"I don't know that there's anything I can add, Lieutant Rho. I think you've done more than due diligence in this matter" Chaplain Butler leaned forward in her chair. "But let me ask you a question. Why did you come to me?"
"Because... I thought I would get a straight answer from you." Rhiane surprised herself with her own honesty, but Butler made her feel as if she could speak freely.
"Do you believe there is anything in your current relationship--"
"Potential relationship," Rhiane said.
Butler smiled. "Your potential relationship with Lieutenant Thavas that might upset your capability to operate as an officer? You've already assured me that you don't believe so.
"Rhiane, As a member of Her Church and Office, my duty is to see to it that you keep Her injunctions in mind as you go about your daily duties. I have no illusions that Her Church has ever been a real influence over most women's lives, yours included. You're nearly an atheist." Rhiane thought to object, then thought better. "It's all right. She understands. She knows that your heart has many depths and many ways to one's essential and moral humanity. She is not a tribal goddess demanding unquestioning fealty. Not even the Spartans believe that."
Butler stood up and came around the desk to sit on it, squarely facing Rhiane. "Go with Her grace, Rhiane. You do not seem out to break your friend's heart simply to satisfy your own hungers, and there seems to be nothing illicit in your motives."
Despite her own lack of religious convictions Rhiane felt an overwhelming relief, an intense gratitude, at the chaplain's words. Tears came to her eyes. Her voice cracked when she said, "Th... Thank you."
"Don't thank me. Thank the Goddess and Her prophet, Jehanne Sterling."
Rhiane nodded. "I'll try to remember."
"I hold services every Freya's night." Butler put her hand on Rhiane's shoulder. "But you probably won't try too hard to remember that."
Blushing, Rhiane nodded.
She spent the rest of the morning and that afternoon coordinating between the Pendorians and the ground crew at Sparta. The decision had been made by someone high up that the Pendorians should be allowed to put their feet on Free World soil. She had been doing this long enough that she approved several things without asking Tempany. She knew which groups of Pendorians wanted to do what-- the dignitaries would be undignified, the scientists would still be scientific, the culturalists could find culture just about anywhere. Sparta was the middle world in the Free Worlds, over five hundred years old, a century behind Athens but before the young sister Minerva system at three hundred, and it had the cities and civilization to match.
Rhiane was tasked with making sure that every "affinity group," as the Pendorians called them, reached the surface in their own time. She consulted regularly with Thia regarding how the groups could be co-ordinated and whom among the Pendorians would need ad-hoc liaisons. Not many, as it turned out. They would be hard to miss among the general population, unless they were alone, female, and human (or, she supposed, satryl). Thia had to remind her of when it was time to eat.
The Victoria and the Canvas travelled close enough and in parallel that SDisking between them was now as easy as walking to the recreational facilities on the Victoria herself. The captain of the Victoria had imposed quotas to make sure than enough of her crew was on board at any given time to handle any given emergency but Rhiane could see the general trend-- the Pendorian way of doing things was tempting and didn't seem to be with downsides.
She thought of Ilonca much throughout her day. She knew what Ilonca's assignment was in all of this-- the smaller details, the things Ambassador Tempany would be doing over the first few days after landfall. Ilonca would be running interference for Tempany, thinking of what the Ambassador needed. She felt a moment's gratitude that Ilonca was so busy. It let her put one more day between herself and when she'd finally have to choose-- but choose what?
To accept Ilonca's offer, or refuse it. She wasn't good at either.
The next day was like that, and the day after that. A week passed. Then two. She saw Ilonca often but always in passing, often in the cabin hall before falling to brief, exhausted sleep. By the middle of the third week they were in orbit around Sparta. She found email from Ilonca waiting for her.
I haven't had a chance to talk with you in a while, but I've been seeing your scheduling blocks going through. See? I told you you were good at this. Tempany loves your work, especially the way you seem to do it without too much input from her.
There's a gathering at 19:00 planetside for the Pendorians. I'm going to be with the Ambassador, and she's ordered you to be there as well. You've probably already gotten redmail about that.
Rhiane looked at her mail index and saw one header in bright red: official orders. She read on.
Wear the full formals, blues this time, with ribbons if you've got them. You might have to explain the science one I bet you have. Although the Pendorians offered us SDisks, OfcPersMan on the ground automatically booked us rooms at the Mariante' Hotel in Sparta City.
I missed you the past three days, Rhiane. I really want to see you again.
