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Worlds of the Timestream


The Interregnum
Volume 6



The Builder




Richard J. Sutcliffe



Published under license from Arjay Enterprises
Arjay Home
http://www.arjay.bc.ca
Copyright 2012, Richard J. Sutcliffe

Published by

Writers Exchange E-Publishing

PO Box 372

ATHERTON QLD 4883 Australia


http://www.writers-exchange.com

ISBN 978-1-921636-57-8



All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise without explicit permission from the publisher. Although every precaution has been taken in the preparation of this book, the publisher(s) and author assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. Neither is any liability assumed for damages resulting from the use of the information contained herein.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission from the publisher.





To Charlene



Previously Published in this Series:
Volume 1 : The Peace
Volume 2 : The Friends
Volume 3 : The Exile
Volume 4 : The General
Volume 5 : The Nexus


Table of Contents

Postprologue
Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3
Chapter 4


Postprologue

The Builder is the sixth volume in the editors' history of the interregnum, the turbulent years following the 1941 deposition of James IV. It tells the tale of events immediately following the nexus of September 2000.

Like the other five, this volume is a story circle in that several interwoven accounts are offered in alternating chapters, including a tale of the first Builder of Meta, and Roger Hyland, Builder of Tara. The reader is advised to consult each chapter or section heading for a time and location before mentally setting the scene. In some chapters the times are given in both Pacific west coast Tirdian and Hibernian Irish meridian standard, and these differed by up to thirty days in the fall of 2000.

The editors are again deeply grateful to the many participants in all threads of the story cycle who made their notes available and co-operated in our extensive interviews.

To review, The Peace told the story of the King and his deposition, followed him, his cousins, and their wives into exile afterward in New Tara, and recounted how some of them returned to establish Devereaux at the old Morgan estate. It also related the aftermath of the first battle of Glenmorgan and the survival into a new exile of Brian and Meghan McIlhargey (Mara Devereaux-Rourke).

The Friends picked up at Manse Devereaux with the generation of royals following James IV, traced their lives to and through Kilkarney, and thence to another look at Glenmorgan. It also recounted Meghan's growing years, her time in cadet school, the founding of The Friends of the Day, and time as Mara in Moody and Africa. We also followed Katherina from Glenmorgan to Irish South America, Los Angeles, and Australia, including her several incarcerations and the acquisition of foster daughter Sheana.

The Exile described the police action in Afghanistan and Mara's subsequent travels to Rome, Glenfinnan, and Tara. It told of the struggles of Day and Angus on Tirdia, of Sheana's growing up years with Bria, the Bards, and the Kildares. It provided details of Katherina's encounter with Thomas Monde at Penal City, her subsequent marriage to a man she thought she hated, and her conversion, capture and incapacitation at Tara. A new group of friends, including famed scholar Rhiannon, were traced to and through Kilkarney and into military life.

The General added to Mara's accounts as trouble shooter for the Donal in India, Moscow, South America, Japan, and China. It related Tad O'Kelly's early fame, encounters with the Earthies cult, fall from favour, mentoring by Cade, conversion, rise to active SpecialOps status, and eventual appointment as Senchus to try General Cath Maguire for cowardice. A second thread told of an ancient quad-amputee trapped in a Tirdian hospital, illicit experiments on her by renegade Hibernians, her rescue by Lucas, and her return to Hibernia in time to star in Tad's court case. We also met Sandy and his uncle Zeke, who had reasons of their own for wanting to follow Day from Tirdia to Hibernia, and who joined Tad as he ferreted out the truth and administered justice.

The Nexus recounted Mara's activities following the trial of 1998 through to her participation in the nexus itself. It revisited angst-ridden Lucas Caine, his discovery of the Timestream via Eider, John Dominic's daughter, his triggering of the nexus, and the immediate aftermath that saw both him and Eider wounded and the two separated. The usual plots and schemes at Tara's palace featured participants from Meta Earth, whose elder Heman wanted the Hibernians to heal his son Ruel.

Now, The Builder tells of events on Meta Earth where the Builder and his fellow elders face their own crises after the nexus. The Builder himself has vanished, the worlds of the Timestream are frozen in an incomplete Nexus, and the key to a solution lies in the partially recovered Ruel. A possibly apocryphal tale of Meta's first Builder was provided to us by the elders for inclusion in this work, and we offer it almost unedited. We also have an account of the life of the CRAE men known as the Builders of Tara, including an inside account of their involvement in thwarting Project Winter Troll. Lady Mara Meathe graciously gave us access to very personal notes on previously undocumented events of her early life, her engagement, and her defection from the Royal faction to the MacCarthys. Other critical events at Moody, Tara, Cork, and Tirdia's Chilliwack provide additional background to the factional leaders in the 2001 Civil War. The book ends with the spectacular triple wedding at Tara's St. Patrick's in early January 2001.

We include information from Hibernian palace records, the Donal's memoirs, General MacCarthy's personal papers, and a wide range of material provided by several other principals. In a few cases, we had multiple sources available and have taken the liberty of switching points of view in some chapters.

Stories yet to tell include the activities of Lord Caine and Lady Meathe after she resigned from her Palace posts, subsequent intelligence gathering efforts, and the second battle of Glenmorgan. As that collected volume is primarily concerned with the restoration of Tara's throne, we will incorporate a number of histories of her monarchy provided by James IV, starting from its earliest days. Some of these supply never-before-published great insights into the lives and reigns of Ireland's greatest kings and queens.

Our intention is that the seventh volume will indeed be the last in this monumental series, though some editors are considering offering in standalone volumes certain of the material they have gathered but that hasn't fit this story cycle for various reasons. This includes substantial and astonishing material relating to the famous but previously mysterious fifteenth century figure Admiral Amy Rea, the encryption on whose journals baffled all previous researchers until Lord Lucas recently rendered the plain text. The editors are convinced of the authenticity of these diaries and memoirs, ones that lay undisturbed in the Palace archives all these centuries, but observe that their acceptance necessitates the reworking of every history of that era hitherto written, most especially those describing her early years, her astonishing rise through naval ranks, the pivotal battle off Trafalgar Point on October 17, 1439, and the regime change of 1441. This latter material is so voluminous and so significant that we will undoubtedly publish it as a separate work.


Offered in the Name of the High Lord of Heaven

Under the Patronage of the Crown

Dedicated to the Throne of Tara, Mistress of Worlds

by General Editors

Richard Kent, Academician and Lord Protector of England

Walking Buffalo, Academician and Lord Holder of Edwardston

Cameron O'Grady, Lord High Bishop of Tara

and

Jana Whelan, Ard Seanacha of the Court of Ireland, who with her assistant Seanacha MacCarthy compiled this sixth volume.





Tara's Court is the lever of Hibernian society, the focus of its decision making, the driver of its institutions. Yet at most times the citizens of the capital have seemed indifferent to who held that lever, uncaring whether good or evil controlled the throne, not necessarily sure what the two were. But the city lost her innocence in 2000, grew up, seized responsibility for herself.

First she exercised the muscle of the commons to assist County Dublin in adopting the Mer for their heroic actions at the Dublin docks, forcing the court to declare them human, despite opposition from powerful lords. Later that year, and faced with the certainty of a tyranny that had already proven recklessly careless of life, her civilians accepted leadership from the Corps of Royal Army Engineers as they and local reservists allied with Palace Security and Lady Meathe's Friends of the Day to thwart a MacCarthy-led coup in a coordinated set of street battles. In so doing, they not only saved the planet from would-be despots, they preserved the beloved city they had rebuilt together.

The city's new maturity paved the way to meet the far worse threat requiring an even more heroic response late that year. McLatchies is proud of the role played by its own employees and CRAE friends on the latter occasions. We salute the dead as heroes and heroines and offer our continuing support and prayers for Tara's crown troops in the ongoing civil war.

--from a March 2001 McLatchies of Tara brochure.

Chapter 1

Mara, Tara of Hibernia, Wednesday September 6, 2000

In the still of the early evening one might be lulled into thinking the capital was peaceful. But if the four squads of soldiers visible along Royal Avenue to her west and the two more the opposite way toward Old Town, didn't put the lie to any illusion of normalcy, the hired guards visible in every shop doorway surely would.

Tears sprang to Mara's eyes as she remembered the fallen. Only two full days had passed since Palace Security, the Home Guard, and Friends loyal to her had paid in blood to quell the "MacCarthy Uprising" as Tara News now termed it.

She shook her head sadly. They'd be piping a different tune had Michael Malone and his men succeeded in gassing the thousands who lived and worked in the palace, then seized the reins of government for his clan. If Roger Hyland and his Corps of Royal Army Engineers hadn't entered the fray with the merchants and street people...

At least the locals had stood by the Crown. Mara stopped by a flower memorial opposite the Palace gate to read a hastily erected placard. Two shop owners and five of their employees had died here in support of her troops. She clenched her teeth. Now effectively Domain Lady of the city, she must prove worthy of their support by protecting them from more such violence. But how? It was deadly clear that the MacCarthys controlled more troops than did she or the Court, and had no regard for the Covenant of the Living. Worse, some of the nobles now railed on at Court as though the bloodshed in Tara's streets were her fault.

Moreover, she was the only surviving member of family Devereaux, and the last but one of Rourke. Not that her invalid mother could be of any assistance. Katherina still lay comatose in the Palace infirmary, oblivious to both Thomas Monde's latest attempt to kill her in the night, and the abortive gas attack by his allies the next day. Mara almost spat at the recollection of how Monde had nearly fooled her into supporting him. However, his true history had come out, thanks to his own boastful mouth and her friend Nellie Hacker's electronic sleuthing, both here and on alternate-Earth Tirdia, Nellie's home.

The former Lord Monde, like the MacCarthys, had overreached himself, challenging Catherine Ryan for her position on her majority day, losing to her champion, then being unmasked as a cheat. He'd fled, disgraced, denying Mara and Nellie the satisfaction of executing justice on him with a sharp sword. She owed Catherine, too, for doubting her and favouring Monde, not to mention her foolish jealousy over Jonas Kent having sworn the younger woman personal fealty at the height of the crisis, when it appeared the Donal was dead and Catherine Ryan might have to assume First.

She glanced along toward Misfire at McLatchies window, noting a light still on at the factor's desk. None of the tourist support firm's guides or street children employees worked at this hour, but their armed escorts would be busy ushering clients to their seats in local restaurants. Later they would return to take them back to the edge of the pedestrian-only zone and ensure their safety aboard a groundcar keyed to their hotels or homes.

Commerce goes on as usual, she thought, while the dead silently scream for justice.

"Crown for your thoughts, O quiet one."

Mara blinked, stopped in her tracks, turned to him. She'd become so preoccupied she'd lost touch with reality, all but forgotten they were on their way to dinner at McTavish's in Old Town.

"I'm sorry Jonas. Being here in the street reminded me, that's all." She shivered, then gestured to the area beneath their feet as they crossed Royal Avenue from the Palace gates. "Roger Hyland and I killed ten men on this spot." They took four more steps. "Sven Johanson killed ten more, his men another thirty--all within a few staves. That's fifty dead by our hands alone, men with mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, children who'll never see them again. More died by civilian hands across the street, more still in Old Town."

"Men who believed the MacCarthy racist propaganda and went along with their treachery to attempt mass murder," he pointed out.

"True, but dead men nonetheless."

"As are some of your Friends."

She nodded. He didn't say "our". As head of Security, and thus not permitted loyalties except to the Court, Jonas couldn't openly acknowledge his own training in Mara's organization, even though his father, Lord Kent of London, and Protector of England, had begun the Friends of the Day, dedicated to ensuring no tyrant would claim Tara's throne when the ban on kings expired the next year.

"And some of your Security forces," she added, as they stopped at the end of the street before the line of empty shops. For his service to the Court, Jonas had been made Lord Kent of Tara, and charged with security for the whole of home island. But here in the city, he reported to her, as did Alice Graham, Commander of the Home Guard. Now, she had to prove herself worthy by protecting those dependent on her from harm. She pursed her lips. Would the Lord of Heaven lend her strength to do so, or would it be his will that she die in the attempt? The MacCarthys had made it clear by their actions that they aimed to take control of Hibernia by whatever means. Open civil war was now inevitable.

"Mara." His hand on her arm turned her toward him. He hesitated, licked his lips, seemed about to say something important, but when they made eye contact, he stalled. They stood, staring at each other for long seconds, and a flush slowly crept over both their faces. Mara inadvertently fingered her belt pouch, thinking about the emerald she had there. Was this the time to offer it? No, Jonas should be the one to make the first move.

Suddenly, there was a shuffling movement from the direction they'd intended to go. Her peripheral vision picked out a double shadow as it moved between gloomy doorways. She tongued on her PIEA and sent a pict of two running men to Jonas' node. His focus shifted ever so subtly as he read his eye camera and digested the warning they were being accosted. She glanced to the west and a possible line of escape. Several more shadows detached themselves from doorways. Back to Jonas, whose gaze flickered from the palace across the street and back to her with a slight frown. They were surrounded. Mara gestured with her eyes. They'd back up against the shop wall and fight it out.

A rush of feet, a nod, a whirl, and a heartbeat later they were in a defensive triangle with the building.

Then a laugh, a shout, and, "You needn't draw on us, Mara dear." The two approaching resolved into Bridget Mally and Patrick O'Toole. The latter gestured down the street, then across. The others paused. Three waved, two saluted, then all sheathed their swords. One detached herself from the others and came to stand with Patrick and Bridget.

"Hi, Mara," Catherine Ryan offered.

Mara grinned back and nodded. Patrick and Catherine had ensured the night guards would protect her and Jonas. Likely every McLatchies guard on the street was an off duty security officer.

"Had us going there for a moment," Jonas admitted, dropping his blade back into the scabbard.

"You oughtn't sneak up on us," chided Mara, as she did likewise. She turned to Bridget and gestured at her scabbard. "I didn't know you wore a sword."

"Used to be security, dear." The old woman grinned back mischievously.

Mara nodded, suddenly puzzled. Bridget stood upright, seemingly well in control of her ancient body, not leaning on her cousin for support, and almost as tall as he. Then Mara remembered having dropped into Bridget's pawn and museum the day of the street riots after the nexus and having seen a sword on the counter. Ah, she suddenly realized, Mistress Mally is not quite the defenceless old crone she plays, any more than Patrick is the harmless younger man he pretends. What a couple of foxes. She felt pride in the two. After all, they were kin, cousins a couple of generations removed, but now the closest family she had left apart from her invalid mother. 'Course, Roger Hyland and his Engineers, along with his McLatchie Travel allies really turned the tide in the street fight.

Bridget grinned at her, seemingly reading her mood, then subjected Jonas to a searching examination that made him squirm.

Mara was about to chuckle over his discomfort when Patrick broke the silence.

"Getting along well professionally with our Mara, are you, lad?"

Obviously taken aback, Jonas replied cautiously, picking his words over carefully. "Family Kent, like Devereaux, holds the duty to protect the throne from incompetents and usurpers. My understanding is that we hold it for Alfred Dennison as rightful heir."

Patrick grunted. "What about you personally?"

"As Head of Security, I am obligated to obey the court, whoever has authority..."

Bridget interrupted "'Personally', he said."

Mara saw Jonas' face redden, and felt her own do likewise. She started to say something, but Bridget waved her to silence.

Jonas licked his lips nervously. "The night the Donal disappeared, I swore to Catherine as acting First."

Catherine looked from Patrick to Jonas, then to Mara. "Is that all that's holding you back? I release you from that oath, Jonas. You're Lord Kent of Tara in your own right now, and it no longer binds you. I have other protectors."

Another voice chimed in from behind her. "Listen to me, lad. I once knew a love-sick young puppy who waited too long to offer his emerald. He lost her for over fifteen years, then when he still hesitated, for another eight. It was false pride, lad. Don't make the same mistake. I'll rectify mine once I can."

Mara turned sharply and her mouth dropped open. The Donal? With Richard Kent? Both in civilian clothes?

Now Jonas hesitantly tried to respond, so she turned back to him, confused. What was going on here?

