Aldea, Sulim 04, 06120
The pews were packed. That surprised Dove almost as much as the boys had surprised her that morning. They had let her go to sleep early and she had loved every sleep-filled moment when she shifted and brushed against one of them. She dreamed the sweetest dreams and regretted not a one of them. In the morning she had crept out of the bedroom and upstairs to her room to dress for church. When she had come down they were waiting for her. Dressed in beautiful church-appropriate dresses of pastel blue with dark blue trim, white blouses, blue ribbon ties, and a blue front-button jacket to match they looked every centimeter Sterling girls. A brush of dust on their cheeks and a subtle touch of lip gloss heightened the illusion. They had insisted they were going with her.
She had worried. She had promised the priestess just two days before that she would bring them, but Dove had not expected the boys to comply with her request so she hadn't asked. This was of their own doing.
Most of the congregation was made up of Sterlings but Dove also saw several people she didn't know at all, Pendorian humans and Terrans who were tasting what the Goddess had to offer. Today's sermon was entitled "The Twentieth Summer," from the Prophet's words, "In the twentieth summer of your planting, taste of your own ripeness. Taste the harvest of your own years and let fall the seed of daughters." She had missed last week's sermon, but she knew which one it would be: "Rock of the Rigid," which was about community. It had been years before she learned that on the planets Athena and Minerva, the lesson between "The Rarest of Fine Wines" and this one was called "Locked with Soft Keyless Locks," and was about marriage and commitment, not to the community, but to another single soul.
The Sterling world of Sparta distinguished itself from their founding world Athena and the more liberalized Minerva by being fundamentally conservative and communal. Deeply religious Spartans sometimes thought of love as an illness, something that distracted a woman from her responsibilities. Women formed partnerships, yes, with other women to raise children and split the duties of a household. Mama Suvhasri and Mama Cavana had more than that, Dove knew, but they never let it show in public. That would have been gauche.
She glanced at the boys from time to time as she listened to a sermon she could have given herself. Their attention was whole and earnest. Though they may not have believed they were respectful. She felt a strange quiver deep inside, next to the place in her heart where her lust for them simmered. Maybe, now that her twentieth summer was eight years behind her, she could let fall a seed.
They had almost dropped "let's just be friends" on her a couple of weeks ago. She had known them for less than a month and already she was wondering if she could have their child. Sometimes love was like that-- sometimes you just took your chances, and a chance with the life of a child, and you went ahead and plunged into motherhood without thinking it through.
The sermon ended. Dove completed the ritual, walked up to the altar and drank from the cup, whispered the wishes of purity and blossoming.
After the service she returned to the priestess and gestured for the twins to join her. She held out her hands and each took one. "Reverend mother, you asked that I introduce you to my friends, so... Ash and Arwen Dekan, meet the Reverend Mother Anifrid San Paolo."
"Honored to meet you," one said. Dove had lost track again. "Indeed," said the other. They both gave the respectful greeting kiss.
The priestess said, "If you hadn't told me they were mascs, I would never have recognized them. You both dress so well."
"Thank you." "It's a practice."
"And what did you think of the service?"
"Worth our time," one said.
"But what did you think of it?"
Both looked at each other. Dove wondered what they were thinking when they did that. Each morning they woke up more or less the same person, but diverged during the course of the day, their short-term personality filters different enough, personal enough, that by the time they went to bed Ash's flightiness and Arwen's thoughtfulness would have given them a very different set of memories to be integrated throughout the night. It had to be Arwen who spoke next. "Dove has become a special part of our life, and she remains a daughter of your Lady Goddess. It's important to us that we understand that part of her. Ash and I bear some guilt. We have robbed Dove of love's sacred plunder, when all she wanted was a kiss to the forehead to comfort her a little an she should weep. My brother and I are trying to understand, and make amends."
"No," Dove whispered. "That's not true."
"But it is," Ash said. "We rushed things. I don't like that we did."
