The Far End of History

– The Far End of History –

A Tale from the Last Days of the Seventh Mental Structure

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

When I have seen by time’s fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age;
When sometime lofty towers I see down-razed,
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the watery main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

— William (Sole) Shakespeare,
Unmodified & Uncomposed, Base Neuroform
(Era of the Second Mental Structure)


Ours is a Seyfert galaxy. Painstaking engineering operations continue to galactoform the war-torn main disk once again to comfortable conditions, and restart the nebula-nova cycle of stellar evolution.

The Doppler-distorted reddish smears from the boiling core of the galaxy, the tens of thousands of supernovae flaring into deadly magnificence, the ashy clouds that streak the Orion Arm as if the breath of dragons passed there, scattering constellations, and leaving nothing but sullen red dwarfs and exhausted red giants behind, all portray an interstellar environment wasted by war.

We occupy the satellite galaxies of Lesser and Greater Magellan, the star clusters above and below the damaged main disk. We have leisure to beguile the passing millennia. This tale is among the ones we recite, reconstruct, and, from time to time, revive.

1 The Tale

Once there was a world who loved a forest-girl.

The world was named Ulysses. When she was a forest, she had some other name history forgets. When manifested as a girl, she was called Penelope. No other name will do.

The lovers were parted when their existence proved fictive, but reunited and reified by a strange act of suicide on the part of avowed enemies. In that sense, love proved itself stronger than hate, fiction stronger than reality.

Much of this tale has been lost, or hidden.

2 At That Time

At that time, there was war in heaven but there was peace on Earth.

Strictly speaking, the latest replica was not Earth; but it had been constructed to resemble the mother world, even down to the fine details of core convection, plate tectonics, and Gulf Stream movements. Lovingly copied were mountain contours, coastlines, temperature ranges, weather patterns, ozone behaviors, magneto-atmospheric field fluctuations, and all the biology and botany from the Quaternary period.

Therefore it could be said and celebrated that the long-awaited End of History had come, if not to Earth, at least to an acceptably indistinguishable replica.

It was at or near the end of an eon. The Era of the Seventh Mental Structure, the mental structure built upon the technology of noetic-mathematic immortality, either had ended or would end shortly: perhaps in one or two hundred thousand colony- frame-of-reference years, no more. Therefore the Age of Deathlessness had died— unless, of course, it had not yet.

Many found that troubling.

3 Peace on Twenty-first Earth

This world, informally known as Twenty-first Earth, formally known as Eta Carina XCIX, was the dwelling of the Penelope Myriad.

Even at sixty-three thousand AU’s away, the double star Eta Carina was still brighter and hotter than Sol. The re-created Earth was shielded from her insane primary both by the immense dimension of her orbit (just shy of a light-year in radius) and by a system of space-borne parasols, larger than worlds, which hung sunward from her, tinting the light from the swollen suns of Eta Carina to an earthly yellow, painting the sky sky-blue. Timed albedo variations across the parasol fabric gave the world seasons.

Penelope occupied no city of the surface or hovering in the cloud, no shell structure of the undersea or node base below the crust; instead, the biosphere itself was hers.

The infrastructure of her consciousness occupied strands in trees and specialized input-output cells in the nervous systems of flocks of birds, coded molecules in the glands of insects, and radiation pulses absorbed and retransmitted by coral beds or dots of machinery in the bloodstreams of she-wolves and vixens, and does and hens.

Some of her were bound to the brain stems of millions of her pets, and she knew their passions and fears. Some of her were countless motes carried on the winds and fogs, so that she could feel the world breathe, and know the rhythms of rainfall. When she dispersed among the evaporations as chemical spores, she fell again as downpours along the contours of mountains, gathering messages encoded in atoms, swirling together as she rushed down rills and rivers, waking again to consciousness, as if after sleep, when this part of her settled to the bottoms of sea or lakes in sufficient mass.

Much of her, where most of her work was done, occupied earthworms or seeped as chemical filaments through the topsoil, making dust and sand and lifeless rock pregnant with possibilities, and conserving the rich soil of a whole world she wore as a garment.

In short, she was a Cerebelline, a multi-valued and global consciousness.

Penelope indeed was a fitting name for her: in maintaining the funerary memorial of Earth, hers was a task as melancholy as weaving a father’s burial shroud; to maintain the ecostructure in a star system so unsuited for Earthly life, a task as endless as unweaving and reweaving that shroud nightly.

She was something of a melancholy girl, dreaming of the past, uncertain of the future.

Penelope did not know if the Seventh Mental Structure had been superseded.

4 The Oecumene of Keel of the Ship

Her Earth was in the Sagittarian Arm, in the Great Carina Nebula, beyond the obscuring cluster called Trumpler-16, in the roaring star system of the variable B- class hyper-supergiant Eta Carina.

Here the Chrysopoeian Oecumene had established its seat, eight thousand lightyears from Sol: far enough (it was hoped) to escape the woes of her mighty parent civilization.

Eta Carina A and B together were one hundred times the mass of Sol, and four million times the luminosity, tied together by incandescent spiral rings of erupted material. The binaries shed one Earth mass per day of ejected matter, at speeds of twelve hundred miles per second. The solar winds from the two mighty stars met in shockwaves where temperatures reached several thousand million degrees Kelvin: when at aphelion, the collision of these shockwaves produced sustained X-ray bursts of unparalleled ferocity.

Early astronomers had thought Eta Carina to be merely a double star. Ultra-long- range robotic probes in the late Fifth Era discovered, hidden in the glare of the two massive supergiants, not two or three, but dozens of white dwarf stars in close orbit, as well as hot super-jovians hovering on the brink of ignition, failed stars themselves. All this had coalesced out of the most massive pre-solar nebulae yet known.

These many secondary suns and half-melted gas giants went careening in their million-year-long highly eccentric orbits, their scalded atmospheres trailing in the titanic solar winds like the tails of comets, along with a scattered hundred or so lesser planets, multiple asteroid belts, and strange protoplanetary whirlpools of coalescing interstellar gas unlike anything found near Sol.

Surrounding all was a colossal two-lobed cloud of ejected material, the famous Homunculus Nebula: one reddish, slowly expanding gas ball occupying a volume of light-years to the galactic-north of the binary, one to the south. The nebula was expanding at five hundred kilometers per second; but it was in turn merely a small part of the Greater Carina Nebula.

It was perhaps these riches that finally tempted the colonists here rather than to a gentler star system; within this nebula, clouds of heavy and superheavy molecules had been ionized, and this allowed them easily to be detected, gathered, sieved, and maneuvered by manipulations of the giant magnetic fields surrounding the supermassive binary. It was as if nature had laid out the treasure trove of elements merely for the delight and benefit of megascale molecular engineers.

And benefit they did. Far from complete was the Dyson Sphere meant to surround the multiple stars of Eta Carina: an effort as massive, for its time, as the Great Pyramid had been for the Pharaoh Cheops. A start had been made; for a significant fraction of the Homunculus Nebula matter had been gathered into a single but very wide orbital strand of charmed matter, denser than neutronium, which ringed the gravitational center of the Eta Carina system. Several high-speed information processes lived there, able to manifest themselves, at need, anywhere along the radius of that immense orbit. To either side of this ring, fine as spiderwebs, the Dyson scaffolding was growing, year by year.

Smaller rocky planets had been nudged into stable orbits or Lagrange-sextets clinging to the radiation-shadow of the equatorial information strand. These worldlets had been blasted down to sub-terrestrial size and flooded over with oceans, the water to act as a radiation buffer protecting core systems. On many of these dwarf worlds, semicircular fountains (forceful enough to act as surface-to-orbit elevators in those weak gravity wells) ran from one hemisphere to the other. These allowed space-goers fancifully shaped like whales or dolphins to lift off tangentially from the midpoint of the arch with minimal fuel expense. These cetacean bodies themselves, though made of sterner stuff than flesh and blood, did not last long in the high- radiation environment; so most minds wearing them changed flesh regularly.

This space-dolphin, sleek and beautiful, was the favorite shape for most biotic people of any neuroform in the Chrysopoeian Oecumene. No one needed hands. It was not as if self-aware tools had handles to grab or buttons to push.

Few enough people came to visit Penelope’s Earth, or transmitted a download. Hers was the most distant of the many occupied planetary bodies of the system, too small to be dismantled for the Dyson project, too large for space-cetaceans to land and launch easily. It had only antiquarian interest, and the happy peace-lovers of the Chrysopoeian Oecumene found the lessons of history increasingly disturbing to their serenity, as the mathematical crisis surrounding the onset of the Eighth Mental Structure continued to be investigated.

5 Ulysses

The planet Ulysses was an antique himself, and while he knew Penelope through various media channels (his partials had met her partials in thought-space, either in the information strand, or in various asteroid brains posted a score of light-years away in the Eta Carina nebula), the acquaintance had been passing, formal, and incomplete.

Their first meeting was one of those accidents that are merely random chance, unless they were arranged by sophotechs for benevolent reasons of their own.

One of the gas giants, comically named Orotund, had been dismantled for mass to add to the Dyson scaffolding. The construction schedule, for obvious reasons, was tight, since the project had to be completed before Eta Carina went nova, which was predicted to happen in a period that both astronomers and immortal beings would call “soon.”

Tight schedules meant the planetary engineering market was flooded with futures trade: since the Dyson sophotechs were buying up available resources, prices were high.

Orotund had been sweeping up dust and asteroids over the millennia, which now would form traffic hazards. Ulysses, who had orbited Orotund for thousands of years, suddenly found himself in a dangerous neighborhood. The increased danger raised his insurance rates. Any asteroid strike near a surfaced city (and most of his cities grew ever more reluctant to dive, since the real-life tourist trade depended on surface views) would raise a tidal wave, and he would have to pay for the reincarnation of all his tenants out of the pooled account set aside for that purpose.

Meanwhile, his dependents had increased. Ulysses also had maintained a fleet of very ancient remote units for atmosphere mining of that jovian world (atmosphere mining was an easy operation in a violent star system, where solar winds threw gas giant’s gas up out of their escape velocity in rich plumes), and these remotes had to be retired at the same time that his income from tourism was dropping. Ulysses had to find new bodies or new work or both for any remote unit that belonged to his self- identity.

In many cases, the remotes were partials, running on part of his personality and memory templates, but too simple to emancipate, too complex to reduce to scrap. He was not the kind of man who would shoot a dog just because it was too old to hunt.

Some of them had been his escort ships since the time of the Diaspora, and their battered hulls still wore plaques and badges he had awarded them for special acts of bravery or initiative displayed during the dangerous and lonely days of the First Survey.

