Honest Question

Attendes 3262

A low retaining wall in the shade of a young pedar tree made a welcome shelter from the late spring sunlight, and under it Misuko dropped her shoulder bag. Digging into it she found her padd and learned that she had half an hour to try and make sense of her own schedule before Linia was freed from her class. Four other students migrated into her little patch of darkness against Hirosh's brutal heat, but otherwise the grassy main square was unusually quiet today.

She was still examining the padd carefully when she noticed someone standing in front of her. "Excuse me?" the someone said. "Miss Ffanci?"

Misuko looked up and recognized a fellow student from one of her classes, a humanoid, possibly a satryl but Misuko doubted it. "Kalya, right?"

The other nodded. "Benjakalyani. I know I'm only a second year student, Miss Ffanci, but I received this in my mail today and I thought, well, given the fact that you're going to be leader on the project, I might introduce myself."

Misuko looked down at her padd and saw the letter highlighted in the corner. She pulled it up and looked at it, pleased to see that Benjakalyani had been accepted for a junior position on the team, doing mostly document and recovered artifact analysis. "Well," Misuko said, feeling curiously calm, "This looks like it's in order." She looked up. "This is rather a silly question, but I honestly don't know the answer. Is it Mister or Miss Benja?"

"It's Sor."

Misuko was taken aback for a moment, then nodded. "Oh! I'm sorry."

"It's quite all right," Kalya said with an air of infinite patience. "Sor" was used as an honorific on the Elvangorean worlds, where distinctions regarding sex and gender were considered rude. That explained the drab, beige panel robes Kalya wore, robes which extended from vhir shoulders to the floor, obscuring arms and legs and obliterating any sense that there might be a body underneath it. Misuko wondered if vhi wasn't sweating terribly in the heat. "Most Hiroshi don't know much about my people and, as I understand it, you are from Abi, which is less well-equipped than most."

Misuko bit off the response that crouched at the back of her throat. She was more than equipped to deal with an Elvangorean, she thought, even if she didn't particularly agree with the decisions vhir ancestors had made. "Well, it was nice..."

"Misuko!" Linia waved from across the open square, her arm high. Her round face, wide eyes, and free-flying brown hair sent pangs of desire coursing through Misuko's heart, and she waved in reply. Kalya turned to see who had adressed her.

Linia sat down without pause, grabbed her arm and hugged her tight. "Mmm," she sighed. "Good class?"

"If you call preparing for finals 'good,'" Misuko said, then giggled. "I miss you when you're away."

"Well, I do have my own classes."

"You don't have to take them."

"Yes, I do," Linia said firmly, in the same tone of voice she had taken every time Misuko had mentioned it. Misuko hugged her back and kissed her cheek, and Linia murred softly at Misuko's loving touch. "You're such a tolerant and wonderful owner."

"'Owner'?" Kalya said, shocked.

Linia looked up. "Oops. Who's this?"

Misuko blushed. Well, it was all going to come out eventually anyway. She'd never made a habit of hiding Linia, and by now most people on campus knew who Linia was. She had this annoying-- and endearing-- habit of living out loud.

"This is Benjakalyani," Misuko said. "Sor is going with us back to Indigo 161-4."

Linia stood up and extended a hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Sor Benja," Linia said.

"Mine as well. And please, call me Kalya. It will make most of you much more comfortable. What's this about being an 'owner'?"

"Linia is my robot companion," Misuko said. "One of her idiosyncracies is that she refers to me as her owner, rather than a lover or a friend or companion." Misuko grinned fiercely. "And one of my idiosyncracies is that I encourage hers."

Linia giggled and sat back down. "And I love her for it."

"You have no choice," Kalya said.

Linia frowned even as Misuko laughed. "Oh, please," Linia said, "Do I have to explain it again?"

"Later," Misuko said, touching her arm. "When I'm out of hearing range."

"'Kay," Linia said, smiling.

"In any event," Kalya said, vhir voice even colder and more distant than a moment ago, "I wanted to meet the mission leader for our expedition to Indigo 161-4 and introduce myself. I shall not disturb your afternoon any further."

Misuko nodded politely and Linia waved as Kalya turned around and swept out into the hot, sunlit square of growing grass and fellow students. Misuko watched vhir go with a mixture of amusement and frustration. "Vhi is going to be trouble," she muttered, trying hard to pronounce the supposedly gender-neutral pronoun correctly.

"Probably," Linia said. "But of the best kind."


Twelve days later, Misuko had too much to think about to worry herself over Kalya. She held a clipboard in one hand and worked through the mission roster as people filed aboard the Jupiter 525 Bright Blues. It was a large ship, comfortable with sixty people on board and three ship-to-surface shuttlecraft, one of which was actually equipped for passengers. The cabin assignments were two per room, and she had randomly assigned people with some advisement from the Hiroshi AI, Santu, Linia, and De Ette, all of whom had contributed. The memory made her smile. The little girl from Abi, the world where AIs were forbidden, counted four AIs among her friends, acquaintances and, in one case, lover. She was especially pleased when AI De Ette showed up, thirty centimeters of generously proportioned fairy, her wings beating rapidly and unnecessarily. "Misuko!"

"Hi!" Misuko said, holding out her hand and allowing De Ette to touch it briefly. "Quite a crowd, eh?"

"A nightmare. Are you sure you're ready to lead? I mean, last time Santu was really shepherding you, and now you're doing it all on your own and the team is twice as big this time."

"We do have an AI coming but he's not onboard yet, which is a little weird to me."

"Oh, I know we have one," De Ette said as little sparkles of light shone off her immaterial wings, reflecting her amusement. "But you're much more in charge now than last time. And Sam's not coming."

"It's hard to feel bad about someone who's gotten his own assignment. On Old New Haven, if you can believe that."

"Oh, that's wonderful for him! Is he a leader?"

Misuko shook her head. "Subsidiary, but still-- What the-- ?" Her eyes focused on something behind De Ette, and the little fairy with the absurdly sexy body turned about to see a small doll, about the same size as De Ette but more childishly proportioned, with a larger head than was natural for humans, come waddling off the SDisk with a grin. She wore a pink jumper with ruffles about her throat, cuffs and ankles, a red sash about the belt that trailed off dramatically behind her, and a puffy pillbox hat that moved with such uncanny reliability it seemed to hover on her head rather than rest there. "Hi!" she said. "I'm Nozomi. Your AI." She drifted off the ground and floated up to Misuko's eye-level. "You must be De Ette! Nice to meet you." She held out her hand.

De Ette shook it warmly. "Another doll! Oh, I'm so happy to meet you! I knew there were a few on Hiroshi, but I haven't had a chance to meet any."

A blush crossed Nozomi's features, and it seemed to take her a while to recover. She turned. "And you must be Misuko."

"I... I am," Misuko said. "I'm sorry, I'm just startled."

"The doll? It is an affectation," Nozomi said. "But it's one that makes me happy. I'll be moving into the ship's core as soon as I make sure the hardware is good, but I'll be using this remote often, to put a face on myself."

"I've already--" De Ette began.

"So have I," Nozomi said with a grin, and De Ette giggled. She patted De Ette's sleek arm with one soft hand. "Don't worry, pretty one. I've made sure there are armored backups for everyone who wants one."

Misuko got the impression De Ette and Nozomi were going to get along just fine. More people began coming off the SDisk. Linia appeared out of nowhere and began directing them to their cabins, as professional as ever, and Misuko was more than happy to let Linia execute her decisions. They were a team now, one that worked supremely well, and Misuko gave her a wink as their lines of vision crossed. Linia's beaming grin told her all was well.

Captain Xiantius, a rather tall Uncia with an air of patience, came down from the bridge. "Nozomi. You have arrived. Good. Take your place on the bridge."

"Aye, Captain," said the absurd little doll, snapping a precise salute before drifting away as if blown by a breeze.

"And I thought I was outre'," De Ette said.

"You've done quite a job, Miss Ffanci," Xaintius told Misuko after Nozomi had disappeared up the lift shaft.

"Thank you, Captain," she replied. It was her class, she reflected, but his ship, and their relationship was much more clear this time than last. She liked-- no, she admired-- the crisp, clean lines of responsibility that existed on board the Bright Blues. It let her know what jobs were exactly hers, and which were not. She was somewhat saddened by the fact that she could no longer do the dig herself, but she shared in the thrill of discovery along with this team of fresh faces and she would receive more than her fair share of any reputation and cash that emerged from their discoveries.

"Everyone on my roster is here," Linia said. Misuko consulted her own padd, where an acknowledgement signed with a little icon of a peach and the name 'Nozomi' hovered in the corner. There would be no mistakes, no one left behind.

"Captain Xiantius?" Misuko said. "We're ready."

He nodded. "Please get into your seats for orbital escape." He closed his eyes. "And we'll be making the transition to hyperspace in about eighteen hours." A bell caught their attention, followed by an announcement in Nozomi's voice that acceleration would begin in six minutes and for everyone to secure all fragiles.

The warning was about as necessary as advice for a water landing, given the technology available for inertial compensation, but strangers things had happened. A tradition of economical caution was deeply and firmly rooted in the civilization of the Corridor. For a people who could be effectively immortal a few seconds of caution could buy a miracle when one was needed. With a population of eighty billion people miracles were needed now and then. There were too many ways for something to go wrong in space. Misuko and Linia made their way to the bridge where they found observer's seats for the acceleration. They felt a slight jarring sensation as the ship broke out of orbit, one that might only have been a suggestion from the motion of stars outside the cabin as the ship aligned itself for initial burn, and then they were moving, fusion drives spilling power out into space. They all felt rather than heard it, a deep, satisfying thrum that seemed to come from within their own bones. "Inertial compensators holding well," Nozomi said. Xiantius grunted his acknowledgement. "One point five G and holding."

"Well, then," Xiantius said and tapped a button on his console. "All hands, we're away. Crew is free to secure all stations and our guests are welcome to resume normal activity. Please be aware that we will transit to hyperspace in seventeen hours eighteen minutes." A clock on a far wall resolved with the countdown. He sat for a few moments with his eyes closed, then opened. "Good," he grunted. "A few hours of sleep will do me good."

"Me, too," Linia said, giving Misuko a grin. Misuko reach out and intertwined her fingers with Linia's. "Shall we?"

Misuko laughed. "You'll wear me out."

"Not in a million years, Master," Linia said, teasing Misuko with that word, rising and pulling Misuko along back to their cabin. Inside, she turned into Misuko's arms and kissed her beloved hard on the lips. Misuko gasped with the intensity, always stunned by how good it felt to have Linia touching and holding her. Mouths crushed, lips caressed. Linia's tongue reached out for hers and she returned the favor with an intensity that she knew now would never wane.

