Sterlings: You Just Don't Get It

Seren, Lothess 19, 06119

A helpful midshipwoman guided her to her new cabin, which her security clearance dictated she have to herself. The door across the hallway read “Thavas.” Rhiane wondered what the blond woman would be doing with her 48 hours.

Rhiane found herself sitting on the bed. It was not as if she had anywhere on board to go. The Victoria had a standard suite of activities and distractions like the gymnasium, the game rooms and the lounge. She wondered if she could go over to the Canvas and visit. For that, she imagined she needed permission from her superior officer, who was the Ambassador, who probably wouldn’t be happy with her if she tried to make official contact right now. Instead, she opened a popular book of math puzzles and began reading.

She did not get far. The meaning of many of the problems eluded her. She knew they were within her grasp but she soon realized the part of her mind that loved these kinds of puzzles had atrophied, crowded out with other responsibilities. She tried doing some of the “for fun” puzzles in the back. They were either easy or impossible and the impossible ones frustrated her.

The the door chimed. “What?”

“Rhiane? Is this a bad time?” Ilonca’s calm voice lilted through the wooden door.

“No,” Rhiane said. “Come in, Lieutenant.”

The door opened. “You can just call me Ilonca, if you want. We’re on leave. Just wondering if you had any plans for the leave. See you settled in okay.”

“Yeah,” Rhiane said.

“Are you okay, Rhiane? You don’t seem happy. We’re on leave. Our careers are as hot as a star right now. We’re going to defeat The Dark and save lives, and there’s an entire superculture out there waiting for us to see what it’s like. Great Goddess, this is supposed to be the best time of our lives.”

“I suppose,” Rhiane said. “I just– I don’t want to be a liaison. I don’t want to do this, Ilonca. I wanted to be working on the next generation hyperdrive, but the Pendorians just gave it to us. I wanted to be working on ending the war, but the Pendorians may just end it for us. I had my career set out, my path decided, and it was all going to go just right. No surprises. Now this– not only do I not get to do what I had planned on doing, but I’m doing what I know I’m terrible at. I’m not a people woman Rhiane. I don’t do good in crowds. I hate them. I can’t believe you all think I’m doing a good job.”

“But you are!”

“I feel like a fraud. I’m just pretending I know what I’m doing.”

“So does everyone else. You pretend very well, Rhiane.”

Rhiane sighed. “And Polly said she’d miss me.”

“Polly? A girlfriend?”

“My roommate back on the Bones. You met her once, I think. In the lounge. She… ” Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. “She kissed me goodbye.”

“She must have liked you.”

“She picked a terrible time to tell me! I mean, I knew she liked me as a roommate, but not… that way. It always seems like that’s the way my life works. I never learn until the last minute how people really feel about me, and when I do, it’s too late.”

Ilonca didn’t respond for a few seconds. She said, “Hey, what say you and I go out to the Canvas?”

“We can do that?”

“Got permission to go to the Pendorian contact vessel whenever I wish, for consultation purposes, and so have you. Haven’t you read your reassignment directives?” Rhiane shook her head. “You should. They’re interesting. Anyway, let’s go.”

“But I…”

“Come on, Rhiane. I am not leaving you here to mope for your entire leave.”

“All right,” Rhiane said. “I’ll go.”

They walked down to the bay where the Pendorians had set up a shuttlecraft with an SDisk for the Victoria‘s use and, after checking with the guard there to make sure they were both on the list, they teleported into an empty receiving room on board the Canvas. “Thia?” Ilonca asked the empty air, “Where are the recreational facilities?”

“Please follow the blue line illustrated on the floor.” A glowing blue line emerged from the floor as if it were some strange liquid, then solidified into a clean guide down the corridor. Rhiane and Ilonca followed it until the hallways changed from pristine plastic to more sedate carpeted floors and wooden walls, with brass railings at waist and shoulder height. The ones at shoulder height were much heavier and stronger. Rhiane found herself gawking up at the five-meter ceilings.

They reached a junction with a stairway leading down. For a civilization used to using teleporters Rhiane found the stairway a bit incongruous. The signs were all in the Francaise of the Free Worlds. The stairways led to the “Pool.” Other signs read “Park,” “Concourse,” and “Drift chambers.” They had not yet met another living person.

