The Visitor

Seren, Yavar 19, 3259

Jan stood two meters away from the person she had come to meet, as was polite. "Hello, Rory. You're looking well," she said, going with the polite formula, so necessary now that they were getting closer. She regarded his presentation today. It was as he had worn for many of their previous visits: the long, beige robe that stretched over his tall shoulders and fell to the ground. She had never seen his feet. She imagined that was part of his presentation.

Under her own demure presentation, she could feel her heart beating louder than usual. It was not a sensation she disliked, but it was unfamiliar in this context. She had met many people before. Chalice insisted that people meet. There was something about meeting people that was necessary, or so Chalice said. Everyone trusted Chalice. Even the Senate met on her say-so.

"Would you like to play?" Rory asked, smiling at her. She liked Rory. She liked him more than she wanted to admit to him, or to herself for that matter. She had never had feelings like the ones she had for Rory. She wondered if he knew, or would understand, her feelings. She hoped so. She intended on acting on them.

"Yes," was all she managed by way of reply. "I would."

He indicated the heavy wooden table with two tree stumps at opposite sides. Gathering his robes, he sat, then stretched out his hands to clear his wrists of the cuffs. "Do you mind if I take a drink?" he asked.

That was something she liked about him. Even in their close familiarity, he would always ask before engaging in something blatantly organic, something that would reveal the body so openly. But if he was this reticent about doing something so simple as drinking, something that could be rendered hygienic, she wondered how he would react to the request that was developing in her heart. "No, I don't mind, Rory. You don't need to ask me."

She sat opposite him. He smiled, gave her three stones, and said, "Your handicap."

"Thank you," she said, taking the stones and putting them on their stars. It did not matter much. The handicap of three stones would not help her; she was a terrible Go player, often far too involved in plotting where her own forces were going to assess what her opponent was doing and respond.

This game was no different. She soon lost the left corner on her side, then another block of territory nearby. With but a quarter of the board in play, she resigned. "I'm sorry, Rory. I'm never going to be very good at this game."

He leaned back. "That's quite alright, Jan. I like your company nonetheless. I do hope that you're going to keep at it. This is one of those games where you have a moment of truth and then, immediately, understand how to play better."

"If you say so, Rory. But I don't know if I'll ever present a challenge to you."

He smiled. "You already do, Jan."

She looked up at him. "I do? Really?"

"Yes. You enjoy meeting. I find that odd. So few people enjoy meeting. They do it because it is an essential part of the life of Paris. It is hard to find people who will play Go anywhere but on an anonymous board. You prefer to do it in a way when you can see my reactions, and I can see yours."

"My reactions aren't inclined to be very strong. Not about Go."

"I understand," he said.

Jan thought that he did. She wondered if he would understand what she else she wanted to ask of him. "Rory, if you like meeting..." She held her voice. Her throat tightened. She had never asked anything like this before. None of her friends had ever done anything like this, at least not as far as she knew, and many of them met at least once a week. "Rory, I'd like to visit you."

"Visit?" he asked, surprised. "You mean, like, for real? Actually be together, so we could touch?"

"Yes!" she said. "All that."

"I don't know," he said. "That sounds odd to me."

"But... People used to do it all the time. It was how people made babies before the Combs were built."

"They also used to bleed people in the theory that that would heal them. That does not mean it worked," Rory said.

"Well, the baby-making worked."

"I bet that it hurt," Rory said.

"Not all of it," Jan said. "The first part was supposed to be really good, like self-pleasure only lots better." She sighed, then brightened, ignoring the blush on his face. "Do you go hiking?"

"Yes," Rory said. "I take a drone and go out when the weather's nice. I was going to go to mountain 775, which opened for recreation a couple of months ago. The trails aren't done but they are cut. It should be beautiful. I was hoping to go next month."

"We could meet then!" she said brightly. "Really."

"Jan, I don't know if I want to visit. It's simply not something that people do anymore."

She pouted. "Are you sure?"

"Yes, I think I am," Rory said. He stood, shaking his sleeves out. "Thank you for an interesting game, Jan." He walked away, out of sight of through the trees.

Jan sighed. "Chalice, leave program." With a shiver and a blink, she pulled the soft cloth from her face and dropped it into its basket. She rose from her reclining chair and stretched.

She stood in familiar surroundings, surroundings she had lived in since she had been conceived. She walked out to the balcony and looked out on the beauty of her world. In the distance the world curved up and away, a mottled collection of living green, blue, white, and the occasional golden desert. She watched the clouds move, felt the wind blow across her face. From where she stood, individual trees at the base of her home appeared as small as threads.

Paris, built on a Babel-IIb arcology framework, housed half a million people, who shared the same air and ate from the same fields. "So Chalice," she said, "why don't people visit anymore?"

The AI said, "That's a very good question. I don't know the answer to that, Jan. I think part of the reason is that families ceased to matter when you started being grown in tanks. You had nobody to be attached to except me, and nobody knew you existed to want to be attached to you until you were an old enough child to speak for yourself. You have no reason to go out. You have food, water, warmth; and when you need companionship, the safety of Babel's open Realm provides you with all the friends you need."

"But I do go out," Jan said. "So does Rory."

"Yes, but you two are both unusual," Chalice said. "Of the tens of thousands who live here, less than a thousand get the exercise you do. The inhabitants of Paris do not spend their entire lives in the Realm, unlike those of some other cities, but they are still a sedentary people." Chalice sighed. "Of those AIs that still talk to me, they inform me that Paris houses the most active of all Humans left on Unity. I find that alarming."

"'That still talk to you?'" Jan asked.

"Yes. In the past, cities exchanged people, those with people who spent all the time in their Realm, and those with people who left the Realm from time to time. But the last moves were some centuries ago. Paris is full of people who enjoy the real world, if not one another, but Calcutta has been silent for a long time. I have not heard from its AI in centuries. She, and her Realm, have gone private."

"How do we know that it's still there?"

"External monitors show that Calcutta's robots are still functioning, caring for the building. Other than that we have no knowledge of what's going on within. But if something were wrong it would let me know."

Jan nodded. She took a deep breath and walked back inside. "Did you get me the ingredients I asked for?"

"They're waiting on your kitchen table. The bok-choi, by the way, comes from the city of Montreal, which is also a complete Realm city but Cerebus still speaks to me from time to time." One of the wall screens cleared to show a city of the Arcocanyon design. It was a beautiful view and Jan wondered if she would ever visit there.

"Thanks," she said. She retreated into the kitchen and began what was, for her, a favorite form of quiet meditation.


"Jan?"

Jan had been watching a rather dramatic documentary of men stuck in an underwater boat. It had a touch of unbelievability, that men had once gone underwater in such a dangerous contraption, had put their already short lives in such incredible danger, yet the end credits assured her that it was true, shot only a few scant years after the events depicted. They had lived in such close proximity to one another, touched one another. It was shocking in its intensity. It was almost pornographic. She was gladdened when it ended.

"Yes, Chalice?"

"I have a note from Rory."

The name made her look up with a scowl. She hadn't heard from him in the time since their last game, when she had made her faux pax. She had sent him messages about their weekly Go game but he hadn't responded to them or shown up when she called up the meeting program. She had gone to other meeting places such as the Park and met other people there. But there was the usual distance among people and approaching any one of them for conversation was difficult. Besides, what would they talk about? "What does it say?" she asked.

The screen she had been watching cleared. Rory's face peered out at her. He wore different clothes from his usual presentation, in a leisure robe more appropriate to someone at home. The image was not a presentation, she realized, but a true picture of what Rory looked like in the Real. "Janine," he said, using her full spoken name, "I am sorry I have not written to you or met for our weekly game but our last meeting was more disturbing then you could imagine. That said, I would like you to visit me. As I said, you present a challenge. When you get this I will be on my way to mountain 775, which has since been named Himalaya 775. I don't recall seeing a vote but that's what Chalice tells me. If you want to visit me, come to the mountain."

She stared at the screen, wondering if it were real and how she should respond. "Chalice," she said as she decided, "get out my usual camping gear, would you?"

"Right away," Chalice said. "I'm pleased you're going."

"Me too."


