Under the radar: In the future, skin-to-skin contact is prohibited

Caution: This Science Fiction Sex Story contains strong sexual content, including Ma/Fa, Consensual, Romantic, NonConsensual, Science Fiction, Post Apocalypse, BDSM, First, Oral Sex, Anal Sex, Masturbation, Slow,

Desc: Science Fiction Sex Story: Under the radar: In the future, skin-to-skin contact is prohibited - In the future, humans have "outgrown" the need for physical contact. Although a very few, the genetically defective, still crave the touch of others, skin-to-skin contact is forbidden. Astrid is a defective, struggling to survive in a society which forces her to deny her identity and suppress that which comes naturally, until a chance encounter changes her life forever. (Note: Story codes are added as the plot progresses)

On the anniversary marking the thirty-first year of my emergence into this world, I felt the bare skin of another human being for the first time in memory.

Amelia always said I'd come to bad ends.

How I ended up in her clutch, considering I had no genetic relationship with the others, remains a mystery. The story, as she tells it, is that four months after their arrival, she put three infants to bed in their pods and the next morning, without explanation, a fourth child was delivered into her care.

When she picked me up to examine her newest addition, she said, the first thing I did was reach out my tiny hand and touch her cheek.

"I nearly dropped you then and there, I was so frightened," my caretaker told me. "I knew about defectives, of course, even had my suspicions about a few individuals over the years, but I never imagined I might have to raise one. My duty was to report you, return you to the Center for treatment. Perhaps if I had, you might have had a chance to turn out normal. I don't know why, but I rushed both of us to the decontaminator instead. I knew then you'd be nothing but trouble."

She was right; my abnormality proved vexing on a regular basis. Again and again she found me hiding with my gloves peeled off, touching everything in sight, including myself. And every time she marched me into the decontamination chamber, filling it with a mist of disinfectant so pungent I can still taste it, years after I learned to hold my breath, refusing to inhale though it made my head swim, until she relented, satisfied I was clean enough.

"I could, no, should, have you hospitalized. Few caretakers are as tolerant, nor patient, as I," she reminded me on many occasions. "The world is even less so, Astrid. Don't you understand barehanded touching only leads to even more ... perverse behavior?"

When I was eighteen I finally understood the great risk my caretaker was taking, allowing me to roam free when I belonged in a hospital. It didn't stop me from touching myself or anything else I dared—despite my best efforts to abstain, the compulsion continued to seize me—but eventually I learned to be far more discreet.

I was born this way. I never wanted to be a defective, a deviant; I wanted to be normal, like my pod-brother and -sisters, like Amelia. Like everyone else around me.

Yet nothing exhilarated me more than the sensation of my fingertips stroking my skin. And even though I knew it was wrong, I fantasized about meeting someone like me, someone I could talk to, who knew what it was like to struggle with a tactile addiction. What's worse, in the darkest recesses of my corrupt mind lurked even more shameful desires—to touch, and be touched by, another.

I started working for the Office of Historical Records two months ago, thanks to my pod-sister Mercy, who's an undersecretary to the Assistant Minister of Public Safety. The position sounded more prestigious than it turned out to be. Mostly I ran errands for the Historian, an older, disheveled man with sharp edges and a penchant for grumbling.

His favorite activity was spending hours poring over brittle sheets of yellow paper—until I started working there the only time I had ever seen paper was in a museum. I never could understand what he found so fascinating studying those documents, not that he ever gave me the chance to ask. He considered me more a nuisance than anything, and I once heard him muttering about vanity positions and cronyism, so I ran his errands and gave him his space. Compared to my previous job at the food dispenser repair facility, this position was a dream come true.

Given the irritation my presence seemed to illicit in my superior, nothing surprised me more than to hear him wish me a happy emergence day.

"Well? It is usually customary to thank a person for wishing you well on such an occasion."

I shook my head. "I'm sorry. You took me by surprise; thank you. I ... didn't not realize you knew the anniversary of my emergence."

He rolled his eyes. "I'm a historian, remember? I wouldn't be much of one if I couldn't find such basic information, now would I?"

