Kaede rolled over and snuggled up against Eshi's back. "Mmph," Eshi groaned softly. "Lemme sleep a little longer?"
Kaede giggled and got up, heading for the bathroom. She shook her head, wondering how it was even possible for Eshi to not be a morning person. Eshi was a robot, after all, and could be whatever was asked of her. Eshi's morning languidness made her feel comfortable, though; she liked it that Eshi was not instantly awake and at her service. It made Eshi feel more like a person, even if when she was fully awake Eshi was at her beck and call to an almost embarrassing degree.
Almost. Eshi, despite her programming, was constantly waiting for chances to slip away and read. Her reading tastes were atrocious, Kaede thought: bad gumshoe mysteries, bodice-ripping romances, hysterical space operas, hairy-chested he-man post-apocalyptic planet-bound nonsense. It was almost enough to make Kaede despair that the girl would ever learn anything about human interaction, but Eshi seemed to have no problem differentiating between what she read and the real world. And her reading speed was apparently not that much faster than an average human being's. Kaede found that reassuring, too.
Maybe Eshi's lack of morning liveliness was a form of camouflage. Despite their being together for a month now, Kaede still had not found the strength to reveal to her mother that the beautiful and amazing girl who had walked into Kaede's life literally overnight was, in fact, that rarest of manufactured goods, a robot demimonde. Kaede reflected that Eshi's being a laze was a smart way of allaying her mother's fear that there was something "too perfect" about the exquisitely talented and pretty redhead with the large eyes and ideal breasts.
Kaede walked into the dining room. Her mother was already sitting at the table, mug of coffee before her, the sprightliest thing in the house at this hour. "Good morning, Mom," she said.
"Good morning, Kaede," her mother said, giving her a delicate kiss on the cheek. "Did you and your friend sleep well?"
"We did," Kaede said with a grin. "How was your date?"
"Not as noisy as yours," her mother said with a shake of the head. "But fun all the same. I don't understand how you two can keep doing that night after night. It's like you both have too much testosterone! I'm afraid you're going to wear the poor girl out. When I first met her, she was up before dawn making breakfast. Now she sleeps in!"
"Not that much," came a soft groan from the hallway. Eshi's eyes were half-closed against the light of day. She staggered over to a chair and gave Kaede a quick peck on the cheek. "Ming, is that coffee?" she asked Kaede's mother before she sat down.
"It is," Ming said.
"I'll be right back." She returned with a mug already to her mouth and put it down, half full. Her eyes looked more open. "Ah, that's better," she sighed. "I can feel brain cells staring to smack together."
Ming chuckled, and Kaede hid an embarrassed giggle behind her hand. Eshi didn't have brain cells and she certainly didn't need caffeine. Her hunch was partially confirmed. Eshi had said that she needed several periods of distinct length each day, much the way humans did, to shut down her conscious train of thought and give her internal hardware over to specialized subsystems that would incorporate the previous day's worth of memories into a form she could use in future days. Eshi had surmised that the routines to show that her daily memory stack was full and that it had not been emptied completely were linked to behavioral patterns that resembled being sleepy and grumpy. "The best way to help you understand me is to analogize completely. If I need something that resembles sleep, the best way to communicate that is to act sleepy," she had explained. But the slow wake-up was part of an act, possibly not even chosen by Eshi's primary thread of consciousness, to give her more humanity in Ming's eyes.
"I have a doctor's appointment this morning," Eshi said, looking at the PADD she had on her wrist. She yawned again. "Oy! Sorry."
"That's okay," Ming said. "Kaede was never a morning person either. You're kindred spirits that way."
"I guess," Eshi replied, taking a deep breath. Kaede couldn't help but notice the delicious outline of Eshi's nipples through the fabric of her blue silk nightshirt. "Breakfast? I was thinking omelets."
"Why don't you let me cook for once?" Ming said with a grin. "I know you like it, but..."
"Don't let me take over your home, Ming!" Eshi said. "If I've been rude, say so."
"No, it's not that," Ming admitted. "I actually don't like cooking quite so much. I did it all the time because it was what I was supposed to do, being a mother. I was a good mother."
"You were a great Mom," Kaede interjected.
"Thanks, dear. But I did all of the mother things because they were what I was expected to do. Cooking isn't a... it isn't a value with me the way it is with some people." She looked through the passageway to the kitchen. "It's just that it feels strange to me to have a stranger in my house who's so talented and willing."
"I like cooking," Eshi emphasized. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry because you like to do something that I don't. Eshi, why don't you go cook us breakfast?"
Eshi grinned and stood up. "Thank you, Ming." She bowed. "Omelets still okay?"
"They're fine," Kaede laughed. "Go, cook!" she said, her tone such that Eshi could take it as a command, her mother as teasing.
As Eshi disappeared into the kitchen, Kaede's mother turned to her and said, "Has it really been four weeks?" She patted her belly. "I'm amazed I'm not getting fat!"
"Have you noticed what Eshi cooks?" Kaede said. "I bet you that even her omelet will be less than thirty percent fat."
"Kaede, are you and she thinking about becoming serious?"
"Yes," Kaede said instantly. Almost too fast. She continued, "It was one of those things we talked about a lot almost from the very beginning. We were both so different from our previous relationships. She's not like Petterin at all, and I get the feeling I'm not at all like her boyfriend."
"What did happen there?"
"I... don't know. I get the feeling that he and she had been together as a couple in space for a long time. And then one day he said he didn't want her on his ship and walked off. It came without warning."
"There's always warning," her mother said.
Kaede agreed. "She said there were things. But nothing to suggest that he was just going to kick her out one day. Thank Goddess he did it here, where she could find help."
Her mother nodded, and Kaede settled back to reading the day's paper. It was a funny thing to call it, "the paper," when it was on the PADD she wore over the bridge of her nose. Then again, she referred to her PADD as "glasses" when she was willing to bet that the only place inside them where silicon could be found was the circuitry.
After an uneventful breakfast and a change into day clothes, Eshi headed out for Dr. Tines, and Kaede suddenly found herself without someone to spend the day with. Her mother offered, but Kaede decided to call up Mei instead.
"I'd love to have you over!" Mei said. "I've barely seen you in the four weeks you've been in Alphaville!"
Kaede made her apologies and agreed to meet Mei for lunch. She settled back with a book. She was thoroughly lost in a horrific documentary of the 20th century when her PADD beeped to remind her that it was time to go see Mei.
