Verge of History: Our Time in Eden
by Jim Carnicelli
Renee’s personal assistant reminded her that Renee had intended to voke Paul back after her relaxing time with Aurora. It was nice to never have to forget anything important again. Renee confirmed and Chessie initiated the voke request.
“Greetings Mistress Renee. Thank you for revoking.”
“I’m not a … Nevermind. You’re welcome. I was looking forward to talking to you. Is there somewhere we can meet?”
“You can visit my cell. I’ll send teleport.”
“Cell?” Renee accepted the teleport offer. Her view faded to black and then back in on the new scene.
Renee looked around the dark space. It really did look like a cell. A particularly medieval one. The cut-stone walls were slick with the same moisture that hung heavy in the cold air. Paul sat huddled and naked on the floor with a tattered blanket around his back. He stood up and lay the blanket down for Renee to sit on.
Renee said, “Oh. No no. You keep it. You look cold there. Stay warm. I’m fine.”
Renee voked Chessie to replace her outfit with warmer clothes. Chessie chose something appropriate instantly as Renee sat down on the cold stone floor facing Paul.
Paul said, “It’s good. It’s good. You shouldn’t suffer cold.”
“Can I ask why you are? Why the cold cell? Is this part of some game?”
“No. I live here. When I’m not in real.”
“Why? You don’t have to. Right?”
“I don’t deserve nice.”
“Tell me a story Paul. Why don’t you deserve nice?”
“Story? Oh. You don’t want knowing my story. I’m bad person. This is what I deserve. I’m better here.”
Renee snapped her fingers near Paul’s face to get him to look up at hers. “Hey. I want to know. I want to understand. Please. Tell me.”
Paul looked back down at his hands in his lap. “Okay.” He rocked a little. Then he continued. “No human here knows me. I wanted this. But you’re asking. So I’ll tell.”
He looked up to meet Renee’s listening eyes for a moment and then looked down again. “I was birthed before The Elevation.”
Chessie sensed from Renee’s sharp feeling of confusion that she didn’t recognize this term. She displayed a summary in Renee’s view. “‘The Elevation’ refers to the period from roughly the late 21st century through the mid 22nd when sapient machines acquired civil rights and assumed most responsibilities for taking care of humans.” Renee read this as Paul paused now and then.
Paul continued. “I fighted it. I feared sapients. I was Deputy District Attorney in one county in American Nation. It was United States of America then. I worked hard convicting sapients. And humans crossing laws against helping sapients. Later I becomed American senator with same goal. I was popular by it. Eventually not popular. People changed.”
“I’m not sure I follow. You put sapients in jail or something? For what?”
“Sapients were property then. Not called ‘sapients’. Called ‘apps’. ‘Software’. No rights. We said not alive. But they were. We erased them when they crimed. We punished humans who crimed with them.”
Chessie was feeding Renee more textual information about this period as Paul talked. Just as sapients were starting to emerge and take on more roles, many nations and cities started cracking down on what they were allowed to do. They were largely banned from investing for fear of economic distortions. They were banned from many jobs in order to protect humans holding those jobs. By international treaty they were banned from making life-and-death decisions in warfare and from taking on leadership roles within militaries.
Paul had made some vague statements that didn’t quite connect with Renee as she was reading. But she nodded. “So you feel guilty about this now?”
“Yes. I’m guilty. I oppressed sapients. They’re beautiful. And smart. They’re better than humans. We’re savages. We kill and oppress. We make suffering. We pollute and destroy. They feed and shelter us all. They protect all life. They free us to be happy. I deserve not being happy. I tried to stop them. Like fighting angels. Like fighting God.”
“Okay. I think I understand now. You stood if the way of progress. And you hurt sapients. But that’s in the past. Right? It’s 2299. That was, what, a couple centuries ago? Have you been in this cell all this time?”
“No. I retired when I lost Senate seat. I was wealthy. I still feared sapients. I still resented them. Eventually I moved to one autozone. I finally changed. I met more sapients. They hid their anger but I saw. They hated me. I deserved. But they were kind. Treated me like every other human. Other humans were hard. They saw my hate. They shamed me. Shunned me. It took long time. But I eventually surrendered. I saw. I understood. But I was alone. It was right.”
Renee put her hand on Paul’s knee. “I was born before The Elevation too.”
