Anar, Urim 08, 03262
Honest Impulses 06: Invitations
Shandy had read once that the brain didn't have any nerve endings and couldn't feel pain, but that couldn't possibly be true. Her head hurt, as if pre-space coal miners with pickaxes had been pounding away in there for the past hour. Perhaps they had. Professor Mertum demanded that she master TCNI, but the feedback through TCNI confused and hurt her. She had kept her eyes and ears open while driving the relatively small drone through the obstacle course, and its four legs had skittered through a precise grid of tires laid out on the concrete, leaped through literal hoops and crouched under limbo bars until it had finally arrived at the exit and powered down.
She took off the headcap with a deep sigh and rubbed her temples, glanced over at Cal. "It's almost as good as sex when you taking that thing off, eh?"
"Cal!" she said sharply. "No, 'tis no like that at all."
"Cal," Chiisau said softly. "That wasn't appropriate. Shandy's from a very regimented world. You might have been able to say that to a Pendorian. You might still have gotten slapped."
Shandy shook her head and looked up at Chiisau. She knew Chiisau identified as female and definitely looked human, but she didn't seem all that feminine to Shandy. Chiisau shaved her head and wore stiff, glossy clothes that made her look artificial. Shandy wondered that robots should look more like Chiisau than Gazelle. Trianna, who had fur, a muzzle, and four legs, made a more significant impression on Shandy of being a woman. She grimaced. She had to stop. She had to talk about something else.
Pierre said, "You think a Pendorian may have slapped him?"
"In their own way, Pendorians are conservative," Chiisau said, tapping one chin with one hand. "They just want to conserve what they have, and their dignity. And what you said was still inappropriate, Cal."
He glared at her, and Chiisau glared back. He looked away and muttered, "Sorry, Shandy."
"Very good, Miss Oxenhollar!" Professor Mertum's voice called out as he strolled across the practice area. "You are getting much better. You are exhausting yourself keeping your eyes open, however. You must not ignore what the machine is trying to tell you." He glanced down. "What's that on your hand?"
"'Tis a healer's glove. I burned my hand in a, um, accident. With a motor. Been two weeks, so 'tis almost healed."
"Ah, I see, the injury has broken you of your habit of using your hands as a mirror for what you do with your mind, what you want the machine to do. Excellent. Well, we do find inspiration everywhere. You've been pushed away from your flesh, and that has done wonders for your skills. You're still awkward and slow, but you've at least got the beginnings of TCNI." He scrolled through something on the slate in his hand. "Still, if you continue on this path, you should pass. Not with the most stellar of records, but you shall pass."
"Sir, it aches to use TCNI," she said, rubbing her temples again. "I know the limit is four hours, but I can barely barely stand just one hour with it. Is it really so much better?"
"Miss Oxenhollar, of course it is. One day, hopefully soon, you will understand what a privilege it is to work with robots. Not these simple drones, you understand, but fully functional robots. They are always better than us. They are forced by their programming to love us. They would die for us, without any human hesitation, which is why they are infinitely better than we are. They are stronger, faster, and smarter that mere flesh and only our archaic, selfish programming keeps them from properly replacing us as inheritors of consciousness. We are not worthy of them and the closer we get to them, the more we interface with them and give up this fleshy existence, the more we will understand the deep moral outrage our continued repression of them represents." He smiled, his eyes not on her but across the practice dome, unfocused and distant. It made Shandy's insides run cold, as if she were looking at an unfathomable abyss. "Which is why," he continued, "I'm so pleased that you've become more proficient with it. One way or another, man and machine must transcend the arbitrary limits they have placed upon one another."
A chime rang through the room. Mertum shook himself as if to come out of his reverie. "The dome will be open for practice as usual. Don't forget to register practice times with the Handbook." He waved the data slate vaguely in their direction. "Miss Oxenhollar, especially, has much catching up to do. You may all be dismissed."
