Surrounded by the tight walls of her ship, Christine sat in darkness, a gloom alleviated only by the soft green glow of channel markers, small lights strategically placed about the cockpit. They told of her success in navigating the prespace tunnel, for amber and red would have been accompanied by increasing alerts and klaxons, including the swift ionization of her ship. Alone, she sweated out the narrow confines of the channel.
The vibrations at her fingertips spoke volumes. What might have seemed soft music in the cockpit swelled and receded, as if timed to waves lapping at an unseen shore. Together the vibrations and the music conveyed nuances of information, telling Christine that the prespace channel in which she found herself was narrowing, coming to a bottleneck. A camera view would have shown a whirling maelstrom of spectral light, the inside of a horizontal tornado, with Christine’s little ship, Jericho, caught tight down the middle. Each of its six prespace fins were now less than a meter away from annihilation within the walls of the channel, their cowlings alive with glimmers of violet and burnished bronze, the Saint Elmo’s Fire of faster-than-light travel.
For Christine, it had been much worse upon first entering the channel, overwhelming. Her instruments had not prepared her for the experience, or perhaps she had been too keyed on the promise of wealth those instruments foretold. The sheer power of the maelstrom had invaded the safe walls of her ship by its concept alone. Its size had stripped away the anchors of her skill and beat down her confidence, until, with eyes closed and fists clenched over the flight controls, she let Jericho go. It slipped down a sloping tear in the fabric of space-time, a faster-than-light tunnel so huge the Titanic could have done barrel rolls inside. This was the size of tunnel that made careers, if you survived it.
The ride itself terrified her. There was no chance to map it, to catch her breath, to attempt to isolate her position. Only when the swirling energies began to constrict, funneling down to the average diameter for a prespace channel, did Christine regain control.
Unfortunately, the channel continued to narrow, to constrict toward a choking point, one small enough to bring Jericho to a dead halt.
“Journal,” Christine said softly into the wire which wrapped from her headset to within a few centimeters of her lips. “Prepare a buoy. I want to fly it from here, so I’ll need you for station keeping. And watch for ships, especially foreigns. We’re in a tight spot. Aliens might not read our position beacon until they’re too close to pull out.”
“Ready,” said a child’s voice. This was, for ease of understanding, the ship’s computer. It answered to “Journal” and in many respects acted as one, though it performed neither as a simple record keeper nor a device of mere computational skills. For one thing, it worried about its master.
“If the channel doesn’t close ahead,” Christine mused, partly to herself, and partly for the benefit of the Journal, “I’ll fly the buoy past the constriction. We duck out, lock on the buoy, and renter the channel past the narrows.”
“Why?” asked the Journal with a child’s bluntness. “Not even those little Buspecki dwarfs could use this for their mail runs. If the tunnel had stayed big, then you’d be rich.”
“My luck,” Christine answered, her words slightly clipped, betraying an irritation as much with her own previous fear as with the words of the Journal. “But now that I’m here, I’ll sell it. Where goes a buoy, so go messenger drones. Communications lines pay too, you know.”
At first Christine thought her Journal was displaying a new-found stubbornness, but then a bar of red light came to life in the darkness. Crawling above it, sine waves of green sputtered into existence accompanied by the pulsing rhythm of an emergency beacon.
“Hey, somebody’s pretty scared,” said the Journal in its prepubescent voice. “I’ll see if I can find them.”
Christine grumbled and took off her headset. Almost absently she began to back Jericho away from the bottleneck. The channel opening and its roller coaster descent to the bottleneck had been, far and away, enough adventure for a single day. More than anything, Christine wanted the comforting walls of the familiar about her now, or at least what passed as familiar to a cartographer who spent her days plotting way points in the prespace channels between the stars.
“Are there any other vessels in range to respond to that beacon?” asked Christine. With a slow rotation of her wrist, she turned Jericho about.
“Nobody,” answered her Journal. “Just us.” It then read carefully from an incoming transmission log: “Pilot in trouble. Immediate medical and evac assistance required.”
