Kaede's first sight of her birthworld raised within her old feelings of regret, mourning, jubilation, and relief. She had seen this sight once before, when she had returned the first time from her trip to Terra. That trip had been the endpoint of a collection of failures: her failure to be needed that deep inside the well of civilization, and her failure to connect with anyone she might call beloved. Her last relationship on Terra had been the best, and its failure the worst: it had taught her that for some, love is just a word, a feeling, and it could not be counted upon.
She glanced at the woman to her left. Slightly shorter, with red-orange hair and unblemished cream skin, Eshi put her hands on the glass of the starship's observation window and watched as Emerald drew closer. For Eshi, Kaede had learned, love was not just a word, love was a meaning for being. And looking at this small woman with her enormous, trusting eyes and her sweetest grin, Kaede knew that she had found the love that she herself had always wanted: a love to last a lifetime. She stared at Eshi and wondered what she had really done to deserve that kind of love, and Eshi noticed. "What?"
"I was just thinking about how much I love you."
Eshi's smiled could have warmed a world. "I was such an ass when I first met you."
"No, you weren't. You were just being yourself. I hope I never see that Eshi again."
"You won't. Not unless you want to see her, and even then Dr. Tine left changes on me." Eshi touched her chest briefly. "There's an Eshi inside me that can live without you now. But I don't want to know her." She turned and looked out the window, following Kaede's gaze. The dome of Alphaville was coming into view. "And as long as I have my romantic heroine by my side, I won't have to." She glanced down at the book in her hand, a paper-pressed book with a lurid cover of a man and a woman on the cover, him shirtless, her in the process of becoming so.
"You really like those books, don't you?"
"My one bad habit."
"One among many," Kaede said, smiling. "It's okay. I've read a few. They don't do anything for me, but I can understand how other people might like them."
Eshi grinned, then pouted. "What other bad habits do I have?"
"You spend too much time in the kitchen trying to impress me. You make me come far too often to be good to my health. And when you catch cold, you have terrible aim with your tissues."
"Bet you didn't think a robot could catch cold, huh?"
Kaede smiled. "I knew how much of you is organic. I knew that you could catch a cold, but I didn't really understand what it was like to live with you when you have one. It's really disturbing. Because it doesn't slow down your brain, just your nose and eyes."
"But I know how disgusting it is to be shedding virus," Eshi nodded. "So it's my duty to make myself unpleasant to be around. Because that stops the spread of virus."
"Such a robot."
"Such a human," Eshi said, leaning in and giving Kaede a kiss that shivered its way through Kaede's body and caused sighs to get caught in her throat.
A bell rang out overhead, and a voice in Anglic said, "Please take your seats. We will be landing in fifteen minutes." Eshi smiled at Kaede and the two of them returned to their seats, one next to the other. They held hands all the way down.
At the spaceport, they walked the green umbilicus that they had watched snorkel up to the spherical transport and lamprey itself to the midsection. Kaede said, "I feel like a fat cell about to be liposuctioned."
Eshi giggled for a moment. "And you complain about my twisted sense of humor?"
Each carried a single duffel, all their worldly possessions. The rest they could buy, or borrow, or have manufactured by the AI Darmadhatu, who owed both of them a favor or two. Kaede felt comfortable in her return. Darma had a lodge made ready. The umbilicus emptied onto a semicircle of cement hollowed out of the material of Emerald. Kaede scanned the open scene and her comfort remained. "You were afraid Ming would be here," Eshi said
"Yeah," Kaede said. "Why did you want to come here, anyway?"
"Just for a visit," Eshi said. "Come on. Our lodge is down here. Same place as before."
Kaede followed her, still wondering. She had been wondering the entire trip. She knew where the house was. For almost a year she and Eshi had made their home there, after her mother had kicked them both out of her home, refusing to let Kaede share her bedroom with "that oversized sex toy." Before her mother had kicked them both out of the house she hadn't objected to constant lovemaking or the noise they had been making. She had only made a comment that she too had been young once, as if Kaede's being in her mid-thirties qualified as young. She supposed it did. Her mother was into her second century, and made it seem as if lovemaking was something to have left behind. Fortunately, her other mother didn't think so.
They found their way and found a note tacked to the door: "Gone to Sapphire. Be back by Dinner - Mama." Eshi smiled. "Well, at least Lisaveta still loves up."
"She always did."
They cleaned up the house. It was still what she remembered, the bedroom, the unused rooms, the bathroom. Kaede set out toothbrushes and clothes while Eshi ran about with a broom, convinced that there must be something she could do to make the place better.
Knuckles rapped the front door, and Eshi intercepted two bags of groceries, handing two empty bags back to the delivery girl and taking the full bags into the kitchen. Kaede heard chopping sounds. She shook her head and settled down into a couch free of dust to review the recent history. She and Eshi had left seven years ago and much had changed since then. Darma had forwarded her a ton of email and notices and pending notices for when (if, some of them said) she ever returned to Alphaville. She read them all: the invitations, the congratulations, the farewells from those who had left and had not yet returned. She sent notes back to Mei Hiawasee and Seong Yoon and Nefer Nefrure, three friends from before the first trip off-world, three friends from the days before The Opening, who were actually in Alphaville. She wanted to get together with all of them.