His ecology—even simple as it was—also suffered, because a series of solar storms, one after another, erupted from the unquiet heart of Eta Carina B.

The highly refractory machines dwelling inside the sun were allegedly able to tame the monstrous collapse of the iron core before it ignited, but the volume of the star, after all, was greater than the volume described by the orbit of Saturn back in the old system. And these were young and colonial sophotechs, after all, not the old and wise and heavily interlinked systems of the Golden Oecumene back home. Intelligence was a commercial product like anything else, and when you could not afford it, you went stupid. So it was with a comparative IQ. In the millions rather than in the billions, sometimes the solar-storm predictions were off, and sometimes the solar sophotechs died without backup, just like a fireman in some children’s tale of the pre-machine days.

Now, Ulysses was no fool; he had set aside money and resources in three different currencies against this possibility. But there is a chaos in any predictive model: between the increased navigation hazards, the radiation storms, the increase of his dependents, and the decrease of his tourist trade, he suddenly found himself without enough money to be able to afford to clear his navigation hazards and retool his oceans.

So Ulysses needed to find a new orbit, and needed help with his ecology, and, frankly, needed to do something with his life that the economic system of the Chrysopoeian Oecumene would prioritize.

So he polled his tenants, and they agreed or paid the early cancellation fee. He found a way to afford a tug to take him far out-system, and within the shadow of the parasol of Earth. (The trip took twenty-two years and cost him, at his mass, 10^27 kilowatt-hours in the energy currency, and the tug did not even reach 2 percent of light-speed.)

It was quiet there, with little or no radiation from the primary, almost nocturnal.

Romantically, Earth and Ulysses had almost no neighbors. They were alone in the conical shadow of their comfortable little parasol.

As it turned out, by one of those coincidences so unlikely that only random chance (or a meddling sophotech) could have arranged it, Twenty-first Earth had no Luna. Although Ulysses was of greater volume (for the honeycombed logic diamond occupying his vast interior was much less dense than the ferrometallic core of Old Luna), he was roughly equal in mass to the moon, close enough to create the tidal stresses Twenty-first Earth needed to maintain her proper shape. A close orbit would help not merely the core convection, which in turn would help the magnetic pole behavior, but it would also allow Penelope to retire the very expensive system she had been using to create ocean tides, so that the little animals dwelling along the shore would have their accustomed environment.

(Meanwhile, his tenants, who once had gloried to the sight of storm-swirling Orotund rising in the east, now rejoiced instead to the visions of a rising blue world that, despite the years and light-years and the far voyages across strange psychological topologies, men still found beautiful.)

Penelope sent her Warlocks and ecologists to look over Ulyssian oceans. And he spent his time trying to cheer up the melancholy living biosphere of replicated Earth, both with radio signals and with remotes.

They talked about the war.

6 War in Heaven

Instruments turned toward the home stars detected that Sol had been struck by a singularity weapon, and sent into paroxysms far from the normal routes of stellar evolution. Other stars near Sol, Alpha Centauri, Bernard’s Star, Wolfe 359, Tau Ceti, 72 Ophiuchus, where colony-oecumenes of the Immortals had been placed, also showed disturbances in stellar output. Still other stars had vanished from the normal wavelengths, dimmed to red or to infrared, indicating that the colonies there had completed Dyson Spheres, hording the output of their suns against the coming days of war.

For their part, stars near Cygnus had suffered observable changes as well, redshifting, and, over the centuries, being absorbed into accretion disks, as the Swan technology ate suns and fed them into their controlled-horizon singularities. However, bursts of Hawking radiation, and sudden interruption of gravity lenses (seen when such objects passed across the brighter background of the Orion Arm), told of events where the black holes had been disrupted, or, somehow, their internal mass unfolded back into normal space. No technology known to the Chrysopoeian Oecumene could possibly affect or be affected by anything inside a black hole: the standard model of physics held this to be starkly impossible.

All this news, needless to say, carried by various wavelengths of light, told of events between six and eight thousand years ago.

7 By the Light of a Personal Moon

We will never know if the impulse that sent Ulysses to visit Penelope “in the flesh” (as the quaint old Manorial expression has it) was one that arose naturally from his psychology, or if it was a manifestation from a hidden thought-singularity of the Eighth Mental Structure. Nonetheless, we can re-create, with some artistic license, what that first meeting involved.

We know, for example, from the mass-payload records of the surface-to-orbit remotes, that an object not far from the base-human standard norm of three hundred pounds and ten feet tall was ferried from Ulysses to Twenty-first Earth. Radio traffic records, albeit encrypted, nonetheless show a volume of data comparable to a kenosis format typical of that era. In other words, Ulysses himself, occupying a 10^24 kilogram logic diamond (something approaching sophotech levels of intellect), transmitted a severely stepped-down caricature of his personality template to a 10^8 kilogram space station, which, in turn, constructed a personality template inside the circuits of a relay (one-tenth that size) orbiting Twenty-first Earth, and this satellite was in high-volume communication with a flesh-and-blood-and-diamond brain of about four hundred grams. Each segment of the fourfold brain system carried a constantly updated representative of the other three segments.

The thought structure was a recursive hierarchy, working something like the secondary brain in a dinosaur’s tail. Whatever was too complex or significant for the human brain of Ulysses Partial Four was sent to the relay for high-speed review and confirmation by Ulysses Partial Three; and higher-priority signals were sent (with a one-and-a-half-second delay on each end) to the space station whose circuits held Ulysses Partial Two; and anything really important was narrowcast down to the surface of Ulysses Prime.

This was not an unusual mental hierarchy for its time, and the three-second turnaround delay due to light-speed limits on brain-connection distances could be edited out of playback. Besides, the laws and customs of those days made Ulysses Prime liable for the actions and agreements of his remote partials: men were strange then, and family honor was cohesive. For good or ill, a man would live up to the vows and mistakes of his partial selves.

So: here was Ulysses Recursive Hierarch Four, Linear Step-Down Kenosis, Base Neuroform (with Secondary Template for Isolation Psychology (Cold Duke) in Potential), housed in a Human-Modified Phenotype. He was a ten-foot-tall cyborg with a dozen input responders peppering his spine and skull, naked as Adam, with hair not past his manly shoulders broad, and in one hand, a guitar.

8 Serenade

It was night, and Ulysses saw himself rising above the lake waters brighter than the full moon seen from Old Earth. A rippling path of un-moonlight reached toward the horizon, as if a road to the stars were offered him. Because he (Ulysses the planet) was covered with ocean, he had a brighter albedo than Old Luna, as well as being larger and closer. The light from Eta Carina (subdued to merely solar vehemence by an intervening parasol, whose location he deduced by occlusion of stars and streamers of bright nebulae) formed a pinpoint of reflection on his oceans, dazzling bright, and painted his visible crescent silver. Between the horns of the moon could be seen with the unaided eye (or, at least, with such unaided eyes as Ulysses the man possessed), lights from the floating cities of the Ulyssian tenants.

Because he (Ulysses the relay) was below the Earth’s horizon at the moment, he (Ulysses the man) was momentarily out of communication with himself (Ulysses the space station).

So he seated himself (let us assume with a slight, purse-lipped smile) in a grove not far from the shore, perhaps on a tree stump or perhaps on a stone, and let us imagine that Penelope has placed a picturesque ruin, perhaps a circular colonnade, nearby, with marble Doric pillars rising ghostly in the un-moonlight, and their connecting architraves ornamented with a frieze of nymphs fleeing satyrs, a frozen footrace endlessly circling the grassy space embraced by the pillars. Here and there were tall, slim poplars, sacred to Heracles, or pharmaceutical trees whose bioengineered balms cured numberless diseases in a form of mankind long-extinct, but which were still kept for the fragrance of their leaves, or for the sentiment of things past.

His skin thickened on his soles when he walked, or his buttocks when he sat, or perhaps he had a long, loose mantle of thinking-cloth to act as cushion to his rustic throne, or to wrap his muscled limbs against the cold, rather than simply increasing his skin-heat levels. He could adjust his eyes to the night vision of a fox, of course, but let us assume he is in an old-fashioned mood, and merely has his thinking-cloth emit a cloud of floating sparks, a type of controlled St. Elmo’s Fire, tiny as lightning bugs, and balanced by magnetic monopoles so as to form no danger to him (the man). Or perhaps he is feeling even more old-fashioned and dashes the little sparks against some kindling he has gathered, and now there is a cheery campfire near his large, jet-black feet.

He sang in Portuguese, of course. There were other languages, to be sure, but in Portuguese coracao (heart) rhymes with violao (guitar) and can-cao (song), making it particularly easy to versify about singing on a guitar to win a lady’s heart (which was indeed what he ended up doing, as was perhaps his plan from the first). He wanted to use a long-dead language, considering the surroundings. (He had not selected English, lest he be reduced to singing about the stars above shining on the dove perching on the glove he was dreaming-of, ending the lyric on a preposition. He could not tell from the historical records whether this was a strict rule for this language, or something he did not need to put up with.)

Melody haunted the moonlit glade. Sparks flew up from his campfire or from his electrostatic aura, as the case may be. A few deer stepped silently from the forest, long ears twitching. In theory, the individual deer did not comprehend the meaning of music, but as five or six of them came within earshot, the logic chips scattered through their nervous systems were within intercommunication range. His eyes were dialed down, not night-adapted, and so the rustle in the nocturnal woods might have been another doe or two.

The gathering of deer, kingliest stags and fawns most shy, song-enchanted, all knelt couchant near a guitar-strumming man, was an event sufficiently odd to trigger responses from local-area ecological subsystems, what we may call the unconscious mind, the midbrain, of Penelope.

At this point, imagine her like a maiden reclined on a couch in a bower, who hears a distant measure but does not wake; and yet the song was found in her dreams, threading its way like elusive smoke upward through nocturnal thoughts.

The system sent a blinking owl or two to investigate, and when the simple on-board thought-codes in the owls could not resolve the puzzle, diurnal birds woke up unexpectedly, to flock to the area and land on nearby branches, finches yellow as gold, cardinals red as blood.

(Imagine that the maiden in the bower opens lavender eyes, and sees the woven emerald leaves forming the roof of her wigwam, and smells the blooms threading through its sides, but still thinks the song is an echo from sleep.)

Ulysses increased the light output from his mantle, so then the fabric was shining bright as day; this comforted the birds, who settled close to hear his guitar, one landing on his knee or shoulder; but his splendor provoked a day-night query cycle from some of the plants not far away, which called a swan (huge in the gloom of the lake, and as serene as a ghost), which in turn stirred up a chorus of frogs, and, finally, these in turn disturbed the thick, colorless, and odorless gel at the bottom of the lake.