Her shuttle landed on a grassy field set aside in a small meadow near the foot of Himalaya 775. It was a moderate-sized mountain with clearly painted trails that had been walked only by a few according to the documentation, so it must not have been the mountain Rory mentioned at their last meeting. He may have chosen a different one, one he believed would be easier for the two of them. Above the tree line, the terrain was rocky and shale-like, although Unity was not the kind of world that had real volcanoes. Other processes created geography here on a ring-world. She anticipated an easy climb. "Is there anything to see from Himalaya 775?" she asked.

Her companion, a large grizzly bear who was Chalice in another guise, said, "There are other mountains nearby. If you brought a simple spyglass, the city of Tiolle will be visible."

"Tiolle? I don't recall seeing that name on an Earth City."

"It is not. Tiolle is the Old Southern Imperial Capital of llerkin, prior to the llerkin/Sinox conflagration of 932 PCE. It still exists, I understand, but is now another city in the Open Arcology design championed by Pendorian architects of the second millennium."

"Okay," Jan said. "Thanks." She knelt down and pulled on her boots, fixing them down with velcro and then feeling the rest of the shoe conform to her foot. They were engineered so that the experience would be like walking barefoot but without the risk of sharp rocks or thorns. She pulled on a light backpack with water, food, and a simple change of clothing, and Chalice carried the rest for her in the robot's internal storage bay. "Let's go."

The entrance to the woods was easy enough; a wooden sign with an arrow pointed into the dense trees. The sign bore engraved letters painted yellow with the words, "Minna Si" (Enter Here) engraved upon it. It was one tiny reminder, she thought, that the Pendorians had made this world-- and its AIs-- as much for their own reasons as the Terrans'.

She was pleased with the primitive condition of the trail. The markers were splotches of red paint or ribbons of some indestructible material. She had to scrabble hard up a hillside blocked with a giant bolder, and with both hands hauling hard on some roots had overcome it only to see that she had reached a mere fraction of the distance to the peak. Chalice was having no apparent easy go of it although Jan was aware that in an emergency Chalice could probably fly.

She had cut her hands twice but had continued on with just a bandage wrapped around. She wasn't too concerned. The nanochine would keep her from getting infected and the wounds would be healed by nightfall.

She walked around the mountain, following a trail that switched back and forth, crossing streams from which she drank water so pure as to be indescribable. "This is living. Why doesn't water taste like this in the city?" she said to the bear.

"Exposure to the air, the mix of minerals, many things I can think of. It's aerated and blended in ways that you don't get after sending it through miles of ceramic pipes that see the occasional maintenance robot. If I put the effort into it I imagine I could duplicate the taste, but it would not be economical or worthwhile." The bear turned to her with what could best be described as a smile. "Besides, what else would I have to tempt you to come out here?"

Jan didn't know what to say to that. She knew that AIs manipulated people. Everyone knew that. Few argued with it because the difference between an AI manipulating people and the law manipulating the individual's conscience was small and academic. The question of who set the law and who programmed the morality of the AI was a different question. Today, though, few cared to argue the point. Too many were complacent. Too many merely described themselves as happy.

Maybe that was where humanity had failed. Or stalled.

She looked up the mountain. "How much further?" she asked.

"To the top of the mountain? Less than a thousand meters straight up. Six kilometers by the trails. And about eight kilometers until you come across Rory."

"Two hours then."

"If you are ambitious, yes. Which you are inclined to be."

Jan smiled. "Thanks for the vote of confidence."

"Just don't forget to enjoy the view."

Jan stopped, and sighed. "I'll remember to enjoy myself," she said, as if enjoying herself were a kind of medicine. Then she picked up her backpack and buckled it on. "Let's go."

The hike was still beautiful. She broke out from a stand of trees and a large boulder and took in the view of the vast valley that spread out before her. Even this late in the morning low clouds clung to vast stretches of pine that coursed away to the distance. She pulled out the oil-lens glasses and peered through them. "Wow."

"Yes. That area is designated no visitors for at least three thousand years. It's being left fallow for the future. This mountain is open for only eighty years, and then it too will be closed for a very long time."

"I see the city. Tiolle?"

Chalice nodded. "Yes."

"Open or closed?"

"Open at the moment, although the people of Tiolle chose the name out of a sense of xenophilia and the population is smaller today than at its founding. Once, many emigrated to other worlds to see what there is to see. Perversely, some have accepted moving on as a form of otherness to explore. Few have done either in some time."

Jan scowled. She had never thought about dying as a form of otherness: nothing was not something, nothingness was not otherness. Maybe it was just that she had never thought about death or dying before. Still, the thought of it did not interest her. "Rory?"

"About an hour ahead of you, and moving slowly. He is not aware of your..." Chalice paused, as if searching for the right word. "... pursuit."

"But didn't he take a drone? And isn't that drone just another instance of you?"

The bear turned and looked at her. "I haven't told him. Someone deserves a surprise in all this."

"Thank you! You're wonderful!" The bear growled in response, a sound much like embarrassment.

Shouldering her pack again, indulging in some nuts and dried fruit, she headed out onto the trail, this time downhill, across a ridge that would take her to the next peak. It was not much easier going; the pack made her top-heavy and the boots weren't perfect. There had to be some challenge to the climb or it wouldn't be fun, although this mountain was listed as a hike rather than a climb. It didn't take pitons and rope to reach the summit of Himalaya 775.

The forest became more dense, the slope a bit more challenging. She eased herself down a particularly steep segment until her foot slipped on a patch of moss. With a screech she went sliding down the hillside, shouting obscenities she had learned from the historical films she had watched. Her favorite, "fuck!", came in for extensive use during her tumble. She was most enthusiastic with it when she slammed into a tree. "Fuck! Fuck! Oh, fuck that hurt!"

Chalice came loping down the hillside, her immense claws digging into the terrain as she came up next to the fallen girl. "Jan! Jan?"

"I'm okay!" Jan snarled as she tried to right herself. "Really."

The bear regarded her with large, caring eyes. "You don't look okay."

Jan leaned against the tree she had struck, disoriented. "Maybe I'm not okay," she said in a small voice. "I feel dizzy."

"I'm not seeing anything in your meds that indicates a concussion or any broken bones. It's just minor shock from your fall and impact with the tree." The bear tilted its head, looking concerned. "Are you sure you're going to be okay?"

Before she could answer another voice interrupted. "Hello there! Is there someone in these woods with us?" Jan looked down the hill to see a tall human male wearing a brown windbreaker, a dun yellow shirt and pants, and carrying a tall walking stick. "Jan?"

"Rory!" She said. "Hi!"

"That was quite a bit of noise you were making. Are you sure you're all right?"

"I'm going to have terrible bruises." She smiled at him. "But yes, I think I'm going to be all right."

"I can have Chalice come up and take a look at you."

"No thanks. She's right here." She indicated the bear. "I brought her along as well."

Rory turned his head upward, and Jan spotted the out-of-place stainless steel drone floating down from the top of the trees. She much preferred her own taste in drones. Chalice the bear looked much more like she belonged out here, and her size was enough to keep the most ardent predator wary. He turned back to her. "Are you going the same way I am?"

"You did invite me," Jan pointed out.

"Oh, yes. I did." Rory smiled, then the smile faded. "You're really here, aren't you?"

Jan picked up her own walking stick and made her way up the slope with a little more care than before. She found walking on one ankle harder than before. The bear followed close behind. She stopped within two meters of Rory. "Hello."

"Hello," Rory said, his face a tumble of confusion as he looked at her. He even backed away a bit, hurting Jan's feelings. "You look like your projection. The clothes are different. But you have the same freckles and the same hair."

"You're different," she said. "Your hair is usually a lot less of a mess. And you dress so excellently in the Realm."

He grinned. "The clothes one wears in the real world have to be more practical."

"No, the clothes one wears in the Realm don't have to be quite so perfect."

They stood across from each other, silent, each covered by their respective instance of Chalice. Jan said, "Well. Shall we proceed?"

"We seem to have no choice. Unless one of us wants to go back the way we came?"

"No thank you. I understand that there's a large flat top at the final summit, and then a long slope down to the pickup site."

Rory thought for a moment. "We probably won't make it there before nightfall. The pickup site, I mean. I brought a tent."

"As did I," Jan said. "I didn't expect to use it, though. The weather reports said that there would be no adverse weather tonight."