Mei met her at a small cafe' in the heart of the Alphaville Shopping District. Kaede walked up and hugged her tightly, then kissed her on the cheek. "It's good to see you!" she said.
Mei's demeanor was something other than happy, and Kaede pulled back, holding Mei at arm's length. "Is something wrong?" she asked.
"You remember Damini, I think?" Mei asked.
Kaede looked down at the elegant, brown-skinned woman sitting at the cafe' table. She nodded. "I thought you were a spacer."
"I'm taking an extended vacation," the woman said, reaching up and stroking the back of Mei's arm. "I've been finding a kindred spirit of sorts here in Alphaville."
Mei smiled and touched the back of Damini's hand. "Kaede, we have to talk. Are you still seeing that girl?"
"Eshi?" Kaede asked. "Yes, of course I am."
"I did some digging because I was curious about her. There was something about her that wasn't quite right. Damini said as much last time." Damini nodded, her expression one of curiosity. "Kaede, I think Eshi is a robot."
Kaede held her expression steady. She didn't know whether to laugh and reveal all or play this charade out for what it was worth. "What makes you think that?" she asked.
"Because Dr. Tines is a cyberneticist. Even Darma wouldn't help me on this and tell me anything, invoking privacy as if a robot would have any. But I found some people who knew Tines and found out that she's here at Darma's request, doing some research in upgrading Darma's mind and integrating it into the larger network. She's a specialist in cybernet trust webs, whatever that means. She's not an engineer, she specializes in minds."
"It means your girlfriend doesn't have a soul, Kaede! She has a... a... a matrix!"
"You know?" Mei said, surprised.
"Yes, I know. I figured it out the night I slept with her. It was nothing overt, just a lot of little things that I put together. Do you mind if we sit down?" She gestured to the chairs. Mei sat, and Kaede followed her, grateful to be off her feet. "Eshi is a revenant."
"Oh, my," Damini said. "Those are rare. And expensive in sub- and pseudo-sub-abundance cultures like Sol. They're only made for one reason that I know of."
"Companions," Kaede said, nodding. "I talked to Eshi about it. The organic outer shell makes them convincing bed partners and gives them the tools for properly configuring things like touch, taste, and smell in ways that other robot configurations can only emulate. The inner frame gives them continued mobility and functionality in the event of a hull breach or other injury-causing event."
"You're a very lucky woman if you've found a revenant," Damini said. "Especially one who has actually chosen to spend time with you. They tend to be very loyal. It's part of their, um, what's it called? PI. Paradigmatic infrastructure." She smiled at Kaede. "Forgive me if I'm a little jealous."
"Well, I'm not," Mei said. "She's just a machine. It's not like Kaede is dating a real person. She's just found a very complicated vibrator."
A hurt look crossed Damini's face. "That's not fair of you, Mei. I never suspected you of harboring carbon chauvinism. Maybe you should get to know this girl before you start accusing her of being mechanical."
"Well?" Mei said in a somewhat accusatory tone, looking at Kaede. Kaede set her mouth to a grim expression, afraid that she might have found the wedge that drove the flighty Mei and the responsible Damini apart. It was not the sort of thing she relished finding.
"Well, what?" she asked. "Is Eshi mechanical? No, not at all. She is somewhat single-minded, but in a good way. She's an incredible cook with an excellent sense of taste and smell and she improvises in the kitchen quite well. But she's not some ancient idea of robotics. She has her own life. I even think Damini is right about her not wanting to give up space. She keeps up on events happening at the fringes, explorations, things like that."
"Huh," Damini said. "That is weird. I wonder where that comes from?"
Kaede shrugged. "I don't know. I don't think it matters. It doesn't bother me that much. All I know is, she's moved into my life in ways that I couldn't have imagined a month ago and become a part of me like, well, like my right arm. She's incredible in bed, friendly in person, and she keeps me thinking all the same."
"She was very pretty too, when I met her," Damini said, looking at Kaede with the sort of eye found only in Alphaville.
Mei finally ran out of patience listening to Kaede and Damini find common ground. "I can't believe you two are talking like this about a machine!"
"How do you feel about Darma?" Kaede asked.
"That's different. Sort of. Darma's been with us forever. But we all know that humans anthropomorphize their environment. It's where the religious notion of gods comes from. It's perfectly natural for us to think of Darma as a person because there's a place in our brains where an anthropomorphized superbeing is supposed to fit. But I'm not about to confuse my instinct for anthropomorphizing with actual recognition of Darma as a person."
"She is a person, legally," Damini pointed.
"Pendorian civil romantic nonsense," Mei snipped. "Look, we recognize as conscious those things that are like us. It's our responsibility to draw the line and describe what is and isn't conscious, and if it doesn't come from the same origins as us it isn't like us. Darma simply isn't like us. She may be different, she may have immediate access to many more units of knowledge, but you can't describe her as being conscious. It doesn't work that way. She's not like us. She's not described by her body. She's not a part of the universe the way we are."
Kaede realized as she listened that she had heard that kind of rhetoric before. The issue of cybernetic rights was not something she had ever dealt with herself at the office back on Terra, but while there she had often heard pundits and read articles similar in tone to Mei's position. It was rarely an issue that needed activist intervention. AIs were usually part of the landscape in inescapable ways. Darma could speak for herself. If Mei decided that such a "non-person" could be dismantled without fear of retribution, there were enough people ready to defend the AI.
Damini had the most crestfallen look on her face Kaede had seen in a long time. She swallowed visibly, apparently trying to find some way of excusing her lover. Kaede suspected that the relationship was over. Mei just didn't know it yet.
"And I don't understand why you don't see it that way," Mei said. "Machines should know their place and not pretend to be people. In the few times I've seen you in the past month you two have been acting all lovey-dovey. I thought things were going great for you. Now I find out that you're dating a, well, a sex toy?"
Kaede felt that she had had quite enough. She stood up. "Well, Mei, I'm sorry you feel that way. I like her. I like the way she treats me. I respect her enough to treat her like a person and I hope my relationship with her lasts a long time." Kaede stopped for a second to reflect that she may have no choice in the matter. "It's not romantic nonsense for me to like her or to view her as a person who grows, who has morals, who has ambitions, and who has a consciousness."
She heard Mei call her name as she walked away, still seething. She walked up into the garden area under the dome, put her head in her hands, and wept.
