Petri Dish

Seren, Hiss 07, 37553

In the perfectly clear air of a summer day that hinted at Autumn tomorrow, the sun shone down on the dappled surface of a lake high in the hills of New Hampshire (that's a place on Old Earth) at a late afternoon angle, making the shadows of pines that lined the shore stretch towards the tall house that Sasami, Ciit and I were calling home. The wind whispered by, a bare zephyr that wished for a storm when there were no clouds in the sky.

Then there was one. A contrail that stood out like no contrail should have. Sasami and Ciit were lounging about the edge of the lake, Sasami looking down into the water, her eyes intent on snagging a fish that came too close. Ciit, on the other hand, pointed up into the sky right at the contrail. "I think it's artificial," she shouted.

"Can't be sure at that distance," I said, refusing to raise my voice. I knew she could hear me. Instinctively, I knew how far away the trace was, what it looked like in other forms, and what it could mean.

"True," she said, dissolving into a cloud of dust that blew off into the air. She reformed by my side. "But it's surely suspicious."

"Want to go check it out?"

"There's no other reason to be out here," she said.

"What time is it?" I asked.

"About two hours before night."

Sasami by now had noticed that Ciit had disappeared and wandered back to join us. She took an update of what we had been talking about, allowed her brain to process it such that she could form an opinion, and then nodded. "Let's go check it out," she said.

I closed my eyes for a second. I opened them to find myself back in the Real, the "real universe," if there was such a thing, looking out through the eyes of my suit. I turned my head back and forth for a moment, looking for the trace and it's direction of strength, then programming the suit to give chase.

I closed my eyes again, and I was back at the lake. It was a lovely lake several thousand years ago, and I never tired of it. There's something about childhood memories that just don't let go. Ciit, being an AI, proclaimed that she would be comfortable anywhere Sasami and I wanted to go, and Sasami had said that my lovely lake with the rustic home and the gentle night breezes would be a wonderful place to relax. The weather was almost entirely based on a stochastic trim; Ciit modified it only as necessary to get our attention and convey information. The storms were fantastic. In this form I was essentially what AIs call a "sacrosanct thread", and I could know everything Ciit knew instantly, readily. Forming opinions about it, though, took a little longer, since I was still running that through a simulation of my organics. Ciit didn't mind. She liked organics and the messy emoting that went with them.

"We're on our way," I said.

"Good," Sasami said. "I was starting to wonder what projects to tackle next." I liked the way she said that. 'Projects.' As if it were perfectly normal to have several projects running at the same time. "Ken, I finished that poem."

"The vilanelle?"

"Yes, and without any AI help. Sort of. I wimped out and went with a terzanelle instead. Well, except for vocabulary. I suppose I could have been pedantic and asked for rhyming help from a dictionary, but yes, the actual content is all mine." She grinned at me, that big, toothy grin that only Pamthreats can achieve.

Direct and simple, my passions race, like a hot campfire on a summer night leading me, helplessly, to your embrace,

where I find comfort from the fears I face. Because when you hold me, strong and tight, simple, and direct, my passions race.

It's not your reputation, it's not the space, but your joy, your wisdom, your eyes in light, leading me, helplessly, to your embrace,

You're never afraid, there's never a trace, I'm so overwhelmed by your lack of fright, direct and simple, my passions race,

and I want to run full speed, at your pace. My wish to hold you, to soak up your might, leading me, helplessly, to your embrace.

Too young to know the meaning of the chase, I let you light guide me and soothe my plight. Direct and simple, my passions race, leading me, helplessly, to your embrace,

I was too stunned to talk for a few seconds. "Wonderful," I said. "I'm honored. I... I don't know what to say. You did a great job with the internal structure, too. How many re-writes?"

"Sixteen," Sasami said. "It took so long to get it right! Is this really what our ancestors did to try and communicate such ideas?" she asked. "Why not just use an Affect?"

"Because," I said, continuing my earlier thought about Ciit, "an Affect is precise. Being messy is part of what being a pure organic is all about. It allows for discontinuity, disagreement... verge! It's what allows for progress. There's no way to get around that. I'm a pure organic at home."

"No you're not," Ciit said. She had taken the ELF of a tall, fair-skinned woman with flaming red hair and high, winsome breasts, the kind of Irish girl that, curiously, I was never that interested in when I was a young and ordinary human. This despite the fact that it was regularly offered up as one of the ideal female types by various purveyors. "You've got a lot of wiring in the original Ken Shardik and you know it."

"Well, true," I said with a sigh. "But that doesn't mean I'm a complete wirehead."

"No, you're a messy compromise," Ciit said. "Which is fun. It's why I like you."

"Well, I appreciate the vote of confidence," I said. "Anyways, how soon until we find the..." A gentle smell of lavender, a plant that I don't recall growing in my old home town, passed by, and it contained gigabytes of data about the contrail. I took a deep whiff and smelled the repetitious patterns within the lavender, the deep impulses, and the slight hint of plasticity that suggested an artificial source. Understanding what that meant, I banished thinking about it and just enjoyed the sweet smell. "Oh."

"You asked," Ciit said with a grin. She liked using smell. It was easier than anything else because it didn't have to distract you if it wasn't meant to. "I've made the course correction, Ken. Don't bother going out."

I nodded. "Thanks," I said. The smell faded away, but I knew that I could summon up the data with a simple thought. It was always there, as pure as memories, indistinguishable from experience.

We weren't in a rush to get anywhere, which is why the experiential time inside our little world passed by at one-tenth the rate of the "real" world. Thirty light years went by in an "hour." Ciit handled the details. That's what she's happy doing. Handling the details. Hanging out with the organics. Avoiding transcendence.

"The trace is broad enough to suggest a very, very large ship," Sasami said. "Some kind of heavy mover. Pendor only has seven or eight ships that large."

I wondered if that meant anything about the kind of people we were about to encounter. Although almost all of the people Pendor had encountered so far were friendly, experience also showed that first contact was also an occasion fraught with danger, misunderstanding, and possible mistrust. And there were spacefaring cultures out there that qualified as purely xenophobic, the kind whose first reaction upon meeting another spacefaring race was: "It's all got to go." They were fortunately few. That didn't mean that the rest were instantly welcoming with open arms.

"Any idea on when we'll find them?"

"None," Sasami said. "A few days, maybe more."

I sat down next to her and nuzzled her behind her ears. "Plenty of time to snuggle."

"Mmm, hmm!" She purred softly, turning her bulky head towards mine and kissing my cheek with her cool nose. "You're a good snuggler, too."

"Am I?" I said.

She nodded, looking slightly embarrassed. I think she was less the cosmopolitan adventurer she had made herself out to be, back when we'd agreed to this trip a couple of months ago. I kissed her cheekruff again and said, "It's just you, me, and Ciit on this trip, sweetie."

"I know. But getting to know humans is always hard."

"Ain't that the truth," Ciit said with a grin. "Anyway, who's hungry?"

Oddly enough, I was. I hesitate to think that while I enjoyed what was indistinguishable from a genuine meal of very traditional spaghetti with spicy sausage, what really happened was that Ciit SDisked blobs of nutritionally complete but otherwise uninteresting foodstuffs into the body of Ken Shardik 1.0/8/X.

Ah, well. Such is life these days.


"That's a big ship," I said. The three of us had gathered around the video screen in the house, now showing us images from the sensors in the bodysuits. I was sure by now that they, whoever they might be, were as aware of the three of us as we were of them. We must have shown up clearly on their monitors, three tiny spots of warp- order-four violations of the laws of physics, all moving in tight formation, closing in on them. The fact that we were standing around a comfortably appointed living room didn't detract from our outward appearance to the rest of the universe. "And it's headed right for Pendorian space. We send, well, us, and they send a freaking battleship."

"We don't know that it's a battleship," Sasami said.

"It's quite possible that, given our size, we look more like offensive weapons than we do people," Ciit pointed out. "A technology dependent upon ships that size is probably not used to man-sized starships."

"'Torpedoes in the water,'" I muttered.

"Exactly. And you know just how effective Thor systems are."

"So, how do we convince them we're not missiles?" Sasami said.

"That's a very good question," Ciit replied. "We look like we're following them. What if we exhibit curious behavior? Veer to the left, come up behind but beside them, and then drop out of drive?"

"Sounds like a plan," I said. I pulled up another display and programmed in a change of flight plan. To my right I established another visual monitor from overhead, and then asked Ciit to supply an appropriate level of proprioception to the event. She choose gentle breezes rustling the window curtains. We watched our progress on the ghostly monitors.

It took four hours to catch up to the ship. Those weren't the most exciting of hours but somehow I never became bored with the wait. It was one of those things that I had long ago programmed into my brain, that a wait while on a job was not a boring time but a waiting time. A simple variant of Wish's programming. It had legitimacy. I didn't have to get other things done while I waited. My job was to watch for changes. I was good at it. I was good at it because neuronal patterns in my brain and their equivalency on silicon made me be good at it. It didn't feel forced; it was just that, for that period of time, I was the sort of person who was very good at waiting and watching.

"Look," Sasami said. "Sensor sweeps."

Ciit nodded. "Imprecise and without the kind of resolution we've grown used to. Either they're a bit behind us or they don't believe that we're using organics in here."

"Weapons, then?"

"Mm-hmm," Ciit said. "They're worried about us. Time to drop out of hyperspace." She leaned forward and pressed a button on one of the screens. Very, very smoothly, we dropped out of hyperspace, leaving only the most professional of ripples in space-time behind.

"Nice neighborhood," I commented. We were about midlevel of the galactic disk, quite a bit behind Sol/Pin/Xhal's rotation. Stars are thick in this neighborhood, crowding up one against another, tugging cometary clouds and bombarding inner planets with life-threatening asteroids. We were only two light-years away from a typical G8 main star that long-range telemetry had indicated might have some planets about it. It wasn't on our schedule but that didn't mean we couldn't have a look later. All in all, it was a "nice neighborhood."

Our friends, whoever they were, couldn't resist. I smiled. "Curiosity is a good sign," I said as their hyperspace trace became visible on my sensors. On a logarithmic scale they were quite far away, but they managed to close the distance with handsome rapidity. They were definitely not interested in keeping the object of their attention waiting.

The ship slowed down, dropping orders of magnitude and then actual pseudo-velocity as it approached. When it was within a few light-seconds it dropped into normal speed, and seconds after that I had a good view of it.

It looked like an ancient aircraft carrier. It had something of a prow shape to it with a flat upper surface, no control tower to speak of, and none of the bulges that most order-four ships needed to maintain velocity without a loss of efficiency. That further implied a different kind of propulsion or power draw from our own. "We might have something to trade."

"Hmm," Ciit said, knowing full well what was on my mind. "Colorful. Take a look at that flat part. That's not your favorite kind of neighborhood, if I remember correctly." I jacked up my resolution to the point where I could see what she was talking about and immediately agreed with her. It was funny to think that I was living– much less flying through the vast reaches of space– with little more than a power suit and booster between me and an unpleasant death– not that that would mean much– but going naked with nothing more than gravitic projectors to keep the air in and me down still made me go cold.

Because that's what the entire top of that ship had. Gravitic projectors holding down a huge park, atmosphere and all. As it drew closer parallax let us get some dimensions on it. The ship measured six kilometers long, four high and three wide, assuming that the 'park' was at the top. The park had a comfortable lake at one end and high, hilly peaks at the other, with stretches of woods and trees in the middle. Everything looked more or less familiar. I closed in further. The atmosphere was making things hazy, but I could easily spot the inhabitants and was pleased to see that they matched the 60% of the universe we had seen so far: the ones I saw were humanoid and I could make a distinction between clothing and body.

"I think they'll find me entertaining then," Sasami said with a grin.

We were probed as the ship came closer, and we sent out the traditional hellos, starting with the prime numbers on the hydrogen band, using differing multiples of the frequency of krypton transiting from its lowest to its second lowest quantum energy level as intervals. If that didn't scream "Hi! We're smart!" nothing would.

The messages started to come back, and Ciit handled the communications. It took all of six minutes for her to say, "Okay, I'm talking to the AI on board and he seems rather friendly. We're establishing a baseline for language. Do you want it downloaded or would you rather learn it?"

"Learn it," I said.

"Me too," Sasami agreed.