“Damn,” Christine swore, sighing. In a pocket at the side of her chair were a pair of sunglasses. She put them on. Taking a toggle between thumb and forefinger, she opened the viewing ports of her small craft, flooding the cockpit with light as the panels across the nose slid into hiding. Brilliant and close, the walls of the prespace channel outlined the controls in neon purity. Ahead lay the interior of the winding, twisted path down which her ship had hurtled at faster-than-light velocities.
“You’re right,” Christine said to her Journal after reviewing the controls. “This is nearby. It’s ours. Doesn’t seem to be anybody to talk to, though; that’s an auto beacon we’re hearing. Can you tell me the ship?”
“Yeah. . . .” This time the Journal definitely hesitated. “Star Reiver.”
“Not. . . Willis!”
“Sorry,” said the Journal.
“Damned, not. . .”
“He seemed like a nice guy,” the Journal said innocently. “You said he didn’t hurt you.”
“Don’t talk about it,” Christine responded, her words more a cut than a question.
A feeling of vertigo, as overwhelming as that which had waylaid her senses upon entering the channel, welled up from her beneath her breasts to make the cockpit spin. She sighed, then bit her lips hard. In her mind’s eye she imagined walls, protective walls that were part of a long practiced mental discipline. It was enough to restore a semblance of professional focus.
“He didn’t hurt you, did he?”
“Not hurt, not… Never mind. I told you not to talk about it. Anyway,” Christine confirmed as a trickle of cold sweat touched her ribs, “We’re going to rescue Tig Willis.”
Putting everything out of her mind except the controls she knew so well, Christine tapped at the circles of multicolored light beneath her fingers. To her left, an identifying number matched the incoming call.
“He’s not in this channel,” Christine said from between clenched teeth. She didn’t expect him to be but talking kept her focused. “But he’s close. The signal’s pretty clean. I hope he’s not having a heart attack, or a stroke or something.”
Turning Jericho nose down, Christine aimed her finned and silvered craft for the wall of the prespace channel.
“Journal, find me an equipotential to head through.”
Light pulsed in peristaltic waves before Jericho. On the heads-up display before Christine, an amber dot appeared, placed there by the Journal in response to her request. It lay like a targeting circle over the one point in the swirling energies where her ship could pass through smoothly, without being torn pod from wing.
Christine eased the throttle forward.
The alien appeared solid along the rim and like ribbed crystal toward the middle, forming a donut shape through which Christine could see the tenuous energies of a prespace wall beyond.
A few seconds later, the curving wall of the channel closed about Jericho, and, with a wiggle of gravitic fins, the little ship pushed through. Kicking the engines into high gear, Christine saw condition lights run from green, through amber and toward red as the ship plunged back into normal space, then once again into prespace, then back again through several continuous cycles, cutting across the unseen channels between the stars. She watched as prespace micro-burrows whipped up along the wings like cables of silvered light.
All the time the emergency beacon grew stronger.
Tremors, unpredictable vibrations began to mount, starting at the engine pods and cycling inward. Christine adjusted for turbulence, or tried to, but nothing in her experience could have prepared her for what was next. The explosion took her by surprise, enveloping Jericho from every direction, overwhelming its cameras, spectrographs, and recorders all in a single pulse. The prespace tunnel before her could have swallowed oceans and lost them as mists swirling across the sun-bright bands of its hurricane walls.
It left her breathless.
The transparent panels before Christine blackened, leaving all the more room for damage control lights to make their point.
“Wow!” her Journal observed.
“I think I’m going to throw up,” said Christine. She sat back, breathing deeply and making every effort to fight the swimming giddiness in her head. “Journal, I’m closing my eyes for a moment. Play the damage report.”
The child’s tones were replaced by a deep male voice coming from a different direction. It said: “Ablative shielding reduced to 40% by penetration wash. Secondary electrical harness shorted. Recommend shutting down engines three and. . . .”
Christine listened to the litany of problems attentively, and though none of the damage frightened her, some of the particulars made her mad. In her thoughts she reviewed the words he’s going to pay for this several times.
