At first glance the front door to the apartment looked like the others along the corridor. Lia hadn’t noticed it when she had exited through the door on her first visit, but the long blank run of wall was an obvious indication that the living space inside was at least twice the size of the other accommodations on the ground floor of the exclusive building. As with the unusual approach to the garage below, Dave didn’t pause at the access panel but confidently pushed the door open for her as if knowing it would open as soon as he touched it.
There were sounds of activity and warm aromas wafting across the living space as he took Lia’s jacket and bag. Bypassing the large sofas in the open plan space he indicated she take a seat at the heavy dining table before greeting Gihon busy in the kitchen, his back to the room. The deputy head of the faculty had abandoned the long pleated duster coat she’d seen him in earlier in the day. However fine the material of his layered clothes the long waistcoats, robes and other coverings were all just forms of sartorial camouflage. Seeing him without them she was more than happy to note that his waist was trim, his shoulders wide, and the biceps covered by the liquid silk of his high collared shirt … well they looked expansive enough to have their own gravitational field. She wondered if that subtle force of attraction had been what had first drawn the waif-like man to his orbit.
The image of him was something she wanted to fix in her mind; she had no doubt that she would be interrogated about him when she got home. And the image was a nice one to have, all the way from his dark crown through his strong thighs down to his bare feet. She was surprised to find that the only thing unsettling about seeing the curve of his tight behind was the relaxed and familiar way Dave’s hand rested on it as they stood – too close – and seemed to be continuing the same whispered conversation that had started in the library.
“They make a lovely couple. No?” Trying to watch the interaction between the two academics she was distracted by the third member of the household as he appeared from the basement and took a place at the table next to her.
“Yes, yes they do.” She had to agree with the new arrival, but the growing thing inside her didn’t want it to be so.
“Such a pity things are not so simple. It has been a long time for them. I think Gihon would be happier if … well, there are many things that could make him happier, but it is not a conversation for now. You are Lia?” He waited until she smiled back at him and gave all her attention to the very blue eyed and alarmingly blond Russian. Mykhail Arkhangelskeyev – women’s plaything, kept man – the only straight man in the Field of Reeds? In the flesh she had to concede that he was a handsome enough brute, but she felt no urge to throw herself at him. She doubted she would ever come under that particular spell no matter how many others of her sex seemed to fall prey to it. “I’ve seen you around campus. It’s nice to get to meet you properly. Don’t worry about using the full name, Myk is good for me. And don’t worry about Gihon; he’s been hoping the old man would invite you over for long time.”
As if on cue the big man turned and welcomed her to his table. His smile was open and friendly, and he did genuinely seem pleased to see her. Unexpectedly, his shirt collar was unbuttoned rather more than was generally considered polite in public. This was their private space, what else might they do that would not be polite? She wasn’t sure if that was something to add to the description Lupe would demand, or if she should keep it herself. It seemed such a waste if no one was getting the full benefit of the well-made body hinted at in the view she was being treated to.
Contrary to Gihon’s self-deprecating assertion, the meal served was neither basic nor simple and a number of the items were exotic new discoveries for the woman. The men made eating a convivial and unhurried affair – whatever else this was clearly their shared time and they were all relaxed with each other. Lia found she was unaccountably touched at being asked to join them, but assumed that maybe the heady wine had played a part in this reaction to their welcoming and easy company.
It was a relief to Lia to find that Myk was not as shallow as his reputation had suggested. Away from the pressure of interested female company he was thoughtful and attentive, quietly identifying the more unusual items for her without interrupting the exchanges between the four of them. Though he looked to be about the same age as his companions something in his deference made Lia think he was the youngest of the three. Other than vaguely mentioning that he’d been Russian military before he’d left the oblast that had given him his name he gave away little of his past. And of the present he explained that he was Dave’s technician, maintaining everything from the transport below them to the servers and software that Dave and Gihon relied upon to organise the material they discovered.
