Leap of Faith

By Silverhope

Continued from Part 1

Part 2


"I can't believe I did that!" Ariel raved to Adam early that evening in the living room of Sherman Mansion; she had called their understudies and asked them to take over their parts for that night's performance, so she could hash out the situation with her husband. She was now trying to pace a rut in the hearthstone of the fireplace. Smoke hung in the air over her head off the tip of a cigarette stuck in one of her shorter, less flamboyant holders, shredding in the breeze of her passage. "I can't believe she'd take advantage of this! She knows I disapprove of even the thought of doing this, and yet she's holding me to it!"

"She didn't promise you she wouldn't ask forever and aye, Ari; she said straight out that she might ask again one day."

"Yes, I know; and, like an idiot, I opened myself up to it."

"With justification, darling. I believe in showing my gratitude when someone saves my life, too."

She blew out a puff of smoke in exasperation, glaring at him for his equanimity. "Well, why didn't this marvel of a perfect-memory computer mind remember what she would want most? You seem to have all the answers!"

"And I do for this one, too; because you're human as well as electronic. Since you have a personality that, under my operating systems, controls your thought processes, you can be subject to 'memory lapses' when something seems more important. We're just like organic people in this; when something moves up our priority list, other things might get blotted out temporarily." He pushed up from the loveseat and took her by the shoulders. "Darling, I think you're madder at yourself than Dara Furtano, and for no reason. This is no crazier than any other situation involving human interaction."

"Yeah, except that I'm the one in it," she said with a sour glare.

"You do have a point there. But it does you no good to grouse about it, so I'd suggest some action on the matter."

"Like what?"

"This." He bent and touched the communications stud on the coffee table control panel. "Computer, call to Mistress Dara Furtano. Check Condo business files for call code."

"What in hell for?" Ariel growled as the computer beeped an acknowledgment.

"Because we need to actually find out why she wants to do this. Inconceivable as it may be to us...especially you...it seems to be a quite acceptable move to Dara."

"And why is it more acceptable to you than to me??"

"I've been doing some literature review and thinking since we first talked to her. And if she can't convince you, I'll tell you later."

A holoscreen snapped into existence over the coffee table, with the image of Dara Furtano on it. "Furtano here; hello, Lord Adam."

"Hello. Are you available to come over to our house right now, mistress?" Adam said.

"Yes, I am. Is it to discuss my request?"

"Yes, it is, with both of us. And I promise you a discussion this time, though it may cost me my marriage...or at least a night on the couch."

"It sounds as if Lady Ariel is really angry about this."

"Do you wonder, mistress?" Ariel snapped, working into the camera field for the first time. "I thought we had this settled; I guess I was wrong in my assumption."

Dara had the grace to look contrite. "I do apologize for irritating you, lady; but I warned you three months ago that I wouldn't give up on this."

"We can discuss this more when you arrive," Adam said firmly, cutting off the potential for an argument to brew. "You know where our house is...? Then we'll expect you in thirty minutes."

"It should be less, lord. Furtano out."

The screen disappeared, and Adam turned to stare at Ariel, angry with her for one of the few times in their relationship. "As for you, lady, I suggest you sit down and meditate on your temper. You need to talk with her rationally, instead of sitting on a positional rock. I'm going to check on Zana and see what she's up to." He marched off, leaving Ariel to stare after him and think, still pulling on her cigarette in frustration.

By the time Dara arrived at Sherman Mansion, Ariel had cooled down somewhat, but she was still half-convinced of the rightness of her position. She stood and bowed as Adam guided Dara to a seat, then sat back down with him on the loveseat. And she quickly reflected again on the feeling still swirling through her mind, that this young woman was somehow vitally keyed to the future. Indeed, the sense had grown even more since this morning, not diminishing in the slightest. Realizing that, Ariel had to wonder -- was it destined that Dara become the newest of the cyborgs, or was this a test of her own resolve not to let the event happen? Did she have the right to deny Dara if the girl truly wanted this? Even now, subdued and nervous as she was sitting across the table, there seemed a quiet determination in her face and eyes that would not be quashed....

"I apologize for my abrupt exit this morning," Ariel finally said. "At the moment, I figured it was probably safer to get out of there."

Dara said, "Safer...?"

"For both of us. I don't like reaming people, and I was angry enough at that point to serve up a really royal one. I think I have myself under control now."

"If she doesn't," Adam said with a meaningful glance at his lifemate, "I will."

"In one way, I suppose I deserve that anger," Dara said with a grimace.

"Not for wanting what you do," Ariel said, packing her cigarette holder again from a box on the side table, its single diamond bauble glinting in the room lights. "Just as it wasn't Vanis's, it's not my right to get angry with you over your personal desires. That doesn't mean, though, that I'm feeling inclined to give you what you want. I am, though, willing to listen finally to your explanation. It had better be a damned good one to convince me to do this."

"It doesn't sound like you're willing to listen with an open mind, lady."

"Truthfully, I don't know if I ever could; but I'm willing to try. So you say you have reasons for wanting this life?"

Dara nodded as she said yes. "Though I have a hard time putting them entirely into words. I guess I'm a little embarrassed.... But technology has always fascinated me as a hobby, and one of the aspects of technophilia is...is the erotic."

Ariel's head fell forward as she reached for her table lighter, and she stared at the woman from under incredulous brows. If her chin had hit her chest, you might have heard a clunk. "The erotic?"

"Indeed so, Ari," Adam said over a grin. "That's one reason why android pleasure workers are so popular in the Republic. Some people even dream of becoming androids, or even robots; they call themselves technosexuals."

"And here I thought you were just a cybertech with no head for such things."

"Growing up on Videra, darling, it's hard to avoid some knowledge of such things."

"While I grew up on Quintanus, one of the fustier backwaters ever settled."

Dara grinned at the byplay, and said, "And there are even some of us who commission friends to fabricate body suits for them, and play at actually being a lovemaking robot."

