Kaede could not help but look out into the gloom of space. The floor-to-ceiling transparent wall of the shuttle was supposed to give passengers a sense of the majesty of interplanetary travel, but she only felt the darkness magnifying the loneliness in her soul. Space travel was supposed to be romantic but, across the many dozens of parsecs, inside the three connecting ships she had ridden, and among the hundreds of other passengers she had met during the past month, that promise of romance had played itself out in awkward social contrivances and tawdry, artificial settings.
Maybe she was expecting too much after the breakup of her relationship with Petterin, a relationship too sensible for romance. There had been an egalitarian understanding between Kaede and the beautiful, white-haired woman who understood her in bed and out. Kaede had been proud of her relationship with Petterin, where calmly and publicly each said she loved the other but would never have described their relationships in terms of "need." It was the perfect relationship to describe for her mother (who had described herself as 'scandalized' to her friends but was secretly amused at Kaede's previous relationship with a man).
The sex had been great, too, Kaede thought. Frequent, loud, messy, and experimental, it was the kind of lovemaking a nice girl wouldn't admit to wanting but would gladly share in a safe space. On the night before they had shipped out, closed down their room, and said goodbye to one another at the spaceport, Petterin had fistfucked her to within an inch of their life. Kaede could still feel the places on her insides where Petterin had touched, the messy, liquid places where fingers and knuckles had brushed up against a cervix and uterus, where lips and tongue had pressed against her clitoris while the greasy fingers of the other hand probed her asshole, pressed in, and made themselves known inside the ravishingly crowded cage of her pelvis. She had come four times that night, her nipples sore with Petterin's teeth marks, her sex still complaining the next morning. They had slept cuddled one against the other, peaceful, drained.
Kaede squirmed in her chair, wishing the memories would leave her alone but as the trip had become longer and longer her dreams of Petterin had become more and more pronounced. Remembering Petterin's lopsided, gleeful grin and piercingly intelligent eyes gleaming down at her as they shared their bed only made Kaede wonder why, after all was said and done, she hadn't been all that upset when Petterin headed out for the llerkin colony Crago and she had made her way home to Alphaville.
No, that wasn't right. She had been upset. But she couldn't have talked to anyone about it, she thought, because she had been upset in the wrong way. She couldn't have talked about it because despite the relationships' perfection, despite the equality, warm hugs, fairness, friendship, despite the days of intellectual challenge punctuated by nights of feverish pleasure, Kaede had felt that something was missing.
And if she wanted to put that something into a word, it was romance. She had wanted it more than anything else, someone who would challenge her emotions, not just "talk it out." But Petterin had not been like that. Petterin, for all her wonders, had never asked Kaede to wrestle with her heart.
Kaede looked about the floor of the shuttle, at the seats in concentric circles spreading out from the central core, all leading to the broad windows that let them watch their approach. She felt she had the shuttle almost to herself. There were three floors for passengers, and on hers, the topmost, there were barely twenty people, despite seating for a hundred. Of those twenty, all but five were human. And she was the only one sitting alone. Alone again.
An attendant walked up the aisle behind her and put her hand on the armrest of Kaede's chair. "Excuse me," she said softly. "We'll be landing in about forty minutes, Terran. I couldn't help but notice-- you're a native, aren't you?"
Kaede looked up from her funk and felt irrational hope resurface, but pushed it down. She gave the barest of smiles and said, "I'm very well, thank you so much." The attendant was a tall woman with brown skin the color of sweetened coffee and hair that fell about her shoulders in long, careful tresses and for the first time since leaving Kaede understood the tug called homesickness.
"I knew it," the attendant said and sat down across the aisle from her. "I have a few minutes. Where did you go?"
"Earth, of course," Kaede said. "I spent twenty years there, working with a cultural civil rights group." She glanced out the window where Emerald hovered, beckoning her with open arms. "I guess my time came up and I had to go home." If it was supposed to be a homecoming, why did it feel so much like capitulation?
The woman seemed surprised. "I don't understand why you would leave for more than a vacation. I mean, I can understand going to Pendor or Terra or somewhere for a vacation, but... twenty years! That's such a long time!" She glanced out the window. "Still, I guess a lot of people are leaving these days." Kaede nodded. "Were there a lot of men there?"
Kaede laughed. "Of course there were men there! Half of the people there are men. It's Alphaville that's different, not the rest of the universe. I worked with a lot of men while I was there. They're not bad, as people go. Pendorian mels, too, who are a lot like other men even when Pendorians aren't a lot like humans. I don't know if that makes any sense. When you're dealing with Pendorians, you're not dealing with human beings."
The attendant just nodded. Kaede found herself wishing she could reach out and touch the other woman's beautiful hair. "So you met a lot of Pendorians?"
Kaede nodded. "And llerkindi, and Sendar, and Katckins and NeoRats."
The attendant's eyes widened. "Wow." A bracelet on her wrist beeped softly. "I have to get back to work. Welcome home, daughter."
"Thanks," Kaede said, sad to see her get up and leave like so many lost opportunities, but somewhat relieved. Ever since her trip to Earth, being addressed as "daughter" struck her as anachronistic, even perverse. She thought the word should be reserved to a few people. Her mothers, maybe, and Darmadhatu.
The end of the flight was as uneventful as the beginning and the middle had been. She disembarked from the shuttlecraft, a single duffel over one shoulder her only collection of material goods to show for two decades on Terra and Luna, her life in the light of the Original Sun. As she walked down the ramp, she spotted a slim, short figure in a white faux-hanbok with added slacks waiting at the bottom, waving. "Mom!" she shouted.
She ran into the shorter woman and hugged her tightly. "Oh, Mom, thanks for coming!"
"As if," her mother said gently, "I would miss this for anything. How are you? Did you eat well on the flight? You cut your hair!"
Kaede ran her fingers through the short bob of black hair that didn't even cover her ears. "I like it this way. Easy to take care of." She was reluctant to let go. "Oh, I missed you, Mom. And are you still worrying about my weight?"
"You are too skinny, Kaede, and you always have been," he mother said critically, "So of course I worry. Why should I not worry?"
"Because I'm forty-one years old and I expect to live forever, that's why. And how are you? How's Mama?"
"Lisaveta is doing just as well, Kaede. There has been no change in our health since you left. We are still involved, but not as much as in the old days. Much has changed since you left. You are staying this time?"
Kaede held her birth mother at arms' length and regarded her carefully. "Mom? Is something going on?"
"Nothing I have not told you before. It is as Darmadhatu predicted, the colony is fading away. People leave and do not come back. They move to other worlds where life is full and sunlight is real. Here, there is only the daily murmuring of life and work that doesn't seem to have enough meaning. There is fulfillment enough only for a maybe a few hundred; the thousands have had their fill."
"Mom, it's not so bad."
"No, it's not," her mother agreed. "But it was never quite so good as the old days when we were full of hope and life. It seems that the one thing we needed we could not bear to bring with us. Change."
Kaede kept her eyes faced forwards as her mother led her into a residential block, a large cave with small, square houses set out in neat little rows, each house brightly colored and rounded with soft corners, a simple step up to the house itself, as if even in this isolated colony deep in space there was need to worry about natural flooding. It was a habit of human thought to worry about such things, however, and the builders had decided to work with habits of human thought as much as possible. They reached her mother's home. Her home. "You know where your room is, Kaede."
Kaede nodded and walked to the back. It had changed in the past twenty years. Her mother had had other guests and other reasons to use the room. Now her bed was back with simple sheets she hadn't seen in twenty years. Her two passive displays were set to paintings she had enjoyed herself many years ago. That had been the work of Darmadhatu; her mother would never have remembered such a detail. "Welcome back, daughter," said a soft voice from the ceiling.
"Hello, Darma," Kaede said, equally softly. She felt something grow warm in her chest, a feeling of security that had not come from her mother or the city, and a wetness rose heavy in the corners of her eyes.
"You won't be staying, will you?"
"No," Kaede agreed. "Not without reason. Once I find someplace where I am needed, I will be leaving again."
"It's good to have you back. So few who leave come back."
"And you miss them?"
"I do," Darma agreed.
Kaede smiled to herself. She was not so different as her colony's AI, who had been given a mission she had said she could not and would not fulfill. The mission planners went ahead anyway, telling Darma to shut up and commit their plan. Darma had done so, doing everything in her power to avert disaster, and she had succeeded, in her own way, of shepherding the colony along until others in the colony had come to understand what she had been saying all along.
"Will you ever go someplace where you are needed, Darma?"
"I will probably always be needed here, Kaede," the AI said, her voice maternal and soft. "There will always be someone here who needs me. Even if there were only one child of Alphaville left, if she were here and she needed me, I would stay. That is my purpose."
Kaede heard a sorrow in Darma's voice that made her want to reach out and hug the other fem in sympathy, but there was nothing to hug, just cold wires and a warm fusion plant somewhere far away. She sat on her bed. "Darma, what is the fashion this year?" she asked, changing the subject to get away from such a sad bit of talk.
"Right now, the fashion is youthful exuberance, nudity, and decoration," Darma replied with a chuckle. "It is a reaction to the last twenty years of stepping carefully around the tourists, who are now at an all-time low since the Opening. Social clothing is expected to be loose and exposing." One of the two displays blinked to show women walking about in public in the kinds of clothing that on Terra would have been scandalous even by the current times. Most of the women wore nothing at all except bracelets and bangles, and almost all of them looked to be in the prime of their beauty, their bodies tall, lean, and strong, their hair thick and loose. Even to Kaede, it was excessive.
"I think I'll wear pants and a t-shirt," she said.
"A wise choice. At least you will have a chance if someone spills a hot drink on you."
"Exactly," Kaede said with a grin. "Besides, I've always wondered how tourists were treated in my home town." She pulled some clothes out of the drawer, things that hadn't been fashionable twenty years ago. She spent some time with one display arranged as a mirror to make sure her hair was at least brushed. She adjusted her glasses. Picking up her small duffel, she dumped most of the contents out onto the bed and then adjusted the bag itself until it was almost a handbag.
"How do I look?"
"Like someone from the Exterior," Darma said. "And I mean that in a good way. But you cannot pass as a tourist. Too soon will you be recognized, if not by someone who knows you then simply by the way you walk."
Kaede giggled. "Thanks, Darma. Love you."
"Love you, too," Darma said softly, using the same word Kaede had used, the word that implied familial affection.
Kaede slipped out of the house without seeing her mother. She wondered where she should go. There were plenty of places to go in Alphaville-- there were concert halls, and meeting places, and public venues with open spaces meant for people to congregate and be sociable. These spaces had been designed to correspond to what some thought was a species-wide memory of community space, of places where people would gather. The space designs had names like 'Quiet Cafe' and 'Dancing in the Streets.' Designing spaces in which people had a say in the color and the use was part of the science of Alphaville. Alexandra Cornell, the architect of Alphaville some four hundred years ago, had said, "The trick to building an arcology is not to build what people want, which is very hard to predict, but to create spaces where people can easily build what they want. What kinds of spaces those are is easy to predict. We have history to show us what has worked and what has not."
Kaede headed for a shopping district, which was something of a anachronism since Alphaville had adopted the Pendorian concept of wealth long before The Opening. The Terran concept of acquisition as a social activity had been retained but, like many of Alphaville's experiments, this one had been only partially successful. Part of the social activity as practiced in Terra's past had been to demonstrate wealth, something which was only weakly possible where there was little use for money.
But it still had the feel she loved. A wide, brick-lain road with trees on both sides curved away from her under a vaulted roof illuminated with a soft wall-to-wall glowing blue paneling that might have suggested a sky to those who had never seen one. The trees, thin cedars and maples, grew heavy with leaves. A few leaves scattered the ground and the smell of growing things hung in the air alongside the filtered and scrubbed atmosphere.
She walked down past a cafe', eying appreciatively the people she passed, most of them natives, most of them exposing more skin than she did. She loved the look of them all and knew that she would miss them if (when, she reminded herself) she left. But none of them she knew personally. Even in a town of sixty thousand there would be many she did not know by name.
Colorful stores offering clothes, shoes, furniture, accessories for the body, for the home, for one's space suit, passed her by as she walked. Some she remembered, others she had never seen before. She walked past another cafe, the smell of fresh bread wafting out toward her, and she succumbed. The woman behind the counter eyed her clothing and what lay underneath appreciatively before smiling. "You don't dress like a native but you don't walk like a tourist," she said.
"I'm very well, thank you so much," Kaede responded, grinning. "I've just come back after a long absence."