"Darma!" she said, suddenly looking up at the ceiling. "I'm home!"
"So I see, daughter. Welcome home." Darmadhatu's voice was as maternal and feminine as ever, and Kaede warmed to hear the AI's voice: at least with Darma she had no disagreements. She wondered again why Eshi had brought them to Alphaville. It couldn't just be so Kaede could see Lisaveta again, although she did miss her contributory mother as much as she regretted the emotion between her and her birth mother.
While the local gossip flowed across her screen the front door of the house opened and Lisaveta made her appearance. "Hello?"
"Mama!" Kaede leaped from the couch and tackled the tall, blond women standing in the door way. "I'm so glad you're home!"
"I said I would be back before dinner. Have I ever missed an appointment?"
Kaede grinned. "Not when Eshi was cooking." She took a sniff of the air. "I think it's chowder."
Lisaveta nodded. "It smells wonderful, whatever it is. I could never survive living in space for too long without coming back to someone who can cook, even if it means just visiting my favorite restaurants. Hey, that's an idea. Eshi! Why don't you go into business for yourself? Run a restaurant! Give my wayward daughter something better to do with her time than... what was it you were doing?"
"Civil rights abuse cases on Covenant." Kaede said it with gravity she no longer felt. Eshi had been right. Covenant had been a bureaucracy, and the bureaucracy had evolved for its own needs, not those of the people it purported to serve. It was a common enough problem in advanced societies. Eshi had convinced her that if it was a problem for her then the only civilized response was to leave. So they had.
"Lisa?" Eshi rocketed out of the kitchen and into the strong arms of Kaede's mother. "It's so good to see my mother-in-law again!" She held Lisa at arm's length. "You look like you've been keeping busy!"
Lisa grinned and hugged Eshi back, tolerantly. "Are you cooking dinner?"
"Yes, Ma'am." Lisa grinned and let Eshi go, and the small redhead wandered back into the kitchen.
"Goddess bless, what a wonderful woman you've got there. So, I got your mail. You're here. Is this just a place to hole up between jobs or do you have another reason for being here?"
Kaede said, "You'll have to ask Eshi."
"I'll have to wait for dinner then. Good. You'll get to meet Nitca."
"My... girlfriend. We're dating."
"Oh, good!" Kaede said. "I'd love to meet her."
"Then you'd better call her quick!" Eshi's voice soared from the kitchen. "Dinner's going to be ready in fifteen minutes."
They assembled at the table. Lisa made introductions to Nitca, who had shown up just as Eshi was putting out bowl of salad greens, and Nitca smiled. She was a short woman with hair as blond as Lisa's and a face that tried to rival Eshi's for charm. She had a ready smile and Kaede took a liking to her. Nitca led them in a brief prayer of thanks for the meal.
"So," Lisa said, looking over at Kaede and Eshi. "Is this just a visit?"
"So far as I know," Kaede said. "Although I think Eshi has a secret."
"I do." Eshi turned to Kaede, then nodded to Lisa. "It's something special." She reached out to Kaede, held out her hands. Kaede, bewildered, offered her own, and Eshi meshed her fingers with Kaede's. "Kaede, my love, I have been secretly making contacts among some Pendorian friends of mine who have an influence with Martian Metals, and in a few weeks a package from Sol will arrive here. Alphaville is the one place in the universe I know has the expertise to do what I want from you." She glanced over at Lisa again, who was grinning, and she grinned back. Lisa knew. "Kaede, my beloved wife, may I bear your daughter? Can we promise to raise her together?"
"I..." Kaede's loss for words was absolute. Nothing would come. Her stunned mind hosted images of little red-headed girls with black eyes and bright smiles, of Eshi holding out a baby in her arms, of the raw emotions of potential motherhood. It all came at once, a story she had already told herself a countless number of times but had never been willing to bring to the surface. There had been that one conversation, once, in the park, when she had stared at those rare creatures, children playing on swings and obstacle courses and little bridges of plastic and chain over a pit of sand, a world sized just for them. Since then, she had dreamed within of this moment yet she had been unaware that the dream had been playing.
Eshi was still smiling at her. She tightened her grip on Eshi's hands, tears flowing from her eyes. With emotion raw and powerful enough to raze the tallest mountain she managed to force her lips around one word: "Yes."
"You're going to make me a grandmother!" Lisa said, laughing. She reached for the wine and poured it into her glass. "I think I'm going to need this. You too." She poured carefully for those whose glasses weren't full. "A toast, then. To my daughter and my daughter-in-law, at least on some star systems." Eshi gave a brief jerk of laughter, her grin huge. "May you have a beautiful child."
"Will it... " Kaede paused. "I mean, are you really that organic?"