"Have you been one of these?"

"Well...." She shifted a little nervously.

"Dara," Ariel said sympathetically, "remember what I was for two years plus. I'm used to many fetishes by now. This one, I'll admit, is a little surprising, but no stranger than most others."

"I thank you for that, ma'am. But that's one reason why I find becoming a cyborg such an attractive thing; to me, it's a massive eroticism."

Ariel could believe it; to her trained eyes, Dara was obviously aroused by just talking about it in their presence. Hell, she might be aroused just being in their presence; there was a certain eager "breathlessness" in her eyes every time they met, and it was there now, despite the girl's nervousness. To be truthful, she herself had enjoyed making love with her male cohorts in the Mackerson era, both giving and taking comfort as needed, but also because of the sheer appeal of their golden and silver bodies; and Adam, always sexy to her before, was now the most attractive lifeform she had ever known. But to her mind, that was not enough to justify the move Dara wished to make. "One reason, you say. Any others come to mind?"

"Relative immortality might be one, lady, although I could take that or leave it as the circumstances dictate. But the endurance and other physical attributes are obviously desirable, as are the mental and sensory enhancements. While the physical augmentation isn't particularly useful in advertising, the mental enhancements are."

Ariel sighed at Dara on the end of a puff of smoke, then glanced over at Adam with dark eyes; the young woman seemed truly set on the idea of becoming a cyborg. But no matter what they owed her for saving Zana's life, she felt the girl was asking too much in this. Adam read her look, as lovers will, and shrugged. "I don't know what to say to her. And she is asking this of her own free will, unlike you and the others. There doesn't seem much sense in resisting it, except for the government worries."

"But does she really understand what becoming a cyborg means? Do you?" she hurled at Dara, turning back to her. Sighing at the determined look still on her face, Ariel stood and approached her in her chair. "I'm still not certain, mistress. Yes, you've been very persistent in pressing your case; we are in debt to you for saving our daughter; and you claim that you completely understand what you would be getting into by going through with this. But let me show you what it would involve, as far as I can." She looked back over her shoulder; "Darling, would you undo what you did up this morning?"

Adam arched his brows for a second, but then nodded and came over to undo the catch and slide down the zipper on the back of her scuffed turquoise daygown, which she had not changed out of. "Do you want me to hang around?"

"Your choice, love." With no more words, she shrugged out of her gown, the turquoise satin slipping softly down her golden integument and pooling about her feet. Twisting slightly to show off the sculpted golden perfection of her profile in the soft evening lights of the living room, she said, "I can't help but think that this is all you see...the beauty and the glitter, and the flash of what we do on the stage. But there's far more involved, and you need to understand that as well. Come here." She held out a hand in invitation, and Dara took it as she rose from her chair. Then Ariel said, "Take a good look at me, Dara; touch me and examine my skin, don't just look at it. What do you see?"

Dara glanced quizzically at her, but raised one of her arms and started going over it carefully, moving along to Ariel's back, then her chest. Ariel never flinched, and Adam watched in fascination as Dara moved about her, even hesitantly stroking her hostess's arm to sense the feel of the golden integument. Finally, the girl straightened up and said with a smile, "It's just as I imagined it...just the kind of thing I want to be; smooth, no flaws at all, wonderfully golden. It's as if you were walking about in a golden armor, or wrapped in smoothed gold foil, both metallic and softly flexible."

"But it really isn't a skin at all, is it?"

"For you and the others, it is; and it would be for me, too, if you let me join you."

"Then what about this?" Ariel turned and lifted the shag of azure hair hanging over the back of her neck; with the other hand, she prodded open the orifice that concealed her direct-input data port.

For the first time that Ariel knew of, Dara perked her eyebrows in surprise, which the cyborg could see in a wall mirror. "What on earth is that for?"

"When Cheryl Mackerson captured me and changed me into a 'borg," Ariel replied, letting the port seal up and turning back, "this was what was used to reinstall my personality and program me. We still use it when we wish to study something involving long periods of time. But it's another proof of our difference from true humanity; that port doesn't go to a fully organic brain. It's a method for programming a mobile computer, which is what we have in our skulls; the only thing left to us of an organic nature is most of our limbic system, responsible for emotions, and the centers controlling personality."

"Another advantage to me, lady; I'd still have my personality and emotions, but perfect recall and the ability to learn and react quickly. Face it, lady; you can't dissuade me. I really do want this, and for the reasons I've told you. I haven't been abused, I'm not trying to escape anything, I'm not trying to get a share of the money your people make, and I really think that, besides being terrifically sexy, life as a cyborg has a lot of advantages to it. I do want this."

"Well, I just don't understand it! You'd be giving up the most essential part of being alive--"

"Darling," Adam suddenly said, standing, and beckoned her to follow him. Stepping into the hallway, closing the door, he said quietly, "You're not going to change her mind, Ariel. She's determined, and she's sincere; she really seems content with the idea of a cyborg life. Frankly, and not meaning anything beyond what I say, she'd make a beautiful 'borg as well, possibly in silver for her."

"Why, for God's sake?? I still think she really can't see what she would be giving up."

"Or is it that Dara's right about your openness on this; that your perceptions are colored by what you went through, how you became a 'borg? Yes, because it wasn't your choice, you lost a lot. But has your life been that horrible since you got your free will back? I know mine hasn't, though my conversion was only a little less undesired than yours. But beyond the fact that I can serve as a ground-based beacon if you shine a light off me in the nude, and that I'll probably outlast the human species by a few millennia, my life hasn't changed. In fact, it may have improved in some ways, even beyond having you and Zana to love and care for. I think faster, can work out a problem more logically, and I never forget the details now, unless I choose to.

