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LaPorte Caves – Chapter 22

Written by circes_cup :: [Saturday, 22 April 2017 01:47] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 23 April 2017 10:47]

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Chapter 22


DISCLAIMER

This story contains adult sexual content. If you are not of age to read this stuff, don’t. No resemblance between these characters and real people on Earth is implied or intended.


The rain came in sheets, beating itself against windows like some other-worldly beast, like a sea monster slamming its fists against the doors of a castle. The video game was seeping in to Julia, she realized. She was beginning to feel the swirl of emotion it should create in a player – the user experience for which the men had been trying to design it.

“I’ve been called away to make a report to the executive committee of board,” Ruth told her. “Some of them want to cancel the project. I’ll try to hold them off. We have a vacant executive office upstairs that you are welcome to use; simply ask my Personal Attendant to show you around. Let me know any good news as it develops.”

Julia sat herself at the supervisor’s workstation to get organized. She set the brightness of one monitor to a level that the men could see. On that, she lobbed some basic code, and allowed the text to scroll gradually. The pace was faster than that of the men, but not so fast to be intimidating. That was the decoy. On the other screen, she set the brightness below men’s ability to see it, and then rocketed text onto it. She was rewriting the project manual, the individual assignments, answering questions. At the end of five minutes, she had a hundred pages of material together.

Then, Julia visited every single member of her team, reviewed his progress, withheld judgement where he had made mistakes, offered advice, focused her comments on the end result and not on assigning blame. It seem to work: the mood in the room brightened the longer Julia was in it.

For the first time in her life, Julia felt like she was in charge. She was a leader. A group of people was actually counting on her. And she liked that feeling.

After making her rounds, Julia felt sufficiently comfortable that her team knew what it was supposed to do and had some renewed confidence in its ability to get there. She summoned the CEO’s Personal Attendant and asked him to show her the vacant office Ruth had mentioned.

The office suite was palatial, easily more square footage than Julia’s entire home back on earth. It made Julia wonder how much larger Ruth’s CEO suite might be. On two walls, floor-to-ceiling windows revealed the full vitality of the storm outside, water gushing against the glass. On on a third wall, a floor-to-ceiling window revealed the full vitality of the storm inside, a room bustling with men who labored to bring a gaming vision to life.

The furnishings of the office were as nice as the views. A classy-looking steel and glass desk occupied one corner. Elegant furniture – all of it sized for women – was arranged in various groupings on two smaller conference tables. The company had only six female employees, but this office alone had eight female-sized chairs. So high were the seats on these chairs that the men who must surely be its most frequent occupants would find their feet dangling from the ground. Men truly were an afterthought in product design, Julia realized.

“Service call buttons are located on the desk, the conference tables, the coffee table, and next to all of the light switches.” The Attendant then directed Julia’s attention to the opposite corner of the room, in which was located sumptuous soft seating. “You will find the liquor cabinet and other amenities over there. On the coffee table, as well, is a full menu for room service.”

Julia approached the glass cabinet which housed several bowls of elaborately carved glass. The bowls were narrow-mouthed: more like spheres with a small circle cut out of one side. Her extensive reading of local history had informed her as to their significance. “Why do they never use them anymore?”

“Workplace culture shifted away from them, miss. There was perceived need to create more distance between the executive and her workers.” Julia extracted one of the bowls from the case, rotating it slowly. Its carvings glistened even in the gloom of the storm filled day. “Such a taboo would not seem to fit our current situation. The company is in crisis, isn’t it?”

The Attendant dipped his head. “A man cannot purport to have the intelligence of a woman.”

She handed the bowl to him. “Hold this.”

With slow hands, she released the buttons of her shirt, thwip-thwip-thwip as they popped apart under the weight of her breasts. The full magnificence of her chest came into view. Julia noted the now familiar thump-thump of the man’s heart as he gazed upon the natural wonder that was her body. She cupped her swells in her hands, recalling the full scale of female power they possessed – the power to create, the power to destroy.

The Attendant seemed to know what to do, standing a few feet away, tilting the bowl slightly towards her.

She gave one breast the gentlest of squeezes. A stream of milk shot out of her nipple, hitting the aperture of the bowl squarely in the middle. The liquid jetted with such force that it knocked the Attendant of balance, he had to place a foot behind him to better counteract the momentum.

That made Julia giggle. Next to her, they were all so delightfully weak.

