The Journal Entries

Noren, Narrin 09, 06120

Sterlings: Risky Invitations

Taborah said, "It looks like any other high-luxury hotel room."

In truth, the Galatcin offered a better hotel room than any Dove had ever rented before, from the beautiful blue rug with gold thread trim that melded into the walls to the rippling, multipane windows that looked out over the glistening circular city of New Fahn. She had expected to see much more in the skies, like something out of movie, but instead the skies were mostly clear with only a few vehicles here and there. The bed was a normal bed. She missed the bed she had slept in last night.

Taborah dropped her bags onto the floor. She glanced around, took a deep sigh, and said, "I bet you're glad to get rid of your old roommate, aren't you? Goddess, it's good to feel normal gravity once more, breathe natural air." Dove held back from telling Taborah about the Sinox Massacre of llerkin in 931, and that the Pendorians had rebuilt the entire biosphere. The Pendorians called it "an act of love," and they seemed to mean it. Prior to 931, the llerkin atmosphere had been so contaminated that it had been unbreathable for unmodified humans. The biosphere of llerkin was as man-made as the air aboard the Canvas had been.

"Zia had her moments."

"I guess that would be true of an MP. Think of it, though. We're on on world we didn't even know existed when the Pendorians arrived. The llerkin actually run everything, the Pendorians provide the muscle, and humanity--" She paused. Dove knew what she was thinking. Humanity had exploded into a dozen different strains and castes, and one of them still called itself "Terran," had moved to a world the Pendorians had build and then dropped off the network. "Humanity provides all the color. It's such a pretty city. And there have to be women out there who'll be curious about us. Free Worlders."

"What about mascs?" Dove said. She felt a curious frisson deep in her belly that made her aware of the delightful soreness between her thighs. A sob threatened in her chest. If only Taborah knew what had happened to her last night. If only she herself understood it herself.

"No thank you," Taborah said. "No thank you at all."

"Excuse me," said a sweet, feminine voice from mid-air. "I don't mean to intrude. I'm AI Dzun, and I'm the civilian interactive AI for the city of New Fahn. I would not normally introduce myself like this but I have a personal message for Dove San Cioni."

"From who?"

"The sender would rather not say aloud." Dzun whispered in her ear. "I strongly recommend that you take this out of sight and sound of your roommate."

Dove gave Taborah a glance. Taborah took it as an interrogative and spread her palms. Dove nodded. "I'll take it here, privately if you can."

"Dove!" One of the twins resolved in front of her, making her dizzy with frustration. "Dove, we found a house! Arwen and I wondered if you'd like to move in with us?"

"Dzun, can Taborah or see hear this?"

"No, but she will see any gestures you make. Can she read your lips?"

"She doesn't know any Quen."

"Then you are safe as long as your gestures don't become too expansive or explicit."

She nodded. "Thanks. Ash, you're out of your mind. I'm not just going to move in with you just because I had sex with you last night."

"Aw, why not?"

"Because..." She looked at Taborah, who was watching her with intent. She turned back and looked at that sweet, girlish face. They had dressed up again. It was hard to look at him and not be distracted by his beauty. "Because it wouldn't be right. Proper."

"Proper? What does that have to do with anything? Is this about your mothers?"

"You know about that?"

Ash looked exasperated. "Dove, Arwen and I aren't idiots, not even when we're sleeping. Everyone on your side knows who your parents are, why shouldn't we? This isn't about them. This is about you and us. You're over a thousand light years from home."

"And I have to go home someday."

Ash nodded. "And what will home be like, now that you've seen New Fahn? Why don't you get to make your own decisions?" The image shifted as he was shoved out of the way and replaced with the other twin, Arwen. Not that she could tell them apart unless they let her know. "Dove, if you didn't like us, say so. But we think you did. And we'd like to see more of you." A voice off-camera said, "Invite her to dinner!" Arwen nodded. "Good idea. Dove, why don't you at least have dinner with us? We know some great restaurants in the area, especially ones suitable to Humans."

They were oh-so-reasonable when they had to be. That was part of the charm they had exuded last night. "No. No, I'm not going to get within arms' reach of either of you."

Arwen's chin quivered. He looked as if he were about to cry. Dove didn't know if she could take that. He nodded. "If that's your decision, Dove." "Give her our address!" Ash shouted. "If you want to contact us," Arwen said, "here's the contact information."

The image faded and the curious quiet that had enveloped Dove disappeared. Taborah said, "What was that about?"

Dove lined up her excuses before saying, "One of my contacts asked to meet me for dinner. I decided not tonight. We have more important things to do. We've only just arrived."

"You have contacts already?" Taborah said.

"I didn't spend four and a half months on that ship doing nothing, Tabs. This is our job. This is for the reputation and reward of the firm. It's what we get paid for."