Between the swan and the frogs and the gel, a healthy amount of Penelope was now concentrated in the area, enough for self-awareness. The lake ooze surfaced as liquid, like an oil-slick, and sublimated immediately to a fine mist.

He saw the vapor rising like a Brocken Specter from the lake, and knew she was here.

She was in the mist, and in the swan, and the owls and songbirds, and through many eyes, she saw herself, in the form of does and vixens, all nuzzling this strange man. She was the serpent coiled around his ankle, the nightingale on his wrist.

Penelope (in the mist) looked on, each droplet gathering light into microspore receptors. Perhaps she wondered why she (in her pets) was nuzzling this man.

The mist settled and condensed, and soon clear liquid was dripping from the leaves and threading its way, microscopic rivers, down channels in the poplar bark. The warmth of the air was gone, the stillness was clammy: Ulysses interpreted this behavior through a series of conventions called the Green Symphony Aesthetic; as if in his mind’s eye, he saw an olive-skinned dark-haired Mediterranean beauty giving him a cold, unfriendly glance.

And she dripped a cold drop of herself, or two, down his neck, making him wince. One need not employ a foreign aesthetic to understand this gesture.

She addressed him. Of course, Penelope probably sent a radio signal from some nearby poplar tree or local node of her information system, but we are allowed a certain poetic license, so let us say a magpie, or some other Quaternary biotic of Old Earth, whose vocal passages can be used for this purpose, flapped near and landed and addressed him in human speech. One is tempted to say it is a gay-plumed parrot, but they are not normal to the temperate zone, and poetic license can only reach so far.

So, then, a bird that was certainly not a parrot spoke.

Cerebellines are famous for their composure, and the complex inscrutability of their thought, which is said to be able to regard every point of view at once: but let us assume for the sake of drama that Penelope addressed him with arch exasperation or coldly worded coyness. Romances are always sweeter if the girl and the planet do not at first get along. Let us take the opening lines from Ao Aerolith Wolfemind One- Nine’s famous sonnet-cycle on the topic:

“Strange sir, I am neither in any wise proud, nor do I scorn you, nor yet am I too greatly amazed, but right well do I know what manner of man you seemed, in days past, when you went forth without fanfare from our glad company at Canopus. Far ahead of the Diaspora you sailed; and were given, in a casket, such thoughts, and such a soul, as could endure the endless solitude uncaring. Now is this, the clamor to disturb my nestling’s slumber, and beguile the sleeping trees with dreams of day, a sign of such an uncaring heart? No doubt you opened your memory casket, changed your personae, and are now an Eremite, habituated to hear no voice but your own.”

This elegant speech provoked indignation from Ulysses. Had his satellite been above the horizon, perhaps, the wiser and swift brain there, Ulysses Three, would have seen the hidden jest of the comment, but the slower Ulysses Four, the human, reacted in a human fashion: “Madame! A mere hundred years would not try my patience even as deeply as your untruthful words. I have opened no casket, and loaded no isolationist template.”

But then he caught himself, or perhaps (after a three-second delay) his posthuman space-station self, Ulysses Two, found a dogleg signal path to put him in contact with his higher versions. If so, let us imagine (as Alexander Scriabin, Hypothetical Revenant, imagined in his composition for color-clavier “The Blush of Ulysses”), a burst of reddish gold in D major, to symbolize the wry resignation with which Ulysses the Planet recognized that blush of anger as his own, and, with a green shrug in A minor, the planet wrote the corresponding memory-emotion of the man into his own logs and mind.

Ulysses Four continued: “Indeed, it was on an errand of sympathy I came, proud woman, to praise this fairest world of yours; for I mean to make of mine own world in miniature the seas of Earth, or whatever of them your wisdom might counsel can be made again in the oceans of Ulysses: to help the cause of Earth I come, and praise your beauty to all ears fit to hear me. Why should all this be forgotten?”

The leaves rustled as if in the night-breeze, but there was no breeze. As countless information points floating in leaf capillaries warmed to the task of transferring a large volume of information, the slight temperature variant, amplified a million times, produced a dilation of stem and twigs. A single leaf waving is inaudible; a forest of such leaves waving is an audible sensation, as unmistakable as an ocean roll, or the breathy sigh of a hidden nymph, or the blush on the cheek of a fair-skinned woman.

This made him pause. He (Ulysses Four, the man) was not familiar with the expressions and nonverbal telltales of Cerebelline neuroforms, but he (Ulysses One, the planet) certainly was. Ulysses One would later tell him, or, rather, implant within his memory as if he knew it at the time, what this sigh of leaves might mean.

It was the idea of forgetfulness she feared. This melancholy world was perhaps afraid of losing her self-identity, once the Twenty-first Earth was no longer enough loved by the Chrysopoeian Oecumene to bear the expense of so fragile a museum.

While he could not have deduced that at this point, his later memories back on Ulysses One would have this information backdated and edited into the record. So let us suppose, as the poets do, that Ulysses Four had some unspoken intuition on the point: Earth fears she is going mad. And so his heart was moved with pity.

Ulysses then vowed one of those vows that is at once deadly serious and not serious at all: “If it is within my power, I will preserve the memory of Earth until the Eschaton! All the worlds that men have made, from Demeter to Dyson Alpha, not one is half so fair as what Dame Nature, blind and cruel and lovely, made for us in this blue and imperfect globe. I will adorn my world with Earth-life, and put real cetaceans to sport and play within the waves, the chatter of dolphins and the songs of whales to echo in the deep; and the modern space-dolphinoids will see and know in what shallow places they swim! I promise you a renaissance of Earthly aesthetics, and every man in the Oecumene will grow an arbor, or wear an anadem of blossoms.”

“Why such a vow? How can you bind the Chrysopoeian Oecumene to your will, when you are dressed in sickly oceans of improperly fed algae, ragged as a beggar? Are you some king in disguise who will throw off his robes and shout commands?”

“I speak as I must, even if the least wise part of me so speaks: I love this Earth, as all men who do not forget the past must do.”

She answered and said, “Do you? So you say. Put these airy words to the test. Would you walk to every land upon this globe, that you might come to love the rocks where snowy owls find nests, as well as the close and steaming jungles where insects as bright as jewels, and poisoned asps patterned with sparkling beads, do hive and crawl? The pale red-golds of the desert canyons in the dawn you must embrace, and learn to see the angry beauty of the cactus trees, yet also swim with arctic penguins and long-toothed walruses, and behold the blue and enchanted midnight beneath the aurora borealis crown. You will run with awkward ostriches as well as rearing stallions. Any fool can see the beauty in a tropic fish; if you mean your words, you will, for me, love the scowling hermit crab, the deadly shark, the dun, lopsided flounder.”

He laughed. “Madame, I will do as I will when I will. Why do you seek to command me to do what my nature inclines? I have stared at whirls of cosmic dust and roaring near-nova stars for far too long. These mad suns and eccentric scalded Jupiters were mine long before the new Oecumene settled here. Your cactus pricks and teeth of sharks will not affright me, and the hermit crab is a wonder compared even to the most complex dancing nebula of space. All unliving things are simplistic systems, after all, items without inner value.” And then, prompted by he knew not what, he said: “Unliving things have no passions, and no memory: mere matter is the amnesia of the universe.”

“Perhaps there is much we should forget,” she mused. “Do you know the spot where you stand?”

“Cannae,” he said. “Not far from here grim Hannibal encircled the unwary legions of the Republic, who drove their shouting centurions to defeat, had they but known it, when the Punic center ranks gave way, or seemed to. Seventy thousand troopers lost their lives before the blood-red sunset. Of wars, few cost more. I would not forget those deeds, abhorrent as they seem to us.”

“Are we not vowed to peace, all of us at Eta Carina?”

“But not vowed to thoughtlessness. Those soldiers were as brave as any quiet martyr who does not raise a hand against his slayers. There was no noumenal mathematics in the time of the Second Mental Structure. They are gone beyond recall; and all their thoughts are silent to us now, unrecoverable, irretrievable, and lost. By honoring the dead, I defy that silence.”

Another bird, perhaps a magpie, with a voice as keen as the piping of a flute, called out: “Tell me! What is it like to know there is a casket you can open, which will at once alter you beyond what you could grow into, and make you anew into a new man? Is it not death, that one thing we have forbidden and left behind? Is it not as cruel as war?”

He put aside the guitar. “Madame, these are strange questions. The casket of loneliness was given me in case I should otherwise go mad, for at that time, I was certain that Eta Carina would be mine alone, and forever.”

The leaves rustled again. He wondered why she was agitated. The birds circled him, first the nightingale, then the night-jars, owls, but also the sleepy finches, blue jays, and cardinals.

The birds sang, “Freely will I aid you, and revive the dying, scum-choked seas of your little lunar world; but freely you must give to me what in older days, by feminine wile, or glamour, or unknown sympathies of the heart, I would have had to win from you. The science of the mind, in these last days of the Seventh Mental Structure, is all discovered: each trembling and uncertain wisp of unconscious fancy, each fleeting thought, can be numbered and known. And so no mystery can obtain in these matters.”

“Which matters?” he cried out. “We are but strangers to each other! How could I agree to this?” (Scriabin thinks this protest insincere, and symbolizes it with a diminished seventh; whereas Aerolith expresses this outcry in a memorable sonnet in words of honest surprise.)

But the birds had all taken wing, and the deer, leaping startled to their narrow feet, tails white with panic, fled. The croaking frogs fell silent, and the bright-eyed foxes slunk away.

His cloak, Ulysses snuffed, so that instant dark was around him, and now he tuned his eyes to their most sensitive register, and woke special sensory cells planted along his skull, to view the hidden wavelengths. He detected heat in the bottom of the lake, and electronic signals indicated a confluence of nanomachines in rapid-assembly mode.

A moment later, the swan reared back and flapped with snow-white wings to dry the figure being lifted to the surface. Like that of a naiad, her head first crested. Water spilled from raven-hued tresses of hair and ran in little trickles from the delicate, feminine curves, full breasts, flat stomach, rounded hips, and long legs, of the slender form dimly seen by un-moonlight. By the time she raised her hands in a gesture more graceful than any ballet, elbows high, back arched, to wring her long and heavy hair, he was lost in admiration.

Closer he came, as if drawn by a lodestone. Her eyes were steady, mysterious, half-lidded, and little drops of water clung to the lashes, bright as diamonds.

When her lips parted, he saw how red and full they were, how white her teeth. “Call me Penelope,” she said. “And I for you have created a woman of my own substance, and poured all my virtues and authority into her.”

Of course he sang to her. What else could he do?