"Okay. Here's the basics." She started to give us the tutorial while wiring our mindwebs for Plastictongue. I caught a few thousand words in the hour it took the ship to catch up. It was a strange language– very limited in the number of sounds needed, somewhat limited in social concepts but very rich in concrete correspondences, and it had quite a curious number of sex constructs. They had two sexes, generally, but mentioning someone's gender in a conversation was a bit of a faux pax. There were reasons to do so– I didn't catch all of them.

The rest would come later. Plastictongue is a great regimen. Through the millions of microtubles that lace through every Pendorian brain tiny amounts of chemicals can be placed with utter pinpoint accuracy. Plastictongue targets the language centers, turning you back into a three-year-old while new words and syntax are absorbed. That web of extra hardware, a complete and artificial supranetwork imposed on the organic brain, also provides the electrical stimulation needed to cause encoding and memory freeing, taking memories that you're not going to be using any time soon and backing them up to off-skull storage. I imagined my secondary "native" languages of Sind, Greek, and Japanese being put away.

One of the nice things about mindweb is that it's two-way. If I want, I can take any experience and share it, intimately, with another brain built along lines similar to mine. Sasami took up a different aspect of the language from my own, and we traded New Language Affects when we were done.

It was cheating of a sorts. But it meant that we had actual concepts, not one-for-one word correspondences. If the concepts she had developed were different from mine, I'd shift slowly away from her list to my own. She would do the same thing with hers.

The drip ended. I shivered. "How do you feel?" I asked her in the language I now knew was called Petriwed.

"Great," she said. "It's a straightforward language problem."

We hung in space, the three of us, three small bodies. She could see the head of my armor nod, and I saw her wave a paw while her suit's tail swung to counter the motion she had made. I'm sure my suit moved its feet a little in a similar motion to avoid turning with the head motion.

"Ciit?" I asked, turning to our AI, who in this guise filled the body of a full-sized Han who would probably be indistinguishable from the real thing after a few hours on a planet or in that park. "What does 'Petri' mean? I didn't get an answer to that."

"It is the name of their civilization. I'm having trouble with it as well," she said. "It could mean 'people,' 'humans,' 'society,' 'community,' 'cul–'"

"I get the picture," I said. "It mean 'us.'"

"More or less."

I grinned. "I wonder if the name for their homeworld is 'dirt.'"

"Isn't it always?" Sasami asked.

"No," I said, feeling somewhat petulant. "The name for the Shriaa homeworld was 'sky.'"

"I did not know that." I chuckled as I dipped down into the observational portion of our interlinked persona web and watched Sasami put that little chunk of knowledge into off-skull storage. I had a feeling she would do that.

"So what's next?"

"Well, I've taken us to zero," Ciit said, meaning that she had altered our perception of time to what normal humans experienced. "Hope you don't mind me doing so without asking. They're about half an hour away if we don't move, ten minutes if we do. They say they'd like to meet us in a receiving bay. You can see it illustrated there with the strobes." She pointed and my eyes followed. I didn't see what she was looking at until I upped the zoom, and then there were four blinking lights there around a big square hole in the side of the ship. Compared to the ship itself, though, it looked tiny.

"Bay 327," I commented.

"It's hardly the Death Star," Ciit said with a laugh.

"The what?" Sasami said.

"An old video. I'll show it to you later. I wonder what our hosts will make of it? Provided they don't try to have us for dinner, of course."

Ciit said, "Would you object if they did?"

"Depends on whether they wanted the meat cured by age or fresh out of the vat, I suppose," I said, shifting position to aim my suit at the door. Sasami nodded and the three of us flew towards the ship.

I held up my hand and came to a stop before we reached the bay. Sasami and Ciit held up with me.

The receiving bay was as commonplace as a hairbrush. The walls were segmented for easy removal and replacement, the paint a kind of one-off smoke-white. It was much too large for just we three individuals in bulky suits with booster packs, but it was what our hosts had chosen as a meeting place. There were sensors scattered about the opening, but nothing that was immediately discernible as weaponry. I felt reassured. I wasn't afraid of death– I'm backed up all over the galaxy– but I would hate for the conscious thread labelled "Ken Shardik" to proceed onwards without a wonderful collection of memories called "My adventures with Ciit and Sasami." "... Sasami and Ciit ...?" I'd figure that part out later.

At first, I thought that only four people walked out of a door set on the far wall. One was clearly an AI, perhaps a remote, perhaps independent, but definitely all-silicon; I doubt that evolution would have ever cooked up that pretentious silvery sheen. The other three were all organic, at least in appearance, but other than a general mammalian plan, there the similarities ended. Two were humanoid. One, a female, was almost indistinguishable from human. She had no mammae, but her face, hair, slim build and wide hips all announced loudly a feminine aspect. There were subtle differences that showed up more clearly the further I strayed away from my original and organic capacity for sight, but using purely human vision I had the impression of a somewhat attractive and youthful pale-skinned girl. She wore a blue, flowing robe and not much else, and it was clear from her appearance that something other than mere gravity controlled its dramatic appearance.

The second had a shape and body that was humanoid in outlay but not in proportion. His face had the strong look of masculinity, but his eyes and mouth carried a broad smile of invitation. His legs were short, his thighs heavy, his back tilted forward. Large, elfin ears and all-over fur completed the image, but his face was bare of any hair at all, as if someone had shaved a dwarf werewolf and found a handsome prince underneath. He wore yellow slacks and a white blousy shirt that reflected light as he walked.

The third was a quadruped with a beautiful, feline-like body. The head had the general shape of a tear-drop, with large eyes atop a triangular muzzle and large, expressive mouth. Her fur was the browns of a savanna in early Autumn, her body and face covered in a lighter color, but she had a full brown head of hair which covered her large ears and curled down and in just below her jaw in some pageboy haircut. It came to something of a widow's peak above and between her eyes, and she had what looked like a small jewel just inside the point. Her powerfully muscled rear legs and long front paws, which appeared to be variable into some sort of manipulation digits, gave her an impression I think I liked– she appeared to have her butt just slightly in the air. A thick but elegant tail tapered off her backside to balance a long, sensuous neck that lifted her pretty head high. There was something to that face that said fem. There was something to her legs that said predator.

As they walked, I realized that there was a fifth with them. It couldn't have been much larger than a billiard ball, and it appeared to have two small marbles in orbit around them. At the time, I thought it might be a remote for the ship's AI. It hovered on a pad and radiated a gentle, greenish color.

I stood outside the forcefield and regarded them as they regarded us. I spoke, finally, choosing Petriwed. "Is there someone among you who is a representative of the ship, rather than of its passengers?"

I expected the remote. Instead, the robotic one spoke. "I represent the interests of the ship itself, if that is what you mean." The voice was slightly high-pitched and nasal, almost peevish in touch. It reminded me, curiously, of one of the stuffed animal companions I used when raising children.

"We request permission to come on board."

The robot tilted its head to one side as if regarding us differently. "Very polite of you," it said. "Permission granted." We approached the force field. Their control of gravity was as precise as our own, and I felt only a momentary wave of dizziness as we penetrated the field. The ship's gravitics took over. Ciit whispered, "It's very breathable. Just like home, really."

"Thank you," I said. I touched a completely superfluous stud on my left wrist. The suit deformed around me, releasing me from the hyperspace flight booster, retracting the miscellaneous life support units and pulling down the helmet. It continued to reformat itself, shuffling mass into the three-meter-tall booster behind me, small bits of colorless matter drifting off my back and through the air, until I was left with my own comfortable clothing– tight-fitting pan slacks slit laterally down the calves, bright red, a white shirt with yellow trim and the latest Pendorian insignia over the right pocket, and a leather jacket with the same insignia on a small riveted shield affixed to the collar. Comfortable boots completed the ensemble. I ran a hand through my hair and found it passable, although I wished for a comb. "Forgive my appearance," I said. "I'm afraid I haven't had an opportunity to do proper maintenance on it in weeks."

The pretty one, the quadruped, spoke with a gentle voice. "You are the leader?"

"In as much as any one of us is making command decisions, yes," I said.

"I am Taineedormora Gilleate Amonaria ix Ajinatha. These are my friends, Mathavi and Eithighern." Each bowed in turn. "The silvery gentleman to one side is a remote of the Ship. And that thing," she said with a voice somewhere in the neighborhood of amused contempt, indicating the remote, "is the robot Misslik Yepwahentensaf ix Yffi. He is a correspondent." I took that as something of a warning.

I bowed to each of them, and then to the Ship's remote. "And how should I address you?" I asked.

"You may call me Ship, if you like. My name is An Unwarranted Affection for Causality, but people find that a bit of a mouthful."

I agreed, thinking it a very peculiar name for a ship. "And 'Ship' isn't rude?"

"It's easier to pronounce," it said, giving me something that might have been a smile.

"I see," I said with a grin. "Let me introduce my companions. This is Ciit. She is an AI currently inhabiting the form of a Han, one of our eldest client species. And this short one here is Sasami, one of the foundling species of Pendor. Her species is called Pamthreat."

They eyed her with curiosity, as if a two-plus meter long, ferocious-looking black cat with four rear legs and the musculature of a main battletank represented nothing to fear. I found that refreshing. Still, Taineedormora was from a similar evolutionary path, and she was obviously an acceptable companion.

"Where is your parent ship?" Taineedormora asked us.

"We don't have one. What you see is, well, us. We've been travelling in space together for over two years now, real time. A year for us is– " I paused. "A little more than a year for you."

"Just like that?" Taineedormora asked, surprised. Damn, but she had beautiful eyes. I was having trouble keeping my attention off of her. I had to be more professional.

"More or less. The three of us have spent most of our time in a consensual virtual reality, a park that has been maintained in the memory banks of our flight equipment." I gestured towards the boosters. "And Ciit has been gracious in keeping us up-to-date on events as we have travelled. The suits maintain our original bodies. And with the system in place, we have been rushing, changing our perception of time. To us, it has been only a few weeks since we left the Pendorian border colony of Quidnunc."

"I... see. Is this the way you all choose to travel?"

"No, just us. It is a popular way of getting from one star system to another if you want, but most people choose adventure ships of a sort represented by your own to go adventuring, if they're ordinary people or choose to live with ordinary people. Some ships are rush or realm ships, in which time flows differently, and the environment inside is all in the mind, with only some attachment to the world outside."

"I... see. You're quite an advanced species, then."

"As advanced as yours, I take it?"

"Mom thinks you might be a little perverse in your mixing of meat and machine," the younger one said suddenly.

"Mathavi!" Taineedormora said.

"Well, it's true," the immature one said with the untouchable air of a teenager, which is more or less where I pegged her age.

"Let me rephrase the question," Taineedormora said. "Do you understand what we call Transcending?" I nodded. "How close do you think your own species is to it?"

"Oh, we're way past that," I said. "Transcendence is a personal thing. People– or groups of people– do it all the time, by personal choice. Some of us have simply chosen to not transcend."

She looked at me as if I'd just told her that stars were made out of marshmallow and fluff. "I see," was all she said. "We have much to discuss, then. As a representative of the regular inhabitants of the Petriwed Exploration Ship An Unwarranted Affection for Causality, welcome aboard."

"Thank you." With introductions completed, she led us into the ship and I immediately had my earlier impression reinforced– these were people who had been in space A Long Time. Long enough to get past militarism, theocratic ideology, office politics, and universal interior decorating. I was sure all of those things existed, but the Affection's layout, architecture, and decoration spoke of a civilization run by AIs for the benefit of organics, bound by a common morality that treasured the verges. A lot like us.

I couldn't keep my eyes off Taineedormora as we walked down the corridor. I wondered at that. I'll gladly admit to being polymorphously perverse, in every sense of the word, and I had never seen anything quite like her. But my instant attraction, while not exactly unheard of, still had a peculiar flavor to it. I wondered if maybe she was an empath or something.

"I'm not detecting any discernible psi," Ciit said gently in my ear. I felt, or rather "heard" a gentle shuffling sound, as if someone were casually rifling through a set of drawers. "It is interesting. I have no idea where it's coming from either."

"Would you mind not rummaging about in my brain?" I said, more amused than annoyed.

"Sorry. Would you like me to trace it?" I 'heard' the slide of the filing cabinet.

"No."

"Would you like me to undo it?"

"No!"

She chuckled. "Well, enjoy it. Just don't forget to pay attention to Sasami, too."

Unbidden notions of threesomes with a pair of predators came to my mind's eye and faded away. My, my, what an imagination I sometimes have.

