"A lot can happen in a hundred years!" Aaden's voice echoed conversationally in my helmet as we soared over the forest that was, at least by default, ours. It looked much as we had left it a century ago, but then we had lived with it for over a thousand years and in all that time it had not changed much. Oh, sure, there was the hurricane of 808 which decimated a huge swath of forest to the north of where the Villa now lay but much of it had grown back. And there had been the occassional forest fire but those were necessary to the health of the ecosystem anyway.
Aaden and I had started to go a little stir-crazy in the Villa. It was not an unusual sensation, but these days we had nowhere "to go" if we wanted to cause trouble. We had contemplated taking a trip to llerkin and getting physical with Anlestin (well, I had; Aaden had other friends there), or going to Earth and seeing Oenone, or visiting any one of the thousands of other places we could visit. Instead, I decided to visit the Cathedral of Genesis 2:19 which I hadn't seen in nearly four centuries. It was just this strange impulse I had.
"Yeah, but... this?" I asked. I was not referring to the site below us, which was the same unbroken forest. We had been discussing the way in which what had been minor issues concerning autonomy and personality had become overrinding issues of the day. There was still debate but in truth the issue had been settled, and a little too rigidly for my taste. The only truly sacred thing in Pendorian culture today was self-determination-- it was so sacrosanct that the individual had the right to do anything with it. "By the way, where are we?"
"About a hundred and eighty kilometers from the Villa, why?"
"Where's the church?" I asked. I looked down on the mass of greenery behind me. I recognized the hillside into which the church had once been built. But where was the building?
"I have an empty space on the ground-scanning radar," Aaden said. "But you're right. It looks overgrown."
"Was it abandoned?" I asked. "Dave?"
"There are no electronics at the Cathedral," Dave replied. "The last mention I have of it being in use is nearly two centuries old. I suspect that the answer to your question is yes; after 1116 many similar religious structures were abandoned or turned over to other purposes. I could send a remote to the SDisk a few kilometers form there, but as you are in the right place I might suggest landing instead."
I banked the chopper until I we hovered over the canopy to look for an opening. At this range I found the Catherdal easily enough; it had been a large, cylindrical building capable of seating nearly three hundred people, although at its most popular this church had had barely half that many members.
It was badly overgrown. Vines enmeshed the Cathedral, slowly drowning the building in fecundity, dragging it back to the soil. It had been made of granite but after only two hundred years parts of it were giving way to the constant rain and freezing that every winter season brought to this part of the Ring. The Marbletop ridge, it seemed, was a poor stormbreak in this region, and squalls washed over here more often that might have seemed desireable to someone seeking to build a house of worship. It would take another millenia, perhaps, but someday the Cathedral would disappear completely into the forest, a proper pagan burial.
The gathering spot on the north side was still open, although it, like the Cathedral itself, had become overgrown, but it was still open enough for a landing. I buzzed the chopper over, watching the blade proximities whine as I got too close to the trees, with big red telltales complaining mightily that some of what appeared on the tracking was nebulous and could not be relied upon. The system, built to keep me from running into city buildings, failed when confronted with leaves.
I managed. The chopper, not much louder than its own whipping blades, landed and settled on a patch of long grass. I rotated the blades along the length of the chopper and then ordered them to fold back, giving room for Aaden to land next to me.
He tossed his helmet off and shot me the biggest grin I'd seen on his face in days. "That was fun!" he said. "The next time I complain that I'm bored, just strap me into one of these things and send me on my way."
"I'll do that," I said, smiling back at his infectious energy. "You look hot in that leather jacket."
"And you're not so bad yourself, for a, what did you describe yourself as the other day? A 'scrawny-assed fresh-off-the-farm homo sapiens?'"
I laughed. "That was five years ago, you dope," I said, cuffing him lightly.
