White pumice crumbled under Mark’s steel-toed boots. He knelt to run his fingers over its rough texture.
“Every planet you got to do the same thing?” Regina pulled the light-strip off her cigarette and breathed deep. “You know we can do the whole thing from orbit. You never have to see the unspoiled paradise, or whatever the hell it is that you think coming here does.”
Mark glanced back at her. “If I’m going to smudge the fingerprints of God, I want to be able to say I touched them.”
“You’re wasting company time. There’s a reason they sent me out here to audit you.” The smoke curled from her lips as she looked around at the bleak horizon. “Look, there’s no life here. We’re not breaking anything. We’re just setting it up for human colonization. Get the hell back to the transport and let’s get started.”
Mark shook his head. “One night. I’ll spend one night here, like I do on every job. If you want to fire me over one night, do it now. Otherwise, you can go back to your sterile quarters up on Farholme and leave me in peace.”
Regina opened her mouth, but Mark shot out a finger. “One night.”
Finally she shrugged, dropped the burning stub from her fingers, and retreated to the transport. “I’ll be back for you at local dawn.”
Mark waved without looking. His gaze swept the endless white ridges of stone. Valleys plunged farther than the weak sunlight would ever reach. Peaks broke through thin clouds in the pale sky.
Tomorrow the Flattening would begin.
Tomorrow Mark would carry out his job of raising up the low places and lowering the heights so that humans could come and settle with a minimum of difficulty. He would sculpt the new landscape, preparing depressions for rivers and lakes. He would crush the stones so they would form soil, and experts on his boat would enrich it until it could sustain vegetation. Soon it would be busy with change and development. But tonight, tonight Mark watched what no other human would ever know: What it was like before anyone came.
He strolled to a nearby cliff and sat, his legs dangling over the precipice. Mark whistled an old tune his mother taught him long ago. Finally his voice took over.
“Earth and all stars! Loud rushing planets!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
Oh, victory! Loud shouting army!
Sing to the Lord a new song!
He has done marvelous things.
I, too, will praise him with a new song!”
An unfamiliar voice broke into Mark’s hymn. “You sing an old song.”
Mark whirled and beheld a man with a trim white beard, sandals, and a flowing robe the color of the stones. He leaned on a long staff.
Mark stood, glancing around.
“Oh, no, I’m alone. I’ve been here for a long time.” The stranger smiled at Mark. “And soon I will be alone again. You won’t be here long, I’m guessing. Your boat up there will sail you to another sphere, though others will come in due time.”
Mark ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Um. You startled me. Are you stranded here? We could give you a ride. It would be a while, but we could get you back to civilization. How’d you get here?”
“Ah.” The stranger nodded, grinning all the while. “This is my home, son of man. And this is where I will stay until the Songwriter completes my movement and allows me to applaud his work in eternal standing ovation.”
“Right.” Mark nodded. The guy had been here so long he’d gone nuts. He reached up to tap the subdermal transmitter behind his ear. He’d probably need medical help. Too bad there weren’t any therapists on Farholme.
“Aren’t you going to ask what I do here, all alone?”
Mark blinked. “Try to find things to eat?”
The stranger waved. “No. I don’t need food. I am the shepherd of the hills. I watch over the flock gathered on this sphere and guide it so that it is safe and prepared.” He gestured toward Mark’s upraised hand. “You needn’t worry about calling for help. I won’t be here in the morning, and if you try to take me away, well, that wouldn’t be good for the sphere. Hills running rampant, without a shepherd? Never safe. Maybe it wouldn’t affect anyone in your limited span, but imagine the damage over the generations. No, I will stay here until the Songwriter completes my movement.”
“Listen, mister, tomorrow we’re going to start flattening this part of the planet. If you’re anywhere near here, you’re dead.”
“Yes, yes. If I were a son of man. But I was made for something different. Something less than your glory, and yet more powerful than you would imagine.” The stranger stooped and grunted to sit on the ground cross-legged. “You should know, this world isn’t free from sin. It hasn’t been for a long, long time.”
Mark cocked his head.
“You were looking around as if this were, oh, unspoiled paradise? No, what happened on your sphere shattered perfection not only there, but throughout all the spheres. Even now, the echoes of that sad day reverberate throughout the expanse between spheres. This place was no more perfect yesterday than it is today or tomorrow. You won’t ruin it. It was ruined before. It was not pristine.”
Mark glanced around at the emptiness around him and shrugged. He sat next to the stranger. “What should I call you?”
“I would be honored to be called by my title. Shepherd.”
“All right. Shepherd. You’re saying that this place is already marred by sin, so I don’t have to get all sad over it?”
“Do you weep over a lamb chop?”
Mark raised an eyebrow. “Not normally. I celebrate if I can get real meat.”