"You asked me that before we got married, Kaede," Eshi said. "And you asked me that when I caught a cold on the flight here. I needed to get a contract with Martian Metals because I wasn't sure what the copyright was on my genecode. I've been told it's in the public domain, like all personal genecodes, and they can't copyright it. At least within the llerkin political alliance, they can't. I've bought the pre-ovum package from Martian Metals with some money I stashed away so we'll have fresh half-strands ready for merging when it gets here, and I know that this place has the most experienced labs in the galaxy for doing egg-to-egg merges." She let go of one of Kaede's hands, instead reaching over to kiss her mouth. "So yes, I'm really that organic."
"But will she look like us?"
"More like you than me, I imagine." Eshi looked down. "She'll get some of my hair and skin and eye color, some of my tastes and smells, but... will she be smart like me? Probably not. She won't have my bone structure. My carriage isn't modeled on the donor."
Kaede nodded, still more than a little shocked by the development Eshi had dropped on her. She tried to think of it, still could not. Someone poked her in the arm with a fork.
"Hey," Lisa said. "Aren't you hungry?"
She grinned at her Mama, then turned to find Eshi waving a spoonful of chowder under her nose. She ate it heartily, and then said, "Let's eat. We can get drunk afterwards."
After dinner, they retired back to the couch, each with another glass of wine. Kaede seemed determined to drink more than usual, and Eshi recognized the sign of stress. "Is it really that bad?" she asked Kaede.
"It's not the offer," Kaede said. "It's what will happen when Ming finds out."
"Who cares?" Lisa said. "I mean, I love Ming as much as you do, Kaede. She helped me make you. She carried you to term. She's so brilliant in so many ways, as an artist and as a lover and even as a politician, but... she's a bigot. She has a right to be a bigot. But she doesn't have the right to ruin your life, daughter, and you should not let her."
"Don't 'but Mama' me," Lisa said. "Your wife came here because she thought this was the best place to birth a child and she's probably right, given your situation. I know, you hope that maybe with a granddaughter Ming will come around. Maybe she will. Don't count on it and don't push it. I've known her for a lot longer than you have."
"I don't know if I can say anything," Nitca said. Lisa gestured for her to continue. "Kaede, just have the baby first. Then live with the consequences." She looked at her wineglass. "Like I should talk. I've never had kids. I seem not to want them."
Lisa grinned, then leaned over and kissed her. "You go through the motions well enough," she murmured.
Nitca did not blush at all. "I seem to recall that it was you who 'went through the motions' last time."
Lisa grinned at her, shameless. Mostly. She demurred finally and said, "I think I will shut up now. I wouldn't want to shock my daughter. Even in the 28th Century, children still get anxious thinking about their parents' sex lives."
"That's a feeling I'm sure to lack," Eshi said gently, looking at her wineglass. "I don't have parents. Well, there are AIs and technicians responsible for me, but I don't think of them as parents. Should I?"
"No," Kaede said, putting down her glass of wine. After what had happened between herself and Crescent, as well as Eshi and Brighide, she had learned to be careful with her drinking. Getting drunk was bad business around Eshi. She was quick to make good use of her intoxication.
Eshi said, "But what will our daughter think of us?"
"That we brought her into a world full of hope with the best of intentions, and we stuck by those intentions through twenty years of blissful marriage, and that you and I are the happiest couple in all of known space," Kaede said, leaning over and gently nuzzling Eshi's ear until the shorter girl shivered.
"Stop that," Eshi murmured.
"Why?" Kaede said. She reached out with her tongue for the delicate curves that defined the upper lobe.
"Because your mother is here."
Kaede leaned back in the couch and smiled at Eshi, who looked decidedly uncomfortable for someone who was supposed to be in control of herself all the time. Nitca leaned over and touched Lisa's arm and Lisa just nodded momentarily. "I think it's time we were going. We'll leave you two lovebirds alone to celebrate your decision."
"Mama!" Kaede said.
"Kaede? You know you are."
"I thought you said something about parents and children not wanting to pry into each others' sex lives?
"I didn't say that at all," Lisa said, smiling and standing. "I said that children never wanted to pry into the parents'. The other way around is not true at all, Kaede. After all, I have my granddaughters to think about."
Eshi said, "That's not the way children have ever been made on Alphaville."
"Oh, I know. But a good love life is a solid basis for a good relationship." She sighed. "I should know."
"Well, you don't have to worry about that with me," Nitca said. "Not yet."
"I know." Lisa reached out, and the two women wrapped arms around each other's waists. "We'll see each other out, okay?"
Kaede nodded. She felt sad for her mother's pain, which she knew had its origins in the way both of her mothers had drifted apart from one another. Each had her own beliefs about Kaede's relationship with Eshi, and each had gone her own way.
She turned to Eshi and said, "Why don't we just go to bed?"
Eshi nodded. "I'll take care of the dishes later." She reached out a hand and Kaede took it. She allowed Eshi to lead her into the bedroom, where she tossed off her skirt and blouse and underthings into the laundry bin, then sat on the bed.
Eshi sat down next to her. "You don't like it here, do you?"
