By Alan DeNiro
15 April 2002
Part 1 of 2
The problems began when the shepherd began talking about Julia's dead brother. Julia and Maris were playing Othello in the Adamant's lounge as the ship moved through wherespace, with the shepherd enveloping and propelling the ship. Julia's head was bent low. She already held three corners; she took the fourth, flipping an entire row of Maris's into black. She was the ship's telepath; she felt the periphery of Ambercoaxer's alien mind, like sharp mist, protecting the humans inside the Adamant.
"Your move," Julia said.
"I know," Maris said, cradling her chin in her palm. She was the ship's trader.
Words are doors in or out Ambercoaxer wants to know The shepherd broke off. Words were doorways for the shepherds; it took some fiddling with the lock for telepaths to understand where the shepherds were coming from. With work and training, Julia had learned to treat shepherd talk inside her head like experimental, dissonant music. You had to let some of the logic go. The floor hummed, giving the illusion of velocity.
"Yes?" Julia finally said to Ambercoaxer, leaning back in the chair, kicking her slippers onto the floor. She was thin, with brown, sandy hair and deep freckles. Maris looked up, still not used to Julia talking out loud during an interior conversation with the shepherd. Tesso, the other crew member, was familiar with these seeming monologues and might have allayed Maris's tension, but he was off in the engine room.
Know how deep the goldfish go
Julia blinked. She had worked with Ambercoaxer for nearly three years and she hadn't expected that. Shepherds were never supposed to delve into personal memories. Julia knew there was a chance that Amber's comment was offhanded babble, but fear still twinged her.
"Which goldfish?" she said, the game of Othello forgotten. Julia wanted to get up and stretch, walk around the living quarters of the Adamant. Would Ambercoaxer take that as a sign of nervousness? She honestly didn't know. Maris slid a white disc into place. Years ago, when Julia'd had her first barter surplus, she'd spent it on this game, with real teak. It would have been easy to download a simulation, but in wherespace, in the middle of the ethereal drift, she needed objects to hold, touch, push around.
It made Julia feel a little more tangible herself.
When Maris noticed Julia wasn't paying attention, she said, "What? What's wrong?" Wrinkles creased the corners of Maris's eyes as she squinted.
How deep was the parents' pond
"Can we finish later?" Julia said, wiping her hands against her trousers. "Amber's . . . busy." She managed a weak smile.
Maris sighed, and said, "I'm going to get a drink. Sorry to disturb you." She rose stiffly and moved to the kitchenette.
They had nearly seven more days on board, in the same speakeasy-sized hull area. They had just left Li Po for Blake, carrying 120 tons of resurrection pills, a normal Parameter trading mission. In more romantic times, they could have said they were venturing to the edge of the universe. They would have been hailed as daring space traders. Mundane reality and repetition had blunted those ideas, though. A trip into wherespace, though not everyone had access to interstellar travel, was now common and safe as swimming in a bathtub. Yet their shepherd had just turned inquisitive. And Maris was just trying to be friendly, Julia thought to herself. Now she must think I'm aloof.
"Well, Amber," Julia said, "I actually had a goldfish pond, when I grew up in Holland. Is that what you're referring to?"
Where was Tesso? Julia thought to herself, framing it as casually as possible to ruse the shepherd. She saw Ambercoaxer in the aft window, a pinkish haze, flickering slightly.
The shepherds took ten-percent ships places never conceived; in addition to the Sol system, the Parameter included three other planetary systems --Blake, Li Po, and Mirabai -- each containing a world nearly ideal for sustaining human life. There was no geographical pattern to the jumps. Blake was twenty light years from Earth, Li Po was about 3,000, and the Mirabai system had no other stars in the sky.
Brother buried under the pond
Then Julia knew: Amber was sifting Julia's memories, not just saying random words. She shivered and almost drew back, deep into her past, deep--
"Hey, Julia?" Tesso came up behind her and she swiveled the chair around. Maris continued to clank glasses together in the kitchenette. Tesso wore a yellow toolbelt and his usual gray workshirt. Several robot flies spun around him, grey motes mixing with the real particles of dust. "Do you have our supply of pills?"
"What do you mean? They're not in the medicine chest?" She downed the last of her coffee and moved towards the kitchenette in the back of the lounge. Maris had a water glass clenched in her hand, and she started to move back to her chair as Julia arrived. Nervous bird, Julia thought. While Julia was washing her cup, Tesso appeared behind her. She turned around slightly. Tesso was gangly; he looked to Julia like a bonobo given human shape and smooth skin.