"I know, I know. But it all seems so... much. I hope you know what you're doing."

"I hope so, too." She looked at the lower left corner of her glasses. She didn't need them for translation anymore, but they were far too useful for daily living with the clock, calendar, appointment book, personal recognition engine, dynamic metatag display, and notepad. She wondered if she should tag Taborah somehow. Nosy pain in the neck. She had spent the morning frantically packing only to discover that hoteling arrangements and a housing stipend had been forwarded by the Corridor commonwealth. Now it was lunchtime and she was hungry.

She tapped the frame again and began working her way through an index of restaurants. The map displayed a radius of "ten minute walks" around her her hotel and then illustrated it with dots. Dots vanished as she narrowed her choices. Something highlighted in a corner. It was in Quen: a note from AI Thia.

It was a notice that she had received a payment for her crewmanship on board the Einstein's Canvas, and a request to enter negotiations for media distribution and direct representation. The note was straightforward: at the moment, her identity and representation were still private and subject only to journalism, not documentary (Dove wasn't sure what the difference meant) or fictionalization. The payment was hers to keep if she didn't enter into anything more. It amounted to about six hundred Light Industrial Units. The exchange rate between LIU and LAU was about four hundred to one, and an average meal in town was one LAU. She quickly did the math in her head and figured out that she could eat for the next 241 years if she had to. Although that didn't account for the need to find housing after the housing allocation was used up. Even then, what passed for a "squat" on this planet was rather luxurious, if a bit far from the Capitol. Oh, what did it matter: this place had SDisks after all.

She finished her search for places to eat, and picked one. "Tabs, go grab Sabienne and Burlene next door. I'm taking you all out."

"You are?"

"Yes. I found a gourmet pizza place right down the street." She paused for a second, then said, "My treat."

"You can't treat us. You don't have any money."

"I do now."

"You do not." Taborah stared at her. "You do? How did you get it? How much do you have?"

Dove hoped the grin on her face matched the ferine expression Zia had so often used. "Enough for lunch. As for how I got it, I might tell you someday. You might even figure it out for yourself."

The restaurant was about as pleasant a surprise as Dove could have imagined. The floors were tiled, the walls wallpapered with brown, earthtone textures, and ceiling fans turned slowly overhead. They weren't necessary in the chill late Autumn weather (or whatever llerkin called this season) but they helped circulate the breath of real ovens baking real bread.

Lunch cost her nearly nine LAU, what with four women, all the beer, and the "gourmet," "offworld" flavor. She paid it cheerfully. She was learning the rules of the game and she had tokens. All she had to do now was figure out which rules taught money to make more money. She set out to do exactly that.

The other three women tried not to pry her too much about where her money, her knowledge, or her skills came. They were obviously envious to some degree and they were eyeing her whenever she started making tiny gestures in midair. "You're pretty good with that thing, aren't you?" Sabienne said. "You always were good with the machines like that."

"I'm getting better at it," Dove said with a grin.

"What are you reading?"

"I'm working on how the investment cycle looks on a planet like llerkin, and how it's different from Pendor. It looks as if Pendor and Unity really are different in a lot of ways from the rest of the corridor. There's more of an economy here than there."

"Goddess, Dove," Taborah said. "Give it a rest. You're just like your mothers. So driven. Can't you be on vacation?"

Dove stared at her for a moment. "Really?"

"Really, yeah. You never stop."

Dove thought she had stopped quite effectively when she had been on the Einstein's Canvas for all those weeks. She had done little more than teach herself conversational and business Quen and started an investigation into Pendorian market forces (only to discover now that the topic of inquiry was only tangential to Corridor market forces). Oh, and lost her virginity. Crashed an orgy and dived in head first. Had sex with two Pendorian mascs at the same time.

And desperately wanted to see them again.

She shook herself to put that thought out of her head. "I doing what I know how to do."

The llerkin seemed to like sharp pyramidal spikes of architecture reaching for the sun and Dove could see such expressions of power and worship overhead as the bright golden buildings gathered and reflected the sunlight. She could just see the broader, taller pyramid of the Palace from here. "I hear that they're negotiating the letter of intent today."

"I wonder how that's going," Sabienne said.

Something blinked in her glasses. She made small gestures and read the note. She made more gestures, read more. "They're doing what we're doing, lunch. They expect the Letter of Intent to be signed by tonight. Apparently the only holdup is from San Txema. She wants guarantees that the freedom of movement clause as its written won't restrict the Navy's right to move through Corridor space should it be necessary."

Taborah shook her head. "Superwoman."

Dove tried to not get angry. Her ability to find answers fast, to find the most efficient channel, was what made her valuable to Jaylene. It was also something the other women on the team sometimes resented. The AIs only enhanced Dove's talent.

They had a job to do here. They had housing to find, office space to find, relationships to build up in the local community, banking arrangements. They didn't have time to be tourists.