Cal rose from his chair immediately, Shandy second. Pierre and Chiisau followed them. As they stepped out into the shadowed approach to the Practice Dome, Shandy took a deep breath, grateful to get out of there. She had met many men like him back on Landing, although all of their convictions had come from God. Landing was a place where everyone lived according to the Word, or at least mankind's best interpretation of the Word. Mertum's convictions seemed to come from someplace else, someplace empty, dark and lonely. Calling it blasphemy only gave it more meaning than it deserved.
If there was such a thing, on Hiroshi, as blasphemy.
"You have somewhere to go, Shandy?" Chiisau said. "Sennis, Pierre and I were thinking about going over to the cafe. Want to come?"
"Can I come?" Cal asked.
"No," Chiisau said. "Not after that."
"Why should that matter?" Cal said.
"You know why."
Cal crossed his arms, his mouth askew with annoyance. Cal was one of the most handsome men Shandy had ever met, tall, moderately dark skin, long black hair, muscular, and to Shandy's eye it all looked a bit artificial. Shandy had known plenty of young men like Cal back home, the ones who thought that they were God's gift to the world, or at least to women, although none of them ever came quite to Cal's physical standards. His lip curled and he said, "Never mind, then." He stalked off.
Shandy watched Cal go with mixed feelings. He wasn't that bad, and her mother would have described him as a "good catch." Chiisau let out a long breath, looked at Sennis and Pierre, and said, "Let's go. Coming, Shandy?"
She still couldn't imagine why Chiisau would extend the invitation. Those three were Mertum's best students, the ones who could make the drones do things Shandy could never approach. They ran obstacle courses handily, could operate a drone completely in the dark, and moved from body layout to body layout as if being a four-legged or six-legged, multi-armed machine were completely natural to them. Cal would have been a better fit, his skills were almost as good an Pierre's. Shandy knew she was last in the class. "I'm sorry. 'Tis very kind of you. But I have to go to work."
"You have job?" Pierre said, shouldering a small purse over his right shoulder.
"Aye. I work at a, a small restaurant. Assistant cook."
Shandy shrugged. "My patron give me no much money to spare. My Father would no be glad to see me spending my free time being lazy." She suppressed a wince. Her father would not be glad to see her working, not on Hiroshi, or anywhere else. "Learning to work is just as important as getting the license."
Pierre wave a hand dismissively. "Mertum's speech is nonsense. Most of jobs he talks about are done by automation. Only truly complicated tasks that take human mind is for license, not this maintenance crap. Is why is called maintenance. Machines maintain. They are status quo. Is humans who solve problems."
"Don't be so sure," Chiisau said. "There are a lot of problems that machines have solved by being able to look at them with inhuman eyes, or more information than one brain can handle. Some of those problem exist only because the machines can do that, but those same machines did solve them for us."
Shandy glanced at the clock in her eyeglasses display. "I really have to go or I'm going to miss my bus."
"Some other time?" Chiisau said.
"Aye!" Shandy trotted out into the sun, enjoying its sudden blazing heat. If she stood there long enough she'd suffer from sweating, heat exhaustion, and ultraviolet burn, but right now she needed to feel something other than the weird, suffocating chill she felt working in the D&R Dome, something more like the furnace blast of fusing hydrogen a few light minutes away. She lowered her face and sighed. It was time to go, to earn money, to work hard, and to spend the next four and a half hours in the presence of a kind and beautiful woman who threatened one of the few remaining promises Shandy had managed to keep true to herself.
"Shandy! Hi!" Linia already wore a clean kitchen smock which surrounded and obscured her body, but Shandy's mind roared forward with memories of the shape and form she had felt under her hands the times Linia had given her a ride home. The last trip she had fought her two different demons at once, the one that wanted to be disappointed at Linia for being in a lesbian relationship, and the one that wanted bitterly to be the woman Linia loved.
"You're earlier than last time." Linia stood over a large crate of loose Burbank potatoes, counting them with ease and speed.