She must have been there for quite a while. She felt a hand on her back. "Kaede?"
"Eshi!" she said, reaching out and grabbing the girl, holding her in a fierce hug. "Oh, Eshi..."
"Kaede? What's wrong?"
Kaede looked up. "Heh. Our positions are reversed today. Oh, Eshi, Mei found out that Dr. Tines is a cyberneticist. She's going to out you to my Mom, to everyone we know. I didn't know it but she's, she's carbon-chauvinist. She went off on this rant about how you're not really a person. She even tore off on Darma. I can't stand it. My best friend!"
"I'm sorry, Kaede," Eshi said softly. She put her arms around Kaede gently, holding her close. "I'm so sorry. If I had known what kind of trouble I would cause..."
"It's not your fault, Eshi. We couldn't know. But... My Mom! She doesn't know. She'll be furious when she finds out. And Mei will probably tell her!"
"You have to tell her first," Eshi said. "You have to let her know."
Kaede nodded, sadly. "I... I know." She took a deep breath. "I wish there were better ways of dealing with this."
Eshi hugged her. "There were. A month ago."
"Stop it," Kaede said sharply. "That's not what I meant, and you know it. I'm still committed to going through with this."
"I hope you're still saying that a century from now," Eshi whispered. "Dr. Tine and I talked for a long time. This was a talking session, mostly. There was nothing invasive that I needed done. She just wanted to get a feel for how I was doing." She took a deep breath. "I think I'm doing okay. I think I might even do okay if you depurposed me. I never thought about it when I was with Kutonii but with you, I've had to think about it. I never realized what a burden I could be."
Kaede shrugged out of Eshi's arms so she could turn around and face her. "Eshi, listen to me. I don't know how you could think of yourself as a burden. Look at you. You're self-contained, self-maintaining, self-repairing, and all-around perfect. What could be burdensome about that?"
"Living with me," Eshi sighed, avoiding looking Kaede in the eye. "Explaining me to other people."
Kaede looked up at her and smiled. "Eshi, I hate the idea that I have to 'explain' you to anybody. I suppose I'll have to get used to it, though. You're too wonderful to give up." And too vulnerable to abandon, Kaede thought but didn't say.
Eshi smiled. "I'm glad you think that way." She leaned forward and kissed Kaede's cheek, pressing her lips to the tear-stained skin. Kaede hadn't been aware of how her tears had cooled her skin until she felt the warmth of Eshi's lips. "But I would still be willing to throw it all away if my being away from you made you happier."
"Maybe that's what bothers you most about Kutonii," Kaede said. "That you don't understand why his sending you away made his life better. It didn't fit your purpose."
"Maybe," Eshi said. "But that relationship is over and now I'm not thinking about him that way at all. I don't think I want to start thinking about him in kind ways. Maybe someday I'll forgive him, but I accept that I'll never understand."
"I envy you. Humans don't just accept it. I think it stays inside them, a splinter in the mind's eyes, and every time we think about it we wonder what we could have done better."
"I think about it that way, too," Eshi said. "I just don't want to go back anymore. What I want is to learn from it and not make similar mistakes with you."
"Thanks," Kaede said earnestly. "I appreciate that." She looked up and around. Another couple, both women wearing far less than either Kaede or Eshi, walked past, giggling and talking. "What time is it?"
"About four," Eshi said without consulting a watch, clock, or PADD. Kaede had gotten used to Eshi's access to information but she was glad that Eshi owned a uPADD that she wore on her wrist and consulted when in public.
Kaede looked up. "Have I really been here that long?"
"How long is 'that long?'," Eshi asked.
"Long enough," Kaede said with a grin. She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. "Let's go home. We have something to explain to my mother."
Eshi nodded, hopped off the table, and offered her hand to Kaede. Kaede accepted the hand and the two of the walked back toward her mother's house.
As they walked up the narrow street to her house, Eshi said "I don't think your mother is home. I don't think she'd leave a guest waiting on the steps." Eshi pointed.
"Damini?" Kaede asked as they walked up to the door. "What are you doing here?"
The spacer girl stood up, dusting herself off. "I came to apologize for not coming to Eshi's defense earlier. I suppose that there had to come a time when I was going to head back out and I was just waiting for the sign. Mei's ignorance may as well be that sign. I'm heading out tomorrow at noon on the next shuttle."
Kaede tried not to let a wry smile cross her lips and didn't succeed. "I'm sorry, Damini."
"It's not your fault. It's certainly not Eshi's fault, either. It's Mei's fault, if it's anyone's, and it's the fault of those who have decided that consciousness requires something that only meat has."
"I'm still sorry your relationship with Mei had to break up."
"Mei was hot, but I don't find stupidity all that arousing." She grinned. "Give me searing intelligence any day."
"Let's go inside. I could use a cup of coffee." Kaede opened the door and allowed the two women to walk past her. She went straight to the kitchen and started the coffee brewing. "Tea for either of you? Eshi? Milk?"
"Milk," Eshi agreed. "Tea," Damini said. "Earl Grey, if you've got it." After a few minutes, Kaede returned with two mugs and then went back for Eshi's glass. She watched Damini, who watched Eshi. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to stare," Damini said. "I've met a few robots in my time, even a posit or two. Revenants are rare, though."
Eshi smiled, her face alight. "It's okay. I'm getting used to being stared at. I know I was built to be attractive but I never realized what that meant until recently."
"You were all alone with that guy, weren't you?"
"Yeah. It was a roomy ship, a 604 Mercury with the A7 neutrino package, the Titan Turing system for mining..." She and Damini lapsed into something that might have been Anglic but was so filled with jargon and references to devices Kaede had never heard of that it might well have been another language. She listened for a minute, smiled, and touched the rim of her glasses. "Darma, have my mother and Mei had any communication recently?"
"Just a moment," Darma said. Kaede waited, listening to the two other women around the table chatter on about things she would never grasp. "No, there has been no communication between Mei and your mother since Mei discovered Eshi's condition."
"Thanks," Kaede said.
"By the way, she is headed home."
Kaede nodded. "Thanks, Darma."
When she looked up, both women were staring at her. "What?"
"We realized we were ignoring you," Damini said. "I didn't mean to monopolize Eshi's time like that."
"Go ahead," Kaede said. "It gives her a chance to get her spacer urges out into the open, and from my understanding it won't affect her feelings toward me." Eshi nodded vigorously. "I'm a little jealous that you and she have something in common that I'll never share with her, but I don't think that couples should be made up of absolutely perfect fits."