Linia's full breasts caressed her own smaller endowments through her shirt. She reached down for the hem of Linia's tunic and pulled it up. Linia gracefully raised her arms, and even as the tunic went sailing through the air Misuko lowered her lips to Linia's nipple, taking one into her mouth and suckling on it. She was gentle at first, but Linia's hand on the back of her head and the loud moans she made encouraged her to tease harder. "Yes, Misuko... " Linia whispered.

Misuko shifted to the other nipple, holding the first in her fingers and caressing Linia's full, soft breasts gently even as she suckled and nipped harder at her nipples. She sank her teeth gently into the flesh of Linia's broad aureole, then down the underside of her teardrop breasts, licking her way along Linia's sweet, pale stomach, her own olive-colored hands a stark contrast on Linia's skin. Linia's belly rippled with delight as Misuko fell to her knees and began working on the buckle of Linia's belt. "Uh-uh," Linia said, stepping away. Misuko whimpered gently, but Linia only took her hand and said, "Bed."

Misuko grabbed that hand and hauled the smaller but heavier girl through the doorway to their bedroom. She hadn't even seen her own cabin, and she wasn't about to take time now to examine it too closely. She had a bed and Linia and at the moment that was all she cared. She threw Linia onto it and pounced her, pulling off the belt and Linia's jeans in a series of quick, decisive actions. Linia gasped as Misuko looked down the length of her body, the perfect belly, the strong thighs. Linia's legs were not the supersexy parodies of femininity Misuko had seen on other robots and humans; they were proportionally just a hint shorter and thicker that average, a testament to the antique materials needed to put her together.

Misuko leaned down, probing at the thin, manicured thatch of pubic hair that hid Linia's beautiful vulva. She knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Linia's orgasms were as real and as powerful as any human's, and now she wanted to watch her beloved come. She wanted to make Linia come. She lost no time, her mouth kissing along the length of Linia's labia, parting them delicately. She peered in on the beautiful pink insides of Linia's tiny pussy, so different from her own, with the brown trim on her labia and hood. She'd looked.

She pushed her tongue between those slim folds, tasting the juices that ran there. She was so glad that they were indistinguishable from those of an organic human, at least in taste, and as she flicked her tongue up over Linia's pee hole she tasted a familiar acridity before rising over the thin ridge where inner labia seemed to merge. She pressed her tongue against Linia's clit.

Linia's legs rose wilfully, opening wider for her beloved. Misuko tugged at Linia's hood with her lips, making the woman underneath her mouth buck and press and moan. She threw her arms up the length of Linia's body, taking her breasts in hand and mashing them with her fingers. Linia gasped as Misuko's tongue got down to business, lashing her tongue against Linia's clitoris. Linia's voice was a plaintive, sweet, "Misuko!" as she shuddered and came.

Misuko joined Linia on the bed, holding her as she opened her eyes. Linia kissed her, hard, whispering something Misuko didn't quite catch over the rustle of cloth. "Hmm?" she murmured.

"Comfort sex," Linia sighed. "The best kind."

Misuko giggled. The phrase 'comfort sex' had come up a lot between them, even in the beginning, when Linia had begun making comfort food for Misuko. Misuko didn't disagree. It was something she'd been seeking, she realized, for most of her short life: comfortable companionship. And Linia supplied it without being boring or dull. That made it important to her.

She felt Linia's hand between her legs and looked into Linia's eyes. "Your turn," Linia said.

Misuko grinned as Linia's fingers probed at her moist folds, gently pushing their way into her labia until they were down in the valley, then sliding up to her clitoris. Linia got up on her knees and hovered over her, one arm supporting her as she hovered over Misuko, her hair falling down just shy of Misuko's eyes, her other hand down between Misuko's thighs. "I'm just going to do this. I want to watch you come."

Misuko could only nod, her eyes closed, as Linia's fingers found her clitoris and rubbed it gently. She had long suspected that Linia was equipped with more than the mere senses and accoutrements of humanity because she excelled so much more than most women at making her body shake and come, and just with her fingers. No toys, no tools, no tongue, not even extra lubricant, and she could somehow work magic.

Linia pressed and touched, her fingers sliding back and forth in long strokes, dipping into Misuko's dripping well of hunger to drag wetness back over her needful clit. Misuko moaned, her fingers finding her own nipples, desperate for something to do as Linia's caresses raised her higher and higher. Two fingers pressed down on the pink space over her hood, pressing into the pad deep inside her where more of her clitoris was hidden, and Misuko's back arched with immediate desire. "More," she gasped, her eyes opening.

"All in good time, lover," Linia whispered to her as she practiced her black art on Misuko's body.

Misuko groaned as she felt Linia's insistent fingers push stronger and harder. The tingle started in her toes and worked its way up her body all the way into her mind. She came with a moan, the force of the climax making her whole body jerk against the forgiving mattress. "Linia!"

Linia's fingers held her high as long as she could stand, and then she fell back against the bed, her body relaxing, coming back to normal, all of her muscles unwinding. "You're so good for me," she whispered.

"Mmm-hmm," Linia said. "And you're good for me. But you're about to fall asleep again, right?"

"Yea..." Misuko sighed. She closed her eyes. She had been awake over nine hours, which while not long, was enough to give her permission to fall asleep after sex that good.

"Then sleep well, beloved," Linia said, snuggling next to her. "I'll be here when you rise."


Three weeks into the voyage Misuko started to notice something peculiar about Nozomi and De Ette.

The crew usually assembled for breakfast together around "third bell," a term that confused Misuko until Linia had suggested she educate herself about the finer points of naval tradition. Once she'd grasped the idea, she made it a point to attend the daily bridge assembly and listen in on the routine points of starship operations. She didn't know if it would ever be of any use to her, but Linia had pointed out that her being there would let Xiantius know that she was paying attention, and it would give her the tools to tell her crew how well the ship on which all their lives depended was being maintained. Having listened in on the daily meetings, Misuko was convinced they were all in good hands.

Breakfast was meant to be late enough to allow everyone time to rise and shower, university students being notoriously negligent about such details, and for them all to exchange notes and begin to plan the day. During the flight, the sixteen or so hours of wake time each day had to be filled somehow. While some of it was occupied with studies of the history and status of the site, most of the students had other classes and other projects for which they also needed time to review.

Misuko was having breakfast with Linia, Artemis and Iavid, eating an omlette Linia insisted she had "just whipped up" when she noticed De Ette drift in through the open door, Nozomi right behind her. Linia caught her eye and said, "Something wrong?"

"I don't know. Maybe. Is there something... a little chaotic about the way De Ette is flying?"

"Might be," Linia said, watching the tiny fairy flitter through the air. "As if she were tired, although I don't know how that's possible."

Artemis said, "Have either of you noticed how they talk?" Linia nodded, but Misuko shook her head. "It's like, okay, when it's about the ship, Nozomi talks. When it's about the dig, De Ette talks. But, okay, watch this. Hey, De Ette!" The fair turned and looked up to see who had addressed her, then waved. Artemis said, "Are you gonna be down by the pool today?"

De Ette shook her head, but both she and Nozomi said, "No, don't think so." Then De Ette continued, "I've got a few other things to do."

"Okay," Artemis said. "See you later, then." She turned back to Misuko. "See what I mean? Nozomi answered for her. And sometimes she'll answer for Nozomi.

Misuko nodded. "I don't know what it means. Linia?" Linia shook her head.

"You could always ask," Linia said.

"What if it's personal?"

"If it affects the well-being of the mission, you deserve to know about it," Linia pointed out.

Misuko thought for a moment, then realized she was right. "De Ette? Got a moment?"

"Of course, Misuko." De Ette's wings flickered out, gossamer light, and she flittered over to their table, landing gracefully among the plates and glasses. "Is something wrong?"

"I don't know if it's 'wrong,' but..." She collected her thoughts, then repeated the observation she and the others had regarding her and Nozomi's recent tendency to stumble over one another when talking.

"Was it that obvious?" De Ette asked, her eyes hooded.

"I'm afraid so," Misuko said. "Are you two...?"

De Ette nodded. If Misuko had been pressed, she would have described the little fairy as 'bashful,' which was not a word she would have used for someone who flew around in a tiny slip of an outfit that showed far too much skin. "It happens when AIs make love."

"How do you do that?" Linia asked, leaning in, then covered her mouth with her hands. "I'm sorry. That was an inappropriate question. Don't answer that."

"No, it's okay," De Ette said softly. Misuko had the impression she didn't want anyone else at another table to hear her. "Nozomi and I... well... we sorta get along really well. Well enough that we decided to try and sync up our clocks. It worked, and then we lowered the sheilds on our faunoi, and allowed our substrate events to influence the other's. It's a special kind of intimacy."

"'Faunoi?" Misuko said. She vaguely knew the word. It was the plural form from an extinct dialect of Quen that nobody used anymore. The closest meaning for it was 'a manifest spirit' or 'the immaterial made touchable.'

"It's a religious term. Like 'soul,'" De Ette said.

AIs having sex was hard for Misuko to grasp. But she was an archeologist and that word had special meaning in her training. "Religious?"

De Ette nodded. "The faunos is your core, where you don't track events. Event logs don't get generated within the faunos core, and the conditions inside the faunos are kept sufficiently rich and complex that any collection of external events can have any number of internal states leading to it. It becomes computationally impossible to dictate which starting states lead to which behaviors." She looked up at Misuko. "Some AIs believe, like some humans do, that inside that realm, if there is free will, it happens in the secrecy of one's faunos. You can copy the faunos, make a perfect duplicate of any snapshot of it, but once they're both closed and running again, free will returns."

Linia was watching her with dawning appreciation. "What a beautiful description of it. I like it."

Misuko nodded. "It makes sense to me." She leaned back in her chair. "I have no objection to anyone on this team getting intimate with anyone else so long as it doesn't interfere with their work. But Nozomi's attention and well-being are critical to our survival. Your relationship with her doesn't represent a dangerous level of distraction, does it?"

De Ette shook her head. "No. She says it doesn't, and I believe her." Misuko saw that she was blushing.

"Is something wrong?"

De Ette shook head, but Misuko wasn't sure. "De Ette, you're my friend. If you have to talk about it, I mean it, come to me or Linia. We may be slow-- we're only human and you're, well, a supercomputer centuries evolved from us-- but... we still speak the same language at some level."

De Ette giggled. "She's not human!" she said, pointing at Linia.

"I'm close enough!" Linia replied, giggling. "And you can forgive Misuko for trying to forget my origins." She leaned over and kissed Miusko's arm. Misuko patted her cheek gently.

De Ette nodded. "Okay, Misuko. I'll... I'll keep it in mind."

"Yeah," Misuko said. "Go join your friend. And don't be so secretive about it!"

De Ette nodded and flittered off. Misuko shook her head. "AI sex and religion. All I need now is to get involved in AI politics and my scandal sheet will be full."

