PART FOUR. Manifold

The illimitable, silent, never-resting thing called Time, rolling, rushing on, swift, silent, like an all-embracing ocean-tide, on which we and all the Universe swim like exhalations…

— THOMAS CARLYLE

Maura Della:

Open journal. April 14,2012.

Maybe I’m just getting too old.

I should have expected this, this brush fire of panic that has swept the planet after every TV news channel and Net site carried the pictures of the Blue kids sailing out of a nuclear explosion. After the confusing messages and visions from the sky, a consensus seems to have emerged: that we were shown a false future, that the Carter prophecy is real, that we have just two centuries.

To some extent the human race today seems to react as a single organism to great events. After all, we live in a wired world. Memes — information, ideas, fears, and hopes — spread around the media and online information channels literally at light speed.

It may be that this mass reaction is the greatest single danger facing us.

Anyhow I guess this is what happens when the lead story — all over the TV and radio channels and info Nets of a wired-up humankind — is doomsday…

Atal Vajpayjee:

Atal lay in the undergrowth and focused his binocular corneal implants.

The Pakistani soldiers who guarded this place walked back and forth, weapons on their shoulders, oblivious in the dense sunshine. It gave him a pleasing sense of power to be able to see those soldiers, and yet to know they could not see him.

He had found his spotting position without disturbance. He had followed the Grand Trunk Road between Rawalpindi and Peshawar until he reached a modest track that led into these wooded hills. From here, the buildings of the Topi scientific research institute were clearly visible.

Topi was the place where scientists had developed Pakistan’s nuclear weapons.

Now he need only wait for the command to come through.

The day was hot. He wiped his forehead, and his fingers came away stained with camouflage paint. He wondered if the boy who had come home that day more than ten years ago would recognize him now.

Atal had been just eighteen years old.

He had grown up knowing that Kashmir was India’s most troubled province. Still, he had been happy, his father a prosperous cloth merchant in Srinagar. Even the crackle of gunfire at night, off in the hills, did not disturb him.

Everything changed on the day he came home from his studies — he would have been a doctor — to find his mother crumpled on the step, crying, wailing. And in the house he had found the remains of his father.

Remains. A cold, neutral word. Only the lower half of the body had been identifiable as human at all. His mother had been able to identify it only by a scar on the left foot. The authorities were able to provide no comfort, to produce no suspects.

Atal soon learned the truth.

His father had worked for many years as an agent of the central Indian government. He had striven to maintain the precarious stability of this troubled place. And in the end that cause cost him his life.

Since then, Atal had worked for revenge.

The war had already begun, with skirmishes between troops in the hills, border raids by Pakistani jets, the firing of India’s Agni missiles against military targets.

It was a war that was inevitable because it was a war that everybody wanted. If the strange predictions of the Western scientists were true — if the world really was doomed, if superhuman children had defeated the U.S. Army in the desert and flown to the Moon — then it was important that ancient wrongs be righted before the darkness fell.

He knew he would probably not live through the day. But that did not matter. There would be no future, no world for his children. There was only this, the goal, the taste of victory before the failing of the light.

The radio screeched. Grunting, he gouged the little device out of his ear. It lay on the grass, squealing like an insect.

Electromagnetic pulse.

He looked over his shoulder. Contrails: four, five, six of them, streaking from the east. Ghauri missiles, nuclear tipped. Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta had only minutes to live.

But the returning fire from India was assured.

It was the day, at last. He stood, raised his weapon, roared in defiance.

A movement to his right.

An explosion in his head. Light, sound, smell became confused, whirling.

He was lying on his side. Darkness fell.

Xiaohu Jiang:

Xiaohu opened her window and gazed out at the Beijing night. This tower block was one of a series, well maintained but utterly cheerless, marching like tombstones around the perimeter of the old city. Her mother had told her that the Beijing sky, at this time of year, used to be famous for its clarity. Now, even the sun at noon was sometimes obscured.

Xiaohu was particularly tired this night.

Her work, at the state-run municipal waste-processing plant, was as ever grim and demanding. And — notwithstanding the strange news from America, the bright new spark everyone could see on the face of the Moon — she had no choice but to attend the xuexi hui, the weekly political study session, in the large communal area at the base of the building.

Still, somewhat to her surprise, the materials distributed this week had actually been interesting.

Here, for example, was a new edition of an old pamphlet, An Outline of Certain Questions About Socialism, which dealt with the official Party response to the Carter prediction. It had surprised her. If Carter was correct, the pamphlet claimed, then only misery lay ahead for future generations. If a child never existed, it could not suffer. Therefore the moral thing was to stop producing children, to spare them pain.

The new doctrine was surely designed as a buttress for the Party’s long-standing attempts to control the national population. Everyone was used to official manipulations of the truth — to zhilu weima, to point at a deer and call it a horse, as the expression went.

But still, this resonated in Xiaohu’s tired mind. There was truth here, she thought. Genuine wisdom. But what did it mean for her?

She closed the window and stepped silently into her bedroom. Here was her daughter, Chai, sleeping silently in her cot, her face itself like a tiny round moon, her bud mouth parted.

Chai was not legitimate. Few people knew of her existence, not even her father. Xiaohu had been hatching elaborate plans to provide Chai with a life, an artificial background, a means to achieve respectability, education, a way of life.

Or rather, Xiaohu thought bleakly, a way to get through her life with the minimum pain. But now, the American predictions had made that impossible.

Negative utilitarianism, Xiaohu told herself, reducing evil rather than maximizing good. Perhaps that was all that had ever been possible in this flawed world. She felt enormously tired.

Xiaohu kissed her daughter. Then she took a pillow and set it gently on the child’s placid face.

Bob David:

He had always been good with his hands. By the age of seven or eight he had been stripping down truck engines with his father. By twelve he was building his own stock car from scrap.

The thing he was building now — here in his basement in this drafty tenement block in downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts — was simpler than that.

The key to it was a fancy new stuff called red mercury: a compound of antimony and mercury baked in a nuclear reactor, capable of releasing hundreds of times the energy contained in the same mass of TNT. Thanks to red mercury he would be able to fit his bomb into a briefcase.

Bob had grown up here, in Cambridge. He had spent his whole life resenting the asshole nerds who passed him by in class; even as a little kid he’d known that the future was theirs, not his. He’d learned the hard way that there weren’t too many places in the world for a guy who was only good with his hands.

He was glad when they started passing the Blue laws and hauling off the smart little assholes to those prison schools in Nevada and New York.

Ironically, the only paying, legal job Bob had ever gotten in his life had been at MIT, the nest of the killer nerds. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, even the walls bore the names of scientific gods: Archimedes and Darwin and Newton and Faraday and Pasteur and Lavoisier.

Bob worked in the kitchens, just a slop-out hand.

Even so, despite his resentment, he probably wouldn’t have come up with his plan if not for the end-of-the-world news.

He’d listened to what the president had to say. That the doom-soon news was only a prediction, a piece of math. That the Blue children were just children, no matter how strange they seemed. That they mustn’t react negatively; they mustn’t resort to despair and destruction.

Bob had thought about that.

He’d seen the TV shows and followed the chat groups. For sure the world was going to end, it seemed, even if nobody knew how. But there was a whole host of possibilities, from nuclear war to the air going sour to these genetic mutants, the Blues in their silver base on the Moon, taking over the planet.

And every one of these horrors, it seemed to Bob, was caused by science.

After that Bob had known what he had to do.

He had thought it would be hard to get hold of the raw materials. But that hadn’t been hard at all, as it turned out. Just as it hadn’t been hard for him to assemble the clean, beautiful machine that was birthing in his cellar.

Patiently he assembled his machine, testing each part before he added it, whistling.

Maura Della:

In western Europe the birthrate had dropped dramatically, as, it seemed, people tried to spare their unborn children the horror of existence. Conversely, the Japanese seemed to be descending into hedonistic excess. The unborn, who do not yet exist, have no rights; and therefore we are entitled to burn up the world. . .

And all over the world, old scores were being settled. There had been border conflicts all over the planet, including three limited nuclear exchanges. In southern Africa there had been outbreaks of Rift Valley fever, an ethnic-specific disease that killed ten times as many whites as blacks. Some people were turning to religion. Others were turning against it: there had been several assassination attempts on the pope, and something like a jihad seemed to be raging in Algeria. In the Middle East, a major Islam-Christianity conflict was looming, with some Muslim commentators arguing that the Christians were trying to accelerate the apocalypse of their Gospels.

America wasn’t spared, of course. Science labs and technology institutes and corporations all over the country had been subject to attack, with the destruction of MIT being the worst single incident. As for the remnant Blue children, they had already long been targets; now there were commentators — even on network TV — describing the helpless kids as angels of the Apocalypse.

And so it went.

Amidst all this, the business of government went on; and as ever it was just one damn thing after another, as Maura and others strove to contain the damage.

The Cruithne issue was containable.

There had been more probes to the asteroid, endlessly photographing and measuring, to no damn purpose as far as she could see. There was talk of sending more humans, volunteers to pass through the artifact. Maura doubted such missions would be approved. What was the purpose, if no data could be sent back?

Personally, she backed the USASF suggestion: to irradiate the surface of Cruithne, make it uninhabitable for a thousand years, and let the future, the damn downstreamers themselves, deal with it.

Notwithstanding Malenfant’s illegal launch — the strange artifact he had encountered, the failure of the military task force sent after him, the apparent deaths of all concerned, the exodus of the enhanced squid — all of that had taken place on a rock off in space somewhere. The Cruithne picture show was just too far away, too abstract, too removed from people’s experience to deliver any real sense of threat, and already fading in the memory.

There were even rumors that the whole thing had been faked: mocked-up images beamed down from some satellite by the FBI, the United Nations, rogue Third World powers, or some other enemy intent on destabilization, or mind control, or whatever else sprouted from the imagination of the conspiracy theorists. (And of course, as Maura knew well, there was a small department of the FBI set up to invent and encourage such false rumors.)

But the Blue children were different.

Maura had been startled by the fact that people, on the whole, seemed to applaud the use of the nuke. What was causing the current wave of panic was the fact that the attempt — the last resort, the source of all power in the Western mind — had failed.

And then — spectacularly, inexplicably — the children had flown to the Moon. Their escape in that damned silver bubble had been tracked live on TV, as was their subsequent three-day flight to the Moon, and their feather-gentle landing in Tycho, one of the brightest craters on the Moon’s near side.

The children were viewed with awe or terror or greed. In some parts of the world they were being used as weapons. Elsewhere they were seen as gods, or devils; already cities had burned over this issue.

In some places the children were simply killed.

Americans, of course, had responded with science. In America, kids were now studied and probed endlessly, even before they were born. If evidence of Blue superabilities was found, or even suspected, the children were taken away from their parents: isolated, restricted, given no opportunity to manipulate their environments, granted no contact with other children, Blue or otherwise.

There were even, in remote labs, experiments going on to delete, surgically, the source of the Blues’ abilities. Lobotomies, by another name. None of it was successful, except destructively.

The purpose of all this was control, Maura realized: people were trying, by these different stratagems, to regain control over their children, the destiny of the species, of their future.

But it was futile. Because up there, in that silver speck sitting in the lunar dust, there is where the future will be decided…

And meanwhile the Moon hung up there night after night, colonized somehow by American children, and the constantly circulating space telescope pictures of that strange silver dome on the lunar surface, like a mercury droplet, anonymous and sinister, served as inescapable symbols of the failure of the administration — of America — to cope.

And yet, Maura thought, cope she must; and she labored to focus on her mounting responsibilities.

After all, even in the worst case, we still have two centuries to get through.

Reid Malenfant:

Malenfant fell into light — searing white, brighter than sunlight — that blasted into his helmet. He jammed his eyes shut but could still see the glow shining pink-white through his closed lids, as if he had been thrown into a fire. There was no solid surface under him. He was falling, suspended in space. Maybe he had pushed himself away from Cruithne.

Emma, squirming, slipped out of his grasp. He reached for her, floundering in this bath of dazzling light, but she was gone.

He felt panic settling on his chest. His breathing grew ragged, his muscles stiffening up. He’d lost Emma; he had no idea where Cornelius was; he had no surface to cling to, no point of reference outside his suit.

And all of this was taking place in utter silence.

Something was wrong. Badly wrong. How come they hadn’t followed the Sheena to her stately vision of the far-future Galaxy? Where was Michael? Where was he”?

Do something, Malenfant.

The suit radio.

“Emma? Cornelius? If you copy, if you’re there, respond. Emma—” He kept calling, and, fumbling for the control, turned up the gain on his headset. Nothing but static.

He tried opening his eyes a crack. Nothing but the blinding glare. Was it a little dimmer, a little yellower, than before? Or was it just that his eyes were burning out, that this dimming would proceed all the way to a permanent darkness?

Don’t grab at the worst case, Malenfant.

But what’s the best case?

He tried to calm his breathing, relax his muscles. He had to avoid burning up the suit’s resources. He reached for the helmet’s nipple dispenser, took a mouthful of orange juice. It was so hot it burned his tongue, but he held it in his mouth until it cooled, and swallowed it anyhow.

There was a noise in his ear, so loud it made him start.

“Emma?”

But it was just the suit’s master alarm, an insistent, repetitive buzz. He risked a momentary glimpse again — that flood of yellow-white light, maybe a fraction less ferocious — and saw there were red lights all over the heads-up display on his faceplate. He felt for the touchpad on his chest — Christ, he could feel how hot it was even through his gloved fingers — and turned off the alarm.

He didn’t need to be told what was wrong. He was immersed in this light and heat, coming from all around him. So there were no shadows, no place for the suit to dump its excess heat.

He could smell a sharp burning, like in a dry sauna. The oxygen blowing over his face was like a desert wind. But, of course, he must breathe; he dragged the air into his throat and lungs, trying not to think about the pain. Christ, even the sweat that clung to his forehead in great microgravity drops felt as if it were about to boil; he shook his head, trying to rattle it off.

The master alarm sounded again; he killed it again.

So what are you going to do, Malenfant? Hang around here like a chicken in a microwave? Wish you had taken a bullet in the head from that trooper on Cruithne?

Try something. Anything.

The tethers.

He fumbled at his waist. His surface-operations harness, the trailing tethers, were still there. He pulled in one tether until he got to the piton at the end — and snatched his hand away from the glowing heat of the metal.

He started to whirl the piton around his head, like a lasso, slowly.

Maybe he would hit Cruithne, or one of the others. The chances were slim, he supposed. But it was better than nothing.

It would help if he could see what he was aiming for. He risked another glimpse.

The light was definitely more yellow, but it was still dazzling, too bright to open his eyes fully.

Concentrate on the feel of the tether in your hands. Pay out a little more; extend the reach.

The master alarm again clamored in his ear. He let it buzz, concentrated on paying out his fishing line, hand over hand, taking little short panting breaths through a drying mouth, shutting out the heat. He had a lot of spare line at his waist, maybe a hundred feet of the fine, strong, lightweight nylon rope, and he could reach a long way with it before he was done.

He didn’t feel quite so bad as before, he realized. At least he was doing something constructive, planning ahead beyond sucking in the next breath. And, of course, it helped that he wasn’t being cooked quite so vigorously.

The buzzing shut itself off.

He risked another glimpse. Beyond the winking red lights of his HUD, the white glare was turning to yellow, the yellow to orange: still bright as hell, like a sun just starting its dip toward a smoky horizon. Not something you’d choose to gaze into for long, but maybe bearable.

A couple of the HUD’s red lights turned to yellow, then green. The air blowing over his face started to feel cooler.

Still working his tether, he turned his head this way and that, peering out of his helmet. He looked down beneath his feet, up above his head, tried to twist around. He peered into the dimming yellow-orange glow. It was like staring into a neon tube. He had no sense of scale, of orientation, of space or time.

He saw something. An orange-white blob, a little darker than the background glow, down below his feet. It was moving.

Waving arms and legs.

Suddenly his sense of scale cut in. It was a person, Emma or Cornelius or even Michael, suspended in space just as he was, forty, fifty feet away. Still alive, by God. Malenfant imagined the three of them tumbling out of the blue-circle portal, falling into this empty three-dimensional space, drifting slowly apart. Hope, unreasonably, pumped in his breast.

But it couldn’t be Emma, he realized abruptly. There was no way she could kick with that damaged leg of hers.

Cornelius, then. He was making a gesture with his hands, tracing out some kind of round shape, a circle.

Malenfant was whirling his tether above his head; he would have to change the plane of rotation. That took a little skill and patience, but now he could actually see the heavy piton at the cable’s end against the orange-yellow glow, and soon he had the tether snaking out toward Cornelius.

Malenfant tried calling again, but there was no reply from either Cornelius or Emma. He felt his own body rock to and fro in reaction to the tether’s swinging mass. The tether was swinging closer to Cornelius now, close enough surely for him to see it. But Cornelius, drifting, spinning, slowly receding, showed no awareness of what Malenfant was doing; he just kept repeating his circle gesture, over and over.

At last the tether snagged on Cornelius.

Cornelius reacted to the touch of the tether with a start. He twisted and reached out to his side with jerky, panicky gestures. And, to Malenfant’s immense relief, he grabbed the line, wrapped it around his waist a couple of times, and tied it off. Then he pulled on it gingerly and started to haul himself along it.

Huge waves oscillated up and down the line. Malenfant felt his own motion change: gentle, complex tugs this way and that.

Meanwhile the glow continued to dim, noticeably, the yellow increasingly tinged with orange rather than white. It was like being inside a giant iron sphere, heated to white hot, now cooling fast.

The tether to Cornelius provided an anchor, of sorts, and Malenfant was able to pull himself around it. Like a damn trapeze artist, he thought. He twisted, trying to search all of this cooling three-dimensional space, looking for Emma.

And there she was: in fact closer than Cornelius, no more than ten or fifteen feet away. She was directly above him, drifting, inert, her limbs starfished, her gold sun visor down. The blood was still leaking from her shattered leg, little droplets of it pumping out. She was slowly turning, as if her wound were a rocket, a miniature attitude thruster fueled by Emma’s blood.

Malenfant got hold of another tether, checked that its piton was secure, and started swinging it around his head.

He managed to get the tether to brush over Emma’s chest, but unlike Cornelius, she made no attempt to grab at it. He was going to have to hook her without her cooperation. He aimed for her good leg, playing out more line. If he could get the tether to hit her leg, the momentum of the piton might make it wrap around her ankle a couple of times.

He tried once, missed. Tried again, missed.

It was getting increasingly difficult to aim, as Cornelius clambered closer. In fact, Malenfant realized belatedly, Cornelius was actually dragging Malenfant away from Emma, toward their joint center of gravity. Malenfant glared down, across the twenty feet or so that still separated him from the doggedly working Cornelius. “Cornelius, hold it a minute. Can’t you see what I’m doing here? Cut me a little slack.” Cornelius didn’t respond. Malenfant tried waving at him, miming that he should back off. But Cornelius didn’t seem aware of that either.

Swearing under his breath, Malenfant continued to work.

It took a couple more swings, a couple more agonizing near misses, before Malenfant at last managed to hook his line around Emma’s foot. The tether immediately started to unravel, so Malenfant risked everything and gave the tether a hard yank.

The tether came loose.

But it had been enough, he saw with an immense relief; still starfished, passive, spinning, she was drifting toward him. He rolled up the tether hastily and slung it over his arm.

She came sliding past him like a figure in a dream, not two feet away. He reached up and grabbed her good leg. He pulled her down to him until he had her in his arms once more. Under his gloved hand something crumbled away from Emma’s suit. It was a fine layer of white soot.

Clumsily he pushed up her gold visor. There was her face, lit by the still-brilliant orange glow of the sky. Her eyes were closed, the fringe of hair that poked out of her comms hat plastered against her forehead by big, unearthly beads of sweat. It was hard to judge her color, but it looked to him as if her face was pink, burned, even blistered in a few places, on her cheekbones and chin. He reached out without thinking, meaning to touch her face, but of course his gloved hand just bumped against the glass of her faceplate.

Enough. He was still in the business of survival, here. He got a tether rope and knotted it around his waist and Emma’s, making sure they couldn’t drift apart again.

What next?

Emma’s leg. It was still bleeding, pumping blood. A tourniquet, then. He grabbed a loop of tether rope.

But now somebody was clambering over his back. It was Cornelius, of course, pulling himself along with big clumsy grabs. Malenfant felt a thump at the back of his helmet and heard a muffled shouting that carried through the fabric of Cornelius’ helmet and his own.

“… that you? Malenfant? Is that…”

Malenfant yelled back, as loudly as he could. “Yes, it’s me.”

“… portal. Have you tethered us to the portal?” The words were very muffled, like somebody shouting through a wall. “The portal. Can you see it? Malenfant…”

The portal. That’s what Cornelius had been signaling, even as he drifted away into space, with his circle gestures. The portal. The most important object in the world right now, because it was their only way out of this place.

And it hadn’t even occurred to Malenfant to think about it.

“Malenfant, I’m blind. All this light. I can’t see… The portal, Malenfant. Get us back to the portal.”

So, adrift in this featureless universe, he had another tough call. The portal, or Emma’s tourniquet.

He shouted back to Cornelius. “I have Emma. I’ll find the portal. But she needs a tourniquet. Do you understand? A tourniquet.”

tourniquet. The trooper. I remember…”

Malenfant reached down and guided Cornelius’ hands to Emma’s damaged leg. As he touched Cornelius’ suit he kicked up another cloud of ash particles. He showed Cornelius by touch where the wound was, gave him a length of tether.

Tentatively at first, then with more confidence, Cornelius began to work, pulling the rope around the damaged leg. Malenfant watched until he was sure Cornelius was, at least, going to do no more harm.

Then Malenfant clambered over Cornelius’ back, turning this way and that, looking for the portal.

There. It was an electric-blue circle, containing its disc of inky darkness, its color a painful contrast with the dimming, orange-red background of the sky. But it was drifting away fast. And when the portal was out of reach, it would be gone forever, and this little island of humanity would be stuck here for good.

Hastily Malenfant prepared his tether, weighted with a piton to which asteroid dust still clung. Anchoring himself against Cornelius’ back, he whipped the tether around his head and flung it toward the portal. The tether was drifting well wide of the portal. Malenfant dragged it back, tried again, paying out the tether hastily. He tried again, and again.

If he had been blinded, Cornelius had had it so much worse. But even so he had been thinking; he knew immediately how important it was to grab hold of the portal, and alone, blinded, overheating, he had even tried to signal the fact to whoever might be watching.

Cornelius was one smart man.

On the fifth or sixth time, the piton sailed neatly through the black mouth of the portal, dragging the uncoiling tether after it. He let it drift on. It was, in fact, a little eerie. He could see that the piton had just disappeared when it hit the portal surface, and now the tether, too, was vanishing as it snaked into the darkness.

He began to pull the tether back, cautiously, hardly daring to breathe.

My God, he thought. Here I am fishing for a spacetime worm-hole. On any other day this would seem unusual.

The tether grew taut.

He pulled, hand over hand, gently. He felt the combined inertia of the three of them, a stiff resistance to movement. But he was patient; he kept the pressure on the tether light and even.

“We’removing. . .”

Cornelius’s voice, radio transmitted, had blared in his ear. Malenfant winced and tapped at the touchpad on his chest.

“Cornelius? Can you hear me?”

Cornelius’ voice was heavily laden with static, as if he were shouting into a conch shell, but he was comprehensible. “Are we moving? Did you—”

“Yes, I got hold of the portal.” He added reflexively, “I think we’ll be okay now.”

Cornelius managed a croaky laugh. “I doubt that very much, Malenfant. But at least the story goes on a little longer. What about Emma?”

“She hasn’t woken up yet. You know, Cornelius, sometimes eyes recover. A few days, a week…”

Cornelius drifted alongside him, sullen, silent.

Let it pass, Malenfant.

They reached the portal. It loomed over Malenfant, huge and blue and enigmatic, brilliant against the reddening sky. Malenfant touched the surface, tried to figure a way to attach a tether or a piton to it.

He discussed the problem with Cornelius.

“Just hold on to it, Malenfant,” he said, and he had Malenfant pull him around until he was doing just that, his hands loosely wrapped over the portal’s blade-sharp rim.

Malenfant turned to Emma. She was still unconscious, but she seemed to be sleeping peacefully now. He saw a soft mist on her faceplate close to her mouth. “I wish I could get this damn suit off of her, give her a drink.”

Cornelius turned blindly. “Maybe something will come along, Malenfant. That’s what you always say, isn’t it?”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I always say. How’s your suit?”

“I’m out of orange juice. And I think my diaper is full Malenfant, what color is the sky?”

“Red.” Malenfant lifted up his gold visor. It was still bright, just a uniform glow, but it was not so bright he couldn’t look at it with his unprotected eyes. “Like hot coals,” he said.

“That makes sense,” Cornelius said. “After all our radios work again. So this universe must have become transparent to electromagnetic radiation. Radio waves—”

This universe. “What are you talking about, Cornelius?”

“Malenfant, where do you think we are?”

Malenfant looked around at the sky’s uniform glow. “In some kind of gas cloud.” He tried to think out of the box. “Maybe we’re in the outer layers of a red giant star.”