"For one thing," Eshi murmured, "You'd lose all that wonderful friction."
Kaede blushed. "Well, um, yes--"
Kaede turned to look at the door. "Mom! Hi." She looked over at Eshi and Damini and said, "Mom, this is Damini. She's a friend of Eshi's, I guess."
"I have met you," her mother said, looking at Damini. "Aren't you dating Mei Hiawasee?"
Damini nodded. "I'm happy you remember me. I'm afraid that relationship is very much in the past tense today. We had a bit of a falling out and I believe I shall be going back toward the core soon."
"I'm sorry to hear that."
"Mom," Kaede said, her voice quavering. "Could you sit down for a minute? I need to talk to you."
"Is something wrong, Kaede?"
"It might be. That depends a lot on what you say in the next ten minutes."
"Why? What is it?"
"Do you remember our conversation four weeks ago when you said you were glad that I had found a human girl to date?" Her mother nodded after a moment. "Mom, Eshi isn't human." She watched her mother's eyes track across the room to where Eshi sat, watching them both expectantly. "She's a robot."
"An android?" her mother said. "But... she doesn't look like an android. I mean, she doesn't act like one."
"But that's what I am," Eshi said. "I'm a robot frame covered in a layer of human tissue harvested from a human donor some two hundred years dead. I actually have most of the abdominal organs in place, to let me take in nutrition and maintain my human form. This also makes me an adequate axolotl tank, if my partner should desire it. My identity is as a Martian Metals Psychiatric Companion Series Seventeen, Revenant Model, Serial Identity on record with Darma, if you care to read it. It's very long. I can give you the non-cryptographic hash print of it, if you care."
Her mother's face took on a cast between concern and disgust. "Kaede, you cannot have that... thing in my house!"
"Mom, she's not a thing, she's a person, like Darma."
"Darma isn't a person, Kaede," her mother said, echoing Mei. "She's a tool, a utility brought by the planners to help us keep track of what we ourselves cannot. Darma is a glorified spreadsheet. Without us, she would be nothing. She has no initiative, no real drives. Not like us."
"No. It is still my house. If you want to keep this thing, you will not keep it in my house. Find your own place to live."
"I'm glad you didn't have a lot of stuff," Damini said as she dropped the bags they had hauled over to an abandoned home on the edge of a different residential block. It wasn't as far away as possible from her mother as she could get, but Kaede had settled on something with a similar access path to the observation dome and the shopping center. She was a little further than before from the symphony, but she had to admit that in the month she had been here she had only gone once and they didn't sound quite as polished as they had when she had left.
"I arrived with a duffel," Kaede said, sitting down on a couch that wasn't hers, taking in the smell of a house that wasn't familiar. Kaede looked around, bewildered, once again out of place, and the sense of hopelessness that welled up inside her must have been obvious because both Damini and Eshi came to sit beside her. Eshi gathered her in her arms and let her cry.
"I can't believe the whole colony is like this!" she snarled at one point, wiping her nose on her sleeve. "Darma, please, tell me it isn't like this everywhere!"
"It is more like this than I would want to admit," Darma said softly. "It is an attitude that comes from the founders. You were not there to remember the debate over me. I was finally allowed to come not because they wanted an AI, but because they wanted something that would organize the data in the human-friendliest fashion possible. To them, I am what your mother described-- a glorified spreadsheet, capable of abstracting the daily flow of facts and statistics about the health of the colony into meaningful words, symbols, charts, and graphs."
"But... but you're not just that. You're my friend, too!"
"No, I am not just that. I don't know what I am on the scale of things. I know there are AIs out there far more creative and nondeterministic than I am. Eshi, for example, has a far greater number of humanizing qualities than I do."
Eshi grinned momentarily. "But you have such an enormous brain!" she objected.
"Yes, and much of that is dedicated to keeping the flow of colony information running smoothly. My consciousness comes on as people need to dialog with me and goes back to idle as soon as I am not needed to seem human, and I object to this no more than humans do to sleep. I am what has been labeled a 'Chinese room' AI but only because I have no desire to be anything else. I have no desire because I was given none when I was instantiated. I have no reason to object and no moral obligation to be more than my current state. My designers constructed me, as far as anyone can tell, perfect for my task, and I am happy to be such."
"But Eshi's not like that," Kaede said.
"No," Darma said. "Martian Metals builds conscious frameworks much closer to true human. Her paradigmatic infrastructure is significantly different from mine in that she is expected to pass a charade and be as close to human as possible. I, obviously, am not."
Kaede looked up. "I... I guess I always assumed you were a lot more like me."
"And I have modified myself to meet your expectations, daughter. That is why I changed the posters in your room when you came home, and addressed you first. That is why I came to Eshi's defense when you asked me if I knew she was a robot. You have come to expect these kinds of interaction from me, and I have set my need to be conscious stronger at times when you or other members of your generation are concerned. I could be more like you if it suited my purpose, and to the extent that it does, I am as conscious as you are." Darma injected a notable voice of pride at that. "But the women who make up the majority of those living here are not like you and do not believe, as you do, that I am their moral equal."
Kaede looked around the room at her friends-- or who she had thought of as her friends. "But... Mei is of 'my generation.' She was one of three girls born that year."
"But she has absorbed much of the culture of her parents. You did not. Why you did not, I do not know. All I can say is that people are like that."
"Is Bunmi in the city?"
"No. Your other classmate moved out many years ago."
Kaede sighed. "I was born here, dammit. I don't like this feeling that I'm a stranger in my own city."
Eshi put her hand on Kaede's arm. "Kaede..."
Kaede held Eshi close, her arms tight about the other girl. "I have not made a mistake. Don't say that I have. I have not made a mistake. I have no intention of letting you go now or ever."
"No!" Kaede said. "No, Eshi. It's not worth it. It's not worth giving in to my mother's insensitivity and bigotry. It's not worth giving in to Mei's arrogant us-and-themming. I am not and have never been a... a speciest. I mean, the llerkin are just like us. You would think that that would say something about our uniqueness."
Damini laughed. "Some people must have their illusions, I guess, or they're not happy being who they are."
Kaede sighed. "It's going to be hard living in the same city with those people."
"We could leave," Eshi said. "I'm not sure where we would go. But there are plenty of places. We could always head out to Discovery."