When the bowl was heavy with white richness, a full gallon’s worth, she ceased the liquid stream with merely a thought. “Distribute that to my boys,” she ordered.

Julia ran her hands over the her breast as it restored itself to perfect roundedness within seconds. She draped the panels of her shirt over her ‘girls’ and proceeded to the internal window. Below, the product of her body was being distributed to the workers in small glasses that resembled shot glasses. A surprised and approving murmur circulated throughout the room as men reacted to a tradition long since dead, a courtesy of the old working world that now stood aside to modern notions of professionalism.

Her boys were toasting each other with the shot glasses, smiling too. Julia could hear the heartbeats in the rooms elevate. When the keyboards started clicking again, they were doing so at a rate materially faster than before. I increased the brain activity those men, Julia realized, with no more effort than it takes me to breathe. And not just one man, but dozens of them. She massaged her breast, enjoying the knowledge of how much raw power it contained.

But the touch of her fingers on her breast also brought a loneliness. It has been too long since the had feel the touch of a man’s fingers there, since she had felt the solidity of a man’s passion inside of her. She wished that Bendjimon, Passionate One, was with her now, instead of with whatever troubles had befallen him. She wished for Howard, too, the greatest of all of her loves. But Howard didn’t like muscles on women, and Julia refused to use her pheromones to change his mind.

Julia crossed the room to the coffee table and opened the menu that lay there. The menu was broken into sections: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, Dessert and Men. She flipped to the last section. There were perhaps a dozen male sexual servants on call that day, each perfectly coiffed, perfectly dressed, with strong jaw lines, and nice facial features. But by their pictures, they seemed almost too impressed of themselves, as if they were beautiful and they knew it. Pretty faces did nothing for the mood she was in.

Opening the liquor cabinet, Julia found a bottle of gin, unopened. She tossed the cap in the garbage and tipped the bottle to her lips, gulping down a few pints as she crossed the room to the large desk.

The desk had a reinforced chair to accommodate a woman’s weight, multiple large monitors and a high-speed keyboard. When it came to coding, a group of thirty men was, of course, no match for a single woman: she could out-perform them all, producing highly complex, elegant code, completely free of errors, in far less time.

She tipped the gin bottle back again, far enough to see the ceiling lights through its clear bottom. Having consumed enough alcohol to kill a normal man, she savored the light buzz it produced in her. She then felt her mind opening up, expanding.

After reviewing the work that had been done to date, she began filling in gaps than the men knew existed and fixing the men’s mistakes before they could detect them. Then, she began to supplement their work, adding code at a blistering pace, several times faster than the men.

And that, of course, was the crux of Julia’s strategy. The game had to appear authentically male to the consumer. The game had to appear authentically male to the guys that designed it. But underneath it all, the only way this project would get done anytime soon would be with female brainpower at its core. In this project, the men were the historic facade of a building: beautiful and authentic, unaltered by the modern age, but fragile as well. A casual observer would believe that the elegant brick and stone was holding up the building. But in fact, the male facade was buttressed on the inside by thick girders of immensely strong, technologically advanced, female steel.

There was no other way it could be. To seek an increase male speed or accuracy, as Kylia had surely done, was missing the point. Men were not valuable for the strength of their minds. Rather, it was their insight into what other men would want that would prove valuable. For example, Julia had expected that a man’s game would have starred men, that it would have fostered a fantasy about men becoming strong enough to take on the dragons and the sea serpents and the other monsters directly. But no, the men’s design for this game had the players actually stepping into the role of a woman warrior. Apparently, men couldn’t bring themselves to imagine a change in gender roles and instead gravitated toward storyline that reinforced those roles. It was an approach that Julia never would have expected, and that was not the only surprise. Every weapon used, every element of the environment or the adversary – came from the imaginations of these men, and so much of it was contrary to her expectations. She could only trust that these men knew something about the interests of her audience that Julia did not.

Julia finished emptying the gin bottle and then tossed it twenty feet across the room into the trash with a CLANG. Her relaxed mind was at peak performance now. The enormous screen filled with code as Julia’s enhanced synapses and lightning fast fingers blasted through tasks at a pace that made a mockery of anything unenhanced men’s minds could do.