As she listened to them talk among themselves, she felt once again the disconnect. She was not like them. Her mothers had taught her to be professional, to give everything she had to whatever job she chose to take. They had also taught her to have passion, to take meaning from the life she led. If she wasn't always the Goddess's Daughter, she tried to live the life of a good woman, to think first of those who depended on her before she thought of herself. These women didn't need her and, despite all the Spartan platitudes, didn't think of her first. They thought of the woman she should have been first. Yet she could not let them down. They may not have honored her, but Mama Cavana had always taught her that honor wasn't about what other people did: it was what you had promised to do.

She thought of Ash and Arwen as she stared out the window. She was here, in the Corridor as it was now called. Terra and llerkin and Unity and Pendor, all bound up in a single Commonwealth. She tried to keep those beautiful faces out of her vision, but they were haunting her. Maybe there was something wrong with her, like she was addicted to them, or sex, or perversion, or something.

She looked down and realized that her hands were splayed on the table, fingers far apart, painfully pressed down. She was hurting herself. She lifted her hands and flexed them. "I'll be right back," she said.

"Where are you going?"

"Outside. I need to make a call." She rose and left the restaurant to stand on the walkway. She tapped her frame, cycled through the options, and found the address book. She found the one she wanted.

"Dove?" The voice at the other end was hopeful. The image in her glasses resolved to the two boys, one pressed up behind the other. Within the view of the camera neither was wearing a shirt.

"What are you guys doing?"

"Consoling ourselves as best we know how." He smiled.

She could imagine it. Could imagine them naked, their youthful bodies crushed one against the other. "Nevermind. Ash, Arwen, I'll have dinner with you--"


"-- but you have to promise me something." They both looked at her seriously. "Keep your hands to yourself."

"That'll be hard." "We can do it." "Okay, Dove, we promise. We'll be even better behaved than we were at dinner last night." She couldn't believe that that had been last night. It felt like so long ago. "Anything else?"

"Where do you want to eat?"

"We know a place." "Terran friendly." "Good stuff." The one closet to her leaned forward and touched something below her field of vision. "There, I've passed you the address. How about at nightfall?"

Dove nodded. "I'll be there."

"We can't wait to see you." The call ended. She went back inside.

"What were you doing out there?" Sabienne said.

"Nothing's going to happen until the Letter of Intent is signed, so I figured I'd go out with my contact tonight anyway."

"You have a date?" she asked.

"I have a dinner engagement. With a local who can teach me how things work around here."

"Do you ever stop working?" Taborah asked.

"I did. Most of the trip on the Canvas I spent in my room, watching movies." And fucking. Or trying to. She smiled to herself.

"Yeah, movies in Quen. You went from speaking finishing school Quen to knowing enough about the language to hold a business meeting in a little over four months!" Taborah shook her head. "You have to learn to turn it off, Dove, or it'll drive you crazy."

The llerkindi never did try to kick them out, and it wasn't until almost nine that they left the restaurant. By then, most of the other patrons had left and the staff had started to turn the place over for the dinnertime crowd. They walked back to the hotel, enjoying the bright sunlight even in the nearly frosty weather. Dove and Taborah hung back. "You're really serious about working, aren't you?"

Dove nodded.

"I meant what I said, Dove. You need to turn it off once in a while. You'll burn out if you don't. You can't match your mothers, not even one of them, all the time."

"Tabs, my mothers haven't burned out."

"I bet they have. Not now, but I bet they did when they were younger. Older people don't burn out. They're not likely to feel disappointment that life isn't as wonderful as they dreamed it would be. They get used to it. I wonder how Pendorians handle it. You'd think that by their hundredth year or so they'd have lost all their dreams by then."

"That's an awful thing to think," Dove said. "People get new dreams."

"Life doesn't work that way. Dreams die, and they're gone."

"You've had one too many beers, Tabs."

"No, really, Dove. Okay, maybe I'm cynical because Chryssi dropped out of my life when she learned I was going to the Corridor. It's not like she can avoid what's coming. But I mean what I said about burnout. You can't let it happen to you."

"I won't," Dove snapped, her temper flaring. Taborah gave her a doubting glance, and Dove just stared back. Tabs shrugged.

Back at the hotel Dove dropped into the shower. On the Einstein's Canvas, the Sterlings had been smart enough to bring civilian support personnel who could help the women of Sterling Country survive their experience. At the Pendorians' recommendation they had included stylists who could help with hair and skin and nails and all the other body functions that weren't the province of physicians. But she wanted something different. "Taborah?" she shouted through the door. "Could you bring me my padd?" The door opened and a hand thrust the eyeglasses through the crack. "Thanks." She found a salon not too far from the hotel.

