From the outside, Mitsuko’s home looked like any other in Midori Prefecture: a traditional post-and-beam structure made of aged bamboo that had weathered to lustrous grey, topped with clay roofing tiles stained in a range of greens from creamy jade to deep forest. It sat atop a low hill overlooking a garden, on a slightly uneven platform that provided both front and rear deck. However, as we approached the building, Mitsuko raised an arm and waved, and the thin paper walls came to life, a steady light from within illuminating the entire house.
As we approached the front door, Mitsuko’s fingers brushed against the frame, and a soft chime announced that the lock had been disengaged. One silk-sheathed paw resting on the seam of the front door, she turned to me and smiled, her tail curling around her waist to brush against my hip. In the filtered light from within the house, her mask was half-bathed in shadow, the rest cast in shades of green, her emerald eyes almost black. She brought her other paw to my cheek and cupped it gently as I slid my arms around her, urging me to bend down into a deep and tender kiss. Moments stretched into minutes as we stood embracing, until finally she pulled away just enough to speak. “I had a wonderful time tonight,” she murmured, her cheek resting against my chest.
“So did I, Mits,” I breathed gently into her ear, the underside of my muzzle brushing against the top of her head. “I always do when I come here.”
She was still for several moments, as if storing up memories of the contact for the time we’d be apart. Then, quietly, she asked, “When do you go back?”
I smiled at that and pulled just far enough away to look down into her eyes. “After lunch tomorrow,” I said quietly. “There’s something I want to show you tonight.”
At that, her eyes widened, and the smile on her muzzle spread, her tail stroking slowly down my side and leg, teasing my own. I cupped her with mine against the doorframe, then helped her slide open the front door, letting soft unfiltered light from the high ceiling spill out onto the bamboo deck and back down the hillside. I stopped just within the entryway, wiped my feet on the stiff-bristle scrub since I had no shoes to remove, then stepped lightly across the woven tatami into the main living area, drawing Mitsuko inside and sliding the door closed behind her.
Once inside, I touched a finger to her muzzle for silence, then leaned in for a quick kiss. “One moment, love,” I said as I withdrew, grinning from ear to ear. “I’ll need a little bit to set this up.”
Mitsuko blinked, her head canting to the side curiously, tail weaving slowly behind her, almost cat-like. For a moment, I stood, just admiring the pose. Her traditional Western dress clashed so beautifully with the Japanese neo-traditional surroundings, a perfect juxtaposition of past and future, without suggesting which was which. For a moment, I considered abandoning the rest of the show to call up a terminal and capture that image, but then the reason for the trip came back into focus, and my smile broadened.
I knew that some people found calling up the hardline optical interface with their eyes open to be incredibly disorienting, but by now I’d done it so often that I hardly noticed it at all. It took only a moment’s thought, and then ghostly red text floated around the periphery of my vision. My subscriber ID—the unique digital signature that Tadashiissei knew as “me”—hovered in the bottom left corner of my view. My current financial balance sat in the bottom right. Earlier, I’d paid for the trip to Junsei-en with a few quick glances, summoning up the bill, checking the amount, agreeing to the transaction and signing the receipt with nothing but a turn of the eye. It was lower than I’d have liked, thanks to dinner and the teleport I’d had to buy to make the reservation, but I was still riding high from the advance I’d received. I could afford a bit of extravagance, and I could think of no one better on whom to spend it.
A spiraling color-disk—the stylized clock common across Irokai—hovered in the top right corner. Currently set to Irokai time, the wedge of the color wheel visible showed the time as twenty-one-and-three-quarters or so, but my real focus was in the top-left, where the primary menu interface waited. If I needed an emergency exit or staff assistance, I could access it through that system, but I passed all the standard options for a selection not present for most of the people who came to Irokai: the small section near the bottom of the list marked Development Access.