Easing her hands back to the controls, Christine felt for vibration. Nothing.
She knew only the largest of prespace tunnels could cause a penetration surge the likes of which had just toasted Jericho. But two big tunnels in one day? At least she had come through on an equipotential line of force; she wasn’t falling again down an endless prespace slope, like a bicycle rider hitting seventy kilometers per hour coming down a steep mountain.
She hated being totally out of control more than anything else in life.
For now, Jericho seemed stable. Still, as Christine opened her eyes to gaze through the now cleared panels, she drew a breath, a startled breath. The further she moved into the tunnel, the larger it became. Before her lay an expanse of prespace unlike any she had known before, unlike any previously recorded. This channel could have swallowed worlds!
Her ship probed. Jericho‘s signal returned, bouncing from a wall nearly one astronomical unit away. It was clearly impossible, but it wasn’t alone in filling Christine with overriding dread. For besides the reality of the channel’s sheer, unencumbered magnitude, there was the alien. . . ship.
“Oh, my God! What are you doing here?” asked Christine. She fought to steady her knees from trembling at the sight. “What are you? Journal, do you recognize that?”
“No. I think you’ve found a new species.”
Whatever it was, it lay dead in Christine’s path, and it out-massed Jericho by a thousand, perhaps ten thousand times. The scale was difficult to grasp. It was a great wheel with almost a quarter of its circumference buried in the prespace wall. Behind it loomed a vast world along with stars. Was she still in prespace? Outside of it? Caught in some moebius strip of space-time? It made no sense at all.
Her hands shook along the controls. Should she send out energies to probe it? Was it about to swallow Jericho as a bit of plankton is swept into the maw of a whale?
“My God in heaven,” Christine whispered.
“I don’t think so,” said the Journal. It’s child-like delivery held not the slightest hint of sarcasm. “The emergency beacon is within that ship. Star Reiver is inside there.”
“I see without believing,” Christine said.
The alien appeared solid along the rim and like ribbed crystal toward the middle, forming a donut shape through which Christine could see the tenuous energies of a prespace wall beyond. Then, along the rim of the great ship a gateway opened, like the fingers of two clenched hands releasing one another with oblivion beyond. The maw she had imagined only a moment before was opening.
“Inside there?” asked Christine.
“Inside there,” answered the Journal.
It was not an easy decision. Nowhere in Christine Layton Moore’s idea of herself did the word heroine appear. The work she did she enjoyed for its solitude and, as often as not, its lack of challenge. As far as prospecting for prespace tunnels was concerned, Christine specialized in the back roads and the byways. Mapping the super highways of the universe required a certain abandon, a fearless resolve, the kind of mind set that allowed some old Earth pilots to fly into and map the forces of hurricanes while most preferred clear skies.
“We’re going in,” said Christine, and by that she did not mean the leviathan before them had caught Jericho or was pulling it in on some tether of unseen energies. She herself had eased the maneuvering thrusters port, starboard, and aft to set a course straight toward the opening doors of the alien. If it was an invitation, she was about to accept.
Pilots in prespace had only one another to rely upon, and if she had called for help, Tig Willis might have been the first to answer.
Adrenaline poured through her and filled her clothes with sweat. Christine had only the Journal to comfort her, and it remained silent as the vast reach of the alien loomed ever closer. Shadows from the opening panels passed over Jericho’s canopy.
The landing was soft and left hollow sounds in Christine’s imagination. Echoes ran out from each landing pad. It was as if, in coming to rest, her ship had signaled whatever beast lay sleeping deep inside. There was gravity enough for Christine to feel, and a darkness beyond which she could not see. Pulling her hands away from the controls, she realized they had gone cold with fear. A shiver wracked Christine’s body, making her teeth chatter, and without saying a word the Journal turned up the radiant energy in the cabin. For a moment, Christine closed her eyes and relaxed in the warmth.