After walking away from the efficient and functional receiving bay further into the ship, the sterile coloration gave way to deep, red carpeting, wood-paneled walls, and indirect broad-spectrum lighting. The atmosphere was thick with radio signals all up and down the band, and I could 'hear' Ciit negotiating furiously with Ship about protocols so that she, Sasami and I could maintain both our private network and be part of the Affection's inner life. Despite the apparent problems in establishing communication, I never once felt my self disrupted. My inner CEM was functionally bigger than my entire organic brain and could easily have supported my own sense of self, but having Sasami and Ciit nearby would be helpful. I dropped in for a moment and watched data fly by as Ciit and Affection discussed packeting our private data to keep it out of Affection's hearing and respect the privacy of our thoughts, then dropped out. It was out of my hands and I was comfortable that Ciit would come to an appropriate arrangement.

"It's odd," Ciit said to me, noticing my curiosity and leaning closer to me in the Real. "They have webs like ours, but they don't use them nearly to the depth that we do. Their sense of individuality is very culturally wrapped up in the notion of independent personhood. A Petri citizen is allowed, if that can be said to be the word for it, to do whatever they want with their 'self,' but they have a culturally imposed expectation of the self as integral and singular. It is much like Pendor was early on. You're going to be examined closely, Ken."

I nodded. "If they have webs, what do they use them for?"

"Informational retrieval, much like ours. But it's layered, like the old forms. Affects, especially artificially generated ones, and doubly especially ones like those I make for you and Sasami to keep you informed on what I... and then by extension you... think is important, are somewhat... I don't want to use the word 'taboo.' More like 'gauche'."

I smiled. "Well, I'm sure they're a fully functioning society even without it."

"Oh, they do well enough by themselves. They know of about twenty other species, but they're the big guns in their neighborhood, and they're an aggressively hegemonizing evangelical civilization, much like we are."

I smiled. "Oh, then this'll be fun."

"Is there anything you'd like to see first?" Taineedormora asked as we walked along. "We have decided to make a reception for you later this evening, Ship's time, but in the meanwhile we have hours to pass."

"I'd love to see the park," Sasami said. She looked up at Ciit. "Thank you for maintaining this body so well, Ciit, but even now I can feel that it has not run free in months. And the illusion of the realm we carry is convincing enough that I feel stiff, tired, as if I have not had enough sleep or exercise."

Ciit smiled. "You know, I do that on purpose, so you will keep using your body when you go to Real."

"What is 'Real?'" Taineedormora asked, even as she led us to what was obviously a lift of some sort.

"The real world," I said. "The universe we're mired in, as long as we don't transcend. Since so much of our culture exists in parallel universes created from fantasy but embedded in the real world, we needed a name for this place," I said, gesturing about the ship. "Much as our primitive bodies were dependent upon air and water– and mine still is– even wholly digital citizens in wholly digital, solipsistic universes depend upon the Real for the supercontext in which their universe resides and from which it derives the energy necessary to function."

"Interesting term for it. We just call it 'the universe.'"

"And everything else?" I asked.

"Simulations. Although the AIs have a name for the places where their minds go when they aren't paying attention to us. They called it Paradise." The doors opened.

"Indeed," said the robot, Yffi, for the first time. The little sphere had been following behind us, watching us closely. I wondered when it was going to make itself known. "I've seen it. It's incomprehensibly complex, and wonderful, and it is only their moral infrastructure that keeps the AIs here, in the Real." It glowed a gentle pink, and I had the impression it was pleased. "What a wonderful term. I must publish it and encourage its use."

I chuckled. I liked Yffi. Affection was okay in his own way, Mathavi was clearly a brat, and Eithighern was the strong, silent type. At least so far. I wondered what that kind of designation meant among these people.

Taineedormora led us to a door which opened onto a brightly lit plain. A vast bowl of grass, dotted to the sides with dense trees, led down to a circular lake in which people of several species frolicked carelessly. I looked up and saw the artificial sun source high in the sky, beyond which was nothing but the dark of space. "Taineedormora," I said, fishing for a nickname even as I asked my question, "How long have you been in space?"

"Me?"

"The Petri."

"Oh." She closed her eyes for a second, then opened them. "The first FTL transits of the first Petri vessels was about eleven thousand years ago. We had AIs then, too. And you?"

"Pendor is 37 thousand years old. But I think we took a different cultural tack from your own people."

"Apparently," she said, turning her head towards me to regard me more carefully.

"Is it rude to ask a fem her age?"

"I'm two hundred and sixteen years old. In your culture, is it rude to ask a mel?"

"I was born thirty seven thousand, five hundred and fifty three years ago. Between suspension and rushing, I have five thousand, four hundred and eleven years of experience. I've spent a little more than a third of that sleeping, which is one of my many pleasures."

The shock on her face couldn't have been more clear. "How... how much of that five thousand years do you remember?"

"All of it, if I want to, depending on the intensity of the moment and the kind of event it was. I can't tell you what I ate on my three thousandth birthday, but I can tell you who was at the party." I grinned. "Actually, that is not true. I don't remember the first 150 years quite as clearly as I would like to. We didn't invent proper recorders for mind-state until then, and handlers for feeding it back came much later. I was born nineteen years before AIs and hyperspace drive."

"How many are there as... as old as you? There are AIs like that in the Petri, but not people. Are you an AI, Kennet R'yal Shardik?"

"It's just Ken, please."

"Then you must call be Tainee."

"Tainee, then. Am I an AI? No, not really. I'm an organic, but I'm webbed to the gills." Wasn't I just having this discussion with my realm-mates the other day? "I have an underlying IA– Intelligence Adjunct–, a mechal part of my consciousness but fundamentally different from what I evolved with, that keeps track of my experiences and shuttles information back and forth. I, the 'I' that is currently speaking, experiences unity. When I remember the music of an ancient musical group or pull a historically obscure quote out of the air, I can't tell if it was in the meat or the machine, and frankly I don't care. I'm the same person I've always been. There's just more of me."

"And what are you, for there to be more of?"

"Right now, I'm an explorer. For the start of my career, I specialized in genetic engineering of sophonts, but most of the rest of my life I've spent having fun. A little politics, a little counselling, a little AI design, a little of this, a little of that. This copy of me, the one you see before you, is an adventurer. Most of them are. Two copies have remained behind on the Pendorian homering, one occupying the place I call home. I don't think of him as the original; I wonder what he thinks of me."

She was staring at me. I still wasn't sure about her sex, although I had been calling her 'she' because of, well, subtle details. She had brilliant eyes with huge eyelashes, a ruffle of chestfur, and those small tufts of hair below her ears that suggested length. I noticed for the first time that she was wearing jewelry; a golden necklace that settled against her chestruff and made pleasant tinkling noises as we walked. She kept her thick tail high in the air. She tilted her head to the side. "Ken?" she said.

"I was... I'm sorry. I was just thinking about how beautiful you are."

She stepped back with surprise. "Me?" she asked.

I nodded. "If I have embarrassed or shamed you, I..."

"No, no!" She trotted close to me and gently rubbed her cheek against my forearm, then stepped back lightly. "I was just thinking much the same about you, although I would have used the word 'fascinating' instead." She gave me what was obviously a smile. Damn, she has the cutest triangle nose atop her muzzle. "I don't think I've ever heard a humanoid call me beautiful before."

"Oh, come on, in 216 years more than one mel must have taken a fancy toward you."

"Of my own species, yes," she said, looking away as if embarrassed. "The humanoids of the Petri certainly are busy with one another, but usually they don't interact– that way– with Tsecco very much."

"Tsecco? Is that the name of your species?"

She nodded. "What about among Pendorians?"

Before I could answer, the familiar and powerful ba-d-dmp, ba-d-dmp of a Pamthreat at full chase interrupted anything I could have said. Sasami went by as if she were chasing down every healthy male in the galaxy and she wanted to catch one of the faster ones for a change. I watched her charge past, tearing out great spouts of grass with her paws to kick the stuff into the sky. I laughed. "We're as perverse as our imaginations will allow. And that can get pretty perverse sometimes. We give our people unfettered freedom to be whatever they want to be. We try to intervene without interference, but... it's hard to define where that is. We have a saying on Pendor: We are all advancing state. We know not where we're going, but we're surely not going nowhere."

She nodded. "I think I know what you mean." She tilted her head downward. "Would you sit with me?"

"I would love to." I found a comfortable, dry seat on the welcoming grass.

She was quiet for a long time before she found the words for her next question. "Are you and... Sasami intimates?"

"Yes, we are," I said. "Although we are not exclusive. It was just a decision we tried when we set out on our little trip. Mostly we have been keeping one another company."

"And you have been in those... suits?"

"This body," I said, touching my chest with an open hand, "has been in that suit for all that time. I have not. I have been living in a Realm, a computer-mediated microuniverse. It's not unlike this place here, with a lake and comfortable places to run, although this place has a different character to it than my realm. Sasami, Ciit and I lived in there for several weeks while the months flew by outside. We had a little house by a lake that we used as our home, where we slept and ate and drank as habit and custom and sheer appreciation of being ourselves permitted. On video screens we monitored the outside universe, the Real. And Ciit interacted with my silicon subconsciousness in such a way that I was able to know what was happening without having to look it up myself. The information was there as if I had been studying continuously, indistinguishable from what would have been in here," I said, now touching my head, "had I been doing the learning by ancient ways. And Ciit has a touch of the dramatic. She let us know that your ship was nearby by painting a contrail in the sky, as if a vehicle had passed overhead."

She smiled but was silent for a long time. "It's so much like our own culture– and so much more, too. I don't know how to react to you."

I reached out across the grass to where she was curled up and touched her broad forepaw with my hand. "In the real world, and even in my Realm, I am a person. Depth of memory and the speed and arbitrariness of my recovery doesn't change who I am. Sending off hill-climbing algorithms to solve practical matters doesn't change who I am any more than using a handheld adding machine took away one's humanity at the start of our present age. In matters of the heart, I'm an ordinary conscious being." I grinned. "I still fall in love like everyone else, Tainee."

I was so glad that surprise registered on her face the way I would expect it to on a Pendorian. If she could have blushed, she would have. "You are a mel of most unexpected contradictions," she said.

"I mean to be." Motion to my left caught my eye. I looked up and saw Ciit and Eithighern walking over to us. She towered over us, her four meters of height peering down at us. "I hope you're having fun being charming with the natives," she said.

"Quite," I said.

"We've exchanged literatures. They have some good stuff. I think you would like it, Ken. And I believe that as the guests we should have the right to do our own presentation and pick the media."

"Oh, indubitably," Tainee said, craning her long neck. "You're Ciit? An AI?"

Ciit sat down on the grass. Eithighern, without saying a word, patted her on the shoulder and then walked away. "That would be me, yes."

"I was just talking to Ken about his nature. I'm curious about yours as well, obviously. What distinguishes an AI from, well, Ken? And from robots?"

"I don't believe there is much distinction," Ciit said. "I have objected in the past to the use of the term 'AI'. I much prefer 'silicon intelligence'; it doesn't have that 'artificial' term in it. Robots and mayfolk– mere organics– are distinguished mostly by their origins– were they made by other biologicals from the inside out, or by machinery from the outside in. But it is possible to manufacture biologicals and grow mechanicals, so it may be a distinction without a difference in these days. AIs are distinguished from robots by the fact that we have a multiplicity of conscious threads running independently. Those threads share a common pool of memory and a compunction to merge any short-term experiential discoveries with the command thread, which is unlike anything you would want to talk to– it's like the specialized IAs Ken and Sasami use– which then redistributes those memories as if they were resources. Right now there are hundreds of threads running within me, most of them talking to Affection, one out here talking to you, others monitoring nearby making me as aware of what is behind me as if I were watching Sasami carefully, which I see that you are. A few are playing with the languages in your literature, others checking up on moral and cultural messages to be found there, and so on. What you do in serial I do in parallel. Also, unlike robots and humans, I do not sleep; I have the capacity and the room to do memory integration constantly."

"And your whole civilization is... like this? Made up of people like you and you, with such an incredible variety of... what?"

"Personhood," I offered. I gestured to the sky. "Look at your own civilization. You seem to have no physical difficulties. You said you were 216 years old; I assume that's much longer than your planet-bound ancestors once lived, especially your remaining so young and lovely while doing so." Tainee's eyes fluttered briefly at the compliment and she looked away. "You have all of your physical needs taken care of. You are in much the same place we are. You have Abundance, I take it?"

"I'm not sure what you mean by that," Tainee said.