She dressed in one of the nicer casual outfits she owned, a dark green dress with decorative pink bows on the shoulders and along the arms. She stepped out of the bathroom. Taborah was watching the television. She whistled. "Wow, Dove, if I knew you prettied up like that I might have reconsidered my fear of your mothers."

"Too late now," Dove said. She put what few essentials she had with her into a pocket of the vest. "Don't wait up."

She left the hairstylist unconvinced that she liked her new haircut. He had been a masc, but a surprisingly gentle masc that reminded her of the better stylists back on Sparta. He had decided that she was "cute," and gone with a frizzy, lovely look that left locks of hair dangling just on the edge of her vision. She would probably get used to it.

Everything seemed to remind her of the twins. Including her padd.

She followed the illustrated map until it brought her to the restaurant they had chosen. It was an wide, imposing building with painted bas relief images of dragons that reminded her of that monster Rhiane had encountered on the day of first contact. Like everyone else, she had watched the video wondering if Hagan would eat Rhiane whole.

They were there, waiting for her, when she arrived. "Take your time," one said. "This place is pretty slow."

"At lunch today the waiters didn't try to shove us out."

One nodded while the other perused the menu. "It'll give us plenty of time." She looked at them. They were still dressing as girls, both wearing a spaghetti two-strap top and a frilly, folded skirt with an inverted V below the crotch, one of those invitational skirts that begged for a hand to reach under. They looked so right in those clothes. They could wear "girl" better than she could.

"How long can you keep this up?" Dove said.

"We've been keeping this up for nine years now," "And we were keeping that up for over a hundred years before this," said the other. "True."

She sighed. They were making no sense again. "I had two questions before I came here." They were momentarily interrupted by the waiter, who asked about drinks before leaving them alone. The twins were staring at her intently. She swallowed. "I said, I had two questions. Now I have three." They nodded. "First, where did the money come from?"

"Thia paid it to you." "For being a crewmember of the Canvas. It was considered a risky occupation, and she stands to make a lot of HIU off of it." "The leverage is massive because you have a viable technology and media base." "Plus a great culture that produces such beautiful women." "Like you." "Yeah."

They were making her blush. They were good at that. "I think AIs just give money to people they like."

"Probably. But I suspect she liked you and she thinks that you're going to be a good story for years to come." "She's investing in you." "It's real money." "Thia earned it." "And she thinks you earned what she gave you." "Her reasons might not make sense to you, but they do to her."

If what they were saying was true, then Dove already had a friend, someone high up on the food chain, someone with wants and needs. She wondered just how elastic those needs could be. Her mind wandered off into questions about dealing with minds immeasurably more powerful than her own, and more focused, and yet in some ways surprisingly limited. That was the key to understanding AIs: their creativity, their distractions, were less intense, less innovative, than that of organic, messy human beings. She wondered about the Realm Rhiane had visited, and if the "humans" in there experienced similar limitations when their thoughts ran on silicon.

She pulled herself back. "Stop that," she told herself angrily.

"Dove?" Both of them spoke at the same time.

"Nothing. Okay, second question." They both looked so eager to answer, so ready to give her what she wanted. "What are you?"

They both turned to look at one another. "Which answer do you want?"

"You're not a gestalt, you told me that. What are you, then? You're too close to just be twin brothers."

"You're right," said one, and in a flash of insight she realized she was talking to Arwen. "We're not just twin brothers. We're a common pool. We are twins, a single zygote split in half. But we also have a lot of cyberwear that allows our long-term memories to sync up."

Ash said, "Arwen and I are separate individuals. When we have sex--" And he stopped to put his arm around his brother and kiss the shoulder closest to him-- "It's not masturbation. He's my brother and I love him. We can't really help that, it's just the way we are. The imperatives that prevent incest didn't emerge for us because we don't actually have a common mother, just common genetics. We have individual faunos. But when we sleep, our experiences of the day are synchronized into a common pool of memories that we then share the next day. We have a custom faunoslia, a specialized cybernetic thought process that in some respects knows who we are and who we want to be, and makes sure that our memories are consistent with those desires."

"So the second part is..."

"Where did we come from?" Arwen said. Dove nodded. "We're robots of a sort. Biological robots, but still robots. Our instantiation was ordered by a college professor who had made a lot of money as an adviser to a very successful archeology student. We were pretty expensive. Sixteen HIU, I think it was." Dove could not help but watch as Ash's hand idly tickled the hairs on Arwen's arm, playing with him gently. Arwen gave Ash a smile, then a kiss. He returned his attention to Dove. "We were supposed to be a gift for his lover. We spent a long time in that household."

Ash said in a voice far away, "A hundred and twenty years."

"Anyway, nine years ago Gregor, um, moved on. Committed suicide. It happens often enough. He was very old." "Millennia." "We don't know what happened to him, which I think is so strange because we lived with him and we're trained to look for these things. It was so sudden, such a shock. The rhythm of the house had been the same for so long, I..." Arwen looked away, wiping tears. "I'm sorry." Dove glanced over at Ash. He was staring at her, but there were tears on his cheeks too.