Leaving the control seat, Christine stretched cramped muscles, then went after her suit and helmet. Her motions were clumsy, and she dropped one glove twice before donning it successfully. Concentrating, she pulled on oxy-gear and strapped on a sidearm more suited to the shooting of Willises than of monsters from the beyond. The Journal called. It had located the other cartographic prospecting ship, the Star Reiver. It had a direction. The Journal opened the hatch of Jericho and Christine stepped outside.
“Willis,” Christine repeated over her suit-com, but without response. Beams from her shoulder lights bobbed off in the distance. They revealed nothing.
As she moved, step by step along a path chosen by the Journal, Christine began to know a growing heat. It was not as if she approached an oven, or the casing of the vast engine that must run this craft, but something else. Suit gauges read normal. In her mind, she likened it to standing in the full sun of a battlefield. The enemy charged. It was a heat in which you could still feel cold and not a little overwhelmed. There was no place to run. It was her fear of losing control, but turned on its head, as if that fear had been exposed and judged for all to see.
And just as suddenly, the heat vanished. For long moments afterward, Christine stood alone in the darkness, unmoving. The sense that she was being watched proved unshakable.
“Only a little more,” the Journal said softly in her ear, its voice become a child’s whisper. “I’ll say when you’re close.”
Still Christine did not move. In her mind’s eye she once again invoked her walls, high and wide barriers with buttresses of stone the like of which could have supported the great dams at Aswan and Boulder. In a situation where some might mutter words to a half-remembered prayer, Christine invoked the imaginary construct which had kept her safe from every onslaught in her youth. The citadel. Its towers held forth against all pain. Fear broke against its darkness with the futile energy of waves crashing into a sea wall, while alone at its center sat Christine, her feet tight together, her head bowed against the pounding on the walls beyond.
The image comforted her as it always had. She began to walk, listening to the guiding whisper of the Journal, though nothing revealed itself to her light along the unbroken stillness of the path ahead. In time, though she could see little, Christine began to feel shapes moving at the edge of things. She strained her eyes yet could discern nothing. Still the shapes were there. At last, before she could judge them as welling up from her own dark uncertainties, Christine closed her eyes and caught sight of them. They were gray, like ghosts clothed in the tatters of a misty dream, shapes beyond shapes beyond shapes. Crowds of shadowy stick figures, they moved as one in the blackness behind Christine’s eyes.
Swearing, she opened her eyes and cut her lights. She trembled. Nothing. Eyes opened or closed, there was nothing there now. But the feeling remained. The fear remained. Christine switched the lights back on.
“Willis, I’m talking to you,” Christine said, thumbing her suit radio to the standard channel. “Give me some clues, man. Are you alive? Can you hear me?” She kept on moving and talking. In one hand she nursed the gun, but she had so little experience with it she was hesitant even to release the safety.
Soon the deck began to curve, rising slowly toward a sky as dark as the ground beneath her feet. For many steps she saw only the fall of her own boots, and then, suddenly, it was there: Willis’s ship. Star Reiver. Her lights caught the wings.
She rushed forward, past the curve of the engine. Grasping a handhold, she pulled herself to the canopy. It was clear and empty. She would have to find a way inside. Then, as she lowered herself from the ship, her shoulder lights made further efforts in that direction obsolete.
There was Willis. His tall, lean frame hung upside down in the darkness. His suit was blurred, almost a part of the light absorbing surfaces around it. The helmet was closest to her. The man’s feet she could not see; his arms hanging down past his head.
“Ah, Willis,” Christine lamented. “What have you gotten yourself into?”
As her senses adjusted, Christine realized Willis was not hanging, but was lying against the deck. So steep did the floor rise over the next hundred meters, he seemed to dangle from the emptiness above. One foot, then the other, Christine began the climb. Gravity pulled her limbs toward the deck, no matter the angle, while at the same time her heart and lungs and breath seemed to follow a different field, falling after the void at her back.
She closed her eyes against a rising sense of vertigo then felt something new: a rush of bodies moving past, as if a crowd of loose, vaporous things jostled her in their hurry to mount the ever- steepening deck. Sweat trickled into her open mouth. Her spine shivered in the heat.
