Wolf waited at the terminal for the rest of his party to appear. He was enjoying the feeling of weightlessness and appreciated the opportunity to be alone. He had found it a rare and surprising feeling, being alone. Pendorians were rarely lonely and rarely had to be alone. He had found the attention too much at times, and had thanked Ember profusely for giving him a few places he could get away to. Pandora was a beautiful world, and Monastery Island, with its impressive SDisk system, had been just the place to go. The idea that one could leap between two worlds by taking a single step still made him shake his head.
"Christiane!" He smiled wide as his competition for the attention of the editors, and the ladies, floated into the view. "How are you doing?"
"Could be better. You heard about Lisanne?"
He nodded. "Who hasn't heard about Lisanne's decision? Even the local popular press is talking about it, although I'm really surprised about how muted it is."
"Do Pendorians ever make a big deal about anything?" she asked.
"I imagine they do, but what that would be, exactly, I have no idea." He grinned. "I hear we're a hit back home."
"Fame is good," she said. "Although I had a complaint from Cath that they don't know what to do with the pictures we're sending them. We've sent them thousands of images and, it would seem, we've all strayed out of our usual fields of photography. Except for Xing. You shot vistas, I shot families. That's backwards, isn't it?"
Wolf grinned. "Couldn't be helped. How's your chest?"
She touched herself on the side thoughtfully. "Fine, really. The Pendorians healed me completely."
"No chance of relapse?"
"Not relapse, no. Recurrence, yes. The disorder that causes the cancer is genetic. The Pendorians aren't able to fix that." She shrugged. "It means it could happen again. That's okay. I've survived lung cancer twice now. I can do it again, right?"
"If you say so," Wolf said with a sigh. "I would just think that of the two of you, you would be more likely to go for the perfect body that the Pendorian are offering, not Lisanne, who seems so strong and lively and doesn't have pre-cancer."
Christiane shook her head. "I may be happy here, but I'm not attached to it the way I am to Earth. I love Earth way too much. It's the world I've spent my life documenting, in all its glory and ugliness. I'm not ready to retire to this place, which reminds me a little too much of a nursing home. Everything's taken care of; it's time to do arts and crafts to fill the void." She grinned.
"I never thought of it that way." He looked out the window. "Some arts and crafts. They build starships."
"I did think of it that way. I mean, sure, they're doing amazing things with all that spare time they've got, but don't you find it a little depressing that when humanity gets this, gets the kind of thing they've always wanted, a lifetime of leisure, this is what we'll be left with?" She gestured around. "Where is the meaning in the Pendorian life?"
Wolf held his tongue. He had never believed that there was a meaning to Earthly life, either; no religion had ever come across to him as coherent enough to convey to him that there was a meaning to life, much less what that meaning might be.
Christiane continued, "Anyway, I'm glad to be going home. I'd rather be there, among the striving and the fighting and the loving with meaning than here, stuck in the biggest nursing home in the galaxy."
Wolf laughed. "You sound like you're an interstellar traveler with a thousand voyages under your belt, not just one trip to a world that hasn't had contact with anyone else, either. How do you know this is the biggest one?"
Christiane grinned. "I guess I wouldn't. But it's still not the kind of place I want to live. I miss Africa."
Wolf nodded. His time on Pendor had been fun, and he had loved the views and the people he had met, he had even had a good time personally, but there were people to go back to, he had realized. His letter from is sister had struck him particularly hard, with its descriptions of her children and the good times they were having back on Earth.
"Anyway," she said, "I'm going on board. I'll see you there."
"Right," Wolf replied.
Christiane looked around the tiny cabin, already starting to feel the itch of wide open spaces a day even before the starship left the dock for interstellar space. She shivered when she thought of that, the allure of being an interstellar adventurer. If there were vistas like Africa out there, she would visit them. But they would have to have people on them. They would have to be part of a universe that was striving for something. She loathed the idea that anyone would ever get to the point where striving was passe'.
As she packed her clothes into the closet, a twinge in her chest reminded her of the cancer that the Pendorians had stopped. That was another thing she was glad for; the limits of life. She was glad that she was human, and mortal, and destined to die, even though she had no desire to get there too quickly and certainly had no intention of hurrying it along. The Pendorian idea of going on and on and on, and committing suicide when going on became unendurable anymore, struck her as sick and decadent. Which she thought was funny. When she had first gotten to Pendor, she had envied her guide, Trellin, the free choice she had to start or end her life at a time of her own choosing.