"I'm sorry too. I'm not sure I can understand. Did you love him?" Even as she asked it she knew it was a silly question. They wouldn't be crying if they had not. But she was still absorbing all they had said. They were robots, they were biological, they were human, they were all the crazy, mixed-up things that Pendorians were capable of being or making. She'd watched their movies. She understood that both the social mores and the laws regarding those interactions were complicated and deep. She knew she didn't understand just how deep.

"We loved both of them. They were our sun and our stars for so long. We were their joys, their beloveds. Gregor and Vili adored us, and they showed us this every day, every night. For people in... For people like Ash and I it was almost perfect."

Ash drew a deep breath. "Vili became very depressed. We tried to be for him, but we weren't Gregor. We were special to him, but in a different way. He manumitted us one morning. We talked about it a long time before he did. We didn't try to talk him out of it. That's not our role, as much as it hurt for us to be freed like that. Arwen and I thought we could handle it. We did, barely. Vili left Discovery soon after he signed the paperwork. The last time we got a letter from him, he was on Titan. Living in a monastery that studied Jovian Hermeneutics." Dove decided not to ask what that meant. She could find out later. Arwen continued, "We spent two years very depressed ourselves, doing nothing. One day we just hit bottom. We had lost everything but we didn't know what everything was. Ash read about this trip on the Einstein's Canvas and we decided to go on it, just because. We didn't want to spend time in the Real world, though. So we had ourselves digitized and our bodies put into the ship's cold storage. It was nice in the Realm. It's very Globe: we kept in regular touch with the Real because we didn't want to deliquesce. That means commit suicide slowly inside a Realm." Dove nodded. "But we were still so very... not like ourselves."

Ash said, "When the ship came into your system, everyone on the Canvas, organic and digital alike, was watching and reading the news with so much fascination. Finding a reservation is really significant. The Canvas had been travelling from star system to star system, a grand tour of Great Nova Gap 21, looking for, well, for anything. When Ash and I saw what you all looked like, and read about who you all were, we had to come out. We had to see for ourselves. And then we met Rhiane, who speaks Quen, and something... clicked."

"Rhiane was too busy. She has Ilonca." "But suddenly the talk was back." "This way." "That drives you crazy." "And we went to our cabin that night--" "And we completely screwed our brains away." "It was great." "I was sore the next day and that never happens." "I think I was more." One grabbed the other with surprising aggressiveness and kissed him hard. Dove felt a tremor just watching them. She could not understand how they could be so aggressive and so feminine at the same time.

Ash released his brother. Arwen settled back into his chair, his eyes bright with thoughtful desire. "Anyway," Ash said, picking up the conversation. "We've just been... out."

"So I'm just the second try, is that it? You met Rhiane and she wasn't interested, so you moved on to the next one, and hey, she speaks Quen and Francaise, so..."

"How else do you meet people?" Ash said.

"Not like that!" Dove said. She clenched her hands under the table.

"What, you fill out some form and order them from a factory?" Arwen said. "Ask the AI to go out and find your soulmate for you? Predict compatibility down to the last decimal place? That's what Gregor did and look what happened. I think we would prefer to meet people, Dove, until we meet someone we like."

"So why me?"

"Why not you?" Ash said. "Grief, Dove, you're so cute, so pretty, so skilled." Arwen said, "And frankly, you looked like you needed a good fuck."

Dove's felt her lip curl with anger. "I shouldn't be here. I shouldn't be with you. I should be as mad as the Goddess is capable with you two. You're mascs, you're arrogant and assaultive, you're as perverted as my roommate..." She wanted to say more, but a waiter interrupted her with dinner. After he had left, she said, "But I like you guys."

Ash's eyes seemed to twinkle, and Arwen reached across the table, offering his hand. She took it. He said, "Dove, we don't know what we want. What we do know is that Ash and I are finally healed enough from whatever happened in our past life to start being ourselves again. We know that we find you and other Sterlings adorable in some strange way. You're all so beautiful, and you are one of the most beautiful examples. The way you responded last night is... indescribable."

Dove had memories of it, sensations, and she could label each one, but the whole of her experience deserved some transcendent respect for the silence, the cessation. The fearless hovering, the promise of more. She shuddered. She looked at both of them, and they were smiling at her. "One more thing," she said.

"Yes?" both said at once.

"You were both... made. Manufactured. To be sex toys for two rich men, right?" They nodded. "Why in the Prophet's name are you into girls?"

Ash giggled. "We could tell one truth and say that we're into everybody, one at a time." "But that would be only one truth. The other is that you're not a big, hairy bear of a man." "You don't remind us of Gregor or Vili." "You're small, and not so hairy, and a girl." "But we really are into everybody." "And we want to be into you."

