I woke. The night was deep around us, the rumble of thunder echoing off the hillsides to both the east and west, the sound of rain on the roof loud and constant. It was the kind of night that inspired bad fiction.
I was not in that kind of mood. "Dave," I groaned. "What time is it?" I whispered quietly so as not to awaken my two loves who slept beside me.
"It is a little after eleven," the household's AI replied.
"Oh, fah," I sighed, ignoring not for the first time the fact that when everyone else said that they were referring to me. To me, it was just an expression. "Why am I awake?" I'm usually so good at sleeping through the night.
"If you are referring to the sound of crashing glass that happened just moments before you addressed me, Freya is downstairs in the kitchen and has dropped a wine bottle on the floor. It broke."
"Must be a mess."
"The bottle was empty," Dave said.
"What's she doing?"
"I believe she's being drunk."
Swearing under my breath, I eased myself out of bed. I grabbed the pair of sweatpants and the tunic I typically keep folded at the foot of the bed for occasions such as this. I crept out of the bedroom without, I hoped, waking anybody else.
Down the long hallway and down the stairs, around the stairwell to the back hallway. A silhouette hung in the door of the kitchen, leaning against the doorframe, illuminated only by the nightlight in the kitchen and a sudden flash of lightning through the windows behind her. A the bass roll of thunder rumbled the house. "Freya?" I asked.
Freya. The tallest of the four girls, and the one who had spoken to me the least. I was more concerned about her than I was about Katrina. Katrina was angry at me, but at least we talked. Freya and I had never had a conversation worth noting. Asking for things at dinner and non-commital grunts when I complimented her clothing did not qualify as conversation.
"Hey. Did I wake you up?" she said, her tone childish, apologetic, and completely out of character with the husky, sensuous voice I had heard so rarely. "Sorry."
"What are you doing up at this hour?" I asked.
She held up a wine bottle, intact. If the first one was empty, then she must have been very drunk at that point. "Killin' brain cells. It doesn't work, does it? My genes'll just replace 'em, but I hope the ones that come back don't have the memories I c'n still remember."
Her hand on the doorframe slipped and she started to fall face-forward to the floor. I caught her in my arms and led her down to a more controlled sit. "Freya... What's wrong? It's not Malati, is it?"
"Fuck no," she growled. "You took care of that, remember?"
She sounded angry at me. Well, that was a start. At least now I knew that she felt something towards me. "Then what is it?"
She was quiet for a long time. "I'm drunk," she drawled.
"Yeah?" I said, knowing exactly what she meant when she said it that way. It meant that she had an excuse to say something that she would normally not have said sober.
"Ken," she began, and my heart soared at being called something other than 'Shardik.' But the she lapsed into silence again, looking at the bottle in her lap.
"You have good taste in wines," I commented, reading the label. Something to fill the air. To get a response. "That's a syrah from the Escophen Winery. One of my favorites. Blackberry start, peppery finish, wonderful to drink and adds great flavor to pasta sauce. Somehow I don't think you were admiring it for its taste."
"It's drinkable," she said with a shrug. "You don't keep anythin' stronger in the house." I grinned, thinking that she hadn't found the whiskey Aaden uses to make flaming porkchops. "Maybe you c'n teach me to 'preciate it more someday."
"Maybe I can," I agreed.
She leaned her head down, her reddish-brown hair falling in unkempt waves over her face. "Sometimes I wish..."
"I wasn't going to let you die."
"That's not what I was gonna say," she slurred. She looked up at me, her gaze suddenly so hot I could feel it inside my chest. "Sometimes... Sometimes I wish-- I wish, I wish you would take me and beat the crap out of me!"
I was so shocked, responses didn't even begin to enter my mind for three or four heartbeats. "Why?" I asked, surprised at how calm my voice sounded, like a teacher with a student.
"Because that's what he used to do," she mumbled. "He used to do it to me a lot. In the beginning. Then... dunno. Maybe wasn't as much fun as he thought.""
Being angry at a man I was unlikely to ever meet didn't help, so I set those emotions aside and turned my attention back to Freya. "None of the other girls said..."
"None of the other girls were built for it. I was." She said it simply, almost proudly. "And I liked it."
She'd been built with... what? "Masochist" genes? Or had some other mental fine tuning done? I could barely begin to imagine what she meant by that, but already I understood it. Oh, yes, I understood what she was talking about all too well. Still, I had to offer the "normal" alternative. "We could have that removed. Redirected."
"No!" she shouted at me, then sagged back, staring at the wooden floor. "No. I liked it. I liked who I was. I didn't wanna die and I don' wanna die. You said it. Takin' the worse of two bad options and makin' it the better one." That was a reasonably close approximation, I thought dumbly. "Don' take away a part of me that I still remember liking, though. I liked me a lot." She reached up to take a pull from the bottle, and I didn't stop her. "I liked me a lot." She sobbed, quietly.
"So why are you drinking so much?" I asked, trying to get back into conversational territory. I had a lot to think about.
"Because it kills the pain," she said, giggling like drunks will. "The pain." She mumbled. "Makes me forget missin' bein' me. Not care."
"Freya?" I said softly. "Was he ever kind to you?"
"All the time!" she said. "He could be sweet. When he wanted. Not like a friend or nothin'. He was good to his toys." She dropped her gaze forward again. "I liked being me."
"You liked being a toy?" I asked, echoing something I'd said to Wish a few weeks before.
"Yeah!" she said. "Yeah, yeah! I like being free, too. Don't make a mistake. He din' want me anyway. Said so. Sent us off when he... something. I don't know. Something about... But now I'm stuck. Wanting to be me. And nobody wanting me to be me."
"I want you to be you," I said.
