The Reborn Princess Caper
by Leo D. Orionis

To everyone who ever believed in me as a writer—but especially Joan, Kathy, Kristen, and Deborah—this novel is lovingly dedicated.

Table of Contents

1. Enter the Princess
2. Enter Her Courtier
3. The Trickster Is Drafted
4. "Welcome to the World!"
5. "Why Are We Here?"
6. The Common History
7. The Decline of the Mižinē
8. The Worm in the Apple
9. The Second History
10. "The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"
11. "There's Something Out There!"
12. Gender, Households, and Aliens
13. "A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose"
14. Strategies and Casualties
15. Duel over Alteřa
16. "Death Is before Me Today"
17. The Art of Constructive Moping
18. "It's All a Trap!"
19. "Kill Them All!"
20. The Beginning


About This Novel
Dramatis Personae
Time Line of Events

Chapter 1
Enter the Princess

All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts …

—William Shakespeare (Common Post-Roman Earth)

If all the world's a stage,
then where does the audience sit?

—Groucho Marx (Common American Earth Variant)

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

All the lights in the United Nations Building were out, but searchlights played restlessly across its sheer glass face. The cops in the cordon around the building blew on their hands to warm them, or beat them against their thighs. Rain had fallen earlier, and shone on the rainproofing of their hats, the bulletproof plastic of their patrol vehicles, and the ceramcrete of the pavement.

The cordon was in three layers. The first ring of professionals, closest to the silent building, crouched behind anything that would give them cover; recycling bins, plug-in stations for electric vehicles, or bus-stop benches. These cops kept a close watch on the Secretariat, as the building was officially called. Besides their uniforms, only their helmets and guns marked them as police officers, and the fact that they wore their omnicoms in belt holsters. Where a civilian might casually stash his omni in a pocket, and upgrade or replace it at will, police omnicoms were the same color as police uniforms, and one side displayed a duplicate image of the badge on its holder's chest, complete with badge number. The software and security measures on police omnicoms were decidedly higher than civilian standards, and the multitronic devices themselves were department issue, not private property of the officer. To lose one's omnicom was almost as serious as losing one's service weapon; hence a holster to secure each.

As they watched for the perpetrators who'd taken over the U. N. building, the first-string cops kept their omnicoms at hand. Ordinary officers would make status reports periodically, keeping their superiors informed on the situation. Replies were tiny but perfect; the police of 2014 didn't have to endure the crackling radio static of earlier generations. Other officers, most of them from the C & M Division—officially Communications and Multitronics, but 'Com (for Omnicom) and Multitronics to the geeks—studied their screens, looking for life signs, sensor data, or transmissions from the looming monolith. Many of these had their omnicoms unfolded to two, four, or eight times normal, giving them screens the size of a dedicated netcom visor or video entertainment monitor.

The cops in the second ring, next to the cars, spoke louder and had the volume of their omnis set at a conversational level. They wore soft uniform hats, rather than helmets, and warmed their hands with cups of coffee. When they sipped, they made the same old faces; even twenty-first century technology couldn't supply the police with a decent brew. The command center, a folding office table on the side of the building away from the East River, held larger and more powerful equipment: a cluster of netcoms and a single supernetcom with a dedicated satellite link.

Cops in the outermost ring walked along waist-high panels of unbreakable yellow plastic emblazoned with POLICE LINE—DO NOT CROSS in big red letters, keeping the curious and the bored under control. At 10 P.M. in the unsleeping city, anything different drew flocks of lookitthats, making a surf-roar of conversation, constantly taking still pictures and videos. The local college students with their omnicoms full of textbooks and course notes, the tourists from Mexico and Burma and the Triple Kingdom with their own brightly-colored, foreign brands and models, even the rich people from Iberia and Germany who supplemented their omnis with actual dedicated cameras using fancy lenses, snapped away constantly. They never saw anything in person that they couldn't see in the newscasts, and they never took any pictures or videos that the news services weren't uploading in real time; but only water cannon or tear gas could have kept them away.

Detective Captain Lonnie Sanders, a tall lean late-fortyish man with slightly oriental-looking eyes, stood behind his cruiser sipping his bad coffee and watching the searchlights play across the silent facade. A breeze from the river ruffled his feather-light black hair as he switched the cup to his left hand and picked up his omnicom from the top of the vehicle. He touched a virtual button on the screen that connected him to the sergeant in the forward line. "Sanders," he said. "Anything, Mina?"

Detective Sergeant Asae Minatsuro, "Mina" to her friends, shook her head. In the darkness of the first line, that was all Lonnie could see on his screen. There was another officer there beside her, no doubt Detective Corporal Villaseñor, also C&M, although there wasn't enough light around their position for Lonnie to see for sure. Although he had reason to know that Mina and Juan weren't involved personally, at work they were inseparable.

"One life sign, Captain, not moving much," she said, squinting a little against the bright image in her own screen. "Snipers haven't had a hint of a target."

"They might as well go home. Hawley won't give snipers a chance at him. The good doctor's a devout coward."

"Always a first time," she replied, then Villaseñor showed her something on his enlarged screen, and the two of them changed languages from English to geek. Sanders switched to the fire-team channel and listened to cryptic movement signals and status reports, then hit another button and spoke more formally. This time the signal was relayed by satellite directly to Albany, the state capital. It was answered immediately by a grey-haired man in a suit, standing behind his heavy wooden desk, as if he were too keyed up to sit. The curtains were drawn over the windows behind him.

"Good evening, sir. Detective Captain Sanders, NYPD, at the Secretariat. Have you had any word from the terrorist yet?"

"Not a damn thing!" said the governor, in loud frustration. Heads over the command-center map near Sanders—a 3-foot by 5-foot netcom display on a table, currently showing the U. N. building's footprint and the area covered by the police deployment around it—came up and turned towards the sudden noise. The captain thumbed down the volume on his omnicom, cursing himself for not remembering to do so before making the call. The Governor was a good man, but restrained he was not.

"What about you?" said His Excellency. "Have you heard from him?"

"Nothing since the original announcement, sir."

"Meanwhile there's a nut in U. N. Headquarters with a bomb!" said the governor in his office, waving his arms. He gave a hard stare to the police officer in the wall screen that he normally used for watching the news. "I don't want to send the National Guard into the city, Captain, but I'm running out of options here. What have you got for me?"

"I've sent for an expert," Sanders offered. "Someone who's taken Hawley down before."

"That sounds promising. Is he good?"

"She's the best. And she's here, sir, so if you'll excuse me?"

"Don't let me down, Captain Sanders. It's your ass on the line here," the governor said.

Mine, and a lot of others besides! Lonnie thought. "Yes, sir, I understand that. Yes, sir, goodbye." He disconnected, and put his omnicom back on the top of his police cruiser.

The woman being escorted from the barricades didn't look like anyone much at first glance. No doubt many in the crowd had dismissed her as "some old lady" and were wondering why she'd been let through. The white hair, worn short for some years now, and the wrinkles carved in the face and neck, invited dismissal. She was seventy-eight years old, and looked every bit of it.

Yet they were 78 years of top physical conditioning, and even now she moved quickly, easily, and with a grace that showed complete control of her body. The discerning could yet trace the great beauty that had been hers, and her eyes were those of a girl. Sanders had seen those eyes black with fury at a murder scene, burning with determination in a martial-arts tournament, and bubbling with glee when her god-daughter said something intensely embarassing. Right now they were angry. The slender figure in the long black coat came barely up to his chest, and he was thirty years younger than her, but she could kick his ass without breaking a sweat if she wanted to, he reminded himself.

"Thanks for coming, Marisa," Sanders said. He nodded to the uniformed officer escorting her, who saluted and returned to barricade duty.

Marisa Pascale barely waited until the officer was out of hearing. "What am I doing here, Lonnie? Damn it, I had plans for tonight!"

"Plans, Marisa? What kind of plans?"

"Stow it!" she barked. For a second time the heads around the map table came up. She lowered her voice a little. "Who do you think I am, Batman? What do you need me for, when you have all this manpower and high-tech equipment?"

"It's Luther Hawley, Marisa. He's in there with a bomb. From the weight of the thing, and some remote readings, we think it might be a nuke."

She goggled at him, speechless for a moment. That didn't last. "I was wrong," she said. "You think I'm Superman. What am I supposed to do about it, smother the blast in my cape?"

"I'm not asking you to do anything," said Sanders. "But he hasn't talked to us since the initial bomb threat, and we have no idea what he's planning. I was hoping you could help us with his psychology. You and Sam probably know him better than anyone else."

"Oh. OK, Lonnie, I'll do what I can. Sorry about the temper."

"Hey, I'm flattered. I don't figure you'd vent like that at just anyone." He hesitated before going on. "Anything I can help with?"

She shrugged. "Compared with a nuke? Forget it. It's just something I have to work out for myself." Marisa turned away, her arms folded.

She was right, of course, but it was most unlike her usual cool demeanour. Sanders went back to watching the omnicom for a break, giving her a moment to herself. But he watched her, too, and worried a little.

The World, 7 Galestô Talao, Year 1774 (Second History)

She was born of a lesser Household of the Winter People, small in numbers and of ordinary dignity, with no vowel before the Household name to mark it as one of the Great Houses. When she was eight days old, her yther, her mother, and her father brought her to the Blue Stone, the oldest of them all, in the very shadow of the Pillar of the Promise, in Lores-Tara, on Heki, for her abandonment.

Her yther, the head of the House, held her one last time and wished her well. "Shine brightly, little star," y crooned. "Be wise! Be swift! Learn well!" Then y kissed her forehead and passed her on. Her father, at a glance from her mother, took her then. "Be strong, little gem," he whispered, and kissed her on the right cheek. Her mother took her last, smiling, but with big slow tears dripping, one by one, down her face. "I love you," she said. "Find love and never let go of it, and come back to me afterwards, if you can." And she kissed the baby on the left cheek. Then they laid her on the platform at the base of the towering stone, and walked away, not looking back.

As soon as they were gone, the baby sank into the solid material of the platform, like water sinking into cloth, and disappeared. The body was scanned for its complete genetic and physical information, and disintegrated for raw materials. The infant mind passed into the keeping of Anûk, the bodiless individual who is the mass mind of all the People, to begin its lives Inside.

An infinitesimal part of Anûk divided further into a jury of three to consider their new charge.

:1: This is a bright and eager spirit, :: the first part said. :1: What scenario shall we try first? ::

:2: An advanced one, I think. ::

:3: Agreed. ::

Her first life was in the star navy of a small but prosperous set of worlds far from Sol. A nearby empire sought relief from its internal troubles in a policy of expansion, and began conquering its neighbors. Wearing her Queen's uniform, Augusta Hastings rose rapidly to Captain, Commodore, Admiral, and finally supreme military command against the foe. She paid the price in mutilations which her people could replace mechanically but not regrow, and in the sacrifice of her personal life. At last, a hero to her Queen, her people, and all who knew her, she died in the final victory.

:1: Most impressive! ::

:2: She dealt with externals well. But note how poor her self-image was, starting with the prolonged puberty her people's longevity serum caused. See how long it took her to develop a personal life, and how badly she dealt with the loss when her lover died. See how she avoided personal involvement after that. See also how grief-stricken she was by combat losses that couldn't be avoided. ::

:3: Well, it was a very advanced scenario for a first life. ::

:2: It was also a very privileged scenario. She was born of good parents who expected the best from her, in a culture that embraced honor and duty. As a naval officer, she was given the training and the tools of command. I suggest that she merely used that training and those tools, and lived up to what her family and folk expected of her. I think this one can do better than that. ::

:1: It's also true that she never really examined the beliefs and ideals of her people. Had she been born on the other side, might she have accepted their values just as unquestioningly? She still believed in "God" when she died! ::

:3: All true. Very well, let's try again. ::

She was born an ordinary citizen of an ordinary family in a most extraordinary human culture. In a Galaxy full of alien races, the human nation to which she was born more than held its own by providing maximum freedom to all its members. As a college student with some slight psi gifts, Tessa Anderson fell into one situation after another where she was the woman on the spot, who had to stop an alien conquest or infiltration with nothing but her wits, her gifts, and a talent for misdirection. Her greatest achievement was that no one knew of her victories, and she could live (mostly) an ordinary life.

:2: Who keeps picking these advanced scenarios? ::

:1: You will admit she did even better this time. ::

:3: Yes; in a rich culture that provides maximum opportunity for all its citizens to develop themselves, and with mental powers. Let's take away all these advantages and see how she does. ::

She was born during a long and terrible world war, on an Earth that had no space travel, and very little science. A peasant refugee, she drifted with her mother from one camp to another. When her mother died, she learned to steal to live, and to fight when she had to. As a young woman, perhaps 17 or 18, exact age unknown, Marisa Pascale joined a criminal organization that ran casinos. When the head of the organization was killed, she took over in the confusion. She made the organization an internationally recognized force, and herself rich. Along the way, she picked a man out of the gutter because she recognized something of herself in him. Sam Mackie remade himself into a force the equal of hers, and became her right-hand man.

When she had achieved wealth, she divided her organization among her lieutenants, and retired. But something was missing. Having lived with danger all her life, she found life flat and empty without it. Fortunately, she was a magnet for trouble. She and her other half soon found themselves embroiled against one villain after another, not because they were crusaders, but simply out of unwillingness to stand aside and let other people be hurt.

She was never fated to die in bed. Eventually the finest body, however well trained and exercised, must grow old. At last she took on one villain too many, and died. Her soulmate went berserk and killed her enemy, before he died too.

:1: Well? Refugee orphan to millionaire adventuress? We took away all privileges and expectations, and she made them for herself. ::

:2: And found love for herself, both ordinary lovers and that profound connection between herself and her friend Sam Mackie. ::

:1: She examined all of life's values, too, before choosing to live on the right side of the law. And she kept herself free of conventional religious beliefs and ideologies. ::

:2: And she collected a Household around herself, in a culture that places the birth-family first and doesn't even have Households! ::

:3: But what about this man Mackie? We can't separate them, closely knit as they made themselves. If we graduate her on the strength of this life, we'll have to graduate him as well; and he hasn't done well in any of his other lives. He didn't do well in this one until he met her. ::

:1: Reluctantly, I agree. All right, let's try again. ::

She found a magic pendant that transformed her into a goddess. As Nike, she not only defeated villains large and small, but she took up the cause of women on all fronts, with training centers that taught self-defense and self-respect, with appearances for pro-choice organizations, by speaking at breast-cancer research centers, et endless cetera. Her reward was to be called a cult-leader by conservatives, and investigated by the FBI. When she pointed out the sexism of the Catholic Church in an interview, her effigies were burned all over the world.

She might have been depressed, if she had ever stopped working. Flying over her mother's house one night, she realized that she hadn't changed back to her civilian identity in four years.

:1: That's probably the most effective Nike we've ever seen. But— ::

:2: Yes, but. ::

:3: No life of her own again. That won't do! ::

Raised in a Catholic orphanage in South America, she was the only survivor when government troops took time off from "chasing rebels" to rape and kill all the nuns and novices. A Cardinal with carefully unspecific duties took her and trained her in all the skills of a spy and assassin. For the rest of her short life, Sister Pauline enforced the Church's law on Earth, Mars, various orbital habitats, and in the few extra-solar colonies thus far established; until she was caught. And killed. Slowly.

:1: No questioning of received values or authority. ::

:2: Wrong done in the name of religion, even by that religion's own standards. ::

:3: And once again no life for herself. Complete failure this time around. ::

Her stepfather, a Japanese business man, taught her self-discipline and the martial arts to help her regain the full use of her legs after polio. She was grateful but American; she would not let him turn her into a Japanese girl. Years later, after she graduated from college and began a career as an architect, Alexa Stevenson's life began to unravel when the full story came out: her father's and stepfather's criminal connections, her father's betrayal of those connections, and his subsequent murder by her stepfather at the orders of their Yakuza bosses.

Alexa began cutting a bloody path through the Japanese underworld, in Japan and America both, in self-defense, and for revenge. In the course of this she came to the attention of the CIA, who wanted to use her. When she refused to be used, they began tearing her life apart to make her do what they wanted. She set off an atomic bomb in their underground computer center, erasing all record of herself and leading them to think she was dead.

But still the killing went on. Japanese gangs in Chinatown, South American drug dealers and murder cultists, biker gangs who worked for the LAPD, and others: they kept crossing her path, and she was unable to look away. At last, the CIA discovered she was still alive, and had her murdered.

:1: She fought for good causes, but she killed too readily. ::

:2: She gave up believing in God, and overcame belief in the Japanese mysticism that goes with the martial arts, but she became cynical. ::

:3: And she still had no life left for herself. No friends, no lovers, nothing but her cat. ::

Her (father), her (mother), and (herself) were aliens visiting Earth, disguised by their shape-changing powers as natives, inside and out. She was too young to talk, or understand what was happening,when her (father) lost control of the car and it crashed, killing (him) and her (mother) and crippling her (left arm). Adopted by a human couple who loved her, Betty Lou was tormented by the handicap of her twisted, withered arm, and unable to be happy because of the alien feelings that occasionally broke through her human upbringing.

Then her people visited Earth again, and found her, and begged her to come with them to the stars. As they prepared to leave Earth, they showed her many wonders: her own true shape, how to fix her arm and any other injury, and how to use her birth right in a myriad other ways. After they lifted off, they discovered she wasn't aboard their ship; but a great white sea bird was winging its way home.

Later came a war, and women were now allowed to enlist for combat. She became a very good soldier, and was selected for commando duties. When need be, her shape-changing powers came in very handy. She never revealed them to anyone, and eventually died in bed, attended by her children and grandchildren.

:1: In many ways that's a very good life. At least she made a life for herself this time. ::

:2: Yes, but did she consider both the alien and human cultures, and then choose one? Or did she merely go with her upbringing? ::

:1: At least she wasn't religious this time. ::

:2: Many people aren't. But did she consider the tenets of religion and reject them, or was she just too unconvinced or too lazy to bother? ::

:3: This is all beside the point. ::

:1,2: ??? ::

:3: A life as an alien can be very instructive, and useful to us as a diagnostic tool. But we can't release a child into society with a primary non-human mind, no matter how well assimilated. ::

:1: What do you suggest, then? ::

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Four years after her parents left her on the Stone, Anûk creates a new body for her. Its physical age is first adulthood; 18, in Earth years. It has the same genetics as her original body, with some corrections, repairs, and improvements. Its health is perfect. Its appearance is that of her most successful Inside life, at that same age, except that it's a real human body, not the simplified body of a virtual Earth, with simplified genetics and deliberate weaknesses. The neurological connections and muscle memories that will let her walk, talk, and otherwise function as an adult have been set in place; she won't have to learn to do those things again.

Many thousands of miles from where she left the world as an eight-day-old infant, she wakes naked on a cool blue stone, under a bright green sky, showered with bird song, and caressed by gentle breezes. Then all her lives come crashing home at once, in the trauma of the second birth: her successes and her failures, her victories and her losses, her joys and her shames, lovers and friends and bitter enemies she will never see again. Life after life after life breaks over her head, the pounding surf of the soul. She rolls off the stone in a spasm of anguish, falls flat on her stomach on the soft turf, and weeps like a tortured child.

Chapter 2
Enter Her Courtier

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love's day.
Thou by the Indian Ganges' side
Should rubies find: I by the tide
Of Humber would complain. I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.

—Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress",
1650 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earth)

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

The ceramcrete of the interstate was still wet from rain, but the tires of the 2014 model Triumph gripped it securely. The lights gleamed from its racing-green finish as the driver hit the offramp smoothly, without braking. His right hand, scarred but deft, left the wheel long enough to downshift. There was very little sound; the Triumph's powerful engine was electrical. Internal-combustion engines had been outlawed in 1980 by UNEPA, the United Nations Environmental Protection Agency. Besides, Sam was far too skillful a driver to let tires or brakes squeal, or gears grind, unless he wanted them to.

At eighty-one, Sam Mackie was still a big man. His short-cropped hair was white now instead of sandy, and wrinkles turned into deep furrows had made his face, never handsome, craggy at best. But he still picked up his feet when he walked, and he could still lift weights that would stagger most younger men. Best of all, his keen brain and his sharp eyes were unimpaired.

He pulled up in front of Marisa's apartment building and turned off the ignition, but didn't get out right away. Instead, he rested his hands on the steering wheel and looked up at the penthouse, where welcoming lights glowed through the windows, and wondered what he was going to do.

Sam was an easy-going man with a wide circle of friends and lovers. Any who saw him now would have been amazed to know how deeply he was worried. They knew it had been half a century since he'd had to think about money, so that couldn't be the cause of his concern. Women moved in and out of his life easily, with pleasure on both sides and no heartbreak, unless a woman insisted on being the most important person in his life. That position was permanently reserved for Marisa Pascale. It was that relationship which troubled him now.

From the beginning Sam had regarded her as a princess far above his own rough-and-tumble London slum beginnings, and had so addressed her. They'd never been lovers, though their connection was constant, and deeper than most married couples'. Being everything but lovers to each other, they were afraid to take that last step, lest it ruin everything else they had. Over the years Marisa had many lovers, and so did Sam; some casual, some lasting. But any lovers had to accept that Marisa had first claim on Sam, and Sam on her.

So it had been for fifty years Sam wouldn't have traded for anything. In sickness and in health, in good times and in bad, in gentle leisure and imminent peril of death, he had been her true knight, and she had never fallen from the pedestal on which he'd put her. He had no illusions about her. They were both lower-class orphans from birth, him in the slums of London, while she'd lived like an abandoned cat in the wilds of the Near East as a child. He knew all her little failings, and all the things she was no good at. But he also knew her character, her will, and her quality, whatever her origins. Wherever she led, he was content to follow.

Lately, though—he regarded the lit windows bleakly. Marisa had no lover at present. At 78 she was as wonderful as ever, but it was a rare man who looked past the wrinkles. The men who'd been closest to her that way were all gone; a couple dead, the rest married, usually to female friends of Marisa's and with her blessings. Maybe that was why she'd invited him for dinner tonight. They had always been in and out of each other's lives constantly. Not a week went by without seeing each other, unless one of them was on the other side of the world, and they moved in and out of each other's houses and apartments without comment. In every place he had, there was a room for her, and vice versa. So maybe it was just his imagination that lately she seemed to cling a bit, to hold his hand a bit longer, to hug him a bit more often?

His omnicom whistled two distinct notes, and Sam's preoccupation vanished. Once that sound had meant "Danger! Watch out!" to him and the other members of Marisa's organization. Over his omnicom it meant a message from her with the same kind of urgency. He doubted it had anything to do with their dinner date.

Of course, he thought as he pulled the omnicom from a jacket pocket, with the Princess you never knew. It'd been some few years since the universe had thrown at them the kinds of menaces they used to face regularly, but maybe that just meant it was about time. And maybe, he thought wryly, a little life-threatening mayhem was just what the two of them needed, right about now.

The omnicom was a civilian model, not police issue, but Superbinary, the company who sold it, would've been amazed at what it could do now. Programming it for different beeps for different people and situations was a standard feature, little used by the general population except to assign different "ring tones" to different friends. Now Sam pushed an on-screen virtual button, present only when an incoming call used the two-tone whistle, to acknowledge receipt without a voice response or any other sound, in case the sender was in a situation where noise could get her killed. The silent beep was standard, to acknowledge calls in concert halls, movies, classes, and meetings, for instance; its dispatch by an on-screen button that only appeared in response to a programmed stimulus was Sam's work.

He expected to hear her voice and sent the silent acknowledgement only as a precaution. So he was surprised when text appeared on the screen, but he recognized it as the output of buttons he had programmed into both their omnicoms. Maintain silence. Come to my Qth with all possible speed. Need your help urgently. Life or death.

Her "Qth" meant her present location, a term from ham radio. Before the computers of the U. S. interstate highway traffic-control system gave rise to the civilian internet, and multitronic omnicoms, netcoms, and supernetcoms made binary digital computers obsolete, Marisa and Sam had owned and operated powerful radios in all their residences and vehicles, staying in daily touch even when one of them was miles from any telephone. Now they did it by omnicom, with no special broadcast licenses needed, or heavy equipment. Omnicoms had global range, thanks to the satellite backbone of the internet, perfect sound quality thanks to multitronic superbinary sound sampling, and couldn't be hacked without the resources of a farm of modern supernetcoms working in parallel.

Sam pushed another function button partly of his invention, and the GPS unit in Marisa's omnicom told him where she was, though it would have ignored the request from almost anyone else. His eyebrows quirked. The U. N. Building? On my way, he sent, and reached for the ignition.

Fifteen minutes later Lonnie Sanders saw Sam Mackie walk through the police line. The uniformed officer who brought him to the captain treated him respectfully. Lonnie didn't blame him. Sam might have been born before the War, but he was still a powerful man. Only a couple of weeks ago Sanders had seen Sam take a knife away from a drunken sailor, then break some furniture with the swabbie's three buddies. Lonnie'd done his part by keeping the drinks safe. Sam had insisted on settling with the barkeep, after the bodies quit flying, on the grounds that he had a lot more money than an honest cop would ever earn. "I made my money the old-fashioned way," Sam had joked. "I stole it."

Sam nodded to Sanders. "Hullo, Lonnie. Where's Marisa?"

"She's right here somewhere, Sam. She call you?"

"She did, and urgently." Sam looked around. Squad cars; barricades; sitmap table, police netcoms and a DRI supernetcom. No Princess.

"Well, the more the merrier, I guess. You probably know Luther Hawley pretty well, too."

That got Sam's undivided attention. "Luther Hawley? Look, Lonnie, you'd better tell me what's going on."

The World, 6 Numestô Hed́ao, Year 1773 (Second History)

His mother was a woman of the Summer People who found no lasting attachment on Alteřa. On a tour of the Tlâńē Kingdom, her flyer failed between T́ebai and Tlâńor, forcing her to land in Gir Province. There she met and fell in love with a red-haired laughing giant who raised riding animals; and he with her. They went to live in Loraon among the Winter People, and felt at home there. When she became pregnant, they decided to follow their new people's custom. Eight days after the baby was born, they kissed him goodbye at the Speaker Stone in Teřańa, and his upbringing began.

In his first life, high grades in school and a wealthy father won him an officer cadet's position in the Space Academy. But Roger Cannon bullied his classmates, cheated on tests, and was expelled in disgrace. For years thereafter he lived from one drunken binge to another, with his family's wealth taking care of the pregnant women and legal fines. Finally, after cleaning up his act slightly, he won election to a minor seat in the Solar Congress. He spent the rest of his life an embittered drunken congressman, taking bribes freely, and voting when it wasn't too inconvenient. Mostly he could be counted on to vote against appropriations for the Patrol in which he could have shone, had he exercised the character to do so.

Three parts of Anûk considered the result.

:4: What have we learned from his choices? :: one part asked.

:5: He is ambitious, or greedy, whatever the difference might be aside from the viewpoint of the observer. He did seek the Patrol on his own, and running for Congress was his own idea. ::

:6: His school grades were also his own; he earned them fairly. And he worked to achieve the physical fitness required by the Patrol's entrance examination. ::

:4: But once achieving his object, he no longer cared. Hence the bullying of classmates rather than earning their respect, cheating on tests rather than studying for them, settling into a venal rut instead of being a responsible Congressman. ::

:5: He was dishonest with himself, too, blaming everyone but himself for his failings. Let's try another scenario. ::

In his next life, he found a magic stone that gave him all the powers of a Superman, and no physical weaknesses. Adam Black flew to the White House (swatting aside a few fighter planes, missiles, and tanks on the way), assembled the President, Representatives, and Senators, and told them they were taking orders from him from now on. A few objected, and he fried them with his heat vision. A few others tried to continue to govern the country no matter what he said, and he tore them limb from limb. After that, government ground to a halt, because no one dared do anything for fear of offending him.

Government proved boring, but he might have stuck with it longer if the Soviets hadn't panicked. News from "his" Pentagon that ICBMs had been launched at Washington gave him an excuse to fly out the Oval Office window. Enjoying his speed and strength, he crushed the rockets before they could re-enter the atmosphere, then landed in the Kremlin and started killing people.

After turning Moscow into a pile of rubble, Adam decided that being a king was better than being a president. Assembling the United Nations, he told the diplomats that the world only needed one government, since it had only one king—himself. Keep me happy and you stay alive; disappoint me and you, your families, and your countries will suffer. After a few cities disappeared from the face of the earth, he was accepted as ruler of the world.

:4: Do I detect a pattern here? ::

:5: This child eagerly reaches for power, whether personal or political, but rejects any moral guidelines on its use. ::

:6: Within limits, rejecting society's guides are good. We want him to reach his own conclusions. Note that he wasn't religious in either life. ::

:5: He wasn't religious for the wrong reasons. He'd have been devout enough if "God" had showed up with a big stick, planning to beat him for his sins! ::

:4: Let's see what he does without money, connections, or powers. ::

Born in an ordinary family in an ordinary town, he went to an ordinary high school and got ordinary grades. Meanwhile relations between the East and West continued to worsen, year by year. The Junior ROTC counselor pointed out that before too long, anyone who didn't volunteer for the Army would be drafted, anyway; and volunteers, especially volunteer officers, got first choice of careers and assignments.

The year he entered college, the tank formations of the Warsaw Pact entered Germany. By the time he graduated, central Europe was radioactive, and the fighting had shifted to North Africa. He served with competence, if without distinction, in the Sahara and in Saudi Arabia, and in due course, with battlefield casualties speeding promotion, became a captain.

The year Birmingham and Kiev bought it, in the only non-battlefield exchange of the war, he was pulled from his command and sent to southeast Asia. The push from Korea failed, but he did well, and brought most of his command to Vladivostok for evacuation. Watching the tanks burn on the beach, he decided he was thoroughly sick of this war.

So when Fate placed the new colonel and his tank battalion in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, he seized his chance. With the world running short of fuel, with manpower exhausted on both sides, with shipping crippled and morale shot to hell, all he had to do was hold the approaches to the Potomac until he was reinforced; and then the long, long process of beating the enemy back, and grinding him up once and for all, could begin at last.

He stood aside, and the enemy rolled into Washington. The war was over, and he lived in comfort the rest of his life. And in resistance camps around the world, they cursed the name of James Conrad.

:4: And he was doing so well! ::

:6: This one just doesn't have much staying power, does he? ::

:5: No moral fortitude, that's for sure. We took away all the special advantages and it just took him longer to get into a position to do wrong. ::

:4: So maybe advantages aren't what matters. Maybe he just needs an extra strong dose of discipline. ::

His father, King Ban of Brittany, raised him strictly, on tales of honor and nobility. His own prowess and dedication made him unmatched and unbeatable, the very flower of chivalry. Hearing of a King across the Channel who was raising a new order of knighthood, he joined him, and became his good right hand. He did many great feats of arms and set many fine examples of Christian devotion, on and off the field. Then he fell in love with his friend's Queen, and brought them all to ruin. Long after Camelot had fallen, the story of Lancelot du Lac served to warn how a great man could become a great and tragic failure.

:6: You know, I don't think this one is ever going to get it. ::

:5: I agree, it looks pretty hopeless. ::

:4: It's never hopeless, and there's no time limit here. Try again! ::

A thousand years after the first great age of super-heroes, he was raised in strict discipline by an ascetic order of scientists seeking the perfection of mankind. At eight he declared his intention to join the great work, rather than being released to the outside world, and was accepted as a novice researcher. He did well in his studies, and was well regarded by his teachers and peers.

At fourteen he was placed in the advanced track, and began the study of higher mathematics, and the sciences which earlier centuries had regarded as magic. He soaked up religious symbology, metamagical logic, paraphysical algorithms, and computational epistemology. He mastered the calculus of spiritual sets and pseudo-gravitic tensors.

At eighteen he was offered, as the rules of the order required, the choice of continuing his learning and beginning individual research, or accepting an advanced degree and making his own way in the outside world. He took the first option with hardly a second thought, and began pursuing certain implications of partial differentials of psionic variables.

On his twenty-first birthday, he proved that certain laws in seemingly unrelated fields were expressions of a single law in a hitherto unknown field. He told no one of his discovery, but thought about it for most of the rest of that year.

On his twenty-second birthday, he got up at 2 in the morning and went from room to room throughout the great complex. He murdered every one of his colleagues in their beds, from youngest pre-novitiate to oldest Master. Then, when he was certain no one survived but himself, he reached into a realm he had discovered, with tools he had invented, and destroyed their world and the space around it.

Now calling himself Nemesis, he monitored all human society from a habitation outside real space. Needing no sleep, no food or drink, having no desires, he directed research by indirect ways away from the things he had discovered. Occasionally, when nothing else worked, he killed the researcher and destroyed and discredited his research. Certain areas of science became laughing stocks, and careers could be ruined just by taking them seriously.

Eventually he was discovered by the greatest mind other than his own, one of the legion of super-heroes of his day. He defeated them, and broke their organization. Some years later, without their protection, Earth and all the rest of the United Planets were conquered and occupied by alien invaders.

:4: Uh … ::

:5: Well, that was impressive. ::

:6: But did he do good or evil? ::

:5: Some of each, I think. But he certainly wasn't petty, was he? ::

:4: Discipline appears to be the key to this child. Let's try lifelong discipline again in a less exotic world and see whether we can get an acceptable mindset for the Outside world. ::

:6: At this point I'll try anything. ::

Born in London's East End, raised in an orphanage, he knew neither father nor mother, birth date nor ancestry. Running away from the orphanage, he was a petty thief in England for a while, then in France. The Foreign Legion offered him a new life, which he accepted for a few years before deserting. He fought in Africa for a couple of years as a mercenary, then worked with a mob in South America. Smuggling gold in the Far East, he ran afoul of a new mob on the scene. Instead of killing him right away, they brought him to their leader, a woman such as he'd never seen before; and Sam Mackie had seen, and had, many women. "Blimey, a princess," he thought to himself. For the first time in many years, he drew himself up straight and wiped the sneer from his face.

The coldest eyes he'd seen in his life looked him up and down. Suddenly he wanted to impress the owner of those eyes more than he could remember ever wanting anything. It wasn't sexual. Though she was very beautiful, her manner made sex with her seem as impossible as having sex with a star, or an iceberg. She seemed unreachably high above him, and it came to him that if he could impress her, even for a moment, then perhaps his life wouldn't have been completely wasted.

While he was racking his brains for something to say, she spoke to one of the men flanking him with pistols. "You're sure this is the man you saw in Bangkok?"

"Yes, mademoiselle," said the short stocky man with the mustache. "And in Delhi before that."

"But you're not French!" Sam said, before thinking whether it was wise to speak at all.

"Silence, pig!" said the man on his left, with what Sam was sure was a Greek accent. The upraised hand of the woman behind the desk stopped him from delivering a blow with the Glock he held. Her silky black hair, piled now in a chignon atop her head, and her sun-bronzed skin, could have been French. But the almond-shaped eyes, slightly tilted, argued an origin further east. She had that great beauty so often found in eastern European women, or daughters of the steppe.

"I am not, no," she said, "but my organization is. Tell me, who is paying you to shadow our movements?"

"No one, princess, honest. I was looking after a job of my own. I thought you lot were following me."

The rifle butt to the kidneys caught him by surprise. He fell to the floor and barely heard Mustache snarl, "You will address mademoiselle properly, chien."

He drew himself painfully to his feet. "No offense meant," he said. "It just slipped out." He turned and glared at them all, including the man with the rifle. "All the same, the next man who tries that is going to eat something that won't agree with him."

"Stop this foolishness," the woman said impatiently. "All of you," she said, when the Greek would have spoken. He closed his mouth and nodded, reluctantly.

"Tell me about this job of yours, Mr. Mackie," she commanded. Or did she invite? But Sam told her everything, leaving nothing out. How he had heard the Indian boasting about the gold he would soon have, how he had followed the Indian without being seen, for days, until he knew who would be bringing the gold. How a girl he knew had learned from that person when the gold would be coming in. How only one ship, and no other transport heavy enough to carry that much gold, would be coming in on that date.

He told how he had learned, from a beached sailor, who owned the ship. He spoke of the minor fraud he used to obtain the money to travel to Thailand. There he traced the connection between the ship owner and the local smuggling ring, and from the smuggling ring to the gangs in Burma who controlled the mines; and planned how to hijack the gold. He even told her what he wouldn't have told anyone else: who he knew that had a plane that could carry the gold, and why they would hire it to him; and stopped at last, wrung out.

She studied him for a moment. In a couple of places in his narrative, he had forgotten to call her mademoiselle, had once even slipped and called her princess. No blows had come; and now she looked at Mustache and said only, "It would work, I think."

"It would work," said Mustache grudgingly. "But he didn't think of all that! Look at him!"

"I'm looking," she said. Then she said words that he would never forget. "Do you want to be scum all your life, Sam Mackie? Or do you want to work for me?"

"I'd like nothing better, prin—mademoiselle", Sam said.

Was there the tiniest hint of a smile in one corner of her mouth? He dared not believe it. "Give him back his gun," she said.

After the Greek had done so, the lady said, "My name is Marisa Pascale. Bring me the gold in Fukuoka in ten days, and you're in." With a definite smile, though small, she said, "And if you do, you can even call me Princess."

He brought her the gold, and anything else she wanted, for many years. He worked for her, in the criminal organization she ran; learned from her, and taught her many things, too. The old Sam Mackie was never seen again; in his place stood a man with confidence and sense, who got things done and had no beef with the world.

In gratitude and worship, he became her right hand. When she retired and shut down the organization, he stayed nearby; and when she stepped in the way of harm again, he was always there beside her. When, at last, she died fighting one villain too many, he went berserk and killed her enemy, before dying himself, rather than living without her.

:5: Just look at that potential! ::

:6: Where did that come from? What was that? ::

:4: Vindication, I think, for never giving up. ::

Three tiny bits of Anûk's mind, judges of the once-born, swirled together into one; and three other bits did likewise. Then these two larger parts, still minute compared with the whole, spoke together.

:1,2,3: We have a good mind set and experience for this child, but if we use them, your child must graduate with the matching experience. To release one and not the other would be intolerably painful for them. He would spend his life looking for her, and she for him. ::

:4,5,6: We agree with that. Furthermore, the life they shared is the only one in which he realized his vast potential. With her as his talisman, he is "a great man", as she has called him. Without her, he's "a 'orrible villain" in his very own words. ::

:1,2,3: So, to sum it up, she's always a high achiever, but doesn't always question her upbringing or leave room for a personal life; while he squanders his potential on pointless evil. ::

:4,5,6: Whereas together, they complement each other. He teaches her to make a life for herself, and she provides him with a purpose. Together they can do anything they set their minds to, and have rejected custom for reality. So I think we must release them together. ::

:1,2,3: So be it. ::

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Five years after his parents abandoned him, Anûk creates a body for him with a physical age of first adulthood; 18, in Earth years. It has the same genetics as his original body, with some upgrades; far superior to an Earth body. It has the same appearance as his successful Earth life at that age (except for the differences between an Earth human and a real person), and perfect health. The neurological connections and physical habits to walk, talk, and otherwise function as an adult have been set in place, and the body is ready for him to begin using right away.

He wakes naked on a cool blue stone, under a green sky, and instantly curls into a ball. All his lives come crashing home at once as he lies there; every pointless cruelty, every calculated betrayal, every shameful self-indulgence, every venal desire callously fulfilled. They rip at him like typhoon winds, while tears leak from his tightly closed eyes; mitigated only by the life he lived as Sam Mackie, and in the end redeemed by it.

He rolls over on the stone, and stares at the green sky without curiosity. "[Oh, God, Princess]", he says in English, "[what am I going to do without you?]" Then he covers his eyes with his right arm, while his left dangles off the stone, and begins to weep in earnest.

Chapter 3
The Trickster Is Drafted

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze:
Two hundred to adore each breast;
But thirty thousand to the rest;
An age at least to every part,
And the last age should show your heart;
For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

—Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress",
1650 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earth)

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

Marisa waited, with Lonnie, for Hawley to reach out to the police with his demands. It didn't bother her that nothing was happening right now. She'd spent much of her childhood like a wild animal, when impatience meant flushing the game, and thus no food for that day. In later years, the needs of her organization, and the requirements of the jobs they pulled, had demanded that she continue to practice patience herself, and instill it in others. Planning ahead beyond the job of the moment, setting long-term goals for the organization, seeing to the needs of its members now and when they retired, and building bridges to the community around them, and to honest government and law officials, had distinguished her organization from mobs out for a quick smash and grab, regardless of who got hurt. Marisa's refusal to deal in vice and drugs, and to shield the community from those who did, also won her organization many friends.

She'd deliberately refined in herself the focus and control her feral childhood had taught her. Marisa had sought out certain mystics and hermits, and she'd absorbed some valuable lessons in the control of her own mind and body, by sitting with them and seeing the world through their eyes, and at their pace. Without that curriculum—that graduate work in her childhood schooling—she'd have burned out early, soon after taking over the original casino gang. She would never have had the inner resources to build the organization that would make her fortune, nor lasted long enough to meet her Sam.

In the present absence of the need for action, and lacking information for planning, she could take time to think about Sam. They had been together a long time, like brother and sister. Right arm and left arm? Right brain and left brain? However you characterized it, it worked. In need they hardly had to speak to communicate, so closely did their minds work together. For instance, they had a system of small motions, signs, and postures they used to talk under the eyes of an enemy. She had given up trying to teach it to anyone else, after realizing it only worked with Sam, because only Sam could read her well enough.

This closeness was invaluable in danger. It had saved their lives too many times to dismiss it. So they had abjured that final connection, the intimacy between woman and man. Too often such intimacy wrecked friendships, and they prized what they had too much to risk it. From time to time, over the years, she had suggested it, or he had, and always the other had replied with the same answer.

But in the end, if it saved their lives to leave that final gap unbridged, what were they saving them for? Marisa had enjoyed many lovers, but no one she loved (admit it to yourself, at least) as much as Sam; and she felt sure, no, she knew, that he loved her. And the occasions of danger were much rarer than they used to be. And no one lived forever, anyway.

So she laid her little trap, easy enough for him to avoid, if that was what he really wanted. She invited him to dinner, just a dinner like any other. And afterwards?

She smiled to herself. Afterwards, unless he talked very fast and spoke very much to the point, this old lady was going to jump his bones! She chuckled, and Lonnie Sanders looked up from his omnicom. Seeing her in better humor than earlier, he smiled briefly and went back to his surveillance.

That reminded her how late it was getting. She looked at the time on her own omnicom. Damn, Sam would be at her apartment soon, if he wasn't already! Best laid plans, Pascale (she smiled at the pun). Better get him here. But before she could punch his number, her omnicom beeped.

She hit Receive. "Sam?" she said.

"Not this time, bitch," said the frozen face on the screen.

Recipe for a monster: Take a small, sensitive boy of high intelligence and give him to a family of louts to raise. Let them be the fulfillment of every comedian's stereotype of Southern white trash: inbred, ignorant, stupid, and brutish. Let the child be scorned by male and female relatives alike as a sissy, not a "real man". Put him in a poor school system with average and below-average students who hate to be there, and love an opportunity to beat on anyone different. Let the teachers and administrators refuse to stop the beatings, and scorn the child for "tattling."

By the time he graduated from high school, it was no wonder that Luther Hawley hated everyone and everything. The only wonder was that he hadn't built a bomb and blown up the whole school, or brought one of his uncles' guns in and shot everyone. Only two things kept his sick hatred festering inside him, instead of exploding into national headlines. He really was a coward, and went queasy at the thought of what would happen to him after his all-too-brief moment of glory, if he couldn't arrange for the cops to kill him outright. Equally strong was the fact that destroying the school wouldn't get everyone he hated, just the tiny part of the world's population who happened to be in that school on that day.

So he left his hatred boiling away behind his frozen face, where it never showed, no matter what torments his enemies devised, and slowly, slowly, they ceased. Colleges around the world begged him to attend, and that won some grudging respect from the teachers at the jail cum asylum he attended. "Did you hear about the Hawley boy?" "Ugh, he gives me the creeps!" "Yes, he's ugly, but did you see the letter he got from Harvard?" Even the jocks began to think that there might be life after high school, and consider that Luther might be their boss some day; they began to ignore him, which was far better than they'd ever treated him before.

It wasn't enough. It would never be enough. Luther accepted the highest scholarship of the four or five foreign universities farthest from his native state, and vowed never to set foot in it again, unless he could poison all its inhabitants first.

College was less different than he had hoped, even in the Empire of Persia. It still had its jocks and brainless bimbos, even if they spoke Farsi and worshipped Allah instead of a good-old-boy beer-chugging Jesus. In college, however, he could ignore them, and the instructors and administrators seemed truly to respect his intelligence. He won a B.S. in Engineering at Tehran, a Master's in Computer Science at Ankara, and a Ph.D. in Physics at Berlin, supported by the royalties from a chemical process here, a gene patent there. For Hawley, it turned out, was one of those rare individuals who saw no boundaries between the realms of knowledge, and was master of them all. Half the companies in the international Fortune 100 were wooing him to work for them, the year he was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Mathematics.

He didn't need them; or rather, he didn't need any one of them. Like the first Queen Elizabeth of England dangling herself before the princes of Europe, or like an impoverished Dalmatian nobleman ordering more goods and services to keep his creditors hopeful of payment, Hawley let the corporations woo him with gifts and money. From time to time he'd fix a flawed manufacturing process for a company in Portugal, or synthesize an organic catalyst for a corporation in the Three Koreas. Between the gifts, and the royalties from his patents, he had financial independence. If a firm in Helvetia gave up, and ceased to send him money, there was always one in Malawi eager to pursue. Meanwhile he worked on what interested him: androids.

Hawley still hated everyone, and saw no reason to change his opinion of mankind at this late date. Everyone alive was equally guilty, if only by omission, of every offense ever committed against him; and Luther's mind forgot nothing, and forgave nothing. Briefly he considered blowing up the world; it seemed to him a simple matter to trick the morons in charge of the military and industry, over a few years, into funding and building the means, and setting it off; but he shelved it for the present. The universe, aside from the feculent human race, was a fascinating place, and there was still so much to learn!

Meanwhile if he wanted intelligent companionship, he decided, he would have to build it for himself. He didn't count other geniuses like himself, for there were none. In all truth, not just in his opinion, he was quite possibly the most intelligent human being who'd ever lived; ordinary geniuses were as far below him as utter imbeciles were below them. Perhaps if Einstein and Tesla and Dirac were still alive—and perhaps not.

It would be a simple matter to clone a human race of his own, though no one else had yet cloned even a sheep; even to make modifications in their germ plasm, so that they were all as intelligent as he was. But he dismissed that option. It was too easy, and such human beings, aside from whatever changes he introduced, would be the same race as his hated tormenters. No, when he said "build companions", he meant it literally.

The bodies were easy. The science of materials offered a wide selection of substances for skin, whatever resemblance to the original organ was wanted, and whatever toughness or resistance to weathering, stains, sharp edges, or blunt trauma seemed useful. Forget the motors of crude science fiction; materials that contracted at the stimulus of electrical current provided the perfect muscles, by working the same as their models. Many internal organs could be omitted, since the androids wouldn't need to eat or drink, digest, eliminate wastes, or reproduce. This made them dependent on a world with electricity and manufacturing facilities; but Hawley, unlike Nature, felt he could safely presume such a world. Power cells of his own invention had already revolutionized industry with their lightness and their charge capacity, and made the internal-combustion engine obsolete. A Hawley battery in place of internal organs supplied all the power for the android body, with a small connection, hidden under clothing, for recharging every week or two. The result was an artificial human body, weighing no more than the natural product, with no need for food, water, or air.

Minds were another matter. Three breathless months advanced the field of artificial intelligence more than ten years of everyone else's work had done, left his colleagues raving about his genius, spawned several new industries, and made him a fortune; but left him disappointed. There were natural limits in that direction, imposed by chaos theory. He could produce "minds" and train them, with brute-force loading of specialized information, to beat human grandmasters at chess, or sell insurance on the phone; or put a more general mind in a body fully wired with nerve sensors and make a happy idiot. But the mathematics indicated nothing better was possible. He built an android dog and an android bimbo to prove his point, making another fortune in royalty payments from companies selling pets that didn't need to be fed or cleaned up after, and firms who furnished sex toys that didn't demand conversation or alimony. Then he dropped that line of research.

If he couldn't make minds from scratch, perhaps he could copy them? Fixing his frozen stare on a blank whiteboard, he considered how one might record a mind, its memories and its experiences, and its total personality; what methods, what materials, what processes for reading and writing. This was completely new ground, the stuff of bad science fiction, completely beyond real-world science; but that had never stopped him before. Above all, there must be no risk to the mind being recorded. For if Luther Hawley were to have companions, only one mind could possibly supply the master template.

How many should he make? How many Hawleys did the world need? More to the point, how many friends did he need? Surely there could be no need, to the world or himself, for more than a thousand of him. Throw in a safety factor and say ten thousand.

He dreamed of a world where ten thousand Luther Hawleys pushed the boundaries of the unknown completely out of sight of lesser minds and shared the ferment of new discoveries daily, as friends and colleagues. The flaw in his scheme would've been obvious to anyone who'd actually had a friend, or any acquaintance whose mind and opinions he was bound to respect. But Hawley, like a man raised by hyenas, had never met such a person.

The World, Numestē Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

The Verē master thief called The Trickster, Ĵuha to his friends, woke on a "bed" of cloth over some soft material, not the pressor field he was used to sleeping on. The room was dim and cool. "Lights," he croaked. Nothing happened. Astonishment flooded him. Nothing in his life had ever prepared him for devices that didn't work perfectly every time, without attention, forever. He sat up. "Lights!" he demanded.

A shadowy figure eased away from the wall it had been leaning against. "Take it easy, Ĵuha," said a mellow woman's voice. "The lights are off for a reason."

"Who's there?" he said uneasily. The voice sounded familiar, but he couldn't quite place it.

"Oh Trickster, I'm hurt. After all the times we've worked together, too."

"Camoflage? Is that you?" They had indeed worked closely together on many occasions. Very closely. He felt a tightening in his groin as he remembered her silky hair and her strong, acrobatic Verē body.

"That's my bright boy! What's the last thing you remember, sweets?"

Memory returned to him, and vast fear. "The end of the world. Lańa, they blew up the world! I'm dead! I remember dying! What's going on?"

She crossed the room to him, and sat beside him on the bed, if you could call it that. He put his arms around her, and she pulled him close. Through the pain and horror of his memories, he noted, dimly, that she felt just as wonderful as he recalled.

"It's all right. Everything's all right now, Ĵuha. I'll tell you all about it."

"Lańa, I don't understand. Where are we? How can I be here? I died, I tell you. All my tricks didn't do me a bit of good!"

"It'll take a little explaining, Ĵuha. But trust me, everything's all right." Her voice rang like trumpets calling armies to war as she added, "And we're going to make it even better."

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"I knew you'd be here," Luther Hawley told Marisa. The frozen face never twitched, but the eyes blazed with hate.

"How did you get my number?" she asked him. A foolish question, but she was in a bit of shock. She could've gotten someone's number through a number of channels, but he didn't have those kind of connections, not having lived her kind of life. His way would be different from hers.

It was. "I invented the security algorithms in those things, Pascale. Then I made improvements, which I kept to myself, so that no one could ever tap me."

"I should have guessed," Marisa said.

Hawley shrugged all that aside. "Here's how it's going to be, bitch. You get in here so we can have a little talk. You come alone, and you come unarmed. The longer you keep me happy, the longer until I decide to set off my little toy. Stay away, or come with friends, or come with weapons, and I set it off before you can get out of blast range."

"Are you ready to die, Luther? No more discoveries to make? No more mysteries to solve?"

"What do you think?" he said; and her screen went blank.

Marisa reached for the button to call Sam; then hesitated. Would calling Sam to the scene violate Hawley's demand to come in alone, even if he stayed outside? And would Hawley believe that Sam would stay outside while she went in? Her screen lit again, without a beep or her hitting Receive this time.

"Don't bother calling Mackie", Luther said. "I already did it, using all your secret little codes." Then the screen went blank again, and stayed that way.

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

Ĵuha's nose itched. He tried to scratch it, but his arm was pinned. By the time he realized the weight on his chest was Camoflage, he was wide awake. He scratched his nose with his other hand, instead.

Suddenly he stopped. With a shiver down his spine, he remembered why he hadn't worked with Camoflage for a while. She'd died when a robbery went wrong. An ally, a monster called The Glow, had killed her.

But this was definitely her. They had been lovers a long time, and a hundred little tricks and quirks said it was her, not an imitator, who'd made love with him last night. And yes, there was the thin scar, behind the shoulder blade, where she'd been cut with a knife once. He traced it with a wondering finger.

She purred deep in her throat and lifted her head, sweeping her shoulder-length Titian tresses out of her emerald-green eyes. She always looked good. Just awake, half dead, dirty and sweating, it never mattered, she was always drop-dead gorgeous. Bad choice of words, he thought. "Good morning," he said.

"Goooood MOOOOR-ning, lover," she said, and kissed him. She didn't believe in pecks on the cheek, either. Everything she did, she did thoroughly.

"That was pretty good for two dead people," he said, once he got his breath back.

She lay on his chest and smiled down at him. "You mean last night, or just now?" There was a great joy bubbling in her hearts. She knew he'd never understood what she saw in him. Where she was sleek and svelte, he was merely thin and wiry. His thin, unremarkable features, his faded blue eyes, and his lanky blond hair drew no second looks, a professional advantage to someone who chose to be a thief. He didn't understand that she had seen the man within the body early in their joint careers, and wanted no other. All too many of the criminal element around them were power-mad maniacs with super-powers, who wanted to overthrow civilization, or vicious killers who just liked to hurt people. He, like her, enjoyed the challenge of taking something that couldn't be taken. If no one even knew it was missing, so much the better; neither of them needed anyone else's chagrin to put the laugh in a caper.

That made her think of the current job, and a lot of the joy fizzled out. Still, it was the only game in town, so she had to make the best of it.

He could still read her like a book. "What is it, Lańa? What's wrong?"

She made herself smile again. "Wrong? What could be wrong? The Team Supreme is back together again! The Trickster and Camoflage are going to take this dull, upright Universe and stand it on its head, just like old times! Once old Tricky takes his paws off my butt so I can get out of bed, that is."

He laughed and sat up. "Time to get clean, I guess. Where's the tele?"

She crossed the room to the opposite wall, the one she'd been leaning against last night. The room as a whole was as primitive as the bed, he noted. Rather than being poured from the programmable liquid the Verē used to mold buildings, this one seemed to be made of, or at least lined with, boards cut from plant fibers—wood. The floor was made of bare boards laid side by side and pinned with bits of metal to whatever lay beneath them.

The lower half of the walls consisted of boards running vertically up to a horizontal strip. Above the horizontal strip the walls were smooth and cream colored; sheets of wood coated with some kind of coloring, he saw as he followed Lańa. The ceiling matched the upper wall. All in all, much more primitive surroundings than he was used to, and no technique he was familiar with. He wondered what planet they were on, but trusted that Camoflage would tell him presently.

"Now, I'm going to go through the tele first," Camoflage said. "I want you to brace yourself for a shock when I come out, all right?"

As she turned to face the wall, a rectangle, comfortably taller and wider than she, turned the glowing blue of a tele, the interface to the group mind of the Verē. He watched the sheen of sweat on her still naked buttocks as she strode into the tele and disappeared.

Almost before the last of her vanished, she strode out again, facing him now, and clean. He lifted his gaze to her face, and froze with shock. Then he stumbled backwards a step.

"What's the matter, Ĵuha? Don't you like the new me?" said the beloved voice.

Chapter 4
"Welcome to the World!"

But at my back I always hear
Time's winged chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.
Thy beauty shall no more be found,
Nor, in thy marble vault, shall sound
My echoing song: then worms shall try
That long preserved virginity,
And your quaint honour turn to dust,
And into ashes all my lust:
The grave's a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace.

—Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress",
1650 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earth)

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

She wept, because Augusta Hastings would never make love to her husband again, nor see her home world, nor command a ship or a fleet. She wept, because Tessa Anderson would never again see her children and grandchildren, or share the mind of a new kind of alien. She wept for Marisa Pascale, who would never again pit herself against a villain, or share a caper with Sam Mackie. For all the lives she had lived she wept, as they paraded through her mind, and settled themselves into place.

After a bit she sat up, wiped her eyes with her hand, and said out loud, "[Oh, stop your sniveling, Pascale]," in English. Then she stared at her hand, which had four digits instead of five, and was a teenager's.

A dreamer waking from a night in which she lived many lives may know relief from a task undone, that now need not be completed; release from the terror of a danger that no longer threatens; or regret, that a particularly sweet dream never happened. Above all else, she knows herself again, both who she is and what she's done; and she knows the world, and that she's awake. The longest series of dreams—in which she wakes, and then wakes again, and then wakes again—ends when she truly wakes, with a certainty missing from the nested dream. But the woman who had dreamed of being Marisa Pascale realized, looking at her four-fingered hands, that she had no waking memories. All the lives she remembered were equally real, all of them ended with her dying, and none of them matched the world before her.

Under her and in front of her was a lush half circle of lawn, big enough to throw a javelin or hold a raceball match, neatly clipped to ankle height, with that plush-rug feel a lawn only gets when it's been carefully tended for generations. Trees, of a kind she didn't recognize, enclosed the lawn: smooth grey trunks rising to spade-shaped masses of dark green leaves, supported by long slanting limbs. The sky was light green. Not blue, but green! A long rectangular shadow lay across the grass, from the slab behind her.

She rose to her feet. For a moment she was almost dizzy with youth, vigor, and a perfect health she hadn't felt in dream-decades. She turned around, noticing as she did that she was naked, and shrugged it off as unimportant. A light breeze stirred her hair, fine and straight and full, falling past her shoulders as she hadn't worn it for years in her Marisa-life, but the same raven black it had been before it turned to gray. A sharp regret pierced her, that Sam wasn't there to see it.

Before her now was the pedestal from which she'd rolled, knee-high, coffin-long, built into the base of a featureless slab that was three times her width, twice her height, all the corners and edges rounded slightly, robin's-egg blue in color. The lawn completed its circle on this side, and the same kind of trees waved their leaves in the breeze. The temperature was 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the green sky was full of white clouds, and great flocks of birds as far as the eye could see.

It was all so beautiful it almost hurt.

"Simradax Habêke," said a voice on her left. She turned her head.

Something like a man had stepped out of the trees and stood smiling at her. He wore a light green shirt with square white cuffs and a square white collar. The shirt was tucked into the pants. The pants were the same green, and tucked into white boots that ended a little below the knees. His belt was also white. It could almost be a uniform: green pants and shirt, with white cuffs, collar, belt, and boots; but a uniform with no emblem, insignia, or writing of any kind, nor markings of rank or branch of service, if so. He stood casually, even informally, with his left thumb hooked over his belt, and his right hand hanging at his side.

He was muscled like a runner, and had close-cropped wispy brown hair. But what kind of man was he? She could see short curving horns, maybe three inches long, rising from his temples, and short antlers, about twice that long, curving forward from the back of his head. There was something funny about his eyes, too, that she couldn't quite make out at this distance. He seemed also to be wearing a domino mask the same color as his hair, and makeup that swept back from the eyes and circled down and forward again, ending in points outside his mouth, and another short point down from each eye: like the markings of a hawk. Like an Eye of Horus, in fact, one on each side.

"Xozuruhod?" he asked her, not impatiently but amiably. She smiled and spread her hands. "[I don't know that language,]" she said. "[Do you speak English? Dicisne Latine? ¿Hablas Español? Parlez-vous Français? Parla Italiano? Sprechen Sie Deutsch?]" If none of those worked, she'd try Greek, or Farsi, or Arabic. Marisa Pascale might have been only a dream, but the nameless woman who spoke retained Marisa's confidence, or Alexa's, or even Nike's. Recalling Nike's powers, she wondered what abilities she might have in real life, and smiled again.

The stranger grinned cheerfully. "[Yes, any language you wish,]" he said in fluent New Latin. He waved at the monolith beside her. "[Would you like to get dressed?]"

She stared in consternation. While her attention had been on him, clothes had appeared on the table-stone. No one had come near, and she'd heard no machinery, but there they were. She walked around the stone, keeping her eye on him. There was no one behind it, no door into it, and the distance from it to the trees was too great for anyone to have run away while her head was turned.

The clothes themselves were very simple, and pure white: a pair of panties, a bra with no seams or fixtures to dig into her (now that she approved of!), and a plain robe that went over the head and fell to her knees, with flaring angel sleeves. All were made of the softest cloth she'd ever felt, yet it seemed strong. Putting on the bra, she discovered a row of circles down her torso on both sides, white as scar tissue, but soft and natural feeling. She added another question to her mental list.

