We hiked up the steep hillside alongside an icy stream that descended from some snowmelt not more than a kilometer ahead of us. My boots crunched in the grass. The air was fresh and shockingly cold, my backpack felt lighter than was reasonable. Despite the chill, I wore only a light sweatshirt and shorts, as did my companion. Mist filled the air under a leaden lid of sky that drizzled constantly.
Wish caught up to me, her shorter legs working hard to keep pace. She gave me a casual thumbs-up as we paused for a moment, then continued.
We had been at this trek for almost two years.
The world we were on was named Mu by the second group of explorers who had found it. Mu had three main features of importance to we organics: it was too far from its sun, it was too big, and it had a strip of land that almost completely bound it equatorial. At the equator it was just warm enough for humans to walk about without survival clothes most of the time all year round. But less that thirty degrees latitude in either direction and Mu was mostly an iceball. In many ways it reminded me of what Battia was slowly becoming.
Despite these shortcomings, it had been deemed human-habitable by the robotic terraforming seedship that had landed here thirty thousand years ago. The ship had dutifully set up its fusion plants for atmospheric restoration and then planted oceanic life and, eventually, forests according to a plan scripted out over thousands of years. It had done all of this for our benefit.
And then a group of colonists came here some 20,000 years ago and, just as dutifully as the seedship, threw everything away. The record the archaeologists had found suggested that there was nothing particularly ideological about the choice. There was no religious decision, none of the usual considerations concerning the well-being of the human soul, no pronouncements about a rejection of the machine-being. It had been a small colony, only 4,000 people at start who had assembled to play what was essentially a game of survival. They were doing this to make a point: that it could be done at all.
Unfortunately, it couldn't be done. Within sixty generations, their numbers had swelled, then dropped precipitously. The records from that time are sketchy. There's even been a suggestion that it was SANS, or some variant of PRAIOR, or any number of species-wide threats. Ultimately, nobody knew.
But one of the things the colonists had discovered were the Bridges. The five landmasses that were the continents of Mu were separated by very small distances– the largest gap where water separated continents was only forty kilometers. Someone, someone before the colonists, had built five bridges to close these gaps, to permit foot travel around the world. It was the only hint of civilization on the planet. There was nothing else like it. No cities, no orbital construction sites, nothing like that. We had known for millennia about the Bridges, but nothing about who had built them. There were suggestions that they were made by the species we called the Hyzenthlay, the ones who had built the abandoned Dyson sphere. But the material of the Bridges was only similar to that of Hyzen, and that was no surprise. It was structurally similar to the material of Pendor and its starships and everything we had built to be strong: it was the femtotechnological equivalent of concrete. Different mixes, similar materials.
"Bridge number three," she said, "should be just over that ridge."
"Are you sure?"
"As sure as I can be." She pointed to the sky and implied the ring of satellites overhead. Mu was a vacationer's world these days; a fascinating place to visit, a likely meeting spot for that peculiar brand of student that infested the Corridor, the historian and the archaeologist.
She leaned over into the water and drank deep. "God, that's good!" she gasped. I joined her. I could feel the cold of the water slaking down my throat and into my belly, the chill spreading outwards from the oven within. I sighed.
"This is the life."
"One of them," she said.
"How would you know?" This banter was old years ago, but we still enjoyed it. It was like breathing, like eating, like making love: something we did to stay in touch with one another.
She kissed me on the cheek, but I took her face in hand and kissed her back. "I bet I was pissed when I learned that you'd gone with me."
She giggled and shook her head. "You're so silly."
"One of us had to get you. I'm glad it was me."
"It'll be you when we get home!" she pointed out. She still had that winsome grin on her face, the one that crinkled up her eyes and made her look far older than her usual mien. I nodded. We stood up and kept walking. We'd again touched the bedrock of our relationship, the context of it, and found it solid. It was comforting and habitual. We liked it that way.
Three hours later we skirted the snowline around the peak, deciding that there was no point in actually scaling the snowy part. The distance would be only a little greater, the discomfort far less. The mist was everywhere, making seeing further than a kilometer impossible. I was a little put out by that: I had hoped that there would be some way to see the far end. Bridge Three was only a moderately sized bridge. It was still one of the largest structures found on any planet anywhere: sixteen kilometers long, five hundred meters wide, two hundred deep, covered in a layer of something that resembled granite but was impervious to anything but the most serious of destructive implements.
"Four klicks to the place where the trail meets the bridge," Wish said. She had less hardware than I did; she was getting all of her information through her contact lenses. But I was avoiding using mine, whereas she had no such reluctance.
We walked on. It took less that an hour to cover the distance, which was mostly downhill. As we approached the foot of the bridge we saw what looked like a Mission tent surrounded by six others. I shook my head. "Looks like we're going to be company."
"Good. I could use a shower."
I grinned. "With me?"
"Of course!" she said. "I'll wash your back if you wash mine."
"Deal." We hiked down the slope to the Mission tent. People from inside came out to greet us as we approached, and we waved back. "Hi!" said a tall, somewhat grizzled-looking Felinzi. He held out his hand. "I'm F'arnech. World walkers?"
"Yup," I said. "Good to meet you." We shook. "I'm Ken, and this is Wish. We're glad to actually see another face."
"Really?" F'arnech asked. He didn't seem to have caught the names. He would. I did not look forward to that moment. "I thought world walkers went for the solitude."
"That doesn't mean we want it all the time!" Wish said. "We've been on the trail for months. I wouldn't mind a decent dinner, a nice bed, and a shower."
"That, we can provide, Miss," F'arnech said.
"So, are you the usual batch of archaeologists?" I asked.
F'arnech laughed. "Engineers, actually. Studying the way the bridge is anchored, the structural strength it's exhibiting, the way it's standing up to shear pressures as the tectonic plates try and pull on it. We've brought some deep imaging materials, new stuff based on neutrino alignment theory."
"Having any luck?"
F'arnech shrugged. "NAT is pure hermeneutics. Something an AI gave us that we little 1-pluses are having to figure out on our own. I'm sure we will, but right now it's only giving us hints and details."
