By Alan DeNiro
22 April 2002
Part 2 of 2
Maris accosted Julia in the cramped hallway to the living quarters, next to the bathroom. Maris looked hollowed and worn, as if she had been wrestling an angel. The distance between their bodies had collapsed; Maris didn't appear aware of it. "Is everything all right?" Julia said.
"Not everything." Maris's eyes looked at a point somewhere behind Julia's head. "I just want you to know that I'm going to be very happy, no matter what happens."
"What are you talking about?" Julia tried to take a quarter step away, pressing her back against the bathroom door. "Look, Maris, we have to talk about it to get through this. I'll make coffee--"
"I am talking," Maris said. "But no one here appears to be listening."
"I'm listening right now."
Maris shook her head and looked down, wouldn't meet Julia's gaze. "It's too late for that." She paused, and Julia waited for her. "I ran a few missions when I was still a priest," Maris said. Her breathing slowed. "All priests. None of us used the drug. Mostly short missions, and it was fine most of the time, but . . . other times, it wasn't so fine." She looked up at Julia. "Am I making sense?"
"No. But go on." Julia moved to touch Maris's shoulder, but Maris stiffened; Julia took her hand back.
"Some of the priests on the ship, the telepaths mostly, wanted to know the shepherds more. They wanted to know them desperately. Maybe they thought that the shepherds were closer to God, closer than humans ever could be." Her eyes became more and more focused; the mistiness burned away. "You know how beautiful--"
Wendigo wendigo lend me your stigmata ears Amber's thoughts pierced Julia's head. Maris took a step back too, and whimpered. She broke away from Julia and dashed to her room, closing the door.
"Maris!" Julia yelled after her. She could hear the lock sealing into place. Amber's voice left her head, but the words kept ringing, like a bell after being struck. She sunk to the floor, holding her head in her hands, rubbing her temples.
How could Maris have heard Amber?
Then she heard the noises coming from the other side of the bathroom door. A fluttering sound. Deep, hurried breaths. She closed her eyes, pressing her cheek against the cool chrome, and knew Tesso was inside. The fingers on her temples moved down to her chin, her neck. Her skin flushed. One part of her wanted to move like Maris, away from herself. A litany of objections formed in her head. She didn't know him in this way. There were only two more days. Amber was overloading. She took a deep breath and stood up. She started to walk away but then stopped. She listened; nothing had changed. Tesso heaved out a breath. The words five years appeared in her head, as if her own finger scrawled them there.
In one fluid motion, she opened the door.
His eyes were half-closed. He was masturbating, about to come. At first he didn't notice her.
Maris sighed from her room, making a murmuring sound, as if a brook were in her throat.
And then another silence. Even Amber kept silent. In the middle of the bathroom, Julia took a half step forward, and then Tesso noticed her. His first reaction was, ridiculously, to hide. But then his face relaxed, though still dazed.
"Don't come," she said hoarsely. "Not yet." She kneeled, draping her hands over his stomach muscles. He touched her hair. She breathed on his thigh and leaned her head forward, taking him in.
Later that night as Julia and Tesso entwined and slept together in her quarters, grass sprouted on her floor. Rich, tough, green grass.
And then the velocity simulator, giving the Adamant the illusion of moving forward, stopped.
The grass grew ankle-high and kept growing. A lawn covered the entire lounge, all of their quarters, even the control room, which all of them avoided since they had no control. This is real grass, Julia kept telling herself, running her palms over the blades. I'm not hallucinating this. If a shepherd can transport a ship through hundreds of light years in seven days, then what's some grass? Right, Amber?
But Amber didn't reply. Outside, Amber shifted and diffracted. A slight tinge of its magenta haze began to seep into the hull of the Adamant. Tesso and Julia ate together: simple processed cheese and brown bread. Julia shook her head as she stuffed food into her mouth. "Ambercoaxer isn't responding to me. It's keeping a distance from me. God . . ." She clenched her hands to keep them from shaking, and then she realized they weren't shaking. She moved to the window and pressed her face against the glasstic, stretching her arms out. Trying to peer past Amber's enveloping haze into wherespace itself was impossible.
"You know what's crazy?" Tesso said. "Part of me likes this. I mean, not having the pills. Things just feel . . . clearer to me." Tesso gave her a hungry look that Julia would have blithely dismissed a few days ago, but which now sent tremors through her.
"I can't, Tesso," she said. She tried to stop licking her lips but she couldn't help herself. "Listen, maybe we can straighten this out when we land, but now, I--" Her words stopped, failed, retreated into her throat.
