The Zeta People
by Leo D. Orionis

This novel is dedicated to every Household, whether Greater or Lesser.

Table of Contents

1. Two Goddesses in Teřańa
2. Paratime and Hyperspace
3. Non-Parallel, Nearly Identical
4. The Moral Imperative
5. There and Back Again
6. An Evening with Friends
7. Thrice Ended

To Be Continued in:
8. ???
9. ???
10. The First Thousand Years…
11. The Singing
12. "She's Gone!"

Chapter 1
Two Goddesses in Teřańa

There is a green star fiercely burning
In the singing of the night;
And there are watchers on worlds turning
Under its strange and emerald light.

There was a noble desert knight,
Clad in steel, armed with same,
Bred of sand and the stony height,
Proud for lady, proud for name.

There was a cathedral of the wood
Built long ago by an elder race;
Where their other works had stood,
Relentless time had left no trace.

There he sought the crown of flowers
That once had wreathed an elfin brow.
It had stayed fair while mighty towers
Weathered, crumpled, and fell low.

But there were warriors in the stone
Sworn forever to guard the kirk.
Their sword blades gleamed, their helmets shone:
They assault intruders where they lurk.

There are dragons in the twilight,
Over the dusk clouds sailing,
Where champions battled in the night
And champions' souls departed wailing.

There are bones to match the cries,
Men of family and fair name,
Thirty who had sought the prize:
Thirty-one now rest in shame.

—The Quest,
Anonymous poem of the Second History

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

The Green House of the Winter People is in the city of Teřańa, on the great island of Heki, on the polar continent of Loraon. It's laid out like a barred spiral galaxy. In the center is the Vault of Honor, where the lesser Houses meet, and on top of that is the Vault of the Promise, where the great Houses gather. Meeting rooms, offices, and other rooms of all kinds fill the buildings which jut out to either side in emulation of the Second Galaxy's central bar, then curve outwards to the edge of the Green House's park like spiral arms. Cottages, gazebos, fountains, bandstands, and studios dot the space between, in apparent randomness which is actually carefully planned to present innumerable scenic views.

Far to the east, glaciers on Moon-Tree Mountain reflect sunlight back to the green sky, which is pale and steely here, not the warm jade of the south. But even here, countless swarms of birds fill the air, and hop and perch on everything in sight.

It was almost noon. Vol, the green starsun at the heart of the Aboǹi system, was approaching the meridian, which at Teřańa's location put it about ten degrees above the horizon, due south. Orange Trânis lay behind it; the other three starsuns weren't visible, being at or just below the rugged horizon. Inside the Vault of the Promise, Nikao Peta stood in the middle of the floor, watching people come in and find seats for themselves.

Nikao Peta was a tall woman. Not in actual height, for all Iǹgrē are physically the same height, but in the impression she made on people. She seemed tall; even while your eyes met hers on the same level, you felt you were looking up to her. Perhaps it was her serenity that caused this impression. She was well named; peto means "serene" in T́uliǹgrai.

A Winter Person, who had lived many lives on a virtual Earth, would think of Sweden upon seeing Peta. The perfect oval of her face, her high cheek bones, her full lips perpetually half-smiling, her cool loveliness all evoked firelight in deep winter. If the observer were jarred by the short curving horns on her forehead, the antler-like horns emerging from her blonde hair, or the blonde lunettes which framed the featureless steel-blue eyes like parentheses, it only meant that Peta was Iǹgrē, not a simplified and limited "human being" of one of the Inside Earths.

Peta's household, Nikai, was a lesser house. Anyone familiar with Iǹgrē culture would that know instantly. First, because the tise, the mental "tag" that Anûk provided for every Iǹgrē, showed her name as Nikao Peta. "Nikao" had no vowel before it; a great house's name began with a vowel; hence Nikai was a lesser house. But even an alien who couldn't see the tise could see that Peta was wearing a white garment modeled after a Greek chiton, with a black belt, black sandals, and a necklace of flat black stone plates, each about an inch long and slightly wider at the outside ends. On the black band, or pale, down the front of the garment was a pair of white wings, joined and lifted as if about to take flight. Only lesser houses wore black and white; great houses wore colors, and their insignia were colored.

If the words for Peta were "serene" and "tall", then the word for her surroundings was baho, "grand". The Vault of the Promise, where the great households of the Winter People meet, was supposed to be majestic without being hostile or imposing; inspirational without being pompous. The round central floor was green marble with white inclusions, 120 feet in diameter. Outside that the seats rose, crafted of fine blond wood, arranged on tiers of emerald. The emerald looked carved, but Anûk had made it in one piece, deposited atom by atom by telekinesis as a tele rose from the marble floor. The roof of the Vault, part olivine stone and part clear crystal, had been created, and was kept clean, the same way.

Anûk is the racial mind of the Iǹgrē. Every Iǹgrē is part of ym, and at the same time a completely independent person; and y is also an individual, though y has no body of ys own. Through Anûk every Iǹgrē is linked to every other, and anything known to any one of them is known to all of them. Anûk is the race's communications, libraries, and computers. Drawing on the telekinetic abilities of the race—which is real in the Outside world, though only a myth on an Inside Earth—y, or parts of ym set to the tasks, manages the weather, tends the environment, draws the interstellar hydrogen to keep Aboǹi's supergiant stars stable, cleans the cities, and millions of other chores. Through teles, interfaces between the physical world and the mind-space of the species, y builds things, creating anything organic or inorganic molecule by molecule.

Peta's mind, however, was not on these everyday miracles. The conference about to begin would be the highest point to date in her career as a cosmologist. It was entirely possible that every Iǹgrē that lived, corporate or discorporate, on the World or off, would be watching. Those who didn't watch as she talked would surely watch later. All four of the World's heads of state—to the extent that the World had states to head—would be physically present, as well as at least one off-World head of state, numerous heads of great houses, some alien observers, and—

Her thoughts broke off. In the throng moving and talking on the chamber floor, or making their way to seats in the emerald tiers, one group drew her instant attention as they came in from one of the hallways to the outside.

In the front of the group was a woman with fine, raven-black hair and dark blue eyes framed by lunettes of the same black hair. She wore a white gown, white belt, and white sandals. On the front of her gown, above her hearts, was a ring of six black dots, the insignia of her household, Hodestai. On a chain around her neck was a yellow opalescent zete, the organic gem from which she took her name, Zetai.

Next to Hodestai Zetai was her mate, the other head of her house, Hodestai Samo. He was heavily muscled by Iǹgrē standards, where physical strength depended less on one's muscles than one's telekinetic power. He was ruggedly handsome, also unusual when an Iǹgrē could be any age or have any appearance by walking through a tele; movie-star looks and an apparent age of 18, as reckoned in Earth years, were the norm. Samo wasn't ugly, with his sandy hair and his bright blue eyes, but his attractiveness was real, not artificial.

As a male, he had markings like a hawk under his eyes, instead of a pair of crescents around them. The same sandy blonde as his other hair, they made an English "C" on each side of his face, with a spur just below each eye. He was dressed in a white shirt and pants with black collar, cuffs, belt, and boots—Traditional male dress. His shirt front also bore the Hodestai insignia, in the same location and the same size as the one on Zetai's robe. Samo said something to Zetai, waving at the chamber around them—probably about what they could have gotten for so much flawless emerald back when they ran a crime syndicate in one of their Earth lives. She laughed and put her hand on his arm. The look they exchanged made Peta's heart swell with gladness.

Behind Zetai and Samo came a Traditional mated trio. Hodestao Culi, the neuter of the three, was in a Traditional neuter robe that fell to ys ankles, with flaring sleeves. The Hodestai insignia was emblazoned over ys left heart, a little smaller than the ones worn by the heads of the household. Like all neuters, y was bald except for eyebrows and eyelashes. The brown eyes were in constant motion, sweeping over everything and everyone in the chamber. Y nodded politely when y saw her, and Peta smiled back.

Culi's male partner, Hodestao Hala, was another big man like Samo, with red hair and hawk marks, and thick red eyebrows over electric blue eyes. He was dressed in the same Traditional male clothing as Samo, but, like Culi, he wore the smaller badge of a Hodestai member over the left one of his two hearts.

You could tell from the way he looked at her that both hearts were given wholly to the woman at his side. Hodestao Mara had hair and eyes the color of butterscotch, and a joyous smile. In a white gown with matching belt and sandals, and the Hodestai badge over one heart, she held Hala's hand and looked at him like she'd just discovered him. Like Zetai, she wore a zete on a chain.

Coming out of the hallway behind Culi, Mara, and Hala (to name them in the Traditional order of neuter, female, and male) was a most unusual couple. Hodestao Ĵuha was a man whom most people overlooked, or if forced to notice, underestimated. His ordinary looks, sub-par in the beauty assumed by most Iǹgrē, consisted of lanky dishwater-blond hair and faded blue eyes. They belied his strong principles and sharp, unconventional mind. He was dressed the same as the other males in the household, white pants and shirt with black accessories.

His lady, Hodestao Lańa, was also dressed Traditionally, but no traditional white and black could tame the slink of her walk, or the shouting, tumbling glory of her red hair. She saw Peta, and her emerald-green eyes lit up. She waved extravagantly, as she did most things, then indicated her clothes with a sweep of a hand and a grimace: You see the sacrifices I make?

Peta waved back and shook her head sadly: You poor thing, I feel so sorry for you. Lańa laughed, and blew her a kiss.

The last six members of Hodestai came into the Vault all at once. Hodestao Qisp was a slender man with light brown hair, light green eyes, and a somewhat boyish air; he'd grown considerably more mature in the eight years Peta had known him, and she liked the changes. A lot of them were due to the woman with him. Hodestao Kristu, a knockout with purple hair and yellow eyes, had left the Traditional house of her parents to join the smaller and newer Hodestai as Qisp's mate. Kristu saw her parents in the tiers and waved to them. All three waved back happily.

Hodestai Zukai had given up his unruly dark green hair when he changed sex to neuter and became Qisp's and Kristu's partner. Smiling with the childish delight in everything that had always been ys, y looked about ym with bright red eyes under dark green eyebrows.

The final trio were the ones Peta knew least well, not least because they were so quiet; not unfriendly, but reserved, like the law enforcement officers they'd been in the one life they had together. The male, Hodestao Lûn, had dark blue hair, eyebrows, hawk mark, with very dark blue, almost black eyes. The female, Hodestao Mina, had black hair with blue highlights, and eyes the same color. The neuter, Hodestao Juho, had bright green hair and orange eyes, a statement (at odds with ys quiet manner and extremely common name) that Peta had never deciphered.

Hodestai wasn't a large house, and all thirteen of its members were here. Only Zetai and Samo had been asked to attend, because of the role they were to play. It said a lot for Hodestai's confidence that they all expected to get seats, with every Great House having better claim in this, their meeting chamber; but Peta wouldn't bet against Hodestai's chances of doing just that.

Samo led the household up into the tiers. Zetai, though she hadn't seemed to see Peta, came directly across the floor to her. She smiled and said, "Χαιρε Νικε!"

"Χαιρε Νικε!" Peta answered. Nothing happened. Neither woman transformed into the Greek goddess of victory, whom each had been in one of her Inside lives on a virtual Earth.

"Ah well," said Peta. The two ex-goddesses laughed together. Then Peta wrapped her arms around the dark-haired woman and hugged her tight. "Hello, Zetai. It's good to see you."

Zetai hugged her back, then drew back a little to look at her. Seen together, the two women had the same serenity, the same cool loveliness, and the same smile. Zetai kissed Peta and said, "Hallo, mother."

Chapter 2
Paratime and Hyperspace

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

Zetai stood looking out the windows at the base of the domed ceiling of the Vault of the Promise. It was noon. In some cultures, meeting didn't begin on time; in some cultures, it was rude to suggest that they should. Zetai turned and stepped through the immaterial robin's-egg blue of a tele; her foot came down on the floor of the Vault. Samo pulled out her chair for her just as the Winter Speaker said, "Let us begin."

A round table had been set in the center of the Vault, just large enough to give each person around it comfortable space, made of the same tough, light, blonde wood as the chamber seats. The chairs around the table were the same x-frame chairs that filled the tiers above.

The group assembled in the seats was impressive and unusual. Most of them Zetai and Samo knew of, but had never met; some, they had never heard of. It didn't matter. Every Iǹgrē is part of Anûk, and through Anûk they knew anything and anyone known to any member of the race.

"Thank you for coming," said Ylêsai Mrada, before taking ys own seat. The Speaker of the Winter People, their host, was a Traditional neuter with some untraditional leanings. Ys Traditional neuter robe was deep purple, belted and trimmed at the throat, wrists, and bottom hem with white. Depicted on the broad white pale down the front of it was a purple book, open and displaying white pages; lêse is the T́uliǹgrai word for "book".

The dark purple of the Speaker's eyebrows, and the light purple of ys eyes, were not unusual. But y chose to have stark white skin. The Iǹgrē had medium brown skin, and almost never changed it. Y was also the only person around the table without aides, courtiers, or family attending ym. Did y think everyone there was in attendance upon ym, Zetai wondered? If so, y wouldn't be Speaker for long.

"Thank you for having us," said Ašarai Juho, Speaker of the Summer People, a Traditional neuter with dark brown eyebrows, midnight-blue eyes, and an air of wisdom. Ys midnight-blue robes were hemmed in gold, and ys belt and sandals were gold. On the golden pale down ys front was a flying snake, flattened and spread for flight, depicted in midnight blue with gold eyes, mouth, and scale edges; šarē is the T́uliǹgrai word for these creatures. Several other heads of Summer People Great Houses sat in chairs behind ym, whom y valued for advice.