She whirled around and found Trellin standing in the doorway. She took a few seconds to find her voice, finally managing to croak out a, "Hi... Hi. I was just thinking about you."
Trellin smiled at her. "The second you got to Pendor you disappeared. I asked the AIs where you were, and they always told me that you were busy, or that you weren't taking calls, or that you were in the field and away from access." She let the tentacles she used for arms slump at her side. "I just wanted to make sure that I hadn't done anything wrong."
Christiane shook her head. "No, not... really."
"Not really, or no?"
"No," Christiane said. She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Trellin, but when we became lovers on the trip in I couldn't... I couldn't really handle it anymore. I liked you. I couldn't stand to be around you."
Trellin looked confused. Christiane could understand why. The last two had been completely contradictory. A Terran might understand how they were possible.
"That's ridiculous, Christiane."
"I suppose you would think so." She took a deep breath. "Trellin, I have to tell you something. I hate Pendor. I hate everything about it. I hate the fact that you're going to live forever. I hate the fact that you have all this time to do what you want to do, instead of what you have to do. I hate the fact that your lives have no meaning, but you seem to live them meaningfully all the same. Your people have such an attitude, like you've figured out how to do everything right that Earth does wrong. I don't want to be around you when I like you so much but I hate everything that you represent.
"I want to go home."
Trellin closed her eyes for a moment and Christiane wondered if she was just thinking or if she was talking with the Pendorian AIs that seemed to be silently and constantly directing the flow of events. She sighed. "I take it you would rather I not be on this voyage, then?"
Christiane paused. She hadn't wanted another complication, but it was only one complication; all the rest were over and done with. "We're leaving Pendor. That might make it more tolerable."
"Have dinner with me then?" Trellin asked. "There's a little restaurant on Parma that I want to take you to."
"This. Here," Christiane said, pointing out the window to the rotating station to which they were attached. "Parma. The space station."
"Oh. I didn't know it had a name." She thought for a second. "Yeah, okay. Dinner it is."
Christiane had grown used to the Pendorian time system. "Sure."
Trellin smiled. "Thank you, Christiane. See you there."
The "restaurant" was small and intimate, quiet, with green, silver, and ferns the overriding motifs. The decorations were simple silver curls stretching the length of the soft green wallpaper. There was no music. It was one of the things Christiane had missed from Earth. The Pendorians were short on music, and they tended not to play it to death the way people on Earth did, probably because they knew that if they heard it too much it would spoil it for their lives, which would be much longer.
It was also in about half the gravity she was used to, which meant that eating anything liquid would be something of a challenge. The only person in view, a human dressed in black pants, a white shirt, and a spotless black pocketed apron, approached her. "Melli! Guareth ti?"
"I, um, I don't speak Quen."
"Oh, you're the Terran I'm expecting! Wonderful! Come this way, please." He led her into the long, narrow room and sat her down in a booth with tall-backed chairs. "Please stay here. Trellin will be along shortly. There's no menu; Daneel and I will just whip something up for you both. Can I get you something to drink? We don't have any wines."
"Coming right up." He disappeared from view. Christiane couldn't help but wonder how much of the waiter act was affected; it didn't seem like the kind of task that would earn a lot of respect, yet it was clear that the waiter had gathered enough with his partner to put together quite a lovely little establishment on what had to be an expensive piece of real estate.
She sighed. That was part of the problem. She was a good photographer. She was, she thought, one of the best war correspondents Geographic had ever had. She had awards and accolades and even museum shows to prove it. The fact that someone in a job as mundane as a waiter could get as much or even more attention than she, she admitted to herself, bothered her. Pendorians, she thought, had a skewed view of priorities.
Trellin slid into the bench opposite her, startling her with the silence of her approach. "I wondered where you were."
"I see you've men Apollonaria," Trellin said with a grin. "That's the waiter. Don't ever shorten it. He'll just ignore you if call him Apollo or something like that. You're obviously talking about someone else." She grinned.
Christiane smiled back, trying to feel the amusement that Trellin clearly felt. Instead, she felt awkward. She didn't want to tell Trellin to go away, and her body ached with an uncomfortable loneliness that she had learned Trellin could easily fill. But she still wasn't sure that she wanted this beautiful fem around.
"You're not happy."
Christiane looked up. "Huh?"
"You're not happy. I can see it in you face, feel it coming off of you. And you said so, this afternoon. You said that you hated it here."
Christiane tried to balance what her body, her emotions, and her common sense were all telling her, and failed. Her body wanted Trellin; her emotions wanted to get as far away from Pendor and Pendorians as she could, and her sense told her that the former was a bad idea and the latter, for the next few months at least, was quite impossible.
