"Excuse me. I'm not intruding, am I?"
I jumped nearly three meters out of my skin. I had been alone in my own home nearly all day, and nothing had warned me of someone approaching. A voice completely out of nowhere was nearly impossible. Then I looked and saw who it was.
"Uh... No. Hi. How are you?" I asked, recovering.
The young woman standing in my living room nodded and said, "I'm well."
"You look well." I said.
"Yes, I do," said The Woman Who Is The Hall.
"To what do I owe this visit from my closest living relation?" I asked.
"You said that you wanted to be on my list of guides. I've need of guides, now and then. I have a... case, I believe is the word, for you, if you wish."
I looked at my schedule and said, "I haven't got anything really serious right now. I guess I'm free. When do I begin?"
"You're charge is at the Arc right now, but you will not be joining until the jump is made, which means tomorrow morning at 3 o'clock. Can you be ready?"
"Yes, yes of course," I said.
"Excellent. I'll expect you then. You probably won't see me."
"I know how it works."
"Good-bye, sister," I said to the "AI" that incorporated my own genecode as she faded from view.
Three o'clock. The days was already warming up; dawn had been cold, but now that the sun had been out for three hours the day was clearing. Too bad I was going someplace completely different.
I shouldered my backpack, checked my boots and my hat, and walked on down to the SDisk. I told it I was expected, and it confirmed my appointment. I stepped onto it...
...And appeared in virgin forest in high summer. I turned a full 180 degrees before sighting my final destination, the black-walled cylinder of power that compromises the Hall, over two hundred kilometers away. I began walking in the direction, fully expecting to meet my charge, whoever he was.
The smell of pine was invigorating, as was the slight ozone of pre-dawn rain. Squirrels looked at me from every tree, and overhead a large bird of prey hung silently in the air.
That's when I heard cursing, in very clear and distinctive American. A woman's voice, with an accent that told me she had once tried very hard to get rid of any trace of Californian in her, and had almost succeeded.
I walked over in that direction and came to a large rock that jutted out of a slight decline. I stepped onto the rock and peered down. The rock jutted out only two meters from the tree-shaded hillside, and immediately below it was a young woman of I'd estimate twenty-six, taking her shoes off and cursing. Apparently she'd been walking for at least three hours.
"Having trouble?" I asked.
"What?" she shouted, looking around before looking up. "Who are you?"
"More to the point, who are you?" I asked. "You're the Hallwalker, not me."
"Greta," she said. "My name's Greta Rumbel."
I assessed Greta to be somewhat attractive, but not incredibly so. She was short, and a little overweight, with a good skin color. Most strikingly, however, she was bald. "Ken Shardik."
I both love and detest watching Terran's eyes light up when they hear my name. But in her eyes, the look came and went so fast that if I'd blinked, I'd've missed it.
"According to the person I talked to at D'Arc, you can't help me any more than anyone else," she said, dejectedly.
"This is true," I said. "But the Hall herself asked me to be your guide, and I took the job." I leapt easily from the rock to the forest floor, landing a good distance from her.
"What do you mean, 'The Hall asked you?'"
"Just that," I said. "The Hall told me that someone needed a guide, and I was to be it."
"You didn't know who I was, or anything like that?"
"Then... " She paused. "Oh, fuck it," she said, standing.
"Tell me," I said while I stooped to hand her pack to her, "What are you doing here?" I noted that she had already acquired a staff for walking, and we began walking in the direction of the ominous black Great Hall.
"What do you mean?" That was going to be a common question of hers, I was beginning to notice.
"Well, most of the people who emigrate to Pendor are either the old seeking immortality, the infirm, or the suicidal seeking something to attach themselves to. That's a gross analysis; we get thrill seekers, the curious, the science-fiction freaks who just have to be different, like me. But why you?"
"I guess I qualify as one of the infirm."
"You like fine to me."
"Cancer," she said quietly.
"Beg your pardon?"
"Cancer, you know... what's the word? Angwurth."
"Yeah, that's the word."
We were silent as we walked. The cylinder never looked any closer. After a while she said "I was told that when I get inside the Hall, I'll be tested. What does that mean?"
"Not a whole Hell of a lot. I mean, you're being tested right now. Why do you think we make you walk three hundred klicks from the SDisk to the epicenter? The Hall wants to watch you, to see how you react."
