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Lieserl walked into the dining saloon of the Great Britain.

She hesitated, uncertain, in the low doorway. She was stunned by the antique beauty of the place: by its fine pillars and plasterwork, the mirrors glimmering on the walls. She was the last to arrive for this strange dinner; there were six people — three men and three women — already seated, facing each other at the center of one of the long tables. The only light came from candles (real candles, or Virtuals?) set on the table between them. As the people talked, their faces, and the fine cutlery and glass, shone in the flickering, golden light; shadows stretched across the rest of the old saloon, turning it into a place of mystery — even romance.

One of the men turned as she came in. He rose, pushing back his chair, and walked toward her, smiling. His blue eyes were bright in a dark face.

She felt an odd, absurd, flutter of nervousness in her throat; she raised her hand to her mouth, and felt the coarseness of her flesh, the lines etched deep there. This was her first genuine human interaction in five million years… But how ludicrous to suffer adolescent nerves like this! She was an AI, geologically old, yet within mere subjective days of returning to the company of humans she had become immersed once more in the complex, impossibly difficult world of human interactions.

She felt a sudden, intense, nostalgic desire to return to the clean, bright interior of the Sun. All those millennia, orbiting the core with the photino birds, seemed like a long, fantastic dream to her now: an interval within this, the true human reality…

The man reached out and touched her arm. His flesh was firm, warm.

She cried out and stumbled backwards.

Five faces, bright with candlelight, turned toward her, and the conversation died.

No one had touched Lieserl in megayears.

The man leaned toward her, his blue eyes bright and mischievous. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I couldn’t resist that. I’m Mark Bassett Friar Armonk Wu.”

She straightened herself up, primly, and glared at him. The sudden touch had left a trembling, deep in her stomach, and she was sure a flush was spreading over her cheeks, despite her age of physical-sixty. She was vividly aware — too aware, distractingly so — of Mark’s presence beside her.

He took her arm again, more delicately, and escorted her toward the dinner party. “I won’t startle you again, I promise. And I’m the only Virtual here other than you, of course.”

“These Virtual illusions are just too damn good sometimes,” she said. Her voice sounded feathery — weak, she thought. It was going to take her a long time to forgive Mark Wu for that trick.

He led her to a seat and pulled it out for her — so that was Virtual, too — and she sat with the rest.

The woman opposite her leaned forward and smiled. Lieserl saw a square, strong face, tired eyes, a thatch of grizzled hair. “I’m Louise Ye Armonk,” she said. “You’re welcome here, Lieserl.”

“Ah,” Lieserl said. “Louise. The leader.”

One of the men — grotesquely blind, bald, wrapped in a blanket — allowed his head to rock back on its spindle of a neck, and bellowed laughter.

Louise looked weary. “Lieserl, meet Garry Uvarov… You’ve spoken with him before.”

Louise introduced the rest: Morrow, a spindly, reticent man who, with Uvarov, had supervised her downloading through the maser link from the Interface carcass (now abandoned) inside the Sun; and two tiny, young-looking women with strange names — Spinner-of-Rope, Trapper-of-Frogs — their bare flesh startlingly out of place in the formal surroundings of the saloon. Their faces were painted with vivid, intimidating splashes of scarlet, and patches of their scalps were shaven bare. The older-looking one of the pair wore glinting spectacles and carried a crude arrowhead on a thong tied around her neck.

Lieserl was still new enough to all this to be intensely aware of her own appearance. Her hands cast soft shadows, and her brooch — of intertwined snakes and ladders — glittered in the candlelight. Looking out from the twin caverns of her eyes, she saw how the flickering of the light was reflected, with remarkable accuracy, on the blurred outlines of her own face; she knew she must look quite authentic to the others.

She smiled at Louise Ye Armonk. “You’ve invested a great deal of processing power in me.”

Louise looked a little defensive; she pulled back slightly from the table. “We can afford it. The Northern’s on idle. We’ve plenty of spare capacity.”

