She sleeps in a room filled with daylight and the sound of waves washing up onto sand.
She dreams. In her dream she is young and beautiful and she is running on the shore of Rackit Lake in the Adirondacks, hand clasped with Brad, their feet shod only in thin sandals that barely protect them from the sharp little rocks. The morning mist casts a gorgeous white veil over the water, shrouding the mountain hidden behind it. She inhales deep the cold air, looks into her beloved's eyes, admires his handsome features and remembers the heat of his hands upon her fresh body the night before.
It is a cruel dream.
She stirs, whimpers in half-sleep, lifts her head momentarily. Night has fallen. Something is curious and different but she is tired and the bed's seductive warmth pulls her back to sleep. She lay on her belly, an unfamiliar sensation by itself, and she turns over onto her back. She does not notice how easy it is for her to make this motion.
She awoke expecting another day of lights burning in her eyes and fire searing at her joints, to aches no human should feel and indignities no human should suffer. Instead, she found herself belly down, lying on a mattress that seemed to know her body, covered with a heavy quilt that seemed inclined to comfort her.
Bewildered, she turned and sat up. The room she lay in was not the hospital room in which she had lain last night. There were no machines struggling to keep her alive, no lights illuminating her shriveled condition. Instead, the room was almost completely dark, the only light coming in from a bay window that occupied most of one wall, from near the floor to near the ceiling. Outside that window an ocean washed up on a beach under a moonless sky, a few clouds scudding across the night, revealing an uncountable number of the uncountable stars in the sky. She had not seen a night like this in many a decade, a night unobscured by the light of a nearby city. Through the glass she could hear the ocean clearly, hear the wind blowing through trees she could not see.
She rose, amazed at how little pain accompanied such a grand gesture as standing. She walked to the window and for a moment wondered if it could possibly be an illusion, a gigantic television screen of sorts. But the angle changed as she moved, convincing her with its parallax that she was looking at something real. The window confused her. It did not cast back her reflection at all but was perfectly and completely transparent, as if made not of glass but of air. She walked to it and tried to put her hands on it, but her hands went through it as if it were not there. She was shaken by the experience, sure that there was some sort of barrier there keeping out the weather.
She turned to examine her surroundings. The room was definitely not her hospital room. The bed was larger than her hospital bed. It could have slept four people comfortably, and the room was proportioned in accord with the bed. Twin doors led out the wall opposite the bed and a side door suggested a bathroom. A small rectangle on the wall next to the twin doors may not have had the traditional toggle but when she passed her hands over it the lights in the room rose. They came up maddeningly slowly no matter how she played with the rectangle, as if they knew that her eyes were not used to light.
She walked to what she guessed was a bathroom. It looked like any bathroom she had known. It had white and blue tiles, each one slightly different from its neighbor as if each had been hand-made. Whoever owned this place was civilized enough to have installed a bidet. She turned to look at herself in the mirror.
She stood, unable to move, for minutes. Then, carefully, she touched her face with her hand, unwilling to believe the reflection. She felt her face with her hand, and her hand with her face, and her fingers told her the same thing as her eyes. There were no wrinkles on her face, no laugh lines, no crowsfeet. The mole above her lip which had been huge and hairy in her later years could now be mistaken for a miscreant freckle. From the neck down, the changes were even more dramatic: her body was tall and healthy, thin enough to show her ribs, muscled enough to make that attractive. Her breasts-- what had happened to her breasts? Then she remembered: this is what her breasts had been like before the implants, before she embarked on a dozen desperate schemes to get Brad to give her his attention once more.
Her hands crept down her belly and over her pubic hair. It was black and full. She was tempted to masturbate, to see if that still worked as reliably as it had in the past, before the cancer and the kidney failure and all of the rest had caught up with her.
The bathtub was, like everything else in that house, scaled to absurd proportions, more the size of a hot tub for four than a bathing tub for one. It was made of white marble, the kind of which Italians were exceedingly fond, the fixtures in brass. The controls were ordinary; a single dial for temperature with a pivot for pressure, a collection of switches that looked mechanical but moved with oiled grace to control which of three different spigots would be in play: an opening to fill the tub, a rainfall head on the roof, or a shower massage on a holder.
The shower massage intrigued her most because it had no hose; water issued from it, but she could remove it and carry it anywhere. She had seen this before, once, on a visit to Pendor twenty years ago, when Brad and she had tried to reconcile their conflicting desires. She walked back to the bedroom and stared out over the sea. There was a horizon. This was not Pendor.
She drew a bath she suspected she didn't need then lay in the water and relaxed. There was an explanation, she told herself, she just did not know it yet. She suspected that she was not dead. Although she had been a loyal churchgoer her entire life she had never really believed in survival after her death and so had ordered the hospital to take whatever measures it might deem necessary to keeping her alive, no matter what it took. She had the money, after all.
If this is what they had come up with, she was delighted. She wondered if somehow, as a last-ditch effort, her doctors had defied her orders and taken her to the Great Hall. But the rules of the Hall stressed that the person going through must be able to do so by herself, and must be a volunteer. She could not remember ever volunteering. But then, she did not remember consenting to anything else that might have promised this kind of recovery.
She wondered where everyone might be.
She reached for the shower massager, set it on a low pulse, and decided that she was going to masturbate after all. She pushed her bottom up onto the edge of the sunken bathtub so that the water would not splash all over the floor. From here, she could just see herself in the mirror on the back of the bathroom door. She looked beautiful. She had always looked beautiful until well into middle-age. She spread her legs wide, then reached down with one hand and spread open her nether lips. She let the shower massage stray onto her thigh, adjusting the pressure and intensity of the water as it approached her clitoris. Her body was throbbing with a kind of strange intensity. It had been decades since she remembered any pleasure even vaguely like this.
She aimed the stream at her mons and slipped it briefly down over her clitoris. The impact hit her like a bolt of lightning, ecstatic, wondrous. She did it again, moaning. It was more than she could bear already, the memories, the power, the pleasure. But she persisted, dialing down the pressure before directing the stream to her clit again, letting it play over the hooded toy. It hit hard and fast, and the buildup to climax was as immediate as it had been when she was thirteen.
She was left panting in desperate recovery, trying to catch her breath. "I'm out of shape," she said, and another shock hit her. It was the first words she had said since waking, almost the first words she had said clearly in months. That was her voice. That was her voice as she remembered it, the sweet, girlish voice of 1966, when she had been eighteen and madly in love and richer than God and the entire world was hers for the taking.
"Belle, I believe you're going mad." She looked down the length of her body, surprised by her health, her strength, her sensuality. She had been given a second chance and by God she wasn't going to waste it.
She found a towel. It was an indulgent thing of deep blue that caressed her body even as it gathered every unnecessary droplet of moisture from her skin. It even gave the impression that it liked her, quite an accomplishment for what was just a simple piece of cloth. She remembered the bed: it had sustained her. And the quilt: it had comforted her. She wondered if she had been wrong about the afterlife.
She walked out into the bedroom again to find that the bed had been made and a simple, green summer dress left folded upon it. There was enough light for her to register the deep blue comforter decorated with yellow stars, a pattern so sweetly naive it shook her deeply. The dress was accompanied by a bra and panties of the same green color, both of which fit her perfectly. The dress was not quite see-through, but she could discern the shape and texture of her body through it.
Walking back into the bathroom in the hopes of finding a brush or comb, she saw that the towel she had left on the floor was now carefully hung up. Curious now, she reached out to touch it. It was perfectly dry. She held it to her face and the scent of fresh laundry washed over her. "Elves," she said. "The whole place is run by invisible elves."
She opened two drawers; in the second she found a hairbrush. It was adequate to her needs, and she was oddly reassured that it didn't work perfectly. She struggled with her hair, trying to get it to go back. She hadn't had this much hair since her late 40's, and it hadn't been this black since twenty years before that. She sighed as she worked out the tangles and knots of the night before... before what?
Before she had gone to sleep in a hospital bed, over a century and a quarter old, her body crashing in all sorts of painful ways. In their effort to keep her alive her physicians had slowed her down, sped her up, occupied her every orifice, some of them new, with machines and tubes and monitors. She had cursed them every day for the pain and thanked them every night for one more day of life, hating and fearing the coming of morning and the resumption of effort.