When I activated the interface, a voice began speaking from nowhere, female and very polite, but with a hint of firmness, her English tinted with a faint Japanese accent. “Attention, please. Traveler Johnathan Dart has requested developmental access.” The words lacked the inflection of sentience; I’d heard the same statement in the same intonation dozens, maybe hundreds of times. “Ownership of this area is registered to Resident Ikanobari Mitsuko. Before developmental access can be granted, owner permission is required. Ikanobari Mitsuko, do you agree to allow developmental control to Traveler Johnathan Dart? A backup of this region will be made as a precaution.”
Mitsuko’s eyes widened as she tried to catch my gaze, then turned towards the ceiling quickly. “Oh, hai, I agree.”
“Your agreement has been recorded, and the backup has been made,” the Voice of Irokai replied. “Please be aware that you may revoke your permission and request a restoration from backup at any time. In the event that an incompatibility occurs, we will automatically restore from backup. If at any point we must restore from backup, developmental access will be temporarily suspended until any incompatibilities are resolved. No permanent changes can be made while developmental access is active. Traveler Johnathan Dart, you have been granted developmental access. Please enjoy.” Then the voice went silent, and the number in the bottom-right corner of my vision suddenly dropped by a significant amount.
Still, for what I had in mind, I knew it would be worthwhile. I dismissed the hardline interface and turned to Mitsuko, who was now staring at me intently. Her warm smile had shifted into an expression of bemused interest, as if she had already guessed what I had to show her, but was waiting for me to say it myself. She held her arms behind her, paws clasped, her tail waving behind her. “So what is all of this?” she asked.
“Ah-ah, that would be telling. I’d rather show, but first…” I waved my arm expansively, and a cedar chest materialized beside me with a twinkling of light. “…we’ll need to change.”
“Change?” Mitsuko asked as she stepped over to the small chest and knelt in front of it. She glanced up to me, then looked back down and lifted the lid, gasping as she inspected the contents. Inside were a pair of two-piece bubble helmets, each held together with a magnetic seam. Beneath those lay two uchuufuku—slim-cut vacuum-safe softsuits—adapted to meet the needs of tailed beings. Beneath those were two small pressure tanks, each set for an hour of breathing time.
“I got my simulation running,” I said; it was all the explanation needed. “Care to see it?”
She gathered the smaller suit into her arms, then rose again and nuzzled my cheek as she walked past without saying a word, then pulled one of the thin paper dividers behind her to form a makeshift screen. With the light behind her, I watched her silhouette slowly slip free of the silk dress that she wore to dinner. I could have—lwould have—leagerly stood there admiring her lithe raccoon figure, but I had my own change to make.
Quickly, I peeled off the jacket and slacks, leaving them in a small heap beside the chest. The tie and shirt followed quickly, and finally my briefs, leaving me free to start drawing on the softsuit. The silvery fabric felt slick and slightly cool to the touch, just like I remembered it. I pulled apart the two halves of the neck collar, stretching out the opening until I could step inside and slide the fabric up my legs, aligning the magnetic panels with the pads of my hinds. Working my own banded tail into the pouch in back made me wince as I tugged the fur against the grain, and I made a mental note to revisit the design again, through I’d yet to find a solution that satisfied me. This wasn’t the time to get lost in designwork, though, and I pulled the sleeves down my arms and tucked my fingers into the gloves. Finally, I reconnected the halves of the magnetic collar, then broke the seal on the helmet, affixing front and back pieces to the suit around my head. Once the tank was in place, I would be completely enclosed within the softsuit, the magnets forming a perfect seal against the vacuum.
Mitsuko slid back the panel and stepped back into the main room. The shimmering softsuit clung to her body, emphasizing every curve and line of her figure. She smiled at me from within her helmet and turned a slow pirouette, the flat magnetic plates in her feet shuffling oddly against the straw tatami mat. “Am I wearing it correctly?” she asked with a mischevious smile, her voice echoing slightly from the radio system built into the helmet.