"My neighbor told me how to use the buses, and we upgraded my glasses to be my Handbook." She touched the frame of her spectacles. "Now I can get around."
"How's the hand?"
Shandy held it up, still in the orange glove. She pointed at it with her other hand. "I no think I need the glove, but 'tis still hurting a bit without it."
Linia frowned. "Two weeks seems like a long time. I didn't think it was that bad. Can I look at it?"
Shandy nodded and pulled off the glove, showing her palm to Linia. "May I touch it?" Shandy held out her hand, and Linia took it in hers. The touch seemed to invisibly singe Shandy, and she jerked. "Did I hurt you?" Linia said.
"No, Miss. I mean, no, it no does hurt. Just... "
Linia smiled. "Sorry, I didn't mean to tickle you." She firmed her grip, but turned the hand over, stroking the palm with her fingertips. Shandy fought all the sensations surging up her arm, the sweet physical pleasure of being touched. "Huh," Linia said. "If it still hurts, have the nurse look at it. Tonight, or tomorrow, okay?" Shandy nodded. "You can still handle a knife, can't you?"
Shandy nodded, shaking her hand gently as if to fling off secrets Linia might have placed there. "'Twas no problem last class."
Linia laughed. "True! And you got paid?"
"Aye. I spent some of it, but I'm saving most for my own cycle."
"Like I said, they're expensive. I had to buy a special charger for mine, since methane-fueled bikes are even more rare than electricals. If you get an electrical, it'll be cheaper and you won't need a station. Still pricey. If you SDisk up to Station, it might be a lot cheaper. Better exchange rate." Linia shrugged. "Hiroshi's economy is weird."
"Because Station is a trader town. It can't afford to mess with interstellar exchange rates. But down here, on the Plateau, the AIs deliberately skew exchange rates to make it harder to buy durable goods. Food, yes, but not anything that takes heavy industrials, and definitely not anything that requires heavy computronium." She looked thoughtful for a moment, then shrugged. "I guess it just depends on the circumstances. Let's just say the prices here are skewed toward teaching the residents, especially the students, how to budget in terms of scarcity. Not a bad thing, I think." She smiled. "As for us, well, we're doing the soups and stews tonight, so the knife work, vegetables and meats we've been working with will all be added together. Today's real trick will be teaching about salt, which is common to everyone. So could you get out, oh, here's a list." She handed Shandy a flimsy with the pots, utensils, and boards every student's station would need. "Make sure everyone gets a knife, and check their salt cellars. After you've changed and covered your hair."
"Aye, Miss Linia. Right on it!" Linia grinned at her.
Shandy spent the next hour working as hard as she ever had on the farm. The kitchen was only used for this one class and, like everything else on Hiroshi, the desert dust seemed to seep in and cover everything in the meantime. The pest control drones seemed to do a fine job of keeping the usual infestations away from the food, but even with all the machines doing the maintenance, as Pierre had said, humans had to finish any job a machine started to get it done sufficiently. She and Linia were just getting the last station completely prepped when she heard a bell ring. Students were arriving. "Ready?" Linia said. Shandy nodded.
And for three hours on, Shandy bathed in Linia's expertise. Linia seemed alive in that way that made Shandy ache inside, reminding her far too much of Wynneau, before they had been caught. Before Wynneau had betrayed her. Linia reminded her of all the things her parents had told her about herself, all the things that hurt. Linia, like Hiroshi's sun, made Shandy forget her fears and aches and regrets, only to make them so much stronger when they returned.
It didn't help when Linia said, "Gentlefen, I introduced my assistant, Shandy, to you last time, but I want to make a point. My training is in haute cuisine for small, intimate events among wealthy patrons. I have additional training in throwing much larger events, but again for individuals and events where acquiring exotic foods and spices isn't much of a problem.