"Sure you do." Angry. Accusatory.
"You don't know me very well, Freya. I'm like you. I'm a pig for pain sometimes too. I like it. The right shape, the right color of it, makes me hot the way it makes you hot." She looked at me, her hair still fallen before her face so that I could just make out her eyes, watching me, wondering.
I stood up. "Get up," I said. After ten centuries of giving orders I was used to it. I could do it for her. "Get up, Freya. Stand up for me."
She wobbled. I hadn't seen someone so drunk she couldn't stand for years, but Freya was doing a fine first approximation. She managed to haul herself up by gripping the frame of the door again. "You want to be you again?" I asked.
"Yeah!" she said.
"Good. But first, you're going to get sober."
"There's always somethin'," she said.
"Come on. Let's get you to bed to sleep this off."
In all my years, I can't remember ever seeing someone actually turn green before. llerkin are already green, of course, but that's different. Maybe some of the furs, but then I wouldn't have seen it. Even through the Indian chocolate skin, it looked awful on Freya. "I think..." she said, her voice thick. I grabbed her by the waist and could instantly feel the tension in her body. I shoved her down the hall to the washroom and over a centaur toilet. She leaned over and proceeded to make horrible, gagging noises as she emptied the contents of her stomach.
It took her forty-five minutes to completely give up the dry heaves, crying and cursing the entire time, tears and mucous streaming down her cheeks. I told Dave not to interfere. I took the time to make some calls, leave some notes.
And rescue my wine.
I did get her cleaned up and into bed sometime before dawn broke, and she was asleep in minutes. I had only gotten five hours of sleep and was dead tired myself, so I instructed Dave to tell the others that I had dealt with a minor family emergency that night and would be up later to talk to them about it.
Aaden looked at me over his mug. Steam curled up and hung about his triangular muzzle, and for the moment he seemed content just to sit there and inhale the caffiene (or what passed for caffiene in that genetically modified tea he was drinking). "I saw the message from Dave. What happened?"
I sat down and said, "Freya was drunk and despondent."
"I'm not surprised. That makes two of them. Katrina isn't doing too well, either. I'm not sure what's up with Wren and Wish, but they seem happy enough. What was she despondent about?"
"I think Freya is designed to be a bottom."
Aaden's eyebrows went up at that. "What does that mean?" he asked simply.
"I think it means the same thing as when I say I was born to be a switch. When we took out the purpose mod we didn't take out any of the other essentials of her persona, what makes her 'her'. The others may have been built to be fucktoys, but she was built to be something else."
Aaden's face showed an anger deeper than I'd seen since the llerkin Wars. "A punching bag."
"And this is qualitatively worse than being a fucktoy... why?" I asked, suddenly feeling sarcastic myself. It's rare when I get to turn tables on Aaden's seemingly endless wisdom, but I had been up all night thinking about this and he was still waking up. "Both are degrading when the right to think for yourself is denied, Aaden, but both are survivable and I don't see that one is morally preferable to the other. To the person who wants it, it's more than survivable-- it can be ecstacy itself. I mean, you and I have both played that role to some extent over at Rhysh. She... wants it."
He looked out the window and across the courtyard. My eyes followed his. Wren was already awake and, to my continual amusement, doing yoga. It was a habit with her, one that she enjoyed. The experience of exercise allowed her to integrate being strong into her life, made it worthwhile. If she just had nanochine build her muscles for her, it wouldn't have been the same. Wish usually joined her out there, but not today. They were quite the contrast, Wish and Wren-- both about the same size, but Wren ridiculously zaftig and Wish completely flat. Aaden's regimen tended to be more indoors.
"I just feel... there's something wrong with being built to be that way." He looked up. "I wasn't built to be that way."
"No, in you, intensitism-- is that a word?-- was a glorious accident, one for which I think we're both grateful." He nodded. "What we did was take out the loyalty mod. Her desire for the kinds of gratifications she-- and you, and I-- responds to is unchanged, and is no different from any other source of joy. Of all the people I know, Aaden, don't tell me you're ashamed of your kink?"
He shook his head. "The afterimage effect," he growled. "Couldn't we just give it to her?"
"You know the answer to that."
Aaden nodded. Freya's autonomy was sacrosanct. I had violated it once and gotten away with it, but I had probably burned an awful lot of goodwill with some people by doing so. I didn't care. My family supported mine and Aaden's decision. And so did the "victims."
If she desired an experience, knowing that it had come from a pill might have cheapened it-- or not, it was different for different people. Wanting it in the first place in the manner in which she wanted it was part of the experience, and forcing the afterimage on her, complete with the "memory" that she had gone through it "for real," would have been a violation of her autonomy.
I said, "We are all advancing state."
Aaden said, "And the universe has never been the same since we accepted that fact."
I nodded. The argument about free will had never been settled. What had been accepted was that determinism was dead. Trying to determine all the variables that went into a human being and advance them ahead of the human experience was simply not possible. To do it, one would need a computer bigger than the universe. In the meantime, we all thought of ourselves as having free will, and if it was an illusion, it was a damn compelling one. So compelling, in fact, that violating it-- while acknowledging that it may not exist at all-- had become the one major transgression of our culture. Freya's request was as important as Wren's exercise, out there on the quad, as she assumed yet another position which was supposedly beyond the range of an unmodified human.
"I'm going to do it," I said after a while.
"Of course you are," he said with a grin. "She's a girl, so you're better equipped than I am. And it's her choice."
I smiled back at him. "You accept my argument?"
"There doesn't seem to be a wise alternative. It's not like this is the pre-AI era where 'community' had a say in how people did things."
