Back | Next


“In vino, veritas.”

—Pliny the Younger

That local Sunday—Gealday, the need for something familiar had become unbearable. Besides, she hadn’t been to church in quite some time and not at all since arriving. There were things she needed to say that she couldn’t say elsewhere. She asked Rob to help her find a church and if he’d come along.

“I’ll do what I can,” he agreed. “But you’ll need to pick the church. The few times I go I’m Druidic, not Christian.” More strangeness. Druidism had had a resurgence on Earth some centuries back, but had waned again. She’d heard of it, but was unfamiliar with it.

Saint Patrick’s Catholic Second Reformed Church was styled as she expected, after the early Twenty-Second-Century Geometric school of architecture. It was straight, clean lines and simple planes in light earthy colors. Inside, it was well lit through huge expanses of glass, open without being cavernous and warmly styled in more umbers and browns. A peace flowed through her and she felt more at home and relaxed than she had since leaving Earth. It wasn’t that she was particularly devout, but it was ritual and pattern she was familiar with. She left Rob in the sanctuary and went to confession. She finally had an opportunity to bare her feelings in safety.

She sought an empty confessional and sat down. A moment to compose her thoughts, a breath, and she intoned, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It’s been . . . two months since my last confession . . .” She detailed her departure and her concerns about her friends back on Earth. “I feel like I abandoned Tom after he did so much for me,” she said. “And I didn’t stay to put things right. I feel cowardly. I didn’t know what else to do. And I had an oath to serve . . . I broke that in the process.” She poured out her feelings and paused finally. She hadn’t realized how much of a burden she’d been carrying.

“Have you prayed for your friend Tom, daughter?” the priest asked.

“Yes, Father. Daily. Almost,” she qualified.

“Then God will take care of him and your thoughts will help. He acted from conscience and you have made his sacrifices worthwhile. Somewhere there is a reason for his actions, even if we don’t see it.”

“Yes, Father,” she agreed. People kept telling her that. Maybe it was true.

“It seems to me that your oath was broken by those you swore to, not by you. If they acquit you, will you return?”

“I . . . don’t know,” she replied. “I’m scared.”

“That will be your decision if it happens. That will be the judge of your oath.”

“Yes, Father.”

She felt better afterward. Rob was waiting and had held a seat for her and held her hand while she recovered her composure. He made no comments and followed the service as if he’d practiced.

“You sing well,” she said as they left.

“Right,” he snorted.

“Really!” she insisted.

“Must have been good acoustics in there,” he said. “Do you feel better?”

“Much,” she said. “Thanks for coming.” He looked good in a jacket, and her new dress made her feel she was progressing. It was a luxury and she had very few of them yet.

“Sure. Anything for a friend,” he said.

She knew he meant it. She also knew he was a bit more than just a friend by now.

She was never quite sure how she’d wound up inviting him into her apartment that night. She needed company, but that wasn’t it alone. He had been very undemanding of her, had not mentioned sex since a frustrating attempt the week before. If she needed answers to questions or a friend or neighbor or tour guide, he was quickly available.

But she’d invited him in, he’d brought wine, they’d cooked, then spent the evening sitting watching classic movies. His place would have been more comfortable, being larger and better furnished, but this was her territory and made her feel safer. Touching had led to kissing and she realized that she was unconsciously planning sex. She shrugged inwardly and agreed with herself. It was about time she stopped trying to be a tourist and became a local, and Rob was a very decent guy.

She pulled Rob closer to kiss him. It lingered and she worked her lips along his cheek to whisper, trembling, “I want to make love to you.”

He was kissing her neck and spoke gently near her ear, saying simply, “Yes.” He drew gently away, slipped an arm around her and ushered her in to her bedroom. He closed the door with his foot and pulled her close again.

Kendra felt his growing urgency as his hands found their way under her tunic and around her breasts. His mouth sought her throat and she gasped. She turned her lips to his shaved temple, caressing the warm skin with the edges of them. He bit into her shoulder and squeezed her harder with his hands, then they quested further. He released both their clothes with practiced hands and coaxed her to the bed with him.

Sex without a barrier was much more intimate and much more frightening. She felt her soul truly bare to him and clutched tightly. She was losing her virginity all over again, it seemed.

This time would be better. With practice in the mechanics, she could concentrate on the torrent of sensations raining over her and shuddered silently in pleasure. The motion of him inside her seemed to go all the way to her center, to collide with a wave emanating from his mouth on hers. She dizzily enjoyed the intense heat of him for a while, then fought her way back around, pulling him on top of her. She locked in a kiss with him, grabbing his buttocks, wrapping her legs behind his knees and screaming muffled against his mouth his seeking tongue feeling him come again deep inside her nails on his back.

They made love twice more that night and she never did get to sleep. She arrived at work quite energized, and did find people still in the park from the holiday weekend when she made a preliminary inspection. She decided they weren’t hurting anything and let them sleep. There was an enforceable rule against more than one day’s residency, but they weren’t in any danger of breaking it. She felt fine until just after five—midday—when the previous night suddenly caught up to her and she had to sit down to rest. The weather was working on becoming oppressively hot, but the low humidity made it pleasant in the shade of a tree. She sipped some water from her bottle, sat on her cloak and looked toward downtown. The gleaming cleanliness of the edifices and the crystal sky behind them was never a boring sight. Even from this distance, they towered above the plain, appearing taller than the mountains behind them.

A skeletal frame protruded above the nearer buildings. As she watched, it rose and halted, then rose again. It had to be the new FreeBank Tower that was being built. She hadn’t realized they were starting so soon. As she mused, assembly drones crawled up the supports and began lashing them with cable. That would be monomolecular boron cable, she recalled, and the struts would be tube-molecular crystal carbon composite. Incredibly strong stuff. The building should be proof against anything short of a direct hit by military explosives.

“Goofing off?” Karen asked from behind her. Kendra hadn’t heard her approach.

“Oh, I’m sorry, Karen,” she said. “I was taking a break and got distracted.”

“That’s fine,” Karen chuckled, “it’s almost quitting time anyway.” She grinned her usual toothy grin. Rob had once made an innuendous comment about her slightly prominent teeth and Kendra had poked him for it. He could make comments about anything.

Karen continued, “I love watching them build, too. And you’re done with the maze already, so relax. You’ll make us look bad by being so industrious.”

They sat and watched as the frame rose, joint by joint. Out of sight from them, below the near horizon, heavy machines worked furiously. The vertical pybraces were connected on their pivot points and pushed aloft. As they swung vertical, the trailing ends would be held ready for the loading tractor to attach the next set. It would have been impossible to do without modern lightweight materials and heavy machinery, even in lighter gravity.

“I wonder what they used before boron and carbon?” Karen mused.

“Low-carbon steel,” Kendra replied.

“What? You’re kidding! The mass would be outrageous!” The redhead was incredulous.

“No, really,” Kendra insisted. “Steel truss towers with braces and crossbeams.”

“How’d they erect them?”

“Using large cranes with kilometers of steel cable, set on top of gantries built of triangular steel frameworks. Then they’d move the crane onto the frame and build as they went. I studied it in class,” she said.

“That had to take weeks,” Karen pondered. As she spoke, the building jolted again and passed the two-hundred-meter mark. Aircars buzzed the structure, chased away by security drones.

“Months usually,” Kendra agreed. “Then they used prefab modules inside, much like we do now.”

Karen was fascinated. “Why so much steel? Didn’t they have polymers or titanium? I recall polymers and graphite came out about then.”

“They did,” Kendra agreed, “and boron whisker, but it was all outrageously expensive. About like using crystal iron or beryllium now.”

“Hard to think of steel as cheaper than carbon. And it couldn’t be easier to work with,” Karen replied, still not convinced.

“They had tools for it, and an industry. Some of them still stand. The shorter ones, anyway, like the Sears Tower in Chicago. They replaced most of the structure in the last hundred years, but it’s still steel and it still stands,” Kendra said. “I felt nervous in it, but they insist it’s still safe.”