“Umm. If that’s so, why was the sky white hot when we got here? Why is it cooling down so fast?”

“I don’t know. Maybe the cloud is expanding—”

“Can you see a source? A center? Any kind of nonuniformity in the glow?”

“It looks the same to me every which way. Come on, Cornelius. Time’s a little short for riddles.”

“I think we fell into another universe.”

What other universe? How?”

Cornelius managed a laugh, his voice like a dry, crumpling leaf. “You know, Malenfant, you always have trouble with the big picture. You didn’t seem disturbed philosophically by the idea of a gateway that takes you instantaneously to another time. Well, now the portal has just taken us to another spacetime point, instantaneously, like before. It’s just that this time that point is in another universe, somewhere else in the manifold.”

“The manifold?”

“The set of all possible universes. Probably one related to ours.”

“Related? How can universes be related? Never mind.”

Cornelius turned blindly. “Damn it, I wish I could see. There’s no reason why this universe should be exactly like ours, Malen-fant. Most universes will be short-lived, probably on the scale of the Planck time.”

“How long is that?”

“Ten to power minus forty-three of a second.”

“Not even time to make a coffee, huh.”

“I think this universe is only a few hours old. I think it just expanded out of its Big Bang. Think of it. Around us the vacuum itself is changing phase, like steam condensing to water, releasing energy to fuel this grand expansion.”

“So what’s the glow we see?”

“The background radiation.” Cornelius, drifting in red emptiness, huddled over on himself, wrapping his suited arms around his torso, as if he was growing cold.

“How can universes be different?”

“If they have different physical laws. Or if the constants that govern those laws are different…”

“If we fell into a Big Bang, it occurs to me we were lucky not to be fried.”

“I think the portal is designed to protect us. To some extent anyhow.”

“You mean if we had been smart enough to come through with such luxuries as air and water and food, we might live through all this?”

“It’s possible.”

“Then where did Michael go? “

Cornelius sighed. “I don’t know.”

“The Sheena squid came through the portal, and she found herself in the future. Seventy-five million years downstream. Staring at the Galaxy.”

“I do remember, Malenfant,” Cornelius said dryly.

“So how come we didn’t follow her?”

“I think it was the Feynman radios. The crude one we built at Fermilab. Whatever was put into the heads of the Blue kids, Michael and the others. The messages from the future changed the past. That is, our future. Yes. The river of time took a different course.”

“If this isn’t the future—”

“I think it’s the past,” Cornelius whispered. “The deepest past.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Of course not, Malenfant. Why should you?”

“Cornelius. I think the sky is getting brighter.”

It was true; the reddening seemed to have bottomed out, and a strengthening orange was creeping back into the sky.

Malenfant said, “That’s bad, right? We’re heading for a Big Crunch. We just lived through a Big Bang, and now we’re facing a Crunch. One damn thing after another.”

“We can’t stay here,” Cornelius whispered.

Malenfant looked around at the glowing sky, tried to imagine it contracting around him, the radiation that filled it compressing, rattling around the walls of the universe like gas in a piston, growing hotter and hotter. “Cornelius, will there be life here? Intelligence?”

“Unlikely,” Cornelius whispered. “Our universe was a big, roomy, long-lived place. Lots of room for structure to self-organize, atoms and stars and galaxies and people. Here, even the atoms will exist for just a few hours.”

“Then what’s the point? An empty universe, no life, no mind, over in a few hours? Why?”

Cornelius coughed. “You’re asking the wrong person.”

Malenfant gathered the others — Cornelius curled into a fetal ball, Emma sleeping, starfished, the tether length on her leg dangling — and he faced the portal.

The sky was getting brighter, hotter, climbing the spectral scale through orange toward yellow. “Visors down.”

Cornelius dropped his own gold sun visor into place, reached over, and did the same for Emma, by touch.

Malenfant wrapped his suited arm around Emma’s waist and grasped Cornelius firmly by the hand. He turned his back on the collapsing, featureless sky without regret, and pulled them both into the portal.

Maura Della:

Houston was hot, muggy, fractious. The air settled on her like

a blanket every time she hurried between airport terminal and

car, or car and hotel, as if it was no longer a place adapted for

humanity.

She booked into her hotel, showered and changed, and had her car take her out to JSC, the NASA Johnson Space Center. The car pulled into the JSC compound off NASA Road One, and she drove past gleaming, antiquated Moon rockets: freshly restored, spectacularly useless, heavily guarded from the new breed of antiscience wackos.

She was dismayed by the depression and surliness of the staff who processed her at the NASA security lodge. The mood in Houston seemed generally sour, the people she encountered overheated, irritable. She knew Houston had special problems. The local economy relied heavily on oil and chemicals and was taking a particular beating as the markets fluctuated and dived over rumors of the supertechnology that the Blue children had been cooking up, stuff that would make fossil-fuel technology obsolete overnight. But she had come here with a vague hope that at least at NASA — where they were all rocket scientists, for God’s sake — there might be a more mature reaction to what was going on in the world. But the national mood of fear and uncertainty seemed to be percolating even here.

Dan Ystebo came to collect her. He led her across the compound, past blocky black-and-white buildings and yellowing lawns, the heat steamy and intense. Dan seemed impatient, irritable, his shirt soaked with the sweat of his bulky body. He had spent a week here at her behest, crawling over plans and mock-ups and design documents and budgets, in order to brief her.

Maura had been coopted onto the UN-led international task force that was seeking to investigate and manage all aspects of the Blue-children phenomenon. And she, in turn, had coopted Dan Ystebo, much against his will.

Dan took her to Building 241, where, it turned out, NASA had been running life-support experiments for decades. Now the building was the focus of NASA’s response to the government’s call to return to the Moon, to establish a presence on the Moon alongside the children.

Dan was saying, “It isn’t ambitious — not much beyond space station technology. The modules would be launched to lunar orbit separately, linked together and then lowered as a piece to the Moon’s surface, as close as you like to the kids’ dome. A couple of robot bulldozers to shovel regolith over the top to protect you from radiation and stuff, and there you are, instant Moon base.”

Dan walked her through mocked-up shelters, tipped-over cylinders with bunks and softscreens and simple galleys and bathrooms. Most of the equipment here was thrown together from painted wood panels, but at least Maura got a sense of the scale and layout. She had to get from one shelter to another by crawling along flexible tubes — difficult, but presumably that would be easier in the Moon’s one-sixth gravity. All of this was set out in a huge hangarlike room; fixed cranes ran along the ceiling, and there was a lot of litter on the floor: wood and metal shavings, piled-up plans, hard hats. The sense of rush, of improvisation, was tangible.

“Feels like a mobile-home park,” she said.

“Yeah,” Dan said. He was puffing from the exertion of crawling through the tubes. “Except it will be an even worse place to stay. Remember, you’ll never be able to open a window. The power will come from solar cells. The engineers are looking at simple roll-up sheets you could spread across acres of the lunar surface or drape from a crater wall, whatever. It should be possible to move them around as the lunar day progresses. To survive the two-week nights they say they will need radioisotope thermonuclear generators.”

“More nukes, Dan?”

He shrugged. “In the short term there isn’t much choice. We’re constrained by where the kids came down — in Tycho, one of the roughest places on the Moon. The old NASA plans always showed astronauts colonizing a polar crater, somewhere you could catch the sun all lunar day, and where there would be ice to mine. As it is we’re going to have to haul up everything, every ounce of consumable. Initially, anyhow.”

He led her into the next hangarlike room. Here there was a single construction: a dome of some orange fabric, inflated, with fat tubes running around its exterior. It was maybe eight feet across, five high. Maura saw a small camera-laden robot working its way into the dome through what looked like an extendable airlock.

“This is stage two,” Dan said, “a Constructable Habitat Concept Design. You have your dome, inflated from the inside, with self-deploying columns for strength, and a spiral staircase down the center.”

“What’s the fabric?”

“Beta cloth. What they’ve been making spacesuits out of since Apollo 11. NASA is a somewhat conservative organization. This dome will contain a partially self-contained ecology based on algae. The medics here are looking at electrical muscle and bone stimulation to counteract the low-gravity effects. And regolith mining will get under way. The Moon isn’t as rich as Malenfant’s C-type asteroid, and it is mostly as dry as a bone. But you can make a reasonable concrete from the dust. And the rocks are forty percent oxygen by weight, and there is silicon to make glass, fiberglass, and polymers; aluminium, magnesium, and titanium for reflective coatings and machinery and cabling; chromium and manganese for alloys—”

“Living off the land, on the Moon.”

“That’s the idea. They are working to stay a long time, Maura.”

He led her to a coffee machine. The sludge-brown drink was free, but bad. The lack of fresh coffee was one of the consequences of the world trade minicollapse: something small but annoying, the removal of something she had always taken for granted, a sign of more bad news to come.

Maura asked him how come the NASA people were reacting so badly. “If anybody on the planet is trained to think about cosmic issues, to think out of the box of the here and now, it’s surely NASA.”

“Hell, Maura, it’s not as simple as that. NASA has lacked self-confidence for decades anyhow. Reid Malenfant drove them all crazy. Here was a guy who NASA wouldn’t even hire, for God’s sake, and he just went out there and did it ahead of them. Look at this.” He dug into a pocket and pulled out a cartoon printed off some online source: bubble-helmeted NASA astronauts in a giant, glittering spacecraft being beaten to the Moon by a bunch of raggedy-ass kids in a wooden cart. What s the big deal, guys?

Dan was grinning.

“You shouldn’t look like you enjoy it so much, Dan. Bad for relations.”

“Sorry.”

“So is that it? Hurt pride?”

“Maybe that’s a rational response,” Dan said. “The Blue kids, after all, have to operate within the laws of physics. So the solution they found to space travel must be out there somewhere. How come they got so smart, just sailing up to the Moon like that out of a nuclear explosion, for God’s sake, while we stayed dumb, still flying our Nazi-scientist rockets after decades and terabucks? And besides…”

“What?”

“Rocket scientists or not, the people here are only human, Maura. Some of them have Blue kids too The good thing is that these NASA types have been dreaming of this, running experiments and pilot plans and paper studies, for decades now. When the call did come they were able to hit the ground running. And they are preparing to be up there a long time.” He eyed her. “That’s the plan, isn’t it, Maura?”

“It’s possible. Nobody knows. We don’t know what needs the children have. They may be genius prodigies at physics and math, but what do they know about keeping themselves alive on the Moon? Our best option may be to offer help.”

Dan looked skeptical. “So that’s our strategy? We imprison them, we nuke them, and now we offer them green vegetables?”

“We have to try to establish some kind of relationship. A dialogue. All we can do is wait it out.”

“As long as it takes?”

“As long as it takes.”

“Is it true they’re sending messages? The children, I mean.”

Maura kept stony-faced.

“Okay, okay,” Dan said, irritated, and he walked on, bulky, sweating.

They walked on to other test sites and seminar rooms and training stations — more elements of this slowly converging lunar outpost — inspecting, planning, questioning.

Reid Malenfant:

There was an instant of blue electric light, a moment of exquisite, nerve-rending pain. Malenfant kept his grip on Emma and Cornelius, focused on the hard physical reality of their suited flesh.

The blue faded.

And there was a burst of light, a wash that diminished from white to yellow to orange to dull red — a pause, as if recovering breath — and then a new glissando back up the spectrum to glaring hot yellow-white.

Then it happened again, a soundless pulse of white light that diminished to orange-red, then clambered back to brilliance once more.

And again, faster this time — and again and again, the flapping wings of light now battering at Malenfant so rapidly they merged into a strobe-effect blizzard.

The warning indicators on his suit HUD started to turn amber, then red. “Hold Emma.” He pulled Emma and Cornelius closer to him, gathered them in a circle so their faceplates were almost touching, their backs turned to the brutal waves of brilliance, the flickering light shimmering from their visors.

“Cornelius.” Malenfant found himself shouting, though the light storm was utterly silent. “Can you hear me?”

“Tell me what you see.”

Malenfant tried to describe the pulsating sky. As he did so the clatter of white-red-white pulses slowed, briefly, and the pumping of the sky became almost languid, each cycle lasting maybe three or four seconds. But then, without warning, the cycling accelerated again, and the dying skies blurred into a wash of fierce light.

“Cosmologies,” Cornelius whispered. “Phoenix universes, each one rebounding into another, which expands and collapses in turn. Each one destroyed so that the next one, its single progeny, can be born. And the laws of physics get shaken around every time we come out of a unified-force singularity.”

“A what?”

“A Big Bang. Or the singularity at the heart of a black hole. The two ways a universe can give birth to another Black holes are the key, Malenfant. A universe that cannot make black holes can have only one daughter, produced by a Crunch. A universe that can make black holes, like ours, can have many daughters: baby universes connected to the mother by spacetime umbilicals through the singularities at the center of black holes. Like a miniature Big Crunch at the center of every hole. And that’s where cosmic evolution really takes off… We’re privileged, Malenfant.”

Malenfant shouted, “Privileged? Are you kidding?”

“We’re watching the evolution of universes. Or rather, you are. A spectacle beyond comparison.”

The pulsing cosmic collapses accelerated once more; the waves of light that washed down from the sky came so fast, one after the other, that it was as if they were caught inside some giant strobe machine. The three of them hung here, framed by the patient blue ring, their battered dust-stained suits bathed in the light of creation and extinction.

Could it be true? Universes, born and dying in a time shorter than it took him to draw a breath, as if he were some immense, patient god?

He turned to Emma.

She was still starfished, silent. He tapped her suit’s chest-control panel, but that only told him about the condition of her suit — laboring, damaged, complaining about the loss of fluids from the ruptured leg. He couldn’t see her face, as he did not dare lift her gold visor; it glared in the light of dying cosmoses.

Cornelius was curling into a ball. Maybe he was descending into some kind of shock. It wouldn’t be so surprising, after all.

And how come your head is still working, Malenfant? If Cornelius wants to curl up and hide, why don’t you?

Maybe, he thought, it was because he was too dumb to understand. Maybe if he did understand, like Cornelius, the knowledge would crush him.

Being dumb was sometimes an evolutionary advantage.

“Cornelius. How are you feeling?”

“I’m heating up. These universes aren’t long-lived enough to allow our suits to dump their excess heat.”

Malenfant forced a laugh. “I bet that’s one situation that isn’t covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.”

Cornelius, folded over into a fetal ball, whispered: “Let me tell you my plan. …”

The intensity of the light storm increased. Malenfant closed his eyes and huddled over Emma, trying to protect her a few seconds longer.

The suit alarm sounded.

And shut itself off.

And the light storm died.

Malenfant grunted. He opened his eyes and looked around.

The sky was cooling in a soundless explosion of light, dimming as if exhausted from yellow to orange to red to a dull emberlike glow that was soon so faint he had trouble distinguishing it with his creation-dazzled eyes.

He felt a huge relief, as if he had stepped out of a rainstorm.

Cornelius whispered fretfully, “Not every universe will make stars, Malenfant. There may not even be atomic structure here. In our universe the various atomic forces are balanced so precisely you can have more than a hundred different types of stable nuclei. Hence, the richness of the matter in our world. But it didn’t have to be like that. Everything is contingent, Malenfant. Even the structure of matter…”

The sky had become uniformly dark now, and the light, as far as he could see the only light in the whole of this universe, was the cold blue glow of the patient, unmarked portal.

Malenfant hugged Emma to him. Her face was peaceful, as if she were immersed in a deep, untroubled sleep. But she looked cold. He thought he could see a frost forming on the inside of her faceplate.

He sensed the growing universe around him, its huge, mean-inglessly expanding emptiness. And, it seemed, in all of this baby universe the only clump of matter and energy and light was here, the only eyes to see this his own. If he closed his eyes — if he died, here and now — would this cosmos even continue to exist?

A hell of a thought. Therefore, don’t think it.

“It’s damn cold,” he said.

“You’re never satisfied, are you, Malenfant?” Cornelius, still hunched over, was fiddling with the controls on his chest, tapping at them.

“What the hell are you doing there, Cornelius?”

“Sending a message.”

“Via the portal. Like the firefly we sent through. Radio waves into neutrino pulses.”

“Yes.”

“You think somebody is going to be able to come help us?”

“I doubt it.”

“Then what?”

“Turn to band six.”

Malenfant changed the tuning of his suit radio, and there it was: a wash of static, broken up by Cornelius’ tapping. He was sending out a series of pulses, crudely controlled by the touchpad.

He remembered where he’d seen a signal like this before.

“3753, 1986. 3753, 1986. That’s what you’re sending, isn’t it, Cornelius? The message we picked up at Fermilab. You’re sending the Feynman radio message back to yourself.”

Malenfant could hear a smile in Cornelius’ voice. “I always wanted to try something like this.”

“And you’re not afraid of breaking causality? That, umm, the universe won’t explode or some damn thing to stop you?”

“A little late for that, Malenfant.”

“But how do you know what to send?”

“You were there. I know what to send because I remember what I received. And since we did receive the message, we came here, and we can send it. So it’s all perfectly consistent, Malenfant. Just—”

“Backward.”

“I would have said looped. And the universe has reconstructed itself, knitting itself together quantum transaction by quantum transaction, around this central causal loop.”

“So where did the message come from in the first place? The information in it, I mean. If you’re just copying what you received—”

Cornelius stopped tapping and sighed. “That’s a deeper question, Malenfant. At any point in spacetime, at any now, there are an infinite number of pasts that could have led to the present state, and an infinite number of possible futures that flow from it. This is called the solution space of the universal wave function. Somewhere out in that solution space some equivalent of me figured out and wrote down the message, and sent it back with a Feynman radio.”

“Even if I understood that,” Malenfant growled, “I wouldn’t like it. Information coming out of nothing.”

“Then don’t accept it. Maybe the message just appeared, spontaneously.”

“That’s impossible.”

“How do you know? We don’t have a conservation law for knowledge.” And he carried on with his patient tapping.

The cold, the endless chill of this meaningless, empty cosmos seemed to sink deeper into Malenfant’s bones. “We’re going to freeze to death if we stay here,” he said.

“Our suits aren’t made for extremes,” Cornelius whispered. “Not for extended periods of heat and cold, or for extremes of temperature. But this won’t last forever.”

“Another Crunch?”

“Yes. But it may not be for a while—”

And there was no time to say any more, for there was a howl of radio static, a burst of sodium light that washed over them.

Malenfant, grunting with shock, cradling Emma, tried to turn.

Something came erupting out of the portal: complex, spinning, dazzling light flaring. It was a human. Dressed in a heavy black spacesuit, face hidden behind a gold visor. Spinning about its waist — crazily, not under control.

The space-suited figure carried a gun, a snub-nosed pistol, raised toward Malenfant.

Malenfant struggled to turn, to shield Emma with his body, but his suit, the tether, impeded him.

The trooper was wearing a backpack much bulkier than Malenfant’s. It had small bronze nozzles and big wraparound arm units with what looked like joysticks. Maybe it was some kind of MMU, a manned maneuvering unit. Sodium light was flaring from lamps. The suit looked as if it had once been as black as coal, but now it was badly charred, the surface flaking off, so as the figure spun it gave off a shower of scorched flakes like a firework.

Malenfant called, “Wait. Can you hear me? You followed us all the way here, through a thousand universes. I can’t believe you want to kill us—”

Cornelius was moving. He had dragged at a tether and launched himself across space, directly at the trooper.

“Cornelius!”

The trooper, still spinning, swiveled and fired at Cornelius. Malenfant saw the gun spark — once, twice — in complete silence. Cornelius crumpled about his middle. But he was still moving, still floating through space, his limbs still working, reaching.

His belly hit the trooper’s legs. He clung on, groping at the trooper’s suit.

Meanwhile the trooper continued to fire; Malenfant saw at least one more shot slice through Cornelius’ legs. But now Cornelius, clambering behind the trooper, was out of reach. The momentum of their combined bodies turned their motion into a clumsy, uncoordinated, complex roll.

The trooper squirmed, trying to get hold of Cornelius. But Cornelius, laboring, had managed to reach down between the backpack and the trooper’s suit. He yanked loose a hose. Vapor vented into space, immediately freezing into crystals.

The trooper’s motions became scrambled, panicky. Legs kicked helplessly, and gloved hands scrabbled at the helmet as if striving to pull it off.

It took only a minute for the trooper’s struggles to diminish, a few last kicks, desperate scrabbles at helmet, chest panel, backpack.

And then, stillness.

Even before that, Cornelius was still too.

There was blood inside Cornelius’ helmet. It had stuck to the visor and was drying there. Droplets of it seemed to be orbiting inside the helmet itself. Malenfant couldn’t see Cornelius’ face, and he was grateful for that.

I’m going to miss you, he thought. Cornelius, the man who understood the future, even other universes. I wonder if you understand the place you have gone to now.

The trooper turned out to be a woman. There was some kind of liquid over the interior of her depressurized helmet, and Malenfant didn’t look too closely. He did find a name tag sewn to the fabric of her suit: TYBEE J.

He couldn’t find the gun.

With loose loops of tether he tied together the bodies of Cornelius and the trooper.

I ought to say something, he thought.

Who for? For the corpses? They weren’t around to hear any more, and Emma was unconscious. Then who? Did this universe have its own blind, stupid God, a God whose grasp of the possibilities of creation had reached only as far as this dull, expanding box?

Not for God. For himself, of course.

He said, “This is a universe that has never known life. But now it knows pain, and fear, and death. You couldn’t get much farther from home. And I guess it’s right that you should stay here, together. That’s all.”

Then, bracing himself against the portal, he shoved them gently. There was only the blue glow of the portal, which diminished quickly, and they were soon fading from sight.

He wondered how long the bodies would last here. Would they have time to rot, mummify, their substance evaporate? Would the different physical laws of this universe penetrate them, making their very atomic nuclei decay? Or would they be caught up, destroyed at last, in the Big Crunch that Cornelius had promised would destroy this universe, as it had the others?

The bodies drifted away slowly, tumbling slightly, the two of them reaching the limit of the tether and then coming back together, colliding softly once more, as if their conflict had continued, in this attenuated form, beyond death itself. As, perhaps, it would; their ghosts, trapped in a universe that wasn’t their own, had only each other to haunt.

It doesn’t matter, Malenfant. Time to move on.

The trooper’s MMU backpack, evidently built to mil spec, was considerably more advanced than Bootstrap hardware.

There was a power source — lightweight batteries — that would long outlast Malenfant’s own, a significant supply of compressed air, a simple water recycler, and food pods that looked as if they were meant to plug into slots in the trooper’s helmet. And there was a med pack, simple field-medicine stuff. The MMU even contained a lightweight emergency shelter, a fabric zip-up bubble.

Suddenly life was extended — not indefinitely, but through a few more hours at least. He was startled how much that meant to him.

Malenfant pulled himself and Emma into the shelter and assembled it around them. It was just big enough for him to stretch out at full length. The fabric, self-heating, was a thin translucent orange, but a small interior light made the walls seem solid. Malenfant felt enormously relieved when he had shut out the purposeless expansion outside, as if this flimsy fabric emergency tent could shelter him from the universes that flapped and collapsed beyond its walls.

When the pressure was right, the temperature acceptable, he cracked his own helmet and sniffed the air. It was metallic, but fine.

He pulled off his gloves. He turned to Emma, opened up her helmet, lifted it off carefully, and let it drift away. Emma’s burned-red cheek was cold to his touch, but he could feel a pulse, see breath mist softly around her mouth.

He took time to kiss her, softly. Then he used his own helmet nipple to give her a drink of orange juice.

He tried to treat Emma’s wounded leg. He didn’t like the look of what he saw below the improvised tether tourniquet. The blood and flesh, exposed to vacuum, was frozen, the undamaged skin glassy. But at least she hadn’t bled to death, he thought, and she didn’t seem to be in any pain. He cleaned up the wound as best he could.

“Malenfant?”

The sound, completely unexpected, made him gasp, turn.

She was awake, and looking at him.

Maura Della:

Life on the Hill had gotten a lot harder, even without the protestors. And the chanting of the protestors, cult groups, and other disaffected citizens in the streets outside, always an irritant, had become a constant distraction. There were times — even here, behind the layers of toughened glass — when she could hear the cries of pain, the smash of glass, the smoky crackle of small-arms fire, the slap and crash of grenade launchers.

Maura believed there was something deep and troubling going on in the collective American psyche right now. She’d always worked on the belief that Americans liked to imagine themselves elevated from the general human fray, if only a little. Americans had the most robust political system, the best technology, the strongest economy, the finest national character and spirit. Of course it was mostly myth, but it wasn’t a bad myth as national fever dreams went, and Maura knew that Americans’ faith in themselves had, historically, tended to turn them into a positive force in the world.

But there was a downside. Whenever things went bad, whenever the myth of superiority and competence was challenged, Americans would look outside, for somebody or something to blame for their troubles. And, whatever went wrong with the world, there was always an element who would blame the government.

Fair enough. But how the hell was she supposed to concentrate with all that going on?

But, of course, she had to.

Just as she had to ignore the other inconveniences of the post-Nevada world. Such as the fact that she wasn’t allowed to use e-mail, photocopiers, scanners, or even manual typewriters and carbon paper. All government business relating to Bootstrap and the Blue children was now conducted by handwritten note: one copy only, to be destroyed by the recipient after use.