Put at ease, it was not difficult to be open as the evening progressed and Lia happily ignored the warnings of her internal editor when questions turned to her. While the trio voiced surprise that she was single, not even an insignificant other in the background, they seemed content with her answer that she’d never really been that interested. She easily admitted to experience rather than involvement. She’d tried men – and women a few times – but never quite got what all the fuss was about. She’d never really found anyone interesting enough for more than a short term thing, certainly had never considered anyone as a ‘significant other’. A social fuck, sure, when the occasion presented but nothing ever to get carried away.
Hazily she waved a glass to indicate the campus outside “…have you seen that bunch of soft arses out there? Not met a real man among them.” Having fallen into some of the rhythms of their speech she hardly noticed how she pronounced the word. It seemed appropriate for the subject. The glass was raised in salute, first to the blond man to her left, to Gihon opposite him and finally to the brown eyes smiling at her across the table. “When it comes down to it you throwbacks are about the most masculine specimens around here, the others are all boys. Boys are not worth bothering with; I just don’t find effete man-dolls that attractive.”
She’d called them throwbacks. No! Anyone reading the student paper had seen Myk in varying stages of undress, sometimes deliberately, sometimes not. She thought the other two showed the same hints of roughness about them lurking beneath their modern clothes made to old designs. So unlike the primped and manufactured appearance of most men in the over civilised city, these seemed undoubtedly, unashamedly and naturally male. Even as they laughed at the word and claimed to be flattered by the appellation she worried that her first meal with them might also be her last. That would be a shame; she’d enjoyed herself in their company, especially looking at the sharp face and amused dark eyes opposite her. Especially him. And then she realised what else she’d said. She’d said it out loud. Idiot. Maybe they would be too distracted by the throwback comment to notice the rest.
Balls, she could always blame the wine later if she needed to. Indeed, it was a surprise when she realised how much they had drunk as yet another bottle appeared on the table. Were they as affected as she suspected she might be? Certainly many of their reminiscences included revelations and laughter at their own expense. Whatever had actually happened in the finds tent at the dig in Berlin was not explained, but the memory had been enough to reduce Gihon to breathless giggles. “That poor guy, what was his name? Your dig administrator …. Rennie something? That poor guy walking in on us when I came over for a visit …” It didn’t take long for Dave to give up the struggle to maintain a straight face, especially after Myk accused him of ‘breaking’ the frantic giggler. Their laughter was infectious even though Lia had no clue what had set it off.
As with her first visit to the apartment music had played throughout the meal, the men breaking off sometimes from what they were saying to discuss this or that track. It appeared to be a random playlist from a selection of their vast archive of pre-Collapse music; the same that had become familiar to her in the study area. As coffee cups were drained Lia realised that the long instrumental introduction on one song was one all three men recognised. They looked at each other, suddenly awkward, and they all asked for it to be skipped before the vocal started. The invisible sound system smoothly switched to a different track and they seemed to relax again. Was there something in the lyrics that made them uncomfortable, or was it because she was with them?
“Myk, I have a suggestion.” Dave had leant forward again. Lia found it hard not to stare at the base of his throat as he spoke to the man beside her; there was something her subconscious was trying to tell her, something to do with stretching across and licking. She did her best to ignore the urge, sure that it would pass. She seemed to have so many unusual urges since this man had arrived. “I’ll give Gihon a hand with tidying up; you take Lia downstairs and introduce her to our responsible adult. I suspect that Ms Jordan will be a regular visitor, let’s make sure she’s always going to be welcome.” She heard the words but hadn’t noticed the pause and the slight nod from Gihon to Dave as they were spoken. The small gesture was mimicked a heartbeat later by the technician; the subtle movement almost hidden as he rose from the table.
Unaware of the undercurrent of conversation that had been going on about her all evening – in glances and inflections – Lia happily followed the blond man as he led her down the stairs and through one of the doors leading off the small utilitarian lobby. Behind the blank door was a short corridor which opened out into a cool room with one chair pulled up before a control console. She had no idea of the actual size of the room, floor to ceiling there was no gap between the racks to allow her to see how far back the walls were. She’d seen server rooms before, but a more accurate description would be to call them rooms with servers in them. This light filled space within a complicated array of interconnected processing units was, literally, a room inside a server.