“What are ‘drift chambers?’” Rhiane asked.

Thia answered, “Drift chambers are rooms kept deliberately dark with padded walls and no gravity. They’re essentially stress relievers. Some individuals find the warmth and isolation they provide extremely relaxing.”

Rhiane was tempted to try them. She could use some serious stress-reduction. She started heading in the direction indicated by the sign. “Hey!” Ilonca shouted. “Where are you going?”

“To the drift chambers.”

“But– Rhiane, you know, to get the full effect you have to go into one of those things naked, right?” Rhiane nodded. She had realized that. “Do you not want me to go with you?”

Rhiane said, “You want to go with me? Why would you want to go with me?”

“You really aren’t getting it, are you?” Ilonca said. “I invited you over here because I like you, Rhiane. I think you’re interesting and smart and kinda cute. But I can’t go with you into the drift chambers because… Because… “

“You like me? But you said…”

“Yes, I like you!” Ilonca said. “I mean, Sorry about what I said that day. I thought you’d forgotten, we were getting so much done. Thought maybe you liked me. Don’t know anybody who doesn’t like you, or at least wonder why you seem so sad all the time. Well, now I know and I still like you.”

“I won’t tell your superiors if you won’t,” Thia said from overhead.

Rhiane stared at Ilonca. Ilonca stared at the ceiling. Rhiane said, “Ilonca, would you like to go, um, hide in a drift chamber with me?”

Ilonca lowered her view slowly to Rhiane. It was her turn to blush hard. She said, “Yes, Rhiane. I think I would.” She reached out with her hand. Rhiane took it. Ilonca leaned down and whispered, “By the way, I’m an X.”

Rhiane stared at Ilonca, touched by her sudden openness, and said, “So am I.”

Together, they made their way to a dark carpeted hallway where one wall bulged out at them in long, slow ripples, five of them, and at the apex of each bulge there was an ordinary door with a recessed latch handle, the kind Rhiane had seen in the engineering section of ships on which she’d served. “Thia,” Ilonca said, “How do we do this?”

“You may disrobe here or inside the drift chamber. Which is entirely your choice. If you choose to disrobe inside the drift chamber there is a small locker next to the door that you may use to store your clothing.”

“Let’s go inside. In case anyone sees us.”

“If anyone sees us,” Rhiane said, “I think they’ll know what we’ve been up to.”

“Let them,” Ilonca said. She opened the door. It opened easily, revealing a cylinder nearly five meters across and seven meters tall. The walls were segmented at regular intervals to give the impression of padding, and they were colored a soft pink, the color of rose petals. The lighting was low. Rhiane touched the material of the door, letting her finger move across the surface. It was slick but dry and touchable, also like the petals of a flower. A warmth radiated from the room. “Remember, on the other side of the door there’s no gravity.”

“I remember,” Rhiane said softly. She stepped off the door threshold and launched herself into the chamber, her brain adjusting to the sudden shift of gravity with academy-induced ease. Her uniform was designed to look elegant even in these circumstances, so nothing on her skirt flapped or flew away as she drifted. The lights were low and she could imagine the pleasure of being alone in a space like this. Like being in a womb. She wondered why the Pendorians would have such facilities– weren’t they effectively in a womb all the time in their culture?

She supposed that thinking so was unfair to them and their way of life. They were, after all, allies now, and it was her job (her job, specifically) to learn how to live with them. She had met representatives of their major species and remained constantly amazed that so many disparate and distinct kinds of people managed to live together and accomplish much. Still, she counted none of them as friends.

She closed her eyes for a moment to feel the changes going on within her body. She shivered at the warm filling sensation deep in the muscles of her thighs and behind her shoulders, the places which always seemed to respond to a lack of gravity. She waited until the momentairy dizziness and the prickly sensation in her scalp eased. She had felt them all before. The warmth of the room was something new. She wished it were cooler. She realized it would be when she took off her clothes. When? If?