Then from the Donal again, "Do you think it not obvious you have the stone burning in your pouch, my lad? You look at her like a lost dog every few minutes and touch your hand to it. Do it, lad. You never know what...what the author of your life...may bring to your plot."

Head swimming, Mara seized on the Donal's odd expression. Another man would say "The Lord of Heaven". Then she remembered Jonas relate the Donal's telling him of his strange superstition--that his life was written out in a series of chapters that had not yet concluded. He wasn't scheduled to die just yet, so he'd fully expected Jonas to rescue him after being captured by Don Morgan.

Then, as if not wanting to concede too much softheartedness, Donal added, more briskly, "besides which, if you had a brain in your head you could see she's got a stone in her pouch waiting for you to speak first on the matter."

"So, we're all here on business," Richard Kent added.

"Yes, as closest kin, we need to discuss terms and conditions," Patrick observed, to Mara's growing befuddlement.

"She can't very well allow her clan name to extinguish, so will have to keep hers."

"No other way in this case," Richard replied. "And a Kent may not give up his under England's laws."

"He's got no estate because your Zack's the oldest."

"She's got none either, so that's all there is to that."

"He's a hereditary Lord now."

"She can use any of Devereaux, Rourke or Meathe, but there isn't much to any of them. She does have a royal sword, though."

"That's good enough. Sounds like they're even," Bridget was impatient to end the negotiations.

Suddenly realizing the import of the words, Mara put her hands on her hips and glared at her former landlady. Bridget grinned back, hugely enjoying herself. Then Mara became aware of shuffling feet on all sides, and felt a circle of people close in. She caught peripheral glances of uniforms and New School pocket flashes. She didn't care. She had eyes only for Jonas.

"Does Jonas, Lord Kent of Tara, have a token of value for an oath?" Patrick asked, barely able to suppress his own laughter, and to a murmur of chuckles.

There must be a hundred people watching, Mara thought.

"All right, son, say your piece," Richard said.

Jonas fumbled at his pouch and held something out.

"I Jonas Kent of Tara, do hereby offer this stone as hostage to my oath for marriage to Mara Meathe, formerly Rourke and Devereaux." He dropped the length of chain, and Mara saw the double-hearted emerald hanging from it.

Afraid to take her eyes from him for an instant, and barely hearing Kent enquire whether she also had a token, Mara pulled the matching emerald piece from her pouch and let it hang beside the other. Trembling like leaves, the pair placed the chains around each other's necks.

Patrick laughed uproariously, and was quickly joined by hoots and scabbard slapping from all around. "Looks like they came out to their dinner party pretty well prepared," Dan Duchaine's voice supplied.

"All right kids," gushed Richard Kent, "out with your swords and swear up, so we can get the formalities over with and all go join you for dinner. We rented the whole of McTavish's upstairs dining hall for the engagement party."

The shouting and celebrating was so loud Jonas and Mara could scarcely hear each other as Richard Kent and Patrick O'Toole led her and Jonas through the betrothal oaths. It wasn't until they were nearly done that she realized the witness hands on her own shoulders belonged to Catherine Ryan and Sheana O'Toole, and that Jonas was flanked by old friends Tim Evans and Gowan Donald.

She was peripherally aware of other familiar faces as she and Jonas leaned in for their first kiss to seal the engagement. More like two hundred, some automatic thought postscripted, as she lost herself in her man's embrace while the street noise became deafening.

* * * * *

Mara, Tara of Hibernia, 1100 Thursday September 7, 2000

She still tingled all over from the previous night's late and raucous festivities as she stood in the now-shortened front row of the court. To her left was Jonas at third. She felt warm just knowing he was there, now they'd promised before all those witnesses to stand by each other forever.

To her right was Graham, who had yielded fourth position when she was named and initially given fifth. The next three in the row--Donahue, Shea, and Hennessy--weren't Friends, and Mara didn't fully trust any of them. Dennison stood at ninth, followed by Tim Evans, Gowan Donald, and Fred Hallas--all Friends of the Day. The remaining standings would be filled when the next test of strength was held. She grinned, satisfied she now held the reins of power here. Alfred Dennison couldn't claim the throne for nearly another year, but he was surely secure, as was the Donal.

If she also held lands, a manse and the liege-fealty of troops for her Friends to officer, her personal position would be even better. She fingered the emerald she wore under her shirt, then shook her head to clear the mental cobwebs from a surfeit of satisfaction. Ireland's civil war had only begun. It was too soon to relax. A wedding would have to wait.

"If the Home Office is sufficiently awake..." The Donal's sarcasm cut into her reverie, and she shook herself back to the present. While she'd been pea gathering, the startup rituals had concluded.

"He wants a report on the MacCarthy and Monde," Jonas whispered.

"Certainly, my Lord Donal, lords and ladies," Mara began, as smoothly as if she'd been listening. She took control of the court's display screens through her PIEA and led them through a parade of information.

"Upon their confiscation by the crown, the manses and offices of families Monde, Jones, Davis, and Malone have been examined and their data files and networks secured and tested by a team of forensic auditors acting under the direction of Colonel Hacker and Dugold Dunnegan, with reports to SpecialOps and Home Office.

"With respect to the nameless fugitive once known as Thomas, Lord Monde, we determined that he maintained a private network independent of the main system on which he stored information concerning his personal activities. From that we have thus far learned that he leased from family MacCarthy the building adjacent to Old Town wherein he operated a brothel and gambling parlour, that he ordered the kidnapping of Sheila Desmond, Gwen MacCarthy, and Vaughn MacCarthy, the latter two under-age, and that he personally established and operated the previously discovered illegal genetic and chemical research facilities in the St. Charles Islands and the Mergui. He developed the Doeg, and the young Mer. He also sold the anthrax spores to the Indian government for its attack on Afghanistan.

"There are indications of involvement in other projects not as yet revealed. SpecialOps and Home Office recommend all Monde holdings and Science domain systems be placed under forensic review.

"With respect to clan MacCarthy, the investigative team has discovered a second shadow network connecting a number of unregistered nodes belonging to families Jones, Davis, and Malone, with one node in the manse of High Bishop Philip Desmond, the MacCarthy Mor. We have as yet no evidence Bishop Desmond was directly involved in the MacCarthy conspiracy to kill members of this court, but we note that the bishop has departed Tara and is believed to be currently residing in his southern counties. Moreover, he has neither responded to requests for an interview nor contacted other family in the capital."

She was summarizing a lot of material here, some enlightening, some no more than rust flakes. Apparently Desmond no longer cared about his daughter Sheila's whereabouts, so the latter continued to stay with Selma, and the cousins were becoming fast friends. All the details of the MacCarthy conspiracy had been present on several clan computers, excepting the bishop's.

By contrast, Nellie got almost nothing from a search of Monde's manse, neither were any of his nodes connected to those of Clan MacCarthy, though they did constitute most of the smaller of the two shadow networks she and Nellie had long known of. What she'd told the court about Monde so far had been learned from confederates, customers, and interviews with his servants. Monde's files at Science appeared more promising, and O'Toole, on appointment from Donal, had already begun investigating the domain's budget allocations and expenses over the last several years. It would be a huge task.

She went on for some time, illustrating the details on the large MT screens scattered about the room.

"Very well," the Donal ordered, when she finally wound to a stop, and after consulting the court's mood, "Court orders a forensic audit of Science, and of all relevant suppliers, contractors, and business partners, Home Office and SpecialOps to continue leading the investigation."

Lord Chamberlain chimed in with a perfunctory "So let it be said, so let it be done."

The Donal was just readying for the next item, an allocation to bring the Home Guard up to full strength, when Mara felt the tingle of the Timestream in use nearby. The First Lord must have noticed too, for he turned from his MT and looked abruptly to his left, just as the Metans' strange sled-like apparatus appeared in the courtroom, as it had before the Nexus.

There was a buzz of excitement, but the court was more subdued this time when Heman of Meta stepped away from what Mara knew was merely a prop.

Not so the news hounds upstairs, who twittered rapidly into their microphones, and shifted their cameras to gain a better angle on their off-planet visitor.

Donal stood and bowed at the visitor. "If the Court indulges, we will hear from Lord Heman of Meta."

Heman returned the courtesy. Mara thought he looked grim. "First as to business. Meta advises the Court of Tara as follows: The nexus that began this past early Monday morning your time is incomplete. The two versions of Tirdia have not completely separated and are holding in a temporarily stable entangled pattern." He turned slightly and smiled at Catherine Ryan, so she accepted the implied invitation and came to stand beside him. He handed her a data cube.

"We have measured the Timestream energies carefully, and though we are unable to travel to the Tirdian universe, or universes, as the case may be, we can supply temporary coordinates that will allow travel to the others, at least until such time as the nexus completes. Council dispatched me here as soon as we generated the data."

"Do you have an estimate?" Donal asked. Mara thought him more polite than she'd ever heard--which in his case was either very good, or very dangerous.

"I'm afraid not," Heman replied. "The situation is similar to that which prevailed after your earth began to split from Tirdia in 29AD. That situation progressed slowly until 1014, when the then Builder found a way to travel to Tirdia and initiated a stabilization sequence."

A low buzz went around the room at this casual, but oh-so significant remark, and Mara felt the hair rise at the back of her neck. Everyone knew that the distinguishing event that completed the long nexus was Clontorf, or more accurately, its aftermath. In one world, Cormac had prevented Brian Boru's assassination. In the other he had not. Her mind swirled, considering the possibilities. Was Cormac the Builder, or had he only been influenced by him?

Heman resumed. "We currently lack the ability to enter Tirdia's universe, so the Builder's location is unknown. This is all we have." He stopped.

"Regarding your mission of mercy, my lord." Donal then waved at Catherine, urging her to respond, even as Heman glanced about anxiously.

Catherine took his arm, and Heman first winced, apparently expecting the worst, then calmed suddenly and turned to Catherine looking surprised.

She used the shape sense to do that, Mara concluded, as Catherine began her speaking.

"My lord, Hibernia is pleased to advise that your son Ruel's body made a remarkable and dramatic recovery. He is ambulatory, physically fit and able."

Heman had turned to Catherine as she began speaking, and Mara was able to see his face go from transcendent joy, then back to deep concern as her carefully exact words sunk in.

"But his mind..."

"...is locked in trauma and confusion," she finished. "He lacks medium or long term memory, and requires constant guidance with daily functions."

"I see." Heman straightened in palpable disappointment.

"Lord Ruel is currently undergoing testing in the infirmary," Catherine added, "that will be finished in another hour. We had planned a brain scan, but it might be better if you take him home in the hopes his memories will return in a familiar context. We will of course provide copies of all medical data our staff has gathered."

Except whatever Monde did to him, Mara privately amended. Catherine had told the court of Monde's unauthorized presence in the boy's room, and presumed interference, but the medical staff had been unable to put a blade on anything specific.

Court recessed shortly thereafter, so Heman followed Catherine and Mara to the Palace infirmary. There he spoke to his son, but got only vacant stares.

"We gave him a language tape, so he speaks Gaelic. You may have to do likewise," Catherine suggested.

Heman shook his head sadly. "You've grown him a face I know not, his wits are gone, and he cannot speak his native language. Yes, I'll take him to Meta and see if home makes a difference." At that, the two vanished from the infirmary consulting room. Mara shamelessly followed, having no difficulty noting the little twist in the Timestream that got them to out-of-phase Meta. She mentally filed the information for later use and returned to Catherine, who looked at her oddly, but made no comment.


* * * * *

Mara, Tara of Hibernia, the evening of Saturday September 9, 2000

"Enjoying the music, Mara?"

"Ah, Jonas, the palace gardens are so lovely." She held his arm more tightly and turned to him as they made their way around the promenade. "I could spend hours here."

"Not with anyone else, I hope."

She blushed slightly and gave his arm another squeeze. "Not a chance, intended one."

But moments later, she felt him withdraw slightly, then subvocalize a few quick comments. She grimaced. Security business was never slack.

"Ah, Mara..."

"I know. You have to see about a security problem, but you'll be right back." She pulled off to the side slightly to let others pass, and gave him a look of mock exasperation. "Well, I'll wait right here for half an hour, and if you're not back, I'll return to my quarters. Perhaps I'll find someone else to walk with after all."

Jonas grinned and nodded toward a bench set in a bower off the path. "I won't be long."

Mara chuckled as she sat, for she'd already called up a PIEA screen in her eyepiece, set a half hour timer, and was reviewing the last of the day's New School reports. We're two of a kind, all right.

"Lady Mara, how good to see you here. You're just the person I want to talk to." Mara focused on the woman standing in the bower entrance, waving a lace handkerchief in her direction. She stood. It seemed some time had passed, but the timer still had twenty minutes.

"Lady Quigly." She bowed slightly. Gladys Quigly was an old-money commerceman's widow who stood unarmed at court among the hereditary nobility, and relied on hired bodyguards. She was in cosmetics distribution, an industry Mara personally found distasteful.

"Oh, call me Gladys."

"And I am Mara." No return bow, though. Doesn't know or doesn't care.

Quigly turned to her companions, the Donahues. "I'll catch up with you later, Delia dear."

"Care to join me?" Mara indicated the bench.

"Oh, yes of course. Isn't the music just lovely tonight, dear?"

Mara had thought so until now, but Lady Quigly's high, whining voice robbed much of the pleasure from the evening. She'd heard the woman in the Great Hall, regaling her sycophants with stories and gripes about Court business, other noble families, the weather, and her own dire, though unapparent health problems. More, she'd joined St. Patrick's during the renovations, and spoken to business meetings at length of her preferences for tile, paint, exterior finish, who to give the contracts, and any other issue at hand. When that project finished, she'd started in on how the Sunday lunches ought to be run. If there'd ever been a born complainer, she was it.

"Well, what a to-do about the MacCarthys and the Mondes, don't you think?"

Replies seemed neither in order nor possible, so Mara kept silent as she ranted on.

"But I do think the Donal has been very high handed in all this--pronouncing judgements without any proper trial. Surely, if the other side had a chance to tell their story, the outcome would be quite different, yes.

"Did I ever tell you how the Donal wronged me and my daughter? No, probably not."

Mara had overheard snippets of the story as told to others four or five times, but had to be honest, "No, can't say you have."

Doubtless it would have made no difference.

"Well, my daughter Glorie-May was nominated to be the Troll Queen, and wouldn't you know, he vetoed it. Told the Troll Day committee she'd failed her drama exams and wasn't qualified. As if it was any of his business. That little snip Shaylah O'Mahoney became queen instead. Now if I were in the front row, or sitting on the Donal's chair..."

"Have you ever spoken to him about this matter directly, as the Holy Books require?"

"Well, yes, and he 'expressed his regrets' but..."

"And did you forgive him, as a Christian is required by our Lord in Mattias five?"

"Well, yes, I said I forgave him, but really, he should never have done such a thing. And wouldn't you know that one time I happened on him while he was talking to some general, and he snapped at me that I 'wasn't ever to interrupt him again' and..."

"Are you aware that lives could have been in balance for a quick decision and your interference may have meant someone died on a battlefield?"

"Well, I supported him when he became Donal, and he ought to remember who his friends are. And do you know what Delia told me about him and that Karina woman who's his contract wife?"

Mara's patience was already wearing thin, but she wasn't going to allow her mother to be impugned by this woman.

"How long ago did these things happen?"

"Not even ten years back. I'll never forget..."

"So at least once you said you forgave him, yet you've not only gone back on your word, but held an angry grudge and engaged in malicious gossip all this time? Given the passages in Mattias five, first Corinthians thirteen, first John, and James, it seems to me you can hardly mount a credible claim to be walking in obedience to Christ. Have you never read that some of the Corinthians died because they came to the Lord's Table unworthily? Yet you flaunt the scriptures and still partake of the bread and cup every Lord's Day? You invite judgement on yourself and God's church because of your behaviour. You need to repent."

By the time she finished her retort, Mara was as irritated at herself for her own harsh words as she was at Gladys Quigly's.

