Jack looked out his window. Across the millions of miles he could see a disk no larger than the fingernail of his smallest finger held at arm's length, a dime across the room. But the colors and the light from that tiny circle were more important to him than all of the promises he had left behind.
"Home," he muttered. "Finally."
Last night he had sat with Wolf, Christianne, and Xing to dinner and had discussed his impressions of the trip. To his surprise, Xing and Wolf both said they had enjoyed the trip and would love to go back. Wolf was no surprise; he had fallen in with a band of Uncia who lived the rough and ready life and he had enjoyed every moment of it, returning with a few scars to show off and a few stories that would be harder to believe if he had been telling them on Earth.
But Xing was the real surprise. Jack had expected him to come out of the trip the way he had gone in, moping and depressed, but Xing had surprised him both by finding some relief for whatever secret unhappiness he carried with him, and for deciding to leave the source of that relief and return back to Earth. All he had said was that Earth was his home.
Christianne was another surprise. She had seemed to be like Wolf-- launching herself headfirst into Pendorian life, going native as soon as she hit the ground. Instead, she had become disillusioned with the lack of challenges Pendor offered. Earth, she had said, presented the kind of life human beings were meant to live. She had also become angry at the mention of Lisanne's name, tearing off into a rant about suicide.
But Lisanne wasn't dead. They had gotten mail from her and it was definitely someone with her memory and her command of language. She knew the same jokes, talked about the same colleagues, expressed the same hopes she had had when she had been... human.
Christianne's main objection to Pendor was that it was boring. Jack disagreed. Pendor's problem was that it was perverse.
Jack was aware that Pendorians still had debates about the normalcy of homosexuality and that the practice of odder things like flagellation or fetishism weren't nearly as prevalent as they were in the Terran press of most of the "developed" nations, but that wasn't the kind of thing that Jack considered perverse.
They were still sixty hours from orbital insertion. He was told that SDisk lock-on would be done an hour after that and then they would be able to transport back to the Pendorian embassy in Washington DC as soon as they could gather in one of the SDisk rooms.
He looked down at his journal, where he had kept his notes, and sighed. He read through them carefully, trying to decide which ones would go into his final article and which would go into the inevitable book about his experiences among the Pendorians. He understood that there was already a deal with Lisanne for her to write regularly about her life on Pendor.
But his problem was that there wasn't much there. His journals had a lot of observations from what the Pendorians called their media, although all of it was by nature amateur in production. Atalie, he realized with a start, had been completely right this morning when he had gone to her to thank her for her help.
"What are you thanking me for?" she had said. "Jack, you made it very clear from the very beginning that you didn't need me. You spent the entire two years either in your room or out wandering around. You never learned a word of the language. You could have gotten to know us. You could have come out and danced with us, eaten with us, learned what it was like to be a part of Pendor. Instead, you locked yourself up and you never came out except to go and shoot your stupid photos. What's the point of that? Couldn't you have done that without spending all of your free time trapped in your hotel room?"
He had stood there, shocked. For two years she had been the perfect attendant, always with a smile, calm, assured, knowledgeable, tolerant of his every fault. She had come across as something of an airhead: spunky, welcoming, but not terribly cerebral. He guessed that with only three days left to go she had felt free to finally unload all her frustrations on him. "But, I suppose you're welcome. Forgive me if I don't feel like you have much to thank me for."
He had merely nodded and walked away, letting the door close between them. And now, looking at the record he had assembled, he realized that she was right. Xing would have more material than he had ever assembled, and Xing had spent most of his time photographing machines! There was nothing in his journal that would make for anything deeper than the talk-show circuit, and there was no way to recover that now.
Ten minutes later, he found himself standing at her door. She opened the door and, for just a second, her face registered surprise. Then her eyes narrowed and she asked, "What do you want, Jack?"
He swallowed his pride, learning that at times that really was a literal thing to do, and said, "I want to ask for a second chance."
"A second chance?" she asked. "You want to go back?"
He nodded. "Lisanne can't be the only Terran voice on Pendor for the next couple of years. I may as well go back and do some honest reporting." He let a weak smile escape.
