“It’s a dying field,” Elsie said, “pornography.” She and Desmond were in bed together and she had taken to idly fidgeting with his body, as though he were terrain she was mapping: that was the term her industry used for relatively unmarked flesh. The terrain. Desmond’s terrain was very good. Modification: multiple piercings to his nipples, which were carnation-pink—color number AO763—and extremely sensitive. But that was all.
Elsie had met him when she was doing categorization work in West Hollywood and when she had been reassigned to the Junction, she had taken him with her: her colleagues liked him. They were always examining his mouth.
“You film me all the time,” Desmond said lazily.
She laughed. “I don’t film you for that. We have to contour-map you so we know the available surface for mods, the tensile strength of the skin, things like that.”
“Well, you fuck me all the time, too.”
“I do. And I eat vanilla wafers and hand-knit my own sweaters, but it must be conceded that by and large people have found more intriguing flavors and more contemporary gratification.”
“So you enjoy me ironically. Like I’m camp. Or like you’d make your own jam if you could do fuck-all in the kitchen.”
She traced his lips, which she had diagrammed assiduously: though his “unspoiled” state, if she were going to get all Little Women about it, was his primary charm, she had begged him to have his philtrum cut away, had shown him wave-charts of the effects of harelip expansions during cunnilingus, had had another insert done on the center of her left palm so he could fuck her in the new silicon tightness of its grip, but all in vain. It wasn’t only the still-intact philtrum that so delighted and amused her colleagues, though, but also his plain white teeth, mildly discolored only from a lifetime of coffee-drinking, not collapsible or retractable or even seamless. He was more work, and that was like the jam. She felt proud of herself whenever she managed to get off with him, as though she’d accomplished something worth the effort.
“More the latter than the former,” she said. “When Tim fucks you, he’s enjoying you ironically.”
“When Tim fucks me, he has me watch him do it.” Desmond smiled that smile with its separate, bony teeth.
Elsie rolled her eyes. “I should have known he’d have himself mirrored.”
“From shoulders to hips.”
“Losing the whole torso on mirroring is a waste of valuable terrain.”
“Though Tim doesn’t talk shop in bed, so there’s that.” Desmond rolled over onto his belly, away from her examination disguised as ministration, and took a gelatin capsule from the nightstand and bit it in two. He offered Elsie the other half. “Since you don’t have to work tonight. And then you can finish telling me about pornography.”
“Oh, what the hell.” She dry-swallowed it and then winced. Maybe she’d have lubrication done on her throat—Desmond would like that. And it would mean she could take gels without either having to run for water or feel the damn things slide slowly down, activating nerve-ending by nerve-ending. She relaxed, though, and soon the feeling of flowers blooming one after the other inside her took over. When Desmond stroked her hip, his fingers combing through the feathers there, bending back the rachis of each one until even the calami embedded in her skin seemed to hum, she gave in entirely.
For jam-making, it wasn’t bad.
Of course, he had her to play with, and she knew well enough how to play with herself. Two unmodified people would have been ridiculous.
“Pornography,” Desmond prompted.
“Right. It has to do with fantasy. Essentially, the word itself comes from porneia, a Greek word, usually translated as ‘illicit sexual contact.’”
“Derived from a word about selling,” he said. “I forget what, though. I did two years of Greek last week on upload but you know how that is, none of it sticks.”
“It’s not relevant anyway. But it’s good to see you trying to improve your brain, at least.”
“I have to have something to offer besides eccentricity, don’t I?” He parted her legs: left and right to each side and her central stalk up towards her belly. She wasn’t able to hold it up very well—the joint was weak and spindly, designed to imitate a Larecian proboscis, though of course they had seventeen and she was stuck with only the one—but she’d had a loop-chain put into the ceiling for it, and Desmond helped her into that very ably.
“As I was saying—” she said.
“As you were saying.”
“As I was saying, the key word here is ‘illicit.’ Forbidden, if you want to get technical about it, but if you don’t, if you want to get abstract, and I do, illegal, criminal.”
“There’s still criminal sex,” Desmond said, and he thankfully didn’t explore either of her cunts while he was on that particular topic. “Or criminal violence, I suppose, in erogenous dress.”
“What I’m thinking, though, is what’s forbidden by what you might call natural law. Which, needless to say, for the most part I don’t even believe in, though I’m sure it was extraordinarily useful over the years for your garden-variety purges and inquisitions and beatings and strained parent-child relationships.” The hamstring muscle in her stalk was starting to ache, so she brought her heel up to nudge him down to his work.