Even her private diary was, strictly speaking, illegal now.

Depressed, she turned to the first fat report on her desk. It was set out in a clear, almost childish hand, presumably that of some baffled, sworn-to-silence secretary. She skimmed through a preface consisting of academic ass-covering bull:… able to offer no assurances as to the accuracy of this preliminary interpretation that has been produced, according to this group’s mandate, as a guide for further decision making and. . .

It was from the team of academics at Princeton who were trying to translate the messages the children had been sending to Earth. (She remembered Dan Ystebo’s apparently informed speculations on the subject, and she made a mental note to have one of the FBI plumbers dig out who was leaking this time.)

The sporadic signals were in the form of ultraviolet laser light targeted on an antiquated astronomy satellite in Earth orbit. Why they chose that means of transmission nobody knew, nor how they had gotten hold of or built a laser, nor why they felt impelled to transmit messages at all. Perhaps all that would come after the graybeard academic types at Princeton and elsewhere had figured out what the hell the kids were talking about here.

The message itself was text, encoded in a mixture of ASCII, English, other natural languages, and mathematics. But the natural-language stuff didn’t seem to bear much relation to the math, which itself was full of symbologies and referents whose meanings the academics were having to guess at.

The math appeared to be some kind of diatribe on fundamental physics.

Maura knew that for a century the theoreticians had been struggling to reconcile the two great pillars of physics: relativity, Einstein’s theory of gravity, and quantum mechanics, the theory of the submicroscopic world. The two theories were thought to be limited facets of a deeper understanding the academics called quantum gravity.

It is impossible to delimit a theory that does not yet exist, the report writers noted pompously. Nevertheless most theorists had expected to find the quantum paradigm more fundamental than the relativistic. The speculations of the children contradict this, however. . .

Maura skimmed on. Perhaps, the children seemed to be suggesting, fundamental particles — electrons and quarks and such — were actually spacetime defects, kinks in the fabric. For instance, a positive charge could be the mouth of a tiny wormhole threaded by an electric field, with a negative charge the other mouth, the flow of the field through the wormhole looking, from the outside, like a source and sink of charge. Einstein himself had speculated on these lines a century ago, but hadn’t been able to prove it or develop the theory to his satisfaction.

Anyhow, it seemed, Einstein hadn’t thought far enough. The children seemed to be saying that the key was to regard particles not just as loops or folds in space but as folds in time as well. Such a fold necessarily creates a closed timelike curve. . .

So every electron was a miniature time machine.

. . . This has clear implications for causality. The properties of a fundamental particle would be determined by measurements that can be made on it only in the future. That is, there is a boundary condition that is in principle unobservable in the present… Imagine a skipping rope, some dusty academic had dictated, struggling to make herself understood. If a handle is jiggled, the shape of the wave created depends not just on what is happening at the perturbed end but what happens at the other handle. . .

In this worldview it was this breach of causality that provided uncertainty, the famous multivalued fuzziness of the quantum world.

And so on, at baffling and tedious length.

She sat in her chair, struggling with the concepts.

So the world around her, the familiar solid world of atoms and people and trees and stars, even the components of her own aging body, was made up of nothing more than defects in space-time. There was nothing but space and time, knotted up and folded over on itself. If that’s so, she thought, maybe we shouldn’t be surprised at the eruption of all this acausal strangeness. It was there all along, just too low-level for us to see, too obscure for us to understand.

But was it possible?

Just accept it, Maura. The important thing, of course, is why the children are trying to communicate this to us.

The children may be attempting to bridge the chasm in understanding between our patiently constructed but partial theories and their own apparently instinctive, or paradox-prescient, knowledge of the world’s structure. It may be they wish us to understand on a deeper level what has happened to us so far — or, possibly, what is to happen to us in the future. . .

A prediction, then.

Or a threat.

Maura shivered, despite the clammy warmth of her office.

Maura, skimming the transcript, found scraps of plain language interspersed with all this heavy stuff: We’re all right here. Please tell our parents we aren ‘t hot or cold or hungry but just right, and it s a lot of fun bouncing around on the Moon, like a big trampoline… You shouldn ‘t have done what you did when you dropped that big bomb on us and it just made us mad is all and some of us wanted to come back and hurt you the same but Anna said we mustn’t and it wasn’t really your fault that you cared for us underneath even if you didn ‘t know how to show it and. . .

A kid’s report from summer camp, beamed down by ultraviolet laser from the Moon, interspersed with theoretical physics so heavy-duty a gaggle of Nobel prize winners couldn’t make sense of it. She felt her heart break a little more.

Even while it scared the life out of her.

She closed the report and dropped it into the high-temperature incinerator that hummed softly under her desk.

The last report in her tray was color-coded — by hand, with a marker pen — as the highest category of secure. It was about how the new NASA lunar outpost at Tycho would be used as a base for infiltrating the children’s mysterious encampment.

The Trojan-horse children had been screened for the Blue syndrome from before they could talk or walk. There were more than a hundred candidate kids at this point, all of them infants or preschoolers. And now their education was being shaped with a single purpose: loyalty to Earth, to home, to parents. There was training, discipline, ties of affection, every kind of behavioral conditioning the psychologists could dream up, mental and physical. They’d even brought in advertising executives.

Nobody knew what was going to work on these kids — who would, after all, eventually be smarter than any of the people who were working on their heads. Eventually, when they got old enough, the conditioning would be tested, sample candidates put through a variety of simulated experiences.

Little human lab rats, Maura thought, being given mazes to run, with walls of loyalty and coercion and fear.

The objective was to have selected a final cohort of seven or eight individuals by the time the children had reached the age of five or six, and then to ship them to the Moon and offer them to the Blues up there. And then to have the Blues’ new friends betray them.

She came to a list of candidate infants. One of them was Billie Tybee: daughter of Bill Tybee, who, a thousand years ago, had turned to Maura for help, and June Tybee, who had died during the failed assault on Cruithne, and the sibling of Tom, one of the children who had gone to the Moon, lost forever to his grieving father.

As if we haven’t done enough to that family.

Maura hadn’t yet worn her conscience completely smooth. This is, she thought, a war against our own children. And we’re using every dirty method on them that we dreamed up in a million years of waging war against ourselves.

But she knew she had to put her conscience aside, once again.

The children on the Moon, whatever they were doing up there, had to be understood, controlled, stopped.

By any means necessary.

Anyhow, if these really are the dying days of humankind, at least we’re going out true to ourselves. God help us all, she thought, as she pushed the report into the incinerator.

Reid Malenfant:

Malenfant cradled Emma, gently helped her eat, drink, let her sleep, tried to answer her questions. But she seemed less interested in the fate of the multiple universes through which she’d traveled, unconscious, than in Cornelius and Michael.

“Poor Cornelius,” she said. “I wonder if he found what he

wanted, in the end.”

“I doubt it. But he gave his life for us.”

“But only because he knew immediately there was no other choice. That the trooper would otherwise have killed all three of us. He knew he was going to die, one way or the other.”

“It didn’t have to be that way,” Malenfant said.

“Oh, it did.” Her voice was steady, but weak. “Cornelius was dead from the moment he destroyed that troop carrier. As long as he left one trooper alive, one who knew she or he wouldn’t be going home again…”

“But for the trooper to follow us through the portal, through those multiple universes—”

“There is a human logic that transcends all of this.” She waved a hand. “All the incomprehensible cosmological stuff. And that’s what killed Cornelius.”

“Human logic,” he said. “You think there’s a logic that has brought the two of us here? Wherever the hell here is.”

“The only two souls in a universe,” she said weakly. “It would sound romantic if—”

“I know.”

She was silent a while. Then, “Malenfant?”

“Yeah?”

“You think we can find a way back home?”

He sighed. “I don’t know, babe. But we can try.”

“Yes,” she said, and she snuggled closer to his space-suited form, seeking warmth. “We can try, can’t we?” She closed her eyes.

He let her rest for six hours.

Then he sealed up their suits, collapsed the bubble, checked their tethers, attached trooper Tybee’s backpack to his waist.

Then, hand in hand, Malenfant and Emma slid through the blue-circle portal, steps of just a few feet taking them gliding between realities.

Universe after universe after universe.

Sometimes they encountered more chains of fast-collapsing phoenixes, imploding skies that washed them with a transient light, and they huddled in the portal as if escaping the rain. But most of the cosmoses they encountered now were long past their first expansion, far from their final collapse, and were empty even of the diseased light of creation or destruction.

Nowhere was there any sign of life: nothing but the empty logic of physical law.

Sometimes Emma slept inside her suit, allowing Malenfant to haul her back and forth through the portal, whole universes going by without waking her: not even looking, even though they might be, he supposed, the only conscious entities ever to visit these places, these starless deserts.

An immense depression settled on Malenfant. This desolate parade of universe after universe — spacetime geometries utterly empty of warmth and mind and life save for himself and Emma — seemed to have been arranged to demonstrate to him that even the existence of a place in which structure and life could evolve was an unlikely accident. All his adult life he had fought for the future of the species. What was his ambition now? That squads of humans should follow him through these portals and settle these dead places, wrestle with space and time and the physical laws to make another place to live?

He came to a place that was, at least, different. The sky was huge, black, without stars or galaxies. But there was something: a texture to the sky, a swath of redness, just at the limit of his vision. In trooper Tybee’s backpack he had found a visor attachment with a night-vision setting. He wrapped the attachment over his helmet; it fit like huge goggles.

He peered around. His own body and Emma’s shone like false-color stars, the brightest objects in the universe.

The sky itself showed a dull red glow, the relic Big Bang radiation of this pocket universe. And there were clouds — diffuse, without structure — that covered much of the sky. The clouds showed up as thin gray-white in Malenfant’s enhanced vision, something like high cirrus. “Almost like home,” he murmured. Actually, not. But it was better than bland nothingness.

“Malenfant.”

He looked into Emma’s helmet. She was awake, smiling at him.

“Did you dream?”

“No,” she said. “I wish that fancy backpack had a coffee spigot.”

“And I wish I could say it’s a pretty view.”

“I suppose it is, in its way,” Emma said. “At least there’s something”

“I wonder why there are no stars. There’s clearly some kind of matter out there, and it’s clumpy. But it hasn’t made stars.”

“Maybe the clumps aren’t the right size here,” she said.

“What difference would that make?”

“I don’t know.”

“It might be something more bizarre,” he said. He told her about Cornelius’ speculations on how physical laws, shaken up by each emergence from the Crunch-Bang cycle, might deliver different forms of matter. “For instance, those clouds might not even be hydrogen.”

She sighed. “I don’t think it makes a lot of difference, Malen-fant. All that matters is that this isn’t home. Do you think we’re getting any nearer?”

“I don’t even know what nearer means.” He checked his wristwatch. They had been traveling for hours through how many universes — dozens, a hundred?

“If not for the resources of this trooper’s backpack,” Emma said, “we’d be dead by now. Wouldn’t we, Malenfant?” Her voice was an insect whisper. “I wonder if Cornelius knew that, if he figured that we would need the backpack to survive.”

“To kill for a backpack—”

“Cornelius was the coldest, most calculating human being I ever knew. It was exactly the kind of thing he would do.” She closed her eyes. “I think I want to sleep now.”

He let her rest for an hour. Then they moved on.

They passed through more glowing-cloud universes. Sometimes the clouds would be sparser or denser, showing more or less structure. But they did not find galaxies or stars, nothing resembling the familiar structures of home.

Then they came to something new. They stopped, drifting in the unchanging blue light of the portal.

It was another red-sky universe. But this time it seemed as if the sparse clouds had been gathered up like cotton wool and wadded together into a single roseate mass that dominated half the sky. There was a single point of light at the center of it all, easily bright enough to be visible with the naked eye. Two splinters of light seemed to be protruding from the point, like lens flares, or poles from a toy globe. Malenfant thought he could trace structure in the cloud that surrounded the central point: a tight spiral knot at the center, glowing a brighter red than its surroundings, and farther out streamers and elongated bubbles, all of it swirling around the center. It was actually beautiful, in a cold, austere way, like a watercolor done in white, gray, red.

Beautiful, and familiar.

“My God,” said Malenfant. “It’s a black hole. A giant black hole. Remember what we saw—”

“Yes. But black holes are made by stars. How can it be here, if there are no stars?”

He shrugged. “Maybe the matter here didn’t form stars, but just imploded into… that. Do you think it’s a good sign?”

“I don’t know. I never was much of a tourist, Malenfant. Tell me what Cornelius told you about black holes. That universes can be born out of them. That what goes on in a black hole’s center is like a miniature Big Crunch…”

“Something like that.”

“Then,” she said laboriously, “this universe could have two daughters. One born out of the black hole, one from the final Crunch.”

He frowned. “So what?”

“Don’t you get it, Malenfant? If universes with black holes have more babies, after a few generations there will be a lot more universes with black holes than without. Because they can multiply.”

“We’re talking about universes, Emma. What does it mean to say one type of universe outnumbers another?”

“Perhaps it’s all too simple for you to understand, Malenfant.”

“You mean too complex.”

“No. Too simple. Let’s go on.”

“Are you sure you’re ready?”

“What choice do I have?” And, feebly, she began to tug herself along the tether that joined them.

They passed on through the gallery of universes, barely noticing, comprehending little. Maybe Emma was right. Maybe they were working their way up a branching tree of universes — new baby cosmoses twigging off through every black hole. If that was so, how were the two of them being guided in their journey? By whom? Why?

Anyhow, on they went.

Even at the rate they traveled — a whole new universe, after all, every couple of minutes — the rate of cosmological evolution seemed damnably slow to Malenfant: a dim, undirected groping for complexity.

At first there were more red-sky universes. Most of them were adorned by black hole roses. Sometimes there was one all-consuming monster, sometimes an array of them studded

randomly around the sky.

Once they were so close to a hole center that its glare, seen through a dense mass of cloud, was dazzling, and Malenfant was sure he could see movement in the nearer clumps of gas, shadows thousands of light-years long turning like clock hands. Perhaps the portal itself was being dragged inward to the hole. He wondered what would happen then. Could even the portal survive falling into an immense black hole? Or did someone — some unimaginable agency of the downstreamers who built this chain — monitor the portals across the universes, repair them after cosmological accidents?

Then, fifty or a hundred cosmoses — they weren’t counting — from the first black hole rose, they came to something new. No infrared clouds, no black holes. But there was structure.

Malenfant pushed himself away from the portal. He drifted to the end of the tether, rebounding slightly. He shielded his eyes, trying to shut out the blue glow of the portal.

There were wheel shapes in the sky: rimless, but with regular spokes of the palest yellow light. It seemed to him there was a nesting here, structure on structure, the wheel shapes themselves gathered into greater, loosely defined discs, just as stars combined into galaxies, which gathered in turn in clusters and super-clusters.

His tether stretched beyond him, farther from the portal by six or seven yards. It just hung in space, coiled loosely. But there was a fine blue mist at its terminus.

Malenfant worked his way along the tether. The mist was made up of very small particles, fine almost to the limit of visibility. At first he thought they must be flaking away from the tether, somehow; but it looked as if they were just condensing out of the vacuum. The mist was everywhere—

Except right in front of him. There was a rough disc shape directly ahead of him, where no mist was forming. Puzzled, he lifted his arm out to his left. The empty disc shape extended that way. It was a diffuse shadow of himself.

“I think it’s something to do with the portal light. There’s no mist here, where I block it out. Maybe the light is—” He waved his hands. “ — condensing.”

“How is that possible, Malenfant?”

“Hell, I don’t know.” He reached along the tether, meaning to pull himself farther.

‘Wo, Malenfant. Look at the tether.”

He let his gaze follow the rope to its end, a few yards ahead.

The tether was disappearing. It looked as if it was being burned away by some invisible, high-intensity ray. Occasionally he saw a flash of green light.

He pulled the tether back. The burning-off stopped. He was able to touch the end of the rope. It had been cut clean through. But the blue mist was still sparkling into existence, right where it had been before.

“There’s a limit out there, Emma. A barrier.” He looked around, but there was only the strangely structured sky. “Maybe the portal is protecting us. Like a shield.”

“A shield, Malenfant? You always did watch too much seventies TV”

“Then you explain it,” he said testily.

“Why does everything have to have an explanation? This is a different universe. Maybe the stuff from our universe is changing when it goes out there, past the portal’s influence.”

“Changing how?”

“The mass of the tether is disappearing. So maybe it’s being converted into something else. Light, maybe. And the mist—”

“—is the light from the portal. Condensing. Turning into some kind of matter. So,” he said, “how can light and matter swap over? Cornelius would have known.”

“Yes. This is a strange place, isn’t it, Malenfant?”

“There’s nothing for us here.”

He turned away from the wheels, the blue mist, and pulled himself back to the portal.

So they passed on, on down the corridor of universes.

… Until they came, at last, to a sky full of stars.

Malenfant let himself drift away from the portal. “At least I think they are stars.”

The sky was uniformly speckled with points of light, all around them, above and below. No glowing clouds, no black hole roses. It might have been a starry night on Earth.

But there was something wrong. “They look old,” Malenfant said. It was true: a handful of the stars were as bright as orange, one even seemed to be sparking fitfully yellow, but the rest were a dim red. When he donned the night-vision goggles, he made out many more starlike points, a field of them stretching beyond the visible. But they were dim and red.

“We’ve been expecting stars,” Emma said.

“We have?”

“Sure. Think about it. If the key to breeding universes is black holes, you need to come up with the best way there is of making black holes. Which is stars.”

“What about those giant black holes we saw in the rose universes?”

“But they looked like they had ripped up half of creation. Stars have got to be more efficient than that. How many black holes were there in our universe?”

“A billion billion. Round numbers,” Malenfant said.

“We’re going to see more universes full of stars now. Universes that are star factories, and so black hole factories.”

He gathered up the tethers.

More universes, many and strange. Most of them now contained stars of some kind, but they were generally dim, scattered, unimpressive if not dying or dead. And nowhere did they see anything to match the splendor and complexity of their home Galaxy, and nowhere did they see any evidence of life and organization.

Malenfant grunted. “I feel like I’m trapped in God’s art gallery.”

Emma laughed weakly. “Malenfant, how can you be bored? You’re being transported between universes. Not only that, you only have a few hours to live. What do you want, dancing girls? And what difference does it make? We’re surely going to die soon anyhow, in some chunk of emptiness or other. I don’t think you’re destined to die in your own bed, Malenfant.”

“I don’t own a bed. But I’d rather die in my own fucking universe.”

“Even a million light-years from home?”

“Yeah. Wouldn’t you?”

“You do take things personally, don’t you, Malenfant? As if all of this, the manifold of universes, is picking onyou.”

He fixed their tethers and faced the portal, its blank central expanse open, empty, somehow reassuring, a way onward. “Hell, yes,” he said. “What other enemy is there?”

So, holding on to each other, they moved on to another reality, then another.

More skies. More stars, mostly small and unspectacular.

At last they came to a place with a Galaxy. But it was small and knotlike, populated by stars that looked dull, uniform, and aging; it seemed to have none of the reeflike complexity of their own Galaxy.

They passed on.

Universe after universe, all but identical to Malenfant’s eye: small and uninspiring stars, untidy galaxies, skies littered with the corpses of red, dying stars.

“I wonder why the stars are all so small,” he said. “And why there are so few. And why they all got so old so quickly.”

“Because there’s no giant Galaxy to make new ones,” Emma said. “We saw it, Malenfant. The reef Galaxy. All those feedback loops. A way to make stars, and keep on making them, over and over.”

Maybe she was right. If the key goal was to make lots of black holes — and if black holes were best made in giant stars — then you wanted machines to make lots of giant stars, and reef galaxies were the best way they had yet seen.

But evidently it wasn’t so easy to make reef galaxies — or rather, to evolve them. Malenfant looked around another dull, uninteresting sky. He wondered what was missing, if there was some simple, key ingredient. Carbon, perhaps, or some other element essential to the great star-spawning gas clouds.

Malenfant paused again when they came to a new, different universe. But this time some of the galaxies were broken up, their outlying stars scattered and their central masses collapsing into what Malenfant was coming to recognize as the signatures of black holes. And there were patches of glowing gas marring the sky, as if some of the nearer stars had exploded.

Beyond the stars the sky was glowing. It was like one of the early phoenix universes he had seen, born only to die within seconds or hours or days or years. But it wasn’t a uniform glow, he saw.

There seemed to be hot spots, one directly above his head and one below his feet, like poles in the sky. And there was a cold band around the equator of the sky, a plane running through his midriff. There were two points on the equator, in fact — once again on opposite sides of the sky — that seemed to be significantly cooler than the average.

He described the sky to Emma. “It’s a collapsing universe. But the collapse doesn’t seem to be symmetrical. It’s coming in over our heads, flattening out at the sides.”

“Is that possible?”

“Maybe this universe is oscillating,” he said. “Like a soap bubble, before it bursts. Not collapsing evenly. Going from a sphere to a stretched-out ellipse shape to a flattened disc shape…

“You know, Cornelius said it might be possible to survive a Big Crunch in a universe like that. You have to take control of the universe. And then you manipulate it, mass and energy and gravity fields, to control the oscillations. If you milk them just right you can extract enough energy to live forever.”

“That sounds like Cornelius,” she said dryly. “Malenfant, does it look like life-forms are manipulating the universe here?”

“No.”

So they went on.

Emma slept again. Trying not to wake her, he drifted on to the next universe, and the next.

Until — without warning, after another routine transition — he landed on Cruithne.

At least, for a few seconds he thought it was Cruithne.

He and Emma were floating above a gray, dusty surface, dropping through ghostly microgravity. The portal was embedded in the plain, jutting out of it upright, just as it had before. There was a hiss of static in his headset.

His feet settled to the surface. There was the gentlest of crunches, transmitted through his suit fabric, as his boots crushed the regolith of this place. The dust seemed soft, easily compressed.

Standing straight, he grinned fiercely. The touch of gravity was feather-light, but even so it was pleasing to feel solid ground under his feet.

He laid Emma down carefully. The soft, loose dust billowed up around her, falling back slowly in the feather-soft gravity.

Of course, it wasn’t Cruithne.

He’d seen more exciting skies. There was a single star, small, spitting light. Its color was elusive, a blue-green. That was all: There was nothing else to be seen, anywhere in the sky.

He stepped forward. The surface was covered in smooth, flowing dust, like a folded-over sand dune. There were low hills, even what might have been the faded-out remnants of very ancient, very large craters, palimpsests. The dust wasn’t the charcoal black of Cruithne, but a bluish silver-gray. Malenfant dug his gloved hand into the dust. It was very fine, like talc, with none of the little knotty clumps he remembered from Cruithne itself. He scraped out a small pit He thought he could detect a subtle flow as the dust poured gently back into his hole, filling it in and smoothing it over.

He straightened up, slapped the dust off his hands, and bent over to brush it off his legs. Except that there was no dust there; it seemed to have fallen away from his suit fabric. In fact he could see, where Cruithne II dust was peeling away, lingering traces of coal-dark Cruithne I, still stuck there after so long, after all the exotic cosmoses he had seen.

Dust on Cruithne I stuck to suit fabric because it was electrostatically charged by the action of the sun. So how come this stuff didn’t act the same? No electrostatics? Maybe matter here wasn’t capable of holding a sizable electric charge . …

Why would that be, and what difference would it make?

He had, of course, absolutely no idea.

“This dust is soft, Malenfant. Like the finest feather bed you ever heard of. You remember the story about the princess and the pea?”

“I remember.”

“But I didn’t dream. I haven’t dreamed once since we went through the portal.” Her voice was a rustle. “Isn’t that strange? Maybe you have to be at home to dream. I think I finished my orange juice.”

“I’ll put up the habitat.”

“No… Ungh” Behind her visor, her face twisted with pain.

He rummaged in the trooper backpack’s medical kit and found an ampule of a morphine derivative. In the dim light of the green star he had to squint to read the instructions. Then he pressed it against a valve at Emma’s neck.

He watched her face. Her self-control was steely, as it always had been. But he thought he detected relief there.

“Now you made me a junkie,” she said.

“So sue me.” He bent and picked her up.

“I can hardly hear you. That static. Is there something wrong with the radio?”

“I don’t think so,” he said dryly. “The universe is broken, not the radio.”

Then, the mil spec backpack trailing behind him, he stepped a giant microgravity step through the portal.

As their consumables dwindled, Malenfant hurried through universes, dismissing billions of years of unique cosmic evolution with a glance, not bothering to try to figure out why this universe should be this way or that, subtly different, subtly wrong. The waste, the emptiness of these cosmoses where there were no eyes to see, oppressed him.

Sometimes Malenfant found himself landing on a Cruithne, more or less like his own Cruithne, sometimes not. Sometimes the stars shone bright and white, but they seemed oddly uniform. Sometimes he found himself in a dying, darkling universe where the stars seemed already to have burned themselves out, a sky littered with diminishing points of orange and red.

Once there was a Galaxy over his head, a roof of light, star clusters scattered around it like attending angels. And when he lifted his sun visor, he could see its complex light reflecting from his own cheekbones and nose, the bony frame of his face.

… But it wasn’t right. Not quite.