They watched, rapt, as the scuttling pods fed cables across. The building would widen slightly from its base, then taper toward the pinnacle. Its own mass would hold the shape against the cables, with only a few crossbeams for structural support. Many thinner pieces served as traylike mounts for the modular office sections that would be installed by skycrane.

It bumped up another level and the crews adjusted the cable tension to rein in one corner that was sagging. Since the top was being built first as it rose, it was widening slowly but perceptibly and the upper sections had a tendency to draw slack from the unfixed ones being raised.

Kendra suddenly burst out laughing. “What?” Karen asked.

“It just occurred to me,” she explained, still laughing, “that the cabling tractors look like insects. As they link together, they perfectly match the brand name of ‘Caterpillar.’”

Karen laughed too.

While they were sitting there, a familiar voice greeted her, “Hi, Kendra.”

It was Alexia. She was wearing a short dress in fluorine green that covered much of her but not her breasts, and had a black cloak over it. She was carrying a briefcase.

Kendra indicated for her to sit down, flipping more cloak out. “Hi, Alexia,” she returned. “I managed not to pass out this time.”

“Good! Go ahead and call me ‘Marta.’”

“Okay,” she agreed. “Why? And this is Karen, one of my bosses,” she added.

Marta spoke to Karen, saying, “Pleased to meet you,” then turned to Kendra and said, “Well, ‘Marta’ is my real name.”

“I suppose that’s a good reason. What’s going?”

“Working,” Marta said. “Needed my toys for this one,” she explained, casually flipping open her briefcase. Kendra stared in fascination at the most amazing collection of sex toys she had ever seen. The presentation in public in front of Karen made her flush beet red.

Trying not to stare, Kendra said, “You’ll have to show me what some of those things are for sometime.”

“Ask me at a party sometime, when I can do a demo for advertising.”

“Demo on who?” Kendra asked, shocked.

“Well, you, of course. It’s the best way to find out. Unless you can find someone to volunteer for you.”

“All I want is a brief explanation, nothing complicated, nothing public,” Kendra told her, flushing again. Karen’s snickers didn’t help matters.

“I could do that,” Marta agreed. “But then I’d have to charge you a consultation fee.”

“You’re . . . not joking,” Kendra said, answering her own question.

“It’s the same way I explain to clients. It seems mercenary, but I have to make a living. Information or demos or samples cost, and there’s no refund possible.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Kendra nodded.

Karen interrupted with, “Kendra, we’re done today. I’m going to catch a view of the construction. See you in the morning.” She stood and walked off.

“Okay, Karen,” she replied to the other woman’s departing back, still distracted. Turning again to Marta, she asked, “How do you separate your business and social lives?”

“It’s business until I book a minimum amount for the day or until I give up and call it quits or until I have a drink. I’m happy to talk about it with you, but details become a service and that’s what I charge for.”

“I definitely couldn’t deal with that,” Kendra said, shaking her head. “I wouldn’t know when to quit.”

“That is a problem in this business. Some people hold to a regular set of divs, usually evenings. Some are nonstop and confused and burn out quickly. I try to split the difference. I get a lot of the daytime business.”

“And you don’t work for a service,” Kendra noted.

“No. There are very few services here, although I belong to a referral co-op. When I’m booked, my code allows a client to reach another and vice versa. The only actual services are clubs, with set divs, which I hate. They are slightly safer, but don’t pay as well. I can afford to hire a chaperone when needed and I hold an expert rating in unarmed combat and have combat experience, so I’m not too concerned.”

“Is everyone here a veteran?” Kendra asked. “That’s all I seem to meet.”

“A lot of people in this vicinity are, with Heilbrun Base just out of town. But you met me because I used to be active duty with Jaheed.”

Both women got up and headed north through the park. Marta angled west and Kendra followed as they continued this most informative discussion. They wound up dodging traffic—even scarier than in the dark, when you saw the vehicles up close and realized they were all on manual or self-auto, not district control—and were shortly seated at Stanley’s. Marta glanced at her phone, adjusted a setting and said, “I can’t go off just yet, so I’ll stick to soft drinks. Second round can be yours, if you like.”

“Uh . . . okay,” Kendra agreed. Her rent was paid, she had food, and her indent was an automatic deduction. She didn’t need to be stingy, but it would take conscious effort not to be. She had no experience being poor—it was an entirely new state of affairs to her, as was everything else. To shift from the new pattern back to the old was difficult.

Rupe arrived, slid two small bowls of salsa, one hot, one “mild,” in front of them, along with fresh baked chips, and greeted them. “Alexia, and Kendra, I believe?”

Kendra agreed and thanked him. Marta said, “Just Marta. I’m on call but not working. Ginger ale, spiced for me. Kendra?” she asked, turning.

“One of those wine coolers would be wonderful right now.”

“Right up,” he agreed and returned in seconds with their drinks.

Kendra found herself talking about gardening. “Apparently I have a lot of talent and my design skills are becoming useful. And I like the fact that I actually get to work here, rather than just wasting time. It gives me a sense of accomplishment I rarely got back home.”

Moments later, they were interrupted by Rob. He bounced up, yelled, “Mar!” and gathered Marta in a close embrace, kissing her in a fashion that made Kendra slightly jealous. He turned then and grabbed Kendra close, kissing her in a way that made her head swim. He plunked down next to them.

“Pardon me for rudely interrupting,” he said. “But I just picked up a contract with Jefferson Central Machinery to straighten out their parts files, deposit paid in advance and rather well, thank you. So I’m celebrating. Would either of you object to a drink?”

“Just one,” Marta agreed, bending her rules. “And congratulations.”

“Congratulations,” Kendra echoed. “And I don’t object.”

“Done. Rupe, line us up four Silver Birches and a jalapeno lime ice for me.”

Rob invited Stanley to join them, hence the fourth shot, and toasted, “To windfall profits!”

Kendra downed her Silver Birch. It had the burn of strong liquor, with a smoky sweet bite to it. It warmed her stomach and a glow suffused her. Though she had never liked liquor, this was very interesting.

Stanley went back to his counter and Rob and Marta explained their common background. “We met on Mtali,” he told Kendra. “I had some yokel running up to my Hatchet as I landed it in a firefight and she popped out of nowhere and gapped him.”

“That was right after he dumped a burst of fifteen millimeter into an armored vehicle bent on turning me into road pizza,” Marta added. “We both are from this area, so we meet up occasionally for drinks and soshing.”

“Hey,” Rob put in, “Should we go down and watch the construction? It isn’t every day they put up a seven-hundred-meter building.” All agreed, so they wandered that way on foot. It was only a few hundred meters farther.

There was quite a crowd gathering as they approached, with several City Safety officers trying vainly to keep vehicles moving. There was a private security firm using drones and aircars to chase away those flyers who were too inquisitive. As much complaining as could be heard all around, Kendra decided it was no worse than traffic around construction sites on Earth. Most people here weren’t foolish enough to get too close. The risk of getting sued and indentured for life if one interfered probably helped dissuade many of them.

The frame bumped above five-hundred meters. They graciously accepted an invitation from a parked driver to stand on his car for a better vantage point. That let Kendra see into the cleared area, where the rams were sliding four more pybraces into position. The heavily silenced machines still growled as they thrust the pieces out from the center, to be caught, connected and raised by the lifts.

While the construction process was fairly standard, it wasn’t a common sight to see, as quickly as the buildings were erected. The local cafés and street vendors were doing booming business with the gawkers and it was clear that traffic was snarled for the day. Automatic controls would have prevented it, Kendra thought, but these people would scream bloody murder at the suggestion of handing vehicle control over to anyone or anything. The onboard safeties prevented only impacts and did not provide flight planning.

The security cars were chasing away the same three flyers, she decided. That red one was clearly the same one that had been run off a bare seg before. The Freehold had the same idiots as the UN, even if their numbers were fewer. Some things never changed, she thought.

High overhead, the red car tried to dodge around a security drone in a dangerous game. It didn’t work. The drone’s automatic responses were fast enough to interdict, not fast enough to predict what the human pilot would do. The two objects intersected.