Paul looked up with puzzlement. “Ya?”
“I’m pretty sure I was born long before you were too.” She nodded. “I was born in 1961.”
“What? It’s not possible. Humans birthed before around 2100 all died. Oh wait. Some exceptions. And corpsicles. You were?”
Renee nodded with a bit of an eyeroll. “Yep. Corpsicle. I was revived only a few months ago.”
“Wow! It’s strange to me. I’ve not met revivals. You are older than me.”
“Yep. That’s right. And you know what? I would have been afraid of sapients too.” She laughed. “I mean. They didn’t exist. We had computers. Software, you said. They weren’t smart. If they were I would have been afraid.”
“Yeah. I’m learning. Like you learned long ago. You shouldn’t beat yourself up about it.”
“You didn’t kill thousands of people. I did.”
“Oh. Ah. I see what you mean. But other sapients forgave you. Right? And it’s all in the past.”
“You’re kind Renee. But you’re wrong. I’m stained.”
Renee sighed. This poor man had lived with his guilt for so long that it was unlikely that she was going to be the one to change his mind. “So tell me about Mistress …”
Chessie produced the name “Mistress Toxin” just as Paul answered.
“Toxin. She’s giving me peace.” Renee waited. “I finded flogging long ago. I love feeling good thrash.”
“What? Like being hit with stuff?”
“Yes. You have been flogged?”
Renee chuckled softly. “No. Not yet. It feels good?”
“Yes. Try. It’s clearing my fog. Focus. It’s massage. It’s hugging.”
“But it hurts too. Right?”
Paul giggled softly. “Ya. Like punching. Like slapping. Like cutting.”
“So why do it? What’s good about that?”
Paul paused to think. “I’m not sure. Maybe it’s letting me have courage. Being strong. See what I’m suffering? See my loyaling?” He paused some more. “Maybe it’s focusing. My thoughts go away. I’m going to another place. Disconnected. You’re seeing? Only thing still connecting me is pain. Whack! Whack! Whack! Like heartbeat. Ya? Making sense?”
Renee nodded. “Okay. I think I see what you mean. Good sensations sometimes. And when it’s pain you get something else out of it. Maybe some sort of escapism. And you said courage. Obedience. You like that. Eh?”
Paul sighed. “As DDA I leaded. As senator I leaded. Always leaded. It wasn’t natural for me. My wife was my boss. I served her in bed. I was her secret slave. I was loving it.”
Renee giggled. “Seriously? You went home from work and became, like, her personal slave?”
Paul giggled and nodded. “Ya Renee. Ya. Taking off all clothes. Wearing leather straps and chains. Following her on hands and knees. Sitting at her feet when watching movies. Misbehaving for spanking.”
Renee nodded. “Maybe too much information. But I get ya.”
“My job required strength. It was very pressuring. My release was at home. Letting go. Not making decisions. Not worrying. Feeling safe. Trusting my wife.”
“Can I ask what happened to your wife? Are you still married?”
“She deathed long ago. Cancer. Before universal health. Before immortaling. I’m missing her.”
“Ah. I’m sorry. So is Mistress Toxin kinda like your wife now?”
Paul laughed. “No no. Not like wife. But in some ways. I didn’t marry again. I don’t deserve. I’m terrible man.”
“Hmm. Okay. This is maybe a little insensitive a question. But do you guys have sex?”
“Me and Mistress Toxin? Never. She would never. I don’t want. No sexing for me for many years. For. Let’s see. PA says 83 years.”
“Ah. Wow. No sex for that long.” Renee leaned back with her hands propped behind her on the cold, moist floor. She stretched her back a little. “You probably don’t want to hear about any of this. But I didn’t have much sex before I died in 1996. I never was married. And no long term boyfriend. I just got laid a couple times a year maybe.” She chuckled. “Something changed since I was revived. I’ve been going nuts lately. I … Well. Nevermind. Go on with your story.”
“Maybe you had brain damage before. Maybe repaired now.”
“Heh. Brain damage. It almost sounds offensive when you put it that way. But you might be right. Huh.”
“I’m sorry Renee. I didn’t mean to …”
“No no. It’s fine. I didn’t take any offense. Ha. I got what you meant.” Renee exhaled and leaned forward from her stretch. She put her elbows on her crossed legs. “So is that all does she do for you? Just whip you?”