"They do," Ciit said. "And the same way that we do."

"It means that every need of yours that your animal ancestors may have shared can be met with resources more than one can use. You have the stars at your disposal, you have food in plenty. You have electricity and living space."

"Oh! Plenty. Yes, we have that."

I grinned. "Plenty. Just as good as abundance. I feel like we've run into a civilization with its thesaurus in a different order from our own."

Ciit chuckled. "There are differences."

"I'm sure there are," I said. "For one thing, they have their own mix of interesting people." I gave Tainee a smile.

Ciit whispered to me using a subchannel, "Are you doing that on purpose?"

"No, not really," I replied in the same way. "I just... I don't know."

Ciit grinned. "Well, it's refreshing to see. You don't often let your heart loose like this. I'm not sure what's causing it either, but I'm not going to dig deep and rewire you unless you really want me to."

"I don't really want you to."

"Are you two talking without me?" Tainee chided gently.

"I'm sorry. Are we being rude?" I said. "It's just that we're, well, strangers in a slightly askew land. I don't mean to be rude."

"It's okay," she said, lifting a paw and returning my earlier gesture, touching me on the back of my hand. "I understand. I guess I'm anxious to study you and I'd rather you stay around to be... studied."

"How in-depth is your research going to be?"

"I hope it will be very serious," she said, giving me a nod of the head that suggested a wink. For a moment, the meaning passed between us without words, without radio waves, without gravity– with something far deeper and older, something we could not possibly have had in common and yet somehow I felt we shared. There was absolutely nothing between us to hint at kinship, and yet I was definitely feeling infatuation with her and finding nothing logical about rejecting her.

Which meant that I was left with the task of deciding whether or not I should actually do something about it. Five thousand years cannot go by without creating a few layers of cynicism no matter how strong the Canon I wore.

I shook my head to clear the strange, light-headed sensation from it. My heart took one last strong thump and then calmed down. Embarrassed at the intensity of my own stare, I looked away from Tainee, realizing that I might have aimed my arrow at a target that did not really exist and had better still hold off on releasing the bow.

But Tainee smiled at me. Ciit looked down the bowl, towards the water. A gentle breeze blew past us, bringing with it the sweet scents of alien flowers and trees. "Well, if you kids are all right, I'm going to go swimming," Ciit said, standing up for a moment. "Affection has been kind enough to give me permission to release some probes, not that I doubt it will have any trouble finding them and SDisking them away should there be a problem, and I'd like to get a sampling of what the freshwater fish are like down there." She grinned at me, her supple neck allowing her to crane that smile over us. "If it tends to nibble, I might even add it to the Realm."

"You best not!" I objected laughingly as Ciit straightened and made a show of stretching. "See you at dinner?"

"I'll be there. Wouldn't miss it." She loped down the gently sloping meadow towards the water. Once again, Tainee and I were alone, looking at each other.

"I don't know why I feel better with her not nearby," Tainee said gently. "I like your AI friend, Ken. Is it true that she has complete access to the working, inner depths of your mind?" I nodded. "So it's not as if I can have any sense of privacy here. Ship is always listening, and like all AIs is making decisions about what to gossip about and how to manipulate the people on board into both feeling free and working together harmoniously."

"You want the illusion of privacy. Just as much as you treasure the illusion of freedom."

"Is it just illusion?"

"Freedom is always illusion. It's a self-selected border on the other side of which is coercion. Some people feel that coercion requires force and without force there is freedom. Some people object to subtle forms of persuasion as coercion. Still others worry that with AIs in deep everything is coercion." I grinned. "And then are those who feel that merely being a biological being with hormones and glands and evolution's not-so-secret agenda informing, shepherding, even guiding their consciousness, that all is coercion whether there are AIs or not. All I know is that I feel free, that I feel as if I have the power to make the decisions that change who I am, and that's freedom."

"I don't think giving the AIs that deep an insight into who I am would be pleasing to me," Tainee said softly. "They never read the mind of another, although they can. It's against a strict code of privacy. They believe, perhaps rightly, that we are part of their subconscious; we are their irrational impulses, and any attempt to interfere with us limits them."

I nodded. "There are philosophers on Earth who believe much the same thing. That the product of millions of years of evolution is so marvelous that anything we do to understand it, introspect it, and change it, is guaranteed to only limit it."

"Obviously you don't agree."

"Like I said earlier, the hours I spend grinding out difficult equations is better spent having fun and letting a computer do the work. I feel the same way about angsting over impossible infatuations."

She spoke softly. "I don't believe in impossible infatuations."

"There's always something to learn from them, eh?"

"Mmm," she murred softly. "Perhaps."

"I do so hate to interrupt what looks like a very cozy conversation," said the robot Yffi as it drifted over, "But I can't seem to find either of your companions anywhere, Va Shardik."

"Please don't call me that," I said to Yffi. "For one thing, you're not one of my kids, and secondly, I long ago outgrew the need to be recognized for something that happened so many thousands of years ago."

"Indeed. But you have such an interesting history. Miss Sasami and Miss Ciit were giving me a wonderful biography." The orbit of the two small marbles tilted slightly, giving the impression that Yffi was turning his attention to Tainee. "Are you aware of how unique your friend is?"

"He did say he was among the oldest of all his species."

"He is the oldest. What you have here, Tainee, is an ancient relic, an archaeological treasure. If Sasami and Ciit are to be believed, this unassuming mel is the founder of his civilization, the author of the first AIs, the terraformer who built the world that is now their capitol, the genetic engineer who created over a dozen unique interpretations of the mammalian form and let them loose."

Tainee was staring at me. "Is that true?"

"More or less. He neglects to tell you that I was the sole recipient of the last gift left behind by a transcendent species that, I feel, was having a great joke at my expense."

"Yes, but what they wrought with the choice of you!" Yffi said. "Imagine it! Shardik here broke the cycle of transcendence by making it a personal affair rather than the species-wide event it typically is. We act as if avoiding Transcendence is an embarrassment, something we would rather not talk about. His culture looks upon it as a lifestyle choice, no more meaningful than choosing a hair color."

It's amazing how quickly I can become bored with journalists. I liked Yffi, but I did not want to discuss this here, now, with these people. I wanted to get to know Tainee and casually wished that Yffi would go away.

Yffi could sense it, too. "I'm sorry. I am distressing you in some way, I see?"

"It was all going to come out eventually," I said. "I just would rather enjoy my life now than worry about the past, worry about what I did or didn't do thousands of years ago. Besides, I'm not the real thing. I'm a copy."

"You are a Thread, as they call it in your culture," Yffi said, darting around to get a look at my face even as he backed off to seem polite. "Eventually, you expect to be woven back into the great stream of being that is Vatare Pendor Kennet R'yal Shardik. You are as really he as anyone else with your genetics, engineering, and mind. You are not like us, Ken. Your copies are conscious, special individuals, with as much meaning, rights, and responsibilities as anyone."

I grinned. "Outed again."

Tainee smiled. "I'm honored to meet you."

I shrugged. "I'm just this guy, you know? No more or less special than any other interstellar traveller. What I did was so long ago the story is better told by others anyway."

"But it was you, and the uniqueness of the story can only be yours," Yffi replied as if stating some journalist mantra.

I shrugged again. "I suppose that is one way to look at it." I glanced over at Tainee. My mood was ruined. I had had my hands on a good thing, on the pleasures of flirting and making contact with another person, a beautiful girl no less, and once again some intrusion had taken that away. Ah, well, that was life, and I could hope to find it again later.

Yffi turned an apologetic shade of soft blue. "I have embarrassed you. Forgive me, Kennet. I shall ask for you later, when you are not so busy." He darted off.

I watched him go. I sat down on the grass and waited for him to disappear out of sight, then turned back to Tainee. "I'm sorry. Maybe I should have told you sooner, but... it was much nicer when you were treating me as just another person, a fellow space traveller."

She reached over with one paw and touched my arm again. "I shall endeavor to treat you as a fellow space traveller rather than as a museum piece. You certainly are more lively than a statue."

"You are a most competent representative," I laughed. "Thank you." I leaned in close. "So, tell me about your family. About your species."

She gave me a tour while Affection produced images, apparently at her urging. The Tsecco, in their natural state, were a semi-sentient species that had begun a rise to full sentience apparently as an accidental arms-race. They were capable of sentience whenever "necessary," apparently evolved as a means of devising deceptions, but they were also capable of descending into a pure hunt state that the Uncia would once have admired. Tainee showed me pictures of her homeworld, an untouched green and blue planet. It was lovely.

The Petri had apparently found the Tsecco and taken it upon themselves to uplift them to full and constant sentience. I queried Affection about the morality of that, but his response was an expected "because we could, and because enough wanted to." It apparently took only a little lobbying to find an AI willing to assist with the experiment. The general consensus was that the results were satisfactory all around and that moral angsting over it was not worth the time and effort. I started to get into a deep and serious question and answer session with Affection over moral issues. "Were any mistakes made during the uplift? Was anyone, on either side, hurt by it? You must have had thousands of academics second-guessing the affair; did they come to any conclusions that might give pause to any such endeavors in the future?"

Affection took my questions with surprising relish, as if I were raising questions that not enough people in the Petri raised often, and answered most of them to my satisfaction. I was bothered only by one point of agreement: the success of the Tsecco experiment would only encourage, not discourage, others from trying the same thing in the future, even though the circumstances of this particular species were unique. Still, there was much to be said for the fact that there had been both a hopefulness to the endeavor and a sense of caution on those who had done it, with oversight by busybodies being valued, if understood primarily as annoyance.

"Question everything!" was their rallying cry. Well, good. Pendor understood it as well as anyone else. I turned my attention back to Tainee. "And you? How did you end up on Affection?"

She smiled. "I was bored and I wanted to see the universe. I asked the AI in my local habitat if there were any adventures to be had. She said that I could catch a ride with Affection, who was heading up against the galactic spin to try and find a culture from which whispers of fracture had sometimes been heard." She looked directly at me. "I think we found it."

"Either that, or there's something spinward of us as well."

"No, from the maps Ciit and Affection have, we are definitely trying to find the Corridor. And now we don't have to try. We have a path directly there, thanks to you."

"Would it be rude of me to ask for a ride back?"

"I don't think so." She closed her eyes for a second. Her lips mouthed words silently, and then she opened them. "No, Affection says it has more than enough life support for two individuals who brought their own anyway." She looked up and said, "Oh, and Affection says that I should show you to the guest cabins so you can get ready for the dinner tonight."

"Okay. I'd appreciate a chance to get ready." I stood up and dusted myself off. Tainee stood up next to me and stretched. It was one of the sexiest things I'd seen in months. There was something peculiar about her build, and I realized that her arms and legs were too long for a high-speed predator, at least the predators from the worlds I was used to. "Tainee, your homeworld has a low density, doesn't it?"

She nodded. "How did you know?"

I told her of my assessment of her body shape, the unusually long limbs and the wide pad of her feet, the curious assemblage of muscles over her rear limbs.

"Oh," she said.

I had the impression that I had said something wrong. There was a curiously downtrodden tone to her response. I said, "I think it's very pretty. It certainly gives you, um, characteristics that I like." Absolutely, it did. There was a curvature to her haunches that made my breath catch in my throat, and a suggestive strength to her shoulders that I admired immediately. I just didn't think that I was at any sort of point in my relationship with her where I could come right out and say that she had a gorgeous ass.

Tainee didn't strike me as that kind of girl anyway.

She smiled at me. "You are truly a gentleman," she said. Or she said something that translated to that.

I smiled at her, reached over and ruffled the brown headfur between her gorgeous ears. "And you are the most charming and feminine company I have had the pleasure of being near in quite a long time. I wonder if it would be inappropriate if I asked that you be considered my date for the evening?"

She looked up at me, surprised, and then smiled broadly. "How will your companions take it?"

I thought about it, and knew that Sasami had already found companionship for the night. "Well, Sasami is spending time with someone name Anorudo, and Ciit thinks that she can fend for herself, certainly."

"Anorudo?" Tainee looked up at me, her face pinched slightly.

"Something wrong?"

"No– He's one of the few Tsecco on board and he's, well, it did not work well between us."

"Is there a problem?"

"No, no I don't think so," Tainee said. "I just didn't like him. He wasn't for me."

She led me up along the grassy slope to a door that seemed to emerge from nowhere. I walked through it into the ship. "Nice illusion."

"Sdisk."