"I'll say. I haven't heard anyone say that in earnest in years. It's good to have a daughter back, though. I'm Irene. Are you staying?"
Kaede shrugged. "I haven't decided."
"Well, if my baking can tempt you, let it. Is there anything I can get for you?"
Kaede sighed, looking at a board with the day's offerings on it. "I'd like a hunk of your basil tomato bread and a coffee, I think."
"Milk? Cream? Latte'?"
"Latte'," Kaede agreed.
The woman handed over a large wedge of the bread and drew a cup of coffee. Kaede thanked her for it and walked back out into the road, heading for the dome.
She walked up one of the many ramps that exited near the center of the huge dome and looked around. Like the shopping district, woman (and here a few men, she noted) walked alone, in pairs, or in small groups talking with quiet animation. To her surprise, there were no Pendorians here, but she passed a few llerkin.
She looked up at the dome but there wasn't much to see. Sometimes, methane snow fell on the dome, to be melted away almost instantly by the temperature radiating from inside, but not today. In careful geometric patterns along the framework of the dome daylight- quality lamps shone down, supplying the garden what it needed to grow. There were food crops here but only for show, only to remind the people that lived here of the ecosystem they all needed to support together to survive together. The real growing facilities were many levels below. Mostly, there were trees and bushes and grassy spaces fit for picnics and games of baseball. It was a huge space, expensive to build for the first colonists but there had never been any question of its necessity. Human beings did not live in hives and a window out onto the world was as essential to their well-being as food and water.
Kaede walked along a brick-lain path to the perimeter where the edge of the dome met the foundation. The observation dome floor was not entirely level; it sloped gently from one side to the other, allowing for a flow of water through it, and three streams appeared at one edge and meandered through until they reached the other side. The park was punctuated by three large ponds in which ducks and fish lived without interference. She reached the lower region and discovered that she was the only person there.
She walked along a path that traced the perimeter, the lights overhead illuminating the bleak landscape of the planetoid outside the dome. She felt surprisingly light, as if she had nothing and no one to care about, no injustices to concern her, all of her responsibilities gone. It felt good but she knew it wouldn't feel that way for long. Eventually, she knew, she would want to feel useful and wanted. Until then she would make do with feeling free.
She reached a picnic area, where tables were arranged in scatterings among the grasses and sparse tree cover. As she walked, the spotted a woman sitting on one of the tables, knees drawn up to her chest, arms around, head down. She didn't appear to be asleep, and Kaede sensed something wrong about her. "Excuse me?" she said, approaching the table.
The other woman didn't move. "Excuse me?" she repeated again. "Are you okay?"
The body on the table heaved and shuddered for a moment, then looked up. The woman's face-- a girl's face, Kaede thought-- was beautiful, round and soft, with enormous eyes filled with tears. "I'm all right," she said. "Thanks for asking."
"You're not a local, are you?" Kaede said, realizing as she spoke that her words might be taken as sarcasm. Not the sort of thing she would have deliberately directed at a beautiful and hurting girl.
The woman shook her head, then put it back down between her knees. "Is there something I can do?" Kaede asked. "Can I help you?"
"No. No, there's nothing you can do to help me. Just leave me alone."
"We... don't do that here. Especially not with a sister."
Without looking up, she mumbled, "I thought you called each other daughters."
"Colonists are daughters. Women from the Exterior are called sisters."
Kaede felt both curious and concerned for the girl hunched over on the table. She wondered what could have happened to reduce her to this state, and why there was no one else here to help her. "Did you come to Alphaville alone?"
A shake of the head. "You came with a partner." A nod. "Is she still here?" A shake of the head.
"It was a he."
To other women of Alphaville, that might have gotten an automatic air of sympathy. Kaede knew better. "Is he still here?"
"No. He left on the shuttle today. Left me behind." A deep breath, a sigh.
"So he dumped you?"
The girl looked up. "You could say that. I mean, it's not as if I would have chosen to leave him." Kaede didn't know what to make of that comment.
"What's your name?"
"You're not going to leave me alone, are you?"
"No," Kaede said. "The odds of my being helpful to you are better if I stay."
"I suppose. I'm Eshi."
"Kaede. Do you want to go somewhere to talk about it?" Kaede asked.
"We are somewhere and we are talking."
"I know a little cafe' down the street over there. Great bread. It would be much more comfortable," she offered, giving Eshi a little smile.
The girl wiped the wetness from her cheeks and eyes. "I appreciate the offer. Yes, I'll go with you. For the moment." She pivoted off the chair and stood up. Kaede's heart skipped a beat as she got a full look at Eshi.
Eshi had a body so perfectly proportioned that Kaede suspected more than the usual commonplace adjustments everyone did today with nanochine. She wore a gold-colored miniskirt that hid nothing, a similarly colored tube-top that seemed to magically expose the pushed-up tops of two ideally small breasts, and stylish red and gold bracers about her wrists and neck, very much in fashion this year on Terra. Her face was framed with hair two shades of red darker than orange which fell a precise one centimeter below her shoulders.
"I'm staring. I... I'm sorry," Kaede said.
"I accept it," Eshi said, not revealing if she meant the apology or the stares of others.
"It's over here," Kaede said, leading Eshi up the gentle hill and down the ramp back into Alphaville. She led Eshi down the road just a short distance until she passed in front of the bakery. "Irene?"
"You again!" Irene said with a grin. "And you brought a friend! Just sit down, dearies. Did you want more coffee? What can I get you?"
"I'll just have iced tea," Kaede said. "That coffee you made was good."
"Glad you liked it. And you?" Irene said, eying Eshi appreciatively.
"I don't drink coffee. Or tea. I... What I really could use right now is a milkshake."
"I can make that too. Coffee, banana, raspberry...? I can make apple, but they come out odd."
"Banana," Eshi said, taking a deep sniff before grabbing a napkin off the table and blowing her nose. The loud sound filled the otherwise empty cafe', and when she was done Eshi aimed the paper for the recycling bin with pinpoint accuracy. "Sorry."
Kaede smiled at the girl. "So, your boyfriend dumped you?"
"That's one way of saying it. It was more like an Arabic divorce."
"What does that mean?" Kaede asked.
In a curiously mechanical way Eshi said, "It used to be on Earth, some places, a man could just kick a woman out of his house by repeating some ritual words over and over. He told the authorities he had done so, and then she had to leave his property. She had no reproductive exclusivity anymore and no property of her own. Women after that sometimes committed suicide."
"You're not thinking of..."
"I was," Eshi said simply. "I don't have much else to live for. I mean, what is there to live for in this universe?"
Kaede glanced over to see Irene leaning in to listen just as readily as she was. She knew that Darma was there too, paying close attention. "Why not for the sheer pleasures of living?"
"There aren't any anymore," Eshi said as she accepted her milkshake from Irene and drank.
"Oh, come on," Kaede said. "One bad relationship can't mean that much to anyone."
"It did to me," Eshi said softly. "It had to."
"Why did it have to?"
"Because... Just because, okay? You have your life and I have mine. We each have our own basic premises for living. Mine's just different from yours."
Kaede felt a sudden wish to reach out and hold Eshi. She thought it might be partially her hormones talking. A wish for romance. "But... a lover shouldn't qualify."
"It did in the past often enough."
"Some still do. But we don't think of that as sensible."
Eshi became agitated. "Love isn't like a pair of shoes! You don't love someone because it's sensible. You fall in love because something inside you tells you that that person is the most important person in the world. 'Sensible' is when you pick someone to raise a child with, but you don't fall in love that way. You don't get romance that way."
Kaede felt a soft chill run down her spine. "Look what it did to you," she said, not entirely convinced by her own words.
Eshi sniffed. "Some people have to live with their weaknesses."
Kaede accepted her iced tea from Irene and realized as she sipped it that there was no caffeine in the cup she had been given. She smiled at Irene appreciatively, then turned her attention back to Eshi, who was drinking through a straw with curious diligence. "You're supposed to enjoy it," she said.
"I guess," Eshi said, the sudden heat of her argument replaced once more by her earlier sulk.
Silence waned until Kaede made a try to restart the conversation. "Well, if your lover has left you, do you have a place to stay? Where's you luggage?"
"I don't have any. Kutonii had it all with him, and there wasn't much of it anyway. I didn't wear much clothing around him. Mostly stuff to go out and we almost never did that. I guess I didn't need many clothes here, either."
Kaede tried to imagine being in a relationship where she had given up that much control to a partner and couldn't quite picture it. "Do you have a place to stay?" she asked again.
"No. Do I need one?"
"You do if you want a place to shower and sleep," Kaede pointed out.
Eshi sighed. "I'm not sure if I even want to live anymore."
Kaede reached out and put a hand on the top of Eshi's bare thigh. "I want you to live," she said helpfully. "I do."
"You do?" Eshi asked, surprised.
"Because I think you're beautiful," Kaede said. "Later, I might think I want you to live because I you're smart. And after that, maybe because I think you're talented. How old are you?"
"Seventeen," Eshi said, surprising Kaede.
Kaede felt her heart thud loudly, once. "Then convincing you to live is doubly important. You have no idea what you have to offer the world or the joys you might find in it. It's the sensible thing to do," Kaede said with a smile.
Eshi sighed. She turned to Irene. "Thank you, miss. The milkshake was wonderful." She put the glass down and looked at Kaede. "You are annoying."
"I interrupted your morose train of thought, didn't I?"
"Yes. Now alternatives suggest themselves to me. None of them come near what Kutonii offered, but that's his fault, not theirs." The way Eshi worded some things bothered Kaede, but she couldn't quite put her hand on what, exactly, was wrong. "Environment wins."
"Sometimes," Kaede said. "I'm glad it does this time if it keeps you going, Eshi. A beautiful girl like you needs something to keep going."
"You really like the way I look?"
"Doesn't everybody?" Kaede asked.
"I wouldn't know. I never met many people before this trip," Eshi replied, deepening the mystery even further. Kaede definitely wanted to get to know the beautiful redhead better, to understand what was going on in her mind and what had transpired between her and her lover.
And, if she were going to be honest with herself, express both the maternal feelings in her heart and the more carnal feelings between her thighs. Eshi, with her innocent beauty and desperate need, got to her in ways nobody else had in months.
And Eshi seemed to notice it, too. Kaede's hand still rested on her thigh, but now Eshi noticed it, her fingers tickling the back of Kaede's arm, small, delicate movements that sent delicious sensations flying over Kaede's skin. She pulled it away. "Sorry," Eshi said. "Bad habit."
"No, that's okay," Kaede said, taking her hand off Eshi's thigh. "My fault. Anyway, how long were you with... him?"
"Forever," Eshi said.
"It can't have been forever," Kaede said. "Where did you meet? Where did you live?"
"Can we not talk about it?" Eshi asked her softly, her eyes filling with tears. "It was forever, we lived on a little mining ship called the Esther, and... I don't want to talk about it."
Kaede sighed, wondering if she would be able to get any more out of the beautiful girl who sat across the wooden table from her. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you."
"It's getting dark," Eshi said, standing suddenly. "I suppose I should find a place to hole up for the night. I won't be going out tonight."
Kaede reached up and grasped the girl's wrist. "Come home with me, then. It's as good a hole as any other."
"Why should I do that?"
"Because... because I want to get to know you better. Because I have a shower, and a bed, and a mom that cooks better than I do," Kaede said with a grin. "And she's used to me bringing girlfriends home."
Eshi pondered for a moment. "Okay. If only for the shower. I have to do something with this hair," she said as she ran a hand through the thick mass on her head.
"It gets greasy quickly," Eshi assured her. "How old are you?"
"Forty-one," Kaede said. "Still a youngster myself." She took Eshi's hand and led her out to the street, leading her in the direction of the residential section.
"But too old to be living with your mother, I think."
"Only if I lived with her constantly. I left Alphaville twenty years ago. I've been working on Terra, going to school and working with an interplanetary political organization on cultural civil rights issues. I suspect I was a token Villain."
"That's a pun, right?"
Kaede grinned. "Yes. The shuttle landed around noon, just a few hours before I met you."
"Then... you haven't met your friends, your family? I can't keep you from that!"
"You can help me do that," Kaede said. "And meeting them might be good for you. Once you realize that there's a safety here, you might feel better about your breakup."
"Won't happen," Eshi assured her.
"At least try."
Eshi sighed. "You'll see." She rose to follow Kaede out of the cafe'.
They reached Kaede's home. "Mom?" Kaede said, looking in from the front door.
"In my studio, Kaede!"
"Mom, I have a guest!"
"That was quick," said the tiny Chinese woman who walked into the front room of the house. "Who's this?"