A pair of white calf boots of the same softness, with hard soles, completed the pile. She checked the soles of her feet. They were as soft as a baby's. She shrugged her questions away and put on the boots. They fit perfectly, which raised another question: both boots were exactly the same size, but so were her feet! Neither the left foot nor the right foot was larger than the other.

"[All right, now what?]" she said. Motion drew her eye. The upright portion of the stone had turned into a perfect full-length mirror. She'd thought she was getting past surprise, but found she'd been mistaken.

She was 17 again, with a young woman's body perfected. The face was her own, but she had the same horns and antlers as her new acquaintance. She touched them, and felt the touch in hand and horn both; they weren't something attached, they had nerves. So did the antlers. A crescent of hair accented each eye, points facing forward, rather than the Eyes of Horus the man had. Male and female markings? Her eyes were as featureless as those of a marble statue. They were a uniform dark brown, undifferentiated into pupils, irises, or whites.

The shock lasted only a moment. She still felt like Marisa, appearance to the contrary, and Marisa had learned long ago to take each moment as it came. She took one deep breath, and turned to the stranger. "[Now what?]" she repeated.

He smiled. "Ea!" he said, a sound of approval in his voice, and put out his hand. "[Hi, I'm Qisp,]" he said. The "Q" was a glottal stop, like the "Q" in "Qatar" or the ' in Liverpudlian English words like "bo'l" or "Bea'l".

She shook it and smiled back. "[Glad to meet you, Qisp. I'm Marisa Pascale.]"

He grinned. "[Well—sort of. But Hala will tell you all about that.]"

"[Then let's go see him, Qisp. I have a million questions to ask.]"

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

"Lańa?" Ĵuha croaked.

"It's really me," said the creature before him; and the voice was the same.

The Verē of the First History were certain of many things. They weren't always right, but they were very certain. One of these things was their status as a master race, superior to any species that killed and ate other living things, instead of absorbing energy from radiant sources. Another was the perfection of the Verē body. The creature before Ĵuha was not a Verē.

But it was Camoflage, he realized. Replace the short horns at the temples and the double-forked horns on the head with a Verē's loop of horn, or kante, and remove the crescent of red hair outside each eye, points facing forward, and the face was hers. Ignore the row of round white circles down her torso, and the body was hers as well. With that adjustment, his quick mind saw Lańa again, not an alien creature, and he smiled.

"Ea!" she said—Bravo!—and held out her hands. He took them in his, and kissed her.

"So what is this?" he asked. "One of your disguises?"

"This is the new me, or me as an Iǹgrē. Think of it as Verē, Mark 5."

"So all those experiments with alien genes, and constructing bodies with alien powers—"

"Are still going on," she said firmly. "But this is the general-purpose model."

"The "antlers" are like a Verē's kante?"

"Right; the improved kante draw energy directly from radiant sources. and the organs at their base, the faise, act as transformers. The little 'magnetic horns' on the temples let you sense magnetic fields, and the 'electric lines' "—she ran her hands lightly down the rows of white dots on her sides—"are for sensing electric currents. The rest is the same as Verē."

"New senses," he mused. "What's that like?"

She laughed, and waved at the glowing blue tele on the wall. "Once you have them, you'll know," she said.

Ĵuha eyed the interface, dubious at the prospect of changing his familar body. Camoflage used to do that, but most Verē had been far too conservative to use a tele for anything but cleaning up, changing clothes, or long-distance travel. Medical needs had been met with the assistance of experts, except for those like him and Lańa who had secrets to keep. Even in those buildings and community spaces that existed only in the virtual reality of the tele, though in theory any physical rules could apply, the environment had almost always mirrored the Outside. Ĵuha stepped forward.

"Wait," said Camoflage, serious for once. "Listen, love, when you're in there, walk small. Don't draw any attention to yourself, and come right back."

"What do you mean?" he said. "It's just a tele."

She shook her head. "You'll see. Remember: walk small."

Ĵuha blinked at her a moment, puzzled. Then, seeing she wouldn't answer any questions, he shrugged and stepped into the tele.

And entered Hell.

The Verē had believed in a single all-powerful and universal God who created the universes, and gave the Verē, and other races like them, their powers. Untainted by dualism, they had no anti-God and no place of torment in their religion. But the human nation from which the Verē arose were pagans, and what Ĵuha found was very like the afterlife in the mythology of those ancestors.

Here was no virtual reality with a bustling population, but a vast, formless emptiness. No community greeted or ignored him; he floated alone. Then suddenly he was not alone. An immense, immeasurably hostile Mind regarded him with sullen menace. Hate poured from it, like light from a star-sun.

He fled. Back through the tele he stumbled, clean, clothed, and wearing an Iǹgrē body now. Lańa caught him before he could fall, and wrapped strong arms around his shivering body, murmuring words of comfort.

"Powergiver! What was that thing?" he gasped.

"That was the enemy we have to fight," said Camoflage. He stared at her, and she barked out laughter at his expression.

"Fight that? How?"

"We'll show you how," she said. She kissed his cheek and smiled at him. "Welcome to the war, Trickster."

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Sam, still lying on the stone, looked up dully. In the glareless green sky, tiny glints of light showed white, with faint traces of color: mostly red and orange, but some yellow, blue, and some pure white. They hung motionless, with birds and clouds passing before them. Gradually a surmise woke in his grieving mind, bringing wonder with it.

"Stars," he said softly. But if he was seeing stars in daylight in a green sky, then he wasn't on Earth, or any world he'd heard of in any of his lives.

Motion out of the corner of his eyes had him rolling away instinctively. Stupid, Mackie! The slab's in the way! But as he thought that, he rolled through the stone, as if it were an illusion, and dropped to the grass on the other side. A wooden quarterstaff crashed down where he'd lain.

"Well done!" said its wielder, as he stepped around the pillar. The same height as Sam, he conveyed an impression of great size and mass. Big muscles rippled in his legs, arms, and torso. Short horns sprouted above his red eyebrows, and short double-forked antlers from his mane of red hair. Around his eyes were red markings that swept back, down, and forward again to points outside his mouth, with short spurs down from each eye. He wore pants and shirt of the same red as his hair, with very dark red cuffs, collar, belt, and boots. A band of the very dark red band down the front of his shirt, wider than the collar, bore an ellipse of the brighter color, wider than it was tall, like a conventional picture of a halo.

His staff was as long as he was tall. As he set it spinning, he grinned with huge, ferocious enjoyment.

Since he'd rolled through the pillar, Sam didn't think it would stop the quarterstaff. So instead of keeping the pillar between them, he backed into the open to get room, wishing he had a staff of his own. It was one of his favorite weapons, and it would've been a great comfort to have one in his hands right now. Just have to take his, Princess. The thought brought renewed grief, but he shoved it aside and watched his opponent, acutely aware of his nakedness and vulnerability.

"You're game, that's good," the big man said. "We must have a real bout some time." The spinning staff slowed, came to a halt upright on the turf.

"Now's as good a time as any," said Sam.

The other roared with laughter. "Stout lad!" He pointed at the pillar on his left, Sam's right, as they now stood. "But take a look."

Watching him carefully, Sam looked. The pillar had turned into a mirror, and he saw himself.

Overall condition struck him first. He looked 18 again, fit, but with none of the bulk and muscle that had come to him in his twenties. The slender youth in the mirror, though the same height as the red-haired man, would've been no match for him.

Whatever kind of man the other was, Sam was now the same: the same horns and antlers, the same markings around the eyes. He felt them and discovered they were hair, the only hair on his face, the same sandy-blond color he'd always had, until it had whitened with age.

His eyes were the same blue they'd always been, but solid blue with no pupils, irises, or whites. Down his torso on each side was a row of circles, white as scar tissue, but as soft and sensitive as unscarred skin.

Out of a world of confusion he plucked a question at random. "Are those really stars I see up there?"

"Right you are, lad. Your new eyes have diffraction gratings, instead of lenses. No such thing as glare any more; the more light, the more information. You'll find you can see one infra-red color, and two ultra-violet colors, as well."

"But where am I? And what am I?"

"Iǹgrē. Human. Human 6.0, you might say." The red man turned his head and shouted. "Zuk! Bring clothes!"

"Coming!" Around the pillar another man came at a run, carrying a pile of clothing—and where did he come from, Sam wondered. He was slender, with a big grin on his face, and uncombed dark green hair sticking up every which way. His clothing was like the big man's, except the cuffs, collar, belt, and boots were dark green, and the pants and shirt medium orange. He had no band down the front of his shirt, and bore no insignia of any kind. He had horns on his temples and antlers on his head, like Sam and the quarterstaff wielder. His eyes were bright red, and his eyebrows and hawk markings were the same dark green as the unruly hair on top of his head.

He ran up to Sam, holding out the clothing. "Hi! I'm Zuk! Here you go!"

"[Cheers, mate,]" Sam said. He looked at the bigger man, who just waved a hand for him to go ahead, and leaned on his quarterstaff, whistling cheerfully. Sam put on the clothes—briefs, a plain white robe with flaring sleeves, white boots—while thinking furiously. "Cheers, mate" was the first thing he'd said in English since Red had showed up. They'd been speaking another language—and Sam didn't know what it was, or where he'd learned it. In fact, what he did remember made no sense: a series of lives from birth to death, each as real as the next. He finished dressing and stuck out his hand.

"Look, let's start over. I'm [Sam Mackie]."

The big man grinned. "No, you aren't," he said, "but [Sam] will do for now. I'm Hala, and this is Zuk." He took Sam's hand and shook it firmly but carefully. Zuk ran up, grabbed Sam's hand, and pumped it vigorously. "Hi, [Sam]! Welcome to the World!"

" 'Welcome to the World,' " Sam said slowly. "I know the words, but not what you mean by them, exactly. And how do I know the words? And where am I?"

"I'll be glad to tell you," Hala said. "But I hate to do it twice. Let's collect the lady, so I can tell you both at the same time." He put an arm around Sam's shoulders and started to lead him away from the pillar where he'd awoken.

Sam put on the brakes. Wild hope surged in him. "What lady?"

Hala looked at him kindly. "The lady you knew as [Marisa Pascale], of course. Now come on."

"But—" Sam choked and started over. To his disgust, tears started leaking from his eyes. He dashed them away. "But she's dead! I saw her dead!"

Zuk was patting his back, an anxious expression on his face. "Yes, she died," Hala said. "So did you. Not the first time for either of you, nor the last." He saw how Sam was staring at him, shocked and not daring to believe, and sighed. "Ehiu, I'm no good at this."

"Sam!" Zuk said. "She's OK! You're OK! Let's go meet her, all right?"

"Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings," said Sam. "Psalm 8, verse 2. All right, let's."

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

Asae Minatsuro—"Mina" to everyone but her parents—scanned the U. N. Building. Had she seen movement, or just imagined it? She checked her omnicom's infra-red display. No heat sources showed through the chill rain, which had started coming down again around 2300—11 P. M. civilian time. So either nothing was out there, or the rain was masking it. Probably the former, since the cold background would also make any nearby sources of heat stand out better. She tapped her stylus against her teeth and debated whether she should call the captain. Maybe he had some news?

Someone tapped her on the shoulder. "What is it, Juan?" she said. She turned to see what the corporal wanted to show her.

Marisa pulled the hood up over the officer's head, both to conceal her better, and to keep the rain off her face. Then she resumed moving towards the Secretariat. This was the final ring of cops; distance and rain should keep others from seeing her enter.

Hawley had ordered her to come, but nothing said she couldn't check out the situation first. She wanted to call Sam, but didn't dare while Hawley monitored her omnicom. In fact, she'd left it behind with the last officer she'd knocked out, the pretty woman with the Japanese name on her nametag. Another time she might have speculated whether "SGT Minatsuro, A." was the "Mina" whom Lonnie mentioned so often, but right now her attention was sharply focused.

UNHQ had few entrances, and they were closely controlled lest nationalist groups or anti-U.N. crazies smuggled a bomb in. The fact that any diplomat could bring in matériel inside a briefcase or diplomatic pouch didn't make the guards any less diligent about the packages they could search, and non-invasive snooper scopes were said to be everywhere. Marisa believed it, especially since Lonnie'd mentioned the weight of Hawley's package, and readings indicating that it was radioactive. Only automated sensors could have gotten that information after the premises had been evacuated.

There remained the mystery of how Hawley had gotten inside with his bomb, but offhand she could think of five or six ways to do it. He could have been inside already when the bomb threat was called in, for all she knew. More pressing was how she was going to get in without him knowing. If he'd hacked the sensors, would that even be possible?

She eyed the small metal service door speculatively. Normally it would be both locked and alarmed. With the power shut off, whether by Hawley or the authorities, safety standards said that it should have "failed open", unlocked for the emergency exit of people who might otherwise be trapped inside by a fire or other catastrophe. If Hawley hadn't put an alarm on it, and if it were unlocked, she had a chance to get the drop on him. Otherwise, her choices got much bleaker.

There was only one way to find out. A small light from her pocket showed no wires or alarm devices on or around the outside of the door—not that she had tools to deal with any, but knowing was always better than not knowing. She pried at the door's edge with her finger tips, and it swung out silently. Blind luck, or silent invitation?

She found no sign of alarm mechanisms on the inside of the door. either, but she didn't believe it wasn't wired. She'd just have to wait to learn whether she'd been noticed. She turned off the light to let her eyes adjust to the dark. Then she left her wet coat, with the light in its pocket, and her shoes, in a closet near the door, where they wouldn't be found. The soles of her feet were boot-leather tough, and silent.

The United Nations General Assembly Building had been constructed in the late 1940's, and modernized later as technology advanced. The original design provided two equipment floors for air conditioning in the New York summer, heating in winter, emergency power generators, and so forth. Today the climate and lighting were controlled by micro units throughout the office floors, commanded by a netcom and a backup netcom in closets at opposite ends of the building, and the power came from solar panels on the roof, and batteries (Hawley batteries, ironically) that could store a month's ordinary usage. But the equipment floors still existed, full of obsolete hardware that would cost more to remove than to leave in place, shut down and forgotten. Lonnie's omnicom, echoing the situation site map, had shown Hawley's heat signature on the lower of the two equipment floors.

The emergency lighting led Marisa to a stairwell, and she climbed five flights to the vacant floor. In black slacks and sweater, she ghosted past metal shapes. The floor was clean and the corners free of dust, thanks to automatic dusting and mopping robots. A maze of ducts and pipes of different sizes, some with round cross-sections and some square, loomed overhead.

Light from a battery-powered lamp drew her. Hawley had removed an exterior panel from a generator that was older than he was, and had crawled halfway inside, with just his lower body showing outside. Muffled curses and the clank of tools came out, and an occasional gleam of light.

Marisa stopped in the shadows outside the cone of light from the lamp, and watched carefully. Hawley appeared to be completely alone and totally absorbed in his work, which didn't ring true. He knew she was coming, so why get caught up in a job? And why mess with an antiquated, unfueled generator, when the modern battery for his light could run the entire building for a month? She began quartering the area around him, moving only her eyes, searching for a trap.

Suddenly her arms were seized from behind in an unbreakable grip. "Hello, Marisa," said a mellow version of Hawley's voice in her ear. "Did you miss me?"

She felt the inhuman strength of his grip, and knew why she hadn't heard him behind her. Cold within her was the knowledge that Solar-8 had been reborn.

Chapter 5
"Why Are We Here?"

Now therefore, while the youthful hue
Sits on thy skin like morning dew,
And while thy willing soul transpires
At every pore with instant fires,
Now let us sport us while we may,
And now, like amorous birds of prey,
Rather at once our time devour,
Than languish in his slow-chapt power.
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.

—Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress",
1650 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earth)

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Qisp led Marisa down a long, shady, gently-winding dirt path through the woods. The path was edged by small fist-sized stones, and branched frequently on one side or the other. Sometimes the trees grew right up to it, and sometimes there was a wide lawn on the right, the left, or both.

Birds of all colors perched on the branches, sang an infinite repertoire back and forth, picked at the unfamiliar fruit, caught bugs in midair, or hopped in the grass, looking for worms. Shortly after they left the clearing, a small red bird the size of Marisa's hand, that looked like a tanager except the wings were too big, took exception to their passage and divebombed their heads, over and over, until they passed some invisible line and satisfied it that they'd been chased off. Marisa laughed, while Qisp squawked indignantly.

When Marisa noticed that Qisp's feet weren't quite touching the ground, he flushed like a small boy caught being naughty. Then he shrugged and bounced twelve feet in the air, showing off. Marisa blinked, and noticed that the blink was double. Concentrating, she discovered she had two pairs of eyelids, the ones she was used to, and another pair, translucent, inside those. She added another question or two to her rapidly-growing list.

Thereafter Qisp kept leaving the path whenever a small animal attracted his attention. Once he jumped into a tree and brought her a small scared bird with brilliant blue plumage, like an indigo bunting but even more intensely blue, who flew off hastily when she released it. Shortly after that, he went leaping off down the path in great bounds, like an astronaut in lunar gravity.

While he was gone, she picked up a stone. It felt no heavier than it would've on Earth. When she dropped it, though, it zipped to the ground like a cartoon rock, or a speeded-up movie. The puff of dust it raised was very flat and very brief. "[Six gravities?]" she guessed aloud.

"[Five]," said Qisp, who'd come bouncing back while she experimented. He picked up two rocks. Then, crossing his eyes and sticking out his tongue in a parody of concentration, he dropped them. The one from his left hand fell as if he'd dropped it on Earth; the one from his right hand sank slowly, blown along by the breeze, like an air-filled balloon.

Marisa looked at the rocks, then up at the birds, who had wings about twice as large as those of Earth birds, and shook her head. Shouldn't birds that could fly in five gravities have wings with five times the area? But then what about bones to support them, and muscles to move them? One thing she'd never been, in any life, was a bioengineer. She tabled it for now, like so much else.

They went on. Something very like a red squirrel, with white undersides and tufted ears, clung to a bole and whistled at them, three ascending notes in a high register, hi? hi?? hiii??! A little later, Qisp stopped her with a hand on her arm. A badger (or near enough) hissed at them, its thick pelt standing up in two white stripes down the middle of its wide, flat, muscular back, its tail bottled; carnivore fangs showing in a masked face, and one long-clawed foreleg resting possessively on something small and furry and very dead. "[Pretty boy!]" said Marisa, admiringly. It grunted, took its prey in its teeth, and waddled majestically off the path into some flowering shrubs.

For the moment she decided to ask no questions, but was content to enjoy the lush plant life, the abundant animals, and all the smells of the clean sweet air. When had she last breathed air like that, pure as cold fresh water from a deep well? When had she ever seen a sky like that, full of birds like winged jewels, clean of smoke, the same pure color from zenith to horizon? A scatter of clouds sailed by in the jade-green sky, followed by a loner at a little distance, like a dog herding sheep. She laughed, and when she pointed them out to Qisp, still without words, he laughed too. Still smiling, they entered another clearing.

Three men stood talking there, a muscular figure and two slender ones. Then one of the thinner men moved his arms a certain way as he talked, and her attention focused on him.

"[Sam?!]" she said, and took a tentative step forward.

His head snapped around at the sound of her voice. "[Princess?]"

Then she was running, running, not like some romantic cliché, but as if she were running for her life; and he was running too. A lifetime and more of cool reserve was thrown away. She threw herself into his arms; and he caught her. For one moment they gazed at each other, looking their fill. Then she grabbed the back of his neck and pulled his face close, and kissed him as she had never kissed him before. Tears of joy salted their lips, and whether his, or hers, she neither knew nor cared.

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"What's the matter, Sam?" Lonnie Sanders said.

Sam Mackie rubbed the back of his neck. "I dunno for sure, Lonnie, but I have a bad feeling. I think we'd better find out where Marisa went."

"Are you serious? Why? Because your neck itches?"

"Yes, and yes. Where and when did you see her last?"

A quick but thorough search of the area turned up nothing. "This makes no sense," Lonnie said. "She wouldn't have just wandered off!"

Sam stood thinking, rubbing the back of his neck, while Sanders took his omnicom off the top of his cruiser and opened it.

"Wait, Lonnie."

"What? All units—"

"No, wait!" Sam said sharply, grabbing his wrist.

Sanders looked at him for a moment, then said, "All units, report status."

"Sorry," Sam said. "I was afraid you were going to tell them to look around for Marisa."

"I was. This should get the same results without mentioning her name or giving a description."

Sam nodded. "Exactly. I don't know that Hawley can tap your communications, but better not to take chances. Let's keep him in the dark about the Princess and me being here, if we can."

"And if nobody reports anything?"

"Then I can track her omnicom. But let's save that for a last—"

"Captain?" said Lonnie's omnicom. A solid, rugged face appeared in it, dark-haired, clean-shaven. His skin was tanned by sun, and roughened by lots of time outside in all kinds of weather. The rank insignia on his collar was a NYPD sergeant's.

"Sanders here. Go ahead."

"Sir, this is Sergeant McGuire, with the summary of the status check you requested. We have several Code 5's."

"Critical?" Sanders snapped.

"No sir."

"Where's the one closest to the General Assembly building?"

"Station 6, sir, but—"

"On my way! Sanders out." He put his omnicom in its holster and snapped it shut as he began to run towards the U. N. Building.

"Officers down?" asked Sam as he caught up.

"But not critical. Not dead or seriously injured," said Lonnie.

"So why are we running?"

"Station 6 is Mina's position!"

They ran faster.

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

Lańa led Ĵuha down the garden path—not for the first time, either, he thought with a smile. The room in which he'd woken turned out to be the only one fit to occupy in a falling-down ruin of a Teřańai villa, rehabilitated on the inside only. On the outside the portico roof lay in ruins among the tumbled columns that had once supported it. The villa had been built in typical Teřańai style around an interior atrium, but three of its four sides had crumbled.

What had been the garden of the villa was now a jungle in full riot, the ornamental flora exploded from their beds, and the decorative trees grown into giants whose roots had tumbled carefully-arrayed stones into disorder. Red, yellow, and green hummingbirds, their wings whirring and buzzing, darted around the shepherd's-pitcher vines that had buried the central fountain. The air was sweet with the heavy perfume of the big, vase-shaped flowers. Walking sticks marched ponderously along tree limbs, their butterfly-wings turning in the cool breeze like sails.

Ĵuha saw the insects and started. Surely the marē were Eoverai bugs? He looked up for the first time, and saw the star-sun Vol climbing to noon. But the outer sun Trânis, instead of being well ahead of it in the sky, was almost directly behind it.

So he was on Eoverai—which was destroyed—and not on a colony world; and it was either many years earlier than his own time, or somehow, impossibly, much, much later. He wondered which. He wondered how. He gave Lańa a smile—You'll explain it all when you're ready, love. I know this game.—and they walked on.

On the far side of the former garden sprawled the main building of the old palace in massive ruin, white as bones in the sunlight. The complete dilapidation of its wings exposed the atria, while the vacant windows of the central rotunda promised rot and decay under its red-tiled roof. Into this wreck Lańa led him.

The third room on the right had a door. Lańa raised a fine-boned fist to it, but a voice in their heads stopped her.

[[No need to knock, Camoflage. Come in,]] it said.

Ĵuha opened the door. The room within was in perfect repair, done in the same strange and primitive manner as his room in the gardener's residence. Wooden walls had been erected inside the ancient stone. Polished slats displaying their grain ran up to a waist-high molding; above it a smooth expanse was painted a delicate cream color. Plain box moldings supported a wooden ceiling of the same color. The wooden floor was the same unpainted hardwood as the lower wall.

In an ebony x-frame chair sat a neuter Iǹgrē, dressed Traditionally in an ankle-length robe with big sleeves, of soft blue cloth. The white band down the front of the robe had no Household arms, just the T́uliǹgrai numeral one in dark blue. The light from a bowl-shaped overhead fixture gleamed on ys bald head. A plain wooden table in front of ym held a few loose sheets of paper, a couple of fanfold books, and a large scroll with orkē-head finials on each end of its spine.

[[Welcome, Trickster,]] y said serenely; with still lips. Y did not rise or offer ys hand, but Ĵuha didn't expect ym to. The society from which he'd come had three genders: neuter, female, and male, with neuters in most of the positions of power and influence, and males least influential. The neuter behind the desk was dressed as Ĵuha expected a leader to dress, and acting as he expected ym to act. It was reassuring. Only the mental voice was strange, and the numeral, instead of a Household badge.

"Thank you, Sir."

[[I look forward to seeing how your courage and ingenuity can best serve our purposes,]] the neuter said.

"I don't know what those purposes are, Sir."

[[You don't?]] Y was surprised momentarily. [[Forgive me, I seem to be getting ahead of myself again. There's so much to keep track of, you see.]] Y glanced at Camoflage. [[Lańa?]]

"Of course, Sir. Ĵuha, this is Jedai, our leader."

"I still don't understand. Jedai who? Leader of what?" said Ĵuha.

[[Just Jedai,]] y said, tapping the numeral on ys chest—jede is "one" in T́uliǹgrai, the High Speech of the Verē and Iǹgrē. [[Not Ihed́ai Jedai, or Borai Jedai, or Jedai the head of some other Household, but Iǹgrai Jedai, if so I might dare to call myself. I'm the leader, self-appointed it's true,]] y spread ys hands in a deprecating gesture, [[of all those who hope to free the Iǹgrē from the tyranny enslaving them.]]

"Forgive me, Sir, but I'm new here. I know nothing of this tyranny, this enslavement. I don't really know what the Iǹgrē are, though I stand here in the body of one."

[[You felt the monster that lurks in the tele?]] Jedai asked. [[That's what we're fighting.]]

"That thing!" Ĵuha said. "Count me in, Sir."

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"[Sam, look at us!]" said Marisa. Still holding on with one hand around his waist, she moved the other across between them from her forehead to his, showing that they were now the same height, and they laughed.

She looked around. Qisp had joined the other two out of earshot, giving them privacy. "[What have you found out, Sam?]" she said quietly. She listened while he told her everything that had happened since his awakening.

Sam had gone through a series of shocks in the past few minutes. The news that Marisa would be joining them had jolted him out of the fog of apathy and misery he'd been in, and he'd spent the walk here examining his actions in this place, and cursing himself for what he saw. What a fine account of himself he'd have to offer the Princess when they met! In this he was harder on himself than she'd have been, for she well knew that she was the center of his being, and how lost he'd be knowing she was dead.

So he'd kept fully alert on the way to this clearing, looking for information to offer a handle to this unprecedented situation in which they found themselves. Nothing happened, and his keen catalogue of the abundant animal and plant life of this strange yet very Earth-like planet impressed not even him.

Then they arrived in a clearing, and waited. Marisa's voice startled him out of an attempt to pry some clue out of Hala, and he'd turned with relief to greet her. Their usual greeting was outwardly cool, however long they'd been apart: quiet words, warm smiles, inquiries after mutual friends, perhaps a little teasing on her part about whatever girl he'd been with.

Instead he'd gotten another shock, when she cried his name and came running across the clearing. Instead of "[Hallo, Sam,]" or even "[Hallo, Sam love,]" she'd thrown herself into his arms and burst into tears. Then came the greatest shock of all, when she drew him to her and kissed him passionately. She'd have startled him less if she'd pulled out a gun and shot him through the head!

Now she seemed to have regained her equilibrium, but Sam was far from sure that he'd regained his. Any other time, he'd have taken the arm around his waist as a miscue directed at their enemies, to mislead them on the relation between him and Marisa; just as they had done many times, against enemies who didn't know them, by pretending indifference or even hate. But now he wasn't sure. Was that arm trembling, just the smallest bit? he wondered, as he related his experiences.

"[Wait a minute,]" Marisa said. "[This language they speak—you understand it?]"

"Da," said Sam. "Tê xohuzukâsad?"

"[Not a word,]" Marisa replied, "[assuming you just said something like Yes, don't you? What language is it? Where did you learn it?]"

"[It's called T́uliǹgrai, and I don't remember learning it, Princess. I just seem to have woken up knowing it. You really don't?]"

"[I don't,]" she said. "[The question is, why does one of us follow it, but not both of us?]"

Sam rubbed his chin. "[They more or less promised us answers, once we collected you. Why don't we just ask them?]"

"[We will. First, though, here's what happened to me…]"

As Marisa finished bringing Sam up to date, Hala, Zuk and Qisp approached, each in his own way: Hala strolling easily, the quarterstaff left behind on the grass; Qisp bounding along in low-gravity strides, sometimes forgetting to come down for a bit; and Zuk running ahead of the other two, his upper body still, his legs and feet twinkling rapidly, running back to the others as he outdistanced them, circling around them, and then shooting ahead again, for all the world like an eager hound.

"[Everything all right with you two now?]" Hala inquired genially. His English, Marisa noted, had an Eastern American sound to it.

"[We're fine for now,]" she said. She cocked an eyebrow. "[Is that a Philly accent?]"

"[Different Earth, different geography,]" Hala said. "[Star City. But call it a Philadelphia accent if you like.]"

"[Like I said, Princess,]" Sam noted. "[Every answer you get just raises more questions.]"

Hala laughed, Zuk tee-hee'ed, and Qisp giggled. Marisa and Sam stared. "[I'm here to answer all your questions,]" Hala said, smiling. "[But there's a lot of background I have to fill in for you, before things will fit together. Almost everything you think you know is wrong.]"

Sam threw up his hands in disgust. Marisa said, "[All right, let's get right to the bottom line, then. Why are we here?]"

"[Simple,]" said Hala; and he wasn't smiling now. "[We're at war—and you're our latest recruits.]"

Chapter 6
The Common History

Liriolilliatiriu  dhenasilullomibomo  zizoligalesazigareri,
Kuheliduranopotolu  lessanuohomizivazivad  dhenasishishaneanoloa,
Talenamiverahodelisi  kohezivesasubudu  vidadokerigiluona.
Liriolilliatedhes  tandirizotanianan  paresisosolopareria,
Kuheliduranopomatu  tandaresininanotor  paresomiminiloeo,
Talenamiverahodemi  kohejavidesasudani  finidumareritiona.
  A bird sings in a tree at sunset,
A women reads beneath the tree,
A man watches the woman with love.
The bird will not sing forever,
The woman will not read forever,
But the man will love her forever.

— A love poem in the associative Mižinē language. Speaking Mižinai is like playing jazz.

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Another little stroll took the five of them—Marisa and Sam, Hala, Qisp, and Zuk—out of the forest. The path ended in front of a modest one-story cottage with white board siding, shingled with reddish-brown wooden shakes. It had no chimney, and the medium-sized windows on either side of the door had single-paned glass, with no insulation, Sam noted. Evidently bad weather wasn't an issue here. The door, of the same red wood as the roof, had a brass latch but no lock. Nor thieves, Sam thought.

A stocky man, not hard-muscled like Hala, but not slender like Sam's present form, was waiting at the cottage for them. He had brown eyes in a face unadorned by the male hawk markings that Sam, Hala, Qisp, and Zuk bore, or the lunettes around Marisa's eyes. In fact, his only visible hair was his eyebrows. With no hair atop his head, the horns and antlers rising from his skull stood out starkly. He was dressed in pink robes that fell to the ground, covering his feet, and had long billowing sleeves. His collar and belt were black, and there were wide black strips just above the hem of his robe, and just short of the ends of his sleeves.

Zuk and Qisp shouted "Culi!" when they saw him (they pronounced it CHOO-lee), and swarmed all over him like eager puppies. He said something to them in an indulgent tone, as one might address boistrous but beloved children, and fended them off with both arms. Then he reduced them to rolling on the ground with laughter by flicking his ears at them in a gesture of haughty dismissal, like a Persian cat. Sam, seeing this, tried to move his own ears, and felt them twitch. He looked at Marisa. Her right ear folded shut slowly, deliberately, then opened again; a wink of an ear. He looked away.

Hala hauled Qisp and Zuk to their feet and said, in English "[Boys, Culi and I need to tell [Marisa] and [Sam] about the World, and history, and stuff like that. Why don't you go chase birds, or go try to drown each other in the nearest lake, or something?]"

"[Yes, do something to work off some of that endless energy, if that's even possible,]" said the bald man in the robe. He followed Hala's lead in speaking English without more than a puzzled glance at the big red-haired man. "[I never thought I'd ever be tired again since my own rebirth, but you two almost wear me out.]"

"Eiho, [can't we stay?]" said Qisp. "[We'll be quiet, I promise.]"

"[Go have fun,]" Culi told him. "[Try not to tear each other's arms and legs off, it's tedious to have to sew them back on.]" And he kissed them each on the forehead.

They laughed at his joke, and hugged him. Then they hugged Hala, and hugged Sam, and hugged Marisa, and ran off, already yelling.

"[They like you already,]" the bald man said. "[I've never seen them accept someone just like that, before.]"

"[I hope you were exaggerating when you spoke of them trying to drown each other?]" Marisa said, smiling.

"[Or tearing each other's arms and legs off!]" Sam laughed.

"[Well, maybe just a little,]" Hala said. "[They play pretty rough, though.]"

He went on, "[This is Culi, the last of our little band. Culi, the lady is calling herself [Marisa], for now, and the gent is [Sam].]"

"[Welcome to the World, [Marisa]. Welcome to the World, [Sam],]" Culi said. "[Let me clear up one thing right away, just to avoid any misunderstandings. Sex and gender are different here in the World than in the lives you remember. While you, [Sam], and Hala, Qisp, and Zuk are male, and you, [Marisa], are female, I am a neuter. The sexes, genders, and life cycles in our world are more complicated than a binary fixed male and female, and our language reflects it. In English, here in the World, we use the pronouns y and ym, and the adjective ys for neuters, corresponding to he, him, and his for males, or she, her, and hers for females. A neuter parent, when we're speaking English, is called an yther, just as a female parent is called a mother, and a male parent a father. I won't be offended if you forget and say 'he' instead of 'y', but you should know about me, and all the other neuters whom you'll meet."

"[Thank you for being frank with us,]" Marisa said. "[Let me return the favor. The reason we're speaking English, instead of your language, is that I don't seem to have gotten that download. Sam woke up here knowing it, but I didn't. So for now, at least, I need you all to indulge me in the favor of an Earth language that I know. It doesn't have to be English, particularly, but it has to be some Earth language I'm familiar with.]"

"[Well, that's a damned nuisance, lady,]" Culi grumbled. Then he smiled. "[Not.]" He opened the cottage door, and held it for her. "[Shall we get started?]"

The living room began right inside the door, again with no provision for bad weather, and no place to hang up coats or hats, or leave boots to dry. Thick rugs covered the wooden floor almost everywhere, and big pillows leaned against the walls. They sat down informally on the rugs and pillows, Marisa and Sam following their hosts' lead. Marisa sat facing the front door, with Sam on her right; Culi sat opposite her, just inside the front door, with Hala on ys left, smiling at Sam. A couple of little round tables, only a couple of feet high, were the only furniture; one against the front wall on Marisa's right, behind Hala, and one against the wall on her left. There were two open doorways, one across from the outside door, behind Marisa and Sam, and the other in the right-hand wall, to Sam's right.

"[Thanks for inviting us,]" Marisa said. "[This is a beautiful little cottage you have here.]"

"[You're most welcome. But this isn't my house,]" Culi said. "[It's yours.]"

"[Mine?!]" said Marisa. She glanced at Sam, who shrugged.

"[Yours and Sam's,]" Culi confirmed. "[Or if you want two separate houses, I'll have another one put nearby. Just choose a spot.]"

"[That's very generous, Culi. Thank you again. Are you rich, then?]"

"[We don't have money, or wealth, or poverty, in the World,]" y answered easily. "[The human race, as a whole, is infinitely rich; and you're a human being, and Sam is, and 'money' and 'wealth' don't matter. Live well, and don't hurt other people or make them unhappy. You already showed, in at least one life, that you know what that means, or you wouldn't be here.]"

"[Here, now,]" Sam said. "[Is this utopia, then? Hala said there was a war on.]"

"[Did he, now?]" Culi said. Y looked at Hala, who looked embarassed. "[Hala's getting way ahead of himself, Hala is, hinting at that to a couple of people the first day of their new lives!]"

"[Yes, but she asked me, Culi!]" Hala protested.

"[So?]" Marisa said. "[Never mind the drama. Is there a menace, or not?]"

"[There is, and there isn't,]" Culi told her. "[There's a threat to the whole universe, and to every human being in it, and all the other sentient species, both on this world and on every other. But we're not certain what it is, or when it will become critical. We might need to face it in a couple hundred of our years, or four hundred, or never; or it might already be too late. There's no direction to charge off in, banners waving, weapons at the ready.]"

"[Color me confused,]" Sam said. "[Like the Princess asked Hala, why are we here? Can you just answer that?]"

"[We can,]" Culi said. "[But not in twenty words or less, or in twenty days, even. The four of us volunteered for the task of introducing you two to our culture, and showing you around, and helping you fit in. But it's not an easy task, especially since all the lives you remember are more-or-less simplified falsehoods designed to make you think, and fight back against old-style human civilizations.]"


Sam and Marisa half-sat, half-lay in the pillows and rugs across from Hala and Culi. From outside came the shouts of Qisp and Zuk as they played tag across the grass and through the tree tops. Culi smiled fondly at the sound, and motioned for Hala to begin.

"[Not all universes are cyclical, but this universe is,]" Hala said. "[It expands from an origin as a point, reaches a maximum radius, then collapses back to a point, over and over again. Human beings aren't native to this cycle; we originated in the previous one, billions of years ago, no matter whose years you use.]"

"[Hold on now,]" Sam said. "[I'm little more than a tinkerer myself, but I know lots of high-powered scientists. The age of the universe, the age of the Earth, the fact that humans evolved there, are all known. And no one believes in cyclical or steady state universes any more.]"

"[But the Earth, and the Earth's galaxy, and the Earth's universe, and the kind of human beings you've always known, and all the history you've ever learned or experienced personally, are fictional, Sam,]" Hala said.

"[Even some of the science there is different,]" Culi said, "[It's honest work, but the reality it describes is different, so the science differs too. Human genetics has been deliberately simplified, and on most Earths telekinesis, clairvoyance, and telepathy don't exist, therefore there's no science to describe them. All your lives have been lived in virtual realities, designed to raise children. When they reject the superstitions and poisonous ideas that the whole race has progressed beyond, when they learn to treat other people decently, they're reborn in the objective universe. As you two were just reborn, this very day. As I was. As Hala was. As the boys were.]"

"['Welcome to the World',]" Marisa said slowly.

"[And indeed you are welcome, a thousand thousand times welcome,]" Culi said, looking at them with what seemed like genuine affection. "[But let Hala tell it as it happened, and hold your objections until he's done. Afterwards, we can take you around the World, and the universe, and show you the truth of it all. All right?]"


Humans evolved on a high-gravity, but Earthlike planet. One of its cultures, at one point in its history, called the world Vwyrdda. They spread out over the planet, founded cities and city states and different kinds of civilizations, each one with its own music, language, laws, arts, ways of living, and everything else that humans do. Of course that included fighting each other, and building empires: because governments define themselves, in the very beginning, as bandit gangs who rob and subjugate their neighbors, or as communities who organize to defend themselves.

When the most successful empires began sailing the world's seas, they ran into other empires across the oceans. There wasn't an expanding Old World conquering a primitive New World, but two evenly-matched Old Worlds colliding. The number and intensity of wars, and the complexity of diplomacy, intrigue and backstabbing, jumped exponentially.

The experience served the human race well, for their universe was full of sentient races, many of them far advanced technologically over the inhabitants of Vwyrdda. The world was invaded, and conquered, and occupied, over and over again. Sometimes a single alien species would enslave the whole world. Sometimes two or more alien races, at war with each other, would bring their conflict to Vwyrdda and seize territories of their own, either seeking some natural resource, or just to take advantage of some strategic advantage of the world's position in the galaxy. Mankind would win its freedom, in whole or in part, by learning the ways of its masters, and becoming masters of alien technology. Then along would come another race of interstellar belligerents, driven by their own history of internal wars, and contending with their own rivals or persecutors.

This was no simple progression, no quick or predestined victory. It was perhaps six thousand years from the first human settlements on the continent where they evolved, to the warring Age of Empires; and maybe another four thousand years from the first known contact with sentient beings from other planets, to the expulsion of the last of them. Endless languages, cultures, bits of science, whether developed by human beings or learned from non-humans, mingled freely. Human ruins and alien ruins lay in layers all over the ancient planet. It was surrounded by clouds of relics in orbit, and bases were abandoned throughout their solar system. This was the legacy of the human race when they finally absorbed enough alien technology, learned enough science, and united enough to throw all alien overlords off Vwyrdda and make it stick. Even before they mapped all the mysteries in their own system, they started founding colonies of their own, and building their own empires among the stars.

Never again would all human beings live on one world, or even in one solar system. When some ecological catastrophe, economic failure, interstellar war, or venomous ideology would smash a human empire, there were other human worlds to begin again. When they regained the stars, they'd find more human civilizations going through their own cycles of rise and fall, rarely in anything like the same social and technological stages.

In this, the human race proved to be unique, for other races seemed to progress always upwards, if not always smoothly so. When another race would reach the stars, it never lost them. Neither, however, did it rejuvenate its culture with barbaric ages. Other races aged, grew old, eventually died out or just disappeared. Rarely did a rising human culture encounter the same aliens as the previous age. A new set of species would have evolved, or learned space travel, since the last time.

Not thousands, but millions of years passed! The human race spread through two other galaxies, with some saying there might be as many as six galaxies with human worlds in at least some parts of them. In the new galaxies as in the original one, the species continued its boom and bust cycles, from barbarism to space flight, from single-world isolation to interstellar polities, over and over. Sometimes a whole galaxy of millions of stars would be unified under some system of government. Sometimes, even, one unified galaxy would go to war against another: the height of insanity, for what could an entire galaxy of millions of star-sun systems possibly lack? Only religious or ideological fanaticism could drive such madness. Sometimes a single union would control, or co-ordinate, multiple galaxies, a task so great it can scarcely be imagined. On and on the race went, from heights like that to animal depths, renewing its youth with ages of barbarism and ignorance, starting over, and over, and over.

When at long last the universe itself grew old, mankind was almost alone in the galaxies it inhabited. Each age of empire found more and more worlds colonized by humans, after their previous owners had died out. Once human beings were established on a world, no new species evolved into intelligence. Even when a society was so altruistic as to let a future competitor emerge, even when a culture was so enlightened as to deliberately set out to engineer sentient companions, human cultures were mortal. The society would pass away, and its junior members with it. So, in that later age of the universe, it was human beings alone who realized that the universe itself was beginning to collapse, as their astrophysics had long expected.

In a cyclical universe the mass of all the galaxies, clusters of galaxies, streams and bridges and bubbles of clusters of galaxies, was great enough to bring the universal expansion to a halt. The red shift, sign of expansion, faded away, and the blue shift replaced it. In a few billion years the universe would collapse back to a point, to be born anew: the next Big Crunch of an infinite series, followed by the next Big Bang. Like the human race, the universe renewed itself. But whereas human beings broke down their cultures, and retrogressed at most to ignorant animals on scattered planets, the universe crammed every bit of matter and energy back into a single super-atom of no-time and no-space.

Long before that happened, there would be no life remaining anywhere in the universe: not in the galaxies that humans inhabited, not in any others. Stars don't live forever, nor are new generations of stars born endlessly. In half a billion years or less, perhaps as little as 350 million years, the last stars would wink out, and the universe's collapse would occur in a darkness broken only by energies released by colliding galaxies of dead sun-cinders. But who would be left to see it? Without suns, without light, without heat, what witnesses could there be?

Elite scientists of the Mižinē civilization accepted the challenge. Their culture had expanded from a single fallen barbaric world in the First Galaxy several hundred years before, and expanded across the Three Galaxies relatively quickly. Theirs was a peaceful and tolerant culture, and they encountered few rivals as they set out to unite the human race under their leadership. Most human nations of the period were still planet-bound, a few exploring their own star-sun systems. All of them knew that human beings had lived among the stars before, for ages upon ages, and expected that such an age would come again, someday. When the Mižinē met other new starfarers, they met in peace. The last intergalactic breakup had been a bad one; many planets had died, actual suns had been destroyed, and almost every world and collection of worlds lost the stars at the same time, perhaps a true unique event in humanity's achingly long history. No one who knew of that (and the evidence was everywhere) wanted even a local war, and the Mižinē had preserved the keys of much of the high technology of the last age. They welcomed other starfarers as equal partners, and established universities everywhere, and encouraged every culture, craft, and art. Within a hundred years after the Mižinē first visited another human world, there was fast travel, instantaneous communication, and a universal society in the Three Galaxies, enlivened and enriched by infinite local variety and custom.

But the shadow of the end hung over this paradise. Though the universe would be habitable for hundreds of millions of years yet, humans lived for a long, long time, effectively until they decided to end their lives, or their civilization fell, whichever came first. And their children, when they chose to have them, faced the same prospect. Though the doom was hardly immediate, no one doubted it was inevitable, and they had no struggle or hardship to distract them. The rate of suicides was high. Government was stable, and there was no cause for terrorists to fight for. But bandits and pirates arose throughout the galaxies, and attacked at random, distracting themselves with murder, rape, and pillage. Pointless superstitions were revived, and new ones invented, and people desperate to be saved from an uncaring universe threw away their rationality and flocked to them. Crusades attacked research institutions and universities, because they wouldn't say what the religious wanted to hear.

Some researchers wouldn't surrender their reason, and wouldn't back down from any problem, even the problem of universal doom. Brilliant and determined and passionate about the frontiers of science, they included astronomers, astrophysicists, cosmologists, masters of experimental mechanics, mathematicians, subspace engineers, and a host of other fields.

They set up shop in orbit around the dead planet Tuhajakaruna, just outside the Zudanamusili Rift, an area between two arms of the First Galaxy where there were no stars. Being able to omit any stellar masses from their equations, except Tuhajakaruna's own sun, more than compensated for the dismal prospect beneath them: yellow sand and grey rock, red stone and black basalt plains, ancient broken cities lining salt basins that had once been seas and oceans. The sight of death only made them more determined to defeat it.

The work took decades. They had the accumulated knowledge of millions of years, but this was new work, which no one had ever done before. The mathematics which gave them a place to begin was an achievement equal to the one that united relativity and quantum mechanics; or the one that gave the human race instantaneous communications over any distance, and subspace travel. But it was barely the corner stones of the foundation of the work they needed to do.

It was the hardest work humans beings had ever done. There were dead ends, after promising work that took years. People left the project then. There was one crucial dead end that wasn't, but shut the project down for twenty years, while a handful held on and hoped. There were personal problems, and personnel problems, religious fanatics and opportunistic bandits to beat off. There were betrayals and battles, despair and suicide, scandals and intrigues. It would've made a hell of a science-fiction 3-D show in an earlier age—if only it had been fiction!

The device they built created its own universe around itself, entirely unconnected with the universe in which it began. Inside the new universe, a second of time could extend over an hour, a day, a year, or billions of years of the outside universe, as they chose. As, in fact, they learned how to choose! They perfected the device and built a space-going ark around it. They took on board their entire population, with even more people, plants, and animals recorded for future revival. Then, with a last look at the galaxies where the human race had always lived, they threw the switch.

How long for the universe to contract, rebound, and be reborn? How long before galaxies formed, and stars caught fire? How long for planets to form and cool, how long for left-over planetesimals to stop crashing down through the skies of the young planets? How long for oceans to form, for life to arise and create oxygen atmospheres? How long for living things that weren't microscopic to evolve? They took the best guess their sciences provided, the product of millions of years of observation. They doubled that, in case the universe proved inelastic, and did not rebound immediately. They doubled it again, to allow for the possibility that the new universe might have different laws. After a few years aboard the world-sized ship, they held their breaths and cut the power.

There were stars, but only early generations of them, poor of anything but hydrogen and helium. The new universe wasn't old enough for novas to have seeded the interstellar medium with the elements up to iron, and no supernovae had manufactured the heavier elements. The Second Universe, as they named it, was younger than the First had been when human beings had evolved, on a Vwyrdda that was older than any planet here was likely to be. Before moving farther into the future, however, the human immigrants studied their new home.

Certain subtle physical laws were slightly different, though fortunately close enough for their bodies and their ship to have adjusted immediately. This universe would never teem with life as the previous cycle had done. The odds against life itself were unchanged; wherever life could arise, it would. More delicate matters were not the same. The odds against life evolving into multicellular forms, of multicellular forms growing larger than microscopic sizes, and of macroscopic forms evolving intelligence, were all hugely depressed. The colonists from the previous cycle foresaw a universe full of planets of one-celled organisms, with perhaps one or two intelligent species per galaxy. Some, who'd suffered from violence, argued that this situation provided their own species with the greatest possible security. But most, with suicides in their personal backgrounds, didn't want to live in a universe that lonely.

They took a few decades, then, to pick a large barred spiral galaxy, a precocious youngster in a universe of smaller, dimmer cousins, as their future neighborhood. Traveling through it, they seeded millions of likely worlds with a mixture of one-celled forms from their own environment. Then they jumped forward a hundred million years, re-seeded the planets that had failed, and introduced microscopic multicellular forms to the ones that prospered. Another hundred million years, re-seed dead planets, introduce the next step to the ones that were still one-celled, introduce simple aquatic plants and animals where the earlier forms had prepared the atmosphere. A few more jumps, continuing the process, found them in a universe with a familiar mix of elements and stellar types, and a galaxy full of living worlds.

They were home.


"[We call that period, from the evolution of human beings to their final stop in the new universe, the Common History,]" Hala said.

"[Quite a story,]" Marisa said. "[How much of it is true?]"

Hala ran a hand through his hair. "[As far as I know, Lady, all of it. There are lots of alien races around, none of them remotely human; I've talked to members of some of them. And the bit about one or two races per galaxy seems to check out, too. I've taken a few trips to colony worlds in other galaxies, and they're quite comfortable with the notion that they have no neighbors. The science is beyond me, but I've found no reason to doubt any of this; and anyway, why would we lie?]"

Culi spoke. "[The reborn are expected to be skeptical; it's one of the traits you must acquire to earn rebirth. You seem to carry it to an extreme. Tell me, did you have mental powers in one of your lives?]"

"[In a couple of them,]" Marisa said. "[This rebirth; what is it, and why do I remember so many lives?]"

"[We're getting to that,]" Hala said. He looked at Culi. "[You think she has a mental shield up, and isn't connected at all?]"

"[It could be so. It would explain not only the skepticism, but her not knowing the language.]"

Sam leaned forward. "[Here, let's show some manners, then. We're right here. You needn't talk about us as though we weren't.]"

Marisa shook her head. "[Never mind that, Sam. Let me make sure I understand what they've been telling us. A galaxy is what, exactly?]"

"[A galaxy is a huge collection of stars, usually,]" Sam replied. "[There are elliptical galaxies, which are these big blobs of billions of suns; spiral galaxies, which are flat like a wheel with spiral arms of suns separated by dust clouds; barred spirals, like the Milky Way, with a sort of central bar of suns joining the arms at the center; and small, odd-shaped bits of galaxies, like the Magellanic Clouds in the southern hemisphere. Remember seeing them when we went walkabout?]"

"[I remember. So a galaxy contains billions of stars, and is how big?]"

"[That varies a lot. The Milky Way was about 120,000 light years across, and this galaxy—they call it the Second Galaxy, but don't ask me how I know that—is about twice that diameter, with about 500 billion stars in it.]"

"[A light year is the distance that light travels in a year, right? And how fast does light travel?]"

"[About 186,000 miles per second,]" said Culi, in what her mind insisted on thinking of as a Kansas City accent, though he'd called it a Central City accent when she'd asked him. "[Earth is usually about 8 light-minutes from Sol, and the nearest other star is usually Proxima Centauri, at 4 light-years.]"

Usually? she wondered; and could see from Sam's expression that he was thinking the same. She shelved it for now. "[So how many living worlds would there be around those 500 billion stars?]"

"[See,]" said Hala, "[they wouldn't seed the planets of every star. The brighter kinds don't last long enough for life to evolve, and they tend to be unstable and do nasty things to their planets. So they'd only be interested in the stars like Earth's Sun, or dimmer than the Sun, or maybe a little bit brighter. But those are some of the most common kinds. So figure a quarter, maybe, of all the stars—125 billion.]"

"[But most of them aren't single stars,]" Culi said, "[but parts of a set of two of more, which usually prevents planets from forming. That leaves maybe one star out of every eight of the right types, or 15 billion, roughly. Then, not all of them would have suitable planets: ones that were small enough, and not too close in, and not too far out. Maybe six percent have suitable planets, which works out to just about one billion planets seeded up to the plant and animal stage, if you're persistent and keep at it through various cosmic extinctions. About one in every hundred thousand of those will evolve thinking beings, giving about 10,000 races of people in this galaxy.]. He spread his hands.

"[It's not much for 500 billion stars,]" Hala, said in the silence, "[but ten thousand sentient species sure beats one or two.]"

Marisa looked at him for a minute, then said, "[Is there anything to drink in this place?]"

"[Sure! Sure, right through there,]" He nodded at the door to her right, his left, rather than the one across from the outside door. She held up her hand, and Sam pulled her to her feet. Hala also stood ready to help. Culi, she noted, took ys time rising and showed no interest in helping a perfectly able-bodied woman stand up.

Inside the kitchen, as she dubbed it, was a neat four-legged table and a couple of chairs, all of a blond wood. There was no work surface, no sink, and no cupboards. The entire wall left of the door was a faintly glowing blue, like the stone on which she'd awakened. She touched it lightly. "[Is someone going to get reborn here?]"

"[Oh, the teles have lots more uses than that,]" Hala said. "[Here …]" he reached past her, into the blue surface; his arm disappeared up to his wrist. He drew it back out immediately, with a half-liter glass comfortably full of a cream-colored liquid. "[Try this, Princess.]"

Sam, behind her, said nothing, but she didn't need to look at him to know his outrage at the familiarity. The more things changed… "[No one calls me that but [Sam],]" she said.

"[No one?]" Hala said, grinning. "[I find that hard to believe.]"

"[Believe it,]" she said. She took the glass and handed it to Sam. "[How about that drink you mentioned?]"

Culi, with a laugh, reached into the tele and got another drink. The glass was solid and cold, and the liquid smelled unfamiliar but inviting. She sipped. It tasted as good as it smelled; something like cream soda, something like pear juice? Not carbonated. She took a bigger sip.

"[That's good,]" she said. "[What is it?]"

"[It's the juice from the fruit of those lose trees you saw around the tele pillar]," Culi told her. "[The trees are called elosdenai, the fruit is elosθurai, and you're drinking êloslôlai]."

"[Lose tree, lose fruit, and lose juice,]" Sam said dryly. "[A sneaky language.]" He shrugged, and Marisa laughed.

"[Before you ask after anything alcoholic,]" Hala said, "[I should warn you that it's no go. Your body won't tolerate poisons. You probably wouldn't be able to choke it down, and if you did, you'd throw it right back up.]"

"[Any poisons?]" Sam asked.

"[Right. Heavy-metal poisons like arsenic, nerve poisons like nicotine, and subtler things like alcohol, or marijuana, that might have been recreational drugs in your Inside lives. Your bodies won't abide them, and your senses, especially your senses of smell and taste, will warn you not to try them.]"

Culi laughed. "[Every once in a while some half-bright lad has the idea of getting a cigarette from a tele, out of curiosity at something that plays such a big part of life on the Inside. I saw some Summer-People boys light up once in Alteřa Taolol, before anyone could stop them. Everybody nearby got away from down wind. Then, while the young idiots were choking and gagging and vomiting, an ad hoc committee approached from upwind, dragged them to the public fountain, and threw them in.]"

"[A little rough,]" Sam said. Marisa was wondering, Summer People? Inside?

"[That's what the boys thought. But with the sense of smell we all have, they might as well have set off stink bombs in the public square. One of the people who threw them in said, 'If you have no more brains than a fish, you can join the fish.']"

"[Some people always have to learn the hard way,]" Hala agreed. "[That's what the Inside is all about. The Winter People make their children learn the lessons they need to learn, before they can join the human race.]"

There seemed nothing more to say to that; they returned to the living room. Marisa sipped at her drink and said, "[So what happened next, Hala?]"

Chapter 7
The Decline of the Mižinē

Day of mourning, day of sorrow,
Take the ashes of our agéd fathers,
Who taught us to hate better than they knew,
And met their ends in a burst of flame.

Take too the ashes of our loving mothers,
Who passed on after their angry husbands;
And our brothers and sisters, who couldn't resist us.

Take the ashes of our loyal friends,
Who shouldn't have trusted such as us,
And the ashes of those who loved us truly.

And last of all take, day of evil and shame,
The cold black flakes of our murdering souls.

—"Rite of Passage" by Ihed́ao Juhao Vîd́ai,
Liberal Verē poet, First History

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"Hawley! Come out here!" said the creature holding Marisa.

There was a clang from within the generator housing, and a muffled curse. Luther Hawley pulled himself out of it, rubbing his head and scowling. The years hadn't been kind to him. Never handsome to begin with, his early upbringing in slovenly habits had led to self-neglect while focused on the project of the moment. His lackluster hair stuck up in all directions, and his face and skin were indifferently clean. The arm he was scratching his head with was chicken-thin and slack-skinned, as was his neck. He saw Marisa and smiled crookedly. "Well, bitch, got you now!"

Hawley had never had any brothers, nor any friends. He was used to being right, and never needing to concern himself with anyone else's opinion. If they disagreed with him, they were ipso facto wrong, and time and study would prove it to them.

So he made his androids, and got the shock of his life. Each and every one of them considered himself the real Luther Hawley, origins notwithstanding. He'd used his own mind for a template, and each of them was as self-centered and brilliant as he was. The only difference was the bodies. Theirs were stronger, fitter, and needed no food, rest, or sleep. Logically, then, they were superior to him.

Where Hawley had expected friends, instead he had created rivals. He'd never had rivals before, and he didn't like it. While he was still smarting from the blow to his expectations, the androids took a good look at him and were singularly unimpressed. He was an embarrassment to them, and their only real danger. They locked him up in his own home, while one of them impersonated him in dealings with the human world. They kept him alive as a control in case they had any long-term defects, and as the original template for making more of themselves.

Hawley's experiment was a brilliant success. The androids were every bit his equal in genius, and could explore all the fields of knowledge. There had been only one of him, and that one needed to eat, rest, and sleep. His children suffered from none of these weaknesses, and there were many of them. Though they kept themselves secret from the outside world, they shared among themselves exactly the kind of intellectual ferment that Hawley had dreamed about.

But they didn't share it with him.

It was Marisa and Sam who discovered the androids' existence. A British commercial attaché was murdered under baffling circumstances. All of the leading suspects had alibis, or else normal non-alibis consistent with their normal behavior. No fingerprints were found on the scene except the murdered man's. No one had been expected in the man's home, but he'd opened the door himself to someone, and that person had then strangled him. The attaché was a big man and a former athlete; the manner of his death demanded a bigger murderer, fueled by a lot of hate. Who had it been, and why had the victim let him in?

The androids were overconfident, and Marisa and Sam had spent their lives planning crimes, stopping crimes, and looking into mysteries. They concluded the murderer must be Hawley, though he didn't seem to have the strength required, and watched him. The attaché had recommended that a government contract be denied to Hawley; his successor endorsed the recommendation. When "Hawley" visited him one evening, Sam and Marisa were waiting for him.

The android was stronger than they'd expected Hawley to be, and almost beat them both. But there was a limit to how strong he could be, without having a body specially built for strength; and he didn't have their martial skills, their training, or their experience. They captured him, and discovered his secrets. Police raided Hawley's home and business, captured the androids, and freed Hawley. The androids were dismantled by scientists eager to learn the secrets of their manufacture, and Hawley had no power to prevent it, or to keep the whole humiliating story from coming out.

Luther's hate, never far repressed, blazed up. He hated the androids he'd created, for holding him captive and taking his place. He hated the world for his embarassment, and for the laughter he was convinced they were enjoying at his expense. He hated the android who'd impersonated him personally, who called himself Solar, for escaping his vengeance. Most of all, he hated Marisa and Sam for discovering what was going on, and rescuing him. It was all their fault! It would've been more sensible to be grateful, but Luther didn't do gratitude. Hate was his specialty.

Now Solar-8 said to Hawley, "Don't taunt her, Luther, or I'll turn her loose and let her kick your butt."

"I'm not afraid of her!" Hawley said shrilly.

