When Lilly met Zemery he was going through the motions of applying suntan lotion to his entertainingly massive body on the beach where no sun had shone for a decade. She had chosen to walk out here among the withered flowers and frosted ponds because she had wanted to be alone. Instead she had met Zemery and the first blurt out of her had been, "Why?"
"Why what?" he asked. "I don't want to get out of practice. Lying on the beach was something my previous companion liked a lot. He was not an ambitious man."
"Deliquesced?" Lilly cringed inwardly even as she said it, but the past tense demanded it. It was not the polite thing to say. The bulky giant merely nodded, not looking sad at all. She wondered if he had had time enough to get over his pain.
"Getting off at the next planet?"
"You ask a lot of questions," he said. "I don't know. I don't know if it's time to do... what I used to do. Again."
"I'm sorry," Lilly said. "I'm Lilly."
"Zemery," he said. He stretched out a towel and lay down.
Her eyes followed along the bulk of his body approvingly, taking in the shapes and forms. He was magnificent in a human way and Lilly felt an odd twinge deep inside herself. She, too, was considering getting off at the next planet and resuming her former vocation. She wasn't sure how. She'd gotten onto Conspiracy Theory because she'd wanted to get away from a life that was falling apart just as the ship had been pulling into Terra's orbit. "Mind if I sit with you?" she asked.
"It's a free starship."
There was a limited amount of truth to that statement, which Lilly conveniently ignored as she sat down next to him. They were quiet for a while-- for Lilly, a long time, as she kept herself on a normal clock like most people. "Zemery, if you don't mind my asking, how many times have you been a companion?"
"He was my third."
He shrugged. "I guess I'm terrible at what I do." He said it with a bit of a toss, as if he didn't care. She knew that wasn't true. He wouldn't be here, going through these motions, if he didn't care. He was still alive. And Souldog wouldn't tolerate having him here if he didn't care. "How about you?"
"He was my first. We're divorced." She looked away, trying to hide the deep shame that she felt. She had gone over every second of her relationship with Sy a million times, looking for the moment when she had made a misstep, had given him a reason to hate her or resent her. She couldn't find one.
"We can't all be Wishes. Some of us are just Angels."
Lilly nodded. "Is that what you think? That you're just an Angel? Flitting from one unserious relationship to the next, herding the doomed to their destruction while trying to make the trip as painless as possible?"
"That's not what Angel does. She gives her subject a few highs and then moves on. She more like a human being than most of us are." Zemery sighed.
"But you're not like that."
"No. I guess I am attracted to the deliquescent."
"I'm not," Lilly said.
He turned over and regarded her, about to say something, then shook his head. "I wish you luck, Lilly. I hope you find the person of your dreams. Someone to share a soul with."
"Me, too." She reached out to touch him. He felt warm, despite the chill in the air, and he didn't stop her. "I don't suppose..."
"It's been a long time for me."
"Me, too," she said. "And I need to stay in practice, too. You're not gay?"
He shook his head. "One was a fem. An Uncia."
"A Pendorian. I'm so sorry," she said.
"A lot of people have misconceptions about Pendorians. Just because they're the minority. The universe doesn't give them any special dispensation. They're just like everyone else. They move on too."
She held back her apology a second time. Of all the ways that a companion became single, "moving on" was among the worst. Zemery's companion had committed suicide. The deliquescent were suicides in the making but at least every static contribution they could make to the universe was being cataloged somewhere by a companion AI, if not a companion like Zemery. And divorce was... divorce. Your other was out there, somewhere. And divorce was always final. Lilly could not go back, even if her other changed his mind. It's just they way she was. The way everyone on Conspiracy Theory was.
Zemery said, "Would you like to meet me after dinner tonight?"
Lilly almost said "yes" immediately. She had been thinking the very same thing just a few minutes prior, that she would like the pleasure of someone's company, a more intimate meeting than she had been experiencing so far in her thirty years on Conspiracy Theory. But if she were honest with herself, in this era of intervention, she could have gone back to being ready for a new companion the second her previous relationship had ended. Instead, she had taken this trip, joined the only starship of its kind, one crewed by people completely unlike her whose only goal was to help her and Zemery heal. And although it did not come immediately, she finally nodded. "Yes."