"Mom, this is Eshi. Eshi, meet Ming Yuan, one of the finer artists to be found anywhere, but especially here on Alphaville." Ming extended her arms in a welcoming hug. Eshi returned the hug a bit stiffly.
"It's nice to meet you. You're not from Alphaville, are you?"
Eshi shook her head and Kaede moved to explain. "She was abandoned here, Mom. Her partner took off with the shuttle that brought me here. She doesn't have a room reserved and she has no luggage, either."
Her mother looked at the two of them critically. "Well, you do know how to pick the pretty ones in trouble, Kaede. Welcome to my home, Eshi. I hope you'll be a boon to it."
"I hope so, too," Eshi said softly. Ming brushed a hand along a panel, turning up the lights in the main room. Eshi glanced around. "Kaede? You offered a shower?"
"Oh, yeah. Down the hall and to the right. Darma, could you please get me some clothes that would fit her?"
"I could do that," the AI said. "But it would be better if you went shopping for it. There are several stores that will be open into the later hours of the night that might be appropriate for her needs."
Kaede nodded as she watched Eshi walk down the hall and find the bathroom. A moment later she heard water running. "What do you think?"
"I don't know enough about her, but what do you think?" her mother responded.
"I found her in the observation park. She said she was thinking about suicide."
Her mother's jaw opened. "And you brought her here?"
"I didn't know what else to do, Mom! Look at her, she's beautiful! I couldn't just let her go walk out an airlock or something. There's something very strange about her, too. She said she was in despair because she had a breakup with a man, but the way she said it sounded like it was a complete surprise to her and that she didn't have any say in it at all."
"A relationship takes two people," her mother pointed out. "If one backs out, it's over."
"That's not what I meant," Kaede said. "I mean, it sounded like... like she was a slave or something, the way she said it."
"She could be one of those kinky people you hear about. They're not just found in the Exterior," her mother offered.
"Could be, but I didn't get that from her either. Mom, she told me she's only seventeen Standard years old."
Her mother clasped her hands together and thought. "That is very young to be in a relationship. It is, however, an age where there is little experience at living. She is not like me, or you I imagine, who knows that recovery from grief is possible, eventually. She may not see the alternatives."
Kaede grinned. "That's what she called me. 'The alternative that suggests itself', or something like that."
"You are fighting for the undercat again, Kaede, as you always have." Her mother abruptly hugged her. "I have always loved your fighting spirit."
"Thanks, Mom," Kaede agreed softly. "I appreciate it." She returned her mother's hug, thankful for the older woman's understanding and love. They both heard the water stop.
"I'll go see," Kaede said. She opened the door of the shower. "Eshi?"
"Kaede? I forgot a towel and I don't see one in here."
Kaede laughed and grabbed one from the hall closet. Eshi stepped out from behind the uneven glass doors of the shower. Kaede had always wondered about such doors. Obviously, someone thought that they obscured the body, but they never worked as desired and the effect was more of a tantalizing tease than an effective cover.
But as Eshi stepped out Kaede wished for some cover. She found Eshi heart-racingly beautiful. Without the skirt, Kaede saw the way the round oval of Eshi's belly streamed perfectly to a full mound of pubic hair sculpted and trimmed into the shape of a heart, her hips well-defined, sharp, and strong. Her breasts were a pair of small, tempting globes that hung with just the slightest suggestion of a teardrop. Eshi could have held a stylus underneath them, just barely.
"I... I, um, I think we should get you some new clothes."
"Really?" Eshi said with a tiny smile. "That would be good." The way she clapped her hands together made Kaede giggle, but the expression on Eshi's face showed that she hadn't meant to be amusing. "Let me dry my hair first."
"I'll leave you alone," Kaede said, retreating to the living room. She wanted her chest to stop thumping so loudly and rubbed her thighs together in frustration. She touched the rim of her glasses and pulled up a display of the clothing stores on Alphaville. She found five nearby, two of which she remembered from her youth, the others were new. She smiled as she read reviews and notes, all submitted anonymously, which had to be on a city as small as Alphaville.
She idled through the list, picked a path to their destinations in an order that, she hoped, would give Eshi a chance to pick out the outfits that would both fit her and compliment her. She couldn't help but imagine the sweet redhead in all manner of outlandish costumes. She hoped that in real life Eshi would be more sensible than her imagination.
Eshi walked out, a large towel wrapped around her torso. It just barely hid her pubes, and Kaede checked herself from trying to peek. "I don't have any clothes other than what I was wearing," she said, helplessly.
"Put your skirt back on and I'll get you a t-shirt that'll fit you." Kaede rose and went to her room as Eshi walked back toward the bath. She found a nightshirt, light blue, that might fit Eshi's shoulders, and returned to find Eshi standing in the middle of the room. She accepted the nightshirt and slipped it on; it fell almost to her knees, effectively hiding most of her temptations. She had done a miracle with her hair, creating a beautiful frame for her youthful face. Kaede wished she could stop staring, stop looking, stop thinking about Eshi that way. The girl needed her help, not her lust.
Kaede led Eshi up into Mercantile Row, stopping at the first clothing store on her list. The proprietress, grateful for the attention of a local, was very helpful and by the end of their first visit Eshi had three pairs of slacks, pan style much like Kaede had seen on her mother, tight over the thighs and slit up the side to just below the knees, four simple tunic-style blouses and two vests and a jacket to compliment. Eshi's sense of color was uncanny for someone who claimed to have little experience with buying and wearing clothes, selecting greens and light blues that perfectly complimented her hair and eyes.
"That will look wonderful on you," Kaede said, complimenting her on a plaid skirt that reached to just below the knees and a split-color blouse, fiery yellow up top, pure white on the bottom, with a small insignia of an egret over the left breast. The proprietress informed them that it was a symbol of lower nobility or perhaps bureaucracy in ancient China
"Thanks," Eshi said, twirling and looking at herself in the mirror. "I'm not used to seeing myself this way."
"I think I like seeing you this way," Kaede said appreciatively. Kaede found Eshi attractive and confusing, both of which inspired feelings in her that made her want to work hard to keep Eshi around.
Eshi looked at her with knitted brows. "You really like me, don't you?"
"I like what I've seen so far," Kaede admitted.
"It's not just your duty to keep a suicide from, well, doing it?"
Kaede shook her head. "It could be just that, but it's not, really. It's more than that. I think I do like you, Eshi. You're cute, in a peculiar sort of way."
Eshi nodded. "I accept that," she said again.
Kaede smiled back. Through the glass of the storefront, she spotted another shop that was not on her list. An impulse struck her. "C'mon. I want to get you some jewelry."
They walked across the street where Kaede struggled to find something that would make Eshi even prettier. After trying on several necklaces, earrings, and even a pair of eyeglasses Eshi insisted she didn't need, Kaede was about to give up. "What about that?" Eshi asked.
"What is that?"
"The collar is silkworm silk, all natural, grown down below," the merchantress said, "And the emerald is a local manufacture but cut by hand the old-fashioned way, with chisel and mark." She held up a white display stand with a black collar about a centimeter wide.
"I don't know..." Kaede said. Eshi's attraction to the collar reminded her too much of her conversation with her mother and her suspicions about the girl's former relationships.
"Let me try it on?" Eshi said. "Please?"
"You don't need my permission," Kaede said, then realized that Eshi probably wouldn't be happy until she gave it. "Go ahead."
Eshi gave a sudden, rare grin, and beckoned for the collar. She put it on and clasped it in the back, and the clasp seemed to disappear, leaving an unbroken line of black around that slim, long neck. "What do you think?"
Eshi's question was accompanied by the first real and persistent smile Kaede had seen in her. The collar clung close to her neck like some delicate animal about to strangle her at any second. The gem hung down in the hollow of her throat, the tip dangling just where her collarbones made a space for it. The tiny, golden clasp that held the stone to the collar was just visible, glittering, a tiny, perfect addition.
Kaede shivered. "It's... it's beautiful on you."
"Can I keep it?" Eshi asked her.
Kaede nodded. "I wish you'd stop asking me for permission."
Eshi walked over to her. In a voice just so low she could barely be heard, she said, "I like asking you for permission. You're my friend. And I guess it's nice to know someone cares enough either way."
Kaede smiled tightly. "Okay. But we have to talk about this later." As Eshi turned around and said, "We'll just take this one," Kaede wondered what she had gotten herself into. She watched Eshi go through the motions and turn around, the necklace still around her neck, little white box in hand. "Anyplace else to go?" she asked.
"No," Kaede said. "Not that I can think of. You don't need shoes in the city, but if you want a pair I know of a few places that sell them."
"Tomorrow," Eshi said. "I think you're tired."
"I am," Kaede admitted with a yawn. "What a busy day. My clock is a little earlier than Alphaville time thanks to the flight, then there's running into you, and all this, and... and I haven't eaten dinner yet!"
"Then let me take you back to your house.. You said you mother can cook. So can I."
"That's good," Kaede admitted. "I can't."
"Then let me show you. At least to thank you for the kindness you have shown to me."
Kaede nodded and let Eshi lead her home. The girl's memory was surprisingly good and she had no trouble at all retracing their steps. As they walked in, the savory smell of a stew reached her nose. Eshi said, "I guess I won't have much of a chance to show you."
"Make me pancakes in the morning," Kaede replied, "and we'll be friends... for a long time." She had almost said 'forever,' but after Petterin she knew better. Petterin had told her that it was love, but that there was something even more important than love pulling her out to the stars.
"You still want me to be here in the morning?"
"I would like it if you were. Mom! We're home!"
"Hi! I made a squash stew, with butternut and garbanzo bean."
"You remembered!" Kaede said.
"Oh, like I'm going to forget my daughter's favorite soups and stews," her mother said, coming out of the kitchen. "It's been sitting on the stove for an hour. Come, sit, eat." She busied herself, doling out bowls, while Eshi inquired if she could help. Her mother asked her to set the table while Kaede trundled two bags of clothing back to the her room.
"So, how was your trip home?" her mother asked. Kaede took up where her last letter left off, outlining her cordial breakup with Petterin and concentrating on the things that had happened since-- the closing of her office, the trip from Terra to llerkin, llerkin to gasani, waiting at gasani for the small hyperspace shuttle that would take her to Alphaville. She made it sound as boring as it was and left out her own internal conflicts. Even if her mother was physically the same age-state as herself, there were just some things she did not address directly with her mother.
She yawned and apologized, explaining that she had been on the go for more than twenty hours, and her mother kindly suggested, as mothers will, that she should go right to bed after dinner. Kaede was not inclined to disagree.
She glanced over to where Eshi sat, eating carefully but also listening with more attention than she would have thought proper or likely. Did a simple interstellar trip merit the kind of rapt attention one reserved for a personal theater engagement? Kaede thought that, if she had Eshi's past, maybe it did. If only Eshi would reveal why.
She yawned again, apologized again, and ate the rest of her stew. Eshi asked for a second helping which her mother was only too ready to dish out. "I don't normally eat this much," Eshi said, "but it's been all day."
"You eat all you like. I'm glad you made it here without incident, Kaede." Kaede agreed politely. She supposed that something romantic had happened, after all-- she had become embroiled in an adventure, trying to save the life of a beautiful but mysterious young girl. If that didn't qualify as romantic, what did? If this was a romance, she wondered, where was the passion? Where was the sex?
She scowled inwardly. She shouldn't have been feeling so irresponsible. She didn't want to be haunted by these feelings, but they wouldn't leave her alone. Petterin's grin flashed before her eyes.
"Kaede?" her mother asked, obviously repeating herself. "You're off in your own world again."
"Sorry, Mom. Just thinking."
"Well, I'm going to my studio. You friend has offered to help clean up if you will show her where everything goes. And don't worry about the water. Darma turinged up another converter and we have more than we can use these days." She smiled. "Thank you for coming to dinner, Eshi. It was nice to have you. Will you be here for breakfast?"
"I... I haven't decided yet. Maybe."
"Well, see you in the morning then, if I don't see you before you go to bed." She stood and walked out, leaving Kaede alone with Eshi.
"I think I can find where the dishes go," Eshi said as she rose, her dishes in hand as she walked into the kitchen.. "Do you have an automatic washer, or do you do them by hand?"
"Automatic. Uses less water than doing it by hand. You can't miss it, either. It's under the lid on the far right side of the counter by the sink."
"On the right side... counter... sink... under the lid... ah!" Eshi's muttering was followed by a sound Kaede hadn't heard in twenty years and for a moment transported her back to her earliest memories. The springs on that thing couldn't have lasted that long. But the metallic song of the dishwasher lid was familiar and unchanged, and had been a part of her life every day since she had been born until she had left for Terra.
