The Journal Entries

Noren, Narquel 21, 06119

Sterlings: Press Release

"I heard that you saved one of your sister teammates from serious injury at the firebombing incident," Eha said as they walked out of Sterling Country and into the Concourse.

"I did what anyone would do under those circumstances," Rhiane Rho said calmly. The calm was a facade. Eha Sigma was good enough at reading people to know that Miss Rho was quite upset at her current assignment, but whether that was an immediate frustration or a long-term disillusionment she couldn't say. She sympathized, but she had held a paid investigative position at the Liberal distributed news association Athenian for nearly a decade and was not about to let someone else's nervousness slow her down. "It was a terrible tactical mistake. There were other ways to get her away from the flames."

"You were trampled for the decision you made," she said. "Don't dismiss your heroism out of turn, Miss Rho. It is part of the reason your friends continue to look up to you."

Rho kept any reply to herself as she led Eha down the Concourse. Eha's original amazement at the size and power of the space remained, dulled only slightly by self-control and repeated experience. The Concourse was little more than a vast walkway opening up onto restaurants, cafes, bars, music halls, and other entertainments, but the polished marble floor, wooden walls, and tall arched ceiling of beautifully aged and greened copper gave the place an air of age and respect that one usually experienced only in the halls of government. Eha kept her eyes open for a person with black fur wearing a green sweater. Rho said, "Miss Sigma, how often have you been out into the Concourse?"

"Only a few times, of course. Please, just 'Eha'. Why?"

"Then call me Rhiane. I wanted to know how many Pendorians you actually knew." Rhiane walked up to a massive black six-legged cat wearing a green blanket of sorts and snarled at it. Eha startled, her heartbeat rising as she prepared to scream and run. The pamthreat answered in kind, and then both of them switched to Quen. Rhiane laughed, and so did the beast, the latter's laugh an alarming sound.

Rhiane introduced the beast as A'Zherro. Eha tried to hide her discomfort even as Rhiane was having no trouble conversing with the creature. After their relationship was made clear, Eha whispered to Rhiane, "How can you talk to him so calmly?"

"He's a person. The Pendorians say he is. He talks like one. And I've met weirder things than A'Zherro on this trip."

Eha filed that away. There were members of the Sterling contingent who were already adjusting to the Pendorian way of life, who were already accepting many of the changes that had come to Pendor after the 22nd Century (Terran). The creature led them to a flight of stairs, and deeper into the ship. In Anglic, apparently for her benefit, Rhiane asked, "Why aren't we taking an SDisk?"

"People like me, who live in both worlds, do not like them," A'Zherro said. "They are disorienting."

"I thought... " Rhiane paused. "I thought SDisks were instantaneous transpositions."

"They are." A'Zherro turned. "But I am a distributed faunos. Re-acquiring my identity after transposition is uncomfortable. In here," A'Zherro said, leading them into a small, brightly lit room. Along a wall six intimidating couches with indented body forms lay waiting, each of them with the head elevated above the feet. Other than those, it looked like it was trying to be a comfortable space. It reminded Eha of the waiting room at her dentist's office.

A femTindal, one of those weird blue-furred humanoids with the tentacled arms, introduced herself as Falan. She led them to the two forms in the center of the room. "These are sized for small to average humans, and should fit most of the Sterlings. They will fit the two of you adequately, and you should be comfortable for most of your visit. Since you are not cyber-capable, your visit will be through these transcutaneous neural interface couches. TCNI is a wonderful technology for these kinds of things, however it has its limitations. There will be a slight lag between your desires and your avatar's reaction, and many of the sensations you experience in the Realm will be modulated and less intense than those you experience in the real world. Are you ready?"

Eha said, "The Realm... is just a computer generated illusion, right?"

"No, Miss Sigma," A'Zherro said. "The Realm is a separate living space existing within the walls of the ship. It is occupied by 10,126 current faunos."

Rhiane said, "Souls. It's a legal term, the way A'Zherro says it. It literally means an individual with individual responsibility. They're as real as we are, and murdering them is murder."