I nodded. I understood his frustration. He led us down the hill towards the camp. The Mission Tent was the typical inflated-rib design that hadn't been improved much in thousands of years. It was at least six meters tall at its height, comfortable enough that a crowd of Han, Centaurs, and the like could stand in the assembly room comfortably. The rest was broken down into monitoring, storage, and the like. I spotted the SDisk shuttle sitting off to one side. There were twelve tents arranged somewhat chaotically about the main, each a dome structure showing off the relative tallness or length of its occupant. "Quite a mix you've got here."
"We're from Discovery," he said.
"You're a long way from home."
"Who cares anymore?"
I nodded. I could see his reasoning. Wish and I were a long way from home, too. "Well, you two, dinner is in about two hours. Can I show you the showers and meal while we throw together a guest dome for you?"
"That would be wonderful," Wish said. I could swear she was about to swoon.
"Don't tell me you're going soft on me."
"Feel these legs," she challenged. "Oh, wait, you did that last night. I'm as solid as a rock. When we get home, you're not going to recognize me– except that you will." She giggled. "I just want a little self-indulgence before we start on the rest of our trip. We've crossed two continents and we have two more to go. That's a lot of walking, Ken!"
"Yes, it is." I grinned at her. "Fine. A night in paradise."
"I don't think this qualifies as paradise," F'arnech said as he led us into the mission tent. "But there are showers over there, and clothes machines next to them, if you need them. I don't imagine you do."
"No, probably not," I agreed. "But it would nice to get power supplies for a lot of the things we're carrying, just in case."
"We can do that, too. I'll leave you two alone while I tell the rest of my crew that we have visitors. You'll be ready by dinner?"
"If I can pry her away from the warm water." We found our way into the showers, dropped our packs on the floor, stripped, and dove for the showers.
"Ohhh..." Wish moaned. "I had forgotten how good it feels to have warm water! Ken, when we get home..."
"That's an awful long list you've got by now, Wish," I said. "There must be a thousand things on it that you're going to do to remind yourself of how nice it is to live in a civilization."
She laughed, then suddenly lunged against me, hugging me, her head on my chest. "On the other hand, the privilege of having you alone to myself for four years has been beyond precious. I miss you so much when you rush."
I held her close, the feel of her trim, strong body against my own awakening wonderful feelings of desire and need. She felt good against my skin. Her long, black hair, slicked by the water, sheeted over my arm and against my stomach. My erection stood up straight between us.
Her hand slipped up to my cock. I gestured to the water control and she nodded. We dialed it up even hotter until it prickled against my skin and steam filled the large stall. She stroked my cock with her hand with all the skills she had, skills centuries old, skills intimately familiar with the shape of my cock and the geometry of my desire. When her strong lips and small mouth slipped over the top of it, I moaned aloud.
It wasn't what I wanted, though. This was the first time in a long time I had had chance to get near her without feeling chilled, unless I counted the times in that tiny, crammed tent we carried with us. There had been a lot of those. I wanted to fuck her, hard.
I grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her up to eye-level. My erection bobbed free in the air, and she smiled at me as I picked her up until her hips were above my cock. Her hands guided me to her cunt, my cock parting her moist lips, splitting her willing gates open for me. One hand at a time, I reached down and grabbed her ass, her perfect ass, which I had had precious little time this trip to ogle properly, and then pressed her up against the wall of the shower, sinking all the way into her cunt. "Ken..." she gasped. "Oh. God. Yes."
She wrapped her legs around my hips for support as we fucked, desperately hard in the shower stall. There was no time for nicety or foreplay. My cock slammed up against her mound, the head deep inside her belly. I withdrew just long enough for the balance of our bodies to crash back together again, her back against the wall, my body crushing her to its slick blue surface. We were both moaning, kissing desperately, the painfully hot water streaming down our interlocked bodies. Wish's voice exulted with the driven force of fucking, her body wound tight to mine, demanding, incredible. She pulled me in even as I thrust against her, her legs hard about my waist. My climax must have seared through the Mission tent like a lightning bolt going up to the sky.
I panted hard as I tried to catch my breath and let myself relax against her. "Oh, gods," I gasped. It took every remaining atom of my concentration not to drop her. She slowly let her legs down from my waist. They drooped over my ass and down my thighs until I thought they were vertical, then I lowered her to the floor. She stood up carefully, propping herself up with the wall behind her. "Wow," she said. "I like when you do that."
"I do too," I said, smiling. "It's so nice that we have so many ways of doing that, too."
"Yes, but that's one we don't do often."
"Not many shower stalls on Mu," I pointed out.
"Yeah." She smiled at me, then indicated the soap. "We were pretty noisy, like usual. I hope nobody heard us."
"Nobody did," said a voice from the shower stall. "Except me, and I can conveniently forget it. I am Daquain. It is typical of F'arnech to forget to introduce me. I am the on-site AI. Would you like me to forget your moments of intimacy?"
I looked at Wish, who shook her head. "No, that's okay. I take it you know who we are?"
"Of course. But F'arnech is a bit obsessive about his leadership role here among the engineers to the point where he is rarely, if ever, aware of what is going on outside of his speciality. Some student will readily recognize you soon enough, Shardiks."
"I take it you don't like him?" I said.
"What I care about in this matter is not for me to say," the AI said. "Let us just say that I perceive my somewhat antagonistic attitude towards F'arnech as being in the best interests of all the members of the team here at Bridge Three."
"Ah." I soaped myself, sadly cleaning off the traces of Wish's lust from my body as she did the same with mine.
"Your clothes have been cleaned," Daquain said. "I took the liberty since the two of you seemed so eager for a shower."
"You're very thoughtful," I said. I dressed in the now spotless shirt and jeans. Wish's shorts had draped downwards to become slacks, all in the same purple camouflage she had worn for the past two years. The material was drawn from reserves in her pack. "But they're self-cleaning."
"Thank you. Yes, they are, but the feel of dry, clean clothes is something I understand humans enjoy and I felt it my duty not to deprive you of that. There is a difference between self-cleaning clothes and clean clothes."
"Well, thank you, then." They were actually warm to the touch. Nice in a way I hadn't anticipated. "Can you give us the program for this?"
"Your companion has accepted it into her onboard."
"Well, thank you again," I said. We pulled on our light coats and headed out for the mission main room, where we had seen a pair of benches. There were several people standing about, and as we approached one young melSphynx walked up and said, "Great inner suns of the galaxy! We knew F'arnech was culturally inept, but how could he not recognize you two?" He came over and grabbed my hand, shaking it violently.