"And how about you? I'll bet the business affairs of the Condominiatum have benefited from cybernetic enhancement as well as Micronan's. And as for the show, I'm sure you've never forgotten a line of any script we've had written, while your personality keeps your performances fresh and warm...and human. And, on top of all that, you have me and Zana, as well as whatever other children we have. So, aside from the Mackerson era -- perhaps even including some of that, even beyond our times together -- can you really claim that life as a 'borg has been that dreadful?"

"No, I guess not," Ariel said reluctantly. "Being kidnapped and compelled into something I didn't want to do was a good deal of my complaint, but the aftermath has been worth it. But I swore an oath to myself and God that I'd never make another 'borg beyond Cheryl and any of her cronies. Do I just go back on that now?"

"Actually, darling, it may be out of your hands, at least if the reports I once got from Dr. Harris are any indication."

"The xenobiologist? What are you talking about?"

"Back when you were pregnant, Harris sent me a report saying that it was entirely possible for us 'borgs to reproduce with organic humanoids as well as each other. But she also said, after testing on lab animals, that there's a 97% chance that loose, fluid-borne nanites could be carried in the ejaculate of a fertile male cyborg into an organic female, and reactivate within her, if he isn't taking the contraceptive. And if a fertile female 'borg is impregnated by an organic male, there's a 40% chance of his becoming contaminated, while it's almost certain that the nanites will cross the placenta into the fetus. It seems that it was Mackerson's contraceptive that disabled the nanites, but disable them only; she probably used it to keep from infecting clients and maintain the secrecy of what her sexual performers actually were."

"Why wasn't I told about this?"

"Well, you were kind of busy at the time, between the early days of the show and carrying Zana. I circulated the news among the rest of us, especially the men, along with strict instructions to inform any organic partners of the chance unless we're taking the contraceptive; but there seemed no need to tell you until now. Frankly, I'm surprised that none of us have cast longing looks across the species lines yet and wanted to start a family with an organic partner. But someone will one day, especially a male 'borg looking at a woman, and she'll take the chance, and that's probably all she wrote."

Ariel breathed a resigned sigh. "So it's quite possible more people will be converted, despite all my objections."

"So it looks," Adam said. "And, actually, that might not be a bad thing. We both know we're likely to be the next step in human evolution. Technology suppresses biological pressures to evolve, so we're probably the next level. If so, we'll need more genetic diversity than only 400-some people."

A long, silent pause and stare from Ariel before: "You know what that implies? What cans of worms that could open up among the fearful? Tolerance and inter-species cooperation is edgy at the best of times; no matter how much diversity and multiculturalism is preached and taught in the schools, there'll always be fools that fear difference."

Adam nodded. "I understand what that means. Possibly even forced emigration to our own planet one day to escape discrimination and attacks. But that won't be for years, maybe decades, maybe even centuries. Less than 500 of us are no threat yet. It won't be until we get into the hundreds of thousands of population that such things may become a problem. But we'll prepare for that in the future, find and purchase an uninhabited planet that we can make our own, outside of Republic laws and territory if needed."

"And, in the meantime, you think we need Dara to add genetic diversity.... Well...." A long pause before she sighed deeply and went on. "I'm still not totally happy...but if she really wants it, I guess she can have it. Let's go back in."

"At least to get your dress; you left it on the floor."

"Huh?" She snapped her head down to look, then grinned. "Well, we may not forget facts, darling, but I guess we can get sidetracked."

Dara was pacing about the living room as Ariel and Adam re-entered. Without a word, but with a rueful smile, Ariel stepped back into her daygown and pulled it up, and Adam did up the back, then waved Dara into her chair as they resumed the loveseat. Ariel's expression was unreadable now, unless it was one of uncertainty, as she gazed for a few moments more at the girl. Then she sighed slightly, and finally said, "After much discussion, Dara, we've decided to give you what you want."

"Oh...!" Dara said, the nervousness in her face gradually replaced by intense joy as the news sunk in. "Oh, lord and lady, thank you so much! But why did you change your mind like that? You were so determined."

"I'm still not certain," Ariel said. "I can't understand why anyone would willingly give up carbon life to become this, and most of us would probably agree with you, unless they've done as much thinking about the cyborg life as Adam clearly has. But my love here has pointed out that my attitude's probably colored by the way I made my transition. You have the luxury of choice that none of us were given, even Zana.

"You, however, are going to be confronted with that ability of choice all the way to the time we actually convert you. No, don't interrupt me; I know what you're going to say, but hear me out first. You have to keep in mind that, once you are transformed, that's it; there's no turning back afterwards, so you'd better be really sure before, 'cause there's no chance for regrets once it's done. You'll also sign a document before impartial witnesses stating that we've told you everything that the process entails, including that it's a permanent change, that you're agreeable to this, and that you'll preserve our secrets from all other inquirers, including and especially any government, without the Condominiatum's permission; furthermore, that you waive all claim to stockholder's membership in the Condo itself." Adam started opening his mouth, but Ariel shook her head. "I'm insisting on this, darling; it's not fair to the others to dilute their shares, even a little, by adding in new people that weren't here under Cheryl. This removes another possible reason for someone to join, too: the hopes of instant riches. She can always petition for full membership later." She turned back to Dara; "I'm not necessarily accusing you of anything, mistress. I just want to cover all the bases, and give you things to think about. I'll also tell you that coming over doesn't automatically give you a position in any of the Condo's businesses, including the revue; you have to earn your way in, by resumé or audition. Of course, you can go ahead and lead your own life that you have in advertising. And I'll insist that you be probed deeply by a strong registered telepath to help us -- and you -- determine your true motives.

"One last thing. As I said, you'll have plenty of chance to back out until we convert you...say, a week's time, depending on how outside forces shape schedules. But if you do back out, even early on, that's it. No re-changing of your mind; no second chances; no coming back and begging to be reconsidered. You'll simply say farewell and return to your old life, because, like I've said, being a 'borg is permanent. Over ninety percent of your body is rendered inorganic by the conversion process, far too much to reverse by any medical science in the Republic. If you're not rock-solid sure, all the way through, that you want to do this, we don't want you. So, having told you all these conditions, do you accept them?"