"It would be very difficult to murder someone within the Realm. Their instantiations are very robust, with parity backups and distributed mirroring to prevent corruption," said Falan. "And it is possible for anyone in the Realm at any time to request incorporation at any time. A'Zherro is a special case."

"Why?" Eha asked.

A'Zherro said, "Because I live in both worlds. This is my body, with an organic brain. But it is also a completely cybernized brain as well, and I am capable of interacting with the Realm as strongly as any native inhabitant. You are not."

"Do you spend more time there or here?" Rhiane said.

"There," A'Zherro said. "It's nicer there."

Rhiane laughed. "I guess I'll have to see for myself."

"Please lie down in the couch," Falan said. "You should probably take off your shoes."

Eha dropped her low-heeled shoes on the ground and hoisted herself into the form-fitting body of the unit. She lay back and the unit adjusted itself to her. Falan stepped over and lowered a helmet over her head. "Are you comfortable, Miss Sigma?"

"As comfortable as I can be at present." She knew, in principle, what was about to happen: the Pendorians were going to map the termini of her brain, determine how stimuli entered and exited, and would then try and emulate that stimuli with counterstimuli of their own through the precise delivery of electromagnetic eructions throughout her brain area. The stimuli were not material, but they would have direct consequences to her perceptions.

"This may feel a little weird. And it may be boring. Please feel free to communicate any distress you feel during the calibration process."

Eha sat back and waited. She didn't feel anything for several minutes, and she let her mind wander. She started to get bored, then angry, and then she laughed. She thought for a moment she heard a buzzing sound, and lights flashed in front of her eyes. The helmet lifted. "Was that it?" Eha asked.

"The calibration is done," Falan said. "You are ready to visit the Realm now. It only takes twenty minutes or so to do the calibration. Before you visit the Realm you will need to take care of any biological needs. I recommend you use the toilet. There's a closet over there." She pointed.

Rhiane said, "Uh, thanks." Eha sat up in her own couch. Rhiane indicated she should go first, and Eha looked grateful. Two minutes later, they were back in their couches, and Falan lowered the helmets back over their heads, and then she was lifting it again. Eha blinked. "Is something wrong?"

"Oh, no," Falan said. She and A'Zherro were looking at her curiously. She turned quickly to look at Rhiane, and her neck felt a bit stiff for a moment. "You're in the Realm now. We make it look like this for transition purposes."

Rhiane raised a hand before her eyes. It didn't look or feel any different. "What will be different then?"

"Step outside," A'Zherro. "And take a look."

Eha watched as Rhiane rose from the couch. crossed to the door and turned the handle. Sunlight streamed in through the door that had once led to an ordinary starship hallway.

The air was sweet and clean and rather cold. She could feel it all up and down her arms, and she rubbed at her skin momentarily before realizing that those weren't really her arms, this wasn't really her skin, and she wasn't really cold. Something was coming their way. "Rhiane!"

The Pendorians seemed to be out to frighten her today. Some terrifying creature seemed to slither through the very air, a fast, oncoming locomotive of a beast, black with yellow warning stripes. Eha recognized its shape as a hybrid of sorts between Chinese and European dragons, with Goddess only knew what else thrown in. It was at least five meters long and it spun around Rhiane in a kind of blur that could not have happened in real life, came to a sudden halt and paused, forelimbs on Rhine's shoulders like a dog's, looking at her face. "Good to see you!"

"Goddess, Hagan!" Rhiane said. "You nearly startled me to death!"

"Oh, that's not likely, not in the Realm."

"What are you doing here?"

"I live here!" Hagan said. "Isn't it beautiful?" He leaned back and pointed with one glittering paw. Eha followed his gesture and saw a peak rising in the distance, brown and grey capped with pure white snow on a background of deepest blue, all of which shone with light from a sun low on the horizon and drifting lower. A single cloud was struggling to crest over the summit. "See that mountain over there? That's my lair. Wanna come up and see my treasure sometime?" He said it in a mock-leer that made Rhiane laugh. Eha felt herself blush. Was Rhiane really accustomed to these monsters? He looked at her, muttered the word "tags," and then said, "Oh, just visiting, huh? Well, I didn't think you'd go for the whole faunos dub in your first years anyway. And your friend is?"