After about an hour’s worth of work, Julia brought up a performance monitoring program. The program rendered a live image of each of the screens of her twenty on-duty employees. Her enhanced brain found no difficulty in monitoring the progress of all twenty simultaneously. Over the last hour, she had of course out-produced all twenty men, combined, two or three times over. But what caught her attention was not how the groups performance compared to hers, but how it compared to its previous levels. Fewer typo’s, less backtracking, smarter code entering the screen at a faster pace. With only a few ounces of her milk inside each man, she had improved them dramatically.

Except one, who was underperforming. His screen had shown no progress whatsoever in the last few minutes, and he was sitting right in front of it.

She hit the Attendant button. “Bring Jofri to my office immediately.”

=============

Jofri felt a cold mass forming inside at the words that the Acting Project Director wanted to see him in a corner office. With unsteady feet, he followed the CEO’s Attendant up the stairs.

As an Unclaimed, Jofri could count on one hand the number of times he had been in one-on-one conversation with a woman in the last few years. There was the woman in the parking lot, who had graciously placed his car on the bed of a tow truck after it had broken down. That was two years ago. And there was the woman on whom he had spilled coffee at a cafe, ruining her dress. His cheek still smarted from her open-handed slap, and he remembered the intense feeling of relief to find that the slap had not been harder, that his head was still attached to his neck. That had been six months ago. And then there was Palia, the girl next door. He had watched her grow up, had been as helpful and friendly as he could to her over the years, all in the hopes that she would one day include him in her harem when she became a fully Nourished woman. But young Palia had other ideas in mind. The little girl who had once helped collected flowers with him in a backyard field was now eighteen inches taller than him and hundreds of times stronger, and not at all interested in Jofri. He remembered saying goodbye to her for the last time, when her family moved away, hugging her with all his might. A sadness consumed him – until he saw that the expression on her face was one of boredom. Then, sadness was replaced with shame. That was three months ago. Apart from those three moments, the closest Jofri had come to women was gazing at them from afar, wondering what it would be like to have the joy of their embrace and the comfort of their protection.

He had been to the executive floor only once, and not inside any of the offices. He wondered what sort of trouble he might be in. Surely, he had been too honest with that Acting Director. When men do that with women they do not know, they more often than not pay a price. What was worse, he should have realized that this new woman’s allegiances were unknown to him. What if she was in cahoots with Kylie? The thought caused him to stumble into the corridor wall. He tried to keep his composure.

The door to her office was thicker than his hand was long, and its edges were lined with rubber stripping. It was as if he were entering a vault or a container. The door was too heavy to for his male muscles to move easily. He had to lean against before it swung wide.

The new director was standing at the window, her back facing him. The storm had arrived in earnest. It beat away at the glass, enveloping them all in its fury.

Jofri tried to announce his arrival, but his mouth had turned to parchment and could not form words. His eyes traveled from immense thighs as thick as his torso, up to a tight waist, and then further upwards as her body spread wide with immense sheets of latissimus dorsi that only a Nourished woman could possess. Each of her shoulders was wide enough for a man to sit on comfortably, if they had not been so steeply sloped by her superbly developed trapezius muscles.

As much as he dreaded her, he desired her as well. School had taught him that this reaction was deeply ingrained by evolution, that a man’s chances of surviving and reproducing had grown proportionally with the degree to which he desired the protection of the immensely powerful beings, thus leading to generations of men that possessed those desires in spades. There was a time, Jofri had been told, where men desired less muscular women – women who were even shorter than their male lovers. Jofri easily remembered the laughter that comment obtained from him and his classmates. He only wished that school had spent less time explaining long gone days when people were more primitive, and more time explaining how to deal with the evolutionarily superior female of the modern age. Jofri found his eyes wandering down arms thicker than his leg, packed with enhanced female muscle that put everything else in nature to shame.

“You’re not performing down there,” the woman said to the glass. “Your production over the last hour is a third of the other men.”

Jofri felt the parchment of his mouth whither and crack. Her body swiveled to face him.

She had not re-buttoned her shirt from her filling of the bowl, and its panels remained opened wide. Abdominal muscles the size of his fist were topped by the women’s intimidating breasts, each larger than his head, each armed with the chemical firepower to destroy his organs from the inside out. Her nipples pointed at his forehead in accusation.

