"We don't have time to be happy. We barely have time to live well." -Mihail Sebastian, "The Star Without A Name" *** "You know," said Lord Henry, "I think this Kamil fellow might be the only virgin on the entire planet." Lord Henry and his wife lounged on the Jacuzzi patio with their guests, sipping champagne and watching the sun set over Peitho 9.
Peitho was renowned throughout the galaxy for its particularly beautiful sunsets. Lord Henry had one of Peitho's most beautiful homes. And he, his wife, and their guests were some the planet's most beautiful people.
It was, in short, an uncommonly beautiful moment. But all of them were much too drunk to appreciate it, or even really to notice it. No one could even properly taste the champagne anymore, and Annabelle thought this was a waste of a perfectly good and exceedingly rare vintage. But the cork was already out of the damn thing, so what was to be done? The party was small, only three people in addition to the lord and lady: Miranda Bonnycastle, Annabelle's closest and only real friend, and the twins, Zelda and Dorcas, who were not Henry's friends precisely—Henry had no friends, precisely—but the two people to whom he at least seemed to extend the greatest degree of cold-blooded kinship and recognition.
"Kamil?" said Miranda, turning as if drawn by the name. "Is that the new bachelor who just immigrated from Old Earth? Did you say he's a…?" "Yes," said Annabelle. "I heard it from his own lips: He's never so much as kissed a woman." She leaned over the patio railing. It was a ten story drop down to Peitho 9's famous Diamond Beach, the galaxy's most beautiful (and deadly) tourist attraction.
She realized her glass was empty and, without thinking about it, let it drop from her limp fingers toward the diamond-studded sands below. "How strange," said Zelda. "How exciting," said Dorcas. "If it's true, that is.
Do you think it's true?" "I do," said Annabelle. "He has a look about him: like a fawn with no doe. And he's young. Head of one of those tech companies. Robotics, I think." "And how did you find out about his…status?" said Dorcas, floating in the bubbles.
"I paid him a visit, of course, to welcome him to the planet," said Annabelle. "This was, oh, three days ago I think.
He was very charming, you know, and very polite, but when I made my intentions clear he said that he just wasn't interested." "That was a first, I imagine," said Miranda. "It was," said Annabelle. (Henry raised an eyebrow.) "I have to say, I was so surprised I might have embarrassed myself a bit.
And that's when he told me that he was, you know, untried, as it were. By way of explanation for his reluctance." "Amazing…" said Miranda. Could it possibly be true? Such a thing would be unheard of on Peitho 9. Some luxury planets were beach worlds, some were tropical jungle gardens, and some were planetary metropolises offering the highest of high culture.
Peitho 9's principle planetary attraction was sex. It was a Legal Age Only world, and more than 99 percent of its surface was a Clothing Optional Zone. So much fornication happened here on a minute-to-minute basis that the League of Planets had twice considered expelling the whole world on grounds of general good taste. "So what is he, queer?" said Zelda. (She had commandeered the champagne bottle and was drinking straight from it in lieu of a glass.) "Not at all," said Henry.
"I made inquiries of my own on that front." "A religious nut?" suggested Dorcas. He never brought it up," said Annabelle. "A freak? Did he lose half his body in the war?" said Zelda. "He's a perfectly charming and perfectly beautiful young man," Annabelle said.
"As far as I can tell he's nothing more strange or exotic than he says: a virgin." "The only one on the planet," Henry reminded them. "We should invite him over," said Dorcas. "RIGHT now," said Zelda. Henry shook his head. "Let's not be hasty. This young man is a rare distraction.
I have something more interesting in mind than a simple mass deflowering: a wager." Everyone sat up straighter. Gambling was the planet's second national past time on. It was, after all, a planet of people with access to so much wealth that they had to discover new things to spend it on. Henry had inherited most of his fortune; Annabelle, under her maiden name, still kept a controlling share of Ohmart Industries, the system's largest shipping vendor.
Between them they'd financed the construction of this castle, and married to secure a tax break on it before taking full legal ownership. Miranda was heir to the Bonnycastle publishing fortune, and the galaxy's 74th most successful novelist in her own right. No one was quite sure where Dorcas and Zelda got their money, but their names were aliases, and their faces were surgically reconstructed every few months to evade various interplanetary warrants, so it was best not to ask too many specific questions.) "I propose a kind of race," said Henry, shifting in the waters.
"The first person to seduce this mysteriously vestal bachelor and ferret out the secret behind his unspotted virtue can ask me for whatever payment she wants. Whatever is within my power to barter or purchase." Henry turned to his wife. "That is, assuming he's STILL stainless? You didn't beat us all to the punch and are just playing coy with us now, are you dear?" "Not at all," said Annabelle.