As they ate, Dove looked out the window, at the world of llerkin. The sun angled from low on the horizon, casting beautiful golden rays among the stretching shadows that reached up the street and across the broad lane between the restaurant and the buildings across the street. She thought about what Taborah would think, about her responsibilities to her job, and her responsibilities to her mothers. They were a thousand light years away, literally now. She looked back at the boys. They were leaning toward one another, and holding hands, shoulders brushed one against the other. Goddess, they were cute.

She touched her glasses and called up the bill. It wasn't cheap, but she paid it anyway. "Come on," she said suddenly. "Show me this house of yours."

"Wow," Ash said. "You're better with your padd than I am! You're right. Let's go."

They actually had quite a stroll, but it let Dove enjoy the sight of the cosmopolitan city. People jostled back and forth on the streets. The roadways were wide, providing as much room on each side of the street for pedestrians as there was room in the middle for vehicles. There were reasons why Pendorians didn't use SDisks on planets for getting from one place to another; issues with the curvature of the planet, frames of reference, and the energy cost of creating an SDisk envelope. That didn't seem to matter much on a starship, which was a flatter plane and usually had excess power, or for teleportation over the median distances like ground to orbit, where the SDisk was significantly competitive with launch vehicles. There was also the issue of SDisk lock-on on llerkin itself, where the reliability of the devices was sometimes questionable.

New Fahn smelled different than Sparta City. Dove sensed a sharp, ion smell here and there, especially when a heavy vehicle drove by, and sometimes the rich feel of steam, not unpleasant on such a chilly day. They passed a construction site and she inhaled the more familiar dust of cement, the crisp electric breath of arc welding. Massive machines moved confidently among the beams of metal and panels of stone, dividing the inside from the outside, the warmth from the chill, nature from commerce.

Storefronts darkened as others awoke. The city transformed itself into a place of night. The brothers led her around a crowd gathering before a single building, low and ancient looking, from which music familiar in its flavor flowed. Dove knew she wanted to come back here, to mix among the varied and wonderful crowd. She saw mascs, fems, furs, scales. She saw a black lozenge of a thing hovering in the air of the crowd, one more participant, colors flashing in a line along its periphery and she wondered what that could be. If it was a robot, it was the first of its type she had seen.

The neighborhoods became quieter, the spaces between buildings broader, the roads narrower, until they came to a series of rounded grass areas interspersed with winding roads that led along the outsides of the circles. The boys led her to one of the houses built on one of these, its face with a broad porch looking out onto a diamond of brown-colored cement that seemed to be shared among about a dozen houses. On the lawn a small wheeled box crawled along, poking at the air with something that looked alarmingly like a weapons muzzle. "What's that?"

"That's the lawn care 'bot," one of them said. She had lost track of which was which. "Come on." They took her hands, one each, and pulled her up onto the porch and through the door.

Inside, it was built to a familiar human scale. "We haven't had a chance to do much decorating." "We've only been here a day." "But we'll do some soon." "The landlord said we could, but sold us on it because it's got a human feel." "We like it. It's not like Hiroshi."


"Where Gregor and Vili lived."


"I brought it up," one said. She was getting better at telling them apart, and she thought that that one was Ash.

They still held her hands as they stood in the living room. They spun about in opposite directions until one was again behind her, one in front. They seemed to like that plan of attack. They surrounded her and fought her temper at being led so easily into this trap, even as her heart throbbed and her thighs grew warm with desire. One kissed the back of her neck, convincing her she should let herself enjoy the moment. "Every kiss," one said. "Is better than the memory of the last one." It sounded like their philosophy on life.

"Would it be like this every night?" she moaned. One put his hands on her cheeks and kissed her, her mouth opening, involuntarily offering the kind of wet, sloppy, mess of a kiss she had known only in books. Even the telenovels didn't allow this kind of suggestion.

"It'll be better," whispered the one behind her.

Dove allowed herself to be led to the bedroom. The bed they had wasn't like the Fixer they had known the night before, but a more ordinary bed with a frame and a mattress. Ordinary except for its size: four meters on a side, it occupied most of the room. "There's an upstairs, too?" she gasped.

"Yeah! Beautiful, isn't it?"

She nodded, trying to take in the cost of having this much land, organizing her thoughts around the economics of llerkin. Her mind wandered down the lanes Taborah had warned her about. But then the boys were pushing her down to the bed, opening the silver clasps that held shut her overcoat. One held her by the shoulders as she fell back onto the bed, kneeling to let her fall over his knees, and then he was kissing her again even as the other was at her ankles, taking off her shoes, playing with her feet. She giggled as his tongue did ticklish, magical things with her toes. They were taking her to where she wanted to go.