"I just don't like Pendor," she sighed finally, looking up as a glass of water was placed in front of her. "It's so... I've been everywhere on Earth, done reporting from Asia and Africa and Europe and South America, done war reporting, peace reporting, I've even done helicopter traffic reporting in the United States. I thought I would like it here."
"But you don't."
Christiane was pleased to see that the woman of naivete she had known on the voyage here had grown in sophistication. She no longer asked 'Why' or tried to explain the Pendorian Way, whatever that was, in defense. "No. And I don't know why. It's an emotional reaction to a lot of things-- your peace, your prosperity, your beauty. This isn't the kind of place humans were meant to live in."
She sighed. "Maybe I'm homesick. I can't believe that I would be homesick. I mean, I don't really have a home. I've traveled all my life, from assignment to assignment, and my tiny apartment in Virginia is just a place to stow my gear, including my body, between assignments."
"But has as assignment ever gone on for two years?" Trellin asked.
"Not without leave. Oh, Hell, I don't know, Trellin. The whole thing is very weird." She looked up into those green, featureless eyes. "I want to say I'm sorry for dumping you when I got here. That must have been a terrible blow to your career."
Trellin shrugged. "I'll survive, I'm sure. I miscalculated and became too intimate with someone who was not prepared to accept the way we do things and the intimacy with which we often do them. It's not as if I had planned on being a Terran contact ambassador my entire life, although it seemed like a good career choice and everyone I knew was telling me I would be good at it. It's a learning experience. I'm sorry if I hurt you, though, or did anything that would affect the way you view Pendorians."
Dinner was placed in front of them. It was fish, of a sort, a flat, white fish, breaded, with a vegetable relish and what looked like rice. Christiane wondered where it came from and how hard it was to get it onto the space station. Then she remembered that an SDisk had taken her here; it had probably brought the fish here as well. Christiane ate for a while; the fish was quite delicious, but she had gotten used to the idea that the Pendorian who performed a given task was doing so because he wanted to see it done right.
"You didn't miscalculate, Trellin. I did. I didn't know what my reactions to Pendor would be, and you couldn't have guessed them anyway. I thought that you would be another friend, another lover; I've had so many over the years. I didn't want your career to be a victim of my insensitivity."
Trellin reached out a mitt and covered Christiane's with it. "I appreciate that. And I'll survive. It's not like people will remember my failures unless I keep repeating them. It's the successes we care about."
Christiane felt that ache in her belly again, the one that let her know that there were some things she wanted Trellin for, even if guidance wasn't one of them. But she held her tongue and said, "I know. I just wanted you to have a success on this trip." She looked up and saw Trellin staring right at her. Even with those vague, indescriptive eyes, she could tell that Trellin was examining her face closely. "What?"
Trellin said simply, "I missed you."
Those words shot a thrill right through Christiane. They went into her ears, completely bypassed her brain, and dove straight for her groin. There was something in the way Trellin said it that suggested to her that this alien woman didn't care much about intellectual conversation, that it was the great sex they had had on the flight over that she had missed. "It's a long flight back to Earth."
"Will my presence on the flight back to Earth be 'tolerable?' then?"
"It won't be Pendor."
"It's an all-Pendor crew."
"It won't be Pendor," Christiane insisted, emphasizing the last word. "It'll be tolerable." She turned her hand over, clasped Trellin's mitten. "It'll be more than tolerable." She smiled. Some deep corner of her mind kept insisting that she stop and think about what she was about to do, but the rest of her insisted that this was a woman who could deliver pleasure to her consistently and that's what she wanted. She released Trellin's hand. "Your food's getting cold."
Trellin grinned and the two of them wolfed down the rest of the meal. Apollinario took the plates away as efficiently as he had brought them and disappeared. "Do we just leave?"
"We just leave," Trellin said. "Although I doubt you'll be able to pay the chef the proper compliment." She grinned.
"Oh," Christiane said. She had heard that before; she should have recognized it earlier. As they walked up the narrow hallway between tables, Apollinario and a human wearing distinct chef's clothing stood at the doorway and bowed. "Thank you for visiting our restaurant," Apollinario said. "It has been an honor serving a Terran."
Christiane bowed back. She had done this several times in Japan and understood the protocol on Pendor, or at least an analogy of it. "It was wonderful, thank you. It has been an honor dining with you."
Both mels seemed pleased with the response as they rose, and then she and Trellin were running for the door. "I don't suppose you have a room?" she asked Trellin.