"I mean, I can't find them," he said. "And no, they're not in the medicine chest." He put his hand on her shoulder; she immediately flinched. Realizing his mistake, he took a step back. The flies skittered around; they couldn't mimic a human mood, but they seemed nervous. Julia let the water run hot over her slender fingers to try to clear her head. "I have a few in my room, of course," he continued.
"Maybe you should ask Maris." Julia turned around and appraised him. "Let's not panic yet."
"Right. Yet." He was forty. She was forty-one. They had worked over fifty missions over five years with Amber. They rarely had to dance around subjects, even tender ones. The drug usually kept their nerves dulled. Heartfelt moments were sparse. Through habit, they had few bonds of companionship or even bonds of shared pain.
Goldfish ponds are for the weak
"Not now, Amber," Julia said out loud. "Humantalk."
Conversations in Julia's head fragmented between the human and the alien. Amber said nothing more. The shepherd's voice inside of her head had sounded like a man shouting behind a roaring waterfall. Even if Amber was acting loopy, Julia wanted to hear the shepherd again. Even when she requested it, she could never stand Amber's silence. It scared her. Amber's presence drowned out her emptiness.
"The pills don't just disappear," Maris said, voice cracking, tidying up the Othello board. Julia almost wanted to tell Maris to keep her voice down; even though Maris and Tesso couldn't hear Amber, the shepherd could almost certainly hear all of them. Amber, Julia realized, had never shown interest in any human chatter, ever. But the lack of pills, and breaking the Taboos, might change that.
The shepherds made only two requirements of the crew on wherespace voyages: no sex, no violence. The shepherds gave no reply as to why. It was widely believed that when ships disappeared from the Parameter, someone on board had broken a Taboo. Sometimes crews were found "shipwrecked" -- teleported to seemingly random locations, either amnesiac or out of their minds. It took Earth and Parameter Tech fifty years to develop a drug that would deaden libido with minimal side effects over brief but repeated periods of time. Monking, longtime Parameter traders called it. Seven days was an average voyage, but most traders liked to string multiple journeys together, so as not to go through withdrawal on leave time. Withdrawal was hell.
"You're right, they don't disappear," Tesso said. "But they have." He ran his hand through his scraggly hair. "Now what?"
"We're goners," Maris said, staring at the board. "There's nothing we can do."
"Well, let's look and see what we come up with by vespers." Julia wrung her hands dry and walked between her crewmembers back to the Othello table. "But first we should try to relax a little. There's no panic." She trusted the drug in her body now, its calmness, like the sound of water, keeping her on an even keel.
Tesso sighed, nodded, and drifted off to do minor repairs. Maris and Julia stood there together in an awkward silence. Maris wrung her hands. "Why do you get to talk to Amber?" she said suddenly. For some reason her face looked flushed and pained.
The question surprised Julia. "It's my job," she said. "I trained for eight years--"
Maris stormed up from her chair. "I'm not sure that's a good enough reason." She left the lounge, leaving Julia alone, wishing she could read Maris's mind to find out what had overcome her.
Whether forecasters tell the truth or not is not my business Amber said. "Yes," Julia said, not listening.
The next day was Maris's birthday, so Tesso baked a cake and they all sang "Happy Birthday." The song was at best a white lie. There was an ersatz cake made of vanilla and soy; it went down smoothly and blandly. "You're a better cook than I am," Julia told Tesso, as they munched away, sitting on their half-spiral couch in the lounge. She sounded calm.
She wasn't calm. They hadn't found the pills. She didn't know what would happen to the three of them. All three were down to their personal stashes. By honor, by Parameter security procedures, they scoured each other's rooms, but they found no pills.
But Julia put on a show, for Tesso's sake, and she hoped for the best, or something near the best.
Tesso nodded at her compliment.
"I wish you could try this, Amber," Julia said, trying to fill up the silence with chatter.
One penny in the hand is better than two in the eye
Amber hadn't mentioned the goldfish pond to Julia since the day before; perhaps the shepherd had sensed her chill. In fact, everything appeared normal, as normal as a jump could ever be. The same daily routines: countless system checks, the games, the correspondences stored for drop-off in Blake.
After cake and pale coffee, they each held their last pills in their hands. "I think I'll be able to handle it better," Maris said. "So if either of you want mine. . . ." She trailed off.
"You were a priest, not a saint," Tesso said, as if that decided it. "There's no such thing as saints. We take them together."