But the other woman took no notice, just carried on. "And I should think you'd be as upset as I at the man's high handed behaviour. That business of the fish people, and I've heard about all the nasty missions he's sent you on. Now I think Lord Donahue would make a much better..."

A more welcome voice interrupted. "Ah Lady Meathe, I'm so glad you waited for me. Shall we resume the promenade?"

"You will excuse me Lady Quigly." She quickly rose, and turned away. "I have a prior engagement with Lord Kent of Tara."

"Ah, the new lord." She sniffed disdainfully. "If you ask me..."

"No one has." Mara beat a hasty retreat from the arbour, and hurried Jonas away.

When they were well out of her hearing, he chuckled. "Did she get to the part where she invited you to a meeting at her manse to discuss 'what can be done about getting rid of this nasty Donal'?"

"You mean she talks sedition all the time?"

"Security keeps an eye on her, and on who comes and goes from her house, but so far, it's all magpie talk."

Mara calmed. "You'll help me forget about her, then?"

"If you'll let me."

* * * * *

Mara, Tara of Hibernia, 1300 Sunday September 10, 2000

The following Sunday afternoon, in response to a request from Selma, Mara visited St. Patrick's in Old Town to meet her and Cam. Selma left the children with Rainbow, and the three walked together from the rectory into the church through one of the small postern doors. It wasn't worthwhile for routine entry to open the massive main ones--they were used only for state ceremonies, and none had been held here for a very long time, recent governments preferring venues such as the courtroom, Tara Music Hall, or the cathedral uptown.

Mara felt at peace in the cool quiet of the ancient church with its high arches above freshly-cleaned stained glass depictions of scenes from the Holy Books, and doubly so now the Friends had won a major battle in their war for the Day. She breathed a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord of Heaven, then pleaded that a more normal life might soon be possible. Looking around at the ever fresh wonders, she scarcely noticed the low conversation between Cam and Selma as the three drifted toward an ornate old altar where priests had in pre-reform days offered intricate pageantries designed to represent the sacrifice of Christ. The Holy Books were central now, and the elaborate traditions that centuries of churchmen had overlaid on God's Word had been stripped away, so such altars were only retained for their antiquary value. This one was studded with assorted gemstones embedded in gold plating--by very existence a tribute to the honour of the many who passed it by without attempting to pry a stone loose.

Mara was suddenly aware that the other two were silent. She abandoned her rubbernecking in time to see Selma pull a chain out from under her shirt and finger a large ornament on the end.

"Have you ever seen one of these, Mara?"

"I can't say that I have," she replied, baffled.

"It's a will key."

Mara's mouth made an "oh". A will key was a little known but diabolical device from the early days of electronics--designed to keep the deepest secrets securely hidden. Once tuned to the wearer, it sensed both proximity and emotional states. If removed by even a sword length before being used to release its corresponding lock it would either explode or emit a deadly gas, depending on the type. If employed when the owner was unwilling, it would do likewise. In either case, the key and its secret were destroyed, and there was a good chance the wearer and anyone close by would be seriously injured or killed.

Will keys were matched to a lock that was itself booby-trapped with explosives. If the key was used properly by a willing wearer, the trap and key were both disarmed. An attempt to force the lock or any action that caused the destruction of the will key within range set off the explosive attached to the lock. The idea was to annihilate the contents of the vault where one's secrets were stored and possibly kill those who tried to gain illicit access simultaneously. Donning a will key or forcing one on someone created a living hostage for the safety of the vault's contents, but those had to be extremely valuable to justify such measures. There was also a risk to the wearer. Will keys had occasionally malfunctioned and killed the hostage. There were famous historical accounts of their use and misuse, mostly from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but Mara couldn't recall a recent case.

Selma casually twirled the heavy pendant on the chain about her neck. "I knew from research I had done for him there was something hidden in one of the two big churches--something my uncle Philip wanted very badly. When I actually found it after examining many old documents, I made this up and will-locked it back in so he couldn't get at it. I have worn it ever since--more than five years now. As far as I know, he never did discover the location--not that it would have done him any good while I had this." She stopped the twirling and held the large locket in her palm, then placed her fingernails beneath the gem on top and pinched upward. She pushed down on something inside, and there was a loud "pop" under the altar.

Mara could see that a small door had just swung ajar, and guessed what might be inside. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

"What, give the sword to Father Cam? Of course. He's entitled to it now that he's the bishop, and once he has it, I can absolve myself of further responsibility."

Once Philip Desmond was gone, the job of High Bishop had been forced on Cam by the other parish priests of Tara, and only agreed to when he got permission to move the seat to St. Patrick's and bring James Moran from London to turn the gaudy cathedral on Royal Avenue into a proper working parish.

Mara blinked a couple of times. "But, Father Cam isn't a MacCarthy."

Selma looked back at her, puzzled. "You thought it was sword MacCarthy my uncle wanted from me?"

Cam, meanwhile, had reached into the hidden cupboard and pulled out a long wrapped bundle. "It's a sword, all right," he declared, beginning to remove the oil cloths.

"I had it out once," Selma told them, "just to verify what it was. I'm not an expert but I am sure it must be...

Suddenly Cam freed it, then held the ornate blade that lacked a proper edge before them and finished her sentence "...the sword of the Church."

All three looked at the magnificently jewelled ornamental blade for a few moments, then Selma said, "Well, that's it--your responsibility now. As long as my uncle was high bishop, he could use this sword to help him install a king of his own choosing, but since he is no longer, it does him no good, as it can only be used with the Church's permission."

The other two stared at it as she continued. "It has been here for over two hundred years, and has not seen the court since the last dynasty of kings began ruling. The Bards have one like it hidden away somewhere, and also have the equal right with all the other swords to use it to enthrone or deny a king."

Mara remembered the day the Bards had made her their sword bearer. That meant she had to take their direction for it when the day came. She laughed. "And here I thought all along you had MacCarthy."

Selma was grim. "No, both Sheila and I could claim it, I suppose, if we knew where it was, but either Uncle Philip has it hidden away, or lacks knowledge of its whereabouts." She reflected, then added, "He thought he had one other, I'm sure. When you came to court and presented Devereaux, he was enraged. I concluded he must have a fake, then realized then he must have been planning to claim the throne. Sheila agrees."

"Do you know where your uncle is now?" Mara asked

"If not Castle Desmond, north of Kinsale, County Cork, or the old Desmond house in Kinsale, then another MacCarthy clan manse or a monastery. Some of the abbots are MacCarthys."

Mara nodded. She had no direct evidence tying Desmond to what the other MacCarthy lords had done, so couldn't issue a warrant for his arrest, not that the clan would yield him from their territory anyway.

Cam spoke for the first time. "I do not like having the power this trinket represents, but will hide it in a safe place until it's needed."

"Yes, well don't tell either of us," Mara hastily advised. "If we don't know, the location can't be tortured out of us."











If the Court of Tara is the lever to shape Hibernian society, The Royal Army is the fulcrum on which that lever turns. From one-person police forces to grand-army expeditions, the RA provides the muscle to enforce her edicts and crush her enemies. Home for and patron of academia for her entire history, the RA has always demanded that her officers combine martial and intellectual prowess in almost equal measure. From the eleventh-century "Culmanics" to the modern scholar officer, the RA has an unbroken tradition of theoretical and practical accomplishments surpassing those of all academies combined. Two of her Corps however, make practical demands so consuming that for centuries conventional wisdom excluded their members from senior ranks unless they transferred to regular army status and obtained troop command experience. Consequently, fliers developed their own ratings, valid only on their flight decks. A flight colonel or the CRAF flight general would have a dirtside RA line rank no higher than captain, and that only in an emergency. Otherwise, they would be considered as staff, and their ranks as courtesy.

Engineers, who by contrast often did have occasion to be on the battlefield, were understood to be limited to the RA rank of captain, the one of whom they elected as First or CCC (Corps Commander in Chief) commanded the entire CRAE. In recent years, two remarkable individuals, each a member of both CRAF and CRAE, built careers that erased tradition.

--Flight General Amelia Connaught, writing in her military history column for the Spring 2001 edition of "Flight Deck" magazine.


Chapter 2

Garth Quinlan, Tara, Hibernia, May 7, 1971

Garth lurched unsteadily under the weight of the conduit he was manoeuvring through a third floor doorway leading to the West tower utility conduit, formerly an elevator shaft. Four more sections and the new electrical system would be ready for cable. Then his Corps of Royal Army Engineers squad would knock out a few side holes on the floor above into the latest expansion of Tara's Palace and extend electrical and other utilities into the raw framework of the new fourth through sixth floors.

There was no need to inspect the pipe itself. Grown by a nanomachine process in a nutrient rich bath, it was a perfect cylinder of polymer-coated steel, impervious to rust, and strong enough to hold the building up by itself. Once Garth placed and welded the entire main, it would be filled with a variant of the same bath to ensure all the joints were likewise coated.

This day, he could scarcely hear the sound of his own cursing over the jackhammer pounding of a ghastly headache. He should have stayed home in bed, like his absent partner "Tiny" Komenski. The two had drunk themselves insensible in the Red Lion pub the previous night, and perhaps Tiny was still unconscious.

"Duty. I come to work out of duty. But who will remember me when this is done? It's just another project for us CRAE grunts, and the bit of glory that might come never flows past officer country."

His head got worse when thought about his wife, nine months pregnant, and confined to the palace infirmary--not because the pregnancy had gone wrong, but because of her steadily deteriorating mental health. Three times she'd been found wandering around the hallways and been brought home to their barracks suite spouting incomprehensible gibberish. The physicians claimed she'd recover after the birth, but Garth was sceptical. His mother had died of complications after what was supposed to have been a routine operation, and since then he'd trusted physicians even less than officers. If Fay didn't get her mind back, who would look after their new son Roger, due any day now?

A stench assailed his nostrils as he forced the recalcitrant door open and staggered inside. "Did an animal die in this hole?" He glanced around. The small room had been empty since they had removed the generator and electrical panels once situated here. The old feeds would be patched into this new system he was building, now to pull power from the big fusion plant under Royal. Preoccupied with the length of pipe, he barely noted the reddish pool on the floor as he tried to force one end through an opening into the shaft, where it would attach to a riser he and Tiny would run up to the next level.

He cursed again. That white Komenski hadn't made the hole large enough. Garth tried to pull the pipe back, but it stuck. Sweating, head pounding, he wrapped his ample arms around the section of tube, held on, and jerked, his feet leaving the floor in an effort to put his not inconsiderable mass into the task. He didn't notice the shadow cross the door.

"Aw rust," he exclaimed as even this expedient failed. He tried again, with the same result. On the third attempt, the recalcitrant pipe broke loose with a screech. But as he attempted to regain his footing, Garth put his right boot into the slippery mess of blood and water on the floor. Off balance, and with no purchase, he had no chance to stay upright as one foot shot away from the other.

Unconscious once his head hit the floor, he never saw the figure who'd entered the room tip his welding torch into a pile of plastic water pipe stored there.

* * * * *

Pat Murphy, Tara, Hibernia, May 1971

"With respect to Garth Quinlan, our finding is accidental death at his own hand by smoke inhalation." Pat Murphy, Tara's High Brehon, announced the inquiry panel's finding in shaken tones. The fire had been put out before the palace had suffered structural damage, but the smoke...

He turned to the panel's second verdict. "And in the death of the new-born infant Rory Maguire, and injury to Carrie Maguire in the room adjacent, our verdict is homicide with culpability. Inasmuch as Garth Quinlan was impaired by twice the legal limit of alcohol, did not check surrounding quarters for occupants, left a torch burning contrary to standard safety practice, and did not clear the albeit unusual hazard on the floor, we hold him eighty percent responsible.

"We absolve Fay Quinlan of culpability on the grounds of insanity. Nor do we hold cleaning staff responsible. They could not have known she had chosen that room to birth her child after escaping supervision in the infirmary, so had no opportunity to clean up. The infirmary staff and the Corps of Royal Army Engineers we hold ten percent responsible each, respectably for lack of adequate supervision of Fay Quinlan, and for failing to close the service hatch through which the smoke escaped into the Maguire living quarters room next door where Rory Maguire was born. We recommend that in future building occupants be cleared from all rooms adjacent to palace construction projects."

"We absolve the physician attending Carrie Maguire. The emergency to which she was called justified her departure. Moreover, the visit was routine, there was no reason to suppose birth was imminent, or that there was any threat. We note that nothing could have been done for the child, but she did offer prompt and appropriate assistance to Carrie Maguire, saving her life, at the cost of slight lung damage, and short-term memory loss extending over a few days. How she had managed to handle her child's birth and clean up the mess by herself before succumbing to the smoke is a story she cannot tell.

"On the sworn release of Court servants Cam and Carrie Maguire, parents of the infant Rory, compensation and blood feud are permanently and irrevocably waived. However, we order the crown, acting for its staff and the Royal Army, to pay all funeral and related expenses for both decedents."

Murphy pounded his antique metal tipped staff on the polished hardwood floor of the hearing room. "So let it be said, so let it be done." He shook his head sadly. In all his years as a circuit judge, a regional first brehon, and now High Brehon of Tara, he'd never adjudicated a more bizarre case. The most troubling aspect was Fay Quinlan. He was no physician, but it was clear that her own child's birth had sapped her last vestige of sanity. She'd have to be institutionalized, probably permanently.

That same strange birth had inadvertently killed both her husband and another woman's child, though once she'd been located wandering about the palace garden promenade with her new-born clutched in her arms, she'd submitted meekly to being returned to the infirmary. There she stared placidly at the ceiling and mumbled incoherently from time to time, apparently unaware of either the tragic events or her own infant. Her oblivion was a small blessing amidst multiple catastrophes. Murphy wondered what would become of the child--Roger, she usually called him, in most of her lapses into semi-coherence, Raymond at others. But the wee lad's fate was a social issue, outside the scope of the case he'd been asked to rule on.

He walked to where Cam Maguire stood holding the hand of his gorgeous little five-year-old daughter, Catherine, whom most called Cath. A good man, this Maguire. Solid, dependable, honest, sold out to the Lord Jesus Christ. He and his wife Carrie were just the sort to have as the realm's head accountants, and apparently Carrie Maguire's memory loss wouldn't affect her ability to continue.

"My heart grieves for you, brother Cam." The Head Brehon had seen the medical reports. A pre-existing ovarian condition meant there would be no more children for Carrie Maguire. She'd almost lost this one even before the fire, and would have to accept that the Lord of Heaven had given her only the one girl.

A tear glistened in the slight accountant's eye. "Your judgement was fair, my lord, and we bear no ill-will towards the Quinlans. The Lord of Heaven gives and he takes away. Rory had only minutes in this world, but is with God now. We must be content loving our Cath." He sighed. When he and Carrie did return to work, they'd have to reconstruct some financial records whose location was an apparent collateral casualty of her memory loss, but they could manage, assuming there was no other damage.

* * * * *

Roger and Mona Hyland, Tara, Hibernia, 1976

"But mother, why do we have to move?" The comfortable army apartment in Tara's palace was all the world Roger knew. He had several friends with whom he roamed Tara's halls under the watchful eyes of child-friendly security guards. The prospect he might never see them again was overwhelming. Worst of all, they had to go in less than a week. The palace guards were his protection and friends. Could he be safe in a world he didn't know?

Five year old Roger could scarcely articulate his worries to himself, much less to his mother, but the important thing was the why.

"We are army engineers, dear one," Mona Hyland reminded him, rumpling the boy's curly hair tenderly. She looked down at his perfect little face and her heart leapt. In theory, according to the gene mappers, she and her husband Drew could have been fertile together. But, as with many engineering projects, the theory of practice failed to match the practice of theory, with the result that eight years of marriage hadn't produced a pregnancy.

When poor Fay Quinlan was committed to Harrod's asylum shortly after her husband's tragic death in the palace fire he'd accidentally started, their CRAE squad had jointly petitioned for her infant Roger's custody. When Brehon Murphy required the naming of specific parents, the other squad members unanimously delegated the formal task to their only married couple, while retaining joint legal oversight. So the boy had five uncles as well as a father and mother to shepherd him through life. Mona thought he might need all seven, not to mention the extended platoon and more transient members of their engineering team, the civilians and army grunts who worked at the engineers' direction and with whom Roger invariably formed friendships.