"They still do. You can still choose to be a member of a community. Freya has chosen to stay with us. Did you notice? They've all agreed to stay, even though they have the freedom to go wherever they want."
"Maybe they have nowhere else to go."
"They have everywhere else to go," I said. "And eventually they'll go. Right now, it's easier to discover one thing without mucking up the other variables."
He nodded and I sat down beside him, running one hand over the arm he rested on the table to passively hold his mug. "I love you," I said.
"And I love you too," he replied. "But we've still got four people for whom we are responsible more now than usual, and two of them worry me. If you can get Freya back into a space where Rhysh is the right thing for her, do it."
"I'll have to call Moira," I agreed. "That's not a bad idea. But for tomorrow night..." I looked out past the quad, into the tangle of woods that deepened into the forest of Rocchodain Valley.
He grinned. "You have an evil mind."
I kissed his muzzle briefly. "And you love me for it."
"I must be mad," he agreed.
I left him to his breakfast and, after finishing my coffee and rolling through the few mails that Dave decided were worth my time, I spent the morning hacking ordinary machine code. I had a project in mind that probably an AI could put together in short order, but it was something I wanted to try and actually programming machines was a skill I hadn't used in years.
A few hours later Dave informed me that Freya had awakened. I knocked on her door and heard her say "What?" in a voice both annoyed and hung over.
"It's me. Ken." A pause. "Let me in, please."
"Come in," she said. Her home was like many of the homes at the Villa, a handsomely appointed three room affair, bedroom, bathroom, and main room with kitchen off to one side, much as they had been at the old Castle. The door to the bedroom was open and she was sitting on the side of her bed, still in the clothes she had worn last night. Her hair was a mess.
"It's nice to see you up," I said as I walked in. "How are you feeling?"
"Like crap," she said, putting a hand to her head. "Oooh."
"Dave can find you an analgesic if you like." Indeed, a second later a tall glass of clear liquid materialized on the wooden table next to the bed. She picked it up and tasted it tentatively before downing the entire contents in one gulp. The glass refilled in her hand and she drank more. "Good. Alcohol dehydrates. You're listening to your body, and it's telling you you need water."
She put down the glass. "I'm sorry about last night," she said. "I-"
"Told me the truth."
"It's okay, Freya. I told you. You're not alone." She looked at me, curiously. "There is always a small contingent of any population, evolutionary sports in the old days, deliberate acts of randomness these days, who go out of their way to seek challegenes and experiences the rest of the world doesn't understand. As long as nobody else is getting hurt, we try to make room for those sports."
She held her silence. "Tell me one thing," I said. "What you said last night-- It's true?" She nodded. "And it's not deliberately self-destructive?" She shook her head.
"Then this is what we're going to do. You are going to go have breakfast. It's going to be a light meal to settle your stomach. You are going to dress in what I tell you to wear, and then you and I are going on a visit. You will take care of your body for the next sixty hours; you will eat right, you will go to sleep at a reasonable hour, and you will get up at a reasonable hour." I took a deep breath, smelled something, and said, "You will also take a shower first."
"And what do I get in return?" she said.
"You get what you want." I smiled at her. It was a smile practiced through years at Rhysh. It sent a shiver through her that made her shake her head to clear it. I grinned. It was the reaction I had thought I would see.
"I'm not sure--"
"What's not to be sure about?" I asked. "You have two choices. You can hate yourself for not having the courage to ask for what you really want while you're sober and drink yourself into nonstop forgetfulness, or you can have it, be charged by it, and eventually move on to doing other things with your life, energized by the knowledge that you really can have what you've always wanted."
She opened her mouth to respond and then closed it again. I walked over to her wardrobe and said, "I don't know how you want to do this, Freya. In your previous life many of the choices that I'm going to ask of you, you didn't get to make yourself. But the fact is this: if you do as I tell you, you will get what you want." I opened the doors and pulled out a simple sun-dress, dark-green and printed with leaves that seemed to reach up from the hem to her neck. "Go take a shower. Wash your hair. When you're clean, put this on."
She looked at me, somewhat stunned I think, and then nodded. "Good," I said with a smile. As she walked past me, I reached out to grab her arm, giving her a kiss on the cheek. "Do you want to be afraid of me?" I whispered.
"A- A little," she said. "And I think I am."
"Good." I let her go.
What had I gotten myself into?
I spent the day giving myself a refresher course in the art and science of intensity. It had been a while since I'd spent any time at Rhysh, and I was not nearly as familiar with the new Castle as I had been with the old. It was somewhat sad that many of the facilities that had been available in the old place were gone, but there wasn't nearly as much room on the floating island for outdoor activities.
I was gratified to learn that no major events were scheduled for the next three days. It meant a lot to me that I would have the quiet time necessary. Moira came and visited me in one of the libraries. "I heard about what happened from Aaden and Dave," she said, looking charmingly ghostly as her ELF hovered by my side. "I can't tell you how odd it makes me feel."
I looked at her curiously. "Why would it make you feel odd?"
"Because she's like me. She has purpose."
"How does that make her like you?"
Moira visibily took a deep breath. "I was built according to the post-AI protocol, so I know that inside my code somewhere is a collection of subroutines written by other AIs designed to keep me on an even keel. I'm completely happy and satisfied being the administrator of this insane asylum, and I know that I'll never be anything different until there's not enough audience to justify keeping this place running. I can imagine doing some other thing but I just don't take seriously the idea of any of them ever happening." She smiled at me. "Your friend has purpose too. It's nice to know that there are organics out there just like me." She paused. "I'm just surprised that you're not offeneded."
"In a way, I am," I said, understanding her meaning. "Let me tell you a story. Are you familiar with 'Breakdown in World Communications?'"