Rhiane turned. The creature-- Hagan, she recalled-- turned with her and both looked. "Eha Sigma, this is AI Hagan, an MAI of the Seccor line, and an acquaintance of mine. We met when he first came aboard the Bones."

Then Eha recalled that meeting. Everyone had seen that meeting of Rhiane Rho and the monster machine named Hagan, on their videos. He held out one thick, muscular forelimb. "Nice to meet you, Miss Eha."

"And, uh, nice to meet you, Hagan." She shook what looked like one large ebony claw.

He laughed. "Do you need a guide? Why did you get dumped here? There are dozens of places in the Realm to go, why did you choose Alpine?"

"Miss Sigma came to interview Captain Sequelevar."

"Oh! I know where that he lives. You'll have to wait an hour or so. I bet he'll be out on the slopes until sundown. It's a globe realm, but we do get fresh powder every morning. Man's mad for the stuff."

"An hour?" Sigma wasn't sure that the wanted to wait. What was happening back in the real world? Her body was lying in a strange contraption that was right now reading from-- and writing to-- her mind. The Pendorians said that it was all in support of this fantasy right in front of her, but what else could they do through that interface? They could probably do whatever they wanted to her when she was sleeping. There was no limit to what the Pendorians could do, she thought. She said, "Can't we speed things up?"

The dragon said, "This variety of realm imposes limits on what you can do, Miss Sigma. More to the point, it is designed to process the world at a steady one-to-one pace with the real world. If Captain Sequelevar doesn't want to come back from the slopes before dark, you will have to wait. You can always leave. Globe realms are more restrictive: all realism, all the time." He grinned. "Within limits, of course." Yes, Eha had seen how "realistic" Hagan could be in real life. Rhiane had said in an interview afterward that she felt safe with him even knowing that he could have gutted her starship with a thought and nobody could have stopped him.

She sighed and looked around. Where did one go when landing in a foreign town? All of her journalistic experience had prepared for only three things: Athena, Minerva, Sparta. They were diverse worlds. Both Athena and Sparta had individual polities, almost nation-states of their own, with core city-states that adopted a wide variety of governing ideologies, from an autocratic capitalism all the way to communism and even liberation Goddess worship. Still, they were all of the Women's Work. Nobody had ever expected the Pendorians to find them in her lifetime. After all, they hadn't found the Free Worlds in the previous centuries. Nobody had ever prepared her for visiting alternate realities that existed strictly in the minds of a vast computer network. "Is this a reproduction of anything?"

"Oh, yes," Hagan said. "This is a reproduction of a small village in the Italian Alps just before the Atomic Age on Terra. Which means there's not much to see here, but it's a nice place to live and there are advantages. Are you an athletic woman, Miss Sigma?"

"Not particularly."

"Pity. The main attractions of this town are the skiing and the climbing. I'm more of a climber myself."

He led them down the road, his body undulating like a snake. It was brick-lain and a little dirty although it had recently been swept clean of snow. Little cottages lined the road, smoke rose from chimneys, there was even a smell of roasting vegetables and meat in the air. The sun inched toward the horizon. "Eating here will be a problem for you two. It won't do you any good, since you have Real bodies that won't get any sustenance. I recommend you not do it."

Eha nodded as Hagan led them down the main thoroughfare of the small town. Mels and fems passed them by, most of them dressed in the clothes between late winter and early spring: coats and sweaters, trousers and skirts, layers of cotton and wool. The colors were muted and earthy. Eha tried to remember the names of all the species she saw but a few escaped her. "Isn't this all... pointless?" she asked.

"Eh?" Hagan said. "How so?"

