"Why can I be so stupid?" Brighide asked the falling snow. The snow did not answer her, although in some parts of the universe it may have. She looked down at her empty wineglass and remembered that it was her fourth. Her head was spinning as she tried to remember the conversation they'd been having, the six of them. Whose stupid idea was this, anyway?
Hers, of course.
She turned to find the bottle that she had been drinking from, knowing full well that it wouldn't help. In the morning, she'd still be who she was, and so would everyone else. Her hands found the neck in the dim light of the two remaining candles, tried to grab it. It fell to the floor. "Fuck."
"Don't you think you've had enough?"
She started, looked up. "I thought you needed sleep."
"Not every day," Eshi said. "I can skip whole days, even weeks, without getting any sleep, if that's what it takes to fulfill my purpose."
"Oh. Does anything bad happen if you don't?"
"My reactions to a lack of sleep are different from yours. If there's anything important that happens past, oh say, the third day or so, I probably won't remember it after I get sleep."
Brighide nodded. "Did Sharon..."
Eshi shook her head. "Sharon's fine."
"Why'd you come down here?"
"Kaede's asleep. I could hear you still wandering around, so I thought I should come by and find out if you were going to be okay."
"What Sharon said was true, you know. I am a doormat." She looked down at her empty glass again. "I wish I wasn't."
"She was drunk."
"Which mean she could only tell the truth, right?"
"Or a hateful lie," Eshi said. "Although I doubt that. You invited her here because she's your friend, right?" Brighide nodded. "Am I? Your friend?"
Brighide stared at Eshi. In the dim moonlight, she could only see the outline of Eshi's body, obscured further by the bathrobe but she knew what Eshi looked like underneath it. She had seen Eshi often enough to get over her initial, breathtaking beauty, but she still had a kind of envy mixed with desire. It wasn't fair to Kaede, of course, and even Eshi knew the kind of reaction her appearance made to others. She tried to tamp it down, but Kaede was quite a beautiful woman in her own strong way, and together they made a devestating pair. Only Eshi seemed to know it, though. She looked out the window again. "You're a robot."
"And I know that is avoiding the question. Covenant may be some semi-backward colony world, but the idea that humans and SIs can be friends is not new or controversial. Pendorians have been doing it for eight centuries."
Brighide wanted to hide. Eshi had her pinned, at least verbally. "I don't know what to expect from you. I've never had a machine friend."
"Your meat friends don't seem very kind." Eshi said 'meat' with the same soft tone that Brighide had used for 'machine,' yet both remained so obviously pejorative that it made Brighide ashamed she'd done it first.
"She was telling the truth. Eshi, you know those reality enhancing agents, the ones that'll highlight aspects of what you're seeing, put nametags on people you have trouble remembering, that kind of thing?" Eshi nodded. "I feel like I have one of those tags floating over my head that reads, 'Fuck her and forget her. She doesn't mind.' And everyone except me can see it. Except I do mind. I just don't complain." She turned her back to Eshi, turned to look out the window. "I can't lie to myself, Eshi. I can't say that there's a point to life."
"If you mean Life with a capital 'L', it's hard to say that there's just one. There are so many affinity groups that say they have it. Religious primitives and the technomagical transcendalists. My life has a point, Brighide. Why can't yours?"
Brighide smiled. "I'm not a robot."
"What does that mean?"
"I can't limit myself."
"As if you were going anywhere with your limitlessness."
Brighide bowed her head in shame, the truth of Eshi's words crushing any response she might have had. She felt Eshi come up behind her. "I'm sorry, Brighide. I... I didn't mean that." Eshi's hands touched her shoulders. "I came down to make sure you were well, not make you mad."
"I'll live," Brighide said.
"I'm not limited," Eshi said softly. "I'm dedicated. There's a difference. All of the affinity groups are dedicated to one thing or another. It's either a very smart or a very stupid person who can belong to a primitive religion and defend it reasonably even while reality itself is denying most of the precepts. And the singularity people aren't wrong, they just haven't been shown to be right. You could dedicate your life to any number of principles. Kaede has, although she's questioning some of them right now." Brighide felt Eshi's hands slide down her arms and then glide back up.
"The egalitariat doesn't suit Kaede as well as she thinks it should. I know you believe in it only a little bit, too. You've started to see that the things in which it allows you to excel are the ones that don't really matter."
Brighide snorted. "Like sex. I must not be very good in bed since guys and girls keep leaving me." Eshi's hands felt nice upon her shoulders.