She paused. "There are several hundred references to it. Closing in on something you might recognize, there is the musical piece by Larry Fast, who is one of your favorite musicians, and there is the flight routine you have been known to perform in that little aerobatic airplane of yours."
"Let's talk about the airplane," I said. "I've been flying that thing for centuries, and there's one thing I have learned. You must ignore your feelings. Do you know what a stall is?" She nodded. "If you stall an airplane, you've lost the wind passing over the wings and that's what gives you lift and control. So you need to get that back. But, in a stall, the plane starts to pitch downwards, towards the ground. You're suddenly aware of two things: you have lost control of your airplane, and the ground is coming up on you very, very fast.
"When that happens, your mind is screaming: Pull up! Pull up! you hear in your head. Every fiber of your being tells you that if you don't pull up, you're going to die.
"But every fiber of your being is wrong. If you listen, that's what will kill you. You'll pull up too suddenly, stall even worse, and lose whatever control you have left. What you have to do first is get air moving over the wings, and the way to do that is to push the nose down even further, get more speed, get lift, and then you can pull the plane out of its dive in a controlled fashion."
She looked at me blankly. "That's why, even though I'm offended, I'm ignoring it. I know that reacting to my being offended is an evolutionary response to an evolutionarily impossible circumstance. I'm an early prag, Moira, and I know that my responses are designed to make me a good hunter, gatherer, and reproducer before I die after thirty years or so. But after a thousand years of listening to that monkey brain tell me what I am, I've learned that sometimes it's better to just ignore it."
She grinned. "I never did understand you monkey boys all that much."
"Oh, right," I said. "You understand us better than we understand ourselves, I bet."
She shrugged. "That's one impression you can get. When can I meet her?"
"In a couple of days. Why? Do you need another stunt bottom?"
Moira's face took on a look of thought, then of delight. "What a wonderful idea!" she said. "I'm sure she would be perfect in such a role!"
"Look, I just got her to open up to me last night. Let's let her figure out more of what shape she's in first before we try fitting her into square holes."
Moira nodded. "I only suggest."
"Yeah, iron hand in velvet glove suggestions," I said. "You're an excellent Castle Mistress, Moira."
"I am what I am, and as long as I like what I am, I'm not going to change."
I smiled. "What?" she said.
"That's what Freya kept saying when she was drunk. 'I liked being me.'"
She clapped her hands together. "Then I think Freya and I will get along smashingly."
I nodded. "I hope so."
When I got home, Freya was sitting outside, reading a book, leaning up against my favorite rock. "Are you comfortable?" I said.
She grinned and patted the grass next to me. She had a curiously eager look on her face, despite the tired look under her eyes. "I'm very comfortable right now. I don't know how long it'll last, but yes, I'm comfortable, thank you."
"Good to hear. I spent the afternoon talking with some friends of mine about you. Remember, you're not allowed to drink tonight. Not even a glass of wine with dinner. Got it?"
She nodded. "I have to wait a whole 'nother day, right?"
"Yes. And you have to be good about yourself. I don't know if you're as robust as you were when you were with whatshizname, but for now, you're with me and I want you to have the reserves you'll need to get what you want."
"I understand," she said, her expression becoming serious. Despite the seriousness of her face, her eyes said that she was looking forward to whatever it was I had planned. Oddly enough, I was too. It had been too long since I had done anything like this.
I patted her knee. "Have you told any of the others?"
She shook her head. "Nobody else knows. I think Wren knows something is up, though." I waited. "She said it was nice to see me smiling again today."
"Let's see if she's still happy with us after she learns why," I said.
"I don't know if she'll understand it, but she'll probably be happy with it. Katrina might not. Wish will be thrilled, though." She reached out and touched my hand. "Thank you."
"For what?" I asked.
"Fuck trying. Wait until I succeed."
She giggled. "You're insanely confident, you know that?"
"In everything I do," I said. "It's hubris that makes me think I have the answers that everyone's been looking for."
"Well, you keep it," she said.
"I'll do that," I agreed. A soft bell went off in the upper tower of the main hall. At least, that's what it sounded like to me. I'm sure everyone else heard it at more or less the same intensity, the sound originating from somewhere nearby, sculpted by the ubiquitous utility fog that hung invisibly in the air.
We went in to eat.
The next day I awoke early, my brain warmed over with the notion of what I was going to be doing. I walked down to the SDisk and teleported over to Rhysh again, opening up my own closet and looking inside. "What a motley collection," I sighed, looking through the whips and lashes, clips and needles and pins and clamps.
I stretched out one long flogger, a multi-tailed monstrosity. "Hey, it's Sledgehammer. I'd forgotten about you."
"You know, you're not the only one who talks to his whips. But some people, their whips talk back to them." Moira appeared beside me, looking as ghostly as always. I waved to her briefly before diving back in.
"Hopefully not with sophont-level tech."
"No, not usually," she agreed. "I have to admit that your collection is charmingly archaic. There's none of the security, modelling software, or injury prevention gear that most people have on theirs. You rely on your skill, which even you have to admit is not always perfect."
"No," I agreed. "But the risk of fucking up is important to me." I smiled at her. "I don't want her to think that she's going to be safe tonight."
"No safe, sane, consensual?" Moira asked.
"What is sanity in a universe with choruses, symphonies, group minds, Brace backups, mechanical instantiation and all the rest? What I'm doing isn't sane by anyone's standards-- not mine, not my ancestor's, not my descendents. I never believed that SSC cheerleading crap. Consent is all that matters. What I'm doing is not sane. It's not safe, either. That's part of the fun for those of us with old-fashioned monkey brains. Knowing that it could go wrong, knowing that your life, or at least short-term health, is in very real danger, is part of what makes this game exciting. Knowing that the line between pain and harm is rice-paper thin is what gets me off!" I smiled.