He took it on gamely and, she supposed, with a certain thoroughness, though it would take her hours to come like this. (“Only one hour, probably, with a harelip expansion,” she’d pleaded with him.) He would switch to something else partway through and that, maybe, was one of the other appealing things about him. He had a kind of—libidinal flexibility.
“Mm. Natural law being, in some cases, not what human society will bear but what the human body is deemed capable of withstanding. That varied from place-to-place and person-to-person. If you can’t improvise lubricant and you can’t relax enough without it, anal seems beastly, to wit, inhuman, to wit, a violation of natural law. So on and so forth. That’s very good, right there, thank you.”
He lifted his head, dark purple ringing his mouth.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Elsie said, and she meant it. “If I’d have known you’d be down there, I wouldn’t have gone blackberry today, I know you like rosewater. I wasn’t planning on this. I thought you were going to be with Tim tonight.”
“I don’t know how that’s working out,” Desmond said. His mouth twisted, but she didn’t know the expression: she almost never did, with him, since his face was so unlike anyone else’s. “So I might be over here more, if that’s okay.”
“Sure,” Elsie said. She tried to sound cheerful about it.
It would just be so much work, relying on him regularly. Maybe he would be fine with her using her clamshells or the trident-wand or the vibracombs two times out of ever three and just using him to round out the tally. She liked to come a lot—more than he did, with his lag-time between orgasms. He wouldn’t be missing out on anything, not really.
Sex aside, though, they would have to talk, and she didn’t know what they would talk about with him underfoot all the time. The Greek origins of certain words.
“It’s fine if you don’t like it. I can find somewhere else to be.”
“On Junction?” She didn’t want him to hear the doubt in her voice, but he was better at reading her than she was at reading him, so he might have. “You’re not going to be a very common taste.”
“There are people who like me for other reasons.”
“No,” he said, wiping her off his mouth. “Don’t try to be charitable now. Just tell me.”
“Charity,” Elsie said. “That’s another Greek word. Caritas. ‘Altruistic love.’”
“Just say it.”
“People like you for other reasons,” Elsie said, “but as far as someone to live with, why wouldn’t they find someone they like for those reasons who’s also a lot more fun to fuck? Or who has money, or a proper job. I mean, you’re funny, but you’re not that funny. You’re smart, but you’re not that smart. You know what I mean? Tim and I are the only ones in Junction that I know of who dig this whole Amish thing you have going on. You would have to be really incredible for somebody else to overlook the vanilla of it all, and you’re just—pretty good.”
He sat among her legs, looking at her. That facial expression she knew—that poleaxed look was the same on everyone, regardless of terrain, regardless even of species.
“I’m sorry,” she said, suddenly miserable. “You know gel makes me mean.” That was a lie and they both knew it. Gel maximized sensation and communication, it was an erotica-implement, so you could say what you wanted and then feel it with every inch of your body. No behavior modification there, not in this most recent issue.
She hated him looking at her like that and she hated the pettiness of being spread open for him even so, her stalk still suspended, her legs still widened out by his body between them. The fan pushed cool air against her. Even with as little as he’d done, he’d roused her—and if she were at the stage of their relationship where she didn’t know if she wanted him to stay and finish or go so she could have herself off more quickly and, in all probability, more enjoyably… didn’t that say it all?
But she wanted to be nice.
“Des, please. Don't go, I didn't mean it. I really am sorry.”
“You’re not great yourself,” he said. “As a person.”
“I’m the worst,” she agreed. “I’m one hundred percent petty bitch.”
“That’s the only thing you’re one hundred percent, then,” he said, like it was an insult, but he seemed mollified—maybe mollified more by getting that little inefficient whip-crack in than by anything she had said—because he lowered himself down again and resumed the careful attentions of his tongue and lips. It was another fifteen minutes—her body feeling draggy but not unpleasant—when he brought himself up and said, “Natural law.”
“Oh! Yes. So—so step by step, that goes away. The rule of law permits more as the natural law, for lack of a better term, permits more, though of course the rule of law is slower. And by now, as my team will tell you, the natural law of it all is effectively nonexistent, which is a damn good thing, because—and you probably don’t know this—it wasn’t that long ago that there were serious rumors that we’d start going extinct. As a species.”
He murmured surprise against her, his right hand up on her belly by then, fiddling with the new ero-zone there. He couldn’t hold the pose for long, though, and soon he went back to using his fingers in simpler ways.
