"Blessed are the poor is spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
Io barely heard the priest speaking as she looked around the small ring of people gathered around the rectangular hole in the ground. Her mother stood stoically by her side, sighing gently from time to time. She seemed almost glad that the saga was over. Io's grandmother, her mother's mother, had passed away quickly.
"Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted."
Io already felt comforted. She wished her grandmother had held on longer, but was grateful that the end had been quick and painless. Emily had been in full possession of her faculties up until the end, a cantankerous old woman who had lasted almost a hundred years, strong and walking until the very last. It had all been so sudden, the stroke, the fall, the bleeding, the crash. Yet, her last hours had been peaceful; she had wanted to go.
"Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."
Io agreed with that. The brave, on the other hand, were already on their way to the stars. The US, the Pacific Rim, the European Union, and the Soviet Union all had faster-than-light projects under way. Io was proud to be a minor part of one of those projects. The meek could have the fucking dead Earth, Io thought.
"Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled."
The wind picked up, whipping cruelly along the ankle-length black skirt which Io had bought specifically for the funeral. She glanced up at the gloomy cloudcover and hoped that it wouldn't rain. Emily would have loved this weather; she was always more inclined to enjoy a stormy Autumn than the quiet Summer sun.
"Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God."
Io spotted a figure standing on the hill opposite the little ritual she was attending. He was silhouetted from behind by whatever pale sun shone through the gathering clouds, and his shape was obscured by his clothing, which from this distance looked all the world like some greatcloak out of a second-rate fantasy novel.
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God."
Whoever he was, he was clearly watching her grandmother's funeral. Io didn't know anyone who would stand off from the rest of the family. Then one of her grandmother's stories, one of Io's favorites, slowly floated up into her memories. She glanced up the hillside again. She shook her head, disbelieving that he would be here. He had always been a part of her grandmother's life, but always in the distance, always away.
Her attention was brought back to the funeral by the soft sigh of the mechanism lowering her grandmother's coffin into the ground. It was not a particularly loud sound at all, but the sudden appearance of a mechanical noise amongst all of the organic sounds of weather and voices was as noticeable as a single billboard on a Kansas plain.
She knew too much about flat plains.
"Ashes to ashes," the priest intoned, tossing a clod of dirt from the pile accumulated at one end into the open grave. "Dust to dust."
Her family followed suit, each member repeating the gesture if not the words, and began filing away from the grave site. Her mother hugged her aunt. "Io?" her mother said.
"You're taking this very hard." Harder than I am, too hard, her mother didn't say.
"I liked Grandmama," she replied. More than you did, she didn't add.
"I know you did." With yet another sigh that tokened a gulf that could never be filled, her mother turned away and headed for the rented limousine that had brought her to the ceremony.
Io remained behind. The priest noticed her reticence to leave and approached. "Can I help you?" he asked. She had expected him to be unctuous but instead he actually seemed concerned. She smiled and shook her head. "No, thank you. I just... she was my best friend."
"I thought you were the grand-daughter."
Io smiled. "I am. But she was also my best friend."
He nodded his head. "I understand. It's rare and wonderful to hear a family member say that. If you wish to speak about it, I will be available in the chapel."
She smiled. "Thank you."
The priest walked back to his own car, his robes whipped by the coming storm. Io found herself alone, under a dark-gray sky, waiting for the rain to fall, watching the dark figure on the hill. She looked up at him-- it had to be him-- and gestured for him to come down.
Just as she thought she might have to climb the hill to him, he stepped forward and made his way down to her. As he approached she realized that she hadn't been wrong. Although most of him was covered by the greatcloak, the black muzzle with its white stripe down the front told her everything she needed to know.
"Eriin?" she asked.
He looked at her, his eyes fallen with tears, nodded briefly, and then stood by the grave site, now roped off to keep anyone from falling into the hole before the robots had had a chance to finish their work. The truck with the fill had arrived, but he paused long enough to take his own handful of dirt and toss it onto the coffin. "What a waste," he said.
"It happens," Io said gently as she stood next to him. "It's called life. It's natural."