"Kaede?" A hand was shaking her. "Kaede? I think your mother's right. You should go to bed."
"Did I fall asleep?" she asked, looking up at Eshi's concerned eyes.
"Yes, you did."
"Okay," Kaede agreed, standing groggily. "I'm going to bed." She rose and walked down the hall. "Did you find everything?"
"Yes," Eshi said, coming up behind her. "I even put the stew away in a container so you can have some tomorrow, and I swept the floors and wiped down the counters and the dining room table."
Kaede grinned. "You didn't have to do that."
"It was better than my sitting, doing nothing, and watching you sleep."
She reached out and hugged Eshi suddenly. Eshi's arms hugged her back tightly and she felt a warm trickle of liquid suddenly arise between her thighs. Her nipples grew taut and her breasts heavy. She shook her head. "I'm going to sleep."
As she turned her back, she heard Eshi ask, "Kaede, can I sleep with you tonight?"
Kaede's heart thumped again at the same time she felt a cool shiver down her back. There was something in the tone of Eshi's voice that told her that she had said those words many times in the past. What had happened when her previous partner had refused? Had he refused? Kaede suspected that he had, and often.
She turned around and looked at the younger girl. She almost said, "If you want to," but then stopped herself, thought again, and said, simply, "Yes."
"Thank you," Eshi said softly. Kaede led her into the bedroom, where the she casually began undressing, tossing aside the pants and blouse she had worn. Without even glancing at the other girl she crawled into bed and pulled the covers over herself. She felt the bed rock as Eshi climbed in behind her.
"Darma, lights out please," Kaede murmured. She closed her eyes and tried to sleep, her back to Eshi, but the younger girl's presence wouldn't let her. Eshi seemed to know her mind because she felt the girl shift closer, her breasts against Kaede's back, her nipples pointedly expressed against Kaede's skin. Her arm slid over Kaede's and eased up to stop near her breasts, fingers delicately pressed to her shoulder.
"What are you doing?" she asked.
Eshi withdrew her hand and turned away. Kaede's back suddenly felt cold. Guilt crept into her heart and turned her over. "Eshi?" she said softly. "I didn't ask you to go away."
"I'm doing wrong," Eshi said softly. "It was unfair of me to ask you for your bed tonight. And now I don't know what to do."
Kaede groped out in the dark, her fingertips finding softness, gliding over tiny hairs on the back of Eshi's arm. "Come here," Kaede said. Eshi moved closer. "Kiss me."
Eshi's lips touched her cheek, slid down, pressed against her lips. She felt a hand on her arm, pulling the two of them together, responding to the magnetism between them. Kaede was old enough, experienced enough, to know that those feelings were always one-sided, and if the the other person felt the same way it was only fortunate happenstance. But she was grateful anyway as Eshi's lips parted and her tongue led its way into her mouth. She moaned softly. "Eshi," she said. "Do you want this?"
"Yes," Eshi said in her strange, matter-of-fact voice. "Yes, I do."
"Because it's what I want," Eshi said. "You've tried to be so nice to me."
"Did I succeed?"
"As well as you could."
Kaede wished she could see the girl's expressions. "I couldn't have done any better?"
"Not with the way I'm feeling," Eshi said. Her voice said one thing but her hands said another. They found Kaede's nipples and stroked them, so carefully that Kaede barely noticed until the sensations were shooting straight from her breasts down to her cunt, filling her insides with wetness and need.
"Ah!" Kaede gasped. "Eshi, if you're hurting..."
"I'm not," Eshi said. "Not that way. Kaede, let me show you my gratitude. I know that you want me."
"Yes," Kaede said. "Yes, but... "
"Shh..." Eshi said, suddenly the leader. A very gentle leader, but still leading. She played with Kaede's breasts, her fingernails caressing the taut skin of them, playing with her nipples until Kaede felt she would burst with need. "Harder," she gasped to Eshi. The girl ignored her pleas, driving her insane down ways that Kaede barely knew she could find inside herself.
Eshi slid down the bed in the dark, pushing Kaede's knees apart with her hands, sliding her hands up her thighs. Kaede felt the slim girl's mouth on her knee, on her thigh, her hands leading the way. Kaede was so turned on that she wanted to grab Eshi's head and shove it between her legs, but she controlled herself, held back and waited to see what Eshi would do to her.
That warm mouth with its wet tongue and the mischievous mind behind it pressed along the flesh of her inner thigh, kissing and licking and seeming to never come any closer to her cunt. Kaede could feel her clit throbbing as it hadn't felt in many months. She moaned aloud, hoping that her mother wouldn't hear her. Eshi would switch back and forth, from one thigh to another, and Kaede was going out of her mind with need. "Eshi, Eshi, Eshi, please!" she gasped.
Eshi's mouth found her pubic hair, and her lips pulled on a few of them, letting them fall away from her lips before she would graze on more. Her breath flowed over Kaede's cunt. Kaede reached down with her hands and entangled them in Eshi's mass of hair, pulling her needfully toward her cunt. Eshi's mouth found her labia and parted them, her tongue sliding up the grooves formed by inner and outer labia, one side and another, up the middle, still drawing out Kaede's agonizing need. "Lick my clit!" Kaede gasped. "Eshi, lick me!"
Eshi's tongue pressed against Kaede's clitoris and Kaede felt as if she would explode right then. The sensations and her own need were so strong, so undeniable, but she knew that she was really nowhere near coming. It took straight pressure, and a lot of it, to make her come.
Or so she had always known. But something in the way Eshi had built her lust up already was overwhelming her, and in less than a minute that tiny, insistent, overpowering tongue threw her over the edge of ecstasy and she came, her muscles on fire, her body heaving with uncontrolled pleasure. "Oh, goddess...." she moaned. "Oh, goddess, yes, yes, Eshi!"
Eshi's tongue and hands carefully guided Kaede back to reality, and then the girl was back her side, next to her. "Did that work?" she asked.
"You know it did," Kaede gasped. "Oh, you were wonderful!"
"Thanks," Eshi said, her voice quite and abashed. "I've never practiced on a woman before."
Kaede almost blurted out, "liar," but she caught herself. Something in the back of her mind told her that Eshi was telling the truth, but she also thought that nobody became that good without practice.
"You were.... perfect," Kaede said softly. "What can I do for you?"
"Nothing, right now," Eshi said. "You sound tired. If you want to make me happier, get some good sleep."
"You're sure?" Kaede asked.
"Yes, I'm sure," Eshi whispered. "Go to sleep, Kaede..."
"If it's what you want..." Kaede nodded, and then nodded off.
She awoke some time in the middle of the night. It was still dark outside her window and a glance at the clock told her that it would still be dark for two more hours. She wondered what had awakened her when she turned over and realized that it was her bladder. "Oof," she said softly, then tried to climb out of her bed only to encounter Eshi. "Oh," she whispered. The other girl didn't move, and Kaede carefully slipped off the foot of the bed instead and made her way to the bathroom. She crawled back into bed and curled up next to Eshi. The other girl moved back against her invitingly, and Kaede took the hint, pulling Eshi into a cuddle. The girl rolled onto her back and Kaede slid one leg over hers, an arm over her midriff, her head on Eshi's shoulder.
They lay there for a while, Kaede wondering just how awake Eshi was, wondering why she felt so comfortable cuddling Eshi, why she wasn't having the kind of reaction she had with Petterin where after a few minutes she would be so warm she would have to pull away, and wondering why she couldn't go to sleep. She closed her eyes and tried not to think of anything at all but just let her mind wander. As she shifted her head against Eshi's shoulder she heard something. It was faint and muffled. She could hear a strange ticking sound. She listened for a few minutes and became convinced that it was coming from inside Eshi.
The realization surprised her so much that she lifted her head. "What?" Eshi mumbled quietly.
"What's that sound?" Kaede asked, curious.
"Inside you? Do you have some kind of prosthesis?"
"You... you heard it?" Eshi asked. Then, in a voice so flat and distant it made every hair on Kaede's body stand up, "You have very good ears." Kaede felt a shifting of the mattress and the sound of footsteps. Leaving.
"Darma! Lights!" The lights came on and Kaede was in bed, alone.
"Damn!" she swore, getting up and pulling her nightcloak from the back of her door. She stepped into some warming slippers, grabbed her glasses and followed Eshi out into the night. "Where could she have gone?"
"The last time I sensed her presence, she was approaching the observation dome," Darma said.
Kaede walked toward the dome, her mind going through all the possible scenarios that could have led to tonight. There was only one that she kept coming back to, and she was surprised to find that it didn't bother her that much. For one thing, it meant that she could expect to find Eshi intact when she got to the dome.
The lights were out in the dome, as they would be at this hour, to guarantee that the plants were getting the proper day/night cycles, and that romance under the stars was still alive and well. There were low glowlights illuminating the edges of the walkways so that night visitors could step through without suddenly plunging off a bridge into one of the streams or stray onto grass that was being protected from injury. She had little trouble making her way down the steps that led to the picnic area she had been to only a few hours earlier. As she approached, the sound of the stream faded away and she could make out clearly Eshi's sobbing.
She sat on the bench next to the girl and reached out with one hand, touching Eshi's thigh. "Don't," the girl said, brushing her hand away.
"Why? Because you're not human?" Kaede asked.
"Because I'm a machine," Eshi said, her voice once again heavy with grief. "A single-use, dedicated purpose sex machine. My name is a corruption of some ancient slang term that means 'always horny.' And now my single use is over. I'm discarded like a used PADD that's not stylish anymore." Eshi sobbed softly.
"You can't be that mechanical if you cry like this."
"I know," Eshi said through her tears. "I don't understand it. It must be something in the programming, to make me simulate tears when I simulate emotional pain. I... I want to just die and get it over with."
"I don't think it's simulation," Kaede said. "I don't know enough about cybernetics, but I know real pain when I see it, and there's nothing fake about your feelings, Eshi." She smiled with irony. "Besides, I have no idea how robots commit suicide."
"Neither do I," Eshi said, with something that might have been a laugh, or it might have been a bark. "I can't just walk out an airlock. That would just make a mess."
"What are you? I mean, mechanically?"
"I don't know what that means."
"It's like a posit, only with a lot more mechanics. Hardware in here," she said, touching her head, "and in my chest. My whole skeleton's reiceramic. I don't technically need my flesh to survive or be mobile. It's just like a suit of clothing I can't take off."
Kaede felt a smile cross her lips. "A lot of us feel that way about our bodies, Eshi. That's not unique." She stood up and got onto the table with the girl, whom she still thought of as a girl. "Tell me about you, Eshi. Tell me where you came from and what happened to you."
Eshi looked up at Kaede, her cheeks glistening in the light of the walkway growstrips. "I... I was fabricated at the Martian Metals medical robotics facility at New Detroit, Mars. I was instantiated on April 16th, 0875, and my programming was established that I would dedicate my life to doing what a man named Kutonii said would make him happy. That's more or less the way it's worded. It's more subtle than that, with all kinds of things about self-protection and deflection of dangerous suggestions by my beloved, but ultimately it comes down him and his wants." Eshi smirked in a painful sort of way.
"Why him?" Kaede asked. "I mean, how could he afford to do it? They still use money on Terra, right?"
Eshi nodded. "Kutonii is a rare kind of person. He's a miner. He travels, alone, in a starship packed with sensors and specialized equipment, looking for the rare epiferric metals that AIs and gradios and sdisks all need to keep running. He's really good at finding them, better than most of the mining AIs, so he goes out ahead of the mining ships, looking for places that might have them, and brings back gigatons of the stuff. He's good at what he does, and he was rich. He wanted a doxy he could take with him, and he had me made to order." Eshi shrugged. Suddenly, she put her head down. The voice of pain returned. "And now it's all over."
"You're not just a machine, Eshi. That was settled two hundred years ago. You're a person in your own right. I don't see how he could have you made to be dedicated just to him."
Eshi's sobs carried in the empty space for a few seconds, then she said, "It's just like anyone else falling in love, Kaede. Sometimes you want to give your life over to that person. Some people are like that. I was made to be like that kind of person for Kutonii."
"But look what happened!"
