Tomorrow is the VINDICATION OF MAN

After many overlong years of waiting, Rania returns to Earth, with the verdict of the monstrous alien overlords of M3 decreeing whether mankind is to be an equal and free spacefaring race, or kept in indentured servitude, as serf race unworthy of the stars forever and aye.

And my long-awaited book describing these great and momentous events goes on sale!

Vindication of Man

Did you say you wanted a free sample of the first two chapters? That you wanted to know the events of history from the point of view of Rania, whom we have not seen since volume one? Want no longer! Two free sample chapters await below for your reading pleasure:

CHAPTER ONE: The Sound of Her Voice

  1. A Bad Call

A.D. 68010

As he woke in his selective fashion, layer by layer, the central node version of Menelaus Montrose wondered if he had made a bad call.

Was he losing his nerve? Was he losing his mind?

Just to check, Montrose called a forum of his ulterior and inferior minds, including archived templates, remote units, and singles. The consensus mind briefly formed and ran through some twelve billion quotient-seconds of self-calculations, including that branch of specialized cliometry reserved for coordinate minds predicting their own behaviors over the long term.

Both the superhuman and subhuman versions of himself returned the answer that, yes, he was losing his grip.

“But why?” Montrose called out across the many channels linking his mind spaces together. “I am just the same as I always was!”

  1. His House

Where the Mediterranean once had been was now a mountain range. What had once been the land between the Nile and the Congo was now an inland sea called Tethys. The southern continent was called Pannotia, and the northern Baltica. Millennia ago, when this northern coastline of Baltica had been inch by inch submerging into the Atlantic, Montrose had bought this tract of land on speculation, since the long-term tectonic plate movements planned by Tellus foretold that this land would rise once more above the sea in the seventeen thousand years before the return of Rania. And he grew and built a house here, relieved, for once, that he had no need to lock himself into a hidden and heavily armed subterranean tomb.

Years passed, and the land sank, and more passed, and it rose again. Hills to either side of him first breached the waves, forming an island chain, and the uplands rose, forming a peninsula, and now his land was in the midst of an isthmus reaching between the mountains of Cambria the plateau of Normandy. The hills and uplands of what had once been the English Channel pushed their green and pine-clad heads into the icy air, all save, ironically, the acres where he’d placed the main house.

So at the moment, he was somewhere under the waters of a loch, which was under an ice layer, in the middle of a diamond-walled mansion so old that it had been on the surface when last he checked, and so smart that it simply adapted to the changing environment, and replanted the hedge mazes surrounded the main house with sea plants and corals.

The diamond mansion had both roots striking down to subcrustal information cables and branches reaching up through the lake water to thrust naked twigs above the ice layer. These antennae grew or shrank as needed. They could receive and send signals to convenient orbitals or towers sixty thousand miles high, reaching from anchors affixed beneath the mantle to geostationary points in orbit. Through these antennae he could reach other versions of himself, in other stages and conditions of awareness, seated elsewhere.

  1. His Hierarchy

At his cry of despair, somewhere in the depths of the logic diamond core of the planet, two of the Archangel-level supermontroses, beings of intelligence in the ten thousand range, exchanged information signals corresponding to wry glances, or prodding the inside of one’s cheek with a tongue.

Meanwhile, a hypersupermonstrose, who existed intermittently at the Potentate level in the eight hundred thousand intelligence range, was like a looming statue in the background of the shared Montrosian thoughtspace. He sent a brief, sardonic message to the forum: “Oh, surely so. Poxing pustules on my peck! We’s just as human as ever. Rania is almost here! Nothing else matters!”

But it was the singles, of intelligence between two or one thousand, some of whom occupied human-formed bodies in near-earth orbit, or on the upper or lower levels of the vast space elevators rising by the dozen from Terra’s recently formed unbroken equatorial mountain range, or bodies larger than whales swimming in the sea, or in the flooded tunnels running through the mantle of the Earth, who answered back, “You need a priest. You need confessing. Something gnawing at your gut, and you ain’t man enough to face up to it.”

“Why do you say that?” the central Montrose, still half-awake, demanded.

“What do you feel guilty about?” came the message from the consensus forum of Montrose-minds.

That particular central Montrose, who was in the act of waking up, his attention divided between the smarter versions and the simpler, suddenly halted the waking process.

Montrose said to himselves, “Guilty about what?”

No doubt it would have been quicker to wake the Potentate level version of himself, but such extraordinary minds used up extraordinary amounts of energy and infrastructure rather quickly. Unless he wanted to go out into the current world and work for a living—or beg or steal—to get the resources to support him and his infrastructure, it was better if the giant slept.

He was also haunted by the memory of a particular high-energy version of Montrose who once had been admiral of the Black Fleet, back in the old days, during the coming of Cahetel. He had slain himself, or let himself be slain, which was much the same thing. Whatever else had been in his memory and experience, thoughts, visions, dream, ambitions, ideas, everything from that slain version was gone. Montrose often put the lost section of his life from his mind, but it just as often returned, like a tongue that cannot help but seek out the hole left by a missing tooth. It was as if a stroke had left a blank spot in his mind.

“And what if the smarter version of me sees something I cannot poxing stand to see? Is he going to commit suicide also? And take me with him?”

They answered back, “Rania wouldn’t like that.”

Another version looked at the calendar. “Why am I waking up now? What has happened?”

It was the Sixty-Ninth Millennium. A thousand years before her return. The last tiny sliver of time. A negligible amount of time. A hiccough. He could do it standing on his head. One more nap, and she was here.

So why did he keep waking himself up?

The Potentate Montrose, buried in a matrix of black murk somewhere near the core of the self-aware world, renting part of the Tellurian Mind, answered softly, “Psychological weakness.”

“You’re poxing me.”

“No pox. You were beaten by your mommy as a boy, and this made you strangle on apron strings from then to now. You are afraid of women; afraid you cannot be the boss, play the man, take command. You think Rania is too good for you.”

Montrose said, “That ain’t the reason. I don’t buy it.”

“You should buy what I sell. I am a far piece smarter than you, after all,” said the Potentate Montrose.

The two Archangel Montroses, far less in intellect than the Potentate, but immensely smarter than the waking version who tossed and mumbled in his coffin egg and served as the mental phylum’s central node, both said in slightly different wording, “But all our sins and fears and neurotic little twitches we built up over the years, they, too, get all big when we get all big. The black spot on a balloon expands when the balloon swells up, don’t it?”

Central Montrose said, “I should be able throw the clock out the window, shoot the rooster, turn over, stuff my head under the pillow, and go back to sleep. But I am tossing and turning. I thought things were . . . I dunno . . . settled.”

“What’s keeping you up?”

“I am just worried about whether I made a bad call, that’s all. You know.”

They did. He was worried whether the price he paid for that tiny little seventeen-and-a-half-thousand-year nap was too high.

  1. While He Slept

He and Blackie had a deal. No more meddling in history, no more duels, no more nothing until she got back. They had not technically shaken hands on it, but Blackie had agreed! It had been so close, so soon, less than eighteen millennia! A pittance!

Dark ages followed bright in rapid succession. Twice more the aliens visited mankind with their horrid, irresistible power, scattering men to the stars. Dying and failing and sometimes prevailing, the pantropicly altered men of many new subspecies on the terraformed worlds now used the techniques pioneered by Montrose to create Pellucid, to stir their nickel-iron cores to life as Potentates; and those, in turn, took their fire giants, ice giants, and gas giant worlds within reach and, using the techniques pioneered by Del Azarchel, woke Powers to awareness; and those Powers, urged on in messages never heard by mortals by the dark agencies of Hyades, built Dyson clouds and Dyson spheres and macroscale structures in rings and hemispheres about their stars, gods beyond gods, self-aware arrays large as solar systems, called Principalities.

The chords and notes of the symphony of history changed, but the two great themes never ceased to clash: the urge for liberty, with each man free to calculate his own destiny and selecting his own place within the scheme of prediction, forever fought the need for unity, conformity, and, above all, predictability, without which long-term trade with Hyades was impossible.

The enmities between the Powers, who warped and bent the currents of predictive history to their dark will, were carried on in those children that so far surpassed them, as the gods in legend overtowered the titans: the Principalities of Tau Ceti, Proxima, Altair and 61 Cyngi. A greater plateau of intellect, immeasurable, indescribable, unimaginable to biological life, was achieved, but not peace.

But Montrose, seeing that these convulsions and conflicts would not diminish the ability of civilization to decelerate and receive his approaching wife in her strange, huge, lonely vessel, kept his ageless vigil and slept through it all.

Throughout, Blackie seemed not to be doing anything sinister. What was he waiting for? What was he up to?

The nagging fear would not leave Montrose that his bargain with Blackie had been a mistake, and it all was going to explode in his face.

  1. Duel to the Self-Destruction

But one of the remote Montroses, a man no smarter than Montrose was had been back when he was only Mr. Hyde, a mere posthuman with an intelligence of four hundred, broke into the conversation path with a priority signal. “Worrying about Blackie is a fine hobby to keep a body busy while we wait. Beats whittling. But that is not the reason you keep waking yourself up.”

“So what’s the reason?” snapped Central Montrose.

Posthuman Montrose said, “We are still crippled by the limits of our own mental architecture. It don’t scale up. The superbrains, the bigger they get, the easier they get to go crazy, easier to divaricate, easier to split into a zillion stray thought-chains, each squabbling like snakes in a mason jar. That is why Jupiter killed his bad ol’ self, and don’t fool yourself none thinking otherwise. Lookit here, smarty-pants Montroses.”

An image came over the channel. Posthuman Montrose was dressed in a dark cloak and a wide-brimmed sombrero, standing near a grove of peach trees adorned with roses rather than peach blossoms. He was peering to where two men in armor stood in the near distance.

These were two more Montroses, both semiposthuman, each equal in body and mind, wearing the armor of duelists, each carrying the cubit-long iron tube of a Krupp dueling pistol.

They stood in a field of some species of bright red clover and pink grass Montrose did not recognize, some weed imported from another world, which should not have been able to grow on Earth. Behind them was a row of tall banners and standards of orange and gold whose meaning Montrose did not recognize, but a helpful familiarization file explained that these were privacy flags, attempting to emit encryption to ban the attention of media, gossips, and historians.

