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The Nexus
Non Fiction
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Worlds of the Timestream

The Interregnum
Volume 5

The Nexus

Richard J. Sutcliffe

Published under license from Arjay Enterprises

Copyright 2005, Richard J. Sutcliffe
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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.

To Jen

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

Table of Contents

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3


The Nexus is the fifth volume in the editors' history of the interregnum, the turbulent years following the 1941 deposition of James IV. It recounts a few events from the immediate aftermath of the great trial of September 1998, concentrating on those of a single weekend in September 2000.

Like the others, it is narrated as a story circle in that several threads of the account from different points of view (and two earths other than Hibernia) are offered in alternating chapters. Unlike the first four volumes, most chapters are in strict chronological order, excepting only the memoirs of Mara, Lady Meathe and a few items whose inclusion required rewinding the clock slightly. 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.

The editors are deeply grateful to the many participants in all threads of the story cycle for sharing their notes and cooperating with our interviewers. Their help was invaluable in organizing and presenting the inside story surrounding the first nexus to commence in two millennia.

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 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 Glenmorgan, this time offering a view of the battle itself. It also recounted the growing years of Meghan, to her time in cadet school, the founding of The Friends of the Day, and Mara's time in Moody and Africa. We also followed Katherina from Glenmorgan to Irish South America, Los Angeles, and Australia, including her several incarcerations and her 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 Rhiannon, were traced to and through Kilkarney and into military life.

The General added more to Mara's story as a 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 and human rights violations. 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.

For its part, The Nexus tells of Mara's activities following the trial of 1998 through to her participation in the nexus itself. It recounts the involvement of angst-ridden Lucas Caine, his discovery of the Timestream via Eider, John Dominic's daughter, his participation in the nexus, and the immediate aftermath. We include information from Hibernian palace records, the Donal's memoirs, Lady Catherine's personal papers, and a wide range of material from several other principals. In a few cases, we had multiple sources available and have taken the liberty of switching points of view frequently through a passage.

Stories yet to tell include those of the tumultuous year after the nexus, the second battle of Glenmorgan, the appointment of the new Builder, and what became known as the second Trolls' conspiracy (despite differing greatly from the plot of 1601). Beyond that, we plan to present inside information from the civil war and, of course the restoration of Ireland's monarchy.

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


Jana Whelan, Ard Seanacha of the Court of Ireland, who with High Ollamh Rhiannon compiled this fifth volume.

Kent's popular version of the founding of the kingdom is satisfactory for the general public, but lacking in details known to scholars.

Many historians have commented on the remarkable convergence of history between Tirdia and Hibernia at any distance from Jerusalem and Rome. In this work, we advance the hypothesis that the two worlds were still joined in some way and the nexus did not complete for nearly a millennium. Evidence to support this view abounds. For instance, no discernible difference can be found in the key figures of Irish history at least to 1014, and the same is true in many other parts of the world, the Mediterranean excepted, for which we have similarly detailed records though we are hampered in efforts to establish this by the destruction of many critical documents on Tirdia. Our research strongly suggests the nexus that began at Jerusalem when Pilate decided (on our world) not to wash his hands of the Christ did not complete until the day of the battle of Clontarf, for from that date forward, convergence everywhere, not just in Ireland, is much less strong. (Publication note: Metan scholars now confirm this explanation is correct.)

To review our history, when the forces of Meathe withdrew at the onset of the battle, one of their soldiers decided not to go, but remained loyal to Brian Boru. That he joined the nearby Delcassian contingent and fought with them to carry the day is of no consequence, for the same outcome eventuated on Tirdia. That there is on Tirdia no record of this extraordinary man suggests the last nexus either completed when he made his decision, or perhaps when his double was killed in battle on Tirdia. That our two histories diverged sharply only then, and those of other nations began slowly to depart from a common stream the same year, even where not influenced by Ireland's, we offer as proof of our contention.--from Lessons of Clontarf, by Ard Seanachas Doyle Whelan (posthumously) and Jana Whelan

Chapter 1

Mara, at Tara of Hibernia, from September 21, 1998

As soon she could evade the persistent newshounds wanting staffage of participants in Tara's most spectacular trial in history, Mara wheeled herself rapidly past the fountain in the great hall, halfway down South Hall and along to Royal Way.