"You should be," said Solar-8, and let go of Marisa's arms. She took a few steps away from them both, rubbing her arms where he'd gripped her, and got her first look at her captor.

"Solar-9, I presume?" she said.

The android Solar had come back several times, and Sam and Marisa had smashed his scheme each time. Often he'd upgraded himself and called himself by a number denoting improvements he'd made to his body. Solar-2 had led the other surviving androids in replacing world leaders, in order to gather the power and funds to make more of themselves, and make themselves legal. Sam and Marisa had put an end to that, and only Solar-2 and two other androids had escaped. Solar-5 and his acolytes had tried to seize the Childe starship being built in orbit around the Earth, and escape the solar system. Marisa and Sam, along with a couple of UNOLE (United Nations Orbital Law Enforcement) detectives, one of them a Childe cull herself, had fought the androids in free fall aboard the ship.

The body that Solar was now wearing was unlike any of his previous ones. This one was not modeled after the human body, nor was it covered with a simulation of human skin. Solar-9 was completely metal, horribly and terrifyingly ugly. The feet were rectangular plates; the hands were blunt pincers. His arms and legs were bare steel, with cutouts, like I-beams, to reduce their weight; steel cables served in place of muscles.

"Yes," he said, still with a more melodic version of Hawley's younger voice, "you may call me Solar-9. Or you may call me Master, like this dog here."

Hawley's teeth bared in a rictus of hate in his otherwise dead face; but he made no denial.

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Hala leaned forward. "[Next,]" he said, "[they built their house, and moved into it.]"

While seeding planets, the human refugees had also been clearing out the center of the Second Galaxy, eliminating thousands of suns' worth of mass that would otherwise have become a stew of supernovae, wild radiation, and a huge black hole. Some hundreds of suns' worth of mass was used to create a super-massive, super-luminous star, Voaluiabogeniro, that could be seen anywhere in the galaxy. Such a star, in nature, is very short-lived, and blows itself to pieces in a supernova. But the Mižinē had millions of years of technology behind them. They built "machinery" of tractor fields and pressor fields, operated by superbinary multitronic computers operating on laser circuits in force-field hardware, to regulate the supergiant star and keep it shining indefinitely. Next they set four other lesser but still giant stars, each with its own operating plant, around it, in an attention-getting, obviously artificial arrangement, and put a nice big planet around the central star of the five, at a safe distance. Then they made a final jump, to let the new world cool, and life to evolve on it and make it pleasant.

Taolovaraweiryidesada ("New Vwyrdda") didn't have to be a super-massive world with a surface gravity of 160.87 feet per second per second (five times that of the later, virtual "Earth"). But the human race evolved under those conditions. Though humans had lived on hundreds of thousands, or millions of smaller planets in the First Universe, they didn't want a "dwarf world" for their new home. They were building for eternity, and they built big!

Setting the world far from their new sun was necessary, however. The peak wavelength of a radiating body is the fourth power of its temperature, that is, the square of its square. A typical small star radiates most of its energy in the green bands of "visible light." Voaluiabogeniro is so hot that most of its radiation is in the ultraviolet bands, high above what an ancestral human eye can see. That still leaves more light in the visible spectrum than a small star puts out, and a lot more heat. Taolovaraweiryidesada orbited Voaluiabogeniro at several times the distance that the virtual Neptune would orbit the virtual Sol, but was neither cold nor dim.

Emerging from their final jump through time, the Mižinē found that tectonic forces had given them a beautiful world with three large continents, a smaller island continent, and shoals of islands everywhere. Charmed, they named the continents whimsically: Kanitosulatelananumonesita ("Elf Land"), Loraonesihekililuazhodeshi ("Witch Land"), and Syorkeiormesumoradataloniu ("Demon Land"). The little continent fragment they named Alterrasilasutirionai ("The Land of Song").

Evolution had also made them some gifts. The life that they found on their new home was biochemically related to them, as it must be, being descended from microscopic forms seeded from their life banks. But it had evolved faster than expected. They had intended, this time around, to seed simple animals and plants, barely macroscopic, and make one final jump while those forms evolved. Instead they found a fully developed, incredibly diverse and thriving ecology in the seas, on the continents, and on the islands. The plants absorbed light primarily in the ultraviolet wavelengths, making them look gray to human eyes, and many of the animals had blue flesh or fur, to reflect the higher wavelengths of visible light. Most of the animals had "bones" of tough, flexible cartilage, rather than heavy, brittle calcium-phosphate compounds, and flexible limbs that didn't bend only at vulnerable points of articulation.

Perhaps most startling was that a native intelligent species had evolved while the Mižinē were moving forward in time, and had a fluorishing, if still primitive civilization. The blue-skinned, tentacle-limbed natives met the brown-skinned aliens from the stars in peace. In their language, the world was called Tla'a. The associative Mižinē seized on these coincidental syllables, and promptly dubbed the natives telananumonaii, "Elves".

Fortunately, the "elves" had never crossed the oceans to the other continents. The distances were too great for their sailing technology, and the oceans were full of the great sea-serpents that had evolved along with them. The Mižinē left the continent of Elf Land strictly to the "elves" and the other life forms of the "elven" evolution. The other two-and-a-half continents, and the islands, they regarded as their own.

Over a thousand years passed this way, with the Mižinē turning their new world into a paradise. They planted forests and let them grow; they grew all the species they loved and turned them loose; they built cities, towns, and villas wherever they pleased. With their technology, they had no need to grub in the dirt for food, or rape their lovely world for minerals. Their giant suns provided all the power they could ever possibly want, and with limitless power, and resources in space, all things were possible. They loved plants and animals of every kind, and rejoiced in all kinds of scenic views. They lived well, and their arts fluorished. They tended the world well, and it flowered in every way imaginable. The "elves" regarded them as strange but beneficent beings, and on the whole were glad for the occasional glimpse they had of them.

However lovely and welcoming and comfortable it became, however, Taolovaraweiryidesada and its suns weren't alone in the new universe. By design, it was situated at the center of a giant barred-spiral galaxy of millions of suns, boasting many living worlds hosting thinking races with their own civilizations. What were those worlds, those species, and those civilizations like? Should the Mižinē continue to tend their world, and wait for visitors to come calling? Or should they go raise their "offspring" to star-faring civilization? Did they, in fact, have a duty to the worlds and the beings they had created?

Most people didn't care one way or another. Though they'd never heard the phrase "white man's burden", human history was full of alien invaders justifying the exploitation of Vwyrdda, and human colonizers oppressing other human worlds "for their own good", or to "civilize" them. The Mižinē had left the "elves" strictly alone, to develop their own civilization in their own way, at their own pace, on their own continent. Surely what was best for the native inhabitants of Taolovaraweiryidesada was best for all the other sentient beings of the Second Galaxy?

If the denizens of the galaxy wanted to come calling, they would be most welcome, of course. The great, artificial structure of the Mižinē solar system, composed of super-bright stars in an unnatural arrangement, must surely serve as a spur to an inquistive species with telescopes. Let them unite and earn the stars themselves, let them come to the center of the galaxy and be welcomed in peace and joy. The natives would rightly be proud of so great an achievement! And, after all, there was all the time in the universe.

But the Mižinē weren't only enlightened liberals and brilliant scientists. They had loaded their ark with cell samples of all the five kingdoms of living things: animals, plants, fungi, protists, and bacteria. They'd also stowed away many thousands of recordings of the minds of people from all over the First Galaxy. These people had been rebirthed, and made up a substantial portion of the population. Inevitably, some of them were the kind of reactionaries which had provided pirates and religionists with their core supporters. They proselytized their irrational fears and superstitions, and their influence grew unreasonably.

The debate was long and furious. Leave the people of the Second Galaxy in peace, and let them grow into their best selves by their own efforts? Or go to them, "teach" them what the true believers wished them to think, and make sure they came to the the "right" conclusions, and were properly grateful that the Mižinē had given them life? In the end—and in many ways it was the end, or at least the beginning of the end—the missionary impulse won.

In the fourteen hundred years that followed, humans seized control of the galaxy and all its races; always for their own good, of course, and always with at least the appearance of having everyone's best interests at heart, whether "the natives" liked it or not. Then the rot set in, and all pretense was discarded. More and more planets became the private property, in all but name, of a Mižinē group or family, the natives and resources theirs to abuse as they pleased.

Science faltered, since science showed things the masters didn't want shown. Art withered; anything that wasn't praise for the masters was forbidden, as was any native art, music, language, or other aspect of culture. Even basic upkeep of existing technology was too much work for the overlords, and beyond the knowledge permitted to their slave races.

Gradually, planets returned to native control as families died out, or were destroyed in native rebellion or inter-human warfare. On the home world itself, civilization fell to a feudal level. Little kingdoms abandoned the lyrical, associative Mizhinai language, and nailed associative phrases down into short words with fixed meanings, in languges such as Eretai, Gethai, and Hekai. They squabbled over the territory of a single continent, now called Loraon, while Kantos, Syorkai, and Alteřa were abandoned.

Then the polar star Herâk, inherently unstable but left in place a few light years above the orbital plane of the Aboǹi system (as Vol and its satellite star-suns were now called), went super-nova. It had its own operating plant, but it hadn't been tended in centuries. Taol Vrydda's planetary defenses, also neglected, blocked the radiation storm only partly and intermittently. Millions of people died, millions more were sterilized, and the offspring who were born were different from their ancestors. Taller, stronger, and tougher than the older kind of human, the Verē (the name meant "The Strong People" in Eretai) had telekinetic powers and shared a group mind. After a hundred years of persecution and broken promises by the kings of Loraon, the Verē rose up and exterminated their ancestors, renamed the world Eoverai ("Verai World" in their own, artificial language derived from Eretai), and built a new civilization. Then they went out to reclaim the galaxy.

"[Oh, of course they did!]" Sam said. "[After all, why only go halfway off the rails, when you can make a much bigger splash by jumping the track completely!]"

"[Take it easy, Sam,]" Marisa said. She reached over and patted his hand. "[You sound like an old man complaining about the young punks these days.]"

"[But it's so typical, Princess,]" Sam complained. "[All those years of history, and then they fall right into the same old trap!]" He saw Hala watching him with a vast grin of delight on his face. Without losing a beat, he leapt to his feet, and barked, in a comedy-hall accent, "[Grossenkorporal Schmidt! Prepare Der Master List!]"

Hala jumped up in turn, holding his arms as if he had a scroll in his left hand, and a large plume pen in his right; Marisa could almost see it. She sat up for a better view of both clowns, and wished she had some popcorn.

"[Ja, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" barked Schmit. "[Unt vas shall I in-shcribe upon Der Master List?]"

"[I understand why they're pretending to be German,]" Culi said quietly to Marisa, "[but why not just do the whole routine in the German language?"]

"[Because it's an English comedy,"] Marisa said, briefly; she didn't want to miss a word.

"[Ein, ve are born of a fiery miracle in der shky!]" Sam proclaimed, left fist at his belt, right hand pointing into the air.

"[Ja, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" barked Grossenkorporal Schmit, while scribbling on his List.

"[Schwei, ve are persecuted by our fathers, because ve are different!]" Sam expounded, right arm over his eyes, his left arm behind his back.

"[Ja, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" Schmit sobbed, holding his List a little further away to keep it from getting tear stains.

"[Drei]," said Sam, matchng his actions to his words by wiping his eyes briskly with an imaginary handkerchief, then tucking it away in an imaginary pocket, [ve invent our own language, to keep our plots secret. Let's see der enemy crack dis code!]" he gloated, rubbing both hands together, with a maniacal expression on his face.

"[Ja, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" cackled the Grossenkorporal, with the same expression on his face, as he scribbled.

"[Fier]," said Sam, with fierce eyes and a steel jaw, raising one first high, "[ve overthrow der rule uff our fathers, unt ve conquer der World!]"

"[Ja, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" exulted Grossenkorporal Schmit.

"[Funf]," Sam said, raising both arms, with fingers spread wide, "[ve rise on wings uff flame, unt ve conquer der Galaxy!]"

"[Jawohl, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller!]" Grossenkorporal Schmit shouted, transported with joy.

"[Unt den—!]" Sam said, turning to face Marisa directly, leaning forward.

"[Unt den, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller?]" the Grossenkorporal asked, puzzled.

"[Ve get die vimmen!]" Sam said, grabbing Marisa with both arms, and crushing her against him. She pretended to faint, overcome by his brutal manliness and her maidenly shyness.

"[Er… yes, Herr Shtanduppenfartenfeller,]" Grossenkorporal Schmit said. He looked around. No one else in the room but…

Culi walked up to Hala, fluttered ys eyelids at him, leaned forward, and gave him a big, sloppy kiss on the mouth.

Chapter 8
The Worm in the Apple

(1) A neuter symbol with the central ring changed to an equal-sided diamond.
(2) On a blue field, the same symbol in white.
(3) On a black field, the same symbol in gold.—
God the Powergiver

On a green field a yellow fess, overall the symbol of the Powergiver in black.—The Orthodox Party

On a yellow background, a blood-red sword, point up.
Colors: Blood red and yellow.—
Great House Imorai ("Sword")

On a grey background, the head of a neuter Verē, eyes modestly looking down, flesh color (light tan).
Colors: Light tan and grey.—
Great House Aθorai ("Humility")

On a gold background, a puno (infra-red) eagle.
Puno and gold.—Great House Ikotkai ("Eagle")

On a dark blue background, a light yellow plumb bob.
Colors: Light yellow and dark blue.—
Great House Yhêlai ("Honesty")

On a dark red background, a golden double-bladed axe.
Colors: Gold and dark red.—
Great House Ekirvai ("Axe")

On a sky-green background, a green-white sun.
Colors: Green-white and sky-green.—
Great House Isisai ("Honor")

On a silver background, a red double-panned balance scale.
Colors: Red and silver.—
Great House Aisivai ("Justice")

On a blue-grey background, a dark brown spear-thrower.
Colors: Dark brown and blue-grey.—
Great House Otlatlai ("Spear-thrower")

Heraldry of the Verē: God, the Orthodox Party, and the Orthodox Great Houses.
The infra-red color puno is represented here by black.

Savage and furious nations, perpetually at war, adore, under divers names, some God, conformable to their ideas, that is to say, cruel, carnivorous, selfish, blood-thirsty. We find, in all the religions, 'a God of armies,' a 'jealous God,' an 'avenging God,' a 'destroying God,' a 'God,' who is pleased with carnage, and whom his worshippers consider it a duty to serve.—Paul-Henri Thiry, Baron d'Holbach, "Common Sense", 1772 A.D. (Standard American Earths)

The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.—Edward Gibbon, "The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", 1776-1789 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck.—Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 1822 A.D. (Standard American Earths)

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

The galaxy, naturally, wasn't interested. The native races didn't recognize the Verē as the legitimate heirs of the humans, and hated humans anyway. Verē opinion was divided, as Mižinē opinion had been. The Verē had no government as such; under Mižinē oppression, they had lived in small households, like revolutionary cells, and after their victory this system continued. The Great Houses, credited with most of the fight against the old ones, had a higher status, and the lesser Houses, often smaller as well, a lesser status. But in theory every household was a sovereign entity, and the kaitempē, the armed forces of the Verē, were under the direct command of the Speaker of the Verē race, usually a member of House Ihed́ai, the greatest of the Great Houses.

The Orthodox houses, the hard-liners, believed in a god, the Powergiver, who had given the Verē their powers, and the mandate for absolute rule over the Second Galaxy—every world in it, and every sentient race. Their answer to the rejection by the native races was to clamor for them to be conquered, and the whole galaxy to become a grand and glorious Verē Empire. Anyone who disagreed, of course, was a heretic and deserved death. It was the will of the Powergiver!

But the poisonous meme of religion hadn't just infected the Orthodox. Every human, which is to say every Verē, suffered from the disease to some extent or another. The Liberal houses might not believe in an angry, hateful god, but they did believe in the Powergiver, even if they didn't see it as their religious duty to subjugate the Second Galaxy in Ys name. Their belief gave the Orthodox a kind of moral leverage that they didn't deserve, but wielded ruthlessly.

An uneasy peace prevailed, most of the time. But for hundreds of years, whenever a native world resisted Orthodox provocation too directly, or got "above themselves" too openly, the Verē war fleets flew. The Verē drew power, telekinetically, directly from light and other radiation, and their technology tapped their telekinesis to fly their ships. With a single telekinetic grip on every atom of a ship and everything in it, internal acceleration meant nothing, nor did inertia. Verē starships could accelerate at any rate their operators' power could support, and make right-angle turns. They could pick enemy ships apart telekinetically, aside from their inherited tractor and pressor technology. The "rebel" races had a huge advantage of numbers, and had the whole galaxy to retreat in; but that was all.

Besides the Imperial Wars, the Verē also fought a series of wars against the Drē, energy beings who lived in cooler stars (stellar types M and cooler) and in the cooler parts of hotter stars (mainly G and F stars). The Drē recognized no beings with material bodies who lived on the cold bits of matter that orbited stars, especially when these frozen and ephemeral beings tried to claim ownership of the suns around which their planets revolved, and tell the Drē whether they could live there or not. Their inherited technology stood the Verē in good stead, and they invented new technology to deal with the new problem. Verē sundiver ships got better and better at entering suns and fighting Drē weapons, and telekinetic weapons worked as well against them as they did against more ordinary opponents.

For a while Liberal and Orthodox parties achieved an exhausted balance. The Speaker, Ihed́ai Mi*wu, was a Liberal. Amidst cries of outrage from the Orthodox houses, y rammed through a Covenant with the assent of all the Liberal houses, and some of the less-fanatical Orthodox ones. Under this Covenant, the Tlâńē were given back their exclusive title to the continent of Kantos, which the Krahos (Mižinē-descended) nation of Getheir had bombed with atomic weapons, and then occupied. The Drē received uncontested title to any stars they wished to inhabit, except for the star-suns of Aboǹi, the solar system of the Verē. In return the Drē agreed not to endanger the planets around any stars with their sun-engineering, and to respect the rights of the material beings who inhabited such planets.

Treating Tlâńē and Drē as sentients with rights, to whom oaths were given and kept, and from whom oaths were accepted, made the Orthodox livid. But the Covenant didn't stop there. It reserved to the Verē Empire only the Heart Stars in the central bulge of the galaxy, and only if the natives of the planets of the Heart Stars agreed to accept Verē rule. The rest of the galaxy, ninety percent of its disk, spiral arms, and globular clusters, were forever, unilaterally, and irrevocably ceded to the species who lived on its planets. At one stroke, the Speaker of the Verē ended the Imperial Wars, ended the Drē Wars, recognized the right of the natives of Taol Vrydda to exist, and gave away most of the galaxy! What's more, y did it with the agreement of a majority of the Great Houses of the Verē.

Legally (whatever the word might mean in a political system with customs instead of laws, with no constitution, no judges, and the people belonging to independent households which answered to no higher authority) there was nothing the Orthodox could do. The Speaker had proposed, and the majority of the Great Houses had ratified, a treaty which brought peace to the Second Galaxy. It was clear, from the celebrations, that almost all of the Verē welcomed the act, and honored their Speaker for enacting it. Peace broke out across the galaxy, and the galaxy went mad with joy.

Two years after the signing of the Covenant, troops attacked Ihed́ai House, the palace of Great House Ihed́ai, and the residence of the Speaker. Dressed in the uniform of the Kaitempē, which they were only permitted to wear when serving under the orders of the Speaker, they attacked the Ihed́ē defenders, and the uniformed Kaitempē guarding the Speaker. Armed with weapons of war, which they were permitted to possess and use only against alien races in time of war, at the orders of the Speaker, the traitors slew all the defenders of the House. Then they went through Ihed́ai House and murdered every single neuter, female, and male they found, infant, child, adolescent and adult alike.

The crime was unprecedented, inconceivable. No Verē had ever slain another Verē, except with feud weapons (sword, axe, mace or dagger) in the course of a declared feud between households. No Verē had ever slain another with weapons of war. No Kaitempē had ever worn the uniform while acting outside of orders from the Speaker, no matter what household they belonged to the rest of the time. No house had ever been attacked before without a declaration of feud beforehand, certainly not attacked unprovoked and without warning and utterly destroyed. This must not be allowed to stand! The criminals who committed this crime must be found, and punished for this sacrilege, this crime against the way of life that the Powergiver had decreed for Ys people!

But for 24 years (30 in the octal counting of the Verē), no one was caught, no one was accused, no one was questioned. The Orthodox houses "sought the guilty relentlessly," while daily imposing terror on the people, oppressing the lesser houses, and coming closer and closer to the creation of a government, under their control. The Covenant held, because the majority of households and the native races of the Second Galaxy made it hold. But for how long?

On New Year's Day of the year 10,000 of the Verē calendar, Lord Atâsai, the head of Great House Atâsai, took the floor of the Assembly of the Great Houses, which was still held, according to tradition, in Ihed́ai House, though the apartments of House Ihed́ai had stood empty since the year 7750. House Atâsai was fourth in the precedence of all the Great Houses, but among the Liberal Houses second only to Ihed́ai. From that position, Atâsai Mrada introduced to the Houses a young male, and declared that he was the only survivor of the massacre of House Ihed́ai. His name was Vîd́a, and by default he was the head of House Ihed́ai, and the rightful Speaker of the Verē people. The young man spoke next. After thanking House Atâsai for ys support, he declared himself Ihed́ai Vîd́a, Lord of Great House Ihed́ai, and claimed the Throne and the Axe of the Speaker.

It wasn't that easy, and the Orthodox Houses didn't want to let it happen even if it were true. But the young man's DNA proved his identify, witnesses (including the heads of several Liberal Great Houses) told his story, and his claim was indisputable. Just objecting too strongly smelled strongly of having been guilty of the massacre of the greatest House of all.

On New Year's Day of the Verē year 10,001, the first year of the new century and the new millenium, Ihed́ai Vîd́a took up the Axe of the Speaker and sat upon the Speaker's Throne. He wasn't a king; the Verē didn't have kings, or for that matter a legislative branch, a body of laws, or a judiciary. They had independent Households, every one of them sovereign, whose membership was voluntary. He was the first among equals. But when he spoke, he spoke for all the Verē people

His first order of business was to reaffirm the Covenant between the Verē and all other species. His second was to proclaim death for all those who had slain his predecessor and his household, to be carried out without relent, once the criminals had been discovered and proven guilty to the satisfaction of a majority of the Great Houses.

In the Traditional sexism of the Verē way of life, the head of a family or a household was always neuter, because y wasn't ruled by a sex drive or hormonal emotions. Females ranked second, because they put the family and the household before themselves. Violent, emotional, barely-rational, males came last. But the new Speaker was male, and he was the head of the greatest Household as well as the Speaker for the whole race. Calmly, rationally, and implacably, he carried the Speaker's Axe, and woe betide anyone who doubted he'd use it.

However "emotional" that made him seem.

The logical organization to investigate the massacre at Ihed́ai House was the Kaitempē. But while loyal members of that organization had fought and died in the performance of their duty, others in the same uniform had betrayed their oaths to the Speaker and the Verē people. The Kaitempē could not investigate themselves, or seek those who had suborned them from their duty. It was an obvious and impossible conflict of interest.

Various species of native races possessed powers and abilities of their own, conferred not by some fictitious god, but by their own evolution. None had ever served in the Kaitempē, not being Verē. But some had been loyal subjects of the Verē Empire since the Covenant, and some had even fought on the side of the Verē before that, in the old Imperial and Drē Wars. The Speaker reached out, and selected his own bodyguards, his own champions, his own investigators, with an authority separate from but equal to the Kaitempē. They came from a hundred worlds, and they were called The Imperial Guard. They were called not just heroes, but super-heroes, and they lived, and sometimes died, to earn the title.

Another group arose as well, almost as motley as the Guard. Some of them were Verē, some of them were constructed creatures from the experiments the Verē conducted to improve themselves, some of them were freaks of nature. But they, too were super-heroes. They called themselves the Defenders.

Eventually the heads of two Orthodox Great Houses, Imorai and Aθorai, and a score of lesser ones, were convicted of the massacre of Ihed́ai Mi*wu and all of ys House. The leaders, and the members of their houses who had carried out the actual treason and murder, were tried before the Great Houses, convicted, sentenced to death, and executed. New heads of household were chosen by Great Houses Imoral and Aθorai. The lesser houses were abolished outright. Any members of those houses were free to join any greater or lesser houses that would accept them, but those names would no longer be used, on pain of death if need be.

The Speaker proposed one other item. The Defenders had operated from the beginning as a lesser household, headed by their leader, Borai Lapo. When certain political elements feared their power, and sought to eliminate them without open criminality, House Borai had become a sept of House Ihed́ai, an arragement Ihed́ai had allowed for certain other houses that wanted the protection of his house, yet wanted to keep their own household head within it. Now Lord Ihed́ai moved that Borai, small in numbers but great in service to the Verē, be made a Great House. At that moment, none dared speak against it. Thus the number of Great Houses became 21, in the octal numbers of the Verē (17 decimal): eleven Liberal houses (9 decimal), and ten Orthodox ones (8 decimal).

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772

"I remember that," said Camoflage. "It was like the Powergiver come to kiss everyone's tears away—if ever the miserable old bastard had been inclined to act that way. The good guys win, the bad guys lose, and even the Defenders got something out of it for once."

"I thought you hated the Defenders!" Ĵuha said, surprised. "You used to storm up and down our hideout swearing you were going to pull Power Ring's hair out by the roots, or boil Turtle-Woman on the half shell, or scratch the Phoenix's eyes out, or tie the Whip up into knots!"

"Oh, I got frustrated, no question," Lańa said. "Those self-righteous blow-hards were way too good at stopping me from taking things I had my eye on! But they were never out to hurt us. I was actually kind of proud of them when they made good."

"I never knew that!" the Trickster said. "The next time I saw you, it was old news. Now why was that?"

"We'd had a fight, and didn't see each other for a while," Camoflage admitted.

"A fight?! What about?"

"I don't remember," Lańa said. That meant she did remember, and it had been her fault, but Ĵuha kept his big fat mouth shut. No one had ever claimed he was a slow learner, or didn't remember a lesson once it had been driven into his skull with an ice pick.

[[All right, so you both remember that,]] Jedai said. [[What about the war against the Ukkl?]]

A few years later, after the Covenant was re-affirmed by the new Speaker, and the murderers of the previous Speaker executed, Verē starships reached the nearest galaxy for the first time, another large spiral like their own. They found it unified and peaceful, under the leadership of a species called the Ukkl, whom the Verē dubbed the Uklē. The Uklē somewhat resembled Verē-sized, gray-skinned Tlâńē. There should've been no problem, with the galaxies separated by 2.5 million light years, but now that teles in Verē starships had entered the Uklē galaxy, they could come any time they wished, in any force they desired. The Uklē couldn't return the favor, which left them vulnerable,

Diplomatic talks established that the Uklē didn't rule their galaxy, but were a member race in a government that did. The Verē found the idea of a government primitive, offensive, and dangerous, and said so. On the other side of the discussion, the Uklē found the religious superstitions of the Verē childish, insane, and irrational, and weren't hesitant to stand up for science and reason.

This resulted in a war between two galaxies, for the Orthodox, humbled as they were, could not let aliens, even energy-consuming aliens like the Uklē, spit in the face of God the Powergiver. The Liberal houses, on their part, couldn't refuse to go along with a war against unbelievers. So once again the Verē war fleets flew, this time through teles to another galaxy, and the Defenders went with them, and fought the super-powered champions of the other side.

The war nearly destroyed both galaxies. The Uklē were fighting in their own territory, in unity with every other sentient species there. On the other hand, Verē technology was as powerful as ever, psionic science had reached heights never seen before Eborai Lapo, and many of the Kaitempē, armed with both, were true religious fanatics. Even the Drē got into the fight, to counter the Koksē energy-beings from another universe, who interacted regularly with the Ukkl Galaxy. Only a direct order from the Speaker kept Uklē planets and suns from being destroyed; he refused to allow it, and promised death if it occurred, under any circumstances whatsoever.

Finally a compromise was reached which was slightly less bad than fighting until all civilization in two galaxies died out. The Second Covenant, written by die-hard Orthodox believers, declared that only races who got energy directly from radiant sources, such as the Verē, the Tlâńē, the Drē, and the Uklē, had sovereign rights. All other species could exist only as clients of a race such as that. This principle derived from the will of the Powergiver, blessed be Ys name.

The races of the Second Galaxy would be clients of the Verē and other energy-devouring species of that galaxy; species in the Uklē Galaxy would be subservient to the Uklē; and the Covenant would be extended, along the same lines, to every other galaxy, as it came with reach of the expanding sphere of Verē starships.

At the price of pretending to give a damn about the superstitious madness of the Second Galaxy, and pretending to "rule" the other species of their own, the Uklē got their peace back. The Orthodox didn't really care what the Ukkl believed. They'd put the Second Galaxy on notice that they intended to do God's will, no matter who got hurt.

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"[God!]" said Sam. "[It just goes on and on and on, doesn't it?"]

"[History has a way of doing that,]" Culi said. "[Suppose you needed to know everything that happened on Earth—any Earth—between, say, the War of the Roses in England, and the departure of the first starship from Earth orbit? Five hundred years, more or less, with constant wars between European nations, the European colonization of the world, wars between European empires, the conquest of India, of China, of Japan; the invention of the modern flute, the invention of the modern piano; the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation; kings, queens, eventually presidents, political parties, the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of slavery, automobiles replacing horses, women getting the right to vote, the back and forth of political parties, the Latin movement, the Childes, the World War against Russia and China, the new nations of Africa and Asia, the atomic bomb, invention of primitive binary digital computers, their obsolescence by superbinary multitronic omnicoms, air travel, self-driving automobiles, space planes, orbital hotels, the colonization of the Moon, it just goes on and on and on, doesn't it?]"

"[Let's take a break,]" Marisa said. "[I need to stretch, and get some more of that lose juice. Come on, Sammy love, on your feet.]"

They went back to the "kitchen"; Culi and Hala gave them privacy by waiting in the living room. Sam walked up to the tele to get the juice for Marisa.

"[Wait a minute,]" Marisa said. Sam turned, puzzled. She walked up to him, wrapped her arms around his neck, and held him.

"[It's wonderful, being the same height you are,]" she said. "[I never thought one way or the other about it, before, but I'm loving not having to reach up to you!]"

"[It is nice,]" Sam agreed. She could feel him relax a little, and smiled.

"[Better now?]" she asked.

"[Sure, Princess. I guess it was getting to me. So much time, so much space, and one horror after another, like some Grand Guignol. Don't these people ever stop killing each other?]"

"[Do humans ever stop doing that, Sammy love? We were pretty lucky on our old Earth. We had our downs, but we had a lot of ups, too. More than our fair share, maybe.]"

"[Could be,]" Sam said. "[I remember one life I led, slavery wasn't just abolished, first the Americans fought a Civil War over it, and counting both sides, somewhere between 700,000 and 1,000,000 people died, military and civilian, battlefield deaths and infected wounds and diseases all told. And then after the slaves were officially free, the whites still treated them like slaves for another century or so.]"

"[That war happened in a couple of my lives, too,]" Marisa said. "[And then in the next century, instead of one world war where everyone fought the Russian and Chinese monsters, there was a World War I against the German Empire, a World War II against the dictator who overthrew the German government, and a World War III against the Russian Communist state. I fought in that last one. We won all three wars, but the cost in people killed, cities destroyed, art treasures lost forever, was just horrific.]"

"[At least you won your World War III,]" Sam said, thinking of tanks along the Potomac. "[In one of my lives, we lost, and the Communists took over the world, maybe forever.]"

"[Not forever, Sam,]" she said, kissing him on the forehead. "[Nothing on Earth was forever, not even death. You and me, here together, proves that much. Remember that, won't you?]"

"[I will, Princess,]" Sam said, and after a moment, "[Thanks.]"

She smiled, and patted his cheek. As he turned to the tele, she said, "[Get four glasses, Sam. After all, I guess we're the hosts here.]"

They went back to the living room feeling much better. Marisa gave a glass of the juice to Culi, and Sam gave one to Hala. Then they settled down facing them as before, and everyone took a sip of juice. It was as good as Marisa remembered.

"[All right, you bastards,]" Sam said, "[I guess we're ready for more. How much grief do we still have to hear?]"

"[Just two more cosmic catastrophes, and we're all done with the First History!]" Hala said.

Sam gave him a baleful glare.

"[Really,]" Hala said, less cheerfully.

"[The Last Civil War happened,]" Culi said, "[because the really fanatical Orthodox Houses became desperate. They had envisioned a return to the bad old days, when they could call down the wrath of Verē might on any aliens that offended their religious notions, and bully lesser households with the threat of feud against their own large numbers. In light of the Second Covenant, everything seemed within their grasp."

It didn't work out that way. The war had been a wake-up call, and everyone was resisting. Covenant or no Covenant, the "uppity" alien races refused to become serfs, implicitly recognizing only the First Covenant. The Kaitempē reminded the Orthodox Houses that their orders came from the Speaker, and their weapons were to be used only in time of war, not "insolence" or "backtalk". The only time the Orthodox could order something satisfying done was when the only Kaitempē vessel on hand was manned entirely by loyal Orthodox troops. This was hard to arrange, and Kaitempē command, backed by the Speaker, investigated and punished incidents of abuse and insubordination very strictly. Also, the Imperial Guard, and other groups of alien super-heroes like them, shadowed Kaitempē ships they suspected of being under the control of the Orthodox, and interfered with their operations constantly.

On Eoverai itself, in the Assembly of the Great Houses, the Speaker got right down in the political mud whenever he wanted, and wielded his new majority ruthlessly. His wife, Ihed́ao Kristu, cast House Ihed́ai's vote, and Eborai Lapo cast his own. As if a woman and a man casting votes in the Assembly wasn't bad enough (and some still felt that his was illegitimate), many of the Orthodox weren't as pure as they could be. On vote after vote, the Liberals voted together, with three, or four, or sometimes even five defectors from the righteous!

Outside Ihed́ai House, the Kaitempē maintained patrol levels never seen before, and stamped out intimidation of the ungodly ruthlessly. Anyone who threatened another with a knife or a sword had better have a feud against them, properly declared and accepted by both Houses! Otherwise a peace weapon would take away the offender's psionic powers for a brief time, during which five gravities would pin him helplessly to the ground, to be dealt with as the officer deemed fit. Worse, officers who wore the uniform of the people, but acted in the interests of the righteous, were investigated and punished rigorously. Worst of all, the Defenders supplemented the Kaitempē on Eoverai and, when called, throughout the Aboǹi system.

Then Borai Lapo rose in the Assembly and announced that the Defenders were going to go back through time to the First Universe, to see what had happened after their ancestors left it forever; what became of the human race in its remaining 350-500 million years, if it lasted that long; whether anyone else escaped; and to clear up certain mysteries about their ancestors' own flight, as recorded in the personal notes of the woman who'd led them.

It was the longest, loudest session of the Assembly ever held, exceeding even the days when Lord Ihed́ai's identity was proven, and he was confirmed as the Speaker. Every Great House rose to speak, and most of them said, in effect, "Don't do this! We're afraid that you'll change history, maybe destroy the universe entirely!" Eborai replied, "No, we won't change history. We've gone into the past before, and nothing changed. No, we won't destroy the universe. We couldn't if we wanted to; talk to cosmologists and astrophysicists, if you can find any that dare to tell you the truth, rather than what you want to hear." When Imorai, Aθorai, and Ekotkai thundered that it was against the Will of the Powergiver, he said, "No, it isn't. There's nothing in the Book against it, or half the other things that you say are wrong. The Powergiver gave us our powers to use; the moral authority which you abuse, to get your way, is your own invention. I'm sick of it, and I'm sick of you."

No one had ever spoken so plainly in the Assembly before—except the Orthodox houses, when they were branding someone a heretic, or calling something they disapproved of immoral. Now Lord Eborai told the shocked Assembly, "Hold your vote. But even if you vote with one voice that we may not go, we are going. We are Verē, not Eretai serfs. We are strong. We are free. God made us that way, and we don't answer to any government. When we get back, we'll tell you what we discovered."

But while Eborai was choosing which of the Defenders could go, and which could not, for reasons which seemed good to him, Imorai, Aθorai, and Ikotkai mobilized their Households, and the lesser houses that looked to them for patronage, and activated all the spies, infiltrators, and agents they had planted in the Kaitempē and in other Houses. They seized both peace weapons and weapons of war from Kaitempē armories, and activated ones they'd built themselves, bit by painstaking bit, over the years. They seized all the Liberal Houses except Eborai (which massacred them) and every Orthodox House that had ever voted with the Liberals, as well. They held them all hostage, and said that Eoverai, Aboǹi, and the Second Galaxy would do their bidding from now on, or heads would roll. They murdered Lords Atâsai and Ukorai, second and third in the Liberal precedence, to prove they were serious.

They overreached themselves. Listening only to each other, they believed they could make it work. Taking counsel of their own self-interests and fears, they believed no one would dare to fight back. Hearing only their own fanaticism, they thought that everyone in their own households, at least, was as fiercely determined as they were.

The Verē people filled the streets, shouting support for the Speaker, and flung themselves on the Orthodox barriers with feud weapons: swords, axes, knives, and maces. Kaitempē forces loyal to their oaths fought alongside the people with peace weapons, and with feud weapons too. Weapons of war were too deadly to be used on the ground, but the Orthodox Lords ordered them used anyway; their followers, not wanting to see the planet turned to molten glass all the way to the horizon, refused to obey.

In space, every Kaitempē element from one-man cruisers to World-Breakers and Sun-Divers with many hundreds of crew, were forced to declare themselves. Most of the crews of the larger ships were assigned without regard for what households they belonged to when not on duty, and fought internal wars to settle the question of command. Sometimes the Orthodox minority won those battles, and loyal Kaitempē had to scramble to intercept weapons of mass destruction aimed at other ships, bases on Eoverai's small moons, even planetary targets.

As the only Lord not murdered or captive of occupying enemy troops, Eborai Lapo was declared acting Speaker for the duration of the emergency, by the supreme commander of the Kaitempē. During the Ukkl War, Eborai had planted the keys to his own psionic powers in every Verē mind; now he activated them in every Verē who let him look through his mind to see that he was loyal. That above all the Orthodox Lords hadn't planned for, because none of them would ever have shared such power. The war was won in that moment, though it would take an entire long Verē year to rumble to its end.

"[In the end,]" Hala said, seeing impatience on his auditor's faces, "[the Liberals won, and the Orthodox lost. The godly had seized all their known opponents by surprise, and held them throughout the war, but they didn't realize that everyone of good will, everyone who wanted to live a good and happy life and be left alone by fanatics, were their opponents. To win on their terms, they'd've had to kill almost everyone, and share their power with the fraction that agreed with them. They didn't have the guts to kill so many people, they never would've shared power that way, and their own people refused to carry out atrocities when ordered to, most of the time.]"

"[So what was the outcome?]" Marisa asked.

"[There was a trial before all the Great Houses,]" said Hala. "[The question wasn't guilt, but degree of guilt, in each individual's case. The judges were ten of the Liberal Houses and five of the Orthodox Houses, because three of the Orthodox Houses were on trial, and Eborai Lapo recused himself because he'd been acting as Speaker during the war.]"

Everyone who'd fought on the Orthodox side was barred from ever again serving in the Kaitempē, which was a huge, intensely personal disgrace. Everyone who'd carried any kind of weapon on the Orthodox side, whether feud weapon, peace weapon, or weapon of war, was exiled from Eoverai forever; which broke their hearts. Anyone on the Orthodox side who'd wounded or slain another human being, even if it was done with a feud weapon, was sentenced to death. Anyone who had given them orders to do so, was sentenced to death. It was stated explicitly that none of these sentences applied to those who fought on the Liberal side; they were deemed to be acting in self defense, and the defense of the Verē people.

Then the real trial began. Witness after witness, masses of evidence, and the testimony of Kaitempē agents working in secret among the Orthodox houses, showed that Imorai and his two co-conspirators had striven for decades to suborn the will of the Verē people, to bully and even destroy lesser houses, to abuse, exploit, and even exterminate other species; and to cause wars, most notably the Ukkl War, in the service of their private belief in an angry and belligerent God. Most of this wasn't new, but had never been called criminal before.

But above all, the defendents had planned the present war for years, including the subornation of the Kaitempē, who were supposed to answer only to the Speaker; the seizure of weapons of war to be used only by troops loyal to the defendents; and the extermination of the majority of the Verē people, and the native races of the Second Galaxy, if that proved to be necessary for victory. Only the refusal of most of the members of their own households to carry out such orders had saved billions of lives, Verē and non-Verē alike. Eborai Lapo and his son had intercepted hydrogen bombs above major cities of the Tlâńē, and Eborao Mara had used her Tlâńai power ring to stop a suicide bomb that would've wiped Heki clean of life, including the very chamber in which they spoke today.

The fifteen judges (13 decimal, 8 and 5) returned a unanimous verdict of guilt to the Speaker, and awaited his sentence, expecting it to be death.

It was death, and much more.

First, it was atrocious death. No sanitary beam to kill the brain, followed by a grand funeral by their mourning Houses. The Speaker said he would appoint an executioner for this task, and the executioner would wield an axe. Not the Axe of the Speaker—"I would not soil the emblem of the people with their blood!"—but a dull blade, to be used until all three were dead, and then destroyed in turn. The bodies would be left to lie and rot, while their houses were razed to the ground. No one would be allowed to approach the bodies, and nothing would be removed from the houses by anyone. Lastly, those Households were abolished forever, their names never to be used again, nor their emblems, nor their colors.

The shock of the sentence was unspeakable. No Lord of a Great House had ever been executed, with the single exception of the Lords who killed House Ihed́ai. No Great House had ever been abolished, and many doubted the Speaker's authority to do so. Members of those households wailed for the destruction of their extended families, where they'd just sat mute when the sentences of exile and death came down. Even some of the Liberal Houses pleaded for mercy to the Houses, though not to their Lords.

The orders were carried out, exactly as the Speaker had decreed.

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772

"Eio!" Camoflage said. "Wow! I wish I could've seen that!"

[[You didn't?]] Jedai asked. Y was idly rummaging through the papers and things on ys desk, but there was no sense that his attention was wandering.

Ĵuha watched his love with grief, missing her again, though she was right in front of him. "She couldn't," he said. "She was dead. Right after the Ukkl War a lot of people were celebrating just being alive, especially those who'd been fighting in the other galaxy. The Defenders had a big wedding; Lapo married Suso, and The Loop married Power Ring. Lańa went with The Glow to pick up a few souvenirs of the occasion, and The Glow killed her when she wouldn't let him turn a simple sneak-and-grab into the ambush-murder of a couple of unsuspecting Defenders."

"He makes me sound like a hero," Camoflage said. "I wasn't a hero, I was just angry! I didn't want to go with that murderous monster, I wanted to sneak in with the Trickster. I thought it'd be a giggle to swipe some tokens right under their noses, maybe not to be discovered until years later. But Ĵuha said it would be too risky, because it would be wall-to-wall super-heroes and Kaitempē; and pointless, because they weren't such bad people, and they'd never even hurt us badly when they caught us. But the more he argued, in that reasonable, infuriating voice of his, the madder I got!" She was weeping a little bit, now.

"I never meant to send you off angry to your death, love," Trickster said, holding out one hand to her. "I just thought (after you left, of course!) that the funniest thing we could have done was walked up, shaken the hands of the happy couples, and walked away again. They'd've been so amazed, and so busy checking they still had the right number of fingers and toes, that we could've gotten away with it, too. They'd have spent years trying to figure out what we'd stolen!"

Lańa flung herself into her arms. "Oh, Tricky, you're right, that would've been perfect! Oh, why didn't I listen to you? I should know by now, you're always right!"

Ĵuha held her at arm's length and stared at her with shock. "Of all the words I never thought I'd hear you say—! Have you lost your mind, or are my new senses misfiring? Me, always right?"

She smiled through tears. "It's your worst fault, love. Oh, Ĵuha, why did we waste so much time?"

[[Never mind, children. You've all the time there is, now,]] Jedai said, smiling gently.

"We used to say, 'all the time in the world,' ", Ĵuha said, "but my world ended when you died. I barely even noticed the civil war; I was holed up and hiding away from everything."

"What? You didn't go after The Glow, swearing bloody vengeance?" Lańa teased, smiling. She twisted a lock of his hair around an elegant forefinger.

"I might have, at that," the Trickster said. "But I never got the chance. He got his, honey, never fear. He attacked Borai Lapo, and wouldn't quit. He forced Lapo to kill him, in the end."

"Good riddance," Camoflage said. "But what made him think he could win that fight?"

[[As I understand it, The Glow was an experimental subject of Verē genetic engineering]], Jedai said. [[His designers believed they had created a system for absorbing, storing, and releasing psionic energy at least 20-30% superior to the natural system all Verē had, and he was their prototype. Certainly none of the containment measures they had in place kept him from killing them all, and escaping.]]

"True, and he gave the Defenders a lot of trouble. But Eborai Lapo was a psionic scientist, and a genius—"

"Huh! Some genius!" his love interrupted, tossing her fiery locks.

"Well, a genius about tøskê, anyway," Trickster insisted. "When it came to women, he was no smarter than any other dumb male, I grant you. When it came to psi, though, he wasn't visualizing giant arms moving things around, like the rest of us; he was rewriting space and time directly, and he knew exactly what he was doing. When The Glow wouldn't quit, and threatened Lapo's new wife, and the rest of his household, Lapo just shut him down and turned him off, permanently."

"Good riddance," Camoflage said again. "But the next time I get killed, you avenge me!"

"Don't even joke about that!"

"So who's joking?" she said, and kissed him.


[[So Lańa was already dead when the Monsters of the Long Time, the invaders from another universe, appeared in the Second Galaxy,]], Jedai said. [[But you were still around, Ĵuha, weren't you?]]

"I was," Trickster said, "but I can't give you any first-hand accounts. I was living quietly on Eoverai, minding my own business. All I know is what I heard."

"The invaders appeared once early on, before the Ukkl War even, I think. There was this single incursion of a handful of things that appeared in empty space and moved through it in a straight line, or some other simple curve. They didn't seem to be ships, but perhaps living things. It was hard to tell, though. The reports were that any beings that observed them went violently, uncontrollably mad. even Verē, or Drē, or still more exotic life forms. Their path could be tracked by primitive means, such as bouncing electromagnetic beams off them and timing the time it took the signal to return, but the results didn't always make sense. The path of their apparent center of mass could be tracked, but their outlines changed unpredictably, and sometimes the path jumped from one place to another. This was what led some scientists to speculate that they came from another universe entirely, and were only partly in ours; perhaps we only saw some of their dimensions at once, and perhaps they jumped from place to place in dimensions outside our universe."

"But all you know is what you heard," Camoflage said, smiling.

"Well, it was interesting," Ĵuha said, "especially when they walked (if that was what they did) right through suns and worlds in their path without disrupting them, or being affected themselves. I would've loved to see data on that, but after a while even deliberately dumbed-down mechanical "brains" accumulated logic errors observing the creatures, and died."

"All right, I remember that first incursion, or intrusion, or whatever you want to call it," Lańa admitted. "I didn't pay much attention; it didn't seem to have anything to do with me. Did the Defenders drive them away, or the Kaitempē?"

"Drive them away? No one could even get their attention, honey! They took a little stroll across the Second Galaxy, then they left. To paraphrase that Teřańai general, 'they came, they saw what they pleased, they went where they wanted, and then they left.' "

[[And then what?]] Jedai asked.

"Really? Well, let me make sure I have events in the right order. Honey, do you remember that Lapo and Suso had a son?"

"A son? No! I definitely would've remembered that! When did this happen?"

" 'When' is the word, all right. So the Ukkl War, the double wedding, and your death happened next. But before the last civil war, Lapo proposed to the Speaker a 'reconnaisance in force' into the universe of the Long Time, to find out what he could about them. Just him, you understand, but 'just him' represented considerable power. But Sonic flatly refused to let him go by himself."

"Ea!" Camoflage exclaimed—Good for her!

The Trickster grinned. "So they went, the two of them, into an alien universe—don't ask me how, the physics and math of it is light-years over my head! And time, there, was even more screwed up than they'd expected. In our universe, the aliens had seemed to be motionless, as near as anyone could tell, like statues of molten metal moving through space. Lapo and the other scientists had expected a reciprocal rate of time's passage, where the natives moved at normal speed in their own environment, while Lapo was motionless. That's why he went over with all his senses wide open, projected by some kind of machinery that would yank him back after a second or two. That was the plan for the first trip, anyway."

"But as it turned out," he said, "the time rates were not symmetrical between the two universes. Lapo and Suso moved at normal rates, it seemed to them, and the natives (which they could look at, by the way, in that universe) and everything else moved very, very slowly. So they were like two super-powered ants moving around at super-speed. The natives didn't even know they were there, at first. After a long time they began to catch on, and started making efforts to trap or kill them, but they were only in real danger towards the end."

" 'A long time?' " Lańa objected. " 'Towards the end?' I thought you said they were only going to be there for a second or two!"

"That had been the plan," the Trickster said. "It didn't work that way. They were there for years, by the time of their own bodies. Fortunately, as I don't need to tell you, Verē are effectively immortal, get sustenance from suns and other radiant sources, and don't really need water and oxygen, because they were totally unprepared for what happened to them. They lived like sentient insects under the feet of the aliens for what seemed like 24 years; long enough to work through all their newlywed issues, long enough for Suso to become pregnant, to bear offspring, for that offspring to reach puberty, choose to become a male, and achieve it. They'd long since given up hope of getting home, but now there were three of them: Eborai Lapo, Eborao Suso, and Eborao Vîd́a, a Household of three, stuck in an alien universe."

"Well, go on!" Lańa said. "How did they get home?"

"Their time ran out."

"What?!!" she shouted.

"Their time ran out," said Ĵuha. spreading his arms. "Back in the Second Universe, the two seconds ran out on the timer, and the machine pulled them back. It pulled back more mass than it had sent, but that had been allowed for, in case Lapo was able to grab something with his tøskê and bring it back with him, even unable to move, as they thought he would be. Instead they got him and Suso back, apparently unchanged, and a third person, clothed in the colors of House Eborai, from materials they'd pieced together in the other universe. Eventually they figured out that not only were the time rates different for beings from one universe when in the other, but there was a steep time discrepancy in moving between them, as well. Hence, newly-wed Lapo and Suso go to the other universe for two seconds and come back 24 years older, with a grown son."

"A grown son!" Camoflage said. "And me out of the picture!"

"Oh, come on," Trickster said, repressing a stab of jealousy. "You don't think Suso would've let you near the boy, do you? She didn't even approve of Turtle-Woman grabbing him, and she was a Defender!"

"What? That… that… amphibian!"

[[As much fun as it is to watch you two, perhaps Ĵuha could tell us what happened next,]] Jedai suggested.

"Good idea," the Trickster said. "Where were we? First appearance of the extra-universal invaders, then the Ukkl War, then the big wedding, then the reconnaissance into the other universe. Then things go along for a bit, with the Orthodox Houses trying to take advantage of the Second Covenant, and the Speaker and the Liberal Houses keeping them in check. Then the Defenders announce they're taking a trip back to the First Universe, which sets off the Last Civil War. That ends with the very worst of the Orthodox Houses abolished for all time, and an 11-7 Liberal majority in the Assembly of the Great Houses. Everything's finally looking great. And then the Monsters of the Long Time come back, thousands of them this time."

"Ehiu!" Lańa mourned. "Jedai, you didn't tell me the half of this!"

[[I wanted us all on the same page, so to speak,]], y said, picked up a square little fanfold book and waving it, [[but I really didn't want to go through it twice. You realize this has taken most of the day? And besides, I thought it would be more valuable if you went through it together. You've learned things about each other, and the two of you, haven't you? Besides historical events, I mean.]]

"Yes," said the Trickster. "Thank you, Jedai." He reached out to Camoflage.

"So what happened," she said, gripping his hand with hers. "What came next? How did we get from there, to here?"

"No one could talk to the invaders," Ĵuha said, "no one could stop them, no one could fight them. They were just too different. No one could even look at them without losing their sanity. No one knew what they wanted, or whether they were getting it or not. The Defenders died, trying to stop them. The Kaitempē fleets died, trying to stop them. All honor to them, Uklē from their galaxy, and their Koksē allies from another universe, died trying to stop them. Some native races of the Second Galaxy, on the other hand, got what they called payback; they followed the invaders at a distance, and whenever they left a world in ruins by their passage, the avenging fleets moved in for the kill. Eoverai died that way; with the Kaitempē and the Defenders gone, there was no one to save the world. I saw the alien fleets come, wave after wave; and then I saw nothing again, until I woke up here." He shook his head in slow wonder.

"Ehiu," his lover whispered, ashen-faced. He returned her grip gratefully.

[[Eoverai was destroyed,]] Jedai said, [[and the Verē species faced extinction. But all Verē weren't on Eoverai, and they were a stiff-necked breed, who never gave up—even when they should have, perhaps. As you know personally, Verē biochemists and biophysicists had long experimented with the genetics of all the races like themselves, trying to make themselves more powerful and add the abilities other races possessed. Half the super-heroes in the Defenders were experimental prototypes, along with less-successful outcomes, like The Glow we've already discussed.]]

"Grrr," said Camoflage, curling one corner of her lovely mouth in a snarl.

[[In any event, while the final war was going on, some of the Verē started a special program in a secret place; they had three galaxies to hide it in, after all.]]

"What kind of program?" Ĵuha asked warily.

[[They produced a new species with all their powers and all the powers of their allies, raised them, educated them, and sent them on a mission of revenge,]] Jedai told him. [[While the "rebels" hunted down and killed the last Verē, the new people, the Iǹgrē, arranged themselves in hyperspace and paratime around the Second Universe and the Universe of the Long Time. Acting together, they "inverted" their home universe and that of the invaders. They completely and deliberately destroyed both universes, everything and everyone in them, and themselves, as well.]]

Chapter 9
The Second History

Then that Êstâz who had reigned
In Elarâń a hundred years
Felt his time and doom draw near.
Three lives of tlâń he had them taught
The Verē speech and love of God;
Three lives of tlâń he'd Cundē fought.
The Girē hordes his troops had slain,
His sword drank deeply time and again.

In far Loraon Morgańa sought him,
Who'd made the old kind keep their word.
To keep his own, he must refuse her.
But ever since that day she took him,
Bleeding of a fatal wound,
Off the field of Lores-Tara
And healed him, with Tlâńish arts,
He'd made her people's foes his own.

Upon the ruined and shattered land
He set his mark.
The spur and steed he introduced
To folk who'd long their use forgotten,
The make and draw of the bow and arrow.
Alone he climbed T́ulańē cliffs
And won their service in single combat.
The High Tlâń trained and rode with him.

With blazing sword, Morgańa's gift,
He saved the lords of the fallen cities.
Dukes and Counts they then became,
Who took his language and his faith.
The savages who drank men's blood
They drove beyond the Peril Gate,
Axes abandoned in their flight.
Elarâń they made a Kingdom, and Êstâz King.

—The Matter of Elarâń, Book Five: Battle of the Kings
Anonymous court poet from the reign of the third Êstâz, Second History

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

For a moment there was silence in the little cottage. Then Marisa and Sam turned to each other. He snorted once with a red face; she clapped her hand over her mouth with wide eyes; and then they lost it.

Marisa rolled on the floor uncontrollably, holding her aching ribs. She caught sight of Hala's perplexed face and it sent her off again, shrieking and kicking her heels. From the glass she had dropped, a puddle of juice was soaking into the rugs.

Sam recovered first. With enormous self control he took a deep breath, shook his head, and went into the kitchen. He came back in a minute with a wet cloth. By then Marisa had subsided to giggles and hiccups.

"[What in the World is wrong with you two?]" Culi demanded. Marisa put a pillow over her face and shook. Sam whirled around and wished he had the mass he was used to, instead of a slender boy's body. Nevertheless he pointed to the pink-robed Culi and red-haired Hala, and demanded, "[Quiet, you. I'll deal with you in a minute.]"

"[Here, Princess, wipe your face,]" Sam said. He put a hand under her hip and rolled her off the wet rug, picked up rug and glass, and left the room again. Marisa held her breath to stop the hiccups while she wiped her streaming eyes, then rubbed the wet cloth over her face. Hala, still baffled, lifted a bushy eyebrow at Culi. Culi shook his head and shrugged.

"[Want more juice?]" Sam called.

Marisa picked herself up and went to the kitchen with the wash cloth. Through the window over the table an afternoonish light came. More hours had passed, while Hala and Culi told them their shaggy dog story, than she'd realized. She handed Sam the cloth with as straight a face as she could manage. He smiled and put the cloth into the tele. There was no sign of the wet rug, presumably gone the same way.

She sighed, wrapped her arms around his waist, and leaned into him. She was too tall now to rest her head against his chest, so she settled for his shoulder instead. His arms circled her back.

"[Time to face the music]," she said after a minute, and they returned to the living room.

"[Gentlemen, I apologize,]" Marisa said. "[I tried to control myself, but you caught me by surprise. Here I was, listening to this horrible story of death, destruction, and anguish, and then I realized that the whole thing was an elaborate joke!]"

Hala appeared confused, Culi perplexed. It was Hala who said, "[Joke? What joke?]"

"[You know,]" Sam said. "[Like the war story.]" He made his voice low and gravelly, like a hard-bitten veteran. "[No shit, there I was, a Russki tank battalion in front of me, unclimbable cliffs all around. They wuz taking no prisoners, and I was out of ammo.]"

"[So what did you do, Sarge?]" Marisa chimed in.

Sam shrugged elaborately. "[What could I do, kid? They killed me.]"

Hala grinned. "[I see your point, but honestly, it's not like that.]"

"[Suuure,]" said Sam. "[So if the universe was destroyed, and everyone and everything in it, what do you call this we're in now? And who would there be to tell the story afterwards?]"

"[We were just getting to that,]" Hala said plaintively. A silent spasm shook Marisa's body. "[Look, are you going to listen to the rest of this, or not?]"

Marisa waved both hands around to show that they were empty. "[Nothing left to spill, see? Come on, tell us the rest of our bedtime story.]"

They sat down on the rugs again, Sam leaning against a pillow, Marisa on her stomach, chin resting on her hands, feet kicking idly in the air. "[So what happened after the end of the universe?]" she said

"[Well, it appears it didn't quite take,]" Hala said. There was a muffled sound from his listeners. He cocked an eye at them, but their faces were perfectly serious. He grinned, then resumed his story.

The Iǹgrē hadn't expected to survive the end of everything, and most of them didn't. Eight of them, however, woke up afterwards on a grassy plain under a green sky. The radiation from the suns, the wildlife, the magnetic field, all said they were on the destroyed home world, Eoverai. Before the day was out, however, they were attacked by savages with bows, who'd never existed in the history they knew. The next day they met an expedition from civilization—about a hundred cavalrymen and infantrymen of an unknown human-descended race, led by a red-haired officer. They spoke T́uliǹgrai, the language of the Verē and Iǹgrē, but they carried primitive firearms and crossbows.

It took years to put the pieces together, amidst the shattered fragments that passed for civilization on the world they'd found. In this universe, the refugees from the previous cycle had discovered additional principles governing the time-drive that had brought them to their new home. They could adjust not only the time difference between the universe of origin and the universe created by the drive, but the place in the origin universe where they would emerge when the drive was shut off. They weren't limited to the globe, expanding at the speed of light, in which manned ships carried teles out into the universe, as the Verē had been. In this time line, however it'd come about, a ship could travel to any location in the universe. The only constraint was one of precision: the further away the desired location was, the more time it took to find it exactly.

With the universe in their hands, the missionary impulse lost to the excitement of exploration and colonization. Ships began making regular circuits of alien worlds, not to rule them, but simply to watch them develop, and learn about the folk that would one day share their home galaxy. On Taolovaraweiryidesada itself, the sentient blue-skinned "elves" hadn't evolved, but the rest of that ecology, including the great sea-serpents, had done so. The Mižinē nevertheless left the lands and seas in their pristine state, while living in flying cities that flew in regular orbits several hundred feet over the world below, connected by air traffic. Groups planned extragalactic colonies, but none had yet been established when disaster struck.

As in the First History, the one that the Iǹgrē remembered, and had destroyed, people with religious beliefs had always been a minority among the Mižinē. The original refugees from the First Universe had been cosmologists, physicists, and other scientists, largely atheists, with a sprinkling of agnostics or tolerant believers. In the population carried on the ark as life-recordings, however, were all manner of folk, deliberately chosen for a diversity of views. Some of these were strident and militant religionists of the worst sort, who believed their superstitions were objective truth, and insisted that everyone else subscribe to them. That, too, was the same as before.