“I am here to kill myself?” Montrose muttered. “This is not a good sign.”

The judge was dressed in the distinctive garb of a Penitent, barefoot in a white robe and conical purple hood of unlikely height, with a rope for a belt.

The men of the planet Penance were similar in build and look to Rosicrucians, since they were all descended from the sons of Cazi who had aided Montrose in stealing his starship, the Emancipation, back from Blackie, star-faring toward what was an uninhabited planet when they set out, but arrived to find a starving colony of Swans and Men from Albino and Dust, dropped there by the inhuman indifference of the Fourth Sweep. The ancestors of the Penitents half saved and half conquered these survivors and built a mighty civilization where men were free and secure.

The world had worked and woken to self-awareness in record time and launched a gigantic treasure ship back to Sol to prove the point of what a free world could build, arriving in the Fifty-Sixth Millennium.

Ah! Montrose grinned at the memory, because the ship, christened the Prestor John, had been outfitted at his suggestion as a huge fraud, crewed only by female astronauts prettier than their Fox Maiden ancestors and pretending to be from the lost and legendary colony at Houristan, the paradise of women. For once, events worked out as Montrose’s secret calculations of cliometry predicted, and as the Guild grew fearful of an imaginary empire beyond their boundaries, and ashamed of the example, so the interstellar slave trade waned and was abolished in many ports of call.

The recollection warmed him like an ember in a pipe. After a trick like that, fooling even the Archangels and Potentates and Powers, what need had Montrose had to stay awake and look after things?

A familiarization file helpfully explained that a domed city called Penitentiary still rested on a mountain in Asia on Earth, holding the environment and oxygen-charged atmosphere of that remote world, and proud and wealthy descendants of the ship’s crew dwelled like their ancestors, and their daughters eagerly sought in marriage or for pageants and displays or events of less worthy sorts. By tradition, they hid their wealth, and walked abroad in humble garments, and were hated and envied nonetheless. Small wonder the duelists selected a man from that race to be their judge of honor.

The two Seconds assisting in the duel shocked him to see.

One was the rotund form of Mickey the Witch, whom all reports and all common sense said should have been dead countless centuries and millennia ago. His face was round and full of mirth, and his eyes were small and twinkled with cunning.

He was dressed in robes resplendent and lavish to the point of absurdity. Silks as black as raven’s wing and scarlet like the cardinal’s were trimmed with ermine whiter than the snowy owl. There were nine yards of cloth just in the sweeping sleeves whose hems trailed on the grass. His shoes had pointed toes so extravagantly long and tall Montrose wondered that they had impaled no passersby. And all this was adorned in gems and gewgaws and inscribed with trigrams and psalms and mystic circles and astrological signs from a dozen bogus systems of occultism. The tree of the cabala along the spine of his flowing alb was enhanced with sigils from the Monument. Most absurd of all was his hat, which was a cone a cubit high, with jeweled chinstrap and ceremonial earflap, tassels, scarves, homunculus mouth, blinking eyes, and brim of glittering moonstones.

The other Second was a girl, which was a shocking breach of tradition. Her body was perhaps eighteen, but from her stance and glance and tilt of her head, her mind was years younger. Her eyes were wide and wrapped in dreams, her lips pouty and pretty and ready for kisses, but her hair was an astonishing wilderness of purple that glowed with phosphorescence. She was naked except for a semitransparent, semiluminous garment flung casually over one shoulder that flowed and floated around her shapely limbs. It was a blue-gray material that seethed like a live thing, glinting with sparks of motion, like a nest of invisibly tiny numberless flying insects whose legs were so entangled to each other that the whole formed long, elegant sheets and pleats and folds.

He did not recognize her, but from the electromagnetic echoes around her head, his instruments detected that she had the directional sense of a migratory bird. She was a Sylph, a member of a race of airborne nomads so long dead that even Montrose’s advanced brain ached with fatigue when counting the ages gone.

“Who the plagued roup is that?” Central Montrose shouted.

Posthuman Montrose, standing at the edge of the red field in a black hat and poncho, said, “You are an idiot.”

An Archangel Montrose said, “That is Trey.”

“Who?”

“Trey Soaring Azurine, the Sylph. You met her the day you discovered Rania had ripped the diamond star out of orbit, and was lost to you for thirty-three thousand nine hundred years times two plus change; and that same day, Blackie put his handprint on the moon. She went into slumber, one of your first customers ever, just to follow you through time and see what happened, how it all turns out.”

“And why is Mickey here?” asked Central Montrose.

“For the wedding,” said Potentate Montrose, looming like a sphinx above the  thoughtscape, this mind too deep and rapid to apprehend. “For love.”

“What wedding?” asked Central Montrose.

“You are an idiot, like our idiot brother said.” The Archangel Montrose sighed.

“Thanks, I think,” said the Posthuman Montrose. “Makes me want to shoot myself, sometimes.”

Central Montrose looked through Posthuman Montrose’s eyes by feeding a stepped-down neural flow from the posthuman into the optic centers of his brain. Now a large torpedo-shaped dirigible hanging just above the grove could be seen. It was a Sylph aeroscaphe, complete with serpentines dangling from its gondola to give it the aspect of a jellyfish. Montrose would have been just as surprised to see a gasoline-powered Ford Thunderbird from Detroit in the First Space Age or galleon from the golden age of Spain.

He looked at the girl’s wild eyes and her strangely absentminded smile. “I dunno. That girl looks a little . . . unstable. Didn’t she get shot in the gut or something? Wasn’t she going to marry Scipio?”

The Posthuman standing on the field said, “It gets better.” He stepped out from the rose-covered trees and directed his eyes to another point of the field. To one side, beyond the banners but near the rose trees, sat Del Azarchel in a Morris chair, eating popcorn from a paper bag, perhaps the only paper bag on Earth in this era. His smile was like the sun. He had waxed his moustache and combed his beard, and looked more like a goat than ever, or perhaps like some pagan god of old who danced in the wood and worked malice on unwary Greeks.

“Bugger me with a submarine! What the pestiferous epidemical plagues of hell is that whoreson coxcomb doing here?”

“Gloating,” said the Posthuman. “Want me to go over and talk to him?”

“He is poxy up to something! He has got some scheme! What is he up to?”

The Archangel spoke again. “Off and on—and more off than on, due to energy budget constraints—we been watching him over the centuries, or having our Patricians do it, or Neptune.”

“So what is he plaguing up to?”

“Your lesser version just told you, you stump-stupid, pox-brained buffalo. Gloating. That is what he is up to. He is watching us tear ourselves apart the closer she gets to coming home. Show him the last bit, little brother.”

The Posthuman turned his head.

Opposite him, on the other side of the field, stood Rania dressed in a simple robe of white, her bright hair and brighter smile and eyes like an angel. The sight of her face was like twin daggers of light in through his eyes into the deepest part of his brain. The pain and longing and love choked his next thought.

But Posthuman Montrose said, “That’s not her.”

Central Montrose said, “What the pestilent pox is going on?”

“Turns out that there was some leftover false Ranias,” Archangel Montrose explained, “made by our old pal Sarmento ‘Makes Me Ill’ a d’Or, or maybe from those experiments our friend Mother Selene halted, way back when.”

The Posthuman said, “The lady is a Monument reader. She got found in one of our old, old tombs and woken up by some man or some god with nothing better to do. Half a century ago our time, the first message from the Solitudines Vastae Caelorum was picked up by ultrasensitive receivers—”

“—that is the human name for the attotechnology supership the aliens at M3 gave the real Rania. What the aliens call the ship, we don’t know. The message is called the Canes Venatici Neutrino Anomaly—” supplied the Archangel Montrose, interrupting on a parallel channel.

“—and Number Six over yonder wanted to go through the Monument notations Rania sent line by line, and got this girl to translate for him, and spent too much time alone with her, and sniffed what she smelled like, and saw that place behind her ear when she turned her head, and sure looked like Rania’s neck, white as a swan’s neck and all, and so he done fell empty head over kicking heels in damnable love with her. Her name is Shiranui Kage-no-Ranuya-ko, the fiery shadow of little Rania.”

It was the name of a Fox Maiden, a race long ago extinct on Earth, when meant she had come from a deeply buried tomb, or from the Empyrean.

“What’s the fight over?”

“Number Five, that’s our cousin there, says the only way to keep every version of Montrose willing and able to recombine into one person with one mind and one soul is if and only if we all have one purpose. Love for Rania. So Six says no, this is an exception, and Five says bullpox, and Six says up your nose, and Five throws down the glove and says get your Seconds and your shooting iron. Got it?”

Angrily, Central Montrose sent, “There was a message from Rania, and you did not wake me?”

The Posthuman sent back, “You should word your orders more careful-like. The message, it didn’t have nothing personal in it, just cliometry equations to pull mankind back from the brink of extinction, so we did not wake you up.”

Central Montrose said, “She would have put in a secret message just for me, hidden in the enjambments and negative thought-character spaces!”

The Posthuman said, “We looked. Weren’t nothing. So we let you snooze. You wanted to slumber so damn much and just get the waiting over, right? And everything was all set, right?”

The Archangel added sardonically, “Besides, waking all us up at once, much less fitting every memory and personality growth back together into one system in one body costs money, and unless someone wants to pay me to do a historical essay starring my pox-awfully wondrous wonderful self, what skills we got this market here and now cares diddly-do about, eh?”

The sheer sass of the reply was a bad sign. Usually he was more respectful of himself. He looked at the numbers in his mind’s eye, ran through the cliometric calculus, and got a nonsense answer. Some factor was missing from the equation.

“I don’t know. Blackie never seems to run low on funds.”

“Well, you’re supposed to know,” said one of him. (He was not sure which one. All of him sounded alike to him. He wondered if his other hims had the same problem.) “You! You are the central leadership node of our scattered personality here. You’re the boss.”

“Well, pox on you and the rutting donkey that you rode in on! You are the current version, who is supposed to keep an eye on events—and an eye on Blackie—and wake me when something needs fixing so I can sleep in peace!”

The Archangel chimed in, “Little brother, I ain’t even sure how the market works these days, and I have an intelligence range north of ten thousand.”