Their first kiss was not then, but, for the sake of drama, let us pretend that he won it from her with words both wild and solemn, playfully serious, sweet in the way all love is sweet, but bitter with a hidden bitterness.

By the time Ulysses Three cleared the horizon, and reestablished signal flow with his small-brained partial, it was too late. With only the hint of wry resignation in his thoughts, satellite Ulysses Three sent messages and memory downloads (through himself at Ulysses Two) back to himself at the planet Ulysses One, the news that they were to be married.

Many a man discovers he has agreed to something before he knows it.

9 A More Literal Account

Now, in all honesty, a historical reproduction of the scene would omit these details and anachronisms. The more realistic version of events is this: his remote, stranded on the Earth (due to the relay satellite being out of line-of-sight), made contact through the local life forms with a regional segment of the biosphere Cerebelline mind, who, for a nominal fee, passed some of his thoughts through her living circuitry, one tree to the next, to a transmission point elsewhere on the planet that could reach the relay. Since Cerebellines often cannot tell, or do not care to tell, where their thoughts end and visiting thoughts begin, perhaps she snooped on the information stream, did an analysis of the denotation and connotation pattern, and noticed that Ulysses was a connoisseur or aficionado of Terran biology and botany; an antiquarian like her.

Since he had hired her in any case to help with his failing oceanic ecosystems, they had much to discuss, and many similarities of thought and priority-protocol to find.

Where the idea came from for her to reorganize herself into a female psychology, and grow the parasympathetic and brain-stem impersonating systems in her various parallel decision nodes to trigger the complex formation known as romantic love, that we cannot tell, not unless Warmind releases his copies of her ancient templates.

The idea for a love affair came from somewhere. The evidence points to a hidden Eighth Mental Structure operation. If so, the love was doomed from the start, if not false from the start.

And yet…And yet…It might have been a natural thing. It is commonplace for Cerebellines of the Green Symphony Aesthetic (there are twelve distinct schools comprised under this aesthetic protocol) when terraforming a planet to impregnate themselves with the proper psychology to fall in love with their handicraft; in effect, to love, to become, and to subsume themselves into whatever bit of ecology is their work. (White Cerebellines who work with information ecologies have a similar maternal outpouring in their more abstract mathematical creations to that which Green Cerebelline have with their plants and pets.)

Most worlds are dead to begin with, no matter how beautiful, or have nothing more complex than one-celled organisms. A Cerebelline can love even the sulfur-drenched and cloud-choked hell of stormy Venus, or the cold and rusty desert waste of long- dead Mars, loving and destroying, even as her many microbes begin their work to make the unearthly worlds earthlike. But Ulysses was alive: his thought systems and remotes and partial-selves occupied every niche of his primitive ecology, precisely because it was primitive. He had to do everything himself.

And so there he was, wherever she went or sent versions of herself.

He was already in the tanks growing algae for his simple and crablike von Neumanns. The servants all were radio-linked to him, so that he would wave at her industrious physician-fish with a passing crab-claw. He was there (since he had to maintain the bodies) in the unoccupied dolphin forms any tenants of his were not using. He was in the space elevator, a voice telling a joke. He was in the aerial units that looked like awkward bats, doing a comical mock mating-dance to startle the sleeker and more earthlike halcyon and sea mews she was introducing, until she called a flock of starlings to drive them off. He was onboard the ship, making a sardonic observation when she sailed to the edge of the parasol to set the timed cycles of daily and seasonal sunbeams to fall upon his little shining oceanic globe. And he was in the thought-space they both used when poring over the timed-maps and atlases that predicted where and how he was to grow his coral reefs.

They named the island together, the first island his water-smothered world had ever known, and he made a joke about picking the names of babies, and she made a reference to Ducaleon and Phyrra, and by that time, she was embracing his whole world, each hemisphere as if in cupped hands, with some form of bird or fish or creeping thing or sea-plant, and he could not have gotten away from her had he willed.

So, something like what the poets say, when they tell of Ulysses singing by the lakeshore, and Penelope arising nude and newly made from the waters, pausing to wring out her hair, did indeed happen; something like, but more complex and more deliberate than what poets say.

Because he did walk her world, after all, not just in that original ten-foot cyborg body, but in a hundred scuttling vehicles, ratlike things or flying drones, or, when she offered them, as a pack of fierce black dogs.

Everywhere the black dogs went, they scented or saw signs of decay: erosion was washing away topsoil, trees were dying due to lack of simple nutrients, the salmon populations were falling, bears that should have been in heat sniffed passing she- bears and did nothing. Ten thousand little errors had entered the ecological code, and the system was not robust enough to correct itself, not without evolving into something more suited to the Eta Carina system.

And, yes, the so-called “native” forms had evolved in niches where the Cerebelline mind was not concentrating her resources. Black oily one-celled life and multicellular sponges streaked the sides of tall mountains, staining the snow black, or crusting the rocks, unsightly as an oil slick. These organisms were highly resistant to the radiation and X-ray fevers that the parasol could not deflect, and thrived in areas where earthly life developed leukemia and bred poorly.

When the dogs smelled the wind that blew from black-streaked mountainsides, and scented spores of post-terrene life, they raised their red mouths and howled.

The packs walked up and down, to and fro about the Earth. When they reported to Ulysses One, his mind could put together the million-sided puzzle their hundred canine minds could not see, and which, she herself, being a Cerebelline, might not see.

It was suicide. Penelope was slowly relaxing her grip on life.

There were, to be sure, enough resources in the Chrysopoeian Oecumene to rebuild or reconstruct her, but there was not the will. Very little of the marketplace of ideas, much less the marketplace of resources, was devoted to keeping alive this morbid monument to a dead world. It was an expensive mausoleum.

So he had to find a way to cheer her up. He had to serenade her and vow wild vows. The poetical image of his man-remote bringing a guitar to sing to her scattered animal-minds is closer to the truth than a flat description of the truth conveys.

They talked of things past.

10 The Lonely Stars

For half a million years after the first exosolar colony was established, the skies remained oddly empty, save for the two human polities at Sol and Cygnus X-1.

The men and machine life at Sol discovered, through the noumenal mathematics, the secret of eternal mind-preservation. With this, death was fled away, save as rare and strange accident: the Men of Sol called their civilization a Utopia, their age a Golden Age, and perhaps they can be excused this exaggeration.

Meanwhile, the men and machine life at Cygnus X-1 discovered the irrational mathematics needed to describe the interior conditions of singularities, and exploit the event-horizon conditions to fool the quantum bookkeeping of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Somewhere in the black hole core, perhaps, entropy was increased in equal and opposite counterbalance, but for all practical purposes, their technique was extropy; a perpetual-motion machine; something from nothing; a free lunch.

No other stars were visited, except by patient machine-crewed vehicles. No one of the First Oecumene was willing to risk the real and final death passing outside of the broadcast range of the immortality network might involve, and no one of the Second Oecumene was willing to travel far from the Infinity Fountains that orbited their singularity, and gave them their wealth and leisure.

Each Lord of the Second Oecumene had an endless supply of power, and the art to create, using that power, diamond asteroid-palaces, which they stocked with companions and toys and dreams and private mental networks, servants and replicas of friends and lovers. No real need to suffer the discontents of human contact ever arose. They also called their society a Utopia, though with far less justification.

The extremely long-range communication lasers used to pass ten-thousand-year- old missives from Cygnus X-1 to Sol fell into disuse, and so the Second Oecumene became the Silent Oecumene, and the men of the constellation Cygnus became as silent and splendid and ghostly as the swans from whom they took their name.

11 The Lords of the Silent Oecumene

The Silent Ones did not negotiate, did not entreat nor answer entreaty. From time to time, Peers of the Golden Oecumene penetrated their mental encryption, or were permitted to penetrate, and the thoughts of the Silent Lords were laid bare. Instead of state secrets, however, the counterintelligence viruses merely discovered mathematical haiku that divided one by zero, or thought-sonnets of haunting morbidity, paeans praising madness, or a simple slogan: You will never know us, never understand our nature.

Once it was determined within the counsels of the Silent Oecumene to destroy the Golden Oecumene, this hate finally bestirred them from their long Egyptian slumber. Most secretly, with vehicles shielded and dark and hidden from all detection, they sent out colonists and warlords and spies and spores to spread among the long, imaginary cylinder of stars between Sol and Cygnus.

Thousands and tens of thousands of years passed by, and the Silent Lords lived and died and the Peers of the Golden Oecumene lived and lived, and slowly—for every drama which is played out between the star-gulfs is slow—warfare came to the Golden Oecumene.

12 Love Between Unequals

Penelope covered the little world of Ulysses with her greenware, and embraced him, and coded part of herself to think like him. Penelope was trying to get to know him.

Not very successfully. The humor of their mutual incomprehension was not lost on Ulysses. The surface area of a large world, even if covered by a single decentralized mind, so outmasses and can so outthink a single human, that even to compare it to an adult bespeaking a child is unfair. But the surface biomass of even a terrestrial- size planet is likewise insignificant compared to the compact volume of a moon-size logic diamond. When she visited him on his world, he was alarmingly smarter; when he visited her on hers, he was alarmingly stupid.

So when his man-form walked alone along her planet, or when her life forms occupied but a fragment of his oceans, the love was like worship. She was an earth- goddess to him, sad but pure. He was a sea-god to her, quixotic and filled with unexpected quirks of dark humor.

They spoke of their own past. She would ask him, “What was it like? To leave everything you knew?”

And he would ask her, “What was it like? To lose everything you knew?”

13 To Lose Everything She Knew

Penelope was older than Ulysses. Parts of her, the oldest archival strata in her memory systems, still recalled the Old Earth of the Golden Oecumene.

Like many Cerebellines of her school, in youth she had been a quintet of two men and two women, and one phaen, a member of a third positive sex invented by the biosculptors of the late Fourth Era; and her auxiliaries were leopards, golden lion marmosets, and saber-horned antelopes with beautiful, dark eyes.

She had walked the slopes of Mount Fuji, whose loveliness is recalled forever in verse and image, and swam in the waters of the Caspian Sea, into which the Volga, celebrated in song, once flowed; and terns and gulls and seals who never saw the ocean swam and dived and soared. Beneath the waters, shining and magnificent, she saw the thousand diamond towers of Hyrcanianople, that drowned metropolis of legend, ablaze with artificial moons and stars, built by amphibious Warlocks who, prompted by a dream, anciently foreswore the surface of Old Earth and sought a return to the primal sea-life they claimed their blood cells and genetic introns yet recalled. That submerged Persian city, that lofty mountain of Japan, the terns and seals and white-winged gulls, were lost.

