Dove struck at the alarm and cursed its manufacturer. Taborah sat in a chair, drinking coffee and reading a full-size PADD she had acquired. "Well," she said, "Someone was out late last night."
"I hope it was fun, whatever it was."
Dove ignored her long enough to make use of the bathroom, then poured herself some coffee. Taborah said, "So, where were you last night?"
"I told you yesterday. I have a few Pendorians contacts in the city. I'm trying to make more. And I needed to talk to them about a few financial details left over from the voyage."
Taborah leaned forward. "And you needed to be out all night to do that?"
"Yeah, yeah, I did," Dove said.
"I think you found something else to do as well."
"Tabs, you're not either of my mothers. Don't pretend you can do their job."
Taborah reached out and put her hand on Dove's arm, an intimacy Dove would not have expected from her. "All I'm saying is that you're in a strange country, in a strange city, will all kinds of new and interesting things to see and do, some of which are probably very unhealthy for you. I don't want you to end up, you know, in the hospital or dead."
"I'm not going to end up dead, Tabs."
"Good," Taborah said.
Dove drank her coffee, put on her padd. She didn't know exactly how much money Jaylene was authorized to use to leverage their relationship with the Corridor market, but she did know that there had to be speculation already regarding the exchange rate. Hers wasn't the only firm here. She was surprised to see that the speculation was high, but abstract: the Free Worlds would be worth a lot if they ever got an exchange going. She read through the business section with her search filters hot and discovered that the other four firms that had sent teams to the Corridor had not yet gone into business either.
She dressed in the privacy of the bathroom. The hotel room lacked a changing space: the Pendorians didn't have the same kind of body modesty the Sterlings said they had. Dove knew the modesty was a kind of myth that withered when faced with the realities of love and desire, yet for Taborah's sake she continued to act on it. She went in search of Jaylene.
Jayl was still in her hotel room. She had taken one alone although it didn't seem to matter one way or the other to the Pendorians who were doing the boarding allocation. Jayl was one of the best traders in the Free World, a medium-term investor who specialized in kicking up the margins hard on those stocks in an otherwise safed mutual portfolio that were deemed playable. She rarely bet wrong, and had returns of six or seven percent within her own subfolio. That it made little more than a tenth of a point difference to the stodgy three-to-four point funds run by HonorAthena Funds did not detract from her value. She knew how to recognize a winner.
She let Dove into her hotel room and shut the door, then scuttled back to her table. "Dove," she said. "What are we doing here?"
"I thought you knew."
Jayl shook her head. "I've been trying to read this all day. I can't make sense of it at all. Where do we get in on this?"
"What are you talking about, Jayl? I think it would be easy."
Dove tried to show her on the clipboard-sized padd Jayl had been using. It wasn't sufficient. "Dzun, I need a bigger display."
"Like this?" the AI said. Two walls of the hotel room disappeared, replaced with glowing white displays. Wearing her padd, Dove gestured to walls, drove through menus, pulled up the article she had been reading that morning on potential valuations of Sterling stocks, a historical retrospective on how other colonies had conducted financial integrations. The last one had been Haylee's, she saw, only about a century and a half earlier, and made for an instructive example.
"What... You always knew how to find stuff on Sparta, but how do you know how to do this?" Jayl said.
"Practice," Dove said. "You just say it, and it's done. Dzun is always here to transform what you want into reality." She shrugged. "Just like my padd." She tapped her glasses. A noise blared into the room: financial news in audio. "Grrr." She undid the last action. "What have we brought?"
"I can't..." Jayl looked up. "Six millions shares in index fund six, three million in our high-risk development fund, and one million in the media fund."
"You brought the media fund?" Dove said.
"It's only four percent."
"Jayl, it's a vote, isn't it?"
"Jayl, we can launch a bidding war on those shares right now. How much of the index fund is media?"
"Uh... I don't know. Eight percent, I think."
"Jayl, our industrial and developmental funds are mostly worthless here. You might get a few buyers for them if any of them contained real estate. You do have the numbers on them, right?" Jayl nodded. "Goddess, Jayl, we need to get moving now."
Dove tried to control her frustration. "We need to trade the value we have in our stock for growth potentials in Pendorian markets. Have you figured out how to do that?"