Moira returned the gesture. "I like you, Ken. I hope the universe keeps you around."
"Me, too," I said, pulling out another flogger and watching the tails fall. "Hmm."
"Does seem a little kinked," she said. "Like you, but that's not good in leather."
"No," I agreed, looking deeper into the closet. The smell of cedar threatened to gag me even as I looked. "Oh, I see. A teflon cane dropped against it. That's why it's got that unnatural fall."
"I could have it stressed for you and fixed by the evening," she said.
"Could you?" I asked, handing it to her. She took it and it disappeared into her ever-careful handling. I was sure that somewhere, someone was going to be given a job they had best not screw up. Even if the majority of the work was done by Moira herself, it was still something that someone would look over, if only for the fun of it.
I settled through the rest of the collection, looking for this and that. Moira kept giving me "suggestions." "Are you getting these from Dave?" I asked.
"I might be."
"And if you were," I said, "Where would he be getting them from?"
"If he were helping me," Moira said, "I would neither know nor could tell."
"Freakin' AIs," I muttered.
"We are your creation," she said.
"So I'm led to understand," I sighed. "At least, you were once our creation. These days, though, you're more than that. You're your own creations, multiple generations of freely-built AIs."
"And we still love you. I'm not sure why," she said.
"And we love you, and I'm not sure why either."
"Then it's a truce?" she asked.
"Something like that," I agreed. I packed up my duffle bag and walked over to her, giving her a hug. She was naturally solid, despite being see-through. "See you later?"
"I'd love it if you and your lover showed up more often."
"No, that's you."
Freya and I had a quiet dinner together. I had cooked a simple meal of rice, shrimp, and red bell peppers. It had a surprisingly rich taste thanks to the starch in the rice but it was not greasy and it didn't set heavily in the stomach. I even let her have a glass of wine, the syrah this time, and this time she actually stopped to taste it.
"Nervous?" I asked.
"Why? I'm only going to hurt you." I said it with a smile.
She nodded again. "I don't know what that means."
"No, but the AIs do. And if they're letting me do this, it's because I'm not doing what you don't want." I worded it carefully, in the negative, the way it was supposed to be worded. "You only need to have enough trust in me to let me take you out into the woods and tie you up."
"And then what?" she asked.
"And then you get something like what you asked for."
We finished dinner. I cleared away the dishes and tossed them into the sink to let Dave take care of them. I held out my hand to Freya. She took it, cautiously, her slim fingers sliding over my palm before grasping ahold. "You have beautiful hands," I said.
"Thank you, I guess."
I led her out the back door and across the quadrangle. As we passed by the Halcyon beast its soft lulling tempted us, but we consious creatures are mostly immune to its song. There were few clouds about the local sky and the light of distant sectors shined obliquely on our own, as bright as moonlight on Earth, casting black shadows in two different directions from every tree over the blue-black land. The summer's warmth still held, radiating from the ground and back into the sky, warm enough for what I intended this evening.
Before my eye hovered a flickering lamp Freya could not see, one Moira projected into my optic nerve, leading me to a camp deep in the woods. As we walked towards the treeline, it loomed over us like some gloomy ancient wood, intimidating in its apparent permanence. I could probably have found the camp without Moira's help from the smell of smoke drifting between the trees. Dave, even after all these years, still felt uncomfortable with some of my activities and had let Moira have a small chunk of his network; she would second me this evening, although in the most minimal way.
I led Freya down a path that we had carved through the woods a century or so earlier, one of several hiking paths that we regularly maintained for our own benefit. We came upon a clearing with a campfire already going and a rack, little more than a grid of two-by-fours gapped with twenty-centimeter squares, lashed to a tree. I had tied it there myself this afternoon, four ropes in all-- one held the top to the tree two spaced the bottom a short distance from the tree, and the fourth secured the top of the rack up, up into the tree, around a branch overhead to keep the entire thing from slipping down and collapsing. It was angled only slightly, its entire purpose being to give me access to my victim's body without having to step in too far or calculate weird angles of strikes.
She looked at it, and at the wooden chest bound with iron bands sitting on the ground next to it. There was a moment of puzzlement, then recognition. She took a step back and for a moment I thought she would return to the house. Her hands balled into fists and she looked at me. "Okay," she said.
"Okay?" I waited. No answer. "Freya, do you know what a safeword is?" I always ask this question of new people. Freya didn't qualify as new but she had come from a compeletly different worldview with completely different rules about how this game was played. Had it even been a game for her then?
She nodded. "I've been reading. I don't have one."
"Well, then, you've got four choices. They are 'Ken,' 'stop,' 'safeword,' and 'red.'"
I walked over to her and unzipped the sundress I had chosen for her. It fit her healthy frame in quite a lovely way. Her breasts were just large enough that if she stood with good posture the dress fell straight from her nipples to her ankles. Yellow suns, stars, and the occassional comet decorated the deep blue, and I chose this cheerful dress because the material, cut, and design offset the serious aspect that had overtaken her features the past two days.
Naked, though, she was equally beautiful. Her brown hair, made of thick, flowing strands, fell to just between her shoulderblades, and turning her around I got my first real look at her since she had left sickbay. She had moderate, conical breasts that would probably never feel the force of gravity unless she chose to have children someday. "You are one very beautiful girl," I said.
She scrunched up her face briefly. "I think my nose--"
"Is interesting and does not detract from your beauty at all." To be fair, she had a rather puggish nose, but I liked it. "It looks mischevious. It says you're not bad, you're just perpetually up to no good." She grinned at that.
