Tuesday was slow at the Epsilon 109 Portside Restaurant. Aside from the usual staff and a couple of engineers doing maintenance work, the docks had been empty all morning, and only a few people from the colony had been in. Shayla had spent lunchtime cleaning the undersides of tables and triple-checking the settings on the menu input screens. Kui had offered to let her leave early, but she didn't have anywhere to be, and even the few extra bucks she'd make by staying could be added to her savings.
Shayla had just taken out her computer to read another chapter of her book when the doors slid open with a pneumatic woosh. Quickly putting it back in her pocket, she jumped up from her seat at the counter. "Welcome to 109 Portside! Feel free to sit anywhere you like and I'll be right over--"
At the sound of the familiar voice, Shayla felt a rush of joy through her whole body. She looked over to see her girlfriend: her red hair tied back in a ponytail, her skin pale pink and dotted with a galaxy of freckles. "Gemma!" She ran to the door, wrapping her arms tightly around her.
"Missed you too," said Gemma quietly, returning the embrace.
Shayla held on to her for a long time. They saw each other almost every day in holo, but it had been ages since they'd been able to touch. Eventually, though, she pulled away, taking Gemma's hand instead. "What's going on? I thought you didn't have any time off until next month!"
Gemma beamed at her. "Somebody needed some replacement equipment shipped to the control base on Epsilon 95. Didn't want to pass up the chance, so I switched jobs with a buddy."
"You know you didn't have to." Gemma usually stayed closer to the core of the system, where inhabited bodies were clustered closer together, and work was easier to find. Coming this far out for a single delivery would probably cost her more than she got paid from the job. "Epsilon's not exactly a convenient place to drop by."
"I know," replied Gemma. She gave Shayla's hand a squeeze. "I just... you know... I thought it was worth it."
Shayla, overcome with a rush of happiness, responded with a kiss. It had been way too long since she'd had the opportunity to do that.
Epsilon 109 was the central colony for a small-scale asteroid mining operation, and only miners and their families lived here. To Shayla, growing up, it had seemed like the end of the universe - that is, until she met Gemma, whose parents worked on a scientific station weeks away from any inhabited body, researching the gravitational field of a yellow hypergiant star. They'd been in the same class of online distance students, and they were friends from the first time they met online. As teenagers, they'd shyly confessed that they had feelings for one another and started dating long-distance.
Gemma had finished her mandatory years of school early and now she worked as a transporter, ferrying goods between planets and colonies in a leased ship. Shayla was saving up to supplement her scholarship to the top-ranking university on Oshun, one of the system's central planets. Eventually, they hoped to get a place together on Oshun or one of its satellites, but in the meantime they had to be content with holocommunication and the occasional face-to-face visit. It wasn't ideal, but they made the most of it.
They hadn't seen each other in person for months, and Shayla had assumed it would be at least another month before they could schedule a meeting. It was unusual for Gemma to visit unannounced, and she couldn't be happier. "C'mon in," she said, taking her hand and leading her to a booth. "You hungry?"
"Not really, but I'm sick of calorie pills."
Shayla made a face. "I don't know how you can stand those things at all."
"Well, it's my own fault," replied Gemma with a sheepish laugh. "I'd been eating a lot of takeout, and I went over my food budget. The pills are boring, but there's nothing cheaper. But anyway. What's the soup today?"
Shayla pointed to the top of the menu screen. "Tomato with silkworm."
"I'll grab you some!"
When she got back to the table, there was a black canister sitting in front of Gemma. The label was hand-painted with a string of Chinese characters that Shayla half-recognized from the Mandarin course they'd taken in school.
"...Is that early bud Qimen tea?"
Gemma nodded. "Straight from the Heritage Garden on Chang'e." She grinned, almost triumphantly. "I remember you said you couldn't order it here, and you'd always wanted to try it."
It had been a passing comment in a conversation they'd had weeks ago. Most non-essential goods weren't delivered this far out in the system. Epsilon 109 had an excellent printing facility, so Shayla had no problem buying clothes or other objects that could be easily replicated, but everything else was largely inaccessible. Sometimes she couldn't help complaining about this, especially when it came to tea, which was available only in a few bland and durable varieties.