"Indeed, a most rare occasion," seconded Sesu, the Might, or king, of Aatu. Like his-her actual-father Sinuhe, in fact like nearly all kings in Aatu's history, Sesu was a fully functional hermaphrodite. With his-her head shaved in the Aatuan custom, Sesu might have been a Traditional neuter. But the firm jaw, the proud nose, and the hawk marks painted on his-her cheeks said male, while the sensuous lips, long graceful hands, and beautiful brown eyes signalled female. Only the black eyesbrows were neutral.

In the tropical heat of Aatu, the Might would have been wearing little but gauze and jewelry; his-her breasts, and the pelvic organ containing both sets of sexual organs, would have been plain to the eye. Here in polar Loraon, though the temperature in the Vault was comfortable, and any Iǹgrē could be as warm as desired, Sesu wore an opaque black kilt with a red front panel trimmed in embroidery of gold thread above muscular but shapely legs a ballerina would not be ashamed of. A tunic of the same black material, edged in red at the top, covered his-her torso from the upper curve of his-her full breasts down to the golden belt around his-her waist, while a woven red shawl with a fringe of gold thread hung, for the moment, on the back of his-her chair instead of over his-her shoulders. The golden crown of Aatu encircled the royal brow, vultures and snakes and pyramids in gold; his-her sandals, idly swinging, were also gold.

Behind the Aatuan ruler were three princes, close relatives dressed much as he-she was; and three nobles, similarly but less richly dressed, one of them not of the Royal Aatuan life cycle, but simply Aatuan, and female.

"I hope we'll begin at the beginning, and spell out exactly what we mean to do," said Lartu, Êstâz of the Tlâńē. "After all, if we're going to be meddling in Time, it doesn't matter how long we discuss it, or when we begin." He looked around him for agreement, and saw that he had it. Lartu son of Vîd́a had been on the Tlâńē throne for only four years, and was still finding his feet.

He made a handsome king, the iron crown sitting firmly in his long hair, which was primary-color yellow with lots of lemon-yellow streaks. Lemon yellow was also the color of his eyes. The red tunic he wore had a wide fur collar folded down, wide flaring sleeves, and a full skirt falling just below the knees. A cream-colored shirt beneath that showed at the throat, on his arms down to his elbows inside the outer garment's wide sleeves, and hanging just below the outer coat below the knees. A third garment, a robe of pure white, fit his arms down to his wrists, and fell to the insteps of his sturdy leather boots. A leather belt about his waist held a large leather pouch on his left side.

Behind the King of Tlâńor, four Dukes waited to give advice. One of them held the king's sword for him, a precious heirloom of the kingdom, the last remaining sword that Morĝai had given the original Êstâz, safely sheathed, with opals on the sheath to cage its fire.

"If I may," said the fifth leader at the table. "Who will be traveling in time, and why? Wasn't this done before?" #Ato!e, Speaker of Silea, wore white formal robes with stiff, padded shoulders, divided down the front and partly open; underneath was a collarless shirt with wrist-length sleeves, also white. A wide leather belt hid the simple drawstring tops of the pants that matched the shirt; the pants were also enfolded by the stiff full skirts of the outer robes. Leather boots not unlike Roman caligae completed her outfit. The white clothing didn't mean that she was of a lesser house; white was the Silean color for formal occasions. Silea was an alien world in the Inside scenario of Skyburst Earths. The Outside Sileans were Iǹgrē who remained Iǹgrē but adopted an alien language and way of life. This explained Speaker #Ato!e's subtly-different T́uliǹgrai, idiomatically correct, but with its vowels and consonants influenced by Silean. In short, what Aatu became through disaster, destruction, and a long struggle up from savagery, the Sileans became by choice—Iǹgrē of a different nation.

Behind the Silean Speaker sat two other women, dressed like her but in red, Staff Bearers sworn to serve their people. All three Sileans had skin the color of butterscotch, red hair, and pure black eyes.

"Sirs," said the Winter Speaker, "if you'll hold your questions for a bit, I believe you'll find they've been answered by the experts who will address us." Y nodded to Peta, sitting with two others near the table.

Peta stepped up to the table and looked over her immediate audience, ignoring those in the tiers and the rest of the 15 billion Iǹgrē in the universe. Ylêsai Mrada, Speaker of the Winter People; Ašarai Juho, Speaker of the Summer People; Sesu of Aatu; Lartu of the Tlâńē; #Ato!e of the Sileans. Eborai Lapo, legendary leader of the Defenders, with his wife and son. Zetai and Samo, with Hala, Mara, and Culi. Samo gave her a discreet thumbs up, and her stage fright eased. Flashing him a grateful smile, she began.

"Our universe is cyclical; it expands from a Big Bang, then contracts to a Big Crunch, over and over, each cycle taking many billions of years. The cycle before this one we call the First Universe, though there were, no doubt, other cycles before it. The present cycle is called the Second Universe. We can diagram them so:"

"What is that gap in the middle?" asked Ašarai Juho.

"Good question, sir. Time and space exist only along the world line of a universe; they are the dimensions of that universe. Between the Big Crunch which ends one cycle and the Big Bang which defines the next, the universe is a dimensionless point. I mean that literally; it is a point, with no dimensions, no space, no time. In that gap, time and space have no meaning."

Before the First Universe collapsed," she went on, before the Summer Speaker could frame another question, "Destroying everything in it, a time ship departed it. The time ship created its own universe, with its own time that passed many orders of magnitude more slowly than in its original universe. It returned to the universe after the next cycle had begun:"

One of the aliens in the audience was having trouble with her diagrams, she noticed. They were available directly through Anûk for the Iǹgrē, but were also being projected in the air over the center of the table, and directly before anyone who requested. The alien was a radially symmetrical being, 12 feet in diameter, like a starfish with seven flat, dull red arms edged with bright red prehensile fringes. Its translators were Iǹgrē who'd acquired the necessary organs by tele to communicate in the alien's way, then spent decades to learn its language. Whatever they were arguing about, no one directed a question at her; so Peta continued.

"We've been showing the First and Second Universes as equally long, with identical ends in Big Crunches. But the Second Universe didn't end naturally. The Mižinē in the time ship became the Verē, who created the Iǹgrē, who destroyed the Second Universe:"

Now a second alien observer was acting up. This one was normally a black thing half the height of an Iǹgrē, with a swelling at the bottom end, and a flexible whiplike top. Now it was perfectly still, and changing from red to orange to yellow to green to blue to purple to red, over and over. Its fellows were non-rigid; was the one having the equivalent of a screaming fit of hysteria? They were changing colors in a much more complex pattern… Oh. Through Anûk, Peta saw that the others weren't aliens, but more translator Iǹgrē. All honor to those who would be transformed into alien bodies to be better hosts for alien guests—and not me, friend, not me. Peta shuddered with revulsion, and went on.

"Some of the Iǹgrē who everted the Second Universe found themselves in another Second Universe, whose history differed after the ship from the First Universe arrived. We call the first time line, in which the Second Universe is destroyed, the First History. Our own time line, where the Iǹgrē found themselves afterwards, we call the Second History."

"The first big question," said Peta, tapping the question mark, "is the fate of this universe, the one we're in right now. Is this the same universe the Iǹgrē destroyed, or another? If it's the same, has it repaired itself, or is it repairing itself, or is it coming apart? If it's coming apart, how long do we have, and where can we go?" She paused, and looked over her audience with her steel-blue eyes.

"But surely—" started one of the Aatuan nobles, drawing a glare from his-her King.

"No, sorry," said Peta.

"What?" said the noble. Great, now everyone looked puzzled.

"These are difficult matters barely illuminated by ferocious mathematics," Peta explained. "Any statement beginning, 'But surely' is surely wrong."

"I only meant," the noble said, a flush on his-her cheeks, "the Iǹgrē destroyed the First History. It's over. We're later than that, we've already survived it."

"But we haven't," Peta said. "Look at the diagram. Here we are, on the left end of this line. Here the destruction is, on the right end of this other line. The destruction will happen, in the future, on a different time line. The fact that survivors have come back in time and across the time lines to tell us of it doesn't mean it's behind us, and it doesn't tell us anything about our own future."

"What about the 'Iron Curtain'?" one of the Sileans asked. "Doesn't that tell us anything about the future?"

"All right, let's talk about that for a moment," Peta said. "It was due to come up later, under who's going, and whether they're coming back; but let's talk about it in the strictly limited sense of whether it tells us anything about our future. Strictly limited," she explained with a grin, "so that my colleague doesn't break all my arms for poaching."

"Some time after the Mižinē made their last jump in their time ship, and before the first attempt to travel forward in time with a space/time ship after the the Iǹgrē restored civilization, the 'Iron Curtain' appeared on our time axis. Trips more than one hundred years forward in time became impossible. Trips shorter than that are possible, but become exponentially more difficult as the 100-year limit is approached. The limit isn't fixed in time, but moves with the present moment. The limit is 100 years from when you start."

"Some have suggested that the introduction of the Iǹgrē into our history is somehow the cause of the 'Iron Curtain', that as long as they and their descendants are here, the barrier will persist. A tidy notion, but untestable unless someone is willing to give ys, her, or his all for science. We already know that the barrier existed when the first Iǹgrē time/space ships were built, and that event is more than 100 years in the past. So anyone going back beyond it to see whether the barrier was there before then will be unable to return. I suggest they should settle some other planet, wait for this conference, and come in now to tell us the answer. Hello? Is anyone there?" She waited.

After a moment, Peta said, "In sum, we know the 'Iron Curtain' exists, and its location—always, for us, 100 years in the future. We don't know what it is, where it came from, why it's there, or how to get around it. What does it tell us about the future? Your guess is as good as mine; but mine is, nothing."

"What about the notion that the 'Iron Curtain' is the place at which the universe is healing itself?" one of the Summer People said.

"All right, let's deal with that, then we have to get back on track, or I'll have to spend the rest of my life in hiding. Seriously, folks, you have no idea how fierce the academic community can get. Zety? Samy? You'd protect me, wouldn't you?"

"Face enraged academics?!!" Samo said in a horrified voice, while Zetai laughed. "You want us to risk the Death of a Thousand Paper Cuts?"

"More likely the Byzantine Literature-Citation Torture," Zetai suggested.

"That's even worse!" Samo protested.

"Fine friends you turned out to be," Peta said, shaking her head. "All right—we're discussing the notion that the universe is like a magnetic-tape recorder as in some Earth technologies, and the Iǹgrē didn't so much destroy it as rewind it to the start of the tape. Our history, in this view, is being written over the First History, and the 'Iron Curtain' is the rewrite point:"

"But this picture is false, because there isn't just one 'Iron Curtain' but an infinite number of them, each 100 years after some point on our time line. For us, at this moment, the 'Iron Curtain' is a hundred years in the future; for someone in Galestē Ĵimao, 1711, the 'Iron Curtain' is here, right now, this minute. Anyone feel the cold hand of rewrite?"

"In sum," Peta said, "the 'Iron Curtain' is not an object, located at a point in time; it's a condition, under which it takes an infinite expenditure of energy to move forward in time. We can write the math to describe the increase of energy needed to move, but the necessary term in the equation is the time at which you started."

"Once again for the non-physicists," Ašarai Juho said pleasantly.

"All right," said Peta. "If you started yesterday, you would breeze right through the moment which will seem an unpassable barrier to someone else, who started out a hundred years ago."

"Thank you," said the Speaker of the Summer People.

"You're welcome," Peta said. "Going back to our first big question," and she tapped the question mark on her diagram again, "the easiest way to find out would be to go outside the universe, as the Iǹgrē did when they destroyed it, and just see what we can see. Unfortunately, that just leads to more questions, because what we see is fundamentally different from what First-History explorers saw."

"Explain, please," said Sesu, frowning. He-she toyed with the gold pendant around his-her neck as he-she spoke, a stylized representation of the upper spinal cord with a heart on either side.

"I can't explain, Might of Aatu, I can only describe. Travellers between universes in the First History perceived the universes as discrete globes of varying sizes, depending on where each one was in its cycle between Big Bang and Big Crunch. These globes existed in an n-dimensional space we call hyperspace, to distinguish it from the 3-dimensional space of a universe like ours; they expanded and contracted in a timelike set of dimensions we call paratime, for the same reason. All the universes observed at a given moment are a cross-section, in paratime, of hyperspace."

"I'm sorry, but I don't entirely understand what you just said," the Summer Speaker apologized.

"Space and time are dimensions in a given universe," Peta said. "They don't exist except in a universe, and don't extend outside a universe. But the universes are separated from each other by a set of spacelike dimensions; and grow and shrink in a set of timelike dimensions. We call these space and time dimension sets, in which the universes exist, hyperspace and paratime."

"Returning to our diagram, we make our assumptions explicit by drawing in axes for paratime and hyperspace:

"It's an assumption, as well, that identical events in the First and Second Histories happen at the same moment of paratime. It's the simplest assumption, so the principle of parsimony—always go with the simplest hypothesis—favors it. But my friend of Aatu," she said, nodding at the noble who'd spoken before, "could be correct. Perhaps the destruction of the First History is behind us, and we have survived it. If so, our diagram should look like this:"

"But we dare not assume this, and I wouldn't bet on it personally. Recall that the time ship from the First Universe arrived in the First History, at point A, at the same time, by ship clocks, as it did in the Second History, at point B. That argues that A and B are the same moment in paratime; which returns us to our earlier diagram."

"So First-History explorers of hyperspace observed the universes as globes expanding and contracting in paratime," said the Silean Speaker. Her bright red eyebrows were drawn together in concentration over her featureless black eyes.

"Right," said Peta, and summoned another picture for them:

"But this is not what we see now?" asked the Speaker.