Dove said, "But then you held back. Refused purposing. You did the right thing. And I went willing, headlong, headstrong, wild wings beating..." Goddess, they were quoting the Prophet back and forth in a way she had not tried since Service School. "Ash, Arwen. I could say no. It might take cold showers and cold sweats, but I could have said no that night you came to my office. I chose not to. Just as you could have walked away from me at any time but you choose, consistently and reliably, not to." She saw the smile on Arwen's face: she had been reading up on them as well. She didn't need to see Ash's face to know he had the same look.
The priestess said, "Wait, I think I'm confused."
"You're not the only one," said Ash.
"We should have waited a few weeks," Dove said. "Until we come to the sermon 'The Grey Thread.'" The priestess startled. "You know the one: it's the Spartan lecture about doing your duty to your children no matter how much life hurts. Arwen, Ash, when I'm with you, my thread is spun of gold and silver. I've known you two for a month. It's been a constant month, almost every day, but every day has been wonderful with you. Don't you dare back away now. Not when I'm this close to asking you for a gay, gorgeous bead."
"You aren't serious!" Arwen said.
"As serious as you were about purposing."
"We backed away from that, remember?" Ash said.
"And maybe I will from this. The commitment's less, isn't it?"
They stared at her, then smiled and grabbed her, hugging her. "We have a lot to talk about," Ash said. "Yes," said the other. "When we get home." "And after we've exhausted ourselves."
Dove looked up at the priestess, her face faintly blushing. "I'm sorry. This is just the way they are."
"I think you're doing quite well, Dove San Cioni. They're... interesting. Will you all be coming again?"
"We'll come if Dove does."
Dove nodded. "I will."
"Then I look forward to seeing you."
After they made their polite goodbyes, they strolled home through the city. The boys prepared a lunch and changed into comfortable but still feminine clothing. They ate together in the kitchen, and the boys went off to do their jobs, leaving Dove alone.
Dove sat staring out the window at the park behind their home. The wide, open space invited her with sunlight and green grass. She knew that the apparent ages of the people relaxing there-- mostly llerkin, but one other human couple and a Felinzi reading a book-- were unrelated to their actual experiential age, and that made her feel strange. She didn't want to grow old gracefully and had every intention of taking Terran Retrofit Therapy when it became available, but she was also still getting used to the notion that one could live to be six centuries old and look so young, so beautiful. Or a hundred and thirty, like her two boys. One of them tapped her on the shoulder, leaned down and pressed his chest to her back, kissing her on the side of the neck. "Are you okay?"
"Mmm," she said. "Just thinking. A little bored."
"Good," he said. "We have something for you."
"Follow me," he said. His brother waited at the top of the stairs, and as they ascended to the upper floor she realized that they were headed for the storage room. The door was open and, compared to the bright and chilly day outside, the room was dark. They had covered the windows. "Step in," one said.
"Is this one of your perverted games?"
"No," said one. "This is for you, Dove." "You said you needed something to do." "We're going to help."
Dove eyed each one of them. They had those maddeningly sexy half-grins on their sweet faces. The room had a bare wooden floor that felt good underneath her stockinged feet. The door closed, and she was left in the dark. "Hey!"
A glow emerged from one wall. "Good morning, Dove." The voice was deep, masculine and imbued with a strong sense of authority.
"Who are you?"
"My name is AI Kiryl Masters, and I am the economics planning AI for the llerkin solar system. My title is something of a misnomer as I do not do any planning, merely tracking, and rely on a distributed planning algorithm of which you are a small but vital component."
She giggled. "You're a media economist."
"I am exactly that," Kiryl Masters said. "The biggest and best in the system, modeled on the Adam Smith line, but only that."
"So, you're going to offer me a job?"
"I have no jobs to offer you," Kiryl said. "But your friends have asked me to test you for suitability to a certain kind of work, and I was intrigued enough by their offer to volunteer to do your test. Are you game?"
Dove nodded. "Good. Let us begin."