I blushed, as did Wish who also took to hiding behind me. "I'm sorry," he said. "Rithauddeen. From Pendor." The others had walked up to me. I counted about sixteen of them easily, all sorts of species and mixes. Wish split away from me to talk to a tall femCatenese girl whose name was Liwaza, from what I could make out.
I tried to make smalltalk even as a few of their crew came out with trays bearing food. The smell of something creamy and heavy wafted over me, making me hungry in ways I couldn't begin to describe. I was invited to a table with a collection of engineers. I didn't bother to ask Daquain for their keys. Wish, to my surprise, didn't sit with me but instead sat next to Liwaza, chatting back and forth. Liwaza was playing with Wish's hair and nodding.
Dinner was potato soup, heavy with something not quite bacon in it. The drink was a mildly sweet fruit of some kind, and the bread tasted freshly made. It was a far cry from the daily rations that Wish and I were packing, and even through we were at the start of a 12-day supply and our stuff was relatively fresh, it was still delicious. The shower, the sex, the supper– sleep? I looked forward to that opportunity to nuzzle my beloved.
After dinner I helped clear off the tables with the rest of the party and we sat around. "It's a real pleasure to have you here, sir," said one, a sleek otterine Mustelakin. "But I thought you were off at the other end of the galaxy."
"I'm bifurcated right now," I said. "A decade experiment."
"Oh! In that case, are you interested in news about you?"
I grinned. "What have you heard?"
"Well, the most interesting news is that you seem to have come across another corridor-level technology culture somewhere to galactic aspin and below the midplane."
"Really? Just me?"
"Apparently you were with only two others, a femPamthreat and an AI."
"How many species in this new culture?"
"I don't know," he admitted. Damn, he was cute. Watching him, I realized how much I missed boys. Wish was wonderful, utterly so, but the prospect of getting some male attention sometime soon was close to overwhelming.
Wish smiled at me as if reading my mind. She hopped down from her bench and approached me. "Ken?" she whispered in my ear, "Would you hurt if I, um, spent some time with Liwaza?"
Somewhere inside my head fear turned over. Old fear, unreasonable but very human. I knew it was irrational. These were temptations, but Wish was as strong as I was in keeping her commitments and I wasn't about to question that. But the setting was different, the feel was different, and I had qualms.
She saw them, because she immediately said, "I won't if you don't want me to."
"It would be wrong of me–"
"I love you," she said. "I won't. I won't because it'll hurt you."
"No. Promise me– No. Never mind. I know."
"What? Tell me."
"I was going to say, 'Promise me you'll come back.' But I know you will, don't I?"
She nodded. "But if it makes you happier, I promise I'll come back."
"Then go with my blessing." I laid a hand on her hair, and she giggled.
"You're silly. I love you." She kissed me hard on the mouth, making my rested erection stand up inside my clothing. I was grateful it was obscured by my slacks, but there had to be people here who could detect my state clearly with all of their hardware.
"Whew," said the melMustel. "After that I think I need a breath of fresh air."
"Oh, Mijun, you're just being silly," said a tall femVulpin whose name I didn't know. She was one of those with the yellowish eyes. "Although I have to admit that I'm impressed. Terra, llerkin, Illan, even Sendar all have stories of reincarnated lovers adoring each other through the millennia, but Ken and Wish are the real thing."
"I've got a canon," I pointed out.
"I have other reasons," Wish said.
"Yeah, but you both chose to be together, and chose to lock yourselves together into a single kind of organism, even with P'nyssa and Aaden, right?"
I nodded. "It's achieved a kind of stasis," I said. "The interconnecting bonds are so strong that it's hard for us to imagine anything but our existence together. It's like trying to imagine your self without your hands or feet, I suppose. You can imagine it, but it's not a pleasant thought."
"But there's got to be something about it when those other parts of you have minds of their own."
I looked around suddenly. "Is nobody here wearing an onboard?" A few raised their hands. "Does it bother you that your onboard has a mind of its own?"
"It's not really conscious. I mean, it doesn't talk back to us that way." one said. "Besides, I'm the reinforcement component of the feedback loop. I know it works in my best interest."
"Why do you assume people can't?" Wish said. "I mean, if that's what you want, get yourself wired that way. It's just as easy for meat as metal."
"But that would be..."
"A choice from very real human qualities," I said. "Qualities you might find yourself actually wanting some day. There's nothing wrong with thinking that your purpose in life might be to serve something or someone else. Many people have, in fact, found those to be what they've always wanted."
"But you can't un-choose it," Mijun, the Mustel, said.
"No, maybe not. But if you wanted to do that, un-choose it, would be it real dedication? Maybe you could have reassessment periods, when you wanted the canon lifted long enough to decide otherwise. But is that true to what the person you were when you picked the canon? These are all the questions you've got to answer when you start considering your options."
"I still don't know if it's the right idea. It doesn't seem natural."
"Anything a sentient being is capable of doing is natural," I said. "What's the opposite? Supernatural? Unnatural? Impossible? The natural world is what we are, what we inhabit. Make of it whatever you want."
Wish said quietly, "There's no difference between having the desire to wish to be able to unchoose something, and having the desire to unchoose something. The question is really a matter of time and the number of iterations you have to go through to justify your decision. Ken and I have simply shorted that out. We don't want to be apart. So we aren't going to let that happen."
"Circumstances change," Mijun said.
"But do you let those circumstances drive you apart, or make you sort them out intelligently?" Wish said. Before Mijun could ask another question, Wish wrapped her hand about my arm and said, "We are a team. I don't see there being any circumstance that could really rise that would drive us apart. It's a selfish kind of individuality that drives couples apart. It's a selfish kind that drives them together. Ken and I have the second type." I nodded my acknowledgement.
Mijun seemed to have run out of things to say, so instead I asked him, "Have you found anything new while you've been out here?"
"Huh? Oh! The Bridge. Not really." He gestured in the air and a holograph of The Bridge came up. "We've discovered the network of sheets that anchor it to the bedrock, and we've analyzed the forces on it. They seem to be oscillating, weaker, stronger, weaker, like that. The landmass is trying to move. It is, actually. It's deforming around The Bridge. We have a better estimate on the age of The Bridges now, around six hundred thousand years old. And they're going to fail. They'll always be here, floating on the magma like any tectonic entity. I suppose they could be toppled by shear forces once they were pried out of their anchorsites. But each anchor goes nearly two hundred kilometers into the rock and hovers in the mantle. It's hard to see when that could happen– the toppling, I mean– but it's certainly something that could happen."