Rhiane read the note a few more times before she was sure it said what she thought it said. She was expected to be downplanet at 19:00 hours? Her eyes pegged the clock on her screen. That was only eleven hours away; how could she possibly get everything ready and be downplanet by then?
SDisks. Of course. They were the kind of technology the Pendorians had to seduce worlds into the Corridor. She had no doubt that someone over on the Pendorian side had made the decision early on that the Free Worlds were "our kind of people" and that the process of integrating the Free Worlds into the Corridor was well underway.
Rhiane SDisked over to the Canvas and with Thia's help found her way to her next appointment at Yesyka's place. Everything was eerily scaled up to Yesyka's three-meters-plus frame, making Rhiane feel as if she had wandered into some strange movie set. The Han, willowy of leg yet impressive of bust, moved through the room with the kind of grace usually demonstrated by predators. "What can I do for you, Miss Rho?"
"Ilonca is down-planet but I wanted to go over the speakers' order with you. I had questions about why you felt it necessary to put three speakers in front of any of your own."
Yesyka looked a little amused. "It's your world. I thought you might want to say a few words before the guests go on. I don't think asking Ambassador Tempany, President Shesha, and Admiral Mici to speak before Ambassador Altalevee gets up there is too much, do you?"
"I just wanted to clear it with you. The Ambassador is worried that the audience might get restless." Rhiane cringed inwardly as she spoke. It sounded so fake to her, this dancing around the issue of trying to shorten the speeches, to get on to the real course of the evening, the "schmoozing," as Kabura and Ilonca had put it. She wondered what there was to schmooze about. The Pendorians seemed to be under the impression that they had to be careful not to insult the chain of command. Couldn't they see just how anxious that chain was to make use of their freely offered services?
"Ah. Well, you may shorten the speeches as you wish, perhaps even dropping one. I don't see why not. Surely your Ambassador gets the opening billing, the President a welcoming speech, and your Admiral the thank-yous?"
Rhiane nodded. "Maybe we should just have the President give the main speech as she sees fit, and the Ambassador and Admiral do the introductions and the exit?"
"I can live with that. And I'll advise Ambassador Altalevee that she should shorten hers down to a bare minimum."
"I appreciate that. Thank you, Ma'am."
"Is that all?" Yesyka asked.
"That's the only concern I have now. Everything else is in Lieutenant Thavas's hands."
Yesyka smiled. "Say, you wouldn't want to go out afterwards, would you? I know you'll probably be tired, but... we could get together for a drink."
Rhiane looked up at Yesyka sharply, not sure what to make of her question. "I... I'm sorry. I already have plans."
"It was just an invitation. I'm not going to jump on you or anything like that," Yesyka said.
Rhiane felt her heart beat hard. This was an invitation hard to miss. Maybe Ilonca's training was rubbing off on her. "I'm sorry. But I'm seeing someone else after the party."
"Oh. Okay. Fair enough. You just seemed a little lonely at the last one."
"Thanks. But I think I've got a previous offer. And... " She tried to smile. "It's a little fragile now."
"New fragile?" Rhiane nodded. "Good for you. See you at the event."
"Bye, Yesyka. And... thanks."
"We underlings gotta stick together," the Han said.
As Rhiane made her way back to her cabin, she wondered if there was some kind of conspiracy underway among the Pendorians to get her laid.
Maybe there was a conspiracy among the Pendorians to get them all laid.
Rhiane was planetside by 16:00 with time to locate Ilonca and get the arrangements underway. While she sat in the hotel lobby messages flowed from her laptop between the various speakers. She made notes on the speeches and tossed them back, creating a unifying theme among the four of them. She couldn't believe a lowly lietuntant was privy to so much information.
It wasn't until she shut down the messaging service that she realized the privilege was insignificant to what she had just done. She had managed to get four people-- a local civilian executive, a federal civilian executive, a military executive, and an alien federal functionary-- to agree completely with the changes she had proposed to the day's events. She was starting to believe Ilonca.
The hotel lobby was a circular affair with a faux domed ceiling colored in a dark cream motif that made Rhiane feel as if she were inside a brown egg. The circular couch in the middle made her comfortable but the black table it surrounded would have been more appropriate in some war room somewhere else. She sipped from her drink as she stared at the screen, waiting for an email to tell her where she has messed up when hands laid on her shoulders and a voice said, "Aren't you forbidden from drinking on duty?"