The test was similar to the one that the boys had given her earlier that week. "Find this piece of information." "Combine these two units of information to derive a chart of one over the other." Kiryl would announce that the test was now testing for "Insights, grade 6" or "Combinatorics, grade 9," or "Vocabulary Command, grade 7." There was also an overall grade, "Cybercognition, grade 7.4." Seven had been annoying, and eight was the first level at which she realized that she was having to stop and think. The first six had been trivial.
By the time grade 15 came around, she had a panorama of projected screens all around her and was having to stitch metadata together. It had become more than she could hold in her head. She struggled through 15, then 16, then said, "Stop."
"Do you wish to end the test?"
"No, I just... There's something about seventeen that I'm not getting, and I'm tired, and hungry."
"You have been in here for five hours," Kyril allowed.
"What?" Dove said. "No wonder I feel so cruddy."
"Take a rest and come back, Dove. We'll resume this when you're ready."
She took a look at the layout of seventeen laid before her. It should have been simple, but her command of the language of genetics was beyond her. She knew that the secret here was to ignore the vocabulary, abstract it into something familiar, and make the connections, but for some reason she couldn't relax her brain enough to make that leap. She was hungry, and thirsty, and she had to pee.
When she emerged, the boys were staring at her. "You were in there forever!" "We were afraid AI Masters had eaten you!"
"They don't really eat people, do they?"
"No," one said. Dove recognized Ash in that silly outrage. "Only metaphorically," Arwen added.
"Is there anything for me to eat?"
Laughing, they led her downstairs with their usual eagerness. After she had emerged from the bathroom and took to the table, one dropped in front of her a bowl of something with rice, beans, and flash-fried pork while the other gave her a glass of water. They joined her at the table. "I don't think I'm doing very good," she said. "I'm stuck on a problem."
"We can get you unstuck." "We're good at that."
Dove laughed. "Yes, you would be. But, like you said, this is what I do when I'm working for, was working for HonorAthena. I shouldn't be distracted."
"Maybe our kind of distraction is what you need." "You know, to stay focused." They were leering at her in their friendly, wonderful way. She could barely resist.
"All right," she said. "Kiryl didn't say I had to come back at a certain time. And it would be relaxing." She rose from the table and helped cleared it, then the three of them ran for the bedroom, shedding clothes in a trail. They fell into the bed, Dove underneath two enthusiastic kissers who began their adoration of her body with attentive licks and nibbles along her collarbones, down her chest to her nipples. Dove lay back and let them do their worst.
They did. She felt loved when they were on her, loving every centimeter of her body. As their tongues slathered warm kisses across her breasts, she tousled their long hair and ran her fingers through the clean, perfect strands. This was the kind of lovemaking she had been looking for when she had first encountered Polly: slow, languorous, attentive. She could participate or just enjoy.
Kisses made their way down her belly, and then one of them crested over her mound and kissed at the pubic hair hiding her pussy. She opened her legs and let him in, sighting as his mouth pressed itself to her full nether lips. She let his sloppy, sweet mouth into her wet, shallow groove, and the thrill of that strong, demanding tongue on her pussy was as comforting as it was lovely. She lay back and let herself be transported by his tongue, let her body kick over from mere appreciation to that powerful, adult sensation, that sudden realization that she could climax if he kept going, higher still until she felt that she had to climax. She whimpered softly, looked down, put both of her hands into his hair. His eyes were closed in a look halfway between concentration and worship, and she knew he was Arwen. That was his look. Ash had a wide-eyed wonder, a blatant joy, when he licked at her pussy. She loved both of them.
Arwen's tongue flickered over her clit, and Dove felt her throat fill with the whimpers of her own desire as she got closer and closer. His tongue slowed down seconds before she came, and her climax seemed to drift through her so slowly she could almost hold on to it, keep it forever. "Goddess," she sighed. "You're so good, Arwen."
