The chime rang, indicating someone at the door. I looked up from the sketchbook I had in front of me and said "Dave?"
"It's Tarrette, Ken."
I groaned inwardly and said "Do you know what she wants?"
"She's standing at your door; I assume she wants to talk with you. I have informed her that you are home."
I sighed. Why did he have to tell her I was home? Probably because I insist that he do so. "Well, let her in."
The door parted, and Tarrette walked in. A pretty Felinzi, mostly done in light tangold fur, with a slim and well-muscled body. She walks with an soft air of self-assurance, but there's also a harshness to her features that I've never been able to get over.
Aside from her looks, there are other things about Tarrette that put us at odds. For one, there are times when I think we're still competing for P'nyssa's attentions. Tarrette's was P'Lissane's mother along with Nyss, and of her three previous lovers, Tarrette's the one who comes around the most.
For the other, Tarrette's interests have gotten a little... Let's just say I don't like what she does in bed sometimes.
"Hello," I said slowly, trying to hide, somewhat, my feelings of distaste. I wondered if those feelings were directed at her, or just at what she did. At the moment, not even I could tell.
"Hello, Ken," she replied. "Can I sit down?"
"Feel free," I said. She sat down on the floor across the table from me and watched me as I tried, unsuccessfully, to draw P'nyssa leaning against a wall. After a few minutes of pause I said, "Well, can I ask what you're here for?"
"I need to ask you for a favor."
I looked up from my sketchbook. "Under what guise?"
"Are you asking me for this favor because I'm a friend, as P'nyssa's coimelin, or as Vatare'?"
"You want to know if this is an official visit?"
"Something like that."
She smiled slightly. "This is an official visit. I want your help." I waited. "I want your assistance in building a Castle."
I thought for a moment. There are reasons why people build Castles; they're usually regarded as centers for some activity. Despite our anarchic form of government, Castles are the closest thing Pendorians have to seats of authority; they're the local housings for AI's, and usually they're social centers.
"Okay," I said. "For what?"
"Do you know of a place called Rick's Underground?"
It took a lot to bite back my anger. I tried to put on a comfortable face and said "I've heard of it."
"You know what they do there."
"I do." I'm sure my anger registered with her that time.
"You don't like what they do there."
"No. Nor do I like what Chusi's place is for, nor do I know or care if there's a mixed place for that kind of thing. It's sick." It suddenly dawned on me what she was going to ask for. "The answer is no."
"'No' to what?" she asked.
"No, I will NOT help you build a Castle for that kind of behavior."
"Can I ask why?"
I paused for a second, organizing my thoughts. "Tarrette', to be honest, I don't like you, and I don't understand what P'nyssa sees in you or why she continues to like you even as you've gone into your little weirdness. If I helped you build a Castle to your perversion it would only put my stamp of approval on it, and that's not something I'm about to let happen."
"Can I make a counter-argument?"
"Feel free," I said.
"Will you keep an open mind?" she asked.
"Depends. I've been known to survive open-mind surgery before."
"Fair enough. Ken, the reason I've come now to ask is that Rick's-- and Chusi's, although to a lesser extent-- are overflowing. There are more people using those two places than is safe. Now, I don't know about you, but under these circumstances, I think we need a place, and an AI, dedicated to letting us do what we do. You may callously hope that someday someone will get killed and we'll all throw our toys away and go home. But reality is that there are people like me, like Rick and Chusi, who enjoy this kind of playing and we're not going to give it up. Ken, if I pegged your scenario properly, I have to ask-- do you really want one of your kids ending up dead? I'd rather have a safe place and strong monitor to make sure it stays that way."
"Is that all?"
"Yes," she said, her anger reaching mine. "That's all." She rose and left, abruptly.
It was several days later when I broached the subject with P'nyssa. I walked up behind her and gave her a tight squeeze. "Love you."
"I love you too, Ken," she said gently.
"Can I ask you a question?"
"Anything, you know that. Now let me go, I've got to finish writing this."
I took her by the shoulders and tugged, turning her around in the swivel chair. "I'm serious. Can that wait?"
She smiled and said, "Looks like it' going to. What's up?"