"Jack, you had two years already. Why didn't you do that the first time?"
"Because..." He sighed. "Because I don't know what I'm supposed to think about you."
"You're supposed to think for yourself," she protested. He didn't say anything. "Okay. Jack, I'll ask, but I can't make any promises."
He nodded. "Thank you. Tell me when you find out."
She finally managed to return his smile. "I'll do that."
She found him in the dining room with some of his usual company. "Hi, Wolf. Hi, Jack. Do you want him to hear this?" she said, indicating Wolf.
"I already told him."
Wolf was watching them both with interest even as he ate the noodle soup that had been the dinner of the day. Atalie took a breath and said, "They said 'yes,' if you really want. You can go back. Another one-year tour. Not only that, but with Turner Broadcasting accepting part of the finances it looks like you're going to end up as a color correspondent for CNN."
Wolf laughed aloud. "Congratulations, Jack! I don't know if you consider that a promotion or not, from Geo to Cable News, but whichever way you take it, it's good news."
"I suppose it is," Jack said, his smile weak and unconvincing. "I'm not sure it's entirely good news. I was hoping to go home for a while.
Atalie took a chair beside him. "It's good news, Jack, if you want it to be. But why change your mind? All this time on the ship all you've wanted was to go home. To see Earth. What made you change your mind so much?"
"You did," Jack said without hesitation. "Your rant yesterday morning was the start, but that wasn't all of it. Last night... I was looking through my notebooks. I was trying to decide what I would write down in the book I would write when I got home to Earth. Obviously, everyone on this trip is going to write a book, right, Wolf?"
Wolf nodded. "And do talk shows, and interviews, and be grilled by Congress, and probably debriefed by the Pentagon."
"I didn't think of that," Jack admitted. "Maybe I'll be glad to dodge that for a few more years. But I was going through my notebooks and I realized that you were right. I hadn't actually seen Pendor. I'd seen the land. I'd photographed a few things. But I was the least productive of all of the staff, and I avoided actually learning anything about Pendorians. And when I finally looked, I realized that I didn't have anything to say about Pendor. 'It's big,' I guess."
Atalie laughed. "Is that why you want to go back? You didn't get enough material to write a book?"
"No, not just that. I just didn't get enough material to actually say anything. When I've traveled, I've always gotten to know the local color. Yes, I'm a territorial photographer, but territory is rarely interesting without knowing the people who live in it and meet its challenges. There must be challenges for Pendorians, if only because meeting ennui is a challenge."
"There are challenges for Pendorians, Jack. We grow our food as much as you do. Just because we have enough land and automation that we can grow enough without worrying too much doesn't mean we don't worry. Can you imagine North America really wondering about where it's next meal is coming from?"
"I can," Wolf growled, a grin betraying him, "But then I'm a pessimist."
"There, you see?" Atalie said. "If you can have those worries, so can we. "But worries aren't nearly as much fun as solutions," she said. "And we're in the solution business."
"Well, then, I guess I'll get to see that."
"I can't tell you how happy this makes me!" she said, leaning back and clasping her hands in front of her. "Oh, Jack, do you still want me as your guide?"
"Do I have choice?"
"Of course you do!" she protested.
"Well, for the moment I'll keep you, then."
"Eight hours to orbital insertion," Atalie said, looking at the huge display that covered one wall. Although it was possible to actually see the Earth out a viewport the fact that it kept spinning around disoriented many people. A computer-stabilized picture was preferable to many people so this observation lounge was equipped with one of the best monitors Jack had ever seen. He couldn't imagine it not being a window. Things even seemed to move, as a three-dimensional image, as he did.
"Just two days ago I couldn't wait to get there," Jack sighed. "To get away again. And here I am, putting myself back into the thick of it."
"Get away from what?" Atalie asked.
"Everything. You. Pendor. I don't know why I'm going back. I just feel like I've left something undone. And not just in my career. In my life."
She shook her head. "Jack, why would you want to get away? What is it about Pendor that you didn't like?"