"Well, sure," Jayl said. She rolled through menus with less speed than Dove, but she managed. "There's a big growth potential right now in some agricultural stocks, mostly because there's been a sour harvest on a world called Pera. Something about a newly emergent fungus or something. I think the push is going to be bigger than the predictions, and there's always an edge in luxuries there." Dove asked that her results be displayed on the other wall. "See?"
Dove nodded. She did see it. She could never have found it. That was something Jayl did all the time. "But I don't know how to get at it," Jayl said. "Or find the funds with which to buy it and add it to the portfolio."
"Cash," Dove said. "Commodities. I can show you how."
She and Jayl spent the next three hours learning how to negotiate with the Pendorians. They called six investment houses, set up interviews with eight commodity interests, and toward lunchtime fended off three invitations to discuss the sale of their media stock. "I told you this was easy," Dove said.
"Goddess," Jayl said. "You speak their language."
"So do you," Dove said. "It's money. It may be just a game to them. Lives aren't riding on this. But it's a game with simple rules. You know most of them. You just don't know the setup. That's all I've been doing for the past week, learning setup. We have a lot of research to do. Do any of these people have criminal records, bad relations with other investors, what?
"We're also going to have to talk to AIs. We might even have to leave this system. We don't know what kind of reach Dzun has. She might be corruptible. She might be corrupt. I doubt that she is, llerkin doesn't seem to be hemorrhaging around the edges."
Her padd vibrated against her temple. "Yes?" she said.
"Dove!" A face appeared before her eyes. "We were hoping you could come to dinner tonight. Ash and I'll cook!"
"Dzun, privacy please." The world took on that odd, muffled quality. "Arwen, I'm busy. I have a life."
"I know, and we want you to share it with us!"
Dove looked at Jayl, who was giving her the same puzzled look that Taborah had given her yesterday. "Arwen, I like you guys. Really, but I can't spend all night, er, with you guys." She blushed, and grinned, and felt warm in her belly all at the same time. She apparently didn't trust the silence field.
She felt a twinge of guilt. They were whirling on her, perhaps even crushing. And she wanted them to be happy: they had been nothing but kind to her, in their own overwhelming, almost consent-erasing ways. Last night in the midst of an erotic haze she had almost become convinced she could fall in love. "Call me around ten. I'll know by then."
"Yes! If you need to make it later, we'll be happy to slide time around! Just let us know!"
She laughed. Goddess, they made her pleased just to know them. "Okay, I'll do that. Now, let me get back to work."
"Bye!" The image shut down, the privacy field dropped. "What was that?" Jayl asked.
"One of my contacts. A... tutor in the Pendorian way of life." And one great lay. Especially when he was paired up with his brother. Goddess, she was a pervert after all. Zia had once told her that only she could choose that label for herself.
"How did you work so... fast?"
There was a knock at the door. Jayl looked up. Dove consulted her padd, enjoying herself far too much. This was the kind of thing Mama Suvhasri did for a living: come in and save the day. She opened the door and greeted the large, green-furred taurid who waited there for her. They exchanged pleasantries, she tipped him with a gentle touch on his arm, a quarter LAU, and he loped off again. "Lunch," she said, dropping two paper bags onto the table.
"What are we having?" Jayl said.
"I don't know. I asked Dzun to surprise us." Dove's was a mixture of vegetables with a strong, savory element of meat on it.
Jayl ate hers with obvious pleasure. "We landed here yesterday morning. I heard about you taking the others out to restaurant. Less than a day on a new world and you've got friends, a favorite pizza place, and business contacts. It must be a skill you learned from your mothers."
Dove nodded, not wishing to contradict Jayl. She may have been right.
They spent the afternoon in the hotel room going over the documentation that Dove selected. It was much more than either of them could digest in one sitting but for Dove it was a start. Time went by until her glasses buzzed once more. She glanced at the clock. "Yes, boys?"
"Dinner?" She saw hope in their expressions.
She remembered. "Dzun, privacy!" The field snapped up around her. "Goddess, I think Jayl heard me. Okay, sure. Dinner it is. In two hours."
"I have a lot to do here," Dove said.
"'Kay. Two hours. We'll have dinner ready. Promise?"
"I do! I promise, guys!" Dove said. "Dzun, can you make a calendar entry for me?"
"Done," the AI said.