All I could think to do in response was nod; some areas of my own suit suddenly seemed more snug than I’d remembered from the design tests. I pulled the tanks out of the cedar chest, then passed one to her with one paw, motioning for her to turn around with the other. She did so, and I slid the tank into the restraining straps on her back, hooking up its lead to the airhose. I turned a valve, and her airflow started with a soft hiss. Once hers was secure, I turned around and showed how to attach mine. Soon, I heard the same release of pressure and smelled the familiar tang of ozone. We were ready.
I turned to face Mitsuko and flashed her a quick grin and a thumbs-up, then focused back on the front door. I waved my arm with a flourish, then stepped up to the entrance and slid aside the thin paper barrier. Beyond, a gray ribbon of metal stretched out into the distance, surrounded by emptiness. The wooden deck had vanished, along with the rest of Midori Prefecture, replaced with a limitless expanse of space, speckled with a myriad of stars.
I took a deep breath, then stepped across the threshold, the magnetic pads beneath my feet clacking softly as they made contact with the metal hull. holding me in place as gravity shifted across the threshold. I paused just beyond the doorway, waiting for the lightheadedness to pass as I transitioned from Mitsuko’s world to my own. Once I was clear of the doorway, I turned and reached back, extending a paw in invitation to the woman I loved.
Wide-eyed, Mitsuko took my suited paw in her own, then took a few cautious steps across the gap, swaying briefly as the same vertigo overtook and then left her. I reached past her, then closed the doorway leading back to her home; once it was shut, all that remained in its place was the solid bulkhead of the station. I motioned upwards, and Mitsuko tilted her head back, then leaned back and gawked at the column that rose overhead. Thin metal spindles reached out into space from the central trunk like branches of a silvery-grey tree. Spaceships of all shapes and sizes hung from those metal limbs, docked at all different points. Directly above, past the very tip of the tree, hung a giant blue-white-green sphere, shining like an alien sun.
“That’s—” Mitsuko’s voice cut off sharply in a giggle of delight.
I squeezed Mitsuko’s paw in my own, taking a moment to follow her own gaze, up towards the Earth. I wanted to say something, to say anything in that moment, but there were no words I could offer that would match the feeling I had inside. The faint whiff of ozone from the pressure tanks, the slightly clingy pressure of the softsuit, the tension of Mitsuko’s fingers against mine, and the sight of my homeworld overhead all fused into a single indefinable sensation, one that I wanted to never end.
I knew that feeling couldn’t last, though, and I had one thing I wanted to share before relinquishing the development flag. I knew Tadashiissei would never approve it; I’d never even planned on submitting it to them. This was still my development environment, though, and I was going to enjoy it to the fullest extent that I could. I glanced at the clock in the corner of my view, then again through layers of development menus, before dismissing the hardline once more. I turned, walking backwards as I urged Mitsuko away from the central tower, out to the edge of the communications array, until we were surrounded on all sides by empty space, only a few magnets holding us in place against a narrow metal platform, keeping us from drifting away into the void.
I smiled at Mitsuko through the tinted grey bubble helmet, then said just loudly enough for the radio to catch, “Don’t be afraid, Mitsuko.”
Her eyes widened, her tail twitching behind her, the words catching her by surprise. “John?”
I gave her paws a final squeeze, then let them go, stepping back away from her, balanced at the very edge of the walkway. “Trust me, Mits,” I said, fingers feeling for the seam on the helmet holding the hemispheres of reinforced glass together. “I love you.”
Mitsuko stepped forward, her paws clacking against the metal walkway. “John?” she called out, her voice trembling. “What are you doing?”
Her fingers met my wrists, to try to pull my paws away from the helmet. I smiled at her, then gave a final pull at the seam. With a rush of wind against my face and a flare of light from within the suit, the halves of the helmet split, then tumbled apart, freed from each other and the ring around my neck. Mitsuko’s muzzle twisted into a silent cry at the sudden decompression, jerking away, covering her helmet with her paws to avoid seeing my body burst or freeze. She stood trembling, just shy of the edge of the array, frozen in shock.
