1.3 Bailey Bridgman

I step through the gate to Ischarisla, living clothes and all.

I slip into dim-death immediately. A hot uncomfortable sensation comes over me. It's a horrible feeling. This is going to be a nightmare—a bad one. I'm tied to something. No, plugged in. Something drilling into my head. Something pouring over my eyes. Warm. I taste metallic tang. My blood? I can't see now. I try to open my eyes, but everything is blurry. Someone asking a question, mumbling? Doesn't seem like it's in desperation. It's calm.

Same question again. My eyes sting. I'm still trying to figure out what's going on. I open my mouth, and no sound comes out. Two forms standing over me. Something stabs into one of my wrists, and my arm and fingers contract. Contract hard. It feels like my muscles are going into a death-grip. Something's tied to my InteCast. Purging it.

One more question, this one just a bit clearer. "Do ----- ----- that ----- your ----- ----- ----- limitations ----- ----- body?"

Blink, blink. Furiously. I need to see. Blink. Eyes open. It's a face I recognize, and my heart drops. I try to say something, try to ask for an explanation, for mercy, for something, but I can't make a sound. Hellish.



When I'm finally kicked out of the Ischarislan gate, there's no way I can make the landing on the other side. There's no recoil time for my mind to absorb the images and sensations and—ugh, the uncomfortable heat. What the fuck was that? Luckily, my clothes right me without a problem, even to the extent that they make my entrance appear like a shaky landing I could barely manage myself.

"Kay-Ay!" The gate guard cries. "What an interesting shade of violet from your transfer. Quite beautiful!" Ghebrin—a short, stocky, bald man built like a tank—is something like a twelfth-generation gate guard. He knows his regular clientele very well; I'm no exception. "Kay-Ay, you've landed at this gate almost five thousand instances, and I haven't seen you stumble like that innnnnnn..." He holds the 'n' sound for five seconds. I'm used to this kind of thing. "A year annnnnnn—"

"Ghebrin," I say, still snapping myself out of the sensations of my awful dim-death. "Ghebrin, I'm cool," I continue idiotically, rubbing the bridge of nose. "I'm fine." Anything to get him to stop holding that 'n'. "Is he around?" Referring, of course, to my mentor, benefactor, business partner...

"Couyxtashim," Ghebrin responds with perfect enunciation, raising his brows for dramatic effect. I barely recognize the name. Doubful I've ever been there. I'd remember. "Something about collecting ingredients?" Ghebrin continues, shrugging. The thong curled around me makes itself known by gently contracting, but I manage to ignore it.

"Coo-yook-stah-shum?" I mumble, attempting to repeat him. "Not sure I'm familiar—is that IDOX charter?" Ghebrin shakes his head, laughing. I roll my eyes simultaneously. My mentor is something of a skipping daredevil—even topping my own escapades. I guess it's a necessary behavior if you want to find ingredients fit for the best sweets in the Ontoverse. "Is Bailey here?" I ask.

"Bailey?" Ghebrin shrugs. "Nnnnot sure, Kay-ay. Hasn't used Temponis superior in a while." He motions behind me. "Make way for the next arrival..." The gate behind me shifts to metallic green, prepping for a transfer from Schilaeza—maybe Panephin. Whatever.

"If she does happen to come through, let her know I'm at Ytras' Hold and that I should not be disturbed," I say, making an Ischarislan salutation as I depart the ResGate center. I head into the hall of customs, passing through without issue. This city's my home, and anyone involved with the Candymaker name enjoys a certain level of priviledge.

I feel the clothes gently pulling me toward my destination, but they're doing it carefully, not quite forcing the action. As I walk home and start my mental preparations for my skip to The Syntyche, I try not to think too hard about the passenger in my briefs. I'm ready for a short evening of sanctuary here in Ischarisla, and I'm really hoping that evening won't include the company of anyone else from Candymaker Labs.

It's nice to be in a familiar place. I was born a Systemian, but I spent some very important formative years in Ischarisla. There's something ancient and concealing about them that makes me feel like I belong. I can't really explain it any better than that.

Ytras' Hold is a nice, quiet, private setting in a few floors high above the central education center in Temponis. Typically I stay at my benefactor's laboratory and confection shop on the outskirts, but that's a hangout for all of us—a group of skippers that the Candymaker took in starting a little over 20 years ago. My upcoming commission requires that I have some privacy in preparation; being briefed on a mission by a pair of magic panties would probably garner some unwanted attention.

I'm in the education center, passing row after row of digital terminals. On the walls are cases containing preserved ancient documents with free replicas next to them, both in a broadcast for direct data exchange and in a cheap-looking physical print media, mostly for novelty at this point.

At some point when I'm walking to the lift for the tower, I feel the silky passenger in my briefs uncoil from around me and move up my side beneath my clothes. It curls around the back of my shoulder blade and comes to rest just out of sight under my collar.

"Are we almost there?" The thong asks in a low whisper. "I really need to air out."

"One more minute," I mumble quietly. "Almost." I step into a lift that leads directly to the three haven floors above.