"So is cancer," he growled with a voice sheared by anger and agony. "But you don't just accept it and let it get you." He sighed. "Why, Emily? I invited you."
"Because she wanted it this way, Eriin. That's why." She placed a hand on his shoulder, surprised by her own willingness to be familiar with him. "And because you can't change what other people want."
"I... " He broke off. "I just don't understand it."
She didn't know what to say to that, so she stood by his side and waited while he sobbed, supporting himself on one of the brass stands that held the black velvet ropes. She wanted to comfort him, to make him know that she did understand, but the fact was that she did not understand and she might never understand. How did one ever come to understand what went through the minds of immortals?
He finally drew in a large breath and turned to her. "So. Who are you?"
She held out her hand. "Io."
"Iolanthe?" he asked, grasping it. She noticed that his grip was strong and his hands surprisingly small, almost feminine. He clearly recognized the name. "Your grandmother sent me many letters and she talked about you often. I'm sorry for your loss."
"Grandmama had a good life. It's hard to feel bad about someone who was so alive. She had her fill of life." Io smiled to cover up the hole in her spirit where her grandmother had filled her life.
He nodded. They were silent. Then, he said, "Io. Not 'Yo'?"
"It would be," she said, "If I wanted to go with the the classical sound. But I like it mispronounced. 'Io' makes me sound... futuristic. And if you pronounced 'Iolanthe' the way it's supposed to be, it just sounds like Yolanda, making me sound like some out-of-touch hip-hop girl from the last century. It's about as up-to-date as Mabel or Jemimah."
"Ah," Eriin said. "Just as everyone chooses to mispronounce Oenone, because if you did say it correctly, she's just another Wynona."
The gray clouds that had filled the sky started to darken, mixing like the early stirrings of a particularly bitter coffee. Spatters of rain struck her hand. "We should get out of this weather," she said, turning to head back to her car.
She looked behind herself and saw him standing there, head down, over the grave. "Eriin?" she shouted, then walked back to the grave.
His face was apologetic. "I don't have a car. A cab brought me." He put the hood back up on his cape. "I was about to call one to take me back to the city."
To Io, it was an opportunity. The dream come true. She had heard the story many times. She understood that to her grandmother the three days she had spent with Eriin had been life-changing. It had also been clear to her that it had been more than a three-day meeting. She wanted to know what there was to this mel, this alien, this Pendorian, who had so deeply affected her grandmother that she had left her job to become a writer, traveled the world, and met her husband, Io's grandfather, while somewhere in Turkey. "I have a car. You can wait here, or I can just give you a ride." Cold, hard raindrops began falling about them. "I'm going to get soaked if I don't go! Follow me!"
She turned and ran, pulling out her car keys and double-clicking the doorlocks, opening all of them. She ran around the hood and jumped in on her side even as the full fury of the storm broke over her head. "Whoo!" she gasped as she shut the door beside her. She looked to her right in time to see Eriin peering in through the window. She gestured for him to come in.
"Thank you," he said calmly as he sat down next to her, shutting the door. "I appreciate your kindness."
"I wasn't going to just leave you there to suffer through the storm until the cab came." The car awoke around them, the console came to life, recognized the storm conditions, and activated the heads-up display. While the sounds of wind and rain buffeted the car, the windows showed a cartoon rendering of a clear day over the screen of water sheeting down the glass.
Io took the steering wheel and eased the car out into traffic. It silently slid into place behind two other cars. Io programmed a destination of Philadelphia and let the car take over. The steering column slid down out of her way.
Eriin said, "I just wanted to come and pay my respects to... I don't know. She's not here anymore. She doesn't exist anymore. Except in here." He touched his chest, a gesture that surprised her. Most Pendorians were strictly materialists; she would have thought Eriin would gesture to his head, not his heart.
It suddenly occurred to Io that she had never been this close to an alien before, someone born someplace other than Earth. She was used to seeing them on the net, of course; she stalted a commercial newspage every day, so it wasn't as if she were one of those people who used a self-assembled collection of prejudices and called it 'news.' But to be this close to one of those strange beings from another world, even another kind of world, a Ring, and to be talking to him, to have the privilege of having him to herself for a number of hours, was more than she had ever thought possible. And it was the family legend, Eriin, the one who had turned the staid teacher into a world-class adventurer. But was it Eriin, or had it just been something inside her grandmother waiting to come out at the first opportunity?