She looked around for her champagne glass, and only then remembered what happened to it. A robotic butler brought her a new one. "In fact, I'll bet against my husband on this. I don't think any of us can get this one." Everyone else looked at her quizzically, but she brushed off their attention. "I just have a feeling," she said. "There's something remarkable about this man, but I can't quite put my finger on it." "We won't stop at fingers," the twins said, at the same time.
"And we get the next dibs, since Annabelle already had her shot," Dorcas continued. "Agreed." Henry raised his glass. "May the best—or worse—of us win." They clinked glasses, and the rose-colored sun slipped into the sea. *** Kamil Isaac was 26 years old, president and CEO of Nexus Inc, and until recently had lived on Old Earth for his entire life.
His background check was a little thin beyond that, but he had a bought a villa overlooking Paradise Bay and apparently hadn't bothered to invest in so much as a security gate, as the twins were able to walk right up to his doorstep and ring the bell. Kamil himself answered, dressed in a one-piece jumpsuit from one of Earth's trendiest designers, quite fashionable by most planet's standards but stuffy and prudish to a Peithoian.
Zelda wore nothing except sandals and the smallest pair of bikini briefs that could hold themselves together. Dorcas wore what was technically a dress and covered her from neckline to knees, but which was so sheer that it could only be described as a net, and hid nothing at all. Kamil blinked at the pair on his doorstep, scratched his head (his hair was mussed, as if he'd just gotten out of bed), and said, "Can I help you?" "We heard you just moved in," said Dorcas.
"We're the welcoming committee." "That means you should welcome us," said Zelda. They walked past him without being invited. The foyer to Kamil's estate was an artificial forest of the rarest Earth plants and trees.
The carpet was live grass, engineered for maximum resiliency, so that after each step a person took it sprang upright again, as good as new. There were even imported fauna: tiny birds nesting in the tree's branches, and little running creatures scampering up and down the trunks.
Zelda cooed, delighted, as a bright green snake uncoiled from around a branch and dipped toward her. She kissed it. "I love what you've done with the place," she said. "It looks so expensive." "Is that pond heated?" said Dorcas. "Can we get in?" "Please do," said Kamil. The twins slipped into the water. They invited him to join them, but all Kamil did was dip his feet in.
The pair floated like nymphs among the lily pads, splashing him a bit. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your visit?" he said. "We're just here to get to know you," said Dorcas. "We know everyone sooner or later," said Zelda. "Sooner is better." "Lady Annabelle told us all about you," Dorcas added. "A very charming woman," said Kamil. He looked interchangeable with any number of other young, fabulously successful, mildly goofy tech trillionaires, as if they all rolled off an assembly line somewhere: thin and gangly, with a wide but awkward smile and furtive quality around the eyes, suggesting that he was never quite looking right at you.
He looked nothing like the Peithoians, who all enjoyed easy access to cutting-edge cosmetic surgery and changed faces and figures as routinely as people on other planets changed wardrobes. But he was beautiful in his own way, with a dark complexion and great rings of dark hair.
Dorcas floated a little closer. "Is that all she is? Charming?" "I understand she's also married." "Henry? He barely counts," said Zelda. "He likes the pretty boys." "Not all the time," Dorcas said. "But most of the time. Annabelle does whatever she wants." "But she says you said no to her." "I confess, it's true," said Kamil.
"That was a little rude," said Dorcas. She slithered up his leg while she said it. "But also a little sweet," said Zelda. "Maybe you were waiting for us instead?" "I think there's been some kind of misunderstanding," said Kamil. "I'm not—" "Can you offer us something to drink?" said Zelda. "It took us hours to get here, and I'm this close to sobering up." "It's nine o'clock in the morning?" "Exactly," the twins said, together.
Kamil shrugged and summoned a mechanical butler with wine. The robot presented two glasses on a silver tray, but the Twins took only one, passing it back and forth. "We share everything," Dorcas said. This was a lie: As children, Zelda would break any toy she was expected to share with her sister, a habit that continued to this day. Even so, it was a line men liked to hear.
Dorcas punctuated it by kissing her sister, and licking a stray drop of wine from the corner of her mouth. "I think Kamil is just shy," she said. "Or maybe he likes to watch," said Zelda. "Have you seen our Sense Videos?" "You might not recognize us. Those are from the old days, when we looked different. Do you like my tits? Zelda doesn't. She thinks hers are nicer." "I paid more for them," Zelda said, in tones that suggested this was an objective measure of quality that no one could gainsay.
"They're much perkier. I don't understand why you went with such a small set. Small tits are for people who don't have money." "Careful: We don't want Kamil thinking size is what's important," said Dorcas.
