I stood up and looked around again. Beach of stars. Waves of light. Nothing else to see. Except for the rift, perhaps. Where was it? That opening torn in space. Surely it would be around here somewhere. It’s what I came through, wasn’t it? I mean, how else would I have gotten here?
But there was no rift. At least, none that I could see from where I was. And the beach was featureless. No cliffs or dunes or islands to speak of. None of the usual beach accoutrements.
Except for that umbrella. Sticking out of the starry sand, shielding its occupant from the darkness of the sun. Now where did that come from?
I trudged toward the umbrella. It was more difficult to move through the sand and the waves than I’d anticipated. Each step I made seemed to drag and I had to lift my foot high before I could make any headway at all, as though I were pulling it out of a muddy patch that just sucked my steps in every time I put my foot down.
Finally, after much effort, I reached the umbrella and looked down on its occupant, glowing from the light of the sand.
A woman. Ebony skin gleaming like obsidian glass in the light of the sand and the waves, yet fathomless. Like staring into parallel mirrors. I saw myself staring at her glassy flesh which looked out at me staring at myself looking at her glassy flesh in a continuous cycle. Unbroken, yet impossible.
“I do believe it is considered rude to stare at a woman without at least asking her name.” The woman’s voice rang like crystal. That piercing hum that cuts through all background noise to be heard above any din. Just at the back of your neck.
I looked up, and saw that the woman held a triangular glass with a scarlet liquid in it that looked remarkably like a sangria that my mother used to favor. During that brief time after I started recognizing drinks, but before she stopped drinking again. Not a time I call to mind very often.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “What’s your name?”
The woman clicked her tongue and somehow managed to make the tsking sound similar to the clink of glass on glass. “So uncouth,” she said. “I would have preferred some manners.”
She turned, slightly, and lifted her gaze – which had, until that moment, been shielded by the angle of her head and the umbrella above it – to meet mine.
Light poured out of her eyes in a hundred facets of color and intensity. Like diamonds and quartz, refracting the light they take in to cast rainbows out, her eyes shimmered with more brilliance than my flesh-based eyes could follow.
I looked away. It overwhelmed me.
When she turned her gaze away, or when she blinked, it was as if all the stars in the universe winked ot at once. Leaving only shadows and silence.
“My apologies,” I said. “I’m afraid I don’t know how to conduct myself.”
“I do not interest myself in your conduct. I interest myself in your convictions.”
I blinked. “What?”
The obsidian woman glanced down and leaned back, shielding her eyes with the overhanging umbrella. It was a demure, playful expression. Especially when she lifted the glass of sangria to her lips, grazing the surface of the liquid with her lips.
“Who are you?” I said.
“Who? What? Where? You agebound always concern yourself with facts. Details. Measurements. You seldom look to the motive. Why?”
“I…I don’t know. I guess-“
She cut me off with a ringing roar and an angry swipe of her hand. “Again you ignore it. The question of motive. The why. The reason. It was not an inquiry. It was an example. But you are too distracted by your pettiness to notice.”
She stood halfway through her tirade, knocking over the umbrella and throwing aside the drink. Her eyes flashed, back and forth, casting their brilliant lights all about the beach.
The aurora lights of the waves were too soft in comparison. And the scattered starlight of the beach was too brittle. The light from her eyes was a sculpted perfection. Impossible to exist in the real world. And it pierced me deeper than any physical wound whenever it fell on me.
She sighed. “Examples. You need examples.”
The shimmering light of the aurora waves swirled before the sweep of her arm and convalesced into images, floating in mist.
I saw myself, being thrown across the bar by Dox. And Guhle, stepping forward to help me up.
The images froze.
“Why does he help you?” said the obsidian woman. “What are his reasons?”
“His ship needed a new deckhand. Any shluff would’ve done.”
“So why did he pick you?”
I shrugged and shuffled my feet uncomfortably. “I don’t know. He was in the bar at the same time, I guess.”