“You’re lost in thought again,” Ilonca said as she drifted up next to Rhiane, her hands catching Rhiane’s shoulders as they righted one another. “Uh-oh.”

“What?”

“Now that we’re here, how do we get back to the door and the locker?”

“Just ask,” Thia said. Rhiane wasn’t sure what what she felt next but soon they were drifting slowly back towards the door. In a minute they reached it. Between the pads on the walls she saw recessed handholds. The door had closed.

She was alone, in a room hosted by a species who, by reputation, were given to sensual excess and a proud immorality, with another woman. Nobody else was looking for either one of them. They were free here to do whatever they wanted. Her eyes fixated on Ilonca.

Ilonca’s blond hair ended before it reached her shoulders, a thick sheaf of perfectly straight strands that went exactly where she wanted them to go. Rhiane envied her that. Her own hair was almost a buzzcut on the top of her head because it never went where she wanted. Ilonca had an angel’s face, a round face with large eyes and a trusting mouth. Rhiane thought of her own face as sharp. She liked it because it put people off, made them think she was smart, especially when she wore her glasses. It had never occurred to her that there were women who would like her like that.

“You never drift off like this when you’re on duty,” Ilonca said. “Will you pay attention to me if I kiss you?” Her mouth was startlingly warm against Rhiane’s, a dry soft touch that grew more solid and sure with every second. Rhiane didn’t know what she wanted more– Ilonca’s kiss or to understand why Ilonca was kissing her. They worked together, but did they qualify as friends?

It didn’t matter to her body. She felt the kiss resonate through her skin, down into her belly. Her nipples tightened against the material of her bra and down between her legs she felt warmth that rivaled that of the room. She heard a sound like a whimper and it took her a second to realize that it came for her own throat. She grabbed Ilonca, held onto the other girl’s blouse with both hands and kissed her back.

She felt Ilonca’s mouth open just a tiny bit, her tongue making its way between her lips to brush against Rhiane’s. Rhiane had read enough romances to know what the heroine was supposed to do next. She opened her own mouth just as little, trying to keep her lips in contact with Ilonca’s, but trying to touch Ilonca’s tongue with hers. She wondered what it would feel like.

When her tongue finally touched Ilonca’s lips, and then her tongue, it ceased to matter. What mattered was that she was doing it, she was kissing another woman, she was finally this close to someone who apparently wanted her. She clasped Ilonca to her chest and felt the other woman’s small, rounded breasts pressing against her own through the fabric of their uniforms. It was all so wonderful Rhiane wished it would go on forever.

She felt a strange tightness in her chest and it took her a second or two to realize that she needed to breathe. She let go, gasping for air, staring at Ilonca who only smiled back. “See, you can concentrate on one thing for more than a few seconds, with the right stimulus.”

Rhiane reached up with her free hand to touch her mouth, as if she were somehow convinced that something should have changed there afterwards, that there should be some sign that she had been kissed. “Goddess,” she breathed.

“Rhiane?”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why do you like me? Why did you invite me over here? Why did you… kiss me?”

“Because I wanted to!” Ilonca said. She looked at Rhiane with an air of compassion. “You’ve really never done this before, have you?”

Rhiane shook her head.

“Oh, Goddess. Wish you’d told me or something. It’s simple. I like you. You’re pretty. You’re smart. You have this… vulnerability that’s so obvious behind all of the shields you’re putting up that it makes me want to reach out and hug you and kiss you and take care of you. You’re not fooling anybody with those big ugly glasses and your short hair, you know.”

Rhiane looked down at her feet, only to discover that the ‘floor’, as her brain interpreted it, was quite a distance away. She looked up quickly, then grabbed a handhold to keep herself from spinning away. “I was fooling somebody.”

“Yeah, yourself. You can’t really be that oblivious. Can you?”

“To what?”

“To the number of people who’ve tried to get your attention and made very obvious comments to you over the past six weeks. I think more Pendorians have made a whirl at you than they have at me.”

“Like who?” Rhiane asked.