"We've finished the tunnel, Roger. So once we test it, we return to pack our things, then go to India."

The train conduit from Copeland Island just off Ireland's coast to Portpatrick on the big island had occupied their CRAE platoon and thousands of workers for four years now, but the project was finally complete--four cables of carbon nanotube fibres stretching under the Irish sea and supporting the tube suspended deep beneath the surface. Once it had been assessed in action, they would build longer, stronger, better ones. Eventually.

Insistent, Roger broke into her reverie, repeating "Why?"

He asked the question dozens of times a day, even more often than, "What makes that work?" She gave the only answer she could. "We are engineers. We build where the crown sends us."

He stood staring up at her, round serious face framed with reddish-brown curls that she really must soon cut, and for a moment she thought he might cry. But it passed, and his cherubic good nature and angelic smile reasserted. "What shall we build next?" he asked, apparently accepting the explanation thus far.

"We're going to do an experimental soil reclamation in India, dear one." She set out milk and home-made cookies as a peace offering.

"What's that?" he demanded in his piping child's voice as he sat up to the kitchen table.

"Well, a long time ago, people developed some very bad weapons, and then they used them in a terrible war, or really, a series of wars."

"That's why we have the covenant now," he assured her, in quite an adult way. "I learned that in class at Tara Meta Ollamh."

She smiled. Building the tunnel had meant commuting among their Dublin HQ, their office at Tara, and the tunnel terminus at Copeland. One of the benefits of the lad having been born during their now six-year homeland tour of duty was that Roger would always have Tara's best teachers, wherever he lived. Virtual classrooms wouldn't quite be the real thing, but were effective simulacra, almost the same as being there, except that all teacher identities, not just the classified ones, were hidden from remote students.

"Yes, that's why the Covenant of 1801 was adopted, so that people would never again build and use such evil weapons."

"Including us engineers," he declared, solemnly.

"Especially us engineers." She grinned at him, almost laughing out loud. Roger never doubted he was one of them, a full-fledged engineer at five years old.

"'Cause we're the ones who actually build things," he concluded.

He took another cookie and a deep drink. "And where we're going, they used those bad weapons a long time ago, so we're going to fix things."

Mona blinked, startled that he'd knit so many threads together on his own. It wasn't the first time the lad's bright intelligence had surprised her. She remembered the time a year earlier, before his fourth birthday, when he'd spent a long time thinking, then suddenly blurted, "If half of a half is a fourth part, then half of a fifth part must be a tenth part." Not only hadn't it been a question, she couldn't recall ever teaching him about fractions in the first place.

Roger habitually asked fundamental "why" questions, but once he understood, his conclusions and subsequent query were likely to anticipate next month's lesson.

"We're going to try," she assured him. "A group of academicians developed a new bacterium to concentrate heavy metal and other residue from the soil that was poisoned by chemical war in 1756. We have to turn that into a practical process, try it, and if it works, teach the people how to use it on the rest of their ruined lands. All going well, they will be able to farm them again someday."

"What's a cadmicion?"

"A-cademicians, Roger," she corrected, "are members of the academy. They study theories, science in this case, and write down how they think the Lord of Heaven has made things work. But if the high lords want to use the academicians' ideas to actually make something from those theories, they need engineers."

"They think, but we make." Satisfied, Roger changed the subject. "Is lots and lots of land poisoned?"

"More than ninety percent of the original growing land in India. And, the Shivites there did the same thing to their neighbours in Afghanistan, though on a smaller scale, and only near the border."

"Maybe we can fix their dirt too."

"Perhaps, if it ever becomes safe to go to Afghanistan. People in that country are at war both among themselves and with India almost all the time."

"We need to go there and stop the fighting, then," he pronounced, before inhaling two more cookies and a second glass of milk. Then he decided to file away his remaining worries to be puzzled out later.

"Can I go visit our tunnel one more time before we leave?"

"Say 'may I', dear one. Yes, we will all go tomorrow afternoon, then stay over the night before the official opening ceremonies the next day."

"Will there be a parade?"

"There will be at least a feis."

"With girls dressed in oldman?"

Mona was astonished. Other children his age would refer to the tumblers who wore croneface as "oldmen" or even erroneously use the Tirdian "clown", but there was no fooling Roger. He rejected the faeries, elves, and banshees other children spoke of and only acknowledged the person behind a costume. He had an especially difficult time with plays, because he couldn't see the characters for the actors.

"Yes," she agreed, with 'oldmen'."

She had a moment's concern about taking the boy to Copeland. The "Ireland First" protest group had opposed the tunnel project from the outset, and had staged several noisy demonstrations. It was their right, but...no. Surely with the project now complete there would be no more disruptions. Besides the Firsters had never been violent.

* * * * *

Roger and Mona Hyland, Copeland City, Hibernia, 1976

When they got to the construction hamlet the engineers extravagantly termed Copeland City the next afternoon, Roger's pent-up ecstatic energy overflowed. He ran among homes and office rooms, and around the work site as fast as his small skinny legs would carry him, shouting greetings to all his engineering uncles and their workers, barely arriving at one place before rushing off to the next. The staging area for tube assembly looked different every time he came, but today there were only sufficient raw materials still in stockpile for repairs, and the engineers were employed erecting a temporary arena for the thousands who would attend tomorrow's grand affair.

So, when Mona Hyland put him to bed that night by the open window of their site rooms, she had little doubt he'd sleep the night through and be one tired wee boy for the ceremonies and feis.

She left him there to join her husband at lower control, a pressurized room adjacent to the tunnel about a mile down, where the steep descent from the island levelled out for the main traverse and a third pair of cables anchored the tube back to the shore and into a much flatter curve. A first freight train loaded with English coal for Belfast's foundries was due through at 0500. It would be closely followed by a passenger unit carrying European dignitaries for an early morning ceremony. Other trains had quietly made slow crossings for a week already, but these would be the first to break the sound barrier of 172 staves per second or 619 miles per hour. There was no pressing need to evacuate the tube or to use such speeds under the narrow channel, but this tube was in part a proof of concept, harbinger of much more ambitious projects using later and better generations of the same carbon nanotube systems.

Editors' note for Tirdian editions: A Hibernian mile is two Tirdian kilometres.

Mona and her husband Drew would use this traverse for the last calibration of the sonic damping system and maglev failsafes before scheduled traffic began flowing on the morrow. If their models were wrong for some reason and the sonics destabilized the train, the polarization delay between successive maglev coils would increase, then the train would slow to a safer speed. All had been flawless thus far, but the dark of this night was the real test, not the glamour of the day following.

Drew was a worrier, and had twice recently woken up amidst nightmares about catastrophic magnet failures that sent a train crashing into coils they weren't supposed to touch, thence through the tube's side into the deep sea, destroying all their work in an instant. Mona was more confident. She'd run the simulations at double the speed they'd use tonight. The design was sound, its implementation near perfect. If anything went wrong at the main computer in the operations building, control could be switched to the secondary, undersea control room where they would spend the rest of the night just in case.

Neither was she concerned about Roger's safety. The compound containing their rooms was walled and guarded. Nothing would disturb the boy's blissful peace.

But sometime just before morning, Roger's eyes started open. Vague shadows of an escaping dream flitted by, and he felt frightened. All seemed eerily silent at first, but then he heard a hinge creak, a slight thump, footsteps, and a door softly close.

"That's not right," he declared, reaching for his kilt and shirt. "It sounds like someone's outside. I'll go see if Corporal Wiggins heard anything."

Moments later, he had dressed and dashed silently out his door, past his parents' empty room, and down the steps of their temporary cottage. He spared a fleeting regret for the building as he sped down its porch stairs, for it would soon be dismantled, its four components delivered to a used room sales lot. Good thing Tara's palace was built of steel and stone, anchored to a firm foundation. It would still be there when he came back to Ireland, even if most of these buildings wouldn't be. When he built things, Roger vowed, they would last, not end up in salvage.

The upper tunnel control room was a permanent building two structures away, but as Roger ran around its corner and readied himself to burst in on Corporal Wiggins, he became aware of two voices inside. Some fey sense held up a hand and made him skid to a halt, step quietly up to the stoop, put his ear to the door and listen. He didn't recognize the voices.

"Right Alex, I've taken care of the operator. Here's his code book to run the system. Fire up that control board. I'll monitor the freight and tell you when to dump the magnet power. When she goes down she'll blow a pretty hole in the tube underwater and flood the whole thing. Do it at the right time and we'll get the passenger and those European weasels, too. Lord Aldersyde almost got the court to stop this infernal project five years ago, but once we flood the thing, they'll not have the heart to spend a hundred million more to pump it out and repair it. He knows how to ensure that."

The other voice replied in a low growl, "We'll stop the English vermin from overrunning Ireland."

Crash the train? Flood the tunnel? Roger's mom and dad were down there and two of his uncles with them. He had to stop these men, but how? They were inside the control room. Even if he entered he couldn't prevent them from pulling the switches that would cut out the magnets. There was an alarm button on the back control room wall, but he'd have to cross the room to get at it. They'd surely catch him. He froze momentarily, then remembered the electrical room at the back of the building. Maybe...

Less than a minute later, he had scrabbled onto a low roof from the side porch, run lightly across to the back of the building, swung down over the edge, and was swaying back and forth in front of the ventilation shaft sill. A third pass and he'd landed. Quickly, he shoved aside a panel, squeezed through an opening, and dropped to the floor of the room beyond. The first time he'd tried this, he'd had to explain to his father how he got his side bruised in the fall from the sill. Afterwards, he'd been more careful, though soon he'd be too big to fit through the opening. But now, it was the perfect secret escape route in the raucous games of "catch the knave" he played between buildings with the labourers' children.

Roger ran across the room, climbed up on a swivel chair and surveyed the power board. A myriad of switches, all neatly labelled in his mother's hand, controlled the electricity for various parts of the project. Top left were ones marked "lights: parking lot", "lights: east switching yard," and the like. Where were the ones for the control room next door?

The voices in the next room were suddenly loud. "Here's the code, Joe. Enter these numbers on that panel while I hold his key card in the slot, and we'll have access."

Roger began to sweat as he puzzled out one label after another. Some of the words didn't make sense to him, and he hoped it wasn't any of those. He'd have to learn more reading.

"Ready to go, Alex. Piece of cake, this."

"Never mind the editorial. Do it."

Suddenly Roger found a section marked "master control panel power main". Under it was a second notation "emergency automatic switch-over to lower control room computer." The loop below controlled "main control room lights and outlets". That's what he needed. He pulled both red loops out of their recesses and stuffed them into his pouch. They'd have to be reinserted to pull the complementary green tabs and reactivate the circuits. But even as he did, a volley of curses erupted from the control room next door.

"What's the matter?"

"Rusty board's dead. No power."

"Where's it switched from."

"In there. Must've blown a loop."

"Well, get in there and restore us. We got no more'n five minutes to dump power and shut this operation down permanent."

Roger pictured the man pointing at the door between him and them just as he pulled the loop marked "power room lights" and the room he was in also plunged into darkness. This one he didn't have time to pocket. He scrambled back to the floor and over to the handle side of the door, reaching it just as it flew open and crashed against the wall. A large figure brushed by him and a shadow interposed between him and the power board. Roger counted to three and slipped through the door the man had come through into the control room.

But he'd taken only a step in the near pitch black when he ran into the arms of the second man.

"Oomph. What the rusty...Hey, Alex, there's somebody in here, a kid I think. Get some lights on. We haven't much time."

Roger struggled, but could not break free. Then he remembered watching Swordmaster Mahoney teach unarmed combat at the palace. He took a deep breath and stomped his right heel down on his captor's instep. Yelping in surprise, Joe let him go just as his partner came back through the door. Roger broke away from the one man. The other, Alex, reached for him, but he felt the man's hand brush across his back as he dodged. A close call.

Where was the alarm button? He groped along the back wall beside the door he'd just come through, trying to picture the wall as he normally saw it when coming through the front door. A little higher, more to the left. There. He slapped it, then yelled shrilly into the microphone beside it, "TarrHall, TarrHall, control room. TarrHall." A loud siren suddenly wailed outside.

"Rusty little cockroach, I'll kill you for that."

"Forget the kid, we gotta get out of here."

But the first was too angry to break away. Roger saw a shadow come toward him and ducked just in time, the other driving his fist into the wall, setting off another round of curses.

He dodged again as commotion built outside the building. Roger wanted to try for the exterior door, but could see one of the men there, so instead he ran back inside the power room, slammed and locked the door just as someone pounded on the outer entrance.

"Surrender in the King's name," sang out a voice.

Roger ran back to the power board and pushed the red loop for the lights next door back into its slot, then pulled the green loop opposite it. Light spilled under the door from the room adjacent, he heard the outer door crash open, a brief scuffle, then silence.

"One more in the power room, Captain Flannery," a voice called.

They must've checked the monitor. "It's only me, Lieutenant Keegan," Roger cried, unlocking the door. In the distance, he heard the horn of the big freight emerging from the tube onto Irish soil.

Next morning, Roger found out what it meant to be a hero, though he couldn't quite understand all the fuss. Hadn't he just done his job, the way all CRAE soldiers did?

The engineers paraded him around on their shoulders, his parents wept over him, and at the opening ceremonies a man called "Donal" pinned on the silver medal the army had voted him.

Roger was unimpressed, especially with High Lord Donal XI, who seemed so unhappy about the affair Roger couldn't help wondering if he was disappointed the attack had failed. But he wasn't going to spoil the day by sharing that thought. Getting his picture taken so many times by the news reporters was interesting. The ones who took the trouble to interview him were especially nice.

* * * * *

Roger and Mona Hyland, Tara, Hibernia, 1976

"But Mom, why can't Corporal Wiggins and Private Aimes come with us to India?"

Mona sighed. This was the part Roger hadn't understood. She'd told him several times that his missing friends had gone to heaven to be with Jesus, but it hadn't stuck. Her little hero had an incredible grasp of mechanical things, and even of number abstractions, but spiritual ideas were over his head. He had to see everything.

"No dear one, they can't." She decided to be blunt. "They died, Roger."

He stared at her for several long seconds, then a light went on behind his big expressive eyes. "Like my cat Tiger."

Surprised, she nodded slowly. How had he remembered that? It happened before he was three years old.

"Are their bodies buried under a tree, too?"

Her mouth dropped open. She'd almost forgotten burying Tiger under the cherry tree the cat had so delighted to climb. They'd had to get special permission from the palace groundskeeper. Did Roger forget anything?

"Yes, but a different tree."

"And did they die by being run into by a ground car, too?"

"No, Roger they didn't." Enough, she thought. She'd tell him the truth, and see what he made of it.

"Remember the bad men who came in the night to destroy the tunnel?"

He nodded solemnly. It had been a very exciting night and day following.

"Private Aimes and Sergeant Clemens were on duty that night."

"Not Sergeant Komenski?" Roger knew the duty roster by heart.

"No, Lieutenant Keegan gave Tiny leave to visit his mother in town, so Sergeant John took his place."

"Ah, and what happened then?"

"Private Aimes and Sergeant Clemens ordered the intruders to stop in the name of the crown. The bad men refused, and attacked them with sticks."

"So they got out their swords and fought back?"

"Of course not, dear one. A soldier cannot fight someone who has a stick using a sword. They drew their own sticks. There was a big fight but it was five against two and the bad men killed Private Aimes and knocked the sergeant unconscious. Then they broke into the control room and killed Corporal Wiggins too. They would have killed a lot more, including all of us who were down in the tunnel if you hadn't stopped them and sounded the alarm."

Roger nodded sagely, then asked, "What happened to the bad men?"

"Their leaders were tried in court, found guilty, and punished." She stopped, not wanting to say the rest, how five had been hanged, a high lord beheaded, and seven others sent to Penal City. But Roger had heard enough.

"Can I go say good-bye to Maeve and Cath?"