Io was determined to find out. "So, are you staying in town long?"
Eriin looked at her. "A few days. I don't have a reason to stay on Earth and my student on Pendor is awaiting me." He grinned momentarily. "I'm sure he's enjoying the time away from me."
"Just one student?"
"Just one. That's not that unusual on Pendor. We have fewer children and more time on our hands. A young Dragon. He's only eight years old, but he's much of a handful. I suppose this isn't the most reviving way of spending a two-week vacation, but I've wanted it for some time. When I was informed that Emily was injured and may die, I took the first transport to Terra. I barely made it in time. I'm sorry I didn't get a chance to say goodbye to her." He glanced out into the gray weather. "There's no transport going back to Pendor for a few days."
Io was surprised by the note of pain in Eriin's voice.
"Did you love her?" she asked, suddenly, curiously.
"Did I love her?" he replied. "I don't know. She was... a penpal. We were intimate for only a day or so, not long enough to get to know each other in any real way. It was the correspondence we had later that was so important. I treasured her letters. She told me about all of the ancient places on Earth that she was visiting and I jealously read all of them, wishing I could see those places by myself. We have no places like that on Pendor. Everything is young. Everything is new. And always she told me about her family, about Raheem, and about your mother, Taysha, and how they fell out when Taysha went to college. I loved every word she sent me, but I don't know if we would have loved one another in person."
"She loved you, I think." Eriin stared at her. "She would be happy for days after every letter arrived from you. Grandpapa was never that jealous; he knew it wasn't something that threatened him, so she loved to talk about what you were saying, and doing, and your impressions of the politics that were going on. I think she traveled the Earth just to give you a gift, sometimes, of her words and those ancient places. She knew all about the Pendorian wish for a history."
"Yes, she did know all about that," Eriin agreed, his voice heavy with sadness. "Forgive me for being selfish."
"Yes. I can't change what Emily wanted, but I want to. I want her voice and her guidance, and I'm selfishly wishing that it could be otherwise. Even if she'd moved to Pendor, though she would be someone I could know, and learn from. The reborn Emily would have her previous memories, and we would have something to share."
They were silent. The road slid by, hundreds of cars in carefully marshaled ranks, each maintaining its own distance, each aware of its own destination, each taking in only data, making its own decisions about speed and distance, and yet the whole was as organized and as flawless as the human blood supply.
It was especially ironic in that the laws had had to be loosened to make this possible. Autodyne driving systems had become the staple of insurance companies giving people deep discounts for cars that kept their distance, maintained legal speed, and took in the world at data rates thousands of times greater than than of the human eye and ear.
"Eriin? When we get to Philly it'll be sometime past lunch. Are you hungry? I know this great restaurant. It's a little Ethiopian place Grandmama like. It's really very mainstream these days; they have all sorts of food. Especially since your people have been providing them with the technology to feed themselves." She laughed momentarily. "I read in a history book somewhere that when the Pendorians started feeding the African mainland the European Union went nuts, terrified about a population explosion."
"It did happen," Eriin said. "For the first ten years people were having babies as if it were the only thing they knew to do. And then they started to settle down and worry about other things. With enough food and the right birth control, they began the same curve that happened to Americans and Europeans. People stop having babies and start doing other things."
"So, lunch?" she asked.
"I'd like that," he said.
The rain was still pounding the city when they turned off the freeway and entered the city traffic flow. Io took the wheel and directed them through the narrow streets toward the restaurant.
They went inside and took seats. Io noted the interest Eriin generated in the other patrons, but saw that they quickly looked back to their own plates.
After the waiter had taken their orders, Eriin sighed. "I don't feel..." he began. "I feel... I don't know how I feel. I'm supposed to respect Emily's decision, but I can't. And I can't make it go away. The feeling. I can't be reconciled to it."