She looked in the mirror, amazed at the eyes. Those old, old eyes that looked back at her from the youthful face of a teenager. Eyes that had seen a whole life. "Belle," she said. "Let's go find out where we are."
Out in the bedroom, a sort of false dawn was coming up over the horizon. It was pale and weak, struggling to rise. For a while she simply sat on the edge of the bed, looking over the ocean, waiting for the sun to bring her light. When the first rays finally crossed the horizon line its light blazed through with an intensity that shocked her and made her cry out with surprise.
She rubbed new tears from her eyes and looked down the hill from her window. The house she occupied was buried in the side of a hill overlooking the ocean, and a trail cut into the side of the hill stepped down to the beach.
She decided to explore the rest of the house.
The hallway had stairs leading downwards and one other door. She found another bedroom, almost exactly like her own. Its window looked out over a vast, forested territory that disappeared into the distance. She saw a large lake several miles away, and hillsides reared up again to block her view. Beyond those, mountains.
Downstairs was one large room with nothing that resembled a kitchen, although on a table she found a capped mug with steaming coffee and a wicker basket, lined with a white towel trimmed with a decoration of blue flowers, holding three brown bagels. She picked one up and tasted it, and the flavor exploded over her mouth and overwhelmed her tastebuds. She hadn't really had tastebuds for much of her later life, and their revival was as powerful as anything she had experienced yet. The flood of pleasure through her was almost as good as her experience in the bathtub. And the coffee was nearly enough to make her believe in an afterlife. She ate two of the bagels. They had chewy crusts with hints of molasses and salt.
"I cannot stay in here forever," she said. There were two doors, one leading towards the beach, one to the back. She tried the one to the beach. It opened.
Outside, the house was unremarkable, a solid thing of stone. It reminded her of Greece. Two floors, with one window high up and two on the ground floor. Shrubs and leafy ground cover held the hill together against the onslaught of weather, and the house did not seem to be going anywhere. The landing of the front door was crudely shaped granite, as were each of the flagstones that led down to the beachfront.
She walked out onto the beach. The sand was yellow, like cornmeal ground heavy and coarse. There were a few stones and on her bare feet she knew this sand would rapidly become too hot for her to walk. Still, there was the tideline. She walked down and the water was cool as it washed over her ankles. She smiled. She looked left and right. The beach bowed away from her and she could see for miles in each direction. A glint caught her eye to her left and she believed that she saw evidence of human habitation far in that direction. It was more promising than the other. She turned left (north, she thought, if the sun rises in the east here, wherever here was) and began walking.
Her muscles were not unused to this activity, she noticed. She walked confidently on the sand. Her calves began to burn but that in itself became a pleasure she had not known for many years. She walked on for what felt like an hour before she noticed she was being followed. Whatever it was, it glinted in the sunlight, a small white object just offshore, giving her an impression of infinite patience. She turned to it and waved.
It darted off in a curiously ballistic path, one more mystery in this mysterious place. She smiled and waved again as it departed, hoping that it would come back. She walked on, watching for her little companion, whatever it had been.
She had been so busy scanning the beach that she didn't notice the two women approaching her until they close enough for her to make out their faces. One was tall and thin, with long, black hair that fell about her shoulders, Chinese eyes, and an air of patience about her mouth. The other was about half a head shorter, with flowing brown hair, pale skin, and delight in her face. Her legs were a bit short, her torso long but also heavy in an athletic way. Both wore flowing summer tunics and cream-white pants, the fabric similar to her own but more personal, more matched one to the other. The shorter one laughed at something the first woman said, holding her arm in a manner that suggested something more intimate than mere companionship. She raised a hand and waved in Belle's direction.
Belle returned the gesture, hoping that it was intended it for her. She glanced behind herself and saw nobody else. They walked towards her and stopped. "Hi!" said the shorter one.
"Hello," she said crisply. Part of her cringed at once at the sound in her voice, and the two women exchanged curious glances. "Can you tell me where I am?"
"We can," said the shorter one. "You're on the planet Discovery. Are you Isabelle Mannheim?"
"I am," she replied.
"You know your identity! Yay! I'm Linia ap Ffanci, and this is Misuko Ffanci, my wife. We're so glad you're up and moving."
The taller one-- Misuko, she recalled-- said, "By the time of your hospitalization, Miss Mannheim, surely homosexual marriages were recognized by many governments."
"Oh." Belle looked them over. They seemed content enough. There had been several women in her past, but the idea of a marriage with any of them would have been absurd. "Forgive me." Still that damnable formality in her voice.
"That's okay," said Linia. "I hope you're comfortable?"
"'Comfortable,'" she said. "Instead of being old and dying I'm suddenly twenty years old, walking along a deserted beach without a single sign of life until two young women come up out of nowhere, and they tell me they're married to each other. You expect me to be comfortable?" Oddly enough, she thought that she felt comfortable and could not work up the indignity implicit in her words.
"Well, not immediately," Linia said, packing such a density of apology into her voice that Belle felt sorry for raising hers. "We do hope you like your body. It took quite a bit of effort to make it."
Belle looked down at her bare feet, at the way the dress fell along her frame, held out over her body by her breasts just enough that it didn't touch her belly unless blown by the wind. She opened and closed her hand, flexing it, grateful for the lack of medicine delivery shunts that she had had to endure for months on end. "It's very nice, thank you. I hope it wasn't too expensive." The words sounded absurd even as she spoke them. They were not discussing a car or a piece of jewelry, they were discussing her body. A chill came over her as she wondered if it could be reposessed.
Linia grinned. "I wouldn't worry about it. It's a gift. It's yours. You'll have a chance to pay Nawazi back for it anyway. He's anxious to meet you."
Belle peered at her. "And who is Nawazi?"
Misuko said, "Nawazi is an AI. A machine intelligence. He paid for your resuscitation. It was a technological challenge to revive you from what we had, and part of the payoff is that we hope to interview you-- rather extensively, I'm afraid-- for your first-person impression of the 21st century."
"So, this isn't 2071?"
Linia shook her head. "In your terms, it's... 5150. Some thiry-one hundred years since your, um, death."
The news did not entirely surprise her. She wondered if part of that was simply that it was too much to absorb. "'Death.'" She did not say it as a question. "So I did die? This is an afterlife?"
"Another life," Misuko said. "Yes, you died sixteen days after a recording of your brainstate was made and stored away. Your doctors performed a highly experimental procedure and siphoned off a significant chunk of your assets in the doing. At the time it required several tons of equipment, was available only in one place fortunately close to where you were hospitalized, and massive amounts of both electricity and liquified nitrogen."
"I died," she said quietly, staring off into the water.
Linia shook her head. Her smile was surprisingly pretty, so convincing. Belle resented her for it. "No, you are not dead. You bifurcated. One of you died. The other went into storage. Your family kept the recording with them until 2611, hoping someday that Terra would have the technology needed to revive you. The case in which your digital copy was stored was placed into the cargo hold of a colony ship bound for a planet now known as Indigo 161-4." She placed her head on her partner's arm. "Misuko is an expert on the wreck of the Second Chances, the name of the ship. I'm afraid they crashed and your copy was buried under tons of wreckage for thousands of years."
Misko nodded. "Our recovery team found you. Linia here, who's speciality is biology, mananged to talk one of her friends, who talked to another friend, who found the finances needed to mount a recovery. We would have done it anyway, but it was nice to find a financier."
Linia continuned, "We thought of it as our moral duty to put you back together. The people who taped you also did a good job of saving your gene sequence on disk as well, so we were able to recreate you reliably."
She looked down at her body. "It... my body feels like me. I know I'm Isabelle Mannheim."
Linia said, "As I said, identity is good. You know that you are you."
"Could I know anything else?" Belle wondered.
"Too many people do," Linia said. "They think that their body isn't their own, or their brain is ruled by forces beyond their control, or something like that. They wander through life looking for something that will tell them who they really are. Many of them find religion, which assures them that their feelings are normal no matter how alienated they are, or they find drugs, which takes away their suffering to whatever degree it can, or they move to implants that tell them to be someone else, or move to a Realm where they can be the person they believe they are. There are so many ways to not be yourself that it's amazing how many people are."
