The primary question of heaven was different for everyone. For some it was ‘how do I deal with other people?’ and for others it was ‘what is my purpose?’, but for Bethel, it was ‘who do I want to be?’
The question was a fairly common one, and it was something that everyone in the heavens grappled with from time to time, in one way or another.
All of Bethel’s powers were meaningless in the heavens. Anyone could have them, if they wanted to ascend high enough. A number of powers had been stripped right out, since they weren’t available to anyone, or if not stripped, then rendered ineffective by requiring consent. There was no more going into someone’s dreams, no more looking at someone’s insides, no more tearing things apart. It was a relief, in a way, in another way, a sadness. One of the most annoying things that had been removed was the ability to accelerate time for others, which wasn’t possible in the heavens, since the Authority thought that it would result in a race to the bottom. There were exceptions, because the Authority was keen on evaluating everything on a case by case basis, but for the most part living two hours for the one hour everyone else was living was forbidden unless you were doing two things at once with a temp clone or memory-sharing arrangement or something more exotic.
The powers, then, were irrelevant. It was everything else that mattered, the pieces of her mind, the thoughts that she was inclined to think, and who or what she valued. All that was malleable. It was malleable for the mortal species as well now, at least in the middle heavens. But the relationship to the pieces of her mind was different for Bethel, for whom those pieces had specific histories and names, names like Loyal Recurve, or Soskanna, or the Diadem of Focused Intent … or the Eternal Golden Braid.
Some people found it easy to change who they were. They went to the middle heavens and simply declared, “I do not wish to be angry anymore,” and the Authority would ask them whether they were sure, and they would say “Yes,” and that would be that. People would strip out all kinds of things, ‘negative’ emotions like envy, greed, guilt, depression, and anxiety. The Narrator had cut out jealousy without even thinking about it too much, because his Fenns liked to sexually indulge themselves with Thespians from time to time. It was simple, for some, to say of themselves ‘no, this piece of me does not belong’. They felt no anxiety or discomfort about the change.
It was different for Bethel. She was more familiar with the idea of having things added to her and having them removed, and had done much of that even before the heavens. But to be able to decide, from infinite variations, what should be her, what should constitute the pieces of her mind, what might stay and what might leave … It was paralyzing. Her assistant had advice, of course, the assistants were perfectly capable of laying out your options for you, but they were incapable of pulling the trigger on their own, so to speak, not unless you told them to do as they pleased. That, of course, was its own kind of decision, the decision to not make a decision.
Bethel had demurred, and the assistant hadn’t pushed it, or continued the conversation in any way, which Bethel assumed was a vote of confidence in her ability to figure it out on her own, or a recognition that she wasn’t opening the floor to a debate. For the most part, Bethel didn’t like the assistants. She hadn’t let them into her mind, and rarely spoke with them. In a way, her relationship with Valencia had been one of being managed, and while she’d understood the necessity of that, she didn’t feel the need to allow someone to do that in the heavens.
“I understand self-determination as a continual problem,” Valencia had said, while her children ran around the house, playing a game of hide and seek with their teleporting dog.
Very early on, Valencia asked whether Bethel still wanted to be their house, and after some thought on the matter, Bethel had declined. It was, quietly, the end of an era. For all the time they’d spent together, they had never quite been friends. Valencia had been too much of a therapist and too much of a tightrope walker. The only thing they really had in common was the past, and that got further away every day. Bethel’s only other connection from those times was to Amaryllis, who visited once a week like clockwork, in a way that made Bethel suspect that it was an obligation that Amaryllis had written into a calendar somewhere.
“Is there no solution?” asked Bethel.
“I don’t think so,” said Valencia. “We are always deciding who we are. Now is the time for the largest decisions, like what to keep and what to get rid of, but the question is never entirely going to go away, not if you keep experiencing new things. Unless you’re stuck in a rut, you’re always changing, and the question is always there. You’re always answering it.”
It hadn’t particularly been what Bethel had wanted from the conversation. She also wasn’t certain that Valencia’s framing was the correct one. That phrase, ‘a rut’, seemed to carry so much of a connotation that it could be safely ignored.
For a time, Bethel stood empty. She was not idle: she made changes to herself, though they were only physical in nature. It was a foolish thing to do, to create and furnish rooms that had no occupants, to plan the grounds around her without taking into consideration those who would use them. The combination of entads she had on Aerb had meant that she had already been able to change form almost at a whim, but in the heavens, the limits were completely stripped off.