She reached out and touched his arm. She could feel a vague fluffiness through the soft cloth of his well-tailored shirt. He looked up at her. "No, it doesn't go away just because you want it to. Maybe someday you'll be able to make it go away just by asking it to, but right now... " She sighed. "All you can do is look for ways of honoring her memory and moving forward."
He looked up at her and she was shocked by the hollowness dying behind his eyes. "What do you do in the meantime? How do you deal with the pain?"
"By... by celebrating what you do have, about what she was, and what a foundation she leaves behind for us." She sighed. "I wish I could do that with my Mom." Eriin didn't respond, giving her room to continue. "I've always followed Grandmama's lead, but Mom was more like Grandpapa. Staid. Stay-at-home. He loved Grandmama, but there were times he didn't like her. Does that make sense?" Eriin nodded. "The same is true of me and my Mom. I don't thing I could... reconcile... with her, either."
"She's still alive," Eriin said.
"That doesn't mean anything," Io replied. "It really doesn't. We're so different we barely speak the same language." She let her voice drop.
His eyes grew distant and unfocused. "Emily was so beautiful when I met her," he said. "Strong, full. You don't look anything like her. Your beauty is modern."
She blushed. "What does that mean?"
"You're... willowy. You move gracefully. Your grand- mother... well, maybe it's just that I saw her in gravities she wasn't familiar with, but she didn't exactly have grace." He sighed.
Io giggled. She could easily imagine it. "She spoke of you often. You were one of the high points in her life."
The waiter brought their meal and they ate in silence. After the waiter had taken away their plates, Eriin sat back in his chair and sighed. "Sometimes, I wish there were no high points."
"I don't think you mean that," Io said. "What would it mean to her memory to say there were no high points? Would your loving her even have a point if it were, well, pointless?"
He laughed. "You have a wonderful language," he said. "But..." He took a deep breath. "How do you do it, Io? How do you reconcile your loss with her? How will you celebrate her life?"
Io was looking into his eyes. She saw the life coming back to them and thought that he was the most beautiful being she had ever known. This was the man (the mel! she reminded herself) that had made her mother see the greatness in the world. "Eriin..." she said. "I'd like to celebrate it with you."
His eyes locked with hers and she felt a thrill run through her body. She even felt her body flush gently with desire. She couldn't remember the last time a man had done that to her. "Io, you know what I am?"
She nodded. "A posit. Grandmama liked to say your brain wasn't made out of meat. I don't care. You haven't seemed like anything but another person, Eriin, and that's what my grandmother said about you. You were just another person. But to me, you're not just another person. You were, for those three days, her lover, and the feelings you left with her lived inside her for the rest of her life. I want her to live on in us, and... I want you to live inside me."
Eriin looked away. "I don't know if I can, Io."
"Because... because you have her face. And I don't know that I can take on the responsibility of carrying two of you in my heart after you... go."
She reached across the table and touched his muzzle. "Eriin... what makes you think that I want to go? That I will ever want to go? I don't. I know that humanity is going to figure out immortality some day. I want to see what the future is going to bring us. And, be honest, you'll 'move on' some day, too. Isn't that what Pendorians call it? Moving on?"
He nodded. "It isn't something we're used to, Io. It is something your people are used to. Don't tell me that you won't be tempted as life gets long, as every day starts to get shorter and feel like the day before."
"Jesus, Eriin," she said, leaning across the narrow dining table. "I didn't want to talk to you about whether or not I'll accept death gracefully or walk through the Great Hall or get cryo'd or braced or whatever else it is you might want to think of as a way to get around dying." She grabed his conservative tie and pulled him toward her. "I wanted you to come here because I've wanted to do you since I first heard your name."
That got his attention. "Really?" he asked. "Why?"
"I don't know," she said. "Why does anyone want to do anything? Maybe just because I want to know what it was Grandmama felt. Maybe it was because I want that rare experience of doing a Pendorian. Maybe it was because she told her story about you in a way that made me want to know more. All I know, Eriin, is that you have been up here as a fantasy character for more lonely nights than I care to remember."