She gestured, and the phone call ended. "Before you drop privacy," she said. "I hope you don't take that comment I made about AI corruption personally."
"Well, you did name me specifically," the AI said. "But no, I understand that primitives are often lacking in trust and understanding."
Dove laughed. "I guess I deserved that. Okay, Dzun, I'm sorry. You can drop privacy now."
Jayl said, "You have to stop doing that."
"Why?" Dove said. "It's very common here."
"It's a little freaky to watch you gesture and laugh like that, and not be able to hear you. So, mind filling me in on what your, uh, 'boys' wanted?"
"Dinner," Dove said, blushing hard. "Specifically, they want me to go to their home and cook dinner for me."
Jayl gave her the same disapproving, calculated look that Taborah had given her. "It's those two mascs from the dinner two nights ago, isn't it? Are you sleeping with them?"
Dove knew she had a temper. It came from Mama Suvhasri's side. She tried not to let it get the best of her, but now she felt caught by desires: to rise to the challenges of this new world and to the commitments that her life had brought her, but also to be free, to enjoy the pleasures she had discovered. It was no longer enough to just know where her clitoris was or to know what it felt like to have sex. She understood the conversation she had had with Polly: she wanted to go exploring until she knew what she wanted. She snapped, "That's my private life, Jayl. It's not your business."
"I suppose not. It's just not what I would expect out of Dove San Cioni. You were always so dedicated."
"I am dedicated. I'm getting us onto track. You can't do your job without an in, and I know where to get one. And while you were reading that I took a look around and made a few inquiries about renting office space and more permanent housing." She pulled up a new big screen. "There are a few places in the capitol, but I think there's a nice complex on the other side of the planet with better opportunities. If we're going to go big on commodities, and I know you like them, the starport and warehouse complex at Thiole' is better than New Fahn, and since they're almost exactly opposite the SDisk transportation cost are near-pedestrian."
Jayl leaned in. Dove had learned how to distract her. That was another useful skill she would need to refine.
An hour later, Dove told Jayl that she needed to leave. Jayl gave an absent nod, her mind still full of details on how to best position the Sterling media shares and how to acquire Heavy Agricultural stocks before that deal became obvious to everyone. "The problem is that most farms are AI run, so the exchange rate sucks," Jayl said. "What do AIs want?"
"I don't know," Dove admitted. "I'll ask."
"That's what they are, Jayl."
"Goddess, Dove, I can't believe you're sleeping with a masc. Is it just one of them? Or do you switch off? They're twins, could you even tell? Or is it both at once?"
"By the Prophet, Jayl, that's none of your business!" Dove said, her voice reaching for higher notes.
"I've been thinking. Your actions reflect on this firm, Dove. I have to look out for its best interests, and the best interests of Sparta. How would your mothers feel if they knew that you had suddenly become, I hate to say this, a deviate?"
"I would tell them to blow off. It's not their business."
"But it is, Dove."
"Because it is! It's a what a woman does. Especially a Child of the Goddess, and one like you, who's own mother is an Opra, should know that."
Dove bit her lower lip hard to keep from snarling. "Jayl, I'm an adult. You should also be able to respect the choices I make like one."
"Even adults need reminding that they have a duty larger than themselves. Women have died to bring you life, Dove. Are you turning your back on them?"
"If I had, Jayl, I wouldn't have spent all day with you, doing my best for you and the firm, would I?"
Jayl glared at her. Dove stared back. Jayl turned her head away and Dove took the opportunity to leave.
Dove ignored Taborah when she went back to her room, saying only the least necessary to keep her roommate placated. She wanted Zia back. At least Zia was too busy having her own life to interfere. But now that Jayl's assignment was in full swing it was time for Dove to put in her hours at HonorAthena, to earn her keep, to make the system work. Whether she got along with the others or not.
She chose modest, ordinary clothes. She had not seen many skirts in New Fahn and she would be obvious as a Sterling, but she didn't have the time or inclination to buy and become accustomed to wearing trousers. She left without more than a "good bye."
As she walked, she consulted the map a few times but she remembered most of the route. Dove felt intense relief to get off that floor, out of that hotel, away from the suffocating attention of Spartan women. Even if she was one herself.