"To what? A hike? Seems to me that the sportsmen have an unfair advantage, Shardik."
"Not at all. You were probably told that inside the Hall is always different for every person. Guess what? Same is true out here. Out here's where the real test is."
"Are you supposed to be telling me this?"
"I'm your guide. Whatever I say is okay with the Hall."
"So you can't tell me what it's going to be like inside the Hall, huh?"
"Well guess what? So far I've been in front. Hell of a guide you've been. Can't tell me where I'm going, or how to get back, or what the land between here and there is like. Why are you here?"
"Then just leave me the hell alone, okay? I can make it on my own. I've walked bef..." She stopped, and collapsed to the ground, groaning in pain, clutching her side. I dropped everything and ran to her, but she looked up and said, "Don't touch me."
I nodded, uncomfortable, as she took several deep breaths and slowly eased herself into a sitting position. "What happened?" I asked.
"Spasm. Happens every once in while at the primary site."
"You have uterine cancer?" I asked.
"No, not even close. Bone cancer. In the pelvis. Already spreading."
"Then what in the name of Zeus are you doing walking around out here?"
"I WANT TO LIVE, IS THAT OKAY?"
I was taken back by her ferocity, but I nodded and acceded her desire. She was right. "So you're going to walk, no matter how much it hurts, to the Hall."
"Damn right I am."
"Then let me join you. You could always use the company. Besides, it rained here last night, and it will probably rain again tonight."
"You were here last night?"
"No, couldn't you smell the rain, though, when you came in?"
"No, I couldn't," she said. "That's not something they teach us city girls."
"Where are you from?"
"What did you do?"
"Data entry for an air freight company."
"Sounds boring," I said. She took a deep breath and rose. I again handed her her pack and she took it.
"It was." We walked, silently.
After a few hours, we ate lunch, refilled our canteens at a stream, and walked on until dark. At her request, we slept a good distance apart.
The next day she asked me, as we hiked, "What's the Hall for?"
"To make you like us."
"Well, what do you about it?"
"I know that when you step into it, you get changed. According to everybody who's gone through it, you get taken apart and put back together as something else."
"You mean, as someone else. You become one of the Pendorian races, with it's own language and such."
"You want to live badly enough that you'd go through the Hall? Even if it means becoming, oh, a Centaur?"
"It's supposed to make in your own image. Isn't that what all this testing is about?"
"Guess it is. What do you think you're going to be?"
"A Felinzi. Or a Tindal. Maybe even a Centaur. If I come out a Centaur, do I get to keep my own face?"
"Depends on what the Hall thinks."
She pursed her lips at that. "That's what everybody says. But Kathy Moran went through the well and came out looking like herself. So did Kurtis Brewer."
"That's only two people, and a hundred people go through the Hall every week, and that number is going up steadily." There was a short pause as we forded a stream, and I said, "Greta, what would you do if you came out male?"
"I don't know. I though about it, but I assumed I'd come out female. Almost ninety-two percent of well-goers come out the sex they went in."
"I see you studied."
"Everybody does. I just don't know. Live with it, I guess."
Out of the clear blue I said, "You're gay, aren't you?"
"Ah, well," she said, "the old lie is just that."
"What old lie is that?" I asked.
"Gay people have been running around for almost a decade now telling themselves that unless they're obvious, straights can't tell us apart from them. What gave it away?"
"Well, for one, that song you've been singing for the past two days."
"It's about one woman losing her lover to another woman. There's nothing obvious at all about it."
"Except that one line, 'Just forget it, she loves somebody else?' That 'she' does not refer to the other woman, it must refer to your lover. Took me a while to catch on."
She smiled and said, "You catch on quick, don't you?"
"I try. Are you... ?"
"Kinsey six. You, since you're being so bold?"
"Kinsey... Well, let's say I've tried both."
"I'm like you."
"I like women." She laughed at that. "I don't believe in sixes or zeroes, anyway."
"Oh?" she said.
"Come on, let's keep walking. We've a long path ahead of us. No, I don't believe in the extremes. Being Bi-, I find it hard to completely and utterly write off half of the people I know as unlovable."
"That's not what being a six is, though..."
"Yes it is. Look, the extremes walk around writing off their negatives completely. Drinking buddies and Gossip partners are things to be used, not people to interact with."