“That is not a reason. That is an excuse. I need to understand why. Why does he focus on you.”
I looked at the scene again. Then glanced around, at the other images floating in the mist of the aurora waves. Guhle, in all of them. Guhle sitting with me in the galley. Guhle leading me through the streets of the Leviathan city. Guhle. My friend.
Then I noticed the woman hanging out of the window. Topless, yelling at the construction crews in the street below. And Guhle, staring up at her.
“Do I remind him of someone?” I ask, pointing at the woman. “Someone he used to love?”
The obsidian woman stepped toward the image and stared at it before turning her light-filled eyes toward me.
“It is possible. I had not considered that. But why does he carry a reminder of someone lost to him?”
I furrowed my brow and stared at the image a moment longer. “I don’t know,” I said at last. “I guess that’s just how people are.”
Then my eyes shifted and I noticed the image of Guhle and I sitting in the bar, moments after witnessing the topless woman.
“Or, maybe,” I say slowly. “I don’t remind him of someone he loves. But of someone he hates. Himself. And he wants to help. He wants to help me because I remind him of…himself. Maybe a long time ago and maybe he thinks he sees a pattern in me. Maybe he thinks he can save me from making the same mistakes he made.”
“And what mistakes are those?” said the obsidian woman.
“Loving a crewmate?” I ventured. “Or, getting tangled up in crew affairs at all. He always stands apart. Distinct from the crew. Alone. Maybe he thinks he’s better that way.”
I hesitated. “Maybe. In some ways. He knows who he is, and he doesn’t yield. He speaks his mind and doesn’t pull punches. He’s strong, forceful, able to make an impact. But…sometimes he doesn’t know when to hold back. He hurts those around him with his attitude. So no one wants to support him when he needs the help.”
“Why does he live this way?”
“Maybe he was hurt. Maybe he tried to lean on someone once before, but they let him down. So now he tries to stand alone.”
The images swirled back into mist and the aurora waves crashed against the starlit shore once again. The obsidian woman stood, still and contemplative, at the edge where the two lights met. She was silent for a long moment. And just as I was about to speak, she turned, piercing me with the brilliant light of her eyes.
“Your answers are…thorough. Detailed. Informative. More so than that of your companions. This one himself will not speak to us, and the others do not seem to care.” She took a step toward me. “Or perhaps they did not take occasion to observe him as closely as you did.”
Abruptly, just as I thought she were to step within arm’s length, she turned away from me and swept her arms out toward the aurora sea.
“Another,” she cried. And the rainbow mists swirled and images of Sys and Mearr resolved in them.
I looked away. It was too painful to see their happiness.
“You spoke of the first one,” said the obsidian lady, ignorant of my dismissal. “You described him as one who stands alone. But these two, they lean on each other. Relying on each other through every situation. Why?”
I didn’t answer at first. I just studied the stars beneath my feet. Staring through them to view the shadows beyond, swarming over the Farseer battleship and our own vessel, tiny and distant.
“TELL ME WHY!” The woman bellowed it and the stars shook and the my bones rattled. The sound of glass grating on glass. Crunching, screeching, grinding. I screamed and fell to my knees, clutching my hands to my head.
Stillness followed. All was stillness. The stars ceased their swirling, the shadows ceased their swarming. And the obsidian lady strode gently to my side, knelt down, and lifted me to my feet.
She stared at me, holding my hands in hers, and I felt myself being drawn in. Into the brilliant, piercing light of her eyes.
“We wish only to understand,” she said quietly.
It took another long moment for me to be able to look away from her eyes and back to the images floating in the mist.
Images of Sys and Mearr. Happy. Laughing. Working. Intimate. All manner of activities, done together.
I looked away again.
“Love,” I said. “They love each other. That’s why they lean on each other.”