"*Welcome to Ytras' hold,*" says a recording of my mentor's voice. "*I'm afraid the floors above are private property; please explain your business.*"

"May I sing a song for you?" I roll my eyes as I say it. My mentor believes it's a necessary precaution to have interactive passcodes. Simple words, numbers, or geometric patterns aren't secure enough; the password to the hold comes in the form of contiguous morphable information exchanges that appear to be nonsensical conversations.

"*I'm afraid the timbre of your voice is too shrill. I would prefer you to hum,*" the voice responds.

"The vibrations numb my teeth." I say.

"*I wake up at the same time every morning. Why do you suppose that is?*" The voice asks. I take a deep breath and close my eyes as I meter out the next response.

"You never wake, as that's the case, the task that's never done each day, is always 'never done' the same; you also eat your meals this way." The lift doors close and the box moves up.

"*Welcome back, Kalin,*" The voice says.

"You can come out now," I tell the thong. "And, uh, the rest of you can speak freely—at least while we're up here." The lift continues rising as the thong flies out from between my neck and my collar. The pair of boxers aren't far behind; they pull themselves out of the blazer pocket. The boxers begin filling out and face the crimson panties.

"Well...hello there," The boxers say to the thong. The thong puffs up and takes shape in response, hovering closer to the boxers.

"Hello yourself," the thong responds, wiggling side to side. Hell, I'm used to this type of thing in Vestinia, but at home—it's going to take a little adjusting. The lift stops, and the doors open to large room with floor-to-ceiling glass on both sides. It seems quiet, so I'm pretty sure I'm alone, but guests are guests, so—

"Make yourselves at home," I say. My suit immediately walks me forward when I do. Once I'm in the center of the room, my clothes begin stripping off of me, and I don't stop them.

"You don't mind, do you?" My blazer asks, already off of me, filled out to my shape and facing me. "I mean, if we wander around without you?" I shake my head as my shirt continues unbuttoning. The belt on my pants has already undone itself, and now the fly is popping open and unzipping.

"Like I said, make yourself at home," I respond. "I'd prefer it this way." I lift my legs for the pants, allowing them to slide off of me with my dress socks. I notice that my briefs stay on. I don't ask any questions, instead heading to the steel-colored spiral stair off to one side of the room. "I'll be back." When I climb the stairs and look into the well-lit room, my suit has fully reformed, and the thong and my boxers seem to be dancing around each other, locked in some kind of Vestian flirt that I'm not privy to.

Now I'm on the next floor. A couple of us have rooms up here—myself included. The first floor of the hold is mostly meeting and conference space, dining area, etc. The second floor is studies and personal rooms, and the third is leisure and common areas. There's a memo written directly on the electropolymer surface of my door.


Bailey Bridgman. Like a tattle-tale little sister. I press my palm against the entry sensor and wave my hand over the door, erasing the memo.

"*Kalin's home,*" My own recorded voice tells me as the door slides open. I hear laughter from the thong downstairs, and the sound makes me puff a sigh. Just as I head toward my closet to pick out some neutral, unenchanted clothes, a buzz comes through the system. On my still-open door, the electropolymer displays one of my hallmates and co-workers—Bailey Bridgman.

"*Hey there, Ricky.*" Adricksehn. Ad-rick. Ricky. She knows I hate that. "*Hope you don't mind company.*" I glare back at her image.

"Bailey—I've actually got a favor to ask. I need a day to chill out in the hold by myself." I sigh. "Can you find something else to do until then?"

"*By yourself my ass...*" Her image changes to the great room opticorder. My living suit is interacting with the thong. "*Nah, I don't think I can find anything to do that would be more interesting than meeting your Vestian guests.*" The image switches back to her face. "*What do you think, Kay-Ay?*" She must have just talked to Ghebrin. Now I wonder why I told him anything at all about my plans.

"Fine, then I'm just going to leave before you get here," I say, giving an obscene gesture to the opticorder.

"*Right, Ricky, you're going to leave in five minutes. Race you.*" The screen goes dark. Five minutes? That's all I need now—Bailey interrupting my relaxation time. I guess being a diplomat means holding back all your obnoxious tendencies for people who aren't so politically important. I puff around the room, getting dressed as I mutter curses under my breath.

All the sudden, my briefs shift oddly, and I let out a little yelp. I'm stuck.

"Hey, what gives?" I ask, looking down. After three or four seconds of being held in place, I feel points of pressure dance at my tip and spiral down my shaft. I can see the ripples in the dark red fabric gently gripping me, and my dick responds. "Hey, come on—don't do this right now." Not even a hint of response. I'm slowly being stroked now, and after I puff a sigh, I'm released.

I can move again, but the briefs haven't stopped playing. And why are they doing this now? I make another attempt at protest. "I can't very well relax if you're going to—"

"Trouble?" Says a soft feminine voice at my door. It's the red thong, shadowed by the glow of the corridor.