"We like all sizes, all shapes, all sorts." "As long as we like what they're attached to." The indoor forest was climate-controlled at all times, but suddenly began to feel rather humid.
Despite this, Kamil made no motion to get into the water. He seemed like he was waiting for something. (Possibly, the slightest clue what was going on). Dorcas and Zelda kissed again, slipping their arms around each other and drifting back into the water in a long, hot embrace.
They kept at it like this for a while, lips parted and tongues probing, before Zelda reclined against the pond's edge and let Dorcas kiss her way down the front of her body, detailing each (very expensive) breast with her tongue before lapping the fine sheen of water (which was treated to be not only entirely potable but also quite tasty) off her sister's belly. Long, wet strands of hair clung to their naked figures. Now and then, Dorcas paused to give Kamil her best come-hither look.
(Zelda, on the other hand, kept her eyes glued on the man at all times, with a look that was less "come-hither" and more "get the hell over here if you know what's good for you.") "Dorcas is sweet, but she's too wimpy for me," Zelda said, pulling her sister's hair. "I need someone who knows how to get rough." "I love my sister, but she's much too demanding," said Dorcas, letting her twin rake her back with long, filed nails. "I prefer a lover who knows how to be patient.
Good things come for those who wait." "We made a bet on the way over about which way you'd like it," Zelda said, nipping the tip of one of Dorcas' nipples. "But we're prepared to do whatever it takes, no matter which of us is right." "So why don't you come in?
You spent all this money on such a beautiful lagoon. It's not fair that we should enjoy it while you just sit up there on the shore." Kamil stood. A robot vacuum air-dried his feet and ankles. "It's been lovely meeting both of you," he said. "You're free to enjoy the grounds and the beach outside as much as you like, and come by anytime.
But I'm afraid I have business that's too important to wait. Being a terrible host is the price of success." "We'll wait!" said Dorcas, breaking off from her sister and lunging through the water to get to Kamil before he left. "All day, if we have to," said Zelda. "I'll be busy the entire day and night," Kamil said. "Please don't hold my rudeness against me." "We'll come back tomorrow," Dorcas offered. "Or the day after." "Do you have plans for the weekend?" "The WHOLE weekend, if you want." Kamil gave them a long-suffering look.
Dorcas blushed. "Maybe we came on a little too strong," she said, climbing out of the pond with water cascading down her body, like a renaissance Venus portrait. She raised her arms and let the robot jets dry her off. "But, look, if you don't mind us asking…" "Is it true?" said Zelda.
"You've never…?" She made a gesture. The young man looked taken aback for the first time. "That's a personal question," he said. "…but no, I haven't." "Are you a faggot?" said Zelda. Dorcas shushed her, but then added: "It's okay if you are.
This isn't like those fundy planets. We have lots of boyfriends we can introduce you to." "That won't be necessary either. Excuse me, I have a call." Their host left. Zelda scowled and broke her wine glass.
Dorcas tugged her lower lip in thought. They walked back to the rocket limo and locked themselves in. Zelda lay on the backseat while Dorcas gave her a massage. "Where did we go wrong?" said Zelda. "He must be some kind of freak. That's the only explanation that makes sense." "Maybe we're just not his type. We can't be every man's type, no matter how hard we try," Dorcas said.
"Honestly, I think he's fascinating. There's something about him, just like Annabelle said. I honestly don't know how to describe it." "Next time we'll approach him one at a time," Zelda said, muttering into the seat cushion.
"Some guys don't like the twincest thing. And let's assign someone to watch him all the time. If he so much as flirts with a waitress or looks twice at a perfume ad I want to know.
Can we find out who his doctor is? Maybe his charts will tell us something." Zelda's pride was stung, but more important than that was winning Henry's bet. If either of them could manage to take the bloom off Kamil's peach, Henry had agreed to destroy certain incriminating records about their real identities. Dorcas made soothing noises and rubbed her sister's back. "Patience," she said. "We'll figure this one out. Good things DO come to those who wait, you know." "I know," said Zelda. "But the only thing I hate more than not getting what I want is having to wait for it." *** "Of course it didn't work," Miranda said.
"Any idiot could see it wasn't going to." She fixed her earrings at the mirror. Annabelle's face floated in a holosphere behind her. "You tried the direct approach when you met him the first time, right?" Miranda said. "Well, yes," said Annabelle.
"And if that didn't work for you, then there was never any chance that the Direct Approach Times Two was going to work from the twins. We're just lucky Zelda didn't mark her territory by peeing on him or something. How do I look?" "Very clothed." Miranda was wearing a lavender gown and a diamond choker.