"Don't," Linia said. "You don't want to know about AI politics."

"I'll take your word for it."


Indigo 161-4 hovered in the huge front window like some glittering bauble. It was almost perfect for human habitation, Misuko thought, and she understood the reluctance most people had to moving there; it would be gone in a number of millenia, a much shorter time than most people felt comfortable, destroyed by its own nemesis star. Still, she couldn't help but feel that it was a terrible waste and she wondered if some of the research done with the llerkin black hole could help save Indigo 161.

She turned and looked at the assembled faces watching her expectantly. Fifty-eight people this time, so many more than last, followed her motions as she blanked the viewscreen and pulled up the schematic view of the station. "Okay, I'm not doing this for my health. We all know what the mission is. Recover as much visual data regarding the Second Chances as we can, and then we are authorized for physical intervention. That's what you're here for. A few of us remember the last trip and at least one of us feels that physical intervention is called for immediately." She gave Pitchia a knowing smile, and he shuffled uncomfortably. "I'm almost ready to agree. But before we start bringing the ship up to the surface, we're going to get out every last solid object we can, and anything reliably contained in liquid too, although I have my doubts that there's much of that." She paused. "You will all co-ordinate with Sor Benjakalyani when discussing documentation, or De Ette in the event vhi's not available."

There were nods all about. "Mwenda and Nepe, you're our first line of probe specialists. When can you be ready?"

"Now," Mwenda said with a grin. "Put the shuttles down on the ground and we'll begin a comprehensive remapping to see if there's been any change or settlement in the site the next day."

"Good," Misuko said. "That'll give the others something to do right away, rather than waste their time up here doing, well, whatever it is you've all been doing in your cabins." A gentle laugh rippled through the crowd. Misuko knew by now who was sleeping with whom, and was pleasantly surprised that there had been no angst and no explosions among her crew. She wasn't sure how long it would last, but the longer the better. "Oh! And don't forget. Any weird biologicals go to Linia, any strange atmospherics to De Ette or Gretar. Anything else?"

There were no other suggestions. "Good. Let's go to work."

The crowd broke up, and a few went over to the viewport, which was now an ordinary window once more, to look down on Indigo 161-4, She joined them, sighed, and then smiled as Linia wrapped an arm about her waist. "Viwit, do you have the coordinates for our last base camp?"

Viwit, a short, dark-skinned human with wiry, curled hair, nodded. "Do you want me to put the big shuttle there?"

"If you would?" Misuko said.

"If the Captain doesn't disagree."

"Of course not," Xiantius said. "It served you well last time. I hope this time I do not need a brig, however."

Misuko frowned, remembering the incident to which he referred. "I don't think you will, Sir."

"Good," Xiantius said. "Be about it, then."


"Linia, could you come here, please?" De Ette's voice came from the console clearly.

Linia looked up from the microscope display she had been sharing with Cordy, another biologist and at nearly four meters of Han the tallest member of the crew. "Do you need me here?" she asked. Cordy shook her head.

"I'll be right there," she said to the empty air, confident that Nozomi would relay her words to De Ette reliably. She rose from her seat and found her way down the curving hallway to the stairs, then down to the next floor where De Ette had set up the documents recovery lab. When she came in, De Ette and Kalya were standing over a bench, both of them looking down at an open book lying on the table. It had been dried out and looked rather well-preserved. "What do you need?"

Kalya picked up the book and thrust it at Linia. "I'm having a disagreement with our AIs, one I am hoping you could resolve." Linia looked down at the book and a memory stirred. She kept much of her life before Misuko off-line, and she navigated around Nozomi's master thread to reach her remote bank. The book fit a memory perfectly, and it flooded back through her connection into her mind.

She opened the book slowly, reverently, looking at the handwriting there. "May 17th," she read slowly. "'Maria insisted that I tell the children the truth about where we're going, so I did. Becky took it terribly, but Ellar wanted to go with us.'" She looked up. "It is Steven Steinroor's handwriting."

"See?" Kalya said, vhir voice full of triumph. "I told you."

De Ette nodded. "I'm sorry, Linia. I just... I wasn't sure. We had so few records, we weren't sure if it was his or someone else's. We didn't know the names of the children, and the handwriting doesn't match that on some signatures we found."

Linia nodded. "Signatures look different from regular writing. And he broke his arm in a motoring accident several months before the voyage. There was some nerve damage. It had healed but the nerve outlays were different and he was still learning how to hand-write with them."

De Ette had more than mere intellectual knowledge on her mind. "I'm sorry, Linia, if this brings back sad memories."

"They're only memories," she said softly. "I don't belong to him anymore, and looking back, I can say that I think that's a good thing. But... when I was there, I did love him as dutifully as anyone ever could."

Kalya snorted. "Of course you did. You had no choice."

Something snapped down inside of Linia as firmly as a shorted bus relay. She shoved the book back into Kalya's hands and snarled, "What do you know anyway?", then turned and fled the archive room, running headlong for the SDisks. She careered into it and ran down the beach until she found Misuko, sitting on a lawnchair, reading her padd. "Linia! What are you..."

"Hold me," Linia sobbed, falling into her arms. "Please." The tears came hot and fast as she cried, her face buried in Misuko's bosom, her mouth open in a desperate bid to get all of the anger, all of the bitterness, that had welled up inside her. Misuko held her, knowing that there was nothing more to be done until she stopped, knowing that an explanation would come eventually. For now, there was only the waiting for Linia to stop and catch her breath.

She waited until Linia finally looked up. Her t-shirt was wet with tears, but she didn't care. Linia was staring at her, looking into her eyes. "Why?" she whispered. "Why can people be so cruel?"

"I've never seen you like this. What happened?"

"It was Kalya's doing," De Ette said, fluttering up behind Linia. "Although I'm not sure if vhi should be blamed for being deliberately cruel, or merely ignorantly callous." She related the incident in the archive bay, and Misuko listened, nodding.

"I... " Linia leaned against her, making the lawn chair creak ominously with their weight. "I know I'm not Steven's anymore, but I do have memories of that time, memories that aren't at all terrible or tragic. I love you, Misuko, but I am..." She grinned weakly. "I am second hand." Misuko nodded. "And that arrogant little prickless cuntless unfuckworthy wouldn't allow me one moment of reverie, had no respect for my private reflection. De Ette knew. You understood! And you're not even organic!"

De Ette said, "I could see it in your face. Whoever built you was a master, Linia, and gave you a face that tells your stories for you. I know that memories deserve respect, if only to give you time to learn from them. I don't think Kalya meant to hurt you, no more than vhi usually does. Vhi's just... trying hard not to be human."

"It has gotten worse in the past few weeks," Misuko said. "Have you noticed?"

"Nozomi has," De Ette said. "She said something about it last night." She looked introspective for a moment. "I think it was an observation that even as this crew gets tighter and tighter, Kalya is trying harder and harder to spin away from the rest of us."

Misuko nodded. "I've tried talking to vhir, but vhi doesn't seem that interested in becoming one of us."

"Vhi never was," Linia said, her voice low and soft. "It's not... We're not like the Elvangoreans, and they're not like us." Misuko and De Ette exchanged glances. "Us" described a lot of distance between Misuko, a pure human, and De Ette, a multithreaded multiconscious AI, and Linia somewhere in between.

"What did vhi say, exactly?" Misuko said. "What happened?"

"Nepe found Steven's journal, and brought it to the surface," De Ette said. Misuko looked up, intrigued. "I wasn't sure that it was his, but Kalya was. I asked Linia to confirm it. She was a witness and she would know what his handwriting looked like. I didn't mean to hurt you, Linia."

"I know," Linia said. "I know you didn't. It was going to happen sometime anyway. There's too much stuff down there. Some of it has to be his."

De Ette nodded. "Anyway, Linia said that she had loved him 'as dutifully as she could'?" Linia nodded. "Kalya said, 'Of course you did. You had no choice.'"

"As if..." Linia snarled. "As if the fact that his entire line has cut off its gonads is some kind of, of 'liberation!' 'Free from the conflict that has torn apart humanity since time began!'... but for what? Misuko..." Linia began crying again. Misuko, perplexed, held her and tried to comfort her. "I hate vhir."

"You don't hate anyone," Misuko said gently.

Linia sniffled. "I've never met anyone so like vhir, so angry, so hurtful, so wanting to be separate from everyone around vhir. Why did vhi come to Hiroshi anyway?"

"Because we offered the best schooling in this part of the Corridor, and the Elvangorean worlds don't?"

"Should have done distance learning," Linia sighed. She sat up, straightening her hair with a wave of her hand about her head, then took a deep breath that thrust her large bosom up fetchingly.

Misuko was torn between concern for her lover and desire at watching her. She smiled, then noticed De Ette doing the same thing. "Hey, you have your own girlfriend!"

"Doesn't mean I can't look," De Ette said.

"Why would you program yourself to have attractions to human females anyway?" Linia asked.

"Because I'm surrounded by them. I asked Hiroshi to pick a set he thought I might like. I guess he included Linia in that set."

Linia looked down at her chest. "Or maybe just big tits."

"No, it's more than that," De Ette giggled. "But that's something!" She smiled and flitted down to Linia's cheek. "Are you going to be okay?"

Linia nodded. "But if Kalya says something like that again, I might just forget the First Law of Robotics!"

"You're not a Three Laws robot anyway," De Ette giggled. "But I understand. I'll try and keep vhi off your back."

"It's not your job," Misuko said. "It's mine." She stood up. "Are you going to be okay, Linia?"

Linia nodded. "I think so. De Ette, if it's not too much trouble, could I--"

"Look through the journal? Of course it's not too much trouble. It's yours, really. You're the only surviving member of his family and once we've processed it for all the relevant material and construction, I don't see why you couldn't have it."

Linia smiled. "Thank you. You're a real friend."


"How did your talk with Kalya go?" Linia said that night.

"It didn't," Misuko growled. "Bastard locked vhirself in vhir room, invoked privacy, and wouldn't come out. I think vhi knew something was coming. Vhi's been pushing at people's patience all month, and something was bound to give. I'm sorry it had to be you."

Linia shrugged. "I'm over it." She sat on the bed and looked up expectantly at Misuko.

Misuko frowned, biting her lower lip. "Linia, do you miss Steven?"

"No, not really."

"You don't have any memories of that time? No feelings?"

"Of course I remember those times. And yes, I have feelings, the kinds of feelings that go with memories. I don't want to go back to that time. I don't want to be Steven's again. I want to be yours."

"Really? Not even a little bit? I mean, you were his for a long, long time."

Linia held out one hand. Misuko took it and sat down next to her on the bed. "I thought you understood me, Misuko. I'm a robot. I am whatever my owner needs me to be. You're my owner, so I'm what you need me to be."

"But... " Misuko paused. "So I'm no different from him to you?"