“I ain’t as smart as either of you, but I read the day feeds,” said the Posthuman. “It is a system that tracks a quantified form of liquid glory the Patricians drink and bathe in.”

“What the hellific pox? Do you mean glory like bright light, or glory like the applause of the world at your reputation?” asked Central Montrose.

“Both and neither,” answered the Archangel and Posthuman together. Those two had knit themselves back into a single system at this point. The debt register showed considerable expense just for those two to merge. “Don’t worry. The Fox Maidens and the Myrmidons, back when they still existed, could not make heads nor buffalos about it neither.”

The Potentate from the world’s core said, “This problem is insoluble. If we sleep, we miss life and snore through dangers. If we wake, we change too much, and Rania won’t know us. You have slept too long, and the signs of disunion and disharmony you see among the lesser versions of us is a by-product of Divarication.”

But one of the duelists, Number Five, sent angrily, “It’s not Divarication. It’s madness. Your conscience is lashing you like Mom used to. That clench in your stomach is you trying not to puke up what you swallow of your bad deeds. And now Rania is getting close, and it is getting too late!”

Central Montrose sent, “What bad deeds?”

“Giving up on the human race. You don’t care what happens once Rania comes back!”

Central Montrose had no reply to that, but he could feel segments of his mind rapidly trying to rewrite the thought, distort it, hide it from himself, and that made him sickly suspicious that Number Five Montrose was right. So he said nothing.

Number Five said, “You won every fight, even against artificial minds orders of magnitude smarter than you, because of one thing. They thought in the short term, the length of their lives, the life of their clan or their civilization, but no longer. You thought in evolutionary life spans, in the scale of geologic ages.”

“Because the only damn thing I gave a damn about was geologic ages away from me,” muttered Montrose. Several Montroses on the line muttered agreement.

“But now you’ve brought your eyes away from the horizon to the foreground. You are looking at tomorrow, when Rania comes, but not what happens the day after tomorrow.”

“Why the poxing pox should I give a tinker’s damn about that? Let the day after tomorrow pox itself for all I care.”

“But she will care, won’t she?”

Central Montrose sent, “If you are less smart than me by a zillion points of intelligence, and the Archangels and Potentates are smarter again by another zillion, how come you see this plain and none of us smarter than you sees it?”

“’Cause smarts ain’t everything. Brains is most things, but not everything. I got a simple brain, a posthuman brain, and my little balloon of a mind is so small that the volume is clear compared to the surface and the light shines all the way through. You guys have more brainpower to monkey yourselves up with lies and brain-lard. Well, snap out of it.”

“Snap out of what? I am about to shoot myself out there. Put away your piece, you maniac!”

“I got to kill all parts of me that don’t love Rania,” said Number Five grimly. And suddenly the channel went dead.

  1. The Second Second

So there it was: a hard, cold certainty in himself that Number Six deserved to die for rutting with a Fox dressed up to look like Rania. He could think of nothing more viscerally disgusting, more worthy of death by gunfire. He did not want to recombine back into himself any memory-chains containing the memories of whatever thoughts or temptations or justifications he had used on himself to excuse adultery. It was an absolute in his soul: there was no debate, no second thoughts.

So, without thought, he combined himself with Number Five. It used up nearly all the credit in his account. By the time he raised his pistol and armed his countermeasures, there were two of him in the nervous system, pulling the trigger together. By the time he lowered the massive weapon and stepped heavily forward from the octopus-armed black smogbank of chaff and looked down at his dead opponent, he was one.

Melechemoshemyazanagual Onmyoji de Concepcion of Williamsburg hailed from the Fifth Millennium, an Era of the Witches during the ten-thousand-year period known as the Hermetic Millennia, in the long-forgotten years before the First Sweep, when mankind was merely the experimental plaything of Blackie del Azarchel and his fellow mutineers who survived the Hermetic expedition. His true name was Mictlanagualzin, but Montrose called him Mickey.

Now Mickey waddled over to help Montrose out of his armor, while the Penitent judge gave an abrupt gesture to a grave-digging automaton carrying a coffin and a shovel. The machine groaned and stepped forward and shoved the blade of its shovel into the soil.

“Mickey, what the pox are you doing here, acting as my Second?” When the helmet hiding the face of Montrose came off, Mickey stepped back, raising his hand before his eyes. He could not meet Montrose’s gaze.

“Ah!” said Mickey. “You have torn your soul in scraps, and now a larger fragment descends like a bat from the infosphere to possess you! Did I not warn you in ages past to have no traffic with the Machine? Now you are one.” He shook head sadly, and his jowls wobbled. “Alas! I hope you got a good price. I envy you. No more soul-selling for me.”

“You didn’t phlegming answer my question.”

“It is not necessary to answer the gods, even ones, like you, who are insane and think they are not gods. Your mind is suffering from an interleaf conjunction. The memory should come back momentarily. Your avatar here knew me. I will be shamed if you have forgotten.”

At that moment, the second figure who had served as Second during the duel, Trey Soaring, came skipping over, her eyes dreaming and focused on nothing in particular. She was a purple-haired Sylph woman from the Third Millennium, the same millennium when Montrose himself was born, only a few centuries after he was. Around her floated her garment of hunger silk; it was a molecular disassembly array shaped like a deep sari and cloak, or perhaps like a swarm of purple wasps woven into a solid sheet. She stared at the bridge of his nose but did not flinch back like Mickey did at the sight of the posthuman intelligence burning in the gaze of Montrose.

“Hi!” she said vaguely. “You’ve changed again. You have to stop doing that. It’s weird.” And she took a strand of hair around her forefinger and stuck it between her lips, as if suckling on it. Trey craned her head back to watch a flock of scaly and feathered urvogel fly over, half-bird, half-saurian creatures originally from Venus: including the anchiornis, the xiaotingia, and the regal aurornis.

With her head turned up and away from Montrose, she spoke, “He’s your Best Man. It sours him when you forget.”

Mickey did not look sour, but he did raise one eyebrow, and the decorative right eye on his absurd pointed hat above his right eye raised an eyebrow as well, but much higher. “I found my demonstrations of power were augmented by erecting shrines to you, and my shadow grew strong at my feet because your name touched my name. For three seasons, I dwelled hidden among the earliest generation of the Swans, and my name was great among the resurrected Witches.”

Trey said, “I’ll translate from Icky-Mickey jabber to groundling: he got famed up because of you, Judge Montrose. It weirdered him.” She giggled and stared at her left hand, spreading her fingers. “Isn’t that a word? Made him weirder.”

Mickey said solemnly to Montrose, “Your life and mine were cast together in fate, Great One, intertwined like the DNA helix of the caduceus of the psychopomp. Then I dreamed a dream with the left lobe of my brain while my right lobe half was exalted by pharmaceutical—”

Trey jabbed her elbow sharply into Mickey’s side. “Vent it!” she snapped.

Montrose stared in surprise. Trey was small and waiflike, like all her race, with hollow bones, so it was like seeing an eel taunt a whale.

Mickey frowned judiciously, nodded his head to Montrose. “I am become as you, and sought remotest futurity to seek my one true love.” And he smiled down at Trey with such a smile that his shining eyes were almost lost in the folds and wrinkles of his cheeks.

Trey said, “And I came because I said I would. I want to see the wedding! Find out how the story ends.”

Montrose now noticed on the left hand of Trey was a gold band. Evidently the custom of exchanging rings had still been remembered in whatever year the two had wed.

“B-but—Mickey! I thought you are gunna marry a bosomy Nymph or something?”

She saw his gaze and held up her hand proudly, wiggling her fingers to make the ring catch the light and glitter. “He gave up witchcraft for me. We got chased into your tombs again, but the Witches were afraid of you and would not follow. One of the old bishops you saved married us. Named Father Talbot. Married us to each other, I mean! I had to give up threesomes. I am not sure they were a good for me.”

Montrose stared at the unlikely pair. The recollections of Montrose Number Five were settling into place in his associative memory.

  1. A Glimpse of Memory

A.D. 67098

It had been not long ago. He (Montrose Number Five) and Mickey had spent an evening in a public house at the nearby Forever Village.

The village surrounded the foot of a beanstalk issuing from the tallest summit, a speaking peak called Baxianshan, high in the Mediterranean Mountains.

The oldest era of history maintained by the Eternity Circuits of the local Stability was from the time before the Great Silence, when the Teleological Conspectus had successfully crushed the soul of man. An immortal of the planet Odette called the Conservator of the Futurity had taken control of the bankrupt and mortgaged Tellus and had undertaken to organize all Earthly life for the benefit of far future generations, whose numbers and dispositions were planned in advance. The plan condemned certain bloodlines, cults, cultures, and peoples to slow extinction. In those long-lost centuries of yore, the Atavist were a dwindling people.

Those condemned by the Conservator included the sea-Atavists, the Nicors and Camenae, Rusalka and Merrow, and other remote descendants of the Melusine. Their place in the sea and aboard the Great Ships was taken by a Squaloid race of Moreaus. They were unwilling to live in houses on shore and were nostalgic for the undersea palaces in which their grandfathers dwelled before the Squids forced them into upright shore-shapes. In memory, they erected great structures in the hollow trunks of trees, coated all within with coral growths. For their own bodies, they assumed the shape of small, swift, delicate beings. This was in a vain attempt to produce breeds in their children low-mass enough to compete for berths on starships with the more microgravity-agile, but more massive, Squids.

It was a point in history when metal was obdurate and denied to men, so everything was grown rather than made. Thus the décor was elfin, fanciful, and alive. The chairs were obnoxiously large leaves, and the lamps were lightning bugs. There was a fire pit in the center so that the smoke wandered up the axis of the hollow tree trunk, with scattered tables and booths circling it. Coy and coquettish girls on stilts or dangling from wire harnesses served the human-sized customers on the floor or smaller-than-human patrons occupying shelves and nooks up the inner walls.

Odd as it was, the other quarters of the village, from centuries nearer to the current day, were more odd. They were dormitories and breeding stalls formed in blocky proportions that bespoke no concern for human notions of beauty, and with strangely uniform streets and tools, and neither cathouses with their red lamps nor chapels with their silver bells anywhere in evidence.