She recognized the voice instantly and looked up, smiling, into Ilonca's upside-down face. "Hi!"
Ilonca made her way around the couch and joined Rhiane, sitting a distance that might have been acceptable or it might not have been. She was certainly in reach of the other woman. "Thought you might be down by now. It's only an hour away. Where have you been?"
Rhiane quickly closed the lid on her laptop. "Doing stuff. Mostly getting Tempany and Altalevee to agree on what they're going to say, and getting the Admiral and the President to keep it short."
Ilonca's eyes widened. "I hope you don't talk like that in front of your superiors. That drink must be strong."
Rhiane smiled. "It's soda. I only say things like that in front of Tempany. I think I'm getting good at this."
"Already thought you were," Ilonca said. "Did it work?"
"Spectacularly," Rhiane said. "I was up all last night thinking about it and I think I got it. That's really the secret, isn't it? You just have to keep thinking about it. Turning it over. Looking for the alternatives. All the time. That's what makes some people successful, and others not. The successful ones do what they like to do, so they keep thinking about it. The unsuccessful ones treat it like a job, and go on to do something else when they're 'off duty.'"
"Thought you didn't like doing this," Ilonca said.
"It's what I have to do. I may as well get good at it."
"In for an inch, in for the miles?"
"Something like that," Rhiane said.
Ilonca looked around for a moment, then let her fingers trail up the length of Rhiane's sleeve to her shoulder. "What are you doing after the conference tonight?"
Rhiane looked at her. "I haven't even picked up my room key yet."
"You didn't answer my question."
"I will." She slipped the laptop into her bag and walked over to the hotel reception desk. She registered her name and the hotel took her palmprint. She reached down for Ilonca's hand and put it on the reader. "Authorize Lieutenant Thavas for my room as well, would you?"
"You don't do anything by halves, do you?" Ilonca said.
"Ask me tonight, after the reception is over, if I'm not so stressed out that I spend the wind-down in the bathroom throwing up."
"Ugh," Ilonca said. "Know what you mean, but it's never happened to me."
"Me, either. But then I've never been in charge of so much before. And there's nobody to hold my hand on this."
"You don't know what you're doing either," Rhiane said.
"Oh, I'm trained to throw shindigs. It's telling aliens what to say that nobody is trained for, and you've been doing that all day."
Rhiane shrugged. "I guess so."
"Come on. We've got to hit the conference hall. They're probably wondering where I am. They know how to do the job but they're not willing to make a move without my approval. If anything goes wrong they can point to me and say I approved it. That's the military for you."
Rhiane had paid attention to every word, but hadn't really been listening. Instead, she had been watching Ilonca's mouth move, watching those gentle lips, which weren't quite red or pink, but that washed-out halfway color between the two that adorns natural mouths. She thought it was the most beautiful color she'd ever seen. "I went to see the ship's chaplain on the Victoria," she said suddenly.
"Chaplain Butler. I went to see her. I figured that, of all the people on board, she would give me the best answer about our relationship. She's not JAG, but she knows the law about fraternization and all that as well as any of them do, and probably hears more people talk about their wants and needs. She said that unless our superior officers make a deal about it, we don't have to worry about it either. It'll only be a problem if one of us becomes promoted over the other."
"Which is likely to happen," Ilonca said. "You're much more likely to move up than I am at this point."
"Maybe," Rhiane said. "I don't know if what I've done is that big a deal."
"Rhiane! You've organized the first Free World and Pendorian conference! And now you've done it again planetside. You've made arrangements, schedules, itineraries, and now you're rewriting dignitaries' speeches, including the Pendorians. What do you think they give people promotions for, anyway? It's not just getting shot at in battle!"
Rhiane blushed. "I know. I just don't feel that I... deserve it. I'm just doing what has to be done."
"And doing it well. That's what they promote people for! They want you to keep doing it, train other people to do it, and eventually organize large bodies of people to do it."
Rhiane looked away, staring at herself in a mirror. If anything, she looked sharper and less inviting than usual, her huge round glasses completely out of style. "I wish I could go back to science."
"I know," Ilonca said. She took Rhiane by the hand. "I wish we didn't have a war. Don't know what I would be doing if we hadn't, but I know I would be something other than a glorified maitre d'. Come on." She led Rhiane up a wide staircase and around a curved concourse to the main reception room.