"I suppose not."

We stood there looking at each other. I don't think either of us knew what to say; it was the first remotely personal conversation we'd had.

"Well, why don't you take the rest of the day off, go enjoy yourself," he said gruffly.

For the second time in one day he surprised me. "Are you, are you sure? Did you clear it with the..."

"Are you questioning your superior?" he snapped.

"N-no," I stammered. "I'm sorry. Thank you, sir. Your generosity is most appreciated."

"You're welcome. Well, what are you standing around for? Go, go on. How often do you get a day off with compensation?"

I hurried out, more than a little flustered.

As I stood in the lift watching the lights for each level flash by, I thought about what the Historian had said. 'Basic information', he called it. If only he knew.

When I was ten years old, after she found me without my gloves yet again, I asked Amelia, my eyes brimming with tears, why I was cursed with this compulsion while the rest of my pod-siblings were not. "I thought the urge had long been bred out of us," I sobbed. "What's wrong with me?"

My caretaker explained that on rare occasions, flaws passed through the genetic filters; my condition was simply a genetic throwback from a less evolved period in human history.

"It doesn't mean you can't live a normal life, Astrid," she asserted. "You just have to work harder than others to control your urges. I'm confident with patience and discipline you will eventually learn to sublimate your more ... primitive tendencies."

Despite her assurances, I languished in a depression for weeks, devastated. Centuries after the near-perfection of humanity, a tiny fraction of the population, like me, were still subject to the cruelty of chance, condemned to a life full in the knowledge that we would never quite measure up.

I suppose Amelia took pity on me, for one night she pulled me into a closet and whispered in the darkness the story of my arrival. I asked where I came from, why I hadn't been delivered with the others, but she said she didn't know. She had asked her superiors the same questions, but they warned her that asking too many questions was not in anyone's best interest.

"Never forget, Astrid, some questions are better left unanswered; some things better left unsaid. Do you understand too much knowledge is dangerous? Do you understand what will happen if you ever repeat what I have said this night?"

I didn't understand, not really, but I'll never forget the way her voice quivered. I knew only that my caretaker was terribly afraid, so I promised never to tell another soul. We never spoke of it again, and I kept my promise, held this secret for more than twenty years. Still, not a day goes by when I don't long to know the truth. On what day did I actually emerge into the world? For what reason was I taken from one pod and placed into another? I guess I'll never know.

The lift came to a stop and the doors slid open.

"Well, you getting off or are you just going to stand there?"

I blinked and saw a sour-faced man waiting to enter. "Uh, I'm sorry. Excuse me."

Stepping outside into the sunlight, I turned my face into its warmth, savoring the breeze for a brief moment as it caressed my skin.

I was thinking about how I would spend the rest of my day when I recalled I had forgotten my communicator. Knowing my return would undoubtedly irritate my superior, I considered leaving it behind, but decided against it. It was a special day after all, one I might want to spend with my friends Xen and Errol.

As I waited for the lift, someone spoke to me.

"It's a beautiful day out there."

I looked up with a jerk into the face of a tall man with twinkling brown eyes. His mop of dark hair hung carelessly as if he'd emerged from his bunk and hadn't bothered to groom himself properly. "Really? I hadn't noticed."

The lift arrived and we both stepped in.

"Level ten," I said to the computer, staring straight ahead.

"Huh. I'm going to the same level."

From the tone of his voice I sensed he was smiling at me. I shifted to my right, increasing the space between us. "You don't say."

"I'm going to the Office of Historical Records; you?"

"I'm not sure how that's any of your—" I began, then stopped. All this conversation with a stranger was uncomfortable, and very much out of the ordinary, but unless I planned on hiding out on Level ten until he left the office, he would discover my destination sooner or later. "That's where I work," I conceded.

"Really? Oliver's a friend of mine. He did mention having a new assistant recently."


"Um, the Historian." He chuckled. "I take it he's never bothered to tell you his name."

I shook my head.

"Don't feel bad. He's that way with everyone. He takes his work very seriously and has a tendency to project his personal expectations onto others, which can make him a bit impatient. But after you get to know him, he loosens up. I think eventually you'll find him a thoughtful, even generous man."