As she walked, she passed many llerkindi who looked upon her with casual curiosity but no outright hostility or intrigue. Instead, they all just watched her go, one more alien in a city full of aliens. She was the outsider here. She was descended from Earth.
So were her co-workers, her mothers, Zia, Polly, Rhiane. All human beings. So, too, were the boys. The boys. She had no idea what she could do for them, did not know what they wanted from her. She knew only that in their presence she laughed, she felt wanted, they liked her, they cared. It was a selfish kind of caring they gave her and it should have shamed her, but she embraced it when it was happening and dreamed of it when it was not.
She passed by one of the many parks the city offered. She found a park bench made of wrought iron, tight helical curves creating a place to sit hovering in space. She was twenty-seven years old and she had no idea what she should do with the rest of her life. She just knew that her mothers would do fine without her, that they loved her and wanted the best for her. She was a child of the Goddess, and unlike Rhiane she believed. She believed that the universe cared for her. It was a woman, and she loved her children. Forgive Dove her angry transgressions as she forgave others: and if that wasn't a passage for the daughters of a goddess, no passage was.
She hurt, though. She felt tears in her eyes, tears she would never have shown another woman. They leaked out behind closed eyelids, trailed down her cheeks. Jayl and Taborah were cruel, both of them holding the two halves of a mould into which they felt they must force a co-worker, a Spartan, a daughter of the Goddess, a daughter of an Opra and a Senator. All she had ever wanted was to give her all for the Firm in the daytime and to be left alone at night. If she wanted to be left alone with two oversexed mascs who showed her unending adoration, that was her choice. Wasn't it?
She must have sat there for a while. Her padd buzzed against her temple. She sniffed deep, touch the frame. "Yes?"
One of the twins appeared. "Dove?" The clock in the corner of her vision indicated it was half past twelve. "Are you okay?"
She nodded, wondering if they could see it somehow. "I'm fine. I just needed some time to think."
"Are you close? Do you want one of us to come get you? Someone has to stay here and watch the pots."
"No," she said. They were willing to be separated. They were willing for her. She smiled. "I'll be over in a few minutes." She stood up.
"We'll be waiting for you," he said, his voice soft and concerned. "Dinner will be on the table. See you soon."
"Bye," she said. After the window closed, she let her focus remain on the glass, ignoring the world passing for a moment. She remembered something she had heard one of the boys say yesterday. "Dzun?"
"Miss San Cioni?" Dzun said.
"What's a stray? When a person says she's a stray, what does it mean?"
"A stray is a term, mildly insulting, for an engineered companion who lost his original purpose but has not yet found someone or something else to which to be Purposed."
Dove thought back to all of the movies she had watched while she was on the Einstein's Canvas. She had an inkling of what the Pendorians meant when they described Purpose. It was a way of knowing what you wanted, of having a focus, an ideal. Almost all robots had it or wanted it, and many organic beings did too. She recalled that Ash and Arwen, despite being organic themselves, had been manufactured to a specification, had been the playthings of a pair of older men, had loved them and been loved in return-- if they could be believed. If that could have been described as love.
Realization dawned on her.
Her steps became quicker. When she knocked on the door, they both greeted her with welcoming hugs and gentle kisses that were nothing like their usual overwhelming lascivious embraces. They were still the same: her height, golden brown skin, long arms, strong sleek bodies. They wore heavy dresses that showed off their shoulders and calves, but not much more: girlish, but workable. They wore lip gloss, which gladdened her. It bolstered their feminine appearance. "Dove, are you sure you're okay?"
The question was simple, the answer she had was not. She tried to say "Yes," but they would know that wasn't the truth. She found the strength to say, "You said I should come over for dinner."
"Ash, could you get the wine?"
She smiled. "You did that for my benefit."
"It may not matter to us which is which, but we know that you like to have a name. So do I," Arwen said. Ash returned with the glasses, setting one at each place. He poured.
He led her to a tiny table, big enough for the three of them and a couple of centerpieces: a small vase of yellow flowers, three wooden spice shakers, a small bottle. Ash joined them, wine in hand, as Arwen pulled a kitchen towel so new the kitschy floral print on it was still shallow bright off a square glass pot. She looked from one to the other. "You're still wearing your padds," she said.
"Better than contacts," Ash said. "Yeah, comfortable." "We don't have implants." "Our symbolware takes up enough space as it is." "Besides, it makes us look like a Sterling." "You're all so pretty, we want to look like you."