She felt her body jerk with desire. She couldn't stop it, no longer wanted to even pretend. They were playing her like a beloved toy. She wanted to be their beloved toy. A hand slid under the neck of her dress to find her bra and caress her nipple, a mouth kissed her calves and tickled at her knees, promising more to come. This time she was determined to not be a passive participant. She turned on the one next to her, surprising the one between her thighs, and this time she pressed a hard kiss onto him. He moaned in response. She knew she had found the way to play this game

Until the other one crept up the under her dress, kissing her thighs. She moaned and opened her legs further. She was outnumbered, and that felt unfair. "Promise me..."


"Promise me, that no matter what happens between us, that you won't interfere with my duties as a... a... "

"Dove, we will never do anything to risk your position that you do not want to risk yourself," said the boy next to her head. "Never."

"Fine," she sighed and closed her eyes. She wanted his kisses, she wanted to surrender to his sweetness. She turned to touch him, to put her hands on him, to feel his lean, hard body underneath the thin silk of his top, to admire what he was, a masc, rather than what he was not. Her hands roamed him even as the other boy's mouth found her panties and his lips nuzzled her damp pussy through the fabric.

Hands reached under her ass and encouraged her to lift herself, and she did. Her panties were whisked away as if they were mere tissue, and then his mouth was on her pussy, gentle, licking, making her moan. She felt herself grow wet and warm. "She smells so good."

"I can tell from up here," said the other, then kissed her more. Dove thought these sweet boys could melt her down into the precious metal they thought she was. She was falling in love. She shouldn't have been. The boy behind her let go his grasp as she twisted away and down, reaching under his skirt. She found his dick with her hands, found his balls, pulled him closer. He went willingly, crawling on his knees across the bed until she wrapped her mouth around it. She had never tasted Polly or Saul, or the boys last night, but now she wanted to. She wanted to suck them both off, to know what it tasted like. Polly had told her that it was a nasty, slimy taste, but she had to find out for herself.

The head was slippery, like wet paper, and the smell was something rich and sweet and not at all unpleasant. Like fresh sweat, only stronger, rich the way chocolate could be rich. She moaned and wanted more of his dick. She knew from memory that this must be Ash, and Arwen was the one down about her pussy, licking her. Her attention was dragged to him momentarily, and she shivered as his tongue found the sweetest places between her nether lips.

She mouthed Ash's dick with dedication. "Gonna come," he breathed. "Gonna come." He wasn't warning her, she though, just stating a fact. His body tensed under her, his thighs taught, his belly shivering with the overwhelming delight of her attention, and suddenly he did come, her mouth flooded with a strange, lovely taste, not bitter at all. It was slimy, but not unpleasantly so. She swallowed it eagerly, then suddenly rolled back as the mouth between her thighs demanded her attention. Her own climax soon flowed through her, the sweet kind, the kind where she felt the hand of the Goddess' blessing upon her. She moaned, and smiled. "You're beautiful," she said.

"I'm supposed to say that," Ash replied. She smiled at him, then looked down to his brother, whose face still glistened with her fluids. He crawled up onto the bed with the two of them, grabbed his brother, and proceeded to roll over until Dove had lost track of who was who. They kissed hard, and she grew warmer watching them. She knew they were trading tastes. She didn't understand why it was so important to them now: tomorrow they'd have each other's memories.

"We're ignoring Dove." "We're can't do that." They both turned, and she felt that small frisson of fear, that "what have I gotten myself into?" feeling that came when their four hungry eyes turned on her, and then she was lying back on the bed. Hands stripped at her skirt, her blouse, her socks. Clothes flew off the bed. Soon she was being kissed on each side of her body, her small breasts covered in wet trails that led to her nipples, four hands roamed her belly and her arms, and an attention enveloped her than was more than any one woman should ever have experienced. One approached her mouth, the other went downward, and soon the dick bobbing before her eyes was bending down, offered to her lips, and as she closed her mouth upon the head another pair of hands lifted her knees, opened her thighs, and another dick impaled her pussy, filled her.

Ash's cock felt so good inside her that she couldn't keep going with Arwen. He barely seemed to mind. Instead, he knelt over her head and stroked his cock over her, in full view. Dove had no metric to judge mascs' bodies but she liked looking at Arwen's ass, liked the way his balls bounced as his hand stroked the length of his shaft. She envied Zia Tau for a moment because Zia had had three months' start on her. She was hypnotized, her body jarred from memory by the thrusting reality of Ash's fucking her, and her eyes locked on Arwen's cock until he came, falling forward and shooting a jet of come along the length of her body. It fell between her breasts, and both brothers fell on the white stream hungrily. Arwen's cock brushed against her cheek, the last traces of its thick payload close enough she could taste it.

Ash's next climax came seconds later, and Dove groaned. "More," she gasped.