Her limbs had largely regrown, but her legs still pained her too much to walk any distance. As for the nightmares of having them cut off while she lay paralysed from nerve gas....

At least Tad had nailed most of the guilty. She shook her head to clear the phantoms and slowed, preoccupying herself by viewing some of the kings' portraits hanging there. From a fanciful artist's rendering of Brian Boru crowning Cormac Meathe to a sober photograph of James IV taken just before his 1941 deposition, these faces were Tara. The palace reeked of history.

Some, she knew, had been cleverly restored after the fire resulting from the 1601 attempt to blow up the old palace, the event that inspired the Trolls' Day fireworks and feis every second of July since.

At the very end were the twelve Donals' faces, those high lords who took power after James. She stared several minutes at the last, the former Sean Reilly. Was he an ally, trying to prepare and train her for the good of Greater Hibernia, or was he a fiend of hell, as her father once believed? Her last assignment from him had seen her lose all four limbs and nearly her life. She glanced down at her hand, nearly completely regrown. She wiggled her toes. Another week and she could re-train with her weapons. Even now, she could stand if she were careful.

After several minutes, she turned away from the door to her own suite, once itself the kings' quarters. Reoccupying the rooms she used between the Donal's assignments could wait.

She wheeled herself the twenty staves back to the Health Domain entrance, past the second Lord's quarters and the elevator leading to the upstairs infirmary. Mara shook her head sadly and took a deep breath.

"Health, open to Mara Meathe," she said to the door, which promptly rolled aside. When she entered, the entire staff, alerted by the door computer, stood and bowed. Three saluted. They must be former soldiers recognizing her Medal of Honour.

"Please return to your work, Masters, Mistresses," Mara invited, deliberately overstating most of their positions. Several broke into grins and excited whispers as they complied. Many high nobles would treat staff as dirt under their feet, forcing them to remain standing until leaving the room.

A brisk chief clerk she'd not previously met ushered her to the inner door at the far corner. Getting her bearings, Mara realized Catherine's office was directly behind the stairway that curved around the fountain outside in the Great Hall.

"Lady Meathe to see Lady Ryan," the clerk announced. Only the briefest pause ensued before the door slid aside. Catherine would have known she was here as soon as the hallway door recognized her voice.

"Thank-you, Mistress," Mara said to the clerk. "I need not be recognized by the staff on my way out or for future visits." She rolled into Catherine's office and heard the door close behind her.

Catherine stood, back to her desk, and a portion of Mara's mind registered approval. Catherine's office was arranged as her own, she sitting back to the door so there would be no furniture blocking a visitor. Mara wheeled to the side of the massive desk and used its bulk to struggle to her feet.

Mara's own tears were met by the girl's wracking sobs, and the two embraced a long time before Mara's only partially regrown feet forced her to sit again. She watched Catherine carefully as her young acquaintance regained her composure.

With her parents Maria and Liam Ryan dead in the August uprising, Catherine had boldly demanded their place, citing her medical certificate and legal sword, at least in the Roman domain. Court precedents allowed the claim, but the absent Thomas Monde was known to want the position. Certainly, Catherine could not be challenged for two years until she was legally of age at Tara, but surely the girl had only postponed the inevitable. Her caution of Monde had grown, too, for when he returned from the delay Mara had reluctantly imposed on him in Moody to give Catherine her chance, he'd duelled the third and fourth lords, killed both, and now stood at Court next to Catherine, a portent of what could happen to her.

Catherine was pale and frightened, but resolute, accepting Mara's condolences with formal thanks once her tears dried. The bubbly childish enthusiasm she'd known in the girl was replaced by a forced and tentative, but shocked maturity. With her own legs still regrowing, Mara was a cent shorter than Catherine for now, though the latter's much lighter build made her insubstantial beside Mara's powerful frame. Besides, Mara was properly three or four cents taller.

