuclear explosion happened here."
Jack looked down, and immediately fumbled for his camera. "Does anyone know why?"
"Yes," Ember said, her voice full of an odd reverence. "This is where the original memory banks for the construction and evolution of Pendor were stored. This is where Hal kept everything related to Pendorian species, from the smallest fungus to the greatest of primates and pseudoprimates. And we do have primates, somewhere." She pointed down. "Ken had this built here because the AI in charge had to make sure that there was no real competition on the surface of Pendor, not for us. But he also destroyed all the records. Everything. Topographical maps, biological databanks, all gone."
Wolf blinked. "Why would he do that?"
"Because," Ember said, looking up, "He wanted the world to be a mystery. It had to be something we discovered for ourselves. It would be no fun if we had it all laid out for us, without any challenges. But..."
"I'm a purist, Wolf, and an AI specialist. I know that Hal agreed to it, but I feel that accepting the destruction of one's own memories must carry with it a very high price."
Wolf nodded. "I can imagine."
"Anyway," Ember said, "Would you like to go home?"
"Unless you have something else to show me."
"Tomorrow," she said. "We're going to an Uncia ritual of territory."
"I'll make a note of it."
They rode back to the SDisk, an hour more of flight that Wolf found just as thrilling as the ride out, even though by this hour he was quite tired. The dark made it somewhat monotonous, as did his choice of using the autopilot, but it gave him a chance to look around and enjoy the stars and the Ring.
They were back at Shardik Castle shortly thereafter, Ember taking the direct route rather than riding to the shore and then up the beach the way they had come.
They dropped the hoverbikes off at the stables, taking time to put them away properly. Ember insisted on that, saying that doing the job right was one of the few earnestly Pendorian values. She led him into the Castle via one of the outdoor SDisks. He was grateful that she did not ask him to use the weird one 'under' the lagoon; Wolf still found it distressing that he could swim down to it and show up in the Castle, completely dry. He wondered if the AI was that good, that it could map every water droplet and teleport him away without the water. He didn't want to be there if it screwed up.
Her bouncy eagerness to get him into her bed brought a smile to his face and a heaviness in his pants. He couldn't wait to get his hands on her, either, as she pulled him by the hand through the corridor to her room.
She giggled as she pushed him into the room and onto the bed. "Oh, Wolf, you don't know how wonderful it is to have you for a lover," she sighed as she helped him strip off his jacket and toss it aside. They struggled to get him naked, and soon he turned his attention to her. She had worn tight pants of an elastic with which Wolf was not familiar; it felt like lycra on the outside but the inner lining was as smooth as fine glass. And her collared, buttoned shirt had been a colorful riot of red and white that, if one looked at her from a distance, resolved into a femFelinzi holding a sword and looking menacing. It, too, had fit her form precisely, enhancing her slim, lovely figure.
She pushed him down to the bed, her muzzle on his mouth, her tongue licking at his lips. Wolf's heart skipped a beat as her breasts brushed against the hair on his chest.
Her kisses were ferocious, more even than last time, as if she had gauged their lovemaking and decided that neither had quite reached a limit. He let his hands roam her body and grab her small, tight ass. He wanted to take her... he laughed.
"What's so funny?"
He grinned. "I was thinking that I wanted to take you 'doggy style,' but you might not find that complimentary."
She smiled back at him. "You mean, like this?" She crawled away from him, her ass in the air, her tail waving back and forth.
"Yeah!" Wolf said. "But, um, what about foreplay?"
"Fuck foreplay, Wolf. Fuck me instead!"
He was behind her in a flash, his erection poking eagerly between her thighs. "Ready?" he asked.
"Do it," Ember gasped, and Wolf pressed the head of his cock against her vulva and was soon inside her. She growled in pleasure as Wolf wrapped his hands around her asscheeks and began fucking her.
It wasn't a fuck to be nice, not for either one of them. It was a fuck to get off. Ember's cunt was wrapped around the head of his dick and milking it for everything he had with every stroke. She tossed her head back and forth as his cock pummeled her insides. Wolf discovered just how useful a tail can be as a sex toy, grabbing it to keep it from whipping back and forth only to find that doing so turned Ember on even more. "Oh, fah, oh, fah," Ember groaned as his hips slammed up against her firm ass, "Fuck me, Wolf, fuck me."