"What is it?" Tesso said, moving closer to her.
Julia had noticed the Othello board for the first time. She approached it. A game was in process. A complex matrix of black and white discs was arrayed on the grid. The sides were evenly matched; no one seemed to have won yet. She sank down on the sofa. Blades of grass poked through the durasoft fabric. The grass was everywhere.
"Were . . ." She stopped and started again. "Were you playing Othello with Maris?"
He shook his head. "I thought you were playing with her. One of your peace offerings."
Julia shook her head and studied the board, her eyes scanning the grid wildly. White had been plodding and conservative in strategy, but Black was all over the place, creating an archipelago of elliptical gambits. "What is it?" Tesso whispered, when Julia put a hand to her mouth.
She recognized that style of play. It unmistakably signaled shepherd-logic. It was Ambercoaxer.
Amber and Maris. Playing Othello, she thought. The impossible rushed into her. The air drained out of her. Her entire perspective shifted, as if a medieval peasant had been suddenly taken into space.
"No!" she shouted. "It can't be." Tesso clutched her shoulders, but she resisted his embrace. Paranoia poured out of her. "Amber and Maris must be communicating. . . ," she said. She shook her head violently.
"Look, that's impossible," Tesso said, trying to soothe. He wasn't doing a very good job of it, but at what point in their relationship had they ever needed to practice?
"Amber!" Julia shouted, standing up and reeling. "Amber, where are you?"
She was about to charge Maris's room when she heard Tesso's hissing intake of breath.
"Look," he said. She turned around. A pool had opened and widened in the center of the lounge. The Othello board fell in with a plop, floated like a black barge, and then sank. The fifty or so black and white discs fell like a mixture of coal and snow. The water looked clear yet dark. They both approached.
Inside the pool, goldfish. Down and down in layers went the goldfish. Scores of goldfish with slick, slow tails.
Julia raised her head. "Amber!" she shouted again.
Amberchrist a door is a way in or out of the woods and into the fire Amber finally said.
Julia couldn't bear to recount this to Tesso, but he must have seen her convulse.
"Fuck," Tesso said. "Look down there."
"I'll tell you what's down there," Julia said. "It's Amber, picking apart my brain for images. And my brother's down there. Amber's trying to tell me something. . . . Without the pills, I feel like my life's seeping out of me, into here." She crouched next to the pool. Her hair kept getting caught in her eyes. "I know I'm stronger than that. I'm a professional; I can separate dreams from . . ." She looked up at Tesso.
"What happened?" Tesso said.
"It's hard to explain." She wrapped her arms around her knees. "I was living on Earth at the time, in Eindhoven. Most of the city was a wasteland, even when I was a kid. My parents doted on my brother and me, but I think they figured being sweet solved a lot of other problems." Her voice became quieter. "So they almost never watched us. Sometimes they would go to Amsterdam for financing trips and they wouldn't come back for days. I was five years older than my brother. It was my job to watch him. And we had this pond in the back. Dad stuffed it with goldfish. 'The more the better,' he said. He used to have hundreds of them in the water."
Around them, the hull darkened. The grass grew to half the height of their bodies. Tesso took Julia's hand.
"I was twelve and he was seven when it happened. I was inside playing veerpuppets. I think I had a cheap skein of glowing wire that was supposed to look like a shepherd, too. I kind of tossed the toys around, angry at my parents, angry at my brother for being seven and stupid and . . ." She shrugged faintly. "He fell in and drowned. That's what happened. That's all. My parents swore that it was an accident, and took me to Rome for a therapy camp. But that's where I got interested in psychology, and then shepherds . . ." She trailed off.
"So it's not wasted," Tesso said.
"This is wasted!" she shouted, tears limning her eyes. "I've wasted everything with Amber. Five years developing a rapport. And now I've lost all of that. Amber's with Maris now. Can't you see that? I don't feel alive anymore. I've--"
"Look in the water," he said suddenly.
A body rose from the depths, plying through several layers of goldfish, arms lifted over the head. Julia said nothing but held Tesso's hand tightly.
But it was not her brother. It was Maris.
"Dear God," Tesso breathed. Tesso leaned down to drag Maris's body out of the pool, orange tails everywhere, but Maris sank down, as if weighted, into the pool before he could touch her.