"Do you still love Tarrette'?"
She nodded. "I do."
"Even when she started playing with the Alanailen?"
"Ken, Tarrette' invited me once to go with her to Chusi's. I told her I'd rather not. She's never been pushy about it."
"So you still love her?"
She nodded. "Ken, I love Tarrette'. She's beautiful and she's strong and she helped me stand up and raise Lisa the way I would want to. She let me train to be the damn good doctor I am. She has never hurt me, and she has never done anything that would make me think she would."
She shrugged. "Sadomasochism is no surprise, Ken. What brings this subject up, anyway?"
I shrugged. "She came to me and asked me to build a Castle for them."
"And what did you say?" P'nyssa peered at me curiously.
"I told her no."
"No?" She asked surprised. It had to be the first time I'd turned down a request by an organized community for a Castle. "Why?"
"I told her I was not going to build a Castle, to put my stamp of approval, to that kind of sickness."
P'nyssa sighed. "Ken, your friend Jahn works almost incessantly to bring to people the news that it's okay to love whoever they want to. Does it matter how they do it, too?"
"That's not love!"
She sighed. "No, for you and me it isn't." She turned and tapped a few buttons on her terminal, then said "Dave, I think you know what I'm looking for." There was another pause, and then she said, "Look."
I read a few scanlines of Terran romantic behavior patterns. "Okay, so telling someone how you love them is different the universe over. That doesn't excuse hurting people."
"But it's... I don't understand it either, but then I don't understand why exchanging chemical poisons is a symbol of love on Terra, either."
"Huh?" I said, then saw the connection. "Oh, chocolate. You're not allergic to chocolate."
"No, but the felines are."
I nodded. "True enough."
She looked at me and said, "What was her argument?"
I laid it out for her. After a few minutes she nodded. "She's right, you know. They would be safer with a dedicated AI and a medical facility nearby." She smiled. "And with on-facility housing you'd know where all the perverts were."
I laughed. "I used to think being gay was a perversion."
"Backspin," she swore. "You just thought being gay wasn't for you."
"Still isn't," I said.
"No," she admitted. "But you have slept with a male, and you liked it."
I nodded, and sighed. "You think I should do it."
"I think you should."
"I'll think about it."
I have to admit something. It's great to be out here. Two months ago this was a huge, virgin valley, just waiting for our hands to come out here and sculpt it to our collective whim. As the 'our' floated through my mind I chuckled, amused at the thought that lumped me with Tarrette and her kind.
I sat down at one of the various wooden picnic tables scattered about the rim of the valley overlooking the Northern edge, over the Castle, or at least what would eventually be the Castle. The wind kept tugging on my napkin. It was a wonderfully clear spring day, a little warm, a little humid. Down on the valley floor two huge Magis wrestled with the Southern wall of the castle foreyard, trying to get it into place. Finally they paused, apparently in electronic discussion, turned and began assembling the wall piecemeal.
I bit into my sandwich hungrily. I wasn't doing much physical work... rather, I was just watching over as this world, which I had seen before in illusion, was assembled for real. It was satisfying watching the whole thing go up. I knew for a fact that I had built the Ring to my specifications, but that's not something I can really walk in and on and through, something I can see and know I put my indelible mark on.
Tarrette's voice interrupted my reverie. "Can I sit here?"
"Sure, sure," I said through a mouthful of roast beef. It was disgustingly muffled, but she got the idea, probably more through my gestures than anything else. I swallowed and said, "So... is it what you expected?"
"Better than I expected. Thank you, Ken." She sounded so sincere I felt a twinge of guilt for being angry with her earlier.
"Why thank me?"
"Because I didn't think you were going to do it, and when you said you would, I didn't think you were going to do it well. I've seen some of the ideas you implemented... you do know that everybody's ideas are being marked down for future reference?"
I nodded. "That was Doc's suggestion."
She smiled. "You know why that is, don't you?"