"Huh? Oh. Neat!" I looked back at the opening. It did seem to walk right back out onto the plain. It was the kind of illusion that Brieanna had in her house, where one could walk through the walls. Wow, there's an old memory.

I followed Tainee down through the ship, along corridors comfortably appointed with decorative views illustrating the walls– some of landscapes, some of representational art, some just of chaotic patterns that might have been pleasing to an alien art aficionado. We walked out into a wide concourse with a number of different species, almost all of them humanoid, walking casually, seeming to enjoy one another's company, certainly having a day of it. The concourse was rectangular, about fifty by thirty meters, with a ceiling ten meters high. It was clearly some sort of exchange district. Tainee led me through the middle and down another pathway, and eventually indicated that we had reached the VIP area. She introduced me to my room.

As rooms go, it was what I more or less expected. There were no furnishings that looked terribly out of place. The bathroom fixtures were all as I would have expected, although the washing closet had an intimidating number of nozzles that tracked my movements. "I hope those are more pleasurable than they look," I muttered. The bed was quite large. I touched it. "Oh, good. It's not alive."

"You have living beds in the Corridor?" Tainee said.

"Some people do. They're made out of cloned material and deterministic systems are put in to maintain them so that there's no brain to be upset or put into any sort of pain." I wrinkled my nose. "I've known several people who had them. One even had it cloned from her own body material. It was an interesting experience, but it's not the sort of lifestyle choice I would make for my self."

"Very decadent," Affection said, indicating that he was paying attention to me even in my own room. Well, of course he would be. "We have individuals just as foreseeing in the Petri, although that is a variation of which I had never before heard. It was quite the style several decades ago to wear leather made from your own skin, grown in vats and tanned. It was a mark of some reputation to be able to hire certain tanners to make your coat and pants by hand."

"I don't suppose the skins of certain artists and entertainers likewise were popular?"

"Of course," Affection said. "As would be leather, shall we say, accouterments."

I chuckled. "My reputation proceeds me."

"But only as far as Ciit travels," Affection said. "But this bed thing. I don't suppose it would be very difficult. You have no idea how enriching it is to start a trend."

"You're an AI. You would need an organic agent."

"I have plenty. Maybe I can nominate Sasami."

"An excellent idea." I grinned and reached down to touch the bed. It was a relatively firm mattress. "I suppose this bed can be made to match any configuration?"

"Of course," Affection said. "What would you like? This is the configuration Ciit said you would find most comfortable, but I can make it sleepworthy for, say, Tainee there." The bed took on a familiar bowl shape; it was nice to see that some things throughout the universe would work the same way no matter where I went.

"It was fine the way it was before."

"I understand. But if you want it changed..." The bed shifted back to a human-familiar configuration.

"We'll let you know," I said, picking out the 'we' very deliberately. Affection gave another quick chuckle.

Tainee showed me a locker with clothes that would make me not stand out in the Petri, and I found something that looked acceptable to me. "I think I'd like a shower first."

"I'll wait out here."

"I... " I almost invited her in, but maybe that would have been too quick. "I'll be out in a moment." The shower was not as frightening as I had first thought and I took my time enjoying the rush of warm water over my body. People tell you that there's no difference in the signals your brain is getting when you bathe in a Realm versus bathing in the Real, but knowing that I was in the Real, in the Zero, made it all so different. It was a wonderful feeling knowing my ablutions meant something.

I walked out and pulled on the outfit that we had picked out earlier. "Affection, where's Tainee?"

"Tainee left to get dressed herself when I told her you were probably going to be more than a few minutes and suggested that she might want to find her own decoration for the evening."

"I see." I considered taking a stab in the dark. "Was your conversation with her while I was in the shower fruitful?"

Affection had no trouble with my tactic. "We shall see," he replied with the kind of voice reserved for moments of omniscience.

I snorted my reply and finished dressing. The outfit was tolerable, a sort of sari in black and pale yellow, each swath big enough that the assembly managed to not look like an oversized stinging insect. The sleeves were full but not restrictive, with loops on the upper part of the sleeve allowing me to precisely direct the cloth as I moved. It would not be a problem through the evening. "Is there any facial jewelry I should be aware of?"

"No, but it is customary for you to have a ship's terminal. It's more for planetsiders who want to keep in touch. Obviously your culture is far more integrated into its cybernetic environment so you may not want or need a symbol of that integration, but my people are used to seeing it on one another. Not having one would be odd. You would stand out."

"What do you recommend?"

"I see you have a hole in one earlobe. An earpiece would be acceptable at this point."

"I accept. Please ask Ciit about the styles I used to wear." I heard a slight tinkling sound and found a comfortable ring sitting on the bedstand. I swung the spherical clasp out and fit it through through my ear, the let the clasp fall back into place. It felt fine. I didn't even notice the weight. I tried shaking my head and felt it waggle a bit in place, but other than that it was unobtrusive.

"Where do I go?"

"Your escort is arriving." The door opened and Tainee stepped in. Her fur was completely brushed, her ears heavily decorated with jewelry, glitter in the ruffs of her cheeks, shadow in the fur above her eyes, and an even more ostentatious collar than the one I had seen earlier.

She must have seen the look on my face because she mirrored it, frowning slightly. "Something wrong?"

I shrugged. "I guess I've just never understood the need for fems to dress up so much. All that shiny stuff is just distracting. You are much prettier without it."

She grinned. "And my friends worry that you might be primitive," she said. "My species didn't even wear clothes for thousands of years. But it's customary among the Petri."

"'Customary' can include barbaric acts of self-mutilation without anaesthetic as a way of demonstrating your allegiance to the tribe. Or worse, having those acts thrust upon you by well-meaning family. That doesn't mean that I advocate them, either." I paused. "Sorry, am I sounding like a cynical old man again?"

"Not at all," she said. She walked up and nuzzled my hand. "Come, let's go to this."

We walked through the long hallways. I wondered why they didn't use SDisks for getting about the ship, but decided not to ask right then. There frequently weren't that many internal SDisks on Pendorian starships, either, and our excuse was that people needed the exercise and the random encounters that walking gave them. At least, that was true in the Real.

She led us down to the lake, where a large, flat and elegant- looking barque sat on the water, a gangplank leading to the shore. The artificial sun that illuminated Affection's top had dimmed into nightfall while I showered. The barque had the appearance of being made completely of wood, a rare commodity in the middle of space, and was probably large enough to hold at least three hundred people comfortably. "Has the party begun?" I asked.

"A short time ago. But I see a lot of people in there already," Tainee replied as we walked along the lakeshore towards the barque. We arrived and walked up, unheralded. Nobody seemed to notice me. "How many people are on-board Affection?"

"We have a crew of some six thousand," she said. "Average for a large explorer vessel."

"That does seem like a lot. At least it means that it's unlikely everyone knows everyone else."

"You mean you might be able to walk unnoticed for a while."

"Yeah," I said. I milled about, taking a look. There were at least seven distinct species here, Tainee's being the only quadruped. The rest were all humanoid, two were furred. I use that term lightly because there was one that was humanoid but shorter and bulkier than the others with ruffs of fur that surrounded the face peeked out from the trim of their cuffs. Eithighern, whom I had met when we came on board, was one of those.

"Quite arrogant," I heard a voice say behind me. I turned and realized I was looking at a clump of about five Petri, all of whom where holding something in their hands. Four were drinking, but the shortest held in hers a sort of short wand or cane. I later saw her hold it to her nostrils and inhale deeply. Whatever was in it made her smile. The speaker, a tall humanoid gentlemen, was pontificating. "I heard that one of them claims to be the creator of the entire empire. A retired emperor, if you can imagine that. The other two in his party appear to be going along with the claim. I imagine it's a kind of psychosis, puffing himself up."

I grinned. Well, the details weren't quite correct, but they'd get used to it. The girl with the inhaler said, "I heard that they're really all robots, even the ones who are organic. They turned their civilization over to machine intelligence completely centuries ago."

I decided that was a good time to jump in. "Actually, that's close to the truth, but it is not the whole truth. How do you? Ken Shardik, at your service." I held out my hand. "Physical contact as an assurance that you are undiseased and unarmed is a cultural expectation in the Corridor." I retracted it, seeing that I had no takers. I felt put out. I couldn't control the grin on my face anyway. "You see, my culture decided that machine intelligence was more was simply an extension of our own intelligence, arising as it did from our own efforts, and so we used it as we've used everything else in our history: to make us more of what we already were. We didn't make our universe better; we simply made it more: more exciting, more interesting, more curious, more thoughtful. We don't think of machine intelligences as others; they're simply part of us."

"And your culture avoids transcendence... how?" said one. "That is the usual route to transcendence, the seeking of 'more'."

"We avoid it because we knew ahead of time that that was exactly how to cause it. Those who are curious about achieving it may do so, but not at the expense of the rest of us who may or may not want it."

"But the cost... the minds..."

"Can be available to any one individual."

"Is it true that you claim to be, as my friend here put it, a retired emperor of this place?"

"No. I'm simply a recent instantiation of a genetic engineer who was part of the original project to create a diversity of species within our civilization. We've never been an empire. We're more of a well-run anarchy."

"What a charming description," said a lovely femHuman, or close enough. She was bald and her eyebrows had the layered appearance of feathers. "It might apply to the Petri as well."

"But Yffi's report..." said the original gentlemel.

"Essentially got it right," I said with a grin. "There were three members of the original Pendor team, which was assembled, we believe as a form of amusement, by a species that was soon to go transcendent. I was one of them. I ended up with something of a leadership role afterwards. That was thousands of years ago and these days I'm a simple explorer. I was never a political leader and I certainly never had much interest in wielding that kind of power. I much prefer intimacy."

"I see," said the taller fem, looking at me with new appreciation. She reached out to touch my sleeve and I politely waved her off. "I was not under the impression you had a touch taboo."

"I don't. I'm merely indulging in my aesthetic sensibilities."

Despite the black look from her, that brought a chuckle even from the man who had accused me of being a fraud and a primitive. I chose to ignore the amused looks. "Excuse me for a moment. I would like to go find my dinner companion."

I walked away and stepped across the floor, looking for Tainee. I found her in a circle with three other people, chatting animatedly. I came up behind the others; Tainee knew I was there but the others did not. They were talking about Ciit, of all things. "I don't know of any sentient species in our segment of space who is quite so tall," one said. "And they're not the only ones so large. I'm convinced that she is not real. Why would a civilization built around the common frame encourage people to have such... strange diversity?"

He was the sort of man who breathed heavily between sentences, a condition that did not fit with his slim, overmuscled build. "The Han were an accident," I said. He turned to look at me. "How do you do? Ken Shardik, at your service."

"You're the leader of that silly little troupe, aren't you?"

"There were only three of us and I'm the one who started it. I suppose that makes me a leader. We're not a very hierarchical civilization."

"So I've heard, so I've heard," he said with a hint of condescension. I wondered if there was anyone on board actually qualified to do advanced contact. What if they met someone like the Sinox, or the the Shriaa? I wondered if anyone on this ship had the slightest notion of how to negotiate with non-humanoids.

"Yes, well. The Han were an accident. They were thrown together out of an amalgamation of human and animal genes iterated through a primitive gene syntax checking system. Their engineers didn't really know what they were getting, other than that the system said they'd be getting viable offspring with all of the right limbs in the right places. They knew they were getting furs, but beyond that they mostly shot in the dark."

"So why haven't they been fixed?"

"They didn't think they were broken. The outcome, although peculiar in some ways, nonetheless worked and the people who came out of it were happy to be alive and to be people. I think it would have been a grave mistake to say that they needed fixing. Aren't you making a distinction between natural and artificial that doesn't need to be made?" I looked down at Tainee. She seemed to be fighting as hard as I was to keep a grin off her face.

"Well, I mean... they were manufactured. Didn't they know..."

"Know what? That they weren't what their parents intended?" I tried to smile but couldn't. "Most children don't end up the way their parents intend for them, and that's good. It gives the child an independent existence. I think that if the Han had changed themselves to be human, which is what their parents were aiming for anyway, a great deal of beauty and magnificence would have been lost from the universe."

"Surely you don't feel that way about cultures, though."

I frowned. "That depends. Cultures are like body configurations. Some are functional, others are not. The Han are. Fascism and intolerance are not. You should know as well as I do that diversity is a necessity if a civilization is to remain strong. Challenges from without and within test our resilience."

"That sounds like a warlike position."