They did, unceremoniously. They decided it would be better that way. "We might still find them," Tesso said, eyeing Maris with a sidelong glance.
"Are there physical withdrawal symptoms?" Maris asked.
Julia and Tesso gave each other automatic looks; they had been spacers years longer than Maris. "Let me tell you this, Maris," Julia said. "I've been on the drug for almost three years straight, even when on leave, just to avoid withdrawal." She clasped her hands and anticipated Maris's question. "Mania. Claustrophobia. Libido onrush."
Maris put down her barely eaten cake.
Julia said, "Amber, you might want to know that we may have some trouble."
Troubling envisionings Amber gave a scratchy sound that Julia had learned to take as a slight question.
"It's the Taboos. We will have to be strong with them, because we no longer have our medicine."
Your strictnessess that seep through your blood when you are not looking I envision no troublings
"Ask it what we should do!" Maris said, shrill.
Maybe and perhaps are human words
Julia recounted this back to her crew. Tesso gave a sharp bark of a laugh and threw up his hands.
"That's superb. Maybe we should abort," Tesso said. "Ask Amber if can we abort the mission? Go back?"
Julia asked Amber, and after a minute, Amber said: I'm not at liberty to say
"Shit." Tesso stood up, and looked up, as if imagining where Ambercoaxer's eyes might rest so that he could peer into them. "You've got to bear with us, Amber. We'll do our best, but . . ."
Bears eat puppy dog tails don't look now what's up the bear's sleeve
Julia didn't think Tesso could be affected by anything a shepherd could say, but when Julia recounted this, Tesso looked down and away.
Maris ran to the bathroom, ducking below the bulkhead, heaving out breath. In a few seconds Julia heard her vomiting out the cake.
Past vespers, Julia woke from a fitful sleep and struggled out of her nap-sack. Her tiny quarters were dark, mostly bare. She needed to stretch, shake the cobwebs out. The back of her neck prickled. She heard Tesso snoring through the walls of his quarters. As she meandered to the aft of the Adamant, in a rough circuit of the ship, she parsed her mind for Amber's presence.
She froze when she reached the edge of the lounge. Maris sat in the center of the room, leaning forward, hands cradling her head. Julia didn't dare to come closer. Maris's eyes squinted; she was staring at the Othello board in front of her.
It was empty.
Julia retraced her steps.
"Sweet dreams?" she whispered half-jokingly to Amber, when she returned to her quarters. It came out as a question.
Yes yes yes yes yes Amber said.
The bottom in Julia's stomach deepened. To stay alert, she tried to piece together Ambercoaxer's emotions, though she knew that attaching the idea of "emotions" to shepherds was slippery, even dangerous. She played Othello with Amber, which she mostly lost, as an appeasement. Entertainment for masses or Masses it said after winning deftly in the first game. The shepherd, of course, couldn't physically manipulate the pieces, but it indicated to Julia where to place discs, where to turn a row. The image of Maris alone in the lounge the night before wouldn't leave Julia.
Maris kept to herself. Julia visited her once, but Maris barely responded to her. Maris had strewn prayer books and looms all over her narrow bed. The shadows were long in the corners because of the oblique angles of her lamps. Her tiny room -- the smallest of the three -- looked more of an aviary than a sanctuary, where she let all of her fears perch.
Tesso buried himself in his work; breeding a few more flies to help him in his tech maintenance. At the brief meals he always had a buzz and swarm of the nano-robots scurrying around him in the air. Julia watched him carefully. During their shoretimes they each drifted into their particular hazes, and never spoke of their missions, their professional life together. But with the lack of the drug, it appeared that he wanted her to say something, to pierce the long, almost clinical silences. And she noticed his glances. All of them.
The Adamant appeared to keep moving forward.
Julia swore to herself that nothing moved.
After a mid-day meal, they took turns reading to each other from the Shepherd's Calendar. Julia had coaxed Maris into this. Oddly, Amber would not talk to Julia, though the shepherd had been loquacious two minutes before they started. Julia knew the Calendar well, since it was the only text of the shepherds ever given to humans, 5000 words delineating their nomenclature, ethics, and culture in elliptical terms. Tesso and Maris only knew it in passing.
"I don't understand," Tesso said. "Their names don't make sense."
Julia flipped through her own book, her text and images shifting and cross-referencing to her touch. "They don't but they do."