There was the core, glowing bright, the broad disc, even a hint of spiral structure. But only a hint. There were none of the massive blue-white sparks he’d been able to see in the images their firefly had returned, none of the great supernova blisters, holes blasted into the big molecular clouds by the deaths of giant stars.

Not quite right.

Malenfant hurried on.

Meanwhile Emma grew weaker. She spent longer asleep, and her waking intervals grew shorter. It was as if she was hoarding her energy, hibernating like the black hole farmers of the far downstream. But parsimony hadn’t worked out for the down-streamers. And it wasn’t going to work for Emma.

It got to the point where he didn’t even look up at the sky any more as he blundered back and forth. The human mind had evolved for just one universe, he thought. How much of this crap was he supposed to take? He felt exhausted, resentful, bewildered.

“Wait.”

He paused. He had loped out of the portal onto another stretch of scuffed, anonymous regolith. She was lying in his arms, her weight barely registering. He looked down into her face, and pushed up her gold sun visor.

“Emma?”

She licked her lips. “Look. Up there.”

No Galaxy visible, but a starry sky. The stars looked, well, normal. But he’d learned that meant little. “So what?”

Emma was lifting her arm, pointing. He saw three stars, dull white points, in a row. And there was a rough rectangle of stars around them — one of them a distinctive red — and what looked like a Galaxy disc, or maybe just a nebula, beneath…

“Holy shit,” he said.

She whispered, “There must be lots of universes like ours. But, surely to God, there is only one Orion.”

And then light, dazzling, unbearably brilliant, came stabbing over the close horizon.

It was a sunrise. He could actually feel its heat through the layers of his suit.

He looked down at the ground at his feet. The rising light cast strong shadows, sharply illuminating the miniature crevices and craters there. And here was a “crater” that was elongated, and neatly ribbed.

It was a footprint.

He stepped forward, lifted his foot, and set it down in the print. It fit neatly. When he lifted his foot away the cleats of his boot hadn’t so much as disturbed a regolith grain.

It was his own footprint. Good grief. After hundreds of universes of silence and remoteness and darkness, universes of dim light and shadows, he was right back where he started.

He looked down at Emma. But, as the sunlight played over her face, she had already closed her eyes. Gently he flipped down her gold visor. The light dazzled from it, evoking rich colors.

Maura Della:

The robot bus snaked across the folded floor of Tycho.

Maura gazed out, stunned, at gray-brown ground, black starless sky, a bright blue Earth, full and round like a blue marbled bowling ball. In the valleys, smooth rocky walls rose around her, hiding the Earth and the details of the land. As the shadows fell on the bus it cooled rapidly, and she heard its hull tick as it contracted, fans somewhere banging into life to keep the air warm for her. But there was light here, even at the bottom of the angular lunar chasms: not diffused by the air, for there was no air, but reflected from the rock walls at the top of the valleys.

The Plexiglas blister window was very clear, cleaned of Moon dust and demisted, and she felt as if she were outside the bus, suspended over the lunar ground. She saw dust, heavily indented by bus tracks that the bus was now following once more with religious precision. The dust was loose, fragile looking, flecked with tiny craters, with here and there the glint of glass. It was lunar soil: dead, processed by patient, airless erosion, passing beneath her feet like foam on a rocky sea. She longed to reach down, through the window, and run her fingers through that sharp-grained dirt.

But that was impossible.

When she had arrived at the dull, cramped, sour-smelling NASA base, dug into the regolith miles from the children’s encampment, she had been told that civilian types like herself weren’t expected to “EVA,” as they called it, to walk outside onto the surface of the Moon. Not once, not one footstep; she would pass over the Moon through an interconnected series of air-conditioned rooms and vehicles, as if the whole Moon were one giant airport terminal.

There were a dozen people in the bus.

Most of them were soldiers: hard-faced, bored men and women, their pressure suit helmets the pale blue of the United Nations. They carried heavy weaponry, rifles and handguns adapted for use either in the vacuum or in atmosphere, and Maura knew there were more weapons, heavier stuff, strapped to the bus’ hull. The sole purpose of this squad was to protect, or perhaps control, Maura. Nobody went to Never-Never Land unarmed or unescorted — not even someone as senior in this UN operation as, five years after Nevada, Maura had become.

Bill Tybee came to stand with her at the window. He was limping, and his silver med-alert lapel brooch glinted in the bus’ lights. He held a bulb of coffee in a polystyrene holder; she accepted it gratefully.

“Umm. Not too hot.”

“Sorry,” he said. “Nothing gets too hot here.”

The low pressure, she thought. An old NASA-type cliche, but true nonetheless.

“Never would have put you down as an astronaut, Ms. Della.”

“Call me Maura. You’re hardly Flash Gordon yourself.”

“Yeah. But what the heck.” Bill Tybee had been brought to the Moon, along with other parents, to work, in his inexpert way, on the interpretation of the Blues’ activities — and, of course, to be with his kids, as best he could. Anything that might work, help get a handle on the kids.

“Bill, why Tycho? Why did the children run here, from Nevada? I heard the NASA people complaining. We’re away from the lunar equator, so you eat a lot of fuel getting here. And the ground is so rugged it was difficult to make the first landings.”

He grunted. “Those NASA guys have their heads up their asses. You have to remember, Ms. Della — Maura. They’re children. At least they were when they flew up here. So where would a kid pick to go live? How about the most famous crater on the Moon?”

It was as good an answer as she’d heard. “Don’t you think they are children any more?”

“Hell, I don’t know what they are,” he muttered. “Look at that.”

The bus climbed a crest, and once more the landscape was set out before her, the blue of Earth garish against the subtle autumn colors of the Moon. The ground was folded and distorted; she could actually see great frozen waves in the rock, ripples from the aftermath of the great impact that had punched the Tycho complex into the hide of the Moon. But the sheets of rock were themselves punctured with craters, small and large, and strewn with rubble.

Tycho was young for the Moon, but unimaginably old by the standards of Earth.

The ride, on the bus’ big mesh wheels, was dreamy; the bus tipped and rolled languidly as it crawled across the broken ground. She felt light, blown this way and that. It was indeed a remarkable experience.

There were rings of security around Never-Never Land, concentric like the rocky terraces that lined the walls of Tycho.

The bus rolled through a tall wire fence — lunar alloy, spun fine — and drove on to a low regolith-covered dome. A fabric tunnel snaked out to meet the bus, like the walkway from an airport terminal, and it docked on the hull with a delicate clunk. When the door opened a uniformed UN soldier stood there, backed up by armed troops, ready to process them.

As she passed through the hatchway, Maura smelled burning metal where the hull had been exposed to space, and a hint of wood smoke: oxidizing moondust. The exotic reality of the Moon, intruding around this dull Cold War-type bureaucracy and pass checking.

None of the bus’ passengers — not even Bill Tybee — got past that first checkpoint. None save Maura.

The walkway was translucent, a tunnel between black sky and glowing ground. Craning her neck, Maura peered through the fabric walls and glimpsed Never-Never Land itself. It was a dome, shaded silver-gray. Hints of green inside. Something moving, like a swaying tree trunk. Good God, it was a neck.

Just before the entry to the complex, the aide paused and pointed. “The dome itself is polarized. It turns opaque and transparent by turns to simulate an Earthlike day-night cycle. And during the long night there are lights to achieve the same effect. See? There are banks of electric floods on gantries, like a sports stadium.” The aide’s hair was blond, eyes blue, classic Nordic type. Minnesota? But her accent was neutral.

Maura said, “Did I see a giraffe in there?”

The girl laughed. “Maybe. That’s what we think it is.”

“Don’t you know?”

“I only have clearance to violet level.”

“How long have you been up here?”

“Two years, with breaks.”

“Aren’t you curious?”

“We’re not paid to be curious, ma’am.” Then the professional mask slipped a little. “Actually, no. Never-Never is just a tent full of those little Blue-ass monsters. What is there to be curious about? Anyhow you have blue clearance, right?”

“Yes.”

“I guess you’ll see for yourself, whatever you want.”

At the other end of the walkway was another airlock, another security check, where Maura said good-bye to the aide, whose sole purpose seemed to have been to escort Maura all of twenty yards of this quarter-million-mile journey.

The processing here took another hour. Her pass and other credentials were checked several times over; she was body-searched twice, and passed through an X-ray machine and metal detector and other scanners she didn’t recognize. Finally she was asked to strip, and she stood alone under a shower that turned hot and cold and stank of some antiseptic agent. She was distantly pleased that she didn’t sag quite as much as at home. Then there was a pulse of light, a sharp pain. She was left with a fine ash on her exposed skin.

After that she was given a fresh set of clothes: underwear and a coverall. The coverall had no pockets, just a transparent pouch on the outside where she was allowed to carry her blue pass and passport, handkerchief, and other small items.

She was led along one last translucent corridor — one last glimpse of the Moon — and then, escorted by two more soldiers — there must be dozens here, she thought, racking up one hell of an expense — she passed through the curving wall of Never-Never Land itself.

And then there was grass under the soft slippers on her feet, a dome that glowed blue-black over her head, scored by a great diffuse shadow, a shadow cast by Tycho’s rim mountains.

There were a few stands of bushes and a single giant tree, low and squat. The air was cool, crisp, fresh, and it smelled of green growing things, of cut summer lawns. Green grass, growing on the Moon. Who’d have thought she’d live to see this?

A girl was standing before her: aged maybe sixteen, slender, willowy, barefoot, dressed in a smock of simple orange fabric, a bright blue circle stitched to the breast. Her face wasn’t pretty, Maura thought, but it was calm, composed, self-possessed. Centered. She was missing a tooth in her lower jaw.

It was Anna. And she had wings.

“It’s nice to see you again, Ms. Della,” Anna said gravely.

“Call me Maura. You remember me, then.”

“You were always a friend to us.”

Maura sighed. “Child, I tried to have you killed.”

“You did your duty. There are many worse people in the world than you, Maura Della. Why don’t you take your shoes off?”

Maura smiled. “Why don’t I?” She kicked off the slippers and walked forward on the grass. It was cool and moist under her feet. The blades felt oddly stiff, but she knew that was an artifact of the low gravity.

Anna folded her wings and jumped into the air: just bent her legs and leaped up through ten feet or more. She seemed to hover for a long heartbeat. Then she flapped the wings — Maura felt a great downrush of the cool, low-pressure, crystal-sharp air — and Anna shot into the domed sky.

Maura glanced at the two soldiers behind her. One of them, a bull-powerful blond man, was watching the girl’s body with narrow, hard eyes.

Anna swept in for a neat landing, slowing with a couple of running steps, thin legs flashing.

Maura applauded slowly. “I’d like to try that.”

Anna held the wings out. “It’s not as easy as it looks. You have to flap hard enough to support one-sixth of your Earth weight.” She eyed Maura. “Imagine a nine-pound dumbbell in each hand, holding them out from your body Maybe you should take an air car for today. It’s kind of easier.”

Maura turned to her escort questioningly.

The blond soldier spoke. “We can’t go any farther into the interior, ma’am. But you’re authorized. At your own risk.” He sounded as if he was middle European, German maybe. He pointed upward. Maura saw a football-sized surveillance robot, small and complex and glittering with lenses, gliding noiselessly through the air. “Just shout and we’ll get you out.”

“Thank you.”

Maura let the girl lead her to a small fenced-off area where three cars sat, parked roughly on the grass. Maura picked one and, with the simulacrum of youthful exhilaration granted her by lunar G, she vaulted neatly over the door into the driver’s seat.

The car was just a white box of metal and ceramic, open, with a joystick and a small control panel. It had Boeing markings, and simple instructions marked in big block capitals. The car wasn’t wheeled; instead there was a turbofan in a pod at each corner. Maura quickly learned how to use the joystick to make the pods swivel this way and that.

And when she fired up the engine — noiseless, powered by clean-burning hydrogen — the car shot straight up into the air. At a touch of the joystick, it tipped and squirted back and forth, like

something out of The Jetsons.

Anna jumped into the air and circled higher. When she passed out of Tycho’s shadow into sunlight, her wings seemed to burst into flame. Then she turned and streaked toward the heart of the dome.

Maura followed more cautiously, skimming a few feet above the grass.

Never-Never Land was maybe the size of a football field. It seemed to be mostly grassed over, but here and there ponds glinted, blue as swimming pools. She could see small robot gardeners trundling cautiously over the grass, clipping and digging.

Low mounds protruded from the grass. One of them had an open door, bright artificial light streaming out. Maybe the children slept in there, to keep down their hours of exposure to the Moon’s high radiation levels.

At the very center of the dome was an area fenced-off by a tall glass wall. Maura knew that not even her blue pass would get her through that perimeter; for within was the artifact — transport, bubble, whatever — that the children had constructed in Nevada to protect them from the nuke and carry them here.

Even now, no adult had the faintest idea how it worked.

Anna flew toward the dome’s single giant tree.

It looked like an oak to Maura, but its trunk had to be twenty feet across, and each of its branches, broad and sturdy, was no less than three or four feet thick. But the tree looked somehow stunted, constrained to grow broad and flat rather than tall; if it had remained in proportion it might, she supposed, have reached five or six hundred feet, busting out of this stadium-sized dome.

Anna glided to a branch and settled there gracefully, folding her wings behind her. Maura killed her engine and, with a soft creak, the air car settled into place in a crook of the branch.

Maura saw some of the other children, seemingly far below. There were two groups, each of four or five kids; the oldest of them looked around ten. After five years on the Moon, they looked skinny, graceful. One group was playing what looked like a tag game, chasing with great loping strides and somersaults and spectacular lunar leaps. Maura could hear them laughing, the sound drifting up to her like the ripple of water.

The other group seemed more solemn. They were moving around each other, but in a series of patterns, each of which they would hold for a fraction of a second of stillness, and then move on to the next. They seemed to be talking, or maybe singing, but Maura couldn’t make out any words.

“Anna, where are the Tybee children? Tom and Billie—”

Anna pointed.

The Tybees were part of the solemn party below. Maura recognized Tom, ten years old now, his face round and set and serious. At his waist he had his electronic Heart — battered, dirty, probably nonfunctioning, a gift from his long-lost mother. She wondered which one of the younger kids was Billie.

Once she had promised his father that she would protect Tom. It was a promise that had brought her all this way. And yet, what protection could she offer him? What could she ever have given him?

“Can you tell me what they are doing down there?”

“They’re working. It’s what your people call—”

“Multiplexing. Yes, I know. What are they talking about?”

Anna’s face worked. “They are considering constraints on the ultimate manifold.”

Maura suspected that she was going to struggle with the rest of this conversation. “The manifold of what?”

“Universes. It is of course a truism that all logically possible universes must exist. The universe, this universe, is described — umm, that’s the wrong word — by a formal system. Mathematics. A system of mathematics.”

Maura frowned. “You mean a Theory of Everything?”

Anna waved a hand, as if that were utterly trivial, and her beautiful wings rustled. “But there are many formal systems. Some of them are less rich, some more. But each formal system, logically consistent internally, describes a possible universe, which therefore exists.”

Maura tried to follow that. “Give me an example of a formal system.”

“The rules of geometry. I mean, Euclid’s geometry.”

“High school stuff.”

Anna looked at her with reproof. “I never went to high school, Maura.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Some of these universes, as described by the formal systems, are rich enough to support self-aware substructures. Life. Intelligence. And some of the universes aren ‘t rich enough. A universe described by Euclidean geometry probably isn’t, for example. Therefore it can’t be observed. What the group down there is trying to establish is whether a universe that cannot be observed, though it exists, may be said to have a different category of existence.” Anna glanced at Maura. “Do you understand?”

“Not a damn word.”

Anna smiled.

Maura could see firefly robots hovering over the heads of the children, peering down, recording everything they did and said. There might be a rich treasure of knowledge and wisdom being conjured up in the dance of those slim forms, but the world’s massed experts couldn’t begin to decode it. IBM had quoted development times in decades just to construct a translation software suite.

The children had, it seemed, evolved their own language from elements of their native spoken languages, mixed with gestures, dance, and music. It was a complex, multilevel communication channel, with many streams of information multiplexed together. Linguists believed it was a true language, with a unifying grammar. But it transcended human languages in the richness of its structure, the speed and compression of its data transmission, the fact that it was analog — the angle of an arm or head held just so seemed to make an immense difference to meaning — and its rate of evolution, sometimes changing daily.

And besides, there seemed to be some features that could not be translated into English, even in principle. Such as new tenses. There was one based on palindromic constructions, symmetric in time, that seemed to be designed to describe situations with looping causality, or even causality violation.

Grammar for a time traveler.

Some theorists were saying that the orderly linear perception of time, of neat cause and effect, enjoyed by humans was an artifact of a limited consciousness: like the way the brain could “construct” an image of a face from a few lines on a page. Perhaps the children could experience time on a deeper level: non-linearly, even acausally.

And the farthest-out theorists wondered if their minds were somehow linked, permanently, by the neutrino ocean that filled the universe. As if Feynman radio technology was allowing some higher strata of consciousness and self-awareness to operate here.

The various strategies that had been tried to keep a handle on the children had yet to pay off. The Trojan Horse kids — like little Billie Tybee, below — seemed to have melted into the strange community here without a backward glance. The Trojan Horses had been heavily indoctrinated with a basic common grammar and quantification rules in the hope that they would at least continue to talk comprehensibly to the outside world. But even that had failed. They just didn’t have the patience or inclination to translate their thoughts into baby talk for their parents.

The only Blue who would regularly talk to those outside was Anna, five or six years older than any of the rest. And the specialist observers believed that — though Anna was the de facto leader of the children here — she was too old, her grammatical sense frozen too early, to have become fully immersed in the complex interchanges that dominated the lives of the rest of the children.

And besides, Anna was hardly a useful ambassador. Adults had damaged her too much.

A section of oak tree trunk seemed to split away, bending stiffly, and a thin, distorted face turned and peered up at Maura.

Maura nearly jumped out of her seat. “Oh, my good gosh.”

Anna laughed.

The giraffe stepped out of the shade of the tree. The yellow-and-black mottled markings on its body had made it almost invisible to Maura, startling for such a huge animal. The giraffe loped easily forward, fine-chiseled head dipping gently, the lunar gravity making no apparent difference to its stately progress. Now two more animals followed the first, another adult and a baby, its neck stubby by comparison.

Anna said, “There are little NASA robot dung beetles that come out at night and roll away their droppings. They’re really funny.”

“Why are they here?”

Anna shrugged. “We asked for them. Somebody saw one in a picture book once.”

Maura watched the giraffes recede, loping easily in the wash of sunlight and crater-wall shadow, their bodies and motion utterly strange, unlike the body plans of any creature she had seen. A real extreme of evolution, she thought.

Just like these damn kids.

Anna’s eyes, gray as moondust, were grave, serious. “Maura, why are you here?”

“You deserve the truth,” Maura said.

“Yes, we do.” Anna looked up at Earth, fat and full, its round-ness slightly distorted by the fabric of the dome. “We see the lights sometimes, on the night side.”

“What do you think they are?”

Anna shrugged. “Cities burning.”

Maura sighed. “Have you studied history, Anna?”

“Yes. The information is limited, the interpretations partial. But it is interesting.”

“Then you’ll know there have been times like this before. The religious wars during the Reformation, for instance. Protestants against Catholics. The Catholics believed that only their priests controlled access to the afterlife. So anybody who tried to deny their powers threatened not just life, but even the afterlife. And the Protestants believed the Catholic priests were false, and would therefore deny their followers access to the afterlife. If you look at it from the protagonists’ point of view, they were reasonable wars to fight, because they were over the afterlife itself.”

“Are the wars now religious?”

“In a sense. But they are about the future. There are different groups who believe they have the right to control the future of humankind — which, for the first time in our history, has come into our thinking as a tangible thing, an asset, something to be fought over. And that’s what they are fighting for.”

“What you mean is they are fighting over the children. Blue children, like me, and what they think we can offer.”

“Yes,” said Maura.

“They are wrong,” Anna said carefully. “All of them.”

“Here’s the bottom line,” Maura said. “I’m not sure how much longer, umm, wise heads are going to prevail. Even in the U.S.”

Anna listened, her eyes soft. “How long?”

“I don’t know,” Maura said honestly. “Months at the most, I would think. Then they will come for you.”

Anna said, “It will be enough.”

“For what? “

Anna wouldn’t reply.

Frustrated, Maura snapped, “You frighten people, Anna. Christ, you frighten me. Sitting here on the Moon with your plans and your incomprehensible science. We detected the artifact in the lunar mantle…”

It had been picked up by seismometry. A lump of highly compressed matter — possibly quark matter — the size of a mountain. It was right under this dome. Nobody had any idea how it got there, or what it was for.

Maura glared at Anna. “Are we right to be frightened?”

“Yes,” Anna said gently, and Maura was chilled.

“Why won’t you tell us what you’re doing?”

“We are trying. We are telling you what you can understand.”

“Are we going to be able to stop you?”

Anna reached out and grabbed Maura’s hand, squeezed it. The girl’s skin was soft, warm. “I’m sorry.”

Then, without warning, Anna tipped forward, falling out of the tree, and spread her wings. She soared away, sailing across the distorted face of Earth, and out of Maura’s view.

When Maura got back to the tractor, Bill was waiting for her. He affected a lack of interest. But as the bus crawled its painful way back to the NASA base, he hung on every word she had to tell him about conditions inside the dome, and about the children, and what she had glimpsed of Tom and little Billie.

The sun had set over the rim walls of Tycho, but the walls were lit by the eerie blue glow of Earthlight. The sun would linger for a whole day, just beneath the carved horizon, so languid was the Moon’s time cycle. There was no air, of course, so there were no sunset colors; but there was nevertheless a glow at the horizon, pale white fingers bright enough to dim the stars: she was seeing the light of the sun’s atmosphere, and the zodiacal light, the glimmer of dust and debris in the plane of the Solar System. It was calm, unchanging, unbearably still, austere, a glacier of light.

She found Bill Tybee weeping.

He let her hold him, like mother with child. It was remarkably comforting, this trace of human warmth against the giant still cold of the Moon.

Reid Malenfant:

His suit radio receiver was designed only for short distances.

Nevertheless he tuned around the frequency bands.

Nothing. But that meant little.

If he couldn’t hear anybody else, maybe they could hear him. The backpack had a powerful emergency beacon. He decided that was a good investment of their remaining power. He separated it from the pack, jammed it into Cruithne soil, and started it up.

Then he shook out the bubble shelter, zipped himself and Emma into it, and inflated it. Once more it was a welcome relief to huddle with Emma’s warmth.

He took a careful look at Emma’s damaged leg. Much of the flesh seemed to have been destroyed by its exposure to the vacuum. But at the fringe of the damaged area mere was discoloration, green and purple, and a stench of rot, of sickly flowers. He drenched the bad flesh in an antiseptic cream he found in the backpack until the place smelled like a hospital ward. But at least that stink of corruption was drowned.

And she didn’t seem to be in any pain. Maybe all this would be over, one way or the other, before they got to that point.

He sacrificed a little more of their power on warming up some water. He mixed up orange juice in it, and they savored the tepid drink. They ate more of the backpack’s stores, dried banana and what seemed to be yogurt. He used scraps of cloth torn from their micrometeorite garments to improvise washcloths, and then he opened up their suits and gently washed Emma’s armpits and crotch and neck. Malenfant took their filled urine bags and dumped their contents into the military backpack’s water recycler, and he filled up their suit reservoirs with fresh water. Almost routine, almost domestic.

He was, he realized, on some bizarre level, content.

And then the shit hit the fan.

“Malenfant.”

He turned. She was holding his personal med kit. With her gloved hands, she had pulled out a blister pack of fat red pills. And a silver lapel ribbon.

Oh, he thought. Oh, shit. There goes the Secret.

“Tumor-busters. Right?” She let the stuff go; it drifted slowly to the floor. Her face was a yellow mask overlaid with Big Bang sunburn; her eyes were sunk in dark craters. “You’re a cancer victim.”

“It’s manageable. It’s nothing—”

“You never told me, Malenfant. How long?”

He shook his head. “I don’t want to talk about this.”

“This is why. Isn’t it? This is why you washed out of NASA. And it’s why you pushed me away. Oh, you asshole.” She held out her arms.

He pulled himself over to her, held her shoulders, then dipped his head. He felt her stroke his bare scalp. “I couldn’t tell you.”

“Why not? What did you think I’d do, run away?”

“No. If I thought that I’d have told you immediately. I thought you’d stay. Care for me. Sacrifice yourself.”

“And you couldn’t stand that. Oh, Malenfant. And the affair, that damn Heather—”

“The cancer wasn’t going to kill me, Emma. But it screwed up my life. I couldn’t have kids, I couldn’t reach space I didn’t want it to screw your life too — ow.”

She’d slapped him. Her face was twisted into a scowl. She slapped him again, hard enough to sting, and pushed at his chest. She was weak, but she was pushing them apart. “What right did you have to mess with my head like that?” And she aimed more slaps at him.

He lifted his hands, let her dismally feeble blows rain on his arms. “I did it for you.”

“You control freak. And then, even after you engineer a divorce, for Christ’s sake, you still can’t let me go. You recruit me into your company, you even drag me into interplanetary space.”

“I know. I know, I know. I’m fucked up. I’m sorry. I wanted to let you go. But I couldn’t bear it. I could never let go. But I tried. I didn’t want to wreck your life.”