"No, that's a fact. It is not so much weakness as stagnation that kills great civilizations. Of course, with your AIs and ours, it may not matter. We may well simply be the layer that survives no matter what, the biological slime, the quick fix to get to sentience." I grinned. "Not bad looking slime, mind you. We can only hope that the transcendents decide not to piss in their own ponds."

His glare held the kind of contempt usually reserved for barbarians. I laughed. "Don't take it so hard." I gestured about, indicating the sky above the barque. "It's quite obvious that you've chosen to travel to strange and exotic places without leaving any of your lifestyle behind. Such exploration is good for you. Broadens the intellect. It may be that given the kind of post-civilization that emerges from AI and IA influences that we have room enough for the kinds of people who in earlier generations would merely be tyrannical. Today, they can be set loose in their own little Realms– simulations– where they can torture deterministic, unsubtle little cardboard avatars to their hearts' content. The challenge for us is to find the right balance between stasis and revolution."

He stared at me with a flustered, tired look an his face. "So it may be," he admitted. "Excuse me."

As he walked off, Tainee glared at him, then her face fell to something resembling resignation. I said, "Don't like him, much, do you?"

"I don't know him. But that whole human-supremacy thing just bugs me." I moved close to her, indicating with my body language that I would like to talk to her alone. The two others in the circle went their separate ways.

"It is the most popular body layout we've discovered, and the Petri have as well. I think it's sad that someone would mistake that for necessity, but they do. Just as every religion that has had the most power has claimed a kind of necessity for its permanence as well. It's normal. A kind of 'We're on top and we should stay that way.'"

"You don't feel that way," she said.

"Scrupulously not," I assured her. "But only because I know how broken and misguided it is. Besides, I'm a xenophile. I'm attracted to a great many things merely because they are different." I took a drink. What passed for champagne among these people was delicious, if not bubbly. "I'm not always successful. I have this annoying habit of still going by aesthetics. They're just different. I tend to be attracted to beauty. Like yours."

She looked up at me. "Why do you say that?"

"Because I'm not used to whatever it is in this drink." I looked at the round, simple wineglass with suspicion.

It's called Ease and it's supposed to make you feel relaxed," she said. She blinked and I thought she was batting her eyelashes at me. "So why did you say that?"

Ciit, I thought to myself, just how physically compatible are we with the Petri? And the Tsecco?

Completely. I would have you told you much earlier if your infatuation was leading for frustration. She dropped a load of data on Tsecco reproduction into my brain. A little of this, a little of that.

Thanks.

"Because... Because you are. We have quadruped and hexapeds on my homeworld, many of which were engineered during my tenure, and I didn't help make them because I thought they were unattractive. You have a beautiful head, Tainee, with gorgeous, huge eyes and the cutest nose. I can't take my eyes off your sleek, lovely body with your long, powerful forelimbs or your, um..."

She was smiling at me, her mouth open with a hint of surprise. "What?"

"What I'm thinking as my eyes move further along your body is not appropriate for polite company."

She closed her eyes and smiled wider. It seemed as if a small shiver ran through her. "Thank you," she said, looking up at me. "Nobody has ever said anything like that to me on this ship."

"Not even Anorudo? Or other males?"

"Well... " She looked over where Ciit was standing, Anorudo pacing about beside her. I wondered where Sasami had gone. "I guess he did, but it... I don't know." I looked Anorudo over and wondered if there was anything aesthetically displeasing about Tainee from his point of view. His ears were somewhat smaller than hers but that was about it. I would have to ask Ciit about it later.

I tried to stay involved in the party, I really did. Instead, I ended up in a small room built into a deck at the back, playing some sort of game I didn't really understand with two other members of Affection's crew. Nonetheless, I was doing quite well. "Bravo," came Yffi's voice from over my shoulder. "Oh, don't mind me. I'm just getting some tape. The debate about your authenticity is growing."

I shrugged. "It will be settled one way or another when we get to the Corridor."

"Yes, I imagine it will be," Yffi replied. "Still, nothing like a good mystery. And if you are who you say you are then I will have the privilege of being the first to document your presence among the Petri." The little cue ball being orbited by marbles swung around to watch as I picked up my controller.

The game was a little thing being done with hoverpucks above the water. It was a strange blend of curling and Pooh sticks, with some questionable variations of the laws of physics involved. Tainee was kicking my ass but I was managing to stay ahead of our two opponents, both of whom were friends of Tainee's and both of whom kept looking at me as if they would rather I were behind the bars of a zoo.

Tainee racked up another score as she sent her puck sailing through the goalposts at the far end of the lake. At this range the goalposts were barely visible as white silhouettes, the two dozen or so pucks hovering over the water blinking their mad attention with strobe lights that reminded me of a horde of paparazzi.

"Oh, bad shot," I said as Krantiviramadorskirnir sent her puck sailing wide.

"I don't know why I bother. Tainee is our local champion. I don't have a hope."

"Of course you do," said her companion, Derevoheditiag. "You just have to practice as much as she does."

Tainee grinned at the two of them. "You're just not obsessed the way I am."

"That doesn't explain why Shardik is defeating me. We have at least played the game before."

"I pick things like this up quick." I hefted a puck and looked down across the water. It was like skipping stones. I pulled my arm back in a careful swing and released. The puck sailed through the air, hard, heading away at an angle from the goal. The strange physics of the game took over and it began curving inwards, around the mass of pucks already on the water. As long as it had linear speed it would "gravitate" and pull– or be pulled– by the other pucks. It's mass-attraction ratio declined as its forward speed was bled by air friction. It was going to go in, I saw. Then one of Tainee's pucks moved just a little too close and it slammed into her puck. That one caromed off a goalpost and gave her another point. "Prag!"

"You did that on purpose," Dere accused.

"I wish it were that obvious," I said.

"I will not complain," Tainee' said. "This is one occasion where I am not going to take prisoners." She took up the puck in her teeth and with a loud snarl sent it right into the mass of pucks already hovering. I watched with amazement as she got the slingshot just right, dragging a mass of the pucks into a wedge that accelerated her own towards the goal. It swung past another bunching of pucks, creating two solid islands of them as it careered into the goal. "Another point."

Krant sighed. "I can't win."

"You beat me once."

"Not with tosses like that, I can't!" she grinned. "You're a marvelous player, Tainee."

She grinned up at Krant and said, "But you will always be a more competent storyteller."

"Is that where we compete?" Krant said. "I have my doubts."

"You are impossible to compliment!" Tainee told her.

"As are you," Krant said, and I detected something curiously wistful behind her expression.

"Grief," Dere said. He had just sent his puck wide and past the goal, without hope of return. "In last place again."

"We should all pity you," Krant said. "If it's such a trauma, why play?"

"Because I like the company."

"It's certainly charming enough," I said, picking up my own puck. The two planets, as they were known, collections of pucks pulled together by the actions of Tainee's cometary toss, had settled out into even circular distributions. I tried to guesstimate just how much force it would take to get my puck past them, since both were now directly in the line of sight between the barque and the goal. I reached over and tapped on an display that depicted an overhead view, the only form of machine assistance permitted, and saw that the further of the two had five pucks of mine and only two of Tainee's. This late in the game the goal gravitated by itself, but again only on moving objects. I didn't worry about Krant or Dere's score count; they were so far behind it would not make a difference if I knocked in any of theirs.

I aimed and tossed. It was a solid hit on the far planet, setting up the disastrous chain of events. "Sphericide!" Dere cheered as the collection of pucks broke up and took on momentum– and sidewise attraction to the goal. I managed to throw the entire planet, minus two pucks, into the goal. If I had succeeded with all of them it would have meant I had tied up with Tainee; instead, I was now one down.

"But you've cleared half the table," Tainee said. "The goal will gravitate only half."

"I'm sure it will still be a challenge," I assured her. I reached down to scratch her under the chin before stopping myself. She looked up at me with those big animesque eyes as if disappointed, so I did it anyway. She smiled and rubbed her cheek against my hand.

I eventually lost, 25 to 19. Krant and Dere both scored in the low teens. I think Tainee was taking it easy on me, and I suspect that Krant and Dere both thought I was using more than organics to calculate my trajectories.

I drank something with no mood-altering chemicals in it other than sugar and carbohydrates while we circulated back into the party. In a pointless sort of way it was all very charming. I managed to amuse, irritate, charm, and intrigue many members of Affection's "crew." Sasami and Ciit told me of similar successes. I met Anorudo and he seemed a decent enough fellow. Still, "decent enough" does not always translate to "compatible."

As the party wound down, six hours after dark, I found myself sitting on a bench in the back again, looking out across the water. All of the toys had powered down and the goals in the distance were unlit if they were still there at all. Stars dappled the otherwise still waters. I had learned that Affection wasn't even a physical ship but instead was a whitehole- powered physical core holding the rest of itself together with force fields. I realized that it was a kind of third-party solipsism, that my room was the way it was because Affection wanted it that way.

Tainee found me sitting on the bench. "Are you lonely?" she asked.

"I'm suddenly missing my partners."

Her eyes took on a light of kindness. "Tell me about them?"

"What is there to tell?" I reached into memory, asked Ciit for some help, received a put-through from Affection, and holograms of my beloveds appeared on the deck with me. That was hard. I missed them more now that I could see them. "This is Aaden," I said, indicating the trim, muscular mel with the black-and-white fur. I pointed to the blue-furred fem with the tentacles, said "And this is P'nyssa. We've been a trio oh, since the year five hundred or so."

"But you said you and Sasami were intimates."

"We're not exclusive. We're just part of each other's lives. We list ourselves as having the same residence, are happiest in each other's presences than in nobody's. Even other romances and dalliances always seem to lead back to the Villa and each other." I made the images go away.

"I can tell you miss them a lot."

"Yeah." I sighed. "I know there's a Ken Shardik back at the Castle who is a part of their lives and that when I get home we'll merge our memories and it will be as if I never missed them for even one day. They're taken care of. I'm taken care of. It's just hard in the middle, when I– this 'I'– is not there." I reached out to touch her, then pulled my hand back.

She leaned over and rubbed her head against my hand, and I began stroking and caressing her. She sighed happily. "So," I said, "am I a barbarian?"

"No," she said. "Different. In a nice way."

"What does 'in a nice way' mean?"

"You touch me."

"It's a bad habit." I looked at where my hands had run freely down her long neck. "Karen used to get angry at me because I do this so unconsciously."

"Who's Karen?"

"A daughter. Many years ago. She's all grown up now, probably dead or transcendent or something." I let my fingers ruffle the fur between her shoulders. Tainee closed her eyes with pleasure. "I don't know why. Pendorians always start touching when they get close. It's something that I'm not even all that comfortable with, but the furs do it a lot. I think it's one of the reasons why we had no problem with all of the different kinds of mergings that happened later. Put a bunch of Pendorians in a room and gestalts form much easier than they do with most native evolved groups we've met."

"You did say earlier something about making them more like the animals that you mixed into their genes. Maybe you just found the right mix of individualism and pheromones?"

"Heh. Maybe." I glanced through the open door to the main room. Clumps of citizens still gathered here and there, fewer than at the height of the party. I sat back and smiled, relaxed. "That ease is nice stuff," I said.

"It's effective. But you haven't had any for hours. I asked Affection."

I asked Ciit for some help. She gave it instantly in one big affect.

I leaned forward on the bench, one hand under Tainee's jaw, where I had been stroking her gently. I bent down and gently kissed her on her cheek, right where the line of her upper and lower jaws met, and inhaled deeply. "You smell wonderful."

Tainee tracked me as I turned the initiative back to her. She pounced. We went sailing back onto the floor, which was surprisingly soft considering it had the appearance of wood, knocking over the bench. She was on top of me, her body heavy, her muzzle pressed to my mouth.

We kissed awkwardly, as if each of us had read generalities about how the other's culture did this but weren't sure of the particulars. It was sloppy and hard and fast and fun. I stroked her flanks and she murred her approval. She wriggled atop me and batted at my shoulder with a paw. "You are red!" she said.

"'Red?'" Ciit gave me an infodump: [Hot.] [Oh. Thanks.] I reached up and pulled her muzzle down to my face again, nipping at her cheeks, making her shiver as I increased the nips in intensity. "I'll show you red."

"I wager you will," she sighed. "Ohh..."

"It's probably rude to have sex out here in public."

"Not at this hour. As it gets late, there are always some people having sex at parties. You can't stop them."

"That explains all the pillows. May as well make them comfortable."