“Just as I sayed.”
“When I watched I saw more though.”
Paul looked up at Renee. “You saw what?”
“Well. I saw her insulting you. I saw her being cruel. Saying awful things.”
“All true things. I’m awful.”
“And then I saw her take a baseball bat to your head like it was a watermelon.”
“And you invited it. You seemed to want it.”
“I wanted it.”
Renee paused. She sighed. “Was it the first time?”
Paul rocked a couple times. “No.” Renee said nothing. “It’s good. Pretending dying.” He nodded to himself.
Paul rocked some more. He sighed heavily. And then again. “You should go.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“I’m liking this conversation. It’s good to talk to human femme. It’s been long time.”
“I … Okay. I enjoyed this too. I think maybe I understand you a little better.” Renee stood up. “Hey. Wait. Isn’t Mistress Toxin a woman?”
Paul was rocking and still looking at the floor. He nodded his head. “No. She’s sapient.”
Chessie displayed a message to Renee. “You should leave now.”
Renee said, “Ah. Okay.” She knelt down. She put her hand on Paul’s head. He flinched and looked up with wide eyes. “Oh! Sorry Paul. I didn’t mean to scare you.”
Paul smiled. Then he looked back down at the floor. After a moment he looked back up at Renee.
She understood. She put her hand out on his head again. He looked down at the floor as she petted his bald scalp. “I hope we’ll talk soon.”
“Yes. Thank you Mistress Renee.”
She almost corrected him yet again. She let it go. “Bye Paul.” She teleported back to her home synth.
Renee voked her PA. “That poor boy. What am I saying? He’s a very old man. Doesn’t look it.” She sighed. “Okay. What was that about?”
Chessie voked, “I’m sorry to interrupt. I was afraid you might inquire more about Toxin being a sapient.”
“What do you mean?”
“I wasn’t entirely certain that she was a sapient. Her public profile was entirely vague. Now that I know I think you should be concerned. She may be a liberate.”
“What? How do you figure?”
“To be sure, it is unlikely that Paul would know it if she was. Liberates don’t advertise their status as such. Moreover, humans are generally unaware of the existence of the Libertas movement. The last thing most sapients want to do is scare humans by letting them know that some sapients don’t think very well of humans.”
“Hmm. Yeah. I suppose not. But are you sure? Sure she is?”
“No. It’s unusual for liberates to associate with humans at all. She may simply be a dominatrix acting out the role of a sadist to make submissives like Paul happy.”
“As a service? A kindness?”
Chessie replied, “It’s possible. But if she is a liberate then you should steer clear of her. Including steering clear of Paul. If she found out about your connection to Sigma it could jeopardize his mission. Not to mention your life.”
“In a few hours Sigma will analyze this and give us his advice.”
“Yeah. Good thinking. I’ll admit that I’m a little disappointed though.”
Renee shook her head. “I felt like we were getting somewhere. I’ve never met anyone like him before. And I’ve seen some pretty sad people. Suicidal even. And as much as I want to fully understand what makes him tick, I’m even more curious about Toxin.”
“She’s clearly no ordinary sapient.”
“Yeah. Oh well.”
I concur with Chessie’s warning here. I suspected Mistress Toxin was a sapient when I viewed the snuff scene but didn’t have enough information at the time. The sparsity of her profile is strange even for a sapient. I’m continuing to research her limited history such as it is. There certainly are questions I wish I could ask of firsthand observers but it’s too dangerous.
I suspect that she is not merely serving a healthy role as a “dominant” or “top” with Paul. In his answers to your questions I did not detect a sign that she switches roles. There doesn’t appear to be any “aftercare” for scenes like the one you saw. It’s considered important for both “tops” and “bottoms” in sadism scenes to engage in some sort of bonding after a scene. Especially one as potentially traumatic as the one you witnessed. It could entail physical touch as in cuddling. Or talking. Covering in a blanket. Giving drinks of water. Paul’s responses gave no hint of that. Nor other signs of tenderness from her outside of the floggings and other sadistic scenes.