She spent a few minutes selecting a perfume and then applied it lightly to her throat. "This calls for a touch of class; a little romance; an active interest in who he is from the waist up.
And, if possible, a night he'll never forget." She added a pair of opera gloves to the outfit. "Where are you taking him?" said Annabelle. "I invited him to dinner at my place. …I have to be at least a LITTLE direct." Annabelle chuckled. "It won't work." Miranda looked into the holosphere. "Why not?" "Whatever Kamil Isaac wants, he can't find it on this planet. That much I'm sure about. But I wish you luck anyway, honestly." Miranda went to work on her hair.
"So much mystery about just one man. Tell me dear, what went on with the two of you? What aren't you telling us?" "You're as bad as Henry with all this prying. You know what he wants from me if he wins, don't you? Shares in Ohmart." "Oh yes, he's been trying to get his claws into your ledgers for years. He doesn't like you owning anything that isn't part his, does he? You must have a tremendous degree of confidence in this young man." "I would call it faith." Annabelle blew Miranda a kiss, and the holosphere turned off.
Miranda checked herself again, front and back. Satisfied, she went down to check on the rest of the house. By Peithoian standards, Miranda Bonnycastle was old fashioned. She wore clothes almost every day, and had elected for very little cosmetic surgery. She looked close to her real age (46), and unless Annabelle invited her, she very rarely appeared at any of the parties, balls, premieres, soirees, orgies, Bacchanals, or carnivals on the Peithoian social calendar. Strangest of all, she worked a real job, rather than delegating her business affairs to others.
She was in the middle of writing her 17th novel now. Although her house was as large and lavish as any belonging to her neighbors, she owned no mechanical servants, and employed no automated systems. Her home was staffed 100 percent by real, living, breathing humans. She phoned a message to the cooks and then proceeded to the chamber that she called the ballroom (although no party had ever been thrown there). A single table was set, decorated with a cerulean rose from her own greenhouse, and on the far end of the room a 12-piece string orchestra was warming up.
With a wave of her hand she opened the skylight, revealing the naked, dazzling Peithoian stars. She was just satisfied that everything was perfect when the tone sounded, letting her know her guest had arrived. Kamil wore a retro double-breasted suit Miranda found immediately appealing. He kissed her hand, thanked her for the invitation, and escorted her to the table, where a light but incredibly savory meal of braised greens and fois gras waited for them.
After dinner they danced (the first time the ballroom's dance floor had ever been used for its prescribed purpose), and then Miranda sent the orchestra and all the help home early so that the two of them could cozy up to each other in privacy. She taught him how to find the constellations of the Peithoian zodiac. Her hand slipped into his as she pointed out the stars, and a schoolgirl thrill went through her. "We've been talking all night I feel like I hardly know anything about you," she said after a while.
"Don't be so opaque. Tell me, where did you grow up?" "Earth," he said after a while.
"I never really had parents, although there was a man I called father. He's not with us anymore. In fact, it was when he died that I decided it was time to travel and see other planets." "What brought you to Peitho 9?" They sat cross-legged on the hard ballroom floor, facing each other. Miranda traced spirals in Kamil's palms with her fingertip. "It just seemed the place to go," he said. "I was told people on this planet are very…friendly.
And they are. But until you sent me this dinner invitation, I have to admit I was very uncomfortable with the way everyone approached me. I guess it always takes some time to get used to the culture on a new world." "Is that why you came to dinner? Because I make you comfortable?" "That, and I'm an enormous fan of your books." Miranda couldn't keep the smile off her face. "I've read them all.
I even have my favorite passage memorized. Would you like to hear it?" She nodded. He cleared his throat: "'There are feelings for which we have no words, and it's for them that we invented the term 'love.' It's a word that lets feelings run free, without the burden of satisfactory definition, while the real thing that is love moves onward and upward through—'" "Where did you read that?" Miranda was so shocked the dropped Kamil's hands and stood up straight as a fencepost.
"No one knows I wrote that, not even my publisher." Kamil, startled, stuck his hands in the pockets of his suit, like he didn't know what to do with them. "It's 'The Couch of Eros,' your very first book." "I know that. But how do YOU know that? I wrote 'The Couch of Eros' under a pen name. No edition appears with my real name on it." An icy, quivering feeling had set up residence near her heart, and she realized it was fear.
Kamil, with his guileless smile and almost stupidly earnest appreciation for the quotation, had somehow terrified her. He looked helpless now, like a man hearing a complaint in a language he's never learned. All he could do was shrug and say that he had no idea, that his father had given him the book years ago and told him it was one of hers, and he'd never even realized it was a secret.
"How he came to find out I don't think anyone can say, but I'm very sorry if I offended you," Kamil said. "I just thought it was a beautiful sentiment. Maybe I should go." "No!" Miranda said.