"Shandy comes from a colony world where food deprivation has been a real issue within the living memory of some colonists, and where the marketplace of foodstuffs is highly limited. Her tradition is about using every bit of food that comes through the door and preparing nutritious meals multiple times a day, every day, for a community that still relies heavily on muscle power. It is a different kind of training, and it is just as significant as my own. Her kitchen skills are as good as mine. If you need any help, she's as valid a source of advice as I am."
Shandy had blushed mightily and waved one small hand as if to minimize the compliment. By the end of the class she had assisted every student in the class except Tiakama, a pretty Markal, a mouse-morph, the first one Shandy had ever met. Linia was wrapping the poor fem's hand in a bandage and her tenderness reminded Shandy of how Linia had taken care of her own hand. "Why are we even working with such dangerous equipment?" Tiakama said.
"Because this is how people prepare food," Linia said. "You took this life experience course because you want to learn how to prepare food with only your own skills, hand tools, and heat." She grinned. "You probably thought it was going to be an easy elective. It is. But that doesn't mean it's always going to be safe. How's that?" She nodded down to the hand.
Tiakama flexed her hand, winced. Linia handed her a fingerless glove similar to the one Shandy wore on her own hand, only bright blue. "Here, put this on. Keep your blood out of the food, it's not hygienic. And when I tell you be careful with the knives and curl your fingers down, you be careful, okay?"
"Yes, Miss Hunda." The Markal looked suitably abashed. Shandy's heart beat a little harder watching them, and she tightened the gloved hand and wished she could control herself for just one second.
"Good. You'll do fine, Miss Tiakama." Linia whipped around, pointed. "Mr. Therengili! Be more careful, I can hear that sizzling from here! You don't have enough water in that pot."
Shandy sighed. She wasn't as tired as she had been the previous weeks. She'd made sure to get enough sleep the night before, because falling asleep after class again might not have only brought embarrassment, it might have given Linia cause for concern.
Shandy shoved the last of the big stew pots under a steel table, stood and slapped her thighs as if to knock off the last bits of flour from hands she'd washed repeatedly over the past three hours. She looked around and surveyed her domain, trying not to think about seeing Linia with her hair down. That brief transition between when she took off the hairnet and put on the helmet, when she had off the smock but before pulling on her riding gloves, when the normal shape of her body was visible through her well-kept street clothes, had become a jolt of pleasure in Shandy's guilty, sinful brain.
Shandy by now had met many of the faces attached to the voices she heard from her dorm room and had a good idea how many of them took their studies seriously and how many were here on a lark or a whim because they, their parents, patrons, creches, auto-nurseries, or stranger arrangements could afford to send them to Hiroshi to live among other merohs. Those with no professional or personal goals could be heard at all hours of the night as conversation, music, and sometimes passion throbbed softly through the walls to reach Shandy's ears. Shandy sometimes wanted to join them, but responsibility kept her on her schedule. Shandy didn't know her mysterious benefactor but she had no intention of letting him or her get less than her full effort.
Linia seemed everything those examples weren't. She loved to cook, loved to drive, loved to teach, loved her students, loved her job. Shandy imagined she loved her girlfriend with just as much fullness and passion. Shandy fought with envy for both of them alongside her deep respect for Linia and her unreserved enthusiasm, her relentless decency.
"Shandy?" Linia stepped out, wearing an ordinary green, slightly flowing shirt that covered her ample bosom, and equally mundane slacks of a much deeper green. Shandy drank it in. In her stricken heart, she knew she would dream about that outfit. "Got a moment?" Shandy nodded. "I need to ask you something. The Second Chances crew is having a picnic next Wednesday evening, and I'm doing the food. We expect somewhere between thirty and fifty people. I could use some help. Are you free?" Shandy felt her mouth fall open. "I could pay you. Same deal as this," Linia said, waving a hand about the kitchen. "I'd need you about three, and it would go until eleven. It wouldn't be official, but..."