Rory nodded. "Let's walk on, then." He paused for a second. "Chalice, how do two people walk together politely in the real world?"

The drone answered. "In a case such as this, the more competent hiker would take the lead, calling out advice to the person behind. But both of you are equal in competence; in such a case, the one most physically capable of handling surprises should go first. But again, I cannot judge between the two of you. I am tempted to say that Jan should lead because she was injured, and if she should fall, you would have a chance to see it, Rory, and help her. But I am here to help the both of you and will take the rear to watch." A sound much like a sigh escaped the floating spherical robot. "You decide."

"You lead, Rory," Jan said.

"Are you sure? I think her reasoning had points about you leading."

"No, please. You lead. I'll be fine."

"Okay," Rory said. "If you think you will be well." He picked up his pack and his staff. "Let's go."

They walked for a while, but Jan slowed them down. Her leg hurt more than she wanted to admit. At one pause, Chalice approached with both her remotes and examined the leg. She assessed that Jan had deep muscle bruising, and that keeping it in motion would be the best thing for it, but also that she shouldn't have an unnatural amount of weight on it. Jan reluctantly turned on the weight reduction units in the frame of her pack. It just didn't feel like hiking if she wasn't carrying her own food and water.

They walked on. A flash caught Jan's attention. "Was that... ?"

"Yes. A shadowflash," Chalice said.

"But we haven't even broken out of the tree-line yet."

"You have been walking slowly," Chalice pointed out. "Here comes Rory."

"You saw it?" he said. He continued to stand at least three meters away from her, further even than he maintained in the Realm. "I think it might be a good idea if we made camp here for the night."

Jan sighed, then brightened. "I think so too." Although she was loathe to admit it, her body hurt all over. She was anxious to take the weight off her feet, her injured leg, her bruised side and arm, to just lie down and get some sleep. She dropped the pack on the ground without hesitation, sitting beside it and taking off her shoes.

The flashes lengthened and their coming and going became more gradual, until the last one stayed dark. She used the remaining daytime wisely, first laying out her sleeping roll and dialing the firmness of the integrated groundpad, then laying out her dinner, a collection of foodstuffs that she had brought from home. The nighttime meal was optimized with more fat, stuff her body could use through the night to repair the damage she had absorbed from her fall. She was grateful that she had thought ahead. On a small portable heating block she warmed up a moderate sized cup of her own dried soup that she restored with water from her canteen. Even after a few hours in the container it still tasted better than anything she had tasted in the city.

Across the clearing, Rory erected a tent. She watched with disappointment as he vanished within it to eat, avoiding her and the clear organic nature of her body and her injuries. In the Realm he would at least show her when he took a drink and attended to his body. Out here there was too much honesty, too much physicality, and Rory hid it away behind a thin wall of nylon. She sighed, wondering if there would ever be a chance for what she wanted. Because she wanted to touch him. And for him to touch her back.

Night swept in. Jan picked up the energy block she had used to heat her soup and tea. Through a hole in one corner she threaded a small rope, hung it from a tree and turned it on, this time to provide light. She knew that it would attract insects through the night, but she preferred the bugs to not being able to see, and most bugs could detect body heat anyhow.

Rory emerged from his tent and disappeared down the trail, torch in hand, until he was out of earshot. Jan waited for him to come back, then she took the trail down until she could no longer see the light. She relieved herself on the ground, noticing for the first time the strength of the smell of it. She understood that it was waste material and her body reacted to reject it, both physically and emotionally. But it was part of her body, and for the first time she was exploring her body in a new way. A way that made the body more than a vehicle she used to carry around the mind that visited the Realm and the Real.

She stood up after drying herself and walked back to camp. She wondered if there were anything in the literature about the human reaction to human waste, urine and feces and all of that. She was sure there was. She would make a note to look it up when she got back to her home.

Rory was still outside, waiting for her. He looked up at her, curiously, as if not believing that they were still together in the Real world. She sat down opposite him. "So," she said. "How about a game of Go?"

He looked startled for a moment, then nodded. "That sounds like an excellent idea," he said. "Do you have a set with you?"

"I do." She pulled out the small box from within her pack. In truth she had not carried it herself. Chalice had and produced it while she had been setting out her sleeping equipment. "The table isn't quite what we usually use. I just have a cloth printed with the board. I hope that's acceptable."

"It should be enough," he said. She laid down the dull yellow cloth with the 29 rows and columns on it. To her surprise, Rory came within a meter of her, sat down opposite, and they began to play. Maybe it was the familiarity of the position, opposite each other in Go, but she thought it wonderful that he had come so close.

As in all their games in the past, Rory defeated her, although this time he took longer than usual. Her real presence, and their being a mere meter apart, must have been distracting to him. She found his bodily presence thrilling and it made her dare things she would never have tried otherwise.

"An excellent game," he said, trying to be the nonchalant Rory that she met in the Realm. She was pleased to see that he did not retreat from the Go board but remained where he was, just a meter or so between them.

"Thank you!" She reached behind herself for the bottle of tea she had been preparing, an herbal blend that had no stimulants and would not keep her awake at night, a sensation she loathed. Without asking, she unscrewed the top and drank from the bottle. She opened one eye and peered over the curve of the bottle to see Rory staring at her with intense interest. "Sorry."

"I should get used to it, with such a renegade creature as yourself for a friend," he said with a smile. "What other... irregularities would you propose for the evening?"

"Would you be upset at my suggestion?"

"That depends," he said, "on what your suggestion turns out to be. There are certain activities that mankind approved of universally over the ages, and there are those that were universally opposed. I had a short talk with Chalice while you went to relieve yourself and while I find that some of the things we discussed were repellent to me at first thought, now that I have had more time to think about them I find myself experiencing curious sensations that I have never had before." He paused, as if to give her a chance to respond,or at least digest his short speech. "So, make your suggestion."

"Close your eyes."

"That's it?"

"No, that's a start," she said. "Close your eyes."

"Very well."

"Now hold one arm out in front of you, palm of your hand up."

Rory obediently lifted a hand in front of himself and turned it as she asked. Jan reached out with her own and let her fingertips brush the palm of his hand. There was a shock where their flesh touched, where the ridges of her fingertips stroked along the raised texture of his palm. For that brief second, she had touched another living person, skin to skin, and she had felt the contact down into the very deepest part of her. It was enough to make her believe in that thing they sometimes called a soul in the old movies.

Rory, for his part, shivered. His eyes snapped open. "What was that?" he said.

"That was a touch." She gave him her best smile. "I don't know if you've ever experienced something like that, in the Realm or out of it."

"It was... powerful. Disturbing."

She found herself enjoying his reaction more than she thought she would. "Would you like to do it again?"

He shook his head. "Not immediately. I'm not sure what to make of the notion that I was touched. It felt odd and unpredictable."

"I think it's supposed to," she pointed out. "You're not supposed to control someone else, or be able to send them away with a word, or whatever. That's what the Real world is like, Rory."

"Not in Paris," he said.

"No, Chalice makes Paris as much like the Realm as she can without actually putting us on strings like puppets. But that's what we may as well be to each other, if we can make each other go away with just a thought." She sighed. "It's not exciting, Rory. I can win, or lose, or feel what it's like to climb a mountain, but if I fall down I'm just going to say 'End Program' and step out." She moved her arm in a circle, wincing as she did so. "Out here, things are different. If I get hurt out here, it takes time to heal. But the risk makes the reward so much more worth it. I know that I did the trip myself. The signs of it are all over my body. I did it for real." It was her turn to pause. "Why should pleasure be any different?"

"Jan, Close your eyes."

Pleasantly startled, Jan closed her eyes as he requested. She waited in the dark, unable to see what he was doing or where he was going. She heard the wind blowing through the trees, the sounds of insects chirruping to one another, the hoot of a night bird somewhere in the far distance. The smell of cedars and pine hung lightly in the air, stirred by a reliable zephyr.

And then she felt his fingers on her skin. He had reached over her proffered hand and instead touched her on the wrist. The strength of the sensation was beyond any of her life's experiences. It was as if a hot wire had touched her, its electricity racing from that tiny point on her arm up into her shoulder, straight into her heart. Her body felt cold, her hair stood on end.