The walls were decorated with flags: the flags of the main worlds, the Church, the Government, and three new ones, of Pendor, llerkin, and Terra, all hung in a row. The floor was wooden, the room filled with round tables. It all looked like the set-up she had seen on the Canvas only more grand and even more impossible to keep under control. She cringed briefly at the size of the spectacle that had become her responsibility.
"Where am I sitting?"
"Over there," Ilonca said, pointing to a table at the very front. "Right under Tempany's seat. By the way, here." Ilonca reached into her carry bag and handed Rhiane a small earbug. "You'll need this. It's got two channels. One's from security and the other's from Tempany's earbug. She might need you to do lookups on the fly. You're going to be her spare brain for the evening. The Pendorians already have them-- some of them, but especially Altalevee, have implants that let the AIs talk directly into their heads."
Rhiane slipped the bug over her ear, the insert fitting snuggly just above the opening. "So everyone on the Pendorian side is really just part of the AI? The machine culture people always talk about... it's real?"
Ilonca shrugged. "They act like individuals, don't they?"
Rhiane thought of Yesyka. "I guess they do." She looked up. "Yesyka invited me out to a drink after this was over. I told her I was busy."
"Really? And you noticed?"
"You're teasing me, aren't you?"
"You noticed that too," Ilonca said. She gave Rhiane a brief hug. Several people in white uniforms passed them by, their laden carts rattling with tableware and cutlery and glasses. The two women got out of the way and let them get about the business of making sure that every position was prepared. One said, "Lieutenant Thavas?"
Ilonca sighed. "Duty calls."
Rhiane nodded, giving Ilonca's hand one gentle squeeze before sending her on her way. She took a seat in a chair along the wall and re-opened her laptop. There was a thank-you note from Tempany, a request for a small change from Altalevee, and a notice from Security that protesters were expected outside the hotel. Protesters?
In the past few days a disorganized but vehement anti-Pendorian movement had arisen on Sparta. The protesters had a few barely coherent complaints, among them that the presence of masculinists among the Pendorians was against the Founders' teachings, especially those of Her Prophet; that the Pendorians themselves were essentially corrupt and would destroy the Free Worlds' way of life; and that the Pendorians were bringing with them the machine culture that would destroy every individual's uniqueness and humanity; and since this was Sparta, that the Pendorians would destroy the communality that gave Sparta its uniqueness. There were other, wackier claims in the list Security had given her but those she could dismiss. It was the four central complaints that propelled protesters into the cold night. She checked the weather reports. It was expected to rain, and Rhiane hoped that would put a damper on the protests. There was nothing in Security's email to suggest that any of the protesters were preparing to disrupt the ceremonies.
Rhiane could have anticipated this eventuality. The Free Worlds weren't made up of homogeneous political units. Everyone-- well, almost everyone-- resisted The Dark because The Dark killed indiscriminately and resisted negotiation but beyond that there were the usual political disagreements about how anything should be done. The Founders had hoped that an entire culture made of individuals built to look and think like women, whether they were male or female underneath their clothes, would be a better culture for it. Rhiane believed they had been wrong. Sexism had mostly disappeared and racism was a matter of comedy with all of the gene mixing that had gone into the initial generations, but everything else that didn't require outright physical identification was a matter of fair game: political affiliation, economic expectations, religious orientation, sexual orientiation and accessibility. Class elitism and military meritocratic snobbery remained.
Rhiane thought it sad that such differences remained. Even when people understood that they were acting out an identity imposed by evolution's cruel paradigm-- be part of something and protect it no matter what for it protects-- even when they knew it was arbitrary and likely to bring distress they did it anyway.
With that insight she suddenly understood why the protesters were assembling and for a brief second entertained the thought of joining them. Underneath their obvious rage was the awareness that, whatever else, they were trying to protect that rage from something more terrible, from being held up to the light and shown their hypocrisy, the hypocrisy which comes from understanding why one human being hurts another yet does nothing to prevent it.
She pulled up her journal and a pen, turning the laptop inside out so she could write on the screen, and made her notes longhand. It was her preferred method of making such notes, because it allowed her to marshal her thoughts before tossing them down onto the page. She wrote down her insight, sure it was nothing new but it was hers and she wanted to keep it. She closed the book and shivered sightly.
"You've had a busy day."