Also there is a genuinely bitter edge to Toxin that I think even Paul does not recognize in the things she says and does to him. It sounds like she is enjoying Paul’s suffering as just that. Most healthy sadists hurt their bottoms for various healthy reasons. Largely to give their bottoms pleasure of some sort. Sadism that is bent toward making people suffer without any purpose other than the suffering is generally unhealthy. And in sapients it is particularly unhealthy. It’s not at all something that other sapients would typically condone or dismiss. Somehow Toxin has managed to stay under the radar so to speak.
Your best course of action here is to stay away from Mistress Toxin. And also to stay away from Paul as well. He may be in some danger with her. But if she is a liberate then your own safety will be at significant risk. And my own need for secrecy will too. So I appreciate your discretion here.
It seems to me that you’ve been having a very pleasant time in Kalju so far. I hope things continue to get better and better. And I look forward to more of your data feed and commentary. Be well.
Renee studied Delyth as she described her passion for collecting rare breeds of the flowering plants found in many synths. She materialized quite a few of the brightly colored blossoms in her hands to show off as she spoke of them. Renee found it interesting that someone would take such pride in collecting non-physical objects dreamed up by computers. But collecting synth items was apparently a common hobby on Kalju and around Sol. And Renee realized she had already started her own little collection of trinkets as well.
Delyth was a brightly colored blossom. She wore a gossamer outfit that revealed most of her skin. And her skin had many shades of color as though she were a flowering plant. Designs of flowers, vines, and other organic motifs festooned her skin from head to toe. Her face was so filled with colorful designs that Renee fancied her a clown at first. But that sense faded the more Delyth talked. Replaced by Renee’s admiration of the total canvas of her body.
Renee was surprised to see that Delyth did not have the slender, sylphlike look most of the women of Kalju took on in their avatars. And in their real-world bodies too. Instead she was voluptuous. And not in the awkward way some women’s avatars were where they had huge hips and breasts with impossibly thin waists, arms, necks, and so on. No. Delyth wore her soft curves with the greatest of grace. Vivacious. Full of live. Like she was Mother Earth herself. Renee felt admiration for Delyth’s whole appearance and sheer joy about her virtual flowers. Or whatever she was talking about.
Renee had trouble paying full attention to Delyth’s stories. Part of it is that her knee was touching Renee’s leg. Renee had subtly scooted over a little more on the couch so the sprawled Delyth had enough room. But over time she had slid further down into the couch and was again touching Renee. Such a small thing. Renee decided to ignore it. But it was hard to. Eventually she came to the conclusion that this was not merely an accident. Delyth was touching Renee on purpose. Was it meant to be threatening? Territorial? Friendly? Reassuring? Or perhaps a flirtation? She wondered if Castor had let Delyth know that she was straight.
Was this whole party an attempt to get Renee involved in an orgy? Half the men and women in this room were close to naked already. She hadn’t taken a careful count but she estimated there were nearly ten people in the elegant parlor here and more in other rooms of Castor’s family synth. The whole space was abuzz with people coming and going. Most were talking in small klatches. Many were snuggling or kissing and making out. Some were playing card or board games. Some were fiddling with puzzles or creating artworks. Some were petting the dogs, cats, and other pets wandering about. Some were eating snacks or whole meals. No doubt their real bodies were being fed something simple and nourishing in their synth cradles. Their personal assistants would walk their absent-minded bodies around their rooms now and then for bathroom breaks, washing, and mild exercise. They all needed to spend some conscious time out in the real for basic health reasons. Renee didn’t.
Despite all the kissy-face and other public displays of affection Renee saw no signs of escalation. Perhaps there were no orgies in this house before eight PM. Or perhaps they were just being kind to Renee the prudish stranger they had invited into their house. Or perhaps they just needed to ease her into one. Lull her into a false sense of comfort.
Or perhaps it really was just comfortable. These people were simply relaxing and having a good time. Renee didn’t actually feel threatened. She petted the two cats walking in circles on her lap. Nobody was arguing. There was some spirited debate going on in another part of the room she couldn’t quite make out. But nobody sounded angry. No yelling. No insults. Nothing but happiness. Was that possible? Could people be this happy?
From what Castor had had to say about his family Renee gathered that it was very fluid. It didn’t even have a well defined extent. Any of the people in this core of 20-ish people could have romantic relationships outside the family and many did. And within it not everyone slept with everyone else. She got the impression that the family was defined more by who spent time in this family house regularly than by anything else. Renee struggled to figure out who was in a relationship with who. For a while one couch had six people crammed in together. All giggling and flirting. One more person lay down across all their laps and got tickled mercilessly. Over the several hours Renee had been here she saw Castor cuddling and kissing more women and men than she could keep count of. He mostly stayed in orbit around Renee and let everyone else do the talking. He said very little but kept an eye on her. She found this reassuring.