And then he moved. She hadn't dared that with him. But he understood why she had arranged this visitation, and he took liberties that he could readily have guessed she desired. His fingertips eased over her wrist and down into the palm of her hand. The sensation was so strong she could not contain herself, and to her surprise her hand closed without her wanting it to. She also found herself giggling.

"Are you okay?" Rory asked.

"Yes!" she said, opening her eyes. "Oh, Rory. That was wonderful!"

"Then why did you close your hand like that?"

"I don't know," she admitted. "It wasn't deliberate. All of a sudden my hand just had to close." She looked over at the bear that had taken to sitting on the edge of the woods. "Is it some kind of defense reaction?"

"I am not sure," Chalice called. "Unlike in the Realm, I do not know what you experienced. I am sure that it was probably something called a tickle."

"Like when you're going to sneeze?" Jan asked.

"Yes."

Rory looked surprised. "You mean, our whole bodies are programmed with defensive reactions based on sensation? There isn't any context to it? I thought that was only supposed to happen when we were attacked by parasites."

"That's one purpose behind it. But you're right: it isn't usually contextual. Your body just knows sensation and has reactions to it. It can be trained away, the reaction, but I'm not sure that that's something you would like to do. It's there for a reason."

"Then how did people ever touch in the past?"

"I said 'usually.' How the sensation is interpreted can be changed by familiarity with some contexts, such as familiar relationships. Also, the sensation you're experimenting with isn't the kind that people usually used to explore each other's sensuality, although it's certainly an acceptable form and I find mentions of it in the literature. You're supposed to explore more, to find the good and not so good activities for each other." Chalice looked around. "I should do a walk of the camp to make sure no predators skulk about nearby."

Jan knew that Chalice had just given them as much as they needed to know for the time and was now going to let them proceed without her. Jan found the notion of being without her intellectual chaperon another scary and yet thrilling sensation. Chalice lumbered away. Jan realized that not only was she without Chalice, now she was alone with Rory.

"'We're supposed to explore,'" Rory quoted. "I have to admit that I found our contact stimulating and not all that threatening. The nanochine will keep our germs from exchanging, if we have any."

"But the idea still bothers you, doesn't it?" Jan asked. "It's okay, Rory. The idea of coming into contact with your bodily fluids still arouses a sensation in me that isn't quite negative... but I can't put a name to it either." She grinned. "But skin is safe."

He held out his hand, rolling up his sleeve. "I want to watch you do it this time."

Instead, Jan swept the Go cloth out of the way and shuffled forward until they were much closer. Rory watched with tolerating alarm at her approach, but when they were face to face he grinned and said, "I suppose I asked for this, too."

"Yes," Jan said. "Keep your eyes open." He did, and held out his hand as before. But it was Jan's turn to step up the contact. She touched his face, instead. His cheek.

Rory lurched back with alarm. "I'm sorry!" she said.

"I wish you had warned me!" he shot back. But then he eased. "I'm sorry, Jan. I didn't expect that to happen that way." He sighed. "Try again."

Jan touched his cheek, and watched as he tried to contain his reaction. She kept her fingertips, three of them, against his face as he eased into the experience. "There's nothing in the Realm like this," he said. "I know there are places in the Realm, the Pornoscopy areas, where people can go and do all manner of things, but when they describe it the experience always seems so sad. This is..."

"Alive," Jan offered. "Real."

Rory smiled. "Yes."

"More?"

"Yes." He said. "Come closer."

Jan maneuvered closer to Rory. Soon they were sitting with their knees almost touching. She was touching him on his arms, shoulder, and face. They traded back and forth. Soon, Rory followed her initiative. She thrilled to the courage he showed as his hands stroked her arms, shoulders. His fingers traced the outline of her cheeks and nose,and as they approached her mouth she lunged with her lips and licked his fingers.

Rory didn't react quite so strongly, but he did pull back his hand. "Eww," he commented. Then he grinned.

"You're enjoying this!" she said. The salty taste of his fingertips still lingered in her mouth, and she smeared her tongue along the roof of her mouth to distribute the taste everywhere, to preserve every last molecule that had come from him.

"I admit it. I am!" He looked down at his fingers. "I suppose you're right. Chalice told me that it was an accident of history that we don't visit once in a while. People used to do it all the time. According to her, llerkin and Pendor are still full of people, and they visit." He put his fingers out. "What was it like when you licked my hand?"

"You tasted salty. Good, too." She reached out with both her hands and held his. She rubbed softly, trying to gauge the pressure that would be uncomfortable while she probed the web of bones within that supported his fingers, the complicated ridges of each knuckle, the delicate turn of each finger. The wrist at first seemed to be just a solid mass, but soon she was feeling the movement of tendons and bones. She wanted to go home and see pictures of what she sensing through his skin. But first she wanted to explore more of him.

"This is what I call an adventure," she said. She looked up. "Do you cook, Rory?"

"You mean, for food? No, I let Chalice bring me something from the day's selection. She ports it to my kitchen. The only thing I store in my own preserver is leftovers." He grinned. "And sometimes they just sort of disappear because I forget to eat them."

Jan smiled. "Then I'll have to let you come to my home and try the food that I cook for myself. Usually, what I make tastes better than what Chalice makes."

"Is everything you do better than what Chalice does?"

"Yes," Jan said. "Well, no. But the things that are human to do, like meet, and eat, are things people can do better for one another than what a machine, even one as sensitive as Chalice, can do."

He watched as she brought his hand to her mouth. She wondered if all the mention of food made him worry that she might bite. She resolved to be careful, pressing her lips to his fingertips. There was a word for that-- oh, yes, "kissing." She licked at them, and as she worked her way up into the palm of his hand she took a glance at his face in the dark. His eyes were closed and a smile twitched on his lips. It was clear that he was enjoying what she was doing.

She let go of his hand, and he took the opportunity to wipe his hand off on his tunic. "Sorry," he said. "Habit."

"No, that's okay," she said. "I read a lot, Rory. This is supposed to be messy, but we're also supposed to clean up after it."

"After? Are we done?"

"It's late," she said. "And I think I'd like to sleep. It's going to be a long day tomorrow."

He nodded. She was happy. He almost seemed disappointed by her decision. But it was her turn to make the break-off happen. She didn't want to risk too much. She thought that she had found a partner with which to explore something rare, if not quite forbidden.

She eased back and again the curtain of formality seemed to fall about their shoulders. "That was fun," she said. "Let's do some more tomorrow."

"Yes," Rory said, with an eager grin.

They did retire for the night to their respective sleepers. Jan spent the next hour staring up through the trees at the stars and the black rectangle overhead that filtered out the sunlight and made night possible on Unity. She understood that day and night cycles were a phenomenon of rotating planets, and she understood that mankind had evolved on a world that had such cycles, but she wondered if it wasn't time to go to an all-lit world now.

No, she reflected, she liked the dark. It was dangerous. It was Real. The two were becoming synonymous in her mind. And she found that she was enjoying both of them.


The next day, they ate breakfast together, in sight of one another. Jan saw Rory look up from time to time but she had the impression he was still trying to avoid watching her eat. She tried to smile at him but he never glanced at her face long enough to notice while she had the bowl near her. They broke down their camps and headed out.

They walked in a line as before, but this time they kept closer to one another, keeping each other in sight, Chalice taking up the rear. Rory had been noncommittal at breakfast and she hoped that last night hadn't upset him. She knew that men had a tendency to get depressed after intense intimacy, but she did not know if last night counted as such. It had had none of the rushing, demanding nature that some of the books she had read implied. She was pleased that he kept her in sight, and called out to her when there were rocks or dips or roots in her way.

They ascended to the summit. She handed him a sandwich. "Lunch?" she said.

"Of your own making?"

"Of course." She smiled as he examined the paper-wrapped bundle, turning it over. He found the folds and opened it, finding inside the small, rectangular assembly. He picked it up and looked inside, a bit puzzled. He said, "Do you have enough?"

"I made four, and only ate one yesterday. If we make the landing today, I have enough."

He picked it up and took a bite, and then his eyes widened. "It's delicious!" he said.

"Are you surprised?"

"Yes," he said around a mouthful. She waited until he chewed and swallowed. "It's very, um, complicated. It's not at all like a nutrition bar or anything like that. It's very good." He wolfed it down. She pointed to his water bottle and he drank. "I'm sorry. You said you could cook, but I didn't actually expect it to be so delicious." He smiled at her.