"Well, these things won't quit handling my junk. Outside that—"

"You're high strung. You know we can sense these kind of things. You said you wanted some relaxation, didn't you?" The thong bobs closer to me. "We've still got some time before your guest arrives." My briefs take their intrusion to the next level. My erection is standing rigid, directly out in front of me now, and the fabric is stretched around my staff. I picture Bailey walking through the education center, whistling obnoxiously.

Less than five minutes? Not really an optimal time-frame, but I'd be a liar if I tried to tell the thong it couldn't be done.

And I am high-strung—pretty much since my awful dream under dim-death. I need to focus on maintaining a calm, clear state of mind, so the thong's probably right. Maybe another session is just the thing to put my mind in the right state.

But I wonder if I'm just being pragmatic for the sake of cooperation. The way the briefs are playing, it doesn't really seem like I have a choice in the matter.

"Okay," I say, eyebrow raised as I look at the thong. "Lead the way."

Immediately, the random tugs and caresses become more uniform. They slow. My eyes roll back. The fabric has a really amazing texture. No matter how far it stretches to accommodate my cock, it's still as smooth as silk. I move to sit in a chair, but the briefs tug me backward instead.

"To the bed," The red thong says. "Give yourself room." I cooperate and walk in the direction I'm being pulled. I sit on the bed, and the second the briefs make contact with it, they slide me up, pulling my feet off the floor. The thong approaches, pushing its small fabric triangle against my face. It pushes hard enough to make my arms give.

And now I'm laying on the bed. My briefs have gotten me well to attention. They're spiraling around my tip ever so slightly, and I shudder as it happens, gripping the bed as I take a deep breath.

"Open up your Intecast," The thong says. "Don't be greedy. There isn't a whole lot of ethera here, and you're just generating waste heat anyway." When I'm all hot and bothered like this, the Vestians can use the Intecast's interaction with my neurons as a generator. It's their conversion of my sexual release into raw magic; if I 'open' the Intecast, the thong hovering over me and the Vestian wrapped around my pulsing cock can loop and store energy more efficiently instead of simply fielding and using whatever's in the air.

The thong bobs out of the room, and I hear a door slide open across the hall. Bailey's room?

"Ooh, I like this," I hear the thong say from the other room. "C'mere honey, I need pair of legs and a full ass. Jump in here."

No more briefs make something more like a vertical fold now, a soft emulated pussy. My hips thrust up in rhythm with the fold of stretched fabric surrounding me, and a few seconds later, I overhear the thong in the other room.

"Hmm, is that all?" A pause. "No, it's a very nice shape—it's just that I prefer my display to be more...voluminous." I hear a giggle. "That's what I'm talking about. Very nice."

A couple seconds later, the thong returns, now being worn by a pair of Bailey's translucent black stockings. The shape inside couldn't be mistaken for Bailey's though, and the decidedly thicker curves clear my mind of any thoughts of them even belonging to Bailey at all. The stockings walk in on their toes as and approach the bed, jumping up onto it and standing over me.

"You don't mind if I'm on top, do you?" The thong asks. Before I make any response, the stockings kneel with their legs on the outside of mine. I notice nylon stretching and gathering at the crotch, creating some subtle form beneath the panties. The stockings bend down and over my midsection, dragging their nylon ass over my rock-hard prick. "You'd better come for me," the thong says. "You're going to be a mess of nerves if you don't."

My briefs, with no outside direction from me, shimmy down my hips. The front pulls my cock up and down a little bit before pulling over the tip and allowing me to spring out. The nylon ass pushes down against my member, getting even harder from the tease it's receiving.

"Oh, fuck—wrap around me," I say. The ass shimmies back and forth, pushing my cock between its round translucent cheeks. I know that charging these Vestians is nothing but trouble, but it feels so damn good.

"Pierce me with that evil-looking thing already." I feel the cheeks firm up around my cock, and it responds with a growing throb. The magic conversion in the Intecast is running full-time, purging its cells to keep its energy storage under a 105% charge. This means that any excess ethera is bleeding back into the room—and there's a lot of it.

The stockings and panties are rubbing against me harder and harder; the nylon sliding around my prick making my hips practically respond on their own.

"Turn around and ride me," I command, reaching down and gripping the invisible ass occupying the stockings and panties. "I want to see myself inside you." The thong squeals as the underwear and stockings rise off me, turn 180 degrees and settle again. Now the nylon between the cheeks is sliding itself up and down my shaft, the exaggerated ass feeling like a heavy nylon bubble against my manhood. The ass lifts itself, getting me closer and closer to the emulated orifice stretched into the nylon crotch.

After a few seconds my animal instincts start to take over, and something in me senses that the thong wants me to engage myself—to take control and pour myself inside her. I let out a short grunt as I curl my hands around the ethereal thighs of the stockings, pulling them up my body. Then I shift a hand around to the back and lift the ass of the stockings, pulling the thong aside with a hooked finger. As I guide my tip into the soft artificial box, I sigh long and deep, hooking my hands around the form again.

I thrust up, and deeply. I hear a squeal from the thong as I do it.