And then, softer, "Please don't. I didn't mean to snap at you. It's just been a long time since I thought about that book. Some of the memories in it are painful. I wasn't expecting it." She took his hands again.
They were gloriously warm.
There was no light in the room except the stars, but Kamil's eyes gleamed like two shiny diamonds in the dark.
She leaned up to kiss him, and as her lips came to within a whisper of his… "I really should go," he said, backing away. Miranda almost fell flat on her face, but steadied herself on his arm.
"You should?" "It's very late." "If you think I'm upset about the book, I'm really not. In fact, let's go to the library. I'll autograph a copy for you, as an apology." "That won't be necessary." "Stay anyway," she said. "Stay for me. Please?" He looked at her fully. "I had a wonderful time tonight, Ms.
Bonnycastle. One of the best nights of my life. I hope to see you again. But I know the sorts of things people on this planet are saying about me, and I know the circles you travel in. I suspect that you may have some ulterior motive for inviting me here tonight." Miranda bit her lip. "That's true. But I didn't expect that we would…that is to say, I didn't expect—" "Neither did I.
That's why it will be less painful for both of us if I go now. I promise this will not be the last we see of each other. But for now, good night." He left, and she got nothing except another kiss on the hand and a stupid, miserable feeling that she'd created a brand new kind of regret, one that would hang over her head her for years.
It looked like she would have to do without those prized first editions Henry promised her. And she had the impression of losing something even more precious, though she dare not put a name to it. She sat under the skylight for too long and then, knowing there was no sense putting it off, she made the call. Henry's face appeared in the holosphere with annoying promptness.
"Well?" he said. "Annabelle was right. I thought I had it, but then…" "It all slipped away. That seems to be this young man's MO. I wonder what kind of game he's playing with us?" "I don't think he's the sort who plays games" said Miranda.
"I actually think we're doing a terrible thing to him, and he knows it." "If he knows it and he still shows up he must be at least a little game himself. In any event, it's my turn now." "He wouldn't be interested in you, Henry. I may not have closed the deal, but I know the look in that boy's eyes. He definitely heard the call, even if he didn't answer it." "It's not me I'll be offering." Henry turned his chin up in that way that made him look like an unruly schoolboy hiding something behind his back.
"I'll offer him the one thing no man can refuse. Which, no offense to your lovely self, is something rather above your pay grade." "And what's that?" Miranda said, her voice flat and sad. Henry's eyes twinkled. "The world," he said." *** Annabelle had 6 feet, 2 inches of prime gigolo tied to her headboard, but her heart wasn't really in it. This didn't mean she stopped, of course. She pushed a gag into his mouth, shoved his head as far back into the mattress as it would go, and squeezed his body between her thighs until he squealed.
They had 50 more reps like that to go. That's what she was doing, but it's not what she was thinking about. In part she was thinking about Henry's party, which started an hour ago and which she should already be at. Everyone would be there—everyone rich enough, anyway.
Henry was stopping at absolutely nothing: Every floor of the castle was open to guests, from the private island on the rooftop (situated, of course, in the middle of the rooftop sea) to the boudoirs in the lowest subbasements.
Big parties were a weekly occasion with Henry, but this was different. The fascination with Kamil Isaac had spread far beyond the scope of just their circle; the entire planet was in on it now. Annabelle felt almost territorial. After all, she'd seen him first. Tonight's plaything looked a little bit like him. She squeezed until her knees hurt almost as much as the boy toy's ribs, and didn't stop until he thrashed like a landed fish.
Even after she eased off, she teased him by running the tips of her nails down his naked chest and watching him tremble with barely contained combination of anxiety and anticipation.
He really was good value. It was a shame she was mostly wasting him. Now, if Kamil himself were here… But no. Even if he became receptive to her (which she knew he never would) this kind of exercise wouldn't be in their future. She felt too protective of him. She'd realized that her unreasonable jealousy about him was honed less by desire and more by a kind of mothering instinct, riled up by his blind earnestness. There was a Freudian element to that (hence the boy toy), but not much.
She slithered down the front of the boy's naked body and bit him on the chest, then sucked one dark nipple while he wriggled. She imagined biting into a ripe apple and letting the juice dribble down her chin.
The worst part of all this was that she'd finally figured out what Kamil's big secret was, but she didn't think anyone else had. Everyone was bound to be disappointed. And Henry was going to be furious… "You are almost unfashionably late," said a voice in her ear. Henry had come in without her hearing him. She gave him a chaste kiss on the lips and raked the boy's chest once more for good measure.