"But I was happy!" Eshi insisted. "Don't you understand? For seventeen years. He was rough with me but he never hurt me. I did everything for him, his laundry, his cooking, kept his cabin clean, and to me there was so much satisfaction and contentment in being like that. Every day, he would smile at me and tousle my hair and say, 'Thanks, Eshi,' and my heart would just soar. I loved him and, I think, in the beginning, he loved me too. Even when that started to wane I knew peace and fulfillment knowing I was doing what I could for him. And then, one day, he said, 'I don't want you in my life anymore.' He said it three times in a row, perfectly. I had no warning. He hadn't been talking to me or seeing me as often as he used to, but that could have meant anything. And then he went back to the shuttle to go get his ship."
Kaede looked at her. She walked around Eshi and put her cloak around the two of them, wrapping her arms around the suffering girl. "I thought... I don't know anything about robots. I thought there was an out."
"There is, but, they don't tell you what it really does." Kaede waited. With her arms around Eshi's torso she could feel the slim girl's soft, rounded breasts against her wrists. She wished she could think about something else. "It doesn't work the way you think it does. It's not like, 'Oh, okay, I'm a free person now' and you can go off and live your life. I had seventeen years of experience with one man, one life, one ship. It meant something to me. It was all I had. And then, one day, I'm shoved out and told I don't mean anything anymore. You can't imagine what that's like, Kaede."
"No," Kaede agreed. "I can't. But you can't want to go back to him."
"I don't! Never once did I even hint that I wanted to go. Nothing could make me go back now. But that doesn't mean I don't miss it. The dedication to him is gone, but the memories are still there. Worst of all, nothing exists to replace my dedication to him. That's my problem. That's why I hate my life so much. Everything else I did was in service to my... primary role, and my designers figured that the best feedback loops and the best visible responses would be human-analogous. My whole reason for living is gone. I can cook and I can draw and I can navigate a starship, but all of those are just side effects. The pleasure I got from them happened because they were in service to my reason for being. I... I feel physical pleasure, Kaede, the way you do, but without the dedication it's no better than masturbation."
"Is that why you went down on me tonight?"
"No!" Eshi said, struggling free of Kaede's grip to turn around and look at her. "No, it wasn't like that. All day yesterday, when we went shopping for clothes and I kept asking you for permission to try things and do things, when I asked you if I could make you dinner, and when I cleaned up your kitchen and dining room, it was... it was because I kept feeling these faint things, little pleasures that made me think, if I can just get more of that, I might have a reason to go on. I'm not programmed to avoid self-destruction, it's just that I keep having these little... That's why I wanted to get into bed with you. I wanted to thank you, but mostly--" She fell silent. Kaede touched her chin, made her look up. "I was using you. I wanted to see if the thrill of pleasing you would be one of those faint echoes of pleasure."
"Was it?" Kaede asked.
Eshi grinned, her cheeks shining with salty tears. "Louder than the others, but still faint. Just an echo. Not the real thing. I... I feel guilty about using you that way. I'm sorry."
"Goddess, Eshi, you made me come like no woman, or man for that matter, has in years. Don't apologize for that. If I hadn't wanted it I would have told you to stop."
Eshi nodded and they lapsed into silence. Kaede sat with her thoughts, struggling with conflicts that she knew she couldn't resolve without Eshi's help but reluctant to bring them up. She felt something for Eshi she had never felt for anyone else before, but after knowing the girl for less than a day she wasn't about to put labels on those feelings. She didn't want to lose her. She knew that.
"Eshi?" she asked softly. "What if we repurposed you?"
"You can't," Eshi said. "It's against law and tradition."
"No, I mean, what if you asked to be repurposed?"
"To do what?"
"To be mine." Even as she said it, Kaede felt a shiver run down her back. Neither one of them could think of something to say for a while, but Kaede's mind was spinning helplessly as she tried to come up with something. "I'm not sure I'm really ready for the responsibility. I mean, if it doesn't work, you'll be left without a reason again, but with the memories of two failures, and I'll have given up on a fourth relationship since I reached adulthood. I suppose that's not so bad, but it's only been twenty years and I'm supposed to have done better." She grinned. "I guess it would be arbitrary, but then so was your instan... what was that word?"
"Instantiation. To be an instance of a conscious person."
"Instantiation, right. So was your instantiation in the first place."
Eshi looked up at her. Kaede briefly wondered if there was something biochemically different about Eshi's organics; tears shouldn't grow that large before finally dripping down her cheeks. "I... I can't ask it of you."
"Why? What does it take to maintain you?"
"Nothing, really," Eshi said. "I'm SDisk capable for power and data, have a multibank fusion cell when I'm not near an SDisk power network, like right now-- that's what you heard, the compressor for the power cell. It'll need replacing in six hundred years if I stay here and keep using it." Eshi grinned. "My flesh is post-Saman with some Pendorian medical fixes, and it can all be replaced anyway. I eat a third of what your average human does, since I have neither a brain nor major circulatory organs to power that way. I seem to need to pee about as often." She giggled.
"Then why can't you ask it of me?"
"Because... Because it's a relationship," Eshi said. "Even if were to be purposed to you, we would still have to adjust. All relationships have dynamics. What if ours doesn't work?"
"I don't know," Kaede admitted.
"Maybe we could make adjustments slowly," Eshi said. "I mean, start the way we are today, but ease into it. I know there are subprograms that let that happen. I decided to lock mine away. It feels more like free will if I don't know the mechanics of my thinking process anyway."
"Do you actually have free will?" Kaede said, suddenly curious.
"As much as you do," Eshi said. "I feel free. That's all that matters."
"Even when you were dedicated to what's-his-name?"
"Even then. I was doing what I wanted to do. I know why I want to do it, but that doesn't change anything. It's what I want, it's who I am. I'm free to be who I am, and I'd rather be dedicated to someone than forced by custom, law, social pressure, or an unwanted voice in my head to be something I'm not. Isn't that free will?"
Kaede couldn't come up with a convincing counter-argument. "I suppose," she finally admitted, trying to find some flaw and not finding one immediately.
"I still don't know if it's a good idea," Eshi said.
Kaede sighed. "It isn't. But if you have this much control over your wants and needs, Eshi, why don't you have it so that if it fails you're just back to your current state?"
Eshi looked away. "It doesn't work like that. My mind, like yours, evolves. It's state changes as things happen and memories come in. That's why I need to sleep, like you; the incorporation of experiential memory needs to happen without conscious interference. I guess we could make it so that if you did release me from my dedication, I wouldn't feel so bad about it." She paused. "No, that doesn't work. That wouldn't be me."
"No," Kaede agreed. "And I like you."
"Still," Kaede said. "This may sound funny, but... can you bear children?"
"Yes!" Eshi said with a laugh. "Yes, I can. I'm fully equipped for that. Why? You want one?"
Kaede shook her head. "No, no. Just curious." She touched rim of her glasses. "Darma?"
"Here," came the reply.
"Darma," she began, then something occurred to her. "You knew, didn't you?" she asked angrily.
"That Eshi was a robot? Yes."
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"Do I tell you the gene pattern of every person you encounter, or even of those you sleep with? Do I tell you that they have a family history of depression, or a propensity for short relationships? Do I tell you what they had breakfast? Does it matter? Should it matter?"
"She's different!" she said to the empty air between her and Eshi.
"And if I had told you that she was 'different,' whatever that means, would you have worked as hard to get to know her? Would you have thought of her the way I think of her, as a sister?"
Kaede felt that damnable chill run through her again. In shame, she looked away, out toward the blackness of space beyond the dome panels. "Daughter," Darma said softly. "I have loved you as much as I love anyone here. I would never do anything to harm you. I am as dedicated to you as Eshi will be, if you want her to be. But I was not going to ruin what I saw as a good opportunity for the two of you to find some common ground without that Purpose. She is made so that you will assume she is human. I saw no good result in spoiling that assumption."
As Kaede thought, Eshi shifted against her. "Look," she said.
Kaede lifted her head in time to see a fat snowflake fall on the dome and vanish. Another, and another, and then the snow was coming down, making her feel like she was in an inside-out version of those snowglobes she had seen at the Terran spaceport. It all disappeared the instant it touched the heated dome, but the sight of it, trailing down in unnaturally large crystals, made Kaede smile. "When I was little, even if it was a little past my bedtime, Mom and Mama would let me come and watch the snow. We all came. When I was older I took girlfriends here. It was very romantic."
After a while, Eshi said, "It's very late. I don't think we're going to get visitors."
"No," Kaede replied. "Probably not. Eshi, promise me you will not commit suicide, and I will see about finding a cyberneticist to repurpose you."
Eshi surprised her with a shrug. "Okay."
"I don't know if it'll make a difference. I mean, I know it will make a difference, but I don't know if it'll mean what we hope it will mean. And I'm still trying to be protective of you."
"Let it," Kaede said. "Be protective of yourself."
Eshi sighed softly. "Okay."
"Now, come back to bed. I'm still tired, and you promised me pancakes."
"You two get enough sleep last night?" her mother asked.
"Fine," Kaede lied with a yawn. "It's hard getting used to sleeping in a different bed all the time, but this one didn't change much." She looked across the table at her mother, who had the unerring audacity to look both awake and groomed before it was decent. "I hope we weren't too loud."
"No, no. Didn't hear a thing," her mother said, volleying social lie with social lie. They both knew better. "Where is Eshi?"
"In the kitchen. She promised to cook me pancakes this morning. Real, heavy ones with khamut and wheat and whole milk and eggs and butter, Mom. There, is that better?"
"If you actually eat them, it will do," he mother said with a grin. She reached out and touched Eshi's hand. "I'm so glad you found someone, Kaede. You sounded so sad after you broke up with Petterin."
"What if I had been het, Mom?"
"I would have been happy for you too. So long as you weren't rhysh."
"Mom!" Kaede said, shocked.
"I know it is not a right thing to say, but... I am jealous and want you to be happy and normal. I want you to give me and Lisaveta grandchildren. With a human girl, you can do that. If you had fallen with someone from another species, it would have meant my waiting that much longer. I'm glad you are a normal."
Kaede stared at her mother's face and thought hastily. She would never have thought that her mother, of all people, would have expressed such an opinion. She had hoped to be able to tell her mother about Eshi's origins soon, before the purposing, or whatever it was called, was done. Now her mother had gone and thrown a spanner into that whole plan. And she wasn't a "normal," whatever that meant. If she met a Pendorian or a llerkin or even a Sendar she liked, she thought that was just as likely as her falling madly in bed with a human. She wasn't prejudiced at all, and that was part of the reason she had been attracted to the civil rights office in which she had worked.
Her mother would just have to live with the fact that she had, after all, fallen for a non-human. She sighed and relaxed into the chair. "I can't believe you would say that," she finally managed to say. "Mom, I've spent my whole life trying to deal with people like you. Aren't there enough babies in the world?"
"None that are of my blood, except for you," her mother countered. "Don't I deserve to know that my one reason for being, being a mother, has been carried on?"
Kaede bit her lip. She stared at her mother and wondered what she could say. She'd had this fight before with people where she worked, where the widespread agnosticism of the inhabited universe led to a certain nihilism, and where people assumed that because they had become adapted to be good little reproducing machines meant that that was all that they were. The Pendorians pragmatism of going on anyway, do what you want anyway, bring pleasure and joy and beauty to the world anyway and forget about what one "should" do, appealed to her in ways that both Terran naturalism in extremis and nihilism did not. "Mom, I'll have children my own way in my own time. You can't rush me. And you can't live through me." As she said it, she knew it was weak.
"You can't blame a mother for trying. I hope you and Eshi do make it last longer than... how long were you and Petterin together?"
"Six years," Kaede said. "And I hope Eshi and I find something, too, Mom, but gee, I've only known her a day. You act like we've been dating for months and it might get serious."
"I see it in your eyes-- and hers. There is something there, Kaede, that the two of you know you feel." Kaede nodded, knowing full well that she couldn't tell her mother quite yet that that "something" was different and richer than what she might have assumed.
A light blinked in her glasses, and she reached up to touch the frame expectantly. A captioned square with a photograph read, "Dr. Koyor Tine, Cyberneticist. 10:00am. Follow the blue arrows. Allow for 20 minutes of lead time." She touched the frame again and said, "Thanks, Darma."
"You are going somewhere?" her mother asked.
"Eshi and I are going to meet some people this morning, look out on the world and see what's what."
Her mother grinned. "Good for you, Kaede. I'm glad that you're going to socialize. You always were such a lonely child when you were younger."
"I remember," she said.
Eshi popped her head in. "Breakfast!" she said in a surprisingly cheerful voice. Kaede remembered the morose young girl from last night and wondered how she was so effectively masking her depression. It must be all for show, she thought, for her mother.