Mona sighed. Her five-year-old counted the two older girls as his best friends and they accepted him as a brother. At times he seemed more their age of eight and ten than he did his own, yet at others the two girls were extra mothers to her irrepressible Roger. She ran her fingers through his curly red hair. "Yes, dear one, go say good-bye to your friends. But no dawdling. We have to leave for Tara rocket port in one hour."











Meta Earth, or as its own people term it "Builder's World" is unique among the six known earths in having a single land mass, apparently as a result of differing events at the time of Noah's flood. Likewise, it has only a single city, this roughly in the centre of the land.

Nor is it a city like any on the other earths. Close to a hundred thousand spend considerable time there over the span of a year, but each would pass much of it on their own family land. An equal number visit for a few weeks or months at a time. There are never more than forty thousand people in Builders City at once, and no more than a few million on the entire planet, far fewer than the hundreds of millions on Ortho and Para, and a small fraction of those on Tirdia.

Now that we know the demographics, the reasons for their deliberate isolation are obvious, the same ones the Federation invokes to keep the existence of the Timestream and the other earths secret from the billions of Tirdians who would overwhelm all the earths given the opportunity. Undoubtedly the exposure to Meta will engender a new chapter in our GAC texts, but whether their tight-knit society can survive intact the contact with us is another matter.

--Jana Whelan, an article entitled "Meeting the Metans" in "Seanacha Today"


Chapter 3

Heman and Ruel, Meta (Builder's World) September 11, 2000 by Hibernian and Metan calendars

"You are certain of this diagnosis, Shemuel?" Heman could scarcely see his friend through his anguish. He'd come here hoping there could be something to hope for, something to cling to. But the tests done over the weekend were less than unhelpful.

Shemuel tried to be gentle. "Heman, old friend, the Hibernian healers who sent your son back to us were entirely correct. We have had him four days. The boy's medium- and long-term memory no longer function. He knows nothing of his time on Ortho, much less of his previous life. His childhood never was. His memory of yesterday has already faded, and even this morning is a fog. I see no prospect of improvement."

Heman sat quietly for a long time, trying to absorb the healing elder's words. Finally, he tried another tack. "Why did he require a language cube when he arrived home, but now is able to retain from day to day how to speak our tongue?"

Shemuel shrugged his shoulders and sighed.

"I do not know, my friend. I can only suggest that damage to his language centres, while severe, was not permanent. It's a bad business for a healer to admit both ignorance and helplessness, but I can say and do no more."

"But," Heman began again, more helpless with each passing moment, "physically, he is as though he was never injured. His head has healed as perfectly as if his shape sense had done it. The form of his face is changed, but bone structure never comes back exactly the same. Why can we not now also restore his memories and shape sense? Has all our knowledge and effort gone for so little?"

Shemuel answered slowly, tenderly. "Although on some low and automatic level the shape sense has worked certain physical repairs, there is yet something within Ruel that blocks all efforts to engage his shape centres. It may be that full functionality will never return, even though the tissue has been regenerated. Even if he recovers short term memories, long term ones are unlikely to return. I think, however..." He bit his lip and stopped.

Heman looked up from where he had been sitting, head bowed. "Go on, I can take it. You can't give me any worse news, so you may as well hold out something to grasp."

Shemuel continued to equivocate. "We have observed your son only for a short time. Perhaps there will yet be slow recovery."

"Your eyes do not meet mine, and your shape screams your belief it will never be so." Heman rose from his chair. "Enough of this. Let me take the lad home now. Perhaps in familiar surroundings..." He paused as a speculative light came into Shemuel's eye. The man had obviously had a new thought at Heman's last remark.

Finally, the healer spoke it. "There may be a way," Shemuel forced out with obvious reluctance.

"I will attempt anything." Heman leaned forward eagerly.

Shemuel spoke even more slowly. "He lost his mind and memory, along with the small shape sense he possessed, in the attack of the drakonta."

"Yes."

"Perhaps revisiting the trauma would restore the mental connections to his past."

Heman leaned back, disappointed and indignant. "I should take him back to the swamp and deliver him into the jaws of old Ironsides?"

"No, no, my friend." Shemuel sighed at the sharp response. "Forget I ever suggested such a thing." He was all business now. "I was just thinking out loud. Of course it's too great a risk." Seeing his friend still glaring his displeasure, he added, "By all means take the lad home, for now at least. There is nothing else the hospital can do."

Heman turned without another word and walked slowly toward the doorway, feeling his shoulders sag in utter defeat. As he reached the exit, Shemuel called out, "May the Great Architect yet intervene to rebuild your lives, my friend."

Heman could not bring himself to respond.

A few moments later he and Ruel made their way across the grass and away from the hospital.

As they did, Ruel turned to his father. "Why is the hospital in a tree?"

Heman, startled, turned to look at his son's face. Had he forgotten what every child knew? He is physically whole, he thought, as he looked at the vacantly curious expression, but empty.

Aloud he said, waving about him, "It has been so for thousands of years, at least here in the Builder's city. Elsewhere, the homes are in smaller plants, and in a few places some build from dead materials. Here, the great trees are living buildings, trained to grow hollowed out and with branches serving as hallways. They have many corridors and rooms, such as the one you were in."

He continued, pointing out several of the enormous living buildings and enumerating their purposes as Ruel looked wonderingly at one massive trunk after another. In this part of the city, each one was at least twenty metres across at the base and well over two hundred high, their lofty tops lost in the cloudy sky. The lower limbs were four to five metres thick where they met at the trunk, regularly spaced around it, and provided up to six or seven metres of additional rooms, tapering off to low ceilinged storage space, before the hollow part became too small to use.

Each of the mighty trunks was honeycombed inside with a labyrinth of offices, meeting rooms, or wards, in the case of the hospital tree. Heman pointed to a group of shorter trees to the east. "Those are less than five hundred years old, and presently being used to house those who work only occasionally in the city. Beyond these are smaller ones still, planted for expansion and replacement a millennium or more from now."

After this, and seeing Ruel still looking about wonderingly, Heman asked, as he had already several times, "Are you sure you remember none of this? You once knew it all, for you spent many days in the city."

"It seems so strange," the boy responded with a thick tongue, "as if it is a dream, and soon I will awake." He spoke impersonally, as though a spectator. "Nothing seems familiar. I feel I am someone else, or perhaps two or three people at once..." His trailed off, and the pair walked in silence for a time.

This was broken by another question from Ruel, once more in a dreamy voice. "Who cuts all this grass, and why don't the many feet wear paths?" He waved vaguely at the vast, flawless expanse of green that uniformly carpeted the entire area, except where interrupted by the base of one of the giant trees.

Heman was again surprised. Where had the boy gotten the idea of having to cut a lawn as though it were grown for show? he wondered. Perhaps from the Orthans, or "Hibernians" as they termed themselves. "The grass is genetically engineered to grow short and tough," he answered slowly, marvelling that Ruel could forget even the most basic facts of his early education. "No number of feet will wear it, and it never needs shortening."

"Oh, I see," was the quiet response.

Heman glanced at Ruel's face, but there was no light there, and he "saw" nothing. It was as if the boy forgot his questions by the time he heard the answer. Just now he was struggling to frame another.

"Where are we going?"

"Home. It is three hundred kilometres to the east."

"How do we get there?"

Heman sighed. The questions were worded reasonably enough, but the way they were asked made them seem to be the product of a poorly programmed automaton with rudimentary intelligence and no knowledge.

"First, we walk to the upper transfer station and take it to the plains level. Then we board the public ground skimmer to East Branch, the town nearest our home. There, our horses will be waiting, and we will ride out to the farm headquarters."

Once again, there was no sign the procedure was recognized, no response. It was as if Ruel had not heard.

Father and son had little to say to each other during the subsequent journey. Heman answered Ruel's simple enquiries of what they saw along the way with an ever sinking heart.

Nonetheless, for the first three hours of that journey he retained small hopes that something would be accomplished at the boy's reunion with his favourite horse, Diamond. Ruel had raised Diamond from a foal, trained him, made him his inseparable companion.

Such hopes were dashed at East Branch however.

Ruel stood admiring the horse for a long time. Just when Heman began to hope the animal was evoking recognition, Ruel remarked hazily, "He is a fine animal. Do I know how to ride?"

At the sound of his voice, Diamond moved forward a step and nuzzled his head alongside Ruel's. The boy reached up to touch the horse. Suddenly both horse and boy backed sharply away, each as puzzled as the other. Diamond shook his head and whinnied displeasure as Heman looked on sadly. Even Diamond sensed his master had not really returned home.

"Let's go," he said then, not desiring to prolong the moment. Ruel mounted and sat upright on Diamond's back, but gave no direction to the horse. He seemed to remember how to ride, though not with his customary style and grace.

After that, Heman was unsurprised to find Ruel with no memory of the picturesque little river valley in which the headquarters of their vast land holdings nestled. As they approached the buildings, several workers paused in their tasks to smile warm greetings at the "young master" whom no one had expected to see alive again. Each in turn was disappointed when the only response was a smiling but uncomprehending nod or wave. Clearly, he remembered none of his old friends. One after another, each turned away embarrassed, hurting for the sake of the boy's father.

Heman, observing all this, thought he had become immune to any more shocks. The two stored their harness, stabled the horses and were in the process of making their way across the well-kept yard from the stable to the house when suddenly Ruel asked, "Do I have a mother?"

Heman, for whom the subject of his long dead wife was normally too painful by far for words, could barely choke out a reply. After several difficult steps, in which he felt physically ill, he managed, "Not here, no. She has been in the Great Architect's Mansion for many years." Ruel seemed satisfied by this response, at least to the extent that he said nothing further, so Heman retreated into his own thoughts for a while, re-running as he so often did, the events of his wife's fateful last day.

He was still doing so hours later, long after he had shown Ruel to the bedroom he had spent his whole life's nights in up to a month ago, but of which he also remembered nothing.

His Ruth had still seemed so young and alive that long ago morning. Barely a hundred years old, and in the prime of early middle age, she had kissed him affectionately before riding off to take the skimmer into the city. When she arrived, there had been a message from Eideena, wife of Elbon, begging her to come and visit her old friend. On impulse she left at once, intending to stay only the night before getting back to her office in the city trade centre. She had never arrived at her destination. They had found blood and a few remains from her rented horse not far from Elbon's farm. The news of Ruth's death had so overwhelmed Heman he at first lashed out angrily at Elbon for his carelessness in not knowing about or dealing with a notorious drakonta roaming about his land. Elbon had said nothing, only bowing his head sorrowfully at his old friend's accusations of negligence.

It had taken a visit from Shemuel to put things right. From the healer, Heman heard the whole story--how the drakonta, in a frenzy of rage, had killed several animals, and two of Elbon's men working a field before running down and devouring Ruth and her horse, then gone on to the farmhouse where Eideena had been standing outside awaiting Ruth's arrival. Caught by surprise, she had been torn apart under the very eyes of her daughter Eider, who had watched horrified from her bedroom window as the scene unfolded before her. The drakonta had then proceeded to nearly destroy the house in its frantic attempt to get at the girl, who had been alone with her mother. Finally, the beast had given up and escaped into the distant swamp. Even that retreat turned into a nearly two hundred kilometre long rampage lasting several days, in which three more people perished.

As was the way with such creatures, these frenzies of rage came on occasionally during their long lifetime. Some speculated they were triggered by hormones at a certain stage of growth, others that they resulted from injuries suffered in fights with each other, but up to that time no one had gotten close enough to a drakonta to find out more and survived to tell the story. This had been the first incident of its kind at such a distance from the swamp in centuries--a fluke, one that might never happen again. No such consolation could bring back his beloved Ruth.

Nor could a plea of ignorance recall the hurtful words he had thrown at Elbon, while not knowing his friend's grief was as great, if not greater than his own. Once he learned, he had immediately gone to the man and apologized in tears for his insensitivity. The two had embraced each other a long time that day, and had become much closer than before. Heman had on several later occasions presumed to persuade Elbon to relax his fierce protectiveness over his daughter Eider, but had given up the effort as unnecessary when it had eventually become clear the girl had grown to have an independent and seemingly well-adjusted spirit, excepting that she never spoke of that fateful day. It had been because the two men were so close that when Ruel was injured, Heman had not hesitated to pressure Elbon to attempt the unorthodox course of sending Ruel to Ortho for treatment.

He did feel shame at the thought of his own responsibility for the way Ruel had so nearly met the same fate as his mother. He recalled how, about a year after Ruth's death, he had developed an obsession for hunting down the beast and killing it--a resolve that had met with great disapproval from Elbon, badly straining their relationship for a time.

"Leave the drakonta alone, my friend. It cannot help its nature, and we have no right to take its life for being what the Architect built it to be."

Obstinate, Heman had gone to the swamp countless times seeking revenge. At first he had encountered none of the creatures, for they preferred the heart of the swamp, far from both the cultivated heartlands and the salt water of the great sea, and it had taken Heman months to learn where they could be found. As time progressed, the fires of his anger burned lower. When for the first time he saw his prey at a distance, he was too awed by its terrible majesty to pursue with his weapons. Returning from that trip, he resurrected his brushes and paints from the place he had stored them the day after Ruth's death. From then on, he captured the beasts on canvas instead of through the sights of his fire bow.

Now, his renderings were famous all over Meta, and brought high prices whenever a new one was offered. The most popular, judging from the number of times its image had been rented from the electronic library for display, was his third, the one he'd given Elbon as his peace offering. The Builder was so proud of this piece, and of the friend who had painted it, that it now hung in the study where the elders met.

For a time, Heman saw none of the beasts and gave up his hobby for a few years. Just weeks before though, on hearing reports a drakonta locals called "Old Ironsides" had been seen in a tongue of the swamp near Elbon's home, he had indulged himself one more time. However, his many visits to such environs had made him both bold and careless. He'd agreed to take Ruel along, not supposing he would close with the beast, for he usually found it necessary to track a drakonta for weeks or months to get a good view. Except when in a frenzy, or startled, they stayed far away from humans.

Instead, they'd come unexpectedly into a clearing and surprised the beast. Standing fully three metres tall and nearly ten in length, from its rows of sharp teeth to the tip of its spiked tail, it had lunged at them and knocked Ruel to the ground, then taken a swipe at him. Heman, who had jumped the opposite way, had quickly sent a fire arrow into the side of the beast's face and it had run off howling in rage and pain.

Heman still had nightmares in which he re-lived the moment at which his heart had nearly stopped at the sight of the drakonta, its dripping mouth nearing the prone figure of his beloved boy. Those brief instants before his arrow found its mark just below one enormous baleful eye had been the longest of his life.

He was too slow. The initial swipe the beast had made with its cruel talons had torn away a portion of Ruel's head, leaving the rest a pulpy mass. He'd tried to staunch the flow of blood and awaken the boy's shape sense to begin the healing process, for even so serious a wound need result in no permanent injury, but his efforts were only partly successful.

Shemuel's participation in a further attempt at arousing the boy's shape sense to begin self-healing a few days later were equally futile. Shortly after, Heman conceived the desperate plan of taking his son to Ortho. He had never expected to see the boy again. He had supposed them able to heal Ruel physically but assumed they would interrogate him carefully about Meta before keeping him, likely as a pilot in their space program. He had been surprised when they released the boy back to him, but now realized that Ruel was not only no risk to Orthan security, he was of use neither to them or to him.

Had the boy no shape sense, a shape could have been implanted. But he had enough of the talent that his mind had locked in trauma and the shape sense would admit no visitors to the inner chambers of his consciousness, where lay the key to the self-healing powers.

Ruel's body had indeed been repaired by the Orthans' surgery and an injection of nanomachines whose instructions were taken from the boy's own DNA. It was a technique the Metans could have developed, but had never needed before, for this was a one-in-a-million injury. There was no point in their experimenting on Ruel when the Orthans had both the ability and the experience.

Now, Ruel's shadow had returned, and the awful reality of that partial healing shook Heman to the core. As he pondered the day just spent, he realized the enormity of the blow the drakonta had dealt. The lad sleeping peacefully upstairs was the shell of his boy. His son--the real Ruel--lay locked inside somewhere, perhaps still looking up in terror at an open mouth about to devour him.