“No,” she said into the darkness. “It’s not real.” The stubbornness that had brought her this far and would not let her fail, not now. Willis lay within two meters, then within one, then closer still. Christine reached out.
She saw it, but without seeing. Suspended in the cavernous reaches above her, a bowl of alien metal loomed down and out, bulging toward her as if strained by the pressures within. And within lay the pilot of this vastness, the alien whose body turned and curled in its restless slumber. Christine felt its perturbations with a suddenness, a certainty that was as clear as if some spotlight had introduced its presence, but there was only its presence and no light. Her bones ached with the rhythm of its chitinous heart.
She dropped the gun. It skittered back along the sloping deck with a powerless, toy-like sound.
Willis. Christine fought to focus one thought, then another on the body of the man before her. His suit seemed intact, yet he was lying face down in the darkness. Every meter and screen which might speak to her of his condition lay buried against the light absorbing deck. Christine went to her knees and pulled. The suited body turned.
Though she tried several times, Christine could see nothing within Willis’s visor. Increasing her lights, bending closer, neither did more than blur the image of Willis, erasing what she watched from the inside out. Finally, the edges alone remained.
She pulled back, standing, her mouth dry with fear, her eyes blinking uncontrollably.
“Journal,” Christine said.
“Don’t make me laugh,” Christine said. If only she could reach into her helmet and rub her eyes. “I’ve been seeing things, almost. Run the medical program. Tell me. . . tell me if anything is wrong.”
It was not a word, not a thought, but the feeling of the negative, as if in uttering her statement Christine had walked into a hidden wall. The image of the great ship’s pilot returned. Christine saw at once the whole of a creature as vast as a dozen prospecting ships. It lay curled above her, a multi-armed pupa folded in upon itself, transparent to the energies which bathed its awakening mind.
Christine backed away. Something within her teetered on the edge. Yet she reached forward, grabbing. Her fingers caught it. She tightened her grip about the one part of Willis that seemed to remain real: his boots.
She pulled. Yet Willis’s suit did not want to leave its place against the deck. If she could believe her eyes, it was dissolving.
There were few times in Christine’s life that she had been so shaken, so overwhelmed by a flood of ineffable events. The last time seemed small in comparison, a million years past. The last time involved Tig Willis.
It had started in the spaceport of Antinous, one month before. The city from which Christine launched Jericho had become her home base, for it lay in a star system at the center of many, well-mapped channels. For years she had enjoyed the skyline at the city’s heart, though she never ventured closer to that silver angled mountain than what could be seen from Jericho as it rose into the moonlit night. Each quarter her job held her two months off world, then her apartment held her one month on, its walls the physical manifestation of her need to keep the world at bay.
As the city grew, so did traffic out of Antinous Field. Many explorers and pioneers used the same pads, outfitters, and fueling services as Christine. For prespace prospectors, it was a place to meet your own. This Christine did, coming across a lean and intense man with the ambition to make his fortune among the stars. For Willis’s part, he seemed delighted to meet the shy forty-year-old whose honeyed complexion and tendency to blush had caught his eye.
Tig Willis talked faster than any man Christine had ever known, and with a boyish energy which belied his own five decades of life. Effortlessly, he seemed to smile with each word, betraying an infectious enthusiasm. If for no other reason than this, Christine found herself avoiding his company less and less. She accepted his offers for walks along the balustrade, for dinning out, and for attending shows deep in the heart of the city. On one particular evening, she invited him home.
His compliments surprised her, for Christine considered herself plain. His touch surpassed the mere confusion his words had caused, for Christine had spent a lifetime building walls, walls that reached to heights no mortal heart could scale. Yet, suddenly, they no longer seemed secure.
“What are you doing to me?” she asked the gentle man who held her close and stopped her words with a kiss. By this simple action, Willis pounded on her walls, threatening to beat down the defenses of the little space she called her own, to crash through massive fortifications of which he was unaware.
“It’s all right,” Willis said, coming closer, unconscious of how threatening he had become. “I won’t hurt you.”