“My God, Malenfant.” Now her eyes were wet. “What do you think you did? What do you think life is for?”

“Emma—”

“Get out. Leave me alone, you cripple.” And she turned her face to the wall.

He stayed, watching her, for long minutes. Then he closed up his suit.

He found remnants of human presence on Cruithne: footprints, scuff marks, even handprints. There were pitons stuck in the re-golith, dangling lengths of tether, a few abandoned scraps of kit, film cartridges and polystyrene packing and lengths of cable. There were a few fresh, deep craters that looked as if they might have been dug by the bullets of troopers’ guns.

A few yards from the portal itself he found the battery of instruments which, a million years ago, Cornelius Taine had set up to monitor the artifact: cameras, spectrometers, Geiger counters, other stuff Malenfant had never been able to name, let alone understand. The instruments were still in their rough circle, centered on the portal. But they were uniformly smashed, lenses broken, casings cracked open, cabling and circuit boards ripped out. The regolith here was much disturbed. It was obvious somebody had deliberately done this, taken the time and effort to wreck the instruments. Tybee J., maybe, while she prepared to chase them into the portal.

He picked up a busted-open camera. There was a fine layer of regolith over the exposed workings. The gold-foil insulating blanket was blackened, cracked and peeling, and the paintwork on exposed metal was flaking away. He ran his gloved finger under a plastic-coated cable that stuck out of the interior. The discolored plastic just crumbled away.

He wondered how long an exposure to vacuum, the sun’s raw ultraviolet, and the hard radiation of space you’d need to do this much damage. Years, maybe. There was no guarantee that their subjective time during their jaunt across the manifold universes had to match up with the time elapsed here.

Anyhow it sure looked as if nobody had been back here since they had left in such a hurry. He felt his heart sink at the thought.

He placed the camera back where he had found it and let it resume its slow, erosive weathering.

Taking up the familiar routine of moving around the asteroid — piton, tether, glide, always at least two anchors to the regolith — he glided over Cruithne’s claustrophobic, close-curved horizon, pressing on, farther and farther.

There was little left of the O ‘Neill, or the troop carrier: just scattered wreckage, crumpled and charred, a few new blue-rimmed craters punched into Cruithne’s patient hide. He supposed most of the debris created by the various attacks had been thrown off into space. He rummaged through the remains of the ships and the hab shelters. What wasn’t smashed and vacuum-dried was crumbling from sunlight and cosmic irradiation. Still, maybe there was something he could use here.

He came across a firefly, inert, half dug into the regolith. He tried to haul it out, but it was dead, its power-indicator panel black.

He found only one body.

It was a trooper, a young man — not much more than a boy, really — wadded into the shadow of a crater. He wasn’t in a suit. His body was twisted, bones broken, and his skin, freeze-dried in the vacuum, was like scorched, brittle paper. His chest cavity was cracked open, presumably by the explosion that had taken out the troop carrier. His heart, stomach, and other organs seemed to have desiccated, and the cavity in his body gaped wide, empty, somehow larger than Malenfant had expected.

Maybe Tybee had taken the time to bury her other fallen companions, Malenfant thought. Or maybe this was the only body that had finished up here, and the rest — burned, broken, and shattered — were somewhere out there in a dispersing shell of debris.

And meanwhile, Cruithne spun on. How strange, he thought, that Cruithne had waited out five billion years in cold silence and then endured a few months of frenetic activity as life from Earth, bags of water and blood and flesh, had come here and built their enigmatic structures, fought and blown everything apart, and departed, leaving Cruithne alone again, with a few new craters and a scattering of shattered structures at the center of a dispersing cloud of glittering rubble.

That, and the enigmatic blue circle put there by the downstreamers.

He passed into Cruithne’s long shadow.

The stars wheeled over his head, the familiar constellations of his boyhood, but crowded now with the dense stars of deep space. At last, at the heart of the sparse constellation of Cygnus, he found a bright blue star. He gazed into that watery light, savoring photons that had bounced off Earth’s seas and clouds just seconds before entering his eyes. It was the closest he would ever come, he supposed, to touching home again.

He thought of the lifeless corridors he had traveled, of the long, painful gestation of physics and fire, birth and collapse, that had finally, it seemed, evolved to this: a universe of carbon and supernovae and black holes and life, and that beautiful blue spark. But Earth was an island of light and life surrounded by abysses.

In the shelter, he found Emma dying.

He did what he could. He massaged her limp hands, trying to keep the blood pumping, and upped the oxygen concentration in the air. He pulled a lightweight silver-foil emergency blanket around her, did everything he could think of to keep her body from deciding this was the end. But her decline, rapid, seemed irreversible.

Her fingertips had turned dead white, the skin pasty and lifeless, even bluish.

Not yet, not yet. How can it end here? It’s wrong.

The sun was a ball of light that glared through the fabric, its glow soaking into the warp and weft of the fabric. Malenfant watched as it edged across the dome of the tent. Cruithne was turning patiently, just as it always had.

But the air in here was growing stale. The carbon dioxide scrubbers and other expendables built into the mil-spec backpack were presumably reaching the end of their design lifetimes; the pack wouldn’t be able to sustain this habitat much longer.

She woke up. Her eyes turned, and her gaze settled on his face, and she smiled, which warmed his heart. He fed her sips of water. “Try to take it easy.”

“It isn’t so bad,” she whispered.

“Bullshit.”

“Really. I don’t hurt. Not much, anyhow.”

“You want some more dope?”

“Save it, Malenfant. You might need it. Anyhow I’d prefer a shot of tequila.”

He told her about the radio beacon. “Somebody will be coming.”

“Oh, bull, Malenfant,” she said gently. “Nobody’s going to come. It wasn’t meant to end like that, a cavalry charge from over the hill. Not for us. Don’t you know that yet?” She gripped his hand. Her touch was like a child’s. “This is all we have, Malenfant. You and me. We’ve no future or past, because we don’t have kids, nobody who might carry on the story. Just bubbles, adrift in time. Here, shimmering, gone.” She seemed to be crying.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Never apologize,” she whispered. “We’ve come a long way together, haven’t we? All those universes without life. And the downstream. Life slowly crushed out of existence You need stars and supernovae to make black holes, to make more universes. Fine. You need those things to make life, too. But is that how come we’re here? Are we just a by-product? Are minds just something that happens to rise out of the blind thrashings of matter?”

“I don’t know. Try to take it easy—”

“But it doesn’t feel like that, Malenfant. Does it? I feel like I’m the center of everything. I can feel time flowing deep inside me. I’m not a kind of froth on the surface of the universe. I am the universe.”

“I’m listening,” he said, wiping her mouth.

“Oh, horseshit,” she hissed softly. “You never did listen to anybody. If you had you wouldn’t have fucked up our entire relationship, from beginning to end.”

“Emma—”

“Maybe the children know,” she said. “The new children. Michael, wherever he is now. You know. …”

She drifted between sleeping and waking. He soaked a cloth in water and moistened her lips when he could. When she was asleep he infused her with more morphine. There was nothing he could do but watch as her body shut itself down. He had never seen anybody die this way before, up close, peacefully. She actually seemed to be getting more comfortable as the end got closer, as if there were mechanisms to comfort her.

She licked her lips. “You know, I guess we couldn’t manage to live together, but at least we got to die together. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Malenfant. For all the worlds And wear your damn ribbon. It’s a med-alert. They gave it to you for a reason.”

“I will.”

“You really are an asshole, Malenfant. You were so busy saving the world, saving me, you never thought about yourself…” She opened her eyes, and smiled. But her eyes were unfocused. Her hand fluttered, and he took it.

“What is it?”

“I saw a light,” she whispered. “Like the phoenixes. The light of creation, all around everything. And I could smell the high desert. Isn’t that strange?”

“Yes. Yes, that is strange.”

“And I think…”

But she was asleep again.

Her breathing changed. It became a gurgle, like a snore: intermittent, deep, very fluid. Her mouth was open, her skin sallow, her face very still.

She stirred once more. She smiled. But, he knew, it was not for him.

He assembled Emma’s suit around her, her helmet and gold visor and gloves and boots. When he was done she looked as if she were sleeping.

He washed his face, drank some water, even managed to eat a little. He recharged his reservoirs and suited up.

He collapsed the shelter. Since it was the last time he would be using it, he folded it up neatly and stowed it away in trooper Tybee’s backpack.

Then he prepared his tethers and pitons and carried Emma around the curve of Cruithne, to the crater where he had found the body of the anonymous soldier. The only sound was his own breathing, the only motion the patient wheeling of the stars and sun and Earth in Cruithne’s splendid sky.

He laid Emma down beside the trooper. She was so light in Cruithne’s toy gravity her body barely made an indentation in the soft regolith.

It was easy to bury the two bodies. He just kicked over the crater wall and loosely shoveled dirt forward with his gloved hands, allowed it to settle over them.

He seemed aware of every detail of the world: the grittiness of the regolith he had spilled on the bodies, the slow tracking of the shadows, the ticks and whirrs of the mechanisms of his suit — the meaningless texture of this, the latest of a parade of meaningless universes.

He ought to say something. He had for Cornelius and Tybee J., after all, and they had died in a much stranger place than this, much farther from home. But he had no words.

He left her there.

For the last time he worked his way around Cruithne, and he stood, tethered, before the portal.

He had searched Tybee’s backpack and had found a grenade: a simple, sleek thing, easily small enough to fit into a glove, with a pull-ring fat enough for a space-suited finger. Ten-second timer, he guessed. He cradled the grenade now, clutching it to his belly.

He had no doubt it would work.

Cruithne turned. Shadows fled toward him, and he was plunged into darkness. He heard pumps clatter and whir in his backpack as his battered suit prepared to fight the cold. He waited until Earth was high above the portal, blue planet over blue artifact.

He pulled the grenade’s ring. Ten, nine, eight.

He started his languid microgravity jump in good time. He would enter the portal headfirst, hands clutched to his chest, over the grenade. The complex, ancient ground of Cruithne slid beneath him.

Then the portal was all around him. He grinned fiercely. Made it, by God. End of story.

Two, one.

There was a blue flash, an instant of searing pain—

Maura Della:

And, on the Moon, it took just six more months for it all to fall

apart.

The scrap of paper had been brought here, all the way to the Moon, by a burly-looking Marine. He looked as if he had been ordered to drag Maura out of here by her hair if necessary.

She fingered the document suspiciously. It was written, by hand, on what looked like authentic White House notepaper, and was signed by the president himself. But she had a lot of trouble with any text that contained phrases like “U.S. Constitution as amended” and “emergency powers.”

Maura Della was ordered to return to Earth — specifically, to submit herself to a Washington court within a couple of weeks. They wanted her to denounce the future. To deny that the information Reid Malenfant gleaned from his Feynman radio came from the future. To deny that the Blue kids were influenced by information from the future.

Of course it wouldn’t be true. But America was run by a gov ernment now that had been elected, essentially, on a platform of removing all this stuff, this madness, from public life.

It was impossible. But they were having a damn good try. An obvious method was to treat it all as a conspiracy by the people who had been close to it all. People like Maura.

But such orders were easy to hand out in executive offices in Washington; this was the Moon, and after three days in space — presumably without proper training or orientation — this poor grunt was green as a lettuce leaf and looked as if he could barely stand up, here in the cold, antiseptic light of the NASA base.

Meanwhile she had heard other rumors that the Witnesses — as they were called — were being recalled for fresh “trials,” whether or not they had already recanted as required. And this time, it was said, when the Witnesses walked into custody, they were not coming out again.

She was still a citizen of the United States. She had always regarded it as her duty to uphold and submit to her country’s laws, whatever she thought of their philosophical basis. Maybe she should pack up her bag and go home with the goon Marine, and submit herself, like Galileo, like Jesus. Maybe it would be an example that might even do some good.

But Maura Della never had been good at turning the other cheek.

She wasn’t without allies, even here. After six months on the Moon she had gotten to know most of the military types, NASA astronauts, and staffers who manned this cramped little base. There was a bunker mentality. At first she’d been the outsider. But she’d taken her turns with the chores, like hand cleaning the hydroponics feed lines. And she had brought them handfuls of fresh-cut grass from Never-Never Land, its green springtime scent making the unimaginative metallic confinement of this base a little more bearable.

All this bridge building had been quite deliberate, of course. And now it wouldn’t be hard for her to get a little protection and assistance, enough to deflect this goon for a couple of hours.

The question was, what to do with those hours.

Never-Never Land, she thought. Anna and the children. That’s where I must go.

Working on automatic, she reached for a bag, started to make mental lists of what she should take. Then, deliberately, she put the bag aside. Just go, Maura, while — if — you still have the chance.

She stepped out of her cupboard-sized personal quarters and headed through the complex toward the bus docking port.

Bill Tybee was there looking lost, hurt, frightened, fingering his silver med-alert pin. He was carrying a light, transparent briefcase that contained a set of big chunky plastic toys. For Bill, this had begun as just another working day. “Maura? What’s going on? They won’t let me on the bus.”

“Take it easy,” she told Bill. “We’ll sort this out…”

There was a military officer, a woman, blocking the way to the bus. She had her weapon exposed, and her hand lay on its stock. She looked young and scared and uncertain. It took Maura five minutes of patient negotiation, a mixture of reassurance and veiled threats, to get them both past the officer and onto the bus.

Maura and Bill were alone here in this autonomous Moon bus. As the minutes wore away to the bus’ appointed departure time they sat on a bench and held hands in silence.

Maura could think of any number of ways they could be stopped. But they weren’t. Maybe, for once, the frustrating layers of security here were working in her favor. When things went wrong fast, like this, nobody knew what the hell was going on because nobody knew whom they were supposed to be able to talk to.

And in the meantime her own need to reach the children grew to an overwhelming obsession. That was the center of things, and that surely was where her duty — her deepest duty, embedded deep in whatever morality she had left — must lie now.

Maybe this is how Bill Tybee, a parent, feels all the time, she thought. She felt a prickle of envy.

At last the bus doors slid closed. Maura waited for the soft clunk of the docking tunnel disconnecting from the hull of the bus, and then came the jolt as the bus pulled away and drove itself off through the Moon’s marshmallow gravity.

The sun was high, and unfiltered light, harsh and static, flooded down into the complex canyons and crevasses of the brutally folded surface of Tycho.

Bill was shaking, sweat clustering on his forehead in great low-G beads. She got up and brought him a plastic cup of water. Slowly he calmed down. For now they were safe. You couldn’t mount a car chase through this ancient, hazardous maze of canyons. Besides, the military presence on the Moon remained small; she doubted the commanders would risk any kind of surface operation to intercept them en route to Never-Never Land.

Anyway there was no need. All that was necessary was to wait until Maura and Bill arrived at Never-Never Land and take them out then; there was, after all, no other place to go.

Well, she would deal with that eventuality when it came.

Bill pointed upward. “Look.”

A star was crossing the sky with ponderous slowness. It seemed to be sparkling, pulsing with light with slow regularity. It was, of course, artificial: a satellite, slowly rotating, new, bigger than anything she had seen before. She had absolutely no idea what its purpose might be.

She found herself shivering, and she clutched Bill’s arm.

Strange lights in the sky, she thought. Scary. Even if we put them there.

Especially if we put them there.

It proved easier, oddly, to get into Never-Never Land than to get out of the NASA base. The troopers here seemed to be operating under radio silence. And besides, as Maura herself was quick to point out, once they were inside Never-Never Land they were effectively under house arrest anyhow. What were they going to do, climb out of a window?

So she was admitted. Bill had to wait in the bus.

At first glance nothing had changed here. The dome glowed its daytime sky blue, sun and Earth hung there like lanterns, and the grass was a livid green, almost shocking to the senses after the gray of the Moon. But nevertheless Maura sensed there was something wrong. The air seemed chill, and she saw the leaves of the fat, squat oak tree rustle. From somewhere there came an odd cry, perhaps human, perhaps animal.

At the airlock’s inner door was the bulky blond German trooper whom Maura had come to know — and to dislike intensely — during her visits here. He was fingering the revolver at his waist. Anna stood before him, talking earnestly. Her wings were on the ground behind her. There were no other children in sight.

Anna hurried to Maura. “You have to help me. I’m trying to make him understand.”

Maura held Anna’s arms. “What do we have to understand?”

“What is to come.”

Maura’s skin prickled.

Maura glanced at the trooper. He was staring at Anna. Leering, Maura thought uneasily, leering without speaking.

Anna led her away, deeper into the dome across the grass, talking intently. It came out of Anna in broken fragments, scraps of speech. Occasionally the girl would lapse into metalanguage: shards of song, a few clumsy dance steps. “The arrow of time,” she said. “Inner time. Do you understand? This is the key. If you close your eyes you feel time. You feel yourself enduring. Time is essential to awareness, where space is not, and so is more fundamental. The flow of time, events happening, the future coming into existence.”

“Yes.”

“But you don’t understand time. Your scientists use time as a coordinate, a label. You even have theories that are time-symmetric, that work whether you run them forward or back in time.” The girl actually laughed at that.

“And that’s wrong?”

“Of course it’s wrong. It is trivially wrong. There is a severe discrepancy between your theories and what you feel is the reality of the world. And that is telling you, should be telling you, something quite fundamental about the physics that actually underlies your conscious processes.”

“All right. Tell me about the arrow of time.”

Anna danced, whirled, her dress lifting; and Maura was uncomfortably aware of the soldier’s eyes. “There are an infinite number of possible universes in the manifold,” Anna said. “Of those only a subset — nevertheless infinite itself — are capable of supporting self-aware substructures. And those universes are characterized by a flow of time, which is created by unfolding cosmic structure. Gravity is the key.”

Maura was getting lost again. “Gravity?”

“A universe with gravity is driven from smoothness to dumpiness because of gravitational collapse. And the arrow of time comes from this flow of matter and energy, from the gravitational arrangement of the universe at its beginning, to the equilibrium state at its end. Life depends on a flow of energy and information, to be dammed and used. So the arrow of time, like perception itself, is intimately linked to the structure of the universe.”

“Go on.”

Anna was still talking, still dancing. “But structure and change are not restricted to a single universe. They span the manifold of evolving universes. And so, therefore, does life. Do you see?”

“No.”

“When this universe was spawned from the previous generation, it went through a series of phases. That is, the vacuum did.” Anna was watching her, seeking signs of understanding. “The vacuum is a complex thing. Space can be bent by gravity, but it resists with a strength far stronger than steel. The vacuum is a sea of energy, of virtual particles that pop in and out of existence.”

“All right,” Maura said, struggling to keep up.

“But it is possible for the vacuum to take different phases. Think of water. Liquid water may achieve a higher energy phase — it may flash to steam — or it may seek a lower energy phase—”

“By freezing, forming ice.”

“Yes. Systems lose energy, tend to seek the lowest energy state.”

“I understand. And so the vacuum—”

“After the Big Bang the vacuum itself descended through a series of energy states. This is the most primitive unfolding of all, the source of the time river, the source of life and mind.”

“Until it settled on the lowest, umm, energy state. Which is our vacuum. Right?”

Anna frowned. ‘Wo. Our vacuum is only metastable. It is not in the lowest level, not even now. This began in the Big Bang and continues now. But it needs, umm, help.”

“Help? What kind of help?”

The girl grabbed her hands. “You must see what this means. The evolution of the vacuum is a flow of information. But this is a flow that spans the manifold itself, and is therefore fundamental.” Anna’s eyes searched Maura’s. “Life spans the manifold. The vacuum metastability makes you what you are. This is the reason for what we are doing. And this is what you must tell them.”

“Who?”

“The people.” She waved a hand at the soldier, vaguely in the direction of Earth. “Make them understand this.”

“What for?”

“Consolation.”

“My God, Anna—”

And then, it seemed, time ran out for them all.

It was as if a cloud had passed over the sun.

Anna licked a finger and raised her hand. “There’s no breeze,” she said. “They turned the systems off.”

Maura looked up. The dome had darkened. She could see the sun, just, a diffuse distorted disc, shedding no meaningful light. Perhaps the polarization had been switched to its night setting.

Artificial lights sparked, flooding the dome with a cold fluorescent glow, a deadness that contrasted powerfully with the living green warmth of a moment ago.

The German trooper touched Maura’s elbow. She heard the insect whisper of a speaker in his ear. “We have to get you out of here, ma’am.” He was pulling at her, firmly but gently, separating her from Anna; Maura, bewildered, let it happen.

And Maura saw how his fat fingers had wrapped around the girl’s upper arm. Anna wriggled, obviously in pain. But the trooper was holding the girl’s fragile body against his battle dress.

Ugly suspicions coalesced inside Maura; a subplot was reaching its resolution here. “Let her go.”

The trooper grinned. He was tapping at a pad on his chest, perhaps calling for backup. “Ma’am, this is nothing to do with you. The bus will be waiting outside to take you back.”

“I’m not going to let you harm her.”

He just stared at her, holding the girl effortlessly despite her squirming.

Maura braced herself, cupped her hand, and slapped the side of his head as hard as she could.

“Ow… shit, Gott—” He pressed his hand to his damaged ear and let the girl go.

“Run, Anna!”

The girl was already fleeing over the darkened, gray-green grass, toward the center of the dome. Maura saw a giraffe, terrified, loping across the miniature veldt.

“Ma’am.”

She turned. The German was standing before her. His fist drove into her stomach.

The pain slammed into her, doubling her over. She felt as if her intestines had been crushed against her spine, and perhaps they had. She wrapped her arms around her belly and tipped onto the grass, falling with lunar slowness.

But Anna had gotten away.

Now a klaxon started to sound: loud, insistent, a brutal braying, filling the dome with its clamor. Whatever was coming must be close.

She could see the German. He looked after Anna. “Shit, shit,” he said, frustrated.

He walked up to Maura. She saw a flash of leather and combat green. Her right knee exploded in pain, and she howled.

Then he ran off, toward the exit.

Her world was pain now, nothing but that. She was suspended between twin poles of it, at her stomach and her shattered knee, as if a lance had been passed through her body. She was unable to move. She even had to control her own breathing; if she disturbed the position of her body by as much as an inch the pain magnified, never to diminish again.

The klaxon seemed to be growing louder. And lights were pulsing across the dome roof now, great alternating bands of black and white that rushed toward the exits. The light patterns were neat, clean, almost beautiful. Their message was unmistakable, but Maura knew she could not move.

She closed her eyes, longing for the oblivion of unconsciousness. But it didn’t come.

Some Galileo you would have made, Maura.

The light seemed to be fading, even the pain — if not dwindling, then at least growing more remote, diminished by distance.

She looked within and sensed time flowing, as it always had: the blossoming of multiple universes reflected in her own soul. Well, soon the flow of time would stop, for her. How would ilfeelt

But now there was something new. Hands, small hands, at her shoulders and knees and feet and head. She tried to focus her eyes. A face swam before her. Anna’s? She tried to speak, to protest. But she failed.

Then they were lifting her — as children would, clumsily — and her knee erupted in white-hot agony.

She was being carried across the veldt. This was still the Moon, and the low gravity was making it easy for the children to carry her quickly. But even so, every jolt sent new rivers of metallic pain coursing through her leg and belly.

She looked up at the dome. It had turned transparent now, and there was a glaring sun, a blue marble Earth over her.

They came to a glass fence. One section of it had been shattered, and the children hurried through. She was inside the central compound, the forbidden area, where the children’s bubble of spacetime had rested for five years.

And now she was approaching a wall of silver that sparkled, elusive.

She tipped up her head. Something else was in the sky beyond the dome. Beams of light, radiating from a complex, drifting point. The beams were red, blue, yellow, green, rainbow colors, a rotating umbrella. Laser beams? They must already have kicked up debris, she thought: ground their way into Tycho, filled the vacuum with vaporized rock, making the beams themselves visible.

The beams were approaching the dome, rotating like an H. G. Wells Martian tripod.

Now she was being pushed into something that gently resisted, like a thick, viscous liquid. She looked down. Her legs were disappearing into the silver wall, now her waist, arms.

There was a glare of complex light, a sound of tearing, a ferocious wind that ripped over her face. The air was sucked out of her lungs. The dome had been breached. Seconds left—

There was a flash of electric blue, an instant of searing pain.

Reid Malenfant:

Malenfant found himself falling.

It was just a couple of feet, but he landed on his belly, and his helmet slammed against the ground. He tasted copper. Maybe he’d bitten his lip.

He’d fallen hard. His faceplate was badly scuffed, and he had trouble seeing out.

He pushed at the surface under him, expecting to find himself floating upward, defying the feeble tug of Cruithne’s gravity. He could barely raise his upper body. He was heavy here.

And where was here?

The ground was purple. It had a furry texture. It was obvious this wasn’t the coal-dust regolith of Cruithne. Christ, it looked like carpet.

“No.” His own voice sounded loud in his head. “No, no. I don’t want this.” He fumbled at his chest, probing at his ribs through the layers of the suit. There was no feeling of pain. “I just set off a damn grenade hi my face. I don’t want this.” It was true. He had been reconciled. It was done. This surreal coda was not welcome.