“I wasn’t criticizing. I was thanking you. I can see you’re trying to make me welcome.”

Mark, sitting beside Lieserl, leaned toward her. “Don’t mind Louise. She’s always been as prickly as a porcupine…”

Spinner-of-Rope, the girl with the spectacles, said: “A what?”

“…and that’s why I divorced her.”

“I divorced him,” Louise Ye Armonk said. “And still couldn’t get rid of him.”

“Anyway,” Mark said to Lieserl, “maybe you should reserve your thanks until you’ve seen the food.”

The meal was served by autonomic ’bots. A ’bot — presumably a Virtual — served Mark and Lieserl.

The meal was what Louise Ye Armonk called “traditional British” — just what somebody called “Brunel” would once have enjoyed, on an occasion like this, she said. Lieserl stared at the plates of simulated animal flesh doubtfully. Still, she enjoyed the wine, and the sensation of fresh fruit; with discreet subvocal commands she allowed herself to become mildly drunk.

The conversation flowed well enough, but seemed a little stilted, stale to Lieserl.

During the meal, Trapper-of-Frogs leaned toward her. “Lieserl…”


“Why are you so old?”

Uvarov, the crippled surgeon, threw back his head and bellowed out his ghastly laughter once more. Trapper looked confused, even distressed. Watching Uvarov, Lieserl felt herself start to incubate a deep, powerful dislike.

She smiled at Trapper, deliberately. “It’s all right, dear.” She spread her hands, flexing the thin webbing between thumb and forefinger, immersing herself in the new reality of the sensation. “It’s just that this is how I remember myself. I chose this Virtual shell because it reflects how I still feel inside, I suppose.”

“It’s how you were before you were loaded into the Sun?” Spinner-of-Rope asked.

“Yes… although by the time I reached my downloading I was quite a bit older than my aspect now. You see, they actually let me die of old age… I was the first person in a long time to do so.”

She began to tell them of how that had felt — of the blights of age, of rheumy eyes and failing bladders and muscles like pieces of old cloth — but Spinner-of Rope held her hand up. Spinner smiled, her eyes large behind her glasses. “We know, Lieserl. We’ll take you to the forest sometime; we’ll tell you all about it.”

The meal finished with coffee and brandy, served by the discreet ’bots. Lieserl didn’t much care for the brandy, but she loved the flavor of the coffee. Virtual or not.

Mark nodded at her appreciation. “The coffee’s authenticity is no accident. I spent years getting its flavor right. After I got stranded in this Virtual form I spent longer on replicating the sensations of coffee than anything.” His blue eyes were bright. “Anything, except maybe those of sex…”

Disconcerted, Lieserl dropped her eyes.

Mark’s provocative remark made her think, however. Sex. Perhaps that was the element missing from this gathering of antique semi-immortals. Some had been preserved better than others — and some, like Spinner-of-Rope, were even genuinely (almost) young — but there was no sexual tension here. These people simply weren’t aware of each other as human animals.

She knew of Uvarov’s eugenics experiments on the forest Deck, inspired by a drive to improve the species directly. Maybe this gathering, with its mute testimony to the limitations of AS technology, was a partial justification of Uvarov’s project, she thought.

Louise Ye Armonk gently rapped her empty brandy glass with a spoon; it chimed softly. “All right, people,” she said. “I guess it’s time for us to get down to business.”

Uvarov grinned toward Lieserl, showing a mouth bereft of teeth. “Welcome to the council of war,” he hissed.

“Well, perhaps this is a war,” Louise said seriously. “But at the moment, we’re just bystanders caught in the crossfire. We have to look at our options, and decide where we’re going from here.

“We’re in — a difficult situation.” Louise Armonk looked enormously tired, worn down by the responsibilities she had taken on, and Lieserl felt herself warm a little to this rather intimidating engineer. “Our job was to deliver a wormhole Interface to this era, to the end of time, and then travel back through the Interface to our own era. Well, we know that didn’t work out. The Interface is wrecked, the wormhole collapsed — and we’ve become stranded here, in this era.