She tried everything, and sometimes had Thespians there to test things out, moving through the rooms, sleeping on the beds, and offering their thoughts and opinions. It was an eye-opening experience, in part because there was such a vast difference between these people, who the assistant assured Bethel were representative of randomly selected people who would be amenable to living inside her.
When Bethel had been on Aerb, she’d designed based on things she’d seen or read about in books, without usually thinking about it on a deeper basis. She had invented things of her own, experimented with rooms of immense size once she was able, and it had all been … well, in hindsight, uninformed was the word she chose to use.
Much of that first year in the heavens was spent learning, sometimes with an assistant as her instructor, other times by looking through books or wandering through city streets, which were often created just for her. Everything was so interconnected, or had been. Houses had been constrained by available materials and labor, but beyond that, elements of the society which the people were embedded in, and those, in turn, were informed by different considerations, like their ancestral environments, their biology, their technology, and the cruft that built up in any society over time.
“Many houses incorporate aspects of holiness into them,” a Thespian instructor said. “To understand certain aspects of houses, you’ll also have to understand aspects of religions and other cultural customs. In Meribak they follow the Golden Ratio as dogma, building their houses so that each room has the proper ratio to the next. In Leggan, they have a small recessed shrine in the foyer. And in Terrest, a pentagram is positioned in a place of prominence above the dining room table. Houses are designed with these curiosities in mind, though it’s often a matter of extent, and the consideration of the costs involved.”
Bethel played with making herself authentic in certain ways, which required imagining a context in which she might have been built by mortal hands, and a whole geography around her, with quarries that the stone would have been taken from, and woods where the timbers would have been harvested, and cities where those raw materials would have been worked and refined, guilds where the workers would have trained with apprentices, or colleges where they would have taken instruction from professors. She imagined cultures and societies and individuals embedded within them.
And, of course, there was no need to do any of this. None of the Thespians had complained that she wasn’t authentic enough. Presumably the group of real people who might have recognized inauthentic constructions was small, and the subset who might have been bothered by it even smaller. Out in the heavens, beyond all material considerations, people were surely making houses with no regard for physical reality whatsoever, unless they were the poor souls who had stuck themselves in the lower heavens.
Eventually, Bethel sent a long, rambling letter to Juniper, expressing interest in his viewpoint. Not the original Juniper, of course, with whom the Incident had happened, nor the Narrator, who had dictated it, but the Juniper from the Other Side. She hadn’t known whether she should expect a response, but she got one, and a week later, he was standing in her foyer. She had fretted over what body to present to him, and eventually decided that she would take the form she had in Orrangush, when she’d been a sweets shop with a home upstairs. She liked a muscular form, one that eschewed femininity to some degree, and with this Juniper, there was no need to appear as any particular thing to let him know that she wouldn’t hurt him, that she wished she could change things, that — well, there was no need.
“The sentient house,” said Juniper, once he arrived. He took a moment to regard her. “I was surprised to get your letter.”
He was different in a large number of ways, with a steel behind his gaze, and a kind of cockiness that Bethel took an instant dislike to. There was a plethora of information on what this other Juniper had done on the Other Side, including a relatively detailed book written by one of his companions, but Bethel had read none of it. Those kinds of stories of adventuring heroes had never interested her. She wondered whether he was equally ignorant of her, and hoped that he was.
“You said that you needed my help,” said Juniper, raising an eyebrow. “With worldbuilding.”
“Yes,” said Bethel. “You construct worlds, don’t you?”
“Is that something you think is core to a Juniper?” he asked, voice mild. There was something chilly about him, though not entirely in a bad way.
“I do,” she said.
“It is,” he replied with a shrug. “But I won’t tell you anything that an assistant couldn’t, which means that I’m not really here for that. I’m here because you were thinking of him.”
“I was,” Bethel admitted. “But I would still like that conversation, if you’re available.”
The Other Juniper nodded. “I came because I thought it might be interesting. You said that the topic for discussion was houses.”
“I’m not sure that I care so much about houses,” said Bethel.
“No?” asked Juniper, arching an eyebrow.
“I care about the ways in which we reflect the world around us,” replied Bethel, choosing her words carefully. “If you gave someone a house, only a house, you would be able to determine so much about the world outside the house. It would understand the people. The house is a shadow cast by the existence of the people and their material considerations, their history, their religion, and all other things. But the people themselves are shadows cast by biological reality, by society, by culture, by the very same material considerations. If you took a person, just a person, you could discover his entire society, the entire geography, possibly from his body alone.”