"I mean, the people here seem to be wearing clothes, and shopping, and going about their business as if there were nothing else to do. But most of you are just programs, right? Wouldn't you rather be doing something useful?"

Hagan turned one glittering eyes toward her. "Miss Sigma, these are individuals. They get to choose what they want to do. The rules of this Realm are as clear as the contract we signed when we joined the Canvas in the first place. You don't get to be a program when you're in here. You get to be a person. You must still eat and urinate and wash and all of the other things you must do as an organic being. The object of this Realm is to provide the Canvas with living space it could not otherwise efficiently possess, not to provide it with unique computational abilities. The Realm is a country within the Canvas as much as your own Autonomous Zone is 'Sterling Country.' The people in here do what they want to do. If they want to be useful, they can be, but they will be humanely useful."

The sky was getting darker. "Come," Hagan said. "It'll be cold soon. I know where the Captain will be once he gets off." He led them to a boxy building larger than the rest, with cream-painted plaster walls and brown, peaked windows.

A voice inside shouted, "Hagan!" The room was dark enough that it took Eha some adjusting. The dragon seemed to slither among heavy wooden chairs up to a bar, on the other side of which stood a femMustelakin who seemed to have an odd, loping gait as she walked. "Who're your friends?"

Hagan introduced Rhiane and Eha. The Mustel said, "I'm Yawna. Nice to meetcha. I've heard all about you, bright eyes." She looked at Rhiane knowingly. "Equennevar nau?"

"Amatare ovalli," Rhiane said, holding back a brief laugh.

"Seya nau, seya nau," Yawna said. Eha stared for a second. She hadn't realized that, as far as she was concerned, everyone had been speaking Francaise to her ever since she came into the realm. She wasn't even wearing her padd.

"Rhiane, why are you still wearing your padd and I'm not?"

"Because I wear glasses all the time in real life. I don't wear a padd. I wear corrective lenses."

"You don't need them in here."

"But I'd feel weird without them. Spectacles are a part of who I am. I only take them off in bed anyway."

Eha paused for a moment, wondering if she should rise to that. According to her dossier, Rhiane was romantically entangled with Ilonca Thavas, Ambassador Tempany's steward and Rhiane's equal in rank. She wondered if there was anything to that angle that she could exploit for her story, then put it aside. It wasn't why she was here. She would treat Rhiane with all the professionalism Rhiane's nominal assignment indicated. Losing Rhiane as a contact, both to Tempany's office and to the life of the Canvas, would be a mistake.

"Fancy a drink?" the Mustel said softly, putting out a pair of mugs in front of the two of them. Rhiane took one up and sipped from it. "Oh, this is nice. What is it?"

"It's an Artois, which is a region of France on Earth. They make some very nice beers there."

"This is a beer?"

"Of course. What did you think we served here?"

Rhiane sipped at it slower. "Hagan?" she said. "I've never been drunk. What will this do to me?"

"Probably nothing, then," the dragon said. "Or the Realm may decide to try and figure out what you'd feel like drunk and simulate it. It wouldn't be very accurate. You need to get drunk someday so we have some memories to use as backdrop." He reared up and leaned over the round wooden table between them. "Why don't I occupy my body out in the Real and you and I go drinking together? Bring your girlfriend. I'd love to see her again."

Rhiane laughed. "You really are too much, aren't you?"

"Would you rather I be boring?"

"I don't know what I'd rather," Rhiane said.

Eha watched the exchange with amusement and a touch of envy. Rhiane was so familiar with these strange creatures, she seemed to be completely unaware of how odd the exchange looked from outside.

The door to the tavern opened and a few more Pendorians walked in, among them the most startlingly beautiful woman Eha had ever seen in her life. Eha had seen many women in her lifetime, it was part of her nature to watch women, and she had never seen anyone quite like this. She was the same height as Eha with skin one shade below albinism, flaming red hair that cascaded down about her face and down her back like a frozen saffron waterfall, and bright, clean eyes holding hypnotically black irises. She wore a thin red shirt and coarse blue pants. She glanced about the room and spotted the two of them, then walked over to Rhiane. "I've seen you before. You're Rhiane Rho, from the Free Worlds Navy. You were there at the contact moment." She looked up, waved to the dragon with a dazzling smile. He waved back. "Visiting Hagan? He must have left quite an impression."