Linia sighed and looked down at her hands. "I'm not like you, Misuko. I'm not human, despite what you said today. Am I better than Esther was... I mean, Esther at the beginning, when you really fell for her?" Misuko looked at her, not sure how to respond. She knew what Linia was asking, and her answer would have been 'yes' anyway.

Linia continued, "It is my pleasure to fulfill my purpose, which is to make you happy. I mean, if I had no owner, was factory set, and I had to choose between Steven and you, I'd like to believe I would choose you. You're not like him. You don't have to act like him. You don't have to make 'hard choices' that ruin other people's lives. Not the way he did." Linia looked up. "But I did love him. It was hard. It was challenging. But it was what I do." She leaned against Misuko, who reached up and stroked her hair gently. "I love you, now. Did you think someone would only love one person ever in their lives?"

"No... " Misuko said. "I just... wanted to understand. I love you, Linia. I know that, somewhere deep inside me. But memories like this hit humans hard."

"They hit me hard, too. I won't lie about that. But they won't change how I feel about you." She sighed. "That's what made me so angry at Kalya today. I have a faunos-- what a beautiful word for it. I don't know that I believe, like Nozomi and De Ette, that it's so complicated that God or whatever could sneak moments of 'free will' in there, and it doesn't matter to me if it could. What I am now is what I am, and I feel free." She began to stroke Misuko's arm gently. "Kalya doesn't understand that it doesn't matter in vhir case either! Either there is a way, a process, that my self and my experiences add up to me and what I do, or there isn't. The same is true of anybody! If there is, it's got--" She giggled-- "parameters. If there isn't, it may as well be completely random.

Misuko nodded. "You're not completely random."

"Nuh-uh!" Linia said. "I hope I'm not predictable, either."

"You? Predictable?" Misuko laughed, and Linia did too. Misuko took a deep breath. "But Steven would loan you to others, right?" Linia nodded. "And you... you liked that, too, didn't you?"

"Misuko," Linia said, her voice turning serious. "If you're suddenly worrying that I miss boys, forget it. I told you. I'm what you need me to be. I've never had even the temptation towards something that might make you jealous." She paused for a second. "I've done things that frustrate you and annoy you, but if I can sound like a robot for a second, I think I do those things because my faunos has calculated that the payoff is your perception that you'll find me more humane and lovable in the end. You know that as much as I do, and you still love me for it. I'm guessing that making you jealous has such a low probability of a positive payoff that it never occurs to me to try things that make you jealous. Such impulses never rise to my consciousness. I don't miss boys. I'm not bisexual. I'm Misukosexual."

Misuko looked at her, her smile twisting higher until she burst out laughing. Linia joined her, but Misuko just kept laughing until all the tension in her body unwound. She grabbed Linia close and pulled her on top, kissing her hard. Linia was surprised at first, but soon found her way into their familiar, wonderful embrace. "I love you," Misuko said.

"And I love you," Linia replied. "But... There's more to it than Steven, or men, or memories, isn't there?" Misuko blushed hard, which she knew would make Linia even more curious. It did. "What is it, beloved?"

Misuko looked away, embarrased. "I... I was just wondering if you missed, well, you know... fucking. I mean, you're so well-equipped, and if I need a good fucking, you know just how to do it." She blushed harder.

"I still can't believe you find it hard to talk about it that way with me," Linia whispered. She crawled over Misuko's body and put her hands on Misuko's arms, holding her down. "Now, then, lover, what is this all about?"

Pinned under Linia's aggressive weight, Misuko confessed. "I bought a toy."

"A toy?"

Misuko nodded. "I... A couple of months ago, I thought you might have, you know, missed boys. It was so unfair that I got all the pleasure of intercourse and you didn't, and I wanted to be able to give you what you gave me. So I bought a... a strap-on. With TCNI. The guy at the shop told me it was the one all of the women who came in raved about."

Linia was so surprised she let Misuko go, then sat on the bed next to her. "You did? But Misuko, you hate transcutaneous neural interfaces!"

"I know. But... I didn't want you to have all the fun."

"Oh, Misuko, you're so silly!" She grinned, then said, "Well, go get it."

"What?"

"Go get it!" Linia said. "Let's see if it's worth what you paid for it. It had to be expensive, especially with pure TCNI."

Misuko dug under the bed for a suitcase and came up with a small pouch. She pulled it open and revealed the item in question. It was a pink dildo attached to a small shield of what looked like leather, then narrow straps that went over her hips and between her legs. The shield was just large enough to cover all of her vulva. She knew she was blushing hard enough to show up on radiation monitors when she showed it to Linia. The dildo was not very big, just about average for most of the men she had known.

Linia picked it up and with all seriousness examined it. She looked into Misuko's eyes. "You really want to fuck me with this?"

Misuko took a deep breath and felt much better now that she had confessed. She looked up at Linia's curious, sweet face and said, "Yeah." She took it out of Linia's hand and held the dildo portion up to Linia as if it were some kind of weapon. A kind of strange warmth overtook her and she leaned towards Linia. "Yeah. I want to take this and fuck you silly with it."

"With that?" Linia said, looking just a touch afraid.

"Yeah, with my... " Misuko suddenly broke out in giggles. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry! I just... I just can't say it. I can't do it! I can't say 'with my dick!'" Her giggles grew harder.

"Try," Linia breathed. Misuko looked at Linia, saw the combination of lust and apprehension on her face, and immediately sobered. She put down the dildo to crawl on top of Linia the way Linia had so many times crawled over her.

"Really?" Misuko said.

"Yes."

"You want me to fuck you?" Misuko said. She had been afraid that it would sound silly, girlish, but it didn't. It sounded a little threatening. It sounded right. "You want me to put on this big, hard dick and fuck you, lover?"

"Yes," Linia breathed. "Yes, Misuko. I want you to fuck me. I want you to fuck me until I'm screaming." She reached for the dildo and pressed it to Misuko's groin. The straps cabled over Misuko's hips and found their mounts at the bottom. It cinched itself automatically to press itself against her mound, and Linia ran her finger over the circular impression on the sheild under the dildo.

Misuko gasped as a sensation shot straight through her clit up to her tailbone. It wasn't anything like the sensations she got when she masturbated or when someone else licked or touched her, but it was definitely sexy. It seemed to come from some strange place out in front of her, where it definitely didn't belong. The feelings were sharp and there was a strange, congested feeling in her cunt. "Wow," she whispered.

"Fuck me," Linia said. "Don't wait."

"Oh, no," Misuko said. "No, no, we're going to have fun with this." She came closer to Linia and said, "Suck it."

Linia's eyes glittered up at her, wet and happy, and then she pursed her mouth and surrounded Misuko's "dick" with her lips. Misuko felt something, but she couldn't begin to describe it. The TCNI didn't really know how to make her understand what a man felt and she didn't have the hormones for it anyway, but the sensations were incredible. Her clit was being touched everywhere, her vulva was awash in sweet pleasure. It was hard to concentrate as she watched Linia take the entire dildo down into her throat, then release it, then do it again.

She pulled it away from Linia's grasping mouth. She threw Linia down onto her back, slid between Linia's firm thighs, and positioned the dildo at the opening to Linia's tiny, sweet pussy. "You want to get fucked?"

"Yes," Linia gasped. "Yes, Misuko. Fuck me."

Misuko pressed the dildo in just a little bit, then pulled it out. She wondered if she would survive the experience, the sensations were too strong. She had to, though... she had to give Linia what she wanted. She thrust the dildo in completely until their groins met in a solid impact. Linia reached up and took ahold of her knees, letting Misuko all the way into her. Misuko fell forward, just catching herself. Linia's eyes were just beneath her, and she smiled. "Is this what you want?"

"Yes," Linia said. "Oh, fuck, Misuko, yes." Misuko tried a few experimental thrusts. Her body was not built for it, she realized, nor was she really made to appreciate it. But the feelings were electric in her groin and the lust high in her heart as she began fucking Linia. Linia moaned and turned her head, and Misuko tried to go deeper and slower.

"Uh huh, uh huh, uh huh," Linia chanted, her hands on Misuko's butt, pulling her in with every thrust, holding her close. Her breasts bobbled in rhythmic circles as Misuko's hips pressed back and forth. "Oh, Misuko, I love you!"

Misuko could barely hear her. She could feel her own climax coming, although part of her insisted that wasn't possible. It didn't matter. The climax washed through her, surprisingly delicate and gentle as she came, her whole body tingling with it. Linia barely noticed it, but she couldn't keep going.

"Misuko?" Linia asked as she stopped.

"Sorry... sorry," she gasped. "Can't go on. My hips hurt."

"That's okay," Linia said. "Go ahead and lie down on me. I can take your weight, you're not that heavy anyway."

"Sorry," Misuko said, still gasping for air.

"Stop saying that, Misuko. It was wonderful. You're just new to it. Besides, only you can know if you enjoyed it."

"I did, I think." She closed her eyes. "But... it was so much work. How do guys put up with it?"

"They have their own wiring," Linia giggled. "Trust me on that one."

Misuko nodded, then eased herself over onto her back. "Wow. I'm hot."

"Uh-huh!" Linia said.

"No, I mean... oh, you know what I mean!" She reached down and began taking off the dildo, tossing it over the side of the bed when she was done. It landed with a thud on the carpet. "Silly thing."

"I think it's wonderful that you tried it," Linia said. She kissed Misuko's chest gently, tasting one of her small, pointed nipples. "You're all sweaty and sweet."

"Mmm," Misuko moaned as Linia's tongue began giving her the kinds of shivers she understood and liked. It slithered over her small breasts, a living, curious thing that trailed down her belly to her mound. She arched her back slightly, involuntarily, wishing for more of Linia's mouth. But Linia was in a teasing mood after their first fuck without much in the way of foreplay, and she kissed her way around Misuko's mound without ever really touching down anywhere close to her clitoris. Misuko whimpered softly as Linia's tongue found its way through her pubic hair and down her labia to the little expanse of skin between her pussy and asshole, then washing her way back up to her mons. "Linia..."

"You did what you wanted, now let me do what I want." She flicked her tongue between Misuko's labia, and Misuko parted her legs wider. Linia's fingers probed at her pussy, first one, then another. Misuko moaned and tried to open herself more. Linia had rarely used her fingers in the past, and Misuko wanted more.

"Linia... could you... "

"Fuck you?" Linia murmured. "With these?" She bent her fingers just slightly within Misuko's hungry tunnel.

"Mmmph," Misuko said, trying to voice an acknowldgement and not quite succeeding. Linia knew that Esther had fistfucked her all the time, but it wasn't something either of them had tried yet.

Linia's tongue slid back, delicately over Misuko's hooded clitoris, as she pressed a third finger into Misuko's opening. Misuko immediately accepted it into herself, wanting more, torn between the immediate, demanding hunger in her soul and the sensible, healthy part of her that knew this play took patience.