Another kiss, and the terrible sense of falling made her swoon.
When she awoke, the tears which came beat like a storm upon her breast for hours. In all that time, Tig Willis stayed, cradling her in his arms.
“I can’t do that again,” Christine said softly. And though nothing had been done, and there was no chance for understanding, Willis stroked her hair and said “I understand,” though he did not. “I won’t hurt you anymore.”
Christine could neither explain nor understand her emotions. It might have given solace had she been able to pin her reaction on a trauma of youth or know for certain that she was too old for love, but there was nothing sensible. She seemed to have defined herself beyond any undefining, as though the years themselves had helped her place the bricks, laying up walls through which even the gentlest companion could not reach.
She cried for days.
No answer came. Christine’s voice filled her ears, but it was her voice alone. Yet something more, some slight hint of communication came to Christine. She listened. They were not words, but soon they held the clarity of human speech.
“HE IS HERE,” they told her. “HE IS WITH US.”
Since entering the alien, Christine had experienced two sensations. One was of the creature suspended above her in its metal womb. The other remained nebulous, eerie. In the darkness behind her eyes, in the periphery of her most tenuous senses, gray and tattered ghosts walked the corridors, milled in great numbers beneath each cavernous archway. The two seemed unrelated, and yet she became certain that one or both were trying to talk to her.
A trace of memories came to Christine. They were not her own. Whatever communication the alien employed, it bubbled into her thoughts. She began to remember things she had not experienced. A host of images, glimpses of places and events she could not possibly remember, came to rest in the presence of her mind.
Christine watched a prespace channel as it withered and vanished. A blue-green world rushed up to meet the shadow of an ancient vessel. It was this vessel and this pilot, the whole of the massive ship having left its faster-than-light realm to investigate a planet in normal space, and Christine watched it as if watching a show.
Testing. As Christine went searching for new channels among the stars, so did this alien use its ship to probe for purposes of its own, but of prespace tunnels it knew no more than was necessary. Its interests lay elsewhere.
As she watched, experiencing the show, the memory being given to her, part of the great ship broke away. Down into atmosphere, it moved without haste. The only turbulence was that of a storm against an immovable object, of wind caught in the angles of a black mountain descending from the stars. The landing craft came to rest in the most promising place its sensors had revealed: a river valley.
The signal went out. From the same machines that probed, the siren pulses began. The pilot needed only to watch, needed only to decide.
They came alone or in groups, at least one whole community of the creatures flowing out of the plains to the east. But no matter the direction of their approach, the individuals and the crowds, all headed for the alien. There was no hesitancy, not a single back to turn nervously away.
The alien had seen this same gathering more than a thousand, perhaps ten thousand times before. Always the creatures looked different. While the denizens of one world were tall and many-limbed, the citizenry of another would know only the sea. It mattered little. Only the form of the minds mattered. Mind, thought, will: they were resource. They were to be collected.
“What are you doing?” Christine asked. The opportunity for fear seemed far behind her now and the words came with the ease of a child’s curiosity.
In the vision, in the memory continuing within her, she watched as gates at each end of the ship opened. Quietly, eagerly, in their thousands, the creatures approaching the alien vessel began to board.
GODHEAD, came the response.
Certain she did not hear the answer correctly, Christine repeated herself. The same feeling came, the same single word came in answer, meant at once to justify and explain the long, pilgrim lines flowing into the ship. In they came, walking the corridors, milling in great numbers beneath each cavernous archway, building and building in their numbers…
Then she began to understand, with that feeling common to those who should have understood what was obvious from the beginning. Here was a Gatherer of Souls, a harvester of intellects. In some strange and alien resolve, it roamed the stars in its great ship, searching out the materials it needed for a project of universal proportions. Collecting, sifting, merging: it was gathering together the threads of the many minds to make the One.
The Gatherer was building a Divinity.
By whatever ambition the quest had sprung, and from whatever world and in whatever mind it had begun, the quest bore with it now the authority of time. The Gatherer grew old with the years of worlds, and its ship had seen the stars formed in its youth flare and fail in the times of its latest passing. More stars aborning would die before it was done.