"Oh, great Architect of the universe, grant me the key to the lad's mind. Release him. Give him back to me, I pray," he cried in anguish to God as he fought to sleep. His last thought that night was that perhaps, somehow, things might be better in the light of day.

They weren't. The next morning, and the three after, Ruel awoke knowing nothing of the previous day, nor of anything else. He had to be told each morning (and sometimes again later) what his name was, who Heman was, where they were living, and all about the farm operation.

He was curious and asked questions--ones worthy of a bright five-year-old, but they were put in a dull, lifeless voice empty of all meaning and personality. He asked the same ones, at approximately the same time every day, depending on when his routine took him to the places he found interesting. On the fifth day, as Heman was for at least the eighth time since arriving home telling the lad his name, something inside him snapped.

* * * * *

Heman and Ruel, Meta (Builder's World) September 15 by Hibernian and Metan calendars

"Come," he said briskly. "We are going out." He went to a locker, opened it, and withdrew an imported Paran laser-sighted rifle, which he hooked at his belt.

"Where are we going?" Ruel's question came in the usual flat tone, the same vacant smile fronting the empty words as on each day since he arrived. If there was anything behind that silly grin, it was impossible to tell.

Heman turned to his son and said, a little sadly, "We're going hunting."

"What for?" Ruel enquired, his expression not changing.

Heman turned away again, so Ruel did not hear him mutter under his breath, "My son."

Several hours travel later, the two had left their horses behind in a clearing with plenty of grass, were deep in the swamp, and now making rapid progress toward Heman's goal. He had no way of knowing if the same drakonta would still be about, but from the large number of bones strewn around the clearing where they first encountered it, he deduced it must have frequented the spot for some months.

Suddenly, he called a halt. "Take the machete and walk in front to clear the weed and brush so we do not step in a wet spot unawares," he instructed Ruel, drawing the great blade from a sheath at his belt and handing it to his son, then giving him the sheath to put on his own belt. They had made the same pathway only weeks before, but the undergrowth came back very rapidly in these wild parts.

Ruel took the machete and swung it experimentally at the waist high reeds. They parted with scarcely a sound before the fine edge of the heavy instrument. Then he stopped, and a puzzled frown came over his features. "What is familiar about this? If only I could remember..."

Heman barely noticed. He was surveying the landscape. This part of the swamp was not very wet, being crisscrossed here and there only by small streams arising from natural springs. The area was thickly overgrown with shrubs, trees, high grasses, and thorn bushes. The ground was often carpeted with the vines of various kinds of berries and littered with twigs and leaves. Heman grunted. The second leaf-drop of the year was underway. Soon the trees would, as they did twice yearly, go dormant for a few weeks before sending out new growth. The cycle of life upon life continued for all the world but him.

He recalled his time on Earth Prime, where he'd learned to look to the sky to discern weather. Not here. Meta had neither seasons nor rains. Its temperature throughout its only continent was uniform, varying slightly from day to night, little more as the year passes. Few people left the inhabited lands at the continent's centre to explore the vast swamps, and even Heman had only penetrated them slightly. Here, a thermometer would give much the same reading as in the inhabited areas, though the air was more humid. Thus, it felt warmer during the day and cooler at night, and these effects were more noticeable farther in where the swamp deserved its name.

There were, of course, research stations at strategic points, even a few isolated kelp harvesting towns on the distant seacoasts. Their products were sent by robotic transport skimmer along predetermined routes through the swamp. But the vast ring of wilderness that surrounded Meta's settled regions and isolated them from the great sea was otherwise almost entirely empty of people. Ruel and I could walk a thousand kilometres, all the way to the sea, he thought, and not come within two hundred of another human being.

He was startled out of his reverie by Ruel swinging the machete at the trunk of a small bush. It sang as it cut the wood clear through. Heman raised his eyebrows. He doubted he was strong enough to have done that in a single blow. There could be little doubt the boy had his physical strength back. If only he had his mind.

Motioning the boy to precede him with the machete, he reviewed his desperate, half-formed plan, and began to finger the laser rifle at his side. He was not at all certain how events would or could unfold. But perhaps Shemuel was right. Maybe some re-enactment of the accident trauma could reverse its effects. He was desperate enough to get his son back that he would try anything. All I have to do is keep us both from being killed. He watched Ruel in front, swinging the blade to and fro, glad he could not see his son's vacant expression.

Suddenly the pair broke through a wall of high reedy grasses into a clearing. They were not yet at the one where the drakonta had previously been, but there was evidence enough of its activity here. Two half-eaten carcasses of a large deer-like creature lay bloodied and torn in the centre. All about them the underbrush was trampled into the rich soil, branches were torn from trees, and three or four of the smaller ones lay on their sides, uprooted.

Fear clutched Heman's heart as he realized what this destruction meant. The drakonta they sought, dangerous enough at normal times, was in a berserk rage--or at least it had been as recently as...He knelt down and examined one of the carcasses and an uprooted shrub...as recently as this morning. Otherwise it would neither hunt meat it did not need nor leave uneaten what it did catch.

He listened carefully. There was no sound except for the rustling of falling leaves and the occasional distant chatter of birds. In his heightened state of awareness and tension, the swamp felt unnaturally still and its shape had ominous overtones. Finally, after several minutes spent on one knee listening and praying silently, Heman stood and motioned Ruel ahead of him again, once more avoiding the lad's eyes as though to prevent him from learning his plan. As they neared the place where a great tree trunk blocked the natural pathway they were now following and hid the next clearing, Heman edged to one side of Ruel, drew the rifle from its sling, and idly trained its laser sight on the tree. As he tracked the red spot down the trunk, he thought about the times he had hunted with fire bow, this device not being in his possession at the time of his initial rage.

He had prevailed upon Nathan to bring the rifle from Para, threatening to go there for it himself if his fellow elder refused. This particular model fired an explosive charge fully capable of decapitating a drakonta--in all, a far more potent weapon than the fire arrow he had used to frighten the beast away the last time, and one no one else knew he possessed.

Heman tensed, hefted the weapon, and edged farther to the side of Ruel so as to have a clear shot. At last, only the tree on the left and the large bush on the right blocked their view of the clearing he knew was beyond. Ruel stopped a moment and stared at the large tree beside this and turned to Heman with another of his puzzled looks. He started to say, "This seems familiar," but his father, not listening or watching, waved at him to push between the tree and the bush to the clearing on the other side. As Ruel started to do so, Heman dove to the ground and crawled around the right side of the bush in order to be able to see the whole area and cover Ruel's entrance.

The drakonta was resting on its belly, legs curled underneath and tail trailing into the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing. As Ruel entered the clearing, he swung the machete and sliced off some lower limbs from the bush. The drakonta whipped its head erect at the sound of the intrusion and for a moment, beast and boy froze in silent tableaux--one that would have made a marvellous painting had Heman been interested in such things at this moment.

After a few seconds of quiet that seemed like an eternity, the drakonta opened its mighty jaw and let out a roar that shook trees and ground. Rows of long, sharp, flesh-tearing teeth framed a mouth that looked ready to swallow both Ruel and Heman in a single bite.

Heman did not want to take his eyes off the beast for a moment, but stole a quick glance at Ruel and caught what seemed almost like a light dawning in the boy's face. Did he remember? Was he son back? He checked his exultation as fast as it began to rise, and fixed his eye once again on the red laser dot he had trained on the drakonta's forehead.

Again and again the great creature roared and threatened, and once it pulled out a foreleg and made as if to rise to its feet. Yet it made no charge. Heman could see a scar on the left side of the beast's head. That was undoubtedly from his fire arrow. It was the same beast, though he had expected nothing else. This tongue of the swamp was far from the usual home of such creatures, and it would not have been likely to find a second one in so small a hunting area. Heman waited. The first time, when they had surprised the drakonta by the bush, Ruel and he had not been an arm's length from the creature when it lashed out. He had never otherwise been so close to a drakonta and had no idea how it was going to react.

He stole another glance at Ruel to see if perhaps there was full comprehension there and he could now destroy the drakonta. What he saw instead sent a shiver of fear down his spine. Rather than cowering back from the beast, the boy was advancing determinedly on the animal, machete in his right hand, and the other outstretched to reach toward the terrible form.

"No, Ruel, stay back," Heman called from his hiding place.

He was too late. The boy was already partly obscuring his line of fire. He would have to move to get a clear shot.

That second look at Ruel's face had been all he needed, however, to ignite his hope that if the boy got away alive, he might be whole again. The vacant gaze had fled, his features become intelligent, purposeful. There was a smile he had not seen since the boy's return, one that renewed his heart. But both Ruel and the drakonta ignored him.

Moving slightly to the right for a better line of fire, Heman suddenly saw what Ruel was up to. Twisting the bright machete blade from side to side, the lad was trying to attract the drakonta's attention to it, perhaps to hypnotize it.

He spoke soothingly. "There now, Rex old boy. Don't get upset. I won't hurt you. Easy now, easy boy."

Heman could scarcely believe what he saw and heard. Ruel talked to the animal as though he were a pet horse or a dog instead of a twenty tonne monster as large as a house. Even lying on its belly, the creature's head towered above the boy.

"Hush up, Rex, and show me what's wrong. I won't hurt you. Hush, boy, easy boy."

Heman, now on his feet and moving more to his right, kept a two handed death grip on the rifle, again fixed the laser spot between the beast's eyes and waited. To his amazement, Ruel's quiet, soothing talk took effect. The great earth-shaking roars dwindled to a series of gurgling grunts and groans, then Old Ironsides suddenly closed his mouth with a sharp snap. Quiet descended.

Ruel stood still for a moment, continuing to coax. After a few moments more, he again closed the gap. Heman could do nothing at first, so astonished was he. Now, Ruel was within striking distance of the drakonta. One snap of the beast's neck and it could have the boy between his teeth without even rising to its feet. Heman groaned aloud but kept the gun sight trained, though he could no longer get off a shot in time to do any good.

Ruel moved to the other side of the drakonta, so that its neck partly obscured him from Heman.

"Easy boy, easy Rex. Tell me what's wrong, boy." He placed his hand on the beast's neck as high as he could reach and fixed his eyes on those of the drakonta. At the moment of his touch, the beast shuddered and visibly calmed. Suddenly it flopped its head out full length on the ground, turning its face away from Heman, and made a whimpering noise.

Keeping his hand on the drakonta's neck and now walking along beside it, Ruel continued to soothe the troubled creature with words and touch. Heman could almost see the rage draining from the beast. "What a story petting a drakonta would make," Heman murmured, amending, "should we perchance live to tell it." He heard the beast begin a rumbling growl, and tensed to fire a desperation shot, but halted as he realized it wasn't moving. He could now see a small object protruding from the side of the Drakonta's face.

To this area, Ruel's questing, soothing hand quickly moved. "Ah, poor Rex. Got a sharp branch caught between your plates, do you? I'll bet that hurts. Want me to get it out for you?" Heman, who had now walked to within three metres of the pair, was startled to hear the beast grunt, as if to give Ruel permission.

"That's a good boy, Rex. Now, I'll be honest with you. This is going to sting. You don't mind if I hurt you some to get the nasty branch out, do you?" As he spoke, Ruel laid the point of his blade on the lower armour plate of the two between which the broken thorn branch emerged. Carefully, and with continuing encouragement of the drakonta, he worked the edge between the two plates. Heman caught his breath as Ruel slowly twisted the machete sideways, forcing them apart. The drakonta grunted in pain a couple of times, but accepted Ruel's ministrations as if he were a beloved and trusting pet dog having a thorn removed from his paw.

Ruel was leaning right against the side of the massive head now, working at chest level. When he had the plates well separated, he reached with his left hand for a small, sharp knife that hung at his belt. Keeping the pressure on the twisted machete blade with his right hand, he reached into the gap he had made between the plates with his left.

"Now this will hurt, Rex boy, but it's for your own good. Easy, boy, easy. Don't move, now," he commanded quietly. The beast grunted and winced slightly away as Ruel cut the flesh from around the place where the thorn branch had worked its way in. After a moment or two, he flicked the knife and sent the freed branch spinning to the ground.

He then returned the knife to its sheath and reached under the plate to touch the now raw, swollen, and bleeding place with his bare hand. "Yes, boy, yes, Rex. Go to sleep now. You'll feel much better when you wake up. Go to sleep." Slowly he withdrew his hand, then let the upper plate down and extracted the machete. The drakonta let out a long shuddering sigh, closed its eyes and, in a few moments, was breathing deeply and heavily. Heman, shaking his head with disbelief, lowered his weapon.

Without at first speaking, the two made their way back through the wall of bushes to the rough trail on which they had come. At the edge of the clearing, Ruel stopped long enough to wipe the two blades, both now spattered with blood.

"It's good to have you back, my son," Heman said quietly as the two trudged along side-by-side through the swamp a few moments later.

"It's good to be back, Sir, or, at least to be able to remember," Ruel replied, cautiously.

Heman, who had been enthusiastically rejoicing, felt warning bells go off at such a guarded answer. Ruel never called him "Sir." He had called him "Heman" for at least the last three years, as any adult male would call another by his name.

He decided to approach the subject of his concern carefully, however, and began by casually observing, "You used a shape-healer's touch on the beast. I did not know you had the talent to that extent."

Ruel turned and looked at his father. "I guess I didn't know either." Then he added, with a bright sparkle in his eye that momentarily completely disarmed him, "Rex was crying. The thorns were deep in the flesh and it was badly infected. All his rage was just pain, and he was begging for help. He's a splendid fellow, that Rex. He'll be fine now."

"So, my son is a healer after all. The one who couldn't heal himself can get a drakonta to submit to his touch. Tell me though, why do you call him 'Rex'?"

"Oh, I don't know," Ruel started to say, then paused. When he resumed, his words sent Heman's heart into his boots. "I never saw one like him before, but Rex seemed like it must be his name."

Heman stopped, grasped the boy by the shoulders, and turned him around to face him.

"Was it not when you saw the beast that you remembered?"

"Why, no."

"When?"

"It was when you put the sword into my hand. It felt good to swing the blade, and by the time we reached the clearing, my head felt much better and I remembered."

"What sword?" Heman felt like he was participating in a different conversation from the one Ruel was having.

"This one." Ruel pulled the machete part way from the sheath he had been carrying it in, then shoved it back with a quick and deliberate motion.

"I would hardly call a machete a sword," Heman observed, still not certain what he was hearing.

"It suffices for its purpose," Ruel said, smiling.

"I don't understand what the machete or a sword has to do with this," Heman declared in a frustrated tone, looking at the ground and digging his hands into Ruel's shoulders. "Was not Shemuel right when he said the trauma of seeing the beast again could shock you into recovering your memories?"

"Well, perhaps it has," Ruel responded doubtfully, "but I don't remember ever seeing old Rex before."

"Then," Heman was puzzled, "do you remember that you are my son Ruel?"

The boy laughed. "I could hardly help but know that. Have you not told me so every day since I came here? Did they not tell me so in the two hospitals, both here and on Ortho?"

"And before that?" Heman was almost back in despair. "You do not recall that the drakonta put you into the hospital in the first place and that your shape sense was so damaged that we on Meta could not help?"

"The Lady Catherine told me a great beast had attacked me and that was why I was there. She seemed surprised that I recovered so quickly."

"But, before that, lad. Do you remember nothing from before the time you woke in the hospital?"

A shadow crossed Ruel's face had and Heman thought he saw a partial return of the puzzled look from the last few days. "All I remember is terrible roaring, and something hit my head, I think..."

The boy's newfound good humor won out, and he added brightly, "No, I guess Rex got that part." He laughed casually, a sound that brought some gladness to his father's heart, though he sounded different than before. "But I'll learn. I don't think I shall have to be told every morning who I am."

"Let us at least thank the great Architect for that," said Heman, with partial relief. He reflected a long moment. Then, he let go his grip, looked up at Ruel and said, with the beginning of a smile, "Let's go home. You can tell me what you do recall as we walk along. Perhaps I shall have my son back after all, even if you don't remember me yet."