The two old friends had been drinking boilermakers, and Mickey was cheating by using a technique to absorb the excess alcohol out of his cells, and so he was steadily and slowly drinking Montrose under the table.

Montrose Five, if he had been doing his duty, allegedly was awake and active due to the activity of Montrose Six, who, if he had been doing his duty, allegedly to spy out what schemes, if any, Blackie was weaving while the calendar counted down to the day of her return.

As best as Six could find out, Blackie was running a gymnasium and fencing academy, to teach young and idle bravos the formalities and finer points of swordsmanship. It was apparently an art that never entirely vanished from human history. He also received a small stipend from a museum to give lectures about his past, and from a clioseum to give lectures about his future.

“So that is why Six took up with this false Rania,” said Montrose Five. “Boredom. He got tired of watching a retired tyrant.”

Instead of returning to slumber, as his contract with himself stipulated, Montrose Five hired a gunsmith, hunted up an armorer, and began making arrangements. His activity, in turn, came to the attention of whatever angel or ghost was guarding Trey’s tomb, and thawed her, which triggered Mickey’s thaw as well.

The strange, modern world to which Mickey woke had forgotten the art of building cities, and the various races of Plebeians, those who chose not to fret about tomorrow, nor map out their futures, lived in small villages of grape-bunches of hemispheres. These huts were made of what looked like baked glass or transparent satin or bubbles of invisible pressure solid enough to keep out rain and cold.

Looming above their groves and plantations, the massive mansions of Patricians reflected an austere design of rectilinear geometry, with many a pillared portico, ambulatory, or chalcidicum of unsmiling caryatids circumvallating solemn cloisters, crowned with entablatures ordered by the golden mean, or belvedere, tower, and clerestory windows reflecting the Fibonacci sequence.

But they built no railways, no roadways, no airports, nothing but bridal paths for riding cheetahs and carriage panthers, aeries for the leather-winged quetzalcoatlus. The immortal and inhumanly patient Patricians of the current day had no motorized means of transit, aside from the expensive and metaphysically dubious method of donning a suicide helmet to copy one’s ghost through the senile Potentate at the world-core to be copied a second time into an empty body waiting elsewhere, leaving a trail of brain-clones behind.

So Mickey had taken in hand his charming wand as a walking stick, broadened his hat brim and lowered its crown to assume the aspect of a cockle hat, and pinned a scallop shell to his brim, the traditional attire in his day for wandering mages following a star.

He spent the better part of two years tramping the roads and working alongside talking apes and half humans as a deckhand on cog or knarr to reach the land north beyond the Mediterranean mountains.

Mickey shook his head. “You don’t know yourself. You would never betray Rania, not ever. All our holy writings say so! Why, just in the ancient and uncorrupted text of The Lion, the Witch, and the Warlord is the story of how a man named Orpheus wanted you to release his wife from suspended animation and return to the sunlight of the surface, and he sang of your own lost love, of Rania, so that tears flowed down your icy cheeks in your coffin. You agreed, but only on condition that he walk blindfolded from the buried tomb system so that he could reveal the position of the secret postern door to no man. But when he did not hear the footstep of a woman behind him—”

Montrose slammed the heavy pewter beer stein to the wooden tabletop with a loud noise that interrupted Mickey. “Of course I am tempted,” snarled Montrose, wiping the foam from his mouth with the back of his wrist. “The Fox girl looks just like her, talks like her. Just to hear the sound of her voice, I would die. But I ain’t never been fooled by no clones, and she’s not the first what’s been thrown at me.”

So then the talk turned to women.

Mickey asked him earnestly about conversion, and giving up witchcraft, and spoke of his fear that otherwise Trey the Sylph would not marry him. Montrose took a practical stance: “I am sure the hell-devils and hell-spooks you worship will understand, and if they don’t, to hell with them. Man should have a forgiving God as his boss. Otherwise life is too tough.”

“You don’t believe in God,” observed Mickey.

“Course I do! You can’t say, God Damn You and God Damn the Horse You Rode in On and Who Rode Your Mother and Put Her Away Wet, Sated, Panting, and Preggers, no, not and really mean it, if’n you don’t believe in God. B’sides, what would ladies do on Sundays, if they had no churching to do?”

“You think it’s real?”

Montrose was not sure what that meant, so he said, “Gen’rally, I take things as I find them,” and then he put his head under the table, looking for a spittoon. “What the plague? We in an era when no one chaws tobacco no more? Goddamn the horse their God’s mother rode them on in on. Or whatever I said.”

While Montrose had his head below the table, Mickey poured his shot glass of whiskey into Montrose’s and drank his own beer unadulterated. “I cannot believe you masticate that archaic leaf while drinking. It’s gross.”

The answer floated up from beneath the tabletop. “The chaw kills the bad taste of the brew, and the brew kills the bad taste of the chaw.”

Montrose pulled his head back up into view. Since Montrose had just used one of the boots Mickey had kicked off under the table for as an impromptu spittoon, he thought it best to distract his drinking buddy. “So, brag to me, pard! Flap the lips! What’s so good about her, eh? What’s in her?”

Montrose turned off his perfect memory circuits so that whatever words he did not care to recall of the rambling and saccharine adulation of a man in love that was sure to follow would fade thankfully from his mind.

Nonetheless, the later recollection was clear: Mickey might not realize himself, but Montrose could see the reason. Mickey looked on Trey as a creature from the long-ago vanished age of gold, an age of splendor, when the machines were obedient to men, and the children of men drifted where they would. Aside from rare acts of piracy, it had been an age without war, without cannibalism, without slavery, without concubinage, and without the constant fear that one’s own talking dogs or other slave-beasts would lose their power of speech, revert to wolves, and rend their masters, a fear that made those masters arrogant and cruel. All these things formed the inescapable pattern for all the civilizations the Witches in nine centuries erected. Thus, for him, meeting Trey was like meeting a lady of Camelot before the treason of Guinevere, or a daughter of Atlas in the Western mists of mythical Atlantis ere the flood.

“But what the hell does she see in you? You are the rightly most uncomely man I done ever lay eyes on, and you’ve got the dumbest hat of all history. I know; I been through all history, and that hat is really the dumbest.”

Mickey’s jowls grew creased with stern indignation, the tall hat stiffened so that its point quivered, and the cartoon eyes above the hat brim glared down. “To insult a Warlock’s headgear is to trifle with the wrath of Fortunato and Hades and dark, brooding Alberich! My millinery splendor is tall due to my pride of power, and this pointed cone distills astral and celestial essences directly into my Sahasrara, which the vulgar call the crown chakra, the seventh primary node of spirit! The wefts and shades and poltergeists flinch and bow the knee when the shadow of this towering—”

“You should marry the girl just so you can get a proper Christian hat, and leave the shady polecats of wherever-the-pox well enough alone. I’d say a Stetson. She ain’t marrying you for your hat. I know. She ain’t blind in both eyes.”

Mickey leaned back and smiled a jovial smile. “Perhaps she thinks me solid and massy!” He slapped himself in the belly hard enough that ripples walked up and down the expensively silk-clad rotundity of that expanse. “I understand that in her day and age, all the men were frail and thin, with hollow bones like birds, to save on lift expense, so that only the truly rich could afford to gain mass. Or maybe it is because I make her laugh?” He spread his hands and shrugged. “I know the secrets of Earth and Air, of Red and of Black, the speech of birds and the secret lore of sea crabs, and can read the entrails of an ox to know the future—but who understands women? All I know is that no man is more fortunate than I am. I don’t know what she sees in me.”

Montrose said, “Damned straight. That’s always the way, ain’t it?”

They clanked their beer steins together and called out cheers. “Blessings of the Bacchants!” “Here’s mud in yer eye!”

  1. The Right Question

When this memory surfaced, and fell into place with his other memories, Montrose swore a blistering oath, calling down the names of diseases long extinct.

Because Five had been disobeying, he had not communed with the central mind nexus, never had a second pair of eyes look over his experiences, and had never seen the obvious.

“If only I had not been so afraid of me,” Montrose said, “I would have hooked into more brainpower and seen it!”

“Seen what?” said Mickey, startled.

Trey was looking troubled. “So you think I should not have given up threesomes? Icky-Mickey weighs as much as two sex partners combined, and the priest told me—”

Montrose said to him, “Seen this.” And then he said to her, “Trey, snap out of it. Focus your attention. What did the other version of me, Version Number Six, hand to you for safekeeping before he died?”

Mickey said, “What is going on?”

Montrose said, “I’ve been sleeping badly, not been myself. I am fretting and scared that she won’t know me when she returns—for her, it’s been a few years. I am fretting and scared of what happens to the human race once she’s back. If’n we settle down and live out a normal life, while Blackie slumbers and wakes and makes more ghosts of himself each time he wakes—what then? She must be thinking the same thing. Only now, only now, did the thought leak up from my hinder parts of my brain to the front, and I can see it. She must be fretting, too. About the same thing, about what happens when she lands. So she should have sent a message, but not in the open. I did not know what was keeping me awake. Now I know. The silence. Then damned pox-damned triple-damned silence from the stars. Where is her voice in the stars? She should have damned called to me. I kept asking myself, deep down, in thoughts so hidden even I could not see them—why didn’t she send a message? The speed of light is faster than near lightspeed by definition. But that was the wrong question.”

Mickey said, “What was the right question?”

Montrose said, “The right question is not, Why ain’t there no damned message? The right question is, Where is the damn message?”

“Your pardon, but those seem to be the same, or much the same—”

“Not at all the same, Mickey! The right question has faith that she sent one, and asks about how to set about looking for it. Only the smaller and stupider mes was in touch with his instincts well enough to see that. And so—” He turned to Trey again, saying, “What did Number Six hand you?”

  1. The Needle

Trey laughed and pulled a round leaf from a belt pouch. Through the leaf were thrust a number of pins with colored heads in order like a color wheel. Trey plucked out from the center of the leaf a pin with a red-and-white head, and held it out toward Montrose with a strange, eerie smile.

It was the first thing made of metal, aside from the weapons and armor of the duelists, Montrose had seen since his waking. The pin was three inches long, glistening in the girl’s fingers, and a point of light gleamed at its tip.