"I do, lady," Dara said, fervently and without hesitation.

Ariel shrugged with the same uncertain expression, and turned to Adam. He pulled his personal datapadd from a vest pocket, consulted it, and said to Dara, "Then come to my office at Micronan tomorrow at 10:00, and I'll start a full briefing of what you need to know." He nodded his head in leave-taking, and started scribbling on the padd to set the appointment, while Dara thanked Ariel and made her exit.

Ariel returned from seeing Dara to the door in a minute; however, instead of sitting down, she went to the fireplace and stood staring into the burning embers, leaning on her shoulder against the marble facing, her arms crossed before her. Adam watched her silently for a time, then arose and came to her, laying a hand on her shoulder. Softly, he said, "You're still not certain, are you, darling?"

"Partly that," she said, "and partly disgust with myself for breaking my promise. I know it doesn't make any sense, especially after all we talked about. But there it is. And I have to wonder what the others will say when they find out; we can't keep this a secret, you know."

"Explain the facts to them...all the facts; her desire, your tries to dissuade her, what I said, everything. In the end, it's in God's hands, but I think they'll understand."

"We can hope, at least, but I'm betting there'll be a lot of thunder and lightning when we first tell them."

"And I thought you entertainers were supposed to be the eternal optimists, ready to risk everything on the promise of blue skies and rainbows and standing ovations."

Ariel turned to face Adam, the firelight sparkling from her golden eyes and integument. "You have an advantage over the rest of us, darling: less emotional involvement, and the ability to think objectively about the situation. Most of us won't do that, at least at first. And some of us will never accept it."

"I know, darling. Chalk it up to human nature, I guess."

"Ironic in our case," she said wryly.

"I know," he chuckled, "but it's still true. And it's also true that this is all you can do -- present the circumstances, and hope they'll understand."

Ariel fell silent as she turned back to the fire; but she pulled Adam's arms around her satin-clad, golden body. Eventually, she said, "Darling, is this going to set a precedent?"

She felt him shrug. "I honestly don't know, Ari. But a part of me hopes it will, and you know the reasons why."

"But do we really need to? Do we really need to guarantee the survival of the species? In all the thinking you've done, have you asked that?"

A long pause, then: "I have...and I hope my logic is correct in my conclusions." He let go and crossed to the other side of the hearth, confronting her face on with a bleak face. "It lies in what I said before...increasing our genetic diversity. But it's not entirely about increasing our numbers. It's also about maintaining our safety.

"The scenario I told you while Dara was here is the most desirable of three that I conjectured. The second and third are far less welcome. As I see it, we can do nothing except have babies among ourselves, and welcome those who fall in love with one of us and end up converted by intercourse. In the case of those lovers, the news of what happens will get out eventually. This could result in a backlash against us because of fear, far sooner than it might from a quicker-growing population. Discrimination, attacks, segregation, you name it; it's all possible as a reaction. And if we have children only within the 440 we have now, the risk of severe inbreeding exists -- yes, even within us. Inbreeding can have effects even on the nanites, according to projections done by Harris; they're simply a...a sort of substitute for our cellular structure and DNA. Undesirable effects can arise from this, obviously, including the creation of morons...very dangerous and manipulable ones. Imagine someone with our strength controlled by the wrong people, even a government. Face it, Ari; any road we travel, we have to grow our population."

"Speculations!" Ariel whispered incredulously; "You have no evidence!"

"True; none except that human nature we just had a laugh over. Didn't some great man, thousands of years ago, talk about the better angels of our natures? As I see it, we need to hope for that, and plan for the other extreme."

"Compared to those...well, I guess I'll take this method. But I really pray that you're wrong about planning for the worst."

"I know; it's not very complimentary to the human race, Ari," Adam said regretfully, "but it never hurts to be prepared. More than likely, whatever happens will come somewhere in the middle of the extremes. But we, or at least you, have the responsibility right now to prepare for the future of our people, and we have to think some in these terms."

"That makes us sound like the mother and father of our species. Cheryl was the mother, if anyone, and that mysterious dead partner of hers was probably the father."

"I suppose I am being a little paternalistic here. But I'm convinced that someone has to think of these things for us. I really hope that I'm paranoid, but...." And he shrugged again. To this, Ariel, not entirely reconciled to his rather dystopic picture, could only nod a silent amen, and they went upstairs to the nearby playroom set up for Zana, to spend a few hours with her before bed.

The other cyborgs of the Condominiatum did indeed have much to say about the subject when Ariel called a special general meeting of the corporation, in a hastily rented hall with guards on the door, though they proved mostly content with the upcoming transformation of Dara Furtano. The consensus was that it was a matter of lifedebt between Ariel and Dara, and they were content that she had tried to dissuade Mistress Furtano sufficiently. Rather, they saved most of their questioning for Adam and his conjectures of their possible future. Several of the newest, converted from human within a few months to a few days of Ariel's coup, still thought of themselves more as humans than a new, electronic species, despite the passage of over three years of time. They debated the ethical considerations, vehemently insisting that not one more new cyborg should be made at any time in the future, except under the extraordinary circumstances such as Ariel faced with Dara.

A larger group doubted the dark conclusions that Adam had reached based on scanty evidence. They questioned the need for any immediate recruitment, saying that, even considering the potential for inbreeding, it would be years before they needed to worry about it. Additionally, Adam's pessimistic suppositions might not come to pass at all. These points Adam readily conceded; he said, "I'm willing to admit that all this is hypothesis and guesswork. I'm predicating it on human behavior in past, similar situations. But you have to admit that these situations have happened in the past, and the potential exists for them again. As I told Ariel, the truth may lie someplace in the gray zone between what I've suggested. But, in planning for the worst, we can cover those gray areas at the same time."