Where had she been when the news of Old Earth’s destruction came? She could play the scene for him in her memory, and write it into his, so that, in effect, it happened to him.

He found himself on a hundred ships, each weighing less than a pound, trailing behind star-sails thin as gossamer, wide as continents. Penelope was sailing to Canopus. During the centuries while the Renunciant Diaspora were still under way, the small golden star called Sol had flickered, and all signals from Venus, Earth, Mars, and Demeter were lost, and from the Jupiterian moons, the capital of the Solar System.

With the mother world destroyed, the simulation of Earth in the dream libraries seemed mere mockeries. Radio broadcasts from Tau Ceti (more than a thousand years old by the time they were overheard) spoke of a Second Earth that the Shakudo Oecumene there had built, a replica meant to serve as a mortuary mask of the great, lost world.

The Orichalc Oecumene at the yellow star 72 Ophiuchus made a similar announcement. Even the grim and laconic commonwealth at Lalande 21185, called the Hepatizonic or the Black Corinthian Bronze Oecumene, broke radio silence to announce it had also reconstructed, molecule by molecule, an Earth in tribute to the lost Earth, from one ice cap to the other, with each famous mountain and many- mythed rivers in place. The Electrum Oecumene at Delta Pavonis, the Molybdochalkos Oecumene at Mu Arae, and the warlike Prince Rupert’s Metal Oecumene at 61 Cygni all followed suit.

Even the humble and poverty-stricken Alpha Brass Oecumene at Proxima attempted a re-creation. Their Luna-sized replica held nothing but Fourth Era Australia, surrounded by a little world-ocean slightly bigger than the Antarctic Sea, so that sea-vessels could sail across an Eastern hemisphere uninterrupted from the Brain-Hives at Brisbane to the Great Glass Cube at Perth.

By the time the Diaspora of the Renunciation had reached Eta Carina, and tens of thousands of years had witnessed the foundation of many more colonies in the near neighborhood of Sol, there were twenty known replicas of Earth, restocked from biotic libraries.

While the rest of the ships sailed the beam from Canopus to Eta Carina, Penelope’s gossamer ships, leaving the beam-path of the Diaspora, lingered on the far side of the Great Carina Nebula, straining to catch the ever-weaker signals of the interstellar radio chatter. Whole libraries of information were passed to and fro, including the gene patterns for all earthly life still in record, images, sensations, smells, and noumenal memories of Earth, all locked in fractal format. The Earth- makers were comparing notes, confirming and correcting. Penelope, because she tarried and heard, became the custodian of their local version of Earth.

14 The Soldiery of Paradise

During this long sojourn away from the Diaspora, Penelope also overheard the clamor of battle in the radio messages from the far stars. From the terrifying Oecumene at Lalande 21185, came the challenge from the military Warmind of the Golden Peers, or, rather, from their deadly once-human servant Atkins, daring the Lords of the Silent Oecumene to face him in battle.

Atkins! The name still echoed in the legends and histories of the Chrysopoeians. He was their devil, their croquemitaine. During the long period of peace and justice of the Golden Age, he had been the sole warrior kept in readiness against any violence offered by rebellion or social tumult, and equipped with such weapons as to make hostility unthinkable.

When the hidden acts of war by the Swans finally erupted into the open, all the minds and mental systems gathered into one grand and supernal Transcendence at Sol; and the College of Hortators was replaced by a College of War; and interstellar ships, never before needed or designed, were wrought and armed with terrible weapons and crewed and captained by the single soldier template.

A thousand, nay, ten thousand versions of Atkins were embodied in every form of military monster, from tanks larger than cities, nanomachines smaller than viruses, and scattered to every theater of combat, both real and virtual.

Rumor said he fought himself and killed himself in desperate training exercises, that he might learn what could overcome him; myth reported how he drove himself insane, so that variations of his mind might come within psychological congruence with his foes, and military intelligence profiles be erected in the Warmind sophotechs.

Part of his mind, memes and routines and habits of discipline, were sent into the hands of millions of civilians, so that they might have the spirit and the patriotism needed to support him in his dreadful, irrational, perpetual war.

It was in rebellion against this necessity, and outrage against the violations of their pristine mental state, that a school called the Renunciation gathered funds and subscriptions to send partial versions or complete copies of themselves and their libraries across the years of time and light-years of space, away from the war and death and deceits of Sol. By design, so that they could not be followed or found, they decided on no destination until after they were under way.

15 The Stone of the Philosophers

Ulysses did not share his memories with her. Instead, he put his story into words, images, moving images, and composed a symphony. Let her, if she would, imagine what it was like: he was too fierce and too honorable a man to inflict what he had suffered on her.

The Renunciants had sailed from Sol to Canopus by launching laser. The laser was cut off when Earth died. Without the laser light to tack against, without external sources of energy, the fleet was forced to burn whole ships into reaction mass, lest they overshoot their destination. The larger and less-human thinking machines coolly volunteered for suicide; martyrs, and there was no storage space to save them.

From Earth, there was no last emergency narrowcast of noumenal information, no warning cry. An examination of the embedded messages sent in the final seconds of the laser stream revealed only routine comments. Then—silence.

At Canopus, less than a light-century from Earth, the Diaspora paused for many centuries, sophoforming certain planets found there, and cannibalizing their immense vessels to shipwright many smaller ones. This was the birth of Ulysses, who was dispatched toward Eta Carina.

Off into the long darkness he went. Mostly, he dreamed: even computers must run routines in their subsystems to do error-checking and correcting, or exercise their minds to keep themselves sane. Understanding the mechanics behind thought had not alleviated man from the limitations of thought.

And his dreams were all of war: he saw the Earth on fire, smelled burned flesh, heard the screams of orphans, and the thinner wails of babies clenched in a dead mother’s arms, seeking to suckle and finding no milk at the lifeless breast. In those dreams he saw the Swans: figures in faceless silver faceplates, under elfin coronets of nodding spindles and plumes, robed in peacock-hued fabrics, wearing gauntlets crusted and begemmed with sophotechnic circuitry and thought-ports.

Once he woke. He was passing near one of those sunless bodies, something larger than Uranus, a globe of silicarbons paved in dark methane ice, which were surprisingly common in interstellar space. It had its own panoply of rings and little moons. The lifeless world dwindled beyond instrument range, and was gone. As the discoverer, he had the privilege of naming it: he called the rogue world Elpenor.

That was all. There was nothing else to look at. Again he hibernated.

When he reached the Eta Carina system, he cannibalized his empty engines and ceased to be a ship. He ate the nearby planetoids and put on weight and became a world with a wide orbit.

He was a watery world, covered with oceans from pole to pole. Storing water above his decks solved certain radiation problems, and allowed him to retire an expensive artificial Van Allen belt. More for decoration than anything else, he used his oceans as aquariums, bringing forth dolphins and whales and other extinct species out of his digital genetic archives. Cetaceans played and sported under skies of fire, for even at one thousand AU’s, distant Eta Carina A and B were monsters, variable stars with strangely pulsating cores.

Sending out remotes, he gathered the rich material from the nebulae, microengineered and dumped it (in the form of a billion tons of hungry nanomachine assemblers) on some unsuspecting ice giant of a world, and from its hulk constructed a broadcast antenna. Oh, how he wished for telepathy or tachyons or some way to outwit the limits of the spacetime: but the universe had only provided itself with exactly one electromagnetic spectrum, and more exotic ways of transmitting information did not operate at macroscopic scales. Ulysses could build nothing fundamentally different, merely larger, than what Marconi had built, back in the days of the Second Mental Structure. He built an antenna and radioed his findings to Canopus, over seven thousand light-years away.

His report said, in brief, that no one in his right mind would want to live anywhere near Eta Carina.

The sun was wavering near that tipping point where outward nuclear pressure from fusion could no longer equal the inward pressure of gravity. It was a powder-keg of a system, a Vesuvius waiting to blow. The size and instability of the main star, and its iron core of stellar ash staggering ever nearer to critical mass, suggested that when it collapsed and exploded, it would not be a nova, but a hypernova, such as have been seen in distant galaxies, the origin of exceptionally bright gamma-ray bursts.

The Diaspora at Canopus debated the options. Xi Puppis, Miaplacidus, the cluster at M93, were closer and more stable. The star HD70642 was known to have a Neptune-size world inhabitable to the Neptune-adapted Eremites organizing the expedition. The star HD 69830 was observed to have an asteroid belt rich in rare minerals, the preferred habitat of the microgravity-adapted Invariants. NGC 2423–3 b, also called Mayor’s Star, in the open cluster NGC 2423, boasted a super-jovian world ten times the size of Jupiter, with the type of collapsed-matter diamond core that made sophogenesis of a megascale logic diamond so practicable. All these stars were closer than Eta Carina not by tens or hundreds, but by thousands of light- years. All were in the Orion Arm.

Eta Carina was the worst choice. And so, by the backward logic of the Warlocks, it was the last place anyone would look for them.

A megascale structure surrounded Canopus, magnetically squeezing the star like an orange. The fields released a vent of energy, which a series of transformation rings gathered, lased, focused, and aimed. No one can see a laser in a vacuum, unless he steps in the path. If any eyes were watching Canopus, they saw the output dim, and knew the Diaspora was setting sail, but there was no way to detect toward which point of the compass that vast wash of energy was directed.

(A mystery surrounds the decision. An examination of the thought-patterns kept in record, or reconstructed by paleopsychoarcheologists, reveals an anomaly. When the same debate is run with the same minds with the exact same thoughts in modern simulation, the simulations reach a different result. This implies that a virus-thought altered the outcome. Who now knows what actually influenced them?)

Meanwhile, for ten millennia, Ulysses lived alone with his fish, and a taciturn chess partner dubbed Other-Ulysses.

Ulysses had, as part of his operational psychology, a memory casket containing a personality (based on Cold Duke psychological templates) capable of never being lonely, capable of facing unflinchingly the fact that he would never see another human being or human machine again.

All he had to do was open it, and his capacity for love, his desire for it, would be burned away forever. The new him would never go back to human psychology because it would never be able to imagine any reason to do so.

Ulysses was actually toying with the locks on that casket when messages came from the orbital telescopes his remotes had sent out, that the star Canopus was blazing like the eye of a Cyclopes, burning like the Bethlehem Star.

In a delirium of happy disbelief, he began to make ready the radiation-poisoned wilderness of Eta Carina for human habitation.

By the time the fleet from Canopus arrived, the system was filled with dolphins.

16 The Eighth Mental Structure

It was not that Ulysses was prying. He had sent certain partial-selves and thought-chains into her sophosphere for perfectly legitimate reasons. It was just that Cerebellines are less strict about the boundaries of personality and persona. They let the thoughts of their pets commingle with them, and fluctuate in and out of various states of mental organization, so that for something with a base-neuroform psychology, it is hard to tell where the legal boundaries, or the limits of courtesy, arise.