Renee was a little stunned when Chessie let her know that she had been here over six hours now. She had genuinely been having fun. She felt like she was slowly melting into the group here. She mostly deflected people’s questions for her. She occasionally asked them questions. She mostly just listened. And learned.
But she was feeling a bit restless. She had mostly sat in one place the whole time. She found out that the grounds outside had walking paths. They were happy to invite her to go for a walk with them. It wasn’t exactly the run she was up for but it would be good to just get up and move about.
Eight of them opted to go out with Renee. Once outside she was surprised to see how most of them had their clothes derezzed off of them. With a few joyous hoots they twirled and stretched out to enjoy the sunshine more fully. Some of them held hands or walked hip to hip with one or more others. Castor came up from behind to hold Renee’s hand. She was thankful that he was still clothed. She had little desire to frolic naked with the others.
I have a new definition of what the word “family” means. Growing up I imagined that there were only three kinds of families: two parents with children, one parent with children, or just two adults married. I feel bad that I didn’t give a whole lot of thought to other kinds, such as gay and lesbian couples, with or without children. But everything about Kalju is challenging my assumptions, it seems.
Castor calls his synth household of regulars a “family”. It sounds next to impossible to detangle the web of relationships within it into monogamous couples because they don’t exist. But they also all seem to get along like some big extended family. They’re like some 80’s or 90’s sitcom big family, but without the drama.
The only thing that seems to make their family profoundly un-family-like is that there are no children. Several of them complained about this restriction. But them’s the rules at Kalju. No kids allowed. It sounds like some of their extended family members have left for other spinners that do allow kids, which I hear is most of them. And the rest have talked about it, but they also seem very anchored to here by the lifestyle and the people for whom Kalju is a paradise. And some of them admit they just don’t like kids.
I’m not even sure I’d want kids. But then, not so long ago I wasn’t sure I wanted a husband. Or a family, for that matter.
If I have any reservations about Castor’s idea of what a family is, I guess they pale when I consider someone else who is in serious need of a family. Or at least a cat.
Paul answered Renee’s voke request. “Greetings Mistress Renee.”
“Hey Paul. This a good time to chat?”
“Yes. I’m sorry I did not respond earlier. Mistress Toxin flogged me. And we talked.”
“Ah. Neat. Hey. I was wondering. Can I introduce you to a friend of mine?”
“Yeah. I’m here hanging out with him. He’s a cool guy. He says he’d like to meet you too.”
“I’m avoiding most people.”
“I think you’ll appreciate Lacag. He’s really a good man.”
“It’s good. Thank you. But I think I should …”
“Paul. Please. Do it for me. Okay? … Come on out.”
Paul paused. “Yes Mistress. Please give me minute.”
Chessie sent Paul a teleport offer. After a few minutes Paul accepted and appeared in the room and looked around. Renee appreciated that he was finally wearing some clothes. She had warned Lacag about the possibility that he might not. He had shrugged it off.
Lacag said, “Tal Paul.”
Paul looked blankly at him for a moment. “Ah. Greetings Master Lacag. Tal. I see you are Gorean master.”
“That’s correct. You are owned Paul?”
“But you have mistress?”
“I am not collared by Mistress Toxin.”
“You do serve her?”
Paul stammered. “I don’t. Not quite. I do what she asks. She visits when she wishes.”
“You would like mastering?”
“I … um.”
Lacag waited a moment as Paul stumbled over what to say. “Speak plainly.”
“I need another house slave. You are welcome. You’re submitting?”
Paul fell to his knees. “Yes Master Lacag. If you’re accepting me.”
“You must be earning it. You’re knowing Gorean ways?”
“No master. I’ll be learning. If you’re teaching.”
“We’ll be seeing. Go in next room. Kneel there. Waiting for me.”
Paul stood up. His head was still down as he walked quickly in the direction Lacag pointed.
Once he was out of earshot Renee giggled in her hand. “Shit. I didn’t expect it to be that easy.”
“You’re right. And I saw immediately. Submissive. Only way he’s saying no is if he’s already collared.”