"Are you yourself?"
Linia grinned. "Absotively! And Misuko knows it!" The taller woman nodded patiently, clearly familiar but pleased with the other's antics.
Belle stood at the edge of the water and tried not to be annoyed at Linia's relentlessly sunny disposition, although it did fit with the weather. "It's a beautiful day."
"Come," Linia said, offering a hand. She politely declined it. "There's a small town right up the coast here. About three kilometers. Less than two miles."
"I know what a kilometer is," she said. "Where am I?"
"As I said, where you are is the planet Discovery. We're about seventy light-years from Earth, seventy-five from Pendor, twenty from llerkin. It is a Terran colony founded in the fifth century as a sort of experiment. It's mostly a human colony but of course you can find all sorts walking around these days. Like Misuko and I."
"And the 'fifth century?' That's Pendorian?" She suddenly had the oddest feeling, as if... as if she understood what was meant by 'someone walking across her grave.'
"Yes," Linia replied.
They walked along, the two women leading. Belle kicked at the sand. There was a lightness to her heart that surprised her. She giggled, once or twice, not sure why. "Linia?"
"Yes, Miss Mannheim?"
"Oh, please. If you must call me by name, call me Belle."
"Why aren't I upset? Did you put something in my coffee?"
"I don't know. I can think of many reasons. Maybe one of them is correct. As I understand your case, you didn't lose many friends or lovers or even family when you were hospitalized. You had become in your later years a, how did your ex-husband put it? A 'difficult woman to deal with.'" Linia was clearly apologetic. "You had a lot of money, but quite a number of debts and responsibilities that only you could execute. You don't have any of that now."
"Money," she said, looking up at them. "I don't have any money."
Misuko said, "There is money in the thirty-third century. But it is irrelevant for ninety-nine percent of the things you might want out of life, and most people survive well without IUs. Industrial Units. But no, I don't think you have any right now."
They walked. A town came into view, a crop of geometric white erupting out of the green-covered dunes and hills that limned the world shoreside. Insects interrupted her musings now and then but, she noted, very few were mosquitoes.
Misuko and Linia led her towards the town. The houses were all brick and plaster, painted pure white with trimmings of red and brown, blue and purple, green and aqua, all arranged in someone's idea of an aesthetic. It reminded her of Korfu in Greece, except there the beach was more of a cliff, the town holding onto the edge as weather slowly undermined the solid ground, casting it into the sea. Here, the shoreline was a tropical sort, soft and welcoming.
She saw a team of men surrounding a boat on the sand, suspended in a cradle of wood, its bow pointing landward. The boat looked like a handmade pleasure craft of wood and fiberglass, two tall masts reaching for the sky. The men heaved with all their might on ropes wrapped about the body of the boat to pull it out of the cradle and into the water. They strained against the ropes, their muscles taught and powerful. There were ten men and not a scrap of uniformity among them. For a moment, she paused. Only two of them were white. Four were black, two Asian, one she couldn't place and one... she shivered. He was not human at all, but a machine. A tall, gleaming machine but for his dress, a pair of loose pants and a top that was more a blouse than a shirt.
The team stopped pulling, for a moment convinced of the futility. "We'll need more hands," said the robot, who then looked up. "Linia!" He waved.
Linia returned the wave. "Carl! Ewan! Look who we found!"
"That Isabelle Mannheim?" asked the machine.
Linia nodded. A man walked up and stood next to them, regarding Belle with large, green eyes in a strikingly dark face. He was calm, sculpted, muscled and beautiful. Belle felt something curious stir within. He reached out a hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Mannheim. I'm Ewan."
She reached out and shook the offered hand. "Are you part of the... "
"MIRT," Linia offered. "Mannheim, Isabelle Recovery Team."
"MIRT?" Belle said.
"Naw," Ewan replied, "Just a friend of Misuko's. We were told you would be coming this way, though, and are all on our best behavior."
"As if you could be anything else," Misuko said.
"Oh, you," Ewan said. "You're getting to be as bad as your lover."
"Nuh-uh!" Linia grinned.
Belle's eyes were caught by a discontinuity on Ewan's t-shirted arm. "Is that what I think it is?" she asked. She pointed.
"They had these back when you came from, didn't they? Like one?"
"I would love one." He took the pack out from under his sleeve. It was not a real paper pack but a wooden box. Inside were six cigarettes and some matches. He struck a match and held it out to her even as she put the cigarette in her mouth and held it to the flame. Misuko and Linia watched her curiously.
She pushed the other tip into the flame, inhaled deeply, then let it go. Ewan watched with his eyes wide. "You are the only other person I have seen smoke in many weeks."
"Is she on fire?" Linia said, then giggled.
"Not a very popular activity, I take it?" Belle asked. It tasted like something other than the popular cigarettes of her youth. It reminded her of the craze for organic foods, the pureness of it, the flavor in her mouth. It calmed, but not as she remembered cigarettes being calming. There was something missing. Something she did not really miss.
Ewan said, "You're the only one in town aside from me that would dare try. It's not as if it could addict us. We're not like Terrans. 'Sides, it's not really old-style tobacco and our lungs can take a ton o' crap and heal just fine."
She noticed that he wasn't having one. "You don't smoke often, do you?"
"Nah," he agreed. "Once a day, maybe less. I just keep 'em with me out of habit. It's an affectation."
"Ewan!" shouted the robot. "Are you going to help us?"
"Coming, Carl! Linia, lend a hand? You're stronger than half of us put together."
Linia looked up at Misuko, who nodded. "Wear gloves," the Chinese girl said. Linia returned the nod and headed off. Ewan pulled a pair of gloves out of his shorts pocket and handed them to Linia. She took the ropes on one side. The robot, Carl, stood behind her, while the rest of the men raised the rope on the other side of the boat.
Belle watched, stunned, as Linia and Carl, together, on one side of the boat, equalled the full strength of nine men on the other, and together the craft slipped into the gentle sea without complaint. Linia's legs had ground into the sand almost a foot.
Linia dusted off her gloves and handed them back to Ewan. "Thanks," Ewan said.
"You're welcome," Linia said, flexing her arms briefly. "Raar! I feel better after something like that!"
Belle was still trying to figure out what she had just seen. "How did you do that?"
Linia looked up. "I'm a robot," she said simply.
Belle stared. "That can't be."
"Sure it is," Linia said. "Underneath this sheath of nanochine-manufactured and maintained skin is a body of myomer cabling and fiberoptic information systems. At the core is a box of a hundred or so core processors, all contending to make me... me."
"And you're... married?"
"As married as it gets. It's the thirty-third century," Linia said. "And in your century Pendor treated its AIs like citizens. Now everyone does."
Belle shook her head, shocked. She had been prepared when the universe had been new, but unchanged. Now she realized that it was too different. "I don't belong here."
"Sure you do," Ewan said. "You're an ordinary person, just like Misuko here."
"Aren't you?" Belle said, her voice hollow. "Don't tell me you're a robot too."
"Oh, no," Ewan said. "But I've got symbolware-- hardware installed in my brain. It lets me store memories, skills, experiences in external storage devices, and reload them when I want them. But you're like Misuko here-- a real oddity, a hundred percent biological."
Belle looked over at Misuko, who said, "You're a human being. We're infinitely adaptable. You will get used to life, find a place to fit in, a way. Trust me, you will. I did." She saw the question in Belle's eyes and shook her head. "No, I'm not from your millenium. I'm from a world called Abi, where biocybernetics and AI are frowned on. So I'm all-meat, as the machineware folks like to say."
Linia said, "You must be hungry, Belle. It's been three hours since you walked out of the awakening house, and I know Nawazi only put a few bagels and some coffee in the basket."
Belle looked up. Hungry? The sensation was new to her, in a way that was old and unfamiliar. She had been years hungry, when she had been aged and unable to eat the way others did. First it was the pap, and then the nutritional regimen, and then the intravenous feeders as her GI tract had simply becoame too decrepit to process food. She felt something, though, right behind her solar plexus, and down below, in her belly. A hunger. "Yes," she said, not sure if that was the right answer. "I am hungry."