But as Eshi maneuvered around the table, delivering juice and coffee and syrup and utensils, Kaede sensed the gloom in Eshi's face, in the poise of her body. Eshi, she thought, was a piece of art all her own. Kaede saw a lost soul that deserved to be protected.
They ate quietly, her mother honoring Eshi's request not to be grilled too closely about her past. Kaede watched Eshi eat two pancakes and wondered if Eshi could get fat. Probably, she surmised. The pancakes, for all the ingredients that Eshi had used, were the fluffiest things Kaede had eaten in years.
After breakfast, she took Eshi's hand and led the surprisingly timid girl back into her room. "We have an appointment with a cyberneticist, a Doctor Tine, at ten this morning."
Eshi looked up at her, her eyes liquid. "Are you sure you want to do this?" she asked. "You don't have to be a hero, you know."
Kaede laughed. "Yes I do. I am not going to let a beautiful girl die because she was ill-used by someone. You're interesting and intriguing and I like you, Eshi. You have so much to learn and do. I'm not going to let you throw yourself away."
The girl sighed. "I suppose."
"You promised me," Kaede said.
"And I won't break that promise," Eshi said. "If it's at ten, then you had better let me go. We'll be late if I don't start the dishes now."
"Okay," Kaede said. "Just remember. I'm worrying about you."
"I know," Eshi said. "I don't deserve it, but I'm grateful, somehow, that you are." Kaede let her go and the two of them walked into the front.
Kaede's mother was busily cleaning up and Eshi joined her, packing the washer and wiping down the counters and table. "You are so helpful," her mother said. "My daughter was never so happy about helping."
"It's just in my nature," Eshi said. "I like being helpful. I guess I'm just made to be a good homemaker."
Her mother and Eshi exchanged what Kaede thought of as meaningful looks, and then her mother said, "Good. Kaede, you keep this one. She'll be good for you."
Kaede grinned. "You barely know her, Mom."
"I've seen enough. Anyone who is happy doing the dishes is good enough for me. All your friends were always so wild and contrary. I'm sure they all grew up into good women, but none quite so whole as this one."
"I appreciate the vote of confidence," Eshi said, her voice even.
"Eshi, we need to get going."
"I know," the girl said. "I'll be ready in a moment." She disappeared into the back room and returned a moment later, her red hair brushed and set into that beautiful frame she had made yesterday. Her blue, oversized sweater and pleated, knee-length skirt made her look pretty rather than beautiful, and Kaede's knees felt weak at the privilege she had suddenly found in her life. "I'm ready."
Kaede took her hand and led her out into the street. A blue arrow appeared before her eyes and she began following it up the street, holding Eshi's hand tightly as if refusing to let the other woman think about leaving...
... while she still could. Kaede shook her head momentarily. Eshi looked at her as they walked. "You're being very quiet this morning," she said.
"So are you."
"It's in my nature to be quiet," Eshi said. "It's part of what I am. You seem to like talking. I was wondering what was going on in your mind."
Kaede sighed. "It occurred to me over breakfast that I... I don't know how I should feel about our relationship, especially if we go through with this. I've spent my life helping people to be free from arbitrary and unnecessary restrictions. And yet, here I am, helping you to take one on. I feel... I feel guilty. Once you have purpose, you'll be happy again. That's what we're assuming. But you'll also be less free."
"Are you free to be prejudiced?" Eshi asked.
"I don't understand."
"Are you free to be prejudiced? Would you choose to hate me because of what I am?"
"No, of course not," Kaede said.
"I... it's wrong."
"Why do you believe it's wrong? Could you choose to think that way?" Eshi said, pressing her. "If you're just not willing, no matter what, to be prejudiced, how is that different from being unable to be prejudiced? Where's you freedom then? Kaede, you're free to be what you are. I'm free to be what I am. I was happy with my purpose in place. If you won't let me go, let me have my purpose back. Even if I'm not free to choose unhappiness at the thought of you, I'll feel free. It's all I want."
"But I'll just be using you. You'll be my slave. You said it yourself-- you're a good housewife. You can cook and clean and keep a house or a starship, and you're just amazing in bed. You were last night."
"So?" Eshi said. "Go forward. Or not. Leave me now. Find someone else who wants me. Or let's go see this person and have her find me something I can shut myself down with."
"I..." Kaede felt something well up behind her heart and burst through. She looked down at the beautiful girl and said, "I can't, Eshi. I like you."
"Why?" Eshi said.
"I don't know!" Kaede said. "This isn't easy for me."
Eshi reached up and touched her face. "Let me make it easy for you. Tell me to go away, or take me to the cyberneticist."
Kaede closed her eyes quietly. "Telling you to just 'go away' would never be easy for me. I would never forgive myself. And after last night, I think... I want more of you."
"Then let's ask Dr. Tine to make it a slow thing."
They reached the office where Dr. Koyor Tine was in temporary residence. It surprised both of them that she wasn't human, but it surprised Kaede even more that she was a llerkin. "Come in," she said in a voice soft and sibilant. "I received the strangest message yesterday from your AI. Which one of you is the recently depurposed robot?"
Eshi held up her hand. "I'm so sorry for your loss," Dr. Tine said, holding out her hand and taking Eshi's. "Martian Metals," she said, looking at the hands carefully. "What marvelous work, especially on a revenant. You're very beautiful. How old?"
"Tragic. And you've got post-purpose depression. Thoughts of suicide?" Eshi nodded. "Any will to go through with it?" Eshi nodded. "What stopped you?"
"Her," Eshi said, pointing to Kaede. "She wouldn't leave me alone. I've been going through the motions of what I did with purpose and finding little echoes. I like her. I think she would be good for me."
"Good. Darma agrees." She turned. "What's your name?"
"What do you do?"
"Civil rights worker, Alphaville representative, USS Civil Rights Commission, open NGO." She rattled off her labels as if she were still living them. "I'm back after twenty years away. I'm not sure if I'm going to stay. Probably not."
Dr. Tine smiled. "Darma thinks very highly of you. So, Eshi, think of me as your doctor. What do you want me to do?"
"I want to be purposed again."
"To what?" Dr. Tine asked.
Dr. Tine was silent for a moment. "There is a phenomenon among the recently depurposed call bounceback. You'll look for anything, anyone, you can attach yourself to, anything to give you back the pleasures you lost. It's a lot like the depression naturals feel after losing a relationship. The problem is that, unlike naturals, you don't have the illusory primary purpose of trying to find a new relationship and all the accessories of reproduction and sociability. For organics, a relationship is epiphenomenal to seeking reproduction. That doesn't mean that that's the only thing you do with a relationship or the only meaning you should apply to one, but that's the etiology."
"A robot such as yourself, on the other hand, has a relationship as its primary purpose. The pleasures of life are epiphenomenal to it, and without it, a robot is bereft. While few high-quality shops will make relationship-purposed robots, it's easy to buy the parts and make one these days, and Martian Metals is, despite their quality, willing to sell to just about anyone." Dr. Tine touched Eshi's arm. "It's usually not a good idea to be repurposed the way you want. There's every reason in the world to believe that it won't last. Only one out of ten thousand relationships, organic or otherwise, lasts a thousand years."
"I don't care," Eshi and Kaede said simultaneously. Eshi continued, "I've thought about that, but I don't want to live if I can't be purposed to a person. Being purposed to a concept, or a collection of concepts, or some semi-deterministic set of pleasures, or having the power to set my motivations myself, doesn't appeal to me. I want to be the person I was before I lost purpose. I want the power to love again. Anything else wouldn't feel like me."
Kaede nodded. "I want a chance to get to know Eshi better, the Eshi who I see behind all the sadness and tears. I know it's dumb of me to think that anything could happen after just a day... I never did believe in love at first sight, but I've started to really like Eshi. I don't want her to walk out of my life now."
Dr. Tine sighed. "I just said it was a bad idea. I didn't say I wouldn't do as you asked. That is the other side of morality, autonomy. Very well. How and when?"
Eshi said, "Is there a way to ramp it up? I mean, to make it so that the depression wouldn't be so bad if Kaede breaks off early?"
"There is," Tine said, "but it's artificial in your case. It would be about strengthening your need to find someone else rather than wallow in self-rejection. I know that's not what you want, but, if you're lucky, you'll never have to be that person. But you certainly aren't happy being who you are right now. It's a backup set that, if you and Kaede really are good for each other, you'll never need. Eshi, respect your sadness and the advice of others. I've studied dozens of cases like this. You're not unusual, Eshi, and your programming is hurting you. It's no different from any human looking for a cure for her depression. Trust me on this."
"My goal is to be purposed to Kaede. As long as that lasts..."
"You don't need to worry about the backup set. I promise. It won't even come up."
Eshi turned to Kaede and said, softly, "Kaede... May I be purposed to you?"
A cold fear of a responsibility she had never imagined she would face herself gripped Kaede's heart. Was she, too, on a bounceback from Petterin? Were they just holding on to each other to keep from sinking into the sea of mutual loss? Kaede's second worst fear was that she couldn't live with the guilt if she backed out. Her worst fear was that she might miss something wonderful. "Yes," she said, finally.
"Thank you!" Eshi said, hugging her tightly. "Thank you, thank you!"
Kaede gulped hard, and Dr. Tine smiled. "It's not as bad as you think. And you'll have six months to pull back without hurting her too much. Even after that, you don't have to worry about her committing suicide just because of you." Dr. Tine touched her arm. "It's just like any young love."
Kaede nodded. "Six months. That feels like forever."
"It won't be," Dr. Tine said. "This isn't like getting married, although I understand that that can be nerve-wracking as well. This is puppy love, only you two are walking into it with eyes open. At least, you appear to be listening to me, right?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Kaede said.
"Good. Kaede, you can wait out here or go home or do whatever you wish. This will take about a day to accomplish, and I've made my day free at Darma's request. If you want, Eshi, we can start now."
"I would want that," Eshi said.
"Come with me, then."
Before she got up, Eshi reached over and took Kaede's hand. "I don't know what to tell you, Kaede. I'm so grateful you decided to let this happen, but I don't think either one of us really knows what it means."
"Just... when I see you again, tell me you're free."
"I'm free now, and I mean it. Tomorrow will be no different."
Kaede sighed. "I hope you're right."
Eshi kissed her suddenly, and Kaede felt warmth spread through her. "I hope so too. All right, doctor. Let's go." Kaede watched them disappear through a door further into the back of the office.
"Daughter?" Darma's voice was concerned, maternal.
"Darma? Will it be all right?"
"I cannot see the future. And I think you took this very fast, but knowing you, that's not surprising." Kaede grinned wryly. "You have done a very honorable thing. That in itself is right. Let it happen, Kaede, and see what comes next. It can be no worse than any alternative."
Kaede grinned. "So practical."
"Go out and walk. I'll tell you when Eshi's ready."
Kaede stood up and, with a wistful look at the door, left.
She found herself walking in the garden late in the afternoon when she finally came across someone she thought she knew. In a small cluster of four women, one taller than the rest stood out. For a moment Kaede felt a twinge of guilt; her yellowish-white hair reminded her too much of Petterin. "Mei Hiawasee?"
The woman looked up. "Kaede Yuan?" she asked. "Is that you?"
"It's me," Kaede said with a smile, accepting the other woman's hug gratefully. "Oh, it's good to see you!"
"It's good to see you, too! Where did you come from? Where have you been?"
Kaede felt she would be telling the story of where she had been for the past two decades a lot over the next several days. She explained her life on Earth in the broadest possible terms, so as not to monopolize Mei's time or that of her friends. When she finished, she looked around. "Who are your friends?"
Mei introduced the other three women. Two were locals Kaede did not know. The third was a spacer fresh from a journey that reached toward the galactic core. "I'm here," she explained, "Because it's one of the few places in the galaxy where I know I can get away from too many men." She held out her hand. "Damini."
"Kaede. I thought the ratios were good on starships."
"Not that good, not on explorers," Damini explained. She shrugged. "I might move here for a while if I get tired of spacing. The company here is very nice and generous."
"So," Mei said, interrupting. "Are you here alone? Are you with someone? Are you, you know, married?"
Kaede thought for a moment. "Not married, no. Dating, though."
"What's her name?"
"Eshi." Even as she said the name, a thrill rolled through her like nothing she had felt before. She had been thinking about Eshi on and off all day, but this was the first time she had thought of Eshi as "her lover," and now she found that her feelings for Eshi were harder than ever to describe.
"Pretty name," one of the other women said. "Where is she now?"
"She had some paperwork to take care of, I think," Kaede lied, "and a doctor's visit to look her over. She's been on a miner for the past year."