He shut his eyes and lay flat on the floor, the ridiculous carpet. But the world didn’t go away; he could still hear the whirring of the faithful little machines of his backpack, the pumping of blood in his ears, his own reluctant breath; and he could feel, deep within himself, the slow pulse of time, the river bearing him endlessly downstream.

He was still alive, still embedded in the universe, whether he liked it or not.

Emma, I’m sorry.

He started to feel ridiculous. Suppose there were a bunch of medics (or orderlies or guards or inmates) standing around laughing at the asshole who was trying to bury himself in the carpet? Angry, embarrassed, he opened his eyes and pushed himself upright to a sitting position. He glanced around. He got a brief impression of a room, shadowy bulks that must be furniture. There was nobody here, laughing or otherwise.

He stayed there unmoving. He and Cornelius and Emma had not been too scrupulous in maintaining their zero G exercise routines. If he really was back on Earth he could expect to fall straight back over as the blood drained from his head and his weakened heart struggled to keep up. But he felt, essentially, okay.

So maybe he had been back for a while, months even. But he didn’t remember any of it. The last thing he remembered was the portal and the grenade. How could he have survived? And, if this was a hospital, why the pressure suit?

He found himself staring at a wall a few inches from his face.

There was a notice stuck there. He leaned forward and squinted to read it. It was written out in clumsy block capitals.

ABOUT THE GRAVITY. THEY MADE SOME ADJUSTMENTS TO YOUR SORRY ASS SO YOU DON T PASS OUT AND SO FORTH. IT SEEMED THE SIMPLEST WAY.

It was in his own hand.

He growled, exasperated, and reached out for the notice with a gloved hand — a glove still stained dark with Cruithne dust — and ripped the notice off the wall. It had been stuck there with tape. On the back was another message, again in his own hand.

GO WITH THE FLOW, MALENFANT.

He crumpled up the paper and threw it aside.

For a few heartbeats he just sat there. He ran his gloved hand over the carpet, leaving a grimy streak. Seemed like good quality, a thick pile.

Impulsively he reached up and cracked the seal of his helmet. As the seal broke there was the softest hiss of equalizing pressure. Not a vacuum, then. The air seemed neither warm nor cold, a neutral temperature. He held his breath. His heart beat a little faster — after all, if the atmosphere wasn’t exactly right he was about to die, probably painfully, and despite his determination to do just that he was afraid — but he gripped his helmet and pushed it up.

The enclosed, magnified noises of the helmet were replaced by a remote, deeper hum. Air-conditioning?

He gasped, releasing the last of his suit air, and dragged in a lungful of whatever filled this room.

Well, he didn’t start gagging or choking and his lungs didn’t hurt. That didn’t mean there wasn’t something else, something colorless and odorless like carbon monoxide lingering here to kill him, but there wasn’t anything he could do about that.

At least he could see clearly now.

He was in what looked like a small hotel room: a single bed, a table and chair, a TV on a wall bracket, a little corridor with a bathroom and a wardrobe, a door. He could see into the bathroom. There was sanitary tape on the toilet, fluorescent light panels in the ceiling.

It wasn’t the kind of place he’d choose to stay. But it looked clean, and at least it didn’t look like a prison cell.

He got to his feet. He felt a little stiff, and his suit was heavy in the full gravity. He walked to the door, wrapped his gloved hand around the handle, and twisted. It felt like he was dragging at a

concrete wall.

There was an in-case-of-emergency notice stuck on the door in front of his nose, another note scrawled on it. ONE STEP AT A

TIME, MALENFANT. YOU OBVIOUSLY AREN’T IN A REAL HOTEL

ROOM, AND THIS IS NOT EARTH. BUT YOU ALREADY KNOW THAT.

And of course that was true. After all, he had jumped into a time-hopping, universe-breaching alien portal with a grenade clutched to his chest; it wasn’t your conventional way of checking in. Anyhow he thought he knew what must have happened to him.

“I don’t think I’m me,” he said aloud. “I think I’m some kind of reconstruction in a giant computer in the far downstream. Tell me I’m wrong.” He scanned down the notice.

SOMETHING LIKE THAT, IF YOU MUST KNOW. ALL WILL BE REVEALED. IN THE MEANTIME, CHILL OUT, HAVE A DRINK, TAKE A SHOWER.

“A shower?”

There was one more line on the notice.

MALENFANT, IF ANYBODY CAN TELL YOU THIS IT’S ME. YOU STINK, BUDDY.

Malenfant stalked back into the bedroom, leaving more dusty boot prints, and sat on the bed, which creaked under the combined weight of himself and the suit. He said, “On.” The TV didn’t respond.

He looked at his gloved hand, its gritty texture. His hand wasn’t real. None of this was. He was completely powerless. He could be turned off, changed, distorted, reprogrammed, whatever the hell they wanted, whoever they were.

He tried to lie back on the bed, but his space suit backpack was in the way.

“Jesus Christ,” he said to himself. “What a mess.”

He didn’t want this. He didn’t want any of it. He ought to be dead, or grieving for Emma, in that order. He had seen enough. He looked around the room, hoping for another notice, a couple of lines from himself to himself, telling him what to do, how to feel. But there was nothing.

What would he tell himself, if he had the chance?

Get a grip. Don’t worry about what you can’t change. In the meantime take the shower.

With a sigh, he started to peel off his suit: his boots and gloves first, then his zips. He dumped the suit in the middle of the floor. Cruithne dust and flakes of charred fabric — scorched by multiple Big Bangs, for God’s sake — fell to the bright purple carpet.

When he got down to his skinsuit, life got a lot more unpleasant. The stink of his own body, exposed, hit him like a smack in the mouth. He had been living in the suit, after all, for days. In places the suit stuck to him, and when he tried to peel it away he found himself pulling the skin off blisters and half-healed friction rubs. In a couple of places he found edema patches and busted blood vessels.

He picked up the pieces of the battered, grimy suit, folded them up, and crammed them into the cupboard. He brushed at the bedspread, but he only succeeded in grinding Cruithne dust deeper into the fabric.

He gave up and went to the shower.

It turned out to be a power jet. When it first hit his damaged skin it hurt, but he stuck with it, bathing the wounds gently. He just ran the spray for a while, and dark dust ran out of his hair and skin and down the plug. He kept the water running until it ran off him clear except for traces of crimson blood from his broken skin. Even so he still had Cruithne dirt buried under his fingernails and worked deep into his fingertips; he suspected it would be a long time, if ever, before he was rid of the stuff.

Then he used shampoo and soap, stuff that came in bottles and wrappers and boxes in a little wicker basket. There was no manufacturers’ logo, no hotel title.

There was no bathroom cabinet in here, no place he could see where there might be a resupply of his cancer drugs. Well, maybe he wasn’t going to be here long enough for that to matter.

The shower actually felt good. He was feeling pleasure.

Emma.

He tried to explore his feelings, tried to find regret, a sense of loss. And failed. And now here he was washing his damn hair.

If they did reconstruct you, Malenfant, they didn’t take time to put in a soul.

When he came out of the shower, wrapped in a fat white bathrobe (no monogram or label), the dusty mess he had left on the carpet had vanished. Not only that, a shirt and slacks, socks, and slip-on leather shoes had been laid out, nice and fresh. Neat touch, he thought; that much unreality he could stand.

He went around the room. The minibar turned out to be tucked under a desk near the TV bracket. The desk held a writing pad and pencils. There was no heading on the paper. The minibar wasn’t locked, which was definitely a touch of unreality, and the bottles and cans and packets, while looking authentic enough, weren’t labeled either.

He pulled out what looked like a miniature of whiskey, broke the seal, threw the liquor into his mouth straight from the bottle. The heat hit the back of his throat. He may be one computer simulation sucking on another, but that felt authentic enough, and the spreading of the warmth through his chest and head were welcome.

He reached for another bottle, then thought better of it. Maybe now wasn’t the time to get smashed.

If it was even possible. If they, whoever had reconstructed him, permitted it. He wondered if they would let him hurt himself. What if he busted one of the bottles and started to saw at a wrist? Or—

There was a knock at the door. It made him jump, and he dropped his miniature. He got up, checked his robe was closed around him (why, Malenfant? — like your mother, they have surely seen it all before), and padded across the carpet. The bristles were sharp under his cleaned feet. He grasped the door handle. This time, of course, the door opened easily.

There was a corridor beyond, but it was somehow blurred, as if he couldn’t see it properly. “Imperfectly simulated,” he muttered.

Something like that. A Seattle accent.

“Yow.” He looked down.

It was Michael.

The boy was just standing there, hands at his sides. He was wearing a gold-orange jumpsuit with a blue circle at his breast, just like in those damn schools.

“You’re Michael,” he said.

Yes. The boy looked fresh scrubbed, healthy, his eyes bright, even happy. Eerily, the voice coming out of his mouth was that of the old softscreen simulation, the nasal Seattle matron, slightly distorted, like an airport announcer’s.

“What I mean,” Malenfant said, “is that you’re a simulacrum of Michael. A program running inside some hideous end-of-time God-type computer.”

The boy looked puzzled.

Malenfant leaned out into the corridor. He couldn’t see farther than a few feet in either direction, though he couldn’t figure out why. The same purple carpet lay on the floor. There were no other doors. “What if I run off down this corridor?”

I don’t know.

“Will they have to create more of this virtual stuff? Will the room disappear?

Try it if you want.

Malenfant thought about it, sighed. “Ah, the hell with it. You’d better come in.”

Michael looked around the room, for all the world like any curious kid, and he jumped on the bed and bounced up and down. Malenfant shut the door. Then, immediately, he tried it again. Naturally it had melted into seamless wall again, and wouldn’t open.

“The TV doesn’t work,” Malenfant said.

Michael shrugged. He was toying with the empty whiskey bottle.

Malenfant said, “You want something from the minibar?”

Michael thought for a long time, as if the choice were the most important he had ever made. Peanuts, he said, in his eerie middle-aged voice.

“Plain or roasted?”

What have you got?

“Jesus Christ.” Malenfant got on his hands and knees and rummaged through the bar. He dug out a couple of foil packets. He tossed one to the boy. Michael’s turned out to be plain nuts, Malenfant’s roasted. Michael pointed to the roasted, so they swapped over.

Malenfant threw a nut into his mouth. “Too much salt,” he said.

Michael shrugged. These are okay.

“This is kind of a cliche, you know,” Malenfant said. “The virtual-reality hotel room.”

You had to get out of that space suit.

“True enough. So,” Malenfant said, “here we are. Where the hell?… No, forget that. We’re programs running on a huge computer at the end of time. Right?”

No. Yes. This is, umm, a substrate.

“A substrate?” Malenfant snapped his fingers. “I knew it. The lossless processors we saw in the far downstream. The dreaming computer.”

Michael frowned. But you are Malenfant.

“The same person I was before?”

Of course. Which other?

“But I can’t be. That Malenfant blew himself to bits. I can believe the portal stored information about me, sent it to the far future, and here I am reconstructed in this—” He waved a hand. “ — this virtual reality Bates motel. But I’m not me.”

Michael looked puzzled. You are you. I am me. Information is the most important thing. There was a German called Leibniz.

“The philosopher? Never heard of him.”

Entities that cannot be distinguished by any means whatsoever, even in principle, at any time in the past, present, and future have to be considered identical. This is called the Identity of Indiscernibles. It really is you, Malenfant, just as it feels.

Malenfant stared at him. All this was delivered in that ridiculous, scratchy, middle-aged woman’s voice. The illusion of kid-hood seemed suddenly thin, Malenfant thought, and he wondered, with some dread, what arrays of shadowy minds lay behind this boy, feeding him, perhaps controlling him…

Can I finish your peanuts?

“Have them. So how didyou get here?”

All Michael would say was, Differently.

Malenfant got up, prowled around the room. There were curtains on the wall. When he pulled them back there were no windows.

“Who did this, Michael? Who brought me back?”

The downstreamers. The dreamers. The boy frowned again. The people in the lossless-processing substrate —

“What am I supposed to do?”

Whatever you want. You must only, umm, exist. The information that defines you was stored by the portal, and therefore is part of the substrate.

Malenfant frowned. “You’re telling me I don’t have some kind of mission? That the decadent beings of the far future don’t need my primitive instincts to save them?”

I don’t understand —

“Never mind.” Malenfant looked down at his hand, flexed it, turned it over: a monkey paw transmitted to the end of time, a perfect copy… No, if Michael was right, this really was his hand, as if he’d been teleported here. “I can live on here? Like this? How long for? No human of my era lived beyond a hundred and some years. So when I reach two hundred, three hundred…”

Your brain can store around a quadrillion bits. That corresponds to a thousand years of life. After that —

“I stop being me.”

You could be enhanced. There would be continuity. Growth.

“But I wouldn’t be me.”

You aren ‘t big enough to think the thoughts you would become capable of.

Malenfant hesitated. “Is that what happened to you?”

/ have lived a long time.

“Longer than a thousand years?”

Michael smiled.

“And so, you aren’t Michael any more.” Of course not. How could he be? “Don’t you regret that?”

Michael shrugged. My people, in Zambia, believed that we, on Earth, are the dead. Left behind by the true living, who have passed through their graves.

“And that’s what you believe?”

The boy I used to be was partial. Very damaged. He was a husk I gladly discarded. He studied Malenfant, and Malenfant thought there was a trace of accusation in his eyes, accusation over crimes long gone, buried in the glare of the Big Bang afterglow. Michael said, reasonably gently, A thousand years isn ‘t so bad, Malenfant.

“It’s more than I deserve.” He glared at the boy. “If you can do all this, bring Emma back.”

lean’t. I mean, they can’t. They don’t have the information.

“Emma passed through the portals. There must be records.”

But she would only be, umm, a simulation. The identity principle only works if the information is perfect. And because of the explosion as you went through —

Malenfant held his head in his hands. “Now,” he said, “now it hits me. If I’d known I could have saved her Emma, I’m sorry. Somehow I managed to kill you twice over…”

You sound like you think it’s your fault.

“People around me tend to die, Michael. Cornelius. Emma. You, unless you count this as living on.”

The kid was nodding. / understand.

“You’re just a kid,” Malenfant snapped. “I don’t care how aug mented you are. You can’t understand. If I hadn’t screwed up her life, if I’d left her on Earth—”

Would you have wanted that?

“Yes. No. We wouldn’t have made love, floating between planets. She wouldn’t have followed me across universes. She wouldn’t have learned the truth, about the cancer, about us. I’d have lost well, everything. My life would have remained meaningless, like your damn downstreamers. But she wouldn’t have died. All I had to do was push her away, in that scramble at Mojave…”

Then make it so, Michael murmured.

“What?”

Michael held his hand. Malenfant, the universe has many values. There is no one single path. Do you understand? The future can’t be determined. Nor can the past. Therefore we are free to choose. . .

Malenfant spoke slowly, carefully. “What you’re telling me is that I could change the past. I could spare Emma.” The thought electrified him. “But I’m no downstreamer.”

You are now, said the Michael thing.

“I pushed her away before, when I learned about the cancer, and it didn’t do a damn bit of good. And if I lost her, I’d lose everything. I was ready to die.”

But you would spare her, Malenfant. Give her years of life, maybe. Let go.

Michael was watching him, wide eyed, chewing nuts. There is something else, Michael said. The eschatos.

“The what?”

The end of things.

“The Carter catastrophe. My God…”

We could go back. Become part of it. If you wish.

“I don’t understand any of this, Michael.”

You will.

What the hell are you doing, Malenfant? If you reject this you’re throwing away immortality. A thousand years of life, recognizable human life, followed by what? Transcendence?

But, if I lose myself, I’ll lose Emma. And that, surely, would be the final disrespect.

You always were decisive, Malenfant. If there was ever a time to make a choice it’s now.

Malenfant closed his eyes. “Let’s do it,” he said.

You’re sure?

“Hell, no. Let’s do it anyhow.”

The boy pulled him toward the door.

Malenfant’s heart was thumping. “You mean now?”

Will your decision be different later?

Malenfant took a deep sigh. “Do I need to dress?”

Malenfant went to the bathroom. He washed his face, had a leak, a dump. He had time to be impressed by the faithfulness of the mysterious processes that had restored him here, that had even, presumably, reconstructed the contents of his stomach after his last meal.

He looked at himself in the mirror, studied a face that he had known all his life. The last time for everything, even for the simple things. Here, in his body, in this place, he was still himself. But what was he about to become? He’d built up his courage to blow himself to bits once today already, and his reward had been this, this Alice in Wonderland bullshit. Could he go through with it again?

Of course, if he chickened out, it would have to be in front of Michael and the weird entities who were watching through him.

Malenfant grinned fiercely. To hell with it. He checked his teeth for bits of peanut, then went back to the room.

Michael was wearing his kid-sized pressure suit now, and he had laid out Malenfant’s suit on the bed, beside the unused shirt and slacks. The components of the suit — skinsuit and outer garment and thermal garment and gloves and helmet and boots — looked unearthly, out of place in this mundane environment. And yet, Malenfant thought, the suit was actually the most normal thing about the whole damn room.

“Are we going to need suits?”

If we go like this. If you ‘d rather —

“Hell, no.” Malenfant suited up quickly.

Michael came to him with a pen he’d taken from the desk. You have some notes to write.

“What notes? Oh. Okay.” Malenfant sighed, and bent stiffly in his suit. “What if I make a mistake? Never mind.”

He wrote out the notes hastily and stuck them where he thought they ought to be. And if he got it wrong, let some other bastard sort it out.

He put on his gloves and helmet, and he walked to the door with Michael. When they got there he closed up his own suit and sealed Michael’s, and ran quick diagnostic checks on the kid’s systems.

They turned and faced the door. Michael reached up and, clumsily, pulled it open.

The corridor was gone. A blue-ring portal floated there, framing darkness.

“Is this going to hurt?”

No more than usual.

“Great. Michael… I saw the future. But what was it like?”

Michael paused. Huge. Primal. Beyond control. New minds emerged in great pulses.

“Like Africa,” Malenfant said. “We always thought the future would be like America. Clean and empty and waiting to be shaped. I always thought that way. But our past was Africa. Dark and deep. And that’s how the future was.”

Yes, Michael said.

Malenfant braced himself and faced the portal. “Visors down,” he said.

Michael lowered his gold visor, hiding his face. Malenfant saw the portal’s blue ring reflected in his visor. Then Michael held up his hand, like a son reaching for his father. Malenfant took the hand. The child’s fingers were buried in his own begrimed glove.

They stepped forward. There was a blue flash, an instant of agonizing pain—

— and Malenfant was floating in space. The instant transition to zero gravity was a shock, like falling off a cliff, and he had to swallow a few times to keep his peanuts down.

He was surrounded by patient stars: above, below, all around him, childhood constellations augmented by the rich, still lights of deep space. There was a single splinter of brilliance below him. The sun? It was a point source that cast strong, sharp shadows over their suits.

He was still holding Michael’s hand.

Are you okay? Michael asked. His Seattle whine was a radio crackle. If you become uncomfortable —

“I’ll be okay. What are we looking at, Michael? The sun?”

Yes. We’re out of the plane of the ecliptic. That is, somewhere above the sun s north pole. We’re about five astronomical units out. Five times Earth’s orbit, about as far as Jupiter is from the sun. Forty-three minutes at light speed. What do you want to see?

“Earth.”

Then look. Michael pointed to a nondescript part of the sky.

Malenfant sighted along his arm and saw a star, a spark that might have been pale blue, a lesser light beside it.

And suddenly there was Earth, swimming before him, oceans and deserts and clouds and ice, just as it had always been. Sparks of light circled it, and drifted on its seas: ships, people, cities.

He felt a lump knot in his throat. “Oh, my,” he said.

We are two hundred years into the future, roughly. Our future.

“The Carter catastrophe date. So Cornelius’ prediction was right. He would have been pleased…”

Malenfant. There is little time. If you want to make your change, to reach back. It must be now.

He drifted in space, letting his suit starfish, thinking of Emma.

He whispered, “How do I do it?”

Just tell me what you want.

“Will I remember?”

Consciousness spans the manifold.

I don’t know if I have the strength, he thought.

“She’ll forget me. Won’t she, Michael?”

I’m just a kid, he said. How would I know?

Your call, Malenfant. Keep her, or give her back her life.

“Do it,” he whispered.

… And the universe pivoted around him, the lines of possibility swirling, knitting new patterns of truth and dream, and he clutched at the boy.

Emma Stoney:

Death has always fascinated me. Ever since the death of my father, I suppose. I was just a kid. The endless slow rituals of funerals and mourning, the morbid business of moving the bodies around, boxing them and dressing them. It was as if we humans were seeking some control of the horrible arbitrariness, a cushion against the blunt finality of it.

But that finality came, for me, when my father’s corpse was at last laid into the ground, and I realized it had stopped moving, forever. I remember I wanted to clamber into the grave and dig it up and somehow reanimate him a little longer. But even at age eight I knew that was impossible.

All of the ceremonial stuff focuses on the needs of the living. But at the heart of every funeral there is the central mystery: that a sentient, conscious being has ceased to exist. It is a brutal reality our culture simply refuses to face — the reality of death for the dying.

And the reality of my life is this, Maura: if I had gotten on that rocket ship with Malenfant, if I’d gone with him to the asteroid, I’d be dead now, as he is dead.

But I didn’t go. I miss him, Maura. Of course. Every minute of every day. I miss his laugh, the way he tasted of the high desert, even the way he pulled my life around. But he’s gone.

Anyhow, that’s why I’ll take the job. The Moon, you say?

Maura Della:

And for Maura — who had never been to the Moon, and now never would — the Moon hung in the Washington sky as it always had, the scar of the failed attack invisible to the naked eye. She kept a NASA feed running in her office, compiled from Hubble and lunar satellite cameras, images of the unmarked bubble artifact there on the Tycho surface.

After all, if things had been just a little different, Maura Della might have been up there when the shit hit the fan. She’d have been caught in the crossfire herself, rather than her envoy.

But as the incident on the Moon receded into the past, life went on. The panic subsides even as the data burns, she thought. Cruithne, even the Moon, are after all just lumps of rock a long way away.

Maura tried to concentrate on her work.

Here was a self-justifying report from the Lawrence Liver-more Laboratory on the exotic weapons technology they called FELs, free electron lasers, into which a goodly portion of the federal budget had been sunk, and which had been deployed, to spectacular failure, on the Moon. The basis of a PEL was a cyclotron, a closed ring that could be used to accelerate electrons. Although it was impossible for the electrons to exceed the speed of light there was no limit, it seemed, to the energy that could be piled into them. And that unlimited energy was the big advantage of PEL technology over conventional laser technology, like chemical. The report writers noted with jaunty technocrat-type confidence that a PEL should have been an ideal sword for fighting a war in a vacuum: in Earth orbit, or on the Moon.

But it had failed. The PEL had burned the lunar base and the Never-Never Land dome to the ground. But it hadn’t so much as scratched the droplet of twisted space, or whatever it was, that sheltered the children — and presumably continued to do so, even now, sitting like a drop of mercury amid the rubble of the Tycho battlefield.

All bullshit. The PEL was just another magic sword in a long line of such swords, technical solutions that were supposed to make the world better and safer and that, of course, always failed.

Without finishing the report she consigned it to her incinerator.

Here was an extraordinary handwritten memo from a colleague relaying rumors Maura had already heard, about the president himself. Whittacker had always had a grim religious bent, Maura knew. It had been part of his qualification for election, it seemed, in these fractured times. Now he was sunk in an apocalyptic depression from which — so it was said — teams of e-therapists and human analysts were struggling to lift him. That a man with his finger on the nuclear trigger should believe that the world was inevitably doomed — that life wasn’t worth living, that it may as well be concluded now — was, well, worrying. One beneficial side effect of the Bonfire strictures, oddly, was that you could rely on confidentiality rather more than in the past, so that information and speculation like this gained a wider currency…

There was a soft knock on the door. Bonfire cops. She hastily incinerated the note and let them in.

They came every hour, roughly, at irregular times. This time she had to endure a recording-gear sweep. It was brisk, thorough, humorless.

It was all part of the Bonfire, a massive national — indeed international — exercise in paper shredding and data trashing.

Maura was allowed to keep no records beyond a calendar day. Everything had to be handwritten and incinerated after use; not even carbon copies were permitted. Federal records — anything to do with Bootstrap, the Blues, the Carter phenomena — were being burned or wiped.

Even beyond the bounds of the federal government, tapes and paper archives relating to the various incidents were being impounded and destroyed. Data-mining routines, legal and illegal, were being sent out to trash computer records.

Of course there were stand-alone machines that couldn’t be reached by any of these means. But even these were being dealt with. For instance, there were ways to monitor the operation of computers within buildings, using water pipes as giant antennae. There were even outlandish Star Wars — type proposals coming out of the military, such as to drench the planet in magnetic media-wiping particle beams.

All of this was incidentally doing a hell of a lot of damage to the economy, making the day the Dow Jones burst through a hundred thousand — blowing up all the computer-index stores in the process — seem like a picnic.

The objective was simple, however. It was to remove all records of the Nevada Blue center, of the nuclear cleansing there, of Cruithne, of the battle on the Moon.

The physical evidence would linger for decades. But it was essential that no record remain to contradict the official cover stories concocted by the FBI: the big lie about the rogue army officer; the piece of hostage-taking terrorism in Nevada, the attempted resolution of which had gone horribly wrong; the drastic accidental explosion that had wrecked NASA’s purely scientific Moon base; and so on.