Arwen dished out dinner. "Just a biscuit-topped pot pie," he said. "We were feeling lazy."
They ate. It was good, in a home-made kind of way. Not like the apartment food or restaurant cooking she'd been eating for the past few months, but better. Loving. "You're a good cook," she said as she finished off the last of her meal and pushed back from the table.
"It's something we've always been good at," Ash said as he rose, clearing off the dishes. Arwen pushed back his chair, rose to stand behind her. Dove leaned back against the chair, closed her eyes, and raised her arms. "Being good to you is something we want to become good at," he said as he lowered his hands to her shoulders, slid them down the fabric of her blouse over her breasts to her belly. His warm lips touched her behind her ear, causing her to shiver even as she heard Ash's footsteps, felt his hands on her thighs.
She opened her eyes. One was staring right at her. She looked up. The other stared down at her. She reached out. "I have one hand for each of you," she said, and taking each hand in her own she let them lead her to the bedroom.
They undressed her lovingly, enthusiastically. They kept their dresses on as they pulled down her skirt, off her blouse. Her bra fluttered into a corner. She watched as one-- she had already lost track-- fell to his knees and pressed his mouth between her thighs. "You taste so good," he sighed. The other, she wondered for a moment where he was before she felt his kisses on the small of her back, trailing down. The mouth on her pussy pressed its way through her pubic hair, the other trailed down the curve of her back. She felt the warmth, the wetness of that tongue between her labia. Two months ago she would have been shocked at the mess, the liquidity of sex. Now she craved it. His tongue felt so good, and then the other's mouth slipped between her asscheeks.
She tensed. "Uh!" she said. "Don't. Please."
"I don't... I'm not Zia or Polly. I don't think I'd like that. I mean, playing with my ass."
"Okay," he said. "I won't." He did continue to pepper her ass with kisses, and Dove found herself relaxing into the warmth they generated between them, down there by her hips. The tongue that stabbed gently between her labia was sending her ecstatic messages of love and lust, and Dove's gasps and groans filled the room between the two boys.
She came while still standing, the one behind her catching her before her knees collapsed. She fell onto the bed, face down, and soon she felt one of them slide up behind her, his hard cock probing over the crease of her ass before he pointed it downward and it found its way into her pussy. They had her naked and vulnerable: she had to trust them. Last night, the morning before, the night before that, each time she had had sex with them had been better than the memory of the time before, had been special and precious because it had been so different. As the one boy invaded her she knew it was Ash. She knew that the cock that drifted before her eyes was Arwen's.
She retained a tiny fragment of clarity, just enough to know that it had never been like this with Polly or Saul. This was overwhelming, a deep hunger in her soul. She was starting to like the way the boys looked as boys, not as substitutes for Ys, and she lunged for the dick waving in front of her like a hawk diving for a mouse: she wanted to consume Arwen's dick, she wanted Ash to fuck her into oblivion, to make her happy, to make all her memories and troubles just stop for a short while.
They did their best. Arwen fed her his dick. "Grief, Dove, you're getting good at this." His dick, the fatter if shorter of the two, was still enough for her mouth, and she took it until she gagged on it, desperate, needy. Ash's dick slipped in and out of her with the power of a piledriver, and Arwen's dick tasted so good against her tongue that she would never need for dessert as long as she had them.
Ash came, and they switched places. She felt a bit like she was using them, demanding that they hammer away at her, use her, and yet she knew that she had their undivided attention: they were just doing the best they could in the absence of any direction from her. Arwen's cock slid into her sopping wetness even as Ash gave her a taste of his, still slathered in both his and her juices. She nibbled at his balls, tasted the length of his cock. She wanted just so much more of them than life would allow her to have. She wanted them forever.
They both came, and stayed hard, and she feasted upon them, made a bed of one as the other licked her to three, four, she lost count of how many times she came. All she knew was that each was better than the last.
Her body felt indecent and warm as she rolled over and looked up at the ceiling. It was a different ceiling from the one in her apartment back on Sparta, or her cabin on the Einstein's Canvas, or her hotel room here in New Fahn. It wasn't a bad ceiling: off-white, flocked with sound-absorbing material, commonplace. She could stand to look at it for a long time, especially when one or both of the twin's faces were blocking out part of it, rocking back and forth, making love to her. She turned her head to look at one of them (it didn't matter who, as Arwen had said) and kissed him. He moaned. She smiled at him. "What would it mean if I asked you guys to become my companions?"