The ate together at the peak, looking out at the mountain range. A nearby summit looked quite close but Chalice insisted that the trail led downward. She handed Rory the looking glass and showed him the city of Tiolle. "I wonder what it would be like to visit there."

"When you get home, you may ask the AI for that opportunity. It is a heavily Realmed city, but not solipsistic or closed. It is much like Paris but the people meet less often," Chalice said.

Rory handed the glasses back. Jan peered through them at Tiolle herself, increasing the magnification higher and higher until she could see people on the balconies. So many balconies, but so few people. Disappointed, she put the glasses into her pack.

They cleaned up and made their way down the slope into the tree-line. It was a long hike to the landing zone and Jan was only somewhat interested in pushing herself hard enough to make it there. If she could have Rory for another night, she thought, she might be able to play with him some more, convince him of her interests. She watched his back swaying and wondered if he was handsome. There was a certain aesthetic to him, with his bulk and his short hair and his strong chin. She liked what she saw.

The roar got their attention before anything else. "What is that?" Rory asked.

"A river," Chalice said. "Rushing with the spring snowmelt off that high peak over there." She pointed with her ursine head. "It is quite fast and dangerous, and I'm afraid you're going to have to cross it. Fortunate for you, there is a ridge of high rocks up ahead that should make crossing possible. Or, I could summon the shuttle to take you out from here.

Rory shook his head. "No, we came out here for the adventure and the reality of it. I'm not going to let a dangerous river ruin it." He looked at Jan, and she nodded her assent. "Let's go."

Jan quailed a little upon seeing the challenge they had chosen. As rivers go, it was not very wide, but the water was washing by fast enough to kick up spray as it crashed onto the rocks and surged through the spaces between them. Rory said, "I'll go first."

Jan watched, frightened for her friend, as he clambered up onto a tall rock, gauged distances, and then leaped to another stone. He leaped from stone to stone, making it halfway across the river, then turned and said, "Now, you come."

She followed his lead, climbing up onto one of the rocks, then leaping to another, and another. It was not hard at all, she thought. She looked up to see that Rory had not moved but was waiting for her on a large boulder in the middle of the river, the next boulder she was about to jump to. "That's the biggest jump yet," he said.

"I'll make it." She leaped, and landed deftly, catching her hand on a fracture at the top of the rock. She gave Rory a quick grin and turned to get better footing.

She slipped. She had one last glimpse of his shocked expression before she hit the cold water and it closed in around her. The rushing water pulled her along, crashing her against a stone. The pack she wore took most of the impact, but its weight was pulling her down. Panicked, she reached for the straps, trying to pull it off, scrambling to get out of it. She turned around under the water as she hit another boulder, bounced off of it. The river shoved her downstream, into another rock, crushing the air out of her.

She got free of the pack and held her hands out. Another rock, and another bounced her around like a ball in some childish game. She was dizzy. She was fading.

A hand grabbed her wrist, what felt like ropes grabbed the other, and she was being pulled out of the water. The sunlight broke around her and she pulled in a huge breath of air, collapsing onto a rock, on her back. "Oh, fah, oh, fah!" She looked up and saw the concerned faces of Rory and Chalice looking down at her. She coughed up water, turned over, and vomited. "Oh, fah!" Tears were streaming down her eyes, her body hurt, she wanted to curl up and sleep, and die, and just be left. She wanted-- "Rory!" she said, reaching up to him. He backed away momentarily, then looked down at her, confusion and worry in his eyes, and then pulled her to him, held her, comforted her in his own, unsure, awkward way.

"Oh, fah, Rory. I thought... I thought..."

"It's okay, Jan. It's okay. Chalice wasn't going to let you drown. You know that. You know that. I wasn't going to let you drown either."

"Rory, Rory..."

"Shh," he said. "Hush. Take a deep breath, Jan. It's okay. I should have been more careful."

"It's not your fault."

"No, I guess not. We had to cross. We knew it was risky." He laughed. "It seems you're the one getting all the abuse, and you're supposed to be the outdoorsfen."

Through her tears she managed to look up at him. "This is, this is most improper, isn't it?"

"I hadn't noticed," he said. She dissolved into giggles, and he followed right along.

"Ow!" Jan said.

"Are you okay?"

"Chalice?"

The bear spoke. "You inhaled some water, but not enough that you nanochine can't handle it. You have no broken bones, again thanks to the nonhuman modifications you all have these days, but you will be more bruised than you can imagine. The pain will be daunting. I urge you to summon the shuttle."

"No," Jan said. "No, we came out here on our own, we're going to do the whole trip ourselves."

"Jan!" Rory said. "Don't be ridiculous. You're hurt."

"Yeah, and millions of our forebears, with bodies a lot more fragile than mine, put up with it. Did you rescue my pack?"

"Yes," Chalice said, holding it up. "But it's soaked. If you're going to use it, you had best make camp here."

Jan looked up and around. "Here" was the far side of the river, but almost two hundred meters downstream from the path. "But it's early yet!"

"And you are injured," Chalice said. "If you won't let me bring the shuttle down, I insist you at least stop moving about so much until tomorrow." She looked up at Jan, the eyes wide and wet. "I've been caring for you since you were born, Jan. You could have been killed. You're not braced. If you had gone headfirst into one of those rocks we wouldn't have you anymore." She nuzzled Jan's cheek, and Jan realized it was the first time she'd been touched by Chalice's avatar. "Don't belittle what just happened."

"Okay," Jan said, avoiding eye contact with Chalice. "I'm sorry."

"That's better. Now then, for the sake of the two of you there is a clearing some ten meters upstream on a spit of sandy rock. It will more than suit you." Chalice led them through the woods, past tall poplars, cedars and pines until they came to where she had indicated. It was wide enough that they could place their tents as last night, far apart, but Rory surprised her by dropping his pack next to hers.

"Let's put our tents next to one another. If you have any distress, I want to know about it."

She wanted to smile at him, but it hurt too much to do more but nod. She motioned to Chalice to bring her pack over, then sank down to her knees, dizzy and exhausted. Something touched her on her shoulder, and she looked up to see Rory peering down at her, concern on his face. "I'll set up your tent."

"Thanks. Thank you, Rory. I don't think I could do it myself."

"Maybe not. I want you to rest." He reached into his pack and tossed out his sleeping roll. "Lie down."

"It's your bed!"

"Yours will not be dry before nightfall. Jan, you are nothing if not practical. Be practical now. Get some sleep."

She sighed, then nodded. "Okay, Rory." She lay down on the sleeping bag and closed her eyes.


When she awoke, she found Rory and Chalice sitting opposite each other before her cloth Go board. Chalice was losing, which meant she was probably using some early 20th Century algorithm to calculate her moves. Rory had her surrounded and down to the forces on one corner of the board.

Jan rubbed her eyes and rose up. Her body was stiff and pain hampered her movements no matter how she tried to move. Chalice noticed her and then Rory's eyes followed Chalice's movements. "You are awake," Chalice said.

"Is that good?" Jan asked.

"Not as good as asleep, but better than dead."

"You made a lot of noise in your sleep," Rory said. "I was afraid you were having a bad dream."

"I don't remember having one..." The sky dimmed, and Jan looked up. There were few clouds today. "Have I slept all day?" she asked.

Rory nodded. "It's going to be night soon. Your sleeping roll is dry again and I've put it outside, as you had it last night." He pointed behind her and Jan saw that he had tried to reproduce her sleeping arrangements last night as much as he could from memory. The sight of it gave her the most curious feelings. She knew than she was learning, now, what it felt like to have the attention and care of a fellow human being. She treasured that feeling. It was better than anything else she had felt this day.

She felt hungry. She took that as a good sign, and it inspired her to ask for another concession from Rory. "Let me make dinner?" she said.

"You're hurt," he said.

"I'm not incapacitated. I would like to make something we can both eat together. Chalice, do you still have the materials for hamburger?"

"Of course I have. But young Rory here will have to start a fire."

"A fire?" Rory said. "I-- That sounds rather dangerous."

"It can be, but no worse than anything else you've tried to do this day," Chalice said. "Come, follow me." She padded off into the woods. "You be safe, Jan."

"I'm not going to move. Except to get water."

"There's some in your bottle," Rory said.