Of course even if every record was expunged, the truth would still exist in the heads and hearts of those involved. And so everybody with any significant knowledge — especially those, herself included, who had actually seen the Nevada center and had witnessed the failed “cleansing” operation — was under special scrutiny. There had been the public trials at which they had been forced to deny the truth of Carter, Cruithne, the Blues, all the rest. Even after that she was searched on entering and leaving the building, and she knew she was under heavy and constant surveillance.

But still, as long as the memories existed, how could it be certain that not one of them, for the rest of their lives, would betray the great lie? Maura, depressed, could imagine an FBI lab somewhere even now cooking up a grisly high-tech mind-cleansing method where respect for the subject would be a lot less important than efficacy. And there was always the simplest way of all: the bullet in the back of the head…

There were, in fact, rumors of “suicides” already. People dying for what they knew, what they remembered.

The Bonfire had two goals. The first was simply crowd control. The extreme reactions to Malenfant’s wild broadcasts of future visions and time-paradox messages and doom-soon predictions had made authorities all around the planet wary of how to handle such information from now on. Bluntly, it didn’t matter if the world was coming to an end a week from Tuesday; for now, somebody had to keep sweeping the streets. So Malenfant’s information was being diminished, ridiculed, faked-up to look like clumsy hoaxes, hi the end, the e-psychologists promised, anybody who clung to the bad news from the future would start to look like a Cassandra: doomed to know the future, but powerless to do anything about it.

Not everybody was going to be fooled by all this. But that wasn’t the real point. Bonfire’s true purpose was to fool the future. It was essential that the balance of evidence bequeathed to future historians was not sufficient to prove that the people of twenty-first-century America had gone to war with their children.

Despite the personal difficulty, the infringement of various rights, Maura supported this huge project. This was, after all, a matter of national security. More than that, hi fact: it was essential to the future of the species itself.

The U.S. government seemed to have fallen into a war with indefinable superbeings of the future. The only weapon at its disposal was the control of the information to be passed to future generations. And the government was pursuing that project with all the resources it could command — attempting to blindside the downstreamers before they were even born.

The battle wasn’t completely impossible. There were precedents in history, some academics were pointing out. Almost all of history was a carefully constructed mythology for use as propaganda or nation building. The writers of the Gospels had spun out the unpromising story of a Nazarene carpenter-preacher into an instrument to shape the souls of humankind, all the way to and beyond the present day. Shouldn’t the modern U.S. government, with all the techniques and understanding at its disposal, be able to do infinitely better yet?

But Maura had a premonition, deep and dark, that it was a war the present couldn’t win. The artifact on Cruithne, now in irradiated quarantine, and especially the spacetime bubble on the Moon, were there: real, undeniable. And so, in the end, was the truth.

The cops left her.

There was one more report on her desk. She skimmed it briefly, held it out to the incinerator.

Then she put it back on her desk, picked up her phone, and called Dan Ystebo.

“News from the Trojans,” she told him. “One of NASA’s satellites has picked up anomalous radiation. Strongly redshifted.” She read out details, numbers.

My God. You know what this means?

“Tell me”

The squid are leaving, Maura… He talked, fast and at length, about what had become of his enhanced cephalopods. I guess he doesn’t get the chance too often, Maura thought sadly.

We know they ‘ve spread out through the cloud of Trojans. We can only guess how many of them there are right now. The best estimate is in excess of a hundred billion. And it may be they are all cooperating. A single giant school. Do you know why the numbers are significant? A hundred billion seems to be a threshold… It takes a hundred billion atoms to organize to form a cell. It takes a hundred billion cells to form a brain. And maybe a hundred billion cephalopod minds, out in the Trojans, just light-minutes apart, have become something —

“Transcendent.”

Yes. We can’t even guess what it must be like, what they’re capable of now. Any more than a single neuron could anticipate what a human mind is capable of. Space is for the cephalopods, Maura. It never was meant for us.

His voice, his bizarre speculation, was a noise from the past for Maura. It’s all receding, she thought. She sighed. “I think it no longer makes a difference one way or the other, Dan. And you ought to be careful who you discuss this with.”

Yes.

“Where are you working now?”

Brazzaville. I got a job in the dome here. Biosphere recI amation.

“Rewarding.”

/ guess. Life goes on… Those redshift numbers. The cephalopods must be leaving at close to light speed.

“Where do you think they are going?”

Maybe that isn ‘t the point, Maura. Maybe the point is what they are trying to flee.

At the end of the day she sat quietly at her desk, studying the Washington skyline. She snapped off the noise filters, so the chants and banners of the protesters outside became apparent.

There was still much to do. The immediate future, regardless of Carter, was as dangerous as it had ever been. And the temptation many people seemed to feel to sacrifice their freedom to stern Utopians who promised to order that future for them was growing stronger.

Maura, with a sinking heart, thought the loss of significant freedom might be impossible to avoid. But she could strive, as she always had, to minimize the harm.

Or maybe that was a fight too far for her.

If she left Washington now she wouldn’t be missed, she realized. She had few friends. Friendship was fragile here, and easily corroded. Not married, no partner, no children. Was she lonely, then?

Well, perhaps.

For a long time she had been, simply, so busy, even before this Malenfant business had blown up to consume her life, that she sensed she had forgotten who she was. She sometimes wondered what had kept her here for so long. Were her precious values — formed in a place and time far away from here — just a cover for deeper needs? Was there some deeper inadequacy within, a dissatisfaction she had wrestled to submerge with relentless activity all these years?

If that was so, perhaps now, when she was left stranded by age and isolation, she would have to face herself for the first time.

She looked out her window, and there was the Moon in the daylit sky. Beneath her the planet turned; sun and Moon and stars continued to wheel through the sky. She felt lifted out of herself, transcending her small concerns, as if she were a mouse running around some grand, incomprehensible clockwork.

There was a knock on the door.

Maura dispatched the NASA report to the incinerator, and let in the cops once more.

Emma Stoney:

Emma fell into gray light.

Watch the Moon, Malenfant. Watch the Moon. It’s starting —

For a moment — a brief, painful moment — she thought she was with Malenfant. Where? Cruithne?

But she had never been to Cruithne, never left Earth before this jaunt to the Moon to inspect Never-Never Land on Maura’s behalf. And Malenfant, of course, was long dead, killed when the troopers stormed Cruithne.

And the Blue children of the Moon were all around her, clutching her hands and clothes, lifting her.

She started to remember. The German blue helmet, his assault on her. The escape into the children’s electric-blue spacetime anomaly wall.

She looked around for whoever it was who had called out, but she couldn’t see him.

They lowered her carefully — onto what? some kind of smooth floor — and then the children started to move away, spreading out.

She was lying on a plain: featureless, perfectly flat. The air was hot, humid, a little stale. Too hot, in fact, making her restless, irritable.

There was nothing before her: no electric-blue wall, no far side to this unreality bubble, which should have been just a couple of yards away. She reached out a hand, half expecting it to disappear through some invisible reality interface. But it didn’t.

She pushed herself upright. The pain was, briefly, as blackly unendurable as before, and she lay where she was, longing for unconsciousness. But it didn’t come. And the pain, somehow, started to recede, like a tide imperceptibly turning.

The children were scattering over the plain. The grayness and lack of contrast washed out the colors of the children’s skin and clothes and made them look ill. They seemed to be receding from her, remarkably quickly, perspective diminishing them to tiny running figures. Maybe this place was bigger than it looked.

The sky was an elusive grayness, blank and featureless. There was no sense of distance — no sign of stars, of sun or Earth or orbiting spacecraft, no clouds. The light was shadowless, sourceless.

As they moved farther away from her the children seemed to gray out completely, fading to black, as if there were something wrong with the light. There was nothing beyond the children, no fences or buildings, all the way to the horizon. Except there was no horizon. The floor simply merged into the remote grayness of the sky. It was like being inside a huge glass bulb.

Maybe this whole damn thing is some kind of near-death experience, she thought. An illusion.

But it didn’t feel like it. And her restless brain kept analyzing, observing.

There were little piles of gear: bright primary-color plastic toys, what looked like heaps of bedding or clothes, food packets, and water bottles. There was one more substantial structure, a shacklike assemblage of wires and cables and bits of metal: a Tinkerbell cage, a quark-nugget trap. But there was no order, no logic to the layout. Stuff just seemed to have been dumped where it was last used. If it weren’t for the sheer size of the place, it would be a pigpen.

But then she was looking at this place through adult eyes. It was just a kids’ playroom, writ large.

Somebody spoke. The words were muffled.

She turned. There was Anna, standing solemnly, her hands at her sides, regarding her. The girl seemed grayed out, like the other children.

Emma tried to shout. “I can’t hear you!” There was a dull dead-ness to the sound, like an anechoic booth.

Anna began to run toward her. She seemed to approach remarkably quickly, growing in perspective with every lunar-hop stride, the colors washing back into her clothes and her. In a few seconds she was at Emma’s side.

“Sorry,” she said. “I just asked if you wanted a drink.” She held out a clear plastic carton containing a gloopy orange liquid.

Emma’s throat was, now that she thought about it, rapidly growing dry in this sticky heat. “Thanks.” She took the drink, pulled off a foil tab, and sucked the liquid out of the carton. It was a fruit juice mix, sticky and heavily sweet.

“How do you feel?” Anna asked.

She looked down at her shattered leg. The pain had diminished so steeply the limb no longer seemed to be a part of her, as if she were studying some broken piece of machinery. “Not better, exactly,” she said. “But—”

“The pain can’t reach you,” Anna said gravely. “But it is still there. You should be careful.” She was studying Emma. “Do you know who you are?”

Emma frowned. “I’m Emma Stoney.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

Strange questions, like a doctor’s. Go with the flow, Emma. “I’m with the UN. I report to Maura Della. I’ve been working with the Blues, with you, since Malenfant pushed me away in the Mojave to go fly his spaceship, and Bootstrap was broken up, and Malenfant died in space.” She had been fixing things, righting some of the wrongs Malenfant had left behind. Everything, of course, defined by her relationship to Malenfant, even though the man had been dead five years. “Maura sent me here.”

You married a spaceman, Maura had said to Emma. Now s your chance to do the Buck Rogers stuff yourself. If not for you I’d go myself. But I ‘m too old to fly. . .

And so she had come to the Moon. And now this.

Anna folded her thin legs with an enviable ease and sat cross-legged with her. “That’s right,” she said solemnly.

“What do you mean?”

“It doesn’t matter now.”

Emma stroked the floor. The surface was smooth, seamless, warm, and it gave a little, like rubber. Like the floor of a playpen, or maybe an insane asylum, she thought sourly. She eyed Anna. “This place is strange,” she said. “Distances are funny. It was like I was watching you through a fish-eye lens.”

Anna frowned. “What’s a fish-eye lens?”

“Never mind.”

“Of course distances are funny,” Anna said. “Everything here is folded up.” She waved a hand at the blank plain, the neon-tube sky. “How else could we fit all of this into that little bubble you saw?”

“Are we still on the Moon?”

“Oh, yes. Or rather we are still connected to the Moon. Actually the geometry here is hyperbolic. An infinite volume contained within a finite circumference.” Anna reached up, her fingers flexing toward the horizon. “The walls are infinitely far away, and six feet away, at the same time. Minutes pass in here, while two centuries pass on the outside.” She was watching Emma sympathetically.

Well, it didn’t matter whether Emma understood or not. It was just that this place, it seemed, was to be the end of the road, for the children and for herself. Whatever happened from now on, there was no going back: back to the world she had grown up in, with its comfortable furniture of sky and clouds and leather armchairs and other adults and, for Christ’s sake, coffee. One last cup of coffee, instead of this sickly orange syrup — she felt she would give her soul for that. Better yet, one last tequila sunrise.

Two centuries, Anna had said.

Anna’s eyes were empty, watchful. She knows the significance, Emma thought. It’s real; it’s happening; that’s why we’re here.

I’ve been fast-forwarded in time, to Carter Day.

Fear clutched her heart.

Now the children were coming back. Some of them carried toys — dolls, even a toy gun. One boy came pedaling on a small plastic bicycle, adapted for the Moon with fat mesh wheels.

“This has been a good place to cycle,” Anna said dreamily. “Of course that’s why we built it this way.”

“You built a toy universe so you could ride your bikes?”

She grinned at Emma. “If you were ten years old and could build a universe, what would you do?”

Emma frowned. “It’s been a long time since I was ten.” And, she realized, at some point I forgot how it is to be a kid. How very sad.

As the children neared they loomed, unnaturally quickly, and the gray flatness washed out of them. Emma could smell them — their hot, moist little bodies, a playground smell, comforting here in this bright gray-white lightbulb unreality. Billie Tybee, seven years old, reached out a hand. Emma took it. The small hand was warm, perfect in hers.

Anna stood up.

“Is it time?”

Anna said, “Soon.”

Emma began to struggle to her feet. “Then let’s get it over.”

“Oh,” Anna said, “it isn’t waiting for us.”

Little Billie Tybee was still clutching her hand. Emma relaxed her grip, trying to release her, but the little girl held on. So Emma limped forward awkwardly, helped by the older children, leaning to hold hands with Billie.

Emma looked back the way they had come. She tried to remember the place where she had arrived here, the location of the invisible gateway back to her own familiar universe. Surely if there was any way out of here it would be from there. But the surface was as smooth and featureless as bare skin.

She sighed. Forget it, Emma. Where you came from isn’t important any more. Where you’re going to, however, is.

She found herself shaking.

Was not knowing, not understanding, making this experience so much harder to bear? But if she did know — if the kids were dragging her toward some folded-spacetime equivalent of an electric chair, if she knew every detail of how her life was going to end — would that be any easier?

The party resumed its slow hike across the featureless plain. Piles of kipple, clothes and toys and food packets, seemed to swim around them, the distances melting and merging in this folded place.

They were slowly nearing the one substantial structure on the plain, the shack of metal and wire she had noticed earlier. It was indeed a Tinkerbell trap: an electromagnetic cage made of junkyard garbage, capable of containing a chunk of quark matter. Like the prototypes, she could see how this cage had been made by the hands of children, a thing of lengths of wire and metal and bits of plastic clumsily twisted together.

But however crude its construction the cage evidently worked, for there was a Tinkerbell in there, a hovering point of light. It seemed to be following a complex path, darting back and forth, slowing as it reached maybe six inches from the center of the motion, then slipping back. Emma tried to pick out a periodicity in the motion. Perhaps there were many oscillations here, overlaying each other in three-dimensional space.

The children slowed, broke up as they reached the cage. Anna and the others lowered Emma carefully to the floor; though littered with scraps of wire, the floor was as featureless and unpleasantly warm here as where she had first emerged. Billie Tybee sat on the floor beside her now, cuddling up close.

One little boy walked around the back of the cage, and Emma heard a gentle splashing, glimpsed a thin stream of yellowish liquid.

Anna squatted on her haunches. She asked Emma, “Are you still okay?”

“So you built another Tinkerbell cage. More quark matter?”

“Oh, no. Not yet. That stuff isn’t quark matter. Can’t you tell? I don’t suppose you can.”

“Then what?”

“It’s yolk,” Anna said. “Yolk, from an egg star.”

“A what?”

Billie sighed with all the seriousness a seven-year-old could muster. “She means,” she said, pronouncing the words carefully, “a neutron star.”

“But it’s like an egg,” Anna said. “The collapsed remains of a supernova. Solid outside and a lot of funny liquids churning around on the inside.”

“And that’s what this stuff is? This Tinkerbell? A droplet of neutron star matter?”

“Only a billion tons or so,” Anna said. “Originally material from the Moon.”

“Tell me what you want with it.”

“We don’t want it” Billie said seriously, and she wiped her nose on Emma’s sleeve.

Anna said, “What we want is what it will become. The degenerate matter is, umm, a fuse. In a moment a fragment of true quark matter will arrive.”

“From where?” Emma asked.

But Anna didn’t answer that. She said, “When the nucleus of quark matter enters the fuse, it will quickly develop an equilibrium strangeness content via weak interactions, and free neutrons will be absorbed as there is no Coulomb barrier—”

“Anna, my dear, I don’t understand a damn word.”

“The fuse will turn into quark matter very rapidly, all of it.”

Emma remembered a briefing Dan Ystebo had prepared for Maura. A neutron star flashing to quark matter. Half its mass being converted to energy in a few seconds. Explosions so vigorous they could be observed from another Galaxy.

“In fact,” the girl said with an element of pride, “the degenerate matter droplet has been shaped so that its collapse will be concentrated. At the very center of the droplet, in a space smaller than a proton, we will reach higher energy densities even than at the hearts of collapsing neutron stars. Higher energy densities than can form anywhere, naturally. Densities that need intelligence, design, to occur.”

“Jesus. Why, Anna? What are you trying to do? Blow up the Moon?”

“Oh, no,” Anna said, a little impatiently. “‘Not just that. The point is not the amount of energy that’s released here, but the precision of its application.”

“Which is why,” Emma said with growing dread, “you are calling this thing a fuse. You’re intending to use this to trigger something else. Something much bigger. Aren’t you?”

Anna smiled happily. “Now you’re starting to understand,” she said brightly.

Seven-year-old Billie turned her sweet, round face up to Emma. She said carefully, “Vacuum collapse. Are you afraid?”

Emma swallowed. “Yes. Yes, I am, Billie. But I don’t know what I’m afraid of.” Now Emma saw that the kid’s lower lip was wobbling. Emma bent, carefully, and leaned toward Billie. “Tell you what,” she said. “It’s okay to cry. But I’ll try not to if you try not to. What do you think?”

And then — suddenly, without warning or fanfare — it began.

Reid Malenfant:

Here was Malenfant, drifting in space.

He remembered how he had grabbed Emma, coaxed her, forced her onto the O ‘Neill to be with him. And he remembered how he had pushed her away, protected her with lies, left her on Earth.

He remembered how he had made love to her in the darkness and silence of space. And he remembered how he had started awake, weightless and disoriented, looking for her, and she had not been there, never had been there.

He remembered how she had come with him on his strange journey through the manifold of universes. And he remembered how he had journeyed alone: lost, frightened, incomplete.

He remembered how she had learned the truth about him at last. He remembered how she had died in his arms. He remembered how much he had missed her, longed to have her back, to tell her.

He remembered how he had wanted it all: his relationship with Emma, to spare her pain, his glorious future vision. And he’d finished with none of it.

The change was done, the timelines rewoven. But, by God, it had cost him.

Malenfant turned his head, refocused his eyes’ new zoom feature, and there was the Moon, swimming alongside the Earth as it always had. Beautiful doomed Earth.

“Shit,” he said. “It’s the end of the world. And all I can think about is myself.”

What else is there?

“… The downstreamers. Are they gods?”

No. They’re just people.

“That’s hard to believe.”

But the human race is very old. They would not recognize you.

“Why not?”

Because your time was very strange. Really, it was still part of the Big Bang, the afterglow. Bright.

“What are they like?”

They are diverse. As diverse as you and me. More. But they have one thing in common. These are the people who chose to live on.

“There were others who chose death? Why?”

Because there are problems with the substrate. It is not infinite in size. No computer can exceed the limits set by the Bekenstein Bound.

“The what?”

It s difficult to talk to you when you know nothing.

“Sorry.”

The uncertainty principle, then. You know about that. Because of the uncertainty principle, a given amount of mass and energy can only assume a finite number of quantum states. So the number of different states achievable is bounded above by the number of states achievable by the whole universe, if all its mass and energy were converted to information, which has not occurred. The number is ten to power ten to power one hundred and twenty-three —

“Ten to power ten to power one hundred and twenty-three, huh. And that’s the number of possible thoughts, inside this computer. Is that what you’re telling me?”

Yes! The substrate is a finite-state machine. It can take only a fixed number of states, and it works in discrete time intervals. A finite-state machine must, after long enough, enter a periodic state. That is —

“They live the same lives,” Malenfant said. “Even think the same thoughts. Over and over. My God, what a fate.” Like autism, he thought. “Why? “

The kid sighed. There was no other way for mind to survive the Heat Death.

The same thoughts over and over, circulating like farts in a space suit. What a destiny, what an end to all hope, what a culmination to all those universes painfully evolving to the point where they could support life and mind, the uncounted years of struggling to survive in this universe What an end, he thought, to my own grandiose projects.

But Cornelius would have loved it. Sanity, control forever, no change. Just an endless cycle of sameness.

Michael was watching him. You understand.

“Understand what?”

Why the. . . Feynman project was initiated.

“The portals? The messages upstream?”

There are some who do not believe it was meant to be like this. That life, humanity, had a different purpose.

“You’re telling me we have a.purpose!”

Oh, yes. Humans are the most important sentient creatures who have ever existed, or will ever exist.

That sent a shudder down Malenfant’s spine. God damn it, I waited all my life to hear someone tell me that. And now that I have, it terrifies me.

“So these downstreamers of yours have reached back in time and changed things, created another timeline, in which—”

Michael frowned. Your language is like noise. But you are more right than wrong. Yes, I can say that. But there are no such things as timelines. There is a universal wave function that determines a sheaf of paths —

“I heard all that before, and didn’t understand it then Earth. Do they know what’s going to happen?”

People are, umm, at peace, Malenfant. In a way they weren ‘t in your day.

“Even now, as the lights are going out?”

Even now.

“But, no matter how prosperous and contented and understanding they are, they’re all going to die. All the people on Earth, and the Moon and Mars and wherever the hell else they got to… Tell me about Earth, Michael.”

Michael smiled, and Malenfant heard voices.

A.D. 2051:

In Britain, and other parts of the European Federal Union, God

is dead. Or if not dead, irrelevant.

Believe me, Monsignor, I know. I just got back from a year’s assignment in London. Religious practice and belief has genuinely collapsed, on a mass scale.

It’s clear that the absorption of the Carter message in some corners of the world has led to a kind of group despair, the feeling that nothing is worth struggling for. In Britain, this is manifesting itself in a denial of any external basis for moral action. Essentially the Brits are redesigning the moral basis of their community. They are appealing to such philosophical doctrines as ethical relativism, the weighing of moral codes relative to each other and not against any imagined absolute; and emo-tivism, action on a gut response to injustices and so forth; and prescriptivism, reliance on the announcement of appropriate moral standards based on human authority without appeal to a higher or external source.

That the British state is holding together at all, that it hasn’t all lapsed into barbarism or chaos, is probably some kind of tribute to the basic British character. But then, just as the Brits were the first industrial society, so they became, arguably, our first postin-dustrial culture. Similarly they are comparatively recently postimperial. Now they seem to be becoming the first truly postreligious nation.

Strange that a country we think of as being staid and old fashioned should once more be forging the way into an unknown future.

Will the Brits survive? Will they tear each other apart? I find myself hoping they have a chance to grope their way out of this darkness, to find the end of their story, before the curtain falls on us all in a couple of hundred years — assuming it’s all gloomily true, of course.

But maybe these are controversial views for a Jesuit. We are all, after all, missionaries.

I’m recommending that the Vatican fund further missions, a presence. We have to go in there and talk about God, as well as study this new phenomenon. But how much good it will do — or even what good means in this context — is hard to judge

A.D. 2079:

You must not be alarmed. You must understand why extreme force was required to quell the unrest in this neighborhood. Orientation classes like this are provided as a service to help you come to terms with the losses you have suffered, and your long-term injuries.

Unrest is fueled by nostalgia for an imagined “better time,” when America governed herself, when there was economic growth and fast cars and cheap food, and so forth.

But you must not be nostalgic. Nostalgia is harmful.

Look at the big picture. Earth has passed through the Malthu-sian bottleneck. We avoided major war, and more than three billion souls have passed into a better future. The others, on the whole, met their end with dignity, and we salute them.

Today Earth is stable.

We have become a closed-loop economy, a giant spaceship. From the surface of the Earth, raw materials production and energy production have all but disappeared, along with the damage they did — particularly pollution through mining, refining, transportation, combustion, waste disposal. It is important to understand that the amount of key commodities such as metals and glass in circulation at any moment is constant. The only requirement is an input of energy, which is largely provided from the orbiting solar power plants and the quark-nugget installations.

Certainly there are costs. The standard of living of some is not as high as it once was. But the standard of living of us all is about equivalent to the well-off of Soviet Russia, circa 1970: that is, beyond the dreams of much of humankind for much of our history.

Economic growth is not possible. But growth was always an illusion, bought only by exploiting other people or the Earth’s irreplaceable resources or burning up our children’s future. Now we are mature.

Consider the indicators the UN uses to measure our wealth and happiness today.

We count more than simple economic facts. We measure the health and education and even the joy of our children. We consider the beauty of our poetry and our art, the strength of our families, the intelligence and integrity of our public debate. In a very real sense we are measuring our courage, wisdom, learning, and compassion: everything that makes life worth living. And by every such measure the world is a better place.

You are not as free as your grandfather was to foul up the neighborhood, or to own three cars. But what would you want with such freedoms?

Some say the UN has become undemocratic. But the control required to run the planet today would be impossible without the powerful central authority wielded by the UN.

What would happen to us without central control?