“Then why cry that this sphere will finally be used for its purpose? I am a shepherd, Mark. Oh, yes, I know your name. I have spoken with other shepherds who have seen you work. You are not unknown to us.” He placed a hand on his chest. “A shepherd cares for his charge, protecting and feeding it, making sure that the flock goes where it is best. But the flock is not a purpose to itself. It is meant to be used; the wool is used by man to clothe himself. The meat is used to feed man. The blood, once, was used to point to man’s need for something to come between him and the Songwriter.
“Mark, I care for the hills. It is not a shame that they will finally be used for what they were created for.”
“Right. Look, Shepherd, I don’t feel guilty over my job. I get places ready for people. People that need homes. I’m helping make them a home.”
“Yes. But I can see your face. You think it would be better if you could leave the hills untouched. You wish that people would leave them alone.”
“Of course.” The Shepherd nodded. “Not every man is made to live among the sheep, though nearly every man profits from what the shepherd does. And that is the way of the spheres.” The Shepherd reached out and placed a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Be at peace. Fulfill your role. Even after you take what you will from my flock to serve your people, I will still be here. More hills will rise, and I will care for them so that the sons of man may prosper on this sphere.”
Mark shook his head. “You’re nuts, you know that?”
“No. I am merely part of the mercy shown your race. All the spheres strung out like notes in a song to the glory of the Songwriter and for your comfort. Just one more small movement in the orchestra of mercy. I am merely one more mercy.”
Mark stood and strode away from the seated stranger. He finally depressed the alert calling for assistance. A tone from the subdermal implant transmitted into his ear from the boat, “Captain? Everything all right?”
Mark muttered, “Fine, fine, Darcy. Listen, I know this is crazy, but can you scan the planet’s surface around me? Is there anything else living on this rock?”
Mark waited through a pause and used it to look back at the Shepherd. He’d stood and was pointing at distant peaks, making simple motions, as if guiding them along. The mountains did not move according to his whims in any way Mark could see.
Darcy’s voice returned. “I’m coming up negative on initial scans, just like all the probes said. You want something deeper? You find some sign of something? We can delay Flattening if you’ve got evidence of life. You know how persnickety the bigwigs back home get about crap like that.”
“No. I think I’m just seeing things I want to see. You’d be able to tell on an initial scan if I was right. Thanks for humoring me.”
“Captain? Do you want me to send down the transport for you early?”
“No, Darcy. Thanks, though. I’ll spend the night.”
The Shepherd turned to grin at Mark as he signed off. “So, you’ve determined your sensors can’t find me. Now you think you’re hallucinating, in which case you should really get back to your boat up there. But you stayed.”
Mark shrugged. “As far as hallucinations go, you’re pretty tame. We released a vent of hallucinogenic gas a few planets ago. I thought I was a crib made out of antlers that needed to eat lighting tubes to survive. It wasn’t pretty.” He chuckled. “No, I think I can handle you. For one night.”
“Mark, you don’t need to spend a night down here. You don’t have to feel guilty about what you do. Even if it was wrong, which it isn’t, you would be cleansed. You know your guilt has been carried away, as far as the east is from the west. You are not ‘smudging the fingerprints of God.’ You are using what the Songwriter has provided you as a habitation. You are using my flock for their purpose. And I give them to you, freely.”
Mark shook his head. “It’ll take me more than one night of hallucinating to convince me of that.”
The Shepherd nodded. “I would expect that. Change takes time. Do you know how many of your lifetimes it takes me to tame a wild hill that will not go where I guide it? With your own eyes you would not be able to see its stubbornness, though you might perceive it when I must break its leg so it will no longer run away from me. This merely plants a seed. This is merely a proclamation to you.”
They sat together in silence as the distant sun descended toward the rocky horizon. The white hills turned gold in the brilliant light.
Mark asked, “So, it doesn’t matter what we do to the place?”
“Oh, not true. There is a line between use and abuse. You could abuse my flock. You could come in like a wolf and tear everything apart for your own short-lived lusts. Some of my brother Shepherds have wept to see the abuse their flocks have suffered. But we’ve seen what you do. You prepare the flocks so they can be used as they were designed to be. Certainly use this sphere for the good of the sons of men. “
“We? There are Shepherds on other worlds?”
“The Songwriter placed one of us on each sphere, to tame the hills and ready them for your coming. We have waited long for you to reach us.”
“But you still know a song from Home.”
“Just as the first act of wickedness still reverberates, when the Songwriter brings forth praise from your lips, every sphere rejoices. How could we not know your music? I sing to the hills so that they know my voice. They rejoice with words that your race has written and with words you would never comprehend.”
“Yes.” The Shepherd grinned. “My flock does not always approve of my voice, but I do sing.”
“I think I would like to sing with you.”
“Then, let us sing tonight, Mark. Tomorrow you will go and praise the Songwriter by preparing this place for your people. Tonight, let us praise the Songwriter together.”
And the hills echoed their voices long into the night.
Lyrics of the hymn by Herbert F. Brokering.