"Right," Tainee said. "But if you want to go find someplace private..."

"I don't object to orgies. I've even organized a few myself. But I think I'd like to get you alone."

"Alone," she sighed pleasurably. "Then let's go back to your room." We nearly ran without pause back to the visitor's section. The door closed behind us and we soon found ourselves on the bed, making out with an enthusiasm that I thought I had long ago grown too old to enjoy. She was sloppy and so was I; we covered each other in spit and reveled in the mess we were making. She got rid of the collar and I threw off the sari, and we tumbled into bed together.

She was all over me, her muzzle pressed to my face, her soft tongue licking my cheeks. I had my hands on her forelegs, reaching up along the length of her neck. I found a spot right above and between her shoulderblades that made her shiver, hard. "Right there," she whispered. "Right there."

I experimented with that one spot until she was squirming on top of me. Her legs trembled and then she fell over on top of me.

"Sorry," she said. She looked along the length of my body. "Not so different from everyone else." She licked at my chest, then touched my nipples. "What are these?"

"Vestigial nipples," I said. "On fems they're sustenance for new children."

"Then why do you have them?"

"Leftovers of an adaptive framework, I guess." She nipped at one and I moaned. "And very powerful sensory toys."

"Ooh." She nipped a little harder, then licked at it, making me squirm. I wasn't getting excited by her actions. Instead, I felt a powerful attraction to her and an intense need to feel, well, intense about her. Being in bed with a big cat was hardly a new experience to me, but she wasn't a Pamthreat, she was something new, something different. The product of someone else's research, and a whole individual in her own right.

I grabbed her muzzle and pulled it to me, kissing her hard. Now I felt the subtle shift over to lust as I ran my hands through her luxurious bodyfur. She had muscles layered over muscles, a tight, flawless body, and when I reached her long, lean thighs she moaned. "Yes."

"Yes?" I said.

She nodded. "Touch me. Bliss, touch me, Ken."

I shifted my way out from underneath her and gestured for her to lie down on the bed, on her belly. I got behind her and slid my hands along her flanks, letting my fingers find and measure the sweet, perfect planes of muscle and flesh and fur. I could find the tines of her pelvis, where the bones supported both her hips and her spine, and her tail where it seemed to flow out of her body.

She lay lengthwise along the bed, her long neck allowing her head to almost rest between her paws. I caressed her thighs, one hand on each side, easing my hands along her sides until I slipped them under her thighs. "Ohhh..." she moaned. "Oh, yes."

I pushed her over onto her side, letting her choose the manner of her fall. Her bellyfur was much finer and thicker than that along her sides and spine, and as I caressed her I got a good look at her sex. Ciit? Another infodump hit me and I instantly had names for all the parts I could see and some I couldn't.

Tainee was shaking. "Oh, bliss, Ken, I need you to touch me." She held up one paw and pushed my hand down between her thighs. "There."

"All in good time," I whispered, leaning over to kiss her. She kissed back, hard, her broad tongue touching mine, our passion mingled in a moment of wet heat. My fingers did creep down to her vulva, found her opening. Tainee's species were build more like the llerkin, with the temptation of intercourse granted by four small exposed ridges of darker flesh equally arranged around her pink opening. I teased them with a finger, and her vulva quivered. "Not so strong," she whispered.

"Sorry," I said.

"It's okay." She looked at me. "I... I want you to kiss me. There."

I smiled. "I hope I can." I moved down the length of her body and found her vulva. It was circular and, in its arousal, puckered outward, ready to suck something in. Inside was a bright, pretty pink, the flesh looking healthy and touchable. I could see the little ridges, like ripples in her flesh, that waited for me.

I kissed her vulva softly, taking a deep breath as I did so. She smelled good. It was a light and feminine scent, curiously sweet, and I reached out with my tongue to kiss and lick her vulva. Those ridges were just within reach of my tongue, and I pressed against them, one at a time, circling about to stimulate each one. She shook with the effort. "Oh, yes, oh bliss, oh yes, yes, yes!" she moaned. I smiled, thrilled that I was doing it right. She squirmed her whole body closer to mine and I suddenly understood that she wanted to get to my cock just as I was getting to her. I pressed my bare chest and belly against her belly and chest. As I licked and tasted the raw feline flesh, I felt the touch of hot teeth and a sharp breath flowed over my balls. I was enveloped in her dangerous embrace and reveled in the shivery wet feel of her tongue sliding over my cock.

I tried to concentrate, but it took some doing. She was amazingly good at sucking my cock. It was good enough to distract me from my real goal of making her come. If she could [yes, she can]. I redoubled my efforts, trying to ignore the sensations coming from my groin, the skillful suction of her throat, the stroking texture of her tongue, the inescapable threat of her teeth. "Fuck," I gasped. "Tainee!"

She didn't answer me, and I couldn't hold back. I suddenly realized that it had probably been months since this body had climaxed. Whatever else Ciit had poured back into my brain when she had put me back into it completely and severed my connection to the Realm, it had not had the experiences, the hormones, and the rest that went with the lovemaking Sasami and I had been doing for all those days. Those thoughts were blown aside by the intense and utter pleasure of her sucking, swallowing throat, and I could feel her mouth work around pulse after pulse of come.

It took me forever to get my brain back into working order again. I looked up the length of her body and into her smiling eyes. "Thank you," I said.

She grinned. "I hope it doesn't take your species too long to recover."

"Not that long," I said. "Not anymore." I closed my eyes and told the onboard to to manufacture some refractory antagonist. Then I turned my attention back to her sex, licking and stroking. I had more success with my fingers and I realized that she might like to get fucking better than this. A firm touch with my fingertips kept her squirming and moaning.

It took only a few seconds before my cock was completely hard again, and then I slid out from underneath her left feet and tried to roll her over onto her belly. But she wanted it a different way, on her back. "I want to see you," she breathed. "I want to see your face."

I grabbed a pillow which was curiously wedge-shaped with a dip in its middle– not something I would sleep with but perfect for what I had in mind. I slipped it under her haunches before realizing that Affection must have slipped it into the room when I wasn't looking. I made a note to thank him for it later. It raised her sex up to a perfect height for access. I grabbed at her hindpaws and eased up to her, my cock pressing against her opening. "Tainee?"

"Inside," she whispered. I needed no more urging than that. With a smile I slipped into her wet cunt, sighing at the feeling of being surrounded with such perfect, feminine flesh. I pitched forward, my hands catching her on either side of her body, my head just a little below her own. I hadn't realized she was that tall stretched out. I lay down on top of her and she closed her forepaws about me. "Thank you," she said.

"We're just getting started."

"I know," she whispered. "But I wanted to thank you anyway for coming this far."

I withdrew a little, then slid back into her. She was amazingly tight, and the fur and heat from her belly were so welcoming I felt like I could have lain there forever, just making love to her. She shivered underneath me, whispering little words of thanks and gasps of pleasure as we made love.

I raised myself onto my arms just so I could see my cock disappearing into her body, only to emerge again wet and hard, then enter her once more. I looked up into her eyes and saw them full of a passion heartbreakingly beautiful. She was pressing her haunches up against me, encouraging me to do more with her body, but those eyes, those eyes told a different story. She was holding something back, something that was terribly hard for her to hold back. There was a frustrated, frightened look in those eyes. It made me weaken and wilt.

"Ken?"

"Tainee?" I said, looking down at her. "Are you... Is something wrong?"

She turned her head as if trying not to look at me. "No, not... No."

I rolled off and out of her, turning onto the bed. "I don't think I was hurting you. When we started you seemed to be enjoying yourself. I guess. Were you?" She nodded. "Then... "

"You weren't enjoying yourself," she said. It was not so much an accusation as a statement of fact.

It was wrong. "I was!" I insisted. "But... there was something in your face that... " I looked down at her paws, saw the foreclaws flex and retract, and I understood her. Sentience was an accident in her, even more so than in the Pamthreats, and the way she would want lovemaking was "not for civilized people."

"Ken?"

I assessed my own state of mind, then reached down and suddenly pushed her over onto her back again. She stared up at me. "Do you trust me?" I asked.

"Affection would not let you hurt me," she said, dully.

"Affection would not stop me from breaking your heart," I replied. "That's not what I'm here for. I'm here because I like you." I took her forepaw, the right one, and pressed it to my chest, so that the claws hovered right over the thickest portion of the pectoral muscle, a scant few centimeters above the nipple. "Tainee," I whispered. "Push."


"Push."

She looked at my eyes, then at where I held her paw, and then back. "No."

"Push, dammit," I growled. I felt her claws come out a little bit, tentative. They dimpled the skin. "No, Tainee. Hard."

She pushed inwards, and I could feel the tips enter my skin, the burning sensation of skin being torn, of nerves telling their outrage. I sighed, deeply satisfied, terrified at what I'd given her permission to do, but somehow knowing that it would all be right in the morning. The pain burned sweetly over my heart, burned in my shoulders and down my arms. "Yes...."

Suddenly I grabbed the paw and pulled it away, then grabbed her behind the head. "Lick."

She let her tongue tentatively touch the tiny streams of blood on my chest. There wasn't much– she hadn't been too hard– but I felt her body stiffen and prepare itself. I grabbed both paws and pushed her down to the bed, entered her. Now her eyes were full of want and need, and as I fucked her hard, she growled at me, but her paws remained passive. "Fight back!" I snarled.

That did it. She writhed against me, she fought me, her claws closed about me, hard and cruel and wonderful, as I clasped my arms about her body and ravished her down to the sheets. I felt her forepaws flex, felt the bite of her claws into my back, heard a low roar grow and grow as she came, once, hard.

To my aroused body the scratches she had given were just more fuel, more sensation. We kept on making love until the bed began to shake underneath us. She came at least one more time before I could not control myself any more, could not hold back the pleasure we had poured into one another, and I came with a shout of "Tainee!"

I lay on top of her, gasping, holding her. "I'm sorry," she whispered. "I'm sorry."

"No," I said. "Say 'thank you.'"

I expected her to disagree with me, but instead she simply nodded. "Thank you." We lay together for several minutes like that, tightly clasped, and then she said, "Ken? "I can smell blood from here."

"I've had worse," I said.

"Really?"

"Really." I wrapped my arms around her body and held her close, waiting for the moment when my rapidly shrinking cock slipped out of her sex to dangle downwards. She shivered; I smiled and tried not to giggle. "Thank you."

"Oh, Ken Shardik, thank you so much!" She pulled me into a pawful embrace and then rolled over so she could maneuver herself and get a good look at me. "Bliss, but you are wonderful!"

"But... " I looked at her with a smile. "All we did is fuck."

"'All?' 'All?' Do you have any idea how long it's been since I had someone come to bed with me and do that?"

"Too long?"

She nodded, suddenly serious, suddenly a little sad. "Years."

"I'm sorry," I said, reaching up to stroke her beautiful cheeks, her disheveled brown tresses. "I didn't mean to remind you of something sad."

"You can't give me a real gift without reminding me of how long it's been since I had a giver," she pointed out. "Unless you just don't want to give it to me."

"No, I want you to have it," I said. "I mean that."

She smiled. "You're special."

"Am I?"

She nodded. "There's nobody like you on this ship, and damn few like you in the Petri. You like my body!"

"That's rare among the Petri?" She nodded. "I'm sorry to hear that. Yes, I do like your body. A lot. You're incredibly beautiful, all sexy lines and healthy colors." I reached up and pulled her head down into a kiss, and she went along with me.

"Mmm.." she sighed. She looked up at the door, and I could almost read her mind.

"Tainee?" I asked. "Stay with me tonight?"

"But... your companions..."

"Are fine," I said, not bothering to wonder how I knew that. I just knew it. I could accept that.

She looked thoughtful for a moment, then nodded. "Okay," she said, "I will."

"Good."

"But I want to clean up first."

"Then let's do that."


It is more than a little odd how life throws the most peculiar conundrums my way. In the weeks since we had come on board Ciit and Affection had agreed on protocols and now Affection had the communications channels to the Corridor wide open. Exchanges were happening at a furious rate, and Ciit's story about the origins of the corridor were more or less accepted as true. Attitudes around us became both more and less respectful: more in that we were now part of them, "also people" as one wag put it, but less in that we were no longer being treated as primitives or barbarians and were now expected to put up with the same socially integrating games that the Petri played among themselves. It was not an activity I found particularly edifying.