“What I want to decide here is how we are going to preserve the future of our people. Everything else — everything — is subordinate to that. Agreed?”

For a moment there was silence around the table; Lieserl noticed how few of them were prepared to meet Louise’s cold eyes.

Morrow leaned forward into the light. Lieserl saw, with gentle amusement, how his bony wrists protruded from his sleeves. “I agree with Louise. We have one priority, and one only. And that’s to protect the people on this ship: the two thousand of them, on the Decks and in the forest. That’s what’s real.”

Louise smiled. “Morrow, you have the floor. How, exactly?”

“It’s obvious,” Morrow said. “For better or worse, we’re now the custodians of a thousand-year-old culture — a culture which has evolved in the conditions which were imposed on it during the flight. The confined space, the limited resources… and the constant, one-gee gravity.

“But now the flight is over. And we took away the gravity, virtually without notice. You know we managed to break up the Temple sieges, without much injury or loss of life. But, Louise, I can’t tell you that life in the Decks has gone back to normal. How could it? Most people are barely retaining their sanity, let alone returning to work. No one’s producing any food. At the moment we’re working our way through stores, but that’s not going to last long.”

Trapper pushed her face forward. “And in the forest, too, the biota are — ”

Louise held up her hands. “Enough. Morrow has made the point. Give me a suggestion, please.”

Morrow and Trapper exchanged glances. “If there was an Earth to return to,” Morrow said slowly, “I’d say return there.”

“But there isn’t,” Uvarov said acidly. His voice was a rasp, synthesized by some device in his throat. “Or had you missed the point?”

Morrow was clearly irritated, but determined to make his case. “I know there’s no Earth.”

“So?” Louise asked.

“So,” Morrow said slowly, “I suggest we stay in the ship. We overhaul it, quickly, and retrieve more reaction mass. Then we send it on a one-gee flight.”

“Where?” Mark asked.

“Anywhere. It really doesn’t matter. We could loop around the Sun in some kind of powered orbit, for all I care. The point is to restart the drive: to restore acceleration-induced gravity inside the ship. Let us — let the people in there get back to normal again, and start living.”

There was silence for a moment. Then Spinner-of-Rope said, “Actually, in this scenario, it surely would be better to stay in the Solar System, on a powered orbit. The new chunk of reaction mass would be used up, in time; wouldn’t it be better to stay close enough to the Sun to be assured of being able to refuel later?… Even if that’s not for another thousand years from now.”

“Perhaps.” Louise rubbed her nose thoughtfully. “But I’m not sure it’s going to be viable to stay in the ship. Not in the long term.” She sighed. “The dear old Northern did her job superbly well — she exceeded all her design expectations. And maybe she could last another thousand years.

“But, in the end, she’s going to fail. It may not be for ten thousand years, but failure will come. And then what?” She frowned. “Then, we might not be around to oversee any transition to another environment.”

“There’s a more fundamental point,” Mark said seriously. “The engineering — the nuts and bolts — may have survived the trip, but the social fabric of the Northern didn’t stand the strain so well. Consider the behavior of the Planners, toward the end; their messianic visions, which had had a thousand long years to incubate, became psychotic delusions, virtually.” He looked pointedly at Uvarov. “And we had one or two other little local difficulties along the way.”

“Yes.” Louise’s tiredness was etched into her face. “I guess, in the end, we didn’t do a very good job of preserving our rationality, across the desert of time we’ve traversed…”

Mark looked around the table. “People, we aren’t Xeelee. We aren’t designed to live with each other for centuries, or millennia. We just don’t know how to build a society that could survive, indefinitely, in a cramped, enclosed box like the ship. We’ve already failed to do so.”

“Do you have an alternative?” Louise asked.