"What about your manipulation theory?" Mark Ollivander, a tall, silver male, asked. "Do you really think the government is devious enough to pull something like that?"

"Yes, I do," Adam said flatly. "Maybe not the whole government; the Limlight Republic is still a pretty enlightened institution in the large. But I'm not so sure about individual parts of it, or individual people within it. There have been five attempts to break into the computers at Micronan, two of them by people trying to physically burgle the offices. We caught someone the second time; he couldn't tell us anything himself, but the equipment he carried to tap our computers was brand-new and up to government intelligence specs. Traces of the three online invaders got too near federal sectors in the matrix for my satisfaction. I don't indict the whole federal government, but I do suspect someone in intelligence...someone who isn't thinking; they aren't covering themselves up well...someone really wants to know how to make a 'borg."

"Is the information safe?" a golden woman asked in concern.

"Very safe. Nobody but all of us, and anyone we've mentioned it to, know about the nanites. The actual manufacturing process and operating systems are held in a single computer, which is isolated from any network connection." Ariel smiled slightly at that as she listened to him; she knew precisely which computer Adam meant, for she interfaced with it almost every night. "As for Micronan's systems, we've quintupled the density of security ice on all portals to encourage the illusion. And as for the famous Jkandar embassy building, I've installed such tight, deep security there that anyone trying to break in will probably be killed before they succeed, or die of old age."

The audience murmured among themselves as they considered this; then Ollivander raised his hand again. "You realize, if you're worried about preserving the secret, that every person you bring in increases the risk."

"That's part of why we brought in the psychic yesterday to probe Dara Furtano," Ariel said. "Registered psychics have to tell the truth about what they've seen, but on a professional basis only; they're required to hold it secret as a privileged communication, and to actually purge it periodically from their own memories under aid of another psi-tech. Mistress Furtano passed perfectly; there's no need to fear about her willingness to protect the secrecy. And I've already mentioned her determination and desire....

"Before any of you worry about our embarking on an aggressive recruiting drive, we have no such plans yet, at least not for the immediate future. We wish to figure out the best way of finding people without being deluged by temporary wannabes that will change their minds once they find out how restricted they'll be in terms of benefits. We'd also prefer to filter out the ones who'll shy away from doubt or nerves before completing the process. And finally, we should probably carefully find out what the government thinks. According to Arturo Sandoval," and she nodded at one of the cyborg lawyers who served as counsels to the Condominiatum, "the federales usually keep a hands-off attitude toward such things, as meeting the definition of personal lifestyle preference, but he also says it's best to do some discreet inquiries about it. So we will." She broke off for a few moments and scanned across the audience to read the feel of the house. There still seemed to be a few pockets of resistance, but everyone was generally receptive, and nobody was rising to ask more questions or make points, so she chose to push her luck. "It looks like this meeting's basically over, depending. We asked all of you in here to let you know what's going on, and to get your opinions of our plans. We're also willing to listen to the group wisdom on the matter. If you all want, we'll take a few minutes to talk, then hold a vote on the matter of allowing anyone else in; and simple majority will decide instead of by stock holdings. The stock plan was meant only for business decisions, anyway." She stepped back to Adam, behind her on the stage, and prepared to wait.

Both of them had believed it would come down to an actual vote. But it was only half a minute before Mark Ollivander stood again, a look of deep respect on his face, and walked forward through the murmuring people of silver and gold. Reaching the edge of the dais, he said, "May I step up?" The Sandharas perked their brows, but bowed and moved back while he mounted the stairs and turned to the crowd.

He got the audience's attention quickly; all knew Ollivander had been a university professor before his own kidnapping and conversion, and was still one of the soundest thinkers in the Republic. He now said, "Friends, I know how ambivalent many of us probably feel about the idea of making more 'borgs. After all, none of us had a choice in the matter, and we've won the sympathy of the Republic for that fact; yet now we're talking about doing it ourselves to others. But let's remember the key points: Adam and Ariel don't plan to rush out and grab people off the streets, and inject them with nanites; and the people we will inject must really want it. The rest of their arguments, while built on speculative evidence, have some validity in the history of human behavior. In any case, if we are the next evolutionary step for humankind, though originally created for perverted ends, then we will need more genetic diversity than only 400 of us can provide. I'd rather gain recruits in Ariel and Adam's way, than have one of us make love to a woman without warning her and she raise a tempest afterwards...assuming she gets wired to save her personality. That could get us all in trouble.

"I move that we express our support to Ariel and Adam, and give them our blessing. And I hope you will all join me in this."

A few seconds later, someone else stood in the audience, and called out, "I second the motion, and call for the question."

Ollivander said, "All those in favor, say aye...." A loud chorus of "ayes" filled the room. Only a few scattered voices answered "Nay." Ollivander joined Ariel and Adam in a smile, bowed to them, and left the dais.

Adam smiled at Ariel and waved an arm toward the audience. She stepped up and said, "Thank you all for your confidence in us. We promise you that we'll do our utmost not to abuse this trust. Unless anyone has more to speak about, or another problem we need to address together...? Then we're done here; thank you all for coming." The audience rose, talking among themselves, and the hall was clear in five minutes, leaving only Ariel and Adam.

"And so it begins," she said, staring at the doors through which their brothers and sisters had departed.

"You still don't sound very happy about it, darling, though you did a fair job of talking in favor."

She turned back and shrugged. "You should know me by now, darling. I enjoy some facets of the cyborg life, but I'm still more resigned to it than anything. Most of this first generation will be, unless I didn't read the house right, or unless a lot of hearts and minds find healing. It's the generation who choose to become 'borgs, like Dara, or who are born into it, like Zana, that will be the most comfortable with this life. On the other hand, we're willing to give the concept a chance...." She grinned and squeezed his hand. "Don't worry about me, darling; I'll make it. I'm still amazed by the concept of desiring to become a 'borg. Give me a couple of centuries, and I'll adjust."