Shayla laughed with delight. It was just like Gemma to remember something that she'd practically forgotten the instant she mentioned it. "I can't believe you got this!"
"Actually, I had a delivery near the colony a couple of weeks ago. The guy at the shop told me this flush is one of the best they've had in years." Gemma shrugged her shoulders. "I mean, maybe he says that to everyone, but still."
"This is fantastic. I'm going to make a pot right now." Shayla set down Gemma's soup, then turned towards the kitchen. "Kui," she called, "could you start the kettle, please?"
"That your boss?" asked Gemma, patting the seat beside her.
Shayla slid into the booth, setting herself comfortably against Gemma's side. "Yeah, that's Kui. Didn't you meet him the last time you visited?"
"Oh, maybe I did. I'm not sure." Gemma took a sip of her soup. "Did he make this? It's really good."
"All the ingredients are from our garden," said Shayla, who couldn't help feeling a little proud of that fact. The Epsilon 109 community gardens were high-yielding enough to supply most of the colony's produce, and she'd been helping to care for them since she was a little girl. "Remember when we tested the effects of caffeine on tomatoes? These tomatoes are descended from the control plant."
Gemma laughed. "My parents thought I was going to be a scientific genius. They have all those projects backed up on their old computers."
"Little did they know..." said Shayla with a laugh of her own. Gemma's decision to become a transporter instead of attending university was a low-level source of friction with her parents.
"Kettle's almost boiled!" called Kui from the kitchen. Shayla got up from the booth, grabbed the tea set she kept in the kitchen for her own use, and splashed water into the little ceramic teapot to warm it. After swishing the water around and pouring it out into the recycle drain, she returned to their table with the kettle and tea set on a tray.
She wished she had her set from home - it was much more elegant - but this one was nice too, and going back to her house would have wasted the little time they had together.
Gemma handed her the canister of tea. "So is there something special about this, or did it just sound good?"
Shayla put down the tray and took a seat beside her again. "It's supposed to be one of China's famous historical teas," she said, measuring out the oxidized leaves into the teapot. "A lot of popular China tea plants are descended from this one, but they've mostly been bred for hardiness - the original can only be grown in environments that mimic its place of origin."
"I don't know how you remember this stuff," said Gemma admiringly. With a nod from Shayla, she picked up the kettle and poured the hot water over the tea leaves. "Okay. How long will it take to brew?"
"Just a few minutes." Leaving the tea to brew, Shayla interlocked their hands again. "How was Chang'e, by the way?"
"It was awesome," said Gemma. "I was just there for the afternoon, but they have an amazing Arts and Culture dome - they've reconstructed a bunch of different historical buildings, and they have a ton of gardens, and a huge art gallery - oh! I took some holos, if you want to see."
Gemma pulled her computer from her pocket and pressed through to gallery mode. "Here." She brought up a fractal-looking abstract sculpture in some unusually shiny metal. "This is really cool - I got a full scan of it."
Shayla couldn't help being impressed by the image, along with the sculpture - holo-enabled computers were expensive, and the only one she had was the desktop she used to talk with Gemma. She turned the device around, taking in the different sides of the sculpture and the room that contained it. "You're right, it's very cool."
They scrolled through more pictures. Gemma had visited one of the dome's classical gardens, taking video footage of the stream that trickled under a black lacquered footbridge and into a pool of lotus flowers.
She had some pictures of the Heritage Gardens, too, taken through plexiglass windows: "They're really serious about contamination, so they don't let you through without a full body scan and a permit." These were two-dimensional pictures, showing artificial mountains dotted with trees and thickly planted with China tea bushes. Shayla could just barely make out the ceiling of the enclosure at the top of the picture, hidden by a thick veil of mist.
"We should go together someday."
Gemma nodded. She turned off the computer, putting it back in her pocket, and settled her arm around Shayla's shoulders. "Yeah. We will."