Kaede looked at her, then shook her head. "No. Too many memories, not enough friends." She help up her hand to Eshi's lips. "I know what you're going to say and the answer is 'no'." Eshi smiled. "You made the right choice in coming here, if my answer was going to be yes. You probably knew that I couldn't say 'no' to your request. Asking it in front of Mama was a masterstroke. I guess all those trashy books paid off."
"You don't resent that, do you?"
"No," Kaede said. I knew what it was the second you asked. All the pieces fell into place. I had the freedom to say no. Just like you do." Eshi's grin grew. "I love you, Eshi. I just... wish I loved the universe as much." Eshi's hand reached out and took hers. Tears grew in Kaede's eyes. "There doesn't seem to be any place for me. My skills are for helping people get along but people already get along. It's hard not to. There are places to go and things to do all across known space. If someone needs to get away, to change, to be something else, there's room in the universe for that." She sighed. "I'm just another option. And I don't want to be optional."
"You're not optional to me. You won't be optional to our child."
"How long will that last? Sixteen years if I'm lucky. If she's anything like me, she'll be out and living her own life by the time she's twelve." She wiped a tear from her cheek. "I'm sorry. Maybe it's my period. I get like this."
Eshi nodded. "I know. And I still love you. But you should stop worrying about what you're going to do twenty years from now. You're always worried about running out of things to do. As long as you live, I'm not going to run out of someone to be." She opened her mouth as if to say something more, then closed it.
"What?" Kaede said.
"Don't tell me 'nothing.' Not only is it not nothing, but that gesture was chosen ahead of time to prompt me to ask. What is it?"
"Damn. You know me too well."
"I had better! Tell me."
"Why not be an exploration starship counsellor?" Kaede stared at her. "Do what you've done, but get down to the personal level. Stop filing reports and making measurements by the book, Kaede. You're better than that. You do well with people. With everyone except yourself, that is. That's what you've got me for.
"Starships are small enough that there's nowhere to run to. They need the people on them to work hard and be a unit. You can't have someone just heading off and doing their own thing. On a research vessel, the population is large enough to have friction, but small enough that the heat is inescapable. I think you'd make a fine starship counsellor. The odds of you being helpful are strong if you go. I just didn't want to ask out loud without prompting because–"
Kaede's mouth shut hers and pushed the two of them back onto the bed. Kaede kissed Eshi so hard she bruised her lips on her own teeth, on Eshi's teeth. Her knee pressed up against the smaller girl's mound through the orange skirt she wore. "I had to do something to shut you up."
"Kaede!" Eshi said.
"You needed me to order you to tell me you wanted to go back to space?"
"It's not like that!" Eshi said. "I really was thinking of your best interests. I'm just..."
"Stop suspecting yourself," Kaede said. "Because I believe right now that you've given me one of the best suggestions I've ever heard in my life." She lowered her head and kissed Eshi's cheek, and she could feel her own desire mounting. Eshi had saved her once again. She often wondered why gratitude always translated to arousal when she was with Eshi– she certainly didn't feel that way about anyone else! Her mood had lifted, her body was warm, and the small redheaded woman underneath her looked as delectable as one of pastries from Irene's Bakery. "Let's get you naked, beloved."
"You'll have to let me up." Kaede did, then knelt back to take off her own brasserie and panties. She watched as Eshi walked towards her, her beauty highlighted by the soft diamond shape of her long, delicately curved torso merging with clear lines into her pelvis.
"Darma? Lights low, please." The bed creaked as Eshi joined her. The two of them collided like flowers in a storm, their bodies meeting belly-to-belly, their breasts meshed together, Eshi's a little lower, their mouths closed one upon the other in desperate hunger. Eshi lowered her head and with a tiny flicker of her tongue tasted Kaede's larger, rounder breasts, teasing at one healthily pink nipple. Kaede shivered just a little at Eshi's touch, the hands on her sides holding her, the mouth on her nipple licking gently.
She reached down for Eshi's chin and pulled the smaller girl up to her mouth, kissed her. The two of them eased down to the bed, legs and bodies intertwined, kisses going back and forth with a gentle hunger that both of them knew well. Kaede felt Eshi on top of her, Eshi's smart small breasts firm against her body.
Eshi's fingers sneaked down her belly to the thicket of black hair between her thighs and Kaede squirmed with anticipation. Eshi moaned softly, then said, "Let's take it easy tonight."
"Mmm," Kaede said. "Nothing too wild."
"Yeah." Eshi smiled at her and eased herself down between Kaede's legs. Kaede opened for her, anticipating what was coming, knowing that she would want as much of Eshi's mouth as there was on offer.
And Eshi did not disappoint her. Eshi's mouth was instantly on her cunt, parting her hair, and she felt herself starting to moisten merely from knowing what was going to come next. Eshi's mouth closed on her cunt, blotted out the air and the light from her sex, closed off her clit within a warm, moist universe of pleasure that was just for her. Kaede felt hands on her breasts, fingers on her nipple, that incredible, sloppy, precise tongue upon her clit and surrounding her cunt. She went limp, knowing that there was nothing she could now but make encouraging noises and absorb, absorb the pleasure that Eshi promised her. She surrendered to Eshi's love and her skills.