The drone was a bare thirty-five-centimeters tall, tubular with steering vanes, strobe and transponder in a small instrument package. The collision speed was not great, but the drone’s thrust blew directly down into one of the car’s ducts. The vehicle bucked and recovered as the pilot tried to dodge and as it rose it bashed against the drone. The fan blades brushed the damaged housing and tore into shrapnel at 100,000 revs. The pieces punched and ripped holes through both casings and into the car’s port-forward fan.

The cars loped crazily toward the building and the pilot steered sharply away. With port control almost gone and a conflict between automatic and manual control he tumbled and fell. The car twisted and spun as it dropped, whipping between buildings it was never supposed to approach. Kendra stared, frozen, and heard Rob mutter, “Oh, shit!” He grabbed her arm and yanked her off the car. They landed hard, stumbled, and he shoved her against the wall.

“Everybody Back!” he bellowed. Other shouts could be heard and people stared upward, trying desperately to predict where the car would land. Many people and drivers were blissfully unaware of the impending crash and Kendra stared horrified as the crippled vehicle descended.

At the last moment, the pilot righted the craft through a combination of skill, panic and blind luck. Emergency override must have kicked in, because the vehicle poured power into its three operational fans and tried to level out. It was moving at too high a velocity and at too low an altitude to accomplish that, but it did slow the inevitable impact. The slamming crunch it made as it hit two vehicles was no louder than at any other accident Kendra had seen. A pedestrian had leapt away barely in time and was swearing in relief.

Marta sprinted across the street through a stunned throng. Rob said, “C’mon,” and followed, not waiting to see if Kendra followed. Several others were approaching also and Kendra tagged along, terrified at what she might see.

There was very brief confusion as everyone approached. Rob started shouting orders and was instantly obeyed by everyone. “If you aren’t a medic, get on traffic control. If you can’t do traffic control, keep the crowds back ten meters. Everyone else please stay back. You! Call city safety again anyway and keep the band open. You, organize people for tools and find some strong volunteers.” He turned back with the assumption that he would be obeyed.

Marta was reaching in the tangled mess looking for casualties. Fortunately, the material was lightweight and easy to move. The hardest part was pulling out chunks of the foam that had blown into the compartments to provide support and reduce impact. There were three injuries visible: the pilot of the red car and the two in the remains of the vehicle underneath. It had been just lifting to navigate over traffic and had somehow rolled during the accident. Probably one side had dropped on proximity warning and then been hit. It had completed its tumble as it smacked another car underneath.

City Safety vehicles were landing all around and two salvage trucks arrived. An ambulance was trying to find space to land. Rob shouted and his crowd controllers pushed back to give it room. They dragged the third vehicle out of the way to give more space.

“I’m a doctor, but I’ll need help,” a man said as he pushed through the crowd.

“Great! What do you need?” Marta asked as she applied pressure to a wound. She had blood up to her elbows. “Kendra, I need your shirt as a bandage. Your shirt,” she repeated as Kendra hesitated. Right. Nudity was okay and this was an emergency. She slipped out of the cotton garment and handed it over, feeling self-conscious. She felt cold without it, despite the sweltering heat in the air.

The doctor replied to Marta, “Uh, a good trauma medic preferably. I’m an ophthalmologist. But I can handle it while we find one.”

Marta grinned as she pulled shears and a knife out of her pouch. She clicked the blade out, handed it to Kendra and said, “Cut it into five see emm strips. You’re in luck, Doc. Corporal Hernandez, Third Mobile Assault Regiment combat medic. I’ll stabilize, you advise.”

The doctor was sufficiently experienced with emergency medicine to exceed his concerns. Marta handed over bandages and dressings and splint material when it arrived, and the two medics did all the work while City Safety and the ambulance kept them supplied with saline carriers and tools. It was a messy procedure.

The flyer was only marginally injured, although he had a slight concussion and was in shock. He kept apologizing as Rob and a safety officer extricated him and had him lie down. Rob had to be forceful when the man wanted to apologize. His victims were not in any shape to talk, nor was he.

The two casualties in the car underneath were young women, the passenger IDed as a college student. She had a severe laceration to her right arm and was unconscious. The other one moaned, but could not be reached yet. “Get that damn crane in here!” Rob shouted. Everyone else had assumed he was in charge and simply did as he said. The salvage truck backed in, extended a boom, and the driver, Rob and two others glued shackles to all four corners of the red car. “Clear so we can lift,” he told Marta.

“I have a bleeder here. Get on with it,” she replied.

“It isn’t safe,” he argued.

“Then it can fucking be unsafe, I’m not leaving my patient!” she snapped. Her voice softened and she added, “Sorry. Do it. I’ll risk it.”

He nodded, realized she couldn’t see and said, “Okay. Kendra, grab her arm. If I yell, drag her out of there.”

The red wreck lifted with a groan and space opened up underneath. Light streamed in and it was possible to see the extent of the driver’s injuries. She was in bad shape, but alive.

As soon as the vehicles separated, Marta carefully turned the passenger and began to ease her through the open window. Rob and two others taped the web-cracked windscreen with emergency tape, then cut around the edge with small, whining saws. They peeled it back to gain access to the driver.

The passenger slipped out and the ambulance crew gently strapped her to a litter. Marta squirmed in and had Kendra reach in to hand her tools. Mar’s dress was shredded, she wore nothing underneath and the tight quarters made for a grotesque parody of an intimate encounter.

The doctor went around the other side and between the two of them they determined the extent of the victim’s injuries. She had several seeping wounds, a minor vein bleeding and some fractures. Rob and his crew commenced chopping and cutting away the safety cage while the crane kept weight off. He briefly conferred with the rescue technician from the response team, who agreed with his proposal and directed his crew to assist. Mar and the doctor dealt with the bleeding, first with bandages and pressure, then with a pneumatic pressure pad. The victim was still supported in part by the impact foam and they reinforced that with pillows, blankets, rolled cloaks and anything else they could get from volunteers. “She’s getting weak,” Marta said. “Do we dare try a stimulant?”

The doctor, Devon Perkins was his name, said, “It might cause a reaction, or her to start hemorrhaging if she’s hurt internally. We can use a nano for shock, but only a half dose to start with,” he advised. Kendra relayed the request to the ambulance crew, who delivered the drug without questions. Marta pinched the capsule, dribbled half of it away and pressed the carrier side against the victim’s neck.

She stirred shortly and Marta spoke loudly to her. “Jai, I’m a medic. You’ve been hurt, but you’re going to be okay. If you understand, wiggle your fingers . . . good. Now, we have to cut the car away from you. If you move, it might fall. You have to stay still. Do you understand? Good. Can you feel your toes? Good. Can you feel your left arm? No? Okay. Your shoulder is hurt, but we’ll get you out soon. My name is Marta. Just grip my hand if you need anything, okay? Good. I’m going to stay right here. There’s a doctor here, too. We are both very experienced and you’re going to be fine. Just don’t move, because we don’t want the car to fall.”

There was no risk of that, but she might have a neck injury. There was no sense in risking complications and it wouldn’t be reassuring to let her know.

“Thir . . . sty,” the girl mumbled. Kendra wiggled back to get her bottle and handed it to Mar. It was stinking and sweaty in the vehicle and sharp bits of frame poked at her. She wondered how the girl had survived.

“You can have a sip only, because you’re upside down,” Marta advised. She didn’t mention possible internal injuries. “If you want, you can spit into this towel. But don’t try to swallow.”

Rob tugged at Kendra’s ankle. “We’re ready to lift,” he said.

She wiggled her ankle and said, “Okay,” and turned back. “They’re ready to lift, Rob says,” she relayed.

“Do it. Get in here as far as you can and help support her weight,” Marta instructed.

Kendra propped her arms under the girl’s shoulder and hunched to press against her side. Marta and Perkins gripped her legs and Rob signaled. The crane lifted very carefully, a few centimeters at a time, the metal groaning and shrieking. They gingerly wiggled her feet from within the footwells and were showered in falling chunks of safety foam. It stuck to any bloody or sweaty surface, which was everything.