"Unghh!" It cries, leaking an ecstatic laugh afterward. "Oh my GOD, you perverted little mammal! Again!" I thrust hard, feeling some of my own weight disappear. The thong's using the excess ethera hanging heavy in the air, magically pulling my body against her as I push myself into this surrogate lower-half.

" that again," I plead, letting myself down and thrusting again. When I do, I feel myself pulled again, more urgently than before. "Shiiiit yeaaaah," I croak. "If you want me to come in you, keep it up." The nylon ass and thighs bulge, and I move my hands around to the backside to grab on to the delicious shape I'm sliding against. The stocking waistband leans back against me, and when I look down, I can see right inside them. My cock is wrapped in a nylon sheath, pulling in and out—half though my own efforts, half through the excess magic the thong is using to rhythmically suspend my midsection. After a few minutes, I'm let down on the bed, by body rattling and my heart pulsing.

"Just changing positions," The thong reassures me. The stocking legs curled over my thighs lift up as the thong and stockings rotate around. With my member still inside the stockings, the shapely lower-half is now facing me. I give a little thrust once they're situated, and the thong moans. "Mmmmm, deep now. Deeeep." I feel weight pressing down on my midsection as the stockings sink into me—almost as if they're increasing their mass.

Out of nowhere I wonder if it's been five minutes, but a nylon foot brings me back to attention when it presses against my cheek, its silky toes playing across my lips.

"Time-is-of-the-essence," the thong says, tracing the stocking toes over my face. While this is happening, the ass of the hose inflates again, tightening around my manhood—which happily responds by pulsing back. As the shapely translucent ass starts bouncing up and down atop me, the stocking feet are pressing against my face with force. I start thrusting more violently now, thrusting my hips clear of the bed. "Mmm-hmm...that's it. Big finale now. Gimme your syrup."

While the stocking feet still playing and teasing my face, I feel the bed disappear from beneath me. I'm being suspended now as the ass jiggles itself over me. Warm surrender is overtaking me as my cock reaches the point of no return. I wondered whether the energy it takes to make me hover is going to deplete her, but before I can take the thought any further, we both rotate vertically.

"Give yourself to me NOW!" The thong shouts in seeming desperation as my body is flown back and slammed into the wall. The empty hips of the nylons are violently slamming my body against the wall, and the combination of this along with the thong's aching commands place me in sexual nirvana for a split second before I bellow a moan.

I feel it pumping out into her, and my arms wrap around the stocking legs near my chest. I pull one of the feet close and start licking it as the stockings rumble. As I fill the emulated orifice with thick liquid magic, the toes of the stockings curl and the thong shrieks delight.

"Ohhhhh...fill-me-up!" A trembling stocking foot caresses my face as I pant, emptying myself as my incredible climax peaks and ebbs.

Taraqa. This shit is exactly what I needed before this job. Complete surrender.

After a few seconds of total bliss, we begin hovering down. The thong giggles before letting out a long and satisfied laugh. "Wow. You really do know how to play."

"Wow's right," I hear from behind the thong and stockings.

There's only one person it could be, and when I look up, I confirm the presence of my vex-du-jour. Thankfully my post-coital state means that and I won't give a damn about anything for at least the next 20 minutes. "Been a while since I've caught you in play, Ricky. I know I'm a little later than I promised, but it looks like I got here just in time."

The thong and stockings roll off of me and stand up. I let out a little shudder of pleasure as I cradle my hyper-sensitive equipment.

"Do you like to play too?" The thong asks, walking toward Bailey. "You could have joined us." Bailey looked down at the approaching lower half and squinted.

"Those ARE my stockings, aren't they?" Bailey asks. She leans down to the stockings. "You're stretching them out quite a bit, aren't you?" The hips of the stockings swayed back and forth.

"Sorry about that," The thong says. "I can send them to wash themselves if you'd like." Bailey pats the stockings on the butt and looks up at me.

"Aren't even gonna say 'hi' to me, Ricky?" Bailey asks. The stockings turn around.

"Considering I asked you nicely for one evening of privacy—a request you apparently couldn't fulfill—I don't think you deserve a greeting." I stand up and stretch. Bailey whistles at me as I do, and I sneer back, looking for something to wipe off my cum-drenched tip. As soon as I grab a hand-towel out of one of my drawers, the stockings dance over to me.

"Wait, wait—don't do that. Allow me." The thong slides down the legs of the stockings, their legs jumping in the air to allow the thong to come off. The thong floats up to the tip of my cock and fills out again, pressing the fabric triangle against my tip and wiping me clean. I shudder a little and pull on my shaft to empty myself out as it happens. Instead of staining the fabric, my excess gets absorbed completely as concentrated converted ethera. Liquid magic. "Sticky sweet..."

Bailey, still standing in the doorway, can't help but laugh.

"Hey, Vestian." Bailey says, looking at the thong. It turns to face her and bobs over toward her.


"Instead of washing my stockings immediately..." Bailey pauses, "I've got a request to make." Bailey beckons the thong closer with a finger, and when it's near her she bends down and whispers something.