"Unfortunately, no. What we see now is very different. Imagine a sheet of paper, stretching to infinity in all directions, with different irregularly-shaped areas in different colors. As paratime passes, areas of the sheet rise up, forming peaks or ridges, and then subside again. The whole sheet continually changes shape, as depressions or peaks form and then flatten." She projected a picture for them.

For a long moment everyone around the table, and everyone in the tiers, contemplated the three-dimensional, multi-colored image. Some just sat and looked. Others talked among themselves, pointing or waving their hands. Two big black aliens, shaped like the perfume cones Aatuans wore on their wigs at parties, sat directly on the emerald tiers three levels up (because they were too big for the chairs), and throbbed. Directly across the chamber from them, a shimmering yellow curtain of energy was another alien observer. As it rippled, as if stirred by an unseen breeze, red lights burst here and there within it, like a fireworks display.

"Has anyone entered one of those colored areas, to see whether they correspond to other universes, perhaps the rising and falling to expansion and contraction?" one of the Silean Staff Bearers asked.

"Yes," Peta said. "But we don't know what they found, because no one who's done so has come back. And Anûk lost contact with them."

Silence followed. Anûk is the group mind of the Iǹgrē, and every Iǹgrē is part of Anûk. When an Iǹgrē's body dies, Anûk holds the Iǹgrē's mind in ys own, makes a new body by tele, and returns the Iǹgrē to the world. To be out of contact with Anûk—almost impossible in itself—and have one's body die, is the only way an Iǹgrē can die permanently.

"Let's take a break," Peta said quietly, "so you can stretch a little, and think about what I've shown you."

"Sounds good to me," said Ylêsai Mrada. "Half an hour?" y suggested. The other two Speakers and the two kings nodded. "So ordered."

"Half an hour, then," Peta said, "and then my colleagues will introduce you to the other big things we have to face."

Chapter 3
Non-Parallel, Nearly Identical

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

"Shall we resume?" said the Speaker of the Winter People. His light-purple eyes looked around the table. The Speaker of the Summer People was there, with ys household heads to advise him; the Might of Aatu with his-her nobles; the Êstâz of the Tlâńē with his; the Speaker of Silea in white, with her two Staff Bearers in red. They nodded assent. The three members of House Eborai and the five from Hodestai nodded as well. Ylêsai Mrada turned to one of Peta's colleagues and said, "You're on."

As the man stood, Peta reflected that there was no reason any Iǹgrē shouldn't be drop-dead gorgeous, whatever ys, her, or his sex; tall; with rippling muscles and wavy hair. And yet, so many were not. Oh, few were actually ugly; anyone who hated ymself so much would never find ys way outside, and no one wanted to repel everyone else with ys appearance. Yet quite a few seemed unconcerned with conventional beauty. Zetai's mate Samo was rugged and husky, and more than one of his Inside girls had called him, affectionately, "my ugly man." Likewise, dazzling Lańa's Ĵuha was, at best, undistinguished.

"Honored sentients," said the short, lean man with the bald spot on top, "I am Professor Huovao Juho." Peta waited for someone to question the title, which meant nothing in the Outside world—Professor of what? Holding what "degree"? Granted by what "university"?—but no one did. The trouble was, the silly man looked like a "professor", right down to the archaic and surely-unnecessary spectacles he affected. He took them off for a moment and rubbed them, his white eyes, as perfect as any other Iǹgrē's, scanning his audience as he gathered his thoughts.

"My colleague Nikao Peta," he said, nodding politely to her as he replaced his glasses, "has spoken of hyperspace and paratime. If these are real dimensions, and not just conventions insisted on by our limited minds, then there must be a greater universe—an ultraverse, if you will—in which these dimensions exist."

Perhaps it was the diversity of his audience that let him get away with such preposterous statements, Peta thought. The various Speakers, Kings, Emperors, Presidents, Arch-Dukes, Secretary-Generals, etc. might be more willing to grant the benefit of their doubt to someone with a title, even "Professor".

Or maybe she was letting professional jealousy warp her judgment where an Inca, an Êstâz, or a maharajah had no personal axe to grind. She didn't think she was, but…

"If there is such an ultraverse," Professor Huovao was saying, "it must be vast beyond imagination, enormous beyond any hope of measurement. It may be literally infinite and eternal, so that only the calculus of infinite numbers can say anything useful about it."

Peta, who was all too familiar with Huovao Juho's theories, was only half listening. The audience in the Vault had changed almost totally during the break. Most of the alien guests had been replaced by others, for instance, though the energy being shaped like an aurora borealis still rippled in the same place. Wasn't that a Si? And didn't the Si come from another universe? One more thing to follow up on, later.

Most of the new aliens were as hard to describe as the former set, being completely unrelated to Peta's people. One exception looked a lot like a dolphin with long tentacles under his jaw, floating in mid-air over a seat; the guest-tag Anûk provided showed it to be a two-way hologram of an alien who was actually three hundred feet long, and watching from its own world in another galaxy.

Others were harder to tell without closer examination than she could afford at present. Surely the three naked Buddhas, one black, one blue, and one white, were some form of Iǹgrē? Yet the more she looked, the less their faces and bodies seemed human. Yet surely no alien so closely matched the human form? A quick peek showed that they too were present by hologram; each was, in fact, the size of a small continent, supported by telekinesis, nourished by sunlight. So surely they were Iǹgrē?

And what about the four humanoids with dark red skin, darker red long fur on their forearms, chests, legs, backs, and heads? What was the purpose of the glaring eyes, with their concentric circles of yellow and scarlet, or the noses, each shaped like a trumpet cut in half lengthwise and glued to their faces? They moved in bursts of speed, so that they blurred.

Meanwhile Huovao Juho droned on:

"If the ultraverse is infinite, and contains an infinite number of universes, then some of them must be identical to our own. In these universes, everything is exactly the same as in ours, down to the thoughts in your heads as you hear me speaking."

"A much greater infinite number of universes must be almost like ours," he said, scanning his audience. "Your counterparts there are thinking diffeent thoughts, or wearing different clothes, or sitting in different places, or," and he shrugged.

"If this is hard to grasp, consider a set of five coins as used Inside for currency, perhaps with a crown on one side and a star on the other. If you toss them on the floor, the odds are 1 in 2 to the fifth power, or 1 in 32, that all five will land crown up. But if you throw 32 sets down, it's nearly certain that one set will be all crowns. In general, if you throw n times 32 sets down, you will likely have n sets of crowns. If you have an infinite number of sets of coins, 1 out of every 32 will be all crowns. 1/32 of an infinite number is a smaller, but still infinite number."

"By comparison, the exact arrangement of all the atoms in our universe, and the exact state of each atom, is a large but finite number. In an infinite ultraverse, there must be an infinite number of universes completely identical to ours in every particular. It's a far smaller proportion of the whole—one out of every trillion universes would be vastly overstating it—but it's still an infinite number."

"Questions?" he said.

"What is this talk of 'atoms'?" said a person in the audience, standing up. He was a Childe from a Sleep of Reason timeline, with the typical oversized head with just a fringe of hair, like a monk's tonsure. He was dressed in purple pants belted at the waist with a white belt and tucked into white boots, and a purple tunic with baggy sleeves ending in soft cuffs about his wrists. His collar was open and folded back and down, almost like an Elizabethan ruff, but flat. "Don't you mean description points?" he asked.

"Indeed, sir," said Professor Huovao. "I was simplifying. But whether we speak of description points, or of the physical atoms whose matter is transcribed across a large number of description points, the argument remains the same. Only the scale of the numbers changes."

"So you're saying there are parallel universes?" said another person in the audience. He was one of a group of Iǹgrē dressed somewhat like Tlâńē in boots, robes, belts with pouches and musical instruments dangling from them, and crowns upon their heads. Seeing how intently Zetai and Samo were looking at them, Peta took the time to read their tiseθ. Interesting—they were from a world where the rulers were chosen, a year at a time, in tournaments fought to the death with real weapons. Then Anûk resurrected the losers until next time. Peta could see why her daughter and her mate, lifelong martial artists, would find that intriguing.

"No, that's not what I'm saying," Professor Huovao told the earnest young man—for so he seemed to Peta, though outwardly he was neither older nor younger than any other Iǹgrē.

"The theory of parallel worlds is grounded in quantum theory," the professor elaborated. "If an event has two possible outcomes, such as flipping a coin, both outcomes are theorized to occur, creating two universes that are identical except that in one the coin came up crown, in the other star. Over time, a single universe would become an expanding cone of universes, the farther ones being the ones where the first change occured furthest back, and the most differences have accumulated." He looked at his audience over the tops of his glasses. "We won't go into some of the abstruse speculations of such a world view."

Like whether lines with only slight differences might merge back together, thought Peta. Like whether our consciousnesses might wander from one to a near-identical one all the time, and never know because the differences were so slight and remote. Like whether body might follow mind. Like whether there really was such a thing as time at all, or did the mind just jump from one frozen universe to a lower entropy point of another, creating the illusion of time and motion? Like…

"But there can't be parallel worlds," Eborai Lapo said. He lived in an Iǹgrē body now, not a Verē one, but his brown hair was still combed down over his forehead, merging with the brown hair around his bright green eyes.

"When we explored nearby universes in the First History," he said, "every universe was very different from ours, and from each other. If your theory were valid, all the nearby universes should have been almost identical to ours, and we'd have had to travel far outward from our timeline to find universes as different as we did."

"What did you find?" the Might of Aatu asked, leaning forward with yearning in his-her eyes.

"See for yourself," Eborai Lapo said. And Peta saw: Gentle Rulsad maidens patting the unafraid flanks of wild řobē as they walked through the hush of an untamed wilderness. Kox and Drē, made of energy, hunting each other to extinction in the hearts of suns. Trilaterally-symmetrical Murē weaving towers of mathematics upon the red sands. Humanoid mutants, no two alike, fighting pitched battles over scraps of food. A pod of Kaikhlir in a crystal globe, gliding through the formless colors of Subspace Three. Vwyrdai pyramids under the light of a huge moon. Six-limbed, shell-backed Samâk'ońē swimming in an ocean, coral reefs like castle walls behind them. A planet exploding in terrible slow motion because of the scale of the events, chunks the size of moons blasting apart never to reform, the magma vomiting forth and vaporizing the seas, days and days and days while the pieces flew apart, still seeming almost to touch, THE ATMOSPHERE VANISHING INTO SPACE, THE PIECES BEGINNING TO SPIN…

"Enough," said Hodestai Zetai, quietly but firmly.

"Yes," said Eborai Lapo. "Sorry—that one is hard to shake."

"They deserved it," Eborao Suso hissed. Her son patted her hand.

"Nevertheless," said Huovao Juho in the silence that followed, "Tlûk Eborai is correct. The identical universes of which I speak are not parallel universes, arising from the accumulation of small changes. Every universe is completely separate from every other, and the differences between them completely random. Yet some of these random universes must be identical to ours; and many times as many must be almost identical. And yet again, though these numbers are infinite, they are still an infinitely small portion of all the universes that exist. So we would expect that none of them would be nearby, and this is exactly what First-History explorers found."

"Excuse me, I don't understand where you're going with this," said a handsome man in the audience. He was wearing stiff formal robes somewhat like a Chinese Mandarin's, somewhat like a Greek chiton, with a laurel wreath, wrought from gold, upon his brow. His tise showed that he was an Emperor from a Rome that spanned twenty star systems in a distant galaxy. The two other men and three women with him, Senators all, looked as puzzled as he.

"Here is my point, honored sentients," said Professor Huovao. "If universes identical to ours exist, it may not be significant that the First History and the Second History have a common history." Then, like the teacher he was, he waited for his "students" to go where he was pointing them.

#Ato!e saw it first. "Completely separate universes?!!" cried the Silean Speaker. "You're suggesting that the First and Second Histories are the histories of two different universes that have no connection with each other?"

"Exactly!" said Huovao Juho. "We might represent this theory in one of Nikao Peta's diagrams like this:"

"In this theory we have two universes, A and B, which just happen to be nearly identical. Indeed, for all of the Common History they are identical, right down to the Mižinē ship leaving one cycle before its Big Crunch and entering the next cycle at the same point in each universe's existence, at the same tick of the two identical ships' clocks. Hence we believed these two identical series of events to be one and the same."

"But after the 'Common History', events naturally diverge, because the First and Second Histories are in different universes. The Verē are the only race to succeed the Mižinē in universe A; they give rise to the Iǹgrē, who destroy that universe. In universe B the Mižinē are succeeded by Verē, Tlâńē, and Aatuē, and events are on a totally different course, until Iǹgrē survivors from universe A arrive and change everything."

"So the answer to the question, 'Why is there a First History and a Second History'," said one of the Silean Staff Bearers.

"Is, 'Why not?'" the other said. "They're the histories of two different universes, with no connection between them."

"So we don't need to worry about the end of the universe!" said the Aatuan noble who'd spoken before. His-her face shone with triumph. Other voices were raised in happy relief. Peta opened her mouth to speak, but before she could, someone else beat her to it.

"Wait," said Eborai Lapo. "We didn't find any universes like ours at all, let alone one nearby."

"True," said Professor Huovao. "But the Iǹgrē who came to this universe were outside the space and time of any universe. They destroyed universe A, then they woke up in universe B. In between, anything could have happened. They could have drifted in hyperspace while any amount of paratime went by. This universe could be anywhere at all with regard to the universe they destroyed. Perhaps it's the similarity of the two universes that pulled them in, where uncountable multitudes of others had passed them by."

"Perhaps, maybe, could have," said the Childe in the audience. "Can we test this theory of yours? If we can't, it's just pointless speculation."

"Indeed we can," said Huovao Juho.

Peta looked at him sharply. This was new! "How?" she asked.