“I mean it. We’d found the stars and the stars had found us and nothing else had ever gotten our collective rocks off quite so well. Part of that was emotional, and there wasn’t much anyone could do—the heart wants what it wants—but a lot of it was sexual. Nothing much happening between any of us if we saw regular alien contact. But if the aliens won’t come to you, and you can’t come without the aliens, well, you make yourself alien. Problem solved.”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “My jaw hurts. I’m hard, I can finish you up that way.”
“Will you last? Because if not, I’d just as soon—”
“I’ve got a cock ring.”
If he would only build one in, it would be so much more convenient. “Then yes, go ahead—ah, yes, Des. That’s it.” Her stalk freed from its sling, she curled it around his shoulder, moved her legs around his hips, spread the tendrils coming from her own so that all the suction opened up to hold him tight. He moved like a man snagged by a finger-trap, and there was the stunned look again. He thought he was so much better than everyone else, but who did Desmond fuck? He didn’t want people who looked like him, he wanted people who looked like her, her and glittering mirror-fronted Tim. People like him—people who wanted the alien but wouldn’t solve their own fucking problems—were the reason humanity had almost become obsolete.
Nevertheless, it felt good. He felt good.
“So now,” she said, not needing him to prompt her this time, the gel still making her loquacious even as it was making his blunt prodding of her open up into a pleasure that felt almost as good as masturbation, “now we have the modifications. And we stay home and raise our children and our marriages stay together. Well, some of the time, anyway.”
“None of that,” Desmond said, “comes anywhere close to the pornography question.”
She shrugged. “There’s so little we can’t do. What is there left to fantasize about? We dreamed of orgies and then we had orgies, we dreamed of tentacles and then we met tentacles, and then we had tentacles, and tentacle orgies, and so on and so forth. Whatever a person wants, they can have. Joan, from the next-door office, she maps interior terrain, and she says the zones of the brain people use to construct sexual fantasies are seeing less and less activity. And of course the industry’s taken a massive hit. There are still pockets of activity back on Earth, but they’re shrinking. No more fantasies to sell, and if you can’t sell it, the brain instinctively stops thinking about it. We’re a capitalistic species, we don’t hold onto what there’s no use for.”
“I don’t buy it,” he said. “Speaking of capitalism. Can you loosen up a little, please?”
“It’s not as good if I do,” she said, but she did anyway. A little.
“People will always want what they can’t have,” Desmond said. “Maybe once everyone looks like you, they’ll start dreaming of people who look like me.”
“Maybe,” Elsie said kindly.
She didn’t think so, though. She thought Desmond was a niche interest. Oh, he lit her flame—though less and less these days—but he wasn’t a growth industry, was he?
“And there are always specific people.” He grabbed at her wrists and let her grab him, let the barbs in her fingers prick into him. “There’s always—I want them. And I can’t have them. I want them, and they’ve stopped wanting me.”
“Oh, Des, that feels really, really good.” His blood was running down her hands. “Oh, you’re so warm.”
“I always want.”
“I know, baby, I know. Harder.”
But later, after, helping herself not to another gel capsule but to a tobacco-free cigarette, feeling her body unwind from its temporary stifled high, she said, “That’s still not a field, though. The individualistic marketing of one person, or however many persons, to another. It’s unfilmable. Maybe once we perfect VR a little more, VR with impressionistic data from the still-active fantasy centers in the brain—I’ll ask Airi about that, she works with those systems—but not now. And now is when our evolution is happening.”
“Now and later. ‘My vegetable love should grow vaster than empires and more slow.’”
“You did a poetry upload too, huh?”
“No. That I learned the old-fashioned way.”
“Well, for vegetable love, patience may be a virtue, but for the rest of us, I’m not so sure.”
“In a way, that’s what the poem is about.”
“I do want,” Desmond said. He pulled the sheet back up over himself. “I could get the expansion. The harelip.”
“Des! You really would?”
“It’s not a Greek word anyway,” he said, almost to himself. “It’s Latin.”
“Caritas. It’s Latin. You were thinking of agape. Of the Greek words for love: eros, philia, agape. Caritas is from carus.”
“And what’s that?” she said, wanting to sleep. She turned on her side, away from him, wondering already what she could maybe say to Tim in the morning to convince him to take Desmond back.
“‘Beloved,’” he said. “‘Dear.’ In the sense of ‘costly or expensive.’” He put his hand tentatively, almost delicately, against her back, against her largest section of untouched terrain.
“That’s nice,” Elsie said.
Her dreams were a blur of nothingness. At one point her legs cramped, the muscles in her thighs tightening, arousal gathering up inside her belly—but then it dissipated, as formless as dew.