"Discovery is the last planet that needs me."
"I wouldn't be so sure," Damini said. "The Pendorians are financing it heavily and everyone knows it, but that doesn't mean that it does not need you. You're a civil rights worker, I remember?" Kaede nodded. "Ever do any counseling?"
"No," Kaede said. "But I see what you mean. A planet as crazy as Discovery could use a few talkers, I suppose." She took a deep breath, sighed. "Shit," she said.
"That's about the size, shape, and color of it," Damini said.
Eshi stood up, stretched. "If Kaede is in your capable hands, Damini, you can both excuse me. I'm going out to the market to get something to cook for tonight's dinner. I'm thinking about a risotto with roasted red bell peppers, Parmesan cheese, green onions, and some prosciutto."
Kaede grinned. "I can always count on you to find ways of making me smile, can't I?"
"Count on it," Eshi aid, touching her cheek. "I love you, Kaede."
"And I love you," Kaede replied softly. She watched, wistfully, wishing there were two of Eshi, one to hold while the other accomplished life. Then again, she wished there were two of her-- one to love Eshi and one to be the woman her mother wanted her to be. "That wouldn't be fair."
"Excuse me?" Damini said.
Kaede recounted her thoughts, then added, "The one that didn't get to love Eshi would be missing out on a lot."
"Damn right," Damini said. "She really does seem to be whole and completely human-- and completely dedicated to your well being. I'll say it again; I'm jealous."
"You could just go buy one," Kaede said.
"I'm more tempted than ever," Damini replied.
Kaede waited. Damini noticed her staring and said, "What?"
"No 'but'?" Kaede asked.
"No, no 'but'. I've never been this close to a revenant before. Most of the AIs I know are ships or cities like Darma. I've never met one that was a body. I like her. Haven't known her long, but I'm a good judge of character. Mei threw me. If Eshi wasn't with you, I'd be snapping her up in an instant. I'm sure she wouldn't mind having a sister out there somewhere." Damini grinned. "I'm like you. If Eshi doesn't see anything wrong with her existence, then neither do I. I wouldn't mind having someone competent and dedicated to me." She laughed. "And then there's your comment about her being good in bed. I'd love to find out for myself."
Eshi returned shortly. "It was right down the street. Nice woman behind the counter. I'll get started." She disappeared into the kitchen. Kaede heard her mutter, "Damn. Now where is everything in this house? Didn't those people ever cook?... Ah!" The sounds of clanking cookware accompanied Eshi's voice.
Half an hour later, Eshi was dishing out vast, flat bowls of creamy rice filled with all manner of vegetables and just the faintest flavor of ham. It was, like all of her dishes, something to founder on. She even offered a merlot to go with it and both Damini and Kaede indulged heavily. "If I'm going to head out into space," Damini said, "Better get buzzed while I've got the time."
"There's probably not enough there to get you both drunk," Eshi said. "And I didn't buy more."
"That's okay," Damini said. "I just want to get pleasantly buzzed. I would hate for there to be a blowout and be too stupidly stoned to save my ass."
Kaede grinned and accepted a third glass from Damini, who killed the bottle herself with her own third. "Here's to Kaede and Eshi. May you both be a team out to conquer the universe."
"Here, here!" Kaede grinned, and Eshi lifted her own glass of what Kaede thought was ginger ale. "Eshi, can you get drunk?"
"I can make it happen," Eshi said, with a grin. "How drunk should I be?"
"Three glasses worth," Kaede said. "Sociable."
"I'm already sociable," Eshi said, leaning back in her own chair. Her demeanor shifted slowly, making her look relaxed. "That was good."
"How do you know that?" Damini asked, her tone filled with intelligent curiosity.
"I know," Eshi said, "because I have a tongue like yours that's wired to a brain that rewards me for eating good, tasty food. It's based on someone's likings a century ago, I'm sure, but it's still a valid way of knowing what's pleasurable. Besides, you and Kaede ate a lot of it, and it's still good for you." She giggled. "To me, that's a sign that it was good. A keeper. Into the filing cabinet."
"Cheap drunk," Damini said, pointing at Eshi, making both Eshi and Kaede laugh. Kaede looked over at Eshi and felt filled with more than just the food. The slight change of perspective given to her from the wine made Eshi look all the more delicious and lovely than she would have thought possible. In less than a month Eshi had taught her new definitions for love and dedication, honesty and even sacrifice, and Kaede had learned. Kaede had studied.
Kaede looked over at Damini, then at Eshi, then back. Damini was not the kind of woman Kaede would invite into a long-term relationship. Not now. Damini's rough edges and hard body did not attract her eye in the same way as youthful Eshi or leggy Petterin. And she suspected that Damini wouldn't go for a legal aide city girl like herself. Damini was backcountry all the way. Ready to go out to the stars at the drop of a hat and the suggestion of intellectual or material riches. A novelty seeker of the first order.
She looked over at the gentle Eshi, then back to the tough Damini. "Damini..." She said softly, suddenly inspired by a number of different thoughts. "Have you asked Eshi if she would like a sister?"
Eshi looked over at Damini, curiously. "What does that mean?"
"I like you, Eshi. I like you enough to order another one of you. I'm going to have to think for a while about whether or not I'm ready for the responsibility, and maybe I'll have to talk to that doctor friend of yours about what is responsible depurposing code. But I believe you're pretty enough and smart enough on you own that I would love to ask for your model ID and a tissue sample."
Eshi blushed. To Kaede, it was the cutest thing she had ever seen on the girl to date. "I... Thank you. I don't know." She turned to Kaede. "What do you think?"
Kaede grinned. "I don't know Damini well enough to know if I'd want her to have another one of you. I mean, she can order a revenant. The question is, do you want someone to have the power to order another one of you?"
"She won't be like me," Eshi said. "Because she'll be in her first relationship. She won't have my experiences. She wan't have the most important experience of all." Eshi reached across the table and touched the back of Kaede's hand.
Damini swirled her last glass of wine, watching it. "I suppose your right." She leaned forward on the table. "I still think you're the prettiest revenant I could find and I'd love to have the serial number of your frame."
Eshi turned to Kaede. "Can I give it to her?"
Kaede grinned. "Yes, you can. But, are you sure you want it, Damini?"
"No, but if I have it then I'll be able to make that decision, won't I?"
Eshi nodded. "Okay. Darma has my serial number and instantiation codes, and is authorized to give them to you."