“Anantika, for one,” Ilonca said. Rhiane immediately connected the name with the Tindal representative trying to get in to see the Bones medical facilities. “Or didn’t you catch that three times she invited you back to her cabin to, as she put it, ‘go over her notes?’ And then there was Saul, who asked you twice if you wanted to go flying with him some afternoon when they reached atmosphere. Don’t think he even cared if you were an X or a Y, either. And Hasime? The Vulpin? Remember her?”

“I didn’t like her. She was pushy.”

“She still wanted to get you into bunk!” Ilonca said. Rhiane tried to be cosmopolitan but Ilonca’s words jarred her. The women of the Free Worlds weren’t like the Pendorians. They had a reserve, they had morals, they had prudence. Even Minervans like Ilonca.

Ilonca reached out to touch Rhiane’s cheek with her fingertips. “You’re so beautiful, Rhiane. How can you have gotten so far without noticing?”

Rhiane shrugged. “I have other things on my mind.”

“Well, let me tell you that I’d like it a lot if I were on your mind.” She pushed down against the handhold until she was again within kissing distance of Rhiane.

Their second kiss was better than the first one. Rhiane liked Ilonca. She liked the feelings that Ilonca gave her. She wondered if that was anything like what love was supposed to feel. She knew that it was supposed to be hard, love. Difficult. This was neither. This was just nice.

Then she felt Ilonca’s fingers on her collar, playing with the button at her throat, undoing her blouse. She stiffened, a momentary protest escaping her. She hadn’t planned for this and yet she wanted it. This was what they had come here for.

There was little in books she had read to guide her from here. She had no idea what she was supposed to do. She waited until Ilonca was done with her blouse. It hung open, floating in the stillness of the drift chamber, her bra visible. “Plain white,” Ilonca said, her fingers touching the midpoint between the two cups. “Why am I not surprised?”

“Because it’s comfortable,” Rhiane said quietly. She reached for Ilonca’s blouse, opening the buttons with her hands trembling. Each move exposed more of Ilonca’s creamy, white skin to her eyes. Ilonca’s bra was lacy and larger than her own, although not by much. Neither woman was particularly large, although Rhiane could see that Ilonca’s breasts were such perfect half-spheres that she would have thought of enhancements if she didn’t doubt Ilonca could afford them on a lieutenant’s salary.

She undid the last button and, with trembling hands, pushed the shirt back off of Ilonca’s shoulders. They were some of the most beautiful shoulders Rhiane had ever seen. “You have a beautiful neck,” she whispered.

Ilonca didn’t respond with words. Instead, she just reached down and tugged on the button at the top of her skirt. Rhiane felt the pressure of Ilonca’s fingers against her belly, her pubis, with each button, and her breathing became faster and harder. She couldn’t believe she was really going to let another woman do this to her. She had dreamed of having a partner, but only as a kind of curiosity. She had never believed it would really happen to her. Not this way. But each touch, getting closer and closer to her sex, convinced her that she was with someone who really wanted to… to… she couldn’t think of a way to put it that wasn’t crude. Have sex with her. Make love to her. Fuck her. She didn’t know.

But Ilonca knew what she wanted. She pushed Rhiane’s skirt down to her knees, expertly thumbing off the garters that attached the skirt to her socks and kept it from flying away in low gravity environments. “Have to take your shoes off,” she muttered. Rhiane felt hands on her foot and for some reason that was more intimate, more real, than the touch of Ilonca’s fingers through her skirt. She sighed gently as Ilonca took off each shoe, then each sock, then slowly slid her skirt down and off. She stowed each of them in the cubby next to the door.

Rhiane still wore her blouse, although it was opened. It seemed ridiculous for her to pretend that it was doing anything, and she quickly stripped it off, stuffing it into the cubby along with her skirts. “There.”

“There what?” Ilonca said with a grin. “Your blouse made a nice hand-hold. Now, if I want to stay in contact with you, I need to grab an arm.” She reached out and took Rhiane’s fingers in her own. “See?”

Rhiane wanted another kiss. She lifted her chin for one and Ilonca seemed to read her mind. Neither of them pretended to have any inhibitions this time. Mouths open, tongues in touch one to another, bodies pressed against one another, the power of muscle and bone the only thing keeping them together in the drift chamber. She felt Ilonca’s warmth against her own, their breasts again pressed through the thinner materials of their bras, their legs interlocked to hold them together. “I want to take off your skirt,” she told Ilonca when they finally stopped for air.