"And these days, neither one of us ever forgets a single detail." He pulled me close and gave me a kiss halfway between romance and fuckmenow. I moaned into the kiss to let him know that I was still as hot as ever for him. He groped for my crotch playfully, and I replied to the gesture in kind. The lump in his loose-fitting cargo pants was as impressive as ever, huge and threatening in all the right ways.
"Is it sacrilege to want to fuck in an abandoned church?" I asked him.
"Let's go find out if lightening will strike us," he said with a laugh. "There are reasons why I almost always have lubricant pearls in my kit!"
He held my hand and led me across the sun-lit field to the church. Insects scattered in our wake, their first disturbances on that hot, windless day. We reached the doors I had once helped fit into place. They were barely rottted, typical Pendorian workmanship of a very tough native wood anyway, but they were ajar. The aisle led away from the door, and at a spot at the other end of the aisle, I could see a shaft of clear sunlight dropping into the space right in front of the dias. My heart sank. My main reason for coming here had been to admire the stained glass window, which had been one of the most beautiful pieces of artwork on the Ring at one time. Now, it was gone.
Aaden tugged at my hand, hauling me through the open door. Concerns of art disappeared to be replaced with lusty desires. I was on him, hugging him, kissing his mouth. His hands groped heavily at my crotch to fondle me through the leather of my pants. We had both dressed heavy for the flight and it had served us well on the flight in the morning, but now, in the heat of approaching noon, the leathers were just weighing us down. I shrugged the coat off my back and let it fall to the floor with a thud. Lube pearls scattered on the floor from the pocket.
Aaden moved to do the same, and while his arms were pinned in the jacket sliding off his back I had a hand on one of the two side zippers of his pants, slipping my hand in and finding that solid rod of flesh. He moaned softly. "Moving fast today," he said.
"Not really." I kissed him hard again. He pressed his hands to my back, sliding them down to my own pants and pushing them down around my hips. With a simple tug of the buttons on the edge they split open and fell to the floor. I enjoyed the rough feel of his hands on my ass; he squeezed my cheeks until the pain made me whimper. My own hands were hardly idle. Under his jacket Aaden didn't wear anything and I stroked his wonderful chest fur and tickled the nipples hidden under its plush depth. When I pinched them, a sharp intake of breath told me that his buttons were still there to be pushed. I pinched harder, and harder. He let his arms fall by his sides, absorbing the pain until he began to whimper.
It made his cock stand up hard. ominating him in this way made mine stand up, of course! I pressed him down onto the leathers that lay scattered on the floor of the ruined church. I hovered over him, looking down on his body, staring into eyes that were black with desire. "You're gorgeous," I said, kissing him. His cock was was hard; I could feel it against my ass as I sat down on top of him, even through his pants.
With one hand I opened his pants and let that hunk of meat fly free. It slapped up against his furred belly while we lay on the floor, wrestling with our tongues. "And you are hot," he moaned.
"Good. Because you're about to get fucked. But first..." I sat up and knelt over his head, angling my cock down with my hand. "Suck."
He was on it, his muzzle wrapped around my swollen knob, his tongue agile along its underside. I fed him more of my cock until it had disappeared into his mouth completely, the head wedged against the back of his throat. I pitched forward into a more natural position, my hands on the floor, my cock down his mouth. I didn't put much effort into not choking him. With his hands on the root of my cock and around my balls, he massaged my dick with his mouth and his lips and licked out at my balls on the downstrokes
Fuck, was he good! I struggled to hold back from climax, not an easy task with the kind of skill he was putting up, and as one of his fingers inched towards my butt I knew that if I didn't get away from him that fuck would have to wait a while.
Instead, I turned over and leapt for his own cock, taking it into my mouth in one smooth motion. He tensed as the head probed my throat and I pushed down, taking it deep. His moan filled the still air of the ruined chapel as I gobbled his dick, savored his sweet meat. The soft skin and hard flesh are such a contrast, and the smell is something out of ancient stories of ambrosia and nectar.