Once her feet were clear, the crane howled as it pulled the load straight up and swung it aside. Other rescuers reached in to help fasten the woman to the form-fitting splint, then lifted her out and lowered her to the ground. In moments, she was also braced in a litter, still in a sitting position, and was taken away.

“I need your name,” one of the safety officers said at Kendra’s elbow. He was streaked with foam and oil and reeked of spilled fuel. She gave him her name and address and he moved on. Someone handed her a towel and she wiped off dried blood and grime.

The road was clear again, Kendra had noticed while Marta peeled her dress off. It was destroyed anyway. One of the safety vehicles had a box of decontamination wipes and they used them to wipe all residue away. “There’s blood in your hair,” Kendra said.

“And yours,” Marta agreed. On Earth they would have been hospitalized against contamination, but there were no bloodborne diseases in this system. Kendra was grateful for that fact.

Before they could leave, they and all the others nearby were herded toward a restaurant called The Green Man. Inside, Kendra was thanked by several people including the construction manager, a man from the safety office and a FreeBank representative. They were offered showers in the hotel above and dinner immediately following, and it appeared that “no thanks” was not an answer they would understand. Kendra wasn’t hungry after seeing vehicles mangled and blood splashed around, although she was calmer than she would have expected. She washed down and put her work shorts back on. Marta didn’t seem to notice her own utter nudity, nor did anyone mention it, other than an occasional glance and smile. They were stuffed full of salad and seafood and steaks and beer and wine. The alcohol did feel good after all the earlier stress. Her hunger returned and she plowed into the food with gusto. The Green Man was one of the city’s five-star eateries and she had to admit it more than lived up to its reputation. They even had vat-grown steak.

She got into a discussion with an insurance agent who had been expressing an opinion of damages. The woman noted Kendra’s surprise that unlicensed passersby had done most of the work. On Earth, few would have offered and none would have stayed after the police arrived. There was too much risk of being sued, since it could be claimed that any injuries were the result of negligence.

“How rude!” the woman had objected. “They would actually sue for helping them? And the courts would allow it?”

It was another sign of cultural dissimilarity that Kendra thought she’d never get used to.

The three left fairly late, after drinking a few generously offered rounds. Kendra sipped at hers, not wanting to get too drunk, but finally relented and drank enough to unwind. It had, after all, been a shocking afternoon. The walk back cleared her head slightly and the restaurant had found a shirt for her, with their logo on it. Marta declined clothes. Kendra still wondered how people could casually walk around naked.

At Rob’s apartment, Kendra sat down heavily on the bed and said, “After last night and today, I need to rest.”

“Go ahead,” he agreed, lifting a thin quilt over her.

Kendra lay down and passed out from exhaustion. She woke briefly a while later to sounds. The shower was still on, with the door open, and she could discern heavy breathing and occasional gasps. Vaguely, she was aware that Rob and Marta were making love, but she was too tired to continue the thought. She fell back asleep.

She woke among bodies about ten, according to the clock. Rob was on one side, Marta on the other. The haze in her mind started to clear and she remembered what she’d overheard earlier. It bothered her a little, but she realized that she had no claim on Rob. She tried to turn on her side, but was hemmed in rather tight. As she carefully twisted over, she came face to face with Rob, whose eyes were open. He smiled, took her shoulder and pulled her close to kiss her.

When he drew back, he whispered, “Good evening.”

“Hello,” she whispered back. “Did you have a good time?”

“Fantastic,” he agreed. “Mar was really wound up after that. Are you upset?”

“A little, I guess,” she said, trying to shrug. It took effort. What was their relationship?

“I didn’t want to hurt you, so I tried to be discreet. I’m not sure how you think of us as a couple.”

“We don’t really have a commitment, do we?” she observed.

“No. Would you like to?” he asked.

Shaking her head, she said, “I’m not sure.”

“We’ll discuss it later, then,” he said and pulled her close again.

He kissed her deeply, then began to caress her neck, rubbing his lips down the side of her throat, over a shoulder. His hands stroked her gently, all down her side. She felt her leg lifted over him and he rubbed up against her.

She enjoyed the sensations, stroked him back and then there was movement behind her. She suddenly realized that she felt too many hands.

Marta was kissing the back of her neck and gliding hands over her back and thighs.

She turned, and Rob caught her body language. So did Marta.

“Should I stop?” Marta asked.

“This feels very weird,” Kendra told her.

Rob hinted, “Sexuality is very different on Earth.”

Marta said, “Ohh!” and pulled back, comprehending slightly.

“Kendra,” Rob said, “We can do whatever you want, by whatever rules. Let us know and we can adjust.”

“I don’t want to cut you out,” she said to Marta apologetically.

Marta placed a calming hand on her. “If you don’t swing, it’s not a problem. I don’t want to cause any tension.”

“I don’t know,” Kendra said awkwardly.

Rob leaned over and said, “On Earth, when I was there, most people were very restrained and although it wasn’t mentioned, I got the idea that most don’t do much experimenting.”

Marta looked slightly askance. “You mean you’ve never even tried it, to see what it was like?”

“I’ve never even thought about it,” she admitted. “I had two regular lovers and exactly three casual sexual encounters before I got here.”

“I didn’t mean to impose,” Marta said, moving to get out of bed.

“Wait,” Kendra told her, then sat awkwardly again for a moment. “I want you to stay,” she said finally. She wasn’t sure she did. This was more awkward than any previous cultural variance. “But I don’t know how far I’m willing to go.”

“Just give me a signal and I can stop whatever you don’t enjoy or I can leave. I don’t want to cause any trouble at all,” Marta promised.

Kendra made love to Rob while Marta played around the edges. It felt strange having an extra pair of hands and an extra mouth in the equation. She enjoyed the attention she got, but was disoriented at times, feeling almost as if she were watching and not participating. Questing hands and kisses across her neck were definitely a case of more being better, but the presence of a third person and her being an attractive woman was a hindrance.

She enjoyed herself, Rob had a great time with double the attention and Marta didn’t seem to mind. Kendra tabled the idea of a rematch, deciding to think about this encounter for a while, and sat back to catch her breath. Marta ran hands down her again and she shivered in both enjoyment and tension.

They all wound up showering again then Marta gathered her things to head home. She moved quickly, but stopped at the door to kiss Rob deeply. Turning, she pulled Kendra close.

Kendra expected a hug and was numbed by surprise as she felt lips against her own, a warm, spicy tongue slipping between them. She tried to relax, feeling disconnected again, and kissed back. A few seconds and hurried goodbyes later, Marta was gone.

She was still short of sleep, overloaded on input from what had been the busiest day of her life, and so made her way next door to her own bed with an apology to Rob. She had time for perhaps another div of sleep, if she wasn’t too groggy to catch it.

The next morning, there was a knock at her door, just after she woke. She answered it wrapped in a towel and still bleary from waking, and accepted a package from a System Express courier. He was young, and pretended not to stare at her as she signed for it.

She felt amused again that signatures were used and not thumbprints. Very old-fashioned, these people. She opened the envelope, which was from an insurance company, and dumped out the contents. The cover letter was full of the usual greetings, etc. Then she read the part about “Associated Liability wishes to thank you for your assistance in yesterday’s accident at the FreeBank Tower construction site. We are informed that you donated labor and materials to assist in extricating our client and that your clothing was damaged on the scene. The enclosed draft is reimbursement for your losses and any inconvenience you may have suffered. If it is insufficient, please contact our office to discuss the matter. Also, we welcome the opportunity to discuss your own insurance needs at any time.” It was signed by a company agent and attached was a draft rom. She plugged it into her comm and gasped. Cr1000. That would replace her cloak, shirt, shoes, water bottle and buy her two more outfits besides. Expensive ones.

She woke Rob, who had stayed up to work. He shook his head to wake himself and said, “Sure, it’s legit. They’d rather pay you than the professionals. It’s great PR and it’s the decent thing to do. I got mine a little while ago. Cash it and enjoy.” He stumbled back in to sleep and she cleaned up for work. It still felt odd to bathe twice a day, but everyone here did so at least that often.

She had to repeat the story for Myrol, Karen, Hiroki and the others. Oddly, she still wasn’t scared. It had just been too shocking to feel real and she hadn’t had to do anything but pass bandages and assist. The danger had never really impinged on her, so she hadn’t had cause for worry.