I cocked my eyebrow. "If you say so."

A sudden jolt rocked the turbo shaft, flinging us onto the floor. The lights went out as the lift froze between levels. Hair brushed my cheek as I opened my eyes into the darkness. I assumed it was my own, and then I felt a scratchy warmth rub against my skin. I sucked in my breath and pulled back.

"Are you all right?"

My heart raced as I reeled from the surge passing through me, my skin memorizing the sensation.

"I-I'm fine. You?"

I heard him shifting around. "Yes."

"What happened?"

"I don't know, but I'm sure they'll get the lift back online soon." He smiled when the backup lights flipped on a few seconds later. "See, what'd I tell you?"

We are experiencing technical difficulties. Please remain calm.

"Computer, how long until the lift is repaired?" the man asked.

Estimated repair time sixty minutes. Please remain calm.

"Well, at least we can see while we wait." He settled in front of me, legs bent, resting his forearms on his knees. "I'm Grant; what's your name?"


He smiled. "That's a very nice name. It reminds me of the prefix, 'astro-', which means 'star' or 'outer space'. I wonder if there is a connection between the prefix and your name?"

I shrugged. "I don't know." It confused me, why this stranger persisted in engaging me, especially after what just happened.

"I read a lot," he explained, even though I didn't ask. "I find learning about the history of things fascinating."

"That's nice." I don't understand why I did it, I should have let the subject drop, but the next thing I knew I was asking him, "Are you a historian too?"

"I work for the Museum of History's archeology department, in the archives."

"That sounds interesting," left my lips before I realized I was only encouraging him.

"It really is. I get to see a lot of things most people have only heard of, if at all. But I'm sure you experience that yourself, working in Historical Records. How long have you worked with Oliver?"

"About two months. I don't get to see a lot of the things the Historian ... that Oliver studies; I spend most of my time running his errands. I don't think he likes me very much," I added.

"He was difficult when I first met him, too." As Grant began telling me the story of how he and my supervisor became acquainted, my mind kept drifting to that moment when our faces touched in the darkness. It didn't seem to faze him whatsoever. Had he not noticed? Given the powerful thrill which tore through me it didn't seem possible. Unless ... unless I imagined it. I shook my head. No, it was impossible; I'd never felt anything like it before.

"What?" I asked, suddenly realizing he was addressing me.

He chuckled. "'Grant, you need to learn to that not everyone is interested in your every last thought.'"

"What?" I echoed, confused.

"Something Caleb, my caretaker, used to say." He shook his head and gave me a little smile. "It wasn't important. Besides, he's right. I do have a tendency to go on."

He was so different from anyone I'd ever met before. Unsettling as it was, I also found his open, relaxed demeanor compelling; most people were far more reserved, particularly with strangers. But we'd touched, something that would've sent any other person into a panic, and he went on as if we were old friends catching up after a long separation. I, on the other hand, could not stop reliving that moment in my mind, and although I knew without a doubt it proved I was hopelessly deviant, I could not stop wishing for it to happen again.

"Today is the anniversary of my emergence," I blurted, without knowing why.

His eyes crinkled as his smile widened into a grin. "Well, happy emergence day! I'm sorry you're spending it stuck in a lift."

"It's inconvenient, but you are ... an interesting person to talk to," I admitted, unable to hold his gaze as my cheeks grew hot.

"So are you. Actually, this is the most excitement I've experienced in a long time."

I thought it was another one of his jokes, but something in his tone caught my attention. Lifting my eyes, I found Grant looking at me intently, and I knew.

I hadn't imagined it, our touch in the dark.

Heart pounding, I trembled from fear, from exhilaration. Looking down at my hands, I started to open my mouth, but no sound came out.

"It's all right," he said softly. "Really."

Biting the inside of my upper lip, I dared again to meet his gaze. Though his face appeared impassive, I saw a smile hidden behind his eyes.

"Astrid. Astrid."

"Wha?" My eyes focused on the woman across the table. "I'm sorry, Xen. What did you say?"