But after centuries of doing this to him I'd better be as good at it as he is. And unless he had a wank that morning, he was in no better position to hold off than I was. I pulled off his cock even as the first hints of precome were leaking from the tip, grabbed his ass and turned him over, pulling his pants down to his knees in the process.
His tail flipped into the air, exposing those solid cheeks. With both hands I pried them gently apart to expose his wrinkled manhole to my eyes. I buried my face between those furred mounds, my tongue extended to taste his flesh. He loves having his ass eaten almost as much as I do. I paused to tickle the crease of his hole and make him wet with spit. He pushed back, trying to get more of me into him, but I pulled away, just teasing him for a moment before diving back in and pressing my tongue into that tight hole. "More," he gasped. "Damn, Ken, more!" I pushed down, tongue- fucking his butt until he was groaning and gasping for breath. His tail rested against my head, his body heaved back towards my face. He tasted warm, male and sweaty, and I loved every moment.
I stopped, and instead knelt over him, my cock standing straight out at attention. I grabbed one of the pearls that had fallen out of my coat, popped it and prepared the two of us with its contents. I didn't have to ask; I knew he was ready. I slid my cock between his asscheeks and found his hole. I pressed in slowly, letting my cock burrow into his body. He opened for me, his asshole prepped with spit and lube and my tender care, and my cock slid into him as if dick and ass had been born of the same mold. His guts wrapped around my dick in familiar ways and I began to fuck him.
He groaned obscenties as my hips ground down against his ass. Each slow stroke was a moment of ecstacy as I slid through my beloved's body. His ass clenched tight. "I love fucking you," I groaned as I began to get serious, fucked him hard, used his ass as a rebound.
"And I want you to fuck me, fuck me, fuck me!" he moaned. I was not going to last long with this kind of talk, this kind of action.
I pulled out. He whimpered. I turned him again onto his back, pulled his pants the rest of the way off, and hoisted his legs into the air. Aaden hooked his knees with his hands and pulled them up until his legs were about his ears and his ass was high in the air. His hole was completely exposed and his tail effectively out of the way. With one smooth stroke I bore into his asshole. The look on his face might have been the best of pleasures or the worst of agonies, but the cry of "Fuck me more!" was all I needed to take him by the thighs and pound him.
I watched my cock slide into that sucky, needy, greedy asshole as I took him for everything he had. He moaned, one hand busy on his cock, his legs staying where he wanted them, out of my way. "Oh, yes!" he cried suddenly, come shooting onto his belly. The feel of his manhole around my cock was too much after that. I came, filling his guts with semen.
Gasping for air, I looked down at my lover, who stared back with a big smile and flared nostrils. "You're terrific," he said.
I giggled. "What a... " I stretched for it. "What a faggy word!"
He laughed. "What do you want me to say?" he asked as I slid out of him. I grabbed my t-shirt and used it to wipe my cock and his buttocks.
"I don't know. Something more masculine."
"That fuck wasn't masculine enough?" he asked with a grin. He sat up and kissed me, and I held onto him, letting the kiss linger. The kiss lasted quite a while, with each of us gently touching the other on thighs, chest, and stomach. It was surprisingly tender, as if somehow we had used up our raw energy and were now moving on to more serious matters.
Finally, we stopped. "It was all masculine enough," I said with a grin. "An appropriate application of testosterone."
"Yes, it was," he said, smiling. "Let's get dressed."
We paused to find our pants and pull them on. I handed him his jacket and he reached out to take it, but then paused. "Ken? What's that smell? Something... strange in here. I know you have a mod for that."
I paused for a moment and thought about my sense of smell, letting it jack up to full strength, and then took a tentative breath. Smells washed up into my brain, sorting themselves either by experience or by symbol. There were many of them, obviously. Men having sex was first and foremost. Pollen in many different counts, the wood, the varnish slowly leaching out, the scent of animals, and then, right on top of it all, the distinct scent of humans. More than one. And with it, another scent that I had experienced only once before and hope to never experience again. Ordinary humans might experience it as that of soured baking bread, but I knew better. It was the smell a human body gives off in the last days as it consumes itself out of hunger.