Jofri was consumed with a desire to shrink in front of her, but he forced himself to resist it. They hate it when we heap weakness on top of weakness, he reminded himself. “The things … the things I said about Kylia …”

She raised an open palm of caution, crossed the room to him, and with a reach over his shoulder, pushed the door shut. It made TWHIP sounds as the rubber seals contacted the frame. As she did so, Jofri tried to ignore the two teardrop-shaped masses of chemical terror that swayed in front of his eyes.

“I am sorry for my lack of performance, miss. I was preoccupied by a growing awareness that I made some serious mistakes when I spoke to you earlier today.” He adjusted his glasses as he gathered his breath. “The things I said about Kylia may not have been wise. She is a woman, and in a woman no man may find fault.”

“Jofri, this project is in a state of crises. We must not waste time trying to protect reputations or be diplomatic. You did the right thing. More than that, you showed a lot of courage.”

“Re … really?”

Jofri watched a smile spread across her face. “Kylia is far more intelligent than you, I am sure, but you knew something was wrong, and you said it. What’s more, you said it to the new girl.”

I don’t know why. I am not a courageous person.”

Then why did you say it, little man?” The word ‘little’ slipped into Julia’s speech without her intention, but he showed no surprise.

I suppose it may have been instinct. It is often said that men have an intuitive sense about women – which women will be the most successful, will do the best job of protecting and providing. I felt that way about you.”

Jofri …” The woman inhaled deeply, as if his words were the most fragrant of flowers, her two enormous breasts swelling to extreme prominence. “Talk like that is enough to make any strong girl weak in the knees. You should be careful what you say.”

I’m sorry. It’s been … years since a woman has spoken more than a few words to me. It’s … really intimidating to be near any woman, whether that’s Kylia or … even you.”

“Really? I’ve grown so used to this body, I had forgotten that it could be so easily intimidating.” The woman let her shirt fall to the ground and brought her arm up to a right angle. The bicep swelled to what must have been twenty-four or twenty-five terrifying inches. “A muscle like this just seems normal to me now.”

So much enhanced, female muscle mass, so close to him. Jofri tried to remain calm.

The woman crinkled up her nose. “Your body is releasing stress hormones. I didn’t summon you here to hurt you, you know. Is there anything that would help you get over your fears?”

Jofri felt himself staring wide-eyed at the swollen bicep – so much, so much power!

“Touch it. See if that will help.”

He rand his fingers over it. “It feels like stone, but warm and smooth.”

“Give it a squeeze.”

He did. But his fingers did not sink in, even in the slightest. Instead, they began to ache. Her muscle was so deliciously huge, so deliciously hard.

She released her flex and brought his hands to her abdominal muscles. “These are some of my favorites. These muscles were invisible, sitting under a layer of fat, for more than thirty years. Then one day, I Nourished and POP, there they were. And I think they look awesome.”

He pressed his fingers into of her abdomen, receiving no more give than he did on her arm. It was like playing with a rock wall. He felt his insides becoming the opposite, a gelatinous mass of aching need. “You said you used to be like us, stupid and weak, miss?”

“Julia,” she corrected. “And you’re not stupid and weak. You only seem that way when you are placed side-by-side with a Nourished. But in reality, you’re normal and normal. And yes, I used to be that way too.”

Jofri tore his gaze away from her midsection and looked all the way up to her eyes. “That’s amazing. You’re a woman, and yet you know what it’s like to be inferior.”

Julia shrugged her massive shoulders. “I do. But you are not inferior in all respects, Jofri. You had the bravery to speak the truth to a woman. That is a strength in its own right. That captured my admiration. And more than that, it captured my interest.”

“What do you mean?”

“Some girls get turned on by a pretty haircut or good taste in clothes. I get turned on by guys who are strong on the inside – guys who have the guts to take a risk.” Her nipples were eye-level for Jofri, and he saw them stiffen.

But Miss Julia, I am not an optimal choice in any way. Whatever you may require, there is a man here who can fulfill it better than I. We have men who are more skilled at programming, or are better looking

“They won’t be, by the time I am done with you.” A droplet of milk spilled out of her nipple and rolled down the underside of her breast. “During these next few weeks, you will be my chieflover while I am at the office. And to enable you to do that, I am going to rebuild your body from the inside out. Those men down there are more productive after each of them drank only a few ounces of my milk. I’m going to give you twice as much as all of them – combined.”

She look him by the hand and lead him to the plush leather sofa. With her free hand, she released the back of her skirt. Her last piece of clothing slithered to the floor. She sat him on the sofa and straddled him with her massive thighs.