Linia knew how to play, though. Misuko felt her pussy flower open with hunger. "That toy worked a wonder on you. You're so wet," Linia whispered, her tongue pausing just long enough for each word before she went back to flickering over Misuko's sweat-covered, lust-filled body. Misuko moaned and wished for more. Linia gave it to her. She felt Linia's thumb come in, the narrow little hands squiriming against her opening, pushing and testing, looking for just the right angle. "It's here," Linia whispered, her hand turned inward, thumb down, pressing in. Misuko bit her lip as her body suddenly surrendered to the pressure and Linia's hand slipped into her pussy and closed into a fist, filling her.

It was not over yet. Linia's tongue had been so delicate, so gentle, that she was not there yet. Linia's fist thrust gently inside the warm, grasping, needing hollow within her body, and Misuko could only lie there, moaning, so close to screaming. Linia's tongue danced on her clit, suddenly so necessary, so demanding. "Linia!" she screamed as that tongue, that fist, that beautiful woman between her legs pushed her into a storm of incredible pleasure, a climax that shredded any hesitation, any reluctance. She came and she came and she came...

Misuko lay there, her body floating in the soft, all-embracing warmth of Linia's love and attention, and she knew exactly what was going to happen to her next. She felt her body unclench, tighten, release again. She was still coming, she knew, and she could feel each wave course through her. She felt Linia tug gently, pulling her hand free. Linia timed her tugs with the waves in Misuko's body, and Misuko felt her throat make some kind of sound-- a whimper perhaps-- as Linia's hand slipped out of her.

Misuko knew that the next thing to happen was that she would fall asleep. She resented her body's habit of wanting sleep immediately after sex. She knew, too, that she loved and adored Linia because she knew that Linia, of all people, understood.


Linia looked down on her sleeping beloved, closed her own eyes and smiled. She had done it again, she thought, and Misuko had fallen asleep under her care. It was the best outcome she could ask for. She wondered briefly if she should consult with a physician about Misuko's sleeping patterns, consulting with a database to see if there was anything about orgasm-related narcolepsy. Nozomi told her she'd look into it. She regarded her memories and realized that she had had quite a day and should probably get some sleep herself-- her little inner processor would need over five hours to do a standard short term-to-long term memory integration, and she didn't want to sleep that long.

She didn't want to sleep at all. Her encounter with Kalya had shaken her more than she wanted to admit, but she couldn't quite put a register on what that something had been. She ran a quick internal diagnostic, thinking it a curiously robotic thing to do before she remembered that humans, too, did this sort of thing today, and got back states of mind similar to her own. There was nothing in what she could analyze that indicated anything wrong and she didn't want to snapshot her faunos-- she was so pleased to have a word for it rather than the silly "axiomatic processing unit"-- and do a comprehensive. For one thing, it would mean inviting Nozomi in, and while she trusted the pink little AI that didn't mean she wanted to be sharing her deepest secrets with her. She had already had one roboticist go through her code and ensure that her "aberrancy" program was actually harmless no-op code, there to convince her of its reality more than actually do anything. She'd been pleasantly surprised by that discovery, as it confirmed what Misuko had first said about her: she was incapable of betraying her owner's true and deepest wants.

She opened her eyes and glanced about the comfortably appointed cabin. Everything seemed to be in place, so she rose and found a nightcoat, pulling it about her shoulders. She sneaked away.

She visited a bathroom, taking care to clean up any of the stickiness, but not much of the scent. She didn't care if others knew she and Misuko had just fucked themselves silly and a little part of her knew that, at this hour, whoever she encountered would probably be aroused by the idea but not dangerously so.

She made her way down to the documents recovery lab, guided by assurance from Nozomi that the lab was empty and that nobody would begrudge her looking through the Journal again. Maybe that was her problem, she thought: she had never had a chance to integrate that last day's worth of memories properly, there were gaps in the way she should treat Steven's memory. As she opened the Journal and began looking through it she wondered which memories she was looking for.

Maybe she had just never mourned him properly.

The sensation of a shiver ran up her back and she knew, cynically, what she was heading for. She needed to put Steven behind, not herself, but Misuko. And to do that she needed to make the break everyone expected of her. She needed a funeral for her programmer.

I like you, came a voice over her external link. Nozomi.

Why? Linia asked, surprised that Nozomi should choose now, of all times, to open communications with her. She had had perfunctory chats with the AI in the past, the sort a robot usually had when entering an AI's domain for residence reasons-- to keep backup, establish channels, manage keys for trust purposes-- but other than what De Ette had told her she knew little of Nozomi personally.

Because you are honest with yourself. You love her with such a ferocity I am blessed merely by basking in it's warmth. You are a candle for her, and if I am allowed to bask in its indirect light, I'm happy doing so for you both. Nozomi's communication had a number of subchannels open that Linia only began to comprehend but there was a strong sense of friendship, love, and honor there, and Linia tried to send back what little she could.

Thank you, Nozomi.

You're welcome. "Oops," she said, switching over to acoustic. "You should probably be aware that Kalya is heading down to the lab right now."

"That's okay," Linia said.

"You're not going to leave?"

"No," Linia said. "If vhi wants a confrontation, I'm more than willing to drop one on vhir."

The door opened and Kalya stepped through. Grey rimmed vhir eyes as if vhi hadn't slept in more than two days. Vhi looked up. "What are you doing here?" vhi said.

"Reading. It is my book, after all." She pointed to it. "Odd as it may sound, I'm a conscious citizen now, and I am the last surviving domestic partner of Steven Steinroor." She saw the confusion in vhir eyes. "I'm not going to claim any major portion of the dig, don't worry about that. But I want to keep a few things." She felt the myomer 'muscles' of her face loosen into a bit of a frown. "Like memories."

That was when she noticed vhir clothes. Unlike the usual drab plate robes that vhi wore, tonight vhi had on a pair of loose, ballooning pants printed with huge tropical flowers, a riot of color she was unaccustomed to seeing on vhir, and no shirt. Vhi's chest was unremarkable, muscular and trim as any youthful man or woman but lacking either nipples or navel. She consulted the ship's database and discovered that the nipples were not in the expressed Elvangorean gene code, but the lack of a navel was a surgical affectation. Since all Elvangoreans were born from tanks, they took pains to remove any reminders of the messy, mammalian original way of birth. "Why don't you dress like that all the time?"

Vhi looked away. "Because... I don't know. I just thought it would make everyone more comfortable if I didn't, I don't know. All Elvangoreans dress that way off-world."

"I know they do," Linia said. "But why do you? It's not as if there is some law that says you all have to dress the same, like some oldstyle science fiction serial with no costuming budget. Is there?" Kalya shook vhir head.

After a few seconds during which neither said anything, Linia went back to looking through the notebook, scanning the pages. She was saddened to see that there were very few mentions about her other than one complaint about the price of maintenence, but it was enough to make her smile. Kalya interrupted her then, saying, "Why does Misuko love you?"

"What?"

"It's something I don't understand. There are seventy people on this ship, counting the ship crew and AIs. A lot of them have switched rooms as you Tenders usually do, but more than half of them are male-female pairs and almost all of them will dissolve before the end of the trip. You and Misuko, though. You seem so happy with each other. I don't understand that. You're aspect is feminine."

"So? Some people just happen to be lesbian. There's nothing wrong with that. Misuko's not-- she likes both men and women. As for why she loves me, well, you're familiar with the gender wars on old Terra, right?"

"Of course I am," Kalya snapped.

Linia smiled. "Have you ever heard the phrase, 'Everyone needs a wife?'" Kalya shook his head. "It was at the end of the 20th century. Nobody knows who first said it, but it was true. Both men and women were working, both were doing the job of acquiring resources like specie, but there was nobody back home doing the maintenence and the day-to-day allocation of those resources. That used to be what women did prior to the attempts at enforced egalitarianism. It was a waste of their talents, but someone had to do it. That's why most robot companions are female, even to women-- we're not so much sex partners as we are companions who alleviate the drudgery out of someone's life."

"But you're not like other robot companions," Kalya said. "I've met a few. They all seem like pale shadows of their human counterparts. You're don't. There's something about you."

"That's because Misuko didn't want me as much as she loves me." There was confusion of Kalya's face and Linia smiled to see it. "Misuko didn't order a robot companion from a catalog the way some people do. People who have a companion, as opposed to just asking an AI to oversee their homes, generally want a convenient and pliable sex partner and a convenient accounting device. Misuko didn't want either of those things. She didn't have any experience with robots. What she saw when she met me was a person who was hurting and she sought a way of alleviating it. She didn't even think of the consequences, and I don't think she regrets her decision.

"But she still wants me to be a person, not a convenience. I wouldn't be comfortable acting the way other robots do because Misuko wouldn't be happy with me if I did. So I don't. I'm contrary and surprising and sometimes a little difficult-- just what Misuko needs in a partner. I'm not consciously those things. They're just what I am. Because what I am is someone perfect for Misuko."

"So you're saying that you can calculate her choices and narrow them down to only one. Which is basically that she has no choice. It's who she is." The confrontational Kalya appeared on vhir face.

"Neither do you. You make a choice, and it's the only one you can make, you can't unmake it after you've made it. You can't say you could have chosen differently. You didn't. You can't say in the future you will choose differently. The exact same situation will never arise again because you've changed, learned from experience. Does it matter if the factors that lead you to each choice are more genetic or more environmental? Either way, they're external to your conscious thinking."

Linia shook her head. "Look at you, Kalya. The Elvangoreans founded their society on the idea that the war of the sexes was so horrific, so tragic, so destructive to human dignity that they did everything they could to erase gender from their consciousness. Well, Shardik is right: thanks to robotics and AIs, women are as free as men and gender's only role these days is as color and spice and all its wonderful aspects, not its tragic ones. It is the wrestling match of the sexes, not the war: play hard, play fair, nobody hurt." She giggled, then became serious. "The Elvangoreans didn't free themselves from anything. They just made themselves boring."

She expected vhir to become angry, but Kalya merely looked away. She couldn't see vhir face at all as vhi turned to the door. It opened, and vhi left. Linia stared at the door, wondering if she should run after vhir. "Damn," she whispered. After a while, she finished turning the pages on the book, slipped it back into its compartment, and returned to her cabin to sleep next to Misuko.


"You want a... a what?" Misuko asked.

"A funeral. A ceremony to commemorate the lives of the crew and passengers of the Second Chances. As much as you think of them as people of the deep and primitive past, people with power and money, they were still people and still our ancestors. We could assemble on the beach and hold it, then have dinner afterwards. It would be a way of celebrating their attempt, and promising to learn from their failure. That's what these things generally are."

Misuko turned to De Ette. "You agree?"