"Where... ?" I asked, looking around, my jacket hanging loosely on my hand. The smell was everywhere.
"What is it?"
"There are people in here. More than one. Somewhere. Dying. Or dead."
Aaden glanced at me, then nodded. He didn't even comment. "I'll check this way," he said, indicating the left. I dropped the jacket, took the right. We walked along the aisle, checking under every set of pews, looking for the victims, whoever they were.
"I found one... two," Aaden said. "Fuck," he gasped.
There were two girls, both of whom looked to be young, although on Pendor that kind of determination is merely cosmetic. They could be hundreds of years old, for all we knew. They were completely emaciated, their faces sunk into their skulls, their once pale skin now paper-thin and grey. Strands of hair lay loose around them, fallen out in their starvation. They had probably been pretty once. Aaden reached down. "This one has a pulse. And this one. Dave? I need an emergency med-evac to my location on the double. I have at least two casualties." And both were unconscious. "Hey! Wake up!" he shouted, patting each on her paper-thin cheek. Neither of them moved.
I sniffed both of them. They were there, in the scents, but... "Aaden, this isn't all of them. There are more. I'm sure of it."
We searched the rest of the room. There were no more bodies in this room. I walked over to the rectory. The door was locked. "Aaden!" I shouted, gesturing him over.
The door was as solid as the exterior doors, but with two angry Pendorians hammering at it, it didn't last long.
Inside there were three more bodies. My stomach did flip-flops just looking at them, but the instinct to help took over and I knelt at each to check for a pulse. "This one is alive, but barely, and her body temperature is lower than normal."
Aaden nodded. "Dead," he said, backing away from the one he was kneeling over. "Very. Look." He pointed. She had slit her wrists, and her blood had slicked all over the floor. She had been dead only for a day or so. I was glad her eyes were closed. "This one is alive, though," he said.
The sound of an aerodyne broke my concentration and I looked up. "Thank the Deep," I said. I picked up one of the two in the rectory, noting only for a moment the feeble beat and pale voice as she awoke. "No," she gasped. "Don't." Ignoring her, I ran for the door. There were four people coming from the aerodyne. I handed the girl I carried to one of them and said, "Shardik Villa med center, now!" He just nodded as Aaden arrived with the other one. They were SDisked away, and two of them had run into the building and returned with the other two. We had four.
An hour later, our little home-based medical center was full. Four suspensor beds, with four bodies, so thin each barely weighed thirty kilos, which was about the right weight for a young mustel, not a full-grown human being. Two of them were on respiratory support, and all of them were on oxygen. They were all unconscious again.
And they had all been pretty at one time.
A crowd had collected in the room. P'nyssa and Aaden were there, of course, but so were Ember, Mitch, and Leoni, who had also decided that they had to look in on the recovery. I didn't blame them. Brieanna had been called and was on her way, but the note said she had been far from an SDisk when she had gotten the call and would be a few hours.
"Who are they?" I asked.
"I have no record of them," Dave said. "I have made inquiries. Several AIs have invoked P&A, and others report having no records. So I'm afraid I can't tell you."
That was not entirely unexpected. It was a common enough event when people chose to move on, invoking Privacy and Autonomy rules to prevent themselves or any assistants from being subject to public scrutiny or pressure. But starving to death is such an ugly method of moving on that I could not believe that five girls had chosen it voluntarily. Especially all at once.
"By the way," P'nyssa said, "I have figures on their age. They're all the same age. Fifty-four."
"Fifty-four?" I said. "So young!"
"They're all decants, two years in a tank, and then fifty-two years or so of standard growth. There are a few places where that's obvious, like teeth, and bone. Traditional nanochine does its work at staggered intervals, and it's possible for figure out someone's real age if you know the rates of change and their intervals."