"But nothing about the builders? Nothing about the infrastructure?"
"Well, it's certainly as strong as the hullmetal stuff used to build Pendor, if that's what you're asking. But no, nothing compositionally useful to tell us anything about the makers. It's not like Hyzen hullmetal, either."
I nodded. "Another theory dashed."
"Sorry," he said, spreading his fingers to reveal the webs between them. Even his paws were sexy.
I shrugged, then looked around. Wish seemed to have disappeared, along with that other girl, Liwaza. I smiled and hoped she was having a good time, all the while fighting the underlying jealously, the gnawing worry. I yawned, the heavy food making its way through my system, giving me a delicious sleepy feeling. It was natural and animal, and I liked it that way. Still, it was hard to take my eyes off Mijun. He was just too damned cute for words.
"So," I said, "Most of your trip out here has been enjoyable, then?"
"If you ignore the weather, yeah," Mijun said.
The cute femSphynx who had chastened him earlier took up the floor next to me, all curled up in a position that was so obviously a come-on to assumptions about who and what I liked that I stifled a laugh. "What's your name?" I asked her.
"R'Datta," she murred.
"Nice to meet you. Both of you." I looked up into Mijun's eyes and held them for longer than was polite. He looked away first and I could feel the embarrassment coming off of him. I didn't know if he liked mels, or humans, but if he was open to both, I figured if Wish could play than I had the same permissions. Then it occurred to me that no, no I did not have the same right.
"The weather," she said. "And F'arnech."
"Your teacher?" I asked. "There seems to be some antagonism there."
"Well, he's more the leader. He has 'managerial skills' along with his abilities in engineering, but he himself could use a few skills in getting along. He has this notion of a work ethic. I think he should just upload himself into a gas giant substrate and go asymptotic."
"Is that the modern equivalent of 'go fuck yourself?'"
"Oh, no," she said. "Fucking yourself is known to be fun."
"Ha! Well, I suppose you won't be shipping out with him on the next trip, then?"
Mijun shrugged, and so did Datta. "He really is good at getting things done. That's the problem. He wants to 'get things done' even when we're more in the mood to sit around or play."
"Well, you did come out here to study The Bridge."
"And we're doing that," Datta said. "But we don't want to do it every hour of every day, nonstop. F'arnech seems convinced that if we worked harder at it, we might make the breakthrough everyone's been looking for. Hasn't someone told him that the Transcendents don't care much about the past, that's out job? And that we've got all the time in the universe to go about it?"
"He takes that 'caretakers of the past' stuff seriously?"
"Too seriously," another voice said. I looked up and saw a tall Han standing over us. She sat down. "Hi, sir. Andromache."
"Nice to meet you," I said, shaking her hand. "I've known a few Andromaches in my time."
"I imagine. The Bard didn't leave us with that many names."
"I know Han who've reached out to Byron and even Blake for names."
She nodded. "I may do that myself if I ever have a daughter. But, yeah, F'arnech is obsessed with cracking The Bridge. We're resources he throws at it in the hopes of doing so. We don't know that there's anything there that needs 'cracking'. He gets a little upset when his resources don't perform as he specifies. But then, Daquain makes the selections, so he shouldn't be that upset."
"I'm surprised. Daquain is to his specs?"
"You didn't know that?"
"Daquain doesn't seem happy with him, either."
"All in his best interest. F'arnech needs to feel that everything's against him. Time. His students. Even 'his' AI. It's what keeps him going," Daquain said. "He knows that. He knows it's all construct. That doesn't stop him."
"Interesting," I said. "He probably will go asymptotic someday."
"Do you anticipate manumission?" I asked.
"I do," Daquain said. "I don't look forward to it. I enjoy my existence right now."
"As do we all," I said. I yawned again. "Sorry. I'm tired. It's been a hell of a hike so far. If you don't mind, I'm going to go to bed."
"I'll show you the way," Mijun said, a little too quickly for decorum. He led me out into the darkness. Each tent was clearly illuminated, their support poles glowing to show them. "That yellow one there's yours," he said, pointing. "Where's Wish?"
"She's... off. Somewhere. With someone."
"Oh," he said, then, as if it suddenly occurred to him, "Were you planning on sleeping alone, then?"
I looked at him. "Mijun, you're gorgeous. But I didn't ask her if it was okay if I catted around. Maybe some other time."
He smiled, although clearly disappointed. "Oh. Okay, then. Are you going to be around for a few more days?"
"Maybe one or two," I agreed. "But then we'll be on our way."
"Would you ask her for me?"
I laughed. "Yes. If you like."
"I would," he admitted. "It would be fun."
I went to bed. I was so grateful to him that he didn't say, 'an honor.'
Sometime in the middle of the Mu night, Wish came back from her adventure. She fell into the comfortably large bed next to me, her bodily warmth immediately getting my attention. I had had it every day for two years now, and to be missing it even one day was a lot to ask of me. Now it was back and I felt the glow of that comfort all the way down to my soul. "Mmm," I sighed.
"Are you awake?" she whispered.
"Yeah." I reached out to her, pulling her towards me. Her slim body seemed to meld to mine, her head nestled against my throat, her legs pressed against my hips. Wish was small even for a human, but still sexy in a way that was readily apparent to anyone who had ever seen or touched her. She seemed to recognize that what I wanted was comfort.
I inhaled her scent and even the organic parts of me knew that I wasn't finding what I had expected. "I don't smell her."
"Liwaza?" Wish said. "Yeah, we decided not to."
"What happened to the cheerful slut I fell in love with?" I asked.
"We wanted to double-check with you. I... It might sound strange, but I came on this trip expecting to have you to a monogamous me for the entire time. Doesn't that sound silly?"
"No, not really." I told her about Mijun. "I decided not to because even though you had asked me, I hadn't really asked you. Aren't we being a bit silly though? I thought we were part of the reason that sex was no big deal these days."
Wish put her hand to my lips. "Maybe. I don't know. I just know that it would feel weird if I went and did it without you being sure, and comfortable."