Rhiane grinned. "No, actually, I'm here visiting with a guest from our group. We were looking for Captain Sequelvar."

"Oh, he'll be by eventually." The woman held out her hand. "How do you do? I'm Chazelle Stearmin. Just call me Chaz."

That name washed through Eha's memory even as she tried to fight her own desires. She was a professional, dammit, and the Realm wasn't supposed to be that kind of temptation. This was all fake, wasn't it? She wasn't really feeling this.

Except that if she were in the real world and had met Chaz, she would be feeling the same way. She knew that. The realm was just giving her what was normal.

Chaz turned to Eha and said, "You must be Miss Rho's guest. Are you also from Sterling country?"

"Ah... yes. Eha Sigma. I'm a journalist with the Distributed News Agency 'The Liberal'. I, um, wanted to come talk to the captain about his trip out to Sparta."

"Oh, that. That was boring." Chaz grinned at her. "At least the Realm has a few hundred little locales to visit. I like this one." She waved about the room. "Our dragon makes it interesting."

Hagan snorted softly. "Chaz, dear, it's only because someone as beautiful as you has come and gifted me with your pleasures that I remain here rather than retire or, at the very least, go into standby."

Chaz reached up to Hagan's whiskered face and pulled him down. The dragon managed a soft "Whup!" sound before she kissed him. His mouth was huge compared to hers and she just placed a soft kiss on his lip, but it was a moment of the kind of Pendorian casual intimacy that Eha had heard about but not yet witnessed. She hadn't anticipated seeing it here like this. She supposed it made a kind of sense. There might be rules here in the Realm, but there was no cost to playing within them.

Chaz said, "You wouldn't dare. You like life too much."

"One bellyflop a day is all I ask of life," Hagan said.

Chaz let him go then turned back to the Sterlings. Back to Eha, specifically, who was still worrying her memory over the name. She finally gave in. "Chaz, your name sounds very familiar. Do I know you?"

"You might know of me," she said. "Once upon a time, I lived at Shardik Castle, back before your starship left Earth even."

"You're that old?"

"Some of us are," she said. She held her arms out. "It's not as if I get old living in a Realm. And there's a failsafe. If this ship doesn't check in to its launch point at double the expected voyage duration, a backup copy of me kept in storage will be launched. They'll have to grow me a new body again." She looked down.

Memory clicked. "You're the sacred whore," Eha said. She put her hand to her mouth, shocked that she had let that slip. Shocked that she should remember who Chaz was. Shocked that she was in the presence of that kind of history.

Chaz laughed out loud. "Oh, my god, is that what they call me in your history? How perfectly silly! What a lovely name, 'Sacred whore.' I'm nothing of the sort. I'm a doctor who specialized in putting back together wounded souls who had lost their erotic impulses. 'Sacred whore.' Oh, I know. I know. I have a secret. An important one. Would you like to know it?" She seemed delighted at the prospect that she could share a secret with Eha. Eha nodded. Chaz leaned forward, her lips, beautifully red and wet, brushing against Eha's ear as she whispered, "I never fucked him."

Eha looked at her, shocked again by Chaz's coarse language, and surprised by the revelation. "You mean Shardik?"

Chaz nodded. She bent over again, her red tunic falling open to reveal the pale tops of her small breasts. "He never needed me. He had Brieanna for that." She straightened up and said, "I was such a silly woman back then."

Eha was about to ask another question when the door opened and more people entered. Night had fallen outside and the crowd entering looked like the kind that would be spending a while. Yawna, the proprietress, started to hand out food and beer in equal amounts. "Brod, over here! These people have been waiting for you."