He glanced around. Although a few of the other tables in this very comfortable room were occupied he hoped that most of them were far enough away that if he kept his voice low he wouldn't be overheard. "When I first became a photographer for Geographic, I thought it was a heroic profession. And it was. I had quite a few women who loved to listen to my stories of being attacked by a lion, or avoiding a stampede of bison, or how I nearly died climbing up a sheer rockface by a waterfall just to photograph a rare species of spider."
"I want to hear that story!" Atalie said.
Jack smiled. "Exactly. So I met this girl and we seemed to really hit it off. Her name was Holly. We got married. We even had a baby. And then..." He sighed. "And then Holly got weird. She wanted me to quit doing the things that had attracted her to me in the first place. I came home from an assignment to find my house empty. She had taken our son and gone to live with her parents. I found out a few weeks later when she filed for divorce. She got custody, and my job takes me out of the country so often that I don't even get to see him very often. I can't give up being what I am. I love working for Geo. I just wish she'd understood that more. I wish I could have seen what she would become."
"But why does that affect your opinion of Pendor?"
"Because Pendor is perverse!" he said, his voice becoming a sharp hiss. "You don't have these problems. It's unnatural to not have these problems."
"You need to talk to Lisanne," Atalie said. "She knows someone on Pendor who has a problem very similar to yours." She smiled. "But perverse in what way?"
"All I know is that sex is supposed to be... something else. Something that one doesn't treat casually. Maybe because it's so dangerous, or because it's so wonderful, or whatever, but it's not something you just 'do' now and then. But you people seem to treat it that way."
Atalie looked shocked. She thought for a long time before asking, "Is that what you really think, Jack, or is it that sex got you into trouble one day so you're going to take it out on Pendor?"
"Maybe both. I don't know. All I know is that every time I think about you, I get crazy. And I'm 38. I'm not supposed to get crazy."
"Me?" Atalie asked.
"Pendorians in general. I don't understand."
"But isn't that the point of this whole trip? To reach an understanding? How can you do that if you don't try?"
"I'm trying now, aren't I?" he asked.
"I suppose that you are," she said. "But I don't get what you mean by the idea that sex is just something we do now and then. That's the way it is on Earth, with your meaningless porn, your pictures with no context and no thought behind them, offering up images of people who don't think or feel, they just respond. Media filled with love zombies."
He grinned. "Now that's a phrase. You could turn that into the name for a rock and roll band. 'Love Zombie.' In fact, I think it's been done. But on Pendor sex wasn't 'everywhere' the way it is on Earth. You have no advertisement, no pictures of girls popping out at you from every corner like we do in our cities and even the smaller towns. It's even like that in Jerusalem, the holiest city on Earth. But on the other hand you were all so intimate with each other, so unrepentant about being physical, giving pleasure to one another. I can't reconcile the incredible drive many Pendorians seem to have to learn, to accomplish, to push your own limits, with the sensuality you were constantly showing."
"Oh, Jack, that's not hard to understand!" Atalie beamed at him. "We're just not afraid because there's so little disease and, well, no chance of pregnancy among responsible people." Jack grinned at the way she qualified that. "Intimacy and friendship are part of our lives. You could no more take that away from us then you could take away the average American's anxiety about his employment."
That finally made Jack laugh. "Okay," he said, giving in.
"All of your hangups about sex are... well, they're technological barriers, mostly."
Jack nearly exploded. "Technological?"
She nodded. "Yeah. Your birth control isn't good enough, your disease control isn't good enough. It's time you helped humanity step back and ask themselves the question: what will lovemaking be like when those are no longer barriers?"
She stood up and took a step closer to him. "You know, Jack, you could always start your experiment in finding out. You could try out that intimacy for yourself."
Jack looked up into her eyes. She was close enough he could smell her from here, and her perfume (or was it her natural scent?) wafted over him. He took a deep breath, letting her scent fill his head with thoughts he had once sworn he should never have again. "I mean, I could make you content, at least for a little while," she said, her voice low and sultry.