"I sincerely hope so. I don't look forward to the need to keep convincing you of this.... Let's get going, then; we've both got businesses to run."

Ten days later, Dara Furtano went again to see Ariel Sherman at the Land of Fantasy, having received the day off from Vanis Trheakna at the Sandharas' request. Met by an assistant in the lobby of the theatre, she was escorted to a little-used elevator and taken to the top floor, which was still laid out in apartments. Stopping before one door, the assistant keyed it open and bowed Dara in.

The apartment was an incredibly luxurious suite of rooms done in shades of teal green and silver for the most part. Doors from the loft-style sitting room led off to a bedroom with a mirrored ceiling over the couch, and a washroom in green porphyry and silver fittings. A tall stainless-steel cylinder with hinged doors stood in one corner; Dara desired to investigate it, but suspected that the idea was not a good one.

"That was my 'shower cabinet,' so to speak," Ariel's voice said, soft and slow; Dara turned with a squeak to find the cyborg standing in the doorway of the washroom, dressed in a work jumper and jacket of a soft, pale blue suede, an unreadable look on her face.

"Lady, I'm...I'm so sorry," Dara began stammering.

But Ariel, shuffling in and dropping a tenuous hand on the cylinder, went on as if she had not heard. "Every work night...my programming compelled me to get into that damned thing and wash...wash inside and out. I'd shower down on the outside, and get douched with a disinfectant all through my cavity. And a connection to a port inside my...inside my vagina made sure that I thought it was heaven. I had sex six times a week with this damned machine besides the clients, and I couldn't help it!"

"Goddess...Goddess forgive me," Dara whispered; "I didn't mean to bring back memories like this to you."

Those words seemed to penetrate Ariel's funk; she blinked her gold-coin eyes and stared at Dara for a second. "I should apologize to you," she said in the same soft voice." "I only meant to show you some of why I've fought your request so much, not to make you feel bad...." She turned back to the cabinet, and seemed to become lost again. "I should have had that thing ripped out years ago; I've just...just couldn't bring myself to think about it. It wasn't the lovemaking that we...I...hated.... It was being treated as a thing, an object that someone could use and control at will. And if we dared displease her, oh but she had ways of making us pay." She was staring again at the "shower," and her hands had unconsciously balled into fists. The room went silent again for a few moments; then Ariel drew a shuddering breath and forced herself to relax, focused on her guest. "None of us who worked here in those days can ever forget that, Dara, though we have the ability to do it on demand; and none of us will ever forgive Cheryl Mackerson for what she did to us.

"I think the reason so few of us have paired off, even with each other, is that we've been scarred by that time. Sex became something we were forced to do, instead of for personal pleasure or the creation of children. I was lucky; I found a lover who was...so enchanted with me that he rarely let anyone else have a chance with me." She snorted a dry, almost mirthless chuckle. "It's a good thing Micronan's so successful; I cost Adam over 50,000 a week toward the end. But I wanted you to know why I've resisted so hard until now. You need to hear these words; once you're converted, you'll remember them. You'll be lucky, Mistress Dara; other than my Zana, you'll be the first of us to come across without having gone through that humiliation. And...unlike even Zana...you'll have had a choice. Remember this." She beckoned a suddenly subdued Dara out of the washroom and sealed the door; then she pulled a digicomm from her pocket, tapped a key, and said, "Darling, Dara's up here and we're going ahead.... Okay, we'll see you when you get here.... I love you, too; out."

Tucking the comm away, she turned back to Dara. "Computer, record.... Last chance, mistress. You've been determined so far; for the final time on the record, beyond your sworn, written statement, have you been informed fully of the drawbacks and permanent nature of the conversion process you're about to undergo?"

Dara nodded; "Yes; I, Dara Selene Furtano of the planet Aldine, have been fully informed of the consequences of my decision, and offered multiple chances to withdraw from it. I certify that I choose to continue with the process to convert myself into a cyborg, and that it is of my own free will, and I pledge to keep the method secret from all inquirers."

"Place your eye to the scanner and your hand on the terminal touchplate to seal the declaration.... And then go to the bedroom and take off your top."

Dara asked, "Are you ready to go?"

"As soon as I shut off this recording and save it to the permanent archives. Go on; I'll be there in a moment."

"Are you going to be the one to convert me? What about Lord Adam?"

Her mood finally lightening, Ariel cracked a small smile and said, "My dearest, golden love is such a fair and perfect knight that he refuses to look at another woman who's uncovered, for fear he fall subject to temptation. He refuses to believe that I think it's perfectly allowable to look, as long as he doesn't touch or go through with it. In fact, you wouldn't believe what I had to go through to convince him to star in the revue with me; he has a wonderful singing voice, but when he heard about all the nudity, especially in the finale, he nearly bolted for an off-planet shuttle."

They shared a laugh, then Dara went on to the bedroom, sitting on the silver satin duvet as she shrugged off her black jacket and unzipped her beige linen blouse. A few moments later, Ariel came in with a small bag in her hand. "And this is it?" Dara asked, a tense thrill surging through her.

Ariel nodded and opened the bag. "Take off your bra too, please; I need to place a sensor pad over your heart.... You know, Adam was right; you'll make a magnificent 'borg, maybe in silver."

"Silver or gold, lady, it doesn't matter to me. The results are what matter."

"That is part of the results, Dara. And, like the rest of it, once done, it's done; when we boot your personality, what you see is what you get. So make a choice, or be satisfied."

Dara thought about this for a minute as she slid out of her bra, and Ariel took the time to examine her briefly. She guessed that the deep blonde hair Dara carried on her head was the girl's vanity; it was past shoulder length and glossy, and glowed from her brushing. Ariel hoped the girl would be able to take the temporary loss of it in stride; at least she would be able to choose its length and color at will. She was tall, and her face was well shaped, with high cheekbones and full lips; and those green eyes of hers riveted you when she focused her gaze on you. The only "defects" that she could find were breasts that, while fairly firm, were slightly large and pendulous in comparison to Dara's build. They would firm up more once the nanites had transformed her skin to a metallic integument, but would retain the general shape. That would have disqualified her in Cheryl Mackerson's book; that worthy had settled for nothing less than near perfection in her "workers." That was another difference Dara would have from the other 'borgs.