"Mara," Catherine began, "You have your own agenda at Court--protecting the throne. I must serve clan Ryan and Rome, Health, the Donal, and his lady, and to do so effectively, cannot be under your orders as one of the Friends."

"I release you," Mara replied at once, "though our two paths are not incompatible."

"You needn't be concerned I might seek the throne," Catherine assured her.

"I wasn't," Mara answered, "But you're convinced Donal is friend with Monde foe, and I believe it is the other way around." Well, she had reservations about Monde, but....

"Donal is a severe but honest man, and has been ally to Ryan for decades. He is my second father, and will stay so until proven base," Catherine asserted flatly. "If he is harsh with some, it is to prove them. Monde's falseness I sense merely by being near. Evil surrounds the man like a cloud. He hates me passionately, especially now, and would kill me if he legally could. If he favours you, it is only because he would use you."

Mara shook her head. Despite the man's recently revealed violent side, she wasn't ready to believe this of the charming Thomas Monde without direct evidence to link him to the many recent conspiracies. She cast around for common ground. "I believe Dugold Dunnegan to be a good man," she suggested.

Catherine's eyebrows went up in surprise. "He is my teacher and the second closest friend I have at Court," she agreed.

"Philip Desmond appears a dissembler," Mara observed, angling for further agreement. She'd heard the Church's first lord preach recently, and it had rung utterly false--a silly homily about tolerating evil in the name of peace that Court gadflies like Delia Donahue and Gladys Quigley had gushed over afterwards.

Catherine looked disgusted. "He is as bad as or worse than Monde," she averred. "I have heard people say he does not believe in the Lord of Heaven, yet he is High Bishop. What were the priests of Tara thinking to elect such a man?"

"We have some things in common." Mara summarized the fragments. "We are neither rivals nor enemies."

"No," Catherine replied. "We are at least not enemies, though I am allied to one you distrust. However, I would return this, as I may be an impediment to the Friends." She offered her New School badge.

Mara refused it. "If you cannot wear it openly, sew it on the inside of your vest for security. You can come and go as guest at our schools as you will, so long as you keep our security. You can practice at the sword there out of sight of those you fear. We'll leave you out of our councils so you can reveal nothing of our affairs. Spar with Jonas. He is our best. Or, I would be honoured. In any case, I assure you of the Friends' protection and care, next only to the throne."

Catherine nodded. She was clearly having trouble damming up further tears, and Mara felt sorry for the girl, forced to take on as much responsibility as herself, though at a far younger age. She asked the question she had come for. "What did the intruders get from your family system?" Catherine had warned her even before Mara's kidnapping and mutilation that the Ryans' local storage was compromised.

Catherine collected herself, but looked grim. "According to Alvise, they saw the old medical records. He thinks most of what was taken was a smokescreen to disguise their interest in one file."

"That was?"

Catherine looked at Mara unhappily. "Material from the battle of Glenmorgan and after. Anyone reading it would surely know your father as the man treated under the name of Brian McIlhargey. If they guessed, the burned servant might be recognizable as your mother, Lady Katherina. I think you have to assume your secrets from those days are out. That file may even be the reason my parents were killed, though this was not the first attempt on them."

Mara shook her head. "That information probably doesn't matter any more. My father is dead, and my mother, if she lives, has vanished. They know I am Devereaux and Rourke."

However, she thought, they probably couldn't guess her connection to Seamus Meathe, despite her use of the name. She reflected a moment longer and said aloud. "No one but you knows I'm a physician, and I want to keep it that way. My pills arrive by mail now, and I'll only find out who was behind Haggerty when someone threatens to cut off the supply." They'd been supplied to her ever since Frank Haggerty infected her with the disease the Tirdians called AIDS. Her enemies also didn't know she and Nellie had defeated the disease themselves. Another potential weapon in Ireland's never-ending family wars.

Catherine shrugged. "I have no problem keeping that secret from Donal, but you had better keep it from Monde and Desmond."

Mara shrugged. "I'll certainly take your advice that far."