"What about me?" Ash said. He knelt beside her, his cock in hand. He stroked it slowly.
"Relax me?" Dove said.
"With pleasure." He kissed her mouth, and she moaned softly into it as he positioned himself against her body, his warm chest to hers as he immersed himself in her. She felt herself fill with his cock, felt her body both welcome it and take possession of it. She reached up to stroke his face and touch his cheeks. He was as gentle as his brother, his cock sliding in and out of her. "Goddess, Dove," he whispered. "You're so beautiful. Your pussy is absolutely the best." He turned his head and took her fingers into his mouth, and she smiled at him. She wanted to see him come. Her own desire was calm within her, she was here to watch them, to please them, as much as they wanted to please her.
Ash's gentle fucking was over quickly, and his brother took his place without hesitation. He took a little longer; between the two of them, they were enough now. As they sat on the bed, the three of them, passing around a water bottle, she felt her brain whirring with the problem Kiryl had given her. She brushed the hair out of her eyes and said, "I should probably go see if I can do that problem."
"Now?" one of them said. She'd lost track again. She grinned.
"I'm relaxed. Isn't it what you wanted?"
"Then I'm going now," she said. She wiped at her groin briefly with a towel. She would leak but she didn't care. She grabbed a housecoat just to keep from being chill and climbed the stairs. "Kyril?"
"Here," said the AI. She closed the door to the room.
"Then let's resume."
He gave her a different problem for her current level. She struggled with it, snarling hard at times as she grappled with a third-level language abstraction problem. Her brain hurt as she solved it, the last piece falling into place. "Yes!" she cried out.
"Sure," she said.
"Let's go with this one." The screens cleared and a new set of data appeared.
He gave her a different problem. It involved the economic and political interactions between Sparta, Athena, and Minerva. Dove was shocked at the amount of economic information Kyril had. "You're trying to distract me," she said.
"That's one way of looking at it."
She growled and turned her attention to the actual problem. Kyril was asking for predictions, four layers of abstraction deep, on the interaction between political decisions made on Athena and the availability of luxury food items on Sparta, over a ten-year period. Dove was vaguely familiar with some of the issues and terms, but dropping the raw data down into visualizable patterns was harder than she had thought.
The problem was different from the others. She knew she failed to understand the difference. It felt like the kind of thing that Jaylene had done all the time. Dove had never thought of herself as having similar talent and as she rooted through the problem, discarded solution paths, invented new ones, she could feel things happen inside her brain. The skin on her hair felt like it was moving, or maybe that was an illusion, like flashes inside her brain. She was pushing herself. She knew there would not be one moment of full illumination without an ongoing series of small revelations, one after the other, some that would have to be discarded without remorse. She was getting tired, and as she sat down on the floor, she closed her eyes and sighed. She looked up. There were tears in her eyes from the effort.
She had abstracted representations of the three systems into icons. She stared hard at the one around Minerva. The icon itself was trying to tell her something. There was something there, in the visual representation of the Minerva system, that made it critical to the issue. She stared, and her eyes flickered over to Sparta and Athena, then back. Suddenly, she looked up. Her hands gestured, and popular representations of the three systems opened up, and she stared harder. She looked back and forth and suddenly she saw it.
"Oh, yes," she said. The realization shot through her like lightning. Minerva had three gas giants. The Athena-Minerva-Sparta circuit was more reliable than the Athena-Sparta circuit because fuel was more readily available. Three gas giants meant that ships transiting Minerva almost never had to worry about trans-solar refueling stops. The data fell into place.
"The politics was a feint," she said. "It was fuel availability."
"Is it a feint?" Kyril said. "Politics don't influence fuel availability?"
Dove recalculated. "Not in the period you asked, but... I see what you're saying." There were dips, some kind of trade dispute, forty-some years ago. "Goddess, my brain hurts. I think I burned out some neurons."
"Not likely," the AI said. "You scored an 18.4 overall on a Standardized Cybercognition Test. Your insight was a solid 19.0, but your abstraction was perhaps a low 17.6. Your combinatorics is 18.6."