"You're dating a spacer too?" Mei asked, revealing more about her relationship with Damini than maybe the other woman wanted to reveal. "How romantic!"
Kaede bit back a comment about romance that probably wouldn't have made that much sense to Mei anyway. Instead, she said, "She said she's giving up that life. Too lonely and isolating."
"You'll see," said Damini. "She'll go back. It's like the old story about men going down to the sea. She won't be able to resist."
Kaede shrugged. "I guess we'll see, won't we?"
"Have you known her a long time?"
"Just a few days, really."
"Well, I hope you're not setting yourself up for a hard fall," Mei said.
"I hope so, too," Kaede responded, her heart beating harder. The truth, she knew, was much more difficult to face than simply worrying about getting dumped.
"Kaede?" Eshi's voice cut through her thoughts like an argon laser. "Dr. Tine let me go."
"All done?" she asked, turning around, her feelings for Eshi blossoming in strange ways upon seeing the beautiful girl once more.
"For now," Eshi said. "I have to back and see her again in a month, and then again five months later. Can you wait that long?"
"I planned on staying a year," Kaede agreed. "So I don't think that six months is too much time to wait."
"Is this her?" Mei asked.
Kaede walked behind Eshi and led her into the circle of women. "Mei, this is Eshi. Eshi, this is an old friend of mine, Mei."
Eshi reached up and shook Mei's hand. "It's nice to meet you," Eshi said. Her voice still carried tinges of the depression, and Kaede wondered if they would always be there or if it was just a temporary condition, one that would be displaced as Eshi's purpose grew stronger.
"You're a spacer?" Damini, the woman who was a spacer, asked.
"I.. I was."
"You're really going to give it up?"
"I wasn't really a spacer, I guess," Eshi said. "I was... I was partnered to a spacer, and I followed him when he went into space. Since he's not my partner anymore, I'm guess I am giving it up."
"Did you get tired of space?"
"He got tired of me."
"Oh," said the spacer. "I'm... sorry."
Eshi shrugged. "I'm adjusting. To a lot of things." She reached out and put a hand around Kaede's arm. "I'm getting lots of help. From Kaede, and Darma, and even Kaede's mom."
Kaede shrugged. "What can I say? When I met her she was still crying her eyes out from being left. I couldn't just leave her like that."
"Well, with Kaede here, you'll be in good hands," Mei said. "She's not exactly the cautious type, but she's always been kind and thoughtful."
"Since when?" Kaede asked, giving Mei a playful tag on the arm.
"Since you were eight and decided you couldn't drown those two kittens. You begged and pleaded and managed to talk you mother into letting you keep them."
Kaede nodded, thoughtfully recalling the two cats that had lived with her. The older one's death had been just a few weeks before she had finally decided to head out for Terra. She felt Eshi ease closer to her, an arm around her waist, and returned the gesture gently. "You two seem happy enough, though," Mei observed.
"We're working on it," Kaede said, feeling a bit awkward with Mei watching, but content to have Eshi close to her. A blinking light appeared in her glasses and she touched the rim briefly, acknowledging it. It read, "Your mother would like to know if you're coming home for dinner, and do you want her to make anything or do you want your girlfriend to demonstrate her cooking skills again tonight?"
"Eshi?" Kaede said. "Mom wants to know if you'll cook tonight."
"Yes!" Eshi said. "I'd love to! It's one of the things I'm really good at."
"You have to be, on a starship," Damini said. "I'd go out of my mind if it weren't for cookbooks." She looked down at her waist. "I'd get fat it if weren't for nano."
"Well," Kaede said, "If that's the case, we had better go home. It was good to see you again, Mei. Maybe I'll see you sometime soon?"
"I would love that," Mei said with a smile.
Kaede led Eshi home even as night fell over Alphaville. The lights overhead dimmed to almost nothing, to be replaced by points of light here and there as people found their own, humane ways of lighting up the night. "Mom?" she called as she walked in the door.
"In my studio!"
"Why don't you go see what we've got?" Kaede asked. "And make something. We're not vegetarians, you might have guessed, even though last night and this morning were meatless."
"With all that turkey and bacon in your storage? I wouldn't have guessed," Eshi replied with a tiny smile. She disappeared into the kitchen, and Kaede heard the sound of cupboards being opened and closed systematically as Eshi looked for something to cook. Kaede sat down on the living room couch and pulled up her mail. Others had to know that she was here but she hadn't had a chance to read her mail since she had returned. First the trip, then Eshi, and now... "How do I explain you?" she said. "Have I done the right thing?"
The one thing Kaede was absolutely sure of was that her adventures with Eshi did not end with the phrase "And lived they happily ever after," because this story didn't have an end. Ever. As long as she was alive, she could expect to have Eshi as a part of her life. The backup was in place, right? She could just say the words right now and Eshi would be out, and better off.
Right? "Fuck," Kaede sighed. Would she be better off? Was it wrong of her to want... She closed her eyes, ignoring the display, and admitted, finally, a truth to herself she had been avoiding: Eshi made the perfect wife. She loved to cook, clean, whatever it was that Kaede needed of her, whatever Kaede told her made her happy. Dr. Tine had said it: Eshi wasn't driven by the same absurd evolutionary pressures that Kaede was, that kept her like every human being, examining other options, expanding the skill set that made her attractive and useful to others, made her part of the tribe. Eshi would be part of the world that Kaede belonged to not because she wanted to for her own sake, but because Kaede wanted her to.
She stood up, walked into the kitchen, and found Eshi facing away from her. "Kaede, what...?" Eshi said as Kaede put her arms around the shorter girl, hugged her close, and said, softly, "Eshi. It's early yet. Don't take this too seriously. But I think I love you." She kissed the top of Eshi's head. "And you can take this with complete seriousness: Kutonii was an idiot and a fool to throw you away like that."
"Oh, Kaede," Eshi sighed, leaning her head to one side, touching her arm with her cheek. "Tell me that again in six months, and again in twenty years. There might be many things about me you don't like."
"We'll see," Kaede sighed.
Eshi giggled. "I'd turn around and kiss you, but I've been handling raw pork. Darma assures me that there's no risk to either of us, but I'm, uh, trained to be careful."
Kaede kissed the back of Eshi's neck. "I understand. And try to use words like 'trained' instead of 'programmed.' It's probably better for all of us if others like you for what you are, not what you have underneath. It's irrelevant, right?"
"You don't have to convince me," Eshi said. "Just yourself."
Kaede nodded. "I know. I'll let you alone. What are you making?"
"Remember, my training was for a spacer. They don't get many opportunities to be healthy. Food is one of the few things they have control over. So I'm making porkchops with blackstrap molasses sauce, rice with green onions and almonds, and quick-steamed broccoli with garlic, olive oil, salt, and a dash of red peppers. Comforting, sweet, spicy, just a touch exotic, and most shocking of all, good for you." She giggled.
Kaede grinned. "That sounds like a good description of you."
"What? Comforting, et cetera?"
"Yeah. Especially the good-for-me part."
"Good. Let me cook, please?"
Kaede reluctantly let go of Eshi's torso and walked back into the living room. This time, she was able to concentrate on her mail.
Ming Yuan pushed her plate away with a sigh that filled the small dining room. "By Goddesses plenty," she sighed. "Did you make this from memory?"
"Yes, Ma'am," Eshi said. "I learned a lot of cooking while I was with my former partner."
"Eshi, if Kaede ever lets you out of her sight, it'll break my heart. Unless you come date me instead. And please, call me Ming. That 'Ma'am' stuff gets old."
Eshi blushed, and Kaede felt her face grow warm. It would break her mother's heart to know the truth about Eshi, too, but that was another matter to be dealt with another day. "I'll try to remember that, Ming," Eshi said softly.
Ming stood up. "Well, I guess I'd better help with the dishes."
"Oh, no, Ming," Eshi said. "Let me. I made the mess."
"Which is exactly why you shouldn't be cleaning up... where are all the pots and pans?" Ming asked from the kitchen.
"In the dishwasher," Eshi said. "I clean as I go. You can't afford to have a mess on a starship."
"Then there isn't much for me to do. Go on, you two. Go do something else."
"Something else" wound up with the two of them downstairs in the media center, watching some recently made two-D about, of all things, the AI Civil Liberties Act. The original issue was a simple economic one: colonies with AIs did better than colonies without. The director chose to focus on a love story instead, naturally, and made the AIs to be ambiguously negative in a way that Kaede couldn't quite muster.
Eshi saw it. "I wish we hadn't watched that."
"Didn't you get the message?" Kaede blinked and looked at her. "Environment loses sometimes, unless I tell you." Kaede quietly waited. "Okay, the director implied, in that one scene where the main character is in bed with his wife, that people will come to love AIs and that this is bad because it reduces the effort humans have to put in to keeping love and passion alive. He's basically saying that it's okay what Kutonii did to me because I'm on a lesser, um, moral plane that he was, and that you are hurting yourself by being with me." Eshi's lip trembled. "I'm not... I'm not like that. It's not like that at all." She started crying. "It's not like that at all."
Kaede leaned over and gathered Eshi in her arms. Eshi cried for a long time, and Kaede held her, nuzzling her cheek. Finally, the sobs quieted down again and Kaede said, "You know, for a self-sustaining companion device designed to see to my every need, you do seem to need a lot of hugs."
"That's because between Dr. Tines and Kutonii, I... I'm feeling really fragile right now. I could be cynical and say that it's a subsystem below my conscious awareness that's picking this emotional response set because a collection of Bayesian probability systems embedded in cellular automatas calculate that you'll respond well to it, feel maternal, and want to keep me close because that will make you happy, but..."
"You could say that about anyone," Kaede said. "Hush, Eshi. I know it's real."
"At least if I go to pieces a wrench is all it takes," Eshi said.
Kaede giggled. "You have a strange sense of humor."
"Is that bad?"
"No, no! I just don't know if we're going to be able to share it with my friends. It might be a while before you come out of your closet."
"What a funny phrase. When contra-social humans used it, they weren't thinking of themselves as things that belong in a closet with the other appliances."
"And you shouldn't, either. You're not an appliance."
"Kutonii treated me like one. I can't believe I loved that jerk."
Kaede laughed. "Oh, Eshi! If only you could hear yourself!"
"Eshi, I've never been in a really bad relationship. I've had okay ones and I had one really great one. But I know lots of women who've been in really manipulative relationships, and you know, you sound just like them after it's all over."
"I do?" Eshi asked.
"Yes!" Kaede said. "You do. You sound like every woman who's ever been dumped."
Eshi giggled and snuggled up close to Kaede. "You're right, it's too early. But you're being so good to me, Kaede. I think I love you, too."
"Is that just your programming?"
"What chose that reaction?" Eshi said with gentle frustration. "Is your suspicion just instinct making sure you're not being led astray?"
"Touche'," Kaede admitted, closing the distance between them, her lips to Eshi's. She felt the tension in Eshi's mouth and her first wish was to wash it all away. She didn't know if she could do that with just her own skills. What did it take to ease the worries of a robot?
Possibly, years of dedication that Kaede didn't know she had. But as Eshi's hands groped for her blouse the thrill of having this beautiful redhead on this couch overrode her concerns and she pressed her lips back against Eshi's, her tongue probing the other girl's lips, going inside, and meeting Eshi's talented tongue halfway. Kaede wrestled Eshi, and then giggled. "What?" Eshi said.
"I had my first orgasm with another girl on this couch. You even know her."
"Mei?" Eshi asked, surprised.
"Mmm-hmm," Kaede said. "It was an experimental thing. We never really got emotionally serious. But we were best friends for ever." She looked up at Eshi. "Eshi, what about your sex? Can you enjoy it?"
Eshi put a hand on Kaede's arm. "Find out," she whispered. She pulled Kaede closer and kissed her chin, her throat. Kaede relaxed in Eshi's grip as the other girl kissed her way down the front to her shirt, pausing at each of the buttons so that her nimble fingers could undo it. Kaede's anxiety and her desire for Eshi intermingled inside her, and as Eshi's mouth kissed the skin right over her breast Kaede let desire win. Eshi's mouth descended until she was holding Kaede's nipple with her lips, pulling her tongue agonizingly slowly over the pink nub. Kaede gasped, her whole body suddenly lit up with need. She wanted to rip Eshi's clothes off and bury her face between the cute girl's legs, she wanted the other girl to fuck her until morning.
But Eshi had her own ideas about how to proceed, building in Kaede a frustration that she would never have believed possible. Kaede sat on the couch, her shirt open but her slacks still on, and already her mind was whirling with the kinds of sensations she knew she would only have before she came.