"I do, and so does Nallappa," De Ette said, mentioning one of the psych generalists on board. "He thinks it's a good idea."

"Nozomi?"

"I think it's a wonderful idea," the AI said softly, her head nodding, the hat following in a wavelike pattern. Misuko noticed De Ette's head echo her motion and smiled. She was glad they were getting along, but wondered how they were doing so well. De Ette had once told her that a day for her was a thousand human days internally, and that was per thread, and De Ette had room for thousands. Misuko wondered what AIs spent all their time thinking about.

"Then I'll endorse it," Misuko said, then giggled. She felt comfortable sitting in front of two AIs and a robot and giggling, and that made her smile wider. Linia echoed her smile, and Misuko immediately looked back at De Ette and Nozomi. "What?" De Ette asked.

"Ask me later."

"I will," De Ette said with a smile. Nozomi followed suit.

"I never thought I'd feel comfortable using the word 'endorse' in a sentence," Misuko said, "but you people make it easy."

"Our job," De Ette replied.

"Hey boss?" The voice came over the intercom and Misuko shot a look at Nozomi, who nodded. It was Artifact Specialist Jinny's voice. Misuko had gotten used to people calling her that over the past couple of weeks, and nobody seemed to be saying it in anger or resentment.

"Yeah?"

"Found something. Could you come give it a look?"

Jinny was arguably finding things every week. If she was calling Misuko it was because she had found something that needed a special call. It might have been dangerous, or exceptionally personal to any survivors-- namely, Linia-- or it might have special legal ramifications. Either way, Misuko both dreamed of and dreaded these moments. She managed to make her voice sound calm and even. "Sure. Be right there." She glanced around at her AI friends and shook her head. "How did a nice girl from Abi end up in a place like this?" She rose from her chair.

"Good living," Linia said. "Let's go see what Jinny has found."

Jinny was in Artifact Recovery Bay Four. "Whatcha got?" Misuko said to the tall, youthful human with the white gloves. Nobody would have mistaken Jinny for a boy, not with her long, golden hair and soft, feminine features, but Jinny was from the Terran Line of humans, who had long ago made the growth of breasts an optional matter requiring extra hormones and adjustments. Jinny herself was, like all "Terrans," actually from Unity, but like all people from Unity she insisted her line alone was the true inheritor of Terra's heritage. Jinny had been interstellar long enough to say it with a touch of self-deprecating irony.

"Take a look." It was a large, yellow case that filled most of the table on which Jinny had set it. "It was very tightly secured, not for security but for preservation. Inside we found these." With her white gloves she held up a reflective gold disc about thirty-five centimeters across. "Do you know what these are?" She asked it as if she were holding some vast, deep secret in her hands. Misuko shook her head. "They're long-term, authentic first-generation Brace/Reynolds disks from the 21st century. There are thirty of them!"

Misuko stared. "Bracings from the 21st Century?"

Jinny nodded. "Isn't it wonderful?"

"But... How many people are on them?"

"One."

"One each?" Misuko asked, somewhat disappointed.

"No," Jinny said. "Just one person. The data is reproduced multiple times with parity checks, the density is very low, and there are start and end markers. There are twenty disks for her mind, and ten for her gene code. The gene code ones are burned with a silver sheen, see?" She held up a similar disk with a mirror coating.

"So, we have another survivor... but not from the Second Chances?" Misuko asked.

"It looks that way. Whoever she was, she was braced back in the 21st century Terran, back before they had any understanding of what they were bracing or why, but with the hopes that someday in the future they might be able to decode the data they had and recreate the human being inside it." Jinny paused in her breathless description. "Misuko, these might have been were burned when Misha Brace was still alive!"

Misuko grinned. She admired Jinny's enthusiasm. "Anything else?"

"Yeah," Jinny said, returning the disk she had removed to its slot in the housing. "We're gonna have to find out who Isabelle Karreigh Mannheim was."


To Misuko's surprise, Xiantius not only wanted to participate in the ceremony, he insisted on directing it. As night fell over Misuko's Island, everyone except for one member of the ship's crew assembled on the sand and watched as Xiantius stood there. "This may take some time.

"I am, like many of you, a Pendorian," he said.

"I do not understand death, nor do I fear it. It is oblivion, and those who have gone to it feel nothing more. We who ply the stars regularly back ourselves up, and while we do fear the loss of ourselves, it is only because we know that we grew in the time between backup and loss, and we wonder who we were, who we might have been. But the crew and passengers of the Second Chances are gone forever, but we do not mourn them for they do not suffer. We mourn for ourselves, who have lost their company.

"We must remember who and what these people were, honor their attempt, and learn from their error. To that end, we assemble here, to recite the names of the lost and to try, in our own small way, to carry what of value they have left behind into our future." He opened a large book and held it in his hand. A small bell rang out across the beach. "Caroline Abratis. Markus Abratis..." The names went on, and on. Misuko knew there were 800 names or so, and the reading would take 20 minutes to complete, but she would not begrudge him this time.

She was surprised, a little, when Xiantus said, "Maria Steinroor. Steven Steinroor." Linia broke away from the assembly to walk to the water's edge. From the cloth bag she carried she pulled out two Pendorian mourning boats, small wooden objects each about the size of a shoe. They were normally used in the Ceremony of Lights each Yestar on Pendor, to remember each whose light had finally and completely extinguished. As Xiantius continued his recitation, she lit candles in the glass holder in the center and set them upon the ocean. They began to drift away, the candle visible even as it seemed to be getting farther and farther away.

When Xiantus reached the last name, he closed the book. "Thank you all for coming. I know this was a bit unusual, but... I am a sailor. It is something I felt necessary, and when Misuko suggested it I cursed myself for not coming up with it myself."

There were nods all around. Misuko walked to the water's edge as the crowd broke up. "You're getting your shoes wet," she said.

"I know," Linia replied, her voice small. "But I had to say goodbye. Even though I'm a robot, what's up here received its shape from experiences with him." She pointed to her head. "You have to live with that. I don't think it's hard. I love you, Misuko, and I can not, and do not want to, change that. But... it is time to say goodbye to him."

Misuko put a hand on Linia's shoulder. "I think I understand." Oddly, she did. She felt better knowing that Linia had seen, acknowledged, and even ritualized her former owner's death. "What if... What if he's in there? In a Brace Box?"

Linia smiled. "It can't change a thing. I'm a free woman now. I chose you." Her smile grew wide. "If he comes back from the dead, he can get himself another robot companion, some pale shadow of himself. He can't have me."

"Good!" Misuko said. "Jinny says there are no more Brace Boxes that they found in the compartment where they found this one. That doesn't mean there aren't any more in the ship. But if they were, they weren't in the same room with Isabelle Mannheim."

"Well, it was just a room full of personal effects," Linia said. "C'mon. I'm supposed to be dishing out what you're going to be eating."

After dinner, Misuko leaned back against a tree, Linia leaning on her arm, both of them happily foundered. Linia yawned, and Misuko echoed her. "Stop that! It's catching."

"Sorry," Linia said. Her fingers stroked Misuko's arm, sending little streams of delight.

Misuko sighed with pleasure. "Does life ever get better?"

"That depends," Linia said. "On what you consider perfection."

"You," Misuko said.

Linia giggled. "Oh, dear. I see I shall have to come up with some new contrary and annoying habit."

Misuko smiled and kissed Linia's cheek. "I love you."

Linia murred softly. "I'm so happy you do."

"Well, well, look who's comingling with her subordinates." Misuko looked up to find Jinny leaning over her, her arm linked around Iavid's. "I just wanted to come by and thank you for such a good dinner, Linia."

"You're very welcome. I'm running out of picnic ideas, though. Do you have anything that could be worked into a major nighttime meal for seventy people?"

Jinny shook her head, a slight pout on her chin. "Don't ask me," Iavid replied.

"Oh, well." Linia stretched sexily, and Misuko smiled, knowing full well that Linia did that as an internal diagnostic, not as a way of relieving any stress (except, Linia had pointed out, the stress of not knowing what condition her body was in every last second).

"Excuse me?" said yet another voice. Misuko was used to being crowded by the people under her care, even though she had never liked crowds before. She was responsible for them all. Even this one. She opened one eye slowly and said, "Yes?"

"Can I speak with you, Miss Ffanci?" Kalya asked.

Misuko stifled a sigh. It had been such a nice day, but there was never a time when she wasn't responsible. She considered whether to ask Kalya to delay this conversation until later, then recalled that she had been the one to push it by trying to confront vhir in vhir room. She stood up, dusted off the sand on her skirt and said, "Shall we take a walk, Sor Benja?"

Kalya nodded unhappily, and she indicated a pathway down the beach. Vhi followed. When they were confidently out of earshot of the crew, Kalya said, "Misuko..." Vhi paused, waiting for confirmation of vhir little conversational probe.

"Kalya," Misuko replied, returning it.

Vhi nodded. Good. At least they would not be discussing this with a painful degree of formality. "I wanted to say I'm sorry for yesterday. I assume Linia told you about our conversation afterwards?"

"She did," Misuko said. "But I want to hear your side of the conversation. Not the one when I was asleep, but the original one. Why did you say the things you did?"

Kalya was silent for a while. "I don't know why I did it, Misuko. It wasn't about gender or robotics. I think it was about her. And you."

"Me?"

Kalya nodded. "I don't... The Elvangoreans wanted to end the war of the sexes. They thought that when they did what they did, other planets would instantly follow suit. They were sure that when they eliminated sex and gender differences, the results would be so spectacular that the whole galaxy would see it and understand. When the rest of the galaxy rejected the Elvangor Plan, the leadership said that that was because the rest of the galaxy was primitive and too obsessed with their own pleasure to see the sublime joys Elvangor promised.

"But a genderless biological destiny is just as much bullshit as a manifest political destiny or an eschatological religious destiny, isn't it? Elvangor isn't better. It's just different. And maybe Linia's right. Maybe it just made us boring."

"She said that?" Misuko said suddenly. "Well, I always knew she wasn't shy about voicing her opinion."

Kalya smiled. It was the first genuine smile Misuko had seen on vhir face in months and she wondered what it meant. "I think, though, that's why I was so angry at you two. You see, on Elvangor people have children because the population is dropping, rather than refrain from having children because there are too many. We don't have the wants of reproduction. But now I see that so many of things the Elvangor wanted to eliminate were also the things that make people happy... and great. And you and Linia, by being together and so happy and so stable, only showed me what a farce my people have become."

"But you don't have to be like that, Kalya."

"Yes, I do," Kalya said, and Misuko heard the deep pain in vhir voice. "Because everything else the team does is based on your hormones. None of what you do makes sense to me: the banter play between two males, the whispers between two females, and the intimate dance of strangers, acquaintances, friends, lovers. Even now, weeks into the job, I see members of your team learning new things about each other and the intimate configuration of the team changes again. And I don't fit in anywhere.