“Sure. We stay in the System. But we get out of the damn ship. We could try to colonize some of the surviving moons. They can give us raw materials for habitats, at least. We could break up the Northern to give the new colonies a start… Louise, what I’m advocating is giving ourselves space, before we kill each other.”

Uvarov turned his face toward the Virtual; his blind smile was like a snake’s, Lieserl thought. “A nice romantic thought,” he said. “But not viable, I’m afraid.”

“Why not?”

“Because of the helium flash.” Uvarov turned, disconcertingly, straight to Lieserl; his eyes were shadowed pits. “The flash: the coming gift from Lieserl’s cute dark matter chums inside the Sun. Our best predictions are that it will blossom from the Sun within — at the most — a few centuries.” He swiveled his head toward Louise. “And after that we can expect the carbon flash, and the oxygen flash, and… My friends, thanks to the photino birds the Solar System is, in practical terms, uninhabitable.”

Mark glared at the old surgeon. “Then come up with a better idea.”

Louise held up her hands. “Wait. Let’s talk around the photino birds a little.” She glanced at Lieserl. “You know more about the birds than any of us. Uvarov’s projections are right, I suppose.”

“About the continuing forced evolution of the Sun? Oh, yes.” Lieserl nodded, feeling uncomfortable to be at the center of attention; she was aware of the flickering candlelight playing around her nose and eyes. “I’ve watched the birds for five million years. They’ve maintained their behavior pattern for all of that time; I’ve no reason to believe they are going to change now. And your observations show that every other star, as far as we can tell, is inhabited — ”

Uvarov scowled. “Infested. These birds of yours — these creatures of dark matter — they are our true enemy.”

Louise regarded Lieserl. “Do you think he’s right about that, too?”

Lieserl thought carefully. “No. Not exactly. Louise, I don’t think the birds really know we are here. After all, we’re as marginally visible to them as they are to us.” She closed her eyes; the illusion of inner eyelids was remarkably accurate, she thought absently. “I think they became aware of me, quite early… I’ve told you I think they tried to find ways to keep me alive. But they never showed any inclination to go seeking more of my kind. And they never tried to communicate with me… Still,” she said firmly, “I don’t think it’s true that the photino birds are an enemy.”

Uvarov laughed. “Then what in Lethe’s waters are they? They fit most of the criteria I can think of.”

Lieserl quailed from the harshness of the ruined man’s tone, but she pressed on. “I just don’t think it’s helpful to think of them in that way. They’re doing what they’re doing — wrecking our Sun — because that’s what they do. By accelerating the stars through their lifecycles they’re building a better Universe for themselves, and their own offspring, their own future.” She groped for an image. “They’re like insects. Ants, perhaps.” She glanced around the table. “Do any of you know what I’m talking about? The birds are following their own species imperatives. Which just happen to cut across ours, is all.”

Mark nodded. “I think your analogy is a good one. The birds don’t even have to be alive, in our sense of the word, to accomplish enormous things — changes on a cosmic scale. From the way you’ve described their lifecycles, they sound like classic von Neumann self-replicating machines…”

Uvarov leaned forward; his head seemed to roll at the top of his thin neck. “Listen to me. Alive or not, conscious or not, the photino birds are our eternal, true enemy. Because they are of dark matter, we are of baryonic matter.”

Louise drained her brandy snifter and poured herself a fresh measure. “Maybe so. But for most of human history — as far as we can tell from the old Superet projections, and from the accounts Lieserl has provided us — the enemy of man was seen as the Xeelee.”

Uvarov smiled, eerily. “I don’t deny that, of course. Why should you be surprised at such a monumental misapprehension? My friends, even the comparatively few millennia of human history before our departure from the time streams in the Northern were a litany of ghastly errors: the tragi-comic working out of flaws hard-wired deep into our psyches, a succession of ludicrous, doomed enterprises fueled by illusions and delusions. I refer you to the history of religious conflict and economic ideology, for a start. And I see no reason to suppose that people got any wiser after we left.” He turned his head to Mark. “You were a socio-engineer, before you dropped dead,” he said bluntly. “You’ll confirm what I say. It seems to me that the Xeelee war — or wars — were no more than still another ghastly, epochal error of mankind. We know that the Xeelee inhabited a higher plane, intellectually, than humans ever could: you only have to consider that remarkable craft, the nightfighter, to see that. But humans being humans — could never accept that. Humans believed they must challenge the Xeelee: overthrow them, become petty kings of the baryonic cosmos.