“Journal, are you still there?”
“I’m here, Christine.”
“Wake the ship. Lift off. Come get me, now!”
No terror could have entered Christine like the terror that entered her then. The voice of the alien began its siren call at the back of her mind. Her will shuddered beneath the assault. She knew at once and with great certainty her need to be absorbed, yet nothing in Christine’s character could allow the abandonment of her self, of her soul. She had to glance at her feet to be certain she was running, running back to Jericho.
Spirits milled about before her. She felt them brush by in passing. They belonged and were happy, coming ever closer to one another in their jostling, ever merging from the billions to the one. They had heard the call and come without question. Even more, she could feel their inviting hands as they reached out to grasp at her shoulders, as they tried insistently to slow her down. Yet it was for the Gatherer alone to offer such opportunities, to cull from the many the acceptable few.
The voice came again with overriding authority. It was the Gatherer, and its judgment had been made. YOUR KIND IS NOT SUITABLE.
Christine continued to run. The many souls wanted her. The Gatherer did not, its decision was made. The day at the end of the world had suddenly come to bear down upon her with a gloom more mountainous than any she had ever known.
“What about Willis?” Christine asked. “You took him. You killed him!”
DORMANT. HE CAME UNCALLED. THE OTHERS…
Breathing heavily, Christine came to a stop. She watched for a light from her ship, for any sign of its approach. She could see nothing.
HE IS NOT SUITABLE.
Suddenly she saw Jericho loom out of the darkness ahead. It hovered, squandering great quantities of fuel in a slow and measured approach. Then Christine heard the Journal’s voice in her helmet.
“I see you,” the child’s voice assured her.
Christine tried to close the last dozen meters but had difficulty coordinating her movements. Something was holding her back. The Gatherer that did not want her for its collection yet seemed reluctant to let her flee.
YOU MUST HAVE HIM BACK.
Closer now, Christine’s ship came to within a few meters. Its lights and jets bathed the deck in an incongruous brilliance, endowing the dark expanse with a feeling of vastness greater than Christine’s imagination had supplied. As Christine turned, she caught sight of Willis’s ship. It sparkled like a jewel in black velvet.
Then she heard the gunfire. No. It was the burst of a tow line. Her ship was firing a tow line.
“Got you!” shouted the Journal.
The line caught Christine at mid-waist, a prehensile whip that snapped her around and knocked what little wind remained from her lungs. The pressure increased. In pulling back toward Jericho, the line lifted her neatly from the deck.
YOU MUST HAVE HIM BACK. THERE IS ROOM ENOUGH. IN YOU.
Christine fought to grab the line. She struggled, hoping to relieve a bit of the pressure if she could gain control. With her first breath, she drew in something more than air. It was Willis. She could smell his thoughts. She inhaled more of him with each new breath.
The closeness of him made her panic. No kiss could have pounded against her walls with such thunderous severity. She was losing control.
“Christine! Christine!” Willis said, recognizing her, his voice rising above all else. It filled her thoughts as the shouts of a drowning man might fill the ears of his rescuer. “Get out of here!”
In reflex, Christine flailed out, as if by swinging her arms madly about she could keep the approach of Willis’s consciousness at bay.
“Tell them, Christine!” Willis said. His words grew clear, less frantic. “This thing steal minds!”
“I know. I can see them,” Christine answered. “Stop. Get away.” Her heart beat like a triphammer, making it impossible to think.
“This ship makes its own channels,” Willis said, trying to make his observations clear, yet unaware of how quickly his thoughts were becoming one with Christine’s, of how he was being placed into the circle of her inner self. “This ship… does whatever it wants.”
Some part of Christine knew she hung from beneath Jericho, a steel tow line wrapped about her middle while the Journal drew her quickly toward the ship. Another part looked out through Willis’s eyes and down through the many terrors he had endured since encountering the Gatherer. He had been absorbed, harvested like wheat, with his body no more useful now than a winnowed husk and just as dead.