"Sex matters. But only between you and someone else," Eshi said. "Have you tried having a relationship without expecting it to last forever?"
"You said it yourself. You don't think your life has a purpose. Without that, how do you think you're going to find someone to share it with? Maybe your life's goal is to find someone to share it with. Like mine was. I've been where you are, Brighide. Our lives aren't so very different. I was even suicidal once."
Brighide decided not to correct Eshi's impression of her as suicidal. Maybe she was. "What stopped you?"
"Meeting Kaede. She wouldn't give up on me. It wasn't much more than two or three days and I knew I loved her. She was a fighter. She fights for people who are helpless. I've learned a lot from her." One of Eshi's hands pressed the glass in front of her. "But this... this isn't fighting for the people who are helpless. This is petty bureacracy for people who aren't starved for food or entertainment. Covenant is one big red tape ribbon on an anthill of anomie. It's barely worth bothering about."
"I never thought of it that way."
"And I shouldn't talk," Eshi said. "She saved me. I don't want her to give up on people, but she can only have one of me."
"And if she chooses to have someone else in her life?"
"I'll support her completely in that decision. I might even push her in that direction if she were becoming too complacent, too dependent upon my attention, and was withdrawing from the world. I don't see that happening, but it is something for me to consider."
"Do you ever want anyone else?"
Eshi fell silent for a moment. "Sometimes." Brighide's shoulders felt cool where Eshi had lifted her hands.
"Only... No. Well, it was something I contemplated. I mean... Because you seemed so upset. If I just took you to bed tonight and our relationship ended there, how would I be better than all of the ones who treated you like a doormat?"
"Like you said, I should start trying relationships that I don't expect to last forever." She turned around. "Does Kaede know?"
"Yes. I couldn't lie to her ever."
"Does that feel like a choice?" Brighide said.
"It feels like a commitment." Eshi tilted her head up and pulled Brighide closer to her. Their lips met, and Brighide felt with shock the touch of Eshi's warm body against her clothes. Eshi wore only a bathrobe, and Brighide's own nightgown was as thin as silk could allow. "One I mean to keep."
Brighide nodded. Eshi smiled back at her, then led her to the couch, took a seat. Brighide sat down beside her, and Eshi gathered her by the shoulder and kissed her again. Brighide's initial reluctance fell to alcohol and Eshi's insistence. She moaned softly as Eshi's hand roamed over her chest, played briedly with her breasts before trailing over her belly and around to her back. They slowly shifted in their seats until she had almost crawled into Eshi's lap. The smaller girl felt strong, stronger and healther than Brighide felt herself. It wasn't a health that lived only in her body, but more as if Eshi, by sheer force of will, by having a meaning to her life, could put all of her energy elsewhere. It astounded Brighide to feel Eshi's power. She wished she herself could feel it inside herself someday.
Eshi's mouth found her chin, her cheek, her neck. The kisses were growing warmer and lingered longer. Her hand bravely roamed over the cloth that covered Brighide's breasts, her fingers found nipples, pinching them gently, making Brighide sigh.
She found the courage to slip her own hand into Eshi's nightcoat and found the warm, soft skin within. It was so smooth and unblemished, a kind of ideal for what skin should feel like. She touched Eshi's breasts and appreciated how large and heavy they felt, how perfect. She envied Kaede suddenly, to be able to have something so wonderful in her life, someone so relentlessly dedicated to her and so beautiful too. And, she recalled, Kaede had gotten Eshi for free. Free? Nothing this wonderful came for free.
Eshi's hands and mouth were on her body, now, and she wanted Eshi badly. She wanted Eshi to make her scream. She felt as if she were going backwards, sex first, trust later. It didn't matter.
Eshi pushed her back onto the couch, pushing the hem of her nightgown up about her hips, exposing her pussy to Eshi's gaze. Eshi smiled in the candle light, a confident little smile, eyes wet with gratitude. And then she descended onto Brighide's pussy, her mouth surrounding Brighide's puffed-out lips in one smooth motion.
Brighide had rarely had a woman lover. She didn't consider herself very skilled at cunnilingus, and most of the women she had dated had actually been rather amateur about it. Men, on the other hand, had always dedicated themselves to it, to making her insane with pleasure, even though they had always ultimately ended up abandoning her.
Eshi started out with licks so soft and tentative that Brighide despaired of ever getting to that place where pleasure went on. It was so easy when her lover had a penis. She supposed she was straighter than she wanted to admit. On Covenant... She smiled then at Eshi's word, the egalitariat... being interested in only one sex was regarded as an unusual idiosyncracy on terms with refusing to bathe. She was always willing to try.