"Good!" Linia said.
"Mind if I come along?" Ewan said. "I don't have anything to do until your ship comes in, Misuko."
Misuko's eyes twinkled suddenly at the mention of 'her ship.' She grinned. "I don't mind at all, Ewan. So long as you stop making eyes at my lover!"
Linia put her hands on her hips. "Yeah, Ewan. Really!"
Ewan put out his hand to Belle. "My Lady, if I may escort thee to a place of victuals?"
Misuko reached out and playfully bapped Ewan on the arm. "Wrong century!"
"Hey!" He turned back to Belle. "Ignore them. They're miscreants. Malcontents. Rebels sans clues. Misuko and Linia are the most disreputable sort of people about. They're adventurers." He hissed the last word, then smiled. "And I'm going to join them. But Linia is right. It is time for lunch. Do you mind if I join you?"
Belle felt as if she had been wrapped with ribbons that were now all unfurling at once, her attention leaking away as each one exposed her to more and more of the world into which she had awakened. She felt that more than skin was being exposed with each ribbon, but instead her self was showing through. She wondered if they could see it. For the first time since she had married Brad, she felt as if she had the freedom to show herself to others. It had been so long since she had been with young people she had forgotten the laughter, the pleasure, the energy with which they faced the world. But they weren't really young, were they? "How old are you?" she asked him suddenly.
"Me? Six hundred, I think. Something like that." He was quiet for a second. "Six hundred and sixteen years, one hundred and sixty-eight days, eleven hours, six minutes from birth. Pendorian standard time units. Do you need me to convert to Terran?"
"No," Belle said. Ewan had just shown the power of his-- what had he called it?-- symbolware. He could do in his head instantly what she would have taken several minutes to achieve with her fingers, if she even had had access to the information. "And you, Misuko?"
"I'm young. Barely fifty." She looked past Belle to the ocean, a faraway look to faraway places. "I can't believe I'm in charge of this."
"How old are you?"
"That depends on how you do the math. Technically, if you count only the sleep/wake cycles that we primary sentient types go through, I'm only about fifteen years old. I was built in the 5th century, but my owner only had me for ten years before I was put into storage. It wasn't until four years ago that Misuko found me. In this century, I have equal rights and freedoms as a citizen. But I was manufactured in 598, Pendorian. Um, 2482."
Belle nodded, still stunned. "Could I... Could live as long as you?" she asked Ewan.
"I assume so."
Misuko said, "When we rebuilt your body, we did change a few things here and there. You had remarkably good health, one of the reasons you managed to make it to a hundred and thirty, but you still received the standard Pendorian suite of restorative treatements. You have a five-chambered heart now, for example, and your food needs will go up proportionately."
Belle put her hand over her chest. "It won't feel any different," Ewan said. "You won't even notice it until you're asleep. And then you won't notice it." He clapped his hands. "We're getting off the subject. Food!"
Linia said, "I'm going to make lunch. You guys can stay here and straggle in. I'll have food ready by the time you get there. I know what Misuko's having. Ewan? Surprise?" Ewan nodded. "Good. And I think that I'll surprise Belle, too. If memory serves me right, you liked Mexican food?"
"I haven't been able to..." She looked up at Linia. "They put a lot in my dossier, didn't they?"
"They wanted you to have the world when you awoke." Linia turned away and walked up the sand. Belle watched her go, her loose, creamy slacks flapping in the late morning breeze, her hair sweeping forward.
"Ouch!" Belle noticed that the cigarette she had been not been smoking had burned down to a nub between her two fingers. "Damn!"
"That's gonna hurt," Ewan said. "Come on. Let's get some silver on that, and go see what Linia's cooking up for us."
He led the party up the sand to the edge of the village. The quilted look gave way to narrow, blue-tiled walkways leading into the town, up eight tiers hewn into the hillside, each one with a clear view of the water. "How many people live here?"
"In San Daria? About a hundred and ninety, all told," Ewan said. "It's very quiet. We like it this way." He made a right turn, stopped at a small, white-plastered house with purple trim. "That smells good, whatever it is."
The front room was barely furnished with a small, low table, cushions everywhere, and a rug that did not quite reach the walls. The walls had that heavy, painted look often found in tropical regions. "It doesn't feel like the future."
"It's not supposed to," Misuko said. "People don't like the future. They like the past. Where they've lived comfortably. Our houses are made to be familiar."
"Lunch!" Linia's announcement interrupted any response Belle might have made. She came out with a tray laden with two bowls, one steaming, a small stack of plates and bowls for people to eat with, and a covered box.
"What is that?" Ewan asked suspiciously.
"Chicken tacos with cranberry onion relish," Linia said. "And jicima pineapple salad, white wine vinegar with cilantro dressing." She disappeared into the kitchen, then returned with another tray. "Iced tea. No sugar," she said gravely.
"Yes, ma'am," Ewan said.
There were four plates, four bowls, four glasses of tea. "Are you eating, Linia?" Belle said.
"Of course I am," Linia said, sitting on the floor and taking a plate. She recovered a flatbread from the box, spooned out a small handful of the chicken and relish mix onto it, put some of the salad next to it, and handed it to Belle. "You're the guest." She made another for herself. "I'm the youngest." She giggled. "Ewan, having the bad taste to be both old and male, goes last."
Ewan merely "Hmph'd."
Belle tried a bite. It was surprisingly delicious. "Why do you eat?" she asked Linia.
"Eating's a social activity," Linia said. "If I didn't eat with you, you'd think I was being unsociable. So robots eat. I'm not eating much, you notice-- just enough not to arouse human instincts. And it's not wasted. I use it for some things. My outer skin needs repair, my hair too, and the way I smell and taste."
"Oh." Belle made herself another, ultimately eating three and helping herself to a second round of the sweet, crunchy salad. The she sat back and closed her eyes. She felt the strange sensation of a full belly, of contentment in her soul. "Yesterday..." she began to say. She looked up at Misuko. "Was there a yesterday?"
"You tell me. What happened yesterday?"
"Doctor Donnabhain came to me and asked me to sign something. A release form for an experimental procedure. I was going to be going to another medical facility on the other side of Chicago, where they were going to scan my brain... that's where they made those recordings, isn't it?" Misuko nodded. "He asked me how I felt. I said some awful things to him, I think. Something angry. I hurt so much." She looked down at her hands. "That wasn't me."
"Yes, it was." Misuko took a drink from her tea. "That was you. Just because you're young again doesn't mean it wasn't. Just because another copy of you died sixteen days after that doesn't mean that this copy of you isn't real."
"Let me give you a piece of advice," Ewan said. "From one human being dependent upon technology for his identity to another. It doesn't matter that someone named Isabelle Mannheim died. What matters is that you're here, with us, now. You have a hundred and thirty years of memories that are yours and nobody else's. We don't have a technology that can tell us what's going on in your soul. We can't tell your story. You can. You do."
She looked at them, so young, so earnest. They couldn't understand. It was different for her. She had been old. She had suffered. She had seen the ages that human beings go through. They would never know the threat that death presented to them. That kind of suffering was part of their past, a kind of legend to them. "I died."
Linia said, "And you slept. And when you awoke, you were different from when you went to sleep. This is a different kind of awakening."
"Nobody wakes up younger and in the future."
"They do now."
Something occurred to her. "Does this happen a lot? I mean, finding people from the past and waking them back up?"
"Not as often as we'd like," Misuko said. "There were a lot of people braced from your era, but most of them were resurrected towards the end of the 12th century, when we had the technology to do it reliably even with really bad, degraded tapes. You're a special case. Your recordings were lost for centuries, so it's been centuries since we did anyone from your era, and you are especially early in the Terran bracing tradition. Which was fortunate for you. Your discs were especially crude, so degradation didn't affect them very much. All of the data was there."
"Lucky me," Belle sighed. She shifted uncomfortably on her pillow for a moment and then she realized what she was experiencing. "Is there a... a... "
"Bathroom," Linia said, pointing down the hallway. "On your right."