"Because he uses such complicated hardware nobody else knows how to use, he figured people should come to him if they wanted to learn how to use it. But your ideas are so... simple, and useful. Zero-g rooms with inset cleats? Those sdisk watersprayers? Especially with the oscillators. Sunken cleats at the corners of doorframes and... and those ones in the hallways, with the cleats set at a forty-five degree angle, so that people can be restrained to the wall or across the hallway? I will give you this, Ken... even if you don't like what we do, you've got a creative mind for it."
I blushed. "Those ideas just kind of came to me, in little flashes while I was working."
"But that's the point, Ken. You're good at this. I don't know if I told you this, but the airstream thing in the zero-g room so liquids can be used safely was so... brilliant! What else did you... Oh, those biofeedback vibrators! I mean, if you think about it, Ken, you really should do this."
"But I don't like it, Tarrette'."
"How do you know?" she asked, rapidly.
She smiled. "You don't, you see. You don't know, Ken."
"What's the point of... of hurting each other? Of bruising, and ordering, and commanding?"
"They're not all the same thing, Ken, and you know that. Pain, let's say... Pain is a warning that something is wrong, Ken, but have you ever felt pain?"
"Of course I have. I've been hurt before."
"No, no, no. You've sensed and reacted to pain, but have you ever really felt it? Have you ever paid attention to it, or have you just tried to get away from it?"
I thought about it for a second. "Why would you want..."
"Because people don't." She smiled. "Think about experiencing it... it's like any other sensation, really. Massage, tickling, orgasm, pain. They're all sensations your body can stand. Some people hate tickling, others like it. Pain can be the same way."
I thought about it for a while. "And the other parts?"
"What... oh, that. Ken, the one thing we have to believe in is that there are people who like this, and that's all we can do, is believe, and when possible, help them... help me, us, play safely."
I nodded. Then I laughed, briefly. "You know, Nyss said that, this way, I'd at least know where all you perverts were."
She grinned in reply. "There is that. Come to the open house, Ken."
"The open Castle, you mean."
"Is it going to be one of your... parties?" I asked.
"Of course. Just a mild one, really."
"How many people?" I asked, curious.
"Almost two hundred, at last count."
"These are regulars at Rick's and Chusi's?"
"Only. You'll probably be the only... 'outsider' there."
I laughed. I found it hard to believe that anywhere on Pendor people would think of me as an 'outsider,' yet I had to agree... In this small realm, I would be.
"I don't have to do anything, do I?" I asked, unsure.
"No, Ken..." she sighed. "That's part of the point. You don't have to do anything you don't want to, at all. You can just watch. You saw the layout of the main hall... there'll be safe spaces set aside, places where you can just talk, or eat. We'll even have food in a room off the main hall. No play there."
"Do I have to wear anything?" I asked.
She laughed. "No, dear, you don't have to wear anything, and you don't have to go naked."
I gulped. Curiosity, both personal and scientific, overwhelmed me. "Okay, I'll be there."
She touched my cheek gently. "I knew you would."
They say sentience and instincts don't mix... that sentient peoples have no use for instinct, that instinct will in fact be contradictory to the needs of a technological people.
Now there are cases where this is true. The aerodynamics of powered flight, for instance. If a plane that depends upon air over a wing for lift stalls, the instinct is to pull up, to pull the plane out of the oncoming nose-dive. People who do this die. The correct response is to push into the stall, getting more air over the wing by the fall, and then pull.
Now, it can be argued that for many Pendorians, instinct is either completely lacking, because they're genetically engineered persons, and it can also be argued that for many Pendorians instinct should be much stronger since they're engineered in many cases from more animal origins.
But that doesn't explain me. I'm just a base Terran human. And every instinct in my body was telling me I should be getting the Hell out of here. I couldn't believe I was standing here, seeing this.
The main room of the Castle is huge. Most of the interior decorating isn't done, but the main social area, basic living quarters, physical plant (including AI Lynn) and Medical were completely furnished.
The floor isn't quite done. The artwork is in general sketch, and for the party we covered in a layer of transparent hullmetal cut in jigsaw patterns for interlock. It's very... artsy, I guess. At least I took pleasure in admiring it.