"You've got a really screwed up version of what a six is, then."
"Have I? Andrea Dworkin is a six. That's disgusting."
"But sometimes she's right."
"About what?" I said, angrily. "About men being intrinsically evil simple because we have penises? That's totally brain damaged. Half the world has a penis, because that's the way we're built. Why do issues of On Our Backs run photographs of dildo-wearing lesbians? Let's face it, sometimes women want something filling that crevice that was meant to be filled, and more so. Just because she hates the idea of having something inside her doesn't mean every woman should. Hell, let's take it a step further. When you touch something, you run your hand along it because it's the texture and the motion that tells you things about the object. Sometimes, many women, hell, most women, like intercourse; they like the sensation of something moving inside them, in their cunts. Being Bi-, I can almost claim to understand it; I like something moving inside of me. And because I understand that, I can also understand that sometimes, they, like me, like to lose control, to give in.
"It's got nothing to do with the 'centuries of male dominance' that the wimmins-with-i's movement has claimed retribution for. It has to do with desired roles, in and out of the bedroom."
"You think about stuff like that a lot."
"I made the mistake one day, while I was riding a bus through downtown Seattle, of asking myself the fatal question."
"And that was?"
"'Why am I straight?'"
She stopped, turned, and looked at me with a very strange expression. So I asked her, "Do you ever ask yourself, 'Why am I gay?'"
"Every day." I motioned for her to walk on. We continued.
"Straight people never do. And when they do, they don't think about it for long."
"Well, and some others. But I took a good, long, hard look at being straight. And it wasn't all it was cracked up to be.
"Being Bi would more than double my chances of having a date on Saturday night. I know I'm reasonably good looking, and I've never had trouble maintaining my weight-"
I smiled. "So I know that, if I struck out with women, I could always walk into a gay bar at midnight and go home happy."
"Didn't want to. Rather quickly developed some rules for how I should go about my life. I tried to sleep only with people I'd known for at least a month, full names. Only with friends, and only with people who would understand what I wanted, and could tell me what they wanted."
"Sounds difficult. But I've known a few women who could pull it off."
"What, having a small circle of friends, some of whom she sleeps with, and everybody knows it, and nobody's jealous?"
"Yeah, I've been in a circle like that. The woman at the center was named Debbie."
"But you couldn't do it."
"No," she said. "And I didn't think a man could ever do it. There's so much pressure."
"Guess what? It really depends on your fetishes. See, real early on, like at age eleven, I knew what it was I wanted to do when I was old enough to get girls in bed. And it wasn't fuck them."
"I get the feeling you're going to tell me something very kinky, Ken."
"Cunnilingus is hardly very kinky, Greta."
"Going down?" She said.
"Going down. Any man with enough money could get laid, Greta. Let's be serious. It takes real skill and talent to bring a woman to orgasm, and to be so good at she encourages her friends to try me out."
"That happened to you?"
"Greta, one day, before I made all of this, I came to my simple home to find five of my lovers in the same house. They all knew exactly what was going on, and they were getting on marvelously. Me? I almost ran from the house with the sheer heebie-jeebies."
She laughed. "I see your point."
"Oh, I was always gay."
"There was nothing in your past to make you hate men, then?"
"God, what a stereotype. No, not really. It was just, since I was... eleven, I guess, like you, I knew that I didn't find boys interesting. I liked getting dirty and playing ball, but I wasn't a tomboy. It's hard to explain, really. I really liked girls. Never had anything quite as complicated as what you described, but it was just that I wanted to be with women. I tried dating guys, you know how that goes. It was a disaster. One day this girl... her name was Jane, but everybody called her Missy, and everybody knew she was gay, even when she was sixteen... she came up to me and said, 'You like girls, don't you?'"
"So what happened?"
"Guess what? She knew less about making love than I did. I at least had my brother's smut magazine to read. And to look at."
I laughed. "You were never the activist sort, I take it?"
"No, not really. Just the quiet lesbian in the back of the class. By the time I was senior everybody knew. I didn't go to the prom."
"Wasn't. I was okay. When I told my parents, they thought it was a phase. When they realized it wasn't, they were okay. But my mother surprised me when she said that at least my brother was a normal boy who would pass on the family name."
"Did that upset you?"
"Hell yes that upset me!"