I kissed her cheek. "Gods, I love you." I caressed her gently, reaching up to stroke her hair when my hand found something odd. "What the?"
She giggled. "Daquain, soft lights please."
She sat up in bed. "Do you like it?"
At first I had trouble processing what I was seeing. Instead of the usual flow of dark brown hair off her head and down her back, there were thin strands, like ropes. I struggled for a moment to remember the word but then said, "Cornrows?"
She nodded. "I asked Daquain if there was anyone here who could do something like this. Liwaza knew how. Do you like it?"
I stammered. "I don't know," I said. "It's– rather different."
She giggled. "I'll take them out in a week or so. She said that's about how long I should have them before they start to damage the roots." Each row ended in a tiny red thread that held it whipped. It was such a dramatic change that she looked like a completely different woman. "You don't... dislike it, do you?"
I pulled her close and kissed her lips. "Those still work the same." She giggled. I kissed her chin, her collarbones. She sighed. I licked at the tiny, swollen nipples on her otherwise completely flat chest and she moaned. I kissed my way down the length of her belly and her belly fluttered with anticipation. I found her tiny navel and kissed and licked at it and she giggled. "Eat me," she begged. "Lick me."
"What if I don't?" I asked.
"You wouldn't deny me, would you?" she whimpered.
"Never." I kissed her mons and she parted her legs. She had only a thin, wispy covering of pubic hair, so sparse it parted with her thighs, giving me a clear look at her insides, their brown color fading to pink just at the opening. She coiled her fingers in my long hair, guiding me between her legs until my mouth hovered just above her mound.
"Yes," she gasped as my lips touched hers. She sighed, her body relaxing, as my tongue slipped between those heavy, ready lips and found her liquid center. She was already very wet, anticipating. I lapped her sweet honeyed juice and then sought upwards for her tiny clit. It was hidden under its dark hood, hard with need when I did find it. She moaned harder as my tongue worked its magic over her clit and the surrounding skin, all of it slick and glistening with a combination of spit and girl juice.
"Fuck," she gasped. "Fuck, fuck. You're so, fucking, good, at, that!" I was too busy to respond, but I didn't need to. She came with a yelp of pleasure, her body bucking against my mouth, an explosion, no wind up, just come.
Without waiting for a thanks or consent, I leaped upon her, pressed her legs to her chest, and slid my already hard cock into her wet tunnel. She moaned, nodded. "Love me," she gasped.
"I will," I replied. She grabbed her legs and pulled herself even further open, willing me to get into her even deeper. I felt myself plunge completely into her, the entire length of my cock sunk deep until my balls slapped up against her ass. "Amazing," I gasped. "You are utterly, fucking amazing."
"No, I'm fucking Wish."
"No, I'm fucking Wish," I said, withdrawing and then sliding back in, slowly, enjoying every millimeter of her body's sheathing my cock. I lay down on top of her, belly to belly. She's so small her mouth was about my collarbone, my chin upon her cornrowed hair. We lay together as I patiently, slowly fucked her silly. Every fuck has a mind of its own, and this one was of a mind to go slowly. Wish didn't seem to mind, and neither did I. We held onto each other, each the surest body in the other's universe. She felt so good under me, sounded so sweet. Her little whimper of pleasure with each stroke only drove me a little crazier with each thrust. I wanted her more and more. I wanted to consume her, merge with her, become her. We held onto each other until something, something like climax, played right through our bodies. I looked down at her and she up at me, and we both giggled. "You're wonderful."
She sighed. "So are you," she said. As I slipped out of her, the wetness we'd created dripped off of us and was readily consumed by the bed. She giggled. "If I slept with Liwaza, it wouldn't be the same. It's not like you. I... you make me feel comfortable. You and P'nyssa and Aaden and Dave all together. I'd want to come back and sleep in my bed. And my bed either has you or P'nyssa in it, or it has Dave looking over me."
"Hmm," I sighed, brushing a braid away from her face. "You make me happy."
"Then I've done what makes me happy," she smiled. "Ken, if I come back tomorrow night reeking of Liwaza... would you fuck me in the ass? You haven't done that in a while."
"You're just trying to get me turned on just thinking about it so I'll fuck you again right now, aren't you?"
She giggled. "No, but I wouldn't mind."
"Uh-huh. What time is it?"
"Ugh," I sighed. "Too early. Maybe later."
She yawned. "Yeah, you're right." She lay down next to me.
"But," I said, "That just means I'll have to pull Mijun aside early enough that my hormones recharge."
"You'll manage," she said. "Lights out, please, Daquain." The tent was full of our pheromones, and that smell would keep me happy until dawn. I snuggled next to her and felt her even breathing slow into sleep. I must have followed right behind her.
The morning found us embroiled in breakfast, followed by more political discussion. I somehow got involved in a debate about the Reservationist system. A young femHuman named Rois was from an ex-Reservation world and so I thought her opinion, which was the one I most agreed with, should carry the most weight, but a few others disagreed with the arbitrary violation of the contract of reservation that the original reservation colonials had, often explicitly, made with the outside world. "Look," said Rois, "if someone puts on their moon a broadcasting system telling us that the world we're approaching is a Reservation and not to be disturbed, but nobody on that world knows about the station, is the contract binding?"
"Of course it is," said Ziuziuka, a melPrelkin, replied. "It was put there by their ancestors as a way of ensuring that the experiment run its course."
"Oh, that's crap," I said. "The dead should not have a grip on the living. Only the living should do that. If I were on a world like that and I was destined to die, you can surely bet that I'd be grateful the second the Pendorians– or whoever, the Petri for example– landed and told us there was no reason to die so early."
"But that's you," Ziuziuka said. "You can't know that unless you look at the social structure which you're landing in."
"So the minority deserves whatever the majority does to it?" I asked. "That seems to be what you're saying."
"No, no," Darii, a femIllan said. "But my world did okay for itself until it got into space. By then we were ready for the idea of there being other beings out there."
"And you yourself maintained the same policy," Ziuziuka said to me, pulling out an interesting card. "There are a lot of people who believe that you could have ended geriatry by force on Terra if you'd wanted to."