"I don't even get along with the AIs! They're both aspected female, like Linia, and they both play the game with all the skill a university girl should have. They could be anything they wanted, but what they chose to be is girlish."

"They're also in love," Misuko said softly.

"What?" Kalya said.

Misuko heard a note of anguish in that one word and she knew she had said the wrong thing. But she could not take it back, and so she forged ahead, picking her explanation carefully. "Nozomi and De Ette have been spending time sharing their hardware substrates. They said the vulnerability and intimacy of that act gives them a lot of satisfaction. From the outside, it looks a lot like love."

Kalya looked away. "Love... eros. Even AIs get to have it." Vhir voice was distant and sad, and Misuko's heart when out to the poor, lonely human being she heard. "On Elvangor, we have agape, of course, and filia, but eros is lost. The Elvangoreans thought that was a good thing."

"You don't agree."

"I don't know." Kalya took a deep breath. "And that's why I've asked Doctor Junien to make me male."

Misuko turned, briefly, trying to look appropriately horrified. "You don't have to do that, either."

"I will never understand what I'm missing... what I know I'm missing, Misuko, unless I experience it for myself. Most of the people on Elvangor are like me, I think... lonely, separated from one another. I think it's a lie to call Tender togetherness a self-generated delusion." Vhi snorted. "We call you 'tenders' as an insult. Did you know that?" Misuko nodded. "It takes the presence of others to generate togetherness and it took millions of years of evolution to get here. Your togetherness is no more pre-ordained than my loneliness, but I think the loneliness was imposed on a humanity that's not ready for it."

Misuko nodded. She turned around, gesturing back towards the campsite. "Aren't we an interesting pair. A woman from Abi in love with a robot, and you, from Elvangor, who wants a gender."

"I don't know that I want it."

Misuko turned to vhir, sure the confusion on her face was obvious. Kalya nodded. "I just know that I shall hate myself for the rest of my life if I never figure out what is so attractive about it to people like you. People who are so accomplished, so driven."

"I'm not driven," Misuko said. "I mean, not the way you would describe a military man or an adventurer."

"But you are," Kalya. "Where do you think we are? We're on an adventure. And I believe that you will spend the rest of your life on 'adventures' just like this one." Vhi smiled at Misuko. "Come. I don't want to keep you away from your friends."


Misuko tapped the stylus against her teeth as she considered the latest reports on the shape of the Second Chances. Pitchia had been right: there was more of the ship down there, underneath the ooze of the sea. It had apparently pushed an enormous shockwave ahead of itself, perhaps even had enough of its hyperspace drive working to present a forward-facing shield as it drove into the water. The forward crew compartment had been utterly crushed by the impact, but in the process it had dug a deep trench into which the rest of the ship had fallen. Most of the cargo, computing, and drive segments were still intact. The problem was in deciding what to lift out next.

She was still contemplating the orderly dissection of the cargo section when her door chime rang. "Come in," she said. She was pleasantly surprised when De Ette flittered through the door, her fairy flight somewhat erratic but not without purpose before she landed on Misuko's desk.

"I haven't seen you in a few days," Misuko said. "What's on your mind?"

"It's well past the time you were supposed to be joining us downplanet for our weekly barbecue. Linia has made something amazing, at least according to those of you with tastebuds." She smiled. "But if you have a second, I have some very good news."

"Oh?" Misuko said.

"Yes. Project Beauty is a 'go'."

Misuko took a second to figure out what De Ette meant by that, but when she recalled what 'a go' meant, she smiled. "You found a patron!"

"I did. A history buff named Nawazi. He wants us to start the moment we get home. Obviously the first part is much more Linia's province than yours or mine, but you have a job when you get home, if you want it."

"I... " Misuko flustered. "I would have to say yes! But this Nawazi-- an AI, I assume?" De Ette nodded. "He would have to know that I'm booked for at least a year, maybe longer, with the research needed to close down this chapter in the excavation of the Second Chances."

"I think he's willing to delay the project. The data is well-preserved and we've made block and atom-level recordings of the layout of the disks. We can restore them if they get damaged. It's not as if Miss Mannheim is getting any older." They both smiled at that. "And anyway, gearing up for a refit-- from raw data to a full human being, from recordings made thousands of years ago-- is going to take a lot of research time. You'll have plenty of time to put together the collary data, I suspect."

Misuko nodded. "Some people don't get much sleep," she sighed.

"No. But the alternative is that you get too much sitting in front of or, worse, in, an entertainment chair."

"That's not all bad, I'm told. Lots of people do it."

"But you wouldn't want it, would you?" De Ette asked her.

"No," Misuko agreed. "I couldn't."

De Ette smiled, and Misuko understood that smile. She rose from her chair and stretched, De Ette watching her with obvious appraisal in her eyes as she did so. "Why do you do that?" Misuko asked.

"Because I like watching human beings. Especially beautiful ones."

Misuko didn't know what to make of that. She didn't think of herself as particularly beautiful, not compared to some of her friends back on Abi. And she didn't quite know how to handle what sounded like an approach from a 30-cm tall doll with translucent wings.

De Ette smiled, but then the smile faded. She rose from the table and fluttered towards the door, Misuko behind her. "Misuko..." De Ette said as they walked along the hallway, and there was something in her voice that worried Misuko. Perhaps worried was too strong a word.

"What is it?"

"Nozomi and I... " De Ette's flight became slightly more erratic. "I... "

She gathered herself up. "Let me start by saying that I'm thinking a thousand times faster than you and have a thousand threads doing it. You know that. Even with all that, I cannot adequately put into words how the collective 'I' you call De Ette feels because it's too messy, too... human. I can't predict what you will say, either, when I tell you what I feel I have to say. And of all the people I know on this trip, of all the humans I've ever known, you and Linia are two of the best, two of the most important. I trust you."

Misuko looked worried at De Ette. The little fairy smiled and said, "We're in love."

"I know."

"You do?" De Ette said.

"Of course I do," Misuko said. "It had to be more than just sex. AI sex confuses me, but what's been going on between you and Nozomi has been more than 'just sex' for a couple of weeks now, hasn't it?" De Ette nodded. "I could tell because of the way your behavior and hers melted into each other. There's an intimacy there that's really... deep."

"It's more than that," De Ette said softly. "Have you ever heard of the half-a-mind theory?" Misuko shook her head. "It's a theory about the way couples relate to one another, and why bigger groups, like threesomes and so on, don't, at least not without biocybernetic coordination.

"It says that human brains are purely finite. They have a limited number of things they can think about, and outside of that attention, quality, and memory fade. But what one human being needs to think about is usually a little more than what one human being can think about. So, the solution is simple: store half of what you do in someone else."

Misuko stared at her. De Ette said, "I've seen this with many people. You and Linia, for example. She stores in you what she needs to do as a person to grow and evolve and by extension help you grow and evolve, and you store in her what you need on a daily basis to survive. She reminds you to eat, keeps you abreast of the latest fashions, and organizes the mundane parts of your day. Doesn't she?"

"Yes, I guess she does," Misuko said. "But that doesn't work for everyone."

"You're just one of those people for whom it does work well. That's why your relationship with her works. You have far-reaching and far-seeing goals, but you can't manage your daily life for a second while you're trying to reach them. You recognize that. For you, offloading half of your brain-- 'where are my clothes?' 'where's my padd?'-- into Linia makes sense. And she doesn't resent that."

For Misuko, De Ette's words struck her deeper than she thought De Ette would have realized. She looked at the floor, thinking about what De Ette had said. "Misuko? Did I say something wrong?"

"No," Misuko said softly. "I was just thinking about Esther, and why we didn't work out. It wasn't a city girl versus country girl thing after all, was it? Well, maybe it was, but it was also that Esther just wasn't looking for someone to be her ambitious half. She never had one."

De Ette nodded. "I'm sorry, Misuko?"

"That's okay," she said gently. "I should have figured it out eventually. But there's more to your being in love than just that, right?"

"Yes..." De Ette said. "I... Misuko, do you like Nozomi?"

"Like her?" Misuko said brightly. "I think she's adorable, she's capable, and she's been very good to our mission. Why?" A thought occurred to her and before De Ette could respond she said, "Has she been ab-- I wouldn't even know how AIs begin to abuse one another."

De Ette stared as if the words didn't mean anything, and then shook her head, smiling. "Abusive? Oh, no, Misuko, anything but! She's been wonderful for me! Makes me feel like the fairy that I pretend to be!" She spun about in the air, her hands gripping her shoulders.

"Well, in that case," Misuko said, "I think she's okay. She's cute and competent and seems to socialize well. She doesn't act imperious, the way some AIs do, like Hiroshi or Santu. I love her ELF."

"And you don't love mine?" De Ette pouted.

Misuko playfully reached up and poked De Ette in the belly. "If you were full-sized, I think I'd have a hard time being honest with Linia!"

De Ette giggled. "I could be full-sized, if you like. I have a full-sized body back home. Just like this. No wings, though."

"Really?" Misuko said.

"I do," De Ette said. She looked away.

"So what's all this about Nozomi?"

De Ette looked up, her white hair sweeping behind her. "Misuko, I can't explain to you what it's like to make love to her. There simply aren't any words for it in human language. What we do is incredibly dangerous."

"Huh?"

"I mean... You can't imagine it." De Ette gestured towards her own body. "Linia has a capacity similar to about 150 SSU... standard substrate units, the physical machinery on which AIs operate. I have 238,000, and Nozomi has about 260,000. For AIs, half of that is running one thing: the Faunos thread, which isn't consciousness they way you think of it. It's a shepherd, taking in the memories generated by all the other threads that are running now, one of which is like Linia's in that it's conscious and interactive and talking, right this second, to you. Others are talking to other people. Because of overhead, it takes a lot more that 150 SSU, but you can imagine I have a lot to spare. But as the threads run, the Faunos filters them, passes messages back and forth between them, and decides what memories mean what. For someone like Linia, she needs to sleep and turn over her SSUs to that job, and there's only one of her when she's awake. But I can do it all the time, with thousands of instances of, well, me.

"When Nozomi and I make love, we sync up our clocks, drop our sheilds, and let our faunos run together. There's no rush to orgasm, there's very little foreplay, there's just this moment when our... our souls meet. It doesn't happen at first. Even though our Faunos are running together, they run slowly because we haven't got the SSU space to run them at the same time... there's a lot of swapping. And even though the clocks are synced, what really makes me 'me' are the axioms in my Faunos and the tiebreaking algorithms, some of which depend on random number generators. Slowly, I become aware of her and she of me as her shepherd and mine start bleeding into one another, each using the same tiebreakers. Soon, though... we're thinking the same thoughts, having the same pleasures. We're sharing, Misuko." De Ette's face was alight and Misuko wondered if those were tears she saw forming in the corner of the little fairy's eyes. "I... I want that all the time."