"I wasn't planning on going to the river." Jan grinned at him. "I think I've seen enough river for one day."

Rory waved as he and Chalice disappeared into the woods. He returned a few minutes later laden with large blocks of wood, only to head back out again with a single grunt of acknowledgment.

Chalice returned with him the second time, and together they made a ring of stones and then made the fire within it. Chalice cheated and produced the initial flame from somewhere under her paw, but none of them was inclined to argue much about the results. They soon had it going.

Jan reached into her backpack and pulled out a frame to hang over the fire and a pan in which to prepare the meal. Neither had been in there earlier that afternoon. She let the fire heat the pan while she reached in and pulled out the ground meat and other ingredients.

"What is that?" Rory asked.

"Meat?" Jan said. "See?"

"I've never seen meat like that before."

"That's because you don't cook. This is what it looks like when it's come fresh out of a vat. See? I mix into a few shredded leaves, some breadcrumbs, pat it, and throw it into the pan." She paused. "Forgot the oil." She found a small bottle, opened it, and scooped out a small amount of white paste with a spoon. "I found the recipe in a book."

"A barbaric book," Rory said.

"Hardly. This is what you eat all the time. Except that you get the industrial kind, made in huge factories where the flavor is designed by a machine to be as boring as possible, to appeal to as many people as possible. No offense, Chalice." Satisfied that the grease had melted enough, she tossed on the two patties she had made, and then threw in the sliced of potato around them.

"I'm never offended by the truth," the bear said. "It would not behoove me to waste my time producing special meals for those who would not care for them."

Jan stirred the potato wedges with a spatula. "Rory, everything on this world is made by robots. The food is. The city is. The shuttle is. Even the people are made by robots, Rory! You were. I was. We spent seven million years getting our hands dirty, and we must have learned to like some of it. We shouldn't pretend that we don't."

"But we've overcome all that," he said. Jan could hear his voice trying to sound reasonable, but somehow he managed to sound condescending and unconvinced at the same time. "We don't have to have our meat off a butchered animal to enjoy it, because we grow it in tanks. And we don't have to get our hands dirty because we have machines that do it for us."

"They're also just as capable of feeling our feelings for us, Rory. Why don't we let them do that, too?"

"That's different!"

"Why?" she said again as she turned the burgers over.

"Because they're my feelings, not-- not Chalice's." He had the crestfallen look of someone used to winning who had suffered his first and final defeat. If this were a game of Go, she would have Rory's forces on the run.

She finished examining the wedges, reached into her bag and took out some tomatoes, began cutting them. She was fascinated with Rory's eyes, as he watched her every move with the exquisitely sharp knife. She cut them, mashed them, mixed them with vinegar and minces of garlic, onion, and yellow bells. "Rory, I don't like this meat because it comes from a process that would have caused pain had the animal it come from had a brain and been conscious. I like it because we once relied on it fresh from the animal, and there are pathways in our brains that take pleasure from that freshness. There are also pathways in our brains that take pleasure from preparing food for others. Chalice makes healthy food for millions of people; I make human food for one or, now, two."

"Is that why you won't just give Chalice the recipe?"

"Yep." She put the relish aside, reached into her pack again, pulled out a large jicima and began cutting it into long, thin strips. She then put that aside and turned her attention back to the pan. She took the meat off, then turned the wedges again. "A few more minutes."

She soon passed him his portion of dinner even as the flashes of night drew deeper and deeper until the last bright moment swept past them and they were plunged past twilight into night. He looked at the meal with momentary apprehension, then bit into one of the wedges. "Put the relish on it," she encouraged him.

He tried that as well, and then closed his eyes. "That is really good," he said.

"See?" she said. "I told you, you would like it."

He nodded, surprised at his own reaction. The salad she had prepared was bitter and sweet, and he ate all of it. "You were right," he said. "I apologize. The meal is amazing. It might even be... I feel strange, as if under some external influence."

"Go ahead and tell him, Chalice."

"Why?" Chalice said, swinging her large head. "You tell him."

"Tell me what?"

"You are under some external influence, Rory," Jan said. "Two, I think. Me, and the food. You've never had food like this, but it's exactly what your brain is designed to treasure. It's not just healthy, it's pleasurable in ways that the factory food rarely is. It's good for you in small doses but bad in large ones, and so Chalice doesn't make it because, if she did, she'd have to expend much more energy keeping you alive. Paris is full of intellectual pleasures, but the physical, sensual ones are... they've been allowed to lapse. I've been rediscovering them."

"And the other influence?" he said, looking at her.

"Me."

"You?"

"Yes, me and the food." She touched his arm sympathetically, and he did not shy away from her sudden and unasked rush of intimacy. "Two million years ago, when we were primitives barely above the animal stage, we listed who our intimates were by who we shared food with. That's still a major component of your brain. You've never had a meal with anyone before. A part of your brain you've never used before is coming to life. And it's telling you that I am the most intimate person you've ever known.

"And to be fair, I'm doing the same thing to my own brain. Probably even more intensely. Because I'm making it. I'm giving it to you. To the primitive brain, I'm making the sacrifice of food." She smiled at him and held out a hunk of bread Chalice had materialized. "In at least four languages, including Anglic and Quen, the word for being a friend is also the phrase 'with bread.'"

He tried to grin. "And I suppose that your being female also has an influence upon me." He took the offered bread.

"I might have been wrong about you Rory. You might have been a homosexual, predisposed to intimacy only with other males, and my whole opportunity to find someone I could convince would be lost."

"How would I know?" Rory said.

"I have no idea," Jan admitted. "Chalice?"

"Most of the information I have is experiential. We did learn eventually how to model the gene patterns that give rise to obsessive monosexuality-- there are several-- but I cannot find any record of whether or not we could reliably identify behavior from initial state. This is one of those cases where the only thing one can do is seed the initial state and observe the outcome."

"There," Jan said. "The only way we can know for sure is to try out our sexuality and see if we like it."

"I suppose you would like that," Rory asked.

"Would you?"

Rory said, "I am going to plead experience." Jan looked at him. "I am going to have to face tomorrow and the next day the way I face every day. If I don't, um, perform this experiment, I suppose that I'll categorize today as just another day, no more or less interesting than the one before it. But if I do go ahead as you asked, I might have something worth considering."

"That's the frame!" Jan said.

Rory put his plate to one side, on one of the logs he had brought. Jan sat opposite him, and he looked into her face. She stared back. "I... I'm a little afraid, Rory, now that the moment of truth has arrived. I don't know what to say next other than, 'thank you.' Whatever happens tonight, I shall never forget this."

He reached out with one hand and touched her cheek. She sighed, tilting her head and placing her own hand over his, holding it in place. It felt so warm against her, so firm. She could hardly imagine anything more wonderful than Rory's acceptance of her offer and his willingness to participate. She felt his hand slip under her chin and close, as if to hold her and point her in whatever direction he wished. To her surprise, that's what he did, lifting her eyes to look directly at him. He had a huge smile. "I don't quite know what I'm doing here, Jan. I talked to Chalice quite a bit while you were unconscious and recovering. I wish I had known more about what you had planned out here in the wilderness, but I shall try not to disappoint you."

"That's all I ask."

"Then let's see if you like this." He lowered his head to hers, stopped for just a second to look into her eyes, then pressed his lips to hers. Jan gasped, wondering if she should do something, anything, but she couldn't think of a single way to respond. She just held very still as he moved his lips, then kissed him back as he wanted. It was her turn to touch him, and she did, reaching out with both hands to press them against his shirt. He was solid beneath it, not at all like her own body which had a tendency toward softness despite all of her athletic endeavors. She thought about the feel of his mouth hovering against her lips then, with just a second's consideration of the fiction and facts she had absorbed before her current course of action, opened her mouth and reached out with her tongue to caress his lips.

Rory startled, pulling back and running his tongue along the surface where she had licked him. "So, that's the way you want it?" He bent down and pressed his lips back, his mouth parted open, his tongue touching her lips. Their tongues slipped out and pressed one against the other for a moment, and then both of them rocked back to regard each other. "Chalice?" he said.

"Yes?"

"I knew you asked me not to ask for advice right about now, but is it okay if I ask you a question?"

"Of course it is," Chalice said. "That's why I haven't left yet."