It was a long day and brisk. The holiday weekend litter and all the gear had been torn down and piled for removal. She set lawn machines to trim and fluff the worn grass and reseeded a couple of bare spots. She kept notes and photos of the areas she passed, so they could be taken care of later. Sprinklers were dousing the dry growth, trying to revive it from the ordeal. There were still scattered pieces of trash under bushes for her to retrieve. She could see other workers chasing out the occasional leftover drunk, staggering awake and heading home. Apparently, some people celebrated for days afterward.

Children from five to teen by Earth reckoning screamed cheerfully through the park. Few adults were in sight. She was finally getting used to the idea that it was safe for kids to do that. No one would abduct them, bullies were rare and the older kids would stop the few there were. Nor would parents sue the park if a child had a minor accident. It was accepted that parents bore sole responsibility for their children.

One of the local gangs came through, music blaring. They wore red bandannas and canine teeth and black cloaks, shades and lipstick. That would be the Masters. She’d been shocked to find gangs here and even more shocked to find they were not feared or hated. They were nothing like the petty thugs in Earth cities.

The Masters claimed as territory an eight-block square north of the park. Their boast was that it was the safest, cleanest urban environment in the system. To that end, they patrolled regularly at all hours, organized community sales and cleaning parties and kept vandalism and petty crime under control. There’d been a minor incident the month before, when a troubled youth had been caught graffitiing a building with bonded polymer spray. Two of the Masters had scuffled with him and he’d tried to resist. He hadn’t been seriously hurt, but City Safety had taken him to a hospital for observation. The gang had apologized publicly, but stressed that they would not allow that behavior on their “pave.”

The idea of street gangs being a desirable and safe environment for youths and a useful aid to safety in the city was an irony that made Kendra chuckle every time she saw them. They were the politest, most helpful teens she’d ever met, even asking permission before raiding the trash for useful items for sales or for the poor. They’d donated and installed a climbing frame in the north playground a couple of weeks earlier and were talking about adding another slide. They were snagging trash as they walked through, too. A couple of them waved and grinned. She waved back. One of them wandered over. “Hey, lady, how goes?”

“Good. Tired,” she said. “That was a great display, huh?”

“It kicked. Hey, Ms Chang, the mother of that boy you found, says to thank you a lot.”

“Oh, sure, she’s welcome. Glad he got found,” she said. She remembered that vividly, too. The young boy had come running crying to her the week before. He’d gotten separated from his mother and had headed for Kendra as the closest thing to an official. She’d taken him to the garage and asked for help. She had no idea what to do with a lost child and had been scared of the responsibility. City Safety had already had a report and took him home a few segs later. The thought of a lost child in an Earth park made her shiver, but every time she turned around here, the safety of the system was pounded into her yet again.

The Masters wandered on, the music and their intense young energy fading in the distance.

Back at the garage, Kendra and coworkers cleaned and performed preventive maintenance on the big machines. As they worked, Kendra dug for more info. “Hiroki?”


“How is the park financed?”

“We get a small stipend from the city, quite a bit in donations from civic groups, corporations and wealthy individuals and user fees wherever possible,” he explained. “The vendors, concerts, any large meeting or reserved pavilion space generate fees.”

“Isn’t that rather sporadic? How do you manage cost accounting?”

“Very carefully,” he said with an inscrutable grin. “Karen does a lot of juggling to keep things as steady as possible. At the moment, we have a small reserve.”

“Ah,” she said, understanding. “And who owns it?” was her next question. Most of the outlying parks were clearly private but accessible property. But Liberty Park wasn’t, and the Freehold Constitution prohibited the government from owning property.

Hiroki grinned an inscrutable grin. “No one does,” he said. “It was always a public area, always maintained, and everything grew up around it.”

She said, “But then those people who squat here—”

“Actually could claim in court to own a chunk of land,” he finished for her. “It’s never come up, isn’t likely to and would almost certainly lose in court or by duel.”

She pondered that at length. Whenever she thought she had a handle on things, something else odd came up.

Idle thoughts aside, she considered her future. She was finding the work a bit challenging, but only as an intellectual exercise. She didn’t belong to anything here and it bothered her. She needed more to her life than gardening and plumbing and setting out chairs for concerts. The work wasn’t objectionable, wasn’t hard, but wasn’t giving her anything other than a roof and her meals. She’d been an equally small cog in the UN military, but could look at the news and see things being done that mattered. This was pure fluff and getting on her nerves already.

Her thoughts were interrupted when, several segs before quitting time, a brilliant purple coupe with garish green stripes and what sounded like a huge turbine pulled up across the gate. Marta hopped out, wearing what for her must have been scummy clothes—shorts and tunic. They were bright red and emphasized her figure well. Running up, she spotted Kendra and said, “Hi, dear. Do you have plans tonight?”

“Ah, no,” Kendra replied.

“Up for some?”

“Sure, what?”

“Concert at Dante’s, over in Delph’. My treat. See you at your place at six-fifty?”

“Okay. Thanks,” Kendra nodded, a bit surprised.

“Great! Gotta run—client,” Marta explained. She kissed Kendra quickly but hard, turned and vanished. The car screamed off the drive, all four tires leaving compound behind. As soon as there was clearance it lifted into the air.

“Ladyfriend?” Karen asked behind her.

“Ah, no,” Kendra said, startled as she turned. “Just a friend.” She was really embarrassed at being kissed in public and was blushing hard. She thought her ears must be glowing. She decided to mention it to Marta when they met up.

After work, she hurried home to get ready for the date. Rob was at his comm, working. He apparently hadn’t showered or eaten all day. He had to be busy, knowing local customs. She threw a sandwich together and handed it to him. “Thanks,” he acknowledged. “Did Mar find you?”

“Yes, and kissed me in public,” she told him.

“Hmm. I can see why that would bother you. I also see why she didn’t think of it. The two of you could be really good for each other.”

“Meaning?” she asked.

His grin grew back. “Never mind. Idle thought. Oh, your comm downed the info you wanted. Next time, let me know. I can find the stuff cheaper than most commercial programs and I get a discount on access.”

“Thanks, but you don’t need to,” she said, smiling back.

“Lady,” he said, turning slightly, “I buy my mem a googlebyte at a time. Twenty or thirty exabytes is hardly a dent. Not a worry.”

“All right then, thanks,” she said, acquiescing. “Did Mar invite you?”

“Yeah, but this block has to be ready by two tomorrow. I’ll be staying here.”

“Get some sleep,” Kendra insisted.

“Sleep is for wimps . . .” he began. It was a mantra of his and she’d heard it all weekend long. She joined him for the rest.

“. . . Healthy, happy, well rested wimps; but wimps nonetheless!”

Leaning close, she wrapped arms around his shoulders, licked his earlobe and whispered, “You need sleep so you can make love to me later.”

“I’m out,” he agreed. “Are we still flying tomorrow?” he asked. He’d offered her a ride aboard a combat vertol and she’d been intrigued.

“Oh, yes!” she agreed. She wasn’t going to miss that.

She walked into her apartment, showered and put on clothes from her small selection that was appropriate for evening wear. She chose a shoulderless tunic with a mandarin collar and stretch slacks in gray, with a broad belt for her pouch and holster. Done, she headed for the kitchen alcove and mixed up a soup that would have made Rob scream in disgust—thick with starches and with a paucity of spices—and ate while reading her loads.

The news from Earth was available in the Freehold system, but most of it had little market. There was an interest in trade and industry, although not as much as Kendra expected. Earth was regarded as a backward, slightly industrialized source for second-rate products. She appreciated the irony that the public back home regarded the colonies as rustic and rural agricultural backwaters.

Considerable digging had yielded what she sought. She found the listing on her parents’ business, saw it was doing well and wished again she could send them a message. They must think her dead by now and she wondered what they’d done with her personal belongings. Or did the government still have them as “evidence”? That was a common enough occurrence. Still, her vid gear, music, clothes and such wouldn’t have done her much good here. There was no word on her brother, either good or bad, but he often didn’t post to his site for weeks at a time, with all the fieldwork he was doing in grad school.