Remember the lesson of history. Easter Island — remote, cut off — was a close analogy to our present situation, a human population essentially isolated within a finite resource.

The islanders bred until they destroyed their biosphere. Then, starving, they almost killed each other off in the resulting wars.

So do not mourn freedom. Freedom was an illusion, paid for by the death of others less fortunate. Today you have the freedom to live in peace, and not to starve.

Support us. We will save you from yourself. After all, without us things would be a lot worse.

And, incidentally, Peacekeepers are not police. They merely reinforce the popular will. There is a difference.

AD. 2102:

But what we call the biosphere — yes, make a note of the word — was left badly depleted before the end. There was a great wave of » extinctions that, ultimately, couldn’t be stopped. How bad was it? Well, Oona, we don’t really know. We didn’t even get as far as counting all the species before destroying them. Yes, that’s right; a lot of species must have died out before we even knew they were there. Shivery thought, isn’t it?

The sea fared a little better than the land. We lost some species, mostly from overfishing and from the dumping of pollutants and washed-off topsoil in the shallow waters around the coastlines. But today things are fairly stable. In fact there are enhanced cephalopods, squid and octopuses, managing the big undersea farms for us now.

Still, it was a severe extinction, in historical terms. Worse than the one that wiped out the dinosaurs, sixty-five million years ago. Not as bad as the one at the end of the Permian.

Now, of course, we live in a world where evolution has been ended, and the future depends on conscious management by

No, Maisie, I never saw a chimp or a gorilla, so I can’t tell you what it would have been like. Now you are the only surviving primate species. Anyhow I’m just an e-person. I don’t know how it would have felt to meet your cousin like that: like you, yet not quite you.

I can make a guess, though.

A.D. 2147:

So there are sixty years to go before the Carter firework show and the population is increasing, despite all the UN can do to discourage us.

It sure is in my house.

What, you’re surprised?

Look, for a long time many people accepted the UN below-replacement-number childbirth guidelines — and a lot even went further, having no kids at all because they were depressed about the future. That is, they didn’t expect there to be any future. It seemed unfair, maybe even immoral, to bring kids into a situation like that.

After all, you never treated anyone unfairly by leaving them unborn, because they never existed to suffer in the first place. Right?

Well, the world may be heading for the iceberg, but the dead hand of old Darwin is still on the tiller.

What am I talking about? Just this: If most people stop breeding, the handful of people who love kids and want to have them — people like me — are, within a generation or two, going to outnumber everyone else. Simple math.

And that’s exactly what is happening.

Friend, I’m your neighborhood representative of a new species: Homo philoprogenitus, which means “lover of many children.” As you can see, or maybe hear.

I pay my UN fines. For me they are worth it. A happiness tax. What’s money for?

Sure, if Carter is right, these kids are not going to live to a ripe old age. But it’s better for them to have existed and been happy than not existed. What are we here for except to add to the sum total of human happiness-days? Right?

And besides, I plan to be around to usher in Carter Day too. We’ll probably have one hell of a party. By then there will be nobody left around but us Hphils, and we’re a friendly bunch.

You’ll be invited. Bring the wife and kids. Oh, they’re e-kids? Yes, I know, a comfort. Never worked for me. Bring the dog, then. He’s not an e-pooch too, is he? Hey, you still up for poker Tuesday night?

springs, and then the final winter will descend on us all, leaving us without hope.

Where, then, is the relevance of the Christian mythos for us, whom God has abandoned?

The relevance is in the character of Mary, Mother of Jesus.

Mary stood and mourned at the foot of the Cross. Even as Her Son gave His life for humankind, so He abandoned His Mother.

So, today, we reject the grandiose and selfish ambitions of the Son, and embrace the grief of Mary, the Mother He abandoned.

For we, too, have been abandoned. We draw strength from Mary’s dignity in betrayal. We are no longer Christians. We are Marians.

Let us pray.

A.D. 2207:

It is the best of times, and the worst of times. Who wrote that?… It does not matter. We have been drawn together by the tragedy; that is clear. Those of us who have a glimmering of understanding — who see that even the awesome destruction to come is merely a stage in the endless evolution of life and mind, as regrettable but inevitable as the death of an individual, just as the Blues tried to teach us — are consoled, even if we cannot comprehend it fully. And we do not condemn the Ocean Children, who have fled into the bright comfort of mindlessness. The world spins on, full of heroism and selfishness and despair, just as it always has. The children have been a comfort, of course. A preliminary perusal of history shows that, and the happy lack of any Blue births after the Nevada event… I apologize. Even now I am more prepared to analyze history than to talk about myself, about us! Well. There is no more to say. We are here together. We choose to end it now, rather than to submit to the arbitrariness of history. Good-bye, my darling, good-bye.

AD. 2208:

Where were you on The Night?

If you’re reading this, it must be over, and you survived. Right?

As I’m recording this there are twenty-four hours to go.

I can tell you where I’ll be: in orbit around the Moon.

For two centuries people have been probing and prodding and cracking at that damn energy bubble up there. Of course they’ve had no success. But that hasn’t stopped them trying. And it won’t stop me now, right to the end.

I might even meet my uncle and aunt, Tom and Billie Tybee, up there. My grandfather, Bill Tybee, left me this diary, which he kept from the day he first married, and even the gadget, the little plastic Heart, that taught us all so much about our Blue cousins. Hell of a guy, my grandfather. Lost his wife, lost two kids to the Blue hysteria, survived a war on the Moon, and still built a life: married again, more kids — none of them Blue — and died in his bed.

People tell us we’re at peace. We’re all just waiting, praying if we choose to, otherwise just turning out the lights. Calm, dignified acceptance.

Yeah, right.

For me, I mean to go out of this world the way I came in: dragged out headfirst, kicking and screaming.

Anyhow this will probably be the last entry. I’m burying the diary in hardcopy a hundred feet down in a disused mine. If it gets to survive anywhere, it will be there.

Godspeed.

Michael:

Watch the Moon, Malenfant. Watch the Moon. It s starting—

Emma Stoney:

A bolt of light streaked vertically down from the gray dome sky above. It headed straight for the degenerate matter, merged with

it unerringly.

The children made sounds like it was a firework display: Ooh, aah.

Anna’s gaze was fixed on the Tinkerbell nugget in its cage; Emma saw its light sparkling in her clear eyes. And the Tinker-bell was getting brighter.

“How long?”

“A few minutes,” Anna whispered. “This is what we were born to do. It is what you were born for—”

A wave of pain, unexpected, pulsed from Emma’s leg, and she gasped.

Billie Tybee pulled away from her, eyes wide.

Emma made an effort to calm down. She deliberately smiled. Billie crept slowly back to her, and Emma laid a hand on her head.

They may be about to kill you. Even so, don’t frighten the children. It surely isn’t their fault.

“Vacuum decay,” she said to Anna.

“Yes.”

“Will it be quick?”

Anna thought that over. “More than quick. The effects will spread at light speed, transforming everything to the true vacuum state.” She studied Emma. “Before you know it’s happening, it will be over.”

Emma took a deep breath. She didn’t understand a word; it was so abstract it wasn’t even frightening. Thank God I’m no smarter, she thought. “Okay. How far will it reach? Will it engulf Tycho? The Moon?”

Anna frowned. “You don’t understand.”

And the droplet exploded.

Emma flinched.

The cage held. Light flared, a baseball-sized lump, dazzling Emma, bathing the faces of the watching children, as if they were planets turned to this new sun.

Billie was cuddling closer, wrapping her arms around Emma’s waist. Emma put her hands on the child’s head and bent over her to shelter her. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay to be frightened.”

The light got brighter.

“Nearly, now,” Anna said softly.

Why, Anna? Revenge?”

Anna turned to her. “You don’t understand. You never will. I’m sorry. This isn’t destruction. This isn’t revenge. This is—”

“What?”

“It’s wonderful”

Emma felt heat on her face; a wind, hot air pulsing out of the cage, fleeing the heat of theTinkerbell.

Now more children came creeping closer to Emma. She reached out her arms and tried to embrace them all. Some of them were weeping. And maybe she was weeping too; it was hard to tell.

At last even Anna came to her, buried her face in Emma’s neck.

She thought of Malenfant: Malenfant on Cruithne, defying fate one last time. She might easily have been with him, up there, sharing whatever had become of him. Even at their worst times, the depths of the divorce, she had expected, in her heart, to die with him.

But it hadn’t turned out like that, for better or worse.

In the years after Mojave, after Malenfant, Emma had had relationships. She’d even inherited some children, from previous broken relationships. None of her own, though. Maybe this was as close as she had ever come.

But the children around her seemed remote, as if she touched them through a layer of glass. She felt incomplete. Maybe she was spread too thin over the possibilities of reality, she thought.

The light grew brighter, the heat fiercer. The wind was beginning to howl through the loose, shuddering framework of the cage.

The children whimpered and pushed closer to Emma.

There was a blue flare. Through the tangle of the Tinkerbell cage, Emma glimpsed an electric-blue ring, distorted, twisting away. And more of them, a great chain disappearing to infinity, a ribbed funnel of blue light. Sparks flared, shooting out of the blue tunnel, disappearing into the remote gray dome of sky.

They’re reaching into the past, Emma thought, wondering. Sending off the quark nuggets that reached the center in Nevada — even the one that initiated this event. Closed causal loops.

It was always about the children, she realized now. Not us, not Malenfant. All we did was help it along. But this has been their story all along. The children.

The light sculpture was gone, the burst of blue light vanishing like soap bubbles. Then there was only the fierce white glow of the Tinkerbell itself.

“It isn’t so much energy,” Anna was murmuring. “Not so much at all. But all of it concentrated on a single proton mass. You could have done this. You built particle accelerators, reached high energies. But you gave up. Besides, you were doing it wrong. You’d have needed an accelerator of galactic dimensions to get to the right energy levels—”

“We weren’t trying,” Emma said. “We didn’t know we were supposed to.”

Anna looked up, her eyes wet, her hair billowing around her face. “That’s the tragedy. That you never understood the purpose of your existence.”

Emma forced a smile. “Guess what? I still don’t.”

Anna laughed, and for a moment, a last moment, she was just a kid, a sixteen-year-old girl, half laughing, half crying, happy, terrified.

And then the Tinkerbell exploded.

It wasn ‘t instantaneous. That was the horror of it.

It washed over her, slicing her through, burning her out of her own skull. She could feel the modules of her brain, her mind, wiping clear, collapsing into the new vacuum beyond the light.

Until there was only the deep, old part of her brain left, the animal cowering in the dark.

Malenfant!

And the light broke through.

Reid Malenfant:

The brighter areas — the older terrain, the highlands of the near side and much of the far side — looked much as they had always done, tracing out the face of the Man in the Moon. But the seas of gray lunar dust, Imbrium and Procellarum and Tranquillity, seemed to be imploding. Even from here he could see cracks spreading in the lava seas, sections of crust cracking, tipping, sliding inward. The Moon was two thousand miles across; given that, the speed of the process he was watching — and the scale of it, hundred-mile slabs of lunar crust crumbling in seconds — was impressive.

The Moon had companions in this moment of convulsion, he saw: bright sparks that orbited slowly, like fireflies. Ships from Earth. He sensed they were helpless.

It’s beginning, Michael murmured in his Seattle-tinged middle-aged voice.

“What is?”

The Moon is being collapsed to a new form: quark matter. The weaker areas of the crust, the areas crushed by the ancient basin-forming impacts, are imploding first. Michael hesitated. Do you understand? The Moon will become, briefly, a single giant nu-cleon, an extended sac of quarks at nuclear density that

“Who is doing this?”

The children, of course.

“Why, for Christ’s sake?”

It is the fulfillment of humankind. Of this cosmos…Ah.

Now the Moon’s ancient, cratered highlands were starting to crumble, too. Malenfant felt a stab of regret as the Moon’s bony geography collapsed into dust and light. Five billion years of stillness, Malenfant thought, ending in a few heartbeats. And we thought those Apollo footprints would last a million years.

Now a light started to shine out of the heart of the Moon, out of the eyes and mouth of the Man, as if something were burning there. He could actually see shafts of light cast through lunar dust, as if the Moon were a Halloween lantern hanging in a murky room.

And — with startling suddenness, in utter silence — the Moon imploded, shattered, burst into an expanding cloud of dust and rubble.

The orbiting ships were immediately overwhelmed. So, Malenfant thought, people are already dying.

The cloud began to disperse, spreading out along the Moon’s orbit. Maybe, given time, it would form a new ring around the Earth, Malenfant thought. And there would be spectacular meteor showers on the Earth, skies that would burn like a salute to the death of the Moon.

But now the dispersing debris revealed a point of dazzling white light, difficult to look into even with Malenfant’s mysteriously enhanced vision. The dying Moon had birthed a new star: a terrible, brilliant companion to the sun.

Just seconds now, Michael murmured, staring.

Malenfant glanced at the boy’s face. The quality of light had become strange, sharper. “Michael, what is that going to do to the Earth? The heat it’s putting out will surely play hell with the climate. And—”

You’re asking the wrong questions again, Malenfant. There will be no time for that. The quark nugget is only a tool.

“A tool to do what?”

To create a pulse of high-energy density.

Malenfant longed to understand. “How high?”

Would the numbers mean anything to you? The most energetic particles are cosmic rays: iron nuclei fleeing the explosions of stars, moving close to the speed of light. If an apple falls from a tree to the ground, the energy it gathers is shared over its billions of billions of atoms. The most energetic cosmic rays have comparable energy focused on a single nucleus. If two such nuclei were to impact head-on the energy released would be two orders of magnitude higher again. It is believed that no such event has happened in the history of the universe.

“And the children—”

Are seeking to create an event six orders of magnitude higher even than that. There are no natural processes that could produce such a thing. This is the first time there has been a mechanism — a mind, us — to deliver such gigantic energies. In this universe or any of those preceding it.

Malenfant frowned. “Are you saying this is our purpose? The purpose of man, of life, is to produce a single unnaturally huge energy pulse, this one thing? That’s all?”

The purpose is not the act. It is the consequence of the act.

The light in the Moon wreckage grew brighter. It flared, electric blue, and then white.

And the point burst, became an expanding bubble of light, pink-gray, ballooning into space. In a heartbeat it overwhelmed the debris cloud. Malenfant glimpsed its glare in the oceans of Earth, like a terrifying new sun born out of Earth’s lost companion.

But it took only a second for the bubble to grow monstrously large, fifty or sixty times the size of Earth, dwarfing the planet.

The wall of light swept across Earth, devouring it. And Earth was gone.

Malenfant grunted, the breath forced out of him. He felt as if he had been punched.

As suddenly, as quickly as that, it was over.

The bubble was growing, larger and brighter every second, a cancer that seemed to be sucking energy out of spacetime itself, and Malenfant saw its light washing over Michael’s face, his round, childish eyes. It was huge, startling, already dwarfing the points of light that populated the universe.

Michael said, The interface is growing at near light speed. It took a little more than a second to cover the Moon s orbit to reach Earth, just a twenty-fifth of a second to cover Earth itself. After five seconds it was as large as the sun. Light speed is fast, Malenfant. Now we have seven or eight minutes before the wave reaches the sun. The inner planets, Venus and Mercury, will be covered before that.

The ballooning bubble wasn’t a perfect sphere, Malenfant saw absently. It was becoming blistered, growing irregularly, as if diseased. Its surface glowed pink-white and it was speckled, as if illuminated by laser light. The stars seemed to be shifting around the swelling edge, their position sliding, turning briefly to arcs of light before the shell obscured them — gravitational lensing, perhaps, as the shell distorted spacetime itself.

…Earth gone, just like that, in a fraction of a second, as if it were no more substantial than a match stalk caught in a firestorm. Earth, all of its billions of years of geology and life, core and mantle and oceans and drifting continents, evolution and climate: all of it gone, as if it never existed, its story over.

And the people. Billions dead, their stories summarily ended. The species already extinct, unless anybody had managed to get away to the outer planets, the stars.

He felt numb, unable to believe it. Shouldn’t he have felt it, the brief cries of those billions of souls, caught in the middle of their lives, arguing or laughing or crying, giving birth or dying, making love or war?

Michael was watching him, as if trying to gauge his reaction. They would have seen nothing. An instant of glowing sky, a moment of pain —

“Michael, what’s inside the bubble? What happened to Earth when it passed the barrier?”

Different physical laws. Anything of our universe that survived the unreality pulse itself would immediately decay into new forms. Physics, chemistry as we know it could not proceed.

But even this new regime, the regime of changed matter, would not persist. The energy density in there is intense, the gravity field it generates very strong. In microseconds after the nucleation — even before the bubble expanded beyond the Moon itself, when the bubble was only a mile across — a gravitational collapse started.

“Like a Big Crunch.”

Yes. But none of the slow collapse and compression you witnessed in the precursor universes, Malenfant. Immediate. This is the true vacuum, Malenfant, the final state of the universe. . .

When the universe was born, erupting out of its Big Bang, it went through a series of phase changes, the vacuum collapsing to new, more stable forms. And with each change, with the decay of each false vacuum, energy was released. Those monstrous energy pulses fueled the initial expansion of the universe.

At last the phase changes ceased, and the universe stabilized.

But the stability it reached was false.

I was told a story of a princess who is imprisoned on top of a perfect crystal sphere. There are no iron bars to hold her there, yet she is trapped at the sphere’s highest point. As long as she stays there, at the point of maximum symmetry, she is safe. But if she steps aside in any direction, she will slip and fall. So it is with the universe. Maximum symmetry is unstable.

“But now the children have disturbed that symmetry.”

Yes. Their high-energy event allowed quantum tunneling to a state of true vacuum … Ah. There was a burst of light on the edge of the expanding bubble. Venus, I think…

The unreality wall approached the sun. The bubble was now sixteen light-minutes across, two hundred million miles wide, dwarfing the sun. But the star seemed unperturbed, even as the great hull raced toward it.

Light speed, Malenfant, Michael whispered. If you were standing on the surface of the sun, you would still see stars and Earth and Moon, the last photons reflected by the planet before its destruction. The wall arrives with the light itself. . .

The wall blew across the sun, a tornado engulfing a brightly lit farmhouse. But the sun, a million miles across, was no mere mote of rock and water and life, like Earth. The wall took three, four, five seconds to overwhelm the sun’s glowing mass. Right to the end the surviving sector of the sun kept its spherical shape, kept shining, emitting photons generated by a fusion core that had vanished into unreality seconds before.

Still, it took just heartbeats.

When the sun was gone it grew darker. A final nightfall, Malenfant thought.

And now there was only the sphere of unreality, growing ferociously and unevenly, sparkling, clumpy blisters bursting from its sides, stars curdling around its edge. Soon, he realized, it would become a wall, blanketing the universe.

There will be little to see for a while, Michael said. It will sweep across Mars, the asteroid belt.

“Cruithne?”

Gone already. Then, in half an hour, it will reach us.

The bubble continued to swell visibly, its light glaring.

“It’s never going to stop,” Malenfant whispered. “It will consume the Solar System, the stars—”

This isn ‘t some local phenomenon, Malenfant. This is a fundamental change in the structure of the universe. It will never stop. It will sweep on, growing at light speed, a runaway feedback fueled by the collapse of the vacuum itself. The Galaxy will be gone in a hundred thousand years, Andromeda, the nearest large galaxy, in a couple of million years. It will take time, but eventually —

“The future has gone,” Malenfant said. “My God. That’s what this means, isn’t it? The downstream can’t happen now. All of it is gone. The colonization of the Galaxy; the settlement of the universe; the long, patient fight against entropy” That immense future had been cut off to die, like a tree chopped through at the root. “Why, Michael? Why have the children done this? Burned the house down, destroyed the future—”

Because it was the wrongfuture. Michael looked around the sky. He pointed to the lumpy, spreading edge of the unreality bubble. There. Can you see that? It’s already starting…

“What is?”

The budding. . . The growth of the true vacuum region is not even. There will be pockets of the false vacuum — remnants of our universe — isolated by the spreading true vacuum. The fragments of false vacuum will collapse. Like

“Like black holes.” And in that instant, Malenfant understood. “That’s what this is for. This is just a better way of making black holes, and budding off new universes. Better than stars, even.”

Much better. Much. The black holes created as the vacuum decay proceeds will overwhelm by many orders of magnitude the mere billion billion that our universe might have created through its stars and galaxy cores.

“And the long, slow evolution of the universes, the branching tree of cosmoses?…”

We have changed everything, Malenfant. Mind has assumed responsibility for the evolution of the cosmos. There will be many daughter universes — universes too many to count, universes exotic beyond our imagining — and many, many of them will harbor life and mind.

“But we were the first.”

Now he understood. This was the purpose. Not the long survival of humankind into a dismal future of decay and shadows, the final retreat into the lossless substrate, where nothing ever changed or grew. The purpose of humankind — the first intelligence of all — had been to reshape the universe in order to bud others and create a storm of mind.

We got it wrong, he thought. By striving for a meaningless eternity, humans denied true infinity. But we reached back, back in time, back to the far upstream, and spoke to our last children — the maligned Blues — and we put it right.

This is what it meant to be alone in the universe, to be the first. We had all of infinite time and space in our hands. We had ultimate responsibility. And we discharged it.

We were parents of the universe, not its children.

Michael said softly, Isn’t this why you came to Cruithne, Malenfant? To discover purpose? And you had a role to play.

“I never understood. Not until now.”

Nevertheless you were a catalyst.

Malenfant found he was bleakly exhilarated. “Life is no accident,” he said. “No second-order effect, no marginal creation. We — small, insignificant creatures scurrying over our fragile planet, lost in the Galaxy — we were, after all, the center of the universe.” It was, in its extraordinary way, an affirmation of all he had ever believed. “Hah,” he barked. “Copernicus, blow it out your ass!”

Malenfant? I think I’m scared.

Malenfant pulled the boy to him, wrapped his arms around this complex creature, the ten-year-old boy, the superbeing stranded here from a vanished future.

“Will they remember us? The children. In the new universes.”

Oh, yes, Michael said, and he smiled. He waved a hand at the bubble. This couldn ‘t have happened without mind. Without intelligence. Who knows? They might be able to reconstruct what we were like, how we lived our lives.

“I hope they forgive us,” Malenfant whispered.

Sheena 47:

It was the hour.

Sheena 47 prowled through the heart of the lens-ship. On every hierarchical level mind-shoals formed, merged, fragmented, combining restlessly, shimmers of group consciousness that pulsed through the trillion-strong cephalopod community as sunlight glimmers on water. The great shoals had abandoned their song-dreams of Earth, of the deep past, and sang instead of the huge, deep future that lay ahead.

The diamond machines — transformed asteroid hulks — had worked without fault. Now the starbow arced around the lens-ship, complete and beautiful: the universe relativity-compressed to a rainbow that shone on the rippling water.

The helium-3 store, laboriously mined from the great cloud ocean of Jupiter, was all but exhausted. Sheena 47 paid a final farewell to the brave communities who had colonized those pink seas and delivered the fuel for the exodus. Those cousins had stayed behind and would soon be overwhelmed by the anomaly, but they had gone to nonexistence proudly.

Now was the time. Excitement crossed the great cephalopod communities in waves, and they crowded to the huge lenticular walls to see.

And, just as they were designed to, the magnetic arms of the ramscoop opened, like the arms of a giant cephalopod itself. The intangible limbs sparkled as thin matter was hauled into its maw, to be compressed and collapsed and burned.

It was working. The lens-ship was cut loose at last of the system that had birthed it. Now its ocean was the thin, rich inter stellar medium that drifted between the stars. The fuel was limitless, and the cephalopods could run forever…

Well, not forever, Sheena 47 knew. The great ship could approach but never exceed light speed; slowly, inexorably, the unreality tide must outrun the lens and wash over them all.

But, so stretched was time by their great speed, that hour was many, many generations away.

She felt a stab of regret for humanity: the flawed creatures who had given mind to the cephalopods, and who had now, it seemed, been consumed by the fire. But the cephalopods were young, hungry for time, and for them, the future was not done yet.

The ramscoop was working perfectly. The future was long and assured. The great hierarchies of mind collapsed as the cephalopods gave themselves over to a joyous riot of celebration, of talk and love and war and hunting: Court me. Court me. See my weapons! I am strong and fierce. Stay away! Stay away! She is mine!…

The city of water and light, pursued by unreality, fled into the darkness of the far downstream.

Reid Malenfant:

The bubble of glowing, laser-speckle light was looming now, a wall that cut across the universe, plummeting toward them at light speed. It could have been a mile away or ten million. Malenfant could feel nothing: no heat, no cold, no tug of the anomaly’s monstrous gravity. Maybe he was already falling into its maw.

He wondered how long there was left. Then he put the thought aside. No more countdowns, Malenfant.

Malenfant. There s something Ididn ‘t tell you.

“What?”

We might survive. We might get caught in one of the false-vacuum black holes. We are here, but not here, Malenfant. The information that comprises us might be preserved during —

“Where would we be? One of the new universes?”

I don’t know.

“What would it be like?”

Different.

“I think I’d like that. Maybe this is just the beginning. Hold on, now…”

The unreal light grew blinding. He pressed Michael’s face to his own belly so the boy couldn’t see what was coming. Malenfant grinned fiercely.

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