She heard a laugh behind her. "Oh, I told you she would figure it out."
"I never doubted she would." Even as he pressed his warm, naked chest to hers, Dove felt the other slide up behind her and cradle her ass and back with his own body.
"Oh, Dove, we talked about it after you left last night. We do want you to be our girlfriend, and to stay with us, but do you have any idea what a companionship would mean?"
"No," she said. "No, I don't. I watched some movies. I don't know that the movies can convey it."
"They can't." "Not really." Kisses pelted the back of her neck, making her shiver. "But Dove, you've known us for three days. We've only been out for a few weeks. We can't know if we want you anymore than you can know you want us." "Grief, Dove, we do want you, we want to be yours, but... we don't want you to die. I don't know if we could stand that again."
"I'm not about to die any time soon."
"No, you're not," the one behind her said, kissing her bare shoulder. She closed her eyes and felt his kiss leave sweet, honeyed pleasure within her. The other said, "But you're still mortal. You don't understand, Dove. Gregor was three thousand years old, and yet a hundred years after buying us, he killed himself." "Was it something about us? Was it something we did?" "We didn't know, and we're as afraid to find out as you are."
Dove looked at them and said "So, what? You just... want to be friends?"
"No!" They pounced on her at once. She felt their bodies, their warmth pour into her, felt their hard cocks probing at her crotch. "No, no, we want you."
"We just don't know how it's going to work. You haven't taken TRT yet, so that makes us scared." "Among other things." "What we're saying is that we want you to come to us, every day, every moment you can. We like you, you're wonderful, you're cute, and you seem to like having sex with us as much as we like having it with you!" That was true. Someone's hands were touching her mound. She should have been sore but she wasn't feeling it. "Come to us every day, every night. We'll cook, we'll fuck, we'll give you everything we can."
She laughed. "For how long?"
"For as long as it works."
"And if that's forever?"
She struggled to get free of them. She wanted to see both of them at the same time. They looked back at her, their eyes open and wet and so happy. "It sounds a lot like getting married."
"A little." "It's a different kind of responsibility." "But that's one we can live up to." "Companions sometimes do marry their sponsors." "That's why we want you to just be our girlfriend for a while." "And to take TRT."
"I can't take TRT," Dove said. "Not yet."
"Why not?" one asked. She thought he might be Ash.
"Because we don't have a treaty, and my people haven't agreed to it yet."
"Sure they have." "They signed the letter of intent." "It says that you can seek treatment for any injury or debilitating condition." "Senescence is a debilitating condition, isn't it?"
Dove stared at them. "You're serious, right? On Sparta, getting old isn't something you can treat. It's not something we want to treat, I don't think. It's natural. It just happens."
"Dove, if dying of all the other things that killed you before you reached fifty isn't acceptable, why is dying of all the things that kill you after fifty?" "You're here now, in the Corridor." "And senescence is defined as a debilitating condition." "Getting TRT would be the recommended method of immunizing yourself against it." "And getting backed up would be the recommended method of avoiding death by accident or injury." They were smiling at her, their grins wide and joyful. They wanted her to have the pleasures of the corridor as completely as she could and they were telling her how to get them.
"But it's selfish." Such a hollow complaint embarrassed her almost as much as the confession. Fucking a pair of mascs, finding pleasure in them, putting aside the joys of socializing with her consore women, were also selfish.
"It's what the Corridor allows, Dove." "As a minimum." They were grinning, and they looked like boys once more, their sleek brown bodies, their ribs barely visible under a layer of strong muscle, their long necks with soft jawlines that gave them the ability to look so girlish when dressed. Goddess, they were the most beautiful human beings she'd ever seen. Maybe that was just her desire talking. She felt her own legs shift underneath her and, almost involuntarily, she leaped on one of them. She felt his cock, soft briefly, and said, "One more round before I go?"
The other was already running his hand along her back and down across her ass. She liked it when he touched her there. Maybe she would let them have her that way someday. Maybe there was something to Zia and Polly's form of play. "Oh, Dove," they said in unison. One said, "We love you."