The general system news was slightly worrisome, containing many negative references to Freehold, its businesses and politics. The North American regional report listed crime, weather and special events. She had trouble remembering that it was only a day old, that being the minimum time for a message to crawl to a ship in transit, be received before jump and retransmitted immediately after. Most of what she had downed was the same news it always was, but she read intently, enjoying the closeness she perceived from loads written in a language she could understand. When done, she switched to local news.

If Utopia was defined as a lack of news, Freehold was not Utopia. A Citizen had been shot by an offended plaintiff and was hospitalized. The editor of Jefferson Live News announced that it was the seventh shooting of the year. That couldn’t be right, she thought. Minneapolis, at fifteen million people, typically had about fifteen hundred by mid-year, and firearms were illegal for all but police, federal officers and a few state and local agents. They had less than seven percent of that total here, per population. It didn’t seem possible.

The suspect was in custody and would be tried as soon as the investigators put a case together. Since a Citizen was involved, the government had hired an investigator on contract, having none of its own. There was a side issue of the contractor having previously been owned by another Citizen and hints that favorites had been played. Politics mixed with a murder was so suddenly familiar that she laughed in relief. At least some things never changed.

There was a huge financial row over Resident Service Labs. Since there were no government standards, most manufacturers paid to be rated by one of three large or several smaller rating firms. The firms’ integrity was their stock in trade. RSL employees had apparently been caught accepting bribes for ratings. Instantly, all companies rated by them had lost business by concerned customers. The other two large houses were promising to rate them as soon as was practical, but refused to rush the jobs, not wanting their own quality to suffer.

Quality Assessment Specialists had offered a discount to all the injured parties and was likely to move into the top three. RSL seemed destined for bankruptcy. So did the handful of operations that had bribed them, and their senior staff would likely be indentured for life. Simple enough.

The problem was that all the injured businesses, and all the soon to be former employees of RSL, wanted blood, as did the owners and shareholders of RSL against the employees in question; they’d been hurt and needed compensation. Several insurance companies were involved as well. There were suits from clients against the companies that had bribed for ratings, and by more insurance companies, who wanted settlements from both the bribers and RSL. There were more than ten thousand plaintiffs party to the suits already and more seemed certain. Then there were suits by employees against employers. Citizen Hernandez and four others had agreed to referee several mass settlements as soon as the facts of the case could be established and to hear the other cases as quickly as possible after that. Their regular case loads were deferred among several other citizens. The news estimated that the government’s cut of the settlement was likely to be close to half a billion credits.

In other news, the Freehold military was conducting an exercise near one of the jump points. An Earth fleet was on the other side and was conducting “safety inspections” of ships entering Earth space from the Freehold. This had happened before, she vaguely recalled. It hadn’t seemed important from an Earth-based view, but from a tiny nation like this, she suddenly saw the intimidation it could create. Earth didn’t like the lack of cargo manifests made possible by the Freehold’s laissez-faire approach to trade, but couldn’t do anything until the ships were in their space. Then, however . . .

They were apparently seizing some shipments, if the crew didn’t have a good story as to who they were transporting for. Both the carriers and the shippers were outraged and had filed complaints. In response, some in the Assembly were calling for more action against the Freehold.

Had she walked into a war? she wondered. Then she decided she had to be reading too much into it. It was just politics and something she’d never paid much attention to. Not until now, anyway.

She finished digesting the headlines and out of curiosity, dug for info on the Freehold Military Forces. She found a wealth of information and selected some graphs and figures as her first inquiry.

It was tiny! The whole military establishment numbered less than one million on a planet of two hundred eighty million, and thirty million more in the Halo. The Table of Organization & Equipment was actually available to the public, and listed tons of hardware—vehicles, aircraft, spacecraft, support equipment and heavy weapons. She was just treeing another search, with a note to Rob as to what she was seeking, when Marta called through the door, “Anyone here?”

“Come in. I’m just about ready,” Kendra replied.

Marta walked in and smiled. “You look good, lady. Grab your cloak and let’s go.”

“Okay,” Kendra agreed. She eyed Marta up and down and noted she was wearing a black unitard. It was cut high and low to emphasize her snaky hips and firmly muscled chest. She wore black makeup painted as spiderwebs across her face and her hair was tied straight down in back and left its presumably natural black color.

“That seems a little plainer than usual,” Kendra remarked.

“Yeah, well, this is social, not professional. Should I dress up a little more? Does it look all right?”

“It looks great,” Kendra assured her. “Let’s go.”

Marta had left her car running, which shocked Kendra. No, it wouldn’t be stolen; she was learning to accept that fact, but didn’t they care about pollution? Then she remembered that the fuels here were formulated to minimize it. They were also dirt cheap and the vehicles extremely efficient, if not economical. She climbed in and fastened restraints as Marta nailed the throttle again.

Kendra hung on in terror as Marta wove through traffic and north out of town. Her responses to Marta’s cheerful conversation were rather terse, because she kept remembering that there were no traffic laws, only advisories. Her mind kept seeing an advisory that two women were splattered here last month, so please slow down.

Once out of town, the traffic density dropped drastically and she relaxed slightly. It was odd not to be flying, but the view was interesting. Marta explained her plans. “‘Cabhag’ is the name of the band. They’re very eclectic, so there should be at least some of it that appeals to you, but I think you’ll like it all; they’re very good performers. We have time for a bite first and I know a great place nearby. You like lamb?”

“Umm, no. Unless it’s vat raised,” Kendra said apologetically.

“Oh, well. They have some good seafood, or so I’m told, but I hate the stuff so I wouldn’t know.”

“That’ll work,” Kendra agreed. She’d decided that marine animals were low enough on the chain that she’d manage to eat them. It still made her feel a bit adventurous.

She looked Marta over again and wondered what was bothering her about her friend. She was energetic, but so was Rob, so that wasn’t it. She was a little intimidating, and her career would take some getting used to, but that wasn’t it either. She turned back and watched the scenery. The north suburbs were buried in forest that was composed of Earth evergreens and local trees that looked like a cross between ginkgoes and palms. An old style, painted, non-interfaced sign noted, “Delphtonopolisburg 80 km.”

“Delphtonopolisburg?” she asked incredulously.

“Yeah. The first settlers had a twisted sense of humor.”

“No fake,” Kendra agreed.

The trip progressed and Kendra realized that there was little between the two towns. There was the occasional cleared farmstead beside the hardened roadbed and two little charge stations, but not much else. Breaking down out here would be a disaster, and the alienness of it all got to her again. She was glad to have a competent local guide and looked over again at Marta. They were just taking a moderately hard bend and her shoulders rolled as she turned the wheel. It was a movement that was perfectly average, but on Marta it was suggestive and sexy.

Kendra realized what was bothering her and wasn’t sure how to handle it. She’d been in an erotic encounter with this woman and Rob last night. Rob had told her that by local custom a date frequently implied sex. Marta might be expecting more than Kendra was prepared for. That was slightly confusing. What was very confusing was that she’d just looked at Marta and thought her sexy.

“Travel to the Freehold of Grainne and discover within yourself passion and sexuality you never knew existed.” It sounded like a ridiculous concept for a campaign and Kendra decided she’d never see an ad like that. She laughed to herself and tried to relax. Her mind was playing tricks on her. This was just a friendly outing. She turned her attention back to the road and tried not to stare at Marta.

Delph’ broke the rules again. It was a small Gulf State town with East Coast hedonism spilling out of it, transported across space and dropped in a far northern evergreen forest. Bright lights and dark woods clashed within meters and Marta pulled into a dirt parking area. “Lock the door,” she said. “There are a lot of idiots around here who might pull a dumb stunt like pass out in back and yack on the upholstery.”

If that was the worst risk they faced, Kendra thought it would be a very enjoyable evening. They walked toward a lighted strip and Marta moved closer to her. Shortly, she felt fingertips on her back, drifting idly down to her hips. Adrenaline rippled up her spine, and she was about to speak when Marta drew her hand back. She knew she should still say something, but had no idea what.