"Pretty easy, in my current state..." The thong spouts, apparently excited by what Bailey asked. It turns back to me. "Kalin, do you mind if..."

"Whatever you want to do, so long as it doesn't affect our trip." My magic briefs hover toward me. "I'm getting dressed. We leave at central nadir, so don't run off anywhere." The thong turns back to Bailey.

"We'll start right away," the thong says. They leave the room, and the stockings follow closely behind, passing Bailey.

"I guess I owe you a pair of stockings," I say to Bailey. I sit on my bed as my Vestian briefs slide up my legs. Bailey laughs again.

"Not at all, Kay," She says playfully. "In fact, your cute little thong friend is going to permanently imbue them for me." I think for a second about the thong's capacity to do that. If it can bring other things to life without critical energy loss— "I'm the one that might end up owing you," Bailey continues, cutting off my thoughts.

"You're already into me for a few," I tell her, standing up as my underwear adjusts me. I shudder a bit when the fabric laps at my flaccid and still slightly-moist cock. When I turn to Bailey, that's where her attention is drawn. "Up here, Bridgman." She bites her lip.

"Right. I'm not supposed to stare at your new magic undies...or notice how very much you're enjoying their company." I just smile. "You're being very calm, Rick-y. I'm not used to it." I tap my Neuropause on the back of my neck. She hates the thing. Says it's cheating.

"Don't think you're not irritating me," I say, tossing a white t-shirt over me. I lean in, but she doesn't flinch a bit. "You are." I turn away from her to look for my slacks. "But you're not really a concern to me right now, so I'm mostly ignoring you." She smirks.

"Spoilsport. Keep your lips as tight as your asshole. See if I care." Bridgman. Such a vile mouth for an expert diplomat.

"Big commission. Transport," I say. I think about the implications of wearing my Vestian briefs in the Syntyche, realizing that being by myself on the return trip would make things easier. "Hey, slide off, okay? I'll wear you as soon as I get back." My briefs cradle me for a second before dropping off of me. As I head for my underwear drawer, Bailey shifts her weight in the doorway. My Vestian Briefs pick themselves back up and dance toward Bailey.

"Nice vacation big, or retirement big?" Bailey asks, watching the underwear.

"Permanent social-correction big," I respond, slipping normal, non-living underwear on again. "My destination is the Syntyche." Her expression changes immediately. Conversation isn't so light anymore.

"Kalin, are you serious?" I turn back and nod steadily, and she steps into the room and approaches me. "Inside the ResGate banks, then? Some kind of hand off?" I don't look at her when I shake my head. "You're bluffing, Kalin. You know that the moment you step outside of the IDOX charter space—"

"I know, Bridgman," I cut in. "I'm well aware." I look through my closet and pick out another dress shirt despite the clean one I discarded a couple of minutes before.

"Kalin, stop doing what you're doing for a second and look at me." It's rare for us to cut the banter. Shit. She knows this isn't the first time I've done something dangerous.

"I'm looking," I say. "What is it?"

"Do you have to be so aloof?" She asks. I roll my eyes and continue what I'm doing. "Kalin, turn off that damn neuropause and be human for a second. Talk to me."

"Bridgman, I have to be aloof right now. I'm about to make one of the most likely career-ending transport runs I've ever made, and my psychometry has to be ON POINT." And, really, the Neuropause isn't even on. I'm just being hard on her. "It was in my best interest—and probably yours, really—for me to spend the night here undisturbed." Now I stop what I'm doing again to stare at her. She looks hurt, and the tiniest part of me feels bad for telling her off.

But this is Bailey Bridgman we're talking about. She's a big girl. She's handled far worse news.

"If something happens to you—"

"My affairs are sorted," I say, cutting her off again. "You've got about a tenth stake in my possessions, actually, so if something happens to me, you get a lot of cool new toys at the very least."

"Kalin, that's a terrible thi—"

"And be sure and thank the boss for me," I say, refusing to let her finish. I give her a flat smile. "So there. All wrapped up." She looks up at me, glassy. I'm overdoing this, and I know it. My nerves are showing through already. This is exactly what I don't need right now. "Bailey, if you're any kind of friend to me, you will get your shit together right now—because it's not helping." Her expression shifts to anger.

"We joke around a lot, Kalin, but—"


"LET ME FUCKING SPEAK!" She shouts. Bridgman on an emotional tirade is all-new to me. Though this discussion can't be helping my state of mind, she is an old friend, and she deserves my attention. "You don't make it sound like a commission," She says. "You make it sound like you're happily jumping into your grave." Quieter. Still angry.

"Technically, we don't even know what happens to Syntyche criminals," I say casually. "Ever met one?" I decide to ease up and place my hand on her shoulder. She pulls away.

"Kalin, when skippers don't return from The Syntyche, we don't assume they're on Gerno Line for permanent vacation." She grabs my arm as I start to walk away. "You know that."

"I'm doing this," I reply. "I took the the job. I'm not backing out." Bailey's eyes narrow for a second.

"For what kind of pay?" I shrug.