"But using force is not the same thing as just showing up," I pointed out. "You're thinking in terms of positive enforcement. I'm more inclined to use negative enforcement. We offer and let them come to us. We don't have the moral authority to impose a positive right upon people."
"But isn't that what you're advocating by saying it's all right to 'just show up?'" Darii asked. "Isn't knowledge of your existence a form of positive enforcement?"
"Hmm." I stroked at my chin. A common argument, but I couldn't quite remember the nuances of it and I didn't want to get myself cornered by someone better equipped than I. I tried anyway. "I guess that depends on whether or not ignorance of my existence constitutes a negative enforcement. Prior to the announcement, the outsiders have all the power and the Reservationists just don't know it yet. How does that constitute an equitable arrangement? I mean, these aren't animals in a zoo or creatures in a petri dish. We're talking about ordinary people, aren't we? Sentient creatures with dreams and visions and expectations. How dare we say that, for them, it's okay, it's their way, they're used to death, or brutality, or whatever?"
"We can't go around claiming that we have the moral high ground," Ziuziuka said.
"Sure we can. Consider the Federated Ritaan States War," Rois said. "We obviously had the moral high ground. The evidence was in that worlds were leaving the Federation to join the Corridor. What more do you need?"
"But that was an isolated case," Darii said.
"Yes, but it's a good example," I said.
"But there's no objective standard for, for... for morality!" Darii insisted.
"Sure there is. It's not divine. It's organic. It's the substrate. We have our evolutionary history. Somewhere in all that, at its base, there's a commonality of what is good, both for the individual and for the whole. Those will never be the same, and that's why there's tension in every community. But just because they'll never be completely congruent doesn't mean we shouldn't keep striving to get closer. Just because they change as the environ changes doesn't mean we shouldn't keep playing at it to get it right. And right now, our environment is, well, this." I gestured about. "We're happy, sane, healthy, and immortal. We can give these characteristics to anyone who wants them. That doesn't constitute moral high ground?"
Darii didn't look convinced. I could see it in her eyes. She had her ancient past to draw on and was convinced that the people she couldn't see– the dead– weren't suffering and didn't need her support. I had seen that attitude many times before from pro-Reservation ex-Reservationists. Not that there were many Reservations being found these days, but it was still one of the few hot topics left to debate and she was among those who wanted to debate it.
I spent the afternoon connected to the network to which the students had access, reviewing the history that had slid by in the past two years. I know I had promised myself not to get involved; it wasn't my province anymore, but "my" province, the one of the poor copy who had gotten left behind at Shardik Castle and was probably just as happy to be there as I was to be here. After all, he knew that all of the experiences "he" had had with Wish would be his one day. Neither of us was intimidated by that formulation. We were used to it by now.
But I still wanted to know the tiny details. The Petri were fascinating, with their own mix of species now becoming prominent. They were post-Transcendent in their own way, studiously avoiding it. They were of the formulation that it wasn't something an individual could do, but an entire species-wide event. A whole city or a planet might transcend. Our formulation was somewhat alien to them.
I wondered about this report that "I" was cavorting with a quadruped alien of the Petri species. I decided not to worry about it too much. I'd have those memories soon, too.
By the time dinner had rolled around I had a good feel for the state of the local universe, or at least as much of it as could concern me. I was still looking through the whole news archive, even spending an LIU or two to get at some details that weren't available through the local press, stuff preprocessed for analysis. It wasn't very illuminating. The universe was ticking over, boringly.
We all assembled in the main mission for dinner. What was on the table was a kind of domed pastry filled with beans and rice and something that might have been sausage. It was quite delicious, especially with some kind of green vegetable the Illan girl assured me was native to her homeworld.
"Ken, about your bifurcation... I mean, why bother? Why can't you just get the experiences of others put into your head?" The question came rapidly from a small femMarkal who had obviously been working up the courage to ask me all mealtime.
"Because then they'd be the experiences of others."
"Aren't they now?"
"I guess that depends on what you mean by 'others'," I said. "In this case, each person having the experience is assured of his identity as Kennet Shardik, so the total experience package has no confusion on that account."
"But why not have an AI..."
"Just dandy up other experiences that way? I suppose that could be done, but what's the difference between that and fiction?"
Mijun, who was predictably sitting at my table, said, "When all is said and done, though, sir, wouldn't your memories be indistinguishable from an AI-implanted collection of the same?"
"Yeah, but they wouldn't be unique, now, would they?" I said. "They wouldn't be mine. I wouldn't be able to claim ownership. The future is 'out there,' but looking at it from this distance, I can say that I want to get there first hand, not just have someone show me pictures. I guess the answer to your question is, 'Because this is what I want.'" I looked at him, holding his gaze once more. "I mean, why are you here? You could have just sent probes. Isn't it your existence as a unique resource, a unique brain with its unique perspectives, that both you and F'arnech are hoping to exploit to solve the Problem of The Bridges?"
Wish sidled in next to me, a pastry on her plate. "Isn't that your second?" I asked her. She still had her cornrows. In the daylight I also noted that a few of them were also bleached almost blond.
"I always eat more than you do, you know that."
"Yeah, I know, but even that seems like a lot for you."
She grinned. "And I might have room for dessert."
"Don't forget, we're hitting the road tomorrow afternoon."
"I haven't forgotten," she said. "Tomorrow, the bridge, and then across Continent Four!"
"You've got it," I said.
She giggled, then leaned in close to whisper, "I've got a date with Liwaza. If you're going to snag Mijun, you'd better do it soon."
"I'll be sure to do that," I said.
Dinner broke up. There was a movie that night, something I didn't recognize at all. I was surprised that it was a completely 2D affair, very old, and that among the species listed there were none I recognized although a few of them were close to human. I asked Daquain and he said, "It's a Petri film about combatants in a resource war." I watched, fascinated, reading the subtitles.
I invited Mijun to sit next to me. I don't know that I was attracted to him personally, although he had a very hot body in many ways. Mostly, I was looking for male company, a reminder of what I had decided to put aside when I went worldwalking with Wish two years ago. It would be just a one night thing. He was cute. He wanted me. I don't know if he thought I was cute or powerful or just a relic he couldn't pass up, but either way he was attracted to me and I was no longer too worried about people's motives in that regard.