"Thank you." Belle rose and found the door Linia had indicated. It looked like every other bathroom, just like the one at the awakening house, perhaps a bit smaller. She raised her dress and sat on the toilet, and the sheer pleasure of being able to pee swept through her. She had forgotten that this, too, was part of being alive.
She sighed as the need passed out of her. A minute later she was rejoining the party when a loud roar from outside sent Misuko scrambling to her feet. "It's here! It's here!" she shouted. "Excuse me, all of you!" She disappeared out the front door.
Linia giggled. "A girl with a new toy."
"Was she like this with you?" Ewan asked.
"Oh, no. With me, she was just confused. Remember, she didn't want me. Nobody ever really wants a new love in their life. It just kinda happens."
"Well, there was that bit about you being a robot and all," he said.
"It wasn't just me. It was Nozette, too."
Ewan nodded. He put his plate back on the tray, along with Misuko's, and carried it all back into the kitchen. "Come on. Vandrad will take care of it."
Linia nodded. "Coming, Belle?"
She nodded and followed them back down to the beach, a bit bewildered once more. She could make out the object of Misuko's excitement far offshore. She did not know the actual distance so gauging its size was difficult, but even so she understood that it was a very big ship. It was also completely enclosed, a catamaran design with a bubbled top and strange outrigger pods. It was a glistening bluish-white color where there were no windows. "It's perfect," Misuko breathed as Linia came up beside them. "We could lift the whole ship with it."
"Well, we're not about to try that," Ewan said. "Just one part at a time."
Misuko nodded. "I hope we'll find something worth recovering."
"You know you will," Ewan said.
"How many stories have you sold?" Linia said. "Dozens! Don't worry, lover. We'll survive. Let's go on board, sweetheart."
Misuko allowed Linia to lead them to a small, concrete platform next to the steps leading down to the beach from the town. She stepped on it and said, "Van? Take me to the Blue Monday."
They disappeared. Ewan stepped onto the platform. "Coming?" he asked Belle. She stepped onto it. She had been on SDisks before, a few years ago when she and Brad had gone to Pendor. She'd never seen one made of concrete before, but she wasn't about to complain. "Same place, Van."
"Who's Van?" she asked. "The AI?"
"A local AI," Ewan said as they stepped off the disk into a large, open room with six chairs arranged at consoles, each of which was arranged along the half-circle front bow window. The curiously comforting sterile blue-white that made up the outer hull was visible here, too.
Linia was sitting at a console, and there was something bizarre on her shoulder. Belle stared at it until she realized she was looking at the bare back of a doll with diaphanous wings carefully folded down. The doll was only slightly more than a foot tall. "Hello?" she said.
"Just a second," Linia said, raising her left hand as her right danced over the console. "There." She swiveled in her chair. "What do you think of Misuko's ship?"
"Misuko's?" Ewan asked. "Misuko's and the Consortium's, maybe."
"True." She turned her head to look at the doll sitting on her shoulder. "I should do introductions. Belle, this is De Ette. De Ette, this is Isabelle Mannheim."
"You recovered!" the doll said, lifting off Linia's shoulder on those ridiculous wings. "I'm so pleased to meet you." She flittered close to Belle and held out her hand. "Hi, I'm De Ette Nozette, the ship's AI."
Belle blinked, stunned by the sight of such a tiny creature. "I..."
De Ette laughed. "Sorry. I realize that my appearance is surprising. It's meant to be. Wait until you meet my other half."
"Other half?" Belle said.
"Here," said a sweet-pitched voice behind her. Belle turned to see another robot drifting about head-height through the door, this one just slightly smaller than De Ette, in a puffy pink costume tied with a red ribbon about the waist that trailed behind her and a pink, puffy cap. "Hi, I'm Nozumi Nozette."
Belle's eyes flicked back and forth between the two of them. "You're the ship's AI?"
De Ette nodded. "Both of us. Nozumi does the navigation and ship's maintenence. I'm the Captain."
Belle looked over at Linia, who was looking back, her face concerned. Belle turned back to De Ette. "Are you married?"
"Worse," De Ette said. "We're the same person. We used to be two separate AIs, but we decided that we liked each other enough that we merged our core functions. We decided that Nozette would maintain two separate threads for interaction and those threads are decorated with the personalities of who we were-- De Ette, who's boisterous and sexy, and Nozumi, who's shy and dutiful. Most of our friends haven't noticed a difference since the merging."
"Hmph," Linia said. "Yes we have."
Belle shook her head. "This century is going to take some getting used to."
"Of course it is," Misuko said, stepping through a doorway. "But the basics are still the same. People are people. Even De Ette and Nozumi are people. Treat them the way you would want to be treated, and they'll treat you back that way."
Linia stepped closer to Belle. "Come with me. Misuko and Nozette are going to be going over the ship for a while. It was supposed to be here a week ago, so we would have time to spend with you, but it was held up for reasons no one has told us."
She nodded, still bewildered. "It'll take so long," she moaned.
"Yes, it will," Linia agreed. "Come back to the house. Meet Van. See your room."
She looked at Linia, then nodded. Linia guided her back to the SDisk and then up the steps to her house. "Here," Linia said, handing her a tablet with a display screen. "Van, give her a decent portal. I'm going to make bread."
Her screen cleared and she saw the same kind of display that had become ubiquitous on Earth in her last decades: a list of categories, all of which were simple and recognizeable. She heard a thumping sound from the kitchen and walked in to find Linia kneading bread the old-fashioned way, her hands covered in sticky dough. "Your newspapers are so..."
"What?" Linia asked.
"The headline on the Discovery Daily. 'Heliades and Ulagammi: is it love, or just the same old thing?' It's like a tabloid. The headline is about movie stars."
"If you look at the list on the right, you can find production numbers for agriculture, debates about urban sprawl, the allocation of reproductive resources, everything."
"But the headline..."
"The alternative is that the headline is about something critical to your survival. Money. War. Disease. Something that will really get your attention, get your heart racing. That's what the people who put newspapers together care about: readership. This is what they think will get your attention. Be grateful for newspapers filled with trivalities. If you want serious news, you can find it."
Belle shook her head, then went back to reading. She was glad Linia had pointed out to her the economics section.
Ewan walked in and out of the house as she read, studied, and watched. After a few hours, she rose and walked to the window, looked out over the ocean. Ewan came up behind her and said, "Are you okay?"
She tried to nod, but Ewan's naive question struck deep. In her chest, her heart (her five-chambered heart, she remembered with sudden clarity) constricted tight, and then the tears came. Unexpected, inexplicable, she turned and grabbed ahold of him. The tears were... she couldn't put words to them. They were of gratitude at the magnificence of the gift given her, of mourning at the life she had left behind, of confusion at the kaleidescope reality that had swirled around her. She needed to let it go, to wash herself clean of the day so far, to start over again. She wished she were back in her bed, she wished she were dead, she wished... she wished... she couldn't wish for what she wished.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Should I call someone?"
Belle nearly giggled through her tears. "No," she said. "No, I'll be okay. It's just been so... stressful."
"I read you," Ewan said. "My Dad used to say that there were three cures for stress: sleep, food, and sex. But Dad didn't sail, so he didn't know about that one."
"You have a..." She pushed away from Ewan and looked at him. It hadn't occurred to her that he might have parents. But that was silly. This wasn't that kind of science-fiction story. Or was it? "Does everyone have parents?"
"Everyone has a family," Ewan said. "Everyone who exists was wanted by someone, somehow." He smiled. "My Dad is both my family and my biofather. Mom tried to have me the old-fashioned way, but it was too hard for her. She said she made it to five months before the doctors d-sectioned her and I finished gestation in a hospital tank. She had my brothers in the tank all the way."
"You have brothers?"
"Two. Beric and Val. Neither one is as handsome as me." His bragging was obviously meant to be ironic.
Belle giggled. "You're an interesting person, Ewan."
"Naw, I'm just some oceanographer sailor dude who happens to be with Misuko and Linia for their third expedition to the Second Chances."
"My grave," Belle said. "Can I go?"
"Can I go on the trip? I mean, is there a reason I can't go on this trip with you people? Do you not have enough room or something?"