"I've got a family!" Trellin responded. In the low-g's of the spinning station it was hard to maneuver, but Christiane managed until Trellin led her to another SDisk. They hopped on.
Christiane grunted as the full force of acceleration (she had learned not to call it gravity) hit her. When the science needed to do transportation had been explained to her, she had become wary of the SDisks, but everyone else used them and nobody ever got hurt on one, so she had come to accept them as another part of life. Trellin was shaking her head as well as her metabolism adjusted to the full force suddenly pulling the blood out of her head. "Ouch."
"Yeah," Christiane agreed, looking around. They were in a covered gazebo at one end of a small park fenced with white pickets. Behind her was, well, not exactly a forest. More like a jungle. Or a swamp. The trees grew in almost every direction, most of them making only a half-hearted attempt to go upwards. A blue-colored moss covered many of them in a randomesque spiderweb pattern, adding to the jarring color scheme. Yellow shoots headed down from parasitic flowers on many of the trees, dipping into the ground. The space between the trees was barely enough to permit a small dog.
But the weather was warm, and comforting, and Trellin's mitts pulled her in the other direction.
It was like something out of a Western, Christiane thought, although the jungle setting didn't fit with the motif. The construction of the buildings was wood frames and wood sides, long, wide porches with overhangs, and a distinct lack of doorknobs. A large, white truck passed them by, silently but for the road noise coming from its tires, a Tindal in the driver's seat waving calmly at them. The back was heaped high with black, loamy dirt. Other pedestrians walked calmly back and forth, many in pairs, chatting. Christiane saw at least one parasol. A Tindal with a tool belt hammered on a window frame of a building high above. "Arif!" she shouted up.
"Trellin!" he replied, looking down. He descended the latter with sure-footed steps and hopped down onto the ground. "So you recovered your charge, huh?" he said, looking Christiane over. "Good!"
"Only for the afternoon. Maybe for the trip home. I just wanted to show her my town for a few minutes." Trellin took her hand and led her down the street to an unassuming home that might have been found anywhere in southern Europe: pale red color, gently sloped roof, massive front porch made with timbers several inches square. The windows were larger than she would have expected, an acknowledgment to the almost spiritual Pendorian affection for sunlight.
Inside, the same theme applied. The floor was bare, the frontroom occupied by only a few pieces of furniture, including a rocking chair, all of which where upholstered in simple, unbleached colors. It had the look of a family that didn't know how to decorate and fortunately did not have access to the empty kitsch with which such families often filled their lives.
Trellin led her to a set of stairs, and Christiane couldn't help but be impressed by the solid construction. Although she had gotten used to it in the year she had been here, the excess of material, the broad, impressive construction, still seemed to her as something between wasteful and admirable. These people built things to last. She supposed that made sense when one acknowledged that the builder, or somebody, would be using the construction for centuries, and the builder would still be around to hear about it if something went wrong.
But her desire for Trellin intervened with her musings as Trellin led her into another room, a bedroom, with a bed that was more adult than she would have supposed. A simple blue comforter covered a large bed, a long bed, a bed that would easily sleep three if it had to, and as Trellin's mittens guided her to the bed she stopped worrying about whether or not this was a wrong decision. She could leave it behind at any time, after the trip was over.
Trellin's mouth was on hers, snapping her to the here, the now, and her own mouth was answering back, her own cunt warming to the suggestion that it might have its own attentions sometime soon this afternoon. She pawed at Trellin's blue ship's jumpsuit, pressed her hands to the small breasts through the material, felt the flat, strong belly of a youth that would not, could not fade, although it could be abandoned.
Trellin's own enthusiasm flowed over her like warm summertime rain is Africa. She had danced in that kind of rain, and she wanted to dance in Trellin's desire as well. Trellin clearly agreed, and as her mitts went to work on the fine details of opening Christiane's shirt buttons, Christiane fumbled with the simple blue zipper tab of provocative shapes. The jumpsuit opened immediately and Trellin seemed to pour out of it, soon to be standing in this sunlit room naked and glorious.
Christiane had often fumbled with Trellin in the quiet dark of a starship. Here, though, Trellin was clearly a different sort of animal, and for the first time Christiane got a good look at Trellin's body. The willowly belly, the long, ideal legs, all wrapped in two shades bluer than a perfect summer sky. The broadened, masculine shoulders that supported her arms, her tens, her tentacles just a bit less than a meter long, with the mittenlike ending that nonetheless was supple enough to undo the buttons on her shirt.