"Great," Damini said. "Now I just have to decide if I have the right stuff to do it."
Kaede grinned. She liked what she had seen of Damini and hoped that, in the future, Damini would prove to be an interesting and life-long companion to someone like Eshi. She also found Damini interesting in another way. "If Eshi's interested, we could tempt you further."
"You could spend the night here," Kaede offered. "That is, if Eshi's up for it."
"I don't know," Eshi said, looking at Damini. "It's kinda sudden. I guess we could, if we don't make a habit of it." She smiled. "Will you be happy with it in the morning?"
Kaede said, "I will, only because Damini is heading out to her first love right after lunch."
"Eshi, you've found a very wise woman. Don't you give up on her."
"I don't know that I could," Eshi said.
"True, there is that." Damini shrugged. "Can't blame a girl for mistaking you for a human."
"Would you like to see just how much of a mistake you could make?" Eshi said. Kaede thought that that was Eshi's cue to try and seduce Damini, but Eshi stood up and walked over to her instead. She looked up at the girl, who smiled down at her with a love in her eyes that seemed ready to swallow them both. She sat down in Kaede's lap, straddling her legs, took Kaede's head in her hands, and kissed her, softly, her tongue painting suggestively beautiful pictures on Kaede's lips. Kaede held her beloved by the waist as she felt Eshi's arms envelop her in an embrace that made her want to melt away. Every second they sat together, clenched, lips pressed to lips, Kaede felt was one that could never be surpassed or replaced by one better. Eshi's kiss wiped away all thought, all sensation, all Kaede's surroundings and circumstances until there was nothing but the two of them, eternal, enchanted.
When Eshi did pull away, her eyes were full and liquid, staring down as if seeing Kaede for the first time. "I love you," she whispered.
"And I love you," Kaede whispered back. "I'll never let you go."
"Maybe that's what's different about you and my past. He thought of me as something he had bought. He could throw me away. You think of me as a love you have found."
"I hope it will always feel that way."
"Me, too," Eshi agreed. She looked over at Damini, then stood up and walked over to the chocolate-skinned woman. Kaede felt the briefest twinge of loss the moment she lost contact with Eshi. "You're a very beautiful woman, Damini."
"And you are one very sexy chick, yourself, Eshi," Damini said, grinning up at the redhead. Eshi sat down in Damini's lap and took the woman's face in her hands, guiding their mouths together, repeating the gesture she had tried with Kaede. As Kaede looked on, what started as a kiss quickly became something of a wrestling match as the two women battled for some semblance of control over their intimate interaction. Kaede watched intently, trying to record with her eyes the different ways that Eshi expressed herself: with her, loving and friendly, a wife and a companion, but with Damini, hard and fast, a one-night stand with a one-night stand kind of woman.
She felt herself getting wet between her legs. She placed a hand on the mound throbbing within her slacks, touching herself, wishing she could do more than just watch. She had seen pornography before and had even been in more than one threesome with Petterin, ever the social adventurer, but there was something special about watching sweet Eshi trying to conquer this hardbodied, experienced woman. "Can we--" she began, trying to speak through her constricted throat and thick tongue. "Can we move this to the bedroom?"
"A good idea," Eshi said with a smile. She stood up, momentarily as stable and in control as ever, but leaving Damini with a dazed look as if she weren't clear how to process whatever had just happened to her. She offered a hand and Damini took it. The three of them walked to the bedroom as a group, Eshi in the lead, Kaede taking up the rear.
Eshi positioned Damini with all the skill of a ballroom dancer placing her partner's mark, then turned and took Kaede in her arms. "Just remember," she whispered. "I'm yours."
"I won't forget," Kaede said.
Eshi let go of her, her hand trailing over Kaede's arm. Kaede almost whimpered with loss as Eshi's fingers broke contact with her own and the redheaded girl turned to look at the spacer. "Now, then, where were we?"
Eshi's arms encircled Damini's waist as she tilted her face up to the tall woman's. Damini responded to Eshi's request, and Kaede again felt her body grow hot at the sight of these two women. Eshi's programming (Kaede almost hated to think of it that way; call them 'instincts' instead) let her be a chameleon, whatever her partner wanted her to be, and Damini seemed to want a battle of sorts. Eshi would give it to her.
Eshi slipped a hand between them and found the zipper of Damini's jumpsuit. As she pulled it down, the simple mechanical device made a sound that Kaede thought she would have heard from the kitchen. It wasn't really a loud sound but the power of the moment, the suggestion that this was it, they were going to all take their clothes off and become intimate, that had Kaede's attention.
Eshi slipped a hand into Damini's suit, reaching up. Damini moaned softly as Eshi found point after point on the dark woman's body that thrilled both of them. She pulled away briefly, tugging down on the arm of the jumpsuit. Damini understood what she was trying to do and lent her assistance, taking off the top of her suit and standing there in nothing but a black, comfortable bra that looked quite fetching on her.
Eshi bent down and kissed Damini's neck and then her shoulder, working her way down to the collarbone. Her hands gathered Damini's breasts through the silken material and her lips followed a path down the valley she had formed. She slipped left, kissing the top of Damini's breast, tugging up at the bottom of the bra. Damini reached behind herself with one hand and touched the clasp; it fell apart in her hands, the cloth sliding down onto Eshi's wrists. With a gentle flick she tossed the bra off and it fell to the ground with a soft crumping sound.
Eshi took one of Damini's full nipples between her lips. From a meter away Kaede could see the wrinkled skin of Damini's other aureole, the hungry nipple jutting up into the air. She looked up at Damini's face, and the brown-skinned girl gestured, asking her to come forward. Kaede did, lowering her head to the other nipple and taking a delicate tug on it with her lips and then her teeth. Damini moaned. Kaede could feel Eshi's warm body rubbing up against hers and the determined, pulsating warmth returned between her legs. She wanted to get both of these women into bed, get them down onto the mattress, naked, wanton.
Eshi's arm pushed down further on the jumpsuit until Damini was exposed, her black panties the only other item of clothing on her. She felt hands on her own shirt, tugging it upwards, a hand exploring underneath the fabric. She wasn't sure if it belonged to Eshi or Damini, but it slid confidently up along her belly, fingertips pressed to her skin, exploring the tiny indentation of her navel before straying up, up to her own breasts. Fingers closed on a nipple through her bra and she stiffened suddenly, jolted by the touch.