Wolf lacked enough of a mind to say anything in response. Her wonderful cunt gave him all that he wanted. It was a lot like the rest of his Pendorian experience; he had gone in and taken from it everything that it had offered. This fuck was just the latest, and best, expression of that.
Ember began pushing her ass back to him, humping against his hips with her entire body. He held her tail to one side, pinning it between two fingers as he pounded her cunt. It was a fuck like no other, a fuck to make him grit his teeth. He wondered who was actually doing the fucking. The room was spinning, his body thrumming, and Ember was nearly screaming. He was barely aware of anything other than his need to climax, and when that happened he thought he saw a supernova.
Ember collapsed onto the floor, quivering. "B...b...b..." She was trying to say something, but whatever he had done to her had reduced her to incomprehensible babbling. She shivered violently, thrashing on the floor as he sat down beside her.
"Ember?" he asked, suddenly concerned.
"Oh.... FAH!" she said, suddenly sitting up and curling next to him. "Fuck, Wolf, where did you learn to do that?"
"Do what?" he asked with a grin.
"Fuck like that!" Ember said. "Fah, I'm still quivering inside. I don't think my inside will let me forget this night for days!" She grinned wide and kissed his cheek. "You're wonderful!"
"Oh, good," he said. "I'm still amazed that I haven't had a heart attack with all the lovemaking you put me through."
She giggled. "I don't think you have to worry about that. You have a strong body and a good heart." Her hand strayed down between his legs and fondled the sticky, still slightly firm erection. "And good other parts." She leaned her head down and took his cock into her mouth.
Wolf groaned. He was still sensitive from the lovemaking, and finding it hard to believe that the friction she was creating was also making him erect again. But not enough, and he eventually waved her off. "Thanks, beautiful, but I don't think it's going to work again until morning."
"Okay," she said, giving a pout that was not at all serious before shifting to the happiest grin he'd seen on her face in all the time he'd known her.
He lay back on the bed and sighed loudly. She dropped down beside him with a solid thud. "So," he said, "why would a beautiful girl like you want to get involved with an old man like me?"
"First of all, old man, I'm older than you are." She rolled over and smiled at him. "But if you want to know why, that's easy. I like you. You're a Terran. And better yet, you're an older Terran who's seen the world. Pendor's big, but everything is either local or wild. There aren't that many people here, Wolf, and we don't have thousands of generations of collections of stuff to look at enjoy. We don't have DaVinci, or the Coliseum, or the Liberty Bell, or any of that stuff. We're hoping to get it, and kind-of a cultural memory, from you." She snuggled close. "I just wanted firsts."
He laughed. "From me?"
"Well, from Terra in general. Wolf, I've learned so much from you in the few days you've been back here, taking a break from this job of yours! It's been so much fun. I mean, you're a great fuck, but it's also that you have all these stories to tell, wonderful things that must just come out of you. You could keep an entire town enthralled with that story you told about the Eskimos and getting stranded on an ice floe."
Wolf grinned. "That was a mean practical joke, especially since the Coast Guard charged me for the gas money of the rescue."
She sighed. "I'll miss you when you go home."
He tousled her ears gently. "I'll miss you too."
After a few minutes he extracted himself from under her gently dozing form. He hadn't expected her to fall asleep so hard; he thought he had spent more energy than she, but he was still wide awake.
He crawled to the other end of the room and recovered his notebook from his camera bag. Looking through the notes he'd made, he found the page from his first encounter with Ember. He took out a pen.
I have discovered, much to my surprise, that Pendorians are bored. I thought, when I got here, that Pendorians would have a hard time being bored when there's so much planet to explore and so much free time and resources with which to do the exploring. I forgot that there are other things people like to explore, and not everyone is suited to take her pleasure from just the rocks and the trees the way I am.
Ember is not much of a naturalist. She prefers the benefits to civilization, benefits that don't exist Pendor. She can't wait for the art and history of Terra to start showing up on her homeworld. And she can't be alone.
I wonder what that'll be like.
He put the notebook away. He felt odd. He had written much more on other occasions; he wondered if it was just that there wasn't much to fucking that was worth writing down. The camera had done most of the work of the voyage to Pandora. He had pictures of the horizon of an alien world-- one with a horizon-- and pictures of what the Ring looked like through the atmosphere of that world. And he had pictures of the bowl where once had sat the biggest database of which humanity had ever heard.
It would be enough. He would be happy while he was here. And he would be happy when got home.