Atalie was acting out his every fantasy when he had first gone into being an adventurer. The wild native girl attracted to the stranger, the sexy girl from civilization turned on by the heroic explorer, all rolled into one obvious package. But even as he was supposed to be the powerful icon of the loner he felt convinced that she was the one making all the decisions.
Worse yet, the heaviness behind his zipper was agreeing with the decisions she was making. Jack felt like he had little choice in the matter. It wasn't like him to let his dick do the thinking, at least not since Holly.
For a brief second he was looking at this scene, him, Atalie, the lounge, from the outside, as if from a million miles away. But as he watched his hands reach out for her, pull her into her lap, and the weight of her body was pressed against his, he snapped back into place. She was suddenly so real. He lips nuzzled against his cheek. He felt himself grow flush. "I want you, Jack. I have since I met you. I nearly hated you because you treated me so coldly.
"But if you say no, I'll never bring it up again."
His resolve in shambles, Jack whispered, "Let's find someplace else."
She took his hand and led him back to her cabin. In a furious moment she had him pressed up against the door, her mouth on his, her lips sucking at his mouth. He was with her every step, the two of them doing an impromptu, unrehearsed tango up against the cabin wall. "Jack," she gasped.
"Atalie," he said. "Why?"
"Because you're hot," she said. "That's why." She tore the t-shirt over his head, then knelt at his feet. With her teeth she pulled open his zipper, and his cock flipped out of its restraint and pointed directly at Atalie's mouth.
Jack moaned as that mouth wrapped itself around his cock. The warmth of her lips slid readily down the length until she almost buried her nose in his pubic hair. The gurgling noises alone were enough to make Jack wince with at her effort and moan at his own pleasure. This was insane, he thought. A day ago he would never have dreamed of touching her and now here he was.
Her head bobbed back and forth, teased along the head and played with his foreskin. It wasn't the most professional blowjob in the world; Jack had had better, but what she lacked in skill she made up for in desire. It was obvious to him that she was doing this because she liked it.
Jack pulled her up into a standing position, then pushed her down into a chair. He pulled up her skirt and was pleased to discover her fresh, white panties, but only long enough that he could pull them off.
The smell of a woman in heat filled the space between them. Jack dove between her thighs and pressed his lips to her mound, licking and sucking at the tender flesh there. "Yes, Jack. Right there!" Atalie moaned as he ate her. She had an almost pure and, Jack hesitated to think, virginal taste, not that he had any idea what a virgin would taste like. The heat from her cunt made the air under her skirt stifling, but her generous moans and quivering body were enough to keep him in place.
Atalie lifted her legs higher and tilted her hips to give him better access. "Yes, Jack, oh yes, oh yes," she began, chanting encouragement along with her name. He found her clitoris hidden under the folds of flesh there and caressed it with his lips. Atalie responded with a scream of pleasure, a climax so strong Jack hoped she wouldn't break his neck with her legs.
"Fuck me, Jack?" she said, tilting her head down to look at him with eyes containing nothing but lust. He pulled her out of the chair and pressed her up against the wall, spreading her legs with his as he did so. In seconds, he was inside her now wet cunt, his cock filling the empty space within her.
Atalie tilted her head back and held onto him as if for her life while he pummeled away at her, taking her without restraint. It was the most wonderful fuck of his life, he thought, and it would be something to write about.
Jack came with a grunt and a shove that slammed Atalie up against the wall. Her claws were digging into his shoulder, her tongue hung out as the two of them clung together, holding onto one another. He pulled back to look into her face, her eyes dilated, her face covered in sweat. He could feel the same on his, too. Feral wetness coated them from head to toe and they slipped against one another. "When did it become so hot?" he asked.
"When you decided to come out of the cold," she giggled.
"I'm just going to put my things in order, talk to my superiors, and then head back." Jack kissed Atalie's cheek. "Make sure you get Ahamo to talk to me for an interview, okay?"
"I will. See you in a few days?"
"At this point," Jack said, "I'd be willing to miss the world." He smiled at his joke. Atalie grinned back.
"I'll be waiting for you," she said.
"I'll be here. I promise."