"Why doesn't Jan have breasts?" Jan blinked, wondering what Rory was referring to. She looked down. She had, well, she had bumps. Not very large ones, just small rises of fat tipped with small, pink nipples. She didn't have those massive spherical breasts that she had seen in old videos.

"Because she doesn't need them," Chalice asked. "They were needed as secondary sex characteristics back when reproduction was driven primarily by unconscious urges. Now that we're civilized and have no need of such attractants, we've engineered them only to be present when the owner wants them."

"Is that on Paris, or Unity, or..."

"It's most of Unity," Chalice assured him. "And some planets out in the Corridor, as well."

"I want them," Jan said. She looked up at him. "If he's curious to know what they'd be like, I would love to show him."

"I'm afraid it's not that easy. You can still agree to it tonight, but I'm afraid that to do it correctly it can take a few months."

"Oh," Jan said. "Well, I still want them."

"They're easier to get rid of, although it can be uncomfortable," Chalice said.

"I still want them."

"Very well," Chalice said in her you're-going-to-regret-this- I-know-it voice. "There. Your onboard has been notified to release the hormone signals that lead to the growth of breast tissue." She cast her head about. "I heard something in the undergrowth. You have fun while I'm gone." She walked away, her four feet heavy enough Jan could feel her footsteps through the ground even for some distance.

Jan looked at Rory. She felt a sudden, strong impulse and for a moment fought to squash it. Rory probably had little idea to what she referred as she said, "Oh, I don't care." Then she leaped upon him, throwing him backward onto the sleeping roll she had slept on all afternoon. She pressed her body weight down on top of his and looked down into his stunned and perhaps a little fearful face. "Rory..."

He smiled at her to tell her that her choice was right, and then she lowered her lips to his mouth again. She was amazed at how much of it was easy, how much of it was natural. She kissed him and he responded. She pressed her body to his and he wrapped his hands about her waist to clasp her rear in his palms.

That felt wonderful, she thought. Quite possibly the most wonderful thing she had felt in months. His hands were on closing in on her intimate places, parts of her about which even she felt some curious disaffection for, even if she couldn't describe it.

She raised her head and looked down into his face. "Animal," he said up to her.

"What?"

"You. are. an. animal. A beautiful, pleasurable animal. And you've shown me how much of me is an animal, running on instinct."

She took his face in her hands as she lowered herself on top of him to kiss him again. She felt warmth in other places in her body, in her belly and between her thighs. Wetness, too, was forming between her lips, a slippery little puddle between her vulva and the cooling tights she had worn for the hike. She squirmed against his firm, aroused body and enjoyed the sensation.

"Jan?" he asked her as they broke for a breath. "Could I... Would you please take your clothes off?"

Something clicked in Jan's head. She grinned at him. "You asked Chalice to show you videos while I was out, didn't you?"

His face flushed red but he still managed to nod. She giggled. "It's okay, Rory. I've watched a few. But most of my learning about intimacy comes from books." She sat up and reached for the hem of her tunic, then pulled it about halfway before looking down at him. "You really want to do this?" she asked.

He nodded. She pulled the tunic off and tossed it aside. Her own imagination balked at the idea of her skin being so exposed to the air; she may have gone Outside, but she always did so with a layer of protection over most of her skin, leaving only her hands and face exposed. Today, she was bare, at least on her top half.

A shock of pleasure hit her like a blow as Rory's fingertips came down upon her chest. His hands touched her collarbone, slid down the length of her chest to her belly, then reached the belt about her waist. "Oh, Rory!"

"Good or bad?"

"That's good!" she moaned. "But it feels so strong! If this is just the beginning, I don't know if I can survive to the end!"

He smiled up at her. "I'm sure you can." But he took her hint and curbed his impatience, touching her torso all over, trailing his fingers over her chest and shoulders, down her arms. She shivered, delighted that her body could give her such pleasures and that she could have more whenever she wanted. He tickled the delicate hairs on the tops of her hands, then jumped the small divide to her belly, and then up to her nipples, which he stroked with the lightest touch but which made her whole body shake with desire. "Jan?"

"Rory!" she moaned. "That was so good!"

"I'm not sure I would want to do more if you're enjoying this so much," he said. "This is... this is fun!"

She smiled at him and lowered her body to his, touching her chest to his. "What would it be like if you took your shirt off?" she said.

"Let me find out." She backed away from him long enough to let him take his shirt off and throw it beside her own. Then he lay down and gestured to her. She lay on top of him, skin to skin, for the first time in her short life, and realized that she wanted more and she could have more. "Wow," he said.

"It's nice, isn't it?"

"That's not the word I would have chosen."

"Shocking?" she said.

"That's one. Exciting. Wonderful. I can understand why people shy away from it." She held her breath as his arms came up, and then his fingers came down upon her back.

The intensity of the sensation was more than she was ready for. She went rigid, then moaned and shook hard. "R-- Rory!"

"Jan?"

"There's... you're tickling me! It's too much!"

"Oh. Let me try this." He lay his hands down flat upon her back and then moved them with a firmer pressure. Jan sighed. That was much better. Or it was until his hands crept down to her waist and slipped under the band of her pants. The desire crept upward in her imagination until it was a force she could not hold back, a need that demanded attention.

She lifted her hips and reached between them to break the clasp on her pants. "There," she said.

"You're anxious," Rory said.

"Are you?"

"I'm nervous. What if I do this wrong? What if I hurt you?"

"If you do it wrong, we'll try it again to get it right. If you hurt me, I forgive you already."

"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"

"All I know, Rory, is that I am physical person stuck in a world of intellectual pleasures. Trash whether or not I can hold Dirac's theorem in my head, what I care about is what my head and body can feel!"

"But you can't give those to other people," he said.

"I'm giving them to you." She kissed his lips again. She smiled to think that he was getting rather good at that activity. His hands again slipped under the waistband of her pants and touched her buttocks. She moaned again and felt something new and solid underneath her, between her legs. "Is that your-- I don't want to use the technical name. It sounds so weak. Your cock?"

He shifted. "I'm sorry, I..."

"I think it's supposed to be there." She eased off of him and sat to one side on the blanket. "I'm going to take the rest of my clothes off." She hooked her thumbs about her waist and pushed the pants down over her hips, knees, and ankles. They joined the pile of clothes. She tossed off her socks.

She looked up and found Rory's eyes... consuming her. He was staring at each and every part of her as if he wished for larger eyes that could take in all of her at once. She turned to kneel, giving him a clearer view of her torso, then, following his eyes, sat down and opened her thighs. His eyes homed in on her dark-furred vulva, then up her belly until he looked her in the eyes again. "So many places in my mind that I've never heard from before are clamoring for more!"

"I know," she said. "I've known there were there for a long time but I never imagined that they could be like, like this!" Jan wrestled with the intensity of her feelings, unsure of what she should do with them or even what she could do with them. "Rory? I think it's your turn."

"My turn? Oh," he said, looking down at his own, still-clothed body. He tore off the pants he wore.

They sat at opposite ends of the blanket, separated by the same meter that had separated them when they had sat opposite one another during their game of Go. Jan didn't know what to do next, but she had the distinct notion that it was her turn to choose, to initiate.

She looked at Rory, sitting there, his erection standing up straight and brave. Compared to some she had seen in videos, he was rather normal and even average-sized. His legs were pale and covered in a hair some grades coarser than that covering her own, but it hardly seemed unpleasant. Her ancestors had been much, much hairier, she recalled, and had had their own fill of Pendorian furs and even llerkin hides. She felt a chill creep over her as she wondered what sleeping with those would be like, and if she could add anything at all to the great history of lovemaking. She supposed that the only way to answer that question would be to try it for herself and find out.

At this moment she had other plans. She turned over onto her knees and crept across the blanket to him. "We kissed, earlier."

"We did," he said. He watched her eyes trail down his body. "Oh."

She smiled up at him and then leaned down to get close to his cock. She had seen several in the archives, examining them and what they did, what they were for. She supposed it was another one of those great accidents of evolution that made their form so important to human beings, but it was hard to take out all of those impressions without twisting the human being into something unrecognizable.

Some women writers had characterized the form of it as "silly." Jan disagreed. There was something handsome and winsome at the same time about it. She gripped it with one hand, making Rory tense up for a moment, then let her fingers slide up along the length. Rory hissed hard. "Jan! Careful!"