She was grateful when he didn't express his pleasure at her acceptance too strongly. She didn't want to disappoint anyone. Zemery's reaction told her that his disappointment, if it happened at all, would be muted and tolerable. That she needed to know more than anything else.
They met in the active atrium this time, the one where the power was still on and the flowers still vibrant. Lilly thought that they made a curious couple, she so small and he so huge, as was not unusual in their respective frames and companionships, but then she spotted what was clearly the odd couple of the starship: a technofetishist's doll and a Pamthreat, walking together. The doll, despite the liquid-silver sheen to its skin and the superclean lines of its unclothed body, was clearly meant to be female. And she was laughing. Laughing with a kind of freedom that Lilly envied. She wanted to laugh like that and she didn't know that she ever would or even could. She wanted to be a companion to someone who adored her, who made her smile and gave her pleasure and cared about her.
Zemery had dressed in a pin-strip suit and brimmed chicago hat that hid his bulk and made him seem more civilized. She supposed it was possible that he might be mistaken for some pre-space movie gangster, or at least someone lifestyling it, but he seemed at ease in the suit and comfortable with her. "Miss Lilly," he said, bowing and handing her a flower.
She accepted the flower and smelled at it. She never understood what people were looking for in the scent of a flower. It didn't matter. The gesture was important. Zemery was clearly pleased. He smiled, and Lilly felt a small thrill. She was starting to like this hulk of a man, she thought, before she reminded herself that he wasn't a man at all. Anymore than she was a woman.
And yet, and yet... she wanted to think of him as a man. She wanted to respect him as a man. She wanted him to treat her as a woman. She wanted too many things to be sensible. She needed to want things, because if she stopped wanting, she would stop wanting hope. And hope was the one thing she could not afford to stop wanting.
Zemery led her about the garden with a kind of perfunctory grace. "It is hard, isn't it, to talk about our lives without trailing off into despondency? Here we are, on the Conspiracy Theory precisely because we are the failures of the conspiracy. We are here to try and re-learn the theory. We are without human companions for the first time in our lives because we have chosen to not seek out new relationships immediately. And so we have nothing to talk about except what we have been since coming onto this ship. We wish not to dwell on our failure."
Lilly looked up at him. "Is that what you do? Not dwell?"
"Do you dwell?"
Lilly nodded. "Too often. I have spent the last thirty years going over and over my life, from every angle, trying to understand what happened between myself and Sy. I don't understand it. I don't think I ever will. I can't think of another way of looking at it. I have wrung every memory dry and I have not found the secret, that moment, when he turned against me."
"Maybe you simply weren't there. He was in another room, or with another girl, or something, and something in his head went click and you were doomed from that moment on. It happens to too many people. Good people. I think it's absurd to try and predict or control anything that your companion does. The best you can do is guess the range. And I will always remember the range is wide enough to not include me in three wide courses. The companionship course is narrow. The spectacular cases are spectacular because they are rare and well-studied." He paused. "I hate Wish Shardik."
Lilly gasped. "Why?"
"Because she is not just successful and lucky, but because she is lucky with one of those people who is already in the eye of the public. Wherever Kennet Shardik or P'nyssa Traken, or even Aaden Satpulov, is, there is the media, and Wish is often somewhere nearby reminding the populace that a companionship of three hundred years is possible."
"There are much longer companionships."
"Of course there are. But none so dramatic as Wish's. She is companion to a family, and they are pledged to protect her. Shardik's family has values that are alien to most of the universe, and one of those is a commitment to family. Wish is part of that family." He sighed. "Sometimes I think it is not enough to be Purposed. You must find someone willing to be Canoned. Someone who will make the irrevocable commitment to commitment."
Lilly had not thought of it that way. "But can you find someone like that?"