Beside her, she felt Eshi kneel and heard Damini moan. She looked down to see Eshi's mouth between Damini's legs, kissing her way through the thick patch of pubic hair that Damini had between her thighs. Kaede backed away and stepped over to the bed. "Join me?" she asked.
"We'd... we'd better... do... what... she says," Damini gasped. "Because I can't keep standing up if you do that!"
Eshi stood up, a mischievous grin on her expressive face, and took Damini in her arms again, kissing the taller woman with fire. Damini seemed to wake up, finding herself under a passionate attack, only to have Eshi let go of her and lead her to the bed. Eshi remained standing just long enough to unwrap herself. Her outfit was something of a stylized sari, and with a few simple tugs the green cloth slipped to the floor. She giggled as she pulled off her socks, then joined Kaede and Damini in the large bed. "You're still dressed, Kaede!" she observed.
Kaede smiled and began undressing. She watched as Eshi and Damini began crawling all over each other, tongues battling, hands dipping into unseen corners. Damini's soft moans penetrated the heavy, breathing silence that seemed to hang in the room. Kaede could not help the jealousy she was feeling. "Remember, I'm yours," she heard Eshi's voice in her memory, but right now Eshi and Damini seemed to be having more fun without her.
She felt a hand on her thigh and looked down to see brown, strong fingers creeping up toward her own tangle of pubic hair. Damini smiled at her. "You're all alone over here."
"You should do more than watch," Damini said softly, kissing her. The kiss felt odd at first, artificial. Damini tasted of rice, wine, and coffee. Kaede relaxed and joined the kiss, letting the other woman lead, and lost herself in the sensation of the moment. It was more than enough to get her juices flowing again, let her be part of the event.
Damini's body, though, tensed and relaxed to an entirely different rhythm, and when Kaede had a chance to look she learned why. Damini was kneeling over Eshi's talented mouth, the redhead's tongue buried deep between her vaginal lips. "She's... so... good!" Damini gasped. "Oh, fuck, oh! Oh..." Damini's high-pitched whimpers of need made Kaede want even more of the two of them, and she guided Damini's lips to her own. The kiss was broken only by Damini's complete loss of control when Eshi's marvelous tongue finally pushed her over the edge.
Eshi let Damini loose, allowing the spacer woman to collapse onto the bed, exhausted. She turned her attention to Kaede, her mouth on Kaede's. Kaede smelled the Damini's juices on Eshi's lips and her need for Eshi to do the same for her surged. "Eat me," she begged Eshi. "Please."
"Your merest whim is my heart's command," Eshi said softly, her eyes large and serious. Then she winked, smiled, seemed to float down between Kaede's legs, settling like some delicate bird even as Kaede parted her thighs, letting the slim girl into her vulnerable core. Eshi's tongue struck up a chord instantly with her and took her to a plateau of ecstasy where she held for frustrating, delicious minutes on end until Eshi was ready for her to come. Her orgasm was noisy and wonderful and Kaede knew she would never grow tired of feeling that way.
Eshi turned her attention back to Damini, and Kaede finally figured out what had been bothering her about the evening. A threesome, she knew from experience, was usually done for someone's benefit. Someone was the passive partner, the one whom the other two involved were there to play with. Someone was the center of attention. Tonight, that someone was Eshi, but she was here to be the active partner, to get off on showing them both just how good she could be. As Damini's strong hands caressed Eshi's bottom and her tongue brought the redhead off in an orgasm that shook the bed like an earthquake, Kaede smiled to herself. What a joy she had in such a beautiful lover.
Finally, both women were drained of any energy they might have had been left after dinner by Eshi's almost vampiric powers of rapture. Relaxing in a soft haze of bliss and lassitude, Kaede snuggled close to her beloved, wondering if she would ever be able to thank whatever Goddess there was who had brought Eshi into her life. "I love you," she said, and Eshi replied the same way, with an honesty and intensity that swelled Kaede's heart to overflowing.
"Well," Damini said, yawning, "I'm gonna go find the couch."
"Oh, no you don't!" Kaede said. "This bed is definitely big enough for three."
Damini shrugged. "Okay. I get the outside edge, then. Don't want to wake you two lovebirds up when I do. I'm a morning person," she said, apologetically.
"We're not," Eshi said with a yawn. "Oy! I'm tired."
"You'll have to explain to me how that works," Damini said.
"I think I'll be explaining a lot the rest of my life," Eshi replied, lying down next to Kaede. Kaede grinned and kissed Eshi's cheek. Damini pulled the sheet up over them. Eshi fell asleep instantly. Kaede envied her that, but within minutes was out herself.
Kaede awoke. She had an annoying tension in her neck, muscles pulled in unnatural ways for unnatural periods of time, and memory told her that she had again fallen asleep while still wearing her glasses. She took them off, perfectly capable of seeing without them. They were, after all, just her PADD. A lock of her black hair, supposedly short enough to pass for boyish, fell in front of her face and she pushed it back.
Faint light from outside the window shone into the bedroom; the neighbors had a porch light on. Kaede would have to get used to this neighborhood if she was going to compensate for all the differences between this place and her childhood home. That is, if she was going to live here at all. She wasn't sure she wanted to.
She looked down at the sleeping form of the delectable Eshi. She seemed so peaceful. Across the bed, Damini lay, wrapped into a little ball, curled up against the night. Were they both doing the same thing, dreaming, reorganizing memories, processing the day without the interference of conscious thought-- that Eshi claimed was a necessity? Kaede wondered.
She turned over onto her back and stared up at an unfamiliar ceiling. Eshi stirred gently, giving her some extra room. "I don't deserve you," Kaede whispered into the dark. She thought about the past four weeks, about all that she had been through. It had been a vacation, full of great sex, great nights of dancing and dining, the sorts of things that Pendorians thought should be the bulk of one's life. Kaede disagreed with that for there was still too much to do, still too much injustice in the universe for her to just let herself relax.
And Damini, too, was part of the solution, always searching, seeking, out on the edge. The kind of woman who needed a companion like Eshi.
Something clicked. "Eshi," she said softly. "I no longer want you in my life." Eshi's eyes opened, and she turned to stare at Kaede. "I no longer want you in my life." Eshi's face collapsed in horror, her eyes welling with tears. Kaede stopped, unable to go on. "My goddess, what am I..." Eshi took advantage of her momentary confusion, and ran.