"Lost track of time," she said, climbing down. "Thinking about our guest of honor, no doubt." "Everyone is." She went to the mirror. Should she bother to dress, or just go au natural? The flush around her breasts after a good workout was rather flattering.
She opted only to mist herself, giving her naked body a sheen, and then she followed Henry to the elevator (barely remembering to untie the boy before she went). Annabelle's husband gave her a look halfway between bemusement and envy as they rode to the roof. "Why can't I shake the feeling that you're setting some kind of trap in that cunning mind of yours?" "Because you never can," she said. "It's the secret of our years of marital bliss." "I'm going to win the wager tonight." "Winning isn't everything." "But when you have everything, you can't help but win." The castle sat on top of what was once the planet's highest mountain; when building at the altitude of the summit proved too dangerous, Henry had paid to have the top 12 percent of the peak removed.
He told people that the castle was an ancestral home, brought brick by brick from Old Earth and reconstructed here, but that was nonsense. The bricks had been baked from moon dust 20 years ago, and he'd paid the architect who designed the place a 700 percent bonus on his commission to have the memories of the job blocked out. It was a six minute ride up to the roof and the beach, where Annabelle found that nobody was swimming.
Everyone gathered on the sand with drinks in hand to talk about Kamil. "He's a eunuch," Zelda said as Annabelle approached. "That's what I've decided." "Impossible," said Dorcas. "Godgrey spotted him in a crowded elevator last week and copped a feel. There's definitely a payday down there." "Maybe he's just one of those asexuals," Miranda ventured, though she didn't sound convinced.
"Then why did he move to Peitho 9?" said Dorcas. "If you just want beautiful beaches you move to one of those other planets. People come here because we have a reputation." "God knows we pay enough for it," said Zelda. "Did you know the Baroness Tourvel wagered five percent of her entire estate on whether he would or wouldn't do it with someone tonight?" Dorcas said. "Some people have put up stakes of entire planets," said Miranda.
"Whole economies are going to rise and fall on that young man's affections." "Sweet Jesus, that just makes me want to win more," said Zelda.
"Can you imagine watching the stock indexes drop and know that you made it happen just by sucking—" The lights flickered. It was a signal. Downstairs, Kamil arrived exactly on time, dressed in an antique tuxedo.
Henry met him at the castle gates, and Kamil bowed to the host and shook his hand. "Lord Wotton," Kamil said. "How pleasing to finally meet you." "Call me Henry." He slapped Kamil on the shoulder. "Thank you for putting in an appearance. Why don't you walk with me and I'll show you the grounds—not all of them, of course, that takes all day even by tram, but let's at least give you the highlights.
Do you like the garden?" Henry's garden spanned acres, and a hundred mechanical gardeners worked it around the clock. The topiary creations were so elaborate that they actually moved, animated by mechanized skeletons. A dragon writhed in its own coils nearby, while, on the other side of the path, a family of giraffes grazed drolly on each other.
More eye-catching even than the garden itself were the "nymphs," Henry's personal garden wait staff, handpicked from a pool of thousands of applicants to frolic for 10 hour shifts every day. In exchange, they were given limited planetary memberships; Henry's way of giving back to the working class.
Eight of them greeted Kamil, touched his arms and shoulders, and asked if there was anything at all that he wanted.
He politely kissed the hand of each nude, nubile woman and moved on. "The lift is this way," Henry said. "You'll notice it's entirely transparent. I wasn't satisfied with other glass elevator models, so I commissioned this one. It's best not to look at the floor your first time, particularly if we descend." Henry pulled a lever and the glass elevator rocketed up the side of the castle, gliding to a feather-soft stop at a particular floor after roughly a minute.
The room they came to was carpeted entirely in red, and here were hundreds of partiers, almost all of them women, and almost all of them in various stages of undress. "The VIP lounge," said Henry, escorting Kamil to a crushed red velvet couch on wheels that slowly drifted around the room on its own power.
A mechanical maid who resembled a real woman in every way sat on the arm to feed grapes to whomever looked interested. "You know why you're here tonight, of course," Henry said. Kamil sat with his hands folded in his lap and gave the robot maid a polite smile.
"You're a smart fellow, so I'm just going to give you my pitch and you tell me what you're interested in," he continued.
"No, no, don't say anything yet: Wait until I'm finished. "Do you recognize any of these women? There's Roxanna Rio, the Sense model.
There's Felicia Turner, star of 12 Nights, 6 days. Have you seen it? I believe she's arranged to receive several prestigious awards for her performance.
Angelina Six has even taken a break from her 50 planet concert tour to be here. They're all very interested in meeting you." Kamil waved to everyone.