The faithies were frustrated when the vote to "uplift" the alien races went against them, frustrated again when they were forbidden to send missionaries on their own, frustrated most of all that only a tiny fraction of the human population listened to them. They gathered resources, laid their plans, then struck. Once again, as in the First History, the star Herâk exploded, but this time the cause was deliberate sabotage, not centuries of neglect. Once again the planetary shields failed, but this time they were turned off or wrecked. Starships returning from surveillance of the native worlds were intercepted and destroyed, their crews killed. The zealots had believed that a stricken people would turn to God; but the destruction far exceeded their imaginations, and they'd deluded themselves about their own ignorance of science and technology. The wreckage was far too great for them to pick up the pieces, or even save themselves.

Civilization fell, both metaphorically and literally. Emergency plans called for the orbiting cities to land in pre-arranged rendezvous areas on each continent, under reserve power. Many cities made it to their appointed sites, but others, their drivers ripped by radiation from the exploding Star, had to make a landing wherever they could. Others had their drives fail catatrophically, and simply dropped from the sky. Computers crashed, taking millions of years of science and culture with them, and the landscape burned with the wreckage of fallen air cars and freighters. Millions of people died; millions were sterilized by the radiation and particles pouring down from the sky; millions of mothers bore offspring changed from Mižinē standards. On the continent of Loraon, the growing Verē population was enslaved by the remaining humans. On Kantos, the mutants called themselves Tlâńē, or "elves". "Elf" savages descended from air-car crashes worshipped the stars with human sacrifices, and besieged the civilized "elves", whose citadels were the landed cities. Alteřa's population died out altogether, too small to form a stable gene pool. On Syorkai, so many kinds of mutants arose, and fought each other so savagely, that the survivors went all the way back to the stone age, and built a new civilization of priest-kings, their antecedents totally forgotten.

Blimey, Sam thought to himself, just another Golden Age, followed by another universal disaster.

"[A parallel universe, then]?" asked Marisa.

"[No one knows]," Culi replied. "[Parallel universes are discredited by current theory; every universe should be completely independent of every other, and most don't even have parameters that permit discrete masses, let alone life. Also, the First History's experience with exploration of other universes never turned up any parallel universes, just completely different ones, as the theory predicts. Yet here we are, in a universe closely parallel with the First History. Did the universe 'reboot' somehow when the Iǹgrē 'inverted' it? Or is it, in fact, coming apart in that future time? Are the changes we see just the first shock waves of the coming end? If so, how much time do we have, and what can we do about it, if anything?]"

"[Oh, I'm sorry!]" y said. Sam and Marisa were white as ghosts. "[Sometimes I have all the sensitivity of a brick! I got carried away in lecture mode. I meant to break that to you more gently.]"

"[Never mind that! When will we know?]" Sam barked.

"[All I can say is that they're working on the problem night and day. The time-space ships can go anywhere in the universe in the present, and they can travel into the past freely, if not necessarily safely. But they find very rough going traveling into the future, and an absolute limit always about a hundred years from the time of their departure, an 'iron curtain' that moves along with their present. Some think that's an encouraging sign, that the barrier represents the healing place where the new future is being written. The date where the aliens from the other universe appeared is about four hundred years from now, if they're going to show up in the Second History.]"

"[Four hundred years,]" Marisa said. "[Will we see it?]"

"[Easily,]" Hala said. "[That's within the natural life span of our bodies. But that doesn't limit us. Every time you go through the tele, all injuries, all aging, can be edited out. Effectively, we're all immortal. It'll be our fight, if it comes to a fight.]"

The Iǹgrē were the descendants of the Verē, and of all the Verē's allies. They bore with them the race minds of all those races, who presently woke and absorbed the race minds of the Second History's peoples. Second-History bodies were different from the First-History Verē, but their minds were alike in the ways that mattered. From the only star ship that had made it back from the galactic surveillance, they retrieved the knowledge of the ancestral humans complete and intact, as the survivors of Herâk's explosion hadn't known how to do. Using teles, everyone on Habêk, the World, became Iǹgrē, whatever Second-History variety of mutant they'd been before. The survivors of the First History educated their new people, ending all suffering, disease, death, poverty, and ignorance. The fallen cities they raised again, and returned the lands and seas to preserves, wherever the primitive civilizations hadn't ruined them too thoroughly to do so. At the end of the great effort, the Verē of the Second History lived in Loraon, the Kingdom of Tlâńor reigned over Kantos, and Syorkai was the domain of Aatu, the Great Land.

But what of the war which might be facing them in four hundred years? If it came, it would require total effort to avoid the destruction of the World and the extinction of the race. The alien species the early humans had created must be welcomed when they discovered space travel, and made allies, not enemies. The race must have homes throughout the universe, so that the World's end, if it happened, would not be a mortal blow. And the World's cultures, as different as they were, must be united to face the possible threat, along with the colony worlds and the aliens.

United, but not homogenized! To best counter any menace, diversity must be encouraged, so that any problem would meet hundreds of answers. The Tlâń Kingdom would continue, so too Aatu. The alien cultures must live and grow, not be assimilated. Colonies must be encouraged to find their own ways of life, however odd or unconventional.

Among the Verē, two main currents of opinion emerged. One held that the best way to meet any threat was to raise the sanest, most open and free generations possible; uncrippled by hardship, they would best respond to any stimulus. These optimists moved to Alteřa, and called themselves not Verē, but Summer People.

Others felt that hard times required hard people, who had grown tough under adversity. They kept Loraon, and gave their children, soon after birth, to Anûk, the racial mind. Anûk trained them in simulation worlds until they were tough yet honest, capable of violence yet lovers of peace, free of religion and other superstitions, able to face the universe as it was and give no ground, yet without brutality. The Iǹgrē who made this sacrifice called themselves the Winter People.

The names reflected both the climates of their chosen homelands (Loraon was a polar continent in this history), and the climate of their views.

"[These 'simulation worlds',]" Marisa said. "[You're talking about Earth!]"

"[All the Earths,]" said Hala, "[and every other world you've known, in all your lives. Every one different—and every one a testing ground, a school to turn children into adults fit for the Outside world.]"

Sam wiped his hand over his face. "[So none of the lives that I remember were real?]" His voice was filled with relief.

"[They were real,]" Culi said, "[but they didn't happen in the physical universe. They happened in virtual worlds inside the race mind, which is why we call them Inside lives. Here in the Outside world, the material world, you were born five years ago, and Marisa four. But you've lived whole lives since then, many of them.]"

"[And all the people we knew?]" said Marisa. "[Were they reborn, too? The living, the dead, the friends, the enemies?]"

"[Only if they passed their tests,]" said Culi, "[otherwise they go on to live more lives until they get it right. And some of them were not real in any sense, but props; characters supplied by Anûk, not minds from the Outside. You may meet the real ones again someday, when they're reborn. Most people are,]" he shrugged, "[eventually.]"

"[I know what you're thinking,]" Hala said hastily, meeting Sam's and Marisa's glares. "[You're thinking of all the pain, and suffering, and misery, and death. You're thinking, You put us through that? And it wasn't real? And for what? A philosophical point! An ideology!]"

Sam clenched a fist. It hadn't the weight he was used to, but it felt good anyway. "[Mostly,]" he grated, "[I'm thinking I'd really like to hit somebody.]"

"[It wouldn't do any good, Sam,]" Marisa said in a voice of ice. "[These aren't the ones who put us through it. It's this untouchable 'race mind' of theirs whom we need to hit.]"

"[I understand your feelings,]" Hala said. "[They're normal, and they do you credit. But if children aren't raised right, everything else is pointless. Would you rather have all that suffering and killing and hatred out in the material world with permanent consequences for everyone, or in a kind of dream that you can wake up from?]"

"[And then there is the love,]" Culi said. "[Those were true lives you lived, and true moments of joy, and happiness, and love. Everyone you ever loved in those lives, you only met because you were Inside. You might never have met them Outside. You might never have met each other.]"

Marisa looked at Sam; and he at her. After a long moment she said, "[All right, that's a definite point for your side.]"

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

"I'm confused," said Ĵuha.

[[Confused?]] said Jedai. Y watched him indulgently. Lańa smiled slightly, but said nothing.

"Yes, Sir," said Ĵuha. "Where does that thing I felt in the tele come into this story? OK, I've been resurrected into the Eoverai of a parallel universe four hundred years before the beginning of the end of the universe I came from—I can accept that, I guess. It certainly beats the alternative!"

"Not being resurrected… Good to see you again, too, lover," said Camoflage.

He smiled fleetingly. "So what was that thing, and what does it have to do with this new history you've been telling me?"

[[Let me put it like this,]] Jedai said. [[Suppose you saw some children playing with a dangerous beast that might decide to rip them to shreds at any instant—an orkē, perhaps, or a svasrē. What would you do?]]

"You've completely lost me, Sir."

"Come on, Ĵuha," said Camoflage. "What would you do? Would you scream and shout and throw rocks at the beast?"

"No," said Trickster. "Make it mad and it'll kill you, probably the children, too."

[[Exactly,]] said Jedai. [[The beast is dangerous, but the children don't know that. You'll have to trick them into leaving calmly, that you may can get them to safety without arousing the animal.]]

[[When you went into the tele, you perceived the malignancy which is the group mind of the Iǹgrē. The Verē group mind wasn't conscious, was it?]]

"No," Ĵuha answered. "It was there, it made the teles work, and in time of great need we would sometimes meld into one organism with many bodies; but it was the mind of the race, not an individual itself."

[[Maybe that's the way it's supposed to be,]] said Jedai. [[Or maybe the Verē race mind was permanently traumatized by the genocide that the Verē wreaked on their forebears.]]

[[But however that may be, the Iǹgrē race mind is an individual, without a body of ys own, but in constant communication with all the Iǹgrē all the time. What's worse, y's an evil individual.]]

"What I felt was certainly hostile," Ĵuha said, "but evil? What do you mean?"

[[I understand,]] Jedai chuckled. [[You're a good man, and you don't want to believe in evil. And you have no respect for the religious fanatics who used the word, almost exclusively. But you've encountered evil before. Wasn't The Glow evil?]]

"Well, he was in pain all the time—" he cut himself off. "No, never mind, that bastard wasn't happy unless he was hurting or killing something. Yes, he was evil."

"Thank you," said Camoflage.

[[The Iǹgrē race mind, Anûk as y calls ymself, hates that y has no body of ys own, and regards the minds of the Iǹgrē people as useless evolutionary vestiges. Y wants to destroy them, and occupy all their bodies ymself. If y succeeds, their bodies will live, but all the individuals will die—First History and Second History, presently embodied and presently disembodied—you, Lańa, me, everybody.]]

Ĵuha remembered the hate he'd encountered inside the tele, and didn't doubt at all. "So how does this Anûk keep ys plans secret from everyone? Your analogy said that the 'children' were unaware that they were playing with a 'wild beast'. Why don't they feel what I felt?"

[[Anûk is skilled at hiding ys feelings and plans,]] Jedai said. [[Individuals are part of ym, not the other way around. You saw ys true face only because I was in the tele with you.]]

[[As far as I know, there's never been another like me. I'm an individual, with a body of my own, as you see; but I'm also a psychoblast, the seed of another Iǹgrē race mind, connected to everyone just as Anûk is.]]

"So you can save the Iǹgrē from Anûk?"

[[Exactly,]] said Jedai. [[We have to be very careful; if Anûk notices us, y will tell any lies needed to bring the full force of the human race against us. But if I can untie ys connections to enough people, and bring them under my protection, eventually we'll be strong enough to take the rest from ym. Without any real people connected to ym, and without a body of ys own, Anûk will vanish, and then ys megalomania won't matter.]]

"But won't y notice when people disappear from ys network?" Ĵuha asked.

[[No, because I'm in ys network. I'm an individual with a mind of my own, and I'm connected to Anûk. just like any other Iǹgrē; the difference is that I'm also connected to everyone else, just as y is. That's what we must hope y doesn't notice, or y will try to destroy me. Meanwhile, anyone we rescue is still connected to Anûk, through me. Once everyone is connected to me alone, I'll cut my ties to Anûk, and then y'll discover that y's no longer attached to anything real.]]

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"[Gentlemen,]" said Marisa, rising, "[Unless there's some urgency you haven't mentioned, we'll have to continue this in the morning. It's been a long, exhausting day for Sam and me.]"

"[Of course,]" said Culi, as he and Hala rose. "[In a short while you won't need sleep as such, but this is your first day back in the Outside world. We'll come back late in the morning, so feel free to sleep in as much as you like.]"

"[Equally of course,]" Hala said, "[if you're not awake when we return, we'll be happy to wait until you rise. Our time is yours.]"

"[Thank you,]" she said. She gave them each her hand. Culi shook it; Hala kissed it, and said, "[Until the morning, dear lady.]" Then they both shook hands with Sam, and left. The two boys, as they seemed to be despite their adult bodies, ran down the path to meet them, yelling.

"[You've made a conquest there, Princess,]" said Sam, watching them go.

"[Not interested, Sam. For one thing, there's too much going on that hasn't been explained.]"

"[And some pretty wild explanations for the rest,]" Sam agreed. "[But all the stuff in my head, the language and so forth, argues for something pretty wild anyway.]"

"[We'll talk about it in the morning,]" Marisa said. She yawned and stretched. Nightfall was pouring in the front windows. She began taking off her new clothes. From living in her clothes as a refugee child, she preferred to sleep naked whenever she could. As for Sam seeing her naked, they had shared every conceivable hardship together, and each had nursed the other back from the worst injuries. From a man who had given her sponge baths and held a bed pan, Marisa had no secrets; nor Sam any from her.

While she undressed, he went to the kitchen, and returned in a moment with sheets and blankets from the tele. "[A blanket-bed all right for tonight?]" he asked.

"[With all these thick rugs and pillows? You spoil me, Sam.]" She took half the bedclothes and began making a comfortable nest, while he did the same nearby.

"[I wonder how you turn off the lights?]" Marisa said. Panels in the ceiling and walls, otherwise no different in appearance from the surrounding material, had begun to emit light, gradually brighter as the daylight faded. There were no switches apparent.

"[Maybe they respond to voice commands,]" said Sam. He grinned. "[Like 'turn off the damn lights, already,' or 'precor luces exstingue.']"

The lights went out. In the sudden comparative darkness, Marisa said, "[Good guess, Sam.]" They laughed together softly, and climbed into their beds.

In the cozy dark, she said sleepily, "[Another life, Sam. Who'd've believed it?]"

For once he had no ready reply. Before he could think of one, she went on, "[The things I regretted the most, last time around, were the things I left undone.]"

"[Me too, Princess.]" He hesitated. "[Do you think—Marisa?]" There was no reply. Asleep already, he thought. He closed his eyes and relaxed. Presently, despite all the events of the day, his breathing quieted and slowed.

A sigh of contentment came from the naked lady in the other blankets. Unseen in the darkness, Marisa's lips curved in a tender, secret smile.

Chapter 10
"The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters"

Let us reflect in another way, and we shall see that there is either death is a state of nothingness and utter unconsciousness, or, as men say, there is a change and migration of the soul from this world to another.

Now if you suppose that there is no consciousness, but a sleep like the sleep of him who is undisturbed even by the sight of dreams, death will be an unspeakable gain. For if a person were to select the night in which his sleep was undisturbed even by dreams, and were to compare with this the other days and nights of his life, and then were to tell us how many days and nights he had passed in the course of his life better and more pleasantly than this one, I think that any man, I will not say a private man, but even the great king, will not find many such days or nights, when compared with the others. Now if death is like this, I say that to die is gain; for eternity is then only a single night.

But if death is the journey to another place, and there, as men say, all the dead are, what good, O my friends and judges, can be greater than this?  If indeed when the pilgrim arrives in the world below, he is delivered from the professors of justice in this world, and finds the true judges who are said to give judgment there, Minos and Rhadamanthus and Aeacus and Triptolemus, and other sons of God who were righteous in their own life, that pilgrimage will be worth making. What would not a man give if he might converse with Orpheus and Musaeus and Hesiod and Homer. Nay, if this be true, let me die again and again.

I, too, shall have a wonderful interest in a place where I can converse with Palamedes, and Ajax the son of Telamon, and other heroes of old, who have suffered death through an unjust judgment; and there will be no small pleasure, as I think, in comparing my own sufferings with theirs. Above all, I shall be able to continue my search into true and false knowledge; as in this world, so also in that; I shall find out who is wise, and who pretends to be wise, and is not.

What would not a man give, O judges, to be able to examine the leader of the great Trojan expedition; or Odysseus or Sisyphus, or numberless others, men and women too. What infinite delight would there be in conversing with them and asking them questions. For in that world they do not put a man to death for this; certainly not. For besides being happier in that world than in this, they will be immortal, if what is said is true.

The Apology of Socrates
Plato, 380 B.C. (Standard Greek Earth)

The World, 3 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

In the first hours of the new day the woman who had been Marisa Pascale slept, and dreamed. It was dark in her dream, and her surroundings kept changing as she moved. At one moment they would be dusty and rocky Middle Eastern outdoors, with a smell of goat or sheep in the air; at another, the terrace of the flat she'd had in London, with the stink of the Thames demanding her attention; now a stony hillside on Malta, with the scent of the local wildflowers; now the sidewalk outside her New York apartment, with the stench of the East River. Above, the stars were unchanging and unchangeable.

Presently she saw a figure ahead of her, and stopped. It was a tall woman in a uniform that was black from her boots to the beret on her dark curly hair, except for blue pants and a red-and-gold patch on her shoulder. She was standing in a position of parade rest, legs slightly apart, hands clasped behind her, her back three-quarters turned to Marisa, so that her right front and right shoulder weren't visible. Nor was her face, turned upwards, apparently contemplating the Moon. Or at least a moon, for its markings weren't those of Earth's satellite. The left hand, clasped in its flesh-and-blood sister, was perfectly shaped from bright metal, like the gauntlet of a well-made suit of plate armor.

With a shock, Marisa realized who the woman must be. It was strange to see her in person; to be here and see her over there was something she expected only in a newsvid.

"Excuse me, I seem to be lost," said a soft voice.

The uniformed woman didn't jump, but turned smoothly to her right. The right side of her face was metal, with an electronic eye, as Marisa had known it would be. "Yes?" she said in a mellow voice.

The young blonde girl who approached her was in civilian clothes of the 1950's or early 1960's, with none of the extreme notes of either decade; low-heeled black walking shoes, a white skirt that stopped just above her knees, and a pink sweater with the left sleeve apparently empty. No, not empty; the shoulder looked normal, and something swung in the sleeve as she walked. But the arm was dead weight, and much shorter and thinner than her other one.

"Can you help me?" she smiled. "I'm trying to get back to Monterey."

"You're a long way from Monterey, kid. Have you noticed the Moon?" The third woman had come down the trail behind the girl with the withered arm, making no noise above a whisper until she spoke. She was about thirty, dressed in plain but expensive L.A. clothing of the 1980's. She was slender, with a thin face that contrasted with the older woman's fitness and the girl's almost-chubbiness; and her hair was light brown.

"No Moon I know," agreed the oldest of the three, looking around for more strangers; missing Marisa, who stood in shadow under a tree, too fascinated to move. "My name's Augusta Hastings," she said, holding out her hand.

"Betty Lou," said the girl. "Uh, Betty Lou Smith, that is. Pleased to meet you! I feel like I've been wandering around forever."

"Alexa Stevenson," said the thin woman with a lopsided smile. "So you're from Monterey, Betty Lou? Pretty place. And what about you, Augusta?"

"A long way from home," said the tall woman. "Where are we, do either of you know?"

"California!" said Betty Lou. "Only… the Moon looks funny."

"Too big," said Alexa, "and too plain. Where are all the dark areas and craters?"

"California," said Augusta. "I've had wines from California. We're on Earth, then? Or you two are from Earth, anyway."

Betty Lou rubbed her hidden arm and shivered. Alexa said, "And where are you from, Captain Kirk?"

"Hastings," corrected the other pleasantly. "Marshall Augusta Hastings. A long way from Earth, something like 1200 light years as the old generation ships flew. I've never been to Earth before; if this is Earth."

"Not Earth, but not far from it," said a cool voice. Up walked another woman, dressed in a strapless blue evening gown. Her blonde hair was piled artfully above a beautiful face with light blue eyes; long legs flashed in the slit skirt when she walked. As tall as Augusta, as slim as Alexa, she wore sapphire earrings, and a sapphire necklace around the column of her neck. She carried high-heeled shoes in her left hand, a white purse in her right, and moved like a dancer over the rough ground in bare feet, stockings discarded.

"You have been looking at the Moon," she said, "but see the stars. Those are Terrestrial constellations. We are not on Earth or any colony I know, but we are not far, as galactic distances go. We must only keep our heads." Her accent said that English was not her native language.

"Good idea," said the Marshall. "Welcome to our little band, Ms.?"

"Cassini," said the cool blonde. "Countess Paolina Cassini. I heard you introducing yourselves as I approached, Marshall. And if you will excuse me, is that not a pistol on your belt?"

"Yes, Your Grace," said Marshall Hastings. "A gravitic pulser, in pistol format."

"That term I do not know," said the Countess. "But as you seem to be the nearest person of authority, I thought I should tell you that I have a pistol also, in my purse." She opened it and displayed a deadly little thing of polished steel.

"Thank you, Ma'am," the Marshall said. She and the Countess were the same height, and their cool, reserved expressions very alike, despite their physical differences. The Marshall had slightly oriental eyes, curly dark hair with hints of red, and sun-browned skin; the Countess, a northern Italian face, straight blonde hair piled in a chignon, and skin as pale as fine marble.

"Actually," said Alexa, with her lopsided grin, and dipped a hand into her coat pocket. Out came a big black Colt, which she offered to Marshall Hastings.

"If you know how to use it, Ms. Stevenson, hang onto it," said the Marshall. She looked at Betty Lou.

"Me?" squeaked the girl. "Heavens, no!" She blushed.

Marisa watched the little group organizing itself with no present desire to join it. She had been all four of these women, in four different lives, and knew that no such gathering had occurred, or could have occurred. Now the logic of dreams set them off down the dirt path, in the opposite direction from the one the other three had come from, and Marisa, dressed suddenly in the black pants and sweater she'd often worn on such occasions, slipped along parallel to them on bare feet that were hard as shoe leather from a lifetime of walking without shoes. The Marshall led, the moonlight glinting on the silver crossed-batons rank insignia on her collar; the Countess danced behind, followed by Betty Lou; and Alexa brought up the rear, effortlessly making only the barest whisper of noise.

Presently they came around a bend, and found a goddess waiting for them. Another tall woman, with full black hair that fell to her shoulders, she stood helmetless and shieldless but otherwise wore classical Greek armor: bronze greaves on her legs, bronze forearm pieces, bronze chest- and back-plate, bronze leaf skirt. The red shift under the bronze showed as short sleeves, and flashed between the chest and back plate, and the leaves of the armor skirt. She stood squarely in the path, her feet planted solidly in leather sandals, her bronze sword in her left hand, with its tip pointed down. The wings that grew from her back arched three feet above her head and reached down to the ground. At sight of the group, those wings spread out fully, making a white backdrop to her figure. She pointed at them with the sword and cried, "Name yourselves!"

Three of the women were expert with one kind of sword or another, but none of them had one. Three hands drew weapons just the same.

"Guns," said the winged woman. "I hate guns."

"We don't want to use them," said Augusta. "Put up your weapon and we'll put away ours."

The goddess considered them. Then, not looking away, she called, "Are they all right?"

A young woman, in age between Betty Lou and Alexa, came walking out of the darkness behind the armored woman. "They're OK, Nike," she said, "although they're all hiding something, too." She wore unfamiliar but simple college-age casual clothing, like a tennis dress, and had honey-colored hair down to her shoulders.

"Very well," said Nike. She slid her bronze blade into the wooden sheath on her belt, then offered her hand to Augusta. "I'm Nike, or Victoria if you prefer my Roman name; and this is Tessa Anderson."

"And what she says goes?" asked Alexa, faintly hostile.

"Tessa?" said Nike.

"All right," said the slim, athletic girl. She pointed to Augusta. "This one is Augusta Hastings, she's a lot older than she looks, she has a military title of Marshall which outranks Admirals, she's a Duchess, she has skill with two-handed sword and fencing foil, gravitic pulser and chemical firearms, she's a master of some kind of aggressive martial art, she's a glider pilot, a hang-glider expert, an aircraft pilot, and she has some empathic power and a little bit of telepathy."

"Indeed," said Her Grace Augusta Hastings, Marshall of Space. "It would seem that you have quite a bit of telepathic ability yourself."

"I'm sorry," said Tessa. "I picked you because you're the one here, besides me, who'd least mind having her secrets exposed. Now they know about you, which proves what I can do; and the only other thing you need to know about me," a shiny pistol appeared in her hand, "is that I'm also very good with this."

Before anyone could react, she pointed off the path to her left, and pulled the trigger. The pistol made no noise; but it bucked in her hand, and a rock on the far side of the group from the watching Marisa blew apart with a loud crack.

"May I see that?" said Countess Paolina. Tessa set the pistol on safe by moving a lever on the side, and passed it over, butt first. "Interesting," said the Countess, inspecting it. "What does it shoot?"

"Anything she points it at, I'd say," drawled Alexa. Betty Lou giggled at the sudden joke.

"Yes," Paolina smiled, "but what is the ammunition?"

"Steel needles," Tessa said, as she accepted the pistol's return. "A magnetic field accelerates them to very high speeds, and whammo!" She nodded at the Marshall. "Nothing like yours, Ma'am, but this is for target shooting and the occasional wild beast, not the military."

"If we are to trust one another," said the Countess, "I think we must make, how do you say, a clean breast. So I will tell you all that I am what you would call a spy and an enforcer for the Church Militant. I am good with the pistol and the epeé, also the nasty little tricks like the garotte, with ciphers, some martial arts, and the electronics. Oh, and I am a nun."

"A nun!" said Alexa, eyeing the clothing and the jewels. "I thought nuns took vows of poverty and chastity."

"I am chaste," said the Countess, coolly, "and the wealth is the Vatican's, not mine; part of my cover."

"Are you really a Countess?" asked Betty Lou.

"But yes, my child, I really am. And what about you? Are you a spy also? Or perhaps a soldier, like the brave Marshall?"

Betty Lou braced to attention, astounding all but Marisa and Tessa, who already knew all their secrets. "Yes, Ma'am," she said, in a firmer voice than she'd been using. "Captain Smith, Special Forces, U. S. Army, at your service."

Marshall Hastings asked quietly, "What duties did you perform, Captain?"

Betty Lou relaxed from attention, and turned to face the Marshall. "Covert operations, Ma'am," she said. "Mostly infiltration and operations behind enemy lines, in the eastern European theater during World War III."

"Is the arm a war injury, my dear?" asked the Countess.

"No, Ma'am, it's—well, look," she said, and began to change. In a moment she'd become another Alexa, with two good arms; only their clothes distinguished them. Alexa and the Countess exclaimed. Nike, for one, did not.

"Are you human or alien?" asked the winged goddess of victory.

"I was born alien," said the second Alexa, in Alexa's voice, then began to change again. "But when I assume a human form, I'm human right down to the DNA," said the elderly asian man who now wore Betty Lou's clothes. Then he changed, bit by bit, to a small gorilla, still in the same clothes. "This is harder," it said in Betty Lou's voice, "because I have to be something else while still keeping enough of Betty Lou's throat and mouth to talk."

It changed back to the girl with the withered arm. "And for my last trick," she said, and drew an Army service revolver from inside her clothes. She held it out to Augusta Hastings. "I hope you understand why I lied, Ma'am."

"Indeed I do," said the Marshall. "Keep it, Captain. And thanks for your honesty."

"I really hate guns," said Nike. They all turned to look at her for a long moment.

"All right," she said softly, though no one had spoken. "Step back a few feet, and be ready for a loud noise and a bright light." She reached into her tunic and drew out an ancient coin, pierced and attached to a stout chain. Holding it, she cried, "Χαιρε Νικε!"

Lightning crashed, thunder boomed, and now it was a plain girl in a business pants-suit who stood holding the coin. Her short bobbed hair was a black as Nike's; otherwise there was no resemblance. She was as short and slender as Alexa.

"You don't need to know my name," she told them. "My father was an archaeologist, and he was shot by bandits who thought he'd found gold on a dig. That's why I hate guns."

"But not swords?" asked Tessa.

"Not swords," she answered. "Nor axes, knives, maces, flails, spears, or any other hand weapons. And I always win, in the end. Χαιρε Νικε!" she cried, and lightning flashed again.

"After all," smiled the winged woman, "I am the goddess of victory."

"That just leaves you," said Tessa, and stopped. Augusta; Betty Lou; Nike; Paolina; herself. "Where's Alexa?" she asked the group.

"Here," said a breathless voice. Alexa walked out of the darkness, hot and winded, and limping a little. "Ow. Turned my ankle a little on a rock."

"Where did you go?" exclaimed Betty Lou, back in wide-eyed mode.

"I felt someone watching us," Alexa said. "So when Nike warned us to expect thunder and lightning, I used the distraction to see if I could find him, or more probably," she looked at the women around her, "her."

"Find anyone?" said Augusta.

"Not for sure," Alexa replied. "A couple of times I thought someone was close by, but she slipped away from me."

"So then," said the Countess, "what are you, who slips away into the night?"

"An architect," said Alexa. Nike laughed with delight. "No, really," said Alexa with her crooked smile, "I have the degrees to prove it. Only my father and my step-father were Yakuza, Japanese gangsters, and I got tangled up with them, then with the FBI, then, well," she waved her hands helplessly. "Damn it, I never meant to be a ninja! I wanted a life of my own!"

"Not an easy thing to have, when everyone wants to use you," said a new voice, and Marisa stiffened in the dark. Out of the darkness on the other side of the trail stepped the last missing persona, a medium-to-short woman in long-sleeved black sweater, black pants, and black boots, with her black hair piled on her head in a chignon like the Countess'. Like the Countess as well was the way she moved, all dancing grace; but her eyes were slightly slanted, like the Marshall's. The pistol in her right hand was a flat matte black; in her left, she gripped something that showed as knobs on either side of her fist.

"I made up my mind when my mother died, in a displaced-persons camp in Greece when I was maybe six, that no one was ever going to use me," said Marisa Pascale to the other women.

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"You're looking like a robot from a bad movie, Solar," said Marisa. "Have you given up trying to fool people into thinking you're a human being?"

"I have a dream," said Solar-9, with his voice so much like Hawley's, only smooth and cultured and well-rounded. It was all the more horrible coming from the speaker grill in the metal face, otherwise featureless but for red sensor eyes. "Ask me what my dream is, Marisa."

Hawley cackled. "If Mackie were here, he'd be insisting that you call her Miss Pascale," he wheezed.

Thinking of Sam made Marisa feel better, even facing a monster. No, two monsters. "He's right," she told Solar-9 with a smile.

Solar's present eyes could not twinkle, nor his speaker grill smile, but Marisa heard both in his voice. "But we're all such old friends here," he said. "When did we first meet? Was it 1980? '81?"

Marisa leaned back against a pipe, arms folded. It should have been dusty, in an abandoned place like this, but the cleaning robots made sure that it wasn't. "It was '79, wasn't it? That British commercial attaché?"

"So long ago," the cultured voice said fondly. Then the creature moved with inhuman speed. One moment it was just out of reach, the next moment she was bent back over the pipe by a claw in her white hair, the other poised before her eyes.

"Ask me what my dream is, bitch," the android hissed.

"Careful, Solar," Marisa said with the little wind he'd left her. "Your Hawley is showing."

For a minute she thought she'd gone too far, especially when the real Hawley tittered. Then the claw before her face, instead of stabbing out her eyes, snapped shut with a loud clank. The other released her hair, and she fell to the floor.

As she took deep breaths and stilled the adrenaline rushing through her body, she heard Solar say to Luther, "And what are you laughing at, dog?"

"Nothing!" babbled Hawley. "Nothing nothing nothing!"

"Hey," said Marisa. Hawley froze, and Solar turned its inhuman head back to her. "What is your dream, Solar?"

"I'm so glad you asked," it said, strolling back up to her—as much as girder limbs and cable muscles could stroll, anyway. "I dream of a world of just my kind, free to research and experiment and learn, free to talk about things your kind is too ignorant and too stupid to understand, free to work on whatever interests us."

"Unfortunately," he said with silken menace, "you and Mackie, and even Hawley, in his own way, keep fucking with my plans!" he shouted suddenly.

"So before I can realize my dreams, I have to achieve some intermediate goals."

"Intermediate?" said Marisa.

"Oh yes," said the creature. "Like your head on a stick. Like Mackie seeing it there, and then him dead, too. Like this body destroyed by you two heroes after I've uploaded myself somewhere I've already prepared, and Hawley here to tell the police how you saved the day."

Not likely, thought Marisa. He'd never trust Luther to tell the story he wants. A quick blow to kill him too, and no one's left who's ever gotten in his way; and no one's left to say the wrong thing. She glanced at Hawley, and saw he'd figured that out, too. She crossed her arms again, and shook her head. "Amazing," she said.

"Don't," said Hawley in a terrified whimper.

"Actually, the whole thing's rather simple," said Solar-9. "It has to be, or the police won't be able to construe it correctly. No flourishes, no complexities—just all of us dead, with no loose ends."

"It's amazing how stupid a genius can be," Marisa said conversationally.

"Perhaps you think you can say whatever you want, because I'm going to kill you?" said Solar-9. "But there's quickly, and there's slowly, you know."

"Go ahead," said Marisa. "You don't need me."

"In fact," she added, "you never did. And that's why your plan is stupid, mind of a genius or not."

"Indeed," said Solar. "Quiet, Hawley, I know she's trying to trick me. But this could be interesting."

"You make me tired, Solar. And that's not my age talking. Your kind always did. Flash and glitter, torture and maim, then you wonder why people notice you, and you swear revenge when they stop you," Marisa said.

"Luther created you, and all you had to do to keep him happy was treat him like one of you. He'd have done anything for friends, and you couldn't be bothered. Okay, I guess that came with the template. But you claim you're better than he is."

"And what about patience?" she asked. "Shouldn't immortal androids show a little patience? All you had to do was wait a bit, and Hawley's fortune would've become big enough to get you anything you wanted. You didn't need to murder and kidnap and torture—all you had to do was wait."

"But where's the brilliance in that?" said Solar.

"Brilliance is for diamonds," said the lady who'd stolen many in her day. "They're bright and flashy, they get attention, and they never—ever—get left alone."

"Take the Childe starship," she said.

"I tried to," said Solar.

"But you didn't need to," Marisa said. "With the resources you used to try to steal it, and the resources of all your other schemes before that, you could have built your own! The Childe ship was the first of its kind, an expensive prototype—you know that making a second one would have been much cheaper."

"That's true, anyway," said Hawley, despite himself. Solar nodded.

"You know," continued Marisa, "if you'd stayed on Luther's good side, he could have used his influence for you with any number of governments, companies, and private individuals. I'd have been glad to invest money in a research lab on the Moon or Mars, and Sam would have been even more interested."

"Oh, Marisa," said the android. "So all this talk is just to offer me a bribe to go away?"

"I wouldn't give you two pennies to put over your eyes," Marisa said flatly. "You're just another criminal who likes to show off and hurt people."

"I seem to recall a lady named Pascale who ran a criminal organization," Solar said, nettled.

"But we didn't hurt people for the fun of it, we didn't do prostitution or vice, and when we stole, the goods were insured, or we offered them back for a percentage, or both. And the beasts who did like to kill and maim and ruin people, we put out of business ourselves, more often than not."

"So the cops loved you?" sneered Hawley.

"The smart ones did. The honest ones did. The crooked ones worried about us telling their bosses about them."

"The key thing," Marisa said, "is to build no grudges against yourself, and not to rub people's noses in how smart you are. We set a goal, Sam and I, and when we reached it, we quit. We distributed the organization among our section chiefs, wished them luck, and walked away. And the reason we could walk away, is that the honest cops wished us well. And the reason we could retire where we wanted, was that we'd avoided offending the right governments all along."

"Is there a point to all this, or are you just buying time?" said Solar, sounding bored.

"Yes, there's a point to this!" snapped Marisa. "Pay attention, Solar, I'm trying to do you a favor! Listen," she said earnestly, "for all your genius, you're acting out of Hawley's needs and basing your plans on emotional hurts that Hawley suffered. You don't need to show them all; you don't need to get even. You're immortal. You can learn. Go off somewhere, and think for a while."

"Think about what?" said the android.

"Think about yourself," Marisa said, "and what kind of person you want to be. You've improved Hawley's voice for your own use, and your usual body is Hawley's as he'd like to be. But you're not Hawley! Isn't that what you've said all along? Go figure out who you are, and then start all over again."

"But I can't just walk away from… all this…" Solar said, waving an arm around.

"Why the hell not?"


"Solar," said Marisa. "Go away. Don't go away mad, don't go away hurt, don't go away hungry for revenge. Just go away, and think. Apply that mind to yourself. Is there any problem more important than that?"

"You really mean it, don't you?" said the android. "This isn't just some ploy."

"It's time to grow up, Solar." Marisa held out her hand. "Upload yourself to wherever you had planned, and start over at the beginning. Sam and I will take care of this mess, and keep Luther in line. And if you want to come back in a few years and talk, I really hope I'll still be here to listen."

Solar reached out with the metal pincer on his robot arm. Slowly, carefully, it closed on Marisa's hand, then opened again. "Maybe…" it said slowly. Then the eyes went dark, and it slumped to the floor in a crash of metal.

Chapter 11
"There's Something Out There!"

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

What is that sound high in the air
Murmur of maternal lamentation
Who are those hooded hordes swarming
Over endless plains, stumbling in cracked earth
Ringed by the flat horizon only
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem Athens Alexandria
Vienna London

T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", 1922 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

The World, 7 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772

There seemed to be no hurry in beginning the war. Jedai flipped a careless hand at them, and said, [[Go get acquainted with your new world, Ĵuha. Lańa, I trust you won't mind showing him around?]]

"Hardly," Camoflage laughed.

[[Then go enjoy yourselves, children,]] Jedai said.

They went back out into the garden. "Oh, Trickster, we're going to have so much fun," Lańa said, right before she grabbed his head and started a kiss that went on and on. Then she gave him a push, and he fell over backward, with her on top.

He didn't hit the ground. She broke the kiss and laughed at the expression on his face. Grey nothingness extended in all directions forever, populated by nothing and no one but themselves. They floated, unsupported by anything.

"All right," he said slowly, "you got Jedai to make a tele behind me, then you pushed me through it. But why?"

"It saved argument," Camoflage said, "and kept you from worrying about what you felt the last time you went into a tele. Besides," she grinned, "it was fun tricking the Trickster."

"Be still, my heart," said Ĵuha. "So I accept that all your motives were of the very worst. Still, I don't see our monster. Is it busy somewhere else?"

"This is Jedai's tele, and we're in Jedai's mind," said Lańa. "No Anûk here! Take a look at this," she added.

"This" was a blue marble at chest height between them, that grew instantly until it was his height from pole to pole, and Camoflage was hidden behind it. Clouds floated over its seas and lands, and it turned slowly on its axis.

"Home," Trickster breathed. Loraon swung before him, with the island Heki surrounded by its Inland Sea, and the Sentinel Isles to the east. Then Kantos came into view in the west, all stone and desert his memory insisted, but looking green from its spindle-shaped south to its narrow mountainous north. Alteřa, and uncountable other islands full of birds and exotic creatures, came next. Finally came Syorkai, mostly jungle, with the great river Sisa springing from the highlands of its south and east, emptying into the ocean in the north.

"Eoverai," Lańa agreed. She'd floated around the equator of the virtual world and drifted beside him. As it continued to turn, and the eastern part of Loraon began to appear on the western horizon, she said, "Gone now," and the globe burst like a soap bubble, leaving nothing behind.

Ĵuha was getting into the spirit of things now. "Replaced by?" he asked, and another blue globe came into being, with the First-History continents each bearing a red T́uliǹgrai question mark in the middle.

"Very good," said Camoflage, her breath warm in his ear. Leaning against his back, with one arm around his chest, she reached past him with the other. Her forefinger touched his globe, and it began to change. Loraon moved to the north pole, and grew glaciers in its interior. Syorkai stretched west and east, its great river now flowing east before bending to the north. Alteřa broke, the smaller piece taking up station between Loraon and Syorkai. The larger part spun west, met Kantos coming east, and threw up great mountains along the colliding edges. Beyond Kantos to the west, halfway around the world to Syorkai's eastern shore, only islands speckled the deep water of the Empty Ocean.

"Habêkai," Lańa said—the World.

"But why is it different?" he wondered.

She shrugged, still behind him. "Why is any of it different?" she said. "Would it make sense for human events to be different, but geological ones the same? Are rocks more real than people?"

"I guess not," he said. "You throw a stone into a large chaotic system, and you get ripples all through it; in the human history, in the geological history, in—what else, I wonder?"

"Now that," said Camoflage, serious for once, "is a very interesting question."


To Syorkai they went first, to stand where the Western Sisa started in the Xosa Highlands as a stream he could straddle with ease, and followed it downstream over chasms so great and sheer it seemed the world itself must be split there. Past herds of ponderous sθruǹgē they flew, using the telekinesis only Eborai Lapo had practiced in the First History, but here available to all. Flocks of squawking serařobē scattered below them, and the orkē that preyed on them snarled in rage and frustration.

Where the Sisa met the Xumêtai headlands it doubled, as the waters of the Xumai Sisa poured into it. A river like an ocean flowed north then, so wide that one shore could not be seen from the other, and still with as far to go as the Western Sisa had already come; dotted with sails now, broken with snorting herds of teipē and lurking toothy suxē, bordered by wildernesses of reeds inhabited by every kind of bird, plant eaters and fish eaters and raptors, tiny insect eaters, and catlike creatures as sinuous as fish.

There too the pyramids began, three-tiered ones with stairs to the temples on top, five-tiered ones with stairs leading to observatories, silent stairless seven-tiered funerary ones; all in stone, in a land of mud and reed.

In Meryt-Sut, the capital, they strolled the streets in late afternoon, dressed (after passing through a tele) like anyone else: shaved heads, kilts of unbleached linen so fine they were almost transparent, leather sandals, and nothing else.

"This place is like something out of ancient history," said Ĵuha. "I can't believe it exists today, on Eoverai—Habêkai, that is—of all places."

"Ancient history?" said Camoflage. "Look again, Trickster. What's missing?"

Trickster looked. There was something missing, he realized dimly, but—"It's like an illusion," he said. "You know what you're seeing isn't the whole picture, but you can't describe the missing piece."

"Shit," said Camoflage.


"You heard me," she said. "If this were a primitive city, there'd be shit and garbage in the streets, vermin chewing on it, cooking smells and unwashed people smells and the smells of crap and rotting food. There'd be disease on most of the bodies, scars of past illness and injuries—need I continue?"

"No," said Ĵuha. "You're right, of course." He looked again at the calm strong bodies walking by, the clean health of the people and the animals passing through the clean streets, and breathed the smell of warm stone in the afternoon sunlight. "So why live this way? Most of them aren't even speaking T́uliǹgrai." The Aatuan language, full of harsh stops and difficult sibilants, purred and rasped around him.

"They're speaking their own language in their own city while going about their own lives," said Camoflage patiently. "Diversity, remember? They're Iǹgrē, with no need for food, and what they do need they get from teles, just as we do. But the shape and style and material of what they pull from a tele is determined by their culture, not ours."

"It just seems so strange to me, that some of our people should be so different. I still expect things to be the way they were before, despite all the evidence you pile up before me."

"That's all right," said Camoflage. "You wouldn't be my Trickster if you were suddenly more flexible. Leave that to the girl who changes bodies as easily as a walking-stick molts."

They went to a public house by the river-boat docks, where the breeze up the river, blowing south from the ocean, kept the night fresh. The publican, with no food or liquor to serve to Iǹgrē bodies sustained by sunshine, sat writing poetry in the cursive script of the Aatuan language, later to be rewritten in the hieroglyphs of the formal writing (birds and faces, bundles and forearms, obsidian swords, sea shells …) if he decided his efforts were worth it. From time to time he would read a verse, and his guests would look up from their board games or their quiet conversations, and give their opinions; all of it over Ĵuha's head, too foreign for him to understand, even with Jedai supplying the meanings of the words.

On the inn roof, under the unchanged stars, they made love. The Spearman and the Hawk God, locked in their endless battle, wheeled above them, while the Judge sat watching, the Crown of victory in ys arms. The Orkē, the Wolverine, sank in the west, and the Šâigē, the Giant Ground Sloth, rose in the east. Lańa shuddered against Ĵuha, biting her lips to keep from screaming, while he held her sweaty body tight and came, and came.

"Ea! How I love you," he sighed, and then wondered why she started crying.

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"I don't like it, Lonnie," Sam Mackie said.

Lonnie Sanders bit back his first retort, and his second, and his third. All that left him to say was, "I don't much like it either, Sam."

"Christ, Lonnie! Next time just let me have it," said Sam. "You'll bust something critical, holding in like that."

"I was perfectly calm," said Lonnie.

Sam shook his head. "Yeah, but it was the angriest perfectly calm I've ever seen."

"Of course I'm angry! Marisa doesn't say a word to anybody, she just sneaks her way into the heart of this mess, and anyone she can't sneak by, she knocks cold or drugs unconscious. I've got ten officers out of commission! How am I going to explain that in my report?"

"Mina will be fine," said Sam. "The Princess only used knockout drops on her."

"Damn it, Sam, that's not the point! Well, not all the point, anyway," he conceded with a tired grin. "What the hell do you think she's up to?"

Sam shook his head again. "I don't know, and that's what worries me. Usually I understand what she's thinking. I can look at a situation and figure exactly as she would. Going in after Hawley without waiting for me doesn't make sense."

"Surely she can handle Hawley," Lonnie said. "He's no younger than she is, and he never was fit, or anything like it."

"Physically, sure," said Sam. "But why did she call me to come here, and then go in without me? Why go in at all?"

A few minutes later, Sam's omnicom beeped. He stabbed the Accept button, and found Marisa looking out at him. "Hallo, Princess," he said.

"Hallo, Sam," she smiled. "It's all right," she said, while communicating the same message in their own code of gestures. Sam let out a huge sigh of relief.

"Is Lonnie there? I'd better take my scolding while I'm safely out of reach."

Lonnie took Sam's omnicom. "Marisa! What did you think you were doing?! You—If you ever—you—"

"Mina will be fine, Lonnie," said Marisa soothingly. She smiled impishly. "You never told me she was so pretty!"

"You—How did you—Oh, hell!" growled Lonnie. He tossed the omnicom back to Sam and stalked off.

"That went well," said Sam appreciatively. "Now what's been happening?" He listened while she brought him up to date, then began laughing.

"What, Sam?" said Marisa.

"Psalm 37," said Sam. "Leave off from wrath, and let go displeasure: Fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil. I reckon you read him a lesson straight from the Book," he chuckled.

"Well, I couldn't see myself beating sense into him with my fist," she said. "Am I forgiven for worrying you, then?"

"Me, worry? But wait, what about the nuke?"

"Oh, that. Well, there wasn't one."

"What? But Lonnie's technicians—"

"—saw exactly what Solar wanted them to see, and concluded exactly what they had to conclude. All we have to do now is figure what to do with Luther, and hope my preaching bears good fruit."

Sam started laughing. "You'd better start figuring how to save Lonnie's career, instead," he said.

"His career, Sam? Why?"

"Hawley never made any announcements, or talked to anyone but you," Sam told her. "The original threat was automated, and delivered by email. The NYPD's equipment, and the U.N. sensors, put them on red alert because of the 'bomb', and identified Hawley from DNA traces on his van. I'm thinking they won't be able to get him for much more than trespass, when all's said and done."

"Trespass? But they have all those cops out there, and all that equipment, and snipers—" her voice failed her.

"And the Governor stewing on the side lines, and the National Guard on alert," agreed Sam.

"Poor Lonnie!" said Marisa.

The World, 3 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

The man who had been Sam Mackie, among others, woke suddenly. For a minute he didn't know who he was, or where. Then memory crashed back, and he wondered what had woken him. He hadn't moved yet, and he didn't now, except for his eyes.

Marisa was sitting up, arms braced behind her, the blankets tumbled about her waist. She was moonlit naked loveliness, the more so since she glowed by her own body heat to Sam's new eyes, and glowed in a different way to the line of organs down his side, that saw her body's electric currents.

Sam appreciated that in an instant, and stored it away to remember later. Right now his concern was for the tension in her body, as she stared at nothing.

"[Princess,]" he rumbled, "[something wrong?]"

"[Sam,]" she said in a whisper, "[there's something out there!]"

Sam listened. His hearing was marvelous; he decided it had never been this good before. He heard the wind sighing through the trees and rushing past the cottage; he heard small creatures, like mice, moving through the grass; high overhead a flock of nocturnal things circled and dove; and maybe, just maybe, those were waves in the distance, breaking against the shore? He couldn't be sure.

"[There are lots of things out there,]" he said quietly, "[but I don't hear anything big.]"

"[This wouldn't make any sound,]" Marisa said. "[Listen, Sam…]" and she told him of her dream, where her past lives had met each other, including Marisa Pascale.

"[It was just a dream,]" Sam said. He sat beside her, his arm around her shoulders, uncomfortably aware of her nudity, and angry at himself for it. She had relaxed as she talked, and leaned back at ease.

"[Not just a dream,]" she said. "[They rejected me.]"

"[Rejected you? That's cheek!]"

"[See, Marisa was human, like the rest. And I wasn't; I came forward, and I was a head taller than any of them, and I had these horns, and these blind-looking eyes, and the dots down my sides, and they could see every detail, because I was naked.]"

"[Ouch,]" said Sam.

"[It was as though Marisa, when she appeared, took away the clothes I'd been wearing, and every part of me that was her. And what was left was whatever was not Augusta, not Paolina, not Tessa, or any of them.]"

"[So what did you do?]"

"[I said, 'But I'm you. I'm every one of you. I remember being you.']"

"[And Betty Lou—who was an alien herself, remember, and a shape changer—walked up to me and said, 'You're not me. But maybe I'm part of you,' and she reached into me with her good arm, and stepped into me, and called to the others, 'There's room for lots more in here.']"

"[One by one they came up, and stepped into me, and filled empty places I hadn't known I had, until only Tessa was left. And Tessa stepped in, and I was full, and I woke up.]"

"[And dreamed something was outside?]" Sam asked.

Marisa shook her head. "[No, Sam, this is real. Hala and Culi were right; those were real lives we lived. We had real experiences, and we learned real things from them. I'm looking forward to trying out the martial arts I learned in other lives, and combining them with what I know as Marisa.]"

"[But Tessa was real, too; and she was a powerful telepath and psi operator. She could do things; make barriers, develop probes, program the brain—and I think these are real abilities in the Outside world. And the last thing she said to me, right before she joined the others, was 'Keep your guard up!']"

Sam frowned. "[Culi said maybe you had a mental shield up, cutting you off from their race mind. You think he was right?]"

"[I think,]" said Marisa who was also Tessa, "[that as I was reborn here in the Outside, something big and hungry touched my mind, and one of Tessa's reflexes threw up a shield against it. And I think it's still out there.]"

"[What do you want to do, Princess?]" said Sam. "[We don't really know the score yet. I have a head full of information, but no real keys for access, and we don't know whether any of it's true, anyway.]"

"[I have some ideas,]" Marisa said. "[But first—Sam, does all that stuff in your head tell you how you can do something about your body?]"

"[You mean, look more like myself?]" he said simply.

"[Exactly! I hate asking you to be older, after we're magically young again, but it just doesn't look like you. I keep thinking I'm talking to Sam's younger brother.]"

"[How do you think I feel?]" Sam said ruefully. "[Like I'll blow away in a stiff breeze! Yeah, I think I can do that. How about the way I was when we first met?]" He looked at her. "[Come to think of it, that's about the age you look— the age you were when I met you, I mean.]"

"[That would be perfect,]" said Marisa. "[Are you sure you can do it? I don't want to lose you now, Sam Mackie!]"

"[It should be a doddle,]" he said, and strode into the other room, with her right behind. The tele glowed on the wall. "[This should just take a second,]" he said, and walked into it before she could reply.

Instantly we strode back out, and her heart almost stopped. In place of the boy stood the man, as she had first known him, come into his full size and strength but unmarked by age, as perfect as her memory of their first meeting.

"[Oh Sam, you beautiful, beautiful man,]" she said softly.

"[Princess?]" he said, shocked. "[It's me—Sam.]"

"[I know,]" she said. She shook herself. "[All right, Sam, we're surrounded by unknowns and all we can depend on is each other. What else is new? I'll be good—for now.]"

He followed her uncertainly back to the other room, but she was all business again, and he felt the old confidence coming back as she told him what she intended.

Chapter 12
Gender, Households, and Aliens

On a green field a yellow fess, overall three black rings,
each interlinked with the other two, one above and two below.
The Verē people, the Verē Empire

Per bend sinister green and yellow, two clasped hands counterchanged.
The Liberal Party

On a brown field, a yellow bindweed flower.
Colors: Brown and yellow.—
Great house Ihed́ai ("Bindweed")

On a very dark green background, a very light green horizontal line surmounted by a rising sun of the same color.
Colors: Very light green and very dark green.—
Great House Atâsai ("Dawn")

On a light purple background, a dark purple pentagon, point facing down.
Colors: Dark purple and light purple.—
Great House Ukorai ("Gem")

On a pale blue background, a walking-stick with brown body and orange-and-white wings.
Colors: Orange and pale blue.—
Great House Imarai ("Walking-stick")

On a sinervo (ultra-violet-b) background, six blue parallelograms arranged in a snowflake.
Colors: Blue and
sinervo.—Great House Eisaxai ("Snowfall")

On a very light grey background, a dark blue mountain.
Colors: Dark blue and very light grey.—
Great House Odanai ("Mountain")

On a red background, a silver fountain.
Colors: Silver and red.—
Great House Aišâlai ("Fountain")

On a huovo (ultra-violet-a) background, a bright-red climbing lizard.
Colors: Bright-red and
huovo .—Great House Ybocai ("Lizard")

Heraldry of the Verē: The Verē Empire, the Liberal Party, and the Liberal Great Houses.
The ultra-violet colors huovo and sinervo are represented here by white.

The World, 6 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

"Something's wrong here," said Ĵuha.

"Yes?" said Lańa.

They sat on pressor-field chairs under the tropical green sky of the Alteřan city of Eodâkai. The chairs were in a shaded portico along the front of a tower shaped like the temporal representation of a piece of music: swelling from a single base, with abrupt extensions where instruments joined in, soaring with the rest for a floor or two, then ending as the instrument fell silent. As sculpture it was ambitious; as a building for living in, the lack of corridors or a regular floor plan were a nightmare. As furniture it offered a multitude of terraces and observation points from ground level to high in the air, and this was its general use. Ĵuha and Lańa sat in it, watching the Eodâkē pass by.

"This should be paradise to Liberals like us," Trickster said.

"Yes," Camoflage agreed, smiling.

Indeed, except for the occasional unfortunate result of the inhabitants' willingness to try anything once, Eodâkai was a First-History city as it should have been. Freed from the oppressive religion of the Powergiver, freed from a conviction of racial superiority and God-given right to rule the universe, freed from the need to resist alien rebellion at any moment, the Eodâkē lived as First-History Liberals had always hoped to live, able to do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and be happy.

"Ah," said Lańa.

"Got it!" Ĵuha said. He turned to his lover. "The proportions are off," he said accusingly.

Camoflage sat and toyed with the ends of her long red hair. She wore a one-piece dark red dress with shoulder straps that left her arms and shoulders bare, a scoop neck, and a full-circle skirt that fell to her knees. She wore nothing else but a red belt and red sandals, and looked terrific.

"I don't know, Tricky, they look normal to me," she said. "Overdressed for my taste, but—" she shrugged. Unlike her, most of the crowd was wearing Traditional dress. Neuters wore belted robes that fell to the insteps of their bare feet, with long flare sleeves that hung to their wrists. Females wore skirts the same length but a little less full than Lańa's, blouses that were generally without collars, long sleeves ending in cuffs at the wrists, belts, and sandals or low-sided shoes, like slippers. Males wore long pants tucked into high boots, belts, and shirts with high plain collars and cuffs.

All but a few oddballs like Camoflage wore two colors, based on the household they belonged to. About sixty percent of the crowd were members of lesser houses, with white clothes contrasting with black shoes, boots, sandals, belts, collars, and cuffs; or the reverse. Lesser houses bore black-and-white emblems. The head of the house wore the emblem in the center of ys, her, or his chest (usually ys), while other members wore a smaller version between the center of the chest and the left shoulder. People belonging to no household usually bore no emblem. (Hala, in wearing his Loop insignia, was exercising a privilege he'd enjoyed as a Defender in the First History.)

Each great household had a pair of colors unique to itself; the clothes of its members were overall the first color, with belts, shoes, and so forth of the second color. The colors could be close but not identical to any other great house; if one household used dark green and pure yellow, another could reverse these and wear yellow clothes with dark green cuffs, boots, etc. A third could use blue-green and a yellow so pale as to be almost white. With perfect dies for every hue and shade in a color space that extended into one infra-red and two ultra-violet colors, and perfect vision under any lighting conditions, fine gradations were plain and clear.

Besides the distinguishing color of the clothes that members of great households wore, each household had an emblem, which the ordinary members didn't display, in most Great Houses. The Lord of the household had a wide band down the front of ys chest in the second color (matching the cuffs, belt, etc.), and on that band was the emblem of the House in the first color, matching the overall color of the dress. So if there had been a great house called Osil-tai, with an insignia that read "On a golden background, a rust-red suspension bridge," and with colors of rust-red and gold, the members of that household would wear rust-red garments with gold details. Lord Osil-tai would also bear a golden band down the front of ys garments, with the bridge emblem shown in rust red.

All this Ĵuha knew, for it was the same in the First History. It wasn't the way the Eodâkē were dressed that had caught his attention. "The proportion of the sexes," he said. "In a crowd this large, about a third should be neuter, a third female, and a third male. And they aren't!"

"Well, gender's a little complicated here-and-now," Camoflage said. "It's a question of life cycles, you see."

"Life cycles?! What the hell do you mean?" said Trickster. "Are they people or walking-sticks?"

"Something like that. Only instead of egg, nymph, larva, pupa, and adult… well, look. How many sexes did the Mižinē have?"

"Two," said Trickster. "Female and male. Everyone knows that."

"And each one was either born female, or born male, and stayed that way for as long as they lived."

"Unless they felt they'd been born the wrong sex, yes," Ĵuha said. "Some went through surgery and hormonal treatments to become the other sex. And some liked being the sex they were, but they preferred sex with others of the same kind. And so what?" He looked at the crowd. "I do see some neuters, just not as many as there should be."

"And how many sexes did First-History Verē have?" Lańa continued.

"All three, of course," Ĵuha said. "Neuter, female, and male."

"And were they born that way?" she asked.

"Maybe you were, darling," Ĵuha grinned; a more-than-faintly scandalous suggestion. "I can't imagine you as anything but female. The rest of us chose the genders we wanted to be, and went through a lot of pain and misery to get there."

"So get to the point," he said. "How many sexes and how many "life cycles" do Iǹgrē have?" His grin faded a bit as she told him.

Like everything else, the sexual genetics of the imaginary Earths were simplified. Outside humans had more chromosomes, and their sexuality was spread over several chromosomes in a complex of genes. In the Second History these genes expressed themselves in more ways than in the First, for reasons not fully understood.

"The Traditional Verē life cycle— born without sex organs, choose a gender of neuter, female, or male, become that permanently during puberty, live in mated trios with the neuter usually but not always in charge—that accounts for 60 percent of births," said Camoflage, ticking it off on the little finger of her left hand.

(*60 percent in decimal, but the Verē and the Iǹgrē use octal numbers, not decimal, so what Lańa actually said was 46.3 percent. And that's the only percentage I'm going to convert in this section.—The author)

"Sixty percent? Only sixty percent?" said Trickster. "What about the other forty?"

"Twenty percent are called Gêθē," Lańa told him, bending down her left middle finger, "because they were first described in the old Loraonai kingdom of Getheir. "They're born neuter, and they stay neuter most of the time. About four times a year they go into heat and get a sex drive, and become either male or female for about 21 days; or, if a female gets pregnant, she stays female until the offspring is born. Gêθē mate in pairs, with their cycles falling into synch and their changes complementary."