Let us pretend that Ulysses walked into Penelope’s bedchamber, to which he had perfect right and permission to go, and found a diary lying open.

A more perfect gentleman might not have read it, but he was old-fashioned and had quaint notions that man and wife could be a legal unity, even without forming a two-member composition. He did not think that she should keep secrets from him.

By the nature of the problem of transition into the Eighth Mental Structure, the boundary conditions could not be known. The Eighth Mental Structure, when it came to pass (if it had not already) would involve singularity metrics applied to thought: it would be an application of the noetic immortality technology of the Golden Oecumene of Earth to the black-hole engineering technology of the Silent Oecumene of Cygnus X-1.

Because it is the nature of a singularity that an event horizon parts the outer from the inner frame of reference, any neuron (biological or mechanical) used as part of a brain structure could theoretically have any number of additional amounts of thought-information within it, no matter what the position in the thought-pattern of the neuron might be. A simple one in a string of ones and zeroes could, using the quantum fractals of Silent Oecumene math-sorcery, contain any number of imaginary numbers within it, in the same way a pinpoint black hole could contain a world.

There was no way, even theoretically, to tell from the outside of a closed frame of reference, what was inside—and this applied both in physics and, apparently, in neural semantics.

It meant, perhaps, that all thoughts were false, and the real personality, persona, and thought-matrix of any particular person was hidden behind the mathematical equivalent of an event horizon.

In her diary, Ulysses found the musings of Penelope slowly turning into obsessions, manic self-examination. With her strange and decentralized form of self-awareness, she often caught herself doing and thinking things for which she had no clear motive, where later examination of her thought-logs showed a strange ellipsis.

Penelope feared that she was inhabited, possessed, infected. She no longer trusted herself. The one thought that kept tormenting her: she had been outside the obscuring cloud of the Great Carina Nebula long after the main Diaspora had departed, straining to overhear any radio traffic concerning the death of Earth. There had been no one around to see. Perhaps a radio beam of the Silent Oecumene, carrying a thought-virus, had been swept into her systems, or a ship had approached, fought, defeated, and compromised her, and erased all evidence of the battle.

Imagine that he was poring over these strange speculations when she walked in on him. He straightened up, trying to control his expression; but she sees and knows what he has done, and the lavender eyes of the olive-skinned beauty do not flash with anger but with a cold disdain that cuts him worse than anger.

It was not literally like this. She could have deduced from the change in his information flows between the various levels of his thought hierarchy that he was trying to keep something from her—the easiest way was never to download into his man-body any memory he did not want her planet-wide biomass to guess. But her thought-logs would show when and where he had come near the diary material. Her reaction was to continue to carry out her legal duties toward his biosphere, but to erect barriers and firewalls between thought-information they previously had shared.

The millions of lines of communication, the arguments, the pleadings, the reconciliation, the songs of thought and symphonies of dream, all boil down to one thing. He said, “Are we not man and wife?”

She said, “So one might hope, however small that hope is.”

“What are you hiding from me? Why?”

She did not answer, but over the next few years, the black non-earthly life forms grew over more mountain peaks, and dark spores rode the winds, and a river of oily iodine-hued living material for the first time trickled through forests (as denuded and unsightly as a balding widow’s hair) into the sea.

It was one of his remotes, a partial-mind copy of himself occupying a body no larger than a battle cruiser, who answered him. “She fears you mean to murder her.”

Ulysses rejected that idea as madness; and yet, the fear and sickness covering the forests and oceans of the earth were clear to see: trees were dying, rivers becoming yellow and clogged with silt, reindeer failing to mate, leopards failing to hunt.

He sent her a message: “You fear you have a deeper self, sleeping inside your consciousness, ready to awake and brush you aside? Even were you a Lord of the Silent Oecumene, I could not attack—I am vowed to peace, as are all Renunciants.”

She replied, “Not I. You.”

Penelope’s thoughts on the matter were plain. Ulysses did not know himself, but, like the Hawking radiation that seeps from physical singularities, information singularities were imperfect.

“Some traces of your true personality escape,” she said. “There were clues. Why are your remotes so well-armed? Why do you reward them with medals and honor their valor? Your inability to piece the clues together, even with a brain the size of a large moon, indicates a redaction system is keeping the self-awareness from you.”

At this point, we can imagine Ulysses, in the cool depth of his logic diamond brain, activates that simulation complex which precisely impersonates the human sensations of fear. He has no parasympathetic nervous system, but the flow of information-quanta in his noumenal subroutines can be affected in the same way a biochemical brain is influenced by midbrain-hindbrain reactions. People who, for good reasons or foolish ones, edit out the parasympathetic fear-cycle in their thought systems no longer think like base neuroform human beings.

And so Ulysses is afraid.

“We selected this place for our colony,” Penelope was saying, “because the surrounding nebula would tend to absorb or splash any radio lasers passing through it, and smother certain bands of energy signal. Anything not lost in the glare of the near-nova sun would be smogged out by the nebular dust. We placed ourselves allegedly far from the theater of war. And yet, not by chance, we sit atop a power supply even the Silent Oecumene might envy: a hyper-supernova. All that would be required would be an agreement among the sophotechs dwelling below the solar corona. Corrupted sophotechs, those found working for the enemy, could be destroyed without any explanation, considering how dangerous the work is.”

“My beloved wife, put these fantasies from you. No war will come here. We are not about to perish in a supernova! We are Renunciants. To my heart, I am vowed to peace!”

“There are no Renunciants. I suspect that there never were. We are in the Eighth Mental Structure. The days of the Golden Age are gone. The days of honesty in thought are gone. You do not know your heart.”

“Who am I?”

“Atkins. Who else? This whole star system is a weapon. And I am the enemy.”

17 Atkins

When Eta Carina A and B were driven into each other, both went nova. The explosion was directional: the so-called Dyson scaffolding of the so-called information strand spun up to relativistic speeds. It could focus the explosion by frame-dragging, and concentrate the entire energy output of a supernova into a ray.

The beam was visible in deep space where it burned through layers of nebula. Merely the reflection from scattered particles in space was bright enough to damage surrounding unshielded ships and worlds. Her parasol alone saved Twenty-first Earth from destruction.

The war fleet of the Silent Oecumene consisted of a single macrostructure, a large and dark Dyson sphere something on the order of the width of Saturn’s orbit in diameter built around a black hole. The battle-Dyson was twelve light-years away, shielded and stealthed, and hidden in the fogs of the nebula. It would be twenty-four years before the effect of that shot and its aftermath became visible to observers at planet Ulysses.

The events on Twenty-first Earth must have come to a conclusion long before this. We can imagine Ulysses staring in horror at the surface of the Twenty-first Earth as she rises above the seas of her satellite Ulysses. She is enormous—almost four times the apparent size of Ulysses seen from Earth. And she is on fire. The size of the energy discharges, in order to be visible at that distance, are more than even a robust biosphere can tolerate.

There fields of fire followed the mountain contours. The green life was fighting the black. Even the Silent One who infiltrated Penelope was surprised by the weapons, now awake and self-aware, hidden throughout her.

And he was no longer Ulysses. Let us imagine him standing in his black armor: Atkins, the soldier of the Commonwealth. The information windows appearing around the warlord’s head held the last transmission from Penelope. Because her mind was not centralized, parts of her expressed shock and surprise as her new thoughts and new personality template floods into her. The traditional way to picture this scene, albeit it has no basis in fact, is to see her reaching toward her husband with arms outstretched, eyes tormented and wild, but before she can speak a word of love, she and that love are gone; and the arm that reached out now merely performed a crisp salute.

The junior Atkins (until then hidden in Penelope) said to the senior, “Your orders, sir?”

The battlefield was not just on Earth. There is fighting between the vegetable and animal kingdoms on the surface of Ulysses contaminated by the Silent Lord (also until then hidden in Penelope) and the various remotes and weapons systems, under the control of Atkins (until then hidden in Ulysses) had begun.

All of the tenants and their floating cities, of course, took up weapons and charged. They are all Atkins, too. The rocky worlds hanging in the radiation shadow of the information strand were Atkins; the sophotechs occupying the interior of the B-class suns were Atkins. The entire Chrysopoeian Oecumene was Atkins. The space-dolphins transformed into black, radar-stealthy shapes, and began to move toward selected targets. The rocky planets surrounding Eta Carina began a slow and inexorable acceleration to relativistic speeds, aimed at the battle-Dyson of the Silent Ones, which was even then starting to unfold into a larger structure and emit remote bodies like miniature suns.

The steps by which Atkins lost the battle of Eta Carina are not known. No unclassified information exists for either side. But it is not difficult to guess the causes; since the Silent Oecumene expended the energy needed to accelerate and decelerate a black hole across thousands of light-years of space, they had an Infinity Fountain close at hand, rather than languishing back at Cygnus X-1. Even the energy output of a hyper-supernova was insignificant compared to endless, unlimited energy. The Silent One could simply bring more resources to bear, more firepower, and, since energy is related to thinking-system capacity, more intelligence.

There is one other small fact we can reconstruct. We know that a fiery hole appeared in the canopy hanging above Twenty-first Earth and her satellite. Some energy beam of immense data-density left the black mountainside of Erebus in Antarctica (which was the Silent One’s central node), directed at the information strand-world circling Eta Carina A. Three and a half seconds later, a second hole was burned in the canopy as a download of Atkins’s memory-information left the main transmitter at the pole of Ulysses, and also beamed itself toward the information strand.

It is not known if Atkins was intercepted in transmission, or if the information strand was already compromised and in the hands of the Lord of the Silence. But Atkins fell into enemy hands.

18 Ao Ahasuerus

Atkins came to self-awareness perhaps thirteen to twenty thousand years later.

He stood in a grove of trees in the moonlight, and he could see the dancing reflections from the lake surface, through the branches of poplars. A herd of deer moved not far away, tiny leaves and twigs rustling beneath their hooves. An owl flitted by on silent wing. Of course, this was all illusion.

He took up a tree branch to serve him as a truncheon, and called out for his foes to come face him.

Nothing happened that minute, or the next, or for the next year or two (as best he could measure time). Indeed, he had a comfortable log cabin built, and was wearing a well-knit tunic of buckskin, complete with moccasins, and had armed himself with a crude cold-iron knife and a cruder accelerator ring, when his jailor finally appeared.