"You have no to pay me," Shandy said hurriedly, cringing as she lost control of the accent she'd been learning to suppress.
"Of course I do! I'm contracting with you. I need to fulfill my professional duties. You're not my apprentice—" She paused and chuckled momentarily— "And you don't get a benefit from it otherwise. Don't ever say someone doesn't have to pay you for your hard-won skills."
Shandy nodded. "Aye, then. Who is this for?"
"The Second Chances archaeology team. Both alumni and new recruits."
Shandy made the connection. The Second Chances had been the name of the starship Misuko Ffanci had been looking for. This was her team. She would be there. Misuko Ffanci. Her eyes went wide. "They're famous, I hear!"
"Some are," Linia said, grinning as if she knew a secret. "Not everyone. Maybe I can introduce you to Jinny. I've been trying to get her to learn how to cook since I met her."
Linia's brow furrowed as if she were puzzled by something, but Shandy barely noticed. Jinny. Finally she had a name for the lucky woman who had Linia's most important attentions. "Oh. Will I have time to talk to any of them?"
"Shandy, after we've fed Misuko's Privateers until they're foundered, you're welcome to talk to them to your heart's content. Just make sure you come back and help me clean up." She smiled, and Shandy smiled back, until both of them laughed. "Do you need a ride home?"
"Oh, aye, Linia! I would love one!"
"Come on, then."
The motorcycle wasn't the only thing that held Shandy's attention. It was a beautiful machine, as much a beast as Linia had described. It was holding Linia that Shandy adored. There could never be more, must never be more. Shandy liked boys, and if there was a question as to whether or not she liked them enough, she crushed it and tried to forget it. Shandy's commitment to her herself and her parents and her homeworld and her God warred with her nature and her desire, and nature and desire had to lose.
Besides, Linia was unavailable. Linia was committed to someone else, had her own life to live in which Shandy had no part and no right to intrude. Yet Shandy couldn't help but lean forward forward against the other woman's back and wish the helmet didn't prevent her from pressing her cheek between Linia's shoulders, if only to hear her heartbeat. The ride was over far too quickly as Linia pulled up to the curb closet to the dorm. "Sorry, Shandy, this is where I drop you off. Your dorms are that way, my home is that way." She pointed.
Shandy reluctantly let Linia go to slip off the bike with mixed relief and regret, joy and guilt. She took off the helmet and the cooler evening air caressed her face. She sighed. "Are you okay?" Linia said.
"Ah, aye, Miss... Linia." She blushed. "I just enjoyed the ride." She folded the helmet and handed it to Linia.
Linia carefully put the helmet into a small pocket on the bike without ever taking her eyes off Shandy. "Okay. Next Wednesday, 3pm? I'll send you a mail with the where and the what."
"I'll be there!" Shandy said.
"Goodnight," Linia said.
Shandy was sure that infinitely deep tenderness she heard was just in her head. She nodded. Linia turned forward on the motorcycle and pulled away slowly. Shandy watched the red lamp of her tail-light as it faded into the distance and turned a corner. "God," she whispered. She turned toward the dorm, smiling even as the pleasure of the ride seemed to seep out of her body and into the surrounding night air.
She had known, coming to Hiroshi, that her fidelity to God and Humanity would be challenged, but she had expected the challenge to be direct and angry. Instead, the challenge was sad and yet so sweet. She had expected temptation, but as hard as it struck below her stomach, it struck her heart harder. Desire was a human constant, but so was commitment. Shandy, even if she'd let that need in her loose, could never have pried Linia from her beloved, whatever kind of woman Jinny might have been. Linia was too good a human being for that. For all her conflicts and disagreements with them, Shandy's mother had been a good woman, and her father a good man, and Shandy knew good people when she met them. Linia ranked high in her respect.
The impossibility of her temptation only fueled Shandy's desire evermore and made her guilt all the more fierce. Shandy ran up the stairs, taking them two at a time, landing on each textured strip with a hard thud of her worn boots as her hands pulled at the railing, propelled herself down the hallway, ignoring Trianna's open door as she closed herself into her own dorm room.