The man who had first appeared on screens when the Canvas had pulled into orbit now appeared between the tables, looking healthy, tall, and not as aged as he had on the screens. If anything, he looked like a fit human being in his late 30s, broad-shouldered and square-jawed, a kind of heroic version of himself. "Ah, I have guests, then?" He even sounded bolder and brasher.

Eha introduced herself. Her original intent, to interview the Captain, had gotten in the way of her own wish to interview Chaz Stearmin and get to know the beautiful woman better. She knew that was just desire talking and she should get it under control. She had a job to do.

The Captain seemed willing to talk, and so they found a booth by the edge while people around them chatted and played games. Eha found him a comforting presence, the kind of person who radiated leadership capabilities sight unseen. She worked her way through the list of questions she had brought, thanked him for his time, and then walked over to where Rhiane, Chaz and Hagan were sitting. Eha resisted the urge to slap her forehead when she saw that Rhiane was playing chess with Hagan. The dossier had indicated that Rhiane Rho was an intellectual and an introvert, but playing chess with a half-dragon half-supercomputer seemed like such a stereotypical thing for someone with a description like hers.

"All done?" Rhiane asked.

"Yes," Eha said. "It wasn't as exciting as I hoped, but it makes for nice filler and backgrounder material." She said. "Actually, now that I've been given the opportunity, I would like to interview Miss Stearmin." She regarded the chess board. She knew the rules and had played casually in her lifetime, but she had no idea how to assess the table before her. She suspected that Hagan and Rhiane were both playing a much deeper game than anything she could have managed herself. There were a lot of pieces left. "You probably have quite a bit of game left and we've got two hours until our guardians come and rescue us."

Hagan said, "I am sure that Rhiane and I could play another game after this one, if it came to it. Chaz?"

Chaz smiled up at her. "I haven't been asked for an interview in centuries. I don't even know if I have memories worth asking about anymore. But I think it would be fun to... " She paused and looked at Eha. Eha wondered if that was the kind of eye she used herself when looking at a particularly valuable prospect, an informant who could be milked for all she was worth. "... talk to Eha." She scooted out of the booth.

While Eha had interviewed the Captain the tavern had filled with patrons. Chaz stood up. Chaz had to be an X, there were no Y women among the Pendorians quite yet. Perhaps that was a rule that could be different within a Realm. "Where would you like to go, Eha?"

"Captain Squarejaw seems to have taken up the whole of his booth." Indeed, the Captain was currently surrounded by two fems, neither of which was human, his arms around them tightly. They were all three of them laughing uproariously. The captain's martini glass was enormous.

"I have a room upstairs. I live in here." Eha turned suddenly and realized that Chaz had steered the both of them far enough from Rhiane and Hagan to be out of earshot. "Follow me." Chaz had also guided them closer to the stairwell without Eha being aware that she was being guided. She saw Eha's confusion. "When you're six thousand years old you learn what not to do that gives away your intentions."

"What are your intentions, Miss... Chaz?"

"The same as yours, I imagine." They had already taken the stairs when Chaz turned to peer down at her. "Unless I'm mistaken."

Eha's mouth was dryer than she liked it to be. She knew she was dazzled by this woman, her critical facilities swamped with a desire that she hadn't felt in years. She was supposed to be the one who ran things, took control, extracted information and sometimes confessions. She was not prepared to meet a demigoddess. Nor was she about to back down. "No," she said. "I don't think you are."

"Good," Chaz said. "Because I'm terrible at being disappointed." She reached out to take Eha's hand. Eha let herself be guided up to to another floor of the tavern and down to a corner apartment that looked out on the town. It was large and studious. In one corner a massive oil painting, an almost cubistic painting of an old man and a child on a swing, done in the yellows and greens of spring, sat on an easel. The grey dropcloth underneath it was stained with years of work.

"But, that's not real," Eha said, pointing to it.

Chaz shrugged. "No, it's not. But I'm developing an eye for this kind of thing. I'll have to relearn a lot of the muscle memory if I ever leave this Realm, which I probably will. It's been nice for the past decade or so, but that's enough." She turned to Eha, said, "Now, about that interview," and wrapped her arms around Eha's neck, her modest breasts touching Eha's own through the thin layers of clothing. She whispered, "I'm betting high that you're a Y."