"I think I've figured out why we've been put together like this."
"Oh?" I said, curious.
"Yeah. You're here to teach me to like men."
"Intriguing scenario," I said. "And what, my dear, brings you to this conclusion?"
"You. Everything about you is reassuring. You've taken to calling me 'dear' and 'sweetheart' and 'gorgeous,' and it doesn't bother me. You've touched me gently without making a pass at me. You have been at times lewd and crude and suggestive and never once have I felt frightened."
"Well... once I did. But it wasn't your fault! That was the frightening part. I found myself liking you."
"What's wrong with that? Look, we're in a very strange place, alone for almost a week now. You're in pain, and you're confused. I mean, we're going somewhere so that you can give up your very humanity, and that's not something that's done casually. I think the Hall made a mistake."
"I don't think so."
"You don't, huh?" I asked her quietly. "The Hall knew you were going to be tired and hurting and vulnerable long before you got to the Walls of the Hall, and it put me, the most lecherous person I know, as your guide."
"You're not such a bad choice."
"And you're reverting, Greta. Look at the signs in yourself. The pain and the fear is driving you down, until only your more childlike reaction show themselves. Think."
"So what if they are?" She demanded. "I like what I am, no matter what. Yes, it hurts. And tomorrow we should reach the Walls, and then what? You said yourself that all depends on the Hall. And yes, I'm afraid. But that's no reason to stop. I need this. More than anything else, I want to live."
"Woah, slow down, sweetheart. I was just saying I disagree with the Hall's choice, not yours.
She stopped, and smiled tiredly. "See? I don't get angry when you call me that. I even like it. Oh, well, someone revoke my rabid lezzie-on-a-leash card."
I laughed. "Where did you get that expression?"
She shrugged. "From a lover. She used to call me that when I did something stupid."
We were quiet for a while, and then she said, "Ken?"
"When you're with men, what do you do?"
"Do you know the handkerchief codes?"
"Is there a rule that says I have to do anything in specific? And it wasn't really with 'men,'" I pointed out. "Mostly Uncia."
She smiled. "Sorry... I keep forgetting."
I shrugged. "To each his or her own, Greta."
"This is easier than I thought it would be," I said.
"What makes you say that?"
"Look." Down the hill was the Wall, and very clearly visible was a doorway.
She took a deep breath and said, "Now that's a test."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you said we might have to search for the door. I figured that if I had to look for it, I'd be readier to go through it when I found it. Now it's just... offered up to me, and I don't know if I want to accept it."
"What choice have you got?"
"I could walk all the way home."
"Short pier," she offered. I laughed. "Come on," she said. "Let's get this over with." We walked out of the treeline into the enormous, sunlit meadow. With the wall going forever into the sky, a cylinder fifty kilometers across. And there, recessed into the side, was a very ordinary-looking, man-sized, oaken door. I reached for it and pulled at the knob. Nothing happened.
"I guess, maybe you have to go first."
"Or, maybe I go alone," she said. But she reached for the door anyway, and pulled at it. It opened easily. I let her go in, and followed. Nothing impeded my progress. We walked into the Hall.
The passageway was less than five meters long, and when we broke out we came to... more trees. My feet hurt from the walking, and I knew there was a long day ahead of us. Even if the Hall let us reach the center.
We walked on. I whistled, poorly; Greta did better. I felt someone was watching us; Hell, I knew someone was.
"Who built the Hall?" Greta asked, interrupting my thoughts.
"We did. Myself and some friends. We wanted to make it hard to come to Pendor, and we wanted to both celebrate and remove the differences between those who came and those who were here."
"Oh," was all she said. There was something in her demeanor that said she didn't want to carry on her conversation by herself.
"You okay?" I asked.
"Yeah... Just thinking."
"Oh, all the stuff I've left behind. All the friends, and people at work. People at the hospital. Things like that."
The sun hadn't yet set several hours later when we reached a small pond. She sat down on a rock and trailed her hand through the water. "Mmmm. I could go for a swim right now."
"Why don't you?" I asked.
"We have to get going," she said.
"Do we? I mean, I've got enough food for us both for another day. We could camp here and make for the center tomorrow. Come on."
She thought about it, and then said "Okay."
"Good," I said. I was hot, too. I stripped off my boots in record time, tore my shirt off and reached for my belt...