After a few minutes, Shayla opened the teapot and examined the colour of the tea. "Okay, it's ready now. Do you want some too?"
"Are you sure? I mean, don't you want to save it?"
Shayla frowned. "Of course I'm going to share it with you! You're the one who bought it for me."
"Well, okay. I'll try some, then."
"Good." Shayla carefully poured tea into both of the cups. She tried not to wince as Gemma immediately dumped milk and sugar into hers.
They raised their cups at the same time, clinking them together in a silent toast. Like Gemma's calling her "babe," it was a habit they'd developed as children which had become a tradition. Putting the cup to her lips, Shayla took her first sip of the tea. It was fruity, slightly sweet, and delicious.
Gemma held back, watching her. "Okay, so how is it?"
"Amazing." Shayla snuggled closer to her. "Thank you so much."
"No problem, babe," she responded cheerfully, taking a swig from her own cup now that she knew the tea had Shayla's approval.
They drank the tea in pleasant silence: Shayla taking slow, careful sips, Gemma practically gulping hers down. When she had emptied her cup, Shayla set it back on the tray, along with the rest of the tea set. "Do you have some time before you have to go?"
Gemma nodded. "About an hour, I think." She grimaced. "I know that's not a lot, but I need to get over to Thetis as soon as I can - there's a delivery waiting for me there. I'm sorry."
"No, I understand." Shayla gave her a reassuring smile. "We'd just better make the most of it." She took their dirty dishes to the kitchen, where Kui was leaning against the counter, absorbed in his computer. "Hey, do you mind if I head out with Gemma?"
"Go right ahead," said Kui, with a cursory glance up at her. "I doubt anyone else is coming in today."
"Perfect." Shayla smiled at him. "Thanks for letting me stay on today."
Kui shrugged his shoulders. "Don't worry about it. Anyway, you girls have fun." She couldn't tell if he meant it innocently or not, but either way, she appreciated the sentiment.
It only took a second for Shayla to cash out. She entered the time on the input screen beside the door, then left the kitchen and met Gemma at the front of the restaurant. "Okay, I'm all done. Let's go."
From the Portside, Gemma and Shayla walked along the broad tunnel that connected the main dome of the colony with the port. As its name suggested, the Portside was right on the outer edge of the dome, and the tunnel wasn't long. Within minutes they were standing at the gate to the Epsilon 109 Spacecraft Port.
"Pilot of Pelican-Class Freighter N-123456," said Gemma, into the speaker panel on the heavy set of doors.
The screen just above it came on, and Nayla, who'd been Port Manager since Shayla was a little girl, gave them a friendly wave. "Come on through." At a bigger facility they would have been expected to show ID, but almost everyone working at the port knew Gemma by sight now, and giving the license number of her ship was just a formality.
"Slow day, huh?" commented Gemma as they walked past rows of empty docking stations.
Shayla smiled, a bit regretfully. "No slower than normal." The Epsilon mining operation was still profitable, but new technology meant fewer people were needed to operate it, leading to a slow but steady emptying of the colony. "There's less traffic all the time. Mostly just raw materials for the printing facility."
Gemma's ship was parked near the bulkhead. It had a massive, blocky body and a tiny pilot compartment that seemed like almost an afterthought on the designer's part. Shayla couldn't help being a little intimidated by its size as they walked towards the compartment hatch.
Gemma pulled her passkey from her wallet and pressed it to the screen on the hatch. It slid open, and inside, the lights came on. A computerized chime told Shayla that the control system was coming out of sleep mode.
The hatch opened onto the control room, which was as she remembered it: small and rather bleak. The control console dominated the room, with an assortment of input pads and screens displaying the area around the ship. The screen on the ceiling was sky-blue and shed a rough approximation of natural light, and there was a treadmill set into the floor that allowed the pilot to stretch their legs as they worked, but she still worried about Gemma's having to spend so much time cooped up in here.
"Welcome back," said Gemma, motioning her onboard. "Everything's pretty much the same as last time, but I put up a holo."