"Then tell me what you want."

"I want you," Eha said. Chaz kissed Eha's mouth hard. Eha felt her mouth open of its own accord, and her cock hardened completely at Chaz's simple touch, her small hands coursing down Eha's sides and pausing at her hips.

Chaz laughed, a sound that reminded Eha of ritual hand chimes on May day, a sound that filled the room with glorious promises. "You'd better take me quick then," Chaz said. "Because you have only about an hour left until it's time for you to leave."

Lust surged in Eha strong enough to overcome the shame of experiencing it. She crushed her mouth to Chaz's as the two of them eased toward the bed. From the outside it was probably a shuffling, awkward moment but to Eha it was a dance, a waltz, a thing of beauty, two women merged in a solid embrace of flesh and desire, her cock fitting perfectly into the notch between the taller woman's legs, sniffing its way into her elegance.

The bed became a stage on which they rushed through the pre-performance ritual of undressing. Eha's desire at Chaz rose to atmospheric levels as the red-headed woman revealed more of herself, her pubic hair so shockingly bright against her pale white skin that it looked as if she were on fire. "Goddess," she breathed.

Chaz leaned over and said, "That's a very beautiful cock you have there." Eha did nothing to stop her as Chaz leaned over and took her cock into her mouth. Eha knew she was not appreciably oversized, but Chaz said nothing as she sucked the length of it down into her throat with a skill that signaled six millennia of deliberate practice. Eha leaned against the wooden headboard and let a woman who engaged in lovemaking as a science and an art pleasure her cock.

Chaz knew exactly when to stop, when Eha was just about to reach her plateau, just before lust becomes so strong that a pause is frustration and anger. Instead, Chaz left her vibrating on edge, her entire groin throbbing with an affliction.

Chaz leaned back against the pillows and spread her legs opened. Under the glowing red of her pubic hair her sex was, like her skin, so pale and lacking in color that it seemed to fade into the rest of her, as if that crayon orange frame framed a promise of oblivion itself. "Do you want..."

"Touch me, lick me, fuck me?" Chaz said. "Just pick one and do it. Don't just stare."

"But you're so beautiful."

"I'm not a painting or photograph. If you want one of those, ask the AIs. I've done plenty of modeling sessions in my life." She held out her hands and Eha fell into them, her body pressed against Chaz's completely, skin to skin from thighs to shoulders for the first time. The head of Eha's cock brushed against the soft texture of pubic hair and she knew she had to have Chaz now. With almost no fumbling at all Eha eased her cock into the slippery wonder of Chaz's sex.

She looked down into Chaz's eyes, saw the black pools of beauty in a face that seemed backlit, so bright and beautiful. She wanted to let go into that charybdatic abyss. She did not need to send commands to her body, it knew exactly what to do, leaving her free to stare at Chaz's face, to know that she was loving a woman who was older than human civilization had been when her grandparents had left Earth. It was not a sense of journalistic detachment but something new and wonderful to Eha: the freedom to make love without restraint, without fear of getting caught, without anxiety about the approbation of her peers.

Chaz's face was alive with pleasure, a smile animated by nothing less than complete satisfaction, as her sex wrapped itself around Eha's cock. Eha could barely comprehend what was going on in her head and had no desire to try. To know that she was privileged to have Chaz Stearmin as a lover, if only once, was enough.

Chaz came with the gentlest of moans, a soft, magical sound that carried Eha's already soaring pleasure to ultimate heights. She let go with her own blissful climax, somehow managing to echo Chaz with her own respectful gentle sigh of ecstatic acknowledgement. She lay with her head against Chaz's shoulder, slowly becoming aware of her body's own depletion.

She also became aware of uncomfortable pressure within her pelvis. "Mmmph," she moaned, turning over.

Chaz kissed her cheek. "Let me guess," she said, managing a mixture of sympathy and sultriness that made Eha want her all over again. "You've got to urinate, but you feel like if you do nothing will happen."