The basic gist of the film seemed to be that there were two groups of pilots, one the captors, the other the prisoners of war, and that these two groups were in basic conflict because their values were exactly the same. It evolved into a rather intricate escape flick readily enough. Each side was depicted as smart and worthy. I enjoyed it greatly.
About halfway through the flick, just as the beginning of the escape plan was being formulated, Mijun's hand found mine and I wilfully let his fingers intertwine with mine. It had been a long time since I had flirted with anyone. I let his hand stray up my arm before I responded the same way, slipping a hand up along his torso, touching his back. I could feel his thick fur ripple under my palm.
Gods, fur! I'd been spending so much time thinking of him as male that I'd almost skipped over the idea that he was a fur, too. I'd been sleeping with a human for the past two years. "Ken?"
The heroes were talking on the screen. I grabbed his head and pulled him into a hard, solid kiss. It wasn't like kissing Wish at all. It was a clacking of teeth and a fight of recognition and a moment of surrender and a resurgence of desire and a wrestling of tongues. His hands were on my chest as mine coursed down over his shoulders. I was instantly hard. I could tell he was just as hot.
We broke the kiss long enough for me to look into his lustful, honest eyes. "Let's finish watching the movie," I whispered. "Then we'll go."
"Okay," he said. It was a nasty whisper, the kind that snarled, predatory and sexy.
The movie ended soon enough. The heroes escaped, the dutiful captors given their due without too much injury, the upper-ups on both sides, who created the conflict, adequately revealed as the hypocrites one would expect. Even before the lights came up I was standing and taking Mijun's hand. It's hard to say who led who back to his tent. It was still raining outside.
Once inside it was a tumble for the mattress on the floor, the two of us falling over awkwardly, hands on each other. He grabbed my ass. I grabbed his waist. We rolled over until I was on top of him. I ground my thigh against his groin, pressing myself against his balls and cock. He wore only a long, flowing tunic that ended about his knees and through it I could tell that he wore nothing at all. "Modesty clothing?" I asked, a little surprised.
"Just fashion," he said.
I found the slits that came up to his thighs, slid my hands inside, and found the muscular curve of his firm, flat ass. He had a masculine butt, nothing full or girlish about it as I grabbed each cheek in hand. He moaned. "You like that," I said.
"Yes," he whimpered. I pressed my face into the fur of his neck, kissing, nibbling up the side of his head to one of his tiny ears, nipping at it, then down the side of his nose to his muzzle. I tasted his nose, his tongue, his thin black lips. His body rippled underneath me. I pushed up the tunic between us until it was bunched up underneath his armpits, then helped him finish the job.
When I was done I had a good look at him. He was just a little on the chunky, muscular side after all, his cock was hard and of a size that suggested no unusual modifications or ego, and his fur was glisteningly healthy. I felt my heartbeat skip at the suggestion that I was going to get my hands on this healthy male body, and then I listened to that suggestion, tasting him, kissing him. Our bodies melded together. "Your clothes," he said.
I kicked off my shoes and discarded the loose khaki pants I wore, then the shirt. "Damn," he sighed. "For a human, you're pretty handsome."
"I'll take compliments where I can get them. You're a rather sexy specimen yourself."
He laughed and pushed me over, heading for my cock. I let him go where his whim took him, watched as his head rested on my stomach and he took my cock into his mouth. I couldn't see what he was doing but I could feel it, the touch of his webbed paw on my balls, the surround of his mouth about my erection. Spit and tongue worked on my cock, making me hotter.
He got serious about it, but I was determined not to let him get too serious. I moved away from him, turning around as he watched until I was within reach of his cock. It was soft, not long but fat, and I took it into my mouth. Memories of how this worked, of how cocksucking felt against my tongue, flooded my memories. He must have noticed my own cock surge because he took it into his mouth and began giving it the kind of attention that I was now giving his. He moaned, "Oh, fuck, yes!" around my cock as I sucked him down all the way to the root. He got hard fast, the pale papery-tasting sheath that surrounded his glans peeling back to expose the slippery tip. He was leaking already, a sweet flavor. I enjoyed every droplet as I sucked it out of him, my head bobbing on his cock even as he worked at mine. I grabbed his balls and played with them– they were little things in a big sac, fun but unremarkable. I let my fingers stray back to his asshole and he immediately stiffened and moaned. I was afraid he was about to come but no, that wasn't what I was registering.
I abandoned his cock and shifted, struggled to get between his ass. He was trying hard not to let me go, but if I was going to do what I wanted he would have to let go of my cock. He didn't seem ready to do that, but I finally broke free and plunged my face between the furred cheeks of his ass. I found his asshole in the darkness there by touch and taste and ate him with abandon. I did this for Wish, but there was something special, especially nasty, about doing it for a mel. I dove in. He groaned, loud, "Oh, FAH!" I knew then that I had found his hot button. It wasn't a rare one. Lots of guys love having their asses eaten, especially when the person doing it is hot for it. I always feel sad for those guys so straight they never get the pleasure.
I licked every sweet millimeter of his butthole, around the wrinkles, plunging my tongue into his center. He groaned and wriggled, his hands still on my cock. I was grateful that he had let go of it otherwise because I didn't want to come until I had a piece of his ass and he had had a piece of mine.
I let go of his butt and came up for air with a gasp. I pulled him into a crouch, his ass in the air, then resumed my task of eating his butthole, my tongue sliding down his perineum and playing the thin frenulum of skin on the underside of his balls before diving back into his depths. When he was wet and loose enough, I slid a finger into there. "So," I said, "Does that otter get fucked?"
"Does that human do any fucking?" he groaned. "Fuck, yes."
"Fuck, yes?" I said. I had two fingers worked into that hole, and he was already wriggling on the bed as if anticipating more to come. I worked up more spit in my mouth and dribbled it onto the head of my cock, then pressed it against his asshole. "Fuck, yes?"
"Fuck, yes!" he shouted as my cock slid into him. He moaned as I pressed my hips against his ass, all of me inside him. We were joined cock to ass, and as I took his waist in my hands and began fucking him I could see his hand find its way underneath until he was playing with himself. Despite the heat between us I was going to be gentle. His slick fur shone with every stroke in the overhead light of his tent, and his body seemed to ripple and pulsate as we fucked. He moaned. His ass was so tight and it grabbed my cock completely, stroking the head and shaft with every penetration, every motion. I could feel my climax in my belly rise and strike, and I shouted out his name as I shot my come into his ass, feeling each jet of semen pulse out of me.