The Coracle of Delphi sat on the banks of the river called the Frigid Ditch. Marta requested a table on the edge and they were seated immediately, on a wooden deck with running water below. Kendra ordered a glass of wine and Marta picked a drink called “blog.” It was garishly bright and apparently very potent. “Mind if I light up?” she asked Kendra after they ordered.

“No. You smoke tobacco?” Kendra asked back.

“No, this is tingleweed. I don’t smoke often, but this has been a busy week and I’m celebrating,” she explained. “Like some?” she offered.

“Thanks, no,” Kendra said. “Has it been a profitable week?”

“Very,” Marta agreed.

The fish was good and Marta paid, as Rob and most others did, in cash, with a generous tip for the server. The amount of cash she was casually carrying made Kendra flinch. Very well paid indeed. That roll would be dangerous on Earth.

It was getting dark as they left and Marta led Kendra along the river. It was quite gloomy under the tree-lined bank and bright lights were visible ahead. Kendra had good night vision. She stayed close to Marta, however, because instinctively she felt uncomfortable away from the lights.

Fingers slid along her back again, traced a circle over her left hip and tightened around her waist. She felt a bit uncomfortable and shifted slightly. The movement put her shoulders closer to Marta and in a moment they were standing face-to-face, although Kendra wasn’t sure how. Hands slid under her cloak and around her neck and lips brushed hers. She was about to protest, but the sensation had caught her by surprise and she hesitated just long enough for Marta to start kissing her.

She kissed back, her brain disconnecting itself. It felt different from any other kiss and it wasn’t Marta’s intensity or technique. After a few seconds, she pulled back, although Marta was obviously willing to make it last.

“I . . . hm . . . ah,” she began.

“Yeah, I liked it, too,” Marta said, grinning.

“No . . . I mean . . . I think . . . this is a little confusing,” she started again. “I’m a bit overwhelmed by all this. And I’m not comfortable with public touching. Can we keep this nonsexual? Please?”

“Yes! I’m sorry,” Marta said, concern in her voice. “Am I making wrong assumptions? It seemed you were getting used to the idea.”

“Getting, yes. It’s still not comfortable.”

“Okay,” Marta agreed, turning back to the path. “I didn’t mean to be pushy. And I’m sorry if I got the wrong idea.”

“I don’t know if it’s the wrong idea,” Kendra said. “I don’t know if it’s the right idea. I find you very sexy and I don’t know how to deal with it, because I never found a woman sexy before.”

“I see,” Marta said. “After I come down from this buzz, we should talk about it. Right now, let’s go enjoy the concert.”

The hall was small, situated in a tessellated rectangle of pavement and looked very well designed acoustically. That aside, Kendra didn’t like the concert. The hall was clouded with smoke from a variety of substances. The audience screamed and yelled at the tops of their voices. The music was too loud, as well as being dissonant, complicated and in weird scales. The three musicians had an amazing array of instruments, from archaic strung guitars and similar items she couldn’t name, to electric and fiber-optic versions of the same, synths, glockenspiels, marimbas, electronic and acoustic drums and ethnic percussion and a dizzying collection of other gear including a hammer dulcimer. She missed the simple, fun melodies of Earth Phillippian and case music or even the mellow classical tones of death metal and swing jazz. Marta was having a great time, apparently. She yelled, laughed, sang along, wrestled with other attendees and even spent several segs in an almost sexual encounter with one man. Ever the businesswoman, she handed him her card as she wiggled away, giving him a final quick but thorough grope. The div-long show seemed to last forever and Kendra’s hearing was noticeably reduced as they wandered out afterward.

Marta was laughing and Kendra had to keep her steady as they returned to the car. “You f-fly,” Marta suggested.

“I think we should wait until you straighten out,” Kendra replied. She wasn’t up to driving a strange car on a strange road at night with no traffic laws. Flying with no automatic sounded deadly.

“Tingleweed, pixie dust, three stiff drinks, a stiff cock I almost downed,” she broke into laughter again, “and a violet zap. You fly.”

“Ohh-kay,” Kendra reluctantly agreed. She got the car started and cautiously pulled out of the dirt area onto the hardpan road, which was apocalyptically black. She lifted aloft hesitantly and followed the glow of Jefferson to the south. There was a standard beacon, but only as a guide, no way to slave to it. The only light was stars and the moon Gealach, which was unnerving. She did feel safer airborne, with less to collide with. She spent several segs getting used to the controls and the outrageous amount of dynes escaping from the engine. The impellers were very responsive and she enjoyed it once she was used to it, despite her leeriness. One didn’t get to fly often on Earth, and certainly not manually.

She turned on the receiver, sound only, and found a talk show to keep her company as she flew. She couldn’t handle most of the music but the talk had sucked her in at once.

“—UN is that they don’t grasp the basis of our system, either politically or socially,” a speaker said.

“No,” argued another. “The problem is that they grasp exactly what we stand for and can’t allow it to exist. It’s a pattern repeated through history. We don’t fit with the majority position, are successful despite that, and that creates a threat to their system, because they can’t insist to the peasants that they live in the best of all possible worlds when we’re doing better than they.”

Kendra’s thoughts were that most people on Earth—she couldn’t speak for Space Nations—had no real idea the Freehold existed in the fashion it did. She snapped back to attention when the second debater said, “—there’s going to be a war about it sooner or later.”

“I disagree,” argued the first. “It’s a simple lack of empathy but not critical.”

“Car, sound off!” she ordered, and it went silent. She was getting sick of alleged experts about Earth who’d never been there. And talk of war was silly.

As she took them silently back to Jefferson, she was passed by most of the light traffic heading south and was a shaking bundle of nerves as they neared the outskirts. She gratefully landed on a ramp at the ring road, switched from impellers to wheels and took the ground route. Glancing over, she saw that Marta was still asleep, as she had been for most of the trip.

“Hey, you,” she said. “Wake up.”

“Okay,” Marta agreed, stretching. “I’ll give you directions.”

“How do you feel?” Kendra asked.

A sadistic streak in her was disappointed when Marta replied sincerely, “Wonderful. I really needed that. I’m sorry it wasn’t to your liking.”

“I thought it was interesting. The food was good. And I was glad to see some more of the planet. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Left at the sig.”

Marta directed her through downtown, still hectic even at 8:70, which was really not that late for social activity, Kendra thought. Business was still in full swing, however. The day’s heat was gone and people were wrapped in cloaks as protection against the coming chill. The crowd thinned with the buildings and soon Kendra was driving into the wealthy section called Harbor Hills. She was glad to get into quiet streets; manual control in traffic was nerve-wracking.

She parked under the huge house, allowed Marta to lead her inside, then stared around in shock. She’d thought Marta lived with her family, but she was obviously the only resident. It came to her that Rob had very simple tastes, reserving his money for his hoped-for eventual Citizenship, while Marta lived a more flamboyant life. Well, that fitted her occupation and personality.

Marta took her cloak, led her into a sunken living area with a cathedral ceiling, disappeared and returned in moments with wine and goblets. She poured two tall, slender glasses of “Violet,” and Kendra took one. She raised the glass to her lips and tasted it.

It was a sweet wine with a powerful bouquet and her mouth erupted with the taste of fruit and flowers. As she swallowed, it seemed to evaporate straight into her brain and the residue created a pleasant warmth as it went down. She looked around at the decorations; mostly large starscapes, all signed originals. The furnishings were in soft earth tones. A few tasteful sculptures sat on low marble tables and a cut-crystal cabinet contained rare geologic pieces from several planets and systems. Overhead, a chandelier was hand wrought in iron and bronze. It was finally hitting Kendra that Marta was really, really, rich.

“Actually, I have another ulterior motive in asking you here,” Marta smiled, removing her jewelry.

“Oh?” Kendra prompted, tearing her eyes away from the magnificent room.

“I have a weeklong assignment coming up, as guide and escort to a visiting Earth dignitary. I want to dig through your brain for further background,” she explained. “If you do me that favor, I’ll give you a rundown on toys and techniques. There’s this one thing I know makes Rob squeal . . . Anyway, we could call it a fair trade, consultation for consultation.”