She almost turned to go, but instead impulsively made a peace offering. "Nellie and I developed an an-synth and PIEA implant we call 'Auntie'. So far there's just the two of us and Maeve Derry testing it on ourselves, so we're only slowly refining the software, but it's saved my life at least once. We'd be pleased to give you one if you want."

"No obligations?"

"Just to let us know how it does in an emergency. That's the catch with something like this. You hardly ever need it, so we don't have much data, and at this stage, only a physician can make much use of it."

"All right."

"Good. I'll have Nellie send you the latest version of the nannies and the software."

The two talked longer, then shook hands on their limited understanding. Mara left, saddened she could no longer count Catherine as a friend, even help her much. Yet it was still in Mara's interests to train Catherine at the sword, whether the younger woman challenged for the throne or not. Should Donal turn against the child, she would surely rejoin the Friends.

On the other hand, if Catherine was right and Monde was the enemy, she could be counted on if the crunch came. At the front row position where the girl now stood, only Mara could challenge up to protect her from the front row, for no one else could match Monde's blade. Apart from that eventuality, Catherine would have to establish her own protection at Court. Mara had other duties.

When she returned to her suite that evening after a day in her office, Sheana was waiting for her. "I need to talk, my lady," she said excitedly, face flushed.

"So, talk," Mara invited, smiling. She had some idea what was coming.

"I told my story to Lord O'Toole and let him see my ring while you were away. He took one look at it and showed me an identical one he kept in his desk, except it wasn't broken. Look what he's done this very day." She extended a copy of a legal document, her hand shaking with emotion, then sketched again the story of her rescue from the ship by her adoptive mother.

Mara looked over the paper. Over the signature and certification of Brendan O'Connell, Ard Brehon of Tara, and Patrick O'Toole himself in his capacity of Chief Herald, it named Sheana Maguire O'Toole as his granddaughter and legal heir. Mara looked up and grinned. "My Lady O'Toole, I believe." As heir-presumptive and given that Patrick O'Toole was unmarried, she deserved the courtesy title.

"It's too much to take in," Sheana replied. "I grew up fighting for my life in the alleys and streets of the Penal City, living for months at a time by my wits and in filth. I never dreamed of places like Tara where the fine people live. Now I'm a high lady. What do I do?"

"Trust your grandfather. He is the wiliest survivor ever. Work with your sword until not even I could bar your way. You have your GAC and Ollamh in administration. Get one or two more certificates so you can stand in the front row. Your sword is good enough for that already." Then, a crafty smile on her own face, she observed, "I hear the O'Tooles have been working closely with Alfred Dennison." Sheana's renewed blush was all Mara needed. It was a good day after all.

"Lord O'Toole...my grandfather, that is, said it was expedient to surround Alfred Dennison with the best and most powerful security possible. He volunteered to be his personal safety officer. We've spent much time there. I came to ask permission to move from here to the Dennison manse with...my grandfather. I can protect them both better by being there, and you have others to watch for you. The other Friends say they almost feel safe now in the streets, but Alfred has to watch his every step. Do you know there have been ten attempts on his life in the last four months?"

"Lady Sheana," Mara said, "You no longer need my permission for anything. Why, you outrank me in some ways, because you are heir of O'Toole, and I am a commoner. By all means protect Alfred Dennison and your grandfather. They are very important men." She paused, then decided to broach the more important subject. "What do you think of Alfred personally?" She tried to make it sound innocent.

Sheana's voice took on a dreamy tone. "He is rigid and unbending, but kind and trustworthy, a man of deepest integrity, and a believer who really knows what it means to be a forgiven and redeemed sinner in Christ. I never thought I could care for a man again after Tim was killed." She shook herself and stopped. "Is it disloyal for me to feel affection for someone else? Do you think me silly to long for security? What is Tim thinking of me?" Sheana blushed, and hung her head in confusion.