Her relaxation did not last long. Soon, the familiar tension rose in her belly and she craved release as Eshi's tongue invoked her love and desire, and she came with a slow moan that broke from her like a bubble coming to the surface of a pond. "Eshiiiii..." she whispered.
Eshi rose and lay down beside her. Kaede kissed her, tasted her own juices on Eshi's lips, and for the uncounted time in her life was grateful to Eshi for the life they had made together. They kissed, hands caressing sides, finding nipples and breasts, teasing firm, smooth flesh, and then Kaede found herself somehow, she wasn't sure how, on her back with Eshi's pussy hovering, upside-down, over her face. "Lick me," Eshi said.
Kaede couldn't refuse. The sight before her eyes was too beautiful, too pink and delectable to refuse. The smell of her, that all-too-human combination of sweat and ecstasy, bathed her imagination, and she eagerly plunged her mouth into Eshi's pussy, her mouth finding that tiny, hard seed of a clitoris and licking the other girl into a frenzy. "Goddess, yes, lick me, Kaede, yes..." She felt the warm juices of Eshi's need trickle down her cheeks as she licked at Eshi's clit, pressed her nose between the flared wet labia. Eshi bore down at times, cutting off Kaede's air, pressing her taut buttocks against Kaede's forehead for a brief moment before relenting, but the squeezing in her thighs and the trembling in her ass told Kaede that she was on track. "Oh, yes, Goddess, yes, Kaede....!!!" Eshi's trembling climax was a glory to behold and Kaede felt it like a rising, spreading pool within herself.
Eshi gently dismounted. Kaede felt her lay down and then roll against her, breasts nestled about her arm, lips touching her shoulder. "I love you, Kaede."
Those words joined everything else Eshi had ever done to her, poured into her and merged with her affections so completely she could never lose them. "I love you too, Eshi." She looked up at the ceiling and realized that she could still see it. "Darma? Lights off, please." The lights faded.
The package from Mars arrived a week later, and Kaede and Eshi made appointments at hospital. It took less than a month for Eshi to become pregnant.
Kaede had sent letters to her birth mother but never received an answer. Kaede had done her duty and there was nothing further to be done: her mother had been informed that a granddaughter was on the way, but no answer from her had come.
The months quickly passed. Every day her routine was much the same: she would open her clamshell reader, look at the list of correspondence, sigh and snap the cover shut. "She's not going to answer you," Eshi said one day.
"I know." Kaede looked over at where Eshi sat on the couch, a pair of knitting needles in her hands. It would once have been impossible to imagine Eshi quite so domestic but here she was, putting together custom booties and a cap and a little sweater in soft pink and yellow fibers, all for their daughter.
"We haven't chosen a name yet," Kaede said.
"Ming," Eshi said. "If you want Ming's attention, why not name our daughter after her?"
"I couldn't do that! I couldn't burden her with the knowledge that her name was a gimmick to get her grandmother's attention. Maybe as a middle name that would be okay, but I, I couldn't do that to her. She'll grow up with that name. She might chose something different when she's old enough, but..." She paused. "Faith."
"Faith. Faith Ming Yuan, daughter of Kaede and Eshi Yuan. It sounds right."
"Faith?" Eshi's eyes unfocused as she thought about it. Kaede had seen that look before, and did not know what to expect from it. Sometimes, Eshi just gave in. Sometimes she argued. "I like it."
"I probably don't want to know how much data you just processed."
"No," Eshi said, her fingers continuing to knit. Her deft hands worked at human speeds but without ever clicking the needles together or making a mistake. Kaede had known several women who had knit habitually in her childhood. Eshi seemed just like one of them, competent, calm, and absorbed. She would pause to talk. "You don't."
Kaede grinned. "Hey, I'm going stir crazy in here. We're not supposed to have Nefer over until dinnertime. Would you like to go down to Irene's for some tea or something?"
"Yes," Eshi said. "I think I would." She put her knitting aside with both hands, a gesture that made her look about as motherly as humanly possible. She smiled up at Kaede, radiant in her phenomenal beauty. Kaede was helpless before that smile. She had moments like this with Eshi every day, and she treasured them, these brief seconds where her heart was so filled with love her body threatened to shake. Eshi watched her with a mixture of understanding and curiosity as if to say she knew Kaede's soul well but would always be willing to learn more.
Kaede succeeded only partially in shaking off the daze that had threatened to overwhelm her as Eshi took her by the elbow and led her out onto the street and through the cavernous dome of the Chord Residential District to the light shopping district next to the surface dome.
They found Irene's. A cafe' and bakery in the district just below the dome, it was where Kaede and Eshi had first sat and spoken with one another, eight years ago. It seemed like an eternity to Kaede, although few of her friends expressed surprise. Kaede had never been one to give up on friendship first, but she had never fought very hard to keep them. Eshi, on the other hand, was unlikely to ever give up on Kaede, so it was something of an ideal match. Irene stood behind the counter, working an espresso machine that looked like a cross between a miniature locomotive and some gleaming tropical insect. "Hi!" she sang as they entered. "The usual?" Both nodded.