When my still-suited paws gently brushed her shoulders, she stiffened, but then slowly uncovered her helmet, staring in shock, traces of tears wetting the fur beneath her cheeks. Slowly, the corners of her muzzle turned up into a smile, and she began to laugh, silently shaking inside her suit as she wrapped her arms around me, clinging to me tightly. I encircled her with my arms, squeezing her tightly.
I told you not to be afraid, love, I transmitted to her, not in speech, but in a direct broadcast of thought, words sent directly from my mind to hers. Then I pulled away, carefully, coaxing her back from the edge, and began to strip away the now-unneeded softsuit. As the material fell from my shoulders, a pair of broad wings covered in irridescent bands of feathers that matched my shimmering fur spread from my back, unfurling to their full width to help catch the solar winds. I turned to look at them with glowing yellow eyes, then flexed them and flapped, propelling my legs and tail out of their useless encumbrances, leaving me naked against the vacuum.
Once the transformation was complete, I turned back to Mitsuko with a smile and held out one paw to her; balanced on my pads sat a gently pulsing sphere, a copy of the transcendus module, the modifications that made the softsuit and airtanks unnecessary. She smiled up at me through her helmet, then took my paw in hers, wrapping her suited fingers around my gift. It sank into her paws as she reviewed and integrated the new code, and then moments later she pulled open her own helmet with a burst of air and light. Then she opened her eyes, a brilliant emerald light shining out of their depths as she spread her shimmering wings, her softsuit falling away from her, trailing out away from the deck as the station slowly spun in place.
Despite the vacuum surrounding me, Mitsuko’s paws were warm against my shoulders, as I knew mine would be against her waist. Freed from gravity and our artificial modesty, we floated away from the station, wings flapping in near-unison as we learned the rhythms of each other’s new forms. Once we were out of the station’s shadow and bathed in the full light of the sun, I turned back to Mitsuko, drifting away from her briefly to admire the results of my work against her already-sublime figure. She smiled and silently laughed, then turned a lazy somersault, her wings and tail provocatively splayed to show off my handiwork, and I felt my body respond.
I want you, I sent to her, flapping my wings and catching up to her, taking her paws in mine.
Mitsuko urged me closer, then wrapped her wings about us. I want you, John, she replied soundlessly. She guided my paws to her small, firm breasts, then rested her own on my shoulders. Her skin beneath the fur was as warm as the rest of her, her nipples already firm beneath my thumbpads as I caressed them gently. She shivered beneath my touch, her head tilted back, her muzzle half-open as I stimulated her. Watching her respond to my stimulations made my cock pulse in its sheath.
Moving carefully, I ducked my head down, kissing along her neckline and down her chest, nipping playfully with my teeth against her fur until my muzzle was at one of her breasts. Placing a soft kiss against the nubbin of stiffened flesh, I slowly slid my lips down around her nipple, tugging at it carefully as I began suckling. It was as if electricity had arced through her, her body stiffening beneath my tender touch before curling up against me, as if to try to wrap herself around me, holding me against her. The taste of her was sweet and faintly musky, and my tongue tingled from the brush of her fur as I swirled it around her nipple.
After a quiet eternity, I kissed my way across to her other breast, repeating my performance there. She shivered and shuddered in my arms, pressing herself eagerly against me. Despite the lack of air in simulated space, her chest rose and fell in heavy breaths as I teased her. Her wings tickled mine as she wrapped herself around me, urging me onwards with her touch and motion. Then, finally, with a silent gasp she pulled away. Too much! she sent, trembling from the overload of sensation. I stopped, then, and a moment later, she drew closer again. Please, John… more.