Another version of himself, connected electronically through his nervous system, said helpfully, “It is a memory needle. There is a way of storing information even more densely than the picotechnology of our day. Something to do with the enjambments and overlaps of quantum fields—it is a praxis that Rania sent back when her neutrino message reached the world fifty years ago. Apparently she discovered how to make a gravity laser, just something she invented for herself, cobbled together in her spare time, and this is one of the spin-offs. The newer versions of the needle, you do not need to stick into your flesh to read the info. It will adjust to the antique receiver ports you already have built into your brain. Just pick it up in your hand.”

Montrose stared at the needle, but did not touch it yet. “What the pox is going on? Why did I die? For this damned thing?”

Trey said, “This blessed thing. You all misunderstood yourself so badly, so very badly. No one but Shiranui the Fox-Rania was enough like Rania to figure out where she hid her personal letter to you. Shiranui would not agree to turn over her results unless you agreed to marry her. You did, and you did not lie to her. Number Six could not tell you what he was doing, because that would make his promise to Shiranui false. You knew you would die at your own hand on his wedding day, but before the wedding night, this one hour, so that you would never be unfaithful to Rania.”

“Why?” he asked. But he knew why.

He looked at where the false Rania, Shiranui, was standing by the side of the field. She had not bothered to come forward and mourn at the burial mound.

Shiranui must have had very good hearing indeed, or else have been connected to listening instruments, or else have been a good judge of character, because when the gaze of Montrose fell upon her where she stood across the field, without moving her lips, she sent a message directly into his brain. His normal barriers and defensive brain encryption neither detected nor even slowed the source of the words: My reason is simple. You will live until the end of time, and either as wife or widow, the memory of me will last. I believe in no gods: this is the only immortality to which a Fox Maiden can aspire.

Trey said, “Just as I put you in the armor, you handed me that pin and told me.”

“I would die to hear her voice again,” Montrose muttered, and he took the pin.

It was an audio file, but it silently fed directly into his auditory nerve. He heard her words, and they were private. True love neither years nor lightyears can abate, nor any yawning gulfs, my husband, of these vast desolations of heaven . . .

 

CHAPTER TWO: The Vindicatrix

  1. The Voice Message

A.D. 37000 (Earthtime) or circa A.D. 2466 (Shiptime)

True love neither years nor lightyears can abate, nor any yawning gulfs, my husband, of these vast desolations of heaven. To your ears alone my words are meant: I will not share my tears with strangers.

I must be curt, for the information density even of a neutrino cascade is limited by Heisenberg and Planck. Let me say in a few words what a torrent of words could not express: I have never forgotten you nor failed you, Menelaus, and I keep the faith that you will somehow find a way to be alive, find a way to endure through all the ages of time, which vanish in a heartbeat for me, centuries while I blink a tear from my eye, millennia while it falls toward the carousel deck, toward the weird, distorted stars of this universe near the speed of light.

The ship seems of normal mass and length to those on board, of course, but amidships is surrounded by a rainbow of starlight compressed into bands of color. Aft is the glow of creation, the super-high-frequency echoes of the Big Bang, Doppler-shifted down into the visible range to form a bright cloud of spirals within spirals. The Big Bang looks like a Saint Catherine’s wheel, like fireworks. Fore is the ultra-low-frequency embers of the background radiation, three degrees above absolute zero, looking like a web of coals and ash, sculpted into an oddly symmetric pattern that contains one of the central mysteries of creation.

I am now the only one aboard. The starship of my stepfather, the Bellerophron, overtook us at the Diamond Star, for we had no choice but to decelerate for fuel. Niven’s law states that every starship is a weapon, for any machine able to accelerate such masses to lightspeed controls such power as can break planets. The two ships found themselves in a standoff the moment they came within firing solution range of each other’s sails, but the ghost of my stepfather could not bring himself to kill me, and I could not bring myself to foreswear my mission, my faith in mankind, my resolve to prove to the heartless cosmos we are worthy of sailing the stars. For this reason I was born.

It is best to say cruel things quickly: I left you. To save our dream, yours and mine, I resolved not to return to Sol for you.

He challenged me, saying that if I had faith in you, I would depart the galaxy and know you will await my return. If I agreed, he would meld his ship with mine, doubling our supply of needed goods and granting us the calculation power needed to convert the Diamond Star to a reaction mass.

It was calculation ability I needed. The engineering would have been impossible without him. The Bellerophron was disassembled and reassembled along the spine of the Hermetic and became her after sections. The combined ship anchored herself magnetically to the lee of the star at 300 AU trailing behind, in a vacuole my design placed in the pattern of sunspots, which were the exhaust chambers of a sun turned into a rocket. We took flight trailing behind our engine.

Never has there been so much fuel mass for so little payload! The star was held before us as a shield against the fast-moving particles, made absurdly dangerous by our velocity, each grain of dust more massive than a neutron star. But any explosion of our sun merely increased our speed.

When I later discovered how to impart a gravitic eddy to the planetary core and trigger a supernova, my speed much increased. Do you know what my greatest fear was then? That astronomers on Earth would detect the burst of radiation and think my ship had been destroyed in a collision.

  1. The Rituals of Serenity

I have not enough words to praise the bravery of the crew. It was not physical dangers they faced, though those were great, but the endless pressure on the human spirit of the emptiness of an indifferent cosmos.

The crew was human and regarded me, during their watches when they woke from suspended animation, with increasing reverence and love that I was careful not to allow to grow into an idolatry. The Monument we towed, and I established a small pressurized hut anchored to its surface that I might study the symbols and their layers of meaning.

Within that deeper message, I saw what to do, say how cliometry could operate even at the smallest scales, if one were willing to make the self-sacrifice needed and never to surrender to doubt, to fear, to expediency.

Then there came the single, still hour when meditated within the armillary sphere of the bridge, when I suddenly understood from the Omicron Segment how to augment my intelligence vastly. It could be done to me with the wire-to-nerve systems I already had established with Ximen’s Iron Ghost, as my neural makeup was already based on Monument sequences. But I saw it could not apply to the human crew with me, without a rewrite of their genetic basis of their nervous systems and the neural basis of thought. If there had been a hundred Ximen emulations with us, that answer might have differed.

But if the gulf between captain and crew opened too wide, the cliometry, as well as my troubled heart, showed that if they came to fear me or came to worship me, then mutiny was inevitable.

I quietly resolved in that hour to defy the inevitable. I had faith in my men, in their loyalty. They would sculpt their own fate.

So we played games. I instated rituals of my own invention based on a microscale cliometric model. These included small customs, exchanges of words and salutes, but also used the recreation times and a scoring system of heraldries and displays to fortify the faint. Games alter outlook, introduce intellectual vectors, train the amygdala, and can be used to emulate behaviors, form metaphors, promote loyalties and sportsmanship. It was what my father, the original captain, never imagined. I don’t think even Narcís would have killed a man who had been his spinward goalie the cargo-bay ball playoffs.

One set of game rites allowed me private time, each year I woke, with each crewman, one by one, a shared ritual meal. By this I could learn and understand. I could know to which watches and rites and teams to assign him. Also, I had the ship’s chaplain reinstitute the old, old sacraments of confession and Eucharist to strengthen the souls of the whole complement.

And yet, despite all, the darkness was so vast.

Departing from the dust cloud surrounding the galaxy decreased our risk of death by collision, but also cut our fuel supply. The star’s magnetosphere had been converted by the ring of starlifting satellites to a ramjet scooping up interstellar hydrogen. That was Ximen’s doing. He is a clever one.

After the Diamond Star was exhausted to half mass, crumbled into a neutron star, our ship flew without any cheering light as our bow lantern.

The starless darkness, the sight of the white fires of creation behind us, the coal-red glow like purgatory ahead, it preyed on them. At half mass, the crew knew that I could not have returned the ship to the Milky Way even had I ordered it, only brought us to rest relative to it.

  1. The Mutineers

Ximen, as my first mate, was cruel, insisting only strictest rigor would keep the humans at their posts. I unfolded the cliometry, which showed this was not so, but he could not follow it. Ah, I underestimated how wounded he would be to know himself not the wisest one aboard! I asked him to trust me, and both my heart and the calculus of cliometry showed he would. But both were wrong.

During years while I slept, he spread madness through the crew, and the strange belief that their lives on Earth were a dream, a computer simulation, that Ximen had created the small, warped, starless universe we inhabited, including our false memories. The universe was no bigger than our ship surrounded by the smeared light of an egg of distorted spacetime.

Ximen, without my knowledge, had stolen cells from my ovaries and bone marrow. It was a theft of my very soul, a rapine and an abomination I pray I will someday learn how to forgive. By the time I had discovered, they were fertilized and could not be destroyed. Why he did this, what he intended, seems clear enough: to raise up another captain in my place, for the cliometric extrapolation would not allow this ship’s delicate psychological balance long to be preserved without me, or a substitute of me.

That part I understand. The larger question, even now, I do not. Why did he conspire against me, when he must have known I would foresee it? How did he imagine that I did not know? Did he think my forbearance was weakness? But he knew me better than that. He raised me.

I woke and spoke to the would-be mutineers long before the watch when they planned to take up arms and hostages, and offered them mercy and wives. I knew how to bring my many twin sisters to term, just as I had been, by using the medical coffins as artificial wombs; and I promised that the children of the loyal crewmen born of these daughters, once mature, would augment themselves to my level or beyond. I offered them a dream better than the sick dreams of Del Azarchel.

All but one agreed. The court-martial condemned him to death by recycling, but I commuted the sentence to close confinement to his slumber coffin.

  1. The Daughters of Rania

More years passed, and the girls grew. It was cheering to have little ones aboard, bouncing from bulkhead to bulkhead, and their fathers loved them dearly. Now I understood what had kept my first crew alive, what my role had been. We are designed to live for others.

But then my little girls, intelligent and erratic, one by one by one, started to go mad. It was divarication errors. I cannot speak of this tragedy but most briefly.

After years of study, I saw a hidden meaning, as if there were an older and original Monument hidden beneath a redacted version. The editing was not clumsy, but the older authors too cleverly had hidden symmetries of meaning, like internal rhymes, so that any changed segment which did not change the parallels in other segments could be easily seen.