He smiled. "It is proposed," he said to them all, "that we send an expedition back to the end of the First Universe, where history reports the Mižinē were aided by aliens. It's known that a team of Defenders did just that," he went on, nodding to the Eborē. "So, believing that universe A and universe B are the same, we expect to find both the Mižinē and the Defenders at the event in question."

"But if universe A and universe B are not the same," he said, "there will be no Defenders there, because they never existed in this universe. There will only be the Mižinē from our own Common History, and our own expedition."

"Furthermore, since our universe exists in a very different region of the ultraverse, our expedition won't see the collection of universes expanding and contracting that the Defenders saw, but the same 'sheetlike' structure we see today."

"So you're saying that by going back to the same event the Defenders went to, we can determine whether their universe and ours are the same, as we've always believed," said Lartu, Êstâz of the Tlâńē.

"Correct," said Professor Huovao. "In fact…"

"In fact," said Ašarai Juho, the Summer Speaker, with wonder in ys midnight-blue eyes, "if you're right, we must send this expedition, because the aliens our Mižinē saw were us."

"Ehiu," said Hodestai Samo, softly.

"Correct again," Huovao Juho affirmed. He looked at the Winter Speaker. "Some of us have been thinking about these matters for a long time. But it's a lot to take in all at once. I suggest another break before we move on to the next item on our list."

"The next item?" said Sesu, Might of Aatu. "There's more?"

"Oh yes," said the third presenter, who hadn't spoken before now. Y beamed at them all. "In fact, I dare say you haven't heard anything yet."

The whole chamber gaped at ym. Ylêsai Mrada said, finally, "Let's take a break, then."

Chapter 4
The Moral Imperative

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

"We're Winter People, in the sense that we lived many Inside lives after our parents gave us to Anûk," Suomao Vîd́a (Taawi Suomainen, his tise also said) was explaining to Samo. "In one of those lives, on a Sleep of Reason Earth, we were members of a club called the Society of the Golden Unicorn. The SGU held medieval tournaments, feasts, quests, wars, and practiced all the medieval arts, including dancing, singing, heraldry, calligraphy… it was a lot of fun. Those of us who graduated to the Outside World remember it fondly. And some of us have chosen to make the SGU lifestyle our permanent, full-time life on the Outside."

"So you limit yourselves to a medieval life style?" Samo asked. "Complete with peasants, dirt, disease, and religion?"

"Not at all," said Suomao Kristu (Kristiina Suomainen), Taawi's gorgeous lady wife. "We are Iǹgrē," she said, touching the antler-like organs through which they all absorbed energy, and the horns at the temples which sensed magnetic fields. Her eyes were solid emerald green, lacking the central pupil and surrounding white they'd had Inside, and they were marked with parentheses of hair from midway between eyebrow and hairline, back between eye and ear, and down to under the cheekbone; only Kristiina's lunettes were blonde, while Zetai's were raven black.

"We have the same ability to absorb energy from a sun as anyone else," Kristiina said, "the same connection to Anûk, the same privilege of drawing raw materials or a finished object out of a tele. So we don't need peasants to raise crops, craftsmen to make things to earn their livings, or merchants to sell them to feed their families. Nor do we have to go back to the mundane world between tournaments, and work at our "day jobs" as computer programmers, teachers, models, Air Force officers, or whatever."

"So you're free to dance, write poetry, or fight with your rattan tourney weapons all the time," Zetai said.

"Except that we don't use tourney weapons any more," Taawi said. "We don't have to worry about wounds, or even death, because we're parts of Anûk. We don't have to judge whether a blow to a leg is hard enough that we should acknowledge it by not using that leg for the rest of the fight. We use real weapons, and if the blow is hard enough, we really will be crippled in that limb. Then, after the fight, we go through a tele and come out with an undamaged body."

"And a killing blow?" Zetai said quietly.

"Then we're really dead," Taawi said, "until after the battle or melée, when Anûk brings us back."

"Please don't think we're bloodthirsty barbarians," said Suomao Aino (Aune Suomainen), another of the household's beautiful blondes. She'd been Taawi's and Kristiina's daughter on the Inside Earth where they'd all been in the SGU, but none of them had been born in the same Outside household. The core members of the household had been conceived, born, and given to Anûk by eight different households of the Winter People. If Aino considered herself Taawi's and Kristiina's daughter, Pertti's and Marketta's niece, or Anthony's wife, it was purely of her own free will.

"It's a sport, or art form," Aino went on. "We seek to perfect ourselves in the use of the sword, the axe, the mace, the bow, and the sling, no less than in playing the cornet and viol, dancing the saraband or the gavotte, writing villanelles or triolets, or any other medieval art."

"And there's still honor involved," said Suomao Juho (Juho Suomainen), Aino's other uncle, Kristiina's and Marketta's brother. His hair was blonde and his skin very light for an Iǹgrē, but the lady who sat beside him, holding his hand, had dark brown eyes and long black hair.

"If we put up our telekinetic shields," Juho said, "none of us could be hurt by a cobalt bomb, let alone a sword. Honor in our tournaments means giving up your powers and relying on muscle and bone and equipment only, during a fight."

"It sounds like fun," Zetai said. "When we get back from this trip, I'd like to come to one of your tournaments."

Suomai Pert́i (Pertti Suomainen), the head of House Suomai/Suomainen, looked at her with raised eyebrows. "You're the ones going on this expedition through Time? That explains why you're at the big table."

Suomai Morĝai (Marketta Suomainen) bumped her hip against Pertti's leg in reproof. "My husband means to say, you'll be most welcome, of course," she said, with laughing eyes.

While Zetai and Samo were talking with most of the household from Golden Unicorn, one of them, Suomao Tonai (or Anthony Suomainen) was listening intently to Professor Huovao and the Childe Augustus Marius arguing cosmology. At the same time Hala, who'd been King of the Tlâńē in the First Universe, was listening to six delegates from Tla'a Mu'an, or New World, a Tlâńē colony world. These colonists, braving the censure of the rest of their race, were living a life much as they had in the First Universe, in bodies that looked like their original bodies, but with Iǹgrē powers, and connected to Anûk. This earned them great scorn from more traditional First-History Tlâńē, such as the pioneers of Tla'a Tle, True World, who had chosen to be reborn in unenhanced Tlâńē bodies and live solely by their own race's technology. Hala applauded the courage of both groups, and listened as the Mu'antlu told him of their efforts, their hopes, their fears, and their achievements.

His lady wife, Mara, had been engineered in the First Universe to be mostly human, but with enough Tlâńē genes to be accepted by Tlâńē technology. Half Verē, half Tlâńē, she wasn't important to, or very welcome in, any Tlâńē faction, and wasn't at Hala's side at present.

Instead, she was mingling with two other groups, both of them from Iǹgrē worlds which had modeled themselves after aliens in Skyburst Earth scenarios. The Silean speaker and her two Staff Bearers had been joined by a group of Pailians: a Crown Bearer, a Shield Bearer, and three Eaten Ones, one of whom was also Nameless. While Sileans were Iǹgrē who chose to live by a mix of Xylarian and Silean customs, the Pailians added only a dash of Imperial Silean to their Pailian way of life. Mara, who'd been a Xylarian Staff Bearer in an Inside life, joined easily in the talk between the two groups, whether in T́uliǹgrai or the pops and clicks of the Silean tongue and its descendants.

Dozens of conversations were going on in the Vault, and only the contention around Huovao Juho directly concerned the revelations he'd made. True, Hodestao Kristu was sitting with her parents, catching up as if they'd never have a chance to do so again, while Qisp and Zuk stood by awkwardly. But Culi was discussing police techniques with an Imperial investigator from Roma Transmundana, Lańa was admiring the jewelry of a noble Mayan lady (while her noble consorts openly ogled Lańa), Lûn and Mina and Juho were with a bunch of elves from a colony world modeled after an Earth where nearly-immortal human variants were numerous well into historic times, and—

Conversations halted as Ylêsai Mrada took ys place at the table again. Even the blurry-fast red-furred aliens froze like statues, waiting for ym to speak.

"Honored sentients," y said. "May we resume?"

The groups broke up. Anthony, rejoining the rest of the Suomē, passed Ĵuha, descending from where he'd been trying (with Anûk's help) to talk to the aurora-borealis-like alien. The tiny ripple of light he cupped carefully in one hand held his rapt attention until his mate's rippling laugh broke in on his concentration. One of the Mayan men had started to follow her, until the lady he was with grabbed him by the ear and marched him off (half his size as she was), scolding in a rockfall of glottalized Mayan consonants. The alien pet (child? toy? weapon? tool?) zipped back to its owner (?) as soon as his concentration lapsed. He sighed.

Full to bursting now was the Vault of the Promise, with every great household represented by at least one person, many more worlds represented also, and a mostly new crop of aliens. It was likely, as the three Speakers, the two Kings, and the Hodestē and the Eborē sat down, that every single Iǹgrē alive was paying at least some attention to the proceedings.

If this intimidated Hâmao Leike, whom the Winter Speaker prompted next, y didn't show it. In the Traditional robes of a neuter, with a black spider on ys chest (hâme means "spider" in T́uliǹgrai), y beamed at them.

"Don't look so worried," y said. "I said you hadn't heard anything yet, and I believe that's true. But I'm not here to strain your brains with cosmological conundrums. I'm here to appeal to your hearts, by presenting the moral imperative of the expedition."

The reaction might not have been what y expected. Most of ys immediate, physical audience was frowning. Samo said, conversationally, "A fine time I picked to leave my knives at home."

Zetai, looking the presenter over, said coolly, "Maybe the Êstâz will let you borrow his sword, Samy love."

Chuckling, Leike plunged on. "Nikao Peta showed you the background, and the big questions we're facing: Why are there two histories? Why is the view outside the universe different from what explorers found in the First History? What is the ultimate fate of the universe we inhabit? Since the only intelligible picture we can get of the greater universe around our own is back during its previous cycle of existence, she wants an expedition to go back and collect data."

"Huovao Juho suggests that the First and Second Histories might exist in two separate, unrelated universes, and that what we call the Common History is just the stretch of time during which all known events in the two universes are the same. He wants an expedition sent to test his theory. If he's right, there won't be any Defenders to protect our ancestors when they set out to come to this universe. They'll be in their own First Universe, protecting their own ancestors, and it will fall to us to protect our own."

Leike began to pace. "This is good science, as I hope everyone understands clearly. A falsifiable test is proposed; if the Defenders are there, then Huovao Juho's hypothesis is false, and the First and Second Histories are—somehow, some way!—connected."

"I'm not a cosmologist," Leike said, "so perhaps I shouldn't say this—but I hope he's right. I've never been able to really comprehend how a single First Universe could give rise to two identical time/space ships. But two universes, each with its own survivors and its own next cycle?" Y spread ys hands.

Every cosmologist present, including Augustus Marius, now seated with Peta and Huovao Juho, snorted involuntarily; but only Nikao Peta had the grace to look apologetic.

"What is your specialty, sir?" Hodestai Zetai inquired.

"I'm a moral scientist, Xûk Hodesty," Leike said.

"A what?" said Hodestai Samo. "Oh," he said as the answer came from Anûk.

The Iǹgrē had many sciences unknown to their Verē ancestors, the Verē's Mižinē ancestors, or the humans of Anûk's virtual Earths. One of them was sivohôlva, or moral science.

Moral science was a descriptive science, like linguistics. It studied the rules of right and wrong that people actually lived by, how they actually behaved in the various contexts of their lives, and how they expected others to behave towards them. In linguistics, a phoneme might have different expression in different environments—a Spanish D in Latin America was a stop at the beginning of a word, but a fricative between vowels; an English K, P, or T was aspirated at the beginning of a syllable, but not otherwise. In moral science it was understood that a group's rules were obeyed or ignored depending on whether someone else was watching or not, whether the someone else was likely to object to infractions or not, the general attitude towards law and rules of behavior, and many other environmental factors. No hand-wringing was wasted over violations of the rules, no outrage expressed, no punishment suggested; such things were part of a given culture, and also part of the field described by moral science.

In many Inside worlds, particularly ones where monotheistic religions eliminated their rivals, morality was often hijacked by religion. Any Winter person, with lifetimes on many Earths, could quote innumerable examples of priests and ministers who killed, raped, stole, sodomized, and in other ways violated the right and wrong of their society. Each could list the political leaders who claimed to be deeply devout Christians, for instance, yet told deliberate lies to win approval for attacking innocent foreign countries, killing and maiming thousands of their own soldiers, and many tens of thousands of the "enemy." And of course religious wars were always the bloodiest and most atrocious. Bad enough when Jews fought Arabs, or Moslems fought Hindus; it was when Protestant Christian fought Catholic Christian, Shiite Moslem fought Sunni Moslem, or Occidental Mithran fought Oriental Mithran, that total war was defined.

This was why Leike's audience had reacted with hostility when y'd said there were "moral" reasons to make the trip through time. To a Winter person, who'd had to suffer religious upbringings on Earth after Earth, who'd had to reject religion and all other superstition to win rebirth, religious "morality" was a dirty word, and anyone trumpeting moral reasons was, at best, highly suspect.

But now they understood, through Anûk, that Hâmao Leike wasn't a snake-oil salesman of the political or religious variety, using "morals" as an excuse to warp the expedition to his own purposes. He was a scientist, though in a different field from the two presenters before him, with additional scientific input on the trip. Now they were curious to learn what it was.

"If there are universal moral principles behind all the thousands of right and wrongs of any culture's morals; and if there is a deep moral structure underlying all moral systems (as deep linguistic structure underlies all human languages' syntaxes and grammars), then I suggest to you that they are as follows:"

"Suggest?" Augustus Marius said. "I thought this was a science."