A smile made its way through his pain, finally. "What about that old warning that reality is never as good as the fantasy?"
"It'll be different. Maybe I need to find new fantasies."
"Then... Nothing else?"
"Nothing else," she agreed.
"Then... I agree. Let's go fulfill your fantasy." She saw something in his eyes, something that she had seen before in the eyes of other men, but from him it meant something more. Something else. He reached out with one hand and took hers. They made their way back to the rear of the restaurant, and through the rain to her car. As the doors slammed shut, she was pulling him to her, kissing him. Mouths mashed together, tongues slicked against one another, nose and muzzle struggling for their proper positions. Neither was all that familiar with the body of the other, not even in the general.
She couldn't wait. Already, the space between her thighs had begun to turn liquid with need for him. But it was her responsibility to drive and she found her hands on the wheel, turning out into the street. Eriin pointed to the left, and she followed his directions back to the same hotel where she had dropped him off this afternoon.
Soon they were pulling into the hotel's underground parking, and he was leading her, directing her. She could barely follow his instructions, the promise he had made her five minutes ago burning in her. She wanted him to lead but he didn't know where to go. It would have been rude to get behind him and push.
The elevator gave her another chance to press herself to him. He pressed his hands to her, and everywhere his hand landed a thick welling of desire grew inside her.
On the eleventh floor he led her to his room.
Inside, each stripped clothing to the floor. She threw herself to him and he caught her in his arms even as he toppled back onto the bed. She felt his erection between her thighs, felt her own body prepare for him. "I want you," she gasped.
"No, I mean, now!" She pulled her knees up and knelt over him, plunging his cock into her without a moments pause. He groaned as she dropped onto his hips. They were joined; she was filled; he was surrounded. Her body thrummed with need as she looked down at his black-furred and handsome body, his glittery eyes and that open muzzle, tongue lolling out.
She gave no pause. This was no refined moment. This was a fuck! She pounded herself on his cock. His hands gripped her arms. His cock hit the back of her cervix. He thrust up to meet her as their passion ran upwards, soared, and let go, even as Eriin shouted out his climax.
She tried to get one more moment out of him, but it wouldn't last. He fell soft within her. "I thought..." She gasped.
He pulled her down beside him on the bed. "You couldn't wait?" he asked.
"No," she said. "No, I couldn't. Jesus, Eriin, you are so hot, it was like I wanted to rape you, I wanted you so much."
"Well, even if I'm not organic up here, I'm not a robot. I'm a person. A male. I can't control my orgasms any more than you can."
She smiled. "Then we have all evening to try again."
"Yes," he agreed, kissing her chin. "We do." He kissed her again. They rolled onto the bed and their kiss evolved into a slow, gentle exploration. His fur reminded her of her second cat's, a long, black fur that was rich and thick and had a scent like fresh beach sand. She played with it, caressed him, stroked his chest and arms, found the muscles underneath.
Eriin's hands were on her breasts. She liked having her breasts played with and Eriin's touch was sensitive and gentle. When he caressed her nipples her cunt throbbed with the need to get him hard again. "Next time, you fuck me, okay?" she murmured.
"Mmm-hmm," Eriin agreed readily. He kissed her belly. He kissed lower. Io thought that her cunt was actually hungering for him to kiss her there.
Eriin's hands were on her breasts. She liked it when her breasts were played with. Eriin's touch was as sensitive and gentle as needed. When he caressed her nipples her cunt throbbed with desire to get him hard again. "Next time, you fuck me, okay?" she murmured.
"Mmm-hmm," Eriin agreed readily. He kissed her belly, his tongue tracing lazy circles around the bare skin of her navel. His fur tickled her as he dropped down lower, his kisses dripping like the rain over her hips.. He kissed lower. Io thought that her cunt was actually hungering for him to kiss here there.
When his muzzle pressed against her mound, the thrills it sent through her were indescribable. His thin tongue flickered out and caressed her melting insides. She moaned without shame.
Eriin was so gentle that she thought she would scream. Her body was so full of need her skin felt tight; her desire was going to explode out of her soon. His mouth on her cunt and his hands on her hips were driving her crazy. She wanted to come and he wouldn't let her. She moaned, "Eriin.... You're teasing!"