The lights were dimmed to half-power. The castle floor is a huge open space made of marble, so four cone-shaped heaters were suspended from the ceiling, glowing and dispelling the chill. Inside the main hall, four 'A' frame racks (as I was informed they were called) were set up. Tarrette' had taken great joy in showing me that the frames closest to the main entrance were 'male,' having an even number of bars and hence an odd number of openings, the center of which was for male genitals, while the ones closer to the portals were designed to accommodate female breasts.
I shivered. The degree of thought that went into designing something like that stunned me.
To our left, a couple had restrained a female Mephit to a set of bars and were systematically shaving the fur off of her breasts. I shivered again and wandered into the second room.
This was more to my liking. Tarrette wandered away from me while I stood around, drinking from the punch bowl.
The voice was familiar. I turned, stunned. "Misha?"
Misha Tankana, a rather well-known Tindal artist, wandered up to me with his current mate, a beautiful Felinzi fem whose name I dimly recalled as "Tana." "You remember."
"How could I forget? What are you doing here?"
"I should ask you the same question, Kennet. Especially considering your opinion of what will be going on here."
"It's widely known that you disapprove of Alanailen, Ken. So I'm rather surprised to see you here."
I looked Misha over. "And what do you do?" I asked him.
"Me? I guess the phrase is 'whipping boy.'"
"Yes, Me. Why do you act so surprised?"
"I don't know..." I turned to Tana. "And what do you do?"
"Every whipping boy needs a whip," she said. I think I must have paled slightly, because she chuckled gently. "Tell me, Vatare', would you like me to whip you?"
I stared her in the face. "You're kidding."
"Of course not," she said. "I think I'd be honored to be the first person to hit you. And think of it as an experience, an understanding, between us, that I can do this and you would not want to retaliate." She smiled.
Her words seemed so convincing that she almost had me. But I declined. "Um, no thank you."
"As you wish," she said with no disappointment in her voice. "Excuse us."
I watched as she took him into the next room, and decided to follow. As we passed through the short hallway linking the quieter room with the main hallway, I paused for a second to avail myself of the restroom.
When I returned, Tana had tied Misha to one of the racks and was busily going through a small canvas bag, laying out four large, black whips, apparently made of leather. I leaned up against an unattended piece of dungeon furniture, the purpose of which I knew not. "What do you think?" a voice asked in my ear.
I felt as if I had jumped a meter out of my skin. I whirled around. "Tarrette!" I hissed. "Hasn't anyone ever told you not to sneak up on nervous people like that?"
A Crack! came from the scene behind me, and I whirled around to see Tana warming up with a short whip, about 40 cm, with lot of heavy, leather tails. "What have you got to be nervous about?" Tarrette' purred. "It's not you who's going up there." She reached over and tickled my side lightly. "Or are you tempted?"
"No, I'm not tempted," I lied quietly.
"I think you are," she said gently, but then let it drop. We watched Tana whip Misha (I later found out that correct term is 'flog.'). As the strikes got harder, I looked away. Tarrette reached over to me and tickled me through the short tunic I wore.
"Stop it," I said.
"Do you know what a safeword is, Ken?"
"Of course I know what a safeword is," I snarled back at her. "You gave me that whole list of books to read, remember?"
"Of course I remember," she said, starting to tickle me with more strength. "I'm surprised you read them at all."
"Of course..." I said, gasping. "Of course I read them all!" I laughed again. "Now stop it!" I shifted away from her, away from my comfortable lean, to a stand.
She walked around the bench and came up behind me. I glanced over at my shoulder just in time to see her reach for me and give me a hug.
"What was that for?" I asked.
"Oh, I just wanted to get your attention," she said as she began tickling me again.
"Tarrette'!" I snarled. "Stop it!"
"You haven't called safeword," she said, giggling.
"You don't need a safeword to stop someone from tickling you!" I looked and saw other people were watching us. I barely noticed the action going on around Misha's whipping.
"Yes, you do, Ken, you do around here," she said in a soft sing-song. "I think you're just afraid to admit you like it here, and you like it when I tickle you."
I squirmed and laughed under her grasp. "Take his arms," she said to some of the people watching us. I waited. Would they really follow her instructions?