I stopped, thought about it, and decided that, argument or not, I was not going to push my luck in any way. I emptied the contents of my pockets into the map pocket at the back of my vest and, pants on, leapt into the water.
The shock was sudden and invigorating. I broke the surface gasping, taking huge breaths. She looked down at me, stark naked herself, smiled, and jumped over me into the water. I swam to the edge of the pond, where some rocks that were just under the surface of the water made a good place to lean up against, since the water seemed deeper than I had estimated for so small a surface area. She swam around, then came up next to me.
"I've been assuming for the past week that you lost your hair from some therapeutic side-effect. But I see you're a natural blonde."
"Oh, no... I just shaved it off. Wanted to look different before I died."
"You're not going to die, Greta."
"Well, maybe not. But I'm going to be different. I figured it was just a step." With that, she pushed against the stones and leapt onto the bank. She was still sitting in water, only it was just a few centimeters deep. "You left your pants on. They're going to be wet."
"They'll dry as I walk. And they'll keep me cool."
"You didn't leave them for that reason."
"No, you're right. I left them on because I didn't want to scare you. I'm not a believer in taking stupid risks."
She smiled. "Massage my feet," she said. That was the first direct offer I'd had to touch her since we started. I took her foot in hand and began to rub it, slowly trying to ease the aches from around the calluses and blisters of the past week. She closed her eyes and leaned back, sighing. When I reached for her other foot, I found myself between her legs. I ignored her nakedness and took the other foot, massaging it as well, working up against her calf.
"Ken?" she said with her bare quiet voice.
I looked up at her, not saying a word.
"Go ahead," she whispered, parting her legs a little further.
I looked between her legs at the matted blonde hair. I found myself a handgrip and a toegrip to hold myself in place. Her cunny was half in, half out of the water, the hood of her clit just visible above the waterline. I pulled myself towards her, kissing the matted hair, then parting some of it with my tongue.
She cooed as I did, and I pushed more aside. I cleared away the hairs that I could, although the water kept me from matting them down the way I would have liked. I kissed her cunt fully. Her inner labia were tiny, and I eased them apart, sliding in between and running my tongue into her vagina. She shuddered gently.
I circled her clitoris with my tongue, avoiding the little nub itself until I was sure she could take that kind of sensation. I teased her outer lips with my teeth, gently, then returned to her clitoris, licking. I didn't need to increase pressure, I could feel; she was simply enjoying my attention.
She came, shaking, putting one hand through my hair and grabbing it. She didn't hold me in place, however. She did say, "More, please."
I agreed, returning to her cunny, but avoiding, for the time being, her enlarged clit. I paused to kiss her belly, her thighs, all around her cunt, paying attention to her as much as to her cunt. Eventually I did return, though, to her pleasure, licking gently.
Quietly, there among the trees and the grass, I brought her to orgasm twice more, my mouth usually half-full of water and my tongue tiring.
She eventually looked down at me, her eyes heavy and half-lidded. "You know, it's been a long time since anyone did that for me."
"Did you like it?" I asked.
"Yes. You didn't lie. You're very good at that."
"But you've had better," I said.
"I've had different," she said emphatically, smiling. She eased herself into the water and said, "Let me swim around for a few more minutes to cool off."
"Okay, but I'm going to get and and warm up. Sitting in one place like that, all the heat's been sucked from my body."
"I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't realize..."
"It's okay. I'll live." I swam to edge where my clothes lay and got out. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I thought very strange thoughts; One of them was simply that I didn't try to convert her. I just wanted to make a friend feel good. The difference was... pleasing to me. I turned around to ask her something, and...
She was gone. I waited. Maybe she was under the water. I waited longer. Something registered in the corner of my eye. I turned to face... "Hello."
"Hello, Ken. You don't have to be at the middle to be at the center."
"Is she okay?"
"She will be fine. Tomorrow she will be found, and treated respectfully. She has made her journey, and her choice. You may go home, now."
"You take care of her," I said.
"I will." The Lady Who Was The Great Hall faded, and so did the forest. I found myself on a beach of white sand, and a short walk away I could see the break in the cliff that led to my home. Monastery Island was to my immediate right, and the Succubus, my trustworthy trimaran, floated peacefully in the waves. Despite the fact that I believe in neither gods nor devils, I offered the waves a prayer for Greta.