"No, we've got plenty of room," Ewan agreed. "I'll have to ask Misuko. It's her mission. And you're Linia's responsibility."
It was becoming dark outside. Night was coming. "I haven't seen a sunset in years. I've been inside, in a hospital."
"Well, you can't really see it from here, either," Ewan said. "You could climb the lighthouse tower and watch it go down behind the mountains, but they're only about a hundred klicks from here, across Plath lake."
"How could you miss it?" Ewan said. He led her out of the house and up the steps. Just as he had said, there was a lighthouse tower at the top of the hill. It was a narrow tower, modern to her thinking, more suited to mounting a windpower generator than a light. "We just use it for observation," Ewan said. "And of course to neck."
A small, open elevator with a geared crawl stuck out the side of the tower, and Ewan led her into the basket. The elevator ascended to the top, where a crow's nest waited. Even as they reached the top, the sun was already touching the mountains. The wind here was fierce, whipping her hair into her eyes. She swore gently, trying to hold it back. Ewan was kind and tucked it into her dress, where it itched but she ignored that. She was watching the sun. For a brief second, there was a single finger of light pointing right at her. Then the sun was gone, only its glow left behind. Cold wrapped quickly around her. "They call these things sun dresses for a reason," she said.
"We'd better get down before it gets too dark. There won't be a moon tonight, not that there's much of one when it is up, and San Daria doesn't have much light pollution. We've got astronomers."
She looked back at the fading glow of the first day of her new life and she wondered what she would do with the memories of the old one. Tell them, Linia had said. That was why she had been resurrected, after all.. To tell her story. It was a story without consequences now-- nobody would be hurt by the truths she would tell, the feelings she would relive, the lives she would expose. Hers, included. She could not believe that these people, here and now, would hate her for the woman she had been.
She looked at Ewan as he held the gate to the elevator basket open. She joined him, and they descended downwards. Her stomach growled, surprising her with a new, old sensation. "I'm hungry," she said, more in surprise than complaint.
"Linia will probably have something for us," Ewan replied. "Let's go see."
He led her back down into the town. There were more people milling about the narrow, curving streets cut into the expansive hillside, and they all looked at her with a welcoming curiosity. She didn't see any children.
At the visitor's house, Linia was already busy cooking something. In the front room, Misuko and the little pink doll-- Nozomi, Belle recalled-- were playing some strange game with dice. "Wimpout!" Misuko grumbled. The little pink doll scooped up five dice in her arms and tossed them onto the floor. "Thirty, thirty five... I win!"
"Last licks!" Misuko said, grabbing the dice and rattling them in her hand. She tossed them, then said "Wrecked! Curses!"
De Ette flitted out from somewhere and Ewan observed, "Huh. A conspiracy of robots."
"A what?" Misuko asked.
"You know. A murder of crows, an exultation of larks, a business of ferrets, a parliament of owls." He spread his hands to encompass the room. "A conspiracy of robots."
De Ette's crazy flight took her to his cheek, where she kissed him gently. "I thought it was a gear of robots."
"Non-human robots," Nozomi said. "I think he's right. A collective for humanoid robots is a conspiracy."
"Why 'conspiracy?'" Belle blurted before she could stop herself. "I'm asking so many questions."
"No, that's okay," Nozomi said. She was standing on the floor now and looked somewhat absurd from that position. Her voice was soft and girlish but not shrunken or pitched up as Belle might have expected. "It's a conspiracy because robots are in a conspiracy of sorts. We like making human lives satisfied and fulfilled. We're dedicated to doing what's in the best interest of those we serve. We enjoy it. We trade data back and forth all the time to make sure that we stay up to date on what that is. The Conspiracy of Robots."
"The food, the house, everything," Misuko said. "We're not the pets of the machines. It's just that humans have enriched the ecosystem to such a degree that it's not just the air and the sunlight that are free, but the food, the water, and the land. The last is only partly true. Land can still be expensive, but only in highly urbanized areas where the AIs must spend resources to maintain the high density levels." She shrugged. "Some people just like living in cities. They have to find a way to pay for it. That enrichment means the system has to be conscious to some degree. So... the conspiracy of robots."
"We like havin' them around because they provide us with things that mean we don't have to feel, uh, 'routine' pain, like hunger or homelessness," Ewan said. "We don't like those things... just because it's what we are. So we have AIs that like to take care of those things... just because."
"But, you said there was money..." Belle said.
"There's IU... industrial units. There's an exchange rate between the types-- heavy mechanical, light, environmental, computational, agricultural, and territorial. There's a stock market for it all. Humans mostly trade in LIUs, because that's what people have to trade back and forth and what AIs are willing to pay for what human beings produce for AIs."
"What do human beings produce for AIs?"
"The thrill of the new," Linia said as she came out from the kitchen, a tray in hand. "Stories, tales, art. What humans do best of all and AIs can't predict. Create." She dropped a handful of forks, knives and napkins on the table.
"AIs will pay handsomely to be part of the distribution of a new story, especially if it's really good. There are people out there who make good money doing nothing but describing their life in detail well enough that thousands of others want to read it," Misuko said. "I'm not nearly exhibitionistic enough for that."
"No Shardik, huh?" De Ette asked.
"No way," Misuko said.
Linia disappeared into the kitchen again, returned with a tray. "Stir fry. Lots of vegetables, short grain rice. No meat tonight."
Belle saw Misuko turn to Linia with a questioning look. Linia reached down and traced Misuko's cheek with her finger. "Every once in a while, sweetheart, I think I might be overdoing it."
Misuko grinned. "You're so good for me."
"My pleasure, Ma'am. Hold that smile for tonight." Linia sat down and began passing out bowls. She offered chopsticks as well as forks. She seemed genuinely pleased when Belle weilded hers with skill. "Wow. Nobody else can do that!"
Belle grinned and helped Ewan with his as Linia helped Misuko. Both seemed determine to figure out the arcane practice, and soon all four were managing, although Linia better than anyone else. De Ette and Nozomi disappeared for the meal out of politeness. It made Belle wonder if AIs were different from robots over the rules of etiquette.
Linia brought out a dessert, announcing "Apples sauted in brandy and cinnamon, wrapped in spring rolls, with unsweetened soft-whipped cream. I made the apples while I made lunch, so they should be cool."
Belle tried hers and was rewarded with a flood of rich, sweet sensations that didn't stop at her mouth but instead reached down all the way to her feet, making her shiver. Before, when she had been rich, she had been spoiled on the best food mankind could offer, but the menu had been limited to the kinds of food her chefs felt she "should" eat. Linia, in contrast, had access to an entire world's database of recipies and she didn't care what people "should" eat. She just wanted them to eat well. "How did you get the cinnamon in there?" Belle asked her.
"Eh?" Linia asked. "Oh. I core the apples and put them into a pressure cooker with just a thin layer of apple cider on the bottom to keep them moist. I pack them so they're all sitting up and put one loose cinnamon stick where the core used to be."
Belle nodded. She wondered if she would ever have an opportunity to use what she had just learned. Probably not. Probably not? She had all the time in the world. Of course she could learn to cook for herself. Memories of her eighteenth year roused within her and she recalled sneaking into her father's massive kitchen at the lake to steal fresh strawberries and sugar.
"I've had a long day," Misuko said as she stretched out. "Linia? I think the ship will be ready soon. Can you ask De Ette when she plans on leaving?"
Linia looked back and said, "Probably no less than two weeks. And we still need to park it about Hiroshi to assemble the crews."
Misuko nodded. "I'm in so much trouble."
Linia held down her hand, her face wearing tolerant smile. "We'll make it, lover. I'm sure it'll be worth it. Besides, if worse comes to worse, we can always sell it. Maybe a First Family will buy it."
"Yeah," Misuko snorted. "Maybe." She turned to Ewan and Belle. "Will you two be okay by yourselves? We're heading to bed."
"We should be fine," Ewan said. Belle nodded her head with agreement.
She was alone with Ewan again. She asked him, "Ewan? Could I have another cigarette? I... I didn't really get to enjoy the other one very much."