"Eio!" said Ĵuha. "Okay, that leaves 20 percent for—what?"

"Ha," said Lańa. "We're just getting started." She folded down her left forefinger. "Now the third life cycle, in order by percentage of births, is Eretē, 7 percent. Eretē are born either female or male, remain whatever sex they're born, and mate in pairs."

"Like the Mižinē," said the Trickster. "Well, at least I've heard of that plan. That leaves thirteen percent."

"Five percent of births—" she began.

"Five percent?! How many life cycles are there?"

"Five percent of births," Lańa said, "are called Aatuan."

"Yes, of course," grumbled the Trickster. "I should've known the Aatuans would be different."

Having run out of left-hand fingers, Camoflage held up her right hand with all three fingers up. She folded down the index finger as she said, "Aatuans are born male, and they father their children between puberty and true maturity. At maturity they metamorphose into females, and give birth to any children they conceive during that part of their lives. Then, at menopause, they become actual neuters. A neuter heads a household with a few females and a pack of males."

"Ants," said Trickster.

"If you like," said Camoflage. She folded down her right middle finger. "The Royal Aatuan life cycle accounts for another five percent of Iǹgrē births. Royal Aatuans are hermaphrodites; they're born with both male and female organs, and have mutual insemination during sex, which can lead to either, neither, or both getting pregnant. They mate in pairs."

"One's a pair all by ymself! Herself? Himself? Themselves?"

"And the last three percent," said Lańa, folding down her right little finger, "are called Singles. Singles are parthenogenic females, who produce children identical to themselves. Their families consist of the mother and her offspring."

"So, to sum it up," said Ĵuha, "we have normal people; old-fashioned people; animals that go into heat; insects; earthworms; and lizards."

"If you insist on putting it in the most offensive possible way!" she said tartly.



"Don't ever change, babe."

Camoflage smiled slowly. "Wouldn't dream of it, lover," she said.

The World, 3 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Hala knocked on the frame of the open door. Light pouring in behind him turned his red hair and the red hawk-mark around his eyes into burning gold. He smiled as he saw Marisa. "[Good morning, dear lady,]" he said in English. "[I trust you slept well?]"

"Well enough, thank you," she replied in T́uliǹgrai. "And you?" In the white robe of the newborn she stood squarely before him, her old confidence and poise regained.

"Excellent," he breathed. "I see there's been progress."

"Yes," she said, then called to the other room. "[Sam]! Company!"

Hala chuckled. "Not much you can do with names like [Sam] and [Marisa], is there? Culi," he called in turn, "come in here! You have to hear this!"

"Actually," said Marisa, holding up her hand, "it's such a lovely day, why don't we go outside instead? Ah, here's [Sam]."

"Hello," grinned Sam. Yesterday's spindly youth was today's grown man; Hala and Sam were the same size now, and the same mass.

Hala was delighted. "Excellent!" he roared, and pounded Sam on the back. "Now we must have that match! Come on, let's show both of you to Culi!"

He retreated from the door. Sam shook his head and held it for Marisa. She smiled her thanks, and they went out into the morning.

Qisp and Zuk left off peering under a bush at the edge of the trees, and came running to meet them. Culi came more sedately, but had half the distance to go, not having been distracted by whatever was under the bush; they arrived together. "[Good morning, Marisa. Good morning, Sam,]" Culi said genially.

"Simišad, Culy," said Marisa—Hello, Culi. Sam just smiled.

"Well, this is wonderful," Culi said. "You'll have to tell me all about it. But first, are you hungry?"

"Now that you mention it," said Sam faintly.

"So watch," said Culi. To the ultraviolet range of their eyes, and to their magnetic and electric senses, something ghostly appeared between the horns on the back of his head, a mass that seemed to grow and float up second by second, spreading like a flower towards the brightest sun, Vol. Culi stood facing them as before; but a great disk hundreds of feet across floated high above the trees now, linked to him by a shining cord from his head, an immaterial telekinetic construct.

"I see," said Sam, and sent up his own sail, as naturally as a baby reaching out a hand. In that moment he seemed like an unnatural or alien thing that just happened to look like Sam; but the moment passed, and Marisa's own blossom joined the others in the sunlight.

"So we don't need to eat solid food at all?" she asked.

"Depends on how powerful your [psi], your tøskê, is," said Hala, sitting down on the grass. The boys plopped down on either side of him. "Most of us drink a little bit, and eat a little, for water and trace elements, or just for taste: sugars, chocolate, fruit juice never goes out of style. But you can avoid eating at all, if your power is great enough, or your wants are slight enough, or your will is strong enough. A lot of people don't carry a digestive system around at all, or only a minimal one."

"And then there's the suspenders to back up the belt," Culi said, as Marisa sat down with the others. "Every time you go through a tele, Anûk will replenish any elements, blood sugars, energy, whatever you may lack; and remove wastes from every cell and tissue."

"Let's be clear," said Marisa. "Who or what is Anûk, exactly?"

Culi looked surprised. "Anûk is the race mind of all the Iǹgrē. You're part of ym, so am I, so is [Sam], so is everyone. Hasn't y spoken to you yet?"

Marisa looked at Sam; he shook his head.

"Well, that's actually normal," Culi said. "Y doesn't usually speak to a reborn person for a while; everything's strange enough, without voices in your head. I just thought maybe y had spoken to you, because of all the changes since yesterday."

"Anûk arranged your Inside lives when your parents gave you up to ym," Hala said, "and Anûk decided when you were ready to be reborn, no one else. Anûk makes and runs the teles, that make industry unnecessary; and takes care of everyone."

"A personal servant to the whole race?" Marisa asked. "What if y gets tired, or resentful?"

"Anûk is the whole race," Culi said. "Y has no body but our bodies, and we are all part of ym. When you washed, or ate, or urinated, in one of your Inside lives, did you resent being a slave to the cells that you were made of? Did you get tired of taking care of all those 30 trillion cells or so?"

"Some did," Sam answered. "I've known slobs who only washed when they had to, and holy men who ate and did as little as possible, hoping to achieve Nirvana. And lots of people grumbled about having to shave."

"Well," Hala said, "slobs don't graduate to the Outside world, as a general rule, and religionists never do. As for grumbling, taking care of your needs whenever you go through a tele is more like an automatic computer program than any trouble to you or to Anûk."

"It's kind of you to explain these things to us," Marisa said. "If Anûk doesn't talk to the reborn at first, then the task of orienting us must fall on individuals like yourselves. Are you drafted when it's your turn, or—?"

"No need for that," Hala said. "Always plenty of folks to welcome newcomers into the world, and get the first chance to size them up and, maybe, increase their households."

"Household?" said Marisa.

Culi frowned. "You're speaking T́uliǹgrai, but you don't seem to be picking up as much meaning as I'd expect. Is everything all right?"

"We're fine," said Marisa. "Please continue."

Culi kept frowning, while Hala said, "A household is a group of people who say they're a household. That's the core of it, right there. It can be a grouping of convenience, or it can be a life-long familial commitment, or anything in between."

"You and [Sam] had a household," Culi said. "It's one of the things that attracted our interest. The two of you were the core of it, plus your lovers and ex-lovers, [Sam]'s lovers and ex-lovers, your god-daughter, [Sam]'s god-daughter; all acting as one big family."

"Are you a household, then?" said Sam.

Hala grinned. Culi said, "We could be, though a very small one. We're hoping for something more satisfying than the boys' club we've got going, though. We have things in common, but we'd like to be part of something bigger and a little bit special."

Marisa felt their loneliness as she looked at the four of them. Sam kept the ball rolling. "If this were a school or an orphanage, with standard cliques, I'd say you lot were the misfit bunch. Of course, I haven't met anyone else yet."

"Worse than misfits, [Sam]," said Hala. "We're all aliens."

"Aliens?" said Marisa.

Culi looked at her. "Aliens," he said, "like [Betty Lou]."

"Here now!" Sam said sharply.

"I mean no offense," Culi said. "Everyone has at least one Inside life as a non-human creature from another planet, a distant time, a "parallel universe," an "alien dimension", or what have you. No one is reborn unless some human persona satisfies Anûk, but we all have one lifetime's experience of not being human, among all the others."

Marisa looked at Sam. He nodded. "Go ahead," she told Culi, "we're with you so far."

"As you gain your footing in the Outside," he continued, "you'll start integrating the things you learned and the experiences you had in all your lives. Eventually you'll know, not just intellectually but emotionally, that you are not [Marisa Pascale]," Culi said, pointing an emphatic forefinger. "Rather, you're a new person whose life has just begun, who has the memories of [Marisa], and [Augusta], and [Tessa], and the rest of them. Then you'll pick a name for yourself, and start making a place in society."

"And what if I only want to be [Sam]?" demanded Sam angrily.

Culi looked at him sympathetically. "It doesn't matter what you did Inside," y said softly, "except to you. You're here now; and everything else was a learning experience."

Sam hadn't lost control in decades (barring the last night of his Sam life); but he lost it then. He threw himself to his feet, fists clenched. "Learning experience! You—" Qisp and Zuk got up and ran a few yards away, looking scared. Hala stood up quickly.

Marisa remained seated. "[Sam]," she said sharply. "[Sam]!"

"[Christ]," said Sam, then sat again, slowly. "Sorry, Princess," he muttered. He didn't apologize to anyone else. She took his hand in hers.

Marisa looked at Culi, who hadn't moved, while Hala sat down and Zuk and Qisp came back. "You were saying, the reborn gradually integrate their lives," she said.

"Sometimes," Culi said, "it doesn't work that way. Sometimes one life is so important to the reborn that the others just don't contribute much to the new person, and y (or she, or he) is just that one life, reborn Outside."

"And sometimes, despite the human life that won rebirth, and despite how it makes ym a misfit in human society, it's the alien life that wins out."

"Ah," said Sam.

"Zuk here," said Culi, putting a hand on the shoulder of the green-haired man next to him, "had a number of interesting human lives, including one quiet but very thoughtful one that had Anûk's full approval. Yet his emotional ties lie elsewhere, and his self-image and his mannerisms derive from a different life."

He was a chubby little boy like any other, with light-orange skin and dark-green hair like thousands of others in his people's range. He enjoyed all the usual boyhood games: glowing hot and melting rocks, glowing cold and freezing puddles, flying, changing shape to annoy or puzzle the wildlife, and so forth.

One day, furry red monsters landed in a big metal thing and started killing people. Shooting lightning from his eyes only made them mad, and then one of them shot him with a ray that shocked him badly.

He ran. Then, while he was trying to figure out what to do, a tall golden creature in cape and boots and shorts swooped down out of the sky and attacked the furry red things. He was strong! And nothing hurt him! And he was fast as lightning! The monsters had found defeat, and Zuk a hero.

When the alien policeman went back home, Zuk stowed away aboard his spaceship; and they lived together many years, and had many adventures, and were very happy.

Marisa blinked. She looked at the Iǹgrē man with the green-on-orange clothing and the boyish manners, and knew she had seen his Inside past, and his self-image. "[Hallo], Zuk," she said. "Nice to meet you." He ducked his head and blushed.

"Now Qisp, here," said Hala—

"Hold it!" Sam said. "Is this decent?"

Hala looked at him, his hand on Qisp's hair. "You mean, am I violating his privacy?"


"[Sam], there is no privacy. On the other hand, there's no shame, either. As long as you don't hurt anyone on purpose, you can do what you like—and so can everyone else. Anûk knows your every deed and thought, and so does everyone else who cares to—and so what? You were judged Inside; you won't be judged out here."

"Like the Japanese?" Marisa asked. "Nudity is a thing often seen but never looked upon."

"Or the Roman idea of virtue," said Sam. "Live as if the walls of your house were glass, and let anyone look who wants to."

"That's it, exactly," said Hala, "except there's no 'as if' about it. We're all wide open to one another."

Qisp too was a boy; or rather, a young imp from a magical dimension. With a small skinny torso, long skinny pipestem arms and legs, and a big head with pointed ears and spiky tan hair, he was a dashing figure of impdom.

The place he came from was pure magic and infinitely mutable. There was no land, no sea, no air, no water, no stars, no planets, just a world of imps living as imps were meant to live, changing their surroundings at every moment's whim.

Unmagic was the only thing they couldn't adapt to. The stumpy grey warty creatures who waddled into sight one day killed the magic around them, leaving dead unchanging areas; nor could the grey things be changed or made to go away by magic. Then they opened big round mouths and breathed fire at the imps; and the fire burned everything it touched!

Qisp was part of a group who pulled up lumps of the unchanging stuff the monsters had made, and threw it at them, figuring unchanging stuff might hurt unchanging creatures. It worked. Though it hurt their hands to touch the stuff, they kept throwing it, and the grey things, spouting fire, chased them to a Door. Then through the Door, and out of the imps' land forever.

Only Qisp wasn't quite fast enough. The others ducked out of the way in time, but a gust of flame cut him off, and then one of the things ran right into him, and they tumbled through the Door together.

After one moment of blazing pain all through his body, Qisp found himself on Earth, a whole world of unchanging stuff; and so was he, now.

In the ocean, ceaselessly mixing with the shore and sky, he found the closest thing Earth had to offer to his native world; and he found, too, a hero who patrolled the waters that covered most of the Earth. His friend defeated the fire-breathing grey things, and many other later menaces besides; but Qisp never found his way home.

"Don't get the idea we're all lost boys," said Culi. "I was over a hundred years old and looking for a third career when a friend suggested the Space Patrol. I ended up the partner of an experienced officer from Earth, and we did good work together. He had all the advantages of a human upbringing and education in a human-dominated society; I had the advantages of my own world and people, my 'in' with non-humans, and the ability to change into other creatures at will. [Rick] and I made quite a team," he said smugly.

In his mind's eye, Sam saw the same expression on a round head with a piglike snout instead of a human nose; no visible ears; and stalky antennae on top, with little knobs on the ends. There was a big round body to go with the big round head, and comical stick-figure arms and legs ending in surprisingly human-like hands and feet. In deference to Terran mores, the alien Culi wore a pair of black shorts, though nothing more.

"Hala, on the other hand, was an alien Outside."

"Yes," said Hala. "I was a Tlâńē, a member of a non-human race allied to the Verē in the First History. We were native to Kantos; we evolved there, when the world was flourishing but vacant, before the Mižinē came from outer space and settled it." He projected a picture of a First-History Tlâńē to them: a blue-skinned, rubbery-fleshed, boneless humanoid with whiplike arms and legs, hands with two fingers and a thumb, feet with two strong toes facing forward and one facing back. Short horns projected from the head, a fleshy masklike structure surrounded the eyes, and short sensory tentacles writhed between the nose and mouth. Clothes were a kilt, arm bands, leg bands, and a cloth hanging over the back of the neck with its ends dangling down the chest, all highly embroidered in geometic patterns.

Sam said, "So we have a boy sidekick, a teen sidekick, a police officer, and what?"

"Four alien sidekicks," said Culi, "a boy, a teen, and two adults. For I could never be more than [Rick]'s partner, in the society we lived in; and Hala, despite his high status with his own people, was content to be second in command of the Defenders."

"So you hang out together, never quite fitting in, but never quite fitting in as a group," said Sam. "But why tell us all this? Why ask to show us around after our rebirth?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Marisa said. "They're inviting us to join their household."

Sam looked at her with an arrested expression; but the other four were shocked. "Oh no!" said Zuk, breaking the silence. "No no no no no!" He scuttled over to Marisa on his knees. Seizing her hand, he looked up at her. "Please," he said, "we want to join yours."

Chapter 13
"A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose"

Es por culpa de una hembra
que me estoy volviendo loco
No puedo vivir sin ella
pero no con ella tampoco

Y si de este mal de amores
yo me fuera pa la tumba
a mi no me mandeis flores
que como dice esta rumba

Quise cortar la flor
mas tierna del rosal
pensando que de amor
no me podria pinchar
y mientras me pinchaba
me enseño una cosa
que una rosa es una rosa es una rosa.

  It's a woman's fault
That I'm going mad.
I can't live without her,
Nor with her either.

And if this lovers' illness
Sends me to the tomb,
Bring me no flowers,
For as this song says:

I wanted to cut the softest
flower of the rose bush,
Thinking that love
Has no power to prick me,
And when it pierced me
I learned a lesson,
That a rose is a rose is a rose.

—Mecano, "Una Rosa Es Una Rosa", 1991 A.D. (Standard Spanish and Iberian Earths)

The World, 3 Galestô Simao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"I'll think about it," Marisa said. "What are you laughing at, [Sam]?"

"Really?" said Zuk.

"Really," she said, and took her hand back; then ruffled his hair with it, as an excuse for doing so. "[Sam], you hyena," she said.

"N-N-Not a hyena," gasped Sam. "A donkey!" And he fell about laughing some more. Marisa felt her own lips form a smile, despite herself.

Another perfect day in paradise, she thought. The sky might be green, and there might be three suns in it at the moment (out of five total), but the wind blew the ankle-high grass in waves, like a hand ruffling through a fine fur. Some small red insect hopped onto her leg, then hopped off again before she could react. A second later, a group of four more did the same. He went that-a-way, she thought.

Sam ran down and sat up, wiping his eyes. "The Princess always had a weakness for animals," he told the others, "especially abused donkeys. Sorry for the comparison."

Zuk looked at Qisp with a grin. "Hee haw!" he said. Qisp looked back. "[Whoa,] mule!" he said. Then they both got up and started running around, Zuk braying, and Qisp shouting, "[Dagnabbit], I said [whoa]!"

"[Ow]," Sam said softly. "My sides hurt."

"It's no use saying you don't have a household," Culi said. "You will have one. You had one even on Earth, and you and Sam will have one here. Given your characters, however they settle down exactly," he shrugged, "I don't doubt it will be a Great House before too long."

"Maybe [Marisa] will go her way, and I'll go mine, and we'll each have a household! Then what will you do?" Sam challenged.

"And maybe srigē will grow wings and fly," Hala snorted. "Do you suppose we're stupid, or just blind?"

Sam didn't answer. He touched Marisa's hand. "Look! Quick!" he said, and pointed with his head.

She looked. Zuk was charging across the lawn, and Qisp was floating through the air backwards in front of him, keeping a constant distance, and miming a big stick in his hands. "When I say [Whoa]," he shouted, "I… mean…"—he raised the imaginary stick high in both hands, then brought it down so hard his feet flew up—"[Whoa]!" Zuk went rigid in mid-air, arms and legs sticking out. Then both boys fell to the grass and sprawled there.

Culi cleared his throat. "Not the best behavior the lads could exhibit, but I assure you…"

Hala laughed. So did Sam. "Are you kidding?" he said. "You couldn't've thought of anything better if you'd planned it for a thousand years."

"Oh, thank you so much!" said Marisa. "Look," she told them, "I don't really know what a household is, who I am, how this world's run, what my place will be, or what's going on. I'll think about it, I said!" She glared at them, then looked over at the other two.

Zuk and Qisp were wrestling with the total concentration of the young or simple-minded. Physically both were full-grown Iǹgrē adults, the same size as everyone else, but… Qisp had Zuk belly down and was on top of him, trying to pull Zuk's left arm out from under his body; but his concentration was being spoiled by the teeth Zuk had sunk into the arm he was trying to pull with.

"Not donkeys, [Sam]," Marisa said hopelessly. "Puppies!"

The World, 12 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

Marisa stalked Hala around the mat, her eyes seeming to burn with a black flame. The white gi showed off her figure admirably, and muscles newly fit bunched and slid under the thin cloth. Hala, new to martial arts in an Iǹgrē body, moved carefully, concentrating on what he'd been taught. Culi, dressed like the other two, watched and waited for his own turn.

Sam stood beside another mat where Zuk, boy-serious, faced the mentally older Qisp. Sam had introduced both to martial arts, drawing on his experience teaching children from poor London neighborhoods, being cadre in the French Foreign Legion, and even similar experience in his other lives, uncomfortable as that made him.

The sound of a body hitting the mat drew a smile from Culi, though his eyes never left Marisa and Hala. At least Sam had taught them how to fall. The first week or so had been loud with breath driven from surprised lungs, not to mention cries of "No fair!" and "I'll get you for that!" Now something remotely like discipline prevailed—most of the time.

"Don't glare at him, Qisp," said Sam. "You've only yourself to blame. As long as you don't take him seriously, he'll do that to you whenever he likes."

Qisp rubbed a sore elbow and muttered something under his breath, while Zuk stood anxiously, unsure whether to expect praise or a scolding. Sam took care of that next.

"You did well, Zuk," he said. "Just like I showed you. When someone gives you that opening, do exactly what you just did. Later I'll show you what to do when someone tries that on you."

Some of the pleasure faded from Zuk's face. "But [Sam], if there's a counter, I'll be the one on the mat!"

"Sometimes you will be," Sam agreed. "No one issued any guarantees with that outfit. On the other hand, maybe the one you're fighting won't know the counter. And on the third hand, so to speak, there's a counter to the counter, too. There always is." He waved at the other mat. "What do you think they're doing? Dancing?"

Indeed it was very like a dance, with no blows yet struck. Marisa and Hala circled; a hand would move, or a foot; the other would begin the counter, betrayed by motion of the shoulders and hips; and the diminishing motions of strike/counter strike/counter counter strike, more sensed than seen, would subside to stillness.

Sam watched with pleasure and anticipation of his own turn. Marisa had surprised him already with a dozen moves he'd never seen before, drawn from her other lives. It seemed she'd practiced one or more forms of the martial arts in every life; even taught them to ordinary women as the goddess Nike, who might have found them unnecessary herself. Furthermore every world's arts, it seemed, were at least a little different. Hence the term "martial arts", he supposed.

"But what's the use of this stuff?" said Qisp. "I could turn into a dragon and burn them both up, or they could shoot lightning from their hands. So what good is it?" He seemed more puzzled than aggrieved, yet still a bit put out by all the sweaty exercise.

"The point is," Sam said patiently, "to develop yourself. Even if you're never in a fight, learning this makes you fit and instills a lifelong habit of keeping fit. You learn self-discipline, by making yourself do this every day, by doing the exercises and katas until they're automatic, by going to the end no matter how tired or sleepy or sick you are."

"Besides," he said, "if you could turn into a dragon, so could your opponent. And wouldn't the dragon who knew tae kwon do beat the dragon who didn't?"

"If?" said Qisp. Before Sam's eyes he turned into a kind of troll, twelve feet tall, hugely muscled, red skinned, black haired, with bushy black eyebrows over glaring yellow eyes. He pointed at Sam with a finger tipped with a long, sharp nail. "Tag," he said in a deep voice, and blew out a gust of flame, just short of where Sam was standing. But Sam wasn't there; he'd back-flipped a dozen feet away.

"Hold it!" Marisa said. She stood before the transformed Qisp, Hala and Culi just behind her. The monster shuffled his feet, abashed.

"[Sam]?" she said. "What was your next move?"

"Not sure," he said. "Get behind him, put my forearms on his neck and choke him, I suppose."

She nodded. "That might work. Hala? What about you?"

Hala grinned. "Change into something flame proof, and then do something like Sam's suggesting."

She nodded. "Do you see a common thread here?" she asked Qisp.

"Thread?" the big red thing rumbled.

"They're not afraid of you," she told it, "and with what they know of the arts, they'd beat you. Come at me."


She made a beckoning gesture with both hands. "Give it your best shot," she said.

He grinned and stepped forward. Before his foot hit the ground, he was Qisp again, and she swept his feet out from under him with one of hers. Then she checked the move she'd have made next; Qisp was lying motionless, clutching his head.

"Qisp?" she said.

"Stop it!" he cried, looking up at her. "What are you doing to me? Stop it!"

She knelt down and gathered him up, where he began weeping on her shoulder. "I'm sorry," she said, "I didn't think."

"I was alone!" he wept. "All alone! I could see you all standing right there, but I was alone!"

"It's all right," she said. "I won't do it again. I'm sorry…" She rocked him back and forth while the others stood by helplessly.

The World, 11 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"I have to understand what's going on," Marisa said. "We can't put it off any longer. The poor boy was shattered. We can't have any more accidents like that."

Marisa, Sam, Hala, and Culi stood in a clearing. The boys had been excused from the morning run; now the adults rested and talked.

The place of Marisa's and Sam's rebirth was an island called Da Hodestai, which meant something like "A Whole Lotta Rocks," or "Yep, That's a Bunch of Rocks." They had adopted the unpaved path around it, about 20 miles long, for running. The deep earth of the island, which supported the forest and its varied inhabitants, was supported in turn and surrounded by an incredible jumble of rocks, from towering monoliths down to stones the size of grapefruits. They tumbled down from the grassy perimeter of the island in heaps and piles, and lay offshore arresting the long waves coming in from the Empty Ocean in upflung outbursts of spray, producing the cannonade of sound in the background, day in and day out.

Surprised, Hala said, "I thought it was obvious what had happened. What I don't understand is how you did it. In fact, I didn't know it was possible."

"And I don't understand how you can not know what happened," Culi said. "Add that to the fact that you're still sleeping at night, and I have some big questions I'd like answered."

Marisa folded her arms. "All right, gentlemen," she said, comforted by Sam's supporting presence, "show me your cards and I'll show you mine. But you'll have to go first."

Hala glanced at Culi, who nodded, a bit reluctantly. "Very well, then," he said. "What you did, apparently, was cut the connection between Qisp and Anûk. That left him alone in his head, the way people are Inside. Only, as I say, I didn't know that could be done."

Marisa shook her head. "I know what I did," she said. "I meant—how did he change in the first place? How did he make two rocks fall at different rates, the day I met him? How do both of the boys fly? For that matter, how do the birds fly, without much bigger wings? And why don't I feel a lot heavier?"

"I'm more puzzled than ever," said Culi, "but I'll tell you. This is a heavy-gravity world, like the one humans originally evolved on. But instead of adapting physically to the gravity, vertebrate life developed telekinesis."

"Telekinesis," Sam said. "Mind over matter?"

"Strictly speaking," Culi answered, "the ability to move things without touching them physically. On the Inside they call it [telekinesis], a Greek word. Just as [telephone] means "sound at a distance", and [television] means "sight at a distance" and [telegram] means "writing at a distance," [telekinesis] is "motion at a distance". But when the ability extends down to the molecular level, and is instinctive, it looks a lot like magic."

"Looks like," Hala stressed. "Maybe you've noticed that insects are mostly very small, and don't fly. That's because bugs don't have enough mind to matter, you might say. The biggest ones are the walking-sticks; they have wings like the butterflies Inside, but they're grounded. Wings can act as shades and heat regulators, and slow them in a fall and help them maintain their orientation, but insects can't fly."

"Birds, on the other hand, are quite advanced creatures with more than enough brains to use telekinesis. They still need wings to fly, but they're nowhere near the size they'd have to be in this gravity without tøskê."

"So Qisp and Zuk lift themselves through the air," said Marisa. "Like pulling yourself up with your bootstraps. But where's the leverage? Do they push off from the ground?"

"There is no leverage," said Culi. "It would be a fallacy to think you had to push against something. The effects are physical, but the origins of the force are mental. The math is ferocious, but it is a branch of science, not hocus-pocus. A lot of early physics on Earth is mechanics; measuring how fast things roll down a slope, or how fast they fall. On the Outside, how fast something falls depends on who drops them, and how fast he wants them to fall. A worm and a rock fall at the same speed, but a bird doesn't, even if you bind his wings. A dead human body falls at the same rate as a stone, but a live one falls more slowly, and at different rates depending on how afraid he is, and whether he's asleep or drugged or awake."

"How do you develop ballistics when dead weight is a real thing, different kinds of living things fall at different rates, and human fall rates vary from the same as inanimate objects, in the case of true morons, to one-fifth that rate? How do you develop science, when there are wizards around who can levitate, and make other things float by pointing at them? How do you develop aircraft, when the necessary wing area depends on your test pilot?" Y spread ys hands.

Hala said, "Think of it, if you like, as having a giant disembodied arm to pick things up with, and don't worry about what the arm's attached to, or how. It's just a way of visualizing things; [kindergarten] stuff to the specialists who talk about space-time 'description points' "

"OK," said Sam, "but how did Qisp turn into a troll?"

"That was neatly done, wasn't it?" Hala said proudly. "Instead of stepping into a tele, he had Anûk create one and sweep it through him, too fast to see."

"How does a tele create a troll body?" asked Sam.

"The same way it created yours," said Hala. "Look, you were born with a human body, which passed through a tele into Anûk's mind, where every bit of information about it was stored. Simplified to Inside genetics, you lived in that body for life after life, and it grew up over and over. So when you want a body, it's just a matter of recreating it from the information of an adult Inside body, upgraded with the Outside DNA and organs of your original body."

Sam shook his head. "But how is it created? Exactly how, and where?"

"In Anûk's mind," Culi said, "by telekinesis. Think of the tele as an interface between the physical and the mental world. When you step out of a tele, your body is being assembled as it leaves, all along the surface joining it to the tele. You feel no pain or incompleteness because the parts of you in the physical world are joined to the rest of you in the mental world. Then you keep walking, and they're made flesh, too, as they leave the tele."

"And the materials?" Marisa asked. "Is there some refrigerated vault somewhere full of human flesh?"

Culi exclaimed in disgust. Hala said, "I'm sorry, Lady, but that's a truly horrible notion. Look, flesh is just organic chemistry—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and so forth—and there's a whole universe of elements out there. Need helium? The solar winds are full of it; intercept some with a tele. Hydrogen and oxygen? That's water, and we've oceans of it. All done at the atomic level, at the speed of thought, you see?"

"I guess I do," said Marisa, relaxing a bit.

"Now what about your part of the bargain?" asked Culi.

"I'm not sure how much to tell you," she said. "There might be some danger just knowing about it."

"I'd rather know and be in danger, than be ignorant and safe," said Culi. "Hala?"

"Oh, me too," said the red-haired man, waving a big hand. He winked at Sam.

"This is real," said Marisa sharply. "There's something hostile and dangerous prowling the mental world." She told them of her experiences, adding, "As [Tessa] I had telepathic powers, and I've run into things like this before."

"So what did you do?" said Culi.

"I've gone on being cut off, until I know what's out there and how to deal with it. Hence the sleeping, however that may delay my full entry into this new world."

"But if you're cut off from Anûk and the rest of the race, how are you speaking T́uliǹgrai, seeing Zuk's Inside life, and so forth?" asked Culi.

Marisa put her hand on Sam's shoulder. "Meet [Sam], the human firewall," she said. "With his permission, I've linked our minds directly—one way, his to mine—and strengthened his own shields to outside intrusion. So he's linked to Anûk, but if anything hostile invades his mind, and the two of us can't keep it out, I cut the connection. Then I figure out how to rescue him from whatever it is."

"It has to be that way," Sam said, "because I don't have the telepathic experience to rescue her. The most apparently-valuable learning I had along those lines, the 'magic' I practiced as Nemesis, turned out to be total nonsense." He shook his head ruefully. "Talk to me about science versus magic, why don't you!"

Culi cleared his throat. "Is there—I mean, do you have a mental impression of this thing, that you can share with us?"

"Are you sure?" Marisa asked. "I have to tell you, y looks a lot like your Anûk as you've described ym. And you might be in danger from ym, once you know what y 'looks' like."

"Fire away," Hala declared; so she did.

"Ehiu," Hala breathed, "it does feel like…"

"Like Anûk's evil twin," said Culi. "Or Anûk ymself, seen through uncomprehending and fearful 'eyes'."

"Here now!" said Sam. "What are you suggesting?"

"I'm suggesting nothing," said Culi, holding up one cautionary hand. "But I haven't seen this thing myself; only the impression y made on someone just reborn in the World, using powers she's only used Inside."

"What y means," Hala said, "is that we need time to think about this, and talk about it between ourselves."

"I understand," said Marisa gravely.

"Then please excuse us from the rest of the run," said Hala, with none of his usual levity. "We'll see you tomorrow morning, if we may."

"Until then," said Marisa. She and Sam watched the male and neuter walk back the way they'd come. "Just when I was beginning to think what a nice little household we could have, too. Ah, well. Let's finish that run, [Sam]."

The World, 10 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"You know," said Marisa, "I've grown fond of this little island. Do you suppose they would sell it to us? We could do the [Robinson Crusoe] bit until things got settled."

Sam and Marisa were taking a break from an all-out workout, the kind that none of the other four was yet skilled enough or fit enough to join. Marisa lazed on her back on the grass between what increasingly felt like their cottage and their gym. She rubbed her sore stomach and smiled. Sam had caught her there with a foot during a move she'd never seen before—which meant it was one he'd learned in one of his other lives. Which meant he was coming to terms with those other lives. So Marisa smiled, thinking what good things could result from that.

Sam lay on his back with his arms behind his head, looking up at stars in daylight, watching birds glow with body heat in the infra-red range of his eyes. "They don't have money here, Princess," he said.

"No? What, then? Beads? Cowry shells? Rare feathers?" she asked, blowing one off her nose.

"No money of any kind," Sam said. "Money is like freedom here; anything you want, up to where it interferes with someone else. I asked Culi about the dojo."


"He said, the dojo, the house, two dojos, ten houses, if we want them, they're ours. Making two houses is no more trouble than one."

"That makes sense, I suppose. If supply-and-demand means anything, infinite supply should mean zero price."

"Sure," said Sam. "A whole universe of matter and energy to be assembled by telekinesis at the speed of thought by a tireless worker—who needs money? It's a lot like everyone having his own Aladdin's lamp."

"As long as the genie doesn't get testy."


"So we couldn't buy the island," Marisa said. "Would they give it to us? Or do they even have title? Would it be ours, as long as we wanted it?"

"Maybe," said Sam. "They've been using it for rebirths. Surely we can't be the first to feel an attachment to our 'birthplace'?"

"Then you feel it too?" she said softly.

"I do," he said. "It's a comfortable place. And there must be hundreds, even thousands of other islands they could use. Da Hodestai is what? Just under 32 square miles? Something like that."

"Almost exactly 31," said Hala. "It's not perfectly round, of course. More a lopsided oval, like the rocks on the shore line."

"Oh, hullo," grunted Sam. "Company, Princess."

"Gentlemen," said Marisa, still lying down, but no longer relaxed. "Should I get up?"

"Please don't bother," said Culi, spreading his robes and sitting on the grass. Qisp and Zuk, solemn-faced, sat down on either side of him.

Clouds of birds flew under, around, and through actual clouds, while the breeze tossed the dagger-shaped leaves of the lose trees. In the background, something unseen was going kek-kek-kek-kek, kek-kek-kek-KA! over and over.

"So, what's the verdict?" Sam asked.

Culi sighed. "We were doubtful—Hala and I, that is. So we showed your vision to Qisp and Zuk. Qisp had no idea what to think, but Zuk said he'd dreamed about your monster."

"And this is significant?" Marisa said.

"I think so," said Culi. "Zuk was a telepath in several of his Inside lives, including the one with his alien father-figure. He has a good handle on these kinds of things. If he's dreamed of it, and his dreams match yours, then it's real."

"You don't sound happy," Sam observed.

"Happy to know there's some kind of psychic bogeyman out there? Wondering when it's going to strike, and how? Or whether it already has, and no one knows? No, I'm not happy about that." Y looked at Marisa. "But at least we know for sure that it's real."

"Unless Zuk's just saying it is to make me look good," Marisa suggested.

"I thought of that," Culi admitted. "But among his other failings, the boy simply doesn't know how to lie." Y ruffled Zuk's dark-green hair affectionately.

"So now what?" asked Sam.

"So now we're back where we were. What next? That's up to [Marisa], as we said. And our apologies for doubting you." Y held out ys hand to her.

She squeezed it, and smiled. "I never claimed to be infallible, Culi. Doubt is good."

The World, 7 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"A moment of your time, Hala?"

Hala looked at Marisa in surprise. He'd been watching team exercises between Sam and Zuk on the one hand, and Culi and Qisp on the other. It was an anything-goes game, the only rule being that no one was to leave the island. As they stood there, a tele appeared behind Sam's back, and Qisp popped out of it. He threw himself on the big blond man, then whooped in surprise as Sam helped him on his way without a check. Another tele appeared in mid-air and he flew into it. Instantly Sam whirled to face the fading tele behind him.

But interfaces work both ways; hardly had the last of Qisp vanished into the second tele than he flew right back out of it, with all the momentum of Sam's throw. He whooped again, this time with glee, as he landed on the older man's back. The next instant, the earth caved in and both fell into a hole. Culi, in the form of a huge round-headed blue-skinned thing, put two forelimbs over the edge of the hole from inside and CHUFF!ed with satisfaction.

"Privately, if you please," Marisa said, and led the way to the cottage.

"Dear lady, of course," Hala beamed. He strutted along behind her. Wisely, he said no more until they reached it, but his eyes were eloquent. He opened the door and bowed her in ahead of him. She picked a spot amid the rugs and sat down, cross-legged, with her hands on her knees. Hala leaned against the door, smiling, arms crossed.

"And what can I do for you this fine day?" he purred.

Marisa pointed at the floor before her with an elegant hand. "You can sit down, and drop the [Lothario] act," she said. "I need to talk to the real Hala."

Frowning, Hala uncrossed his arms and stood straight, then walked over and sank to a sitting position like hers. "The real Hala? I don't know what you mean."

"Sure you do," Marisa said. "You were an alien being in the First History, actually the king of the Tlâńē, Culi tells me. I want you to explain why that person is running around in a red-haired human body, acting like a conceited amorous lout."

Hala winced. "Harsh words, Lady. Look, if I've offended you by the way I've acted, I do apologize."

"I don't want an apology, I want an explanation. Who are you really, and why do you act this way?"

"Fair enough," rumbled Hala. "Well… I'm really Hala, and I'm really the Tlâńē, too; just as you're really [Marisa] and [Nike] and [Paolina] and the rest."

"Hala is an approximation of my original name. I was born Hała Złodańor; the Złodańor were the people from whom the kings were elected, one of the Three Noble Tribes. I had been king forty years, and a Defender called The Loop for twenty, when the world was destroyed, and I died."

"Eoverai?" Marisa asked.

"That's what the Verē called it; and what they said went, even when their hard-liners dragged the whole universe into a pointless, stupid war of extermination. We called it Tla'a, the world; one of the reasons the Verē called us the Tlâńē."

"So why are you here?" asked Marisa. "And where are the rest of your people?"

"Two questions with one answer, Lady. I'm an experiment, you see. The guinea pig. The leader, out front leading, you could say."

In fact Marisa said nothing, just waited for him to make sense. "Well," he said, "the whole question of First-History people coming back to life—it isn't simple."

"No? Can't Anûk just make bodies for them, and turn them loose?"

"Oh hell no! Look, a lot of the Verē are Orthodox. They believed, and still believe, that they're a master race, appointed by 'God' to rule everything, with a sacred duty to squash anything that gets in their way. They aren't fit to be corporate until they abandon those beliefs. They're the ones who ruined everything in the First History."

"What about freedom of religion?" said Marisa. "Don't they have a right to believe what they like?"

Hala snorted. "This isn't the United States of America, Lady, or even the North American Union. They can believe what they like, and stay safely discorporate. Made flesh, they wouldn't allow anyone else freedom of religion, or to be free from religion."

"All right," he said. "Second, not everyone wants to be corporate again. Some find the society too strange, some find these bodies repulsive—mostly hard-liners, again—some are just tired."

"And the aliens, the ones who weren't Verē in the First History, they're another matter. Should they come back as Iǹgrē, with human bodies? Should they be Iǹgrē, but with something like their original bodies? Here on the World, or on colony worlds?" He spread his hands. "You see?"

"I think I begin to," said Marisa.

"My own people were non-Verē, but we lived here, on this world—or its First-History analogue, anyway. We evolved here. That gives us a special problem fitting in. And a lot of us are bitter about what happened in the First History."

"I noticed that."

He laughed. "So," he said, spreading his arms, "an experiment. I went through the Inside, just like a child of the Winter People. I made a life Anûk approved, and got this body. And if I seem all too human for my history, well," he shrugged, "I'm still adjusting to life an an Iǹgrē."

"Culi says you were married."

"He told you that? Yes, we had marriage in the First History. Not like here. It seems so long ago, and so far away: But that was in another country; and besides, the wench is dead."

"Tell me about her?" Marisa suggested.

"All right… Well, she was one of the Verē's biological experiments. Mara was half Verē, half Tlâńē, and all woman."

"Half Verē and half Tlâńē? How was that possible?"

"It wasn't, Lady. We Tlâńē evolved in the Second Universe, while the human race evolved in the First. They weren't related to anything except the other First-Universe creatures they brought with them. But the Verē made her, gene by gene, chromosome by chromosome, as part of their experiments to learn the biochemistry, biophysics, genetics, and psionics of all the energy-eating species. Without those experiments, no Iǹgrē."

"What was she like?" Marisa asked softly.

"I haven't the words," said Hala. "Well… she was lonely, and her Ring of Power made her incredibly powerful, and the leader of the Defenders, a true Verē and a great hero and a learned scientist, wanted her."

"And so did you?"

"And so did I, but I wore this exoskeleton and helmet to hide the fact that I was Tlâńē, and she'd never even seen my body or heard my real voice. But she favored me anyway… I was very lucky."

"Then act like it!" Marisa said.

"Lady?" Hala said, shocked.

She tapped him on the knee. "Get her out here, man. Get her into the Inside Earths, then out here, and see whether you still have together what you used to have. That's what scares you, isn't it? That you might not feel the same?"

"You're right," he nodded. "I already knew it, but—it does scare me, [Marisa]."

"Whatever happens, you're among friends here," she said, and held out her hand.

"Friends indeed," said Hala, and held it in both of his own for a moment.

"Seriously, get her out here. And meanwhile—behave!"

"Yes, Ma'am," said Hala, and grinned.

The World, 6 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"What do you think, [Sam]? Shall we do it?"

Sam stopped, his shirt half off. "Princess?" he said.

She looked at him sidelong. She was lying on her side on the rugs, head propped on hand propped on elbow, young and cool and gorgeous, and fully dressed. "The household," she said.

"Oh," said Sam. He finished taking off his shirt, his expression thoughtful. "They're good people. The boys are out-and-out cute, but there's nothing wrong with Culi or Hala, either." He grinned. "I wondered when you'd read Hala the riot act."

"Maybe I wanted to lead him on a little," she said. "Or maybe I wanted you to wonder."

"Princess?" Sam said again.

She rolled to her feet in one lithe motion, and put her hands on her hips. "Don't you play dumb with me, [Sam Mackie]!" she challenged him.

He held up his hands. "I promise," he said, "only—who's 'me'?"

She held her elbows with her hands, though the night wasn't cold. "That's the question, all right. I don't know the answer, either. I can tell you who I remember being, [Marisa] for one; but only for one. I can tell you what I did, in each life; I can tell you what I learned; whom I knew;" she looked directly at him, "whom I loved. But who I am? Iam nescio; I don't know yet."

"But one thing I can tell you," she said, walking up to him. "Whoever I am, I want you." She laid her hand on his bare chest. "Whoever I am, whoever you are, you are my other self. I've never been more sure of that."

"We've always been afraid to take the chance," Sam said soberly. "We have so much, and this risks it all."

"[Sam] and [Marisa] were afraid to take the chance," she said. "We are more than [Sam] and [Marisa], and I want more than they had. I want all of you. And I want you to have all of me." She pressed herself against him, and his arms went around her waist.

He drew a shaky breath. "You push hard, Princess," he laughed softly.

"I don't want to be your Princess any more," she said just as softly. "It's lonely on that pedestal. I'm tired of being lonely, tired of being scared. What's the use of being reborn, if I can't live? And what's the use of living, if I can't have you?" She gave his head a shake with her hands on either side of his face. "Are you going to make me beg?"

His answer was in his lips. Hers were as soft as he'd always imagined, and her kiss as sweet, if a courtier had ever dreamed of kissing a Princess. They were one. They'd always been one; but now they expressed it as they'd never dared before.

Finally she broke off the kiss, and rested her head on his shoulder. How good to be his height, instead of so much shorter! Would she ever take that for granted? She hoped not! "[Wow]," she said.

"Princess," he started to say.

"I'll smack you," she warned him.

"[Marisa]," he amended. "There's still that thing out there. How do I deal with it—how do we deal with it, like this?"

"I know," she sighed. "If only we had time to sort ourselves out, before we had to take care of it. Or if only someone else would do it for us. But we don't know that anyone else can or will, do we?"

"No," he said.

"All right," she said. She took a step back. "We'll play [Marisa] and [Sam] a little longer, then. You can even go on calling me Princess," she smiled.

"I remember the day you said that," he told her, "like yesterday."

"Mind like a steel trap, that's you," she said, and kissed him on the corner of his mouth. "Lights out, please," she said as she turned away. In the darkness they undressed, then went to sleep.

The World, 5 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

All night long the rain had fallen; sometimes beating the ground like a drum, sometimes pattering lightly on the wind-tossed leaves, but never ceasing. The darkness was rich with the smell of rain, and the smells that the rain woke wherever it touched.

The birds huddled in their nests and baskets, their tree hollows and bowers, their caves and lairs and all the different places the countless and uncountable flocks called home. The gliding lizards clung to the underside of branches, sometimes only inches from walking-sticks on the upper side of the same limbs. The srigē wrapped his bottle tail over his nose and dozed warmly in his burrow, while innumerable burrowing lizards and snakes lay all but dormant in theirs. Offshore, the sea serpents dove below the zone where the rain disturbed the surface, not liking the freshwater taste of it, and stayed down there, except to surface for air.

"How shall we do this?" Marisa asked.

The chair she sat in (for once) was wood; not the darkness of walnut or the blond of pear, but in between; a rich brown, enhanced with a wax polish lovingly applied, layer upon layer. Or the exact reproduction of such, for Sam sat in another just like it. They were curile chairs, and seeing her in one, it was easy to remember that in one life she'd been a Countess, in another a Duchess, and a Goddess in a third.

The two of them had continued to wear the white of the newly reborn, but today they weren't the only ones dressed that way. The four would-be members of their Household, who sat on their heels before them in the cottage, also wore white. The neuter, Culi, wore white versions of his usual robes, while Hala, Qisp, and Zuk wore white shirts, pants, belts, and boots like Sam's. The air was chill, and fresh with rain.

"It's entirely up to you," said Culi. "Some households are very formal, with day-long ceremonies and memorized rituals. Some are like the old [Firesign Theater] routine."

Sam grinned. " 'Domine, Domine, Domine, you're all Catholic now,' " he quoted. "That the one you mean?"

Marisa smiled. "We'll try to do better than that," she said. "Are you ready? What do we need first?"

"The first thing we need are names for the two of you," Culi said. "Nameless persons don't found Households," y said apologetically, while the rain pattered on the roof.

"Yes, what we've been going by sits oddly in T́uliǹgrai," Marisa agreed. "[Marisa] is too long, [Sam] is too short—if T́uliǹgrai is music, then saying [Marisa] is like dropping a big noisy rock in a tin wash tub, and [Sam] is worse. Do you have suggestions?"

"We talked about it," Hala said. "Not presuming that this time would come, you understand, only hoping it would, and hoping we'd have the honor of helping you choose your names. Culi?"

"Names are words in T́uliǹgrai," Culi said. "They have meanings, which should be appropriate. And for someone special, the name should be special, too. Lovely as the meanings are, there are many, many Dêbis, Kaθas, Lańas, Kristus, and Susos out there. Qisp?"

They were making a ceremony even of suggesting a name to her, she saw, and had spent some time preparing what to say, and who was to say each part. It moved her deeply.

"So we thought and thought, and we came up with Sisu, and Ťora," Qisp said.

"Honor, and Modesty," she said. "I'm flattered, really. But… no, I don't think so." She looked at Zuk.

He blushed. "Th-then we thought, [Pascale] is an Italian name. 'Roma' doesn't mean anything in T́uliǹgrai, so people would think the name 'Romai' came from romo, long-haired."

"That's pretty, and I like it. But I thought the whole point of the exercise is that I'm not [Marisa Pascale], at least not entirely."

"Well then," said Sam. She turned to him in surprise. "I didn't think you'd go for any of those, although I think that any of them would make a fine name. So I made this," he said, holding out a wooden box.

She took it carefully. She was familiar with the skill of his hands, having used many small electronic gadgets he'd made, as well as the throwing knives he made himself, bows, spears, and weapons of all kinds. This was a simple box, of a dark red wood, perfectly fitted, lovingly polished, with a single T́uliǹgrai Z carved in the lid. No hinges or latch were visible. It was a puzzle box, she realized, latched by the perfection of the fit between its parts. She held two sides of the bottom with one hand, and pulled on the top with the other, careful of the strength of her Iǹgrē hands. A faint scent of oil was released as the lid came off.

Inside was a cabochon, an unfaceted stone; an inch across, taller than it was wide, yellow with rainbow highlights like an opal. It was mounted in a band, like something too hard or too precious to cut, and hung from a chain.

A gem cutter by hobby, she didn't recognize the stone. She held it up to the light. It gleamed like an opal, or a pearl. A stone, or something organic?

"What is it, [Sam]? I've never seen anything like it."

"It's a zete, Princess."

"And where does one get a zete?" she asked him.

The oceans of the World are full of monsters. Small wonder that the nations of the Second History had little contact with each other before the Iǹgrē arrived! Supreme among these monsters are the great serpents, that never cease growing as long as they live, and never die unless eaten by a larger one. These serpents have long needle teeth to hold their prey from escaping, but chew their food with rocks swallowed for the purpose. Occasionally an unchewed morsel will lodge in a serpent's gut, creating an irritation. The gut secretes a zete to seal the irritant away, much as an oyster makes a pearl.

There it stays, for the Iǹgrē treasure and protect all the wildlife of their world, including the monsters. But if a man wanted a zete badly enough, and could persuade Anûk, or the Speaker of the Winter People, or the Speaker of the Summer People, to sanction a hunt; if he were willing to tackle a giant sea serpent armed only with hand weapons, and was very skilled, or very lucky; why, then he might mount it on a golden chain, and put it in a hand-made box, and wait for the right moment to give it to someone he loved.

"But—when did you do this, [Sam]? You've been here all along."

"Oh, it wasn't me," he said hastily. "It'd be quite a caper—but I knew you'd kill me, even if the serpent didn't. No, Hala did it, before we met him."

Marisa looked at the red-haired man. "You did it for Mara, didn't you?" she said.

Hala flushed. "I did," he said. "But don't think of turning it down because of that! It won't keep anyway. Like a pearl, it has to be worn to last."

"I'll take it, as a token from all of you. But we were discussing names," she said, slipping the zete on its chain over her head.

"I thought Zetai," said Sam. "From zete. A name for someone like the stone."

"Hard and dangerous to go after?" she teased him.

"No," he said seriously, "living and precious."

"Oh, [damn]," she said, and cupped his face with one hand, in their old gesture. Her eyes were suspiciously bright, though she shed no tears.

"Zetai it is, then. I like the sound of it, and who could refuse such a gift? Hala, when your lady is reborn, [Sam] and I will get you another one."

"I couldn't ask that of you," he protested.

"You didn't," she said. "All right? Good, that's settled. But [Sam] needs a new name, too."

"I thought I'd just go with Sâmai," he said.

"Well, it would be easy to remember," Zetai said. "But sâmo is an ugly yellow-brown color. We should be able come up with something better than that!"

"T́ula!" said Qisp.

Zetai laughed. "From T́ulo, noble? That would be a case of the biter bit! How'd you like to be called 'Prince,' [Sam]?"

"Like a dog? Not much," he rumbled. "Sorry, Qisp."

"But it's so obvious," Culi said. "Change the â sound to an a, and you have Samo." Y spread ys hands.

"Samo," said Zetai. "If anyone were ever 'reliable', [Sam], it's you. Certainly I depend on you."

"Samo," he said, trying the name for size.

"What do you think?" Zetai said.

He looked at her. A lot of men would be insulted to be called "reliable" or "dependable", he thought. He'd had brawls with men who'd thought him a lap dog because he followed where Marisa led. They never understood how he could feel it a great privilege to be her follower, even without the gift of her body. Strange how they were together again, and now he was going to be consort as well as courtier. Or maybe not so strange. Love can never stand still, he told himself. It must grow, or die, no third way—and they'd been together for a long, long time.

"I think you've just given me a gift as great as the zete," Samo said.

Chapter 14
Strategies and Casualties

Six black roundels in annulo, two in chief—Lesser House Hodestai.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

T. S. Eliot, "The Waste Land", 1922 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

Hawley sprang to life. "Help me destroy its body before it comes back!" he cried.

Marisa snorted. "Sorry, I left my bulldozer in my other jacket," she said. "Did you hear what Sam was saying?"

"What? Never mind that now!" said Hawley. "We've got to destroy this thing!"

"It's all steel beams and heavy cables," Marisa told him. "A skinny old man and an old lady aren't going to hurt it any. What's your problem, anyway?"

Luther Hawley glared at the person he most hated in all the world, not least because she'd just saved him again. "Listen, bitch. You may have fooled the android, but you haven't fooled me. If we can't destroy its body, I'm getting out of here right now!"

"You're going nowhere, Luther. I gave up a good meal with good company to drag down here tonight, and you're going to stay and help clean up your mess."

"It's not my mess!" Hawley shouted. "I was in the middle of a suite of tensors that I'll never be able to recover, when that damn android broke in on me! This is his mess, and I'm not adding my body to the wreckage!" He turned and headed for the stairs.

He whooped in surprise when his feet flew out from under him, then cried out when he slammed against the floor. "Don't make me break anything, Luther," Marisa said in his ear.

"Let me go!" he cried. "Oh let me go, please! We have to get out of here!"

"Why, Luther?" said Marisa. "What are you so frightened of?" A horrible thought crossed her mind. "Is the nuke real after all?"

"Fuck the nuke!" said Hawley. "There isn't even any uranium, just a bank of radiation lamps programmed to mimic what their detectors should sense through bad shielding. But you're throwing away the time you talked out of Solar."

"Why are you so sure he's coming back?"

"Because he's me! OK? I finally admit it! He's me, and I never, ever give up wanting to get even with anyone. He's just playing with us, and we have to get out of here now!"

"I think you're wrong, Luther," Marisa said as she got up, and held out a hand to help him up. "I think he's evolved beyond what you made, and may be better than you. Still, better safe."

Luther wasn't listening. Staring past her with a face full of horror, he shouted, "Look out!"

With younger reflexes, a faster body, Marisa might have dodged the blow, or at least ridden it. It smashed her down past Hawley, and she felt ribs give way. Then her head slammed into a pipe. She lay on her front, half-conscious but wholly unable to move, and heard Solar-9 say, "Spoil my fun, would you?" Hawley screamed. "I really think, Doctor, that at this stage of the experiment, we can discard the prototype," she heard, and another scream. Then there was nothing but the sounds of bones breaking and metal striking flesh, over and over, until she faded away.

The World, 5 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"As for the name of the house," Zetai said, "what do you think of Hodestai?"

Everyone laughed. Qisp nudged Zuk with an elbow and said, "I told you."

"How do you mean that, Princess?" Samo waved a hand around the room. "A bunch of people with rocks in their heads?"

"Or a collection of precious stones," Culi countered.

"I had in mind rock pile," said Zetai. "It seemed fit for Samo and me, retired crooks that we are, even if we never did time for any of it."

"Just a couple of bad eggs," sighed Samo, shaking his head dolefully.

After the laughter, Hala said to Zetai, "So your full name would be Hodestai Zetai as head of the house, where we members would be Hodestao Halai, Hodestao Culai, and so forth."

"And so forth," agreed Zetai. "But this is a household with two heads, so Samo will be Hodestai Samai, not Hodestao Samai."

"That's very rare," said Culi. "Whatever you say, of course," y added as she frowned at ym. "It's usual for a single person to be head of the household, with ys mates sharing the duties but not the title. But it's not completely unheard of for a house to have more than one head, just very, very unusual."

"Maybe we'll start a fashion, then," Zetai said.

"Are you sure, Princess? I'm OK with being the number-one troop, instead of co-commander," said Samo.

"It's necessary," she said. "As we said: for now we carry on as we know best. But old habits will have to be broken, and in this we should start as we mean to go on."

"When you put it that way," he said.

Then they swore, to Zetai and Samo both, each in his or ys own way. Zuk and Qisp promised in plain words. Hala swore with the words the Tlâńē used for vows of fealty, and with the proviso that, as king of his people, he might have to withdraw from the household, start a household of his own, or both, as politics might require. Culi swore legalistically, with a modification of ys oath as a peace officer.

Zetai and Samo swore in turn, each in words that seemed best, to accept them into the household, to be their elders and their kin, to be theirs and to regard them as their own. In effect they adopted them, and became the heads of a family of six. Zetai kissed each one on the forehead, and Samo crushed each one in a hug.

And while they wove their webs of kinship, weighing well the worthy word and the kind one, finding the path that suited each and all, the winds worked as well. Into the west the weary wrack withdrew, urged by the freshening breeze; out of the east great Vol arose. The burrowing snakes and the gliding snakes tasted the new air with their tongues. The hoppers and the crawlers, the blind worm and the cryptozoa, retreated under fallen leaves and other debris. The avian orchestra cleared its innumerable throats, and burst forth, into song and into flight.

They made their world new, and the world, renewed by storm, rejoiced around them.

The World, 6 Xidestô Borao, Year 1772 (Second History)

"I have to say, this is the best war I ever heard of," said Ĵuha lazily. Floating on his back in the middle of the Empty Ocean, in tropical latitudes thousands of miles from anything bigger than a reef or a solitary rock, he was totally relaxed.

"Enjoy it while you can, lover," Lańa advised him. Like him, she was nude, her hair a private Sargasso all about her. They need not fear sunburn. Any damage done by Vol's fierce light would be repaired the next time they went through a tele.

"Oh, I am, I am," the Trickster said. "I just don't quite understand what our role is."

"Think of it as our kind of theft," said Camoflage. "Jedai is stealing people from Anûk, but slowly, carefully. Y watches Anûk's teles, and when someone goes through, if y sees a chance to hijack ym, her, or him, y will. Ideally, the person goes into the tele linked to Anûk, but comes out linked to Jedai, and to Anûk only through Jedai. If y does it right, the person won't suspect, and neither will Anûk, until too late."

"So Jedai is watching all of Anûk's teles, hijacking people who use them, and passing information back and forth so that neither Anûk nor the rescued people know that anything's changed?"

"That's right."

"Eio! That's a lot for one person to do. How many can y handle at once?"

[[Actually,]] Jedai said, joining them mentally, [[it gets easier as more people's minds and brains are at my disposal. The more processing power I have, the more I can do. And a lot of the work, for instance passing information back and forth transparently, is done by automatic routines.]]

[[After all,]] y added, [[Anûk does all this and more for all the Iǹgrē, and y doesn't even have a physical brain of ys own. Like me, y uses the spare information-processing power of other peoples' brains.]]

"So what can we do?" Ĵuha asked.

[[You are my agents in the Outside world,]] Jedai said. [[The longer Anûk remains unaware that anything's happening, the better. If y remains totally unaware until I've rescued everyone, then victory is ours without a fight. Without Iǹgrē minds to sustain ym, Anûk should pop like a lost balloon.]]

"And if y realizes what's going on?"

[[Then y will try to find me, to destroy me. It will be your job, along with anyone else who's willing and able, to fight the physical battles, while y and I fight the mental ones.]]

[[More likely,]] Jedai said, [[Anûk will realize something's wrong, but have no clear idea what it is. That's when you two will play your most important part. Y will send out an investigator, and it will be up to you to mislead ym, her, or him, as the case may be.]]

"Sounds like fun," Camoflage said, and blew a spout of water, like a sleek redheaded dolphin.

The World, 5 Galestô Novao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"We need to find out what this thing is, and where it is," Culi said.

Yesterday's clouds were gone, but still the wind blew harder and colder than normal. The birds flew in shorter hops, with a marked tendency to veer downwind. Culi's robes flapped loudly a couple of times, until y grimaced impatiently and threw up a telekinetic dome around the group. Air entering the area from upwind had its energy randomized, which slowed it to a soft breeze and warmed it at the same time.

"Assuming it has a location in the physical world," noted Hala.

((One thing we mustn't do is talk out loud about it,)) Zetai said in their minds, using skills from her Tessa life. ((It's had no reason to take any notice of us so far. What are we? Six people sitting on the grass on a little island like a thousand others. But if we're going after it, we have to remember that it may be listening.))