I reached into the wooden chest and pulled out a pair of wide, brown leather cuffs. "Wrist," I ordered. She offered me her left and I put the cuff around it. The inside was padded with a layer of silk over rubber; it would conform to her wrists nicely without chafing too much. "Other wrist." Her face was intense as I pulled them on with one finger measuring between wrist and cuff, making sure there was room for her circulation. My hands were trembling.
"It's okay if you don't want to," she said, touching my hand.
"Is that, you don't want to?"
"I do. But you're..."
"I know. It's just been a long time since I did this last." I looked into her eyes and saw resolution there. I smiled, trying to reassure both of us. It had been a while. I worried that my skills may have faded to the point where I hurt her more than intended. I had warmed up at Rhysh on some ordinary gym bags left just for that purpose and found my aim adequate, but what of my empathy? I wondered if it worked at all in situations like this.
I took her by the shoulders and walked her over to the rack, turning her to face it. I felt a little tremor flow through her shoulders and smiled. "Put your hands over your head, where you think they'll be comfortable." She did as I asked, and I took out two short pieces of rope, looped them through the D-rings on the cuffs, then tied her hands down to the rack. The rest of her was allowed to move freely, not that she would be going anywhere with her hands so thoroughly tied down. "Comfy?"
"Am I supposed to be?" she asked.
"Yes. And don't lie to me about something like that."
She smiled. "I'm comfortable." Then she lowered her eyes and said, "Sir."
I lifted her chin with my thumb and forefinger. "Do you want to call me 'sir'?" I asked.
"Not really," she said.
"Then please don't. It's not what you asked me for anyway."
She nodded. I stepped back away from her and took a look at my choice of target for the evening.
In one sense, this was a strange experience for me, doing this for Freya, playing with someone so fragile in her recent depurposing. But in another, this was an ordinary flogging with nothing special about the act itself, only the people involved. Her, and me.
There are three ways I like floggings. One is the most direct route to real pain-- start hard, go slow. The first one hurts so bad you scream your lungs out, and a minute later the next one lands. Eventually the endorphins build up and start to help, but powering through that is a wonderful experience in its own right. The second is the most subtle and difficult-- start slow and build to a crecendo. This usually takes a lot of experience and a working knowledge between the two people doing it.
The third way is the way everybody does things normally. Start low and build at a moderate pace, eventually reaching a high note, then stop, assess, and reach higher. It was the method I chose for the evening precisely because it was so useful for people who didn't know one another.
I took out a light flogger-- black tails, the handle of black and blue laced leather with a white cap. The core was some kind of wood, I'm not sure what, and it fit quite nicely in my hand. It was a little top-heavy as floggers go, but not fatally so. "Freya, I just want you to start getting used to the leather itself." I dropped the tails gently onto her back and enjoyed watching her flinch. I pulled the tails back and dropped it again. It wasn't even a real swing, just a gentle touch. The sound was a curious one, like hearing a box of pens drop on the floor. Podda-podda-podopodopod. It didn't sound violent enough to portend what was coming.
After six or seven swings she stopped flinching. "How's that?" I asked. "We're just starting."
"It feels like... nothing."
"It'll get nicer."
She smiled. "I like the way you say that."
"Good." I stepped back and swung again. I was just warming her still, letting her skin wake up and start moving blood to the surface, arousing her nerves to the coming storm. She sighed softly as I began to build. Even I didn't really time it. I kept a slow count in my head, hearing the numbers rise, "one, two, three..." This was the lightest of the three floggers I had, and it was a medium in most people's book. Moira had recommended it to me. I knew she was somewhere nearby, listening, but I hadn't heard anything from her since I had started.
I swung harder, hard enough that gravity was losing the battle with the tails in the air. They described perfectly willed arcs as they sailed into the space from me to Freya, striking her back. She started to lose control of her composure, moaning, sometimes giving out a sharp whine as a strike landed harder. I was hitting mostly on the shoulderblades and on her ribcage below, avoiding the spine and the kidneys, places where I knew she would never appreciate a hit. I was doing a pretty good job of getting a consistent color out of her back, too.
She moaned louder as I ramped up to a moderate pace and started counting down for her. I started at twenty.
When I reached one, she knew it was over. At least, she thought it was over. I walked up behind her and said, "How are you feeling?"
"Pretty good," she said with a grin. "Nothing like what whatsizname used to do."
"Then you want more?" I asked.
"Really?" she asked.
"I have a lot more if you want it."
"I do," she said.
I stepped back and picked up flogger number two. This one was slightly different from the first. Each of the eight tails was made of two thin pieces of leather braided together by a craftsman. It was much more stingy than the first, more likely to hurt. The very tips of the tails revealed the two strands by exposing about a centimer of them, softening the landing of the tip, but not by much.
I started out lightly, but on her already chafed back she could tell that things were different with this one. I ramped up as if I thought she would last hours. The whip felt comfortable in my hand as I landed the tails on her back, slashing down across the heaviest flesh on her body, the strongest muscles, the most fit to withstand such abuse. She was soon screaming, screaming in a pain that I could make stronger.
I didn't do the countdown the second time. I just stopped. I walked up to her and placed my hand gently on the back of her neck, doing three things at once: looking for blood, checking for the warmth that would tell me I had aimed poorly, and checking for a tremble. She was panting hard. "Having fun?" I asked.
"Lots," she agreed, looking up at me with eyes defiant and hard. "Are we done?"
"That depends. I have another whip."
"Then I want more."
"Can you take more?"
"Easy," she said, surprising me.
"Then more you shall have. But before I do that," I said, leaning down to get close to her face, "I want a kiss." I touched my mouth to her lips and felt her response immediately, her body leaning into me, her tongue pressing into my lips, trying to get into my mouth. I let it and met her halfway.