"To be owed a favor from dimensional royalty," I say. "But listen—I'm going to be fine. Really. I just need to relax and sort out my shit before I jump. I'm sorry for being so cold, it's just—you know how I am. I need my head in this." I look into her eyes. She's calming now, and I need to be nice. We've been working together for a long time, and whatever issues we've had getting along in the past don't matter. She's truly concerned, and it's something I've never really seen before. Time to be gentle. "I thought it better not to worry anyone," I explain. "I just wanted to be alone tonight, prep myself, do the job, and get back."

"And if you did disappear?" She asked. "If I didn't happen to be on Ischarisla to find out where you were headed?"

"Then eventually you'd ask Ghebrin, and Ghebrin would tell you I went to the Syntyche," I say. "And then, you or Lijie or the boss would run a backlog on my Neuropause and find out where the signal was last corrupted or terminated. And then—if you were stupid—you'd go to the Syntyche yourself."

"To do what?"

"To rescue me, of course." She scowls at me and pushes me so hard that I back into the corner of my bed.

"I always hoped you'd grow up before you got yourself killed," Bailey says, doing her best now to echo my non-chalance. "If you want to fuck with the Syntyche, go for it. If you're not back by the next central nadir, shall I take my ten percent?"

"By zenith," I say, "If I'm not back by zenith, something went wrong." Bailey puffs. Clearly I wasn't meant to take her question seriously.

"Well, what do I say but 'good luck'?" She holds out her hand.

"Bailey, why do you have to—?" I ask.

"If you were any kind of friend," She interjects, "you'd get your sad sack of Systemian flesh back here in one piece." I shake her hand as I smile at her. Genuinely.

And it occurs to me that 'genuine' isn't something I notice about myself often. It bugs me for a second.

"Shit together enough for you, Ricky?" She says, trying to make me feel better. Skaj. Bailey fuckin' Bridgman. I knew she was going to be a distraction, but I didn't expect this.

"Thanks, Bailey." I feel like I should pull her into a hug—but I don't. I'm going to the Syntyche, and I might not come back. I don't want to do something so sentimental to make her worry even more. Instead, I clasp her hand with my other. Diplomatic respect. Bailey looks me in the eye, smiles slightly, and pulls away, heading to my doorway and turning her head down the hall.

"How are those stockings doing?" Bailey asked.

"It's going to be a few minutes," A voice responded from Bailey's room, "Unless, of course, you guys want to fool around with his InteCast on. Then I cou—"

"I can wait," Bailey cut in, her cheeks coloring. She turns back to me abruptly. "I'm hungry," she whines, changing the subject entirely. "Let's go find something to eat."

We pass my suit coming the other way up the stairs as we go down.

"Sorry," I say. "We should've waited." The suit flattens against the outside rail and slides up it.

"No problem," The blazer says. "You get the right-of-way seeing as you can only fold in so many directions." Bailey tugs on me.

"Where do you suppose he's going? To my room?" We head to the conference kitchen (as opposed to the three smaller kitchens on the top deck, which don't have the same range of cooking devices), and Bailey immediately starts fishing through cupboards. "Well?"

"Oh, um—" I flip open a flash-freeze unit. "I guess they're probably helping with the conversion." I pull out a pressure-sealed black box. There's a combination lock on the front. "You know that keeping a Vestian in a magic-weak path is a responsibility, right?"

Bailey ignores my question entirely, looking at my ominous food-security device.

"Kalin, that's yours?" I nod as I dial in the combo. "I always just assumed it belonged to the boss since it was in the deep-freeze and all locked down like that." I look at her.

"Bailey," with obvious drama, "if you can't keep a secret, I can't open this lid." She laughs at me and nods.

"Yeah. Vestians, secret frozen goodies...your mystical secrets are safe with me. What's with the box?"

"This box is the reason you shouldn't be nervous about my little reality splice up ahead." I open the box and present a brick of something wrapped in thick black foil. I haven't opened it yet—but I can't think of a better time. After all, if I finish the trip to The Syntyche without any problems, I should have no issue returning to the place I got this.

"Kalin, please don't tell me that's—" I put my hand up to silence Bailey. I take one end of the foil and take a knife from a block on the counter, cutting the foil the least bit. the rest of the package puffs a little bit as air enters it.

"Smell," I say, holding it up. She moves closer and breathes in carefully. Her face says she doesn't recognize it, but she smiles.

"That's—that's vile. Guessing it's not Ischarislan if you kept it in that?"

"What's it smell like to you?"

"Like—like a hut or something...built out of tropical wood?" She says, "Sanded down and put into a bag?" I laugh.

"You're not exceptionally far, actually. Do me a favor and put a clean nozzle on the hydrotherm. Set it to the edge of steaming phase." I take a whiff from the bag. Incredible. It's been three years since that olfactory sensation last hit me.

"Steam?" Bailey says as I rifle through the cupboards to find what I need to prepare this. "Kalin, what have you got?"

"Just do it." I say as she huffs. I find a narrow container and a ceramic herb strainer used for obtaining extracts. As I look for the adhesive foil, Bailey finally returns to my comment from before.