Shayla followed her gaze to the shelf above the console. There was a little holo of the two of them, taken the last time they were together - Shayla had been touring prospective universities, and Gemma had come to meet her on Oshun. They'd rented a beach cabin on an island in the planet's tropical zone and spent a week together. In the holo, they'd just gotten out of the water, and they were smiling into the lens with their arms around each other.
"I'm glad you've put something up," said Shayla with a smile. "It feels more like home."
Gemma shrugged her shoulders. "I'm still hoping to trade up once the lease expires, but for now... yeah, I guess it is home." She looked into Shayla's eyes, suddenly serious. "Especially when you're here, too."
Feeling a rush of affection, Shayla turned her face away. She knew what she was going to say next, but it took her another second to get the words out. "So... should we, um... go to your bunk?"
Gemma's face turned red. "Yeah."
Hand in hand, they hurried to the ship's sleeping compartment. It wasn't as cramped as it might have been, at least according to Gemma. Still, the bed was only just big enough for the two of them.
Shayla grabbed a seat on the bed and pulled her shoes off. "Come on," she said, and pulled Gemma down onto the bed with her, kissing her as deeply as she'd been longing to this whole time. Gemma responded in kind, and Shayla felt almost dizzy with the sudden awareness of their bodies so close together.
Gemma's hands moved to Shayla's waist. She pulled away from the kiss, only to press her mouth to the hollow of her throat, sucking the skin there hard enough to leave a mark. Pulling up Shayla's shirt and the bra underneath, she cupped her breasts in her hands, massaging them eagerly. "I've missed you so much."
The raw desire in her voice made Shayla shiver. "Me too." It felt wrong that there was still a barrier of fabric between them, and she sat up so that she could pull off her shirt, tossing it to the compartment floor. Then, as Gemma reached over to unhook her bra, she grabbed Gemma's t-shirt and tugged it up over her head.
"Shayla..." Gemma traced her exposed skin with her fingers, and then with her tongue, stopping at her nipples to suck them one after the other. Her hands roamed lower, coming to rest at the waistband of Shayla's skirt. "Um, do you want to..."
"Do I want to what...?" asked Shayla, not quite whispering.
Gemma cleared her throat. "Can I lick you?" She flushed red, but continued, one hand moving to Shayla's lap and cupping her pubic mound through her skirt and underwear. "I mean... I want my mouth on you down here. I... I want to taste you again."
A flash of arousal hit Shayla, and her inner thighs clenched. With an exhilarated, half-nervous laugh, she lifted her hips off the bed and tugged her skirt down. "Of course. Why would I ever say no to that?"
They were still figuring out how to talk about these things. For most of the time they'd been dating, they had been chaperoned by their parents on every visit. Although they'd been able to sneak away together a few times, they'd only really had the chance to be with each other like this starting a couple of years ago. At the beach house on Oshun, they'd spent hours exploring each others' bodies, but that had seemed natural, almost like magic.
It was different in the sleeping compartment of Gemma's cargo ship, in a bed barely big enough for the two of them, with only a short time to spend together before another long separation. This was the real world, and things were harder here. It would take a while before they were totally comfortable together, even if they worked at it.
Undoing the fly of Gemma's jeans, though, Shayla felt like she wouldn't want it any other way.
It took what seemed like forever for them to figure out the best position. Shayla ended up at the head of the bed, pressed up against the wall of the sleeping compartment, her legs spread almost uncomfortably wide so that Gemma could kneel before her on the bed. Her mouth was so close that Shayla that could feel her breath, warm against her bare skin.
"Sorry, babe," she said, quietly. "I promise we'll get a hotel next time."
"I... I don't mind," started Shayla, and then Gemma's tongue was on her and it was impossible to form words.
Gemma went slowly at first, gently running her tongue along the cleft of her vulva, then using her fingers to part her labia and lick the wet, sensitive folds inside.