"Sure," he said, grinning as he handed her one. "We should take it outside, though. It's polite." They both rose and found their way to the tiled street. He help up a lit match, sheilding it from the wind with his other hand. She lit the cigarette, inhaled, held it, exhaled. The sensation was exquisite, a reminder of why she had smoked in the first place. But this wasn't the relief of satisfying an addictive need, this was a pleasure in and of itself.
Ewan watched her closely. "They're not physically adddictive," he said, "But you might want to pay attention to that kind of reaction."
She looked up at him, eyes half-lidded with pleasure. Ewan was as physically close to a perfect specimen of manhood as she had imagined. Every man she had met that day looked young to her, every woman looked like a girl-- but most of them were older than she was. And every one of them had looked as if they were at the height of their attractiveness, as if there were nothing-- no surgeon's knife, no cosmetician's magic-- that could improve them. It was not that they were copies or stamped from molds. It was simply that they looked right, whoever they were.
Ewan was typical of the cast. He was tall and strong and full. His mouth looked soft, but his overall face and body were masculine in a way that came naturally. His hair was as short as possible to still be considered hair. It was probably some light brown color.
"Brad, you've been dead for fifteen years," she muttered.
"I was thinking of my husband. He's been dead for... " She paused. "A long time." She kept thinking that tomorrow she might wake up in the hospital again, lost in the suffering haze of pain. There were ways to check and make sure you were still a part of reality, but she didn't know them. She wondered if she could look them up.
"Just thinking, Ewan. Do you have a girlfriend?"
"Me?" he said. "Naw. Not right now. Why?"
She shook her head again. She had surprised herself by the original question, and she knew where her thoughts were headed. Maybe it was a deliberate step on Linia's part, she wondered, to have someone as handsome as Ewan at hand. She didn't even know what his relationship to Linia and Misuko was, other than that he was apparently a specialist in something about the ocean, Linia was medical, and Misuko was-- a historian? She needed to talk to them all more, find out where she was.
She also needed to get a grip on who she was. She kept having to suppress momentary flashes of anger at these... kids... who seemed so carefree. She kept having to remind herself that there was no "serious work" to be done, that she didn't have hundreds of millions of dollars and couldn't order people about. She was like Misuko and Linia and Ewan. Trapped in a world where she had no access to servants because everyone was incredibly, wonderfully free.
"When did that happen?"
She took another drag on the cigarette, enjoying the sensation. It was definitely doing something to her. It made her feel better, happier. "Why don't people smoke more?"
"You mean, use the a-t-nicotine tobacco? Feels good, doesn't it?"
"For the same reason they don't drink more. It's not sociable, except when done with others." Ewan smoked his own, she saw. He hadn't done that this morning. "You're a very beautiful woman, Belle."
She looked at him and thought to herself: is it him, or is it the cigarette? She didn't think it could be the cigarette. It wasn't as if she were high. Her judgement was not impaired. She knew the difference. She simply felt better. Happier.
She looked over at Ewan and said, "When I was younger, we used to joke about how Pendorians would jump into bed with anything that moved. Is that still true?"
Ewan laughed. "Naw. Now everyone's like that."
Belled smiled back. Her heart beat louder. Her heart had been heading in this direction ever since the trip to the observation tower, and she knew it. The Pendorians had given her back every sensual pleasure she had missed when she had been old, every bodily sensation she had ignored or taken for granted back when she was rich and pleasure came from being rich, from being better than the other guy. "Damned limousine."
"Huh?" Ewan asked.
Her memories seemed to be coming at random. "The limousine. Brad and I went to some charity event in downtown New York. You know where that is... was?" He nodded. "We showed up in the biggest limousine Brad could find. Then the Trumps showed up in one just a little bit bigger. Brad spent the entire night fuming, and when we got back in to go home he told me, 'I am never letting that happen to you again.' Except it wasn't about me. It was about him. And at the time I agreed with him! We would never let it happen again."
Ewan shook his head. "Must have been one hairy big car."
She shrugged. "I don't care anymore."
Ewan stood and stretched. Belle knew what he was about to say next and she chose to interrupt him before he could. "Ewan, if 'everyone's like that' now... are you like that?"
"Miss Belle, are you sure you want me to answer that?"
"I... I do. I do want you to answer that."
"I like you and all. I think you're beautiful. But you just woke up from the hospital and everything's changed for you. Are you sure you want to..."
"Dammit, Ewan, I'm older than Misuko is, and from what I'm hearing coming from that other room nothing's slowing her down." Indeed, the thumps, giggles, and moans were more than a little suggestive.
"Yah, they're like that," Ewan said. He shook his head. "They've been together for something like six years now and they don't seem to be getting tired of it."
She bit her lip. "I want some attention. I can't just get it from anyone."
"I am just anyone," he pointed out.
"You're an anyone I know." She walked up to him and put her hands on his chest. She could feel his heartbeat underneath his t-shirt. It was loud, hard, as if he were scared by the prospect. "Please?"
"I'll do my best," he said. He took her hand and led her down the hallway. "I don't think Linia even showed you your room." He opened it and she looked in approvingly. The bed was a simple wooden-framed thing, big enough for two but not luxuriously so, with a canopy that looked functional rather than decorative.
Without waiting for him, she leapt onto the bed and pulled on the hem of her sundress, tugging it up over her head with a smooth gesture. She looked down at her small breasts, cupped them in her palms as if to offer them to Ewan. "Touch me," she told him. "Please."
Ewan stepped forward and leaned down, kissing one of the proffered nipples. The warmth of his lips shot straight up into her head and down to her cunt. She felt a wetness that hadn't been there for half her life. She couldn't decide which was more important, more significant: Ewan's suckling mouth or her own dripping. She decided that if Ewan could give her more then obviously he was.
She found his pants, discovered that they were held up with an old-fashioned elastic band. With a quick tug she pulled them down about his ankles and his cock sprang upwards. She gasped at it. "It's huge!"
"Naw, this is just a little bigger than average." It was bigger than Brad, of that she was sure. It was thick, frighteningly so.
"Ewan..." She stopped. "If this is a new body, am I a virgin?"
"Don't think so," he said. "You weren't in your last life, and this body is made to be like the one you remember."
"Oh," she said. "I hope you're right." She gripped it in her hand and slid her hand along its substantial length. She had to know what it tasted like. She had to know.
She lowered her head to it and licked at the crown. Ewan moaned softly even as she tasted the slick skin of the pink head, the sweat collected under his foreskin, the slippery ripples right where it flared out, just barely, before becoming part of the shaft. She licked along his cock as if it were some rare dessert, some special treat made just for her. It smelled of the salt surf and the day's sweat. Her hand slipped down to his ballsac, found the small eggs in their wrinkled, hairy package. Ewan's moans grew as she played with his scrotum, tugging on it even as she tossed her head back and forth along the length of his cock.
She looked at his cock, at the head pointing directly at her face, then up at him. "You can play with me any way you like," Ewan said softly. She nodded and leaned down, opening her mouth as far as she could to accept his monster into her mouth. Maybe it had been just her eyes, adjusting to the sight, but in her mouth it didn't feel so big. Bigger than Brad, certainly, and her imagination flashed on one of the many nights at Rackit where she had pleased him this way, the domineering, strong Brad, before their marriage and their graduation to more legitimate kinds of lovemaking. And then the inevitable infidelities, the conflicts, the...
She pressed ahead, taking as much of Ewan's cock into her throat, determined to get as much pleasure out of tonight as she could, to leave behind as much pain as she could. To ignore the ignominous nature of her last life. To celebrate what she had now: youth, pleasure, freedom.
Ewan didn't know of her distress or, if he did, gave no sign of it. A perfect gentleman, he kept his hips still, not thrusting until her hand on his ass suggested otherwise. He thrust a little bit, and with her other hand wrapped firmly about the base of his cock they found a steady, pleasurable rhythm. She was determined.
But Ewan was just as determined. He pushed her away by her shoulders and she fell to the bed, breathless with her own efforts. He pounced on top of her, kissed her mouth. "You'll make me come like that," he whispered. "And then I won't get a chance to fuck you."
"I want you to fuck me," she whispered back. She couldn't believe she had just said that. No words like that had ever come out of her mouth before. But it was true. She was overcome with images of him penetrating her. "I want you to nail me."