"I've always liked the idea of having a Vestian companion to keep around," She says. "Besides, you've got that suit."

"I allowed the suit to accompany me. They're Vestian citizens now." And it's true. My suit was liberated and given status the moment I crossed the threshold into Vestinia with them. Any extradimensional with status from IDOX-chartered paths are guaranteed sovereign rights in all other chartered paths.

"So actually," Bailey replies, "that means that my stockings have no status. As far as Ischarisla is concerned, enchantments aren't citizens. That makes them M-I-N-E. " Bailey's dialed up the hydrotherm at this point.

"They're a living thing, for all intents and purposes, regardless of their legal status here," I say. "Here—wrap this around the nozzle. No leaks, it's important."

"Kalin—is this a drug?"

"So to speak, but—well—it's probably not the kind you're imagining. More of a religious experience...according to the native connoisseurs." I scoop the deep brown substance into the herbal extractor and place my foil cone over it, sticking the cone to the lip of the extractor.

"Is it illegal?" Bailey asks.

"Uh-uh, just rare. It's mostly harmless..." I grab a thermal mitt while I pull out a decanter. I hold the extractor and funnel up above the decanter with my protected hand. "But the thing is, it can only be found in one path, so far as I know—and that path is actually on the IDOX restriction list. It's a primitive path. Now place the tip we fashioned for the end of that hydrotherm nozzle right into this funnel." Bailey does what I ask. "Be steady," I grin," that mitt won't protect me from steam."

Bailey sprays hot water into the extractor as I reposition the nozzle with my free hand.

"Press it right into the extractor—keep it pressurized." I speak over the whistling steam curling out of the protective funnel cooling it. It locks in place, and as soon as it does, I curl the foil funnel around the rest of the hydrotherm gun. "keep it right there," I say. "Won't take long."

Bailey and I watch as a thick dark wood-colored substance drips from the bottom. The scent is overpowering, and Bailey's eyes jump from the decanter to my gaze.

"What is this, Kalin?"

"Hytypicans call this espresso," I say. "Water-pressure brewed seeds of the Coffee plant." Bailey almost loses focus of the Hydrotherm when I say it. "Careful, careful!" I say, steadying the nozzle.

"Hytypica?!" Bailey asks. "When in the hell did you—"

"Don't ask questions," I say.

"But Hytypica?" Bailey asks. "No way. Someone would've caught you jumping that frequency for sure." I laugh. For everything we know about each other, my pre-Ischarislan past is something of a black hole for everyone but our mentor.

"That's good, that's good—you can shut it off now. More than enough for both of us." Bailey lets her hand off the hydrotherm, and it shuts off. I pull the makeshift foil contraption from around it, still holding the ceramic extractor with my gloved hand.

"We—drink that stuff?" Bailey asks as I take the extractor to the sanitizer. I return with heat resistant cups and pour a small bit from the decanter into each.

"Not unless you're insane or have the finest of tastes," I say. "Do we have any milk?"

"Milk?" Bailey's face turns down. "Of what?"

"Well, 'of a bovine' would be preferable, but I don't imagine we have any here in the hold. Any mammal outside the primate line is fine with me." After I say it, Bailey's face looks like it's turning green. I smile. "Come on, Bridgman—you're still feeling adventurous, aren't you?"

"Kalin, where did you really get this stuff from?" She asks.

"I told you," I say, fishing through the thermal cabinets. "Ah. Ischarislan pig's milk." And it's just on the edge of frozen. Must be Elka's or Perce's. I pull it out and walk over to the hydrotherm, setting it at steam.

"How the hell did you skip to a known prim-path without getting docked?" She asks as I pour the pig's milk into our espresso vessels, hitting the stream of liquid with hot steam as it falls.

"Stir this after I finish!" I say, moving onto the other vessel. "Stir, stir!" Bailey does so.

"Do you intend on answering me?" She asks. I don't. Instead, I finish up, placing the rest of the milk back in the thermal cabinet. I walk back over and smell the espresso and milk concoction. It's nearly perfect.

"Now, I really can't say you'll like this—but I can tell you that if you DO like it, it's an almost instant addiction." Bailey tests her cup and finds it's not too hot to hold.

"Then you're not going to answer me." I look down at my cup.

"I'm telling you the truth, Bailey. I wanted to show you this," I say, motioning to our drinks, "to show you that risking my ass—I mean REALLY risking it—isn't such a big deal to me." Bailey looked down at the mug and smiled.

"Thanks..." She says, wafting the scent. "not really for the drink...but, you know—for at least trying to make me feel better." I watch her slight smile turn determined. "What's the job?"

"I'll be back in a half-turn. We'll talk about it then. Promise." I point to her cup. "Seriously though, you have to try this." She lifts it to her lips. "Careful. It's still extremely hot." She takes a cautious sip and makes a face.

"Bitter," She says, making a face. "Not altogether awful, but just—too bitter." I spin toward the counter.

"The cure!" I say like a madman, pulling a pouring carafe of thin, clear syrupy fluid out of a drawer. "This'll sweeten it up just right."