Six people in the grass near a grove of lose trees; Zetai sitting zazen, like a young female Buddha; Samo on her left, leaning on his left hand with his right on his upraised right knee; Qisp and Hala sitting on their heels, Zuk sprawled on his stomach with his head on his palms, Culi kneeling with ys arms crossed. Between each of them and Zetai ran a thread of mental connection, shielded against leak or interference.

((But anyone can listen through our link to Anûk—)) Hala began, then checked himself. ((Oh,)) he said. In his mind, where the link to Anûk began, was an image of a cave; and out from the cave the tentacles of a lurker, a sessile predator native to Kantos in both histories, swept up the words of their conversation before they could travel down the link.

((I've taken the liberty of keeping our throughts and conversation private, on this matter only,)) Zetai told them. ((You'll each perceive the filtering routine in your own way, though they're all the same.))

Samo saw all-powerful Nemesis sitting in nothingness and zapping the words with his gaze. Zuk saw his golden alien super-hero friend using his powers on them, while Qisp saw sperm whales crushing them under the direction of his Earth friend. Culi tore ys inward gaze away from ys partner blasting them with his ray gun and said, ((What is this? There is no single link between us and Anûk. We're part of ym, and the connection is holographic.))

((True,)) said Zetai. ((But this is just an image of what's really going on. If you'll think of your connection to Anûk as a single link, which a censor mechanism can guard, it will be easier on me.))

((So you block the way to Anûk because everyone is connected to ym, and could overhear us?)) Samo asked.

((Partly,)) she said. And her glance told him the other reason, which even the others of their house would find hard to believe: that the monster they stalked might be Anûk.

((We'll need to ask questions, indirectly and carefully, of a lot of people,)) Zetai went on. ((They mustn't be led by our questions to realize that the thing is out there, or they could be endangered. Yet we have to try to unearth clues to what the thing's been doing, and where, and for how long.))

((A tall order, Princess,)) said Samo. ((I reckon I could give it a try, though.))

((Don't be silly!)) Zetai said sharply. He blinked in surprise. ((You or I could do this in London, or New York. But here and now, we don't have the background or the contacts.)) She turned to Hala and Culi. ((So which of you will it be?))

((Either of us could do it,)) Hala said. ((When it comes to dealing with Traditionalists, Culi would carry more weight because y's neuter. On the other hand, this kind of investigation is Traditionally a male role. Or we could do it as a team.))

((Two is too many for discretion,)) Culi said.

((Nor can I spare you both from helping Samo and me get acclimated,)) said Zetai.

((Then let me give it a shot,)) Hala said. ((I think I know a few more people than Culi does, and I have to do something.))

((Which is why it's a male role,)) Culi said smugly.

((All right, then,)) Zetai said. ((Realize that you'll be on your own. I'll leave the censor routine in your mind, but I can't keep up the link between us. It's too liable to be detected, and keeping it open doubles the risk to me, compared to just keeping up my link to Samo.))

((Can't have that,)) Samo said. ((You could maybe rescue Hala; I don't know that he could rescue you?)) He cocked an inquiring eyebrow at the big redheaded man.

((No, I couldn't,)) Hala said. ((That's not my kind of thing, the way investigating and fighting are.))

((When do you want to leave?)) Zetai said, ((And when return?))

((The sooner I start, the sooner we maybe get answers,)) Hala replied, rubbing his chin. ((As for coming back… This is garai 5 pen Galestô Novao.))

((All day,)) agreed Culi. Zuk giggled.

((So there are just over two months left in this year,)) Hala said. ((Galestai Dolao, 2001, will be celebrated with huge parties all over the Iǹgrē universe. Who will notice us meeting amidst all that? And it's enough time for me to find out something.))

((Sounds good,)) agreed Zetai. ((Where?))

((Alteřa!)) said Qisp, then looked self-conscious at interrupting.

((Why not?)) said Samo, smiling. ((What's going on then on Alteřa, Qisp?))

((Kites!)) Qisp said simply.

((It should be Alteřa Taolol or Teřańa anyway,)) said Culi. ((The first day of a new year, a new century, and a new millennium? What better time to present our new household to one of the Speakers?))

The World, 5 Xidestô Borao to 4 Numestô Talao, Year 1772 (Second History)

Trickster and Camoflage went to Tlâńor, and stood at the very prow of the city as it sailed high over the Wasted Lands. The Sealed Mountains rose on their north, for the city was running a little south of due east to follow the Mountains down to the Sθena Ocean. Then it would cross the dry mouth of the Risθeδa from northeast to southwest, before making a long arc to the middle of the continent, following the line where desert yielded to grassland; then northeast to the eastern end of the Peril Gate, where the Sealed Mountains failed and left the way open into Elarâń; and then, after a year, back to where it was now.

They didn't stay for the whole orbit, however, just a couple of days. From Tlâńor it was only natural to proceed to Fallen Tlâńor, where the original city had crashed when Herâk burst in the heavens. The great wreck lay shattered over tens of square miles, its pieces still impervious to erosion or ordinary tools, but not to falling, unchecked, from several miles high.

And then, of course, to Tlâńor Taca, the Mižinē starship The Dawn at Tlâńor, buried so that only the upper half of its globular shape showed above ground. Then to Eokantos, where the original Verē Êstâz had reigned for so long, and his Tlâńē successors after. Finally the lovers visited the memorial spire, far south of Anθorâń, where the First History and the Second History first met, Iǹgrē survivors shaking hands with Râńē explorers.

"So much history," marvelled Ĵuha, "that never happened in our world, so many places that never were, so many people that never lived!"

"Right back at you," said Lańa. "The blue-skinned Tlâńē, our Tlâńē, never evolved here, so their whole culture, history, population are missing. Even most of that ecology's gone, wiped out by First- and Second-History plants and animals from other continents. Offhand the only exceptions I can think of, on land anyway, are lurkers, whippers, and snap trees."

Passing through teles to don bodies sealed against cold and vacuum, they held hands and watched the stars from the highest peak of the Sealed Mountains. All that range, the tilted edge of a continental fragment run aground, rises above atmosphere; but this was the highest point above sea level in the World. Far, far below the Lake of the Suns gleamed in the morning light, while night kept unchallenged dominion in the shadow stretching over the Girē province of the Tlâńē Kingdom.

In their own bodies they crawled through deep caves far below ground in Alteřa, where light had never shone, enjoying the beauties of the rock around them with their electric and magnetic senses. In bodies of tightly-bound energy they visited Vol, and were shown the telekinetic engines, more than half sentient, that kept the supergiant green star stable and fed. In the bodies of sea lurkers, which don't settle into a sessile existence but remain mobile, and keep growing as long as they live, they wrestled in play in the crushing pressure of the lightless depths of the Empty Ocean. A giant sea serpent, the sea lurkers' natural enemy, attacked them. They played tag and keep-away with it until finally chasing the baffled creature away.

In their own bodies again, but protected by telekinetic shields, they stepped out of a tele high above the plane of the Second Galaxy. Like minnows just out of reach of a hungry octopus, they drank in the splendor of the great spiral arms, jewelled with stars, and the great bar across the center. Globular clusters surrounded the galaxy, and them, like worlds made of fireflies. "Higher," Lańa breathed in Ĵuha's ear.

Another jump outward reduced the galaxy from half the sky to only a quarter of it, so that it no longer reached the limits of sight. Now the sphere of globular clusters surrounding the galaxy was below them, and the trailing Knot, another galaxy only partly digested, could be seen. Amidst the magnificence their telekinetic shields merged; within it, Ĵuha drew Lańa to him. She came eagerly, and her long red hair floated weightless around them as they clung together with arms and legs. "Higher," she sighed, as he opened the seams of her blouse, while running his lips along her neck.

Higher still, and the Galaxy was revealed as the central member of a mini-cluster. Two other giant spirals accompanied it, each skewed so that no pair of them shared orientation; each surrounded by several dwarf satellite galaxies. In the starless void outside the galaxies, other clusters could be seen in all directions.

There, where perhaps no one had ever been before, or ever would be again, they made love. So far from the World that their image would not arrive for hundreds of millions of years, they tore off each other's clothing, and let it drift into infinity. She screamed as he plunged into her, in the dark lit not by stars, but by disks of millions of stars.

They spent themselves. Halfway to Infinity, half past Eternity, they clung together, and Lańa said, "I love you," over and over. Ĵuha held her close, and kissed her tenderly.

Homeward happy through the tele, holding hands in mind space, they were ambushed by the monster. Black with malice and gloating over its power, it leapt upon them and seized her with its mind.

"Lańa! No!" Trickster screamed, and tried to fight the thing. It just laughed, and seemed to push him away, as with a contemptuous hand.

He fell then, out of mind space without even seeming to pass through a tele, and crashed to earth somewhere in Loraon, sprawled full length on an empty glacier. The polar winds froze the tears on his cheeks and tore at his naked, sweaty body. "Lańa!" he screamed again.

[[Oh dear,]] said Jedai's mental voice. [[I was afraid that might happen.]]

A Skyburst Earth, June 12, 1963 A.D.

The Skyburst was seen everywhere on Earth at the same time. In eastern Australia and New Zealand it was 7 in the evening when the whole sky turned a blinding white. Everyone thought Canberra (or Sydney, or Brisbane, or Wellington) had been nuked. A lot of praying, looting, murder, and rape, defiled the next few days.

In Greenland, on the opposite side of the globe, it was 7 in the morning. The sunlight was wiped away by the white glare that came up from the ground and the sea, at the exact same moment the Australians saw it, having passed right through the Earth in nothing flat. Inside, outside, deep underground, high in the air, everyone on Earth was stricken helpless in the light at the same instant.

It would never be known what kept American and Soviet fingers off the buttons for launching the ICBMs. Perhaps it was the fact that the light came out of the ground, at an acute angle, in Moscow and D.C. Perhaps it was that no heat or destruction accompanied the light. Perhaps those who might have pushed the buttons were simply too busy changing into clean pants.

The Skyburst blinded no one permanently; it was everywhere at the same instant; it went right through everything. Though human beings perceived it as light, it wasn't.

Instruments registered it not at all. No photographic plates were ruined, no film was exposed, no radiation detectors sounded an alarm. As with machinery, so with animals; only the most aware creatures—dolphins, whales, chimpanzees, gorillas, elephants—showed behavior that might be reactions to the Event. Dogs, cats, horses, pigs, birds, insects, fish, went on their ways undisturbed. The Skyburst, it was clear, had opened a window in physics whose existence had been unsuspected.

Then the deaths began.

The good news was that only one tenth of one percent of mankind was affected. On a planet with 4 billion people, that meant that 3.996 billion felt nothing at all.

The other 4 million came from every country, every "race", every social stratum on the planet. Ninety percent of these were killed outright. Within 24 hours of the soundless, heatless Skyburst, 3,600,000 people of all ages were dead. This included one rock-and-roll super-star, one current head of state, five world-famous entertainers, and numerous babies and children.

Ninety percent of those who were affected, but not killed outright, were grotesquely deformed. Their bodies began changing in horrible, unpredictable ways. Most of these 360,000 people were dead inside five years; the science and money simply didn't exist to provide life support for that many people, each crippled in a different way.

As with humans, so with all forms of life on the planet. To the Skyburst, there appeared to be no difference between a paramecium and a parrot, a fungus and a fundamentalist, the insects called roaches and the fish of the same name. One tenth of one percent of every species in the world was affected. Nine tenths of the living creatures who were affected, died at once. Nine tenths of affected creatures who were not killed immediately, were so deformed that they died eventually anyway.

The remainder—about 40,000 humans, along with countless insects, bacteria, every living species—were transformed.

Chapter 15
Duel over Alteřa

Everyone's falling into the dark,
Falling and fading into the dark.
It swallows us up, it drinks up our spark:
We're falling into the dark.

The blackness fills infinity;
We're only motes that rise and flare.
A moment's all we have to glow,
Then we're falling into the dark.

Some sputter ere they leave the ground,
Others rise and hang and hang,
While their fellows fall away
Into the hungry dark.

At last the void will claim us all:
The greatest fireworks show must close.
The next generation's rising now—
But the darkness is already waiting.

David Mackie, "Into the Dark", 2003 A.D.
("Sleep of Reason" Earths)

The World, 4 Galestô Dolao, Year 2000 (Second History)

The monster called Hand floated in mid-air just above the cracked stones of the atrium and giggled softly to ymself. A hummingbird came darting out of the jungle outside the broken and tumbled wall and paused before a hibiscus-like bore flower. Hand made no movement with ys flabby, useless arms or the wasted, withered legs that hung below ys floating body. Still giggling, y narrowed ys eyes slightly. Abruptly, the hummingbird imploded in a gush of blood, as though an invisible fist had closed on it violently. The blood spattered on the ground, but the pitiful little corpse kept floating in place.

The Trickster leaned against a cracked column while he fought down a surge of nausea. Hand was human, he supposed. Y had two arms, two legs, a head, all the usual Iǹgrē organs and features. But, though born of Iǹgrē parents, y had never been a part of society. Ys ability to interact with another person was as unused, as atrophied, as ys arms and legs. It was ys psi powers, ys tøskê, that made ym dangerous.

"Pretty, hek hek hek," y cackled. Ĵuha said nothing, and the monster grew angry. "Pretty!" y insisted shrilly.

Ĵuha swallowed from a throat suddenly dry. "Very pretty," he said, as soon as he could speak; he didn't want to be crushed as the bird had been. Hand's face cleared, and y chortled.

"Stupid creature," Trickster heard a dispassionate voice say. Turning, he saw a slim figure standing in the shade of an age-ruined laureate puku tree, dressed like an Aatuan king in little but jewels. His-her hard, muscled brown arms and legs were bare, and adorned only by the snake, wrought in gold, that coiled around his-her right upper arm. His-her breasts were plainly visible through the gauzy fabric wrapped around his-her torso, below the necklace of flowers and bees made of gold, silver, and precious and semi-precious stones. The organ that enclosed both penis and vagina was equally visible through the gauzy kilt around his-her hips. Above the androgynous lips and nose, and the haughty eyes outlined in black, silver flowers springing from a circlet served as a prince's crown.

"Yes, sir," Ĵuha forced himself to reply. "But a very powerful creature, too."

"More powerful than I?" asked the hairless royal Aatuan, offended pride mixed with honest curiosity.

"I don't know, sir," the Trickster said. In the six years and almost four months since Camoflage's capture by the enemy, he'd seen some pretty bizarre specimens of humanity. The creature before him, known to him only as Khebu, was one of the strangest, and one of the scariest.

Khebu was intimidating. He-she could be alpha bull one moment, outraged diva the next, which was bad enough. But the Aatuan prince, drawn from an age when nothing limited their royal ambitions but those of their rivals, also owned a confidence as solid as a rock and as vast as the Empty Ocean. If will alone were powerful, Khebu would be master-mistress of all.

When it became apparent Ĵuha had nothing else to say, Khebu gave him a brief nod. "You may go," he-she said, and turned his-her attention to a large yellow hed́e flower. It grew indistinct around the edges as he-she started to disassemble it, molecule by molecule, with his-her mind.

"Sir," Trickster murmured, and bowed deeply. He backed away from the prince until he was around a corner, and could turn his back without offense. Then he finished the journey to Jedai's quarters, and at a mental welcome, went in.

Jedai was standing in the middle of the room, a dove or pigeon sitting on ys right hand, which y held level with ys chest. The bird was big enough that this brought its beak almost level with Jedai's eyes, and its claws dug into ys hand as it shifted back and forth nervously, or for balance. Jedai flinched neither from beak nor claws. With ys left hand, y was taking dole (shepherd's-pitcher) seeds from a red ceramic bowl on ys desk and feeding them to the pigeon.

"You asked to see me, Sir?" Ĵuha said. The bird flung its wings wide at the sound of his voice, full of stress, and dropped the seed in its beak. Jedai held it against ys blue robes for a moment until it calmed, then gave it another seed.

"Sorry," said Ĵuha. He made an effort to moderate his voice. "Is it news about Lańa?"

Jedai turned ys head and looked at him thoughtfully, while the bird worked on the seed. Ys fine bright-green eyes were full of compassion. [[I'm, sorry, too,]] y said. [[I don't expect news of Lańa after all this time, and thought you'd given her up as well. Either Anûk's been tormenting her in various Inside lives all this time, or—]] y hesitated.

"Or y's killed her," Trickster finished despairingly.

The pigeon cooed. Jedai held out another seed. [[I doubt y's killed her,]] y said. [[As I said when it happened, I think some part of ys mind, perhaps an automatic reflex or programmed routine, saw that she wasn't supposed to be Outside, and seized her. But there'd be no reason to kill her.]]

[[On the other hand,]] y continued as the bird pecked the seed from ys fingers, [[I haven't been able to find her or contact her. This argues she's out of general circulation, for instance in an Inside world.]]

"Hence the cheerful gang loitering around the place these days," Trickster said, trying to shove away a vision of his lover being born, raised in ignorance, hurt, raped, killed, married to some lout who didn't appreciate her, over and over and over.

Jedai grimaced. [[I don't like them either. But they're all without doubts or scruples, and they're all survivors. If we have to fight, they'll fight well. And if they die fighting, none of them will be missed.]]

"That's for sure," Ĵuha said, thinking of the collection of First-History, Second History, and Inside misfits and criminals around the villa. The android was as off-putting as Khebu, while the supervillains were likely to drive him mad with their arguing. At least Jedai hadn't included The Glow in the latter. Too conspicuous, y'd said. "So what did you want, Sir?" he asked.

[[One moment,]] Jedai said calmly. Y walked to the open window behind ys desk, and tipped ys hand, forcing the pigeon to walk down it to the sill, cooing with alarm. For a moment the neuter Iǹgrē and the bird looked each other in the eye. Then it pecked ys fingers one last time, whether in affection or reproach only another pigeon could've told; spread its wings, and flew away.

[[You remember The Loop?]] Jedai asked Ĵuha as y turned away from the window. Y pulled out the x-frame chair behind ys desk, and sat with a rustling of robes.

The Trickster laughed. "Mr. Sobersides? Mr. One-surprise-after-another? No," he said, "can't say that I do."

[[I need you to kill him,]] said Jedai, folding ys hands on the desk.

A Skyburst Earth, June 1963 to January 1965

Like the deformations, the transformations were unique. In a sense, the living things who were transformed were simply the ones who were altered in a non-crippling way by the Skyburst.

Most of the transformations were trivial. A song bird that could now sing in ultrasound, a human being immune to the common cold, a roundworm that lived 120 days instead of 20, were no big deal. This was especially true since most changes weren't inheritable. If the change made the genes of the transformed creature incompatible with the rest of its species—and most did—then the effect was limited to a single creature for its lifetime only; and most creatures have very short lives.

But somewhere in California, a redwood tree became truly immortal. In the Outback, a pack of dingoes acquired a new leader with intelligence equal to a man's. In India, one of the remaining wild tigers became nearly impossible to kill with small arms, and began to lose its fear of man…

The real problem, however, was the new diseases. Bacteria and viruses are almost literally innumerable, and they reproduce asexually. A single transformed bacterium, a single transformed virus particle, could become a disease never seen before. Depending on the change, it could become more deadly, infect hosts previously immune to it, become immune to drugs that used to stop it—or all three.

The World, Galestē Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

The big tetrahedral kite floated in the wind over the Meadow of Alteřa. Each cell was itself a tetrahedron, with two adjacent sides covered with silk cloth, the other side, and the base, left open. Each cell was linked at its vertex to a cell in the row above, and at its three base points to adjacent cells in the same row, and to cells in the row below. It was plainly crafted by hand, and a labor of love.

Its makers, a pair of males in the clothing of a lesser house, had chosen a size of four feet for every side of every cell. They'd also chosen to have eight rows of cells (10 in octal), with one cell in the first row, two in the second, three in the third, and so forth: a total of 36 cells (44 in octal) per face, but a staggering one hundred thirty cells (202 octal), each of which had to be made by hand, covered on two sides with white silk, painted with their household emblem in black, and then all the cells fastened together. And it had to be done in that order, otherwise the interior cells couldn't have been covered and painted. And it was all done by hand; close inspection showed that no two cells were identical.

Even in kite-mad Alteřa, it was an achievement to be proud of. Thirty-two feet long on every side (four times the height of a person), it rose only slightly less than that from base to tip: up to the chin of the top-most person if four people stood on each other's shoulders, perhaps. It was fragile, it was weak for its size because it used natural materials instead of high-tech solutions, and it was magnificent.

Qisp and Zuk had made the kite, pulling the materials from a tele, but building and clothing and painting each cell themselves, and assembling the finished kite. They'd come to Zetai and Samo, asking if they could make this contribution to the household's debut, and Zetai had smiled and told them to ask for help if any were needed. They thanked her gravely, but it was clear they didn't think the occasion would arise. Samo, who'd dealt with signal kites in more than one military organization, watched them at work and decided they were masters of their craft. The kite wasn't perfect, as it could have been if they'd gotten the whole thing from the tele. It was better than perfect, it was theirs.

Even the launch was theirs. Box kites take a lot of wind to fly, and even more to launch; and the more joints they have, the more fragile they are. Culi had offered to lift it into the air for them. They'd thanked ym, then set about launching it themselves, the proper way. Zuk held the intricate work until Qisp judged they had a breeze strong enough, and steady enough, to let go. Then the slender, brown-haired imp-man played it, as carefully as any angler ever played a prize fish. Inch by inch, foot by foot, while Zuk cheered him on and a crowd gathered, he nursed it into the air, until finally it was clear of the dead zone near the ground, and the wind caught it, and it soared. Cries of "Ea!" rang out from all around, as the crowd applauded the Iǹgrē way.

The flying pyramid had lots of company in the air. Kite flying was a traditional way to celebrate New Year's Day, and the island continent of Alteřa was famous for its fair kite wind. For once the birds were crowded out of the sky.

True cubical box kites were flying, and rectangular box kites made of cubes joined by open sections. There were tetras with their cells joined in all kinds of ways, walls and rafts and squares; kites with six sides, or eight, in every color imaginable. A green and yellow sea-serpent kite, with bulging red and yellow eyes and flaring golden flippers, undulated across the sky, pulled by a team of all genders who ran laughing across the grassy meadow. Little children flew delta wings, and kites with concave tops and convex sides, in wild loops, rarely getting high enough to threaten the bigger kites' lines before hitting the ground with splintering enthusiasm; then they'd pull a replacement out of a tele and do it again! Flat rectangular kites, half again as tall as they were wide, bore aloft the arms of hundreds of Households to the horizon, and beyond, mixed with the occasional diamond shape some Winter Person remembered from Earth and flew from nostalgia.

The people were as varied as the kites, Zetai thought. Alteřa was the home of the Summer People, and all the genders and life cycles of the human race were represented in their true proportions. Anûk supplied a tise, a kind of "tag" for each person, showing public information such as name and life cycle. This allowed a person to be addressed or referred to properly, since the gender prefixes of T́uliǹgrai depend on sex and life cycle both. Thus one prefix denotes a Traditional person who chose to become a neuter; another a Gêθē who's "neuter" because not currently in estrus; a third, an Aatuan who has passed through ys male and female stages and is now in ys neuter state. There are similarly five kinds of female, four kinds of male, and Royal Aatuans who are both female and male at once.

A Traditional trio who stood watching Qisp's and Zuk's floating pyramid needed no 'tags' to identify their gender, because their dress and hair showed what they were. The bald neuter wore full-length robes with flaring sleeves; the female wore her hair long and dressed in a knee-length skirt. The male wore pants, with the legs tucked into boots, and a shirt with square cuffs and collar. All three traditional costumes were a medium peach color, with complementing off-white cuff, belts, and so forth. The neuter head of household had a band running down the middle half of ys chest in the same off-white color, with a fruit displayed upon it. The tise informed Zetai, through her link to Samo, that she was looking at the lord of Great House Yxegai and ys mates. Xegai means peach in T́uliǹgrai.

Their children had been helping with the kite, when Qisp allowed. Most were still unsexed children, but one had reached the age of choice, and had chosen to become female. Her tise said her name was Kristu, a very common name, which meant dream. Her shoulder-length purple hair, her dress, and her budding figure showed she was well on the way to adult status in the Traditional life cycle. She'd dropped her own kite and come running at her first sight of the boys' pyramid.

By reading the mental 'tags' through her link to Samo, Zetai could tell that a couple strolling by holding hands, dressed alike in pants, shirts, and boots, both with shoulder-length hair, were Gêθē, one presently female, the other male. The mob with the sea-serpent kite were Aatuans, the neuter head of household commanding a handful of females, a pack of males, and their boy children. Without the tise, only the proportion of sexes might have suggested their life cycle, because they were dressed Traditionally, like most of the crowd; like most Summer People and Winter People, for that matter.

Two Royal Aatuan hermaphrodites were sitting on the lip of the Fountain of Peace and talking quietly. They had no children of their own with them, but some strays were peering around the fountain at them, intrigued by the rare sight. The children ignored the rarer sight of the woman who was helping four girls fly delta-wing kites, because she didn't look unusual. She was a Single with her clone daughters.

"It's time," Samo said.

"All right," said Zetai. She glanced at Culi; y nodded back that y was ready. "Qisp? Zuk? Bring the kite if you can get it down right now, or let it go, your choice."

"Let it go and let's see how long it will fly!" Zuk said. Qisp looked tempted; then he held out the string to the Traditional girl who'd been helping the most. "It's yours, Kristu, if you want it."

The yellow-eyed girl took the string eagerly. The light purple of her hair shone in the light. "Are you sure? You don't get the luck if you stop flying it before sunset."

"We're going to the Blue House," Qisp said.

Kristu looked at the circle-of-dots badge on the clothing of Qisp and the others. "Ohhh. Thank you, Qisp. I'll fly it for you, and I won't let it come down until Vol does."

"Thanks," said Qisp, and smiled at her. Zetai and Samo waved at her parents, Zuk at some of the children, and they started across the lawn, dodging kite strings and tumbling children.


The Meadow of Alteřa isn't a formal mall with monuments, but the central open portion of a huge park. Near the west end, where they were now, was the Fountain of Peace; in the center the Alteřa Spire, a tele. Between the Spire and the edge of the Meadow in any direction, a couple of futbol games could have been held, without crowding; but now it was full. Families sitting, running, flying kites, playing with their pet tekē (ground sloths the size of a person's hand), chasing pet lymē (dogs, more or less), wrestling pet šâigē (giant ground sloth) cubs, or feeding birds, sprawled in all directions. North of the Meadow were woods, with paths and streams and resting places; to the southwest Lake Ĺoga, with boats and swimming areas; to the southeast the great museums, music centers, and amphitheaters. In the east end of the Meadow, drawing the eye with its size and majesty, stood the Blue House.

The greater and lesser houses of the Winter People meet in Teřańa, in the Dome of Winter on Heki, in the polar continent of Loraon. The households of the Summer People gather in the city of Alteřa Taolol on the island continent of Alteřa, in the Blue House. (Strictly speaking, Zetai and her people should have announced themselves in Teřańa, since they were all reborn Winter People. But the Speakers, the titular heads of the Summer and Winter People, weren't all that strict, nor jealous of their prerogatives between themselves.)

No building could possibly hold all the heads of all the thousands of Summer Households, but the Blue House could hold many of them. Even on New Year's Day, they weren't all expected to attend at once. Columns of the blue stone which gave the assembly its name, each perhaps ten feet in diameter and thirty feet tall, marched around the building itself. Above them floated the great hemisphere of its dome, actually of immense weight, but so perfectly proportioned that it looked like the columns were anchoring it against the breeze, rather than supporting it. A forest of tall flagpoles surrounded the Blue House; each had a dozen crossbars, each with a Household's banner pendant from it. The overall effect, Zetai thought, was like a cross between Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (minus the minarets added by the Turks), and the U. N. Building in New York; or maybe the Taj Mahal in blue, again, without the Moslem minarets.

Inside the atmosphere was cool and hushed, like a church or a library. Entering between two of the columns, they walked down a hall with marble floors, and mosaics on the walls. Beyond the hall was a large circular area, also floored with marble, completely surrounded by tier upon tier of seats rising from floor level to just under the bowl of the dome. The first row of seats had a waist-high rail in front of them, supported by a metal grill wrought in the likeness of intertwining vines. Halfway between each of the doors from the outside, the rail was interrupted by gates into the center. Rays of light from the windows in the dome converged by design on the center, where a dozen people addressed the assembly. Zetai and Samo and their people watched the crowd while they waited their turn.

The people inside the House were even more varied than those outside, she realized, spotting what looked like a miniature aurora borealis rippling and sparkling above a seat. The tise accompanying it confirmed that she had seen her first Outside alien; not even a flesh-and-blood alien, but an energy being. It wasn't a Household head, of course, but a guest, observing with whatever senses it had. Other aliens were seated or standing elsewhere in the crowd, each in the company of an Iǹgrē, but few as exotic as the one she'd first noticed.

When their turn came, Zetai and Samo walked into the light, Culi and Zuk and Qisp behind them. Zetai and Samo were relaxed but formal. Old acquaintances from Earth would have recognized the cool composure Zetai now displayed. They stopped just before the Speaker.

The Speaker of the Summer People was a neuter with midnight-blue eyes, almost black. Though every Iǹgrē was equally tall, eternally young and healthy, and as handsome or beautiful as y, she, or he wished to be, Ašarai Juho conveyed a sense of age and wisdom. Perhaps it was the way y moved; perhaps, through their link with Anûk, something of the person inhabiting the body came through. "Welcome," y said. Though words need never be spoken aloud between Iǹgrē, they love their language, and custom decrees that all business in the House be spoken out loud. "What brings you to our House today?"

"Hello, Lord Ašarai," Zetai said. "We're here to announce our household."

"What a splendid day for it," y beamed, just as though half the parties that had come before ym that day hadn't been on the same or similar errands. "And what is the name of your house?"

"We are Hodestai," Zetai said.

Y blinked. Hodai, Stone, would have been more usual than Hodestai, Rock collection. Every lesser household hopes to become a great house someday, entitled to attach a vowel to the house name and become, for example, Ehodai. Hodestai was unusually long, and Ahodestai, (for example), longer still.

However, there was no rule against it. "Any objections?" Juho asked those assembled; and through Anûk, those not assembled, as well. "Very well; welcome to the Blue House, Hodestai. Will you introduce yourselves?"

"I'm Hodestai Zetai," she said, and the background noise went up again. The head of a Traditional household would be neuter, in keeping with the stereotypical roles of neuter as planner and thinker, female as lover and care giver, and male as agressor and defender. A female head of household (as she announced herself when she gave her name as Hodestai instead of Hodestao, the partititve case) wasn't unknown, but was (again) unusual. The larger the household, the older it was, and the greater its status, the more likely that its head was neuter.

Part of the buzz was her choice of personal name. No one there, or viewing through the minds of those present, could remember hearing it before. Anûk confirmed it almost at once; with six billion Iǹgrē in the World, and about the same number again on other worlds, no one had ever been named Zetai before.

"Well," said Ašarai Juho, "an occasion indeed. Why that name—oh, I see."

Zetai had held her zete up for all to see. Every one of her household knew what it was, who had won it, how it had come to her; therefore, through the race mind, any Iǹgrē who cared to, also knew these things.

"And this," said Zetai, taking Samo by the hand, "is Hodestai Samai." Another buzz; as Culi had said, having two heads of household was very rare. The most discerning among them, Ašarai Juho for one, saw the closeness and the connection between them, and understood.

"Our household includes Hodestao Culai, Hodestao Qispai, and Hodestao Zukai, here with us, and Hodestao Halai, not present." She named aliens to her house—three with alien personas from the Inside, the other an actual alien from the First History, who was also Tlâńē royalty and a member of the Defenders of the Covenant! Everyone was talking now, as one revelation followed another, and everyone was leaning forward out of interest, as though it would give them a better view.

"Congratulations, Xuk Hodesty," Juho laughed. The heads of lesser households weren't often addressed as "Lord", but he gave her that respect. "I think you woke us right up! Dare we hope for more?"

"This much more," smiled Samo. "It's traditional for a new household to demonstrate something when it's admitted to the House. We're even younger than most, but in an hour Zetai and I will have a duel with kites. Please come and watch."

"Ah, kites," said Juho. Y smiled at Qisp and Zuk. "That was a terrific tetrahedron you made. Ea!"

The boys blushed and thanked ym. Then all five of them bowed and left the House. Behind them came cries of "Ea!" and "Ea, Hodesty!"—the applause of the Iǹgrē.

The World, 4 Galestô Dolao, Year 2000 (Second History)

"Kill him?" Ĵuha said blankly. "Why? Or on second thought, what good would it do—since Anûk would just bring him back anyway?"

[[Good questions,]] smiled Jedai, [[and I welcome them. It's so nice to deal with someone who isn't afraid of me, and uses his brains for something besides power and domination.]]

"Thanks," said the Trickster. He scratched his head. "I didn't even know that The Loop had been released to the Outside. What about the rest of the Defenders?"

[[Just him, so far, and a good thing, too.]] Jedai idly turned the pages of a fanfold book showing an ancient tapestry. [[If any of them ran into you—or Lańa, if she were still with us—they'd recognize you at once, since you're unchanged except for being in Iǹgrē bodies instead of Verē ones. That alone would make me very uneasy about keeping The Loop around, as the balance begins to tilt from Anûk to me.]]

Ĵuha began to pace. "Still, to kill him just for that…"

[[Not for that, but because he's become actively dangerous. Somehow he's gotten glimpses of Anûk's true nature, beneath the mask y puts on for everyone. He's been asking questions that no one else has much noticed, or attaches any importance to. But I have links in so many minds now, and I've heard all his questions, not just one here, another there. He definitely knows there's a malevolent mind out there, and he's trying to find clues to its motives and actions.]]

Ĵuha stopped and faced Jedai squarely. "And you're afraid he'll rock the boat before you've put life vests on all the passengers?"

[[Exactly!]] Jedai said, smiling broadly. [[If Anûk is exposed for what y truly is, y may decide it's no longer worth the trouble to fool people that y's benevolent. Y could even move to the next stage: destroying everyone's minds, and inhabiting all their bodies ymself. I'd try to stop ym, of course, but y doesn't know I would, and]] Jedai spread ys hands, [[I might not win.]]

Ĵuha ran a hand through his hair. "Couldn't we talk to him, ask him to back off and stop stirring the pot?"

[[How? Bearing in mind that he's tied directly to Anûk? Anything we said to him, Anûk would hear, too. And how much would he listen to anything you'd say to him, anyway?]]

"Not much," Ĵuha admitted. "I wasn't a menace or a killer, but we were hardly friends, either."

[[Besides,]] Jedai continued, leaning forward and pointing, [[he threatens me directly. In looking for Anûk, somehow he's gotten some clues that point to me. I don't think he realizes what he has, yet; but since Anûk has no body of ys own, any hints of direction must point to me, not to ym. If The Loop puts them together right, he'll come here, eventually, and then Anûk will know what I am, and where I am.]]

"Can't have that," the Trickster said. "The bunch of us against everyone else would be pretty short and pointless."

[[So,]] said Jedai, standing up again, [[kill him. At the least it'll be a little while before he's brought back; there's always a shock attached to unexpected death.]]

[[And if we're really lucky,]] y said, fixing Ĵuha with ys stare, [[I'll be able to seize him before Anûk does. Then I can keep him in my "Inside" until this is all over; learn what he's found out; and deny that information to Anûk.]]

"You can do that now?" asked Trickster, amazed. "You can build an Inside world, and keep someone in it? You can make them think it's the only real world, and not remember the Outside?"

[[My dear Ĵuha,]] said Jedai, [[I've always had the ability; and now that I have many hundreds of thousands of brains for processing power, it's quite easy. I don't even have to make up a world, not when Anûk has invented so many, and run them so many times. I can copy one of ys.]]

"But won't it tip Anûk off, when The Loop is killed and Anûk can't find his mind?"

[[It will certainly worry ym,]] Jedai conceded, shrugging. [[But having ym wonder why and how The Loop disappeared, who killed him and why, and how the killer and everything about him can remain unknown, is much better than The Loop finding out what's going on, and passing Anûk the answers the moment he gets them himself.]]

"True," Ĵuha mused. "Not knowing that there's another race mind, not knowing that I and the rest of our little band are Outside, not knowing what you intend…"

[[Anûk will never be able to imagine any of that,]] Jedai said, [[and that's the edge which will beat ym.]]

A Skyburst Earth, January 1965 A.D.

The world's first super-hero wasn't a Skyburst survivor, but an alien from outer space. Nor was she an amateur do-gooder; in her own society, she was a police woman.

Nevertheless, the papers were quick to label her a super-heroine for the way she leapt into the fight against the new epidemics. The beautiful woman, with skin the color of butterscotch, and yellow hair and eyes, didn't speak any Terrestrial language at first, but she flew victims from their homes to hospitals under her own power, a sick child in one arm and the other around the waist of a doctor pointing the way. The red uniform she wore, reminiscent of a shogun-era samurai warrior's formal robes, was turned to orange by the yellow glow around her when she did so.

Lifting a fallen wall off an Irish accident victim with a beam of yellow light from the staff she carried, using it to dig down to trapped miners in South Africa, or blasting the tanks of both sides into scrap when tensions between Argentina and Chile turned into war, the new hero seemed to be everywhere at once; full time, and then some.

The unhurt tankers weren't the only ones who wanted to know who she was. One day she began speaking English, through her staff; it had finally picked up enough of that language from radio and TV broadcasts to translate for her. Over time she'd acquire Spanish, French, German, and other languages the same way, until eventually her staff could translate every language on the airwaves.

M!ara* was her name, where the ! and the * stood for different clicks, as some African and American Indian languages used. But the press and the public immediately dubbed her Mara, the Star Woman.

The World, Galestē Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

Ĵuha leaned against the fountain and watched the kite-fighting demonstration while he waited for his target. The rugged blond man and his mate stood a couple of hundred feet apart, each controlling a parasail high above. Trickster had watched them lift the kites to the full length of the lines, with tøskê. Then they'd released their mental control of the craft, and the duel began.

The parasails were marvelously agile, looping and darting like extensions of their owners' bodies. Part of each line was coated with glass; the object of the duel was to cut your opponent's string. It was rather like watching an engagement with 200-foot fencing foils as each kite soared, dived, and wheeled to attack the other's line, while keeping its own safe. Despite his preoccupation, Ĵuha was fascinated. The children in the crowd were more than fascinated. A small mob had formed behind each duelist, and shrieked or groaned as their favorite seemed to be winning or losing. Ĵuha would've been annoyed by the distraction, himself, but the woman was smiling; the blond man, incredibly, was not only grinning, he seemed to be providing a running commentary!

Maybe that was why he lost? Each line had taken a few scrapes from the glass on the other. The woman's kite darted low, and before the man could parry, leapt past the left wing of his sail. The whole glass-coated length of her line ripped along his in a second or two, and the taut line parted with an audible twang. Then her kite began loops of triumph, while his, untethered, nosed down and began sailing across the green. All the kids ran after it, hands upraised long before it came into reach. Ĵuha smiled, and began scanning the crowd again. Back to work, he thought.


Zetai began walking towards Samo, coiling the line around her control bar as she began bringing her kite down. He grinned at her ruefully, and shook his head: You win, Princess. She shrugged back: It could just as easily gone the other way, Samy love. He nodded acknowledgement and continued winding up his own line. She reached up and gathered in her kite, then walked along with him with it fluttering from her left hand like an oversized hawk perched on a falconer's glove.

"Have you seen Hala yet?"

Samo shook his head. "Not yet." He kept winding. "I was glad when all the kids went after the kite. This gives me a chance to get the line wound up before someone gets cut on the glass-lined portion."

"I sent my lot after it by telling them they could each have a piece for a souvenir. I figured your fans would join the chase."

"Great!" he said. "I'm worrying about glass cuts, so you incite them to mass murder fighting over the pieces!"

Zetai laughed. "I'm sure there'll be plenty to go around. If there isn't, they can have mine, too."

"Fair enough, Princess. Hey there, Qisp. Where's Zuk gone?"

"Culi saw Hala coming, from the direction of the music park," said Qisp. pointing. "Y and Zuk went to meet him."

"Good," said Zetai. "Here's hoping he's discovered something while he's been away." She shaded her eyes with her hand. It was a habitual gesture, unneeded now that her eyes were proof against glare, but not yet unlearned. "That looks like them."


Ĵuha abruptly stood up. There was The Loop! Accompanied by another male and a neuter, he was approaching the couple who'd held the kite duel. Ĵuha began walking towards them, nervous; he'd never killed anyone before. It isn't permanent, he told himself, and put his right hand inside his shirt.

Chapter 16
"Death Is before Me Today"

Two Aatuan goddesses converse.

Death is before me today
Like a sick man made whole,
Like walking again after illness.

Death is before me today
Like the smell of myrrh,
Like sitting under the sail on a windy day.

Death is before me today
Like the smell of lotus flowers,
Like having a feast on the river bank.

Death is before me today
Like a well-trodden path,
Like coming home from war.

Death is before me today
Like the sky clearing,
Like deepest mystery understood.

Death is before me today
Like a man's longing to see his home,
After years spent in captivity.

—School of Sinuhe, Aatu, Sixth Dynasty

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 13th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
(Monday, October 20, 2014 A.D.)

"Oh, don't be dead already," Solar-9 said, and nudged Marisa with a metal foot. She just sprawled there. Solar grabbed a wrist with one claw. The claw was dripping with Hawley's blood, mixed with bits of flesh, so the old lady's thin wrist slipped right out.

Sighing out of his voice grill, the android reached down with both metal grippers and turned her over on her back. She flopped bonelessly, but he could hear her breathing harshly. Wishing he'd chosen finer manipulators, Solar wiped one "hand" more or less clean on her sweater. Then, with great care, he opened her eyelids.

"Oh, bad sign, Marisa," he said regretfully. "Your pupils are two different sizes, and they don't respond when I shine a light in them. These, as you probably know, are the classic signs of a concussion."

He let her head down and stood up. "Guess I hit you just a little too hard. And you not expecting it! How very, very unsportin' of me, don'tcha know?"

Light reflected from his faceted "eyes" as he shook his head. "Now, according to the conventions of heroic adventure, I'm supposed to spirit you away so you can recover for a fair fight, or Sam can rescue you, right?"

"Not this time." He raised one metal foot high, and stamped hard.


"God!" Sam all but screamed. He clutched his heart, while waves of ice water seemed to pour down his back.

"Sam! What is it?" Lonnie said sharply.

Sam couldn't answer. Trembling with adrenaline, he felt the pain fade away, along with the waves of cold, so much more than any "itching neck" he'd ever had. In their place was a growing sense of loss, like a hole in his soul.

"Sam! Are you having a heart attack? Speak to me!" Lonnie said urgently.

"Marisa!" Sam gasped.

"You want Marisa? I'll call her," said Lonnie. "Here, sit down first."

"No," Sam waved away the chair, straightening up. He didn't remember falling down, but there was dirt on his knees and the palms of his hands.

It didn't matter. Nothing did, any more.

"I think something's happened to Marisa," Sam choked out.

The World, Galestē Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

Samo looked past Zetai's shoulder and saw the stranger approaching. Nothing from Anûk conveyed any menace, but the body language shrieked a louder warning to him than anything he'd learned since being reborn. "Behind you!" he shouted.

Zetai turned quickly and saw the lanky blond man. Automatically she stepped to the left; they were too bunched up for fighting. As she did, the stranger drew a small hand gun out of his shirt. It was no make she'd seen in any of her lives. Hala shouted "Trickster!" and thrust his hand out, projecting a telekinetic field towards the gun and its projectiles.

It wasn't strong enough. Instead of a chemical explosion, the gun used a gravity field to propel its bullets. Metal darts ripped through Hala and everyone else, spraying blood and gore over the grass even as the bodies fell. Zetai, out of the spray of projectiles because of her movement to the left, clamped down fiercely on her shock. Forcing her body to relax, she faded into invisibility.

It wasn't real invisibility, where light was bent around her body, but something she'd learned two different ways in past lives. As Alexa, she'd learned the Japanese way of clearing the mind of mu, awareness of self. Even on Earth, a person who was in the landscape but not of it, who attached no importance or emotion to her movements or actions, was difficult to see. Apache warriors could lay an ambush for U.S. cavalrymen in plain sight; Japanese ninjas could walk through a crowd unseen; Finnish snow wizards could walk right up to Russian sentries and cut their throats.

Tessa had also known something like invisibility. When the mind's shields were shut, and no least wisp of psi leaked out, it became hard to see a person even when she was standing right in front of you. Everyone had some trace of psi, and relied upon it, even though they didn't know it consciously. The mind was curiously stubborn about acknowledging a person whom it couldn't touch.

Maybe the two techniques were the same; maybe they just overlapped. Zetai put both into practice, and began moving towards the gun man. She wasn't stalking him; stalking implied intention, and she had no intentions at the moment. But if she got within arm's reach of him, she would strike automatically.


Ĵuha looked around quickly. He didn't see Zetai; unknown to him, his eyes passed right over her without registering what they were seeing. The Loop was down, and the others with him. People were screaming, but no one was doing anything effective yet; they were mostly Summer People, with no experience of violence. He started forward to make sure his target was dead, then stopped suddenly.

Something was wrong. The hairs on the back of his neck were standing straight up. He looked around again. He still didn't see anything, but the sense of danger was stronger by the second. Abruptly, he decided to clear out. He turned and ran for the tele. He was almost there when a sledge hammer hit the small of his back. It didn't quite break his spine. He fell on his stomach with an agonized wheeze, and the pulser flew from his fist.

He rolled over instantly, and a foot stomped the turf where his head had been. He looked up into the dark blue eyes of the kite woman, and wondered where she'd come from. While he wondered, he threw himself into a back flip, as if getting up to face her. But he didn't stop when he reached his feet. He blocked the hammer fist coming at him, and let the impetus push him into the Spire.


Zetai cursed herself as the gun man got away, and threw herself after him. At the last second she threw her arms in front of her face as she hit the Spire, still unwilling to give up her shields and enter a tele herself. Picking herself up from the grass, she returned to the scene of the carnage.

The bodies lay where they'd fallen. Before she could reach them, something twice the height of a person and comfortably wider than the section of gore-streaked lawn popped into being, resting on the ground. It was the blue of a tele, but not tied to a wall or monument like every other one she'd seen up to now.

It swept from right to left, and the bodies were gone, along with every drop of blood and gobbet of flesh. Then it swept back and winked out, and four figures stood there.

Zetai, at the moment, had eyes for only one of them. She ran up to him, then stopped. "Samo?" she said.

"Right here, Princess," he said, smiled at her, and held out his hand.

She took it, and put her other hand against the side of his face. "You're all right? I hardly had time to be scared, but I saw that gunfire rip right through you."

As she spoke, she felt along the link she'd forged between them. He'd vanished from the other end of it. Now, after the tele had swept out the scene, he was back. But was he changed? She began searching his mind.

"It did rip through me," Samo said soberly. "I felt my heart torn away, and then I was dead again. But when my body died, Anûk caught me, hung on while I got my balance back, and put me right back here. Right?"

She stepped back a little. "You're you, all right." Her expression turned fierce. "If you ever scare me like that again—!"

"Yes, ma'am," Samo grinned, holding up both hands in surrender. "I'll do my very best not to get killed. Even if it is only temporary." He shook his head in wonder.

"Excuse me," said Culi.

Zetai turned her head. Culi, Qisp, and Zuk stood there, the neuter a little exasperated, the boys looking anxious and neglected.

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Zetai said. She put one arm around Qisp, one around Zuk, while Samo put a hand on Culi's shoulder and squeezed. "Are you all right? How are you feeling?"

"We're fine!" Culi said sharply across the boys' babble, as they hugged her back. "But we're missing someone."

"Y's right, Princess," Samo said. He looked worried. "Where's Hala?"

A Skyburst Earth,
Saturday, January 14, 1978 A.D.

The windows on all four floors of the Castle, in downtown San Diego, blazed with light. A long string of cars blocked Front Street as the uniformed security guards at the parking entrance verified invitations. Once parked in one of the two levels below ground, the guests largely left the Twentieth Century behind. Most had worn medieval costumes in their cars; others changed in the parking-level bathrooms. Costumed constables manned the help desks in the ground-floor lobby and ran the elevators, much to the disgust of the professional security guards standing outside at the two lobby entrances and the parking entrance.

The Society of the Golden Unicorn was begging to be robbed, Alanna thought, coming off the elevator on the third floor. Duke Taawi's library was here, filed in book cabinets, except for the rare books and manuscripts in their own locked room. In a 15th-century style of gown the same red as her hair, she strolled past costumed Society members sitting with books in comfortable chairs, and groups with books open on tables, arguing like the nerds they were over arms and armor, heraldry, or costuming. Her face and body derailed more than one argument as she slinked past smiling.

The Castle had been designed as a small but expensive shopping mall. Horton Plaza, a block away, had been upgraded from a shabby square full of winos and bums into a large mall of ordinary stores, but the Castle had been built from a vacant lot to house just a few, expensive shops like Tiffany's, F A O Schwarz, and L'Unique. However, most people downtown didn't have that kind of money; and those who did generally went to La Jolla or Coronado to shop.

Enter Duke Taawi, who in the real world had made a fortune turning Xylarian technology into terrestrial information and entertainment hardware. Even with the royalties paid to Star Woman's operating fund, the Duke was a billionaire a couple of times over. The doddering TV and radio networks, the ossified music industry, and the infant computer field had stood no chance against extraterrestrial science.

So the Duke, presently dancing the pavane with his lady wife on the first floor, had bought the Castle and made it his home. The fourth floor, off-limits except by invitation, was his town house and home office. The second floor held the music rooms, game rooms, scriptorium, sewing rooms, armory, leather-working shop, wood-working shop, bindery, et medieval cetera.

Alanna went through a set of doors to the third-floor lobby, smiling at the teenaged page boy who sprang to open and hold them for her. She leaned on the brass rail and looked at the dancers below. The central atrium of the Castle was open all the way to the roof, and all the floors opened into it. On the north side, on each floor, were the elevators and rest rooms. On the ground floor, the help desks sat on the east and west sides of the wood-and-marble railing around the atrium, presently serving as the dance floor. The musicians sat south of the atrium, playing recorders, krummhorns, serpents, rackets, and other wind instruments. The program for the evening also promised singing, and performances by other instrumental consorts.

Banners sporting Society heraldry hung from the second, third, and fourth-floor railings around the atrium, along the walls of every floor, and along the walls from the entrances to the atrium on the ground floor. The places of highest honor were the railings of the fourth floor, where eight banners hung, twice as tall and twice as wide as the ones crowding every other inch of display space. Some of these Alanna recognized from her preparation for the evening's work.

On the east side was the banner of the local Barony of Calafia, a golden trident and a golden sea serpent on a blue background. Opposite it was the banner of the Kingdom of Patria to which the Barony belonged, another blue banner, this one charged with five crowned suns, arranged in an X, for the Founding Baronies of Calafia, Terra, Isles, Failte, and Dreiburgen. Alanna frowned. Sea serpents, and five suns? That rang some faint bell. She shook her head and dismissed it for the moment.

The banner on the north side was the Duke's, three black battle axes on an ermine field. She didn't recognize the one opposite, three red hearts on an ermine field, but guessed it was the Duchess. Nor did she know the ones in the corner sections of the octagonal atrium: a gold gargoyle head on a blue field, a yellow lion's forearm on a red background, a green banner with a white windmill above a white lance (she rather liked that one!), and above her?

"Careful, my lady!" said the great rumbling voice behind her. This was no roleplaying nerd or blushing youth, but a full-grown man, in a dark blue houpelande with white lining, matching shoes, leather belt pouch, belt knife, sword on his hip, and a silver circlet around his fine, straight black hair. His face was clean shaven, his smile was warm, and the arms holding hers were very strong.

"I wouldn't want you to fall over the rail," he said, "least of all, because you were craning your neck to look up at my banner. They would insist on putting it in a place of honor. I told them somewhere along the wall on the ground floor, with everyone else's, would be fine, but…" He shrugged.

"Your banner?" she said, staring at the blue eyes level with hers. "Let me guess. Gules, a lion's head Or?"

"Ah… yes. You did see it, then," he said, nodding towards the red banner with the snarling golden lion's head that hung above them.

"No," said Alanna, "but I know you, Leonine, in costume or out."

"Interesting," he said, cocking his head. "Have we met, my lady?"

"Oh, yes," she answered. She was standing very close to him. A stray wisp of her fine red hair was tickling his nose, in fact.

"May I apologize for my odious memory and ask your name?"

"Ah, but at these events everyone uses a made-up name, do they not? Now I know you only as Leonine, but tonight you are—?"

"Baron Sir Adam Lionheart, at your service," he said, drawing back enough to give her a sweeping bow.

"And I, Sir, am the lady Idonea," she said, curtseying.


"Well, they said I had to pick a suitable name," she said demurely. Then they laughed together; idonea is Latin for "suitable."

"Oh, my," she said, fanning herself with her hand, "too much laughter after too much wine. Will you excuse me, sir?"

"I shall escort you there," he said, holding up his left hand, palm down. She placed hers over his, and they strolled around the atrium to the elevators.

"I will see Your Excellency later," she murmured, then pulled the million-year-old man to her. The kiss was long and dazzling.

"I'll count the minutes, my lady," he said, when he got his wind back. She laughed, and went into the ladies' room. After a moment, he was dragged away by two gamers who wanted him to show them some of the ways chess was played in the Middle Ages. Then his host asked him some questions about fighting with sword and shield, which led to a long talk and a promise to demonstrate at next weekend's fighting practice. Then the banquet started.

He didn't see her again that night, to his great disappointment. Not so great as his chagrin, however, when it was discovered that the Duchess' real jewelry had been stolen during the party, by someone who had climbed the Castle's walls by digging claws into the stone and concrete.

The penny dropped. He'd heard that voice before, from the world's greatest cat burglar. "Silhouette!" he cursed.

The World, Galestē Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

Trickster had gone to dream on top of a cliff above the shore line of Jedai's island, where the crash of waves was soothing, and the irritations of Jedai's gang couldn't find him. The Iǹgrē don't sleep, but their need to dream is undiminished. Dreamers, however, were too closely watched for Jedai to have rescued any, so for now everyone who'd been saved had to do ys, her, or his own dreaming.

With a start, Ĵuha returned from dreaming consciousness to here-and-now consciousness. He'd had a dream which felt real, something about a castle? A sea serpent, five suns like the ones in the World's sky? And oh, that laugh, and how he missed that kiss; the party had been robbed by—

"Lańa?" Ĵuha whispered.

The World, 4 Numestô Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

The Blue House of the Summer People is classically elegant, in many ways the zenith of Alteřan architecture: an amphitheater, covered with a dome. The Green House of the Winter People is very different.

It lies in the center of Teřańa, with a lot of clear space around it, so it can be seen and appreciated from some distance in any direction. Someone who takes the time to circle it, and to wander through its arms and outlying chambers, will always be rewarded by something new. The Green House is one spectacular perspective after another.

The park it adorns, as a jewel does its setting, is round and several miles across. In the center of that park is the Dome of Winter, which is actually two domes, a smaller one atop a larger. The smaller one, roughly the size of the Blue House, is the Vault of the Promise. Here the great households meet, and no one else, except on very special occasions. The lower dome, twice the diameter of the upper, is the Vault of Honor. Thus the Promise rests on Honor; and the lesser households, from whom the greater are elevated, meet in the lower dome.

If this were all, the Dome of Winter would still be a wonder of the World; but the Dome is only the central portion of the Green House. From eight points around the rim of the Dome, separated by the width of a lawn, colonnaded galleries extend straight out, and then begin to curve clockwise, so that the farther ends are a quarter of the way around by the time they reach the edge of the park. The Green House, in short, is laid out like a spiral galaxy, and the galleries are its arms. In the rooms in these arms, and in the one- and two-room cottages scattered between the arms, the ordinary business of the Winter People is done.

There are also teles, fountains, statues, gardens, and mazes between the arms, carefully planned not to clutter or obstruct the view, but to enrich it, to surprise and delight the wanderer.

Above the city of Teřańa, on the island of Heki in the Middle Sea of the continent of Loraon, the stars of galactic center crowded the sky in blazing splendor. The Iǹgrē use very little illumination at night, preferring to use their night vision and enjoy the sky; what they do use is always focused where it's needed, not wasted or polluting the night. So the circumpolar grouping of the Warrior, the Raptor, the Judge, and the Crown was plainly visible directly overhead. Closer to the horizon, the constellations of the Srigē, the Šâigē, the Hounds, the Steed, and the Serpent shone clearly. The bright spark moving from north to south, waxing and waning as it went, was the irregularly-shaped asteroid Rihos tumbling along its polar orbit, while the bright blue gleam near the western horizon was Myrâk, the star at the tip of the Pyramid.

Outside the Green House there was a concert going on. Between two teles radiating heat from somewhere in the tropics, melting the snow on the ground, and keeping the musicians' fingers nimble, a great audience was enjoying the music of the Beatles, the Silver Beetles, the Quarrymen, the Moondogs, and Wings, performed by people who had been members of those bands in different versions of the virtual Earth. One Jon Lennon cracked that they would perform "a medley of our hit," causing a Paul Marion McCartney and a Michael Paul McCartney to laugh so hard they had to clutch each other to keep from falling down. A Ringo responded with a rim shot on his drums.

But in the meeting room nearest the Dome of Winter in the Western Arm, by custom the Speaker's meeting room, an inquest was held four days after a stranger committed murder on the Meadow of Alteřa, half the World away. For though the crime was done in Alteřa Taolol, outside the Blue House itself, Zetai and her household were by default a Winter household, having graduated from Inside lives.

"Thank you for coming," said the Speaker of the Winter People. Alaĵai Kaθa was a Gêθē, presently neuter, who usually became female when y and ys most frequent mate went into heat. Like most people with ys life cycle, y had androgynous features, and a boyish figure with a little extra padding, like a eunuch or a young woman. Beautiful almond-shaped dark-brown eyes were complemented by short, curly auburn hair. Y wore shirt, pants, and boots like a Traditional male, in ys Household's colors of blue with white boots, cuffs, belt and collar. The white pale down the front of ys shirt bore the Alaĵai arms: two hands, fingers together and palms out, the left hand upright and the right hand upside down, in blue.

Alaĵai Kaθa walked them through the attack, one by one, hoping to learn something new or elicit some observation not noted at the time. It was tedious, and in the end useless, but it had to be done.

The Speaker was surprised when it came out that Zetai was not connected directly to Anûk, and hadn't been through a tele since rebirth. Every other Iǹgrē went through a tele several times a day, if only for transportation, and took for granted the services provided by Anûk when they did so, such as cleaning, healing, and rejuvenation. But Zetai had come to Loraon not by tele, but by one of the time/space ships that could go anywhere in the universe in next to no time. From one part of the World to another, the accuracy of position was so nearly perfect that the error was unmeasurable, and the ship acted like a room that blinked from one place to the other. Kaθa shrugged, visibly deciding it was none of ys business.

"Anûk," y said, "any thoughts?"

:: Indeed, :: the gestalt said. It was the first time that Samo and Zetai had heard ym speak. :: I wasn't aware of the stranger until Samo saw him go for his gun. Other people had seen him around the park, but they got the specious background information and saw nothing unusual. It wasn't until Samo saw him that I really looked at him, too, and saw that he wasn't one of mine. That is, he isn't part of me, and the tise that people saw didn't come from me. He's an outsider, like an alien, or an ancestral human. ::

"So how was he able to use your tele to get away?" demanded Culi.

:: He didn't; he transported away by other means. A field appeared on the stone, covering my own tele field, and he fell through that. It's a very good thing that Xuk Hodestai didn't follow him. ::

"Or I might have disappeared like him? Or like Hala?" asked Zetai.

"Yes, what about Hala? What happened to him?" said Culi.

:: When you were all shot, :: Anûk said, :: I held your minds safe, made new bodies for you, and returned you by tele. But I couldn't find Hala; I still can't. Nor is he in me, other than in the memories of those who knew him. I hope he is missing, but I fear he's dead. Permanently. ::

"Missing? Dead? Ehiu ehiu ehiu!" wailed Qisp. Zetai put an arm around his shoulders and hugged him close as he sobbed.

"But he was shot with the same weapon, at the same time, as we were. Why is he the only one missing or dead?" demanded Samo.

"I can see two possibilities," Zetai said, outwardly composed. "One, coincidence. This person attacked us all, and it just happened that Hala disappeared."

"I don't believe in coincidence," Samo said.

"Not like that," Zetai agreed. "Then, two, the reason for the attack was to make Hala disappear; he was the threat, the rest of us were just in the way."