My girls, born from my genes, which had been based in turn on mathematical symmetries detected in the Monument, were born with my errors, with all the faults in me that you corrected. These faults were built into the Monument by the redaction layer, the later editors who had changed the Monument.

Who are what these Monument Redactors could be, they have wrought a grievous wrong to me. Alas, my girls! They slew you. Why had Hyades done such a wrong to us?

And caring for you when you were Stinky Baby was one of the things I had which my sisters lacked. And then after. My sisters did not have you, a rock and a solid foundation for the soul, a love to be their lantern and show the path ahead.

The girls damaged the ship while experimenting on it and crippled essential systems. What they were trying to do, to this day I do not know. Their minds moved in areas beyond mine.

I saw what needed to be done to restore them, to repair the divarication. I had learned from experimenting on you. It was the same as when I was a teenager, when I was first made captain; it was the same as when I used to chase my stinky baby as he bounced, naked and laughing, from bulkhead to bulkhead, leaving balls and clouds of vomit behind him in the zero gee. My crazed genius.

But there was not enough emulation space. It could not be done even if we deleted and erased Ximen entirely from the ship’s brain. I knew what needed to be done and could not do it.

We decided to confine the girls to quarters while I experimented with growing more logic diamond in a mass towed behind the ship. The pressurized hut perched on the north pole of the Monument was the best place, for a number of reasons, not the least of which was it gave them useful work to do, and this quieted their manic-depressive cycles.

  1. The Monument Core

Then they discovered the layers of Monument code hidden in the core of the sphere, and another layer hidden on a microscopic level hidden within the Monument texture, and a third layer on the molecular level, and a fourth at the atomic level, the hadron level, the lepton level, the preon level: seven levels of message occupying the entire volume of the Monument object.

Certain segments of the Monument could be used as matrices to interpret deeper volumes. At the mantle layer surrounding the core of the sphere was written the secret of how the Monument itself was constructed.

Perhaps you recall Dr. Chandrapur’s estimate of the Monument complexity. He had no idea that the whole volume in eleven dimensions is the message, with each layer written at each order of magnitude converging or diverging from the others to add additional levels of nuance. I have run the numbers. The Monument Builders were not attempting to communicate with any civilization smaller than a Kardashev III level, a civilization occupying an entire galaxy, or a precocious dwarf galaxy, and using all the matter and energy, dark matter and bright, within the volume as a calculation engine.

It is an intergalactic message.

Who wrote it? Who sent it?

The surface math is nothing more than an introduction or overture, simple enough that any mind, even mortal minds in biological bodies, can emulate and grasp it.

It is not made of normal matter occupying normal spacetime, which is why the black segments are immune to all chemical and atomic reactions, and the silver line material reflects any phenomenon propagated through timespace. The secret of its fabrication went beyond nanotechnology and picotechnology, finer than engineering molecules and atoms and hadrons and leptons. This was made by manipulating the spacetime foam itself at the Planck level. It was attotechnology.

The core itself beneath this mantle was hollow. There, buried, embedded in the black nonmatter, we detected the presence of working models of the tools of the Monument Builders.

  1. The Dimensional Instruments

There were layers and samples of rare or artificial particles held in suspension, including the strangelet and the sparticle, and we saw examples of the preon, the graviton and graviphoton, the tetraquark and the pentaquark, and varied hybrid mesons, and a pure mass of what we called the glueball, which had no valence quarks at all.

The instruments of the Monument Builders consisted of five exotic-matter solids, including dark matter bodies with negative mass or imaginary mass; and within a negative mass dodecahedron were found three steady-state vibration objects, small as hadrons, made of matter-energy in configurations that do not occur in nature.

One of my twin daughters, Regina, said these three impossible objects were configurations of other possible universes which could have issued from the Big Bang but did not. In our universe, three dimensions of space and one of time unfolded from the primal singularity, with the other seven dimensions of quantum chronodynamics still folded into no larger than the Planck length, and forming the basis of the fundamental laws of nature, the fundamental ratios like pi and the square root of two. The three impossible objects, she said, were models of energy-forms left over from the Big Bang, relicts of string configurations that never emerged into our spacetime.

I said they were tools. The Monument Builders knew that the only way to reconfigure matter-energy from natural forms to these unnatural forms was only with one of the three unnatural forms. A three-dimensional tool could not flip a three-dimensional string into a four-dimensional knot, but a four-dimensional loop of string, reaching down to pull it, could.

  1. Tau Leptons

I do not know what my mad daughters did, or which one of them performed the experiment, or how they smuggled the equipment from the ship’s gravitic eddy induction lance to send a needle beam through the core of the Monument, and manipulate the three impossible object samples at the core of the Monument.

The fourteen billion metric tons of the Monument unfolded briefly into eleven dimensions, a white and many-pointed star of particle streaks caught like an Escher drawing in our high-speed plates; and then it all imploded, with each particle rotated and remanifested in the form of tau leptons. These then decayed into quarks, antiquarks, and tau neutrinos in less than two-tenths of one-trillionth of a second.

Any objects on or near the Monument but not made of Monument material, such as the instruments, the pressurized hut, the life support, the library cube, the reading spiders, and, of course, all the daughters and the five men on duty as nursemaids and tutors—they all suffered instantaneous fission, during the picoseconds when the laws of nature no longer allowed for strong nuclear force to hold their electron shells steady. The atomic explosion released particles that lasted longer than tau leptons, long enough to expand outward and penetrate the push-plate armor and rake the aft with gamma radiation.

Perhaps in another universe, one with more room in one of the seven collapsed dimensions, tau leptons might have existed longer, long enough for my daughters to realize they were dying, to say a last prayer, to say good-bye. But not this universe.

  1. The Suicides

The damage, physical and spiritual, could not be repaired. More systems failed as decades passed.

This ship was my home. I was born on her. Now it was a vessel of mourning. All our rites and games turned to expressions of grief.

And yet she was still the Hermetic, the greatest vessel ever to sail the stars and the dark beyond where stars end. She would not fail her mission.

The magnetic tether holding us to the bowsprit neutron star was severed so that deceleration brought us into contact with the star mass. We could not survive the gravity, but had to retire permanently to suspended animation, waiting and hoping for the ion drive our robots had constructed out of the starlifting mines on the fore side of the dead sun would hold out against particle collisions.

But the cloud of gas surrounding the star cluster of M3 was unexpectedly denser than that around the Milky Way. The dead star endured near-lightspeed collisions with motes too small to see, but which, within our frame of reference, were more massive than Jupiter. Several configurations of magnetic fields and ionic reaction induction arrays were tried, but I could not find a way to have my exhaust issuing from the fore hemisphere of the dead star without placing some equipment on that side of the star, hence without a stellar mass to act as a shield between it and the deadly dust.

Then Ximen committed suicide.

He thought I could bring peace wherever I was. Perhaps I can, perhaps not, but I cannot bring life to one whose love for life is gone and whose impiety allows him to mar the human soul within him, yes, even within a machine.

I stayed awake at the microphone for nine long watches, talking to him, trying to reach him. Had you been here, my strong darling, you would have thought of something. You are not very bright in some ways, but you see things with your heart I cannot. You understand Ximen.

My heart was cold and lonely then. Yearning for you, I saw nothing.

If only some of my old crew had been here, they would have saved the Iron Ghost of Ximen. How I miss them! Artiga and Avenzoar, Echegaray and Falero, Zacuto and Zuazua! I think I miss Sarmento most of all, whose name means golden isle.

There had been a bond of unity among my stepfathers, the brotherhood of a gang of pirates who share one guilt, the compassion of a family with only one daughter, a pride in being the first men to sail the stars. It was a unity which I could not reproduce.

Ximen is from Andalusia and lived his life in war; D’Aragó (as his name says) is from unhappy, plague-burned Aragon; Father Reyes is from Goa in India, and he suffered for his race as well as for his faith; Sarmento i Illa d’Or is from the Saint Simon’s Island, and lived through the turmoil as Florida and Georgia rebelled against their Cuban overlords. All were rough men from rough times. Ximen thought that life requires sacrifice.

Perhaps it was not suicide. I pray it was not. Is it suicide when a man thrusts his living body into a hull break to save his crewmates from decompression, even though he dies himself?

Ximen redirected the ship’s power away from himself and into the gravitic lance. The long axis of the ship was blasted and burned, and all instruments overloaded, but not before Ximen successfully triggered the collapse of the Diamond Star entirely into a singularity in such a way as to form two vents, fore and aft. Even had the bore of the instrument not shot through the logic crystal of his brain, there was not enough power available to maintain his emulation and to overload the lance.

The fore vent of the collapsed star continued to slow us down from the insanity of warped near-lightspeed ever closer to normal spacetime; the rear vent I caught in my deceleration sails, and thus the neutron star decelerated the vessel as it pulled ahead.

The visual hemisphere ahead and behind the craft grew normal. We could see the half million stars of the M3 cluster in our direction of motion, and the vast, luminous spiral, round as a shield, directly off the ship’s rearward-facing bow. Of the strange wonder of the galactic core, the meaning of the signals hidden in its polar x-ray vent, what I saw and deduced as the first astronomer in human history unhindered by intervening dust clouds, I will tell you when we meet again, for I will not speak of divine things where alien machines might overhear.

Despite all, our deceleration was not enough. Ximen had known his death was a magnificent but meaningless gesture.

The simplest calculations showed that we would pass through the star cluster at half the speed of light, out the far side, and back into the starless dark, never to encounter any star nor world or molecule again, and moving too slowly for there to be any appreciable relativistic effects. We were fated to pass through and face a void too empty for any hydrogen ramjet, even one whose intake cone was larger than the outer orbit of a solar system, to gather fuel.

The slumber coffins broke down. Without Ximen to run the genetic emulations, crewmen were waking with cancers and neural aberrations. Doomed, childless, our mission a failure, lacking all hope, while I slumbered, one crewman committed suicide, and then a second.

I foreswore all slumber thereafter, greatly blaming myself. Ximen thought I could bring peace. What use is bringing peace if the threat is not war but despair?

  1. The Emulation of Hope

I searched the records of the Monument carefully, looking to see if there were other codes for messengers and emulations like myself, messengers to bring hope.