Mara laughed out loud, but it wasn't half the joy she was feeling. "Sheana, if that lunkhead Alfred Dennison notices Lady Sheana O'Toole, you will make him the best of wives. It is not cruel or disloyal for the living to love the living, and your love for Tim can no longer grow. It can remain in you, but your heart did not die with him, and it can now house a new love alongside the old one. I will help you land Alfred if I can," she added. She stood awkwardly and hugged her friend thoroughly.

When Sheana returned to O'Toole's office, Mara felt much better. There would be no more nonsense about her being Alfred's queen. She pictured a crown on Sheana's head and grinned.

Moments after Sheana left, Mara called Jonas and asked him out for a walk on the palace grounds. They did the promenade, he pushing her chair, and talking mostly business, but Mara felt a peace and satisfaction being with this man that she got from none other. She longed to know he felt likewise, but was far from asking, even hinting. She would let it grow. They made small talk as they wandered the vast parklands behind the palace, and Mara relaxed. It was good to be alive. It had been a narrow thing back in that Tirdian hospital. She wondered a moment if there would ever be a chance to thank Lucas properly for saving her life, but dismissed the thought as an impossibility.

As they were returning to the buildings, her eye caught the lights around the loading dock behind the kitchen, and she recalled the days when she had raided low Tara's garbage bins to keep herself fed. She began to feel impish.

"How secure is the palace from forced entry, do you think?" she asked Jonas.

Tara's second in Security answered her apparently whimsical question matter-of-factly. "We have your scanner-sniffers on the front doors, and there isn't a hallway without a guard inside. Your suite door, and those of the other nobility living here, are all watched. The windows are shatterproof, and there are alarms and sensors there and on the walls and roofs. All emergency exits are alarmed. The grounds are well lit, and I have reason to believe Friends keep track of the palace and each other better than Security could." He grinned and winked. Jonas knew unofficially about the Friends' security measures. "Master Driscol gives me freedom with personnel and most of key points are watched by Friends, though he is always in the palace, and takes his administrative job very seriously. Do you know, I have yet to work a shift when he was out of the complex?"

Mara had scarcely been listening to the last part. "Bet I could get in," she boasted, slyly.

"What, break our security? No chance."

"Bet you the cost of dinner tonight at a restaurant of the winner's choice," Mara teased.

"You're on."

"All right, follow me." Mara picked up two small stones, and wheeled straight for the loading dock, pulling out her sling as she went. Just before she came within range of the robotic sensors, she sent one stone to the right and another to the left. There was a little clatter and the dock was suddenly in complete darkness. A robot moving scraps to the garbage bin came to a standstill partially blocking a doorway. Mara dodged around it and through the outer door, with Jonas on her heels.

She pulled a small piece of plastic from her pouch, leaned in her chair, and ran it along the frame of the second door. There was a soft 'click' and the inner door swung open. "Mechanical lock on this model," she informed him. Wheeling inside, she palmed a large red switch and Jonas saw the lights come back on outside as the inner door closed again. She glanced at her timepiece. "Fifteen seconds from the time I got in range. Not bad, but not my best time. I'm a lot faster on legs."

"You've done this before," Jonas accused.

"Lots of times," she agreed, not telling him it had been to raid dumpsters in Tara's alleys before her father died. "The standard loading dock uses visible light and can be disabled or enabled by these switches," she explained. "Outside, the old-model scanners can't pick up a fast moving object, and if you aim right you can turn the whole thing off. Then you do as you please for two minutes before turning it back on, because that's how long the delay lasts before the dock software sends an alert to the main system."

Mara led the way to the kitchen, opened the refrigerator and poured two glasses of the fruit juice she knew was stored there, and to which she had often helped herself on nighttime excursions to the kitchen after long hours of study.

Jonas was staring around in wonder. "I've never been here," he said. "It's amazing what goes on behind the scenes that you never think about."

Suddenly, the two looked at each other, the same thought occurring to each. "You had better get some Friends working in the kitchen, and I'll put some trusted men here, too," Jonas said, voicing their concern. "Somebody could put nannies or poison in the food or water and take out the whole palace from down here."