"What she said," Errol cut in, "was to stop daydreaming and hurry up. We only have five minutes left on the reservation and you haven't even finished your first drink."

"Let alone ordered the second," Xen added. "I don't know, Astrid. I still think you should have stopped by the Center of Health and Wellness before meeting us here, made sure you're all right after the ordeal you endured today."

"I'm fine. I got stuck in a lift for an hour. It wasn't pleasant, but I'd hardly call it an ordeal. And I certainly don't want to spend my anniversary in yet another place I'd rather not be. Besides, you know we only get the opportunity to have two drinks twice a year."

"And yet you're squandering one of those opportunities right now," my male friend pointed out with a tip of his head toward my half-filled glass.

"Help yourself. I'm happy to order another."

"Very funny."

"Server!" I called out, giving Errol a mischievous smile.

"Astrid!" he admonished in a harsh whisper.

A woman with a pinched face approached the table.

"Another, please."

"You do realize you have less than five minutes remaining."

"Indeed I do. But today is the anniversary of my emergence, and I am entitled to a second beverage. Now go, quickly, or I won't have time to finish it."

The server wrinkled her thin nose as if smelling something bad. "Very well," she replied with a disapproving glance at my glass before turning on her heels.

"You heard her," Errol said after the woman left. "Bottom's up."

Tossing my head back, I drained the remaining liquid from the tumbler and smiled at my friends.

"How about continuing the celebration at the Pleasure Center? Our treat."

"Thanks, Xen. Sounds like fun," I replied, just as the server returned with the second beverage.

I waved my hand toward the glass. "Xen, Errol?"

The server's face tightened.

"Just kidding," I said, lifting the glass in the air. "Happy emergence day to me."

"She has an unfortunate tendency to make inappropriate jokes," Errol explained to the woman.

"And doesn't hold her liquor as well as others," Xen added.

"Best keep a close eye on her. The uninhibited are a particular risk to public safety," the tall woman cautioned. She turned her head toward the entrance. "Reservation's up. You need to leave now."

Upon arrival at the Pleasure Center, we were informed that they were filled to capacity. But after my identity scan confirmed it was the anniversary of my emergence, the attendant informed me that a single unit was immediately available, after all.

"We can come back another time," I told my friends, reluctant to accept their gift when they themselves would be unable to indulge.

"It's your emergence day. You deserve a little pleasure, especially after..." Xen stopped and gave Errol and me a knowing look.

"Go; enjoy yourself," he agreed. "I'm not really up for it tonight, anyway. I always have trouble sleeping after a session."

I acquiesced and thanked my friends. After they paid my fee, I left them behind, with a wave and a parting smile, to follow the attendant down the long corridor housing the narrow chambers.

"You've reserved the room for twenty minutes, starting the moment this door closes behind me," the woman stated with the enthusiasm of one who had given this spiel a thousand times too many when we reached our destination. "The program will terminate fifteen minutes later. At that time you must disengage from the machine and enter the adjoining chamber to your right for decontamination. You are expected to vacate the chamber in four minutes, within 60 seconds of the alarm, or else you will be charged for another full session. Do you have any questions?"

"I'm curious, how is it that I can move to the head of the line when the place is booked solid, but only on my emergence day?"

The woman glared at me. "You're clearly experiencing the effects of an intoxicating beverage, so I will assume this is not a valid question. Have you any valid questions?"

"I guess not."

"Good. Thank you for choosing the Pleasure Center. We hope you have a pleasurable experience."

Like every other indoor space in the city, the room carried the faint scent of disinfectant. The glossy white polymer walls were windowless and unadorned, curving seamlessly into the ceiling and floor for ease of cleaning. In the middle of the narrow room stood the SxTC.

To the uninitiated, the device could be somewhat intimidating; at least it was for me the first few times. I crawled into the reclining seat and lifted my arms above my head and opened my legs, resting my limbs on narrow platforms. After the machine detected I was in position, metal restraints locked into place at varying locations along my arms and legs. The head piece lowered, surrounding my eyes and ears in dark silence.