I found something. Something odd. I coded the Monument notation line by line into the empty crystal core of the Bellerophron section of the ship. I made my own little ghost, and it woke and spoke to me and told me what to do.

How like you I turn out to be! I made the cocktail of neural alterations just as instructed, and prayed, and meditated and injected myself.

In a dream I saw the unity of all things, and I walked outside of time and space. Here, there was another mind, in sympathy with mine, though vast beyond all description, issuing from one billion lightyears away. Because we both had entered the same framing sequence of synchronic semiotics, the ideas or forms overlapped, and we touched mind to mind. I was a droplet touching an ocean.

I woke the crew, and I spoke the words the massed coalition of living minds Corona Borealis Supercluster of Galaxies had instructed me. I told them of the hope beyond the universe. I told them how small our current mission was and what the greater thing was that awaited us.

There were no more suicides then, no more talk of mutiny nor despair. We all knew it was not willed that we should fail, even if it were willed that we should die. Gaily, and with joyful hope, I and my crew awaited we knew not what.

For the ship began to slow more rapidly than the exhaust vent from the neutron star could account for. We checked and rechecked the readings, but there was no mistake.

It was a miracle. If only Ximen had waited for it.

A beam of energy from M3 had found our sails and was imparting deceleration momentum. The aliens had reach across space with their strange hands, spread their fingers, and caught us.

  1. The Dyson Oblate

The Diamond Star remnant dwindled to nothing, and the singularity at its core evaporated in a burst of Hawking radiation. The twelve remaining living souls spent over fifty years in the alien deceleration beam, but by the end of that time, the last cryogenic suspension coffin we were taking turns to share had failed, and we all turned old and gray.

We passed a quarter million stars, roughly half the cloud. The number of young blue-white giant stars, and the symmetries and patterns of the variables, showed that the civilization here had been engineering stellar life cycles since roughly the Carboniferous Period. The Authority at M3 had been herding stars, triggering supernovas, and forming solar systems in the resulting nebulae to bring forth worlds where elements high on the periodic chart existed in abundance. They had been doing this since the years when, on Earth, amphibians and arthropods were reigning.

The deceleration beam wafted my ship, crewed by octogenarians and sad memories, to rest at a point within a hundred thousand miles of an oblate Dyson sphere.

Supersphere would be a better term, because it was in an orb eleven lightyears in diameter at the equator, ten from pole to pole, that surrounded the entirety of the dense, compressed core of the cluster. The sphere captured one hundred percent of the emitted energy not of one but of hundreds of bright stars and dark star accretion disks at its center. It was visible to us only because it reflected ambient starlight and interstellar radiation on various wavelengths.

When we had first seen it on our approach, hundreds and hundreds of lightyears away, this core supersphere was transparent, but as we approached, it grew into a mirrored surface, reflecting all forms of radiation on all wavelengths from it. Perhaps it was built during those years, and the light of its completion had not yet reached us. Perhaps its optical properties changed according to the distance of the observer.

Closer still, and the reflections blurred into each other, perfectly and uniformly randomized, so that the surface of the Dyson oblate seemed a flat plane of pallid milky white to our eyes, a mathematically perfect surface to our instruments radiating at a few degrees above absolute zero. Particles of interstellar gas or dust encountering the surface, or rare interstellar micrometeorites, were disassembled when they struck into component subatomic particles and absorbed with no loss of momentum, no flare of waste heat.

There were dimples or indentations larger in diameter than the rings of Saturn, regularly spaced across the surface. Hence, my crew dubbed it the big golf ball, which made them less afraid of it. These indentations were parabolas pointed at various nearby stars, nebulae, and subclusters in the cluster. It was not the emitter of the beam which had braked us. The nearest was about one lightday away, six times the radius of Pluto’s orbit. Jury-rigged probes sent into the focal point of this nearest dimple detected fluctuations both of electromagnetic energy and in the neutrino count, which had to be signals.

We did not possess the calculation brainspace needed to translate those signals via Monument Notation analysis.

Twelve years passed, and we could not attract the attention of the Authority beneath the surface of the oblate.

  1. Overlooked

We tried everything, including discharges of energy which would have been considered acts of war had any damage been done. Material objects encountering the pallid wall were eaten; energy of any wavelength or composition was reflected back. Apparently the aliens welcomed mass, but not energy.

Once only, our instruments caught a glimpse of a material object leaving the surface. It issued from a point on the oblate half a lightyear from our position, so we saw the motion six months after the fact. From the distortion as it passed between us and a nearby star, it seemed to be a superdense, ultrathin thread of material, roughly nine thousand miles long, about the diameter of a uranium atom in cross section.

A ship? A message container? For a technology that could impregnate thought patterns into any sufficiently complex material thing, the difference was moot.

The neutronium thread was last seen heading toward a young blue-white giant star. That star was surrounded by 633 superjovian-sized bodies orbiting between one-tenth and one-twentieth of a lightyear away.

Perhaps whatever was causing the stellar engineering activity there would have been more ready to turn its attention toward us, but there was no fuel for the ship, no working cryogenic coffins.

There was roughly a dozen such man-made solar systems within reach of our instruments. What purpose did they serve? Why were so many young stars taken off the normal path of stellar evolution and turned into hotter-burning blue giants? M3 contains 230 variable stars, far more than in any other globular cluster. Why did the Authority transmute stable suns into variables? Why did precisely one-third display the Blazhko effect of long-period modulation? Many were the secrets I never learned.

Cheerfully we worked at our hopeless task, as one by one old age claimed us.

  1. Abandoned

We spent our lives in sick bay. As the only one able to learn each and every field of medicine from the surviving onboard library, I acted as our doctor. With Ximen dead, the Hermeticist prosthetics to expand our life processes grew ever less reliable. There was one ironic loophole: it is easier to increase the life span of women, due to the production, in the ovaries, of the base material for totipotent cells. I was a gray-haired Eos surrounded by a matched set of Tithonius, each one turning into a cricket.

They were as old as mummies and moved carefully and slowly in the zero gee, drifting with medical packs and blood bags like pods of seaweed behind them, fearful of breaking their fragile bones. Peacefully, serenely, giving me words of comfort, one by one, they passed into a heaven my astronomy plates could not spy. One by one, they told me not to surrender, not to despair. More intelligent I was, but not more wise, and their words cheered me.

Then there were only a few of us left, then four, then three, then only one. He was of course the youngest because he had spent the most time in cryonic sleep during the years when we had working coffins to spare. I am speaking of the mutineer I had spared from the death penalty.

I will record his name here. In life, he was Scholar Intermediate Jehan Baptiste Ghede Lwa Oosterhoff, the ship’s neural syncretism officer. I accepted his parole and granted him pardon and was rewarded by his loyalty. As the years passed, he aided the attempts to attract the attention of the aliens.

He disobeyed me one last time, on the last watch of his life. He stole the extravehicular frame to jet to within a mile, a yard, a foot of the wall. We had a platform there to tend or repair the jury-rigged instruments floating so close to that eerie, impossible, intangible, infinitely deadly surface.

Only once before had a crewman touched it, a physicist named Manvel. When the fingers of Manvel’s gauntlet encountered the pallid mirror, the suit substance dissolved, and the fingers neatly sliced in half. The air inside the suit, at fifteen pounds per square inch, jetted out, along with much blood. I assume each molecule of oxygen and nitrogen and helium vented from the ruptured suit was also absorbed into the cool and pallid surface of the Dyson sphere. But the explosive decompression shoved Manvel away. Even with the emergency internal seals nipping off a severed hand or arm, the unexpected tumble put Manvel beyond the reach of the next nearest crewman on watch, and there were no waldoes within any acceleration solution that could catch him and return him to the ship. I read prayers to him over the radio.

This time was different. Oosterhoff had switched off his ears but not his mike. He was so giddy that I suspect oxygen overdose, his voice high and squeaking in the suit air, a laughing mouse. But his last words made an eerie sort of sense, a mad sanity.

An examination of the gravitational anomalies recorded during Manvel’s accident had convinced Oosterhoff that only inanimate objects were being dissolved, that any living flesh and blood was perfectly preserved on the far side of the surface. Oosterhoff was convinced the surface was not just an infinitely thin disintegration field, but was meters or miles or lightyears deep and housed their mental-pattern information, their souls.

His said that the aliens had no need of nonliving material.

His theory was that the pallid substance was able to make a mold and to replicate each subatomic particle and part of a living brain as it intersected the surface, as if in a three-dimensional photograph, or, since the motions in time were captured, four dimensional.

He thought the whole of the eleven-lightyear-wide cluster-core Dyson oblate surface, each square lightyear of it, each square inch, was an interface surface for receiving and issuing information, neural information, any pattern that could hold a thought, to and from each of the arms of the main galaxy. Nothing else, or so Oosterhoff claimed, could explain the location of so much activity, so many superhuman civilizations, cramped together into one small globular cluster high above the North Pole of the galaxy, with all the stars spread out underneath like a map.

Oosterhoff thought the whole Dyson oblate was a brain. The crowded star systems and collapsed dark stars inside were part of the thinking system, the nerve cells, and the surface of a cortex larger than worlds.

He thought the pallid wall was alive and that it would emulate any living thing attempting to merge with it. This was the simplest and more straightforward way of welcoming a first contact from a creature of unknown biology, background, and capacity.

Theory? Call it a wild guess. An inspired guess, but wild. He said it had come to him in a dream.

The idea has an odd and alluring simplicity to it. Any creature, like the race of man, too foolish to know the whole eleven-lightyear-wide surface was an open invitation would be too foolish to be worth the time to welcome in. And how else could they have made a welcome mat? They would not erect an airlock nor spacedock.

The Authority Minds were expecting planet-sized bodies made of logic diamond or ringworlds wider than the solar system to plunge inside, not hollow metal ships filled with air and water and talking animals.

And so Oosterhoff maneuvered the frame to within an inch of the surface and shoved his head in, as you would shove it into a bubble of water in zero gee. Or into a lake of living water.