She grinned back. "I shall have a big, juicy, New Tara style steak with mushrooms at McTavish's in Old Town," she announced, reminding Jonas of his lost bet. "If we hurry, we can be there when the bards start their evening recital. For dessert, I want a double serving of Black Forest cake with an ice."

Jonas laughed, but as they went back upstairs, out the front door and down the wheelchair ramp, he resolved to get his people down there first thing next morning to modify that dock so even Mara couldn't break in.

The next day Enko and Kazue Miyamoto arrived with poet-samurai Toru Ikeda and singer-samurai Takashi Fujima. With Chief Herald O'Toole's permission, Mara installed the four in her suite. The place was enormous and she could have easily accommodated a dozen more. Besides, it felt good to have company now Sheana had moved out. She introduced the two bodyguard/artists to the Ard Filea and other palace bards, receiving assurances that places would be made for both, though the concept of a Seanacha-warrior was somewhat novel.

That afternoon, she brought the young couple and their bards to the council chambers and had them credentialled. Enko and Kazue were given positions at the head of the fifth row, and Toru and Takashi were placed in the second between the Irish bards and the Clergy. Their colourful costumes created quite a stir, and Mara heard the foursome being invited to the homes of several nobles afterward. Mara herself was read a public commendation for making the new arrangements with Japan, and given the right to face the Court and council while introducing the newcomers, but got a wicked glare from John Davis before returning to her place. He and co-standing Erwin Davis were still furious over her deft removal of their family from influence in Japan.

That evening, she took all four newcomers to the Old Town school, introduced them to the students and faculty, and worked them into the routines. The two veterans would teach Japanese sword, and they and Enko would study the western blade. Kazue would join the beginning students for the fighting classes and teach Oriental customs and languages.

All four already had their patches entered in the Friends' database, and Mara made sure they went through a scanner a couple of times to register their body characteristics for security reasons before returning the foursome to the palace. She then took to the tunnel from her private study and wheeled vigorously back to Old Town to spend time going over reports Charles O'Connor had left on her desk. She visited briefly with Selma MacCarthy and her family before settling down at the MT in the back office for several hours of study. She trusted the security of the one in her palace suite, but this one had her direct satellite uplink to the Friends' network and she preferred to use it even now under assumed names so no one studying public records would know what she was interested in. This night, she was checking trade figures and troop movements in various parts of the world, and coming to some conclusions about where she would go next to keep the Peace. She was sure the Donal wouldn't regard her wheelchair as an impediment to sending her to some hot trouble spot by herself. She'd be free of it soon, anyway.

At two o'clock, she made the wheel back to the palace and called it quits, to catch three hours sleep before starting again. It was a typical day for the workaholic Mara, and she loved the pace. September of 2000 was a long way off, though it loomed in her subconsciousness like an evil spirit.

After taking her Japanese friends back to Old Town next morning, she went around to visit Cam and Rainbow. On the way, she stopped in next door to Stephen McTavish's restaurant at Mary McTavish's clothing and outfitting emporium, and made a number of purchases, leaving most for delivery and taking only the smallest item along. She dropped by St. Patrick's, and was pleased to see the restoration work proceeding well ahead of schedule and some of the scaffolding already down. Then she crossed the street and rapped on the door of the rectory. She sensed a flutter at the window, there were footsteps inside, the door flew open, and Rainbow threw herself into Mara's arms.

"Oh, Mara, I'm still in shock that you're back and alive. What a trick you played on me on the Lord's Day. I so hoped you'd come today."

"It's a day for visiting family." Mara grinned. This was one place where she would get unconditional approval.

"Come and see," Rainbow invited, excitedly.

Mara left her chair outside, made it up the steps and through the rectory's narrow halls with minimal help from Rainbow, shortly finding herself in a brightly decorated room at the rear of the rectory where a tiny smiling face greeted her from a little bed. "May I?" Mara asked, reaching for the baby, and with Rainbow's assent lifted the little one to hold against her breast. "So beautiful, and I'm so honoured you named her Meghan, after me."

Tears filled Mara's eyes and she bowed her head. Suddenly, she was filled with both longing to have a child of her own, and dread that it might never be. Overcome with emotion, she stood with her head down, leaning on the high bed for support, tears dripping on Meghan for several seconds.