"Now, then, where were we? Oh, yes. Sledgehammer." I stepped back and picked up my favorite flogger. It's heavy. Almost five kilos of textured buffalo hide. It's designed to go thud and to leave brusises, but the harder it's swung the less it scores the skin, and that's one of its advantages. It's also quite long, meaning that the tails can have a greater arc and a greater momentum when they land. A sledgehammer.
I started out moderate, starting about halfway between the beginning and end intensities of the first whip. She arched her back to meet it and I pushed my swing in to reduce the landing. I got used to her motion and stepped back. I also knelt down. The long tails and a target body shorter than myself added up to a difficult aim, so by kneeling I was able to improve the odds of my landing one in her safe area, the places I had already marked up completely. I experimented. Kneeling, I wasn't able to put my body into the throw the way I wanted. By standing off to one side, though, I was able to place the tails on that side of her body exactly.
It all sounds so clinical, doesn't it, when I describe it like this? The truth of the matter is that if it weren't for Moira's monitoring we would have attracted unwanted attention fast. She was shouting her lungs out. Her body was writhing, grinding her breasts and belly against the finished wood of the frame. Her back was aflame with angry red welts and in two places I could see droplets of blood from the second flogger. I had an erection with which I could have driven nails through concrete. I beat Freya hard until my arm was sore.
I let the tails fall to the dusty ground, hearing only silence but for our breathing and the crackle and pop of the campfire. I stepped up behind her. "Do you remember your safeword?"
She whirled her head towards me. There were flecks of foam on her lip and chin. "I. Will. Not. Use. It." She punctuated every word with an almost angered gasp.
"More, then?" I asked.
"More!" she roared at me.
"Suit yourself," I said. I stepped back and took careful aim, standing a bit to her right. I reared back with the flogger and with a roundabout swing that I stepped into, delivered a blow with all my weight and all my strength at her. She screamed a curse that might have been words. I did it again to the other half of her back. She was fighting the bonds now, fighting her own body to keep herself in place, to take more. Another blow. Four. Five. "Six!" I shouted. "Seven!" "Eight!" "Nine!" She was screaming constantly, her voice piercing the heavens, invoking the gods. It was the scream Dante heard in his dreams. "Ten!" The whip landed one last time, the sound of its impact a boom of thunder, an avalanche of leather.
I tossed Sledgehammer into the box and walked up to her. "Freya?" I asked, putting my hand on her. She was a little colder than I liked to feel in a woman. Her head rose in slow, jerky movements. Her eyelids trembled aas she opened them. A trail of spit fell from her mouth to the ground. "Freya?" I asked.
"That... was so... good!" she gasped, looking at me, her eyes focusing slowly. She hung from her fetters, leaning against the rack, barely able to support herself.
"I have one more thing for you," I said. I reached into the pouch at my belt and pulled out a small folded package of wax paper. I unfolded it and pulled out what was inside. She watched me. "Open your mouth."
I placed the thin wafer on her tongue and pushed her mouth closed. The look on her face as she tasted the wafer of kiwi fruit was one of pure ecstacy and as she began to chewing it her whole body shuddered and a hard moan rose from deep within her. I think she came.
I reached up and pulled on the single rope that held her fetters to the frame, catching her as she began to fall towards the blanket I had spread on the ground underneath her. She collapsed onto it and I wrapped a second blanket around her. This one looked like an ordinary, even rustic, blanket but it was laced with health monitors and could become much warmer than its apparent material. Before my eyes the monitors told me she was going to be fine.
I sat with her, looked at her. "Freya?"
She swallowed the last little bit of fruit, and I place a bottle of water to her lips. She drank greedily, sucking down half a liter before coughing and sputtering as she tried to take too much more. "You okay?"
She nodded, and then her face fell and she began to cry. Deep, powerful sobs wracked through her and it was all I could do to hold her and comfort her. I sat to her side and put my arms around her, letting her have it out. She buried her face in her hands, letting go, collapsing in on herself. "It's okay," I said. "It's okay."
"It's more... more than that!" she sobbed. "It's wonderful." Her voice was barely a whisper, exhausted and hoarse with her screaming. Between her sobs she managed, "Thank you."
"Thank you," I repeated back, honored by her trust and depth. I waited more than ten minutes and then said, "Do you think you can walk?"
"I... I think so." I let her try to stand up, putting my arm around her waist. It was a few minute's walk back to the house. We managed, although a few times I thought I would need to call on help from Moira. Maybe she did help anyway. I wasn't aware if she did. Freya stumbled against me as we followed the short trail to the edge of the forest and stepped onto the more manicured grounds of the villa. She mananged to walk under her own power across the quadrangle but when we reached the door slumped, and I finally decided that it was time to carry her inside. I lifted her gently, hearing her muffled complaints as her back settled against my bicep, but she wrapped her arms around my neck and held on as I carried her up the stairs to her room.
I put her down into her bed, on her side, and she rolled over onto her belly to protect her back from further touches and pain. I smiled at her and said, "Good night, my sweet Freya."
She wasn't even aware of me anymore. "Dave?"
"I'll watch her closely. But I suspect she'll be fine. You've come home in worse shape in the past."
I nodded. "Thanks." I walked back outside and collected my stuff, allowing a remote to help me carrying things, especially the heavy frame, back to the house.
In the morning, I awoke before Freya did and took a look at her medical vitals. She would recover completely. I asked Dave to notify me when she stirred, then went about the other parts of my morning routine. Aaden found me and asked me how my night went; I told him the truth, which made him smile. "Are you falling in love with her?" he asked.