He thought the water would enter his brain, eat his brain, make his thoughts part of the alien mental process, and that they would speak to whatever ghost or reflection of his consciousness was mocked into life. He thought he would come out again. He thought he would live again, be himself again. If an atom-by-atom and particle-by-particle copy of you down to the finest level is not you, then you are not you to begin with.

Did he fear for his soul? I think he did not. I had this same talk with Ximen when he was afraid of his Exarchel he dreamed to build, like Koshchey in the old opera hiding his soul in an iron-bound box. What is the soul? It is not in my hand or heart or eye. It has neither location nor composition. To speak of the soul as being inside two brains, an original and a copy, makes no more sense and no less than to speak of the soul as being inside the two halves of one brain. It is not something that can be put inside an iron box; that is a fable for children. Eternal things are not inside anything inside the cosmos. My marriage is not inside my ring.

Oosterhoff’s body jetted away from the surface, spraying blood and venting oxyhelium from his severed neckpiece.

And I was alone.

  1. Haunted

I began to see Jehan Oosterhoff’s head reflected in shining surfaces in the ship, a dull screen or a metal hatchframe, but there was nothing when I turned to look.

Once, about a month later, I saw the shadow of a severed head in the bridge armillary from where I floated in the hatch, but when I kicked and entered the chamber, there was nothing. A month after that, it appeared again, directly opposite me on the exercise carousel, pinned to the surface by the rotation, looking up at me, eyes eager, mouth smiling, red neck stump bleeding.

His eyes looked like yours. He had the looked of augmentation, of superintelligence. The aliens had expanded his brain to a higher level.

One watch as I sat in the carousel meditating, my legs folded into a full lotus position, my mind in a new topological space for which we have no word, neither dreaming nor awake, his head was in my lap. He smiled. I could see, hear, and smell it. It had mass. It was real.

Oosterhoff spoke.

You are born of the Monument, and within you is something even the Authority does not comprehend. Beyond this projection, I cannot accumulate enough attention in their system to stabilize myself.

I will be consumed by greater minds, more useful to the terrible, grim purposes of M3. You will not be consumed, but cherished.

My helmet circuits and the walking-stick instruments around me created a blur in the four-dimensional photograph the surface took of me as I intersected it, so I am not whole.

Someone of your weight, build, and age can survive vacuum for seventy seconds. Remember to empty your lungs of air or breathing fluids. You can expel yourself from the sideboat airlock by blowing the explosive hinge bolts.

Or you can wrap yourself in an oxygen bubble of thin membrane and launch yourself toward the surface at sufficient speed to be carried forward by momentum when the bubble pops. Test this on a few empty suits first.

I said, “Prove you are real!”

You first.

“That is not an answer.”

He smiled. All answers are within. Come and see.

And then he was gone. I could feel the warm spot on my leg where the back of his head had rested.

The vision convinced me. I will follow Oosterhoff. I will strip myself of everything and enter naked.

Not everything.

I will keep my wedding ring on my finger.

  1. A Last Thought

My last thoughts will be of you, beloved. I have faith that you still live.

You are too brave and fierce and fine to let a small thing like death and entropy overcome you, nor the nigh-eternal gulfs of time.

I will not say farewell—for I shall gaze into your eyes with my eyes again, your brave and deep and handsome eyes, where imps of strange humor and rustic courage dance and swim. How I miss the look in your eyes, the only eyes that never seem dull to me, never empty, never cowed! No one else can surprise me or make me laugh.

Even though all sense says to doubt it, nonetheless I pray that you made amends with my stepfathers among the Landing Party I left on Earth, and that you shared with each other the breakthroughs in suspended animation and computer emulation needed to bring all of you forward across the ages until the day I return.

Perhaps you think me slyer than an obedient wife should be, but I arranged that you would have sole control of the long-term hibernation technology, and Ximen would have control of the emulation systems, which would require you to work together.

I foresee that if you ever put aside your differences, you will come to love each other as brothers and know that I love you both. I hope you are not foolish enough to duel him; he is a better shot and is likely to win.

I pray that all the Hermeticist crew won your forgiveness and will be waiting to greet my return. You must forgive what they did. What they will suffer if they do not repudiate the mutiny and murders on the ship will haunt them in life and punish them after deaths with more horror than any human court of law can bring. As for their other crimes, you must understand how lonely they were when they returned to Earth and found all their nations gone, the laws they thought would protect them forgotten, the culture and civilization alien and odd.

And they had the means to rule and, with my help, to bring peace.

You are too big a man to beat a foe who is afraid. Make peace with them.

But even if you have killed the men you should forgive and spare, I will not stop loving you. Love is not something I command but something I obey, like a voice from beyond the cosmos.

Because of my love, I cannot doubt you will be waiting for me, faithful to your vow, and because you are faithful, because you are a man of such stature that I cannot doubt you, I find myself helplessly in love.

The time for me is less than a century, and for you, hundreds of thousands of years. Once we are together, none of that will matter. Love is eternal, it partakes of eternity, it is timeless, and the vast desolation of heaven cannot make love lose its way, nor starve, nor dwindle, nor diminish, nor any yawning gulfs swallow it nor hold it back neither lightyears nor years can abate love that is true.

  1. Postscript

Beloved, my Menelaus, my sweet, my strong man, my soul of strength, pray this prayer for me that I may return, alive again after dissolution, alive when it is impossible that I should live, alive after entering the mind of the Authority in the core of M3, and pleading with the inhuman, superhuman presences found within the core, and winning redemption for mankind, generations I will never know, but who are still bound to me, in iron chains of obligation, in soft ribbons of affection and maternal devotion. Even if no organism descended from man ever knows me, I left the world as its ruler and will do my utmost to save and vindicate those descended from my subjects, however great the time, for that love also knows no limit. For the sake of their forefathers, I mean them to be free.

Ask the world to pray for me, beloved. This is the prayer I select:

O Holy Protectress of those who art in greatest need,
thou who shineth as a star of hope in the midst of darkness,
blessed Saint Rita of Cascia,
bright mirror of God’s grace,
in patience and fortitude thou art a model of all the states in life.
I unite my will with the will of God
through the merits of my Savior Jesus Christ,
through the merits of the holy Virgin Mary
I ask thee to obtain my earnest petition,
provided it be for the greater glory of God
and my own sanctification.
Guide and purify my intention,
O Holy Protectress and advocate,
so that I may obtain the pardon of all my sins
and the grace to persevere my ordeal,
as thou didst in walking with courage, generosity, and fidelity down the
path of life.
Let me survive dissolution into the pale horror
Let me find what dwells within
Let me win their inhuman hearts
Let me overcome their malice of indifference
Let them agree to free me
Let me return to life
Let me cross the desolation of heaven
Let me return to Earth
The blue waters and blue skies of Earth, the sweet scents of Earth
Let me feel my lover’s arms again
Let me face certain death in certain knowledge that my savior lives
What I ask is impossible; and I who ask it am helpless
Saint Rita, advocate of the impossible, pray for us!
Saint Rita, advocate of the helpless, pray for us!

  1. Not to Worry

A.D. 68010

As Montrose put the needle reverently away, Mickey saw his face and asked him what troubled him.

“I’ll tell you what’s wrong with me, since you asked. Rania gave me a prayer she wants all the world to say for her. I ain’t once got on my knees to pray for her return. Not once in sixty-six thousand years.”

Mickey said jovially, “Not to worry! My people back in the day performed many rituals to placate the Swan Princess who stole the divine fire from heaven and hid it in a diamond for the sake of Man, the Lady of Hope. Two turtledoves is the proper sacrifice for the poor, and a white ewe without blemish for those any goddess of bounty has blessed. So our devotion makes up for your lack! Were there any Witches aboard her ship?”

Mickey had evidently forgotten how long ago she had launched, or perhaps he had never been able to grasp the true magnitude of eons involved. The Hermetic dated from before the Ecpyrosis, the destruction of the world by fire; therefore, to Mickey, her ship was no more real than the ship of Noah from before the Deluge, the destruction of the world by flood.

Montrose said, “Damn! I need a priest. I reckon I should do some confessing.”

“Eh? And all this time I had you pegged as a confirmed skeptic, Menelaus Montrose.”

“Well, my religion was more like, Shut up and shoot straight, but I am beginning to think that is theologically insufficient for my spiritual needs. All these damned years; one drop at a time, time enough to fill a ocean, are weighing on me, piled on like I was at the bottom of a sea trench; all this hostile void and vacuum and emptiness and death outside the few little bright blue planets men live on; all these vast thinking machines, big as gas giants, and bigger. They are inhuman. Like things out of a nightmare of Saint Johnny on Patmos. Facing this, a man needs something more than a bottle of hooch to put the spirit in him.”

“You should take some of my pharmaceuticals, and it would open your third eye and allow you to walk the winds.”

“Or give me one more thing to fess up to the parson, I guess. Do they still have priests, these days? I suppose they must.”

“There is a group that calls itself the Sacerdotal Order, which is under the protection of the Fifth Humans. They say they are the heirs of the Old, Strong religion, and the successors to Saint Peter, but their doctrines have grown confused and corrupt with time. They say Peter holds the Keys to Heaven and Hell. My people taught that Peter lives with the souls of dead children called the Lost Boys, and he never grows old and never completed the journey to the afterlife, but dwells in the great star Canopus, the second-brightest star to the right of Sirius, the Dog Star. The tiny and bright spirit who dwells with him shines her light and rings her bell and calls the lost and wandering ghosts to her. She died, sacrificing her life saving Peter, but is resurrected when the innocent clap their hands, for their faith brings the dead to life again. You can see from where these Sacerdotes derive their ideas and myths: all is but a holdover from the pagan roots of yore.”

“Hm. Could be a different Peter. In any case, I feel pretty bad that I let a doubt about her come to trouble me and let it grow stronger as she got closer.”

“What doubt? Did you think her love would fail? That? Is that what has been disturbing your slumber these last few millennia? My dear friend: sleep now in perfect peace. I will stay awake and guard you. When you next wake, you will see her.”

Montrose patted him on the shoulder. “But what is Blackie up to?”

Mickey said, “He is already ignoring the return of Rania and looking to the next age, or the one beyond that. His eyes are on the future.”

Montrose said sadly, “Then maybe I shouldn’t worry. I know by now. The future will never arrive.”

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