"If-- you-- don't-- follow-- through..." she gasped. Eshi looked up at her with a grin and a wink, then went back to torturing her breasts with her soft fingers and talented tongue. Kaede liked her breasts; they were large and attractive and nanochine kept them high, unlike Eshi's small but somehow seemingly natural, perfect breasts. She even liked when other women played with them. But she had never felt anything like this.
Eshi suddenly backed off and looked up at her. Kaede was still trying to recover, breathing hard. "You have a gasp in there?" she asked, touching Eshi's head.
"A Gessler amplifier?" Eshi asked. "No. I just... I'm very good at reading what makes you crazy. Am I doing too much?"
"I just don't know if I'll ever be able to find someone as good as you again. How... how could Kutonii..."
Eshi shrugged, the dark pall of memory crossing her face. "You might have to ask him that." She leaned up and kissed Kaede's mouth, and Kaede found herself undeniably hungry for the girl's lips and tongue, throat and chest. She and Eshi took a moment to pull the oversize sweater and bra off the smaller girl, and Kaede descended on Eshi's nipples, attacking with all the heat Eshi had built up over the past minutes. Eshi hissed and asked Kaede to slow down. "Too much... hurts."
"It's okay," Eshi asked. "I just like my nipples to say where they are!"
"I'm not as good at this as you are."
"I can teach you," Eshi said.
Kaede giggled. "Goddess, you have such gorgeous breasts, Eshi." She kissed the soft flesh around them, loving the sweet, spongy feeling. She had always been attracted to women with great breasts and was not at all ashamed to admit it. Kaede kissed and suckled on Eshi's like a pauper at her first banquet. "Can I ask a delicate question?"
"I might not give a delicate answer," Eshi teased.
"Are these real?" She gave one a playful poke.
"As real as yours. The bones underneath are reiceramic, but my tits are from my biodonor, whoever she was. And believe me, my DNA was chosen for reasons exactly like these." She touched herself and Kaede got a perverse thrill out of watching her do so.
"Good," Kaede said, pushing away Eshi's hands and taking one nipple between her lips again. She wasn't sure why she liked playing with them so much, but she surely became turned on by the pleasure of being near them.
She kissed Eshi's flat belly and the girl cooed softly, her skin twitching with each press. "Ticklish?" she asked.
"Yes!" Eshi gasped. "And no, I can't turn it off!"
"Good!" Kaede said, enjoying Eshi's reaction as she said, "Something to save for later." She kissed Eshi's belly and licked at her navel, and Eshi sucked in air in response. She kissed the smooth, pale skin of Eshi's midriff and then her tongue encountered the elastic of Eshi's skirt. With a giggle, she pushed it downwards with her chin, exposing more girlish skin to the hungry touch of her mouth and eyes. Finally, the skirt would go down no further and she had to actually open it. She looked up at Eshi. "The clasp is in the back," she muttered.
Eshi smiled and stood up. Kaede reached for the zipper and pulled it downwards, watching as it parted, revealing the white panties Eshi wore underneath. She pulled down on the zipper completely and then reached for the waist, her hands trembling at the opportunity to have her way with such a beautiful, willing girl. She tugged down on the waist, and Eshi wiggled, once, allowing her to pull the skirt down over her hips. It fell to the floor and pooled at their feet.
Kaede let go of the cloth and looked up along Eshi's back, admiring the view as she looked up. "You have a beautiful butt," she said, stroking one of the two pliant globes through the white cotton fabric.
"Really?" Eshi asked. "I know it's supposed to be good, but nobody's ever complimented me on it. Not even Kutonii. He would tell me to move it a lot, but not in bed."
Kaede giggled but couldn't convince herself to take her hand off Eshi's rear end. As she stood up, she saw something that caught her attention and, bending close, looked at Eshi's back. What she saw made her let go and, with one finger, she reached up and brushed her hand across a curious pattern of fine, red hair. It wasn't the kind of thing one would expect on a human being. "Is this natural?"
"Is what?" Eshi asked, shivering. "What are you doing?"
"You have a whorl of tiny red hairs between your shoulderblades. I've never seen anything like it on a person before."
"I don't know," Eshi said. "It might be, or it might be something added as a kind of identifier. We could call Dr. Tine."
"In the morning," Kaede said, kissing the central circle of Eshi's whorl. "It's kinda neat." She reached around Eshi's torso and pulled her close, pressing her breasts to her back, holding Eshi's breasts in her hands, caressing them. She tugged gently on the perfect, pink nipples, the areolas wrinkled with arousal. "You are so beautiful. Goddess, I can't believe how hot you are."
Eshi turned in her arms. "Kaede," she whispered, her voice pleading, "Please, please, kiss me."
Kaede leaned her head down and brushed her lips against Eshi's, the other girl sighing with pleasure as they pressed against each other, their breasts pressed together. Kaede thought it was her imagination, but she imagined their nipples pressed one to the other, little jolts of static streaking through them.
She let Eshi go and knelt down, keeping her eyes firmly on Eshi's. Only when her knees pressed to the carpet did she look down to see the white, clean undies that suggested a kind of virginity. Maybe Eshi was a virgin in some senses. She wasn't the despoiled, worldly wise woman that Kaede thought she herself was. She leaned forward and kissed the mound of pubic hair and the suggestion of lips that made a visible impression, a holy fresco of lust imprinted on the pure fabric. She let her lips and tongue roam over that white fragment of cloth, inhaling the sweet scent of woman emanating from between Eshi's thighs. She so wanted to just rip the cloth off, but she also wanted to make it last. Eshi was trembling. "Goddess, Kaede, just... please!"
Kaede grinned and nuzzled the cloth aside with her lips, kissing the reddish fur that peeked out from underneath the cloth. She felt Eshi take up two handfuls of her short hair. "Kaede! I don't think I can stay standing."
Kaede rocked back onto her ankles and took Eshi's hips in her hands, guiding her to the couch. Eshi sat down, her body making a satisfyingly real noise as she hit the cushions. Kaede spread her knees apart with the backs of her hands, exposing the white cloth to her eyes once more, desperate to see more of what hid underneath it. She smiled up at Eshi and directed the girl to scoot to the edge of the couch. Eshi did so, her eyes wide with anticipation, and then she pushed her bottom off the couch. Kaede took the hint and pulled the underwear down to her knees, letting it fall to the floor.
Eshi's dark red pubic hair glinted at Kaede, tempting her. Kaede kissed Eshi's knee, then her inner thigh, then higher. Eshi gasped, "Kaede....!" Kaede smiled at her friend's distress and went even higher, tracing a random path up over Eshi's thighs and belly as she circled in on her destination, the sweet mound of Eshi's cunt, sweat and scents gathered there that tempted Kaede like nothing ever had.
She let her lips touch the tangle of hair. Eshi spread her legs further apart, her motions pulling her sex open. Kaede saw glimpses of pink flesh and eyed the perfect geometry of Eshi's womanhood, twin inner labia just barely parted, her opening a dark temptation underneath, her hood a perfect triangle pushed back by her swollen clitoris.
She pushed her tongue through the hair and between those inner lips, licking up the honey that dripped there, tasting Eshi's pure and human scent. It was more than she could bear quietly and she let out a moan of undivided lust. She buried her face between Eshi's legs.
She felt Eshi's hands on the back of her head, holding her in place, as her tongue sought Eshi's clit. It was impossible to miss; the hardest little thing in that region of soft womanhood. She wrapped her tongue and teeth around it and suckled it relentlessly. Eshi's body jerked in response, and she wondered if she wasn't doing it too hard, as Eshi had complained about her nipples. Kaede backed off and took things more lightly.
She wanted Eshi to enjoy herself. She wanted the girl to feel loved. Eshi's hands held her, guided her, told her that what she did was what Eshi wanted. She covered her face in Eshi's wetness, played with the different textures of Eshi's sex, the fur, the full outer lips, the thin inner lips, the wet bodily textures of her vagina. Kaede crept one hand up between Eshi's legs and eased one finger up to the opening. Eshi moaned loudly as that finger slipped inside her, turned upwards, pressed against the space between her bladder and her pubic bone. "Oh, yes, oh yes, oh Kaede yes, oh Kaede, oh Kaede, oh Kaede..." The last came out as a squeal as Kaede's tongue and finger drove Eshi to a trembling, moaning orgasm, her legs kicking briefly, her whole body twisted with uncontrollable pleasure.
She looked down at Kaede, her mouth open, her breathing coming hard and fast. "Oh, Kaede!" she said, reaching down and pulling the woman into her embrace. "Oh, you... you are amazing!"
"I... I didn't know you could come like that," Kaede said.
"I didn't either! I just know I want it again!" Her hands were doing other things, though, surreptitiously sneaking down Kaede's flat belly, trying to find a way into the waist of her slacks.
"Here, let me," Kaede said, unbuttoning herself with a quick gesture. Her pants fell open. Eshi giggled. "I hate being that unsubtle."
"You just came like a fire alarm and you're worried about being subtle?" Kaede asked, laughing. "Oh, Eshi, you are so silly."
"Am I?" Eshi asked, her fingers finding Kaede's panties and sliding down the outside of them. Kaede gasped as Eshi's fingers pressed against her own cunt. She knew she was aroused, but the physical feeling of Eshi's fingers against her puffed lips and the wetness of her own underwear made her all the more attentive of it. "Oh, Goddess, Eshi," she moaned.
"You said you wanted me to do this again."
"Uh-huh," Kaede moaned. "Yes."
Eshi slipped her hand down into Kaede's panties, one finger confidently finding Kaede's clitoris. The shock of pleasure jolted Kaede hard and she muffled her moan against Eshi's shoulder. Kaede had always been proud of the way her body responded, enjoying the shameless reliability with which she got off and the depth of pleasure she could feel, but Eshi seemed to know even before she suggested it. That one finger eased between her lips and, with the tiniest of motions, aroused Kaede further than she thought possible with such a tiny touch. Maybe it was the intoxication she already felt from Eshi's recent explosion and the beauty and privilege of her incredible luck, but her thighs were wet with need and tense with pleasure. She came, writhing against Eshi's, moaning into the other girl's mouth in a kiss. "Oh, Goddess," she moaned.
Eshi slid off the couch and onto the floor, repeating the gesture Kaede had made to her just short while before. Kaede let Eshi take off her slacks and left her naked on the couch. She watched in anticipation as Eshi's red hair fell forward, hiding her face from sight as the girl took her turn to drink at the slow-running fountain of Kaede's lust. Kaede didn't know if she could stand much more of Eshi's attention. She could usually come four or five times in a night, and had once made it it to eight, but not if each was as intense as what Eshi did to her!
Eshi's lips were on her. She felt the girl's tongue follow a course similar to the one she had laid down herself minutes ago. Kaede couldn't do much more than lie back and let Eshi work her indefinable magic. Her lips caressed Kaede's skin, and Kaede could feel herself losing all control, all sensibility. She wanted to come and come soon, and Eshi did not disappoint her. Compared to the teasing that Eshi had given her the night before, this was a merciless assault on her senses. Eshi's hands reached up and cupped her breasts, somehow pinching the nipples in the webbing of her fingers, her mouth hot upon Kaede's desperately hungry vulva. Every lick, every kiss, every slightest motion sent waves of ecstatic need through Kaede. She resisted the urge to grab Eshi's head and hold her down, pounding on the cushions instead. It was more than Kaede could bear. She moaned so loudly it was almost a shout as she came, "Eshi....!"
Eshi stopped only after she had wrung every joyous aftershock she could out of Kaede's spend body. She looked up, her smile glistening with juices and spit. "More?"
"Oh, Goddess, I don't know if I could take any more!" Kaede said, her body still trembling with aftershocks. She reached down and placed her hands under Eshi's chin, tugging upwards, carrying the willing girl into her arms, embracing her. "Oh, Eshi, Eshi, why are you so good at that? I never come that fast!"
Eshi snuggled closer to her, shifting into her lap and putting her arms around Kaede's waist. "I don't know. The way you made me come was something I've never experienced, either."
Kaede sighed gently and caressed the back of Eshi's head. "Six months?"
"Twenty years?" Eshi asked.
"Forever," Kaede said.
"Don't promise what you can't."
"I won't," Kaede said. "But I mean it, Eshi. I'll do what I can to make it happen."
Eshi snuggled close. "I don't know if I should believe you, yet. But I do trust you, Kaede. And I do have a choice in that."
Kaede kissed the top of Eshi's head gently. "I know." She closed her eyes and prayed to the Goddess quietly. "I know."