I jumped, my body jerking against the restraints. No matter how many times I had done this before, the sound of an androgynous voice resonating in my skull never failed to startle me.

Thank you for choosing the SxTC model 6900, recently upgraded for maximum pleasure. Please listen carefully to the following information, which is provided for your safety and to ensure every experience is a pleasurable experience.

Because the sensations you are about to experience are powerful, your limbs have been restrained for your safety. They will release automatically at the conclusion of the session.

All users are required to choose a "safe word". Speaking this word at any time during the session results in immediate termination of the program and release of the restraints. Please choose from the following options: To listen to a selection of suggested safe words, please say "one" now. To select your own safe word, please say "two" now.


Please speak your safe word after the tone.

A soft chime resonated inside my head. "Stop."

You have chosen 'stop' as your safe word. If this is correct, say "proceed" now. If this is incorrect, say "return" now.

I groaned. "Proceed."

Safe word confirmed. Thank you for choosing the Pleasure Center. We hope you have a pleasurable experience.

Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and waited for the program to continue.

At this time, please relax and clear your mind.

Somehow, being told to clear my mind on demand only made it more difficult to comply. But after having my reservation expire a dozen times or more before achieving release—satisfaction was not guaranteed—I learned focusing on my breathing brought on the necessary state.

As a veil of mist drifted into my mind's eye, the first tingles of sensation rippled outward from my core. A growing warmth in my pelvic region followed, very similar to what I experienced whenever I broke down and engaged in a forbidden exploration of my body.

My breathing grew ragged and I moaned softly as long, warm waves rocked through me.

"Mmmph!" I clenched my jaw, trying to suppress the volume of my moans when the waves shortened into ever-quickening pulses. I didn't have to be quiet here—this was the one place an individual could cry out in pleasure without fear of recrimination—but years of hiding my self-stimulation sessions taught me to control how loudly I responded to physical pleasure.

An image of Grant's face, his dark eyes penetrating mine, flashed into view.

"No no no." I tried in vain to banish him from my thoughts, fearful the program might be capable of detecting them. But instead of fading away, the image solidified and took on a life of its own.

In slow motion, Grant's hand reached out. It was then I realized he was barehanded.

I sighed when his fingertips made contact with my face. My eyes rolled upward and I surrendered to the sensation. Strong hands traced my features and I shivered, my limbs straining against their bonds.

"Yesss ... oh please please please," I murmured as he drew me so close I could feel his breath caressing my skin. Our lips made contact, and I exploded with pleasure like never before.

"Don't stop," I whispered, hips undulating while my body throbbed. "Please don't—"

A blinding light shocked me back into reality.

Safe word acknowledged. Program terminated.

"No!" I protested. "I didn't want ... I meant..."

All at once, the restraints opened with a click.

Please proceed carefully to the decontamination chamber on your right. Thank you for visiting the Pleasure Center. We hope your experience was a pleasurable one.

With a sigh I disengaged my limbs and stood on legs still shaky from the intensity of my release. It was the most powerful response I'd ever had while using the SxTC, and I wondered if thinking about Grant instead of blanking out my mind was what made it is so different this time. I staggered toward the adjoining room and stripped off my boots and clothing. After placing them inside the sanitizing container just inside the entrance, I stepped into the dimly lit chamber.

Decontamination commencing in five, four, three,...

I took one last deep breath. Despite the Ministry of Health's assurances that inhaling the mist was innocuous, I couldn't get past the urge to hold my breath until the cycle ended. The taste of disinfectant coating my oral and nasal cavities lingered for days and I did whatever I could to minimize the experience.

The doors slid shut and as mist filled the enclosure, I noticed tiny, irregular aftershocks still pulsing through my groin. I gritted my teeth and fought the urge to reach between my legs, to slide my fingers through the slickness experience taught me would be there. It was one thing to caress myself in the privacy of my bed; I dared not risk doing so here, despite assurances that such facilities were unmonitored.

My lungs began to burn from lack of oxygen. Just a little longer, just a little longer, I chanted in my head until at last the lights raised and the mist subsided.

Please retrieve your garments from the sanitizer. A chime sounded and the lid slid back into the wall.