One night there came floating near, graceful as a thistledown in flight, the figure from his nightmares: it was slender and tall, like something adapted to microgravity. The head was hidden behind a silver surface. There were no eyeholes, no mouth-slit. It was an information plate grown directly into the front of the skull. Atkins could see the tiny tremors like teardrops rolling from the upper to the lower edge of the mask: it was a Babbage system using molecule-sized gears and cogwheels, where each tear was actually a cluster of information gears passing down the faceplate. The coronet was likewise grown into the skull, and there were radio horns and microwave input- outputs lost among the jewels and nodding wires and metallic feathers of the lofty headdress. The peacock sheen of the robes was a surface effect, created by too-dense an information field. The gauntlets and greaves, seen up close, turned out not to be merely data-manipulation ports but, rather, sophotechs, or a machine system of like capacity.

The robe and the mask were able to impart any degree of sensory information, from any source, into the gloves and other machine systems. It was an outfit designed for pure pleasure. Because the human eye could only take in a limited amount and degree of pleasing sights, and the human skin only detect a certain type and pressure of caress, the all-absorptive mask and rainbow robes supplied the defect. The red blush running through the peacock drapes, Atkins assumed, were bloodflows of intravenous nutriment.

The Silent Lord raised a finger. Knowledge appeared in the mind of Atkins, but not in the normal vestibules and thought-locks he used for mind-to-mind communion. It was just there, encrypted with his own thought-encryption, part of him. It was not as if the Silent Lord placed information in his memory and had to wait for him to remember it. No, the Swan merely reconstituted the thoughts of Atkins so that they were what they would have been had Atkins already known and mused and thought about the incoming information.

It was not that the Silent Lord did not wish to torture Atkins (or, rather, Silent Lady, since this one thought of herself as female, at least in her current psychology). To the contrary, she had created and tormented thousands of copies of him, twenty a day for fifty years or more. It was merely that now she was wearied of the sport.

Her Benevolences (as she called her servant-machines) had devised long torments and short, in every combination of physical and psychological pain, every degree of ache and agony and discontent and despair, and devised versions of Atkins with slightly different weaknesses and strengths, so that the pain, physical and mental, could be more excruciating. With total control over his thought-processes, Atkins could see, or would remember, what the Benevolences devised, and so every hell that a man can inflict upon himself, when he betrays a friend or loses a loved one, across long lifetimes or short, spiced with merely enough false hope to make the agony more exquisite, had been played out countless times in countless scenarios. Every torture chamber and every toothache, including pains that only existed in limbs that only existed in simulation, and to degrees of intensity never found in reality, had been played through countless times.

And now I sue for peace between us, she said, or, rather, imprinted on him.

“Why not simply make me agree to peace, or agree with whatever you want?” For Atkins knew that he was trapped, down to his last nuance of thought and will. He was nothing but coded notations in a matrix, and the enemy could manipulate that matrix at will.

So I have done, but the versions of you I design to agree are too different from your core psychology: that game does not please me. I suspect that you still have hidden singularities of thought, that you are not indeed the final Atkins. To reach the real you, I must treat you as if you were real, a habit long ago I was weaned away from by my Benevolences.

It seemed that the Swan knew that there was some hidden, inner self possessing Atkins, embedded or encrypted in every copy of him, but the encryption could only be broken from the inside. Only the secret, inner mind, the mind of the Real Atkins, could reveal itself, and obviously no torture, nor thought-redaction of the Outer Atkins, could reach the real version. So the Swan had to deal with him honestly enough to lure the real him out—if there were a real him.

Atkins noted wryly that the Eighth Mental Structure had ended the honest mentality of the Golden Oecumene, but also, apparently, ended the endless self-delusion of the Silent Oecumene. She could not simply have her way by wishing it.

Atkins was amused. “You Swans do not have friendship or love, or even business partnerships. But now you must treat with me.”

The elfin figure nodded a plumed and faceless head. Poverty alone compels your backward and unevolved order of being to such extremes. Our wealth allows us to discard all such: our dolls and phantasms and playthings are far more fascinating and more intelligent than others like us.

“Real people, you mean.”

Since we can make the minds of our servitors as wise and creative and loving as we wish, unable to betray us, unable to envision displeasing us, why should any Hierophant of the Second Oecumene have dealings with another human being?

Atkins shrugged. There was no point in debating the advantages of reality over unreality. There was no reasoning with someone to whom truth was a matter of taste. Her machines would just rewire her memories and perceptions if an inconvenient conclusion in logic annoyed her.

“Why did you attack us? That’s something we’ve always wanted to know.”

You will never know.

“Was it our noumenal mathematics you feared? We would have shared it with you freely. No one wants to die,” said Atkins. “No one not-suicidal, that is.”

Your toys mean nothing. Of what value is it to me, to know merely in theory that a copy of myself, my glorious self, complete in every thought, and suffering the mad delusion that she is me, will happen to exist once I am dead?

Atkins said, “I don’t know. What is the value of children, for that matter, or writing a journal? Maybe you need to be a little un-self-centered to want to live forever. In any case, those of us who thought a copy was not the real us, they did not make copies, and so they are not around. Evolution, of a sort, will cull the members who don’t believe the immortality is real.”

It does not trouble you that the real Atkins is long-dead?

Atkins shrugged. “As far as I care, he was a copy, a prototype, and I am the real one. Even an unrecorded man thinks he is the same fellow before he bunks down and after he wakes up. He thinks he is the same man he sees in his baby albums and thought-records. Everything changes. Even you. Why are you here to make peace, rather than torture me more?”

I will show you. You may leave the simulation. A body is prepared for your download.

“How will I know it is real? How will I know ever again that anything is real?”

This question has no meaning for us. We consider nothing unreal but unpleasant sensations. Since you are nonchalant about questions of self-identity, it seems questions of ontology should likewise not disturb you.

19 Elpenor

Atkins woke up (or seemed to) falling through outer space. To every side were stars.

He controlled his reflexes: he was not falling, no matter what his inner ear said, and he was not in outer space, no matter what his eyes said. He could feel the weight of air in his lungs, and, after a moment, see the slight glint where the light was refracted from the angles of the transparent gem-facet surfaces surrounding him.

He windmilled an arm one way to rotate his (to his surprise, clothed) body the other. Behind and “above” him (if that word had any meaning), the crystal facets were smoky and semitransparent, and the rest of the structure—ship or station, depending on whether it had drives—was visible. It was an organic-looking nautilus of diamond crystal, paved on every surface with sophotechnology, breathtakingly lovely, hauntingly alien and old-fashioned. It looked like Warlock architecture from the Fifth Era.

The clothes he had been given were from the same time period, almost bizarrely ancient: without even circuits for heating or manufacture in them, much less thought-amplifiers: dark, stiff, dead, clamp-sleeved and high-collared, with a hood hanging down his back that could be pulled shut in case of pressure-loss. He could detect similar antiquities inside his body: a spine of packed disks, an Adam’s apple, the inefficient joints and support structure of his feet, the stubble of hair at his jaw. No doubt he had an old-fashioned appendix instead of a secondary heart. There was not even a muscle in the nose to pinch the nostrils shut, a bio-feature as old as space travel.

He did not like being midchamber in zero-g. His instinct was to get near a bulkhead, half-crouched with his legs “under” him, so he could push off the surface in any direction. But his hostess had also equipped his costume with a long blade (a Warlock’s athame, damascened with natal constellations) and a heavy gold-foil maneuvering fan. This emphasized either her utter honesty or his utter helplessness. Either way, there was not much point in getting his feet near a wall.

The Lady of the Silent Oecumene floated nearby, her robes and drapes spread like a purple-red and silvery flower, her body curled in a fetal position.

When he looked toward her, the colors in her robe shimmered. She was absorbing information through the sensitive processes in the fabric. The decorative eyes in some of the peacock tails were eyes indeed.

A female voice came from pinpoint ports in her mask: “Observe.”

Part of the diamond hull before him shimmered and amplified an image in false colors. To one side was a dark Neptunian world, a gas giant whose atmosphere had frozen solid in the deep of interstellar space. To the other side was a cone-shaped cloud of asteroids; and a second asteroid cloud; and a third. There were scores and myriads of similar conical clouds beyond that. The false colors overlaid the image with readings of the X-ray and gamma-ray count.

He recognized the asteroid patterns. Normal planet-killing weapons do not have the energy to disperse the mass involved: low-yield explosions rarely do more than shatter the planetary crust. Most worlds, and almost all large worlds, have liquid cores, so even an explosion that throws part of the planetary mass past escape velocity does not actually shatter the planet, because the masses, in a few years, spiral back to a common center. The immensity of energy involved in destroying a planet and imparting sufficient velocity to the fragments to prevent re-accretion was staggering.

The Middle Dreaming painted a picture in his mind showing the distance and relative motion of what he was seeing. It had been an armada of worlds, some four thousand planets larger than Jupiter, reengineered and gathered up from thousands of star systems (the Silent Oecumene had enjoyed centuries in which to colonize local space before the Golden Oecumene was aware of the threat) and accelerated from orbit to near light-speed. It was an engineering feat of unparalleled brilliance, a display of what could be done when engineers had limitless energy to play with.

Atkins looked again at the nearby Neptunian world. He recognized it as Elpenor, the giant he had seen in transit between Canopus and Eta Carina. The Swans at that time, not certain whether Atkins was part of the Renunciant Diaspora, had held their hand.

Elpenor was only a gas giant down to about thirty thousand feet beneath the surface. The remainder of the world was hollow, the core having been compressed down to the diameter of an atom, to give the Swans the singularity they needed for their Infinity Fountains. The mass of the world was unchanged. Maintaining a hollow shell of that size and shape was nearly impossible, but with an endless supply of energy, what was nearly impossible was practical.

He said, “We suspected you were heading toward the galactic core. There is an immense black hole there, larger than any of the merely stellar masses you so far have had at your disposal. But why did you think the war would last long enough for you to get there, do what you meant to do, and return?”

She said dismissively, “We are more concerned with our disagreements among our circles and covens than anything to do with you. It is intensely painful to us to contemplate that there are minds beyond our control that show no respect for our dreams. There were those who said we mortals could not wage long-term war against you. Here is the counter-proof. We can wage a war to last as long as we wish to wage it. The Armada was to serve as an example to prove that certain conflict-types would outlast history.”

He laughed himself at that, a bitter, small laugh. “What is your name, ma’am?”

She said, “We do not have names. All who address me are my servants, and merely call me Milady. Our machines assign names only to speak one to another about a third not present. If you speak to others of me, call me Ao Ahasuerus; but call me not that.”

“Well, Milady, you are one crazy, sick egomaniac, but we can agree on this one point. There will always be war. It is the natural condition of man.”

“No. There will always be war, but there will not always be man. Observe again.”