She took a deep breath, as if to apologize for what she would say next. "I've done a comprehesive scan of the dead girl." She sighed. "She had an embedded web in her brain." No big surprise there. So did I. "When I tried to examine it out, it self-destructed, but I've had a friend analyze what was left. It was a loyalty mod." I waited for her to explain although I think I knew what she was talking about. "It's a behavioral filter. It makes it impossible for any thoughts of rebellion to take hold. It's like being completely obsessed with someone or something. And it's so self-affirming, it's not like having another voice or something else control you. It's just... what you are. You're dedicated to whatever the chip makes you be dedicated to."
"Sounds ghastly," Aaden said. "And immoral."
P'nyssa nodded. I agreed. Then it occurred to me. "Not if they were decanted with it."
All heads turned towards me. "I mean, isn't that the logical extension of all the moral issues we've been dealing with for the past five centuries? Purposed robots are legitimate, even if they're conscious, because they were never anything else. We have some common standards that we expect people to obey regarding the design of that purpose and the gratification of that purpose. We expect it to be as possible for those robots to be as satisifed as we, ourselves are in our evolutionary mishmash of wants and needs. And that's a value judgement, about as fuzzy as it gets.
"So why not purposed decants? They'll have none of the tics that robots sometimes demonstrate, their needs are well-known even to non-Pendorians, and they... satisfy... some atavistic need."
Before anyone could think of a reply to my ugly scenario, one of the girls coughed. I hurried over to her side. "Can you hear me?" I asked her. She looked so sickly, so pale, so thin. I knew we could restore her to health, but what about what was going on inside her? What about that damned atavic chip in her head? "Can you hear me?" I asked again.
"Why... ?" she asked.
I didn't bother to ask "Why what?" I knew the answer to that. "Because I didn't have any reason to do otherwise. What's your name?"
"P... Promise," she said. "Promise."
"Is that your name? Promise?"
"Promise, I need to ask you one question. It's the only question I need an answer to. Do you want to live?"
She looked up at me. "I can't. I can't live without him. I can't live without Malati."
We had a name, and I didn't have to ask Dave to get right on researching it. "That's not what I asked you. I want a yes or no answer. You can imagine any world in which the answer to this is possible. Do you want to live?"
She closed her eyes, and I saw her swallow hard. She nodded, weakly. "Good," I sighed. "P'nyssa, does your friend have a cure for that problem?"
She handed me something that looked like a nail gun with a thin nozzle at the end. "Just push the nozzle up her nose and pull the trigger. It takes about four hours." The look in her eyes was unmistakeable. We both knew that there was a very good chance we were violating these girls' autonomous decision to commit suicide, and violating the autonomy of another is about as close to a crime as one gets in our anarchic culture.
I did as she said. It made a very loud pang! Promise coughed violently, took a deep breath, and then fell back unconscious. Without waiting for their consent, I performed the same operation on the other three girls. They were dying. Nobody had any instructions that they knew of to prevent me from doing what I was doing, and this was a necessary procedure for saving their lives. When in doubt-- even if technically I was not really "in doubt" anymore-- I would do what I could to save lives.
I sighed. "Well, that's that."
Aaden nodded. "We'll protect you. You did the right thing."
I smiled. "The only ones who represent a threat to me are these four. Whether or not they really are a threat... remains to be seen." I sagged, suddenly exhausted. What had started out as an exciting afternoon of fun had become draining. I wanted a rest. "I'm going to go lie down."
"I'll come with you," Aaden offered.
"I appreciate that. P'nyssa, Sune... You'll call us if the situation starts changing?"
Sune, a Mustel physician who P'nyssa had picked up recently in her own little way, nodded. "We'll be fine."
Aaden took my hand and pulled me towards the door. "Come on," he said. "I think we both need a hug."