"More?" Arwen laughed lovingly, and bent down to kiss her. Dove shuddered in response, a kind of climax that was more soul than body. "We have more for you," he said.

The brothers traded places. Another round of masc lust battered Dove, lust that seemed to shine from their sweet bodies. She lost track of the count and varieties of pleasure that they inflicted upon her. She knew only that she had found a place she never wanted to leave.

They left her on the bed, alone for a second, both sitting back and watching her. She turned and giggled, watching as their feet played, toes intertwined, a childish game that caused them to laugh, and her with them. "Oh, girls," she said. "I mean, boys. Guys." She laughed. "Ohh...."

"So, can we convince you to move in?" one said.

"No," she said. "No, not yet. I still... I still need to figure something out."


"I don't know," Dove said. "Goddess, I am covered in... in gunk!" She laughed.

"Why don't you take a shower?" One said. "If you're not going to move in yet, you have to go back." "Zia's probably worried about you."

"I'm not rooming with Zia," Dove said, her body reluctant to move, her muscles heavy with the passion they had felt. "I'm rooming with Taborah."

"The vacchead with the wine?"

She nodded. "Zia and Polly took a room together."

"I'm sorry." "Yeah, Zia and Polly would understand." "Taborah probably wouldn't."

"You're right about that." She finally managed to convince her body to respond to her wishes and pushed herself off the soft coverlet. She stood and looked around. The walls were a soft pink with broad blue strips running the length of the wall about eye-level, with little decorative interruptions, abstract designs. It was more of the boy's strange gender irreverence. "Where's the shower?"

"Over there." They both pointed.

She slipped into the bathroom. The shower was disproportionately large but the controls were comprehensible. The water that streamed over her was insanely luxurious and the bottle of soap smelled of coconut and flowers. She washed herself completely, enjoying the sensation of being clean even as she regretted the lack of the boys' scent on her. She grinned: now there was a Pendorian way of thinking.

She heard raised voices. Carefully, she eased herself to the edge of the shower and put her ear to the wall. "We don't want to be strays forever!" she heard one of the boys say. "We knew it would be hard to find someone." "But a Sterling! She wouldn't understand." "Would anyone understand? It's Rhiane's fault for being so cute." "Someone from the Corridor would understand." "Yeah." "What were we thinking? But, you know I like her." "I do too." "We should tell her everything." "It's too soon." "But if it doesn't work, will the next one be so much harder?" "I don't know. I don't." "I like her too, Ash. We should let her decide on her own." "We shoummmm...." Silence for a second. "I love you." "I love you too." "We could love Dove more." "If she let us." The silence lasted for a while, and Dove pushed off the wall, finished rinsing, and wrapped the huge, fluffy towel around her body.

She stepped back out into the bedroom. The boys were on the bed, face to face, kissing each other. She shook her head. "You never stop."

"It's comforting," one said. "We like each other."

Dove found her underwear among the clothes scattered like so much hurricane wreckage on the floor. Because their own attire was so close to Sterling standard she had to check twice to make sure the panties were her own. The dress was easier to identify. She finally stood up wearing everything except her shoes. "Do I look presentable?"

"Beautiful!" "A princess!"

"Just so long as you don't say a Senator's daughter, I'll be happy," she said. "Okay, you two. I have to get going. It's late, and I have work to do tomorrow."

"Call us! Or we'll call you!"

Dove looked at the two of them. She was still figuring out what their conversation had been about. Suddenly she sat on the bed. "Give me your hands." She held out hers. She had seen Mama Cavana talk this way, although never quite in this context. "Promise me, if I can't handle you two, you won't be hurt."

"We will be," one said. "You won't mean to hurt us, but it will hurt." "We're not like some guys." "We can't see a bad date as a... a 'practice mission'." "But we won't blame you."

It was the best explanation she was going to get from them. It sounded right. It felt right. They wanted a relationship, and they were going about building it the best way they knew how. It wasn't a way Dove had ever been familiar with before meeting Zia and Polly. "Dove, why are you smiling?"

"I've figured out how to do what I think Zia and Polly are trying to do... and I think I've gotten there first and am doing it better."

"Doing what?"

"I don't want to tell you yet. Can I have some secrets? You girls must have some secrets you keep from me, right?"

"You called us 'girls.'" They giggled. She blushed. "No, we like when you do that. We don't care."

"It's just because 'guys' isn't a word in Francaise."

They nodded. "You should go," one said. "If you want to get enough sleep tonight."

"I'll do that." She leaned in, and kissed each one. The response was warm, but not lascivious. "Goodnight, you two."

"She's figuring it out." "She is." "Good night, Dove."

She found her way out of the house without their help. They were naked, after all, and could hardly be expected to escort her home. She searched through her vest and found her padd, put them on. For a moment she considered going back to the house and accepting their offer but she could not. It was not who she was. Not yet. She found a map and headed home.