“You may certainly do that,” Ilonca said. Rhiane reached down and unbuttoned each button, working her way down to the bottom. She repeated Ilonca’s actions, taking off Ilonca’s simple slip-on shoes. She had a much harder time with the garters. She finally slipped off the skirt, and then the socks. Ilonca flexed her feet, wiggling them in Rhiane’s grasp. “Tickling!” she gasped.

“I’m not trying to,” Rhiane said. She had never looked at another woman’s feet, not like this, not close up like this. She knew that some people liked feet by themselves, but she thought they were merely interesting. She took the shoes, socks, and skirt, bundled them and shoved them into the cubby next to her own clothing. As she did, she came up lengthwise along Ilonca’s body. As she passed Ilonca’s sex, even through the panties, she could sense it. It smelled warm, or it felt of femininity. She had heard that that smell was one of the few real differences between X’s and Y’s in the Free Worlds, and now she had felt it. She wondered if she would ever get a chance to experience what it was like, coming from a Y. Her curiosity sparked.

She reached up for Ilonca’s blouse, turning to look into other woman’s eyes for a moment to see if she would object, then stripping the blouse off her arms in a smooth, simple gesture. She placed the blouse next to her other clothing.

“Whoops!” Ilonca pushed off the wall gently, leaving Rhiane behind. She floated across the cylinder slightly out of control, wearing only her bra and panties, her hair fanning about her.

“You did that on purpose,” Rhiane said.

“Come get me,” Ilonca said. Her voice sounded like desire.

Rhiane aimed herself at Ilonca and launched, gently so as not to collide too hard with the other woman. Ilonca seemed to want a game of tag and Rhiane grasped the basics immediately. She could play along.

Ilonca reached the wall and kicked off again, propelling herself away from Rhiane’s grasp long before Rhiane arrived. Rhiane tried to follow her example but she kicked off a bit too hard. Instead of a gentle impact she hit Ilonca solidly and the two of the fell through the air to hit one of the flat “floors” of the cylinder. Rhiane tried to right herself and stand on it, but the sent her sailing up along the axis of the cylinder again, leaving Ilonca behind. “Am I chasing you?” Ilonca said.

“I don’t know,” Rhiane said as she drifted away.

“I am.” With another easy kick that made Rhiane’s second attempt look like that of a complete newcomer to zero-G, she caught up to Rhiane, grabbed her foot, and brought the two of them eye-to-eye once more. “I’m so glad you decided to come in here with me.”

“I wish that I had known earlier.”

“I tried to tell you. A couple of times. Right when we got our assignment, for one.”

Rhiane nodded. She wasn’t sure what, particularly, in the conversation she had had with Ilonca that day constituted her whirl, but she was willing to let it pass. She had Ilonca now. She had someone to kiss.

“And more?” she asked.

“More what?” Ilonca said.

“More than kissing?”

“You really have to let other people know what’s going on in your head, Rhiane,” Ilonca said. “Are you only like this when someone’s trying to seduce you?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know anyone who’s ever watched me when I’m being seduced. Before you.”

Ilonca smiled. “Hope you’ll give me more opportunities to find out.”

“I do too,” Rhiane said. She kissed Ilonca again, his time placing the flat of one palm against Ilonca’s belly. Ilonca’s muscles fluttered there, making ripples against her hand that were telling in their intensity. Her hand slipped up along the smooth texture of Ilonca’s pale skin. She felt Ilonca’s lower ribs run under her palm, then the lace of her bra reached her fingertips. She pushed one querulous fingernail under the rim, prying it upwards, and slid her finger under the material to cup Ilonca’s breast in her hand. Ilonca sighed, an audible sound, and Rhiane felt Ilonca’s breath on her face. The intimacy of feeling that warm, moist air against her skin seemed almost intrusive, as if she should get away and get fresher air.

She cupped her palm slightly, massaging Ilonca’s breast with her fingers. “Do you like that?” she asked.