The crowd looked at him like he was the last horse d'ouvres on a plate. "My wife and her friends, poor things, could only ever offer you themselves," Henry said. "I'm offering you any woman. Any woman in the galaxy.
If she's not here, just name her and I'll arrange it. Your wish is my command, Mr. Isaac. Who will it be?" A virtual sea of the most desirable, exotic, and glamorous human specimens ever assembled under one roof waited for Kamil's reply.
He looked around, and his eyes widened, but only by a few degrees. Unsure what to say, in the end all he did was shrug. Henry wasn't upset. He took them back to the elevator and pulled another lever, and after a few moments the doors opened to a dimly lit room so redolent with the scent of perfume that Kamil's eyes watered.
Everywhere he looked there were beautiful objects of gold, silk, satin, and lace. On nearly every available surface was a nude body, some reclining, some entwined, some contorting into shapes and positions for which no words had ever been assigned. "Now I see," Henry said, guiding Kamil to a different couch. "You're a man of rarified tastes. It's not a question of which woman, but of how many, and what they're willing to do, right?
We call this the harem level. This wing is mostly for guests; I too am a man of rarified tastes. "You've met my wife, of course. A spectacular partner in all things, but she and I have certain understandings. In this room, anything goes. A true libertine so rarely find a venue worthy of his most extreme indulgences. Don't you agree. Mr. Isaac?" Everything here was red and shadowy, and the scent and warmth of so much naked flesh seemed stifling. The place left absolutely nothing to the imagination, for there was no act Kamil could conceive of, no touching, licking, sucking, thrusting, or groping, no degradation, titillation, indulgence, or thrill that wasn't on display.
Every size, shape, and color of body was present, and every degree of willing and eager compliance was being directed at him. "Where would you care to start? Or should I call a few of the more talented tenants in to, well, start for you, as it were?" Kamil cleared his throat.
"I don't think…that is to say…" Henry nodded and waved a hand. "Say no more. I see I've misjudged you again. My own fault, surely." Back to the elevator they went, and now it descended, careening through the castle's depths and into one of the subterranean floors. This was the darkest place yet, full of the potent scent of leather, rubber, and steel, the shadows punctuated by the hard packing sound of objects on bare flesh and squeals muffled by masks, gags, and nooses.
Contraptions both medieval and super-modern were primed, oiled, and ready to twist the human figure in ways that would make the most jaded connoisseur of the anatomy blush. The click of boot heels on a cold, hard floor engendered the silent but somehow distinctly perceptible symphony of every hair standing on end.
Kamil hugged the elevator wall. Henry nodded. "Well, it isn't for everyone." He pulled the lever and the door shut on the dungeon, but the elevator didn't move yet. Henry put a hand on Kamil's shoulder.
"I'll just come right out and ask," he said. "Do you want to visit the stables? Or maybe the kennel? I won't judge. I'll give you the keys and you can pop in and out whenever you want. Even I'll never know." "That's not it either." "Then what is it?" "I appreciate you going through all of this trouble to be hospitable to me.
But…" Henry leaned in. "Yes?" "The truth is, I'm just not interested." For a second Henry looked as if he'd been punched in the gut. Then a darkness came over his features. "I see," he said.
And then, deeper: "I see." He jerked a lever so hard the entire conveyance almost tipped over. They rocketed to the rooftop, stopping with a sharp DING! on the roof island. Henry all but dragged Kamil out into the middle of the luau. The crowd on the beach parted, astonished, and all noise and merriment ceased as every eye turned toward them.
Henry's face was flushed deep red, and his nostrils flared like an angry bull. Kamil brushed sand off of his tuxedo. "I see how it is," Henry said. "You think you're too good for us." "No!" "Here's a first: I'm ashamed," said Henry. "This kind of ingratitude shames me." "You don't understand," said Kamil.
"I'm very grateful that everyone has been so…hospitable. The simple truth is, I just haven't met anyone I'm interested in yet." "Then tell us what DOES interest you?" Henry shouted, putting his hands to the side of his head and pulling great handfuls of hair in frustration. "For God's sake, man, you have an entire planet in the palm of your hand! Don't you realize that?" Every eye was on Kamil. He floundered, unable to speak. After several agonizing seconds, Annabelle separated from the crowd and touched him on the arm.
She looked into his eyes. "Dear, you should tell them," she said. He blinked. "Are you sure?" Annabelle nodded.
"I know you hoped nobody would find out. But how much longer do you want all of this to go on?" Kamil sighed. "All right," he said. "If you think it's wise." He turned to the partygoers. "Do you all really want to know what's going on?" he said to the crowd. "Jesus, yes!" said the twins, together.
"All right then," said Kamil. "I'll show you." With that, the Virgin of Peitho 9 undressed. And once he was completely nude in front of the entire world…he CONTINUED undressing.