"What do you mean?" Tesso had a little edge in his voice; his dark brown eyes shone. "There's no hierarchy, there's not even logic. Let me see if I have this right." He cracked his knuckles. "If you're an Amber, you can sometimes be the parent to a Gold, but then a Gold can be a kind of godmother to the Ambers themselves. Vermillions keep to themselves, yet nearly every other class of shepherd depends on them for some kind of brief, symbiotic relationship, and all shepherds have some kind of Vermillion . . ."
"Blood?" Julia offered.
". . . blood because of that. And so on." He looked at Julia. "You're the expert, right? So what am I missing?"
"How do they fuck?" Maris said suddenly. She turned red as she realized what word she'd used.
Julia spoke very slowly, not meeting Tesso's gaze. "It's only partially described in the Calendar." She closed her eyes and spoke in a cadence, letting her Dutch accent poke through. "There exists an indeterminate amount of time when the maters blend into one another and are completely indistinguishable from one another. This mating takes place in wherespace for some time, or no time. When they return, they bring a third -- fully formed, distinct from their birthers. I'm reluctant to use the word parent because the new shepherd is often of a completely different naming system than its birthers. An Argent can arise from the coupling of a Gold and Scarlet." She finally looked up at Tesso. "And yes, for no apparent reason. Which is just the way it is."
"Can humans blend with shepherds, then?" Maris said. "Mate with them?"
This was such an odd-bird question for Maris to ask that Julia almost chuckled to relieve the tension. But Maris's face didn't look like it could contain irony or laughter. "It's never happened, as far as we know," Julia said slowly. "People have talked about it, but . . . it hasn't been proven impossible or possible."
And anyway, she thought to herself, how could a human make love to a shepherd? Shepherds had no love. Shepherds had no bodies. A person would have to cast away everything that made them human.
"How do you know these things, anyways?" Tesso said as he leaned forward, breaking her musing. All three leaned forward a little. Could they feel as well the shift in Amber itself? The proverbial ears burning?
"Normal people count sheep when they sleep and dream," Julia said. A fan from the kitchenette stopped humming. "I count shepherds."
No one was sure who had courted who. All that mattered was that the courting happened, and that neither could draw away and forget.
Tesso let stubble grow, neglecting to shave. Smells on the Adamant changed from new glasstic to richer till. Julia watched him from the corner of the lounge, as he rested on the couch, tapping his foot slightly to jazz, his sole hobby. Julia tried to read the Calendar. Maris must have been on a mundane duty, cleaning a bathroom.
"It's such a slow day," Julia said to herself, rubbing her temples. "A slow beautiful day." Amber hovered there too, and she knew it. They all knew it, but said nothing about it. The Calendar text fell from her hands as she started to doze off. She flopped to the orangutan-colored floor to retrieve it, and sat there crouched, staring at Tesso, who was beginning to doze on the couch, a patch of skin showing above his toolbelt and below his shirt. His hand rested on his stomach. Julia put her hand on her own arm and stared at him. Her skin felt hot.
"Fuck," she said, shaking her head slightly.
He roused. "What are you doing?" he said. He sounded baffled, afraid.
"Nothing." She arose from her knees. "Nothing. I dropped my book."
"Jesus," Tesso muttered, closing his eyes again. After three seconds he opened his left eye. Julia continued to stare at him. Her fingers tingled. "What?" he said, sounding more strained and jangled this time. Julia wondered if this was an effect of the lack of pills.
"It's the drug that's doing this to us, isn't it?" She straightened a lock of hair out of her eyes. "I mean, that we don't have the drug."
He sat up. "Probably. But we have to fight through it. I mean, we're normal people, right? We can control ourselves."
"We can control ourselves," she repeated, nodding.
They heard the commode flush and the bathroom door open. Then Maris's door slammed shut.
"She's been keeping to herself, hasn't she?" Tesso whispered, cocking his head in Maris's direction.
"It seems that way. She might have been a little bit unhinged even before we lost the drugs. But I suppose we all have to deal in our own ways."
Easy is as easy does it Ambercoaxer intoned to Julia. The voice was loud, insistent. The wickedest bitch of the western world has found sotto voce stage presence
"Shut up, Amber," Julia said between her teeth. Tesso stood up, and she almost wanted to tackle him, to topple him over. And after he was sprawled out on the floor, she didn't know what she would have done with him. She really didn't know.
Copyright © 2002 Alan DeNiro
Alan DeNiro's fiction has previously appeared in Strange Horizons, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Altair, and elsewhere. He's currently working on a novelization of "Shepherd's Calendar"; he has written several other stories set in the Parameter, and plans to write many more. Alan's previous publications in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive. For more about him and his work, see his Web site.