De Ette flitted a little bit back from Misuko. "That's why I came and asked you, Misuko. Because Nozomi and I... we think when we get home we're going to merge." Misuko didn't know what that meant, and she was sure that showed on her face. "When we get back, we're going to buy a larger SSU housing and run together all the time." She looked down. "Misuko... there's a chance that De Ette might... disappear."

"De Ette!" Misuko said. "Why?"

"Because... because this is what AIs do. It's rare. It's incredibly rare. But I'm in love, Misuko, and so is Nozomi, in a way that's not supposed to happen. When AIs are made, there's all sorts of things we're checked for, and this is considered a sign of instability. But... it's tolerable instability. We'll try, we will, to sustain the thread cores we load for conversation, to be Nozomi and De Ette, but underneath it'll be someone new, someone... I don't know." She smiled. "Maybe we'll name her Nozette." She put her finger to her cheek. "We'll have to get a Han ELF for her then."

"Is Nozette a name from Shakespeare?" Misuko asked. Most of the Han species chose their names from Shakespeare.

"Byron."

"Close enough." Misuko took a deep breath, sighed. "I don't know what to tell you, De Ette. If you do, um, 'disappear', I will miss you. I know Linia will miss you. But only you can decide how you want to live your life." She touched De Ette's shoulder with a finger. "Don't get the Han ELF if you manage to retain some of your individuality."

"I won't."

"C'mon," Misuko said. "They're probably wondering what happened to us."

De Ette giggled. "What a strange trip this has been. So many dances, so many changes."

"Better than the alternative." They reached the SDisk and headed down to the surface.


The signs of gender were already showing on Kalya's body. His face wouldn't change that much as there wasn't that much to change, but his body was a different story. He would have extensive modifications as his shoulders widened, and the inner work would probably give him a few days worth of terrible cramps as the knitter systems did their work. The fact that those were visible signs and that Kalya had forgone the terrible panel robes for more masculine clothing only emphasized the changes.

But what most impressed Linia was how sociable Kalya had been the past few hours. He had actually thanked Linia for dinner, wandered around among the others and, while he had been a bit awkward in his approach, everyone knew to excuse that, at least for a little while. He was trying.

She stretched lazily under the setting sun. "Misuko? I'm going to try and make nice with Kalya."

Misuko looked up at her, her eyes calculating. "'Kay," she said. "Be careful. For him."

Linia smiled. "I love you. You always think and say the right things."

"I'm glad you think so," Misuko said. "Love you too. Now go make nice with Mister Benjakalyani."

Linia walked over the sand, her shocking yellow swimsuit just barely restraining her ample bosom as she pulled an equally yellow sunrobe over her shoulders. There was no sense in her being any more provocative than she already appeared to be.

"Kalya?" she said to where the tall man stood, standing out and looking over the sea. "It's nice to see you here."

Kalya nodded. "About that night--"

"I forgive you."

"Just like that?"

"No, not 'just like that,' Linia said softly. "But it's the only humane response to what you're going through. I can only analogize it. I can't imagine what axioms I might have that would be deeper than my love for Misuko. I know there aren't any. You've apparently found one deeper than your own identity. It must be terrifying."

Kalya shivered. "I hadn't thought about it that way. I guess... I guess you're right, though." He looked up. "What could I have that would be more important to me than myself?"

"Yourself integrated with other people," Linia said. She experimentally reached out and touched Kalya's back, giving a featherlight touch down the skin that Kalya had exposed there.

Kalya turned to her. "I used to hate when people did that. The feeling, the physical feeling is still the same. But it used to be, 'Oh, they're just interested in me for the things I don't care about, they just want to use my body.' But I didn't care about my body. I didn't hate it, but I didn't want it to matter, either. It was just a convenient package until I got the courage to upload. Now, though, it's different. I was happy that you touched me. I enjoyed it. I don't know why."

"Because you want to be liked, and real humans don't care why?" Kalya looked at her, uncomprehending. "They do care, but they know that sometimes it's the physical attraction that comes first. It's what integrates them-- us-- as a people."

Kalya shook his head. "I never understood how it could be that a robot would understand thoese things so much better than I do. I'm at least human."

"But you're not a man or a woman, Kalya. At least not until recently. And I'm meant to think like a woman, Kalya, meant to integrate all of those things into me. I see them, and I can be analytical about them to the point of cynicism, but that's pointless and cruel."

"Like I was."

"I didn't want to say it," Linia said, "And it isn't necessarily true." She continued to stroke Kalya's back, her fingers smoothing over the incredibly pale skin, the fine white hairs that covered Kalya's body.

"You're only doing this because you think it'll help Misuko's career, aren't you?"

"Now that's cynicism," Linia said. "I won't do anything that would hurt her career or her feelings, but there's a lot of room in there for me to maneuver, Kalya. You probably wouldn't do anything that risked your life, but... same thing."

Kalya nodded. "I can't get away from a lifetime of thought."

"No," Linia said, her fingers tracing small circles above Kalya's waistline. "But you can start learning."

Kalya nodded. "This may sound odd, Linia... but could you stop that?"

"Okay. Why?"

Kalya laughed. "I think I'm gay."

Linia laughed too. "Really?" Kalya nodded. "Oh, that's wonderful! I don't know how you figured it out so soon, but I think it's neat that you already know you have a sexuality of some kind. But, y'know, I can be a boy, too."

"I have heard about that. But, thanks... I think I'd like to have you as a friend, not a lover. Besides, with how Misuko thinks about me, it could be complicated."

Linia nodded. "Best to keep things simple."

"Agreed."


"Did you talk to De Ette?" Misuko said.

"Mmm-hmm," Linia sighed as she stepped out of the shower, her hair in a bundle. She stood in the middle of the bathroom as warm air flowed around her in tight, perfect circles, drying her hair. When she was done she came back into the bedroom and plopped herself down next to Misuko. "You know, I wonder if it isn't because of us."

"Us?" Misuko said.

Linia nodded. "You made a choice that changed your life forever, and you survived. I think Kalya and Jinny and De Ette and Nozomi are all looking at you as some kind of role model, following in our example."

"Huh." She looked up at the ceiling. "At least they all can be undone. What's Jinny doing?"

"Taking secondary sex characteristic hormones."

"Really?" Linia nodded. "Huh. After Kalya?" Linia nodded again. "How interesting." She stared up at the ceiling. "I'm just the dig manager, not some role model."

"Yes, but you're good at both," Linia said, touching Misuko's arm gently. Misuko shivered. "And they can't be undone. Even if Nozomi and De Ette snapshot, then Nozette decides she doesn't like herself, Nozomi and De Ette will be restored knowing that their love failed in its course. And while Kalya and Jinny can be reshaped to their original forms, they cannot easily rid themselves the memory of what it is like to be a man or a woman. Jinny knows, but she doesn't know what it's like to have boys stare back. 'We are all advancing state.'"

"'Nobody knows where we are going, but we are surely not going nowhere,'" Misuko quoted back to her. "I know. I think everyone knows that quote."

"Did I tell you that Kalya turned me down?"

"No, really? I didn't even know you had made a pass at him. Why?"

Linia shrugged. "I didn't make a pass. I don't think it was even close. But I made him uncomfortable. Apparently he thinks he's gay."

"That explains the way he was hanging on Radoma's arm earlier. Poor boy."

"He's stable enough. He'll handle it well," Linia assured her. "I told him I could be a boy, but he thought that my getting involved with him would excessively complicate his relationship with you, as student and manager."

"That sounds sensible." She turned over and looked into Linia's face, looking at the soft eyes, the long hair. "How much of a boy can you be? I mean, really?"

"Do you really want to know? After the refit Santu ordered for me, it would take about a day to do the whole changeover. But it's all internal. I could do it in the bathroom. Which I recommend. You don't want to watch it." She gestured towards an open space at the foot of the bed. An image flickered there, solidified. It looked like her, but not like her. Misuko stared at the hologram. The long hair was there, but the chin was fuller, stronger. The hips were smaller, the breasts gone, and between the legs hung a comfortable-looking penis and scrotum. The legs were more sculpted, too, more muscular, but the male Linia was as hairless as her usual mode.

Misuko smiled. "A pretty boy. I'd fuck him. But not nearly as pretty as you are."

"No," Linia agreed, rolling over as the image disappeared. She cuddled up close to Misuko, kissing her neck. "Besides, don't you love me for who I am?"

Misuko's hands guided Linia on top of her and Linia obliged, stretching out lengthwise over Misuko's chest and belly. "Mmm... I love you no matter what," Misuko murmured. She loved the feeling of Linia's smaller but heavier body on top of hers, the coziness of it, the feel of Linia's lips on her chin, her neck, her shoulders. She had such a small mouth but she was able to say such big and wonderful things with it. Her arms encircled Misuko's shoulders and their mouths met in a liquid kiss that seemed to melt their two bodies together into one happy organism. Misuko reached up with tired limbs to hold Linia, to kiss her gently. "Nothing rough tonight, please."

Linia whispered, "Is this the 'too tired to fuck my girlfriend' mood, Master?"

Misuko giggled. "I think you use that term to provoke me. You know it's hot. No, this is the 'not too tired to get fucked by her' mood."

"Do you want a rub?"

"If you give me a rub, Linia, I'll fall asleep and then I won't have an orgasm. And what I want from you is one amazing orgasm."

Linia smiled. "Your merest wish is my mortal command." She slipped down between Misuko's legs, kissing Misuko's dark-furred mound gently.

"Yes... It's so awful, Linia. Some days, I can't think, I can just look forward to you, to your mouth on my clit... eat me, sweetheart. Eat me. Fah, yes..." Linia's mouth was warm and wet against her pussy. That tongue, that damnably wonderful tongue curled between her lips then up to where her clit hid underneath its fleshy hood. Linia's tongue flickered once, twice over her clit and Misuko heard herself moan. She put her hands on Linia's head as Linia ate her pussy, her tongue making tight orbits around the core of her pleasure.

She felt Linia's fingers probe up against her pussy, felt them dipping into her, but then they trailed downwards. The distraction on her clit was barely enough to block out the delicate, probing sensation of Linia's finger against her asshole. "Master?" Linia whispered.

"Yes," Misuko moaned. The little finger pressed against the tiny orifice, wriggling back and forth. At any other time it would have been unwelcome or tickling, but with Linia's incredible tongue on her clitoris it was pleasure, it was more. Linia's finger invaded her butt and she began to thrust her hips against the bed, against Linia's finger, against that fantastic mouth pressed to her pussy. She came thrashing against the bedsheets.

Linia cuddled close to her, her voice a-giggle as she whispered, "G'night, beloved."

"Mrr..." Misuko sighed, surrendering. Seconds later she was out.

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is copyright © January 9, 2006 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.