I grabbed my suit and pulled it on before sliding into my boots. My elbow-length gloves came last. I quickly pulled my hair, tied back tightly into a ponytail, out of the high neck of my long-sleeved shirt and stepped out of the room into a long corridor.

I made my way down the hall and out through the reception area.

"Thank you for visiting the Pleasure Center," the man behind the counter droned as I passed. "We hope you had a pleasurable experience."

The SxTC provided the only safe means, the only authorized means of releasing libidinal pressure. We'd managed to minimize most of our more dangerous qualities through careful selection of desirable traits coupled with eighteen years of intensive behavioral conditioning. Still, controlling our most primitive drives required constant vigilance.

I knew my desires were perverse, a threat to public safety. I'd just had my urges satisfied, yet I couldn't wait to get home, where at long last I could touch myself, imagining it was Grant's hands instead of my own.

Without turning on the lights when I arrived at my quarters a half hour later, I tore off my gloves and slipped out of my boots. Relieved to finally be free of their constraints, I peeled off my close-fitting tan shirt and matching pants. Slipping into bed, I lay in the dark, reliving the unexpected, extraordinary day I experienced.

I pressed my palm against the place where our cheeks met. It still tingled, clinging to the memory of that all-too-brief moment of contact. Stroking my body, skin still sensitive from the session with the SxTC, I closed my eyes and smiled. When at last my searching fingers encountered a familiar wetness, I let out a tiny gasp. A few minutes later, with one hand clamped over my mouth to muffle my cries, I bucked hard, hips grinding against my rubbing fingers.

"I need you to make a delivery to the Museum of History," the Historian, who I now secretly referred to as Oliver, announced a few days later.

My head snapped up with a jerk. "The Museum?" I echoed.

"Is that a problem?"

"N-no, of course not. I was just thinking and your voice startled me."

"You've been distracted ever since your anniversary. I suggest you get whatever is distracting you out of your mind and focus your energy on your work."

"Of course, sir. My apologies." I took the small parcel he proffered and tucked it under my arm. "I'll be right back."

"No need to rush. Since you're going to be out, you might as well take your break when you've finished your errand."

With growing strides I hurried down the corridor to the lift.

"Level one."

As the light of each floor pulsed with my descent, I took the package from under my arm and looked at the address.

Dr. Kant, Department of Archeology, Museum of History

"Grant Kant," I murmured, trying out the name. I shook my head. Although caretakers were given some latitude in naming their charges, I seriously doubted the Center of Reproduction would have approved a rhyming moniker.

That said, I found myself wondering if I would run into Grant, or more importantly, how I would ensure that I did.


"Good morning. I hope you can help me. I work for the Office of Historical Records and my supervisor has asked me to deliver a parcel to a Grant somebody here at the museum, only I'm afraid I've forgotten his surname."

"Surely you have a communicator. Why don't you contact your supervisor and ask him?"

"I would, but he's in an important meeting. I'm afraid he wouldn't appreciate my interrupting it to ask."

The man let out an exaggerated sigh. "Department?"

"Archeology. I believe he works in the archives."

"One moment. Let's see ... Yes, Grant Devlin, department of archeology."

"Grant Devlin! Of course! It's coming back to me now. Grant Devlin in archeology. Thank you so much. I was really dreading having to call my supervisor."

The man held out his hand. "I'll let Mr. Devlin know he has a package waiting for him."

"No," I replied at once. "My supervisor was very clear that I deliver it to him directly."

He sighed. "Fine. You are?"

A few minutes later I heard footsteps approaching. I looked up, and to my relief saw Grant coming toward me.

"Astrid?" he asked, though his eyes told me he needed no reminder.

I nodded, fighting the urge to smile. My plan had worked!

"Thank you for coming. Please, follow me."

We walked in silence to the lift and stepped inside.

"Subbasement two," Grant stated after the door slid shut.

"Hopefully this time it won't be an hour between floors," I dared to say.

My companion smiled, a broad smile which crinkled around his eyes. "Oh, I don't know. In my field encountering the unexpected can lead to new discoveries."