Irene busied herself with the blender, as Eshi's usual consisted of a banana milkshake, and Kaede settled for a simple tea rather than a complicated coffee. Irene brought them their drinks and let them be.
Eshi said, "You've been becoming more distracted as the pregnancy has gone on. You're worrying me."
Kaede nodded. "I'm sorry. It's just that... as we get closer to the birth, I wonder if I'm ever going to get Ming to acknowledge your daughter they way she'll deserve." She watched her tea swirl slowly in her cup. "I so want her to listen."
"She's been committed to not talking to you ever since... "
Kaede looked up. The fear on Eshi's face was clear. "Eshi, don't worry about it."
"I have to! Don't you. Understand?"
"It is not in your best interest for me to keep you from your Mother, Kaede. It's... especially not in your interest to keep your daughter from–" Eshi's body was trembling in a way Kaede had only seen once before: when Kaede had stupidly started the depurposing ritual with the idea that Eshi would be happier finding herself a spacer to live with.
"I can't... I can't..." Her eyes twitched. Her face became strangely still, paralyzed in a way Kaede had never seen.
"Eshi! Darma!" Eshi's eyes had lost focus and tone, looking more like glass, like stone, then Kaede would have thought possible even for some ancient automaton.
She heard the sirens keening almost from the second it left the hospital district. Crewed vehicles appeared on the streets of Alphaville for only one reason, and women fled the prow of the ambulance out of respect for its task. Those tasked with responding to emergencies arrived before the boxy wheeled craft. One woman, halfway through stating her command authority, saw Kaede and Eshi and her eyes narrowed briefly. "You."
"She's... She's carrying our child. Something's wrong. Help her." Kaede's voice wrung the words in tortured desperation.
"I thought you married a robot, daughter."
"She's still carrying, damnit! Do something!" Kaede held Eshi's rigid hand frozen in the robotic equivalent of epileptic rictus. "Please, daughter!"
The woman shook herself. Darma's voice came through the ceiling. "Dr. Tines is going to meet you at hospital."
"Thank you," Kaede said. She looked up. "Move!"
"Yes, Ma'am!" the woman said. "You, you. Help carry this woman to hospital. One, two, three, lift!"
Kaede lifted Eshi by one shoulder, the commander by the other, Irene and another woman carried Eshi by the knees. Before Kaede understood the next step, she ambulance was driving away, Eshi in its cargo box. She watched it. "Irene... What?"
"Go," Irene said. "You can settle your account later, okay?"
Kaede almost laughed. Irene had clearly meant it as a joke. Instead, she took off, running, for the hospital district. She wished for a bicycle. She wished for a ride.
When she got there, Dr. Tine was already in a diagnostics office with Dr. Gustha and another woman dressed in a lab coat. Dr. Tine stood in a cylinder of holographic displays, rectangular tiles of data glowing, some intagliated towards her with their urgency, others darkened with irrelevance. She communed with the data for a few minutes, nodded her head. "Karekim," she said, and the woman Kaede did not know looked up. "It's in the sequence described by this path from root sixteen." Her hands described a path over one tile of data. "It looks like it is my fault. Hope Kaede doesn't sue me." She looked up and smiled at Kaede. "Hope Eshi doesn't, either."
"What happened?" Kaede said.
"A conflict in Eshi's central programming. I didn't weaken her fear of losing you enough. She's so terrified that someday you'll depurpose her that when the issue of your mother came up, she stared considering future possibilities. She somehow lost the culling algorithm that's supposed to stop that from running away, so it locked her brain. It does happen on these models from time to time." She gestured at Eshi. "I've fixed the bug, and the culling algorithm should work now."
"You didn't change her... did you?"
"Goddess, no! That would be unethical, and unfair to both of you. Eshi has to learn to live with the ambiguity of her situation. You can't be purposed to her the way she is to you, because you're all organic and emergent and she's designed to be something else. I would need her permission to remove her insecurity. And somehow, I don't think you want that."
"What about... Faith?"
"Your child was in no danger," Dr. Gustha said. "Eshi has the maintenance of the child in an autonomic circuit off of her consciousness. Faith is fine."
Kaede closed her eyes briefly and whispered a blessing to the Goddess. "When... when can I have her back?"
"She's fine now," Dr. Tine said. "I inserted an experiential change. It's not unlike what someone who has a seizure experiences when they come back from the incident." She gestured towards the door. "Go head."
Kaede walked into the hospital room where Eshi was lying on the bed. "I'm sorry, Kaede."
"It's not your fault," Kaede said. "Dr. Tine is taking responsibility."
Eshi stared off for a moment, then nodded. "I see what she did, and why it went wrong. It was stupid of me not to notice before it cascaded out of control!"
"I don't think either of you anticipated it being so... probable. So, are you going to need a therapeutic reboot every decade or so?"