The technician motioned her to sit in the one chair and put her hands flat on scanner panels set into the table before her. He waved a hand in front of a wide blank screen. The screen came to life with a stylised outline of some kind of dog, possibly a wolf, against a dark background.
“Ahh Misha, you have brought someone to see me.” The voice was rich with honey tones, Lia couldn’t say if it was male or female but, as it emanated from all parts of the room at once, it was warm and comforting. It was the same voice as the navigation system in the cars. In response Myk spoke back to the graphic on the screen but this seemed only to be a totem to provide a focus. Lia guessed that they could talk to the voice anywhere within the apartment. This was the brain behind the apartment – the music, the lighting, and the formidable security.
“Greetings Wepwawet. I would like to introduce you to our new friend. This is Lia Jordan. We hope she will be visiting us from now on. We would all like her to be allowed to come and go as she pleases.” He turned to the impressed woman and indicated the screen with the same formality. “Lia, this is Wepwawet. Our guardian program.”
“Greetings Lia Jordan. Welcome to the Field of Reeds. I am Wepwawet, the Opener of the Ways.” The image on the screen changed again, the logo being replaced by a lifelike image of a large grey wolf that turned from profile to look out of the screen at her. Inexplicably the image gave the impression that the wolf was smiling and Lia found that she couldn’t help but smile back. “Lia Jordan, I recognise you and allow you access to our home. Should you need anything from me while you are here you only have to speak my name. I see you have a separate phone handset rather than an implant. I have added my access information to it. If you want to ask me anything while you are out of range then please call me. I am always here.”
“Wepwawet, it is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. I guessed that someone had to be looking after these three. It is good to know that you keep them safe.” The canid face nodded to her and smiled again, pink tongue lolling from the side of the open mouth. The teeth were long and sharp. Lia thought this was one guardian that looked like it might bite back. “Thank you for recognising me. I hope we will have the opportunity to get to know each other in future visits.” She wondered how many other people had been introduced to the impressive program. Free access to the apartment was not something that she had ever even heard rumours about. Maybe she was now a member of a very exclusive club. This was definitely something she would not be sharing with her friends. Thinking of the teeth it seemed a prudent approach to take.
Earlier there had been no rush to move away from the big table, they had just continued their conversation where they sat, the remains of the meal around them. When Lia and Myk returned to the main room the table had been cleared and the kitchen returned its pristine condition. Even allowing for the slight delay as Myk briefly showed her the other rooms in the basement, a utility room and gym in addition to the garage, she was impressed. Though she knew that the real work was being quietly done by hidden appliances she’d never been in any flat-share where two men, any number of men actually, had been so efficient. And they must have been quick, Dave was now checking his emails and Gihon was brushing the day’s plait from his hair, glossy highlights undulating down his long mane as he worked it back into one glorious mass. The big man smiled around the barrette held in his teeth as Dave insisted on walking Lia back to her shared house.
“Please, no. It’s completely unnecessary, I’m as safe as anyone, there is no need …” Even as she voiced her protestations she realised that she was hoping he’d ask her to stay. She knew there was a guest bedroom, she’d been introduced to Thoth on her first visit and had used that bathroom during the evening. She was honest enough with herself to make the small acknowledgment that that was not where she’d hoped to spend the night. Remarks during the meal had led her to the guess that Dave’s tastes were not as exclusive as either of his friends. She thought that was a theory she would quite like to test, especially if she’d understood Myk’s whispers that he was not sleeping with Gihon. European morals seemed to be very flexible things. Though she hadn’t started out with the intention she hoped that they would be flexible enough to allow her interest.
“I know it’s old fashioned but I don’t want you walking through the park on your own. You could be the safest person out there but I would worry if I didn’t make sure that you got back home ok.”
“And just who would look after you walking back on your own? Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re hardly the most intimidating silhouette in the dark.”
He smiled at her. A predatory glint lurked somewhere in the smile, much like the wolf she’d just met.
“Oh, I have a few surprises if anyone was foolish enough to try and pick on me. Anyway, you are assuming that I could be caught …”