"Glucose?" Bailey asks.

"Sucrose—close enough." I pour a bit in. "Swish it around a little bit and try again." She gyrates the cup for a few seconds, and it's a sweet silence that I'm going to miss in a couple of hours when I'm under the constant hum of The Syntyche. And then—

"Kalin, do your ethera-based guests have anything to do with this job?" I put my cup down for a second and look at her. I stay calm.

"I'm going to answer that question for you—and that's it. No more follow-ups until I get back." She stays quiet for a second, and just when she's about to protest— "Bailey. I need to get what I'm doing as far from my head as possible right now. Please."

She puts a hand up and nods. This was the Bailey I need now. The understanding negotiator.

"The panties. I'm smuggling the panties into The Syntyche."

She takes a deep breath, and I can almost hear every question she's thinking. In exchange for what? Don't you know sneaking an unregistered life—enchantment or not—beyond the charter area is suicide? Why a Vestian? Why The Syntyche?

But she doesn't. She simply sips her espresso. "Honestly, I think that you—" She stops, looking at the cup. "Ooh."

"See?" I ask, raising my eyebrows.

"Kalin, this is good," she says, looking up at me—almost suspiciously. "This is really good." She breathes in the aroma again. She's hooked. I laugh again. I'm having fun.

And I guess I mean more than just "fun". The Vestians are fun, parlaying with a Goddess is fun, Tearing up ground in a PhotoRazor while the authorities chase after you is fun.

Being with Bailey now, though—it's setting me at ease, making me forget the possibility of my terminated Neuropause signals echoing somewhere out of the nest of xenotechnology that makes up The Syntyche. It was that kind of fun.

"I'll leave you a bit when I go," I say, taking a gulp of my own. "You remember how to make it, right?"

"I'm not going to need more in the next half-spin," She replies. "You'll be back soon enough." I start cleaning up, wrapping the brick in adhesive foil and placing it back in the lockbox. I don't bother telling Bailey this is hers if anything happens to me. A stupid comment like that would only worry both of us again.

I think about how much this strange interaction with Bailey means to me. Warm. Kind. Intimate.

My thoughts turn again when I realize that my sentimental reflection means I'm actually afraid—for the first time in a while—that I'm going to die.

"We'll drink again when I get back," I say, closing the lockbox. "To celebrate." I was going to tell her the code, but again: cause for worry. Locking the espresso up and stowing it away promises her I'm going to come back. It's a beneficial lie—maybe not even so much for her sake as for mine.

"All done," my passenger says, bobbing into the room. "There isn't much ethera in the atmosphere here, though, so she won't wake up until you give her some love." The thong turns to me. "Your suit could use a recharge as well, in whatever capacity you're able."

"Maybe it'd prefer her," I say, motioning to Bailey.

"Kalin!" Bailey says.

"Either way," The thong says, turning back to me. "But I'm ready to talk business if you are." I just nod, knowing that a Vestian doesn't need eyes to read my acknowledgement.

And after a long chat in the conference room, we were ready. I actually didn't have far to go outside IDOX embassy at The Syntyche, and that made me feel a little bit better. The thong didn't exactly say whether our destination recipient was involved, only that I didn't have to stay and chat. Make the drop and leave.

Everything appeared easier than expected. I cooled a bit more. When it was time to go, I was ready.

"See you soon," Bailey says, standing at the bottom of the stairs.

"By the zenith," I say.

"I might take a few skips around," She adds casually, "so take care if I'm not here when you get back." That's what I need. Casual. This is just another job. The Candymaker family understands.

I wave as I walk into the lift. The door shuts behind me.

"*Sorry to see you go so soon,*" My mentor's voice replies automatically. "*Do you have any special requests on your exit?*" The lift starts moving down.

"Unrestrict all personal locks to Bridgman, B after Temponis zenith, calendar date 2-5-5-12230."

"*Apologies, but that command will require a master code,*" The voice says. I think about it. I'm coming back here. I have to stop this nonsense.

"Cancel command," I say. "Education center."

"*Very good,*" the voice responds.

INFOMTN: System is off. To complete LOCKOUT, issue pass.

I use my code—the dust on the quarry ledge being kicked up just before I jump. This is different than shutting off a single program or set of restraints; the Neuropause will be silent now until I reissue a boot command. It's still integrated in me, of course, but all the circuits are set to full bypass.

"I'm prepped," I say to the thong. "Anything else you've got to say before we're in public space?" It curls up around my collar.

"Once I place myself in the grey pouch in your inside breast pocket, I'm going to sleep. It'll help keep anything from detecting me. I won't be totally aware again until I'm with the recipient." It slides around my neck and around to the other side. "I'll set myself up well before you get to the gate." A pause until just before the lift opens. "Good luck."

"You too," I say. "Take care of yourself." I step off the lift and into the education center again as she slips around my shirt and into my blazer pocket.

In a few minutes I'll be at the Temponis Superior gate. Beyond it are only the humming banks of The Syntyche.