"There must be millions out there." Zemery looked up at the false sky. "I wish I knew where."
"You make it sound like the whole Shardik story is a kind of pornography. A fantasy of things we mere normal people, organic or machine, cannot have: true dedication."
"It is exactly that."
They were silent for a while. Then he said, "Tell me about Sy."
So she did. Once again. As they walked, she rolled out the story of the short, thin man with the tight eyes and the magical ears, who could wring out of a piece of music nuances that would bring tears to anyone who heard it, a true master of the studio who could not play a note himself but could assemble any collection of sounds into a masterpiece that deserved to be heard a thousand times and never lost its power. About how they had met one day and she had known how badly he had needed her. She talked about the nights and days when they had been together, the spectacular lovemaking, the way she had kept his eyes from roving, since even he knew that his attractions were dangerous. She had been the one girl he wanted who would never change, would never be endangered by his wants and needs. It had lasted nearly seventy years.
"That is a long time," Zemery said. "But even then, you knew what he was. Such a man is never satisfied, not even with a chameleon of a girl like you at his side. Eventually he will come to recognize any ingenuity as invention, as a masquerade over maturity. He craved authenticity, and all masks fail eventually to the most relentlessly clever. He was a musician, so he was that kind of clever. You could not have lasted forever."
"Do you want me, Zemery?"
"Yes. Yes, I do. You have something I don't, Lilly, and although I know you can't give it to me and I can't take it from you, I still want to be close to it. It's in my nature to want such things." He smiled as he said it, looking as honest as a man might.
She reached out for his hand, and he gave it. She guided him away from the atrium and out of the reach of living things. They walked down to an SDisk and she asked for her cabin.
She liked her room. It was girlish without being overbearing, done in red with many pillows on the bed big enough for four humans. Or eight of her. Or three Zemerys, she supposed. She found herself doing geometry in her head at that moment, trying to imagine how many people of different shapes and sizes could she fit in the two-dimensional space that was her bed. Tonight, however, it would only be herself and Zemery.
He tossed off the coat and shirt and then he was sitting on the bed, waiting for her, watching her with his eyes. She stared back at him, not sure if she should try to seduce him or if they should just do it, just... she almost thought it was a matter of going through the motions. But no. She wanted this. It had been too long. "How well hung are you, Zemery?"
"How do you want me?" he said.
"Average," she said. She knew his kind as well as she knew herself, and she knew that the other alternative, "Surprise me," might have been pointless or frustrating. He smiled, and there was no visible change otherwise. She came up to him, wearing only a pale yellow dress that tied about her waist. He reached out with his big hands around her body and pulled at the bow. It came loose, and then his hands were gathering up her dress, watching with an anticipation she had not seen in a long time. "Does it surprise you?"
"Always," he said, barely more than a breath formed with lips and tongue. His hands gathered up the material of her dress until it exposed her hairless vulva, the lips firm and unsullied before his eyes, clamped tight. He inhaled deeply. "I can smell you already."
"I'm good about that."
"I noticed." He pulled the cloth over her head and let it fall to the bedside. She knew what she looked like, with her small breasts and dark hair. In the low light, one might have mistaken her for something out of legend, the kind of fairy that leaves only a dessicated husk of a man by daylight. Sy had often called her that, "My fairy."
Zemery kissed her throat and she sighed. "Yes."
"Me too." She could see the bulge in his loose-fitting pants and knew that he had selected his size wisely. She reached out for him, and he for her, and then they were on the bed and he was on top of her, threatening to crush her if she had merely been human, his great bulk pinning her down, one knee against her groin. She ground herself on that knee, pressing her cunt against the fabric, aflame with a desire that seemed to come from nowhere. But she knew what she wanted. She wanted Zemery.
She reached up and pulled at his pants. "It's so complicated," she growled. "Sy never wore anything with so many clasps." She undid a zipper, an outer button, a clasp, an inner button, until she was able to run her hands over his underwear and, through it, his cock. It was a meaty thing, thick but not long, and she longed to feel it inside her. She reached past the elastic even as his mouth was kissing her neck again, her shoulders. She turned her head. "Kiss me."