Eshi laughed. "I hope not!" Kaede glanced worriedly at her, and Eshi grinned. "Kaede, I'm supposed to be warrantied for three eternities or three gazillion miles, whichever comes first." She reached out with a strong hand and took Kaede's in her own. "It's okay. I'm fine, the baby is fine. I'm just a little... neurotic."
Kaede nodded. "I've noticed."
Eshi grinned, then turned onto her side and pushed herself up into a sitting position. "I'll be so glad when this kid is out of me." She patted her belly. "I feel so fat."
"You're supposed to be pregnant."
"Fat, pregnant, it's an extra ten kilos I'm carrying around with me. You try it someday."
"I will," Kaede said, and Eshi looked up at her with surprise. "Not soon, but if this experiment goes well, I'd love to have your baby, Eshi."
Eshi bounded off the hospital bed and into Kaede's arms, her swollen belly pressing against Kaede's midsection, her arms around Kaede's neck. A wire trailed from the back of her head to a data port next to the bed. "Goddess, Kaede. Say that again."
"I want to have your baby, Eshi."
Eshi trembled against her. "You'll make me come just saying those words."
Kaede grinned, then lowered her lips to Eshi's ear, kissing her, licking, nibbling. "I want you to have my baby, Eshi."
"Kaede!" She squealed and pushed Kaede away. "Promise?"
"Absolutely," Kaede said.
"Good. Because in five weeks I'm going to have yours."
Dr. Tine joined them to announce that she had checked and confirmed the fix she had made to Eshi's thought patterns and, in accordance with the laws of her home state, had to get Eshi and Kaede's acceptance of the fix she had made. It took a few minutes for Kaede to understand what had been done, but when she did she signed off on it all the same. "I'm very sorry about this," Dr. Tine said.
Kaede's mouth took a hard line. There were certain words she should say under these circumstances, but she did not want to have to say them. Dr. Tine had been good to both Kaede and Eshi, and she had missed this only by the smallest of possibilities. Human beings weren't perfect, but their software was harder to check, and when it locked up it tended to be less dramatic. She chose not to say them. "Apology accepted, doctor. I know that you didn't mean for this to happen, or cause this to happen due to negligence."
Dr. Tine closed her eyes briefly, then shook her head. Kaede remembered briefly that that was the llerkindi equivalent of a nod. "Thank you, Kaede. I shall double my efforts to make sure that no more wild cascades like that can happen to Eshi ever again."
"I appreciate that, Doctor." Kaede and Eshi said it at the same time, which made Kaede giggle. Eshi followed suit.
Dr. Gustha followed her in. "Well, you're both free to leave, if you want. Dr. Tine tells me that you don't need to be here for her to continue her diagnoses."
"Thank you, Sister," Kaede said automatically. The two of them made their way back to their home. Kaede put in a call to Irene and told her that everything was all right. She knew that was all she needed to do to ensure that Eshi's state would be discussed all over town. Irene would get the news out.
She walked up behind Eshi, who was standing at the sink in the kitchen, staring off through the window into the quadrangle of grass behind their house. "I will never leave you," she said softly.
Eshi turned in her arms, fell against her, a solid body more real than anything Kaede had ever held in her life. Eshi's prominent belly pressed against her, and the grip around her shoulders was intense and demanding. "I know. Goddess bless us, but I know. I just... " She looked up. "Can you live with my craziness? Isn't it just so weird the way I... I need you?"
"Of course I can. I just don't understand what I've ever done to make you doubt. Other than that first time, but... I was really dumb then. I didn't understand. I do now." Kaede held her. "And no, I don't think you're weird. You'd be weird if I abused you or forgot you or started treating you like the furniture. But I promised us both I wouldn't do that and I hope to cold, frozen Hell I've lived up to that."
Eshi grinned. "I forgive you for the first time."
"But have you forgotten it?"
Eshi leaned up and kissed her. The kiss was one of those old kisses, the kind that drew Kaede into a gentle, suggestive haze of lust. It worked every time, even when she didn't want it to. That kiss was one of Eshi's impossible, inhuman powers, and Kaede didn't resent her for having it. "I have chosen to ignore it in my thinking."
Kaede sighed, the tingle on her upper lips resounding down in her lower. She felt that wetness that said to her that she wanted Eshi's attention. Her body demanded too much of her relationship with Eshi, but neither she nor it nor Eshi would be denied. Not now. Eshi said softly, "There comes a time when I have to say, I made my decision. I will live with it. I won't go back on it. And I'll ignore everything before that decision was made that might have made me consider otherwise. I have too much life to live." She looked up at Kaede, her eyes soft with that desire. "I want you, Kaede."
"Oh, Eshi, I want you too." She held out her hand and the two of them ran for the bedroom.
Kaede helped Eshi out of the print dress she wore, the one that showed off her pregnancy. "She's going to be big," Eshi said, running her hands over her extended hemisphere of a belly. Kaede's hands joined Eshi's in appreciation of the taut skin, the extended navel, the hidden nook underneath where Eshi's vulva waited. Kaede's fingers found those hidden, furred, musky folds where Eshi's sweetness was made all the better by the presence of the baby within. Eshi shivered a little. "I want to eat you alive," Kaede said.