For Jofri, it was like being jammed between two tree trunks. He felt her lead his hand between her legs. That place was full of rich warmth and her wetness.

“Do you see how much you’ve turned me on, Jofri?”

His head was swimming now. Her smiling face was immensely beautiful. Her curves were so, so feminine. And her muscles, more feminine still. The piquant scent of her pheromones flooded the room, making his already-hard manhood even harder. When she lowered herself onto him, her insides sucked gently at his manhood from a thousand different directions.

It was Jofri’s first time. He had never known whether this delight, in the arms of a woman, would be a silent one or a vocal one. But when he exploded into her, his body answered that question on its own. And he would never again wonder why the doors to these offices were lined with rubber seals.

=============

Over the ensuing two days and two nights, Julia ate with her men, worked with her men, and even slept alongside them. When there was a change of shift, Julia would head upstairs with the ten men going off shift and give them all a good lay. That, combined with the Lethargy from her tits, put them into a deep restorative sleep, from which they awoke with new vitality. And Julia wasn’t complaining either: there were worse fates for a Nourished girl than having thirty men pleasuring her in shifts throughout the day.

By the end of the second afternoon, the clouds began to separate, allowing the occasional shaft of light through. Their project, too, was beginning to experience the occasional ray of hope. Disparate pieces of software were beginning to come together. Modules were being submitted for testing. The men were working together more productively, and with more confidence, than they ever had. And they were happy, both for the continued employment and the chance to make their mark on an industry.

But underneath the trappings of progress, Julia had enduring doubts. They were way behind schedule. The tests were not back yet. And Julia had never brought a project like this to fruition. Her aptitude for technical work was now great, but the needs of this project were arguably greater. It would be a close call.

“I brought you something.” Ruth slid a box across her desk.

Even with Julia’s long legs, a good ten strides were needed to cross Ruth’s excessively large office. The box was square and flat. Julia opened it.

Inside, a golden armlet glistened in a c-shaped velvet housing. Perhaps a quarter-inch wide, the armlet was intricately carved. Arrayed below it were a series of beads, each in their own concave space.

“Girls get these when they are fourteen,” Ruth chuckled. “You’ve given me a chance to relive my motherly moments with Mindy.”

“It’s … beautiful.”

Ruth’s finger traversed the assembly of beads. “Everything you need for daily life goes on your armlet. This one is Fluorescence, for seeing in pitch-black spaces. Your eyes are better than they used to be but they still need some light. This one is Oxygen, for underwater activity – same thing you saw on the fin. These two are Transmission – heavy with circuitry. One goes in your ear; the other has the microphone and communications circuitry. It uses voice recognition. Me, Mindy, my husband, Ash, Amanda – they are all pre-programmed in there. And this one – very important – is Claiming. It separates into two halves, and inside is your personal brand. You can also Claim a man with a tattoo, but a hot brand is the traditional method. It’s so much more romantic.”

Ruth extracted the Claiming bead and separated it. The symbol inside combined an image of a cave opening with a flowering tree growing out of it, as if the magic of the caves brought life to its limbs. The text said ‘Gift From Another World.’ “I took the liberty of creating this symbol myself. You can change it if you like.”

Julia felt her eyes water a bit. “No, no it’s beautiful.”

“It would be more beautiful if it were on Howard’s neck. The vast majority of the women treat here men with dignity. But in every bushel of ripe fruit are a few rotten pieces. The bad women out there, although few in number, have an outsized impact on the lives of the un-Claimed. Does Howard realize that, without a Claim, any number of tragedies could befall him?”

“He’s smart, but stubborn.”

“That’s the worst combination. Men let go of their stubbornness after the fifth or sixth beating. And their smartness just makes them better servants. He would make a nice addition to any harem.” She held up the reunited bead. “Keep him close to you.”

Ruth extracted a second box and slid it across the desk as well. “The software is testing well, Julia. We have work yet to do, but I thought you’d be happy to hear that. I sure am.”

Julia felt a sense of relief soak into her body. She looked out the window at the diminishing strom, and felt the stormclouds of her own anxiety beginning to break. She had done it.

Ruth opened the box to reveal more beads in various sizes and colors. “Currency,” she explained. “A stipend for your work so far and a small personal gift from me. Although you’re a temporary visitor, you have become familiar with our ways and are even now contributing to the economy. It’s only appropriate that you be fully independent during your time here. This currency adds up to about one Man Equivalent Unit, which should be more than enough for clothing, essentials, souvenirs, entertainment, you name it while you are our guest in this world.