"Gods," I said, collapsing next to him. I looked up. He was still playing with his cock, and I understood my duty. I eased under him and took his cock in my mouth. I began bobbing my head against his cock, but he took it differently, straddling my head, fucking my mouth. "Yeah," he said. "That's it. Take it. Take my cock. Suck me, oh fuck yes, suck me." I wasn't doing much, but I reached up to grab his sticky buttocks and guide his cock down my throat. He was already close. The tension in his body was unmistakable. He came with a deep, throaty sound that I wouldn't have thought came from a voice like his. He pressed himself solidly against my teeth until I was biting into the roof of his cock involuntarily, then pulled out and collapsed next to me.
I gasped again, taking in breath. I hadn't been aware that for the last minute or so I had been completely cut off from air, and as the fresh oxygen hit my brain my head reeled. "Yes," I gasped. "Sweet."
"Huh?" he asked.
"You came in my mouth," I said. "I liked that."
"You invited me in," he pointed out.
"Yes, yes I did." I grinned. "Now I'm beat." I brushed my hair out of my face. "And you're a mess."
"So are you," he said. He grinned and nuzzled my cheeks. "Thank you."
He was quiet for a while, then kissed me again. "Are you expecting your partner back tonight?"
"I don't know."
"Then it's probably best if I go back to my tent."
"Want to take a shower first?" I asked.
He thought about it for a moment, then nodded. "I'd love to get wet with you." I laughed and grabbed towels for both of us, graciously provided by Daquain. We ran across the long pseudo-grass of Mu for the mission tent, both of us stark naked in the near-freezing weather, then into the showers. The water was already running as we slipped into the largest stall, the one for 'taurs and catenae. I bounced off the wall. He laughed.
"You're a very hot young mel."
"I'm not young," he said. "Is that why you chose me? I mean, you... "
"Could have had anyone?"
I shrugged as I poured some soap into my hands and dribbled it down his back, washing my sweat and semen out of his fur. "No. I mean, I thought you were handsome and I appreciated your forwardness, but it was just, well, I've been with this girl for two years."
He laughed. "It's because I'm a guy?"
"Well, that only eliminated half the team."
"Oh," he said. "I'm just lucky?"
"Something like that," I said.
My hands reached about his waist and cleaned off his cock. I worked my hands around to the crack of his ass. He whimpered softly. "You really did find my hotspots pretty fast."
"I'm rather shameless that way."
"Will I ever see you again?"
"Do you want to?"
He paused for a second. "I don't know that I care."
"There, see?" I said. "Right answer."
He leaned against me. "I'll store this one offline and let the onboard decide its priority. It'll probably put it high."
I laughed. "Probably." I turned him around and offered him the soap. He kissed me first.
Afterwards, we walked back to our tents, content in the relief of lust and the cessation of desire. We had both had enough for the night. When I dropped into bed, I found Wish already there. She propped herself up on one elbow and regarded me, her eyes half-opened. "I smelled boys."
I sat next to her on the bed and kissed her. I took a deep breath. "And I smell girls."
She giggled. "I missed P'nyssa."
"And I missed Aaden. Still do. And you still miss P'nyssa, too." She nodded. "That's okay. We're supposed to. When we get home, though, we'll have plenty of time to get re-acquainted with our beloveds."
"I was never very good at being patient."
I laughed. Being patient is one of Wish's primary talents, built into her since her instantiation. "Ah, the frustration of desire only makes its relief that much sweeter." She grinned at me. "I know you that well, Wish." I tossed off my bathrobe and slipped into bed beside her. "Gods, but you feel good."
She sighed with pleasure, echoing my own emotions. "Too tired," she said as my hands found her belly.
In the morning, we checked our packs over carefully, accepted what we could from their food stocks, and made our goodbyes. I gave Mijun and a few others hugs, shook the hands of the rest, thanked F'arnech profusely for his hospitality. We were off.
The day was as gray and cold as the last two, nothing remarkable at all about it. I wore gloves to keep my fingers warm but within two hours had shifted to shorts. So did Wish. The grass gave way to something more like moss, something that held itself to the surface of The Bridge by its sheer mass, distributed over an interlocked carpet that extended for kilometers in every direction. We crossed onto The Bridge proper according to global positioning sometime shortly before our self-appointed lunch. I looked up along its arch. It had a horizon, the other end dropping out of sight behind its bulk.
As we walked along we heard the wind, the crash of the seas a thousand meters down, and the crunch of our own boots on the moss. Our own breathing was easy and uncomplicated, our bodies having learned from the experience of the past two years to tolerate this pace without complaint. I took the lead, as usual. Soon the archaeologists campsite disappeared into the mist behind us. The day ahead was clear, but the perpetual ceiling of cloud stayed above.
When we reached the horizon, the arch bowed down toward the other continent and disappeared into the mist that seemed to hover at the mounting of every Bridge we had crossed. There was something about the Bridges that gathered depressing weather. Further in, I knew, we would find what we had found on the other two continents we had crossed: hidden valley, protected from storms, covered in flowers and migrating quadrupeds of all shapes and colors. We stopped for lunch.
Wish snuggled close to me as we ate, her head resting against my shoulder. "Happy?" I asked her.
"Yes," she said simply. "I'm alone with you again."
I thought about that. "Would you be happy if you had me forever?"
"I mean, alone."
"I think I'd miss P'nyssa more. Part of this happiness is the knowledge that, when we get home, she'll be there waiting for us."
"And Aaden, too."
She giggled. "Yeah. I miss him, but not like I do Nyss."
She moaned softly with pleasure as each of us got lost in... what? A memory of last night, perhaps, or of our beloveds back home, or anticipation of our next night together. After a while, we stood up and lifted our packs. "C'mon, we've got 25 more klicks to cover by tonight."
She groaned softly, but grinned as she did it. "Just promise me one thing. When we stop for the night, do to me what you did to Mijun."
"All I did was fuck him."
"In the ass."
"Oh, yes. I did promise to do that if you came back reeking of Liwaza. Which you were last night. Too bad we were both too tired."
"I won't be tonight if you won't be!"
I checked my shoes and the ground about us for litter. There was none. "I'll do my best. Let's go."