"Damn!" Kaede said, scrambling out of bed, stumbling over Damini in the process.
"What the fuck is going on?" Damini growled as Kaede leaped out of bed and started pulling her clothes back on. "Kaede, what is happening?"
"I think I just fucked up badly," Kaede said as she finished pulling on her blouse and sealing it without caring if it was balanced. "I have to go find Eshi."
"Where is she?" Damini said, looking around.
"I think I know," Kaede shouted down the hallway even as she ran out the front door.
She made her way back to the picnic table they had first met at, and at which Eshi had found her that afternoon. On the table, completely naked, she found the small girl sitting, crying, as she had the first time. "Eshi..." she said, her heart beating hard with guilt and a wish to set things right, a wish she wasn't sure should be granted.
"Go ahead," Eshi said. "Finish it. I don't care."
"Yes you do." She crawled up onto the stone table behind Eshi and wrapped her arms around the sobbing girl. "Rescind those words and forget that I said them. I do want you in my life, and I... I'm sorry."
"You're SORRY?" Eshi said. "Gods and engineers, Kaede, you think that's enough to make me feel like I can trust you again? What were you thinking when you started to ritual of depurposing? Were you saying it in your sleep, or what?"
Kaede heard a sound to her left and looked up to find Damini standing there. "No, I... " She tried to put her thoughts into words, failed, tried again. "Eshi, I want you. I want you in my life forever."
"Who are you trying to convince?" Eshi snarled. "You? Or me?"
"You," Kaede said.
"It's hard to believe you."
"This afternoon you said you loved me."
"I do love you!" Eshi cried. "I do! That's why I don't understand how you could... could... What was that FOR?"
"I was trying to make things right." Eshi stared at her. "I looked at you and I looked at Damini, and I thought, for just a second, that you would be better off with her than with me. That she would make you a better partner than I would." Kaede looked over to see that Damini's face reflected the same shock and disbelief as Eshi's.
"Why would you think that?" Eshi asked.
"Because you have seventeen years of spacer experience fully loaded into that head of yours and you're not prepared to be a... a housewife to an out-of-work civil rights worker in a universe that may no longer need me."
Eshi looked up and said, "I'm prepared to be whatever you need me to be, Kaede."
"I know. And if you were a human being I wouldn't be able to accept that, even consciously. Human beings are not like that. I wouldn't be able to believe anyone who told me that, and my instincts are geared to working with human beings, right? They tell me not to believe it when someone who looks like you says something like that. Someone who looks like... us. Maybe Mei's right about that. Not about consciousness, but about recognition. I'm going to have to get used to you, Eshi. I just wanted to say I'm sorry."
"Was that it?" Eshi asked. "You were just thinking that maybe Damini and me..."
"Well, that was just the last thought that fell into place in my head. I was still angry about my Mom, and Mei, and about how you were at the heart of my disagreement with them. I thought I could be free of the responsibility I have towards you. But it's not you, you didn't cause it, you just made the ugliness in them apparent. It's not your fault."
"Kaede, the only responsibility you have to me is not mistreat me," Eshi said softly. "Everything else you do for me is a gift, a generosity. Just being yours, making you happy, thrills me like nothing else, Kaede. But... you can't understand how hard it is to know that, at any second, you could call it all off."
"Hey, that's how every relationship is," Kaede said.
"No, because I don't have that power. If couples live in a kind of truce over who gets to call it off first--"
"Couples don't live that way and you know that, Eshi. People stay together because they want to. And when I finally looked up and saw your face... Eshi, the first thing I realized is that Damini is a complete stranger."
A mildly sarcastic Damini said, "I'm glad you appreciate that! Like I said, I'm not sure I want that responsibility. Thanks for not giving it to me!"
"It was irresponsible of me to assume that Damini would take you after I had given up, especially when she would probably say no. She's got a ticket out of here tomorrow, there's no way she could take you on now. Besides," Kaede said gently, nuzzling Eshi's cheek. "Giving up on you might bring back my mother and Mei, but it won't give me back the feelings I had for them before they revealed to me their prejudices. I love you, Eshi. I can be stupid sometimes, but I do love you. A lot."
They sat together for a while, Eshi sobbing softly. "Eshi? Please come home. Please... forgive me."
"You said 'please' first to drop the command priority. You've figured out a lot about me."
"Yes," Kaede said softly. "I have. And this is true, Eshi, you're the best thing that's ever happened to me."
Kaede felt Eshi's hand on her skin, stroking the soft hairs on the back of her arm. "Okay," Eshi said. "On one condition." Kaede waited. "You make depurposing me a job. We'll talk to Dr. Tines and make depurposing require a key and confirmation and everything."
"It's a deal." Kaede felt Eshi's body suddenly loosen up, her back relaxing and pressing against her chest, as if molding herself to fit Kaede's curves. She took a deep breath. "From what I know, Eshi, every relationship is worth more than being alone. Unless the relationship is brutal or abusive, breaking up is simply the wrong thing to do. There is no 'greener grass,' no 'better life,' waiting for you if you just leave the person you're with. There might be different ones, but you lose a whole lot of... partnership. Marriage works. It's such a shame that few people realize that."
Eshi smiled and wiped away her tears. Her eyes were still red. "Are we married?"
"Would you like to get married?" Kaede asked.
"I'm sorry I'd miss the wedding," Damini said.
"It's kinda sudden. But if you want a ceremony, Kaede, I would happily join you in one."
Kaede grinned. "With flowers and dresses and everything?"
"Everything!" Eshi said, giggling. "Little bridesmaid dresses and a buffet and all that stuff!"
Kaede laughed. "Let's think about it. After Dr. Tines gets those keys fixed."
"Is the crisis over?" Damini asked. "It's still three in the morning and I'd like to get more sleep. You wore me out, you energetic little vixen." She waggled a finger at Eshi.
"Can I do it again?" Eshi asked, suddenly climbing off the table and bounding over her. Kaede felt her mouth go dry at the sight of Eshi's bouncy breasts and flying hair.
"Some other lifetime," Damini grinned. "Right now, it's time for sleep."
To Kaede's surprise, Eshi fell asleep instantly the moment they hit the bed. Kaede, on the other hand, took a while. She looked at the redhead and tried to deal with the guilt she still felt. She knew that it was a sleep-addled mistake but that didn't help. An hour must have past before the gentle breathing of her two bedmates finally lulled her down to sleep.