"A very young science," Hâmao Leike said. "Not like yours, with literal millions of years of research behind it, across the time and space of two universes. Give us time to work; and give me credit that I don't claim as fact what I don't know to be true."

"Fair enough," said Suomao Tonai, in his seat. Then he realized he'd said it aloud, and many were looking at him, and turned bright red. "Sorry," he mumbled, while Aino giggled.

"Nothing to apologize for, Your Grace," Leike said; every one of the Suomē party was royalty, both Inside and Outside.

"Universal moral principles," he said again, and enumerated them:

"One. Above all, harm no one."

"Two. Do what is right and good."

"Three. Leave someone alone if y, she, or he demands it, even if you're certain you can help."

"You're going to say," said Leike, spearing Augustus Marius with his glance, the Childe's mouth half-open to speak, "that these are unrealistic, too subject to interpretation, and often ignored. You're absolutely right. These are deep principles. How each culture elaborates them, defines them, and to what extent observes them, is the whole matter of my science."

"This is interesting, but I don't see what it has to do with this expedition," the Silean Speaker said.

"That's what 'Rûk Ašarai said about Professor Huovao's lecture, right before he sandbagged us," Hodestai Zetai reminded the other woman.

"The point is, this expedition gives our people a chance to do good on a scale never before possible," said Leike. "History, both Inside and Outside, records its mass murderers, people who slew their thousands, their tens of thousands, their millions, even their billions. But we can be the first mass saviors, by saving the Mižinē."

"But won't that change history?" said the Êstâz, frowning.

"Is it wise to introduce an active variable into a passive observing mission?" asked Nikao Peta.

"Save them how?" demanded the Might of Aatu. "They weren't Iǹgrē. They weren't even Verē!"

"All good questions," Leike said, "which I had to answer to my own satisfaction, and others', before I was given leave to bring my idea to you. Plus at least one more, which I suspect has occurred to the Tsûk Hodestaiθ?" Y looked at them inquiringly.

Zetai nodded. Samo said, "Too right. How many times are you asking us to stop on the way back? There're millions of years between our arrival point and the end of the First Universe."

Hâmao Leike nodded. "Some of you have grasped the idea at once; some of you, I can see, are completely lost. So let me spell it out."

Y began pacing. "All the races who contributed to the Iǹgrē had race minds; a few of those gestalts had their own, individual consciousnesses, like Anûk. Conscious or not, every one of them saved each member of its race at death; and every one of them is part of Anûk. When Anûk became conscious, we learned that all Verē, Tlâńē, and so forth, who had ever lived, in either History, was alive in ym; and many have rejoined us in corporate form," y said, nodding to the Eborē.

"But the Mižinē weren't Verē," the Aatuan King said again. "What makes you think that their dead aren't dead forever?"

"And why add to the work load of this expedition?" Peta said. "A trip to the much more recent past, right before the last Mižinē died in our History, could rescue them and all their ancestors at once—if they can be rescued."

"We did that," Hâmao Leike said.

It was like setting off a bomb. The only people who didn't shout "What?!", in some language, were those so astonished they couldn't speak at all.

::We did that,:: Anûk confirmed, addressing the assembly directly, and the alien observers through the displays. ::On 3 Galestô Jazao, about three months ago, Hâmao Leike, Hâmao Ĵuha, and Namao Saru went back to a time shortly after the survivors of Êstâz Vîd́a's royal mission escaped Loraon.::

Through Anûk the Iǹgrē attending the conference, physically or otherwise, saw the three moral scientists floating by telekinesis a hundred miles above Lores-Tara, perfectly comfortable and completely connected to Anûk. They watched as the rebelling Verē slaves of the Second History, having seized freedom in bloody hands, chased down and killed every Mižinē alive—man, woman, and child.

"As you can see, we didn't change anything. We stayed away from everything, and observed. And one thing we saw," Hâmao Leike said, "was that the Mižinē, or at least the Krahosē of Loraon, did indeed have a group mind, though it was unconscious, and they weren't aware of its existence."

::On learning this,:: Anûk said, ::I began to connect to the old kind's group mind. I succeeded in doing so. When the last Krahosē was killed, the race mind and all the preserved minds would have died too; but by then they were part of me, and I saved them.::

"Then it's already been done?" said Ašarai Juho, Speaker of the Summer People. "If you connected to the Krahosē race mind just before the end of that race, you should've gotten every Mižinē who ever lived."

"Not the ones still alive in the First Universe when the Mižinē left for ours," said Eborao Vîd́a, son of Lapo and Suso. "Nor the ones who were born and died between then and the end of the First Universe."

"Correct," said Hâmao Leike. "But we missed far more than that. From the beginning of the human race, on one planet of the First Universe, to a Mižinē population spread over several galaxies, we should've gotten anywhere from a couple hundred billion people to perhaps several trillion. Instead, we got about a billion."

"A billion?" said Hodestai Samo. "All the Krahosē who lived back until—when, sir?"

"Until the Iron Curtain first appears in the Second History," Leike said.

"Have you talked to them?" Zetai asked. "Do you know when each of them lived, who her or his relatives were, and which of them are in there, too?"

::They sleep,:: said Anûk, ::enfolded in their unconscious race mind, and it enfolded in me. Let them stay that way until we have the rest of them. They are safe,:: y said with deep satisfaction.

"It occurred to us," said Hâmao Leike, "that perhaps the Mižinē race mind could only hold so many individuals, or only for so long. If we went back further, say to the time of the first Êstâz, we might find earlier minds present. So we tried that."

"And?" said Eborai Lapo.

"The earliest minds were all the same. The only difference was that the earlier set didn't include people who hadn't died yet, or been born yet, who were in the later sample. Every person who was in the earlier set, was also in the later set."

"We were trying to figure out what could have made all those people disappear, and why they're only missing up to the time of the Iron-Curtain era, when we learned of this expedition."

Hâmao Leike stopped, as if he'd made a full explanation; and indeed, the Hodestē were nodding. "Yes," Samo said, "that fits."

"Well, explain it to the rest of us!" exclaimed Lartu, Êstâz of the Tlâńē.

Hodestai Zetai turned her gaze on the King from Kantos, and he jumped. They seemed to burn, as with a black flame! In a voice as implacable as fate she said, "It's the coincidence of dates, Your Majesty. Going all the way back to the right time near the End is easy enough, and coming back may not be much more difficult, up until the Iron Curtain comes into effect."

"But that's millions of years ago, and crossing millions of years, a hundred years at a time, is going to be a long, hard slog. It's never going to be a trip someone makes lightly."

"Exactly," said Hâmao Leike. The Êstâz switched his attention to ym, glad of the excuse to look away from Zetai's burning gaze. She hadn't seemed that formidable a few moments ago!

"If an expedition is going all the way back to the First Universe, and will be able to sample the minds held in trust by the Mižinē race mind up to the Iron-Curtain era freely, but only with difficulty afterwards—" said Leike.

"—or already knew, before setting out, that the minds after that had already been rescued," Zetai said.

"—then they're probably the ones who saved the rest, the ones we didn't," Leike finished.

"Agreed," said Samo. "All right, we'll do it."

"If we can get back ourselves," Zetai said. "If we don't come back, some later expedition will have to do it, after you figure out what happened to us."

"If?" said Suomao Sθera (Esmeralda Suomainen), Juho's dark-haired wife.

"Yes, Your Grace," Zetai said. "If."

Chapter 5
There and Back Again

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

"Getting there is one thing," Zetai said. "Getting back…"

"I don't understand," said Eborai Lapo, echoing what the others were all thinking. "We weren't sure we'd be coming back, either, but the whole thing was unknown then. The actual event was almost anticlimactic; we went, we saw what we saw and did what we did, then we came back. Why shouldn't it be the same for you?"

"I could try to explain, but I'd probably mess it up," Zetai said. "Samy?"

"I'm not an expert, either," Samo said. "Peta? Will you explain it to everyone else the way you did to us?"

"All right," said Peta, standing up. "Lord Eborai, what you did and what the Hodestai are about to do are only somewhat alike. Here's a picture of what the Defenders did:"

"After fighting the Verē civil war, you left the Second Universe in the Verē year 10,030 and journeyed back along the universe's timeline, past the Big Bang that began the Second Universe, past the Big Crunch that ended the First Universe, arriving in the First Universe in the Mižinē year "9490" (remember, their "10" is two fives, not two fours). You saw the Mižinē safely on their way, then returned to your own time, in your own universe."

"We know," Eborao Suso said. "We were there."

"But notice what's missing from the diagram," Peta said. "No Second History, no 'Iron Curtain'. You went back, you stayed a little while, and you came back the same way you went, in one trip."

"We didn't know about the Second History," Eborai Lapo said. "It must have been there, of course."

"Of course?" said Peta, pouncing on his words. "Obviously? Are you certain? Because I am not; and Huovao Juho thinks you're wrong."

"* * *," said one of the Silean Staff Bearers: Oh, shit.

"Ehiu," Suomao Aino agreed. "Just when my head had stopped hurting, too."

Eborai Lapo was intent on anything that concerned the mission, even though the mission was long over. "So you're saying that it's significant that our trip was easy?"

"Easy!" said his son Vîd́a. "Never mind a little civil war before we could go. Pay no heed to the battle against unknown, hostile aliens on the other end. It was easy, I tell you!"

"The trip was easy," Hodestai Samo said. "You went from your time and place to The End, easy as taking a bus. Then you came back the same way."

"Exactly," said Peta. "This suggests that there was no connection between the First History and the Second History when the Defenders went back. Either the Second History didn't exist yet, or it's part of a Second Universe descended from a different but identical First Universe, as Huovao Juho is proposing."

"Didn't exist yet?" said Êstâz Lartu. "You're suggesting that the Iǹgrē created our Second History? Made a whole universe from nothing?"

"Why not?" said Nikao Peta. "They destroyed a universe, then woke up in this one. Perhaps that act of destruction created our universe. Remember, we don't know how this universe relates to the one they destroyed. Is it a different one, the same one changed, a "branch" of the original, or something else?"

"See what happens when we add the Second History to our diagram:"

"If the First and Second Histories are connected, why didn't the Defenders encounter the 'Iron Curtain' on the way back? Why is there an 'Iron Curtain' limiting travel into the future to 100 years at a time in one History, but not the other?" Peta demanded.

"And if they're connected, how did the Defenders get home to their own place and time? Moving forward in time, unaware of the Second History, how did they manage to return to the First History? Why not the Second? Or the Third? Or the Fourth?"

"The Third History? The Fourth?" Suomao Tonai said faintly.

"Or the Twenty-Third, or the Hundred-and-Fourth," Peta answered, looking up into the tiers of seats. "We've no evidence for them, but the First History had no evidence for us. We don't know what the Second History is, whether it springs from the same First Universe as the First History, or whether it shares the First History's fate. If a Second History, why not a Third, or a Fourth, or…" She shrugged.

"This is the beauty of my hypothesis," Huovao Juho said, standing and coming forward. "If it proves valid, the correct diagram would be:"

"In this case the Defenders are traveling back along the timeline of Universe A, and returning the same way. Universe A doesn't have an 'Iron Curtain', and never did. The Defenders can't go astray into the Second History, because it's on the timeline of another universe entirely; this one, the one we're in. And a hypothetical Third History, or a 4,444th, is part of the timeline of a totally different universe, and doesn't concern us."

"I see," said Eborai Lapo. "Very elegant. But if this universe and our old universe are completely independent, our trip is no guide for theirs. You're in the same boat we were," he said to Zetai and Samo, "sailing off into the unknown."

"Not just us," Zetai said, and looked up at the seats. Teles shimmered, and now all of Hodestai stood at the big table: Zetai and Samo, Culi and Mara and Hala, Lańa and Ĵuha, Zukai and Kristu and Qisp, Juho and Mina and Lûn.

"We're all going," Samo said. "That way, it won't matter so much what happens. Either we all come back, or none of us do."

Household, they were saying. Family. No orphans, no widows or widowers, no separations if they all went together. Peta looked at Zetai and ached to think she might not come back; and Kristu's parents feared for her. But Hodestai was a household, and no one could dictate to them.

Yet Hala and Mara had been members of Eborai in the First History, which let Lapo say, "Hała? Mara? You could stay with us, if you wished."

"But Culi isn't Eborai, and never was," Mara said, "and y's our mate."

"Then what about the Tlâńē?" Lapo said. "Can the king ignore his responsibilities to his people?"

"Oh, no you don't," grinned the big Iǹgrē with the red hair, looking nothing like the First-History Tlâńē he'd been. "That's how you kept me from going last time!"

"Seriously," he said, "no king rules forever, and I'm not the king anymore, not really. My people are busting out all over, some as Iǹgrē, some in their traditional bodies, colonizing worlds all over the universe that they don't have to share with anyone else. They have their own Speakers, their own Kings; they don't need me."

He grinned. "But you could come with us," he said.

Lapo laughed out loud. "Don't tempt me!" he said. "Vîd́a and Kristu and Muho would kill me—I'm taking time away from the building of Eoverai Taolol just to be here."

"We all are," Eborao Suso said. Eborao Vîd́a nodded.

"Besides," Lapo said, "you're not the head of Hodestai, and it's not your invitation to offer. I doubt Lady Zetai and Lord Samo want us horning in."

"It's a shame you have previous commitments," Samo said.

"Oh, such a bad liar," Lapo smiled.

"But why Hodestai?" Ašarai Juho asked.

"Who better than us?" Zetai said. "Mara's been there before, if it turns out to be the same time and place after all. Hala and Mara, Ĵuha and Lańa, Samo and I are experienced adventurers. The whole House has trained together for a long time now. We're not too numerous, we aren't committed to building any colony worlds, and we've faced and defeated two dangers to the race since our rebirths."