“This absurd rivalry led, in the end, to the virtual destruction of the human species. And — worse — it blinded us to the true nature of the Xeelee, and their goals: and to the threat of the dark matter realm.

“It is clear to me now that there is a fundamental conflict in this Universe, between the dark and light forms of matter — a conflict which has, at last, driven the stars to their extinction. Differences among baryonic species — the Xeelee and ourselves, for instance — are as nothing compared to that great schism.”

Louise Ye Armonk frowned. “That’s a fairly gloomy scenario, Uvarov. Because if it’s true — ”

“If I’m correct, we face more than a simple search for safety beyond this imperilled Solar System. We may not be able to find a place to hide in this cosmos. Even if we were able to found some viable colony, the birds would come to seek it out, and destroy it. Because they must.”

Mark, the Virtual, seemed to be suppressing a laugh. “This Universe ain’t big enough for the both of us… Let me sum up: everyone’s dead, and the whole Universe is doomed. Well. How are we supposed to cope with an emergency like that?” He grinned.

Lieserl studied his face curiously. After their brief physical contact, she felt intensely aware of Mark. And yet, it disquieted her that he could speak so flippantly.

For if Uvarov was right, then it could be that the humans in this fragile old ship were the only people left alive in an implacably hostile Universe.

Lieserl seemed to shrink in on herself, as if cowering inside this recently rediscovered shell of humanity; she looked around at the serious, young-old faces in the candlelight. Could it be true? Was this — she wondered with a stab of self-pity — was this the final ironic joke to be played on her by a vicious fate? She had been born as an alien within her own species. Now she had returned — been welcomed, even — and was it only to find that the story of man was finished?

“I’m sorry,” Mark was saying; he seemed deliberately to calm down. “Look, Uvarov, what you’re saying sounds absurd. Impossibly pessimistic.”

“Absurd? Pessimistic?” Uvarov swiveled his blind eyes toward Mark. “You have sight; I do not. Show me a part of the sky free from the corruption wrought by these dark-matter crows.”

Mark’s grin grew uncertain. “But we can’t escape the cosmos.”

Now Uvarov smiled, showing the blackness of his toothless mouth. “Can’t we?”

Lieserl watched Uvarov with interest. His analysis of the Northern’s situation had a devastating clarity. He seemed to be prepared to address issues with unflinching honesty — more honestly than any of the others, including herself.

Perhaps this was why Louise Armonk kept Uvarov around, Lieserl speculated. As a human he was barely acceptable, and his sanity hung by a thread. But his logic was pitiless.

Spinner-of-Rope folded her bare arms on the tablecloth. “So, Doctor, you know better than all the generations of humans who ever lived.”

Uvarov sighed. “Perhaps I do, my dear. But then I have the benefit of hindsight.”

“Then tell us,” Louise said. “You said humans were blind to the goals of the Xeelee. What were the Xeelee up to, all this time?”

“It’s obvious.” Uvarov swept his empty eyes around the table, as if seeking a reaction. “The Xeelee are the dominant baryonic species — the baryonic lords. And they have led the fight, the climactic battle for the Universe, against these swarms of dark-matter photino birds. They have been striving to preserve themselves in the face of the dark matter threat.”

“And the human wars with the Xeelee — ”

” — were no more than an irritation to the Xeelee, I should judge. But a dreadful, strategic error by humanity.”

The group fell into silence; Lieserl noticed that the eyes of Trapper-of-Frogs had become huge with wonder, childlike. She stared into the candle flames, as if the truth of Uvarov’s words could be found there.