“Mmm-hmm,” Ilonca said. She reached behind Rhiane and with a gentle flip of her fingers opened Rhiane’s bra. “Help me,” she said. Rhiane released Ilonca for a moment, long enough for her bra to come off, and then the two were embracing once more, kisses hotly exchanged for kisses. Rhiane felt herself become even more… interested, if that was the right word. She wanted Ilonca for herself.

She tried to reproduce Ilonca’s gesture, but she’d never removed another woman’s bra before in her life and certainly not from this angle. Ilonca giggled at her amateur attempts. “I’ll give you more chances to practice.”

“Thanks,” Rhiane said. She worked the lacy thing off Ilonca’s shoulders and tossed it away. The beauty she had seen earlier in Ilonca’s breasts was confirmed by their nakedness.

She reached out to touch just one of them. Her eyes followed her fingers to stroke Ilonca’s skin, to press in against the spongy swell of her breast. She closed a finger on a nipple and Ilonca’s back arched momentarily. “Oh, yes. I like that.”

Rhiane tried not to let her nervousness show as her other hand drifted to Ilonca’s other breast. They held each other with legs hooked about knees, Ilonca’s hands on her sides, her fingers gripping Ilonca’s nipples until the look of delicate pleasure on Ilonca’s face changed to a grimace of discomfort. Too long or too hard, she didn’t know which, but she back off and just stroked them. “You seem to know how to do that,” Ilonca said.

“Just guessing,” Rhiane said.

“Keep guessing,” Ilonca said, kissing her. Her legs tightened about Rhiane’s just a little, pulling them closer together until their groins were just about pressed together. Ilonca’s legs tightened and released in a rhythm that Rhiane’s body recognized even if her mind didn’t. Rhiane tried to stop being analytical but she couldn’t, it wasn’t in her to stop analyzing and just enjoy it, but the only labels she could put on her feelings didn’t make any sense to her anyway. Her breasts mashed against Ilonca’s, their bodies intertwined, their sexes, separated only by two thin sheets of fabric, pressed hungrily for one another. And yet, she couldn’t think of anything she wanted more than just another kiss from Ilonca, more of this, more of another woman’s hands on her skin. She knew there was more, knew there were other things to be done, but she couldn’t imagine trying for them right then.

Ilonca seemed to sense her reluctance to move forward. She let go after a moment and looked at Rhiane, her smile gentle. “Hey… You okay?”

Rhiane smiled wide. “Very.”

“We, uh, we don’t have to go any further if you don’t want to.”

“I guess I don’t know what to do next.”

“Whatever you want.” Ilonca’s hands strayed down Rhiane’s back, sending terrific shivers through Rhiane’s body. “Doing it in zero G is an advanced subject anyway.”

“Oh,” Rhiane said. “I’ve heard that.”

They drifted, holding one another, neither speaking, for a while. To Rhiane, it was the most pleasurable time she could remember in her recent life. Ilonca’s body pressed against hers only by their mutual desire, their grasp on one another. She slid one hand down over Ilonca’s panties, down over her butt, down her thigh. “You’re so beautiful, Ilonca.”

“Flatterer,” the other girl whispered. “Want to get out?”

“No,” Rhiane said. “But I’m hungry.”

“Me, too. Want to go eat in the Pendorian mess?”

“I’d love to.”

“Thia?” Ilonca said. “Could you push us to the door, please?”

“With pleasure,” the AI said. Rhiane felt nothing hit her or otherwise propel her towards the door, but eventually they were in motion. A minute or more passed before they reached the locker. When Rhiane opened the door, she saw her clothes and Rhiane’s intertwined and sighed. She wished people could get that close.

There wasn’t a “mess” on board the Canvas after all. There were restaurants, a row of them off the main concourse eight meters high and as many wide with a wide strip of trees and a small stream running along the center. They picked one– a quiet one Thia recommended and which billed itself as having a “Mediterranean” flavor. Ilonca commented that she didn’t know what the flavor at the middle of the Earth should be, but she hoped it didn’t taste like granite. Rhiane gave her a strained smile.