"Silver, I think," Dara said, interrupting her ruminations. "I've noticed there aren't so many in silver, and it's a beautiful shade."

"Silver it is." Ariel pulled out a mediscanner and two sensor pads from the bag. Scanning her left chest, she located the best site for placement, and attached one pad above the breast. "This pad monitors your vital signs, though it's never posed a problem in the past. Of course, those were Cheryl's nanites, not ours. And these do the actual work of interfacing with your brain and nervous system, so that your personality and memories can be recorded and re-inserted into the computer that your cerebral cortex will become." She stuck two more sensors on Dara's body, one at the nape of her neck, the other at the base of her spine. Pulling a compadd from the bag, she did a systems check and received a green light; then she glanced back at the girl. "It looks like you're ready.... Getting tense?"

Dara shook her head no. "Just excited. I've dreamed of this for years, made love to men and women while in my body armor--"


The girl smiled at Ariel's amazement. "It can be done, lady, with the right...let's call them 'appliances'...for making the connection between partners. To be truthful, I'm wearing my hips under my pants right now." While Ariel stared, dumbfounded, Dara pulled down her pants and revealed what looked like a portion of a star-soldier's body armor fastened about her own hips, but less unwieldy, colored in silver. "The woman who makes these costumes once worked in the armory and arsenal branch of the Republic Marines. It's composed of the same polysilicate as their assault suits, impregnated with silver to give it this color. Unlike theirs, though, this is a bit more...anatomically fitted on the inside surface. If I clench myself, it activates a vibrator. If it's allowable, I want to keep wearing this as I cross over."

"Uh...I don't know...if you'll need to, from what I recall.... But you really are into this, aren't you? There's absolutely no doubt in your mind that being a 'borg is good," Ariel said softly.

"Yes, lady...and I'm not ashamed to admit it."

"Then.... Then I'm going to take a chance and make a suggestion to you.... You remember what I told you about how we've been scarred by the way we were brought into this life? After this is done, after you come across...start talking to our men and women; let them know that it's alright to love, and to make love. Find someone that you can care for, and who will love you, and help heal him; start a family, and show him that life can go on, and be enjoyable."

It was impossible to ignore her fervent appeal. "I'll be glad to, lady," Dara said after a few moments, her eyes suddenly moist, "should the Goddess allow."

Ariel's eyes, though tearless, were glittering with more than the shine of gold; she took Dara in her arms for the first time for a hug of sisterhood that lasted long moments. She finally backed off, sniffling reflexively to draw breath, and said, "Well, you can't do any of that unless we get you across." She went for the bag, and pulled out the final items, a spray hypo and a vial filled with a silvery substance. "This contains the stuff you seek, and I won't bother to ask you any more. Show me your arm, please." Dara turned her right shoulder to Ariel, and the cyborg pressed the hypo up to it and fired, then keyed the compadd to the proper program and began recording. "There. According to Adam, it takes about four hours on the average for a human to be converted. You can dress back up and wander about for maybe three; but, once they start working on your brain, you'd better be back in here, or you'll fall on your face."

"I definitely don't want to break my nose, thank you. Lord Adam warned me, and I brought a few books in my notepadd."

"Then I'll leave you here for now, while I get some more things done downstairs, and arrange for our understudies for the night, just in case. I'll check back in three hours, or if anything goes wrong, which it shouldn't." Nodding and smiling, Ariel left Dara to her privacy and the process of change.

After three and a half hours, Adam arrived at the theatre, and went looking for Ariel, but nobody knew where to find her. She had told him, however, to wait in her office, and so he settled himself there behind the desk and tied into his own files at Micronan to pass the time. He was idly mulling over the suggestions of a junior researcher when his digicomm rang. He snapped it open and said, "Sandhara."

"Hi, darling; where are you?"

"In your office, looking for you. Everything going well?"

"Come up to my old apartment, and judge for yourself."

"On my way; out."

He strode down the hallway of the top floor a few minutes later, arriving quickly at the door of Ariel's old studio. He paused for a second before touching the bell, remembering with a smile all the history they had shared in that room; then he reflected that some new history had probably been made there today, working toward the future of their species. Of course, there was only one way to find out, and woolgathering wasn't it. He finally rang the bell, and the door slid open.

Within, Ariel sat smoking a cigarette in one of her long holders. Her face lit up, as always on seeing him, and she stood for a hug and long kiss. He was more than willing to oblige, of course; still holding her after, he said, "I hope this is for more than just gladness at seeing me again."

"And isn't that enough?" she said with an impish grin. "I thought you were in love with me."

"More every day, darling; but right now, I'm of a practical frame of mind...or computer, as the case may be. Where's Dara?"

"I thought you weren't interested in other women! Should I be jealous now?"

Adam gave her a look. "Something tells me one or both of you are playing with me for amusement. Come on, Ari, and give; did it work or not?"

"And is there a reason why it shouldn't work, lord?" came Dara's voice from the bedroom, and the woman herself entered behind it, smiling brilliantly. Indeed it had worked; for Dara stood before them in a body of silver that glowed as brilliantly as a full moon, with hair of the same blonde she had possessed just that morning, but falling now past the small of her back. Instead of her own business suit, she wore one of Ariel's old caftans from her early days, which the mistress of the Land of Fantasy had gifted her with; it was of deep blue barred with silver chevrons, and fitted just a bit snugly over her form, slightly taller and larger-chested than Ariel was. Ariel had quickly made her up face with the skill she possessed from her old programming, highlighting the argent cheekbones subtly with a bluish-green rouge and shadowing the lids over her coin-of-silver eyes in a smoky mix of magenta, dark green and sapphire blue. Her lips glowed in a scarlet that matched her nails.