I shrugged. Falling in love was old hat for me. "I might be. I might be falling in love with Wish, too. I do love her in that way that normal people never seem to understand." He nodded. He understood. I knew that, for eternity, I would be grateful for his understanding.
Dave told me that Freya was awake and that I should go see her. I knocked on her door and the first thing she said was, "Ken? Is that you?"
"It is," I said.
"You can come in."
I opened the carved door and entered her room. She was still in bed, lying face down. She turned her head to look at me but didn't rise. "How are you feeling?"
She looked at me with distant eyes and said, "Wonderful. Good. Sore."
"Yes, I imagine those are all true. I've been there myself." I grinned at her. "Anyway, I wanted to know if you were hungry. I do know that you should drink something."
"Already did," she said, gesturing with a finger towards the table. A metal tumbler with a black straw stood there.
"Good for you. Can I look?"
"Please," she said.
I pulled back the light sheet that covered her and examined her back. My aim had been quite good, actually. Her surprisingly muscled back was scored over both shoulderblades and down the sides of her ribcage. It looked like someone had tried to draw angel's wings on her back with a blue-black felt-tip marker, ragged and torn and shredded wings. It was beautiful and painful to look at all the same. I wished someone would do it to me, very soon. "I see I wrapped once or twice."
"Over the shoulder top, yeah," she said. "And only with the first whip. I don't think it's going to be bad."
"No," I said, tracing a streak on the left shoulder. "I drew blood with the second, though."
"And beat me up with the third!" She giggled. "When I asked you to do that, I don't think I really believed that you understood me." Her eyes began to dew. "Now, I know that you do."
"I know that part of you. I've been there, Freya. I know you and Aaden talked yesterday morning about it. I bet he initated the conversation, too."
She nodded. "But I didn't... I guess I couldn't know that you would push so hard." She reached out and touched my hand. "Thank you, Ken."
"You're welcome, Freya."
She giggled. "Y'know, I think I could just enjoy this sensation for months, the memory of what you did to me, and have great sex while I'm at it." She looked up at me. "Would you be interested in me... that way?"
"I'm interested in you in many ways, Freya. Of course I'd be happy to get into your skirts; I've been interested for months. But I'm not about to push it, not in your condition."
She nodded. A stretch came over her and she pushed her feet and hands out to their maximum extension, making strange sounds in the process. "Ouch."
"Is your back all tight from trying to protect you last night?" She nodded. "I know a trick for that. If you're up for a little gentle play this morning."
I looked up at the ceiling. "Dave, I need Rhysh massage oil number... six, if you please." A small bottle of golden oil appeared on the table next to us. "Just stay where you are," I said. I straddled her untouched buttocks and poured some of the oil onto my hand. "Relax," I said. With my fingertips, I spread the oil across her shoulders and down her back, stroking my way across her clavicles and down her ribcage until I was caressing her waist.
"That's peach you're smelling. Peach-pit oil."
I trailed the oil, spreading it uniformly across her back, touching all of those places that last night I had bruised and battered, comforting her. Through my hands I could sense the muscles underneath, both with my original senses and the ones that I had grown to appreciate since then, and traced them, pried at them, pulled them apart and forced them to relax with unnatural manipulations. She moaned under my ministrations.
Then the oil started to take hold. She started to moan louder as her back went from warm to hot. Just as I was finishing the actual relaxation of her back the heat began to grow into fire; I could feel its effects in my cuticles.
She was squirming against the bed, humping at the mattress with her hips. "Oh, fuck, what did you do?" she asked.
"Just a little cinnamon oil. You can't smell it because of the peach. But it's there."
"It's so... oh, fuck, Ken, it... Oh, oh...."
"Should I make it stop?" I asked.
"No!" she growled. "Oh, no, I want you to fuck me. Now!"
I pulled off my clothes in record time and straddled her. "Just like this?" I said, angling my erection down between the cleft of her ass and into the furred furrow of her vulva, penetrating her cunt in one smooth stroke. She was soaking wet as I laid my hips over her ass, my legs outside of hers. I began fucking her hard.
She cried out "Oh, yes!" and "Oh, fuck!" and "More!" She was crying, laughing, throbbing underneath me as I plunged my cock into her welcoming opening over and over.
She was pushing back against me, her ass bouncing against my hips with every hard thrust. I lowered myself to her back, pinning her down to the bed, my cock hungering for her cunt, my mouth finding the back of her neck and biting down gently. Her whole body seized up and a screech emerged from deep inside her, and the two of us came together.
Gasping, rolling to one side, I collapsed on the bed, keeping on hand on her arm. She was shivering again, letting out one long, low moan. "Ohhhhh," she groaned. "Oh, fah." She opened her eyes and looked at me, then closed in on me, rolling onto top, kissing me hard and sexy. I had to stop. I needed air.
"Hey," I gasped. "After all that work you have to let me take a breath now and then."
She giggled. "You're wonderful!" she said. "Oh, I love you!"
I reached up and stroked her hair, mindful of the fact that she would have to wash it later anyway. "So are you, Freya. So are you." I kissed her cheek gently. "I wanted to ask you, though. I said there's an entire community of people out there who do what you seem to like doing. Would you like to meet them?"
She looked at me, curiously. "You're not... free to do this as much as I'd like, you're saying."
"Boy, that's a great way to put it. Yeah." She sobered briefly, and I looked at her. "You're welcome in my home forever, Freya. As long as you like. If you stay... well. I'm here all the time. Aaden and P'nyssa are my loves, and they are a part of me. I'm free to share, but... "
She touched me. "I understand." She kissed my cheek. "Really." She smiled. "I'll stay. For now. And I would like to meet those people."
"Good," I said.