He didn't change his methods at all, and it didn't matter. His tongue was deep in the folds of her opening. He would suck on her clitoris for a few seconds, then stop, then start again, over and over, his tongue probing and caressing. Every little touch shocked her with pleasure. She came with her hand clamped over her mouth, desperate to keep the people in the next room from hearing her scream. Her body trembled, thrashing the hotel quilt. "Oh, God," she gasped.
Eriin smiled even as he positioned himself between her legs. "You wanted me to fuck you this time, right?"
She nodded. "Yes, please!"
His furry thighs parted her legs and he positioned his cock at her opening. "In your fantasies, Io, do I make love hard or soft, fast or slow?"
She was still spinning from the climax he had just given her and said, "fast, slow, I don't... I don't care. Both. Depends."
A second later his cock was deep inside her cunt, his body pressed against hers. She lifted her legs into the air and he sank deeper until every last millimeter of him was inside her. She could feel the tip of his cock pressing up into her, letting her know that it was a good thing there was no more of him, because there was no more of her. "Yes," she moaned.
"Like that?" he asked.
"Just like that," she agreed. "Just like that." She clutched at his arms, embracing his thrusting, heavy body as he made love to her, the hardness of his cock buried deep into the most intimate parts of her body. "Yes!"
"Is it like your fantasy?" he asked, slowing for a moment.
"Oh, better!" she gasped. "It's real!" She let her hands slide down from his shoulders, along the fur of his back until she reached the tight buttocks which clenched with every demanding thrust. Her heart was pounding, her body on fire. Eriin's lovemaking was everything she had dreamed of, everything she had hoped for. He was a warm, loving body, a hot shaft of desire, filling her, emptying her, filling her, over and over. She was losing control, barely breathing, as if taking in air would distract her from taking in him.
She couldn't help but want to touch him everywhere, to put her hand between them and feel the place where their bodies joined. She touched the smooth skin of his cock as he withdrew and entered. She looked up into his face and could see the concentration in his eyes, the smile on his lips. She knew he was going to come again. And when he did, this time she let herself feel every inch of him that was touching her, every quiver and tremble.
His muzzle was pressing against hers, this time with gentleness, and she let his tongue into her mouth as they toppled over onto their sides. His cock slipped out of her and she felt the moist results of their passion trickling out over her thigh, leaving a cool trace in its wake. "Oh, God," she gasped, letting the words sigh out her. "That was the most incredible fuck I've had in a long time.
"For me, too," Eriin agreed with a sigh, turning over onto his back. "I need some water!"
She giggled. "I could get you some."
"That would be wonderful," he agreed.
She made her way to the bath, where she found the obligatory hotel glasses. She filled two of them.
Walking back into the hotel room proper, though, she was struck by the incongruity of the scene. It was a normal hotel room; an alien should not be found lying on the bed. But this lovely humanoid skunk was lying on her bed, relaxing as if he hadn't a care in the world and looking at her with the most appreciative eyes she had ever seen on a man.
"You are very beautiful, Io," he said. "Thank you."
"For letting me... celebrate your grandmother's life." He took the glass and drained it in one sitting. "Whew."
She put her own glass down and sat beside him on the bed, snuggling up next to him. "Someday, maybe, there will be no more dying people, Eriin. But it's not up to us, not now."
He nodded. "It's a selfish wish to ask that someone else's life be what you want it to be. I can't reconcile myself to her decision, but... I can know that there's still part of her alive in the world." He was touching her, not even really paying all that much attention to where he was touching, but his hand naturally gravitated toward her breasts. "You don't look much like her, but... would it be blatant flattery if I said you had a lot of her spirit?"
She grinned. "I'll take it anyway."
"Good." They sat together for a while and then Eriin said, "It's early yet. Would you like to get cleaned up, go dancing, and then, if you have any energy left, come back and do that again?"
"Sounds like a great idea! I know this great dance lounge!"
"I had a feeling you would," he said with a grin. "Show me around this town before my flight leaves for Pendor."