This account has been edited slightly from the one found by Hibernian scholars in Metan libraries in order to incorporate scattered references and explanations suitable for modern Hibernian and Tirdian audiences, but otherwise is presented verbatim. We do not therefore offer any opinion on its veracity, though we observe that it is taken as fact by the Metans, and have slightly revised our notes at the head of this volume accordingly.--Ed. Note


"Daddy?"

"Yes, little daughter."

It was bedtime in our tree--sign enough that she was up to some trickery to stay up later.

"Teacher at seven-day school says there's no such thing as re.., ah reintar..."

[Editors' Note: On both Meta and the old Beth the days on the week are named by their numbers]

"I think you mean 'reincarnation', and she's right." We all live one life, then die and go to God.

"Except you."

I was startled. No matter how precocious, a seven-year-old had no business winkling out my secrets.

"What do you mean, Myst?" I equivocated.

"You said once that you named me after a friend. But the history cubes mention only two people ever ever ever named Myst, the daughter and granddaughter of the very first builder, who wrote in his personal history that he named his daughter after a friend."

This shook me hard. I hesitated. "What makes you think...?"

"So I looked up the very first builder all through the database until I found a moving picture of him."

"And?"

"And he's you, or you're him, and that's nifty 'cause the medical books say no one can live more than five hundred years, so you must be the oldest of the oldest. But I looked up your school records from when you were young, and according to them you're not." She twinkled mischievously, "Unless they're fakes."

"How did you conclude…?"

She grinned openly. I hadn't denied it, so she knew she was right. It was how we played the knowledge game, though I'd never expected her to deploy it against me.

"So I also looked up pictures of your grampa, and his ancestors, and theirs. And there you were, just like you are now, every few hundred years or so. You talk the same, you move the same, you are the same. But they all died. So either you faked it or you can somehow start over."

I blinked. She was sure, and I knew there was no dissuading her. Besides, she was right. Sometimes I had disappeared, other times I had faked my death. Still others...

"So tell me the story of how you became the Builder--the first time."

"It's a very long story."

"Because you're so old. But you can tell me part tonight, some more tomorrow, and the next night, and keep going till you're done."

I shook my head, chagrined. No wimpy half-baked plans for this amazing daughter of mine. "And you won't tell the story to others?"

"It'll be our own special secret. Bury it under a tree and don't tell it to anyone but me."

I chuckled over the play-time rhyme even as I thought about a starting point, before settling on the year of my first reawakening. In what would become a pattern I repeated many times later with some variations, I initially had no memory of my prior life.


Chapter 4

Ben Kenan, Beth, 1531 AC

Ed. Note: The chapter headings have the dates in modern decimal notation for the readers' convenience, but in the narrative they are left in the original base six style, and merely transliterated. Beth was the predecessor planet to Meta and Gimel.

Initially, they called me Arar, "the cursed one". The three brothers found me lying bruised, scarred, and semi-conscious on the riverbank just upstream of Nowack's compound.

"He is a mere boy, but he has Qayin's curse on him, and is sure to bring us ill. We should either kill him or leave him to die of exposure." This first voice was sharp, nervous, worried.

"Nay, T'Same, my brother, the mark merely shows he is one of Qayin's descendants, and the man currently called by that name was a good enough fellow until recently, despite bearing the curse."

"True enough Yepheth, but he's become a wicked one now, and that's sure."

Vague awareness of what they meant flirted with my consciousness, but dissolved before I could net butterfly thoughts for examination. Who were they? More to the point, who was I? 

"Well, this lad's not to be condemned simply because he's one of Qayin's spawn, and it would be sinful to leave him here to die. Khawm, you're the strongest, and he doesn't look like he weighs much. Why not bring him home and let Father Nowack decide?"

"If you'll carry my portable computer."

"Sure."

I passed out when they lifted me, and my next memory is of waking in a comfortable and brightly coloured bed situated in a homey wood-walled room. As the mental mists passed, a vaguely familiar older man bent to inspect me.

"Ah, our mysterious visitor awakes," he proclaimed, breaking into a warm smile.

I blinked glances about to get my bearings. The room was a cozy place, warmed by a large wood stove and furnished with expensive hand-carved wood pieces, not the cheap factory plastic or glue-chip imitations commonly used then. The overhead glow bulbs were off, and muted light streamed through two windows. I could see a digital clock on one wall, a picture screen on another. There'd be a computer terminal nearby, I assumed. It was an upper middle-class home. How did I know this? How did I know anything?

My host waited for my eyes to centre on him before suggesting, "Perhaps you could tell us who you are. There's no record of anyone missing in this quarter of the land."

I blinked again, tried to remember. I was...but nothing came. A long pause ensued as I realized I hadn't a clue.

"I don't know," I finally admitted. "Who are you?"

"I am called Nowack, and this is my family home."

There was something familiar about both him and that name, but not enough.

"Does this help?" He handed me a mirror.

I sat up, letting the sheet fall from my shoulders, and examined myself. I saw a boy of perhaps three six and two years, rather emaciated, massing no more than fifty kilograms, beardless, sporting pink lines on the face and shoulders that might be healed scars. (Ed. note. We have attempted to render some weights and measures to twenty-first century Tirdian units for clarity; other numbers are left as is, even though this results in some inconsistencies.) I was, if I may say so, a fine enough looking lad, excepting that my head bore the telltale mark of Qayin's curse. I knew what that meant, and winced to see it, for it marked me as a descendent of history's most notorious killer, but the other features were a stranger's, or perhaps those of someone I had known long ago. I let the mirror fall and shrugged.

Nowack was disappointed by my reaction. "Any idea how you came to be buck naked, lying alone and near dead beside the river?"

"No, Sir. I can't remember anything."

"What is your occupation? Have you any training?"

Another good question. I didn't know for any certainty, but my first image on attempting to remember was of bales of cloth, kegs of supplies, charts of accounts. I told him so.

"A trader, perhaps?" He seemed startled.

I nodded vague agreement. "Perhaps." Yes, I knew how to trade, but whether that was my profession or an apprenticeship I had no idea. Perhaps I did other things, too. I indicated a pair of swords, several knives, and a pike hanging on the wall opposite. "I think I can use those," I offered, but when I flexed an arm, it felt wasted, unmuscled, and I was suddenly less sure.

Nowack's bushy eyebrows responded before he said, "A useful skill indeed. In these times we have need of defence from evil men."

True, I thought, and almost said it aloud, but caught myself. What knew I of the times?

"From the look of your scars, someone may have tried to do away with you, though you're healing fast enough. However, the local database yields no missing person matching your description, so we can't identify you."

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, keeping the sheet over my middle parts. "Sorry to be such trouble, Sir, but I truly can't recall anything before hearing your sons discussing me." I decided not to mention they had considered killing me out of hand.

"Well, you seem a polite and well brought up lad, in any case." He looked at me sharply. "This house follows the old ways, worshipping the Almighty Name, and trusting in him for our salvation. We pilgrimage every year to the Gate to offer him sacrifice. What of you?"

I had to stop and think. I'd done something very wicked. I remembered that much. Yet I'd turned to God, and had faith in Him since. Certainly I knew where the Gate and flaming sword were, had been there countless times for the annual sacrifices. Wait a moment. If I were the age I appeared, how was that possible? I shook my head, and Nowack began to look disappointed, but it was just to clear my own puzzlement, and I eventually affirmed, "I serve the Living One."

"And understand the sacrifices?"

"Surely, Sir. They are a substitute for our own lives, until the Almighty himself shall supply the perfect sacrifice." Mine was the textbook answer any child in seven-day class could once have recited.

"Very good." He smiled radiantly, as only older men and women can. "You're the first I've met apart from our own family for many years." He paused, considering. "Tell you what. My son Khawm, who carried you here, has taken rather a shine to you. His own son was murdered earlier this year. He was our clan trader, and we have muddled along since. Would you be interested in apprenticing to our clan as Trader, under Khawm's supervision, at least until we can establish who you are and where you're from?"

I didn't take long to think it over. After all I was apprised of neither clan, family, nor memories.

"I would be honoured, Father."

Nowack was pleased. "Very well. There is however, one precaution we require."

"Sir?"

"You must disguise the mark, so you appear as one of us. Qayin has come to oppose us, so your appearance might raise uncomfortable questions."

I shrugged. Qayin wasn't a clan, and I vaguely recalled obscuring the mark on other occasions. "Agreed," I replied, and we both placed hands over our hearts to seal the deal.

So I became Ben Kenan or Trader-Son to Khawm, son of Nowack, and it readily became apparent that however I might have obtained training or experience, I was very good at it.

Nowack's family compound was situated at the northern edge of Elda, a port city of some two grix people. [Editor's Note: A grix is the sixth power of six so this is over 93, 000 people. See the glossary for more details on Beth's numbering system.] He was a freelance construction engineer turned shipbuilder and chandler, who'd some seven years earlier moved his headquarters from the city's main dock area to this more private out of town location, previously a subsidiary yard. He still maintained warehouses and goods consolidation facilities at the city dock, and sailed a small fleet of his own ships, trading as much as five trix miles along the coast in either direction, but also built ships for others.

Yepheth ran the city operations, and Khawm and T'Same the main compound, where I now took up residence.

By subsequent standards, the land's technology was an odd mix. We derived electricity from hydro, geothermal, and a few experimental fusion reactors, had excellent computing and medical facilities, and fine metalworking to rival anything seen since on any of the earths. We had natural gas, but lacked all except relatively small quantities of oil and so of petroleum products, and had only modest coal resources, hence had steel enough for swords and decorative work, but not for large-scale structures or heavy equipment. Wood from the ubiquitous great forests of the interior was abundant, and hence the construction material of choice for buildings, ships, bridges, drilling rigs, and the like. Even plastics were derived from cellulose.

Gunpowder had not been invented, so swords and knives were the standard weapons, though there was no compunction about throwing a weapon such as later Hibernians came to have. And, though we had fission and fusion, atomics had never been thought of for weapons.

Preferred hull size for commercial vessels ranged from two sen, six-and-two cubits to half again as long. It wasn't economic to build nuclear reactors or internal combustion engines for ships, so they sailed to the winds, rigged comparably to later schooner or frigate class ships, depending on the purchaser and use. The hulls and rigging were computer designed, however, so they were better wooden sailing ships than those built since on any earth.

Our trading in goods and supplies was exceedingly complex, employing a staff of three sixes, whom I now oversaw, though initially under Khawm's close supervision. Mining the house records readily yielded the information that Nowack had been cheated by several of his suppliers in the year since his grandson had been killed, but it didn't take long to set things aright, forging new and better contracts than could have obtained without the knowledge, and gaining me much commendation within the family.

We bought lumber, rigging, supplies, food, and trade goods in abundance, acting as the end user for ship's materials, and as supplier, wholesaler, and factor for a broad range of goods coming from or going to ports all around the continent. Elda was the world's leading centre for trade, and Nowack the city's principal practitioner. Negotiating new contracts and accounting for the old was rewarding and satisfying work. On the other hand, this satisfaction was tempered when detailed parallel searches in the broader planetary records shed no light on my previous life or identity.

"It is as though," Patron Khawm remarked, after verifying another fruitless search, "you were newborn the day we found you. Ah, well, one day soon we shall complete cataloguing the life code, and then we'll know of a certainty who your parents are."

The thought intrigued and troubled me. I knew that scientists from the city of Ar, some trix miles from us with the current along the coast, were close to a breakthrough. Once the human life code for each individual was rendered in electronic form, it would be a simple matter to determine ancestry. Our standard computers were more than adequate to data mine what we now call DNA information over the entire population. Family Nowack had been good to me though, and I wasn't sure I wanted to know my origin, or cared about having a choice to go elsewhere.

From time to time I experienced phantom memories of what seemed to be an earlier life, but they were disjointed, incoherent, and seemed spread over an impossibly long time period. I considered and researched the idea that my memories had been reincarnated in a new body, or otherwise acquired from someone now dead, but, having found neither verifiable instances of the phenomenon nor scientific evidence it was even possible, I abandoned the notion as untenable, despite my apparent flashbacks.

None of this mattered much once I had been with Nowack for several years, for as I proved myself an accomplished trader and supervisor, I became a trusted family servant.

* * * * *

Ben Kenan, 1540 AC

Early in my six-and-third year with the house, I met Myst.

Khawm had sent me to Elda to close a deal for two shiploads of a seasoned aromatic lumber from the southern forests, and I was riding home with seven house guards. The Yax we rode weren't horses, as known today, but reptiles of comparable size, though with rather nasty dispositions and a tendency to attack their riders, let alone passers-by. Not that they were meat eaters, mind. Neither man nor animal ate flesh then.

But I digress. As we passed through a tawdry secondary marketplace in the midst of one of Elda's poorer residential districts, a sudden commotion broke out mere cubits from our path. A group of ruffians had set upon and were now beating a woman.

Quickly dismounting our troop, I delegated two to watch the Yax. The other six of us drew swords and waded into the fray. The crowd parted easily before armed housemen. A few might have carried small knives, but not many had swords, as fine steel was far too expensive for the common citizen in such quantity. So they knew we carried the right of force and gave way.

"Hold now," I demanded, as the parting crowd revealed three men abusing a woman. Her back was to us, but I could see they had put her hair down like a prostitute's, her clothing was torn, and she was dirty and bruised. Two had her by the arms while a third readied himself to deliver another blow to the helpless captive's face.

"Hold, I say," I repeated.

Suddenly the third man looked up, realized we were there, and backed away somewhat, though the set of his jaw remained defiant.

"Release her," I demanded. I had to repeat that, too, before he nodded to the two holding her. With a glance over their shoulders to verify that sufficient force backed the command, they complied, and all turned to face me.

So did the woman. She fairly took my breath away she was such a beauty, despite being haggard and battered. Her skin was darker brown than average, her hair as yellow as a field of corn, eyes bright blue, and her bruise-darkened face was round, pleasant, inviting. She was quite young, surely no more than five to seven sixes of years. Then she smiled at me, and struck my heart a killing blow.


"Oh, how romantic," my daughter sighed into the long silence, as I collected my thoughts.


How long I stared, I am uncertain, but the man who'd hit her wrenched my concentration from this perfect beauty.

"Why do you interfere, Trader of Nowack? This woman stole jewellery from my booth. I demand restitution by forced labour."

Focusing distracted eyes on him at last, I at once recognized him as Karst, a hawker of cheap trinkets who was reputed to own the nearby low house of prostitution.

The girl bowed toward me, and calmly offered her side. "My name is Myst. This man loaned my mother tokens against the security of our home. When she died, he offered to cancel the debt if I became one of his rental women. I refused, and instead made payments on the debt by selling clothing made by my own hands. Today as I passed his booth, this loathsome creature tossed a ring toward me. I reached out and caught it from the air, and he then accused me of stealing the worthless bauble, beat me, and would have forced me into his vile service to satisfy his own lust and that of his customers." She put a foot forward, nodded, then tossed her head defiantly.

I could scarcely think, my blood boiled so.

"She lies," Karst insisted, though his words utterly lacked conviction. He extended a ring. "She stole this valuable piece to pay off the debt she could not meet. It was in her hand, proof of guilt."

"So you beat her and would force her into prostitution? Have you no respect for the Name?" When he made no answer, I sheathed my sword, extended my hand and said, "What is the value in question?"

"I paid four sixes days' wages by the standard measure," he answered, sulkily. "I have it listed at five, a fair markup. Since I would have to provide her food and shelter, I require two years' servitude to forgive the debt."

"And destroy her in the process? I think not. Give me the ring."

He handed it over with a smirk, but that vanished when I pulled a jeweller's glass and hardness stick from my pocket to examine the piece.

I looked up after a minute's close scrutiny. He was sweating. "Well Karst, it seems you have been cheated. The metal is brass, poorly coated on low quality zinc, and the stones are glass. It is not worth the sixth fragment of an hour's work, and is the kind of thing given away by games sponsors to children, surely not sufficiently of value to make any demand even if she had stolen it."