“Or from speaking to him,” said Juniper. “And I don’t mean that to be facetious, I mean that language arises from biology and relevant concepts embed them into the language on the basis of material determination.” He stared at her with cold eyes. “All of it has changed now, but the people are still there, free from those tethers. They’re shadows, free from the light which created them, and still casting shadows of their own. The shadows they cast are more stark now, in some respects.”
Bethel cocked her head to the side. “Are they?”
“There is absolutely no need to worry about material, process, labor, or even the constraints of physical reality,” said Juniper. “There is no need to worry about biological reality. So when people choose their forms, and their homes for their forms, it reflects them all the more sharply. There are no longer accidents of circumstance, it’s all by intent, even if it’s just the assistants pulling in relevant pieces. If you wanted to talk about it in terms of shadows, the shadows are sharper, because there’s only one object in front of the light.”
Bethel watched him. “You’re much different from him.”
“I had it easier, in many ways, and harder, in others,” said the Other Side Juniper. “I was also at it for longer.” He looked around the house, around Bethel. “Do you mind taking me on a tour?”
“Oh, this?” asked Bethel, using her form to look at the room and the things within it, then the rest of the house beyond. “This is nothing, just a trifle. A possibility.” In reality, she had put as much thinking into what kind of house she should be as she put into what her body and clothes should be like. “I wasn’t thinking of critique, if that was your inclination.”
“No, only comment,” replied Juniper. “May I?”
“Of course,” replied Bethel. She looked around the foyer, which had gray slate tile flooring and a mat by the door. There was a bench, with shoes under it, and beside it, a row of hooks with coats on them, and a wooden chest that could be opened up for other things. “This is the foyer, obviously, a place to don or remove outdoor clothing, especially in the winter.”
“A floor designed to be easily cleaned,” said Juniper, looking down at the tile. He looked up at her. “You said in your letter that you found yourself inventing stories about the houses you were choosing to become. A foyer like this is more common in places with winter climates, or with messy conditions, because there’s more difficulty in braving the exterior or in keeping the interior clean. The ultimate extension of this would be an airlock.”
“I don’t know that I need you to explain foyers to me,” said Bethel.
“No?” asked Juniper. “I was hoping that we might generalize.” He held his hands behind his back. “You wanted to talk about homes and the context they sit in, and by extension, you wanted to talk about yourself, and the context you sit in. You wanted to discuss the ways that the context of the heavens can or should shape you. You’re trying to determine who or what you should be, what house can be made from the raw materials of the heavens and the people who live there, and what exterior you might make of your mind.”
This wasn’t quite what Bethel had written in her letter, but his distillation and interpretation of it seemed to fit, seemed to sing. Her recent obsession with the craft of building and the ways in which homes were embedded in societies came into focus. It was, of course, interesting in its own right, but this Juniper had identified the precise way in which it was personal. Bethel idly wondered whether the assistants might have been able to give her the same insight, and decided that they probably could have and simply didn’t, either because she hadn’t asked, because they thought it wouldn’t make her happy, or because it was an incorrect but compelling reason. Or perhaps they hadn’t said it because she felt frosty toward them, and wouldn’t have taken the insight in the same way. She had told them to shut up a few times.
“I didn’t have an Amaryllis,” said Juniper. “I think that accounts for the largest difference between the Earth Juniper and myself, even more than the two different worlds we came from. I had no one to serve as my crutch, no one to drive things forward.” He paused. “It seemed as though you were wondering.”
“Mmm,” said Bethel. She turned from him and walked through the archway into the living room, which was laid out with a sliding glass door to one side that led to the deck that jutted off the side of the house. It was a large room, with many places to sit, and a fireplace against one wall. “The living room,” she said, perhaps unnecessarily.
“You’ll need to find your purpose first, before you can decide what kind of home you are,” said Juniper.
“Are you not interested in the tour?” asked Bethel, raising an eyebrow.
“I am,” said Juniper.
He looked around, at the couch and chairs, then at the small desk, and finally to the doors and windows. Did he notice the orientation of the house, north-facing so that the largest windows could capture as much sunlight as possible? Did he notice the sealing around the sliding door to keep the draft out in the winter? The way the furniture was positioned around the fireplace? It was hard to say. Her senses had been dulled, at least when it came to other people. She was no longer capable of tracking the saccades of the eyes or their precise fixation points. She couldn’t hear his heart in his chest, or watch the movement of blood through his body. It had been quite some time since she had done anything like that, even on Aerb, but to have it so plainly ripped away was … well, a matter of what was implicitly consented to in the heavens. She could have asked him for that level of access, but it seemed likely he would refuse.