I let out a tiny gasp when, as if on cue, the lift came to a sudden halt.

"Looks like you're in luck today." Grant gestured for me to exit first.

We made our way down a sloping corridor and entered a small, stark room I presumed was his office.

"Is that for me?" Grant asked after we sat down, pointing at the parcel I still held under my arm.

"Uh, yes." I produced the package and handed it to him. "I mean, actually, it's addressed to a Dr. Kant."

"Really? But you asked to see me."

I felt my face flush and I lowered my eyes. "I-I remembered you said you worked here. We-we had such an interesting conversation the other day, and I was curious about what you did at the museum, and since I was here—"

"I'm glad you came," he assured me. "I'm just surprised Oliver would send something for Imogene. He knows she just left for a dig and won't be back for..." Grant stopped and chuckled softly.

I looked up. "What is it?"

"I may have mentioned an interesting conversation I'd had with his new assistant while trapped in the lift the other day."

My stomach fluttered and I swallowed hard. "Oh?"

"I hoped I might run into you again. I considered making another trip to your workplace since Oliver and I still have things we need to discuss, but I'm the only one in the department on site right now and it's not the best time to get away."

"Of course," I replied, standing up at once. "I shouldn't keep you from your work."

"Don't leave." Grant got up from his chair. "I mean, you've come all this way, and I'm not busy at the moment. It's almost noon. Can you join me for lunch?"

I smiled, and for a second entertained the notion that this outcome had been the Historian's intention all along. It seemed out of character, but then, my impression of the man appeared vastly different from the one Grant described.

"Yes. I would like that, very much."

After a quick meal, Grant and I strolled the springy path winding through the arboretum. The park was one of my favorite places in the entire city, but never before had I walked it in the company of another. In fact, I rarely encountered anyone at all, and I'd grown to appreciate the quiet and privacy it afforded.

The risk of getting dirty seemed to repel virtually everyone, so when Grant asked me if I wanted to go for a walk there I didn't know how to respond at first, I was so taken by surprise.

As we walked I recalled a conversation I'd had with my friends several years ago, when I tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade them to go on a hike on a particularly beautiful day. I remembered pointing out that a place with the primary purpose of cleaning the air and providing us with oxygen couldn't possibly be harmful.

Xen's reply hadn't come as a surprise. "That may be, but it doesn't mean I belong out in it. Creepy, dirty things live in trees."

"You go. Just make sure to decontaminate before entering my building when you're finished with your 'hike'," Errol had added, shaking his head. "I shudder to think what you might track in with you."


My head jerked toward the sound of the voice. "Yes?"

"Are you okay?"

"Yes. I was just thinking I've never come here with someone else before. You're the first person I've met who ... actually seems to like it here."

"It's one of my favorite places." Grant stopped and inhaled deeply. "Have you noticed the air is fresher here?"

I drew in a lungful of air. As I exhaled, I noticed my body felt lighter, my head, clearer. "Mmm," I sighed. "It does feel wonderful. I love how peaceful it is. After walking in the arboretum, I feel ... exhilarated. That probably doesn't make any sense," I added quickly, realizing I'd said too much. It frightened me, how readily I revealed things to him I'd never dream of sharing with anyone else.

"It does, very much so. I feel the same way."

My heart soared and more than ever I wanted to tear off my gloves and take his face into my hands.

We stopped and turned toward each other. Our eyes locked and I wondered if he could sense the powerful desires coursing through me. Not since Amelia had I felt so close to someone. But with Grant I did not experience an urge to scramble for cover, a compulsion to hide away shameful feelings. If anything I wanted to reveal more of myself to him.

Drawn like a magnet to iron, my body swayed. Grant responded with a single, tentative step forward, close enough I was sure I could feel the heat of his body. I froze, too afraid to take the next step, but unwilling to move away.

"Astrid," he whispered, the smooth timbre of his voice like the caress I craved.

My throat felt dry. I swallowed. "I ... I..."

We jumped back at the sound of a cracking twig.

"We better head back," I said, keeping my voice low as I took another step back, increasing the space between us. "Oliver's probably wondering what's taking me so long."

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