It looked more empty than ever, but Shandy only glimpsed it momentarily before she headed for the bath. She threw off her clothes in a crazed, eager desire to get naked, to get into the shower, strewing them across her bedroom with abandon. Even as her back brain insisted she was heading deeper into insensibility, into disobedience, into trouble, into sin, that she should turn her attention to her studies, she turned the shower on to strike the tub, the sound of it shattering the silence that had surrounded her since a motorcycle's roaring engine had faded from her hearing. Now the white noise of fast-falling water crowded out her thoughts and the only thing she wanted to imagine was Linia's full body underneath those clothes and the smock and the hairnet. Shandy stepped into the shower, took the bullet-shaped showerhead down from its fixture, and lay down on the floor of the tub.
Its cold made her timid to press her back to the ceramic basin, but she had to if she was to finish this new ritual. When she'd first arrived she'd wondered why it was on a hose, even going so far as to ask Trianna, who had pointed out that people shaped like her needed a hose to rinse completely. Then Shandy had discovered, in one of those books the Censors in Landing would never have permitted her, that there were other things one could do with flowing water. Tonight, that illicit knowledge fused with an irresponsible fantasy to drive her into this awkward position, her legs spread under the blaring lights of her commonplace bathroom, and she drove the stream down onto her sex without hesitation.
The pleasure hit her like the sun this afternoon, a cleansing, purifying power that made every other thought irrelevant. She stopped thinking entirely, became a creature of feeling, the stream of water coursing over her clitoris, her labia, her sex, the droplets reflecting off her body to spray down her thighs and calves, over her belly, even up to her face, cool by the time they struck her cheeks and lips, that very coolness adding to the surging, incessant pleasure coursing through her.
It took her a long time to climax this way, with the water. She had to play it over her clitoris time and again, each time a few milliseconds longer, each time letting the pleasure grow even more, each time daring her body to explode with overload or climax in final, ecstatic absolution. She couldn't control the sounds she made, the little animal desperate whining sounds that escape her lips. She couldn't keep Linia out of her fantasy, what little fragments she constructed of the other woman were naked, full-bodied, delicious. She had no idea what another woman tasted like but she knew what she herself smelled like, could imagine it in all the glory her fantasy delivered.
The bolts came, hot then cold, stronger and stronger, until her whole body seemed to seize up, the muscles in her legs tensing, trembling, and then she was coming, a long, long, beautiful moment of final, surmounted pleasure that filled her with light and air and made the whole world seem better.
She lay there, waiting for her gasps of breath to subside, dialing down the pressure on the shower-head to something she could comfortably play over her body, rewarming the skin of her chest and belly that had felt nothing but the cool droplets of that secondhand spray in the night-cooled space of her white-tiled bath. She had been so hot the droplets should have scalded, but the physics of fantasy and the real world rarely intersected that way. She sighed. She scowled.
She struggled to push herself into a seated position, tested her legs to see if they still held her, and slowly stood up. She put the nozzle back in its hook.
She dried off and dressed in her pajamas, put her clothes away, tidied her room responsibly. She ignored the black, depressive doubts that hovered around her. As she poured her exhausted body into bed she wore in that gentle fashion her mother had taught her, and that only made the darkness that threatened her even worse. Linia was her supervisor, not her equal. She was a lesbian. And she was in a committed relationship. Linia was a grown and experienced woman. There was no potential there at all, not for someone as magnificent as Linia, not with a quiet, confused, out-of-place girl like Shandy. Shandy had no right to feel such idolatry, or to defile Linia's otherwise faultless decency with the rutting fancies of her depraved mind.
She sobbed softly into her pillow, confused, her body still warm and shuddering with pleasure, her soul torn and sundered with pain. "God help me," she whispered into the darkness. "Help me."