At first there were gasps when Kamil seized the flesh of his left arm and seemed to roll it down like a sleeve. Then someone recognized the significance of the gleaming, metallic appliance revealed underneath. "A machine!" said a voice in the crowd. "He's a robot!" Kamil opened the panel on his chest and revealed the throbbing battery core that powered his countless mechanical processes.
The inside of him glowed like a star. Everyone was rendered speechless. Someone on the 14th floor of the castle dropped a glass, and everyone heard it. Then, Henry started to laugh. "Well, this explains everything," he said. "He's not even a man!" "Technically, that's not true," said Kamil. "Sixty-three percent of my brain is organic.
I was ruled a Fully Mechanical Human Citizen upon activation 26 years ago. And as you can see, I have the same state-of-the-art external genitalia-simulation unit that my company installs in our Casanova Gold robots." "…oh, we have one of those," said Zelda, after a minute. "We used to have two, but I wore out one of the motors." Dorcas turned on Annabelle.
"You told us he only made robots." "Nexus is the first robot-owned robotics company in the history of the galaxy," said Kamil. "Although we've kept it quiet. There's so much anti-robot sentiment on Earth, it would have been bad for our share price if everyone knew." He closed himself up. "I came to Peitho 9 to test a new software upgrade that might allow free-willed mechanical humans like myself to experience desire, love, and lust in much the same terms you all do.
We call it the, um, 'Sex Drive.' "This seemed the ideal place to study natural mating compulsions, in all of their various forms.
But it looks like the programming is still inadequate to properly simulate the desired effect of desire." He paused. "Although lately I'm beginning to suspect that the problem isn't really me at all." There was some nervous laughter. Miranda smacked herself in the forehead. "Oh dear," she said. "Kamil…I think we may have given you the wrong idea about some things." Henry turned on his wife. "You knew. Somehow, you knew?" "I didn't know," said Annabelle.
"But I suspected. All it took was paying attention." By now Kamil had his clothes back on. Most people still hadn't said anything, but the crowd did not quite seem quite ready to disperse either.
Kamil cleared his throat. "Well," he said. "I suppose, if nothing else, I should thank you all for a most educational vacation." Annabelle laughed. No one else did.
But she laughed enough for everybody. *** Late night was turning back to very early morning. A cluster of meteors streaked blue and green across the purple-black Peitho sky.
Dorcas lay on an anti-gravity hammock on the highest hilltop on her estate, while Miranda walked barefoot through the flower paths and watched the sky. "And if you look very closely," she said, "you might just see the trail of the rocket taking the Virgin of Peitho 9 back out into the great beyond." "Back to Earth?" Dorcas said.
"To Minvera 4. To keep working on his new software." "Nice planet. I mean, I've never been there, but I've heard." "Me too." It had been two weeks since the party. Contrary to Kamil's fears, shares of Nexus skyrocketed after his big public outing. So too, apparently, had the number of marriage proposals he received daily. Dorcas eased into the next question as delicately as she could: "Did you…see him again?" "Yes," said Miranda.
"And did you…?" "No." Dorcas sighed. "Neither did we." "Where is Zelda, anyway?" "She left the planet unexpectedly. I think a process server is on her trail again. She'll turn up soon. Did you hear about Henry and Annabelle?
He's suing to void the terms of the bet. Insists she set him up somehow. I find litigation so unstimulating, don't you?" Miranda didn't answer. The sky was beginning to lighten. "Anyway, I'm sure he'll get along on Minerva." Dorcas bounced up off the hammock. She was wearing a top and a skirt and even stockings.
Miranda had never seen her so clothed. "You know, you COULD pay him a visit, once he's settled in there. He liked you. Everyone could tell. Zelda was so jealous she spit." "That wouldn't be a good idea." "For him, or for you?" "Does it matter?" "I guess not." Dorcas called the mechanical cabana boys.
They brought margaritas. One of them was a Casanova Gold. Normally she'd excuse herself right about now for a morning "workout," or better yet, invite Miranda to join her, but somehow she didn't feel like it.
"A whole lot of stars out there. A whole lot of fish in the sea," Dorcas said. "We should all go on a trip. Maybe to Saturn's moons. Just the two of us, and Annabelle if she can get away from the lawyers. Cheer ourselves up." "That sounds fun," Miranda said, and she meant it, but she knew it wouldn't happen. Life—or its closest equivalent—would go on, but somehow she was quite certain it would never be exactly the same.
She accepted the drink the robot offered her, and sat on the hilltop the rest of the morning, watching the rosy sun rise in the west.
It was another day in paradise. Or as close to paradise as money could buy.