She dropped in a deep curtsey to Adam and Ariel, spreading her arms out to "embrace" them both in the folds of the caftan. "Thank you both, lord and lady," she said, "for all of this. You may never understand how happy this makes me, to become my dream."

"As long as you remember where the dream ends and the real world takes hold again," Adam warned as Dara stood again, but with a smile. "You may be a 'borg now, but you still have to make your way out there. Actually, though, I get the feeling that Vanis has been so pleased with your work that he plans to offer you an actual job at the end of your internship; so your future is probably set."

"Except for one thing," Ariel said. "We've been around each other long enough by now, and shared enough thoughts and intimacies, that I consider us friends. I hope you do, too; but if so, don't you think it's time to drop the 'lord' and 'lady'? Even Vanis uses them only when we're at business meetings."

"But--" She stopped for a moment, stunned by the closeness Ariel offered her as a privilege. Finally: "I don't.... After all I've put you through, all the thought and wrangling, you're willing to call me friend?"

"After all you made me face," Ariel corrected her. "I've finally looked at some of my attitudes about my own conversion because of this past few weeks. And I did some more thinking in the time you've spent in here reading. I won't say that I've become perfectly comfortable with the whole idea of a 'borg life...but I think I understand it more, as well as my own mind and heart. For that, as well as to help you through the future you've chosen, you deserve my friendship.

"You're probably the first in a line of people that will eventually start trickling into our ranks. As time passes, you'll be considered the founding mother of a new generation of cyborgs; and your choice here will pave the way for our eventual spreading into all of Republic society. Aside from the few who left us in the beginning, all of us are here on Videra; as more become 'borgs, or are born out of 'borg parentage, we'll gradually move out onto other planets."

"That's a lot of karma to lay on a person, la-- Ariel," Dara said, her smile sobering. "Becoming part of the foundation of a species wasn't what I had in mind when I approached you."

"But it's what it will result in," Adam said. "By loosening the ban on more conversions, we're admitting or implying that we're willing to do it again under the right circumstances. This is part of what grew out of the discussions the Condo had while you were going through the preliminaries. If it weren't so late, I'd fill you in on my hypotheses behind that aspect, but we need to begin preparing for tonight's show."

"We can still do that," Ariel said. "Come on with us, and you can listen while we change and put on our makeup." She hooked an arm around her new sister's, and led the way to the lift, Adam behind the women.

In after years, Ariel Sherman found few regrets over the choice she had made in that fateful time, to open the doors to a wider membership in the cyborg lifestyle. Her chief emotion was surprise at how many people showed interest in making the crossing, and how many survived the stiff filtering process set up to screen out the timid or undesirable. Though they never particularly advertised the availability, it became known that, for those who were sincere in their desire, and willing to abide by the strictures of membership and preserve the secrets of the process, the conversion was available. Dara was probably the source of the original information, spreading the word through her network of technosexual friends; and indeed, many who applied in the early days cited that as one of their reasons for joining the cyborg species. At first hundreds, then thousands a year made the crossover; and then the species began to give birth to more and more children, on a level that amazed Ariel even as she contributed to the birth rate herself with eleven more boys and girls by Adam.

The cyborgs proved amazingly fertile for decades beyond humanoid norms. On further examination, the Condominiatum found that, while the males continued producing sperm throughout their lives, as most males did, the viability of the gamete remained at over 90% instead of falling off. As for the females, menopause never seemed to arrive, and it was discovered that the nanites were literally creating new genetic material out of source organic intake from their food, fulfilling their programmed role of maintaining the lifeform that they worked in symbiosis with, according to the patterns laid down in their instructions. They had become fertile for as long as their mates and companions; and, as their lifetimes were estimated to extend into the thousands of years, this could result in a very large population mass indeed. Added to that was a higher success rate at fertilization, some 400% higher for Homo sapiens electronicus than the norm for H. sapiens organicus, as the two species were now differentiated in the journals.

All of that, along with the final breakdown of mental barriers restraining the Mackerson-created cyborgs from procreation, resulted in a population explosion within the cyborg world. Within 20 years, their population had surpassed 250,000, and it had spread out over several planets. In another 30 years, they numbered well over 7 million across several sectors, all of them productive and wealthy, and some of the fearful began taking notice of the speed at which the species multiplied. The first whispers that reached Ariel and Adam of any resistance to the spread of the cyborgs was only that -- occasional whispers of attempted discrimination at some facilities, and prejudiced mutters under people's breath to their associates overheard by sharp cyborg ears. The Condominiatum had been preparing for this, however, and Adam and Ariel put a three-pronged plan into action. First, the legal teams both within and hired by the Condominiatum began legislative action to strengthen their foundation of rights under the Republic charter and the original extension laws. Second, discreet public-education campaigns began instructing people over the broadcast channels as to the problem and its irrationality.

The third prong was the fallback plan, which Ariel and Adam hoped would never be put to use. Several groups of cyborg planet prospectors were supplied and sent out toward the nearest boundaries of explored space; their mission was to locate planetary systems in unclaimed space with at least one uninhabited Terran-class world that the cyborgs could migrate to if the need ever arose. Over forty such systems, located in the near edges of a large globular cluster, were discovered and claimed under private-domain privileges, title being made out each time in the name of the Condominiatum, and their systems marked with ownership beacons. Adventurous types followed to establish settlements and begin developing the planets; in a fit of punning humor, Ariel dubbed the first world found Altona, from the ancient joke of Terran American performers about "playing in Altoona." Humor aside, should the need ever arise, and an exodus be called, the Condominiatum would not have to start from scratch; Altona would be declared their capital, and the other worlds would be members in a confederation-style government.

Sadly, some 600 years after Ariel and Adam's freeing of the cyborgs, the call for exodus did come -- but not for the reasons feared....

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