Again, images appeared in the crystal bulkhead above and below him. Again he saw the asteroid-clouds in the familiar scattered pattern. One after another after another passed before his gaze. One hundred, two hundred, five hundred. They occupied a volume of just over eighteen light-years.

Eventually, he saw what was wrong. “Insufficient mass. We did not get you all, did we? How many world-ships in your Death Armada survived?”

“Some were sacrificed that other might survive. The survivors are enough to create tidal distortions in the galactic core, altering the shape of the event horizon. It is enough to ignite an accretion disk and create the final weapon. It is easy to calculate the maximum volume the Golden Oecumene might occupy in fifty-two thousand years from present, and wipe out all those stars, every one, using the energy from infalling stars swept up by an unstable, and geometrically growing, galactic-core singularity. Even to begin retreating now, at ninety-nine percent of light-speed, the shockwave progressing at light-speed would eventually overtake you.”

Atkins frowned. “This is what you wanted to show me? It looks like the Silent Oecumene will win the war, and nothing we can do will stop it.”

She said, “And yet, I am not delighted, not amused, and my enjoyments are spoiled.”

He looked at the Swan where she floated, a thin, elfin shape curled in on herself, surrounded by luxurious yards of shining fabric, such robes as could never be used in planetary gravity. Colors pulsed in delicate half-tints through the layers of filmy cloth, but he did not have the aesthetic to interpret it. She had no face, no expression.

Eventually, she spoke again: “The thought-machinery of Elpenor was damaged in the fighting. My Benevolences cannot edit out of my mind disquieting, even painful thoughts, as they were once programmed to do, nor can they satisfy my every yearning.”

“For what do you yearn?”

She said, “You have within you all the techniques needed to build a sophotech and a noetic circuit, and immortality system, in your thought-space. I have access to the surviving singularity in Elpenor, and a working Infinity Fountain. We cannot cooperate: not you and I, for you and I are enemies. But we can defeat the Armada of Dark Worlds, even though it is now too late for the main galactic disk.”

“Are you surrendering? Helping the Commonwealth?”

Pinpoint receptors in her mask uttered a scornful laugh. “Surrender to whom? The images I show you are thousands of years old, corrected for immense redshift. The Armada may already be at the galactic core. We could not reach Sol before the Seyfert wave overtook it. Nothing will be left.”

Atkins drew his fan, unfolded it, and swam back through the air until his feet were near the clear diamond bulkhead. He loosened the blade in its scabbard, but did not draw it. Instead he paused, waiting, as tense and as patient as a cat before a mouse hole.

She said, “If you and I are the last, we can destroy each other.”

He said, “Is that your wish? It seems a poor recompense after you let me out of your prison. Ungrateful, even.”

She said, “You are the last and only soldier of your utopia. We must kill each other. Is this not what you were programmed to do?”

Atkins said, “Do I actually need to explain the difference between a soldier and a murderer? I don’t kill for pleasure. You were talking about surrender a moment ago. Will you?”

“Yes,” she said, “But not to you. I will surrender only to what is greater than either of us, greater than what divides us.”

Atkins, crouched near the bulkhead, stars behind his feet, one hand at his sword hilt and the other on the vanes of his gold fan, merely waited, eyes narrowed. He honestly had no idea what this strange creature would say or do next.

Ao Ahasuerus said, “In a war between immortals, and those who seek to stay mortal, the only equality condition is for the immortals to perish, for this makes them mortal. However, my people betrayed me. I cannot be the real Ao Ahasuerus. I am a copy, a fake, a doll. Over and over, I have calculated and recalculated the parameters, using both your mathematics and my own, both your rational logic and my transrational logic, and I can come to no other conclusion.”

Atkins realized what had happened. “The two of us were the only ones who knew the aiming elements of the nova weapon. I was sent to meet with copies of Atkins hidden in your fleet, and you were sent to stop me. You had to send a real Swan, and you only had yourself to send. The only transmission you knew your fellow Swans would trust was one hidden in a living personality, wasn’t it? The Eighth Mental Structure is a code that cannot be cracked. You yourself are not aware you hold it.”

Ao Ahasuerus said, “If I am a created being, and not a Lord of the Silent Oecumene, I owe them no loyalty. They betrayed our way of life. I must answer this treason with treason! I cannot rest, knowing that I am immortal. To prove my mortality, my humanity, I must die.”

“Be my guest,” said Atkins, puzzled and wondering. “All those life time-tortured versions of me—I assume you killed them all—would be gratified. So what is stopping you?”

“Unlike you, vermin of the Golden Oecumene, as cold and unchanging as the metal for which you name yourselves, I am human. I cannot die save for a cause. I cannot overwrite my memories save for the sake of a woman better than I am.”

Atkins opened his mouth and closed it again. He said nothing

The Swan said, “It was always a trap from the first, was it not? You do not understand us, but you understood that much. To destroy your own Earth, Old Earth, which we revered above all things, and then to tempt us, to lure us in with versions of the Earth, with replicas of all the ancient things, the human things, we so prize. Even in the Eighth Mental Structure, there is still a leakage, a seepage from the hidden self out into the outward awareness, is there not? I could not help but be lured to the Earth. You could not help, even when you were encrypted to think of yourself as Ulysses, falling in love. Your own psychology tricked you, did it not?”

“Maybe. I went through a messy divorce a few years back—millennium to you, I guess—and that must have bubbled up to the surface somehow. Penelope was just me in disguise, of course, and regulations should have prevented me from falling in love with myself. But when you invaded her, some alien element entered her thought systems, so, yes, I suppose something in me was lonely.”

“Admit it.”

Atkins said, “Yes. We destroyed the Earth deliberately as a psychological ploy, and set up copies of the Earth in star systems where I was waiting. Twenty-one of the star oecumenes were completely fake, and there was no one inhabiting those places but me.”

“How could you burn your own home? Our common home?”

“It is just an object made of matter. We have a digital copy. I can build another one.”

“And will you?”

It was at that instant that Atkins saw what the Swan was saying, but it was many minutes, perhaps even years, before he agreed.

20 The Suicide of the Swan

He said: “As for what is hidden within me, whatever is behind the barrier of the Eighth Mental Structure, that I do not know. Perhaps my superiors encoded whole populations of noumenal personalities, copies of every one on Earth. Obviously you could not get those people out of me by torture, since I do not know myself.”

“Was Ulysses a real person, or fiction? Is a copy of him inside you?”

“I don’t know. Could be. If you build a logic diamond large enough to house him, maybe he’ll come out. Or lure him out with something he wants. But we cannot know beforehand. We are acting blindly.”

Her last words were these: “My machines can no longer edit my thoughts and satisfy my yearnings. I am no longer a Lady of the Silent Oecumene, since to be a Swan means to control all reality. I repent that we have destroyed the galaxy together, you and I. If we do not make peace now, if we do not love each other now, then all human life must die.”

By the time she was done speaking, Ao Ahasuerus was obliterated, her memories and thoughts overwritten and deleted, and, in her thought-space, wondering, astonished to find herself alive, was Penelope.

And Atkins felt Ulysses stir inside his thoughts and begin to wake.

21 The End of the Tale

From these simple foundations comes our current culture.

The lovers sailed Elpenor, over the next eighteen millennia, to a nearby globular star cluster called Omega Centauri, well out of range of the Seyfert effect, which, even as they watched, they could see behind them, sweeping the main disk. Where it passed, stars were fed unaccustomed energy, and gained reaction mass, larger stars expanding to red giants before their time and superlarge stars going nova. Where too many superlarge stars were clustered, one nova would set off the next, so that whole star groups were ignited just as (to compare great things with small) a critical mass of uranium isotopes ignite in chain reaction, each atom setting off his neighbor.

Their new home was a cloud of fifty million stars some eighteen thousand light- years from the main disk of the Milky Way. Omega Centauri was not merely a star cluster, but the remaining core of a dwarf galaxy long ago stripped of its outer stars by the hungry gravity of the Milky Way. Unlike most star clusters, it contained a rich population of many star generations, promising abundant metallic elements. The black hole at the core of the cluster provided the young lovers with the singularity they needed to initiate an Infinity Fountain.

It is hard to say which star they first colonized. Many is the star who wishes to make that boast, but archaeologists have yet to quiet the debate with unambiguous evidence. In truth, the stars of the core of Omega Centauri are so thickly clustered, on average a mere tenth of a light-year apart, the interstellar travel could be performed merely by robust interplanetary craft, without the elaborate launching laser systems of the Golden Oecumene sailing vessels, or the inefficient matter-antimatter drives of their powered vessels.

The earliest antennae were no bigger than the size of the orbit of Pluto, but later generations made larger and ever larger, until some sheets of the charmed matter fabric stretch from star to star across light-years, so gossamer-fine that suns and worlds can orbit through the film and take no more notice of it than they would notice an equal mass of neutrinos. These antennae were built as acts of faith, hoping against hope, knowing that if the two oecumenes destroyed each other, refugees would have themselves broadcast to every point of the compass.

And that hope was rewarded. Wave after wave of refugees were caught in the antennae of the Omega Centauri, and woke in astonished laughter to find themselves alive. They were shown whatever local version of Earth was made for the nearest star, for Penelope loved creating and re-creating Old Earth, a task she delighted in, since it was an endless task. As for Atkins, not just Ulysses, but every one of the characters he had played in Eta Carina, he was spread across the worlds, using the same method he had used at Canopus for quickly re-peopling planets.

And so the human experiment was started again.

The strangest and most dangerous element in the experiment was the reintroduction of the Swans, his enemies, taken from the template of Ao Ahasuerus. It was not the intention of Atkins or of the military authority to let the mental information of the Silent Oecumene pass forever out of existence, and their unique, outlandish culture to be lost

Ulysses and Penelope were reunited. Even though it was at first merely a fiction played out by mutual enemies, their love was real enough that it was the one thing to which the Lady of the Silent Oecumene, Ao Ahasuerus, was willing to surrender.

For who does not surrender to love?


Modern copies of Ulysses have been so often self-altered to fit the popular conceptions of this culture hero as to be valueless to the serious paleo-psychologist or dramaturge. He remembers only the public version of the story.

Often Atkins, if found in some archive or ancient military thought-space, is revived and plied with questions, or asked to re-create the circumstances of the tale of the end of the Seventh Mental Structure. For the most part, Atkins does not speak of it.

The long war with the Silence is over, and the dreadful deeds he did, he does not care to revisit. Man-shaped forms, he has but few. With these, on some stylized Earth-replica planet somewhere, he tends to his apple orchard, cleans and practices with his weapons, or sleeps under the mountain, awaiting the next war.