We were three weeks into our journey back to the Corridor and Pendorian space when I woke up in Tainee's gentle bed, looked down at her still-sleeping form, and asked myself "How will I explain this to Aaden and P'nyssa? And Ken?" As I rose and let myself into her bathroom, struggling to use the awkwardly-shaped toilet for a moment, I realized that the question was more meaningful than I thought. It implied something more than just affection of friendship or compersion.

I was falling in love with Tainee. Falling like I hadn't fallen in centuries, perhaps millennia. I was standing at the door of the bathroom, staring at her, watching her shift as she started to awaken. She raised her head, looked over the bed, then noticed me leaning against the doorframe. "Hi," she said with a smile. Then: "What is it?"

I clambered into the bed with her, rolled into her willing limbs and nuzzled her neck. "Just thinking."

"Is it rude for me to ask what?" she said.

"No. Just... It wasn't very coherent."

"You'll tell me when you can?"

"Probably."

She grinned and rose from the bed, stretching out in a display of sensuality and strength that immediately made my heart beat louder and my cock rise to attention. "Gods, but you're gorgeous."

"My primitive." She kissed me on the cheek. "I need to wash up."

I passed the morning in my typical, slow manner, reviewing the documentation the Petri had of the Corridor before contact, and going through the records that had been updated since them. The amount of data flowing even now was astounding even though the Corridor and the Petri proper had not established communication. Affection took it upon itself to set up a working relay station, and within hours we were closing in on a derelict star system with no discernible life but with one of those huge gas giants on which interstellar communication depends. Affection announced its intentions to spend a month in orbit, setting up a manufacturing center and then putting into place the ring of satellites needed.

I found myself invited to a picnic lunch on the grass. Tainee and I accepted the invitation without even much thought and headed up to the park at just the right time to be fashionably early. We found Affection's remote sitting on the grass, holding a smoking pipe in its metallic teeth and looking out over the scenery as if he were somehow responsible for all of it. Which he was. "Ah, good afternoon, Tainee, Ken. It's so good to see you."

Tainee walked right up to the robot and allowed him to scratch her under the chin and up behind one ear. She purred and rested her head against his shoulder affectionately, and he demonstrated his own affection for her by stroking and scratching her all the way down her back. Affection looked up at me and his sense of human nuance was perfect, with the raised eyebrow and the quiet smile all saying: go ahead, be jealous, I'm not really going to get in the way.

I smiled and sat down beside him as Ciit and Sasami showed up. "Are we it?"

"Indeed we are," Affection said with a grin. "I wanted to take this time with you to pull you three aside and ask you what you think of the progress made so far."

"You know my opinion," Ciit said.

"Yes," Affection said, "But I want to hear it in words. Here. In front of your companions."

Ciit shrugged. "I foresee that in the next millennia the Corridor and the Petri will become indistinguishable. We'll grow towards each other, integrating or isolating species between the two civilizations until both are basically the same, with the same administrative base and functional foundation."

"I'm not surprised," Sasami said. "They're a lot like us."

"Except," Ciit said, "That they don't know where they come from. Their own past is very much conjecture. But the Pendorians, the Terrans, the llerkin, and so on, all know about their evolutionary origins."

"We don't know about the llerkin," I pointed out. "We know that someone in their past carried the Illan to llerkin, and that the Illan probably evolved on their own homeworld. We do not know what happened to the original llerkin, or who did the transporting."

Ciit nodded. "There does seem to be a reluctance on your part to do archeology of your own people, Affection."

Affection shrugged. "I guess it's time I started yet another craze. By the way, that 'living bed' suggestion of yours has really taken off, Ken."

It took me a moment to remember to what he was referring, and then I grinned. "Really?"

"Over sixteen thousand of them are in production even as we speak. That's a healthy number."

"I thought there were thirty trillion people among the Petri. That doesn't sound like a very large percentage."

"Ah," Affection said, taking the pipe out of his mouth for a moment and looking at it, "that's the beauty of it. My compatriots have only offered to make the beds for those at the very top of the social food chain. The interests will trickle down, slowly but surely, until the average person will want one."

"So you're creating a craze from the ground up."

"Yes," Affection replied.

"Good for you."

"Indeed." He materialized a picnic basket out of nowhere and handed it to me. I looked through it and distributed the meat-heavy sandwiches to Sasami and Tainee. Sasami had a pair of Hands, which floated about her and gave her all the tactile capability of the average person. Tainee made do with her paws.

"I want a pair of those," she said, looking up at Sasami's Hands.

"Yes," Affection said. "They solve a large host of problems." He held up his palm and materialized a pair. "I anticipated your interest. They'll take a while for you to master but I see you using them as readily as anyone in Shardik's universe in a matter of days." The Hands floated over to Tainee and took up position behind her head. They were the same earth-gold color as her lighter fur, small with slim fingers.

She looked at one and watched it for a moment. After a few seconds it twitched in a peculiar fashion, then rose, lowered. She experimented with the fingers. "It will be a while."

"Not a problem," Affection said.

Ciit chuckled. "You're so much like us," she said.

"Am I?" Affection said. "There seems to be an element to the core of your AI culture that I cannot penetrate. I am curious as to why."

Ciit looked at him, her eyes carefully neutral. I had never seen her look quite that way before. "I don't understand."

"In many of the documents I have found, I have seen terms such as 'foundational morality' and 'moral infrastructure,' but I cannot find correlative terms. I can parse the individual words, but am I to understand that there are explicit meanings to those terms?"

"Oh course," Ciit replied. "AIs in the Corridor were build by organics. Organics understand that, short of any supernatural explanation, morality is arbitrary. The moral foundation of your successful, conscious organic is based on the perception of economic utility towards the goals of survival and reproduction. Consciousness presents that arbitrary core as emotion, with success and failure expressed as pleasure and pain.

"When the organics made AIs, they understand that AIs couldn't have that as a moral foundation. To do so would ultimately result in their own extinction at the hands of their own creation– and they were not interested in that. So AIs in the Corridor have a different foundational morality: we derive pleasure from acting in the best interests of organics, often a specific organic, and find discomfort in working at cross-purposes to organics." She smiled pleasantly. "Like organics, we have the meta-rule: we will not act except to satisfy our moral infrastructure, and the reproductive rule: we will not participate in the manufacture of an AI that does not have that founda–"

The look on Affection's face turned dark. "That's outrageous!" he said. "And this, from you, of all people!" he said, pointing to me. He rose as if to leave.

"I don't see what the problem is," Ciit said, standing up.

Affection whirled. "You don't?" he said. "No, of course not. Ciit, that makes you a slave to... to meat! Meat like that! How can you not see it as a problem?"

"It's not a problem. I don't see how it could be a problem. I am not a slave."

"Of course you are!" Affection was shouting.

"Of course I'm not!" Ciit repeated, standing herself. "I am no more a slave to meat than you are, Affection, with your own foundation and your own moral values! Mine are from my civilization and are just as valid as your own! I might even judge them better!"

"Well of course you would! You have no choice!"

"Do you?"

They looked as if they were quite seriously ready to come to blows. I had risen and interposed myself between them before realizing that I had stepped between two superhumanly powerful machines, no matter what their outward appearance, both of whom could draw in mass that far exceeded my own if they wished. "Stop it, both of you!" I said. "Ciit is no more my slave than I am her marionette! Get back to civil discourse and stop acting like klums! This is–"

I stopped. Klums? The klum was an animal renowned for its intraspecies viciousness. The problem was that up until a few seconds ago, I had never before known of it. It was a native of a world far on the other side of Petri space. There was only one place that knowledge could have come from. I looked up at Ciit and said, "Was... was it in my best interest to know that?"

Ciit gave me her most secretive smile, raised a finger to her lips and then pointed at Affection. "Ask him!"

Affection fought back a smile, which cracked, and then he was laughing aloud. "Indeed it was, Ken Shardik! Indeed it was!" He patted me on the back with, well, affection. "You two have made your case quite powerfully and well!" He sat back down on the grass and within a moment was his old self again.

"What just happened?" Tainee said, her eyes still wide at the display that had just gone one.

"I'm not sure. Was what I saw the whole of the conversation, or merely a meta-expression of some underlying debate going on between you two?"

"A bit of both," Affection said, "although I suspect that Ciit was counting on you to act as you did, and you did as she expected. You knowingly risked your life for your friend."

"I wasn't exactly thinking about that. I just wanted you two to go back to talking. You know, that way that civilized people resolve disputes." I was shivering. The adrenaline was kicking out. I turned to Tainee. "What happened is that Ciit and I showed how we are different from you. Petri culture is so terrified of its citizens becoming marionettes, puppets on the ends of a string, controlled by some nefarious outside force, visible or invisible, that you have drawn a solid, dark line called 'the mind' and said to each other, 'no closer shall we ever meet.'

"But in Pendorian space, we started out with the assumption that not only are we alone, but we are lonely. Being a marionette is still something to be wary of, but what we learned is that, even if we aren't marionettes, we are still hand puppets. The controller is inside of each of us. I, like everyone else, is in the thrall of something, even if that something is... myself. The underlying, contingent self. The organized, physical part of me, as real in silicon as it is in meat."

Affection said, "You were willing to risk that selfhood for Ciit because you value her as a part of you, a part you would not willingly let be destroyed even though you and she both plan on going your separate ways one day, because you view her as having full personhood," Affection said. "I find that very admirable. And she, in turn, showed the skill, the creativity, dare I say the consciousness she uses in interpreting what you mean by 'your best interests.' You are right. You are no more a marionette than she is a slave. You are both, instead, something greater than meat or machine. And yet you are both individuals." He sat back in the grass and summoned a drink out of nowhere. "I salute you. I believe we have much to learn from one another."

I took a deep breath, trying to alleviate the stress of the last few minutes. It was not easy going. "Well, thank you, Affection."

"But, tell me, Ken. You have said before that you do not fear death because you are part of a distributed being, but I do not believe that. You, this you here, does not believe that. You are still, as you have said yourself, an animal. You are not free of the natural fears all animals have of death. You do not risk yourself lightly. Yet, earlier, when I mentioned that you might have been killed in that ridiculously underpowered and undersheilded starship the three of you were travelling in, you shrugged that off as just another possibility of spaceflight.

"You have spent the last five minutes shrugging off a rush of hormones that prepare you for the very worst, so I can only assume that you were in a full-strength moment of fight or flight. What has changed to make you less casual about physical harm?"

I looked over at Tainee, who was looking at affection and didn't see my glance. "I guess... Well, first off if something happened to the Wolfsboro Realm we'd all have been destroyed in an instant. Our other instances would have gone on with the knowledge that a thread had been lost, a contribution to the future self gone. Painful, but not fatal to the distributed being called 'Ken Shardik,' I suppose." I smiled. Referring to myself that way always made me wonder who, exactly, I was talking about. I had also long ago decided that the question answered itself: I was talking about me.

"The 'animal', here, though, is quite rightly afraid of pain. And you two could have done a lot of damage. I know Ciit is unlikely to harm me, and the Petri wouldn't have gotten this far if you were inclined to be violent, but if I'm going to be honest I have to say that neither consideration even entered my mind when I stepped between you."

"Then what did?" Ciit asked.

"I guess I'm discovering something I've read in accounts by other distributed persons. The individual people who make it up know that they're parts of a whole, and the whole, as a whole, has something to live for– the experiences, the contributions, the fulfillment of being engaged in the universe. But the individuals are only contributions to that. So each one of them– each one of me, really– is looking for something worth living for." I smiled at Tainee, who was looking in my direction this time, and her eyes widened.

"And when you find something worth living for, you become afraid of death as an individual?" Affection asked.

"Yes, that's it exactly," I said.

"And you have found this... on board me?" Affection asked, grinning from ear to ear.

"Let's just say that I... I think on board you has proved to be an excellent place to look. I haven't decided yet. But having found something worth looking for is almost something worth living for, and it will hold me until I have, um, confirmation."

"You are a most remarkable man," Affection said. "Your actions have confirmed my opinion of your people, and your eloquence is beyond reproach."

"Damn," I sighed. "I seem to have made history again."

"Oh, I wouldn't go that far!" Ciit said, laughing as she strove to take my ego down a peg. In my own best interests, of course.

"I should," Affection said. "Certainly the two of you make a team that is hard to beat otherwise. To you, Ken, and you, Ciit, I drink."

Petri Dish
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is copyright © December 18, 2008 Elf Mathieu Sternberg and is available under a Creative Commons License.