I floated over to her, this time wrapping my wings about her as I took Mitsuko in my arms. She rested her paws on my shoulders as I placed mine on her hips, my cock fully engorged as I pulled her against me. She spread her legs, wrapping them around mine, and then it took only a moment to position myself before smoothly pressing myself into her. Her sex was hot, her flesh tingling against mine, sending sparks from my groin up to my brain as I filled her, one gentle thrust carrying me fully within her. Once inside of her, I paused, hugging her tightly to my chest, then began slowly pistoning myself back, pulling away and then pressing forward again, making love with Mitsuko in deep space.
In the absence of gravity, sex truly was a two-person endeavor. Where before one could lie still and let the other do everything, now it took the effort of us both to consummate our passion. As I pushed myself forward, pulling her towards me, she thrust back, using her legs to encourage me deeper. Our wings fluttered and flapped, by turns encircling or just brushing agaginst each other, the new sensations compounding the rest. I closed my eyes, filling myself with her taste and feel, then opened them again and smiled into those orbs of luminescent emerald. Yes, one of us sent, or perhaps both, minds moving as our bodies, urging each other closer to climax. I trembled against her, my body shuddering. With every stroke, my cock throbbed within her sex, the heat of her body suffusing mine. Her claws glided down my back along the sensitive join between wing and spine as I held her hips against me to help me find purchase. She twitched, moaning silently in the void, nodding as I thrust faster, deeper, the urge to orgasm overwhelming. I bit my lip, stars dancing at the edges of my vision, my nerves singing soundlessly as with one last push, I came, a burst of heat and seed filling her sex. She threw back her head, claws digging into my back as her entire form tensed, climaxing in response.
In the afterglow, we hung there, twinned stars against a black backdrop, shuddering and quietly nuzzling against each other and riding out the aftershocks of our shared passion. Then, finally, we separated, smiling at each other, and turned back to the station, our wings flapping as we dove back towards the communications array. At the panel in the side of the station, I turned back to the suits, still clinging to the far edge of the platform, then winked back to Mitsuko and shook my head. If the code ever got approved, it would prove an interesting artifact for the first maintenance crew to find.
I waved my paw at the smooth metal wall, and the same section as before slid aside, revealing Mitsuko’s main room beyond, just as we had left it. I touched down just outside the door, then stepped lightly through, Mitsuko following closely behind. Once within, I turned and shut the front door, then brought up the hardline one last time for the night. It took only a few seconds to dismiss the development flag, and the wings and glow disappeared as soon as I did so. A few seconds later, Mitsuko’s vanished as well, leaving her with only her natural radiance and a smile.
“Thank you, John,” she said, stepping closer to draw me into an embrace. “That was beautiful.”
My ears flushed in response, and suddenly I felt very awkward. I knew that she loved me for me, but there was always that moment, right after I had shown off some new bit of in-world wizardry, in which any praise I received was colored with doubt. I knew she loved me, as I loved her, but did she love me for me, or for the things I could do?
Was there a difference?
I wrapped my arms around her and hugged her tightly. “I’m glad you enjoyed it,” I whispered back, resting my cheek against hers, my tail slowly swaying behind me. “I’m sorry if I scared you back there, but—”
She shushed me softly, then rested a finger across my muzzle. “I understand,” she replied. “You are an artist. It is one of the things I love about you.”
The words struck home, perhaps more deeply than I wanted to admit, but I was still riding high on the afterglow. “Thanks, Mits,” I murmured in response, kissing her ear softly. “Let’s go lie down; that took a lot out of me.”
She nodded in response, then turned her muzzle to kiss me tenderly, before taking a paw in mine to lead me back to her bedroom. Once sprawled out on her low futon, she curled up next to me, pulling a thin cotton sheet up and over us as we snuggled up together. She turned towards the ceiling and dismissed the lights, plunging the house into near-total darkness. I curled up against Mitsuko’s back, one arm beneath her head, the other around her waist, her tail draped over my leg. My mind drifted as sleep came for me, imagining myself floating with Mitsuko through that perfect void.