They did. I felt my arms be lifted, against my will, but I didn't fight it. Did that mean against my will? All these thoughts shot through me so quickly. What was I getting myself into?
More fingers joined Tarrette's. I was in the center of a tickle-circle, my arms outstretched. I squirmed and Tarrette' ordered "Stand still!" I tried my best, but my body just wouldn't hold still.
There was something innately... magical about being in the center of such a circle, the object of so much attention, even if the sensations were riding up into the overload category. It's a rare occasion when I don't like being tickled. I opened my eyes briefly and looked. Tana stood in front of me, smiling. She leaned over, and rather than tickle me, she breathed on my chest. Her hot breath spread over my skin, and it seemed to go deeper into me, filling my chest, distracting and strengthening me as I was tickled. I squirmed and laughed uncontrollably, tears filling my eyes. Then I blinked again and stopped laughing, stopped squirming, although the tickling was just as strong as ever. Something more important than tickling had come into my head. Resolve.
"Tana," I whispered. She was tickling me again. "Tana," I repeated. Finally, she looked up at me. "Go ahead."
Surprise crossed her face, as if she wasn't sure what I had meant. Maybe it was confusion. Then she smiled. With a toss of her head in the direction of the rack she said, "Over there."
I was quickly stripped, and then tied to the same rack I had seen Misha being whipped on (I had thought) just a few minutes ago. As I felt soft leather cuffs being buckled to my wrists and ankles, the only thought going through my head was "What am I doing here?" I was to find out later just how common a thought that was.
Then I was lashed down. Ropes were fixed through D-rings on the shackles and I was spread-eagled, lying against this slightly angled wall. Tana came up behind me and ran her hand gently over my back. "You're going to like this, Ken. Trust me. Do you have a safeword?"
I shook my head.
"I recommend you use the word 'safeword,' then, since it's pretty easy to remember."
I nodded. "Are you sure you're ready?" she asked again.
"No..." I said. "But I want to try this anyway."
"Good," she smiled. "Now I'm going to start out lightly. It's just going to slap. It might sting just a little, but mostly it's just to make a loud noise."
I nodded. "I'm ready." My hands gripped the bars tightly.
"Okay... now remember to relax."
"I will," I promised.
She took her place behind me, and I heard the 'whish' of eighteen leather tails go by. Then the second one connected.
It didn't hurt at all. She barely stroked my back with it. But what did happen, and what I did feel, was every muscle in my lower back tense up. "Feel that?" she said. I nodded. "That's a normal reaction. You're subconsciously protecting your soft center, where your kidneys are. Trust me, Ken. You have to trust me enough to relax completely, or you're not going to enjoy this."
I snorted a brief laugh. I didn't think I was going to enjoy this anyway. The whip fell again, this time actually connecting with some force. It snapped, and there was a light stinging sensation over my shoulderblades.
And again the whip fell. Tarrette stood in front of me, between the bars. "Breathe easy," she said.
My back stopped tensing after a few strikes, and I lay down against the rack, restrained, naked, off-balance. The whip fell again, and I waited for the next impact.
"Ken," I heard Tana's voice behind me, the soft fur on the back of her paw against my skin, "I'm going to take it up a notch."
I nodded. "I'm ready."
I heard gentle footsteps as she walked back behind me, took aim and lowered another lash, lightly. Although she put less strength behind that one than she had the last ones with the other whip, I could feel the heavier strength of the material. Then she began in earnest.
The whip came down, hard, and I felt pain. But somehow, I wanted to fight through it. Yes, there was pride there, pride in my ability to take what she was giving out.
The whip came again, hitting another spot on my back. I start to feel a little "spaced out," a little dizzy as the whip fell again. And again. Then Tana was behind me, pressing herself against me. "Ken?"
"It's nice," I lied. Or was I lying? I didn't really hurt... It didn't scare me anymore. "I think... I'm starting to hyperventilate. Hands and feet are okay, but I'm starting to feel kinda tingly."
"Breathe deep, Ken. Take slow, deep breaths."
"I'm going up."
"'Kay," I said, looking into her eyes. She smiled- it had to be one of the prettiest smiles I've ever seen on a femFel.