Rhiane was on her feet the moment she heard that voice, turning to salute Ambassador Tempany. "At ease, Lieutenant," Tempany said softly. "I must say that I'm extremely impressed with the way you've comported yourself the past several days and any concerns you might have about being inadequate to the role' to which you've been assigned are completely irrational. I know, from speaking to Lieutenant Thavas, that this is not what you wish to be doing with your life right now, but of all the things you could be doing this is probably the most useful."
"Thank you, Ma'am."
"I'm afraid that I have no intention of releasing such a useful member of my staff any time soon, Rhiane. You and Ilonca will probably be with me for a while. I'm sorry."
Rhiane let her shoulders sag just enough to be perceptible. "I appreciate the warning, Ma'am. I hope I won't disappoint you."
"You haven't yet. You've live in interesting times, Lieutenant, and you've come to the attention of important people. Do not waste these opportunities."
"If they don't forward my chosen career, Ma'am, are they really opportunities?"
"Your chosen career is in the Navy, Lieutenant and not any specific division. I thought that was clear when you signed up. You go where you are needed." Tempany put her hand on Rhiane's shoulder. "I understand your frustration. My original love was communications-- audio, video, and so forth. I never expected to be talking face-to-face with my target audience either. This is as much of a shock to me as it is to you. But I'm not upset by it."
Rhiane nodded. "Thank you, Ma'am."
Tempany smiled. "Now then, Lieutenant, it would be seemly if you would sneak out that exit over there--" She indicated a door on the far side of the reception hall-- "and make your way to the rear of the reception crowd congregating outside."
"Yes, Ma'am." Rhiane closed her laptop and pocketed it before leaving. She found herself in a wide bowed hallway of neutral carpet with a large curved window looking down on the street below. The hall was full of dignitaries all of them fully dressed in their finest. She envied the ones who looked as if they were born to their uniforms. She knew she was not born to hers.
As she walked through the crowd she recognized a face. "Polly?"
"Rhiane! Look at you! Great Goddess, you look wonderful!" Polly hugged her former roommate solidly.
"What are you doing here?"
"We're not on leave yet and they needed a Navy crowd to fill out this place. I had to tell my Moms to expect me tomorrow but they think it's great that I'm going to hobnob with the aliens. Since we were the 'first contact' team they decided we'd make great dignitaries. Not that I'm very dignified." She laughed, and Rhiane laughed with her. "You're still assigned to Tempany, aren't you?" Rhiane nodded. "Have you and Ilonca become an item yet?"
Rhiane blushed. "No, but we're... dating."
"Yay! I was afraid that you wouldn't get the hint from her fast enough. She's okay. Ignore what Khrystyne was saying about her. For that matter, ignore Khrystyne completely."
"Things not work out?"
"She was cheating on me. She promised me that she wouldn't."
"I thought you weren't particularly monogamous."
"Me? I don't think so." Rhiane eyed Polly with bemusement. Polly's nonmonogamy was mostly theoretical. "But she was. Or she said she was. I played along." Polly paused for a moment. "I think sometimes she did it just to make me mad, like maybe she wanted me mad. Anyway, it doesn't matter. It's over now."
"I'm sorry that I got involved when just as you got, um, de-involved?"
Polly smiled. "Are you monogamous?"
"I don't know. I would assume so," Rhiane said. "We haven't talked about it. We haven't talked very much. It just kinda happened a few days ago and we haven't had much chance to talk about it since then. It's been busy. I've been putting in eighteen-hour staff days."
"Ooog. Nobody should have to do that except in battle," Polly said. "I hope that you get a break soon."
"Me, too," Rhiane agreed. The crowd shifted slightly in the direction of the door. "I think they're letting us in," she said.
She turned to stand next to Polly when something came crashing through the window in a chord of tinkling glass, something big and glowing. It struck the ceiling and shattered, and a vast, bright, liquid light spread out from the impact site. Someone screamed, "Fire!"
Rhiane grabbed Polly by the arm and threw her backward away from the flame before she turned herself. She felt something splash against her, felt a searing pain on her neck. Her scalp prickled as she ran and heat dug at her back. She tore off her jacket. She ran hard until she thought she was out of the circle of flame, dropped to the floor and rolled, pressing the small of her neck to the rug in the hopes of smothering whatever had hit her back there. She cried out in fresh pain as her skin pressed against the tight-knit fabric of the floor. As she turned over to stand she saw the crowd surging towards her. Many of them were alight like little candles screaming, screaming. They reached her and she knew then she'd made a mistake. She curled into a ball and the screaming, radiant women tripped and fell over her, kicked her and trampled her as they all tried to escape that terrible burning room. Her body was submerged by a pummelling so constant it was impossible to isolate any one strike and in her nostrils rose the overwhelming stench of burning plastic and meat.