Eha nodded. "That's it exactly."

"Time for you to leave the Realm. Your real body needs to use the facilities, and you don't have an implanted SDisk to port it all away."

"Can I come back?"

"If you want. Tomorrow, even."

"Can I come back to you?"

Chaz smiled a gentle smile. "I'm not for sale these days. I do it when I want, because I like it. Come back tomorrow and... we'll talk about it. I do want you to get that interview."

Eha nodded. She recovered her clothes quickly. "My real body... it won't be, uh..."

"You've had a wet dream. Quite literally."

"Oh, no."

Chaz put a sympathetic hand on her arm. "There's a refresher there, and you need to use it. It'll make a good excuse. Just ask Thia what to do. She'll get you cleaned up.

"I hope so." Chaz dressed with her and the two of them went back down to the tavern.

Rhiane and Hagan had put away the chessboard and were instead poring over an open rectangle of notes and diagrams that glowed on the table in an obscure mathematical dialect. "Oh, you're back. Hagan was just telling me that if you weren't down soon I'd have to leave the Realm without you." She looked at Eha and Chaz and smiled. "That must have been some talk."

"A lot was said," Chaz said. "But Miss Sigma here has to use facilities that can't be found within the Realm. We should get you back to the transition room."

Hagan and Chaz both escorted them back. Chaz gave both a friendly kiss, and Hagan repeated the gesture, although he and Rhiane seemed to be more familiar than was proper between a Sterling and a dragon. With her own sex still sticky under her dress, they rendezvoused with Falan, who led them back through the steps to the real world, the starship Einstein's Canvas, the physical part of the real world in which the Realm was embedded and on which it was dependent.

Eha made use of the bathroom and Thia did indeed walk her through the steps to clean up the mess in her shorts. The towels were remarkably efficient at cleaning it up, and when she was done Eha felt better. In one respect the physical exertion of making love to Chaz did not and had never weighed down her flesh, and in the other her soul felt free of the shame that came from being a Y and enjoying the satisfaction of undiluted lust.

"I think I'd like to go back," Rhiane said. "And see Hagan's hideout."

Eha glanced around. "It's in the walls, you know."

Rhiane looked at a wall, then nodded. "I know. It's a fantasy. Filled with fantastic people who are still real. Somehow. To the Pendorians, they're really people, too."

Eha nodded, her thoughts far away, to a cool village in the Italian alps, rendered as electronic thoughts embedded in the walls and floors of their starship as it flew through the dark reaches of interstellar space.

"It's a conspiracy," Rhiane said.

"What's that?"

"The Pendorians. They're engaged in a conspiracy to seduce us to their way of life. Ilonca and I talked about it." They left the hallways of the Realm visitation center and walked out into the Concourse. Here and there, Eha spotted other Sterlings, but as always the place was alive mostly with the Pendorians going about their ordinary, mundane lives. Just like the people she had seen in the Realm. "They want us to understand them. They're just like us. There are those among them who are barely more than animals, and there are those who are barely less than angels. The ratios may be different, but their humanity is the same." Rhiane found the power to smile even with her voice so serious and heavy. "Even in a Realm that gives you everything, Miss Sigma, it can't give you the love and admiration of other real people. You have to earn that."

"Why does that make you happy, Miss Rho?"

"Because Hagan said he liked and admired me. And it's nice to hear that from someone who has no stake in my future."

Eha, despite her journalistic instincts, found herself liking Rhiane. "You seem to make Pendorian friends easily."

"No, I think they do. I'm just learning how not to turn them away." Rhiane tugged on her vest to straighten it out and checked her scarf. "So, Miss Sigma, may I take it that you're satisfied with my liaison?"

"Yes. I don't believe I shall need you for a second visit to the Realm, but I shall put in a call to Ambassador Tempany's office commending you for your service."

Rhiane beamed. "Oh, good. And compared to other adventures I've had with the press, this was probably the easiest."