Upon his entrance to the ship, the many gathered souls had flowed like water, all around, the heat of Willis’s thoughts attracting them. They sought to share their tide of ecstasy. This they would bring to Willis’s being, and from him take all purpose save their own.
“They want to be… it wants them to be…” The thoughts were confused, but Willis managed to finish them with conviction. “It will gather every mind it can, every bit of mental energy that suits it, and…”
Christine found herself finishing, Willis’s thoughts rushing out through her frightened voice, “make a God of prespace. Able to will stars into being, create worlds… to control all life.”
TO BE ALL LIFE.
But not a life congenial to the reality of man. No matter the eagerness of the ship’s multitude, the Gatherer had pronounced Willis unfit for the vast pageant, and it found Christine equally as flawed… yet the great creature, like its soulful minions, had no desire to destroy.
The intruders of Christine and Willis simply represented a species unsuited to join with the Many as the One.
What the Gatherer could not utilize, it nevertheless tried to save, to gentle beyond the reach of unthinking harm. It tried to correct its mistake.
It worked now to join Christine and Willis, to save the life of the one inside the other. Its skills in this endeavor towered above all else. Insistent, gentle, overwhelming, the Gatherer had known no failure since before Earth’s molten dawn.
If not for the impossible heights to which Christine had built her walls, it might have succeeded.
With each breath Christine found Willis breathing too. Second by passing second the man became more aware of his surroundings. Willis began to feel Christine’s limbs as his own, to recognize the one chance being given. He wept and yet reached out toward his only chance to survive, scrambling to draw himself inside her, mounting into her with all the determination that the Gatherer used to join them from outside.
HE CANNOT BE OF THE MANY.
Hand over hand, Christine pulled herself toward the cockpit. Her fingers went numb and it seemed impossible to proceed. Sight, sense, and thought, all that was once Christine’s alone was becoming Willis’s as well.
“Come on,” the Journal urged, pulling her in on the tow rope. A panel opened beneath Jericho‘s nose and the suddenly she was inside. There was a child’s gleeful laugh as the line released itself from about Christine and the deck spun beneath her feet. The Journal turned the ship around in preparation for a flat-out retreat.
Pounding. Pounding. Nothing in the terror of the moment could numb Christine to the assault taking place upon the walls of her citadel. Once again it was Willis. Once again, the most stubborn, intractable part of her reared up to defend its walls.
She shrieked and went to her knees. The closer he came to the quiet center of all that was her, the more she felt it: a terror likened to death. No one could be where he found himself. She could not permit it, knew of no way to permit it.
“I won’t hurt you,” Willis said, holding to the outer walls of her being as must a climber to a sheer and pitiless drop.
Christine did not want him to die, but the embrace which must save him was beyond her ability to accept.
Christine screamed, and the pounding grew. She could do no more than listen to it, listen to the urgent threat as it pounded against her walls and to Willis’s plea for entrance. And above it all towered the voice and the will of the Gatherer, insisting she allow the mind of the disembodied man to come within her own.
Then the blackness came, and silence.
When Christine awoke, it was to find Jericho plummeting through a bottleneck in prespace so close the identification numbers on the engine pods had been burned away. Sparks flew, and auroras tumbled before the open panels on the nose. Somehow, she had found her way to the pilot’s seat, or had been helped there by the Journal. The few warning lights glowing in the air about her meant nothing. Their seriousness paled before her overwhelming need for sleep.
“I have you,” the Journal assured her. “We’re going home.”
Once again there was blackness.
In the dreams to follow, a sea of galaxies rose up in great waves, some vast will working in the depths, dark beneath the starry foam. Christine was there. Her walls, those bastions which had held back so much, now lay jumbled at her feet. Hugging close to the comfort of all that had enclosed her, she inched tentatively away from the ruins, looking out in terror toward the endless reaches of the sea. Had she, she wondered, at that last moment built up walls high enough to keep out the will of God?
Suddenly she felt very alone.
“Willis?” Christine asked the darkness. “Willis? Are you there?”