"I guess that's not great, is it?"
Kyril was silent for a moment. "Why don't you go take a break and talk to your lovers."
"Sure," Dove said, standing slowly and uneasily. Her brain didn't really hurt but she was exhausted. She reached for the doorknob.
Both boys were standing outside, looking at her with wide, surprised eyes. "How did it go?" one asked.
"Eh," Dove said. "I need water. And food. And the bathroom."
"All three coming right up." One led her to the bathroom while the other went downstairs. As she staggered downstairs herself, she heard the hum of the oven and the whir of the blender, and then he was pressing a cool glass into her hand. She drank it. It was cool and a little sweet and delicious and it tasted of fruit.
"Sorry, the blueberries were frozen."
"That's okay," she said. "It's good." She kissed him, and their tongues met briefly.
"How did it go?" one asked.
"I got an 18.4 overall. I don't suppose that qualifies me for anything."
They both stared at her. She stared back. "What?" she asked.
One of them said, "Dove, if you're really an 18... there's only one other unenhanced, organic 18 known in the entire galaxy." "Tylia Shardik." "Yeah, her."
"Tylia Shardik. The woman who took over Alpha Labs after Ken Shardik retired."
"What does an 18 mean?" Dove asked.
"What it means, Dove, is that you have this talent--" "This ability!" "Goddess only knows what to call it, that allows you to analyze very complicated systems and isolate the important variables." "You said that Jaylene was good at exploiting noise, right?" Dove nodded. The other said, "Dove, you can add or delete noise at will. You can disrupt or smooth out chaotic systems almost at will."
"But I'm not doing anything," Dove said. She wasn't sure if their words make any sense.
"Are you familiar with the butterfly effect?"
"Well, sure," Dove said.
"You're that butterfly." "But you can choose to flap your wings." "Or not."
One of the boys held out her padd. She took it instinctively, put it on. "Now," one of them said, using his own, his fingers flipping through pages rapidly. "Let's see." He grinned suddenly. "Dove, pull up HonorAthena's public trading record for the past three months." She did. Her brain felt tired, but this was familiar territory. "Do you see their holdings?"
"Sure," she said. It looked like the kind of pattern Jaylene would have held. "They're doing okay. Not fabulous, but okay."
"Take a look at their holdings. Now, instead of trying to predict the cycle the way your boss does, try to make it. What's the smallest market move you could make that would cause HonorAthena's current holdings drop by thirty percent?"
"That's a big drop!" Dove said, but already her fingers were in motion. She analyzed the data and slowly patterns emerged. They had a big agro holding, and she backtracked along that path. It looked fruitful. "Wait," she said. "A few thousand shares of this industrial group could weaken the market here for... No, way." She looked again. "For 12K LIU, there's a seventy percent chance you could drop HA's holding value by thirty percent and hold it there for four days before Jaylene found a way to recover."
The other said, "Can you make it better?"
"No, but the technique is obvious. You could line up three or four of these. They could be different enough to avoid looking like manipulation. They wouldn't really be manipulation, would they? One of them would make it. It would hurt. If two, it would really hurt."
"There, see?" one said. "That's the power you have."
Her brain whirled: was that the outcome of her simple ability to look things up faster than anyone or anything else? "I can look up the future?" she said.
"No," one said. "But you've always been able to say with some probability that doing something, a lookup, will have a favorable result. All AI Masters did was show you that if you take that ability and turn it around, you can craft unfavorable results. Or results that go in a certain direction. It's the same as with Tylia, who can tell at a glance what's wrong with incredibly long static genetic sequences, even if they're in the DNA of Terra or the DrNA chemistry of llerkin. She's like that. You're like that."
She laughed. Arwen talked like that, not Ash. She nodded thoughtfully. "Now what do I do with this?"
"Whatever you want, Dove," Ash said. "Whatever you want."