And, oh, fah, was Eshi doing something to her that made her willing to try harder. She could feel her desire boiling up within her. Eshi's hands were on her belly, on her chest, playing with her breasts, as she felt the first strong wave of pleasure soak into her soul, followed closely by another, and Brighide could only lay gasping in wonder, one arm across her face to smother the moans she knew she would let loose otherwise. No wonder Kaede kept her! A third and fourth arose. Eshi kept licking her, making little noises of her own to tell Brighide she appreciated the appreciation, the pleasure. Brighide didn't want her to stop, ever. Eshi could do this until dawn. Her whole body was thrown into the unceasing, white-light pleasure of it all.
But Eshi did stop, eventually, after Brighide had lost count and ceased to care about losing count. She looked up, her chin and cheeks glistening in the candlelight, and then she covered Brighide's body with her own, pressed her magnificence to Brighide's body. "Oh, Brighide, thank you."
"How..." Brighide gasped. "How do I find someone like you?"
"You don't. You can buy a model of me, but it wouldn't be the same." Eshi pushed herself up. "What I am is what Kaede has made of me." She kissed Brighide, and Brighide surrendered with the last of her will.
"Fah," Brighide sighed. She touched Eshi's back and caressed her butt. She hungered for Eshi now, wanted to touch every square inch of her body. She tried to remind herself, briefly, that under that flesh was a framework of metal and a brain of supercooled crystal, but it didn't matter. Eshi was a woman, and a whole one. More whole, Brighide thought, than even herself.
She felt dizzy, but better than she had before Eshi had found her. The alcohol must have worn off a little bit. That was it. "Can you stay with me?" she whispered.
"That probably wouldn't be very smart," Eshi said.
She let go of Brighide, slowly. "Wait," Brighide said. "Tell me why."
"I told you why," Eshi said. She smiled, and to Brighide she could see that it was so simple. "I like you. You're good to Kaede. I wanted to make you feel good."
Brighide smiled back, despite the soft melancholy down in her heart. She knew that she might never have a love like Eshi's. She wanted to, badly. Was there someplace one could go to buy a companion just like Eshi, one where the companion robot was whole and complete and so human unto herself, or was that just a wish automatically made impossible by the sheer wishing of it? She sighed and let her memories wrap her like a cloak. "I'll miss you tonight."
"You'll learn," Eshi said. She touched Brighide on the arm. "I believe you will." She rose, giving Brighide one more brief kiss. "Sleep well."
In the morning, she joined Kaede and Eshi at the table. Sharon and Caco, blissfully, were not awake yet. Jaina was in the shower. "How's your vacation going so far?" Kaede asked her.
Brighide grinned. "So far? Wretched."
Kaede laughed. "Feel better after last night? Eshi take good care of you?"
Brighide smiled. "I don't suppose she kept it a secret."
"No," Kaede said, looking away. "I wonder if she did it as a kind of revenge. It did make me squirm, a little, to give my permission."
"Revenge for what?"
"I cheated on her. A couple of weeks ago." Brighide stared at her, her mouth open. "I guess... I guess I wanted to prove that I wasn't just hooked on her. And that I was still attractive to other women." She smiled. "I was right on both counts. But that's not what love is about." Eshi passed behind Kaede, her hand trailing on Kaede's shoulder. Kaede grasped her fingers and gave a brief squeeze.
"That was about the time that Eshi's nature came out at the office, wasn't it?" Brighide said. Kaede nodded. "It wasn't... it wasn't about what I said, was it?"
"Yeah," Kaede said. "I wanted to prove I wasn't technogamous."
Eshi glided through the room as if ignoring both of them, putting down a bowl of sliced and sectioned fruits. Brighide couldn't ignore Eshi, however. It was hard to ignore her, even in her bathrobe. She was far too pretty. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't know how cruel it was."
Kaede reached out and squeezed Brighide's hand. "I know you didn't mean it."
Brighide nodded. "I guess... " She looked at Kaede, and at Eshi. She should have been angry at Eshi for using her to get her revenge, but the sex had been too good, the feelings too honest, the truth too real. Watching them, she had only the gentle envy of knowing they had what she wanted. "Fah, I wish I could bottle what you two have and sell it on the open market."
"Someday, when you find it," Eshi said, "you'll understand why you can't."
They heard footsteps, and the door swung open. Jaina joined them, and the conversation returned to more mundane topics. Nobody mentioned last night again.