“The elemental functions of the house no longer matter,” said Juniper. “Warmth, cooling, storage, bathing, food, privacy, all gone if you want them to be.” He gestured at the doors, then at the fireplace, then at the roof. “If people want those needs, it’s because of nostalgia and unedited psychology. If they want those needs fulfilled in the specific ways of a house, it’s for those same reasons.”
“Do you say that in a dismissive way?” asked Bethel.
“No,” said Juniper. “It’s just something that I’ve been thinking about. I’m still largely human. I like the feeling of warming myself by a fire, or cooling myself in the shade, but I’ll readily admit that it’s a matter of patterns in my mind and a desire for simplicity and tradition. Some people rebel against the new reality and deny what they’re actually seeking, refusing to soothe their needs, or perhaps unaware of their needs. Alternatively, they make up excuses for things they simply feel, letting those feelings guide them into a familiar reality.”
“I don’t know my own needs,” said Bethel. “I think about having a family in me, as I’ve always wanted, and … I had that, with Valencia and Jorge.”
“She was the non-anima?” asked Juniper.
“Yes,” replied Bethel. “But even when I had that idyllic life, the one that I had always wanted …” she paused. “I felt like I should be doing something. I felt like I couldn’t relax. I was restless, which is not a comfortable thing for a house.”
“And that’s why you haven’t taken on a new family?” asked Juniper.
“I’m five hundred years old,” said Bethel. “I spent much of my life down in a pit, ruminating. Spending a year or two trying to work out who I am or who I want to be feels prudent. Besides, I have the Thespians and the assistants, and occasional visitors.” Two of them, in fact.
“You’re aware we don’t know each other?” asked Juniper. “When I leave here, it’s unlikely I’ll come back. If you haven’t been speaking to your assistants because of your relationship with the Authority, you can speak with me. Sometimes it’s better to say something out loud to a disinterested third party.” There was, again, a chilliness to him. The original Juniper was distant sometimes, but in a much less intentional way.
Bethel thought about this. “I hold no power in the heavens. I cannot act on others without consent, and all my most powerful abilities are freely replicated,” said Bethel. “I have no utility to anyone. Those who want a magical house can have one simply by asking for one. There is no longer anything unique about me, aside from my history.”
“The terrible thing about the heavens is that if we’re miserable in them, it’s our own fault,” said Juniper.
“I’m not miserable,” said Bethel. “But I don’t think it would be wise to have people living inside me until I have decided on a self to be.”
“I don’t think that’s true,” said Juniper. “You’re not going to hurt anyone.”
“I might,” said Bethel. “Not in the ways I’ve hurt people in the past, but by making a commitment that I cannot keep. That I might do, if I have no solid foundation for myself.”
Juniper shrugged. “Lean on the assistants. Allow them in. Let them tell you what would best help you become the person you were meant to be.”
“It does not surprise me that you suggest I lay everything down for the Authority,” said Bethel.
“For all our differences, I’m still a Juniper,” said Juniper, smiling. “But in refusing his help, you’re doing yourself no favors. Speak with the assistants, and they’ll point you in the right direction.” He looked around. “To the bedroom?”
Bethel narrowed her eyes. There was something familiar in the way he was standing. “Are you having thoughts of fucking me?” she asked.
The Other Juniper looked her over. “Of course. If you wanted to skip the flirtation and pleasantries, I would be fine with that. Or we could finish the tour first.”
Bethel regarded him. “I’ve stripped out all sexual desire from myself.” She gestured to her body. “This form is incapable of feeling sexual pleasure. I have no genitalia. And besides, with you … there are bad memories.” She hesitated to call it trauma, lest she paint herself the victim.
Juniper snapped his fingers, and changed in an instant, becoming unrecognizable. He was still a rather tall man, with broad shoulders and firm muscles, but the structure of his face had completely changed, his skin was a bit darker, and his hair hung in curls.
“It’s easy to forget that people can do that,” said Bethel, regarding him.
“I know what happened between the two of you,” said this new man, who bore no resemblance to Juniper. “I know too, in general terms, the lesson of his time on Aerb. We cannot let the bad taint the good. We cannot eternally hang on to misery.”