Again, she started light. Sometimes she would choose a target other than my back, like my buttocks or thighs, always avoiding the kidney region, but usually she took shots directly at my shoulders and back. She really did start to lay into me, hard, so hard that I thought I was going to lose skin from her whips.
And she started to whip me even harder. And... I giggled. I laughed. I started to laugh uncontrollably as the whip fell onto my back again and again. And suddenly Tana was standing behind me, pressing against me. Her palm fell against my skin.
That hurt worse than the whips, that slap of her paw. And then again, she slapped my back. I moaned against the rack.
I felt her fingertips against my skin, and I felt her claws extrude slowly from them, against my back, five dangerous pinpricks against my ravaged shoulders. She pulled down.
I howled! The pain, the sensation was excruciating, incredible! I was sure she was ripping the very skin off my body. She repeated her clawing with the other hand, on the other side, even before the first had finished it's downward path. And again I screamed.
And then she stopped, leaning against me. "I think you've had enough."
"Aw." Did I really say that? Did I really just ask for more? She chuckled gently and said, "You liked it, didn't you?"
I nodded. "Yeah... wow. That was... intense."
"I know." She reached over and quick-released the arm restraints, then the legs. "Don't get up," she ordered gently. "Just lay there and take it careful."
I waited. "When you think you can, I want you to walk over to the bench to your left and sit down," she said. "I'll have something for you to drink when you get there. If you think that time is now, I'm here to catch you if it isn't."
I smiled at her careful wording. Being the cocky bastard that I am, of course I thought the time is now. I pushed myself into a standing position and took five steps towards the bench. I turned around and began to sit down, slowly. About halfway down I lost all control and fell the rest of the distance, landing with a hard whumph
Tana chuckled and held out a a glass of water. I remember smiling at her, ignoring the glass, and leaning over slowly, carefully willing every recalcitrant muscle in my legs and arms to crouch into a kneeling position and place one soft kiss on her foot. I heard Tarrette chuckle and say "That one last dramatic gesture."
I don't remember anything for the next ten minutes, really, except that I felt wonderful, more alive than I had in a long time. Tarrette later told me I babbled incessantly about how pretty everything was, especially the lights. She walked me home.
I stepped into my home late at night, with nobody around. At least, I didn't think anyone was around. "Hello?" I sang quietly as I stepped in.
"Ssshhh," Tarrette ordered me. "I think Nyss would be asleep right now!"
"Probably," I agreed. I wandered into the kitchen, got myself a tall glass of milk, and sat down on the couch.
"How do you feel?"
"Exhausted," I admitted. "Wonderful."
"Did you learn anything?"
I blinked. "That's a strange question," I returned. "But... yeah, I did. I learned that we didn't come anywhere near my limits. I could have gone on forever up there, the way I felt. I learned that you all aren't entirely crazy, that there is a reason for what you do. And I learned that I have my pride, and it's a weakness, and I probably won't be back at Rhysh anytime soon."
"At least not until your back heals," Tarrette' offered.
"No, not even then. Probably not for years, Tarrette'. What happened tonight is something I have to... sort out, if you will. Especially the... arrogant pride. That can't be healthy."
"Or that could be what you're there for."
"I wasn't trying to prove anything to Tana, or to you."
She smiled. "But you were to yourself, right? I have to ask, is that so bad, Ken? After all, you're there for yourself, not for anybody else. Not even Tana. You're just another back she gets to hurt."
I chuckled. "You make it sound so romantic."
"It can be," she said. "Think about how what you went through can be a gift between lovers." She paused. "Make sure you call Tana and tell her you're okay. Either today or tomorrow."
I nodded. "I will."
She nodded. "Then I'll leave you to go to bed." She turned and started to walk towards the front door.
"Tarrette'!" I called softly.
She turned back. I smiled to her and said, "Thanks."
"No, Ken... thank you."
"G'night, Ken. Be seeing you."
The door closed behind her. I made my way down to bed, snuggled close to my chosen mate, P'nyssa, (who, as usual, barely noticed my coming to bed late yet again), and slept exhausted, satisfied, and dreamlessly deep.