Man Equivalent Unit – what the average man earns in one year, or sixteen hundred hours, of work. And she had earned it in thirty two hours. She was being compensated at fifty times a man’s salary.

I wish I could give you more, but the board wants to see results before they start cutting more sizeable checks.”

And she had earned it with Julia’s lip quivered. “You done more than enough, Ruth. I’m humbled.”

“The only bead I left out was Citizenship. That would only be needed if you are staying here permanently.”

Julia winced. She didn’t like that topic, and wanted to change it. “I hear the storm may break tonight.”

“I’ve heard that as well. You should feel free to use the helicopter.”

=============

The rains did in fact recede, at least for a while. And so, apparently, did the storm inside the software: the tests continued to come back positive. It was a good time for Julia to take a break from the office. She decided to visit Howard.

The rays of dawn were just beginning to climb over the horizon when the helicopter returned Julia to the beach house. She wondered whether the dawn she had missed, and the two dusks, had been just as beautiful. Two days and two nights in that office, with nothing but coffee and Nourishment to keep her going. She desperately needed food, exercise, and most of all, a hug from her favorite man.

She wondered if it would be worth it – if the game would really work, and if it would sell.

She wondered, too, about Howard. Ruth had been in touch with her husband, who believed that everything with Howard was fine. And the shell nestled between her breasts told the same story: the man was exerting himself in some way, but anxiety and fear were not present in his emotions. Nonetheless, with Howard, one could never be too sure. Was he still at the house, as he had promised, or once again waist deep in a swamp mud, offering himself up as a late afternoon snack for alligators?

The answer came as soon as the house came into view. The office light was on. And Howard was there, at the computer, working through his language flashcards. She watched him rub his brow and bleary eyes.

The sight of it made her ache with affection. The written language in this land was dizzyingly complex: entire sentences, complete with their elaborate concepts, were often represented in a single, detailed character. For Julia, she had found this style of text appealing, as it packed far more information on a single page, and did it with characters that were rich with visual artistry. But like the oversized chairs in her office, this text had been designed by the Nourished for the Nourished, with the needs of men relegated to an afterthought. For men, learning to read and write this text was a twenty year endeavor. And even after all those years, their relatively feeble brains found the density and complexity of the text to be burdensome. Yet, despite his disadvantages, Howard went at the task without shame – and without fear.

Other women had told her that she could trade up – get a man that already knew the language, one who loved muscles on a woman, one who would want to stay in the Weald forever, to serve her until the end of his days. But those women did see in Howard what she saw. Sure, plenty of men here were hard-working, including the ones she had just left behind at the office. But Howard was on another level. The men at the office were on sleep shifts now, but if the reports from the home front were true, Howard had been up for two nights straight. And Howard had with no money at stake in this, no career at stake, just his own need to surmount obstacles wherever he found them. Whether it was climbing a mountain, learning a language, or impressing a woman – it was always the same with him, no matter what the odds.

The man never fucking gave up.

=============

“Hey” Julia ran a heavy hand over his shoulders. “Have you been working on the flashcards this whole time?”

“Pretty much.” Howard leaned back into her hands.

“I come bearing gifts, sort of. I come bearing a free shoulder rub that no man can ever forget.” She squeezed his shoulders gently. His weak muscles turned to putty in her hands.

“That’s … that’s really nice,” Howard admitted, leaning into her. “What are doing that’s so … hmmm … good?”

“Everything. I’m studying to be a certified massage therapist.

“Since when?”

“Since my reading session the other day. It’s just an hour book study and an afternoon of in-person practical instruction. I might go do the practical later this week, depending on how things go at the office.”

Howard chuckled. “Well, if any hour of book study taught you that, I might just have to get a certification myself. What you’re doing to me is … wow … memorable.”

Her fingers lost their vigor. “Um … for men it takes a month long class. It’s just that women can … I’m sorry Howard … It’s just that our brains are faster … and our muscles learn physical skills faster too.”

She felt his shoulders tensing again. Damn it.

“How is all the language stuff going?”

“Awesome. Try me.”

Julia extracted the newspaper and opened to the first page. The pointed at the first paragraph.