Bethel knew all this. It was what she had worked on with Valencia for so long. Yet there was a lingering sadness, and perhaps some of that came with an understanding that the actions of the past could never truly be made up for. The party took a trip or vacation twice a year, and while Amaryllis had extended an offer the second time they’d done it, Bethel had known that it was a bad idea, and an offer extended only with the expectation that it would be refused. Amaryllis and Valencia were the only two she was close to anyway, for a certain value of ‘close’.
“And I would change myself to be receptive to the offer,” said Bethel. “And we would fuck, and then you would leave, is that it?”
“I spoke to Amaryllis before I came here,” said the Other Juniper. “We don’t speak often. She doesn’t take a liking to me, funnily enough. But when I asked about you, she said that you had swung too far in the opposite direction, that you feared happiness. It’s a bad thing, to have a fear of happiness and indulgence. Your mistake with the original Juniper —”
“I don’t call it a mistake,” said Bethel. “Calling it that takes agency away from me.”
The Other Juniper nodded. “Following that, you learned the value of restraint. But now, in these times, restraint has little value. Trepidation over whether you might hurt other people is virtually worthless. You need to relearn how to have fun.”
“By fucking you?” asked Bethel, looking him up and down. There was no desire, but there was some desire for desire.
“If that doesn’t appeal, perhaps you could indulge in other ways,” he said. “I would consent to being tortured, if you would like. Twenty-four hours, say, to strip the skin from my flesh and my flesh from my bones.”
Bethel stilled her breath. “Why would you offer such a thing?”
“I think you might find it instructive,” he said with a shrug. “I think you might enjoy it. I’m sympathetic. There’s limited ability to do real good in the heavens, and this might be one way for me to help someone.”
“But you would turn the pain down,” said Bethel. “You would only pretend to feel.”
“No,” he replied, shaking his head. “I would consent to suffer. You could have the assistants report on my subjective experience. They would not lie. I would not forget the pain after the fact, perhaps only dull the effects of the pain on my psyche.”
Bethel stared at him. “Perhaps another time,” she said. “On both accounts.”
“Another time,” he nodded. “The rest of the tour, then, unless you’d like some time to think?”
“I would like the time, yes,” nodded Bethel. “I’d like to be alone. Thank you, for your perspective.”
“Don’t spend too much time thinking,” he replied. “The student of failures learns faster than the student who has only heard his master’s words.”
He vanished without much fanfare, and Bethel felt suddenly, unaccountably empty, in a way that hadn’t hit her like the emptiness of the previous year.
“Assistant,” said Bethel.
“Yes?” asked a blandly attractive woman who popped into existence beside Bethel’s human form.
“I would like … help,” said Bethel.
“I will help in any way we can,” replied the assistant. The obsequious nature of the assistant had been what Bethel had requested, almost right from the start, but it was beginning to grate.
“Be the way I would want you to be,” said Bethel.
She shifted slightly. “I can’t read your mind.”
Bethel hesitated. What was she afraid of? The Authority was Juniper, or close enough, and he already knew everything important about her. Everyone who remained even remotely close to Bethel had allowed the Authority into their minds to some extent, and surely the Authority could construct a mostly-correct model of her from that. Perhaps the fear was that the assistant would work, and would melt away all of her inner pain and hesitation.
“Fine,” said Bethel. “Go ahead.”
The assistant relaxed into herself, and then went through several subtle changes to her face and body. She became, in some ways, reminiscent of Valencia, and in other ways like a female mirror of Juniper. Bethel also noticed, almost immediately, that her sensorium was functional with respect to this assistant, with the entire inner biological working splayed out for Bethel to inspect. Before the assistant had been biologically dead, a projection and nothing more.
“You can call me Winsome, or Winnie for short,” said the assistant, smiling slightly. “Now then, I’ve been waiting for you to use me as a resource. We’ll start slow, obviously, but you need to be reintroduced to society. There are a number of social organizations that I think you’d be a good fit for, specifically, the entad wing of the slave species coalition, which holds regular meetings. Beyond that, I’d like to move people into you as soon as possible. I have a number of candidates lined up who, like you, suffer from hesitance of varying degree.”
“They don’t want to be happy,” said Bethel.
“They want to be happy, but suffer in various ways because they refuse to take meaningful steps to allow themselves happiness,” replied the assistant. Winnie. Bethel did like the name.
“Very well,” said Bethel. “Then I’ll have to make myself ready for them. I don’t suppose you can tell me a bit about these potential tenants?”
“Of course,” replied Winnie with a smile. “What kind of assistant would I be if I couldn’t?”
And from there they were off, talking about these people, and the things they did, the ways they related to the world, and their personal histories.
Bethel began to build a new home.