She awoke, wondering why she couldn't think straight. She tried to remember. Her name was Rhiane Rho of Athens, Lieutenant assigned to the Hyperspace Research Station Ariadne' in far orbit from the Spartan sun... no, that wasn't right. She'd been on fire. No, she hadn't been on fire, but others had. She'd been beaten. Trampled.
She tried to move her head and found that she couldn't. It was frozen, although she didn't know why. Something on her back. She couldn't tell what. "You lie right there and be still," someone said.
"Where am I?"
"Marquida Naval Medical Center, Sparta," said the voice. "I'm Doctor San Sayeda. You've suffered from some terrible injuries, Lieutenant Rho, but we've been assured that you'll be well soon enough. The Pendorians have even offered to assist with your recovery, so you'll be well enough someday even if they have to buy you a new body. You'll need some new hair, at any rate."
"I feel terrible."
"Yes, you would," said the voice. It was a pretty voice. Rhiane wished she could see the woman who owned it. Her eyes wouldn't work. She felt something twitch against her arm. "It's too soon for you to be awake. Sleep again."
When she awoke next, she could see. The lights were on, but something was wrong with her vision. It was clear, but it felt odd. It took her a while to realize only one eye worked. The rest of her felt terrible-- exhausted, in pain, immobile. She could turn her head, although the skin on the back of her neck felt tight and raw when she did. To her left was a window. To her right was the door and another bed. There was no one in it.
The door opened and two women stepped through. "Good afternoon, Lieutenant Rho. I hope you're feeling better?" Rhiane nodded. "Good." The taller one, a brittle-looking blond in a medical uniform, pulled up a stool and sat next to her. "I'm Doctor San Sayeda. I'm going to be honest. Almost every bone in your body, including the orbit of one eye, was broken. You're going to be blind there for a while, although the Pendorians have told us they can repair it eventually. It would probably be easier for me to list off what wasn't damaged than what was. You had a ruptured liver and spleen, and... You really don't want to hear this." Rhiane shook her head. "But the prognosis is good. We've got regen, and the Pendorians have all their nanotech that we can use now, so eventually you'll be back to your old self. Give it six weeks until you're out of bed, and six months until you're ready to hit the gym and work you way up from baseline."
"Six weeks?" Rhiane groaned.
"I'm afraid so. We can't push you any harder than that. You've taken terrible trauma."
"How long have I been here?"
"Two weeks already."
She had been unconscious for two weeks? Was that even possible? "Polly... How is she?"
"Pollyanna San Tarvo," Rhiane gasped. "She was next to me in line."
The physician pulled out her own laptop and tapped a few keys. "There's a Lieutenant San Tarvo listed as being released the day after the incident. Other than some minor bruises, she seems to have escaped unharmed."
"Oh, good," Rhiane said. "And Ilonca Thavas?"
"I don't have anyone with that name listed. She must not have been injured."
Rhiane closed her eyes. "Thank the Goddess for both of them."
"You get some rest. I know that will be hard here. Nobody sleeps well in a hospital. But you need your rest."
"If you had one, we didn't receive it," the physician said. "I'm sorry."
Rhiane nodded. "Thank you, doctor."
"Sleep well, Lieutenant. You'll need it."
Rhiane could not sleep. She had slept for days already, and despite the lack of real rest to which the doctor had alluded she couldn't stop thinking about what she could have been doing. She had the room to herself; whoever had been in the other bed had long since left.
She reached over for the monitor at her bedside. It didn't have the security keys and the biometrics she needed to do her job properly, but she could use it to fashion an unsecured email to her boss.
She read the news. In the two weeks since the incident, The Pendorians had taken it in stride as the kind of thing that happens "in a non-AI culture," as one of them put it rather tactlessly. She even recognized the speaker, although she couldn't remember her-- she corrected herself, his-- name. Media tapes of the incident had identified the bomb-thrower. Short, scrawny-looking girl. The kind expected to throw a bomb.
Four people had died of their injuries. The Pendorians were working hard to make sure the rest recovered. Broken bones may have hurt, but burns were horrible. The media heads made sure to emphasize just how horrible. Rhiane had gotten away with a small patch, barely four cems on a side, on the back of her neck. She considered herself lucky.