"Now that's one I haven't heard before," he said. "But, y'know, there are preliminaries!" He slid down the length of her body and planted his mouth solidly on her cunt. She moaned with the warmth his kiss, his invading tongue, poured into her. She had masturbated once that day already, but this was nothing like that-- Ewan's gifted tongue slithered around her cunt, making her body vibrate with ecstastic sensation that she couldn't deny. She was coming even before she realized how good she felt, how special, how beloved. Her body was overwhelmed, her mind and soul bathed in his attention.
His body was covering her. "Are you sure?" he asked her.
"Yes!" she gasped. She pulled her legs up exposing her cunt for him in the most obscene way she could imagine. She felt the head of his cock against her lips and then he was sliding the length of it inside her. He filled her, the memories of this act driven out by the reality of his massiveness within her body, his powerful, athletic body on top of her. His breath was in her ear, his muscular arms about her shoulders. He pushed her down to the bed, he fucked her. The first few strokes were gentle and then he was nothing but a man in the grip of lust, fucking her. She loved it, she wanted more, she couldn't get enough.
"Would you like to change positions?" he asked suddenly, stopping.
"No!" she groaned. "No, just fuck me."
He grabbed her by the ass and pushed her onto the bed until his knees found purchase. She hadn't been aware that he'd been standing half-off the bed until then. He scooted her body back until her head hit the pillows, and then he slid his cock back into her until they had merged again into one being. His thrusts were gentle again, slower, and they gave her a moment to catch her breath. Then he was loose, crazed, demanding. It amazed her that two bodies could do so much violence to one another and enjoy it so much. She grabbed his arms and held onto him as his beautiful cock pounded her, sent waves through her body, made her whole self ripple with pleasure. She was coming again, this time fully aware of it, fully aware of him, aware of his cock, her cunt, heat.
When Ewan came it was with a shout so loud it stunned her ears. She had never heard a bellow like that-- it was a celebration, jubilation, joy in one masculine, powerful noise. He pounded her, his cock like a thing of metal and stone not flesh and blood as he climaxed.
"Oh, God," she gasped as his cock slipped out of her cunt. "Oh, God." Her body felt like it was ready to melt, to collapse into the bed. She wanted to hold onto this moment as long as she could, to never let go of it, to stay here with this feeling, forever. She wanted that even as the sensation slipped away from her. She sighed.
"Wow," Ewan said. "You're a hot woman for being two thousand years old."
She laughed and hugged him. "And you're astounding!"
"Naw, just a dude." He laughed, and so did she. He glanced down at her and said, "You know, we never kissed." He closed the distance between them, touching his lips to hers.
She responded gently. It felt good to kiss Ewan, special in a way the fuck hadn't been. It was gentle and loving and she appreciated him for his care. "Yes we did," she said when they separated. "You kissed me once before you went down on me."
"I forgot that one," he said. "Do you want me to leave you, or..."
"I think I'd like company."
"Good for me," he said. "I'm tired."
"You should be, after that."
She awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of gentle snoring to her right. Her bladder was tight behind her pelvis and she sneaked quietly out of bed and down into the bathroom. It was odd how... pleasurable... it was to be able to pee for herself. Just one of the many pleasures that she had had to give up as she got older and lost control of her body.
But now-- She walked into the front room. It was the way she had seen it before going to bed. Cleaned up, everything put away, the simple handmade rug under the low serving table looking a little worn to her now, a little experienced. She crossed to the window she had looked out earlier and wondered.
She had been half-afraid of waking up back in her hospital bed, the fantasy over. But no, she had re-awakened to the same world in which she had fallen asleep, not the world in which she had slept just two nights ago. It still didn't seem real. She kept thinking that it was only Tuesday, and she had been with her doctor only Sunday, but they didn't even use those days of the week anymore as far as she knew. It was all too strange, too removed. She touched the edge of the window, the rough plastered rim that kept out the storms with force fields but permitted tonight's gentle breezes, and she smiled. These people...
The edge of the window was worn down with the experience of hundreds of years of people doing exactly what she was doing, leaning out, looking out. This place reminded her, briefly, of the Bahamas, and the older French and Spanish estates that she had visited there. She looked down at the window and understood something she had only begun to understand in her former life. The pressure Brad and her parents had put on the new, on keeping up appearances, on keeping the facade pure, had been an attempt to erase any knowledge of the passage of time. Her experiences were meant to channel her into being one thing: a conduit through which knowledge led to wealth. She had been good at it, but in doing so she had forgotten to look at what she was buying and appreciate it for what it was.
The beautiful cars, the perfect food, the utterly exquisite house-- she had never looked at them the way she looked at this window, had never understood the passage of time the way she did now. She had experienced the biggest leap any human being had ever experienced. "Ever," she whispered. "My God."
Belle turned and saw a small red dot hovering in the air behind her, recognized the voice. "Linia? What's that light?"
"Oh, this." It blinked out for a moment. Belle saw it travel down into her hand. "It's a little tag that used to be embedded in my forehead when I was manufactured. Misuko asked that I take it off in public, but I asked her if I could keep it in private. She agreed. I think she kinda likes it now. It makes a good night light." Linia stepped closer and Belle realized she wasn't wearing any clothes. Neither of them were. "I heard you moving about and I wondered if you were okay."
"Guess I should be careful with a robot about," Belle said. "Since you don't need sleep and can probably see in the dark."
"Oh, I need sleep," Linia said. "Not as much as you do, but I still need it. Lets my brain organize memories without consciousness getting in the way and making more. Sorta what you do when you dream."
"Really?" Belle asked. "How strange."
"Are you okay?"
"Yes," Belle said. "A little lost. But-- I think my memories are sorting themselves out, too. It is a little hard for me to accept that I'm in the 51st century, but I don't have much choice about it." She looked out across the water, saw the glittering, hard curve of Misuko's ship.
Linia chuckled and joined her at the window. "It's a pretty ship, isn't it? Poor Misuko."
"Because... My beloved is broke. Worse, she's in very serious debt."
"Because of that ship?"
Linia nodded. "It's a special purpose vessel. It's meant to lift very large vessels off the sea floor intact and transport them interstellar distances. That's just one of three components-- the other two are a drydocking framework in space, and then there's the hyperdrive engine. Several AIs fronted her a lot of money to let her order and manufacture it, but she's so broke... and it's eating away at her. She doesn't even understand what it means to be in debt, but she understands that it's bad."
"What did she leverage?"
"The only thing we have. Her academic value. When she digs up the rest of the Second Chances, she hopes to find enough material to pay off the debt."
Belle paused to consider that. Misuko's academic value? "Will she?"
Linia frowned. "It's possible." Her face, in the dim moonlight reflected off the ocean in the near distance, told Belle that she doubted.
"Does anyone else need that ship?"
"I don't know. I don't think so."
"But you didn't do any research." Belle was shocked at the naivete. She would have known that ship's expected lifecycle all the way down to the day it was decommissioned and sold for scrap, and the only deviations from that lifecycle would arise for disasters or better opportunities. "The ecology."
"What?" Linia said.
"You said it. The ecology is such that things that used to be pressing aren't. Survival needs are covered. But Misuko's bought herself more than she bargained for, didn't she? She wants, and that costs money. So she has to work, doesn't she?"
"And she's willing to do it, isn't she?"
"Yes, but so are lots of people."
"In little ways, yes. But Misuko's dream is big, isn't it? It's expensive!" Belle's imagination fired off in a hundred different directions, all contained in one thought. "You need a little zaitech. You need someone who understands zaitech!"
"Steven used to use that word. What does it mean?"
"Zaitech was a little Japanese firm in the 20th century that got into very serious financial trouble by manipulating their stocks and moving debt into small companies that didn't need to report their portfolios. The word has come to mean 'creative bookkeeping.'"
"You wouldn't do anything illegal?"
"I don't expect that I'll have to," Belle said, grinning. "But first, I have to undertand the laws. I have to know what I can get away with and what I can't... " She looked up. "Would Nozette know that stuff?"
"De Ette would." Linia looked at her. "I think you're going to be okay, Belle."
Belle smiled. "I think I will, too."