“All right,” Louise said sharply. “Uvarov, what I need to understand is where this leaves us. What should we actually do?”

There was a gurgling sound from within Uvarov’s wrapping of blankets; Lieserl, uneasily, realized that his chair was feeding him as he spoke.

“What we should do,” he said, “is obvious. We cannot possibly defend ourselves against the photino birds. Therefore we must throw ourselves on the mercy of our senior cousins — we must seek the protection of the baryonic lords, the Xeelee.”

Mark laughed. “And how, exactly, do we do that?”

“We have evidence that the Xeelee are constructing a final redoubt,” Uvarov said. “A last defense perimeter, within which they must intend to fall back. We must go there.”

Louise looked puzzled. “What evidence? What are you talking about?”

Mark thought for a moment. “He means the Great Attractor…” He summarized the findings of the anomalous gravity-wave emissions from the direction of the Attractor.

Louise frowned. “How do you know that’s anything to do with the Xeelee?”

“Well, it could make sense, Louise; from the gravity waves we’ve picked up, we know something is going on at the Attractor site. Some kind of activity… something huge. And there’s no sign of life anywhere else…”

Uvarov nodded, his head jerking. “The Attractor is an immense construction site, perhaps: the last great baryonic project. We can even guess at its nature.”

“Yes?” Louise snapped.

“We know their technology was based on the manipulation of spacetime,” Uvarov said. “We have the evidence of the starbreaker — gravity-wave weapons — and the domain wall defect drive of the nightfighter. I believe the object in Sagittarius, whatever it is, is a construct.”

“A construct of what?”

“Manipulated spacetime,” Uvarov said.

“It’s logical, Louise,” Mark said. “Think about it. Only through spacetime effects, including gravitation, can the Xeelee interact with the photino birds. So they’ve evolved weapons and artifacts based on the manipulation of spacetime: the nightfighter domain-wall drive, the starbreaker…”

“The Ring,” Lieserl breathed. “Perhaps this — the Great Attractor — is the Ring. The Xeelee’s greatest, final Project…” Is it possible? “Dr. Uvarov, have you found the Ring?”

Garry Uvarov turned to her. “Perhaps.”

Mark was nodding. “Maybe you’re right… We’ve evidence that the dark matter creatures know about the activity in Sagittarius, too.” To Lieserl he said, “We’ve seen streams of them coming and going from the Sun and heading in the direction of the Attractor… as if that is the focus of their activities, as well.”

Uvarov smiled. “It is the final battlefield.”

“How far?” Lieserl asked.

Louise grimaced, her mouth twisting. “To the Great Attractor? Three hundred million light-years… It’s no walk around the block.”

“But we could get there,” Mark said. Lieserl noticed that his tone was flat, more distant than before. “We have the nightfighter hyperdrive. We’ve no evidence that the hyper-drive is distance-limited. Spinner’s flights have already man-rated it…”

Lieserl saw how Spinner-of-Rope shrank, subtly, away from the table, and dropped her small hands into her lap, her round face expressionless.

Louise Ye Armonk was frowning. “We’d have to find a way of transporting our people, obviously.”

Mark spread his hands. “Surely that’s possible. We may have to detach the lifedome from the Northern, fix it to the nightfighter somehow…”

Louise nodded. “We’d have to strengthen the dome internally, though… Obviously we’ll need co-operation from the Decks, Morrow — will we get it?”

Morrow leaned forward, into the light, to reply.

Lieserl folded her hands on the table and tried to stop them trembling. She let the rest of the conversation, as it delved into detail, wash over her.

The decision seemed to have been made, then, almost by default. She examined it in her own mind.

Had there been any alternative? Given Uvarov’s devastating logic, probably not.

But Uvarov’s logic implied that she — Lieserl — was going to end her own long, strange life at the center of all myths — myths which had persisted for most of mankind’s sad history.

She was going to the Ring…

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