The incident had served to make the protest movement the subject of media and police scrutiny. The pressure had led to the emergence of a legitimate protest movement, one that could be trusted, at least in its current rhetoric, to oppose the "Pendorization" of the Free Worlds without tossing any more incendiary devices. Already powerful members of the legislature had voiced support for these "Real Women" and their movement. The Prime Minister was going to have a heck of a time balancing their demands with the needs of the military for the Pendorian support. Could anyone who'd had a taste of Pendorian medicine, or the SDisks, or their entertainments, really give them up in the name of ideological purity?
She supposed someone could. She was still scrolling through the news when her door opened again. "Ilonca!"
The other woman had an armful of things, most of which she dumped onto the other bed and then threw herself onto Rhiane, hugging her. "You're awake!" she said. "When they said you'd been trampled... I was so worried about you!"
"They told me I'm going to be okay," Rhiane said.
"Did you know you were dead?"
"Really?" Rhiane said. "Nobody told me."
Ilonca nodded. "On the way to the hospital. Polly told me your heart stopped. She was in the ambulance with you. They brought you back, got you onto a heart machine fast. Hope whoever did this rots in jail for the rest of her life!"
"Uh, Ilonca, you're squeezing a bit hard and... my ribs."
"Oh, sorry, sorry!" Ilonca straightened up, brushing her hair out of her face. "Tempany's going nuts without you. She needs you back as soon as you're able, but the docs say that you're on your back for at least another month and you'll probably get a full six months of medical leave for this. So she asked me to give you this. If you sign for it, you're back on... on whatever you can do for her. And you'll get both full pay and leave pay." She held out a security pouch.
Rhiane took it in her hands, touched the biometric lock, and unzipped it. Inside was a secure laptop, the kind with a palm lock on the top. She looked up at Ilonca and said, "Thanks."
"I'm just glad you're okay," Ilonca said. "It'll be good to have you back on the team. You need this, too." She reached into the pouch, probably flouting some regulation somewhere, and put a bracelet around Rhiane's wrist. The laptop's contents would only be unencrypted if she wore the bracelet and the laptop was within two meters of her body. Otherwise it would power down immediately and the decryption matrices in memory would be wiped. The machine would become unusable until she put her palm on it once more. It couldn't prevent coercion, but it was not a weak security system by any measure.
Her hands lingered on Rhiane's wrist, and Rhiane felt her body warm in ways that she probably shouldn't have been feeling. They were feelings to which her injured body was not prepared to respond. Ilonca picked up her hand and pressed her lips to the back. "I worried about you. Had splurged on the hotel rooms, got us the kind with the bathtub big enough for two."
Rhiane looked up at Ilonca, then giggled. "What?" Ilonca said.
"I tried to picture it, but I keep imagining myself in all these bandages."
Ilonca looked at her. "You keep imagining." She leaned over, her face mere cems from Rhiane's. "You keep imagining me," she whispered. Then she kissed Rhiane.
Rhiane felt that kiss all the way down to her toes and then some. It was something she had wanted, waited for, and missed for all her years. Somehow, it was as if, even while in a two-week coma, her body had known it was waiting for Ilonca's warm, pink mouth to moisten hers. Her lips parted knowingly, and she extended her tongue to meet Ilonca's halfway. It was the sweetest thing she'd ever tasted.
"We should stop," Ilonca said. "You're not in any shape for this and... I don't want to make it worse for you."
Rhiane blushed and said, "I don't think I can turn over with the rib cast on anyway."
Ilonca said, "What? I didn't hear that. You mumbled."
Rhiane blushed and shook her head. She looked up at Ilonca, and for some reason it was as if she were seeing her for the first time again. She had been naked, or nearly naked, her body pressed up against Ilonca's, once upon a time, and she missed it. But she was stuck, now, in her body cast for weeks to come, and she didn't wish to tempt herself too much with promises that might never be fulfilled.
Yet she surprised herself again. Ilonca still held her hand, so she got free and turned her hand over and grabbed Ilonca's wrist with her fingers. "Promise me you'll be here when I get out."
"I will be," Ilonca said. "Now, you take your time downloading those million emails I'm sure you have, and take all the time you need getting through them. But first, send Tempany a mail saying you're alive, put on a filter to color-code anything after you received the laptop-- she told me to tell you that, prioritize the new she said-- and email me every day telling me how bored you are."
Rhiane smiled. "I'll do that."