"Also," Culi said, "most of us have well-developed alien personas, which gives us a wide range of viewpoints for facing the unknown." Through Anûk, everyone could see what y meant. The ghost-image of Betty Lou sat beside Zetai, and Nemesis beside Samo. Culi's shape-changing pink body, Hala's First-History Tlâńē form, Zukai's orange-bodied, green-haired form, Qisp's imp persona, and Lûn's flat-faced, blue-skinned Venusian persona could also be seen.

"So who better?" Samo said. "Besides," he said, breaking out in a grin, "we heard of it first! We have dibs!"

Smiles answered him as Anûk explained, to those who needed it, what "dibs" were.

Chapter 6
An Evening with Friends

The World,
Galestē Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

So the gathering ended, with the known universe stirred to excitement at the grandeur of the mission, and the blessings of many Speakers and Kings for its success. The Speaker of the Winter People, the Speaker of the Summer People, the King of the Tlâńē, the Might of Aatu, and the Speaker of Silea wished them well. So too did many others who hadn't heard of the expedition before the convocation: Mezentius, King of Golden Unicorn; Ihed́ai Vîd́a, Speaker of Eoverai Taolol; J*on* J*an*, Emperor of Pailia; and the heads of many other Iǹgrē, Verē, Tlâńē, and Inside-based colony worlds throughout the universe.

Flooded by requests to join their expedition, even though there was no guarantee of return, Zetai and Samo turned them all down. Besieged by invitations for what might be their last evening in modern time, they went where their hearts urged them.

Second-History households didn't have household nets, because Anûk was conscious, as the First-History Verē gestalt was not. All Iǹgrē were linked to ym, and thus to every other; whatever anyone knew, thought, or experienced was available to anyone else, unless privacy was requested. Since the Iǹgrē had no shame nor cause for shame, this was rarely done. Everyone lived in the same glass house of the mind.

But Hodestai did have a household net: Zetai's telepathy linked them all, above and beyond everyone's link to Anûk. So the household could split up, and spend their evening in different places, yet remain together, sharing their evening.

Zetai and Samo spent the evening at House Nikai. Nikai was a very Traditional household of the Winter People in most ways. The household head was a neuter, Nikai Canu, rational and intellectural. It was ys hands which had placed Zetai on the Blue Stone at her Abandonment. Y took pride in her leadership, even though it had led to her founding her own household rather than joining ys; and pride in her skills, not least her telepathy and ability to construct mental mechanisms, which she had mastered in her Inside life as Tessa Anderson.

Nikao Dâka, Zetai's father, was very much a Traditional male fighter and lover. Zetai and Samo had spent many hours in unarmed combat with him, both in House Nikai's gymnasium and in Hodestai's salle. He was soft and amateurish compared to them. Dâka had been raised in a Summer household before marrying into Nikai; he'd never lived Inside and depended on fighting skills for survival. But he was no one to take lightly, and he prized the rare times when he beat either of them. He too was proud of them, for defeating Jedai's plot to take Anûk's place, and Anisai's scheme against the dreamers.

But Nikao Peta was the heart of House Nikai, as a Traditional female mate should be. The household took its name and emblem, and affected clothing reminiscent of Greek chitons, because she had been Nike, the goddess of victory, in one of her Inside lives.

Right now she was neither goddess nor cosmologist, but wholly a mother, sitting close to Zetai and watching her daughter's face as if she were trying to memorize it. If all went well, Hodestai would leave in the morning and return in the evening, however long they stayed in the past. But if things went badly, they might be lost forever.

"What do you think of Golden Unicorn and their tournaments?" Dâka asked Samo.

"It could be a lot of fun," Samo said. "Especially since they fight with real weapons and not too many rules."

"Samo never cared for rules of combat," Zetai smiled. "They cramp his style too much."

"Too true," Samo said. "I heard about the SGU back in the Inside life that Zetai and I shared—or maybe it was the SCA, its predecessor. A girl I knew took me to a tournament in Japan."

"Did you fight in it?" Peta asked.

"It didn't come up," Samo said. "You had to have their kind of armor and their kind of weapons to fight, and you had to have a marshall saying you'd been trained to fight their way."

"I might have gone to a fighting practice, and there were armorers who sold arms and armor— but there wasn't any point. By their rules, you couldn't strike the knees, feet, groin, hands, elbows, or neck. You couldn't use your shield as a weapon. Worst of all, you couldn't throw anything." He shook his head. "Not for me."

Zetai laughed. "Poor Samo! Now if they'd fought like the Earl St. Albans and his men, you'd have fit right in."

"Yes," Samo said. "Of course, then they'd have needed to keep ambulances standing by."

"What Earl was this?" Canu asked.

"He was a commando officer in the British army until he inherited the title on the death of his brother," Zetai said. "Then he and his men quit, and lived like a Baron and his knights behind the high fences of his estate, with lions loose on the grounds to keep trespassers out. Occasionally they would host an event when someone rich enough paid their fee—jousting on horses with tournament lances, archery, sword play, knife duels, bear baiting, revels in the great hall with minstrels and dancing and dogs snapping at scraps, and the men pawing the serving wenches."

"The thing was," Samo said, "those guys were crazy. It's one thing to break a lance or two for fun. It's another to hunt lions on foot with swords and nets."

"So the SGU was too tame for you, and this Earl's setup was too wild?" Peta asked.

Zetai shrugged. Samo said, "We took occasional risks if we liked the odds. Sailing the ocean in a small boat, sky diving, hang gliding, things like that. But the Earl and his crew took needless risks, all the time, for no reason at all. They were hardcore danger junkies."

"The Earl wasn't the worst danger junkie we ever went against," Zetai said. "Remember Ragnar, Samo love?"

"Oh yes," Samo said. "Ragnar was this big Swede who fancied himself a Viking," he told the others. "He gathered a gang and they'd loot anything they could reach from the sea, wearing Viking helmets that covered their faces."

"Well, don't stop there!" Dâka said. "What happened?"

"Nothing much," Samo said. "I put an axe through his heart when he wouldn't quit."

"One of his gang had hit my femoral artery with a stray bullet," Zetai said, "so Samo was in a hurry."

Peta resolved to get the details from Anûk later. Zetai and Samo did many things well, but they were lousy story tellers, especially when it came to their own adventures.

Other members of House Nikai came and went as the three heads of the House and their two guests sat and talked, sometimes sipping lose juice or other beverages. Some were mated trios who wanted to meet Zetai and have a few words. Shy young neuters, females, and males, newly reborn and unsure of their place in the World, overawed by how much Zetai and her House had achieved in the 30 years since her own rebirth, smiled but said little. Nikai had about 400 members, and perhaps a fourth of that number dropped by during the evening.

Those who didn't, could watch and listen through Anûk as Nikai and their guests talked about art, music, literature, fencing, sailing, or various events in their past lives Inside or Outside. Equally welcome were any other watchers, anywhere in the universe, whether Iǹgrē, Verē, or one of the other races of the First History, whether corporate or discorporate.

Meanwhile Lańa and Ĵuha were spending their evening with their new friends from House Suomai.

"Just as I'm about to lift the sack of loot onto my shoulder," Ĵuha said, "the door dissolves, as Verē doors did, and in runs 'Rûk Ikotkai. 'What are you doing in my House?' y roars, and draws ys sword. So I dropped the sack, and when y swung at me, I leapt over the swing, then stayed up there and kicked ym in the face."

Everyone there laughed. The Suomē who'd been at the meeting were there: Pert́i and Morĝai, Vîd́a and Kristu, Tonai and Aino, Juho and Sθera. But Suomai was a large household, with over six hundred members, the heart of an important Duchy on Golden Unicorn. A couple of dozen members were present in the big hall, and others dropped by in the course of the evening. By tele, Golden Unicorn was only a step away, like any place in the universe where Iǹgrē lived.

"Wait—you hung in mid-air and kicked ym? You could fly?" said Suomao Tonai.

Ĵuha shrugged. "With a flight harness, like any other Verē. I was in my Trickster costume, which was based on the motley of the fools at the Krahos court of Eretiǹ: a shirt with vertical blue and yellow stripes, a grinning white face mask, a three-pointed hat, baggy blue trousers, and yellow pointed shoes. A flight harness was built into the costume. I wore the lifting dome on one side, as if I were a humpback."

"Only sometimes he'd switch what side the hump was on," Lańa said, laughing. "And instead of sailing along as if he were flying, he always moved his arms and legs as if he were running on the air."

Suomao Dômai, who'd been listening with fascination, covered his eyes with a groan. His wife Mati, who was as red-haired and freckled as he was, poked him in the ribs and said, "Yeah, you may well groan, buster."

"What?" said Ĵuha. So they told him how Dômai used to fight in SGU tournaments, in his Inside life, as an Atlantean, an elf, or a pig-Latin; about dragons and trolls appearing in court; and especially about pirate captains and landsknechts with eye patches that changed from one eye to the other. And Dômai insisted those people weren't him, and no one believed him for an instant, and that diversion could have gone on even longer than it did.

Only Aino said, "But I want to hear the rest of Ĵuha's story!" The beautiful blonde addressed the guest: "So you leaped up into the air, as if there were an invisible platform there, and kicked Lord Ikotkai in the face. Then what?"

"Well, then I leapt down again, grabbed the sack of loot, and ran for the window. Only each step was higher in the air, as if I were running up an invisible ramp. Lord Ikotkai actually ran around my invisible ramp to get to the foot of it and chase me up it! Of course y fell on ys face, trying to set foot onto a ramp that wasn't there. I ran right out the window and into some clouds and was long gone before any of ys household could put on flight harnesses and chase me."

"You just ran away?" Aino said.

"Sure," Ĵuha said. "I'd gotten what I came for, and got to kick old 'Claws of the Eagle' in the face, besides. It was a good day's work."

"If y'd caught me, y'd have killed me," Ĵuha added. "Lańa and I weren't part of any house, while y was head of one of the Great Houses; and I was in ys house stealing ys things. A Liberal or a moderate would've turned me over to the Kaitempē, but not ym!"

"What did you do with the loot?" asked Suomao Dêbi, with her elbow on the armrest of a couch, and her face resting in her hand. Her husband, Suomao Hara, was stretched out with his head in her lap and his hands folded on his stomach. He seemed to be listening. At least, he hadn't snored so far.

"Threw it away, I think," Ĵuha answered. "There was a pit in a cave on Moon-Tree Mountain that was virtually bottomless."

"Threw it away?" said Suomao Ĵêna. She was sitting next to her husband, Aino's brother Juri, holding his hand. "Why'd you take it, then?"

"Because y was a rotten Orthodox bastard who deserved a kick in the face!" said Ĵuha. "The fact that I got to do that literally was just a nice bonus."

"We didn't steal for money," Lańa said. "Zetai and Samo, now, lived on an Inside Earth run by money, and they stole jewels and gold and art to build a fortune to live on. But we in the First History had no money and no economy. We lived on sunlight then, just as we do now. We stole what people prized, not what cost them money; and we did it to teach them a lesson."

"Couldn't your victims replace anything you took, from a tele?" asked Tonai. "Where was the lesson?"

"No, they couldn't," Ĵuha said. "The Ver was not conscious. Anûk uses the minds of the Iǹgrē to make anything we want, molecule by molecule. But in the First History, you only got out of a tele what you put in."

::Mostly true,:: Anûk said. ::Very common, very familiar things sometimes came out in greater numbers than went in, especially if no one knew exactly how many were supposed to be there. I suspect that a person could draw on the minds of all the Verē, unknowingly, to make a boot or a sword. But for something unique, you're entirely right.::

"Thank you," Lańa said. "I remember one thing we did keep. Ĵuha gave me a topaz this big around"—she put thumb and index fingers together to make a circle— "with the Ikotkai eagle carved on its face. Ikotkai's colors were puno and gold; the inset was doped to shine puno against the yellow of the rest of the gem."

"Or, an Eagle displayed Sable," Hara mumbled. "Note: in these arms Or is metallic gold, and Sable is infra-red."

"I mounted the gem in a brooch setting, and wore it whenever I felt like it," Lańa said.

"In public?" Tonai said. "Didn't you risk being beaten or killed by members of that House?"

"Ĵuha's not the only one who kicked Ikotkē whenever they needed it," Lańa said. "Or wherever they needed."

Culi and Mara and Hala were talking old times with House Eborai: Lapo and Suso, Vîd́a and Ťora. Eborai was a large house for Eoverai Taolol, over a hundred members. There were a hundred Great Houses of the New People, as the Iǹgrē of Eoverai Taolol called themselves, so the houses tended to be smaller. Reborn friends from the First History dropped by from time to time, but the new world was new in every way, and everyone was busy. It had only been a couple of years since Anûk rebuilt the planet, rearranging the continents to match the original Eoverai.

They talked in Lores-Tara on Habêkai, not Lores-Tara on Eoverai Taolol, but the chairs they sat in were the pressor-field furniture of First-History Eoverai or Second-History Eoverai Taolol. Perfectly comfortable, infinitely adjustable, faintly visible only because they'd been set that way, they were familiar to everyone there except Culi.

"The first time I saw Mara," Eborai Lapo told Culi, "I was a fugitive from justice. A bunch of militant Tlâń had heard of the work I was doing, developing tøskê so that an ordinary Verē could fly without a flight harness, shield himself from harm without a starship or air tank, construct things without external aid, and so forth. They sent one of their number to kill me, fearing I'd make the Verē so powerful that we'd wipe out the Tlâń completely. I had to kill the assassin to save myself, and then the Kaitempē were after me because I'd killed a Tlâń, which could've started a war."