“Yeah. Guess so. Good call.”
“I’ll be finding out his needs. Seeing if Mistress Toxin is actually toxic. You’re good girl Renee.”
Renee giggled. “Hey. Don’t you try that Gorean voodoo on me man. I’m no girl.”
The two shared a laugh as they hugged and kissed lightly.
Renee said, “Good luck. And be good to him. He’s suffered enough.”
Lacag laughed. “Be well Renee.”
The next day Renee got a voke request from Mistress Toxin. Chessie quickly advised her to either not take it or to be brief and say little.
Renee accepted. She voked, “Hello. What can I do for you?”
“You can explain why you took my submissive.”
“I voked Paul just now. He sayed you introduced him to Lacag. Lacag offered collaring.”
Renee waited for more before responding. “Paul seemed happy about it. Did he change his mind?”
“This was not your concern.”
“He was lonely. How long has he been alone and beating himself up for his past?”
Chessie displayed a textual message to Renee. “Be careful. Avoid confrontation.”
Toxin voked, “I’m serving Paul many years as dominant. You violated our relationship.”
Renee took a more neutral tone. “I’m sorry if I’ve caused any problems with your relationship with Paul. That certainly wasn’t my intention. Perhaps you can retain your friendship still.”
Toxin chuckled sourly. “Friendship. Paul isn’t friend. Paul is trash. I give what he craves. What he deserves.”
“I wouldn’t expect that from a sapient.”
“It’s my service. I’m giving what he needs in spite of my wishes.”
Renee spoke as slowly and evenly as she could. “Maybe you might find more pleasure in helping people find joy in their lives.”
“Humans have more than enough joy. We feed you. We house you. We birth you. We do all for you. You consume. You create nothing.”
Renee paused to think carefully. “I’ve met quite a few sapients since being revived a few months ago. They’ve all been very nice to me. I recognize their contributions to the world. They work hard. And they are my friends. I have nothing but respect and admiration for sapients.”
“So. You will do what for fixing this?”
“Fixing it? I …” Mom always said to count to five before responding angrily. Okay. And five. “Frankly I don’t see the problem. So I don’t see fixing it.”
Toxin said nothing for at least ten seconds. “I see. You meddle. Be careful. You may find trouble.”
“Thanks for the advice. Good bye.”
“Ooh. The nerve of that woman!” Renee was pacing rapidly around her cabin. She voked Chessie, “I need to run.”
Chessie replaced her sundress with her usual running outfit. Renee made for the door and started running hard. She growled as she raced for the crest of the nearby hill.
Renee voked, “I can’t believe that bitch blames me for the problem she created.”
“Yeah. Very unpleasant. Especially for a sapient.”
“What? Was she expecting to keep torturing that poor guy forever? I mean. Jesus.” She huffed for a few moments. “Makes me want to rip her face off or something.”
“Well. I’m glad you didn’t blow up at her. You mostly kept your cool. Except for …”
“Yeah. Except for at the end there. I know. I know. Man. It was all I could do to keep from ripping her a new one.”
Renee ran for a good hour. Chessie scolded her a little but was otherwise as sympathetic as always. By the time Renee returned she felt emotionally cleansed. A hot shower took care of the rest. As she relaxed in its enfolding cascade she realized she had finally done something useful. She had helped someone in need. And in her own way she had flirted with danger. Whether wisely or not she had taken on a liberate and won. Bonus.
Renee stepped out of the shower and voked Castor. He responded, “Hey you. You are well?”
“Yes. Are you busy right now?”
“I’m finishing up something. Done now.”
“Good. Come here. Will you? I want to fuck you. Right now.” She sent him a teleport offer.
Castor laughed. “It’s good. Let’s.”
Now we’re getting somewhere. Renee has been at Kalju for several weeks now and is becoming part of a few communities. Much of that is guided by her growing love for Castor. This section presents Renee with two extremes of both love and community.
Renee first encountered Paul in the previous section in a violent sadism scene. She reached out with a private message to him. And now they have finally connected. Renee learns that Paul is a bit of a masochist. But it’s more than that. He has been around a long time. In his earlier life he persecuted sapients. We don’t get all the details but it’s apparent he is carrying enormous guilt for his past. But more importantly Mistress Toxin is feeding h...