Eshi only smiled and pulled her close, kissing her. Her warm lips brushed Kaede's, her tongue reaching out, its slick surface sweeping along Kaede's lower lip. Kaede sighed softly through her nostrils as Eshi guided her to the bed, leading the two of them on its welcoming surface. In the ten years they had been together they had shared a number of beds– first, Kaede's childhood bed, then a series of apartments, starship bunks, and finally their warm, dry hovel on the planet of Covenant where it had rained every day. Each had greeted them with a blend of unfamiliarity and promise, but this one especially had grown in its promises over the past ten months. Someday soon it would carry not just their weight, but the weight of the daughter that grew within Eshi's carrying belly. Kaede couldn't help but continue to caress its taut surface with a sense of wonder and awe.
She cuddled close to Eshi's side and kissed the other woman's cheek and chin. Her hand painted its way over Eshi's belly as if trying to find any new changes, perhaps a new flaw or a new miracle, in that already fascinating hemisphere. Eshi's own hands returned the caresses but had much less focus, and Kaede felt that desire again, the one to carry her own child within, to bring forth life that was not only of her genes but of her whole body.
Kaede's hunger for Eshi grew alongside that desire. She moaned softly, and Eshi said, "You said you were going to eat me."
"Mmmm," Kaede said, rising on one elbow, the smile on her face vast. "I guess I did." She leaned down and kissed Eshi's breasts, each one larger than usual, the nipples a brown color almost angry compared to the friendly, almost indiscernible pale pink they had been when Kaede had first met her. The flesh also gave way more, as if lacking the vibrant firmness of youth. She knew that would return eventually, after Eshi had finished nursing the child. Then she crossed the space under those breasts to where Eshi's belly, Eshi's surprisingly huge belly, projected out from under the breastbone. It made a dome that housed and protected their daughter-to-be as surely as the dome over their heads kept out the cold, methane winter of Emerald. She kissed and licked her way over it, worshipping every square cem of Eshi's body and Eshi reacted with soft moans. Kaede's fingers between Eshi's pouting nether lips found inner surfaces slippery with arousal.
Kaede put her fingers to her mouth and licked them. "You're sweet today."
"Please, Kaede, don't tease."
"Never," Kaede promised, and slipped down between Eshi's thighs. She might not want be a tease, nor was she given to instant gratification. Making Eshi wait for the climax was as much a pleasure for her as it was for the smaller girl– for a moment, Kaede wondered if Eshi might outmass her with the child within. Then the smell of Eshi's cunt was filling her nostrils and the sight of Eshi's red, pouting lips was full in her vision and she was drawn, inexorably, like a comet towards the sun, her mouth making contact with Eshi's labia, her tongue reaching out. She did not will these things; they just happened to the two of them. Her tongue was licking at Eshi's clitoris, her mouth was filled with a sweetness that had changed, slowly but definitely, over the past eight months, until she had reached this stage that was unquestionably ripe, intensely ready. She could not see Eshi's upper body from here anymore; it was on the other side of the horizon of Eshi's belly, on the other side of a new world forming. Yet Eshi was here, before her, a body hungry for her attention, hungry for the kind of ecstatic moments only Kaede could deliver, because Eshi willed that only Kaede could deliver them.
She sucked at Eshi's lips, tugging them into her mouth, her tongue sliding along the ephemeral perfect slickness of Eshi's flesh hidden within the rose of Eshi's vulva, the concentrated on the hard, honest nub of desire, the white pearl of hunger. It rose from a hood that never successfully hid it anyway, and Kaede flickered her tongue against it gently, giving Eshi what she wanted. In a silence broken only by gasping, hard breathing, Eshi's hands reached down for Kaede's and the two of them held onto each other, fingers intertwined, as Eshi's climax convulsed through the two of them. Eshi's hands let go, only to grab Kaede's head and hold her there, asking for more. Kaede pressed her mouth down and licked at Eshi's cunt even harder, suckling on the flesh there, feeling her her beloved throb with the climax even as it subsided away.
Kaede rose and eased herself down next to Eshi. "Feeling better?"
Eshi nodded, reached over and pulled Kaede down next to her. "Yeah. Thank you."
"I couldn't love you as much without being able to do that, either," Kaede said. "I'm glad your having the SDisk Cesarean. You'll be back together again in no time."
Eshi giggled. "Better not let other people know how easy it is or everyone will be doing it."
"What? The Cesarean?"
"No, having a robot as the carrier." Eshi grinned. "I'll be up and on my feet a day later. It'll take a few days for my body to restore completely back to its original configuration, but I don't have anything weird inside that needs intervention. I'll be able to take care of Faith immediately."
"That's good. I've never had to be take care of a baby on my own. I have no idea what to do."
Eshi nodded. "I have some good ideas."
Kaede snuggled her beloved, resting one hand on that prodigious belly. "I'm sure you do. You always do."