“Scientists are … something … to a new eater disease … of tree. Collecting what is seen and information goes to faster money …”

However one might best describe the man’s progress, the word ‘awesome’ sure didn’t come to mind. ‘Meager’ would have been closer to the truth. “You almost have it. ‘Scientists are confident they can develop herbicide to control the new parasite affecting the Diana tree. Funding for research has been dramatically increased …”

“Oh …” Howard’s tone was discouraged. “You think I’m pretty slow on the uptake, don’t you?”

“No, no, I didn’t say that.”

But you thought it.”

Julia bristled at the accusation. I am being patient with you, she thought. Why can you be patient back? “You had the meanings, I guess. Or some of them.”

Howard turned his face away, probably so that she wouldn’t see his crestfallen features. But she saw them anyway through his reflection on the surface of a paperclip. She wished she could pry him away from the computer long enough to adjust the parameters and deliver him some easier material. But he showed no signs of moving, so Julia resigned himself to cheering him up.

Wait right here,” she suggested. “I’ll make you some really nice coffee.”

“How did things go at Ruth’s office?” Howard shouted down the hallway as Julia busied herself in the kitchen.

“It was hard work but I think we turned a corner. I think I helped her get the product launch back on track,” Julia shouted back She decided to leave out the part about how she had far outperformed a room of men. “And I came away with a little bit of spending money for us, too. Ruth gave me a stipend for my office work out of the the petty cash drawer. She even got me my very first armlet, which is like a wallet to women here.” Julia thrust her arm out into the doorway so that Howard could appreciate it.

“I don’t know how much money that is.” Howard said from the other end of the hallway. “But they’re pretty.”

Julia briefly considered describing in plain terms what those beads could buy, but it was more money than Howard could ever earn in a month. She decided not to go there.

She returned with two steaming mugs and placed them on the table. “This one is from the lowland foothills – more robust plants. This one is from the drier highlands where the berries get more stress, leading to a more intense aroma. You pick.”

Howard took a whiff of each. He shook his head. “They’re the same.”

“Come on, silly!” She nudged him playfully. “Don’t play mind games with me!”

He shook his head, befuddlement crossing his face. “I’m serious. They smell exactly the same to me.”

“You can’t smell the difference between these coffees? Seriously?” Julia didn’t understand. It was as clear the difference between her right hand and her left. “Aren’t you getting some plum and the hazelnut scents on the first one? Or the walnuts and french oak type essences on the other?”

Howard sniffed one and then the other, again. His mood seemed to darken “Drinking coffee might be an elevated culinary experience for you girls. But to my pathetic male nose, it’s just hot black liquid.”

“Honey don’t say that.” Julia regretted ever having brought it up. She picked up a metal paperweight and squeezed its reassuring solidity in her hand.

“For you, coffee is just entertainment. But for me and my inept nose, it’s just a way to keep my body awake – my tired, weak body that needs so much more sleep than yours.”

Julia kneaded the paperweight nervously, smushing and reforming the solid steel with her endless superhuman might. “I wish I had never I brought it up. I’m sorry.”

“Do you have to go back to the office?” he asked.

“Not tonight, and not tomorrow either. They need some time for testing. I’ll probably go in the following day for fine tuning. I thought maybe you and I could relax together tomorrow.” She folded the metal of the paperweight in on itself, making a taco shape, then a pancake, a sphere, a doughnut. It was just nervous energy, fidgeting. She forced herself to stop. She put the paperweight on the desk.

Howard took another sip of the coffee Julia now hated, and then put the mug down hurriedly. The papers under Julia’s abused metal blob were darkening.

Why are my papers turning black?” Howard picked up the paperweight. “OWWWW!” Howard dropped the paperweight on the floor. The room was filled with the smell of singed paper and flesh.

“Sorry, honey. It must have been the heat all the smushing I did to it.”

“Julia, that thing nearly burned my hand off!”

“Honey, I’m truly sorry. I didn’t even think about it when I put it on the desk. It wasn’t intentional. If it’s just a burn, that’s pretty easy for me to heal. I can make the pain go away too.” Julia put her finger on the top button of her suit vest. Her bust had swelled a bit at the sight of her lover’s need. The button needed no more than a touch to pop apart.

But Howard slunk away. “The pain in my hand I can handle. The pain I feel in my gut when I see you these days – that’s the part I struggle with. To be honest, the less time I’m around you, the better I feel about myself.”

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