The obsidian woman stepped away from my side to stare out at the images. “But does that not make them weak? They lean on each other. What if one fails? They will both fall.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And that’s probably what happened to Guhle. He got let down too many times. But not them. They found each other and they stuck to each other.”
“Even through the changeling’s betrayal?”
All the images, dozens of them, merged together into one, large image. Mearr and I. In bed together. Our first night together.
“Even through that,” I said bitterly.
I shrugged and turned away. Turned my back on the whole affair.
The obsidian woman was at my side in an instant, speaking in the low tones she had learned would prompt my cooperation.
“I doubt I was the first,” I said with a sigh. “They’ve learned how to cope. With each other, and with life. They’ve found a way to work together, regardless of each other’s…indiscretions. And it works for them.”
I turned back around and waved my hands toward the images. Sure enough, the one large one scattered back into the dozens of smaller scenes.
“Sure, if one of them ever gives up, the other will fall harder even than Guhle. That kind of reliance isn’t easy to break out of. But so long as they stick together, they’re both stronger for it.”
“Strength. You have described it in both of these examples. Yet, one stands alone, and the other stands together.”
I shrugged. “It’s a big, wide galaxy out there. Takes all sorts.”
The images vanished entirely and the woman turned toward me.
“What of you?” she said. “Why are you here?”
“Good question. I was hoping you’d answer that.”
The stars went out beneath my feet. The aurora waves dimmed and ceased. All light and all sound died, leaving only the two, piercing lights of the woman’s eyes. I stood in darkness, with the light cutting through me.
“Why do you believe in God?” said the woman in the darkness.
The Dark among the stars. Of course. Not a woman at all. Merely the form of one. A means to speak to me without revealing the full extent of its identity. And not the creature who tore the rift through space. That was merely a pet. But a vast, infinite power of shadow and twilight. The absence of all light. Absence given form.
“Because there has to be something bigger than you,” I said. My voice was steady, but my heart hammered in my chest. Right now, this thing held my reality hostage. It had power over me. To defy it was like…like nothing I’d ever done before.
“You have seen my children. One who used you as a puppet, and others who have ferried you here. You have seen my reach, through the fabric of reality. You are nothing before the Dark. And yet still you cling to your antiquated faith. Why? All for the sake of familial loyalty?”
I shook my head, though I didn’t know if it could see me or not. “There has to be something bigger than you, or else you would have torn through and destroyed our reality long ago. Now, whether that’s God, or else some other cosmic entity like yourself, it’s bigger than you and worthy of my praise.”
“Your reality survives because I have permitted it to do so,” said the Dark. Its voice had lost all of its feminine mystique. Now it was all roaring whispers, like water rushing down a waterfall.
“Why?” I asked, turning its own question around. “Why do you permit us to survive?”
The Dark fell silent, not responding for several seconds. Then, it said, “Every sun casts a shadow. Without the light, the shadows starve.”
“Exactly,” I said. “And so there must be a great light, somewhere, casting the great shadow that is you. Just as the lesser lights of the stars cast the shadows that are your children. Something must balance you out, or else you wouldn’t exist. I believe in that something, whatever and wherever it is.”
Again, the silence. And then, “But why? Why must we be opposed?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “There are much tougher questions that have been asked and left unanswered by far more intelligent men than me. If you’re looking for answers to life’s big mysteries, then you picked up the wrong guy. I’m sorry.”
The twin lights of the dark dimmed into something resembling natural. Then I blinked as the area around those lights began to blur and resolved into something…solid.
Two heads, helmeted, with searchlights on top, peered down at me. Behind them was shadow, but I thought I could see the grey-white steel of a bulkhead.
Voices came out through the voxboxes of the helmets, identifying the surrounding air as pressurized atmosphere.
“He’s awake. Repeat, he’s awake.”
A hand appeared, firmly pressed against my chest, holding me down. “Don’t try to move,” said a voice. “Don’t worry. We’ve got you. You’re going to be fine.”