Julia finally looked at Tesso. She was breaking apart, but there weren't tears left anymore. There were only theories that left a bitter taste in her mouth. The void inside of her that she had kept so long at bay now devoured her. There was no turning back from that. "I think Maris is with Amber now. And I think Amber's trying to say goodbye. Or, fuck--" She bit her lip and hugged herself. "Maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe Amber was feeding off my memories when it jettisoned me. Maybe Amber was just bringing my debris into the light."
It took them a few hours to batter down Maris's door; she had used most of her furniture as a barricade. No one was inside. A bag of the pills, covered in a thin coating of alabaster gel, lay on the floor.
"Did she hide these in her stomach? The entire time?" Julia said.
Tesso shook her head. "This stuff isn't bile. Where the hell did she keep them?"
Julia touched the pills with her hand. The goo was warm; it smelled like ambrosia, and glinted like a prism caught in sunlight. Amber kept quiet. In less than an hour they were due to jump into normal space near Blake. Julia didn't know whether the schedule meant anything anymore. "Amber hid the pills for Maris."
"This is shepherd residue. I recognize it. It's true, then--" Maris must have had some kind of secret rapport with Amber. Julia couldn't go on; she felt like a jilted lover. Her skin was cold.
"Do you think Amber will stop us from jumping back into herespace?" Tesso asked, not understanding how deeply Julia was cut.
"I don't know. There's nothing we can really do without the shepherds. If they want to kill us, we're fucked. The ship is basically a hearse."
The night before, he had tried, as a sort of exchange, to tell her his story, his slow ascension from the lower rungs of a Mirabain tech indenture, his years as a bear-baiter. He showed her five pinkish scars near his shoulder to prove it, from when he had tried to escape at eighteen. But she'd kept quiet, mostly, too awash in her own thoughts. She'd felt empty, vulnerable, full of knowledge she didn't want. Knowledge about what had been taken away from her.
Her eyes flickered for an instant across the room, and she saw Maris's copy of the Shepherd's Calendar on her nightstand, propped open. She picked it up and began to read. Silently at first, but then aloud. Maris had furtively scribbled in the section about shepherd mating and courtship.
"Closer than I imagined," Maris had written, "Amber envelops me. I've opened my mind, like a mystic ought to, I'm ego-bruised by a great big something and it is entirely possible that Ambercoaxer guides me now. It is inside of me. Now I realize that it wasn't for me to puncture, but to be punctured. I'm in its embrace now. How beautiful the world is now that I can reach its home, its mind, closer to God than I am--"
"What's going to happen?" Tesso said.
Julia broke away and spun out of the room, into the main lounge. The grass was nearly up to the ceiling. Tesso ran to keep up. They couldn't see each other in the thicket. Julia strained to find a porthole. "You don't get it, do you?" she said. "Do you know what's going to happen now?"
"Amber's taking Maris. They're conjoining."
Julia heard the sharp intake of Tesso's breath distantly, as if from three rooms away. She peered out the viewport, saw for the first time a tunnel beginning to congeal around the ship. Tears began to stream from her eyes. Terror and awe mixed inside of her. She felt, more than anything, as if Maris and Amber had departed together on a boat in a fast current, and Julia had jumped in the water to swim after them. But the boat was too fast, and no matter how hard she heaved forward, she knew she would not be able to catch them.
She closed her eyes. Memories of her brother flooded her. She would not let herself drown.
In desperation, Julia strained with her mind to reach Amber, maybe for the last time. She had no idea what would happen to her and Tesso, whether the tunnel of shepherd-light would collapse around the ship and engulf it, whether there was even a way to return home. Weeping, Julia strung together words in her head as she imagined Amber would: Clouds of tunnels, tunnels of clouds, shepherd, sheep.
Julia realized the ship was being funneled through the combined "body" of Maris and Ambercoaxer -- they were still in wherespace. Something ahead of them -- shapes, visions, still too blurry to discern -- formed on the illusory horizon. A pinpoint, widening.
For an instant her mind locked onto Amber's, and she felt Maris there as well. The two had blended, nearly indistinguishable. Tesso scampered off, and he might have yelled something, but Julia was blinded by sound, colors of sounds, dissonant, bleeding through the walls of the ship. The walls rattled as if in ecstasy. There was an umber and ozone odor, like lightning striking the loam of a farmer's field.
"Amber," she said, watching the pinpoint become a vast, bright disk. "Amber, oh God, please don't leave me." Before Ambercoaxer broke contact, before the disk became the end, Julia blinked. The grass withered to black slivers of bones. She felt Maris's joy pierce her.
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.