The girl broke in. "I said it was worthless. Why would I steal this jackal's trash?" Few words, and harsh, yet she made glorious music in my ears. I didn't look at her lest I be lost again in those eyes.

Snickers circulated among the gathered spectators, and the remaining tension went out of the crowd. They were on her side now.

"Produce the mortgage on her house," I demanded.

"This is a fair bond, willingly entered into," he squeaked.

"I didn't say it wasn't. Let me see it."

He searched in the folds of his robes, pulled out a pocket computer, fumbled with it briefly, then extended the device for me to read.

"There are a trix days' wages remaining on this loan. Correct?"

"Yes," the girl said from one side, and he nodded, still sulky. It was sufficient to constitute public agreement.

"Very well," I said. "The standard discount for a bad loan is half, which would take it to three sen. House Nowack buys it for four sen." He sputtered. I glared. "You did say it was a bad loan, did you not? You cannot turn down a third premium, can you?"

What could he do? His reputation as a jeweller was in tatters. If he gainsaid his word also, he'd be driven from the city in disgrace. Moments later, the transaction was registered in the database, and the mortgage was Nowack's.

To shorten the story, once I shooed Karst away to general derision, I had the girl gather her merchandise, and when I saw the quality, engaged her to produce sailors' clothing for Nowack's chandlery. A shrewd bargainer herself, when she learned our volume and inspected our existing stock, she bartered a five point price reduction for time on the three computerized sewing machines we normally used for making sails, and became our exclusive supplier.

No one could fault my bargaining as flawed in her favour because everyone gained. We needed three machines only because we occasionally had to rig an entire ship in a day, so we got full use from them as needed, and so did she. She hired two assistants, quickly expired the loan on her house, and branched into other lines. Our customers got the highest quality clothing ever sold in Elda, a city not previously known as a textiles centre. Myst had been taught by her mother, a master maker from Tinen, famous for its clothing ware. Two months into the arrangement, we jointly opened a quality emporium in the better part of town, selling her designs as well as others I imported from Tinen. For a brief glorious time, it had the highest profit margin of any Nowack family division.

What was in the arrangement for me, a mere Nowack employee? I was insane with love.

I was also, as at all subsequent times when I awoke in the form of a boy, as raw and green about women as a lap dog. Sadly, this was only the first of many times I made dreadful mistakes.

I concocted every excuse possible to spend time with Myst, personally taking and delivering goods, graduating to walks in a secluded park. We talked about everything--the price of goods, the state of the economy, the music we were both passionate about, and eventually hints of a future together. Once Myst accompanied me to "Call on the Name" several seven-days running, but eventually fashioned excuses not to come, and avoided talking about the Almighty.

Of course, I turned a love-blinded eye to her spiritual insensitivity.

Meanwhile, it not being part of my portfolio, I scarcely noticed the increased losses that year to pirates. Several caravans we outfitted were ambushed on the road inland to neighbouring cities, and no fewer than three-sixes-two ships we had chandlered, including three of our own, were taken at sea.

Then came a six-day that shall play in my nightmares however long I live. It was toward the end of 11044 AC, a day otherwise indistinguishable from all others, for we had no seasons then, and could measure the year's sisixty days from the ground only by sensitive instruments that sighted the sun's angle of radiation through the ever-present cloud.

Finished with my work in early afternoon, I trudged alone into Elda with three bolts of fine cloth I'd picked up from an overdue ship that had stopped for a refit before continuing to the city port. They were an excuse of course, for the cloth could have waited. Grinning like a madman, I presented myself at her door to surprise her.

"I'm sorry, Trader Nowack, but the mistress is not at home," her servant advised. "She left just minutes ago on an errand."

Crestfallen, I stood like a rock heap a few moments, mumbled something inane, and handed over my cloth. Then, instead of doing the sensible thing by going home, I proceeded to moon about town, wandering here and there in the vague hope I might by blessed chance encounter my vision of loveliness.

Perhaps the Name spoke to my feet, for some two sixths of an hour later, I did catch sight of her. She was some distance off, just walking up the front steps of a large house in the merchants' district. You might wonder how I knew her from so far, but her robes were distinctive. Had I not supplied that peculiar hard-to-get purple cloth myself, charging my house account a month's wages for sufficient material to make a single garment and giving it to her on feast day?

By the time I arrived at the house, however, she was inside. Not wanting to disturb a stranger in his sanctum, I occupied a street bench some distance off, my heart much lighter. Moments later, a ragged young beggar boy hobbled by, looking quite out of place in this district. His right leg was missing, his left crooked, and his makeshift crutches appeared precarious substitutes.

Feeling expansive, I fished in my pocket for a day's work token and tossed it to him. Without seeming to move his eyes, he snatched it into the folds of his patched clothing in a single motion.

"Thank-ee, Sir," he said, brightly. "Not many in this neighbourhood have pity on a cripple."

"What's your name?"

"Jem, Sir."

"Sit with me Jem, and rest," I invited.

He looked at me sharply, but accepted my invitation and soon volunteered that he was on his way home from begging in the market to a lash-up at the back of a warehouse near the docks. When he described the place, I realized it was a Nowack building, and felt more generous. After all, he was a tenant, if perhaps an irregular one.

After a few minutes idle chat, he made to leave, but some stray thought prompted me to ask, "Tell me young Jem, do you know whose house is the large one yonder to the north of us?"

He didn't need to look. "The one with the soft iron railing painted a sickly green?"

"Yes, that's it."

"It was Merchant Ari's home to a year or so ago, when he died, a mere two trix in age. Karst bought it from the estate."

"Not Karst the jeweller, surely."

"Him what I saw Trader Nowack face down last year at market." He looked me up and down and winked slyly. He knew me. "Yup. Same one."

I stared down the street at the house, then back at him, open mouthed. Something cold settled at the base of my spine.

"Where would a mean tinkerer like Karst get the wages to buy a house like that? It must be worth several sixtrix tokens."

"He paid a sentrix, four trix and a sen," he advised, as I stared woodenly at the steps beyond that green railing, steps I'd seen the love of my life ascend. I only remembered the figure afterwards.

"Merchant Ari was a friend of Father's, so I was curious and checked the central database. I helped Father keep his books, so I knew where to look. They say," he confided quietly, "Qayin has been seen at Karst's. They say, too, that Karst deals in goods brought him by pirates." With confidence, his manner became less street-wise, more educated.

"Tell me, Jem," I breathed, "Did you see a woman enter the house a few minutes ago?"

"Myst, the seller of clothes who wears purple?"

I turned to him in agony, dreading his next words.

"She comes here often." His words were like the bars of a door closing on my heart.

"You know this of a certainty?" My voice was a stranger's.

"Surely. I've walked this street the same time every morning and evening the year past since my father's ship failed to return--ever since Karst himself turned me out on the street for lack of tokens to pay the mortgage when I wouldn't become his hired toy. I've seen her come in the evenings once or twice a week ever since Karst moved here. I sometimes see her going home in the mornings. Folk say they're lovers." He might know my face, but was unacquainted with my heart.

Confused, upset, I abandoned the bench when the beggar boy did, escorting him to his lash-up and pressing all the work tokens I had with me into his hand before leaving him. Restless, I walked for hours, then, returning to the compound, prayed to the Name most of the night, desperate for guidance. Surely if I asked her, I would hear a simple explanation. But what legitimate reason could there be for her to visit Karst, her supposed tormenter, now a known consorter with pirates?

In the small uncomfortable hours of the morning, I resolved to investigate the matter fully, but to say naught to Myst until I knew of a certainty.

My next few weeks were filled with turmoil. I tried to act normally, and could detect no difference in her behaviour. She would have lulled me back, except that informants around the lower parts of the city, needing but a few tokens to loosen their tongues, readily supplied that Karst was agent to Qayin, a fact "everybody" knew excepting we of Nowack's house. Then, disguised, I walked with Jem three consecutive nights before seeing Myst again enter the house. It nearly slew me to watch from a safe distance as she left the next morning, embracing a man I took for Karst on the steps before hurrying off.

Why? I asked myself, then demanded of the heavens, a trix times over. The passing weeks brought no further information, no answers. Five sixes days later, exactly a month from the night I'd first seen her at Karst's, she met me as I closed up my office. It was one-day.

"Ah, Kenan," she greeted me, bestowing a smile that still stoked the furnace of my heart, "Perhaps you have time to escort me home tonight. We haven't talked in days."

True. I'd been avoiding her. "Surely," I immediately agreed, offering my arm.

We talked of sweet nothings for some time, and soon, beside this magnificent woman, my heart was ready to forget what my mind knew.


"Little daughter, a beautiful woman can lower a man's IQ by a hundred points with a smile, a heave of her breast, a flash of leg. I plead with you my child. When you are old enough, treat your men with integrity, for we are helpless as newborn puppies in the face of a woman's guile." She was a child only in years. She understood enough, and nodded solemnly.


"Sorry, what was that?" I asked, having missed her question amidst my chaos of idiotic romantic musings and fret.

"I just wondered if you'd heard news of Elia."

Elia was the largest ship in Nowack's own fleet, a sturdy, barge-like ore carrier that carried two cargoes of metals to us yearly from mines and smelters in the far south, nearly three sixtrix miles' journey. She was slow, unglamorous, hard working, and accounted for a quarter of our yearly profits. The whole region's economy depended heavily on her safe arrival, so she was normally escorted by three patrol ships.

I steeled myself to show no suspicion, to sound casual. "Why Myst, my love, what is Elia to you?"

She laughed brightly. "I care nothing for your iron, steel, aluminum, and copper, my handsome Trader, but I do admit to asking her captain to purchase me a bale of silk. From it I will make party gowns that merchants' wives will pay a sixtrix to own. I want to meet him personally, to ensure I have my treasure from his holds before he is tempted to sell it to another."

"Ah," I said, but stared straight ahead, suddenly thinking furiously. Had we discussed ships, caravans and their movements before? Yes! Many times. Between what she saw at our compound daily, and what I'd told her, Myst knew the schedules of everyone who traded with Nowack. I resolved to check the database, but memory told me what I'd find.

I swallowed hard and pretended to calculate her answer, though I was now deeply ashamed. How many good men had gone to their deaths because of my foolishness? I strained to keep my voice normal. "We heard from her on the secure radio this morning. She should arrive at the compound's dock at dusk this coming four-day."

A sen two six hours later, the afternoon of three-day, I called by her shop in our compound and invited Myst to stroll. She accepted with an innocent smile, so I led her down the stairs from the plateau that held our main buildings and out on the dock, a walk we'd taken many times. The cove was narrow, so there was only room for one dock, a five stadia-long finger jutting out into the shallow water, sufficient for up to dix vessels to tie up. To each side, and also on pilings, there branched warehouses where we stored goods and supplies, and the dock was wide enough that our wheeled electric transporters could move loads between any outbuilding and the shore with ease.

We rounded a corner of the last building and began walking along a narrow pier adjacent to the large ship that was just tying up. In the distance, three sails were leaving the cove. We talked a few moments before Myst noticed the machines being readied to enter holds.

"What ship?" she enquired idly.

"Elia." I waved to the far horizon. "Her escorts just leaving," I casually added.

Her sharp intake of breath was all the confirmation needed.

"She was not due until tomorrow."

"Did I say four-day? No, three-day was correct. Shall we see the captain about your silk?"

There was a long silence. Then she said, in a small voice, "I was prepared for tomorrow. This is a surprise." Even to one still besotted, it was lame.

I'd heard enough. "Since she's here already, Karst and Qayin will undoubtedly be surprised also when they rendezvous to take her off the cape tonight. A sen two patrol boats will meet them instead of merely our four. They should suffice." 

You see, after I'd met with Nowack and his sons to tell them what I'd learned, the family intelligence network laboured overtime to fill in the details, determining the scope and place of attack. Jem also provided critical information, and I'd resolved to do something for the lad when this crisis was past. When you know both the big picture and who to bribe, the details are exceptionally easy to assemble. After running a computer simulation based on the last known positions of Qayin's ships, we'd radioed the captains' council and arranged a joint interception of their ambush--all less than a half day after Myst enquired about Elia.

She suddenly pulled a wireless communicator from her robe.

"Won't work here," I quietly observed. "Signal's poor in the cove. Besides, iron and lead ore in both the building and the ship effectively silence those devices."

"You lied to me." Her voice was suddenly a shriek.

I turned, to find her lovely face contorted with rage. She was holding the useless communicator as though preparing to strike me.

"You told me the truth?" I enquired, levelly.

She struggled for control, and tried a smile. It was sadly forced. "I must return to town," she said, evading answer.

I took her hands. "To warn Karst so he can message Qayin? No. You'll stay the night here, in this building."

"Let me go. Qayin and I will make you rich beyond your wildest dreams. You can have Karst's position. We'll buy you six houses, give you grix in credits."

Full understanding dawned. She was Qayin's woman, not Karst's. That explained why she went there only some nights. He must be the one I'd seen in her embrace. I'd been right about the rest though. The whole affair in the market was a play to gain my confidence, to insert a spy into house Nowack.


Life's lessons can be harsh beyond belief, little daughter. I hope you never experience betrayal as deep as I have.


Myst mistook hesitation for weakness. "You'll see," she added, pulling at my hands as if it were all arranged. "Qayin's organization is powerful, too strong to be stopped. He already controls three sixes cities. Soon he will dominate the world, have all its wealth. You can be his third if you let me warn him now."

"You and I?"

She took my right hand and pressed it between her breasts. "I do love you, Kenan. You're so like Qayin, only a fraction of his age. He's often away for long periods. You and I could..." She aimed her trademark high voltage smile, so engrossed in her own deception she never noticed me press the stud on my signaller. Nowack had wanted me to wear a wireless microphone, but I'd requested her betrayal be private.

When she finally noticed footsteps behind her, there was no escape from our house guards under the brothers' close command. They took no chance she might escape, forming a line two deep across the entire pier to block her. When I let go her grasping hand, she ran, but there was nowhere to go on the narrow pier but into the water, and she couldn't swim.

* * * * *

Next morning, I again took the long walk out to the farthest transfer warehouse where we'd confined Myst for the night amidst the shielding ore, in case she had another wireless device. I'd refused guard duty, not confident I could weather the storm of her assaults even knowing what she represented.

By then it was too late to matter. We already had radio news of the great sea battle in which four sixes of pirate vessels were captured along with a trix and a half men. That many again had been killed, and the patrol had lost only four sixes and two people and no ships. The bad news was that Qayin wasn't with his fleet. Moreover Karst was found dead in his home when our men had called shortly after. Apparently he was expendable.

I sighed as I ended the longest walk of my life. Myst was in the warehouse office, and Khawm stood at the only door. We'd carefully removed all communicators and computer interfaces from the room before confining her.

He raised his eyebrows in question.

"To see if she will repent," I answered, and he let me pass.

I may as well not have wasted my breath. She was sullen, defiant, tossed her head defiantly at any mention of the Name.

"I am Qayin's partner, and will give service to no other," she finally spat, in flat, emotionless terms. "I will never bow to the Name."

So in the end, we returned cruelty for cruelty, I suppose. She wouldn't repent, refused to join Nowack, remained defiant to the Name, so we simply let her go. Understand that there was no government as such, no police, no authority to turn her over to for justice. None of these had yet been invented. So, if you lacked the resources to defend yourself, or were not under the protection of a house...

My street kids found her knife-riddled body three days later, in an alley near a warehouse filled with pirated goods. No one else claimed the remains, so I buried her at my personal expense. None but I wept over her grave.


She threw herself at me for a big hug.

"So twice you named a daughter after her. But why, if she was so wicked?"

"Because I wanted a good woman to have the name. And, you are the fourth, not the second."

"Did the other three grow up to be good women?"

"They did, and I hope you will also help me remember that there was some good in my first Myst, despite that she did evil."

"Oh, Daddy." There was a long pause, then a calculating look. "But that's only the part of the story that explains Myst, not how you became Builder."

"Of course. We'll continue tomorrow. Now off to bed with you."


That's it for the excerpt, folks. You'll have to buy the book to read the rest.

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