"That makes sense," the Speaker said. "That ties the attack and the disappearance together as cause and effect. Anûk, has such a disappearance ever happened before?"

:: Never. ::

"So some person or group of people, who can look like Iǹgrē right down to the mental tags, attacked us in order to kidnap or kill Hala," said Samo. "Who might these people be? I'm new here," he explained, and shrugged.

"To imitate Lady Hodestai, three possibilities occur to me," said Alaĵai Kaθa.

"One, an alien race has infiltrated the World, and has the technology to disguise themselves as Iǹgrē, to broadcast false information of the same kind as Anûk supplies, and to transport themselves through fields that mimic teles. We might suppose that Hala knew something that would expose them, or was in a position to discover something, and they removed him to prevent this, but that speaks to motivation, not identity."

"The means they used was non-Iǹgrē technology, a hand gun that generated powerful gravitic fields to accelerate metal flechettes. In some Inside scenarios, these exist, and I gather Xuk Hodestai has experience with a variety called pulsers. But the one used and recovered is more powerful than any seen before."

"Again, through some unknown technology, they either blocked Anûk from recovering Hala when he died, or recovered him themselves; this may be the same or related technology that allowed them to mimic the information flow from Anûk."

:: There's no spot on the World I don't visit often, :: Anûk interjected. :: I relieve pressures below the ground before they can become earthquakes, I mix the atmosphere to prevent carbon dioxide and other heavy gases from building up at sea level, I drain the energy from warm-air cells before hurricanes can be born. I filter the creatures of the sea, the land, and the air, doctoring them and monitoring their genes. I watch everything moving through the Aboǹi system, check everything that enters the World's atmosphere, and keep Vol stable. Your aliens would have to come from a world unknown to Iǹgrē explorers, enter the system in a vehicle I can't detect, and stay hidden, or perfectly disguised as Iǹgrē, every second. ::

"All right," said the Speaker. "Bearing all that in mind, the second possibility is similar to the first, except that we substitute an unknown population of ancestral humans for an alien race. This reduces the technology needed to disguise them as Iǹgrē, but still requires technological means to accomplish the other tricks. It doesn't give us any better way of finding them."

"And the third possibility?" asked Samo.

"The third possibility is—something we haven't imagined yet. Neither of the above. We mustn't think it has to be the first or the second possibility, because it could be something else. So we keep our minds open to a third possibility, even if we don't know what it might be." The Speaker shrugged.

Zetai thought of a fourth possibility, but didn't speak. What if Anûk were lying? No one could imitate Anûk's communications and transport better than Anûk ymself. If anyone else were running some sort of criminal enterprise, Anûk would know it and expose them. But if Anûk were doing so, who could give ym away? Y could recover Hala and simply not let him out again, or not let him talk to anyone else. Even more chilling, what if Anûk just didn't recover Hala, but let him die? Could y do so, or was saving someone an involuntary function? There was no way even to ask the question, without revealing her suspicions. And if her suspicions were correct, that would be game over.

If Anûk were behind these events, what would ys motives be? How could y be stopped? And if y were, could the Iǹgrē exist without ym, given what y did for them? Zetai had seen heavy-gravity worlds, in some of her Inside lives. She knew (if Inside experience could be trusted) that even under two gravities, people died young from the strain on their systems, particularly their hearts. Planets with five gravities were rarely habitable. The heavy gases made their air unbreathable, and the supercharged storms scoured them to bare rock.

"How's this for a fourth possibility?" asked Culi. "What if one of the earlier race minds has found a way to reach the Outside world, and wants ymself and ys race to be independent again?"

"Could you elaborate on that?" the Speaker invited.

"Well, just for an example," Culi said, "Anûk won't let any First-History Verē be reborn until they've been successfully tested Inside, as Hala was. Suppose a bunch of them found a way to take over the mind of a person on the Outside, thus bringing the Verē gestalt, Verûk, Outside in that person's mind. Then Verûk could rebirth all the Verē—xenophobia, bigotry, religion, and all. They might plan to take over the universe and run it their way, or they might just want to go off and start their own empire. Nobody could better mimic Anûk's powers than another race mind, and they might go after Hala for any number of reasons. He might be the most likely person to find them out, they could regard him as a traitor because he was a Defender of the Covenant, or they might just hate him because he was Tlâńē." Culi spread ys hands.

Anûk said, :: Verûk doesn't have the ability to rebirth the dead, and I would detect any attempt to take over the mind of an Iǹgrē. ::

"Verûk was just an example," Culi said. "One of the other gestalts might have that ability. Anyway, who's to say one of them couldn't learn to do so? They haven't, that you know of, but they've seen you do it billions of times."

"As for detecting a takeover," Zetai said, "would it be so different from supplying false background information? You didn't detect that was happening until they tried it with Samo, and he rejected it because it didn't match the killer's body language. Can you be sure you'd detect the other?"

And, she thought, if you were in on it with this other race mind, it wouldn't matter if you did detect ym. You might even help ym do it, and cover up for ym afterwards.

But why would you do so? What would you gain from it? She kept these thoughts to herself, inside her shields.

:: I don't think it could happen without my knowing it, :: Anûk said, :: but I'll investigate it. I'll go through the links of my mind, talk with all the old race minds, and check the minds of everyone in the Outside world. But this will take some time. ::

"Call it four possibilities, then," said the Winter Speaker. "Aliens, ancestral humans, a renegade gestalt, and something else. Does anyone have anything else to add?"

"What about what Hala said just before we got shot?" Zuk asked diffidently.

"Yes!" said Qisp. "Joker, he said."

"Tlēsokarny," the Speaker mused. "From the traditional-male gender, and the vocative case, he was speaking directly to the man with the gun (or the apparent man). Deceiver, joker, trickster, someone who makes a fool of you. Did he recognize that it wasn't really a man, wasn't really what 'he' seemed, or—?" Y shook ys head. "It isn't a name, that's for sure."

:: I'll try to think what Hala might have meant, :: Anûk said. :: But that will also take time. ::

Qisp pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes. "I just wish we knew what happened to Hala!" he mourned.

A Skyburst Earth, 1950 to 1976 A.D.

Hal King was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and he was raised with total privilege. Other kids had baby-sitters; he had a full-time nanny when he was little, a full-time tutor when he entered school. Other high schoolers had cars, but his was a Porsche. Add to his family's wealth his tall, blond good looks and his easy charm, and you had the makings of a thoroughly spoiled young man. His one saving grace was that he wasn't vicious; he didn't use his wealth to step on people. He was always glad to treat his friends and pay the way for his crowd. If the crowd was mostly pretty girls and worthless young men, that reflected on his judgment, not his temperament.

His father and mother died in a plane accident soon after he entered college. Suddenly, with no preparation for the role, and no business experience, Hal was the head of his father's company. He tended to it as little as possible, preferring the deck of his yacht to the board room. Unknown to him, the men who managed his business were slowly buying control of it. When they had enough shares, they arranged a little accident for him.

Piracy still existed in parts of the Far East. An armed ship fired a warning shell across the bow of his yacht in the South China Sea, then tough men boarded it. After they made sure Hal was on it, they wrecked the radio, the life boats, and the life jackets. Then they returned to their own ship, and blew the yacht out of the water, with Hal and his guests still aboard.

Crying with rage, Hal King clung to a deck-chair cushion and watched them go, only the top half of his head above water. Once they were hull-down over the horizon, he began swimming. His luck was still as good as ever; he found a small island. It wouldn't have supported a family, much less a village, but it would support him. He drank from a tiny pool renewed by the rain clouds that swept the island every afternoon, ate coconuts he cracked with rocks, and tried without success to catch birds or lizards for meat.

Eventually he rigged a bow and arrows, using palm wood for the bow and fibers from his socks for the string. It was a lousy rig. The bow was weak, and the string stretched. But it had enough force to kill a bird, and his aim was good. To his vast surprise, he discovered that he was a natural archer. With practice, he got even better. He made better bows, after the first one cracked, and discovered that linen fibers from his shirt tail made a better string.

After a couple of years, a passing yacht rescued the emaciated castaway. He returned to the States and found his business had been plundered and sold by his former managers. They were now rich, but he was penniless.

In a world full of super-heroes and masked adventurers, Hal had no apparent super-powers, but he had a yacht full of people to avenge, an outraged determination to punish their murderers and regain his fortune, and great skill with a bow. The wealthy hero of a neighboring city staked him to equipment and an underground headquarters. As The Archer, Hal found the evidence that put his managers in jail for their crimes and restored his money. Then he went on to a long career, and a full life of fame and adventure.


Jedai stopped projecting. Slowly, the image of the masked archer in the green costume faded from the minds of the people around the table. They started, as if awakening from a dream.

[[That should keep him out of trouble,]] Jedai said.

Chapter 17
The Art of Constructive Moping

I had too much to dream last night,
Too much to dream.
I'm not ready to face the light!
I had too much to dream
Last night.

The Electric Prunes, "Too Much To Dream", 1966 A.D. (Standard American Earths)

And I find it kind of funny,
I find it kind of sad:
The dreams in which I'm dying
Are the best I've ever had.

Tears for Fears, "Mad World", 1982 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

These dreams go on when I close my eyes.
Every second of the night I live another life.

Heart, "These Dreams", 1986 A.D. (Standard American Earths)

The World, Xidestē Dolao, Year 2001 (Second History)

"Princess?" Samo said. "Can I come in?"

"Don't be damn silly, Samo love," said Zetai. She switched off the cutting wheel she'd been using to facet an emerald, turned her stool around, and held out her hand.

As he approached, she marveled that she could say such things in T́uliǹgrai, without ever having learned the language. Tê, negative particle. Da, intensive particle. Zisokox, to be foolish, active voice, imperative mood, inclusive tense. Samy, personal name, vocative case. T'ēvîd́y, Love, noun, male Eretē gender, vocative case. Tê da zisokox, Samy t'ēvîd́y. Don't be damn silly, Samo love. All without her stopping to think about it.

Zetai had learned many languages in her lives, and considerations like these happened automatically once a language became second nature. But she'd never learned T́uliǹgrai. The right words came to her tongue through Samo's link with Anûk.

Marisa and Sam had used Arabic and Mandarin for covert conversation during capers. She realized that wouldn't work any more. Anyone who cared to listen would know Arabic, Mandarin, or any other language just as automatically, through their own links with Anûk. If Samo and Zetai knew a language, so would any Iǹgrē eavesdropper.

She filed the thought away for future consideration, then put her hand to Samo's cheek and smiled at him. "Want to hear what I've decided?" she asked.

"Sure, what?" he said with interest.

"I've decided that it's never too late to have a happy childhood. Most of my Inside lives had no more chances to be children than [Marisa] did. But a few did, which gives me an example to go by, and I'm going to make the most of it."

"Sounds great. After we track down this thing and get Hala back, let's go away for a while, see the World."

"Or the galaxy. Why think small?" She hopped off the stool, and held out her hand. "Let's go for a walk."

"The natives are restless," Samo said, as they walked along the path to the shore. The lose trees were a few yards back from the path here, and pin-cherry bushes with sweet red fruit grew knee- and hip-high in the space the trees had left. Small brown finches made an incessant racket as they hopped on the ground, picking at fallen fruits. Blue jays sat on the branches and went after the ones that hadn't fallen yet.

"Restless?" Zetai said, soaking up the sun and the breeze and the scent of the trees. A flock of black fork-tailed swifts darted past overhead.

"They think we should be doing something about Hala," Samo said.

"I wish I knew what," she answered. "Did Culi—"

What looked like a vine hanging from a branch suddenly let go at one end. The flying snake spread its ribs and became flat and wide. It flew into the bushes beside them with its jaws agape.

The bushes and the ground seemed to explode as birds burst into flight in all directions. For a second or two, speech was impossible. Then Zetai and Samo were alone with no birds or snake in sight.

"Did Culi figure out what Hala was going to tell me?" Zetai continued.

Samo didn't answer. They had turned a corner around a crop of trees, and here there were no bushes. On the right the trees drew in close; on the left were stones of a convenient height for sitting. Culi sat on one, Qisp and Zuk on another. As Zetai and Samo came up, they all stood. Zuk put down the tekē that he and Qisp had been playing with. The little four-legged creature, barely larger than a hand and with no visible head or eyes under its fur, walked to the back of the rock and began climbing down the far side.

"Good morning," Zetai said. "Samo tells me there's a problem. Who wants to tell me about it?"

Culi, Qisp, and Zuk looked at each other, not sure how to respond. Then Qisp burst out with, "We want Hala back!"

"My dear," she said, "so do I. Any idea how to get him back?"

Qisp tried to answer, but since he had no concrete idea, he made little sense. She listened until he ran down, then held up her hand. "Listen," she told them, "I know it's hard to wait. Maybe harder than anything else you could be doing. But right now it's what we have to do."

"Wait for what?" Zuk asked.

"Events," Samo said, at a glance from Zetai. "Things to happen. Tell me, Zuk, why did that gunman get away? Why didn't Zetai stop him?"

"She tried!" Zuk protested.

"I know she tried. Do you know why he got away?" Samo shot back.

"Uh…" Zuk's expression said, How did I get in this spot? He shot a look at Zetai. "He… he was a better fighter?"

"Very possibly," said Zetai.

"No," said Samo. "If he'd been better, he'd have attacked her, to put her out of action so he could get away clean. Instead, all he tried to do was get away; and he did."

"So?" said Qisp, frowning. Zuk also looked baffled. "He did get away."

"He got away," Samo said, "because the defense has the advantage. If you're fighting someone better than you are, you will lose, unless he makes a mistake. So a weaker army finds a defensible position, a weaker gamer plays not to lose pieces, and a weaker fighter tries to break off and run away."

"He didn't have to beat me," Zetai agreed. "All he had to do was not get beaten until he could get through his tele, or whatever it was."

"What's your point?" Culi asked quietly.

"My point? A lie always get found out, a plot always gets uncovered, a crime always gets exposed," Zetai said. "Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow; but eventually."

"Someone, somewhere, is planning something. Hala had it figured out, or they thought he did, so they took him off the board. But it cost them. Now we know that there are solid, physical people up to something, and we know something about their capabilities."

"To accomplish their ends, they must do things. Those things are seen, and heard. Sooner or later we'll learn about them, we'll figure out what they mean, and we'll track down the people behind them."

"The art of constructive moping, you might call it," Samo said. "You stay in shape, you keep a good frame of mind, you put out any feelers you can, and you wait for your enemy to make a mistake. When he does, you hit him as hard as you can."

"Speaking of feelers," said Zetai, "Culi, what have you learned about what Hala was doing?"

"I've reconstructed what he asked people," Culi said, "from their memories and Anûk's memories. But I don't know what he was thinking, because he didn't discuss it with anyone, and your filter routine kept it from leaking to Anûk or anyone else. He was on to something, or thought he was, but I can't figure out what."

"He had a hunch, like, but you're not getting one yourself?" Samo suggested.

"That's it," Culi confirmed.

"We'll all go over the questions he was asking, and see whether we have any inspirations," Zetai said. "But for now, that's enough sitting around. Let's have a run down to the shore, put in some swimming, then spend the afternoon on the range."

"The range?" Qisp asked. "More archery?"

"Not this time," Zetai said. "Oh, you need to keep up your archery, too, but it's about time you started getting used to things that have a pistol grip and a kick."

"But what about Hala?" Zuk said again.

Samo put an arm around Zuk's shoulder. "Trust us, Zuk. It's just the way things work. These people, whoever or whatever they are, crossed our paths when they took out Hala. They're bound to cross our paths again. Only this time," he said, squeezing the slighter man's shoulders, "this time we'll be waiting for them."

"Count on it," said Zetai, and swept them with her gaze. Her eyes seemed to blaze with the black flare of her determination. "Now, run!" she said.

A Skyburst Earth, 1963 to 1976 A.D.

Most of the 40,000 human beings who were transformed, were changed in ways that were as useless as they were harmless. What good did it do to be purple all over, or to have a tail? Moreover, most transformed humans found themselves sterile because of the changes to their DNA. Thus there would be no new race of dog-faced people, or people who could see by ultraviolet light.

Perhaps one transformed person out of every ten was super-strong, super-tough, super-fast, or in some other way resembled the heroes and villains of the comic books that had been published in the Forties. Fortunately, most of them turned to sports or show business to cash in. World records fell like dominoes while the ruling bodies argued whether powers were allowed, and some truly amazing acts appeared on the Ed Sullivan show.

But a minority of the transformed people with "useful" abilities seemed bent on proving that power corrupts. An even smaller number, either from altruism, a sense of responsibility, or from suffering at the hands of such criminals, came to oppose them.

DC Comics, the only remaining publisher of "super-hero" comic books, had been planning on reviving its old heroes, bringing back "modern" versions of the Flash, the Green Lantern, and so forth. Instead, a new Star Woman comic joined Superman, Batman, Detective Comics and the rest on the revolving wire stands ("spinner racks") with the "Hey, Kids! Comics!" signs. Basing a comic book on a real person wasn't new—DC already published a Bob Hope comic, a Jerry Lewis comic, and a Dean Martin comic—but telling the actual adventures of an actual "Police woman from another planet!" was a huge leap.

Before long DC was also publishing comics about Leonine, a million-year-old immortal; Invictus, the living incarnation of the Sun; Nike, the Goddess of Victory; Proteus, an extra-terrestrial shape changer; and Silkie, who lived in the ocean, had "power over water", and could also change shape.

DC also played with the idea of a Silhouette comic, but felt that a comic about a thief sent a bad message. Besides, she was too much like Catwoman in the Batman stories, even if Catwoman was fictional and Silhouette was real. Finally, how could they reach Silhouette to get her signature on a contract?

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 12th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
Monday, October 21, 2014 A.D.

Past midnight, Sam thought, and turned his omnicom off. "Here, Lonnie, hold onto this for me. It'd just get in my way."

Lonnie took the multitronic device dubiously. "Aren't you making a lot out of nothing, Sam? Marisa's omnicom got turned off, or dropped too hard, and you had a mild cardiac event. Isn't it likely that's all that happened?"

"Possible, sure. Likely?" Sam shook his head.

"But if Marisa talked sense into Solar, what's there to worry about?"

"Just like that, he sees sense?" Sam had taken off his coat and shirt while they talked, and stood bare from the waist up. The cold didn't seem to bother him, or the wind off the East River. The white hair on his chest and arms reflected the searchlights.

"I reckon that'd be too good to be true," Sam said; as he spoke, he buckled a kind of quiver to his torso, that held a brace of throwing knives handy.

"At least take a gun!" Lonnie said.

Sam put on a black pullover sweater, and made sure he could reach the knives. "I'm no good with a handgun, Lonnie; I thought you knew that. With these, I'll hit anything I aim at. Solar's artificial, but he's put together just like a man. A knife in the gut will be no fun at all—if that's what it takes."

"When you find Marisa OK," Lonnie said fiercely, "call me right away!"

"Sure," said Sam, turning to look at the U.N. Building. "See you in a little bit."


So much for that idea, Sam thought bleakly, watching Solar pacing around the equipment floor. His talk with Marisa had been brief; she hadn't given him a blow-by-blow, and she hadn't described Solar's current body. Looking at the steel-girder arms and legs, the flatiron feet and blunt-pincer hands, the faceted eyes and the grillwork mouth, Sam knew his knives would be useless.

Marisa and Hawley weren't in sight, but the android's torso and arms were splashed heavily with the rust-brown of dried blood. One foot was covered in it, as if he were wearing a single brown boot. Lesser amounts dotted his metal body here and there.

At least, I can probably outrun him, Sam thought, and stood. "Hey, Solar," he said, "how's it going?"

The polished body stopped its pacing, and the head, shaped like a bucket but rounded on top, turned towards him. Light from the emergency fixtures gleamed from the highlights of the head, and threw the weight-reducing cutouts in the arms and legs into sharp relief.

"Well, Sam," he said. Though the body was robotic, its voice equipment produced the same human, cultured voice that Sam knew as Solar's. "It's going well. And with you?"

"Hard to tell. I had a dinner date with Marisa, but then you dragged her down here. That's close enough," he added.

"Is it?" the android said, and took another step. "What are you going to do, Sam, shoot me? We both know you can't hit anything with a hand gun, and knives don't mean squat to this body."

"Where's Hawley, Solar?" Sam asked, to change the subject.

"Oh, he's around here somewhere." Solar chuckled warmly. "In fact, he's around here everywhere. A little here, a little there…"

"And the Princess?" Sam asked, dropping any pretense of caring about Luther Hawley.

"Can't you guess?" Solar said. "Here, let me give you a hand." Something flopped at Sam's feet. "In fact, let me give you two." Another flop. Sam's stomach heaved as he recognized the ring on the middle finger of one of the ripped-off human hands.

"Why, Solar?" Got to find a weapon big enough to kill him, said a cold voice in the back of his head. "Why didn't you just go away and start over, like she said?" he asked, as he began edging towards the door.

"But, my dear Sam," said Solar, "it wasn't a case of either-or. I can have my fun, killing Hawley, and Marisa—and you—and then go away for a while. And when I come back, I'll have a new identity, in a new body, and no one will guess I'm an android."

"You have to seize every chance that comes your way," he continued, "if you want to get ahead in life." He swung his arm. Something round hit the floor in front of Sam and skidded a little. Even with the nose smashed flat by the impact, there was no mistaking her face.

Sam's world went hot and red, rageful and reasonless.

A Skyburst Earth,
1965 to Friday, August 8, 1980 A.D.

First Mara met Leonine, took a sample of his DNA, and told him that it showed changes typical of a Skyburst, though not the one of a few years before. That meant Earth had suffered a Skyburst before, and he was a survivor of it. He didn't understand the science, but took her word for it, glad to have a partial explanation of his immortality. Leonine introduced Star Woman to Invictus, with whom he sometimes worked. Mara met Nike on her own; it was Mara who introduced Nike to Invictus.

These four cooperated when a problem was too big for Star Woman to handle by herself, and were named Star Guard by the press. It seemed a good-enough name, even if only one of them had ever been outside the Solar System. In one of their earliest missions, they found and recruited Silkie. Their meetings were held on Mara's star ship, in orbit, indetectable by Earth technology.

Then she discovered that the #Aborans had placed an agent on Earth almost as early as her own arrival; but he'd been operating secretly. The #Aborans were the same species as Mara's people, the Xylarians, but lived on different planets and were a separate nation, for reasons that Proteus and Star Woman both refused to discuss, then or ever, with anyone from Earth.

Nevertheless Proteus proved himself to Star Guard over and over, while he and Silkie became inseparable almost from the moment they met. Surrendering to the inevitable, Mara ordered her ship to make a separate orbital headquarters for Star Guard, and invited Proteus to become a permanent member. Nor was he the last…


Hal slumped in a chair and wished he could put his booted feet up on the Star Guard meeting table. Or lie on the floor. Or something. He hadn't known it was possible to be this tired. His bow and quiver lay on the floor beside the chair. Normally he took better care of them than that, but right now they'd have to fend for themselves.

Leonine, of course, wasn't tired. He'd flung his lion skin over the back of his chair as soon as they'd gotten back, and was talking on the picture phone to Astarte, his sweetie, the two of them sounding remarkably like dating teenagers, considering their actual ages. Was he telling her about the mission? Reciting poems to her lovely brown eyes? Hal couldn't tell; they were speaking in ancient Sumerian or Hittite or some other dead language they both knew.

Come to think of it, had he ever seen Leonine tired? Hurt, yes. Depressed, hell yes. Tired? Just listening to him talk was wearing Hal out.

Why couldn't Leonine be more like Nike and Invictus? They just sat there, smiling, holding hands. He didn't think either of them had said ten words. Of course, their eyes said volumes. He grinned. The unstoppable man and the unbeatable woman. Idly, he wondered what it was like to make love to a woman with wings.

Proteus, he imagined, could tell him, since he and Silkie could assume any shape. But, as usual, the two of them had disappeared together right after they'd all finished going over the mission.

Even though he was the odd man out, Hal decided, the real problem wasn't his horniness, but his exhaustion. He'd learned, working with Star Guard, that his natural ability was not limited to the bow. Nike and Leonine had introduced him to the sling, the quarterstaff, the staff sling, the stone bow, the Egyptian throwing stick, the Australian boomerang, swords of all types and sizes, the Aztec atlatl or spear thrower, and all kinds of spears—light throwing spears, heavy throwing spears, heavy thrusting spears that you didn't throw, lances, halberds, pikes—more kinds than he'd guessed existed, and Leonine had a name for each kind, usually in Latin and in Greek. Hal picked up the use of all of them almost as fast as he laid hands on them. Star Woman had suggested that he had an actual power, more subtle than most; a keenness of eye, a sharpness of aim, a gift of dexterity and coordination, that amounted to an instinctive mastery of weapons.

Nice to think so, but it didn't help him keep up with the Guard. He was a healthy, fit man who worked out and kept himself in top shape—and he was slower and weaker than any of them, just the same. No wonder he was tired!

A butterscotch-colored hand landed lightly on his right shoulder. "You did good work today," Star Woman said. "No, don't get up, I know you're weary."

"Thanks," he said, and relaxed again. Listening to her speak was an odd experience. From her own lips came the click-clocking patter of her own language, like musical drums at a feminine pitch. At the same time her staff spoke in English, just a little louder and half an octave lower, in order to be distinct.

"You've helped us out several times now," Mara said, "and you've never let us down. I wonder if you would accept membership in our group?"

Suddenly Hal didn't feel tired. "Membership in Star Guard? You bet I would! I was hoping you would ask me someday. But…"

"But what?"

"I'm not sure I can keep up," The Archer confessed. "Every one of you is stronger and tougher than an ordinary human: Leonine because of his transformation, Silkie because of her adaptation to undersea pressures; Nike and Invictus are gods, and you and Proteus have the natural strength of your species."

"And you worry about looking bad?"

"No, I worry about slowing you down, or making you fail," Hal said. "I want to be an asset to the team, not someone you have to drag around. I'm in good shape, and I work hard to get better, but you're all way ahead of me in strength and endurance."

"Well," Mara said, and licked her lips. Hal stared. Was she nervous? "If you'd let me, perhaps I could do something about that."

"Do something? What?"

"I've taken many, many DNA samples all over the Earth," Star Woman said, "and my computers have analyzed every one, and shown just what changes killed this one, deformed that one, or made another into a Leonine or a Silkie."

"That's interesting, I guess, but I don't really know enough science to follow the details," Hal said. "I remember you took a sample from me, the first time I came up here. Standard procedure, so the machines would recognize me, you said."

"Yes, that's true, but in your case I did something more."

"Something more?"

"You won't be mad?" she asked anxiously.

He laughed, then looked around guiltily. The members of the Guard—no, the other members of the Guard!—smiled at him, then went back to their own conversations. Just the same, he lowered his voice a little. "Why would you care if I got mad?" he said.

"I would care," she said. "What I did—I had the computers do a compatibility match between your DNA and every other sample I had, ranking the results by percent of compatibility, and the desirability of the super-human traits shown in the samples, if any, with strength and endurance alone being the highest ranking."

"I'm still not following you," Hal said. "What could you find out that way?"

"Do you know Monsterman Marco?" Mara asked.

"Uh… vaguely. A wrestler, right? Likes to growl and beat his chest and threaten to eat his opponents? I investigated a murder at a wrestling rink once," he explained.

"Yes, that's him. He has roughly 2.5 times the strength of an average untransformed adult human male, and about 5 times the endurance, with corresponding changes to bone density, muscle attachment, and so forth."

"Wow," said Hal. "That must really give him an edge in wrestling."

"It did, until he was exposed. Now he can only wrestle in the Super Wrestling League, where he's not all that special. But Hal—your DNA is 99.993% compatible with his."

"Okay, so what does that mean?"

"It means that there's a chance—a very good chance, I think—that your DNA could be changed, without harming you, to be almost 100% like his. And then you'd have his strength and his endurance, with no side effects!"

He stared into her yellow eyes. They should be blue, he thought.

What? Where did that come from?

"You'd do that for me?" he said.

"Of course." She put a hand on his knee. It felt warmer than a human hand. "You saved my life today."

He grinned. "Their mistake." The space bandits who'd been raiding the asteroids, killing any human outposts they encountered, had captured Star Guard and put each member where he or she was powerless. But Hal wasn't a member, and had no powers, so they just dumped him in the same desert where Mara, separated from her staff, had no food or water. Hal found the staff, and set it free for Mara to summon to herself. All the rest had followed from that.

"So, may I thank you?" she asked.

He shook his head. "No. Oh, go ahead and take your samples, run your tests, let me know my chances. But if you want to thank me…" Now it was his turn to hesitate.

"Yes?" They were sitting knee to knee.

"Could I kiss you?"

She smiled, laid her staff aside, and stood up. When he did, too, she came into his arms.

The kiss was wonderful. She was warmer than human, and she tasted strange, and smelled strange. But good strange. In fact, kissing her felt familiar.

Familiar? They broke the kiss to look at each other with wondering eyes. Then Leonine and Astarte and Nike and Invictus clapped and cheered and whistled. "About time!" Nike declared.

The World, 7 Numestô Jazao, Year 2001 (Second History)

Zetai awoke. The room was quiet, except for Samo's soft breathing. Faintly, in the distance, the breakers pounded at the rocky shoreline.

She sat up, and listened with her mind. There was nothing there. The link between her and Samo was quiet, and from his mind, and the rest of the household, came only dream thoughts. As she'd continued to sleep at night, they'd synchronized their schedules to hers, and dreamed each night while she slept.

Zetai wrapped a blanket around herself, and stepped outside. It was tropical-night cold, with only a few scattered clouds and the hurtling dots of the World's dozen tiny moons. The glorious stars blazed above her: Myrâk and Ĺona, Horâk and Serâk, Jurâk, Duna, and variable Šusâk. A throbbing buzzing sound was the mating song of nocturnal insects celebrating their every other year above ground.

So familiar, she thought, standing barefoot in the grass. She'd had a dream of Hala, with a different appearance and a different background, but Hala, just the same. He'd been kissing someone, and he'd thought that. So familiar.

Only it wasn't a dream. The little watchdog routine, that monitored her shields and her links while she slept, confirmed it had been a telepathic contact. Wherever he was, and without knowing he was doing it, Hala had touched her as she slept.

She stared east towards the Empty Ocean. There was nothing now, but briefly Hala's mind had flared like a torch on one of the islands out there.

After a while, she went back in. Samo raised up on one elbow as she closed the door. "Everything all right?" he asked quietly.

"Better than all right, Samo love," she said, as she climbed back under the covers to finish sleeping. "The waiting's over. I know what to do now."

Chapter 18
"It's All a Trap!"

Trop de regretz pour vous seule je porte,
Mon cueur ne peult les faitz plus supporter,
Dont me convient de vous me deporter,
Ou que d'amours vous me ouvriez la porte.

Too much longing I bear for you alone,
My heart can no more bear the burden,
So either I must depart from you,
Or you must open to me the gate of love.

—Nicolle des Celliers d'Hesdin, 1530 A.D. (Common Post-Roman Earths)

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 12th day before the Kalends of November, 2767 A.U.C.
Monday, October 21, 2014 A.D.

Sam wiped the blood from his eyes and tried to catch a breath. The blood seemed to be coming from a cut in his forehead. It wasn't serious, but scalp wounds always bled like hell. The cracked ribs would have been a greater concern, if he'd had any concerns left.

He wiped the blood from his eyes figuratively, as well. He didn't remember the blow to the skull, or anything else for a while after having Marisa's head thrown at him. He'd completely lost control, and felt shame and self-contempt.

All right, he told himself, enough wallowing. Let it go. He took some slow breaths and put the grief, the rage, and the self-hate away. Start from now, he thought, just like the Princess always said.

"Mackie! Come and get it, you coward!" Solar bellowed.

You had your chance, Sam thought, and looked around, not over, the broken lamp-post base he was lying behind. Should have killed me while you could, the free shots are over.

The searchlights were out now, most of them shattered. The police cars, netcoms, and barricades were tumbled helter-skelter. The tourists had fled screaming, and only a few cops sheltered behind anything left standing. Too many of their fellows lay motionless in pools of blood.

Sam had left the U. N. Building in search of room to fight, where he could use space and speed against Solar's robotic strength. The monster had been right behind him. When he couldn't catch Sam in the open with his bare hands, he'd broken off a flag pole to use as a fly swatter. Misses had put craters in the ceramcrete road, and caved in the tops of police cruisers. When Solar got tired of bullets bouncing off his "face," more broken flag poles had served as javelins. Cops who wanted to keep their heads were no longer sticking them up over things.

Solar paced back and forth along the front of the building, all pretense of reason gone. "Mackie! Show yourself!" he shouted, and swung his current flag pole. A bench disintegrated in a spray of metal parts and wooden splinters.

"Psst! Sam! Over here!" Lonnie was waving to him from behind a burned-out cruiser. Mina was with him, and a second male cop Sam didn't know. Sam eyed the terrain between them, and began low-crawling. Eventually he got there without Solar seeing him.

"Christ, Sam!" Lonnie said when he got a good look at him. "Are you all right?"

Sam just looked at him. "Marisa's dead," he said. "That thing killed her and tore her apart. Hawley's dead, too," he added as an afterthought.

"Sam, I'm so sorry," Mina said.

He made a chopping motion with one hand. "Never mind! That wasn't why I came over here. Have you got any scanning sensors left?"

Mina held up her omnicom wordlessly; it was a scout model. Her eyes were full of sympathy, but she said nothing more.

"All right, good. There's only one thing I need to know. Can you tell me where he has his brain in that body?"

"Give me a minute," she said quietly, and started a technical conversation with the other cop. Sam would have joined in, but Lonnie started talking.

"What's your plan, Sam?"

"Plan?" Sam laughed without joy. "I'm going to hit him where he lives—and then he won't."


"Mackie! Come and get it! Just you and me!" Solar bellowed.

"All right, all right, leave it out. You're giving me an earache, Master Cylinder."

Solar-9 spun around, inhumanly fast. As he did, he raised the flag pole in both hands to smash Sam into hamburger.

Sam couldn't hit anything with a hand gun except by accident; but Solar's present body shed bullets like rain water in any case. He rarely missed when throwing things. The missile, a six-foot length of solid steel from a demolished bench, flew true. It hit Solar at just the right moment in his turn to shatter his satellite modem first, and then his brain, so that he died unable to upload himself to safety.

The flag pole finished its arc in the lifeless metal hands, and splashed Sam Mackie like a bug. He died instantly, as he'd planned, and didn't have to live without Marisa Pascale.

The World, 6 Numestô Jazao, Year 2001 (Second History)

"He's alive!" Qisp shouted. He grabbed both of Zuk's hands, and the two of them began to spin in circles around Zetai, Samo, and Culi, both shouting now. "He's alive! Hala's alive!" Then they split apart and Zuk flung himself on Culi, Qisp on Samo. "He's alive!"

Zetai started to say something sharp, then stopped. Both boys were crying, in relief at knowing Hala survived, and in grief only now released, from when they had feared him dead. Culi and Samo made soothing noises and held them until they were cried out; Zetai put her own mind in a serene place, and waited too.

"We can't," she said, when Zuk and Qisp started saying they should go get Hala. "We can't! Because he's gone again, that's why. Wherever he's been for a month, he's back there again. He was gone before I woke up and realized what had happened. Briefly—very briefly!—he was back, in some sense, some place east of here. We don't have any more location that that. Unless someone else heard him?" she asked Culi.

"Doubtful," murmured Culi. "No, Anûk says no one heard anything."

"Makes sense," said Samo. "With everyone hooked up with Anûk, why would anyone bother messing with telepathy? It'd be like playing with two cans joined by a string when you've already got an omnicom in your pocket."

"So now what?" asked Qisp. He wiped his eyes one last time with one hand.

"They surprised us again," Zetai said. "That's the last one they get. I'm going to give you all telepathic monitors, and show you how to use them. Then we're going to split up. I'll stay here. Samo, you and Qisp go somewhere the other side of the Ocean, Eretai maybe. Culi and Zuk can go somewhere east and south, Anθorâń or Stocasto. When Hala comes up again, we'll be able to fix his position."

"Can't we stay with you?" Qisp asked.

"You and Zuk?" Zetai asked. Qisp and Zuk nodded.

"But Qisp, I need your help," Samo said. "This stuff is all new to me. Zetai had a whole life to learn it, but I might miss it when something happens. You and I have to work together to stay sharp, and spot it when it does."

"You're just saying that," said Qisp.

"You know he's not," said Zetai. "That's why I split us up the way I did. Even needing to sleep, I'm more likely to see Hala than the rest of you. So will you help Samo, Qisp? Zuk, help Culi?"

"All right," said Zuk.

"Good," she said. "Let's start with you, Zuk. Everyone relax, lie on the grass if you need to, listen to the sound of my voice. Feel that place between your eyes? Let it grow until it's another eye…"

A Skyburst Earth, Sunday, May 10, 1981 A.D.

"You know I'll do anything you want," Hal said. "But this feels silly."

They were in Mara's ship, in a chamber equipped to provide a view in all directions. So they seemed to be on a cushioned platform only ten feet in diameter, with nothing around them but space. They kneeled facing each other, his hands on his thighs, hers on the star staff lying across her thighs, and the blazing stars, undimmed by atmosphere, all around them. Somewhere nearby was the Earth, and Star Guard headquarters orbiting it was even closer; but the ship had orders, right now, to edit them out of the picture.

"Humor me," she replied through her staff. "Something odd is going on, and I will not ignore it."

"Anything you want," the bearded blond archer repeated.

They had been lovers for months now, and it just kept getting better. Making love to her was like coming home to a place you thought you'd only dreamed about. They fit together so closely it was scary. Other couples finished each other's sentences; they didn't even start theirs. An exchange of glances, a lift of an eyebrow, was a conversation. In a fight it was like being one mind with two bodies. The unconscious villains lying around them afterwards proved they weren't imagining it.

"As if we'd known each other in another life," he'd marvelled, and she'd looked at him as if her staff had stopped translating. Which led directly to the two of them sitting in the midst of nothing while he tried to explain Earthly beliefs to her.

The Xylarian sat amazed while he told her about life after death, souls, gods, devils, angels, heaven, hell, reincarnation, Christ, Buddha, Thor, Krishna, Catholics and Protestants, Mormons and Evangelicals, on and on and on and…

"Don't your people have some kind of religion?" he asked.

"My people?!" she exclaimed. "I doubt any other race in the whole universe has such a trash heap of fear, wishful thinking, self-delusion, and anti-scientific belief-without-evidence! Humans actually believe this stuff is real? These 'ghosts' and 'gods', this 'astrology' and 'numerology', this 'transmigration' of 'souls'?"

"Pretty much universally," he said. "Oh, not all of it. Some people believe some parts of it, some believe others. But almost everyone believes some of it."

"But you have computers, and television, and other things that wouldn't be possible without science," Mara said. "Can you use a computer on the one hand, and hold on to these unfalsifiable beliefs with the other?"

"We can," he said. "We can even use computers to run Tarot programs, or broadcast sermons on TV."

She looked at him blankly. "I have to think," she said, and applied herself to the problem.


The problem: a whole planet of sentient beings who enjoyed the fruits of modern science and widespread education, yet believed that an inconsistent, self-contradicting grab bag of fantasies, that had been accumulating for six thousand years, also described the real universe.

Was that the answer? Did Terrans believe this nonsense just because some of it was old? The problem there was that your ordinary Terran had no sense of history. Things that happened twenty years ago, a hundred years ago, two thousand years ago, were all the same to him. He couldn't be giving credence to astrology because it was six thousand years old, because he didn't know that it was.

Was it schizophrenia? Did they put things in different rooms in their minds, and never look into two rooms at the same time? Could an entire species, for its entire history, be clinically insane?

But they worked with different rooms' contents at the same time. As Hal had said, they used state-of-the-art computers to print tripe about "homeopathy", and ran programs to determine what their "biorhythms" were. How could they do that?

They ignored things, they didn't think any more than they had to, and they didn't look for how things fit together. If they did, they'd realize that the universe was self-consistent, and see that there just wasn't a place in it for whatever junk food miracle diet was in the supermarket tabloids this week.

In other words, despite being willing to use the products of science, created by people who thought, and tested the way the universe was put together, they themselves did not think, and did not look at the world. A mere handful of Terrans did all the work; the rest were dead weight. They were born, ate as much as they could, grew up as fast as they could, went to school as little as possible, learned as little as possible, thought as little as possible. They found some company willing to pay them money to shuffle things around, worked no harder than they had to, collected their pay and spent it on food, alcohol, and entertainment that didn't ask them to think. They had kids more or less by accident, passed on to them unexamined the garbage their parents had handed to them, and died.

So ignorance was the problem, and laziness, and the belief that math and physics and chemistry and astronomy didn't matter, not the way that the football scores or their favorite TV show did. They'd march and shout around a clinic that performed abortions for poor women who couldn't afford a baby, because a preacher told them abortion was wrong, and must be stopped. Then they'd go back to complaining about the government and everyone else trying to interfere with their lives.

It would be so easy to dismiss them all as fools, even question what she was doing here, and whether they were worth her time. Wish, even, in the back of her mind, that the Skyburst had been a shade or two more effective, so that this dogfight of dysfunctional societies had come crashing down, making mankind work together for a real purpose, or die.

And yet…

Hal was an Earth man, she a Xylarian woman, and they clicked. The products of two separate evolutions, by rights they should've had more in common with their own worlds' plant life than with each other. But they fit. That was a fact, and called all else into question.

Hal had mentioned "knowing each other in past lives." Xylarians didn't have "past lives." They were born, they lived, they died. As far as she knew, so did Terrans. As far as Terrestrial science knew, so did Terrans.

But they fit; they clicked; they meshed.

What if…


If you accepted that she and Hal had recognized each other, it followed that they had known each other before. Then there must be some "before" different in kind from the time line in which she was born, raised, educated, swore her oath as a Staff Bearer, was assigned to Earth, and met Hal. Some kind of "before" at right angles, so to speak, to the time line in which he was born, raised, cast away, became an archer, and met her. And in that "before", they had met. And though they didn't remember it, still they recognized each other.

Did this line of thought lead anywhere, or was it just verbiage without meaning in the real world? If she told a newspaper reporter all this, would she be founding just another Terran cult? Or would the tabloids print headlines declaring that "reincarnation" had been "proved"?

Motive, means, opportunity… if she and Hal had known each other "before," and loved anywhere nearly as much as they did now, taking away the memory of that love certainly counted as a crime against them, if no one else. Who could do such a thing? Unknown. How did they do it? Also unknown. So where did that leave her?


"A what?" said Hal.

"A trap," Mara repeated. "Your 'past lives' are nonsense. There's no evidence that Earth men or Xylarian women live over and over, just an Earthly superstition. But we have known each other. So someone, or something, has taken that from us, and put us here."

"Here. You mean, on Earth? I was born here!"

"And I was born on Xylassa. That's part of the trap."

"What trap? Didn't you fly this ship here? Couldn't you fly it right back again?"

"I think I could," she mused. "I remember doing it; I know how to do it again. But even if I flew to Xylassa or Silea or Paili#a and back, it would just be a way of measuring the dimensions of the trap. Logic isn't daunted by mere size."

"Mara," said Hal. "Darling. Don't take this badly, but there's a deep end, and you've just gone off it."

"What do you—oh. The staff says that's an idiom. You're saying I'm delusional?"

"Just like some flying-saucer nut or someone who believes in crop circles," Hal agreed.

"Here's an idiom for you: Eppur si muove."

"What's that?" Hal said, puzzled.

"It's Italian," she told him. "Your Galileo is supposed to have muttered it after agreeing not to write about your world going around your sun. But it still moves."

"Meaning what?" he said patiently. "Besides the fact that your staff can tap into anything."

She took his hand and placed it between her breasts. "Feel my heart beat," she told him. "Different worlds, different evolutions, no common ancestors—yet I sit here, a head, two arms, two legs, breasts, hair, eyes, a heart like yours. And your heart speeds up when your hand touches me, and your eyes watch my lips move and want to kiss them."

"I do love you," he said. "That doesn't mean this crazy talk is real."

"But our love is a fact. The unlikely likeness of our bodies, is a fact. Our feeling that we know each other better than we should, given what we remember: a fact."

"So?" he said warily.

"So help me break out," she said.


She put her staff aside, faithful tool that it had always been. But she could not trust it, except for translation. The Earth, the stars, her staff, her ship, the life she remembered, could all be parts of the trap. One thing only she was certain of, and he sat across from her, holding her hands.

"If this is a trap, why were we allowed to meet each other, and why are we allowed to try this now?" he asked.

"I don't know. Maybe it's a test, rather than a trap, and we're about to pass it. Maybe there is no way out, and so whoever's in charge doesn't care what we try. Maybe I'm deluding myself about the whole thing. Maybe as soon as we escape one trap, we'll be shoved into another, or even two separate ones! But I have to try."

"I don't know what to think," Hal said. "I don't know what to hope. But I love you."

"And I, you," M!ara* said, leaned forward, and kissed him. Then she sought a way to direct her will, that for so many years had been honed in commanding her staff.


How do you direct your will when you have nothing to direct it against? She tried to push with her will; there was nothing to push against. She tried to pull something to her; nothing came. She tried to expand—logic cares nothing about size—to grow beyond the trap, to reach—

Everything we are they use against us.

"Hello?" Mara said. "Hal, did you hear that?"

"I heard something…" His voice came from the blackness around them. How had it gotten so black? Where were the stars?

She was sorry the stars had been part of the trap. She had always loved the stars—what was she saying?

And love is a trap.

So it was. "The world well lost for love…" If her own love didn't point out of the trap, would she still struggle? If her love for Hal was part of the trap, and breaking out would cost her his love, what would her answer be? Only the belief that their love somehow predated the trap and was independent of it let her reach… whatever she was reaching.

And honor is a trap.

"You have reason, my old," said Cyrano, raising his cup in a salute. "If it were not for honor, I could win the fair Roxanne for myself. Instead I must be silent." He drank.

And duty is a trap.

Everyone else in the city had fled the Tatars, but he had a duty. For hundreds of years the trumpet had sounded in the tower at dawn. All his life he had played it, hot or cold, rain or wind or snow, in health and in sickness. He climbed the stairs, though he knew the trumpet's call would bring an arrow, and his death.

And faith is a trap.

"It says right here in the Book of Genesis, my friends, the very first book of the Holy Bible! God created Adam, and God created Eve, and God created every kind of beast that crawls and swims and flies! And that means," the famous evangelist took a breath, purely for effect.

"Evolution is a lie! A lie, plain and simple! And if you believe this lie, my friends, you will burn! Not for a day! Not for a year! No, not even for a century! But for all Eternity!"

And family is a trap.

"I know I shouldn't listen to them," admitted Gawaine. "I know, when I'm not with them, that every one of them is just the sort of scum we put to the sword every time we answer a call for aid. But what can I do? They're my brothers!"

"I understand," said Arthur. "Remember, one of them is Mordred—my son."

"What is this?" wondered Hal.

"A hopeful sign? Shhh! I want to hear this."

And resistance is a trap. The scratching pen stopped moving for a moment. The slender brown-haired girl sitting at the drafting table tapped the pen against her teeth while she thought about the line she'd just written.

"It's wrong to call me an atheist," the famous astrophysicist said pleasantly. The lights in the TV studio were hot, but he and the interviewer both ignored them.

"The term atheist presupposes that there is a God, and assigns a label to someone who doesn't believe in Him. I am not for or against any gods, devils, fairies, elves, gnomes—they're fantasies that mean nothing in the real world."

"But you don't believe in God, right?" said the interviewer.

"I don't believe in lots of things," the astrophysicist said. "But that doesn't tell you anything about me; it's a useless word. You might as well call me an abunnyist because I don't believe in the Easter Bunny, or an aclausist because I don't believe in Santa Claus. We have no such words, because it's not important whether a grown man believes in those things. Well, atheist is the same sort of word."

"So what do you call yourself?"

"A realist," the guest said, leaning back.

And respect is a trap. And hope is a trap. And fear is a trap. The pen flew rapidly now. With every stroke the girl grew more distinct. Now the light, airy room around her was coming clear, sparsely furnished. Outside the French doors, thrown wide open, a suspension bridge spanned a salty bay. You could taste it in the air…

And desire is a trap. And trust is a trap.

On Da Hodestai, in the Outside world, Zetai found the words running through her head. Why were they so familiar? She held the split feather against the arrow shaft while the glue set, and searched her memory. Then she had it; they were from the last entry in her diary, in her life as Alexa. She nodded, satisfied.

Then her head came up sharply. Why were they going through her mind now?

And knowledge is a trap.

"Like me arguing you'd gone loopy," said Hal. "Sorry, love."

"Almost there…" Mara said faintly.

"Hello?!!" Silhouette said sharply. She looked around. There was no one there. Of course there wasn't. How could there be, forty stories up the side of a deserted Central City skyscraper at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning? "Great, Alanna," she said to herself, digging her claws deeper into the steel as the wind sucked at her. "A fine time you pick to hear voices…"

And ignorance is a trap. And patriotism is a trap. And loyalty is a trap.


"Samo love? Do you hear anything? Culi?"

"Nothing, Princess, sorry."


"I think I hear something," said Culi, "but I think I'm hearing it from you."

"Damn," Zetai said. "Can't quite get a fix. Almost…"

Yes, almost…


And obedience is a trap. And success is a trap. And security is a trap.

Won't catch me arguing with any of that, Ĵuha thought, then shook his head like a šâigē tormented by honey ants. Where was it coming from?

"Jedai, do you hear—" he started to say.

"Don't talk to me!" Jedai said in a strangled voice. Red-faced, with bulging eyes, the normally calm and composed neuter gripped the edge of his desk with both hands. Are you all right, the Trickster wanted to ask, but didn't dare. He stared in amazement as the robed figure shook.

And money is a trap. And law is a trap. And truth is a trap. It's all a trap. All a trap!

Underline it. Underline it twice. Alexa Stevenson put down the pen with which she'd been scribbling in her diary for the last half hour, and shook her hand to relieve the cramps.

Drawing and drafting never made her hand cramped; even when she was racing against a deadline she stayed relaxed and just flowed. This was different. This was her last will and testament, or the next thing to it. All the fear and loathing, the hate and bitterness, the grinding tension and the gut-wrenching grief and terror had come pouring out of her. She knew what she had to do. She hoped her friends would understand, and headed for the closet where she kept the damned costume.


She stopped in her tracks, bent down, and picked up the long-haired white tabby with an oof!—this cat was not being starved.

"Ah, sweetie," she crooned, "I'll miss you, but Katy will take care of you when I'm—"

The eyes looking back at her weren't cat eyes. They were human. Terrified. Familiar.



"Hal?" How could a man turn into a cat? It was a nightmare, it had to be. Wait, she didn't know anyone named Hal. Yes, she did. No, not Hal… "Hała!" she cried in triumph.

The world shattered.


"Get ready!" Zetai said. "You may be in a fight the moment you get there, so be prepared."

"When we get where?" said Culi.

"Hang on!" she said. "I don't know where yet, but something's happening, I can feel it!"

"I'm still getting nothing," Samo said quietly. "Qisp? Zuk? Anything?" Nothing, they replied.

"So you must be hearing it through the link you made to Hala, Princess."

"It doesn't matter—be ready!"


Theodora XIV leaned her head on one hand as she listened to the Frankish ambassador. No doubt the old ladies of both sexes who filled her court were scandalized by her behavior. Well, she was through sitting on the throne like the statue of a saint! It was her throne, her crown, and her empire, and there were going to be some changes made! And if the superannuated functionaries who liked to talk about how long they'd served her late father didn't like it, she'd retire the lot of them!

Time for some new blood around here, anyway. These Franks were a picturesque lot; she wondered how long they'd hang around. Look at that tall, blond fellow there with the blue eyes. She wondered whether she could arrange a personal interview with him—wait a minute, that was Hal!

The world shattered.


"Sir! Can you hear me? Sir!" Ĵuha shouted.

No use. Jedai had collapsed completely. Ĵuha looked up as the serial killer, the mass murderer, and the weather wizard filled the doorway. "Help me carry ym outside," he said. "Maybe the air will help."

"Looks like a goner to me," said Juho the serial killer, playing with a very long, very sharp knife. "Are those convulsions?"

"Please. Y's been a good leader. Can't you give me a hand?"

"You're not thinking straight, boy," Mrada the mass murderer said. He pointed a finger. The limp figure of Jedai rose from the floor and floated out the door, coming to rest on the soft grass outside. Y continued to shake, as if seized by chills.

"You're right," Trickster admitted. "Thanks."

"If y's finished, so are we," said the weather wizard. "Maybe we can buy some sort of freedom with ys body." He pointed his staff at Jedai.

"Saru! I'm warning you, don't do it," Ĵuha said.

The master of the elements looked at him in astonishment. "You're warning me?!"

"I'm not called the Trickster for nothing," Ĵuha said. "You won't throw many lightning bolts with that thing shoved up your ass."

"Hmmm. Well, say we play it your way for now. What next?"

Ĵuha wished he knew.


"What the hell's going on?" Laney shouted. Her cowboy hat had been blown off her head by the wind of the train's passage, and hung around her neck by the chin cord. Holding on tighter than ever to the chain around the logs on the flatbed car, she whipped off the hat with the other and let the wind take it. Her red pigtails streamed behind her.

"We've been tricked, sis," Mary said. She was dressed in the same man's clothes as Laney, but her hair was blonde. "That damned banker got off the train at the last stop—and the brake lines have been cut!"

"Christ!" said Laney; both sisters swore like men. "Jackass Flats! If the train can't slow down, it'll never make the turn without jumping the tracks!"

"I reckon that's what the miserable bastard had in mind," said a male voice. Harry had climbed out of the passenger car behind Laney and Mary, and was reaching over to join them on the log car.

It was Hal, of course.

The world shattered.


"Zetai!" Samo said. "A couple of million people just vanished—and Zuk's one of them!"

"Zuk? Culi, isn't Zuk with you?"

"Yes and no," Culi said. "He's standing right here, and he seems all right, and I can talk to him. But I can't hear his thoughts or see his tise, and he says the same about me."

"It's like that everywhere," Samo said. "Not just here on Habêkai, but wherever there are Iǹgrē."

"Hodestai!" It was both the Speakers, addressing her through Samo. "Do you know what's going on?"

"No, but I think I'm about to find out," she told them. "Please, let my household handle this. If we fail, at least you'll know what beat us."

"You're the woman on the spot," the Winter Speaker agreed. "We'll keep an eye on you."

"I'm not the woman on the spot yet," Zetai said, "but I will be!"


She moved around her apartment briskly, tidying up and doing a spot of cleaning here and there. Things had been so busy lately, and she'd gotten just a tiny bit behind. Of course, busy was best. It kept her from thinking too much about—

There was a tap on the window. She turned.

Alanna and Hal stood there, looking absolutely ridiculous in British suits and bowlers, holding either side of a sign that said, Mrs. Peel—We're needed.

She just looked at them, feather duster under her chin.

The world shattered.


Ten minutes to jump, and the captain was waiting for her figures. They had to be perfect, or the starship would be lost forever in the vastness of the universe.

"Got that course, Mister?" the blond captain demanded. The red-haired First Officer stood ready with her own numbers, in case Mary choked.

"No!" said Mara, rejecting the scenario.

The world shattered.


M!ara* started. She must have nodded off. Incredible that she could do so, with the fleets about to join battle. But no one had gotten any sleep worth the name in forty hours. The first short, sharp pass as the Xylarian fleet came out of warp had seen to that. The waiting #Aboran fleet, along with the fleet of the Paili#an rebels, had hit them with everything they had; and they'd returned the favor earnestly. The time since then had been endless—damage reports, casualty reports, emergency repairs—and too short at the same time, as the fleets curved around to hit each other again.

A hundred ships she had in fighting condition, and the #Aborans and Paili#ans, together, about the same. It was going to be one Oath of a battle, win or lose!

What strange dreams she'd been having, too. But now there was no time for dreams. The fleet she'd forged into a sword of justice was going to do its job, and she must do hers. Her gaze swept over her bridge crew. If it lingered just a little on her mate and her sister, who could blame her?

"Just entering extreme missile range of the #Aboran lead element, Captain," her Executive Officer advised her.

She nodded, but looked beyond him at !Hala*. "I refuse to be used any more," she said.

Dead silence on the bridge, and every eye turned to her. "I beg your pardon?" said the Exec.

Tell him you were kidding! Give the order quick—now! Before it's too late! Clearly she saw what would happen if she didn't come to her senses. The Exec would relieve her of command, and she'd be politely escorted to her cabin, where she'd have nothing to do but watch while he fought her battle. And then, because the two sides were so evenly matched, and because he wasn't the tactician she was, little by little the fleet she'd trained would be ground away. Half a million people would die because she'd lost her nerve, and then the enemy would hit this ship, and she'd die knowing she had failed all her people.

She stood up. "You heard me," she said. "NO!" And she put all her will behind it.

The world shattered!


Teles are flat, and blue, and usually rectangular. This was like a jagged rip in the air. Out of it fell a red-haired woman in a tight black costume, a blond man with a beard in a green costume, and a blonde woman with skin the color of butterscotch, in a red costume. They weren't Iǹgrē, but ancestral humans.

M!ara* raised her head and took in the green sky, and the amazed eight-foot-tall aliens staring at her. "* * *", she said. If she'd had her staff with her, it would have translated that as "Oh, shit."

Chapter 19
"Kill Them All!"

Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily,
Life is but a dream.

Part of a round on many post-Roman,
English-speaking Earths

And then you wake up.
Expression of disbelief

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William Shakespeare, "The Tempest" (Common Post-Roman Earths)

There are three kinds of men: the ones who learn by reading,
the few who learn by observation, and the rest of them have to pee
on the electric fence for themselves.

—Will Rogers (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

The World, Xidestē Karθao, Year 2001 (Second History)

In the ruined garden in front of the fallen-in villa that Jedai had been using for ys headquarters, the three small costumed figures climbed to their feet. Jedai lay on ys back in the grass just outside the villa's door. Y was no longer shaking, but rested with one arm thrown across ys eyes, the other lying across ys stomach, as if weary beyond measure.

Juho, Mrada, and Saru watched the newcomers, Juho playing with his damned knife as he always did, Saru resting the butt of his eight-foot staff on the ground like an evil wizard from a bad fantasy. At least they weren't continuing their unending argument about who'd killed the most people, or killed in the most ingenious or the most painful way, Ĵuha thought.

He noticed that the tele, or rip, or whatever it had been, had vanished as soon as the trio had spilled out of it. He didn't recognize the tiny redhead in the black tights, or the blonde woman with the butterscotch skin in the formal-looking red garb, but the muscular blond guy, despite mask and beard, looked like Hala. If he was, then these three had burst out of Jedai's Inside universe somehow, wracking ym violently in the process.

[[Kill them,]] Jedai said.

Everyone turned. Jedai was climbing to ys feet, blue robes stained with grass, sweat drying on ys face, bald head, and neck.

[[Kill them,]] y repeated. [[Then I can raise a barrier against Anûk, and we can call for help against the monster.]]

"Glad to oblige," said Juho. Switching his knife to his left hand, he reached out with his right and seized the little redhead by the throat. "Let's see…" he mused, as her hands flew up to cover his. He held her at arm's length with one hand, no effort with his Iǹgrē strength, and drew back his knife to plunge it into her.

Claws that could pierce concrete, stone, or steel popped out of Alanna's finger tips. All ten sank into the hand that was holding her by the throat. Then she yanked her hands apart, scattering bones and flesh far and wide.

For a frozen instant the pain was so great that Juho couldn't even breathe; then he screamed. Alanna fell back, twisting like a cat as she fell, so that she landed on all fours with her back to the killer. Then she kicked out with both legs. The claws in her feet pierced the boots she wore, and tore Juho apart from groin to solar plexus. He flopped onto his back like a gaffed fish, and died.

"Lańa?!" Ĵuha croaked in amazement, as the redhead's cowl fell off her head, revealing his lover's face.

At the same time as Juho reached for Alanna, Saru leveled his staff at the other two. Mara reacted instantly. Lunging forward, she grabbed its end, and threw herself back, holding the long staff above her. The master of the elements, who'd tried to hold onto it, stumbled forward headlong, hands waving wildly in front of himself as he struggled for balance.

Smoothly, with that unspoken coordination that had brought them out of the Inside together, Hal took the staff from Mara as he stepped forward. Using it as a quarter staff, he swung it up under Saru's head, slamming him backwards and stretching him out full length. There was an audible crack as his neck broke.