Shayla shivered as sparks of pleasure ran through her body. After so long apart, being with Gemma again like this felt so good she almost couldn't stand it. She clenched and unclenched her toes, too embarrassed to let out her voice. She put her fingers to her nipples, still wet from Gemma's mouth, and began to rub them.
"You don't," she started, then trailed off as Gemma's tongue brushed just beside her clit and she couldn't help moaning. "You don't have to go slow..."
Gemma stopped and glanced up at her. "You sure, babe?" she asked, half-teasingly, then her eyes went wide as she noticed the position of Shayla's hands. "Oh. Oh, wow. You look so gorgeous right now."
"Thanks, but," Shayla squirmed a little, desperate for more, "please don't stop."
"Yeah." With that, Gemma put her head back down and started again - more urgently this time, her tongue pressing harder against Shayla. She flicked her tongue against the hood of her clit, then covered it with her mouth, sucking.
After months apart, Shayla couldn't take that kind of intense stimulation for long. She came with a whimper, arching off the bed.
Gemma drew back, not quite panting. "Good?"
"Amazing. Can I..." Shayla sat up, aftershocks of pleasure still rippling through her body, and looked at Gemma. "Can I try you?"
"What?" Gemma followed Shayla's gaze to where her hand had dipped between her legs. "Oh. Oh, um, are you sure?"
"Yeah." Gemma had always been more eager to experiment, and she'd been giving Shayla oral sex since their first time together. Shayla had never reciprocated - at first she had felt a bit too awkward about it, and Gemma had never seemed to mind. More recently, when she'd decided she'd like to give it a try, they'd been unable to see each other for almost half a year. This was the opportunity she'd been waiting for. "Come here."
They kissed, and Shayla could taste herself on Gemma's lips, strange but not unpleasant. She maneuvered herself awkwardly into a position where she could place her head between Gemma's legs. She was dripping already. "I can't believe you're so wet. I guess you... really like doing that for me?"
"You have no idea," said Gemma with a kind of half-groan.
"Were you touching yourself, before?" Shayla felt a rush of pleasure at the thought.
This time, Gemma's whole body trembled. "Y-yeah." Then she peered down at her, suddenly looking worried. "You're sure this is all right? You can breathe and stuff?"
Shayla couldn't help laughing. "Yes, I can breathe," she said, and then parted Gemma's labia with her fingers, bringing her mouth to her vulva.
She started with gentle laps of her tongue across Gemma's skin, assuming that the best method was to mimic what she enjoyed when Gemma did this to her. She could hear Gemma breathing heavily at the head of the bed, but stopped, unsure of herself. "Sorry, I just don't know if I'm... Does this feel good?"
Gemma gave her a smile and a heavy, shuddering laugh. "Yeah. Yeah, it feels really good."
Shayla smiled back. "Great." She started again, her tongue moving in circles, gradually coming closer to Gemma's clit.
Gemma's hands settled in her hair, pressing gently against her head. "Shayla," she said, quietly, like a warning, and her whole body tensed all at once, and Shayla could feel the muscles of her inner thighs spasming as she came.
For a while Shayla lay with her head in Gemma's lap, almost dazed with happiness. Then, moving further up the bed, she cuddled up to Gemma, wrapping her arms around her. "I don't know what I was worried about. That went just fine."
"Better than fine." Gemma's arms settled around her, in turn. "That was amazing. I love you, Shayla."
Shayla smiled. "I love you too."
Satisfied, they lay in the little bed together in a peaceful half-sleep.
"Someday," started Shayla, "we'll be able to be together all we want."
"Someday," echoed Gemma. It was another tradition of theirs, a promise they repeated every time they met. Someday they wouldn't have to wait for months, searching for days or even hours they could manage to spend with each other. Someday, when Gemma had to go, Shayla would know that they'd see each other again that night.
It wasn't always easy to believe. But lying in bed with Gemma by her side, Shayla felt sure it was true.
"By the way," she said with a grin, "if you're stopping by Saint Barbara anytime soon, they grow a Turkish tea there I've wanted to try..."
Gemma grinned back. "Sure, babe. I'll see what I can do."