"Fortunately," said Hala, "I knew that bunch and I set the Royal Guard on them. I told the Speaker of the Verē, in my official capacity, that as far as the Twelve Noble Tribes were concerned, it was good riddance to bad rubbish. Unofficially I left for Teřańa— and I brought my brand-new Loop costume with me."

"But all that official stuff took months," Lapo continued. "Meanwhile, every time I showed my face in the sunlight, old needlenose, the Kaitempē prosecutor set on my trail, would attack me with a wing of Kaitempē with flight harnesses and tøskê pistols, or an air tank, or something. I needed sunlight—my power was still experimental and inefficient. I had to dodge the tøskê blasts, because I didn't know how to stop them yet, and flying, and maintaining my shield, was using almost as much energy as I was absorbing. Ehiu! At one point they told the Imperial Guard to attack me, and the Gligo almost used up my energy pushing on my shield with his super-strength. Then Zyx threw himself at me like a bullet, got through my weakened shield, and knocked me down. I got away by falling through a tele; neither one of them was Verē, so they couldn't follow me."

"Why did you resist arrest?" Culi asked. "Wouldn't the Speaker have believed that you were defending yourself?"

"I didn't know Vîd́a then," Lapo said. "I was a science nerd, an apolitical loner from a lesser house that had broken up because some of them were Orthodox, and some Liberal. I called myself Borao Lapo still, but there wasn't any Borai left for me to belong to."

"And even if he'd known the Speaker," Suso said, "he might never have gotten to see him. Pikao Pika—"Old Needlenose"—had a mind as narrow as that beak on his face, and his household was a client of House Imorai. Once he had Lapo in his hands, he could have kept him in a cold dark cell until he was defenseless, tortured his new science out of him, killed him, and given it to Imorai for killing the Speaker and setting up an Orthodox government."

"I see," said Culi.

"It was a dark time," Lapo said. "Not as bad as when we fought the Ukkl, and I thought Suso was dead; and not as bad as when the two of us were trapped, forever as far as we knew, in a hostile universe; but the worst I'd known up to then."

"But in the middle of all that conflict was a brand-new Guardswoman with blue eyes—Krahos eyes, with lenses—and yellow hair in pig tails. She could have knocked me over with a smile, let alone that Tlâń power ring," he went on.

"I met her later," Hala said. "I sneaked into Teřańa as The Loop for the first time (officially I was in residence in Tlâńor) and went looking for this villain. When I found him, he was trying to hold off the Guard and flirt with Mara at the same time."

"He was better at fighting than flirting," Mara said. "But what did I know of either, way back then?"

"Where Lapo saw a Verē with a Tlâń power ring, I saw a Tlâń with a partly-Verē body," Hala said. "And now we're all Iǹgrē."

"Good times," Lapo said softly.

"Fine!" Suso said, with glittering eyes. "Can we talk about something else now?"

Lapo laughed. "Oh, you silly woman," he said, and leaned over and kissed her. "Don't you know by now it's you I love?" he asked, kissing her again. "You, and only you?" he said, and kissed her a third time.

"Convince me some more," she said, deep in her throat, looking up at him.

"Jealous wigeon," he said. The kiss went on and on…

Ehekai Eløraθ, the Island of the Birds, is the northernmost of the Islands of the Dawn, that lie between Syorkai and the Empty Ocean. The great continent of Syorkai, home of the Aatuans, lies far away to the southwest; Alteřa is even farther away, due west.

A light but unrelenting drizzle had been falling all day. Everything was wet— bright green grass, dark green stones, the violet sθene flowers in the meadows and the slender grey-green lose trees in the groves. The sky was grey from zenith to horizon, and the tops of the double towers of House Xegai, facing each other across a wide fountain, were hidden in fog.

Zukai and Kristu and Qisp spent the evening there with Kristu's parents Xegai Henki, Xegao Keike, and Xegao Qâkâ. House Xegai was a Traditional house of the Summer People, who didn't abandon their children to be raised Inside Anûk's mind in life after life. Kristu'd had a happy childhood, raised from birth by parents who loved her, surrounded by a household of five hundred people, most of them related to her. Many of them came by during the evening to say a word with one who might never return, to get a hug and give one in return. A dozen children sat around her feet, sisters and aunts and nieces and cousins, though the words are misleading—Traditional children have no sexual organs, until they choose a gender at puberty.

No great matters were discussed. The talk was not cultured as at Nikai, but simple and domestic. No past adventures were recounted, as at Nikai and Suomai and Eborai, for no one in Xegai had lived Inside or in the First History. No martial feats were boasted of, for Xegai was an unmartial house, more given to berry-gathering and flower-picking than deeds of arms. The adults sat and chatted, and a constant stream of children came up to be cuddled, or have their noses wiped, or their wet feet dried.

Zukai, with ys open, accepting nature, fit right into the family atmosphere. Qisp felt himself relaxing from tension that he hadn't known was there. Free of a need to fight or flee, he hardly knew what to do with himself. Eventually he lay down on the floor, and put his head in Kristu's lap.

She smiled, and ran her fingers through the curls that hung over his forehead; leaned over, and kissed him.

Juho and Mina and Lûn, having no family ties outside Hodestai, guested with elves. There were many elfin houses and elfin colony worlds, but they weren't all the same kind of elves. They were all Iǹgrē, but with different cultures and languages.

Some elves were based on the writing of J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien's elves were a distillation and and rationalization of the elves in the European folklore of Inside Earths. The language he invented for them was based on Finnish—which was particularly ironic, for Finnish (and to a lesser extent Estonian, Sami, and Hungarian) had been modeled by Anûk after T́uliǹgrai. Finnish roots were often identical to T́uliǹgrai roots, and the Finnish language could be described as a different set of grammatical rules on top of T́uliǹgrai roots, plus a kind of agglutination for compound words very reminiscent of Mižinai. Elfin hauteur, Finnish sisu, and Iǹgrē êsisai were even more alike than Finnish and T́uliǹgrai roots.

Other elfin colony worlds were based on Inside worlds whose elves were immortals who slept 40 years and then stayed awake for 80, so that 120 years aged them one day. On many Inside worlds early man came in a great variety, from very tall to very short, very fat to very skinny, very strong to very weak, wholly diurnal to exclusively nocturnal, very short-lived to very long-lived. If they were mostly non-fertile, or too inter-fertile with average humans, they died out, leaving only legends of giants, trolls, elves, fairies, dwarves, and other humanoid creatures.

But long-lived, strong humans, who aged one day in 120 years and could breed with each other, became a separate species of man. They built mounds where they could safely sleep for their forty years, guarded by their kin who were awake. In the long run they tended to dominate and replace their short-lived cousins, unless exterminated before they grew too powerful.

A third kind of elves was based on the fantasy novels of David Mackie, popular on many Sleep of Reason Earths. In these, three Elvish queens found Arthur after his final battle, and brought him to Avalon. There he found civilized elves at war with barbarian elves who worshipped Odin and made blood sacrifices to Him. Arthur's iron sword and iron mail burned any elf who touched them; and he had other human strengths that served him well. He took up the cause of the High Elves and led them in battle against the barbarians.

Unknown to the author, he was drawing on the story of Êstâz in the Outside world, through his unconscious connection to Anûk. The High Elves were the High Tlâń, descendants of the crew of the starship The Dawn at Tlâńor; the barbarian elves were the Cundē and Girē who worshipped the suns and drank blood in sacrifice to them; even the map of Avalon corresponded to northern Kantos on Habêkai in the Second History.

But Mackie didn't know he was writing about real events, and the words he used were all his own. The books were best-sellers and were loved just as much as Tolkien's books.

"Elen sila lumenn omentilmo," Juho said. Y had changed into local clothes for the evening; a garment like a Roman toga, over a short-sleeved loose shirt that fell almost to ys knees, belted at the waist. But where similar garments might have been wool in Arthur's Britain, to keep the wearer warm against the British weather, here they were a light shimmery cloth that made silk look coarse and heavy. Ys sandals were of fine leather, unprotected by wooden clogs against British mud, and shimmered like gold. Ys bald head, and ys bright green eyebrows and orange eyes, made ym look like one of the older and wilder kinds of elves, who might do anything at all, rather than a mannered elf from Tolkien or Mackie.

"Wrong," Sir Maius sighed, in Latin. "We know that language the same way you do, through our connection to Anûk. But just as Êstâz insisted that his people speak T́uliǹgrai, in the Outside world, so Arthur ran his court in Latin. So that's our everyday language." He picked up his silver goblet from the round table next to the couch he was lying on, and his mail jingled softly. It wasn't iron, but a lighter and harder metal; the rings (every one of them invisibly welded into a perfect, unbroken circle, and every one of them passing through four others) jingled more softly, and at a higher pitch, than iron would have. The mail was a half-byrnie, not a full war-coat; the sleeves ended above the elbows, and the skirt above the knees. A belt around his waist held a pouch and a small-knife in a sheath; his foot-gear was sandals, not boots; and he wore an electrum circlet around his brow, with his more-than-shoulder-length blonde hair uncovered by coif, camail, or helm.

"Actually," Juho said, "I knew Quenya back in my Inside life. I was a big Tolkien fan, and learned it as a hobby."

"Once a geek, always a geek," Mina said. She looked alluring as she lay on her side on her own couch in the Roman fashion, propped on one elbow. Her gown was deep blue velvet, with long wide sleeves and a wide ankle-length skirt, with a belt of linked electrum squares at her waist. An almost sheer under garment could be seen at ankles, at the embroidered square neck of the outer gown, and in the close-fitting sleeves that reached to her wrists. Like the others, she wore gold-colored sandals.

If Juho looked like a wild elf from European folklore, Mina looked like a visitor from Japan; a kami, perhaps, or a fox in its human form. As an Iǹgrē she had chosen to keep the long straight black hair of her Inside heritage, and the epicanthic fold at the inside corners of her eyes.

"Geek enough to be interested in elven metallurgy," Juho said. Y tapped his goblet with one index finger, and it rang softly. "No iron," y said. "Does it actually burn you, as in Mackie's books?"

"Of course not," Sir Maius answered. "We eschew it for tradition's sake only. As for elven metallurgy, there's no such thing. In the books the elves made things by magic. We are Iǹgrē; we get whatever we want from teles."

Lûn laughed. Lying on the fourth couch, the big man with the dark blue hair and the very dark blue eyes smiled as he said, "Sure. You pull it out of thin air, where it's made for you by an invisible spirit. Nothing magical about that!"

"All kidding aside," he went on, letting the little round pillow Mina threw at him bounce off the half-byrnie he was wearing in imitation of their host, "I'm fascinated by the parallels between your feudalism, and the society of the Venusians of my own Inside life. We had a feudal society where machine technology made a serving class unnecessary, whereas you have a feudal society where 'magic' takes the place of serfs. But it seems to me…"

Juho and Mina exchanged a wry glance as if to say, he's off on his hobby horse again, and settled back to listen as their mate and their host talked late into the night.

Chapter 7
Thrice Ended

The World,
7 Numestô Ĵimao,
Year 2011 (Second History)

"Wait, Princess," Samo said. "Before we set out, we have to give the ship a name."

Zetai laughed. "Why, Samy," she said. "Since when have you named things? Are you calling your knives 'Pointy' and 'Pointier' now?"

Samo grinned. "No more than you're calling your kongo 'Lucille'," he said. "But some of our folks want it."

"He means me," Kristu said. There was determination in the yellow eyes. "I know most of you are practical people, who would never think to give a name to a bow or an omnicom or a spaceship. But Qisp and Zukai and I would like to name the ship before we set out in her." Behind Kristu, her mates nodded in confirmation.

"If it makes you happy, I have no objection," Zetai smiled. "What name did you pick?"

"Well, we thought we might call it the H. G. Wells, after the man who wrote the first time-travel story; or the Robert A. Heinlein, since he wrote some stories that dealt with time travel and time lines; or even Thrice Upon a Time, for the James Hogan novel; or even James Hogan, after that writer," Qisp said.

"Thrice Upon a Time," Zetai said. "I like it. Or how about Third Time's the Charm?"

Hala winced. "That smacks of tempting fate," he said. "Let's not jinx ourselves before we've even set foot in her."

"Why not just call her Let's Go See!" Lańa said. "and then get on with it."

"I like that, too," Zetai said.

"So do I," said Samo. "Like the man in the story, who settled the argument between the two Alterran philosophers over how many teeth lymē have. 'Logic be damned. I just went up to the damned mutt and counted them!'"

"Oh, good," Lûn said. "Then they could debate how many fingers he likely had left!"

"Could we compromise?" Zukai suggested.

"On?" Samo asked.

"I really like Thrice upon a Time," Zukai said. "Or maybe Thrice Ended."

"That's Kipling, isn't it?" Zeta said. "Samy?"

"It's a quote from Kim," Samo said:

Long and formal were the farewells,
Thrice ended and thrice renewed.

"Perfect," Zeta said. "The Master has spoken. Thrice Ended it shall be."

So Kristu reached into a tele that appeared on one wall of the ship, which like most Iǹgrē space/time ships was a white square building that could shift instantly to any place and time in the universe, and pulled out a champagne bottle. "I name you the good ship Thrice Ended!" she cried, and shattered the bottle on a corner. Anûk, of course, would remove all the glass once they'd left.

"You really don't mind?" Kristu asked Zetai as they entered the ship by tele; there was no door or windows.

"I really don't," Zetai said, putting an arm around the girl's shoulder. "I just hope there's nothing else we left out of all our planning."

It would be wrong to picture them moving back against the flow of time. The instant the space/time effect began, they were in a universe of their own, which contained nothing but the white cube now named Thrice Ended and the thirteen people inside it. They had no location in the Second Universe's space and time, because they weren't in the Second Universe any more. What they controlled was the time and place they would occupy once the effect ceased—their potential location—and how long the effect would take to get them there—their "speed" in space/time units per minutes of ship's time.