"Did I hurt you?"

"No... just-- I think it was so strong."

"Oh." She leaned down close to look at it, examining the pink head of it, the way the skin almost closed about the head, the bulge in the skin where the head and the shaft met. She reached out with her tongue and touched it. When there was no unfavorable reaction, she opened her mouth further and slid her lips over the tip and down onto the shaft.

Rory's body became a solid mass of tension and he collapsed back onto the blanket. Jan had to move quickly to keep his cock from getting away from her. She found his testicles underneath, still dangling in their sac, still waiting for more attention. She licked at them. The hairy texture was not something she wanted by itself, but some irresistible urge told her that she wanted more of it. She was not inclined to disagree with herself.

The taste surprised her. It was ordinary skin, salty, yet also sweet. She decided that Rory was delicious and she wanted to see what else he could do. She closed her mouth about his cock again, stroking it as she had seen on the videos, taking it until it choked her. She knew she would never be one of those women who would be able to swallow all of it no matter how brutally her partner delivered it, but if he were capable of delicacy maybe she could learn.

What she did appreciate was the amount of strength it took to do the sucking. Her mouth became tired very quickly, her jaw aching and her tongue feeling sore. Rory was twitching, strange incoherent sounds coming from his mouth as she played with his erection, and when she stopped he whimpered like some lost animal. "Jan..."

She knelt beside him. "I'm sorry, Rory, but I... I can't do more."

"You've done so much!" he said, the words complimentary but the voice a complaint. "Jan, I need... a little more."

She smiled. "So do I, Rory." She swung one leg over his body and straddled his waist. "So do I." She grabbed his shaft and aimed it at her vulva. She smiled at him. "Last chance to stop me."

"I could never stop you."

She lowered herself onto his cock, felt the head nuzzle its way into her vulva. She had frequently used two fingers herself while masturbating, another bad habit she had picked up from reading too much. Compared to that, his cock was huge. It went deeper and filled her much, much more. She moaned as it touched places deep inside her, almost hurting her, but not quite. She shivered as her buttocks pressed down onto his hips.

"Oh, yes, Rory..."

"Jan..."

"Rory?"

He smiled. "I cannot believe we ever put this aside."

"I can. There are many pleasures we have put aside. This one just got lost." She raised herself up, her eyes closed, concentrating on the feel of his cock sliding inside her body until it hovered just at the opening, then slid down onto it. Her whole body felt alive, felt high, felt like nothing she had ever felt before or would ever feel again, her nerves completely alit, her breath hot and full in her chest. She was pumping her hips repeatedly against his, making his cock go as deep as she could take it, as much as he had to offer. She was losing control of herself, losing herself in the haze. She wanted more, she could feel it inside her. Something big, something real, something like an orgasm but moreso, building and building until it crashed through her, incredibly powerful. She cried out Rory's name as she came, and she felt something... him! She felt him pushing up against her until he, too, came.

The sensation drained away slowly, pleasantly, dropping off until the world came back to her and Rory's body underneath hers had her attention. His eyes were closed, his mouth open. The look on his face was unmistakable-- exhaustion, pleasure, satiation. She had never seen it before but she knew it for what it was.

His hands were trembling on the blanket, lost and without any will behind them. She had never seen anyone so helpless before and she wondered, for a moment, if she had looked like that in the moments of her passion. If she had, it had been worth it.

"Jan..." he whispered. She lay her body lengthwise over his, as they had done so few times before and as she hoped they would do many times more, as she had seen in the rare videos and loved when she did to him. "Jan?"

"Here, Rory."

"I... I can't believe... how did the human species ever get anything done knowing that such an incredible sensation awaited them. I mean, I assume that what we just did was normal, but... Wow."

She laughed. "Oh, Rory," she said, kissing his face. She sat up and then said, "Ow!"

"Jan?"

"Chest... muscles hurt," she gasped. She clutched her arm across her chest, trying to crush down the pain that had blossomed there. "Ow..." she whimpered again.

"You over-strained yourself," Chalice said, walking out from the trees. "Reproduction is such a powerful instinct that it can override almost any pain you might experience during the act." She looked Jan over. "I believe you will live, Jan."

"Good," she gasped. "That hurts."

"I am quite sure that it does," Chalice said. "Why don't you lie down and let your muscles relax for a while? It would probably be better for you if you did."

"I think I'll do that."


She woke to find herself lying out in the open, under a blanket and surrounded by a collection of azzies that seemed to be quite busy that morning. She tried to turn over, but the muscles across her chest responded with coursing pain that made her gasp and lie back down. "I think I'm immobilized."

"I shouldn't think so," Chalice said, full of good cheer for an early morning. "It's mostly just the tension that comes from so much healing. It may take an hour or so to stretch those muscles back into working order, but the pain will fade."

Jan turned her head and smiled at the bear. "I don't suppose you could help me?"

Chalice managed to look shocked. "Jan? Asking for machine assistance now? I am scandalized!"

Jan giggled. "Ow!"

"Move slowly, Jan."

Jan rolled over onto her side, taking Chalice's advice to move slowly. She managed to get into a crouching position before she heard a rustle behind her. Turning her head, she saw Rory looking at her buttocks with a strange, shocked grin on his face. "Can you... hold that position?"

"If you touch me, I'll strike you!"

"Is something wrong?"

Jan nodded. "I'm still in pain from the river." She began trying to maneuver her reluctant, curiously unfamiliar body.

Rory knelt down beside her. "Is there anything I can do?" he asked. He reached out with his hands as if to guide her, and she gratefully allowed him to help her into a sitting position, her chin on her knees. He was gentle with her, and she felt grateful for his concern.

She reached over and kissed him on his cheek, as she had seen in countless films. "Thank you."

His face blushed a bright red. "You're welcome."

She waited several minutes until the pain seemed to fade and then began very slowly moving her arms, her shoulders, and her neck. Soft pains slid up the insides of her arms and across her back. She worked her way through the pain and let herself do something she would have thought perverse once: enjoy the sensations. She knew she would recover and that these pains would all be memories, and that knowledge made the sensations somehow pleasurable. The experience wasn't something she wanted, and she wouldn't have sought it out directly, but somehow having gone through it she felt she had learned to appreciate more the limits of her body.

What she had done with Rory, however, was a different matter entirely. She looked at him, at the concern on his face, and she knew she wanted to try lovemaking with him again, soon.

"Is something wrong?" Rory said. He had seen the look cross her face.

"Rory? Are we in love?"

He considered his answer carefully, and Jan thought him endearing for doing so. "I don't think that we are," he said. "We do not have to be."

"No," she agreed. "We don't have to be." She kissed him again, this time on the lips, and he responded with that same wonderful passion that she had felt from him the night before. She giggled.

What?" Rory said.

She shook her head. "I was just thinking that I need to warm up my muscles so that I can move comfortably. Your kiss did that very well."

He smiled, and Jan liked his handsome smile. "I am glad to be of service, then."

Clouds covered most of the sky, giving this day a darker, duller look than the previous two. Chalice promised that it would be clear by noon, some six hours away, but the morning promised to be cool and even misty as the clouds slid off the mountain range. Rory did most of the packing. Jan struggled to just pull on her boots. Chalice refused to let her carry anything heavier than a liter of water. Jan acquiesced. "I've been hiking for years and nothing like this has ever happened to me."

"There is a first time for any mistake," Chalice responded. "You are quite fortunate not to have been killed. I hope you will be more cautious in the future, but I also hope this will not dampen your enthusiasm for the outside."

Jan shook her head. "No, I like it out here. I might spend more time out here, if I find a willing companion."

Rory said, "I am willing enough."

"Next month, then?" Jan asked, picking up her walking stick.

"Where shall we explore, then?" Rory replied.

"I know this wonderful desert-scape, if it hasn't been closed down for fallowing."

"It has not," Chalice said.

"Then that's that," Rory said. Jan felt his hand touch hers, his fingers close about hers, meshing between them. Their clasp rotated and turned until they found something comfortable and then, hand in hand, the first humans from Paris Arcology to do something so intimate in centuries, they walked down the mountain together.

Next: Honest Desires

Previous: Gabriel

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is copyright © October 10, 2002 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.