They sat across from each other at a tiny table in a restaurant with low lights, candles at each table, and yellow, textured walls. The chairs were comfortable enough. Rhiane kept looking at Ilonca as if she might vanish momentarily, to be replaced with empty air or, worse, a stranger, a robot, something Pendorian and alien. “Do people ever understand what’s happening to them?” she asked suddenly.

“Doubt it,” Ilonca said. “Have you chosen?”

Rhiane nodded. They ordered. Ilonca leaned forward. “Rhiane, what do you think is happening?”

“I don’t know! I mean… it was only half an hour ago that we were… you know.”

Ilonca smiled. “How did you get to be… what are you? Twenty-four? Twenty-five?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Even that… without ever kissing someone?”

Rhiane shrugged. “It was never high on my priorities.”

“Is it now?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can I be high on your list of priorities?” Ilonca asked.

The waiter– a masculine person, Rhiane noted, then surprised herself with her almost blase approach to him– brought them the drinks they had ordered, with old-fashioned alcohol. Rhiane sipped from hers, trying not to show her unfamiliarity with this form of recreation. She felt the alcohol in her face, a warmth, a flush. “Ilonca, I want you to be but… what does that mean?”

“Rhiane, until today, I wasn’t crazy about you. No secret crush or anything. I have had other– okay, be honest. I’ve had other lovers, but I’m not– not thoughtless about having them. Now I’ve seen you almost naked, and I’ve had you touch me, I want to know more about you. I’m not going to go crazy over you yet, I hope, but you’re so cute! Goddess, wish I understood what was going on too.” She giggled. “This isn’t supposed to be how it works.”

“How does it work?”

“Don’t know,” Ilonca admitted. “It always seems to be different. Look, let’s put it this way. I want you. I want you in the worst way. Don’t know why I do now. When I came to your cabin I was just trying to be friendly. But after the drift room– If what I’m saying doesn’t make you run away, well, thanks.”

Every syllable of Ilonca’s confession sank deeper and deeper into Rhiane, as if she were a still pool and each word was a stone, each stone larger than the last before it, each one threatening to overspill her banks. She looked at the blond, angel-faced woman who was… “Are we girlfriends then?”

Ilonca reached out with one hand and grabbed both of Rhiane’s. “If you want.”

“We’re in the same command. We… we’re not supposed to.”

Ilonca visibly considered that for a moment. Rhiane was relieved, as Ilonca had always seemed so competent and part of the system before this little off-duty excursion. “Are we part of a combat team? You know, it’s not as if we’re supposed to be inhuman. We’re supposed to see other people, fall in love, contribute to future generations. Not that that’s what we’re doing.

“Look, Rhiane. Go read the regs yourself, and I’ll do the same thing, and call me after you do. If you need, we can even talk to the commanding officer on the Victoria. I’ve been so busy with the ambassador I can’t even remember who the commanding officer is! I mean it. I want the freedom to get to know you and if you’re going to start putting up these kinds of barriers I want to take them down as fast as I can.”

Rhiane looked down at the table even as their food arrived. “I suppose you’re right.”

“You know I am.” Ilonca gave Rhiane’s hand a gentle squeeze. “Let’s eat.”

Rhiane arrived back at her cabin later that evening and pulled up the regulations regarding fraternization. They were rather gray in her and Ilonca’s case. They weren’t in a combat troop, they may not even have been in the Navy anymore, they weren’t capable of abusing rank on one another, and so on. It was a rather close thing: if either of them were promoted over the other there would be trouble, and because they were in the same assignment there was case law covering whether or not they were more or less likely to assist in the cover-up of wrongdoing than another unit acting out of mere unit cohesion. Rhiane spent two hours reading up about the various cases and decided, in the end, that Ilonca was probably more right than wrong in the case. It still made her nervous.

When she stopped trying to find excuses she knew that the nervousness was about Ilonca, about being in a relationship. She was terrified, and she knew it.

She looked in a mirror to find what Ilonca saw in her. Her body was ordinary, her breasts lacking any eye-catching qualities at all, her one slight snaggletooth… awkward. She shrugged at herself and decided that Ilonca was either crazy or lying or seeing something she couldn’t see herself.