“So I am a professional advisor on Earth, now?” Kendra grinned. “I hate to break it to you, but I only have firsthand experience on one continent, in three particular areas, and I was a child when we lived in two of them.”

“It’ll help. And you ought to load up an ad as a consultant. If one customer calls, you’ve covered the cost. The second one is money in your pocket,” Marta advised.

Kendra realized that this young woman with only twenty-two Earth years could probably buy her contract out of petty cash. The advice was worth taking and she let it percolate in the back of her mind. Thinking as she went, she began talking about Earth: Her childhood, schooling, social life, politics, business, cultural jokes and clichés. Some of those Marta understood with adequate explanation, others were apparently lost in translation. Marta asked a lot of questions about social issues, such as music, sports, film, individual entertainment and of course, sex.

Kendra gave a lot of detail and poured out a lot of repressed feelings. She gave Marta an edited story of her departure, wishing she could tell more, and found herself crying, partly in anger, partly out of homesickness. “I can’t ever go home again,” she wept.

Marta began massaging her head and neck, and it did help. Kendra asked some questions and Marta explained her background. Her military training was in emergency medicine. Her private education included physical therapy, psychology, music, dance and business. Exactly the education a personal escort in a culture like this needed. Kendra wondered why so few societies treated prostitutes as anything more than convenient sex toys. Marta apparently sometimes earned more in a day than Kendra did in a month and no one tried to haggle over her rates. She claimed her reputation as a social companion was known citywide, and indeed, several framed newsprints showed her with various prominent people at major functions. The pictures were obviously taken with consent and the men in question seemed proud of her presence. Kendra was shocked to find that there were schools that actually taught lab courses in sexuality. Marta was a visiting faculty member at one of them several times a year.

“Do you get female clients?” Kendra asked. Marta was massaging her back, having taken her tunic off, and was working lower. She was using oil that tingled gently, warming the skin.

“Rarely. Women don’t usually have a problem finding company of either sex. When I do get them, they are usually celebrating something very special and sometimes ask for a male and female couple. Even if it’s just me, they spare no expense—food, liquor, intoxicants, neither of which I touch, expensive suites. They’re a lot of fun.”

“Do you enjoy sex with clients?” Now nude, her thighs and calves were being kneaded. Kendra was very relaxed, but not sleepy. Marta definitely knew what she was doing.

“Usually. Some I have to work at, some I simply blacklist after one encounter—I get about sixty-percent repeat business. And I always have the option of leaving, since my base fee is just to show up. From there I charge all I can get. But only about thirty-five percent are calls for sex. About fifty percent are massage, conversation and some posing or dancing. Fifteen percent are social functions,” Marta explained while working on Kendra’s feet. She gave some kind of subliminal signal and Kendra turned over. The massage started again.

Kendra felt Marta’s skilled fingers on her cheeks and ears. They drifted over her jaw and pulled lightly at the skin of her shoulders while Marta kneeled next to her, staring into her eyes. Kendra stared back briefly, then averted her eyes, looking everywhere except at Marta, finally closing them and relaxing. She tensed and inhaled as fingers stroked the sides of her breasts.

“Tell me if you’re uncomfortable,” Marta said.

“It’s . . . interesting, but I’m not used to it,” Kendra replied.

“Want me to stop?”

“Not yet. What do you want to do?”

“Make love to you,” Marta said, staring into her eyes with a smoldering intensity.

Kendra had been expecting a response along those lines and took a deep breath. Calming her racing heart a little, she said, “I don’t know how.”

“That’s fine. Or are you saying ‘no’?” Marta asked.

Thinking furiously or trying to, Kendra said, “Why don’t you keep doing what you’re doing and we’ll see how I react.” The attention, the drink . . . was this real?

“Okay,” Marta agreed and resumed kneading. Her touch became lighter, more caressing, and traced the lines of Kendra’s jaw. Her hands moved over Kendra’s collar bones and across her shoulders, following the curve of muscles. Eventually, they were trailing along the swell of her breasts again. Kendra tensed at first, then relaxed. It was a pleasant sensation.

Marta was fantastic with her hands and mouth, she decided, and her collection of toys, both automatic and manual, would take some getting used to. She accepted the attention and was able to reciprocate. The fact that I’m doing this again, she thought, means that it’s not bad. But it’s not something I’m going to get used to quickly. She shuddered as a wave of pleasure passed through her, triggered by a warm, sensual device riding low between her thighs. It throbbed and pulsed, changing timing to match her shaking muscles, and she bit her lip. She closed her eyes, reached out with hands and lips and drew Marta in close, her attention splitting to enjoy the old-fashioned sensation of fingers through her hair.

Moments later, she noticed that Marta was shaking furiously, her breath in gasps. The elegantly kept hands wrapped deep in her hair and pulled her tight between thighs corded with muscle. She felt another tingle, not quite orgasmic, and let her hands drift and tease.

Later, as they sprawled together on a deep, soft divan, Marta reached an arm around her, kissed her gently and said, “You have a marvelously sexy body. And you use it well.”

“Thank you,” Kendra replied, still nervous about meeting those intense, spearing eyes.

“Thank you. You’re the most exciting woman I’ve met in months.” Marta stretched out, her compact figure rippling. She reminded Kendra of a cat.

“It was . . . interesting,” Kendra agreed. “I don’t know when or if I’ll do it again.”

“Tell me about it,” Marta encouraged.

Thinking for a moment, Kendra said, “Sometimes, it almost felt as if I was watching someone else. It felt . . . weird. Not what I expected.”

“And what were you expecting?”

“How would I know?” Kendra admitted, “But that wasn’t it.” They both grinned and kissed again. “But thanks for a very educational evening.”

“Sure. Come on, I’ll show you upstairs,” Marta said with a nod of her head. “My bed’s plenty big enough.”

Marta’s phone woke them before the alarm. “Line three. Line three. Line three . . .”

Groaning, Marta sat up and ordered, “Answer phone voice line three Hernandez.”

Kendra heard a vaguely familiar voice say, “Hi, Mar, sorry to wake you. Can you talk?”

“What about, Dad? I have company.”

“Sorry, I’ll be brief. Your Earth client has cut the Halo tour short. We expect him sometime today or tomorrow.”

“Right. I’ll get ready and call you back.”

“Sounds good. Out.”

“Phone off. Curse.” She stood and stretched.

Kendra looked her again, noticing features, and the sleep fog left her brain. “Hernandez? As in ‘Citizen’?”

Marta nodded, began limbering exercises and said, “My father. You know him?”

Kendra replied, “He’s handling my case. Oh, my God.”

Marta shrugged in the middle of a bend. “Your business and his, not mine.”

“He hires his own daughter for a client?” Kendra was shocked to her roots once again.

“Does it bother you?”

“I . . . I . . .”

Marta walked over, gave her a hand out of bed and put her arms around her. “I keep forgetting that sex is very major to your thinking. Here it’s quite expected and a regular topic of conversation. It’s my chosen profession and I’m good at it. My father hired the best he could arrange for, who he knew was utterly trustworthy.”

“It’s still hard for me to come to terms with. It seems . . . wrong.

“I’m being paid a chunk.”

“That doesn’t help me.”

“Oh, well.” Marta shrugged. “Join me in the shower?”

Marta made another advance in the shower, which Kendra expected, and declined with good humor. “You are an insatiable little thing, aren’t you?”

“One of the reasons I love my work,” Marta agreed, while lathering her hair. The shampoo was an expensive formula with several chemical treatments and a couple of nanos, too. It did do amazing things to Marta’s hair, Kendra decided, but Cr50 per bottle was just too much for a normal person to spend on routine items. “Oh, and we have to bare your temples if you’re flying with Rob,” Mar added, reaching for a trimmer.

“Why? I’m not flying it,” Kendra protested.

“He left me a message to do it and I know from experience the helmet is designed for skin contact. Just up here,” Marta said, and Kendra felt a tickle. Marta clipped the other side to match. It reminded Kendra of the captail hairdo she’d worn in school one summer.

Back | Next