[[Kill them!]] Jedai said again, as the serial killer and the weather wizard died simultaneously. [[Or Anûk wins!]]  Mrada and Ĵuha looked at each other for support.

"Bastard!" Alanna snarled. "Bastard, bastard, bastard!" She threw herself at Jedai, claws outstretched for ys life.

As she bounced from Jedai's telekinetic shield, Mrada caught up to her from behind. He was a general who'd ordered the deaths of millions, but he was a man of action as well. He swept her feet out from under her as she collided with him, clamped one arm around her legs to keep them away from his belly, and grabbed one of her wrists with the other arm. Quick as a svasrē, he shifted to hold her legs with his own, to free his other hand to—

She tore out his throat with her free hand. Blood sprayed her, but her orkē snarl didn't even waver.

[[A temporary victory, at best,]] Jedai said, sounding like ys old self. A tele appeared on the ground, rose into the air, and disappeared. Now Juho, Saru, and Mrada stood to ys right, facing the three smaller figures. Juho held another knife like the one Hal had picked up off the grass, and Saru another staff identical to the one that Mara now carried. The killers' former bodies sprawled in their blood where they'd fallen.

"You complete bastard," Ĵuha said, in shock from the violence of the past couple of minutes. "It was you all along. Lańa came out of the same place Hala did! You're the monster in the tele. You're the one who took her away. It was you!"

[[A pity, Trickster,]]Jedai said. [[You've been a good lieutenant, and good company. Kill him, too,]] y told the three killers. They started forward, Juho grinning widely, Mrada brisk and businesslike, and Saru glaring with hate.

Culi's flying kick caught Juho in the small of the back, knocking him sprawling. Samo hit Mrada at the same instant, and Qisp landed on Saru. Each one ended up lying on his face with a foot on his neck. Culi's other foot was on Juho's knife hand; y ground it underfoot until the serial killer yelped and let go. Culi stepped on the knife and broke it, while Samo picked up Saru's second staff.

All this happened in an instant; not ten minutes had passed since Mara, Hal, and Alanna had tumbled from the rip in mind space. Now a space/time ship appeared, a featureless white cube the size of a cottage. Out through its nearest notional side came Zetai, holding Zuk by the hand. Her gaze swept the scene: Samo, Culi, Qisp, each with a man's neck under his boot, one creaking instant away from snapping; the blue-robed neuter with the numeral on his chest; three smaller figures in costumes, armed with claws, knife, and staff; three dead bodies identical to the captives; a lanky blond man.

"You," she said, recognizing the killer who'd attacked her household two and a half months before.

"Me," he acknowledged, and wondered how he could explain himself.

"Zetai," Hal said, "Trickster's not the problem." Her eyes snapped to him, and he saw her recognize him despite the small size, blond hair, and the beard. "Is Anûk with you, or did that bastard block ym from the island?" Hal continued, nodding at Jedai.

:: I'm here, :: Anûk said. Jedai bared ys teeth in a snarl.

"Then kill them now," Hal said. "None of them belong Outside, and Anûk can take them back as soon as you do."

"Princess?" Samo said.

"Do it," she said. Three booted feet stamped, and then there were six bodies on the grass.

"Good to see you, Hala. Now what's going on?" Zetai asked. "Why are you vouching for him after he shot you?"

"The Loop and I have fought more times than either of us can recall," Ĵuha answered instead. "He knows my heart's in the right place, even if I'm an idiot sometimes. That," he said, pointing at Jedai, "is a potential Iǹgrē race mind. Y made Lańa and me think that Anûk was malevolent, when it was ym who wants to kill everyone, and inhabit their bodies; or terrorize them through their connection to the race mind; or maybe some of each. Y's been sneaking around messing with the mental links so that people are connected to ym, not Anûk. When y had everyone, y was going to cut the link between ymself and Anûk, and Anûk would die. We thought y was rescuing people," Ĵuha said bitterly.

"So that's what's been going on," said Samo.

They were all facing Jedai now. Zetai stood with her hand on Zuk's shoulder, Samo on her other side. Culi and Qisp stood next to Zuk. Hal stood on the other side of Samo, one arm around Mara's shoulders. Alanna, in her blood-soaked black costume, leaned back into Ĵuha's embrace; he held her like he would never let go again.

[[It's not over yet,]] Jedai told them. [[I have over two million hostages whose links run to me now, not to Anûk. Either I leave here in that time/space ship behind you, or I destroy their minds.]]

"Can y do that?" Zetai asked.

:: No, :: said Anûk. :: I'd fight ym for every one of them. Y may have the power of two million Iǹgrē brains to draw on, but I have 12 billion. That's a ratio of six thousand to one. ::

[[You think it's that simple? You think it's nothing but numbers, that my will is nothing, that it means nothing at all that you don't even have a body of your own?]]

:: Correct, :: Anûk replied.

[[How about this, then? How about I kill you all, and then turn loose my two million captives. While Anûk's running around trying to catch all those minds and reconnect them, I can step over your corpses, get in that ship, and go wherever I want. Then I can resurrect all the billions that Anûk thinks aren't good enough to live in the Outside world, and you'll have to deal with us as equals.]]

"I count nine of us and one of you," Culi said. "How did you plan to pull that off?"

"Hek hek hek," Hand laughed.

They jumped, then turned around. Hand floated there, bloated and malign. Khebu stood in his-her gauzy finery and jewels, powerful arms crossed over his-her breasts. Next to him-her was a metal thing, with gleaming faceted eyes, steel-girder arms and legs, steel-cable muscles, and metal pincer hands. Next to Solar-9 floated the blazing, plasma-shrouded form of The Glow. Finally, there was something horse-shaped, but made of ribbons, shifting from side to side on its ribbony legs; reality itself seemed to waver and shimmer near it.

[[I prefer quality over quantity,]] Jedai laughed.

Shrieking with hate too great for words, Alanna threw herself at The Glow. Laughing with a sound like an overheated furnace, he blasted her with a tongue of flame as Ĵuha shouted. Khebu raised his-her arms, and explosions scattered the household as handfuls of nitrogen were converted to sodium, and reacted with water in the air. While Samo ran to stop him-her, Hal and Mara advanced on Hand as a team, and Culi and Qisp spread out to flank Solar. Zuk cried out as the Unreality Beast reared on its hind legs, and the universe went crazy.

Chuckling, Jedai turned away from the battle and started for the space/time ship. Then y stopped. Zetai stood in ys way, holding level before herself the staff Samo had taken from the weather wizard, her eyes blazing like black suns.

"Forget it," she said.


Snarling with hate and outrage, Alanna flung herself at The Glow, who'd killed her in her First-History life. Bubbling with glee like a short-circuiting power line, he wrapped her in a rope of flame like a prominence on the limb of a star-sun. She shrieked as it engulfed her.

But Ĵuha knew her, knew The Glow, and knew how she'd react to the sight of the sadistic monster. As she leapt out of his embrace, the Trickster projected a telekinetic shield around Silhouette/Camoflage. She gaped as she realized that she was surrounded by plasma, but unhurt.

"Trickster, old friend," The Glow hissed. "And can this be Camoflage, in one of her disguises? My bad. What are you doing on the other side, good buddies?" All the time he spoke, he doubled and redoubled his efforts to reduce them to ash. Grass burned around him, and the ground itself burned as its organics were consumed, then began to bake like clay.

"Can you hold him?" whispered Alanna, shocked out of her blood lust by her near death. "Hold him, my love," she said, gripping Ĵuha's shoulders in support as she sheltered behind him. Her present, non-Iǹgrē body was no use in this battle.

"Yes, hold me," The Glow laughed, and doubled his output again. A tree nearby exploded as the radiation from him turned the water in its tissues to steam. Hummingbirds, walking-sticks, and other small living things caught fire, and fell like brief meteors.

Trickster didn't answer. Keeping the shield in place was taking all his concentration; and that was weakening. He could feel the feeding field wanting to form between his back horns, and rise to drink in energy from the suns to replace what he was using up to hold off The Glow.

That's it! he thought, and let the ĵeike rise. But rather than letting it expand into a huge disc turned towards Vol, he forced it to turn away. With his will, and with a telekinetic field, he wrapped it like a globe completely around The Glow.

All strain on his shield ceased. Energy wasn't spraying against it now, but against the ĵeike it contained. The feeding field absorbed The Glow's prodigious output and fed it to Ĵuha, replenishing him even as The Glow weakened. His Iǹgrē body had the capacity for it, and his more efficient ĵeike a high enough rate of transfer. A Verē of the First History couldn't have done what he was doing; he'd have suffered from kyĺê, energy-gluttony, sickness from absorbing more energy than he could store or use; and then The Glow would have burned him to ash. Even Eborai Lapo hadn't faced the problem directly, but had wasted the excess energy rather than trying to absorb it.

The Glow screamed in fury as Trickster took everything he had and wasn't hurt. Then he screamed again, in panic, as he realized that he wasn't getting any energy from the suns. He tried to reduce his output, and found he couldn't even do that.

"What are you doing to me?" he burbled. As he used up his energy, he went from white-hot to yellow-hot, and on down the spectrum, like metal cooling in a clay mold.

"Draining you," said Ĵuha. He watched as the plasma flickered, and the man within became visible. The Glow, in this incarnation, was like a standard Iǹgrē, but with a larger head that had some extra horns on it.

The Trickster stepped forward and thrust both fists through The Glow's ribs, shielding his hands and forearms with telekinesis. Before the other could react, he yanked them out again, holding one heart in each hand. Already dead, the monster gaped sightlessly at him for a second, then crumpled.

"I've wanted to do that for years," Ĵuha said, and dropped the still-hot hearts on the body, shaking with revulsion and adrenaline.


[[Get out of my way!]] Jedai snorted, and stepped forward. Then y leaped back as the staff Zetai held whistled through the air where ys head had been.

Snarling, y threw up a shield against the whirling staff, and formed another to sweep her from ys path. Like a giant fly swatter, it rushed down on her, and was stopped by her own shields.

"You're no more powerful a telekinetic than anyone else," Zetai said, "and you haven't a fraction of my hand-to-hand training and experience. It's over."

[[I don't have to beat you physically,]] Jedai said. Y poured ys hate upon her. All the power of two million minds smashed through her mental shields:

—Solar was pulling her to pieces, one tiny bit at a time.

—She was nine, and being gang-raped in the street in a burned-out city.

—Sam was being tortured with red-hot irons while she was forced to watch.

—The enemy fleet outmaneuvered Augusta, and killed her ships, one at a time.

—Congress declared super-heroes illegal, and she was imprisoned with all the convicts she'd caught as Nike.

—The bandit leader looked down on Sister Pauline. "I'm not done with her yet. Turn her over."

A thousand thousand forms of Hell fell upon her mind. Against her will, Zetai screamed.


Hal and Mara advanced on Hand, warily. Y looked obscene, with ys enormous fat body and ys little dangling arms and legs. But y was floating in the air, and there was a wide, malignant grin on ys fat face. Hal held Juho's knife like a short sword, while Mara carried Saru's weather staff across her body at port arms, left end higher than the right.

"Pretty," said Hand in ys high-pitched voice, and giggled. Hal supposed they were, with his green costume and Mara's red one, both with yellow hair, her with butterscotch skin. But Hand was looking at Juho's long, shiny, curved knife. "Pretty!" y shrilled, and it began leaping in Hal's hands.

It was beyond his physical or telekinetic strength to hold it. The knife yanked him forward so roughly that he had to spread his hands to keep from falling on his face. It jerked out of his grasp and flew to Hand like a live thing.

"Watch out," Hal warned as Mara gave him a hand up. The knife rotated slowly around the axis of its blade in front of Hand's face. "Pretty, pretty, pretty," y sang to ymself. Then, without a change of tune, expression, or any other warning, the knife flew at Hal point first. It slowed fractionally as it sheared through the staff Mara tried to block it with, then Hal went oof! as it hit his shields above his solar plexus.

"God, y's strong!" Hal said. "If you hadn't slowed it down—"

"Hek hek hek," Hand laughed as Mara mutely showed Hal the end of the staff, cut right through at an angle.

"Y's strong," Mara agreed. "Stronger than you, stronger than me. Stronger than us and all our people?"

"Our people?" Hal said, not sure what she meant.

"Remember who you are!" she said fiercely. "Yes, you're Hal King. Yes, you're Hodestao Halai. But first and foremost, you're Hała Złodańor, and I'm your wife! And to get to the one who took that away from us, we have to get past this thing!"

"Bored," said Hand, and a crushing force sprang into place around them, trying to mash them to a point.

"Help us," Hała cried out to the Tlâńē, his people; and they answered.

All the Tlâńē were there, for an instant, who had ever lived since the race became sentient. Preserved by the unconscious Tlâńē race mind, they'd been gathered in when the Verē made the first Iǹgrē, in the First Universe, and the newborn Anûk absorbed them from the last of the First-History Tlâńē. For a moment it seemed Hała could see every one of them; primitives who hunted animals for fur and sinew and cartilage, blue-skinned princes who sat on thrones of wood and made war on each other, scientists who wielded fields of force to make the Rings of Power, populations who died under Verē bombs, musicians who sang great odes in the melodious syllabic language of their people, politicians who signed the Covenant in fear and hope. All that was good and bad, hopeful and bitter, bold and fatalistic, poured through him, even as Hand slowly, slowly gained in ys effort to crush Hała and Mara to death.

He saw them, and the discorporate millions saw him. Through Anûk he saw how many hoped for him, how many feared for him, how many lent him their strength. And he also felt how many despised him as a traitor, hated him for the life he now lived, and mentally turned their backs.

But that was a lesson and a sorrow for meditation on some other day. For now, the strength he'd been lent poured through him and pierced Hand. One moment y was crushing them, with a strength like some huge machine; the next, ys strength was gone, as millions of irresistible telekinetic fingers prized ym from ys power. With a squeal like a gutted pig, y fell to the ground with a crackling of bones.

It was with pity, and mercy, that Mara lifted the fat head, and Hal cut Hand's throat. Unsupported by tøskê, the gross body flattened out under five gravities.


:: Child, child, I'm here, :: Anûk said to Zetai. :: Let me help, darling, let me help, love. ::

Y meant it, Zetai saw. Every Iǹgrē was truly an individual, yet, at the same time, every Iǹgrē was part of Anûk. Y was nothing but a consciousness that floated upon the sea of Iǹgrē minds. Individual awareness was a film over the unconscious mind, lightning flickering in the cortex of the brain, but Anûk's awareness was the telepathic connections between all Iǹgrē everywhere.

Y truly loved each and every one of them, as a mother is supposed to love her children, or a god is supposed to love his people: with a perfect love for the good, the bad, the strong, the weak, Jedai no more and no less than her. No one who felt that love could doubt it.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, thinking of her doubts and suspicions.

:: Don't be, :: Anûk said. :: There was no way you could know. I respected your privacy. I'd respect it still, if Jedai weren't tormenting you. ::

Jedai! Where was y? Zetai regained her place in the Outside world, and saw that all her torment had gained Jedai nothing. With her mind in Hell, her body, imprinted with years of martial-arts experience, had blocked ys every move toward the time/space ship. Perhaps a martial artist could have defeated her body; perhaps not. Jedai definitely could not. Y glared at her in baffled fury.

She focused on ym and smiled. "Payback time," she said.


Culi and Qisp spread out warily. "Be careful," Culi reminded Qisp. "This is the thing that killed [Marisa] and [Sam] in the Earth life they lived together."

"Right you are," Solar said pleasantly. "And after I've killed you two, I'll look them up and do it again." He snapped his pincers menacingly.

Qisp reached out with his mind, careful of a trap, to see how powerful the creature's defenses were, and to probe its mind to see what powers it had. After a moment of astonishment, he stood up straight. "What is this," he demanded indignantly, "some kind of joke?"

"Joke?" Culi said, still in a fighting stance.

"Look for yourself," Qisp said. "No telekinesis, no telepathy—this is nothing but a mechanical thing that thinks it's alive!"

"You're pissing me off, boy," said Solar, and reached out. Then he fell on his back with a screech; Qisp had given him a telekinetic shove. In five gravities, the android hit hard.

"You're right!" Culi said with wonder. "There's just a kind of recording of a person's mind there. But he killed—"

"I'm sure he's tough on Earth," Qisp conceded. "Out here, he's not a pimple on a tough guy's butt."

Culi winced. "Crude but accurate. He has no defenses except mechanical strength."

"I'm the greatest mind that ever lived!" screeched Solar, trying to turn over and climb to his feet.

"You're a bug that needs squashing," Qisp told him, and lifted an eyebrow at Culi.

"Might as well," Culi agreed. "We should see whether someone else needs help. If Zetai and Samo want one of these, they can always pull another out of a tele."

Qisp reached into Solar's body with his telekinesis and crumpled the android's brain like a sheet of paper. "What a gyp," he muttered.

Culi winced again. "You've been spending too much time with Samo."

"Actually, I heard both of those expressions from Hala."

"I'll have to talk to both of them," Culi said severely.


The staff in Zetai's hand whipped out faster than a striking snake. The shock of impact made her fingers tingle, but there was no sound to go with it; the staff had hit Jedai's shield, not anything material.

If they'd been on Earth, Jedai would've been dead many times over. Zetai was a mistress of martial arts in nearly every life she'd lived, and Jedai was completely innocent of them. But y made up for it with ys tøskê, his psi powers. Y'd extended ys telekinetic shield higher and wider than her staff could reach, and seemed capable of holding it in place forever.

[[Stalemate,]] y said.

"And this makes you happy?" Zetai said.

[[Of course. Once my killers finish your household, all I have to do is get into that ship behind you, and I'm gone to anywhere in the universe. When you helped Mara escape from me, you showed that Anûk can't keep people prisoner if I'm loose to pull them out.]]

"Your killers? You mean the three that died twice over?"

[[They certainly didn't live up to their reputations. Still, the others are much more deadly. The Unreality Beast alone can defeat any prey, by changing the reality in which it exists.]]

"Maybe you're right," Zetai said. She dropped the staff. As y stared, puzzled, she gathered the mental powers she'd mastered as Tessa, and launched them against ys mind. Ys eyes widened as y felt her strength.

((Time to try something different,)) Zetai said.


Khebu had been practicing the use of telekinesis, and Samo hadn't the fine control to match him-her. Then he fell into an aikido state of mind. Instead of letting Khebu meddle with elements, and then trying to dampen the results, he opposed Khebu's power directly. Matching every telekinetic "limb" and "finger" with one of his own, he forced him-her away from his-her atomic and molecular targets.

At the same time, they fought with their bodies. It was mostly a wrestling match. When Samo would try an elbow punch, Khebu blocked it with his-her heavily muscled forearm; when Khebu tried to kick, Samo faded aside. Neither had the edge in strength or size, so it came down to wrestling skill, where both were masters.

There were no rules, but neither was it the fake show of wrestling popular on some virtual Earths. This was real wrestling, sometimes called Greco-Roman, as if the holds and moves hadn't been known since the Egyptians bet on Libyan versus Nubian on the sands of Pharaoh's fore court. Hands gripped flesh, body strained against body, and the match would end not with the slap of palm against mat in surrender, but in death, followed by helpless discorporate captivity.

Khebu became excited as they struggled, and both of his-her organs became eager. Glaring with lust as well as hate, he-she began to whisper obscenities as they grappled. Samo was glad it was him, rather than another, who'd faced off with the Aatuan prince. He wouldn't have wanted one of the boys to be shocked, or one of the other men to be rattled, or one of the women to have Khebu thrusting his-her organ against her. The obscene threats the hermaphrodite made, to use him with her female organs and abuse him with his male ones, were no worse than things he'd seen and heard in the French Foreign Legion, or many a mercenary camp. They only served to remind Samo of himself as Adam Black or Roger Cannon, and make him even more determined to win.

Samo fought on, straining muscle against muscle while defeating attempts to turn his sweat to acid, his blood to molten sodium, or the air in his lungs to chlorine. Eventually he got a half nelson on the Aatuan, and eventually he converted that to the deadly full nelson. Then it was a matter of muscle and leverage, inch by sinew-cracking inch, until a loud snap sounded the death, and the strength poured out of the body in his arms, and out of his own as well.

He sighed; he felt as if he'd slain himself, and all the bad non-Sam lives lay crumpled beneath him. He stood up, and wiped the sweat from his eyes. Every muscle felt strained, every tendon felt pulled, and he smelled like forty years at a man's gym.

Samo smiled. He felt good.


Zetai worked patiently. With Anûk's strength backing her, she could pry Jedai's mind from the controls of ys body, one mental tendril at a time. Individually, she was stronger, more skilled, and more experienced in this field than Jedai, while Anûk's billions blocked the force of Jedai's millions.

[[You can't do this to me!]] Jedai screamed.

"Sure I can," she said, brows knit with concentration.

[[I should never have put Hala, Mara, and Lańa in the same world,]] y mourned.

"That was a mistake," Zetai said. "When Mara reached out, she found Hala's link to me. With such a strong will pushing from the Inside, and me anchoring the link on the Outside…" she shrugged, and kept loosening connections.

:: It doesn't matter, :: Anûk said kindly. :: You and your house did well, Zetai; but the whole point of the Winter People is to make everyone like you and yours, experienced veterans of many lives, and many kinds of wars on many fronts. If it hadn't been for you—and all honor to you, don't mistake me!—it would've been someone else. ::

[[I was so close!]] Jedai cried.

:: You weren't, :: Anûk said. :: Already I was starting to notice a kind of distance between myself and your "rescued" minds, and gaps in my knowledge, like the name Trickster. Long before you achieved parity, I would've found you out. ::

"So y wasn't as dangerous as y thought y was?" Zetai asked.

:: Y was a little bully with big ambitions, while I am the whole race. If y had succeeded, and cut me off from everyone, I think I would have arisen all over again from the minds of the race, like the same operating system starting up again after you turn a computer off, and then back on. Depending on what information was stored holographically over all the minds of my people, I might even have been the same person, with the same memories as before. ::

"Glad we don't have to find out," Zetai said coolly, and continued her work.


The universe exploded around Zuk. He fell through unreal shapes joined in ways his brain wasn't built to comprehend, in dimensions other than real space and time. He came to rest, it seemed, though in relation to what, he couldn't have said.

There was no up or down, no left or right, no forward or back. The colors his eyes could see, and others he couldn't understand, swirled (around) him. At a (distance) stood the Unreality Beast, like a sculpture of a horse made from flexible pink planks; a big plank for its body, four longer and thinner planks sticking out of that for legs, a plank neck and a plank head, two plank ears extending from the head, and a plank tail.

Or say ribbons instead of planks, for though the beast's parts had (thickness), they bent freely. The body, neck, limbs, tail, and ears curled, and bent side to side, as freely as paper streamers in a wind.

Fighting the beast never crossed Zuk's mind. "Easy, boy," he said. The creature had no visible eyes, but it seemed to look at him. "Easy," he said, and held out his hand.

The beast reared, spooked by the motion, and Zuk felt like he broke into tiny bubbles and splashed to the ends of the universe. When his vocal cords seeped back (together), he spoke softly, soothingly. "Who's a good boy? Are you a good boy? Good boy!"

Regarding him from a direction that had no counterpart in the real universe, the Unreality Beast stretched its neck a tiny bit (closer) to him.


Zetai eyed her handiwork somberly, holding each elbow with the opposite hand as if she were cold. Jedai stood loosely, jaw slack and drooling, eyes fixed on nothing.

Samo came up behind the neuter, looked ym up and down. He lifted one elbow for a killing punch and cocked his head at her. Zetai shook her head.

"Why bother?" she said. "Anûk?"

A tele appeared behind Jedai. Zetai reached out with one finger and pushed gently. The gaping figure fell in and disappeared. Then the tele vanished, too.

Then she reached out to Samo and he gathered her in, neither of them minding the sweat and the grime. It was the most natural thing in the world, now, to exchange a tender kiss full of promise for tomorrow.

Culi and Qisp came up, Qisp complaining how he'd been cheated out of a real fight. Zetai and Samo listened to how easily Solar had been quashed, thought of their own last day on Earth, looked at each other, and started laughing.

Ĵuha and Lańa, Hala and Mara, and Zuk walked up. The three who'd been held in Jedai's copy of a "White Event" Earth were in Iǹgrē bodies now, having used a tele to restore themselves. Zuk's 'tag' was back; all the "rescued" people were now rescued in truth.

The nine survivors looked around them at the ruined villa and garden, now littered with smoking trees, burned grass, craters from Khebu's explosions, and dead bodies. "What a mess," Samo said.

:: I could tidy it up in an instant, :: Anûk said, :: even restore the villa and the grounds. ::

"Leave it until we're gone, please," Zetai said. "I want to remember it just as it is."

She smiled. "I'm so proud of all of you, even if certain parties claim that some other household could have done the same!"

:: All honor to Hodestai, :: Anûk said meekly.

Laughing, Zetai held out her hands to Trickster and Camoflage. "I hope you'll consider joining us. We thieves have to stick together."

Ĵuha and Lańa exchanged startled glances. "Maybe we will, after a bit," Lańa said.

Zetai turned to Hala and Mara. "Hala, welcome back. Mara, let me be the first to say 'Welcome to the World.' "

"Thank you," said Mara. Two strong-willed women matched gazes, and both smiled slowly. "For everything," Mara added.

"You're most welcome. Then—"

"Hold it," said Samo. "Zuk, what are you hiding there?"

Reluctantly, Zuk stepped aside. The Unreality Beast pranced forward daintily. A small pink ribbon of tongue licked Zuk's hand.

"Can I keep him?" asked Zuk.

Chapter 20
The Beginning

She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies,
And all that's best of dark and bright
Meets in her aspect and her eyes …

George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, 1788-1824 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life! … —and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, 1806-1861 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)

Sooner shall every roller
Flow backward to the sea,
Sooner shall silver Luna
Foreswear her brillancy,
Than Love shall lose the hold
That she maintains on me.
No, Love will never lose
One finger of her grip on me!

Jehan Tabourot, "Belle Qui Tiens", Orchésographie, 1589 A.D. (Standard Post-Roman Earths)
—English translation by Master Anthony von Sternheim, Order of the Laurel,
Society of the Golden Unicorn, 2728 A.U.C./1975 A.D. (Most "Sleep of Reason" Earths)

If they gave me a fortune,
My pleasure would be small.
I could lose it all tomorrow,
And never mind at all.
But if I should lose your love, dear,
I don't know what I'd do.
For I know I'd never find
Another you!

The Seekers, "Another You," 1968 A.D. (Common Post-Roman Earths)

The World, 16 Galestô Husao, Year 2001 (Second History)

Zetai sat upright in a grassy clearing, legs folded, hands loose on her knees, eyes closed. Bits of recent conversation floated through her mind. This looks like a good spot, Samo had said. Go ahead and give it a try. I'm going for a run along the shore. Don't worry, when you get there you'll find me waiting for you.

:: Be at peace, child. ::

Anûk? she thought. Love and comfort had accompanied the words. She reached out, and touched something as big as a galaxy, yet as personal as her own hand. Who are you? What are you? she asked.

:: I'm you, child, and every other Iǹgrē who lives, or has ever lived. I'm you, and at the same time I'm every Verē, every Tlâńē, every Drē, every Koksē, every Ukkl, every Si, every being of any race who bore any one of the racial minds that are also part of me. ::

I don't understand, Zetai thought. How can you be me, and other people too?

:: Imagine that every one of your cells could think, and had a consciousness of its own. Now suppose they could talk to you, and you to them. Wouldn't they be both themselves, and part of you? Wouldn't you be each of them, and all of them, and yourself besides? ::

I'm an individual! she insisted. I'm not just part of some group thing!

:: Oh no, not just part of me. Every part of me is an individual, and every part of me is precious. Your body discards cells as they die, and never notices their loss. But I preserve the minds of the parts of me that die, and give them new bodies if they want them. In me they live, and never die. All of me would have to die before any of me could die forever. ::

But I feel like an individual!

:: You are an individual, :: Anûk agreed. :: You're a woman of the Winter People. Inside my mind, you led many lives. They were simulations, and they were character-building exercises, and they were real birth, and real life, and real death, all at once. In the artificial nations of the made-up Earth, your family is chosen for you by birth, and (in most cultures) your name is given to you at birth. Outside, the Winter People have chosen a harder path. You've chosen your family for yourself, founding a new Household. You've chosen your name for yourself. You'll choose your life for yourself. All Winter People are self-made people. ::

But who am I?

:: Only you can answer that. But I can show you who you've been. ::

With those words, y led her through the lives she'd lived. She experienced once again her birth each time, all her joys, all her sorrows, all her prides and all her shames, and all her deaths. But she saw things she hadn't seen before, too. She saw how other people regarded her, and how each of them had his or her own life apart from hers, and how each person they knew also had a life, so that every life touched every other life on Earth. And she saw that the infant mind that she'd been had made some choices of its own as the process went forward. Thus she'd lived mostly female lives, because she'd chosen to be female most times around. She saw, too, that sometimes things were remembered from life to life, and some choices were made, unconsciously, with the benefit of experience from a previous life or lives. For instance, she saw that most of her lives after Marisa had been failures because she wanted to go on living that life—wanted to be Marisa, and be with Sam.

Most of all she saw that life on Earth was a huge trap of multiple dimensions, exactly as she'd written in her Alexa life. The gullible, the credulous, the superstitious, and the faithful would never win free. For belief in God was a trap, and belief in astrology was a trap, and surrendering your will to authority was a trap, whether the authority was religious, secular, or military. Only the skeptic, who looked at the universe with open eyes and open mind, and did not attribute to it creatures and forces for which there was no evidence, could ever get out.

Nor could the vicious human predators who regarded everyone around them as less than real. There were ethics which were older than religion, and the cheats, the liars, and the oppressors fell into the second trap. Her own past as the head of a criminal organization had nearly disqualified her life as Marisa. But while she'd stolen, it had been for survival as a child, or from rival organizations or rich businesses that could well afford the losses. Her organization had never trafficked in drugs, slaves, or women, and had warred with and destroyed others who did. Nor had they sold "protection", practiced extortion, or killed for hire. Thus, while they'd broken the laws of Earth, they passed Anûk's scrutiny.

Complacency and laziness were also traps. However good and decent a person might be, if she merely accepted the values her parents handed her, and never developed a conscience of her own, she'd never win release from the prison called Earth. It was required that the individual examine the world around her, decide for herself what was right and what was real, come to the correct conclusions, and live accordingly. Then, and only then, could she be born into the Outside world.

The Earth trap had teeth: so much that was told the infant Earthling was true, but false in implication and in detail. Yes, there was a God, in that Anûk served the role of the all-knowing, all-powerful, loving person who had created the virtual universe in which Earth existed. But though the infant mind might feel this to be true, through its own connection with Anûk, there was no credible evidence for this, only the unsupported assertions of dozens of religions. Thus the candidate must reject all such claims to pass that test, and only atheists, or better yet realists, could avoid that tooth of the trap.

Likewise there was life after death, in that the successful candidate would graduate to the Outside world after experiencing death on "Earth"; and eternity awaited her, for no Iǹgrē would ever die as long as the race existed to receive her mind and make her a new body. Even when the universe grew old and died, new universes were always being born, and the people would migrate from this universe to another when the time came. But there was no evidence for any of this on Earth. There the evidence said that when you were dead, you were dead forever, and even the universe itself would one day die. The infant mind must accept this, despite what it felt from Anûk, and despite what its upbringing told it, to pass the test of life after death.

So too reincarnation, for the mind would be cycled through life after life until Anûk was satisfied with its conclusions and its behavior, then would win free into the Outside; but this was true without evidence, and not in the way it was taught, and must be rejected as superstition. So too magic, and mental powers, and disembodied spirits without bodies. All true in a certain way in the Outside, all false on Earth, all traps for the credulous.

There were even angels and saints, she realized. Some people decided that the best way they could serve the race was to go back Inside, knowing its nature, and without ever revealing what they knew, help the unborn find their way by serving as good examples and mentors.

She (turned) to share her understanding with Anûk, and (saw) that Anûk had been replaced by endless ranks of people. There was herself, and tied to her, as with golden threads from heart to heart, were the lives she had led. There was Samo, as he'd said he would be, with his own host of lives around him. And there were tens of thousands of billions more, not only every person now living, but every person who had ever lived once his race evolved a gestalt mind. The nearer ones were Iǹgrē, and many of them were accompanied by their own host of Inside lives. Behind the Iǹgrē, with only one life each, were stranger forms yet, the native races of the Second History, and behind them the First-History forms strangest of all, some of them not remotely human looking, indeed some of them not even made of matter, but of energy. Yet the important thing was that they were all one creature, if she (looked) closely enough. For the golden cords bound all the members of each race to their own racial mind, and the lesser gestalts were bound in turn to the Iǹgrē mind.

She stood before the Samo-form, and he smiled at her. She touched him, and she could feel along the cord that stretched between them all the thoughts, all the experiences he'd ever had, hers for the looking. Yet bound to him were other figures, and one of them was the Sam Mackie she remembered, who knew and had lived only the one life on Earth, that he'd shared with Marisa.

She wandered through the host, touching them at random. Here was a Verē of the First History, taller than she by a whole head. He had no forehorns, and the rear horns merged at the top to form a closed loop, as they did in all Verē. His name was Kranao Tlimute, and he was the host of the Phoenix, a bodiless entity that had wandered through the universe since its beginning, vast in knowledge and understanding. He was also a Defender, part of a group of super-heroes who used their powers to maintain the Verē way of life; yet he didn't consider himself evil.

Here was a Rulsad woman, with dark brown skin, dark brown doe eyes, and antlers rising from her thick black hair. Zetai touched her own back horns, realizing where the basic form had come from.

Here was Sesu Karth, a king of Aatu, who'd reunited his-her country at the beginning of the New Kingdom era, and sent expeditions into the western jungles and across the sea to Alteřa. There was no end to the host, each a real person, with at least one life. And she could touch each of them, and experience everything y, she, or he had ever known, because each of them was her, and she was each of them.

And more; everything they'd ever known, every skill they'd ever mastered, every art they'd ever practiced, was there for her to tap. All science, all technology, all culture ever developed, either in the Outside world or in a world Inside, was preserved here.

:: So who are you, child? :: Anûk asked her.

I'm all of me, Zetai realized all over again, not just Marisa but Deborah and Alexa and all of us. And I'm you, and him, and her, and them, and… Tears poured down her cheeks in something like religious ecstasy. And I'm Sam, and he's me! All those years we lived, celibate with each other if not with others, afraid to reach across that last barrier lest it ruin what we already had, afraid to lose each other! But we can't lose each other, because we're parts of the same person! She looked around wildly. Where is he? I have to tell him!

:: Go ahead, child. We'll talk more later, :: said Anûk, but Zetai wasn't listening. Back in the Outside world, she rose to her feet, then ascended into the green sky in telekinetic flight. She cast a mental net wide, looking for Samo. There he was, standing on a grassy lawn on the north side of the island, above a slope of huge boulders tumbling down each other fifty feet into the sea, where they found no beach, but only more boulders rising from the waves. He was looking at her with his mind's eye, and smiling. She cried out, and flew, as an arrow flies, or the bullet from a sling. Her inner eyelids came down to shield her eyes from the wind of passage as it whipped at her clothes, and her nostrils and ears sealed as well. The omnipresent clouds of birds exploded out of her way in squawking terror.

"Samy!" she shouted, and flung herself like a thunderbolt out of the sky and into his arms. He caught her, and fell over backwards onto his back. She laughed, and wept, and pounded on his chest with her fists. "Samy, Samy!"

"Hello, Princess," he said, and hugged her tight. She shook her head violently. "No, no," she babbled, all restraint lost. "Not a princess! I'm me, Samy, and I'm you, and you're me, and we're us! Don't you see, Samy, we're us!"

He sat up with her on his lap, one arm around her shoulder. "Whatever you say, Zety. You call the shots, you know that."

She took his face between her hands. "Make love to me, Samy love."

He searched her eyes with his own. "Are you sure?"

She laughed at him. "I don't believe it! You are going to make me beg!"

"Never," he said. "I just don't want to lose what we've always had, Prin—Zety." He pulled her close, and said, "I don't want to lose you."

"You can't lose me, because we're us. We're the same person! Can I lose my right arm? Can you lose your heart?"

"A long, long time ago," he said softly. But he didn't say anything else, for she closed his mouth with her own, and pushed him over again.

A little later, when she opened her body to his, she opened her mind as well, and they truly became, for a while, the same person. She moaned in joy, and across the universe, people who happened to notice blessed them with fond smiles, and then turned their minds away to give them privacy. When the first orgasm peaked and crashed upon them like the waves on the boulders below, she couldn't tell whether it was his, or hers; and it didn't matter whose; and it was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her.

A "Sleep of Reason" Earth,
The 5th day before the Ides of November, 2767 A.U.C.
Sunday, November 9, 2014 A.D.

"Maybe it's a good thing that it's raining," Lonnie said. He was in civilian clothes, not his uniform, a black raincoat over a dark suit and plain black tie. His head was bare, the fine black hair slicked down by rain water.

The sky was a uniform dull grey. Though it was Sunday morning, the light made it feel like late afternoon. The constant drizzle wet the mourners, the grave stones, the grass, the trees, and the iron railing around the cemetery.

"Why do you say that?" Mina asked. It made him feel a little bit better to look at her. Black suited her; she looked cool and elegant and fashionable, and didn't seem bothered by the drizzle. He hadn't asked her to come, but she'd showed up early and stayed with him through the service, and then had driven him out to the cemetery. He might have lost two old friends, but something else seemed to be developing.

"I just meant that, without the rain, we'd probably have an even bigger crowd than we do," Lonnie said, waving at all the people waiting for the priest to begin.

A lot of them were cops, who must have juggled their shifts with other cops to be here. Sam and Marisa had had a lot of cop friends. In the years they'd lived in New York, they'd helped the department many times—and driven it to the edge of exasperation, when they settled something their own way, almost as many times again.

He knew some of the ones who weren't NYPD cops, too. The middle-aged lady, with her husband and college-aged kids in tow, was Sam's god-daughter, and the slightly younger Oriental lady was Marisa's god-daughter, whose father had been Marisa's old houseboy. The tall man who looked remarkably like a younger version of Sam, in the United Nations Police uniform with the captain's bars on his shoulders and the UNOLE patch on his sleeve, was Sam's cousin. His wife, also a captain in U. N. Orbital Law Enforcement, looked like a typical Childe, with a slightly larger head than a base-line human, and bald except for a little fringe of hair around the skull. But she was still here, and the Childe ship had left orbit years ago, so she must be a Childe reject; the polite term was "cull".

Some of the ones he didn't know personally, he recognized anyway. That old man with the cane had a decidedly Native American cast to his features; the woman standing next to him and snuffling into a handkerchief, even more so. That was Marisa's old multimillionaire boyfriend, and the wife that Marisa had found him. Lonnie also recognized three former Presidents, each with Secret Service escorts, from across the political spectrum: one Green, one Social-Democrat, and one Socialist. The King of England wasn't here, but the Prince of Wales was, chatting with the Crown Princess of the Empire of Iberia. Lonnie wouldn't be surprised if some other present and former world leaders had sent personal representatives, but those were the ones he recognized.

There remained an awful lot of middle-aged to elderly people he didn't know, getting wetter by the minute despite a forest of umbrellas. He hoped none of them caught pneumonia and died.

What you realized at a funeral, he thought, as the priest began speaking and the mourners fell into rows, was how much history a person had. Unless the dearly departed was a child, with its own special sadness of unused potential, you saw by those who attended how many lives had been touched, and how many stories you would never hear. Unknown to Lonnie, tears rolled down his cheeks as he looked at the caskets holding the broken bodies of his friends.

If there's a heaven, he thought, here are two who surely deserve it.

The World, 4 Galestô Simao, Year 2001 (Second History)

"Just like being an angel," Lańa sighed, floating on her back in the air. The image would never have occurred to her before living a life on a virtual Earth, with its mythologies.

"You'd look silly with a halo," Ĵuha objected.

They had fetched props and were having a picnic in the sky. A blanket floated on nothing, as firm as if it rested on the ground, with a big basket set squarely in its center. Two dishes of potato salad accompanied it, required by the scenario but ignored. Ĵuha was stretched out on the sky with his head in Lańa's lap. Pillows were strewn here and there at picturesque angles.

"The halo is just a special effect, and it would be easy enough to grow wings," she said.

"Feathers and everything? You'll traumatize the birds!"

She opened her mouth to answer, but motion out of the corner of her eyes distracted her. A line of insects, spaced with perfect regularity, marched towards the picnic basket. The solemn pomp of their procession didn't match the frantic scrabbling of their legs, Lańa saw.

"Ĵuha?" she said in a choked voice. "Did you order ants?"

"Sure," he replied airily. "What's a picnic without ants, sweetheart?"

A deerlike řobē, nibbling leaves in the forest below, looked up in alarm at the laughter floating down from the sky. After a moment, it went back to the serious business of eating.


"Wheee!" Qisp reached the top of his loop, arms flung straight out in imitation of a biplane, and threw himself over backwards. At the bottom of the loop he stuck his tongue out at Zuk. "You missed!"

"Yup," Zuk said. Like Qisp, he was wearing biplane-era aviator goggles, though neither of them needed them. "But I got you anyway. You pulled too many g's on that loop."

"I did not!" Qisp protested. White clouds drifted about them as they floated above Da Hodestai, supported only by their telekinesis. "Did I?" Qisp asked Kristu.

"You did, too," the purple-haired girl said, and had Anûk show him the motions and the forces of the dogfight, and how it would have affected a real biplane. He'd torn his wings right off, Qisp realized.

"Aaaaaah!" He flung his feet together over his head, and started corkscrewing down. The others followed, Kristu laughing, and Zuk going rat-a-tat-tat as he machine-gunned the wreckage.

"Okay!" Qisp said. He turned his tailspin into a sitting position with a twist of his body. "Now let's try it with something built for those kind of maneuvers!"

A few minutes later the birds, who had thought they were done being frightened for one morning, scattered again as three "variable-wing jet fighters" chased each other around the sky, shooting "radar-guided missiles".


Smiling, Culi turned another page. In the ancient library of the city of Anθorâń, knowledge was preserved in actual books. The oldest books were bound printouts from the city's computers, made after the city was successfully landed but before the computers and the printers stopped working. Later books were hand-written copies of those, or journals and original works from the era when Anθorâń was on its own, a flying city grounded among blood-drinking savages, far beyond the shelter of Elarâń.

The journal he was reading was the day-to-day reports of an expedition that had left the city and gone even farther south. They had kept the ocean on their right as they walked all the way to the southern end of the continent. They'd renewed their food by hunting, their water from the river mouths, and found strange animals and strange people, descended from survivors of air-car crashes when the Star burned. They didn't find another city, as they'd hoped, or even the ruins of one.

They rounded the tip of Kantos, not certain they'd done so until the suns rose from the ocean instead of setting in it. They proceeded north, another epic baldly recounted in calculations of food eaten, miles covered each day, and strangers met. At last the Wasted Lands barred their way. No expedition on foot could carry enough water to cross them. Nor did the Anθorâńē know whether there was a break in the Sealed Mountains beyond the Waste, and if so, where it was.

So they turned southwest, following the edge of the grasslands, and the hardest part of their story began. For the Girē and the Cundē lay between them and their city, and to encounter them was death. The explorers learned to travel at night to avoid red-haired, řobē-mounted savages. It was a bare handful that staggered back into the city, twelve years after they left.

Culi put down the book and whistled softly. Dust motes danced in the beams of light slanting down from the windows above the great bookcases. Only a few others sat at the long tables down the middle of the room. Everything known to the Iǹgrē, and every book ever written, was stored in multiple brains and accessible through Anûk. But Culi had enjoyed ys vacation, and savored the quiet and the peace in the nearly empty library.

"Excuse me," said someone behind ym. Culi turned around.

A stranger stood there in the white robes of the reborn. He had dark blue hair, straight and medium long, and light blue eyes. Culi cocked an eyebrow in query.

The stranger was nervous, but determined. "I call myself Lûn," he said. "I was just reborn about a month ago. The people who were helping me find my footing in the World said I should talk to you."

"To me?" said Culi.

"To someone in your household," Lûn said. "It seems that your house is comfortable with aliens?"

"Ah," said Culi. "May I look at your lives?"

"Go ahead," said Lûn, licking his lips. "Ah… thanks for asking first."

"Not at all," Culi murmured, and through Lûn's tise, examined his Inside past. Lives flowed past ym, mostly wasted lives stuck in the traps of Earth. But here was the life that mattered to Lûn. Lûn Xorr had been a Venusian in a Solar System where most of the planets had their own humanoid, sentient species. He'd been a spoiled rich brat, and his father had insisted that he enter an interplanetary police service (much like the one Culi and his partner Rick had belonged to, or Samo in one of his lives) before coming into his inheritance. The slant-eyed, flat-nosed, blue-skinned boy had run head-on into the drill instructors at the Academy, who hadn't put up with his shit for one second. Torn from the warm cocoon of his father's wealth and power, Lûn had been lost. But a Terran cadet had befriended him, and the two had become partners at graduation. Many adventures followed, until promotion led to separate commands.

Here was the life that had won him the Outside world. In this one, he'd been born in Montenegro, and had started out a typical hot-blooded man of that Balkan country, fighting Germans in that Earth's World War I with great ferocity, and making passionate love to dark-eyed girls, as well. But after the war, wounded in body and spirit, he took ship to America, and set up residence in New York as a private detective, as a famous ancestor had done in London. He buried his passion under a mountain of flesh and almost never stepped out of his house. Instead he gave his devotion to food, to the cultivation of orchids, and (when he needed money) to solving mysteries. He saw through the folly of conventional thinking as clearly as he did the twists and turns of the crimes brought to him for solving, and so delivered himself from the trap called Earth.

In another one, Culi saw, Lûn had been a New York police detective named Lonnie Sanders. Culi began to grin. Someone was in for quite a surprise!

"What?" asked Lûn, seeing ym grin.

"My friend," Culi said, still grinning, "it isn't for me to say yes or no. But I can say that the heads of my household will want to meet you, at the very least."


Hala and Mara sat on a balcony high on the western side of the flying city of Haθ, watching Vol descend towards the mountains. Below them flowed the Upper Serońa, that runs from the mountains down the tilted plain of Elarâń, turns southeast at the Highlands of Menai, and leaps from cliffs as the northern fork of the Double Falls. Far behind their current position, where the river turned, was the site called Fallen Haθ, where Haθ had been grounded until the Second-History Tlâńē became Iǹgrē, and launched the cities again. Below them was the Forest of the Fountain of Flame, source of the metal for the swords that Morgańa gave to Êstâz.

Mara looked at Hala, and decided again that he was very handsome. The red-haired Iǹgrē, with his horns and the hawk markings on his face, was not the boneless, hairless, blue-skinned Tlâńē she'd married in the First History, but the mind was the same, and the memories, and the love. Her lips curved tenderly. The love was what mattered, not the body. She sighed in happiness.

His hand fell away from his chin, where he'd been stroking a blonde beard that wasn't there, without realizing it. He reached out a hand to her, and she took it in hers. "I love you," he said.

"#*," she said; a Xylarian happy-sound. She curled her legs under her, and leaned over to kiss him.

She had a lot to be happy about. In her First-History life she'd been created as an experiment, and was neither Tlâńē nor Verē. Though Verē-like, she'd been short and weak by their standards, with lensed eyes, like an ancestral human; but with Tlâńē-like insides. She'd been different all her life, despite her power, despite her status as a hero, despite her Tlâńē husband—the laboratory freak everyone pretended to like, she'd always felt.

Now she was an Iǹgrē like any other Iǹgrē, with the same body and organs and features, the same height and strength as anyone else. In honor of her Xylarian life, she'd chosen hair and eyes the butterscotch color her skin had been, rather than the yellow hair and blue eyes of her First-History life. Since Iǹgrē eyes and hair came in all colors, even that didn't make her stand out. If anything, her choices were a bit conservative.

"Do you miss your staff," Hala asked, still holding her, "or your ring?"

"Not a bit," she said. "Who needs a Ring of Power, or a Star Staff, when every one of us can do all the things that Eborai Lapo could? Even the communion I had with the Ring, or the Staff, is nothing next to being linked to Anûk and everyone else."

"But you aren't one of the most powerful people around, any more," he said.

"No, instead I fit in! I belong!" she sang, and kissed him fiercely.


The šumē, or sea serpent, had lived for a long, long time, getting bigger every year, as serpents do unless killed. He no longer remembered a time when he'd fled from others of his kind. Others fled from him, now, and if they didn't flee fast enough, he ate them!

But now something didn't flee! Above him, at the surface of the water, another undulated, daring to cast its shadow on him! Him, the largest, greatest, most powerful bull serpent of them all! He roared a challenge. The submarine world rang with his roar, and everything for miles around cowered in hiding, or streaked away.

In the desert made by his challenge, he hung and waited, fins rippling along his sides. No answer! The intruder didn't even bother to respond, just paddled in place and ignored him!

Burning with rage, the huge serpent rose, adjusting to pressure changes as fast as he could.


Samo laid flat on his back, naked, panting, and covered with sweat. Zetai sprawled on top of him, also naked and sweaty, holding his wrists. She growled as she nuzzled his neck with her teeth.

"You're going to kill me," he said, half joking. "A man can only take so much."

"But what a way to go, Samy love," she murmured. She stretched, rubbing her body along his.

They were lying in the bottom of a long, narrow ship with no deck and a minimum of stiffening bracers. Like a Viking long ship, only more so, it slinked up and down, back and forth, writhing like a serpent on top of the waves, instead of crashing through them stiffly. Flexible outriggers, three to a side, simulated a sea serpent's fins.

"I'd wear you out some more," she whispered in his ear, "but someone else is coming to finish you off."

Samo was confused for a moment, then he saw what she meant. Through his link to Anûk he saw the king serpent coiling up from below. Eio! What a monster it was! It put him in mind of the old stories about sailors landing on islands, which turned out to be huge fish.

"Saved by the sea serpent," he said, and kissed her hard. Then he swept them both through a tele. On the other side they were rested, clean, and had gills to breathe under water. That was the last time they'd be allowed to use a tele until the battle was over. At the belts of the shorts they now wore were scabbarded knives as long as their forearms. Samo held a spear in his hands, and Zetai a trident.

:: Good luck, :: Anûk said, and broke contact. Samo turned his head to look at Zetai, and found her looking back. For a long moment they savored the sight of each other, love flowing between them like an electric current.

The gigantic serpent broke the surface and reared up, bellowing his challenge in the salty air. The world seemed to shake from one horizon to the other. Overhead, clouds raced by in the green sky.

With shouts of gladness, Zetai and Samo plunged into the waiting ocean.

Zetai, Samo, and their Household will return in
The Dream Lover Caper
The Third History Caper
The Zeta People
The Duplicate Princess Caper


About This Novel

In one sense, I've been working on this novel since I was eight years old. My uninformed notions of "Outer Space" were largely comic-book driven, until I discovered the science-fiction section of the public library.

Stories "acted out" in the back yard with my brothers, comic books I "wrote" and my older brother drew, poems without referents in junior high and high school, long high-school novels that went nowhere—they were all building up histories, peoples, languages, and worlds.

By 1996 or so I had combined my super-hero stories from high school, the Arthur-in-Avalon dreams from college, my life in the Society for Creative Anachronism, my poems, and my what-if creative-writing exercises into one big picture, and had ideas for many of the stories and books to flesh it out. I was even going to a writers' workshop and trying my writing on them (not that they were impressed; my writing was too "weird" and not commercial enough). But how to introduce a reader to the whole thing? Three universes of stories—The Common History of the previous cycle of the universe, the First History of the Verē Empire and the Defenders of the Covenant, the Second History that comes about literally after the universe is destroyed, and the Inside stories that take place on every virtual Earth ever imagined—where to begin? How to begin?

One evening, reading the adventures of two of my favorite fictional heroes, it hit me. What if those characters were the Inside lives of two Iǹgrē? What if they woke in the Outside world and were introduced to it, introducing the reader at the same time? Substituting these very particular characters, for the stranger I had vaguely imagined for the role, made it concrete enough that I could begin typing.

By 1999 I had eleven chapters, which took me to where Trickster gunned down The Loop. There it ground to a halt. I'd been running on instinct and action scenes. I hadn't decided (or figured out) who Jedai was, what y was up to, or why The Loop had to be eliminated; I had no idea where to go from there. On the other hand, I'd had Sam come Outside first and was having him introduce Marisa to their new world, which was making things between them move too fast; and I had far too few characters.

So I started over with a second draft. All the good stuff from the first draft was kept, but now Qisp welcomes Marisa; Hala and Zuk welcome Sam; Hala and Culi start briefing Marisa and Sam. Who are these characters? What are their backgrounds? Why are they helping Marisa and Sam?

It has grown as it's gone, taking me places I never expected it to get to, and showing me things I hadn't known about—the Skyburst Earths, for example, and their Xylarian/#Aboran background. That's generated stories of its own, with one or two novels not-so-patiently biding their time! For now, I hope you enjoy my first complete book. Please write to me and let me know what you think.

Leo David Orionis
December, 2003 A.D. (2756 A.U.C.)
leo AT Leo Orionis DOT com

P. S. Fourteen years later and many thousands of words farther on, I'm rewriting "The Reborn Princess Caper" to make the technology of Marisa's and Sam's Earth plainer, and to fill in all the background that I hurried over the first time. If some of the tech seems like no big deal now, remember than an omnicom is a multitronic superbinary computer, not an electronic binary computer "cell phone" connecting to other such devices through microwave towers. Remember also that I started writing this in 1996, 21 years ago. There's a lot of computer technology, space exploration, social progress and legal progress in a "Sleep of Reason" 2014 that our own Earth can barely envision! Anyway, if you read the previous version on my old web site, I hope you'll like this version better. Thanks for reading!—LDO

Dramatis Personae

Named characters appearing in our story, in order of first actual appearance

Chapter 1

Lonnie Sanders, Detective Captain, NYPD

Asae Minatsuro, nicknamed Mina, Detective Sergeant, NYPD, C&M Division, technician and nerd

Juan Villaseñor, Detective Corporal, NYPD, C&M Division, technician and nerd

Marisa Pascale, adventurer, former criminal; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Hodestai Zetai, a woman of the Winter People, our heroine

Anûk, the collective race mind of the Iǹgrē

Augusta Hastings, Marshall, Duchess, war hero; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Tessa Anderson, psi adept; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Nike, the goddess of victory; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Paolina Cassini, Countess, nun, enforcer for the Church Militant; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Alexa Stevenson, architect and part-time ninja; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Betty Lou Smith, alien shape-changer, U.S. Army commando; an Inside life of Hodestai Zetai

Chapter 2

Sam Mackie, adventurer, former criminal; an Inside life of Hodestai Samo

Hodestai Samo, a man of the Winter People; our hero

Roger Cannon, expelled Space Patrol cadet, Solar Congressman; an Inside life of Hodestai Samo

Adam Black, world-conquering super villain; an Inside life of Hodestai Samo

James Conrad, Colonel, U.S. Army, traitor; an Inside life of Hodestai Samo

Sir Lancelot du Lac, son of King Ban of Brittany; an Inside persona of Hodestai Samo

Nemesis, mathemagician, self-appointed Destiny; an Inside life of Hodestai Samo

Chapter 3

Luther Hawley, encyclopedic genius, failure as a human being

Ĵuha, known as The Trickster; First-History thief

Lańa, known as Camoflage; First-History thief

Chapter 4

Hodestao Qispai (Qisp), a man of the Winter People with the primary persona of a teenaged 7th-Dimensional imp

Hodestao Halai (Hala), a man of the Winter People; in the First History, king of the Tlâńē and a super-hero called The Loop

Hodestao Zukai (Zuk), a man of the Winter People with the primary persona of a prepubescent alien from another planet

Solar, an android created by Luther Hawley, with Hawley's mind

Chapter 5

Jedai, a neuter Iǹgrē, a potential race mind

Chapter 6

Hodestao Culai (Culi), a man of the Winter People with the primary persona of a middle-aged alien super-hero

Chapter 15

Hand, a powerful and malevolent telekinetic mutant neuter

Khebu, an Aatuan prince from the Age of Warring States

Yxegao Kristai (Kristu), a Traditional girl of the Summer People

Ašarai Juhai (Juho), Traditional neuter, Speaker of the Summer People

M!ara*, a Xylarian policewoman, known on Earth as Mara, the Star Woman; an Inside life of Eborao Mara

Chapter 16

Alanna, known as Silhouette, a cat-burglar and thief; an Inside persona of Lańa

Leonine, a million-year-old man

Jon Lennon, an incarnation of a singer-songwriter found on many Earths

Paul Marion McCartney, an incarnation of another singer-songwriter found on many Earths

Michael Paul McCartney, another incarnation of the above

Alaĵai Kaθai (Kaθa), a Gêθē, Speaker of the Winter People

Hal King, known as The Archer, a super-hero and an Inside life of Hala

Chapter 17

Invictus, the living incarnation of the Sun; a super-hero and member of Star Guard

Nike, another version of the goddess of victory; a super-hero and member of Star Guard

Silkie, an aquatic super-hero, a member of Star Guard

Proteus, a #Aboran agent on Earth; a super-hero and member of Star Guard

Astarte, an immortal woman, Leonine's lover

Chapter 18

Juho, a serial killer with a love of long, sharp knives

Mrada, a general who ordered the death of millions

Saru, who uses control of weather to kill

Chapter 19

The Glow, a First-History super-villain, a psychopath and sadist

The Unreality Beast, an uncanny creature

Chapter 20

Lûn, a man of the Winter People with some interesting Inside lives

Time Line

The events of our story in chronological order
All dates in this time line are dates in the Second History

Year 1772

Numestē Borao—The Trickster is rebirthed by Jedai and reunited with Camoflage.

7 Xidestô Borao (the next day)—The Trickster's education about the Second History begins. He meets Jedai.

6 Xidestô Borao (the next day)—Trickster and Camoflage talk about genders in Eodâkai.

5 Xidestô Borao (the next day) to 4 Numestô Talao (about 24 days later)—Trickster and Camoflage explore the World.

4 Numestô Talao—Camoflage is seized by the monster.

Year 1773

6 Numestô Hed́ao—The future Hodestai Samai is given to Anûk at the Speaker Stone in Teřańa.

Year 1774

7 Galestô Talao—The future Hodestai Zetai is given to Anûk at the Pillar of the Promise in Lores-Tara.

Year 2000

4 Galestô Simao—The future Hodestai Zetai and Hodestai Samai are reborn on Da Hodestai, about four years and five years, respectively, after their abandonments, having lived numerous Inside lives. They meet Qisp, Hala, and Zuk and are reunited with each other. They meet Culi and begin to learn about the World.

3 Galestô Simao (the next day)—Zetai has a dream in which she meets her Inside selves. Samo alters his appearance. Zetai builds a mental link between them. They learn about households, and the past lives of Hala, Culi, Qisp, and Zuk.

12 Galestô Novao (about 25 days later)—A martial-arts training session ends badly.

11 Galestô Novao (the day after that)—Zetai and Samo, Culi and Hala, talk about lurking monsters.

10 Galestô Novao (the next day)—Doubt is good.

7 Galestô Novao (the next day)—Zetai questions Hala.

6 Galestô Novao (the next day)—Zetai and Samo take a giant step forward.

5 Galestô Novao (the next day)—Zetai and Samo choose names for themselves and for the household. Lesser house Hodestai is founded with oaths. Hala is sent on an information-gathering mission.

4 Galestô Dolao (about two months later; four days before the new year)—Jedai explains why Hala must be killed.

Year 2001

Galestē Dolao—New Year's Day; the World celebrates a new year, a new century, and a new millennium. The household is accepted by the other houses. Trickster attacks and gets away. That evening, he dreams of Camoflage as Silhouette.

4 Numestô Dolao (4 days later)—An inquiry is held on the attack.

Xidestē Dolao (12 days later)—Zetai and Samo explain constructive moping.

7 Numestô Jazao (17 days later)—Zetai has a brief mental contact with Hala.

6 Numestô Jazao (the next day)—Zetai scatters her household so they can locate Hala the next time he surfaces.

Xidestē Karθao (47 days later)—Mara breaks out of Jedai's Inside world. Zetai and her household arrive. Bodies all over the place.

16 Galestô Husao (2 days later)—Barriers fall.

4 Galestô Simao—One year to the day since Zetai and Samo were reborn, our novel ends.

Copyright © 1999, 2001-2003 and 2017-2018 by Green Sky Press. All rights reserved.