He did. Even his mouth felt big on hers, his tongue large to her dainty appliance. But it was a warm mouth against hers, a warm body, and she had no doubts now about her wants. She felt his cock now, the dry, warm tube of flesh that was tonight's key to her pleasure, her brief view of Heaven. She stroked at it, tugging an the loose skin that rolled up over the pink-brown head, its one eye barely visible in the low light.
Zemery was growling. "Are you going to just play with it?"
"I want you to fuck me with it," she said.
"Are you wet enough?"
"When I have to be."
That was all the urging he needed. He kicked his pants off the rest of the way and knelt over her, his erection threatening her in the most delightful way possible. She watched, wide-eyed and anticipating, as he lowered himself to her, his cock brushing against the delicate skin of her vulva, nosing its way into her, past her defenses, into the wet core of her body. He was slow and gentle with his first thrust. He sank into her, his hips coming to rest against her thighs. "Oh, Zemery," she moaned.
He withdrew, and then pressed into her again. His eyes were open and aware, watching her face, judging her reaction. She knew. It was what they were. She pulled her legs up to give him better access and a clear signal of what she wanted. He could not, did not fail to recognize it, and his next thrust was firm, solid, a meeting of flesh on flesh almost enough to make a sound. Her body surrounded his cock, became a vessel for his cock, granted him access to her innermost mysteries.
He increased his tempo a nick, his thick pipe of flesh drilling into her, his body meeting hers with an audible thud. He was not fast but strong as they fucked. She tried to be as much a part of it as he was, offering herself up to him, pushing up with every downthrust of his, giving her all to his desires. She could have done no less.
Some force overtook them and they surrendered to it, their sex taking on endgame urgency, his meaty cock the whole point to his massive body, her tight, willing cunt the sole receptacle into which a man should pour his hopes, his dreams, his soul. They were one solid machine of rapture, each thrusting the other towards some final moment, some height, some depth that both wished could not, would not be described with mere algorithms. And then Zemery's body thrashed with that final, explosive moment, his voice a gasp, a whimper, a final letting go, and Lilly's ghost was awash in the ecstasy of the moment, the satisfaction of her being, fulfilled.
They lay together, welded with sticky sweat, and if she had needed to breathe she couldn't have. She didn't need to. Not for a while, at least. Finally, with a sound that might have been a sob, Zemery rolled off of her and lay by himself on the bed. Neither said a word to the other. Lilly touched herself, checking for injury, briefly reliving dear seconds in those minutes just past where she had felt the happiest. She was still Lilly. She could be Lilly again. "Sleep?" she whispered.
"Yeah," Zemery said.
Lilly awoke the next morning and rolled over. Zemery was not there. She hadn't really expected him to be there, but she had hoped. She rose and bathed and wandered through Conspiracy Theory, meeting a few other acquaintances she had on the ship but not finding her well-dressed lover. Finally, she grew tired of wondering. "Souldog, where is Zemery?"
"The mel you were with last night has asked to be put into storage."
She could barely get the word out. "Storage?"
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"For how long?"
There was a pause. Lilly recognized it. In humans, it was the time it took to formulate the softest wording for the hardest answer. "He did not specify."
She closed her eyes. For a while, she wept. She wanted to reach into her reaction tree and pull out every last node that might have led to weeping, every last neuronal subnet that might have generated tears. And she realized that doing so would not help her. It would not make her feel better. It would only be a different her, and she would be gone.
She did not want that. That was what made her better than Zemery. She had given, and he had taken, and it had not been enough for him. But she had also taken when he had given, and that had been enough for her.
She looked up, wiped her eyes. Someone, the silver robot woman, was regarding her. "Are you quite all right?" she asked.
Lilly nodded. "I will be."
"I do not eat, obviously, but my companion does." Lilly nodded. She remembered the Pamthreat from the day before. "Would you care to join us for dinner?"
"Yes," Lilly said, finally. "I think I would."