Trellin's small, black nose and lips hovered in a face just this side of animal, and as she closed the distance between them Christiane's heart began racing. Trellin pulled off her shirt and opened the buttons at her waist. Christiane eased back onto the bed, shedding her pants like the skin of a snake, bare but for a white panty that could not possibly contain the smell of desire that steamed off of her.
Trellin kissed her again, her tongue against Christian's teeth, and Christiane let her in, touched her own tongue to Trellin's and tasted the texture of the alien girl's flesh against her own. A deep and satisfied moan came from within Christiane, a needful moan, the moan of someone who, truth be told, had been celibate for far too long. Christiane was used to being able to get out of the country, get to the city, get to the nightlife and enjoy it. Here, there was no city to go to, there was only the Ring, an enormous world with inhabitants few and far between, and finding a sister dyke in all that was harder than admitting that she wanted to find one at all.
She rolled on the bed with Trellin in her arms. Trellin smiled up at her and whispered, "Are you all here?" she asked.
"Sometimes," Christiane replied as Trellin's mouth began working a spell of desire on her breasts and nipples. Trellin slithered, furry snakes upon her body, as she moved down, working her mittens over Christiane's skin in a way that made electricity surge in her belly. Tension held court within Christiane, passed judgment, dissolved into a party of small, collected tensions all their own that whirled down into her thighs and up into her brain. She moaned with desire, not for Trellin, not for pleasure, but for a release from the incessant tightness that had become her unwanted companion since setting foot on the Ring.
Christiane's body arched with need. Trellin, though, was taking her time. Touches of tongue and lip streamed across her belly, and finally she remembered to touch back, to run her fingers over the short, smooth fur of her partner. A shoulder, a side, the dangling fruit of Trellin's breasts were all is her reach, and she reached out to stroke one dark exposed nipple. Trellin's welcoming sigh was a message from one woman to the other, to be here, now.
Christiane put the tension behind her for a moment, let the pleasure of touching and being touched wash over her, let the intimacy of Trellin's kisses drive her stresses away for just a moment. As Trellin's mouth dropped between her opened thighs her attention snapped into place. It was impossible to daydream, not when a mouth was hot on her vulva, a talented tongue probing between her lips, seeking out the soft, vulnerable places where ecstasy lived.
Trellin's skills were honed on slow, attentive progress. Christiane lay halfway between gentle appreciation and an impatient desire for Trellin to get on with it. She felt herself growing wetter. A furry hand slipped under Trellin's chin, against her intimate opening, Trellin's the thumb entering her. Suddenly she knew that she had to have more, that she couldn't wait for Trellin to shove that entire thing into her. But Trellin took her time, still, and every lick seemed to hint at the end, at the edge, at a climax that would be a relief.
Trellin's thumb rolled back and forth. Christiane felt the tip of her mitten pressing against the opening of her cunt, pressing the thin tissue there wide, opening her. Her body felt charged with need. Trellin's moldable hand spread her further, opening her. Christiane was breathing harder, her body relaxed but full of the power of impending pleasure, and then Trellin's mitten was completely inside her, and all she had to do was turn it just a little, lick just a little more, and Christiane exploded.
As she subsided, Trellin was already tugging at the opening to her cunt in the other direction, sliding out, waiting for the different tension, that of climax, to ease completely. Christiane lay back on the bed, her eyes closed, and willed her body to let Trellin out. Soon, they were cuddling again on the bed, Christiane's hand now between Trellin's legs, her fingers intimate with the familiar details of this part of her blue-furred lover's anatomy at least.
Trellin's responses were different. She became tense immediately, her eyes glazing with desire. Christiane had learned from experience that for Trellin, a mouth was okay, the twisting strength of finger were better. She wanted to be watched, wanted Christiane to be there, body to body, as she came. Christiane gave her what she wanted. Her fingers dug into the soft flesh of Trellin's vulva, played with labia. Pinches on Trellin's nether lips made her moan in ways that kisses to her mouth could not control. Christiane let one finger between those lips find Trellin's button, press on it, caress it gently. Trellin became a quivering girl, gasps of acknowledgment filling the room as she came quietly, in Christiane's arms.
Wordlessly, Christiane gathered Trellin up and the two of them lay together, in Trellin's soft and wonderful bed. Christiane sighed and thought that she could live with Trellin's presence for the trip home. For a brief moment, at any rate, the stresses were quiet. She knew they'd return, in lesser forms away from the Ring, but with Trellin there, she might be able to hold them at bay until she finally set foot on Earth. That was all she wanted.