::First stop,:: said Anûk.

"Calibration check," said Juho, once and always a technician. Mina and Samo also watched with knowledgable eyes. "Re-entering the universe in 4… 3… 2… 1… now."

"Full view above and around," Mina said, and the walls and ceiling seemed to disappear, leaving them seated on a floor with nothing but their chairs and a foot of wall to mark the edges of the room. They had arranged the chairs in a casual circle—there was no acceleration to brace against, or banks of controls to be tended—and now the stars blazed in space above and around them. The bottom foot of the room was lit as before, but at knee-level and above, they sat in starlight.

"The constellations are different," Hala said. "Stars haven't moved into their regular spots yet, and there are some bright ones that have burned out in our time."

"Look! Herâk!" Mara said, pointing straight up.

They all took a moment to look. Shining fiercely in the midst of an altered Hawk God was the old Pole Star, whose detonation had made the cities fall and wrecked the old Mižinai civilization.

"All right, we're where we intended to be," Juho said quietly, "on the other side of Volai from where the World will be; and when, just after the Mižinē assembled the planet and went forward in time again."

"Can we see that?" Lańa asked.

::Of course,:: said Anûk. Now the floor disappeared too, leaving only them, their chairs, and a square one-foot-tall border of wall. The stars above were unchanged, but now they were seeing below them the mass that would be the World, though in fact it was many times as far from them as Pluto is from the Sun in the Inside Solar System. Black slag, riddled through with fiery red cracks, floated on lava seas. The Mižinē had gathered all the mass of the Aboǹi system to make a world as big as their species' original planet, and to clear the newly-rearranged multiple-star system of dangerous large bodies. The energy released when all that mass fell together would take eons to dissipate.

"Ehiu," Ĵuha said softly.

"Time to go," Zetai said, when everyone had looked their fill. Anûk restored the walls, floor, and ceiling to opacity. ::I'll say goodbye and good luck now,:: y said, ::since we're going to lose our link once you pass the time when the Mižinē entered the universe.::

"Goodbye," they said, and many other things privately; for they were all part of ym, and y was with them every moment, and much love flowed both ways. But now that link was about to be broken, at least for a while. So Juho took over monitoring and controlling the space/time effect, and Mina the math that gave a constantly-changing value for their "current time," "current location in space," and "current speed," while all the others watched, and learned. Then they left the universe again.

A little while after that, the link to Anûk was gone. They still had the net Zetai maintained, and all the knowledge that Anûk had made sure was stored in their brains, not some other person's, who maybe lived in another galaxy on the other side of the universe. For now they were cut off from Anûk, and thus from every other Iǹgrē in the universe. Now the thirteen of them were alone in their universe; and when they emerged from it, they would be the only Iǹgrē there were.

"Shields up," said Zetai, who in one of her Inside lives had been a captain in a space navy, then an admiral, and finally supreme commander of all her Queen's fleets.

"Shields are up," said Mara. She was using her tøskê, not the Power Ring she'd had in the First History, but it was a task she was comfortable with. Everyone else stood ready as well.

"Are we 'in' the First Universe yet?" Lûn asked his mate.

"Yes," said Mina, "but where and when is another question. This near the End, the universe is so contracted that no landmarks from human times, such as the pattern of distant quasars, means anything; and we ought to be so far after human times as to make the date impossible to determine."

"Right. Ultimately, time is marked by astronomical cycles, which end when worlds collide, moons fall down, and the stars burn out," Juho said.

"Aren't you the cheery lot," Samo said. "But it can be estimated, surely?"

"Not really, until we get back to human times," Mina said. "We crossed the 'gap' between the Second Universe's Big Bang and the First Universe's Big Crunch, and there is no time in that 'gap'. We're really just guessing until we stop to get our bearings again."

"Let's take a look then," Zetai said.

"Aye aye," said Lûn, who had the habits of an officer in the Solar Patrol of one of his Inside lives. "Drop us back in, Drive," he said to Juho.

"Shields ready," Mara repeated tensely.

"Three… two… one… mark," said Juho. Culi, who'd also been in a Space Patrol, had assumed communications duties. At ys touch, the walls from desk height to ceiling height seemed to disappear.

Light blazed in from all sides—white and blue-white wherever they looked. A Mižinē or an Inside human being would've been blinded, and even with screens wouldn't have been able to see any detail. But Verē eyes and Iǹgrē eyes use diffraction gratings, not lenses, and are immune to glare. They turned their chairs outward and looked all around them. Every arc-second was filled with urgent light.

"The contracting universe," Ĵuha said softly. "Everything's rushing back together, and all radiation is blue-shifted by the Doppler effect. Dim light of dying stars, the energy released by colliding galaxies, even simple heat—it's all transformed into visible light, high ultra-violet, x-rays, and gamma rays."

"More than even we could absorb," Samo said. "Good job, Shields."

"Shall we?" said Zetai, and they left the universe again.

They floated in hyperspace outside the contracting First Universe, just as they had alongside the Second Universe before crossing the gap between; but the view was very different. The sheetlike structure Peta had displayed at the conference had been very evident there. But here and now they hung next to a globe, and saw an infinity of globes all "around" them, different colors and different sizes. All were expanding or contracting, though it took billions of years.

"So much for being in an entirely different part of the 'ultraverse'," Juho said.

"Right," said Mina. "We haven't moved appreciably in hyperspace at all. But a few dozen billion years back in paratime, and our First Universe's neighborhood looks just like the Defenders' First Universe."

"So maybe it is the same universe," Juho said.

"Let's go see," Zetai said, smiling.

Total blackness this time. After all the walls, ceiling, and floor were made invisible, and all the ship's lights turned off, there still was no glimmer anywhere. Eyes that could detect single photons found blackness, and hand sought hand, all around the circle.

"We must be at the balance point," Mina said, "between about 60 billion years after the Big Bang, and 70 billion years. The stellar era is over; all the stars have burned out, no new stars have formed, and all the light has died away."

"Why no new stars?" asked Zukai in the dark. "There's still gas, and gravity, isn't there?"

"Yes," Mina said, "but it's too spread out, and too evenly distributed. Stars form when gas clouds contract, or when shock waves from novas and supernovas squeeze gas clouds together. But all the stars massive enough to become novas or supernovas are dead, and all the massive gas clouds are used up. The age of regular star-making is over."

"Right now the expansion of the universe has coasted to a stop," she went on. "Over the next ten billion years or so the contraction will begin. During the contraction everything will come together, creating new stars and crashing them together, making huge black holes that suck in everything around them, smashing galaxies together on their long fall back to the center. That's what made that light we saw in the future, somewhere between 70 and 120 billion years after the Big Bang, more or less." She projected a diagram in the net:

Expansion and contraction of the universe

"So if we go back about 20 billion years, we should see stars again?" Samo asked.

"Yes," Mina agreed.

"Let's do that, then, and try to get a bearing," said Zetai.

Stars around them again, and Zetai got an intent, listening look on her face. "There are people out there!" Zukai exclaimed, whose telepathy was almost as sensitive as hers.

Zetai nodded, and linked them all to what she was hearing. Culi and Hala, especially, were gifted at sorting out mental impressions, and getting clear background facts that the front of the mind wasn't thinking about at the moment. They began building a picture from Zetai's feed, with the others watching and contributing.

"Not Mižinē," Samo said at last.

"No," said Kristu. "Two post-Mižinai civilizations, arisen on two different worlds after our ancestors went forward in time and after the rest of their civilization fell. This group," she said, indicating one data set, "comes from a world in a colony galaxy, and has been expanding for a few hundred years. That group is much newer, just barely out of their home star-sun system in the First Galaxy. And the two of them are fighting a war!" She sounded like she wanted to cry.

"It doesn't matter, love," Qisp said. "After we see our Mižinē on their way, we'll collect these guys on our way home. Good guys, bad guys, pacifists or war-mongers, we'll rescue them all. Right?" he said, addressing the house.

"It may be hard to find them again," Mina warned. "Neither group has heard of the Mižinē, and their dates don't tie into Mižinai chronology. In fact, both groups know very little about any human civilizations before their own."

"That doesn't matter, either," Hala said. "Once we've tended to our primary mission, we move forward in jumps, collecting all the deceased human beings, until we have them all, from the first to the last. We don't have to return to this exact time."

"Of course," said Mina. "I should have realized that."

"It takes a lot of adjusting to think on this scale," Zetai said. "All right, let's go back until we get to an era we've heard of, then zero in on the time we want."

In a universe 14 billion years old, as the virtual universes of the virtual Earths are, nothing further away than 14 billion light years can be seen. The universe is much bigger than that, because of the inflation in its first few seconds, but light simply hasn't had time to travel any farther. Thus a race limited to light speed has an "observable universe" which is n light years in diameter, where n is the age of the universe in years.

House Hodestai was not limited to light speed, which let them conduct an efficient three-dimensional search spiral for the background quasars of the Mižinē's astronomical records. Once they identified one of them by its spectrum, it became the starting point for a second spiral. Finding a second, they jumped back and forth on a line between the two possible positions of a third, until it was identified. Taking the position which was the right distance from all three of them put them in the right galactic neighborhood, though the galaxies themselves might not be there, depending on whether the explorers were early or late.

Then Juha and Mina took them through a binary search in time. Fortunately the Mižinē were a highly advanced civilization, whose history, archaeology, and recovered records from older civilizations reached back to the original home world. Any unknown human civilization, if sufficiently advanced to be a major part of the historical record, must be post-Mižinē. Splitting the difference between the latest known civilization they found, and earliest unknown one, Thrice Ended soon zeroed in on the time they sought.

"We have a problem," Lûn told Zetai and Samo. "Their first experimental time ship, Superspace, has left normal space and will return in twelve of their years. But it's not going to return anywhere near its departure point. In fact, they'll never be able to get home again from their point of return. Even with Subspace Three flight, it'd take many lifetimes. They'd be able to talk—they have instantaneous communication—but that's it."

"I thought Superspace returned to the same place it left," Samo said.

"According to our records, it did. But we can track it in flight and see where it's going to end up, capabilities they don't begin to have yet. And it's going to end up hundreds of billions of light years away."

"They have to get back together, or they won't finish the project, which means we don't happen. Are we in the wrong universe?" Zetai asked. "Is this a universe where they fail?"

Lûn spread his hands. "Coming back in time, we stayed at rest in hyperspace and moved back in paratime. I don't see how this could be anything but the universe that comes before ours."

"I don't see any harm that could come of helping out," Samo said. "Worst case, we end up with two shiploads of Mižinē instead of one."

"Those poor people," Kristu said. "Sailing out blind, only to end up so far apart they can't ever get back together. Can't we help them? Isn't that exactly why we all came on this trip, to keep it from happening to us?"

"Can we help them?" Zetai asked Juho. "I don't want to intervene in normal space, where we might be seen."

"Sure," Juho said. "We have complete control over our own couse, and anything we touch. The shield we put up, before starting out, was to keep a divot of grass and dirt and air from coming along unnecessarily. We can move up to Superspace and steer it back home."

"What about their own field?" Samo said.

"It's weak, and has no controls built in," Juho said. "Think of Superspace as a ball thrown randomly into the air. We're like an eagle. We can swoop down, catch it, and put it where we want."

"Or think of two boats on a river," Mina said. "Superspace is a rowboat without oars, drifting wherever the current takes it. But we're a tugboat, and we can push it back to its home port."

"All right," said Zetai. "Let's do it, and see what happens."

Less than three thousand years before, the Kull had been a powerful nonhuman species, able to read the thoughts of other sentients and compel their obedience. They had built a great empire of their own in the First Galaxy, expanding slowly but inexorably, and likely to last many thousands of years, since the race was still young.

Then the humans rose from barbarism again, and formed the Crystal Empire. This posed a threat to the Kull, whose own empire was nearby. They began opposing the Crystal Empire both overtly and covertly, with the intention of making humans a client race in the Kull empire.

But humans didn't gradually accumulate knowledge in a sensible, orderly way, expanding only as fast as they needed, and devoting only a small percent of their resources to defensive military capabilities. Humans grew explosively, learned ferociously, expanded greedily, and fought constantly with ever more powerful weapons. Moreover, many worlds of the galaxy were populated with more humans left over from the wrecks of previous human civilizations, ready to take the role of citizens of the new cycle, or violent opponents to it.

The Kull, like all alien races, was experiencing its first and only rise to civilization. It had no idea of humanity's long existence, full of spectacular rises and stupendous falls. The Kull's empire had incorporated a couple of human worlds still slumbering away in the long period of savagery between civilizations; they didn't prepare the Kull to face a full-blown resurgence of humanity on the galactic stage.

By the time the Kull had some inkling of their peril, it was already too late. Kull backing of a human rebellion against the Crystal Empire resulted in the Omniarch ordering the utter destruction of the Kull home world, and the absorption of the Kull empire into the human one. In a few human lifetimes, men had gone from a barely-noticed species to one that slew Kull on sight. Soon the Kull were believed extinct.

The few hundred Kull survivors huddled on a remote world and lived more in mind-space than space/time. Mental bonds grew stronger even as physical bodies grew weaker and fewer. When the last Kull body died, the Kull remained—a singular entity, with a mind as powerful as several hundred old-style, physical Kull. Y had no gender or body, and cared little for the activities of flesh-and-blood creatures in the physical universe.

Recently, however, the Kull had discovered, partly through ys own investigations and partly by listening to the minds of other species, that the universe wouldn't last forever. The racial mind which had believed ymself immortal found ymself trapped in a mortal environment.

To be continued!

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