She heard a small noise and looked up to see through misty eyes a brown robe over a broad bluff frame in the doorway. She handed Meghan back to Rainbow and wiped her eyes. Father Cam was embarrassed, and so was she. After all, had she chosen differently, this child might have been hers.

"Are you all right?" Rainbow asked, concerned.

Mara nodded. Despite the longing the child had produced in her, the tears were of joy, not sorrow. She took two deep breaths, pulled the small package from her pouch, and held it out to Rainbow. "You have blessed me before our Lord in Heaven and done me the highest honour," she said, formality creeping in as she fought for control of her emotions. "Now, I shall do for her as an aunt should."

Rainbow's mouth made a big "Oh," and she put Meghan back into the bed to open the package. She held up the gold chain with the small white heart-shaped pendant on the end.

"Oh, Mara," Rainbow said, wonderingly.

"It is her amphora," Mara observed, unnecessarily. "I ordered it hand-made in the old style from alabaster. It is filled with nard. She will be the most fragrant of brides."

Cam objected. "Mara, this must have cost hundreds of shamrocks. You could have...."

Mara held up a hand to halt the lecture on giving to the poor she knew was coming. "You can get her another when the time comes, and she can break that one and make this her heirloom instead, if she wishes." She leaned down to stroke a tiny cheek. "If the Lord of Heaven wills, I will make a better world for you to grow up into than I had, little Meghan."

Cam and Rainbow could say no more to her, and when Mara straightened up again, it was to remark, "You must safeguard her amphora, Rainbow, as my life is too dangerous for me to keep it against the day she makes the vow, as an aunt should. I had to come today, because I will be going away again shortly, and don't know when I could have visited otherwise."

"Donal sends you abroad already?" Cam asked. "You still need a chair, don't you?"

"For another week or so, and not yet, but he will," Mara replied, enigmatically. She stayed another hour, hugged Rainbow and Cam, held Meghan one more time, and left in a riot of emotions.

She didn't notice the small crooked man with the face of a weasel who stared back and forth between her and the rectory as she left. Nor did she notice his vile grin as he shuffled along the street behind her.

Mara wheeled straight to Donal's office on her return to the palace. His secretary waved her inside without asking her to wait, and she sat for a few seconds before his desk while he finished a call. He leaned back in his chair and glared. "Been expecting you," he growled, impatiently.

"I have no message from you," she observed quietly.

"Shouldn't need them any more," he snapped. "Do your own research. Draw your own conclusions. Otherwise you aren't any good to the realm."

"To Indonesia first with troops to intervene in the religious war," Mara shot back, irritated. "Then to Russia to bargain further with the Czar, and finally back to India to deal with the aftermath of the railway construction." She stated her results in the briefest form possible. "Mexico needs some help too, but you'll send someone else. Likewise the troubles in Mayo."

Donal didn't react, instead keeping a fixed scowl. "You overlooked Babylon, not our city, but Para," he amended, shortly. "I want you there as ambassador for the spring meeting of their executive when they table the budget estimates for the space program. Indonesia can wait months if not a year. I've also got a SpecialOps report on a problem between Tibet and China you need to resolve."

Mara was momentarily taken aback, then realized that she had not looked at interplanetary trade and relations, only what went on here on Hibernia. "Get the whole picture before opening your mouth," she reminded herself sharply.

* * * * *

Despite his surly demeanour, Donal was delighted. Indonesia, and Mexico were obvious. There was no way Mara could have known about the Babylonian assignment or Tibet, but he hadn't expected her to note the remaining subtleties of the Russian situation, or comment on domestic Irish affairs. He hadn't taken much notice India himself, but now that she mentioned it, he'd better activate a few operatives to keep an eye on things until she could return. Once the railway was complete.... He refrained from gleefully rubbing his hands together. A couple more years and she would be ready. Then he sobered. A couple of years was all he had, perhaps all any of them had.

"Your flight to Jakarta is booked for ten tomorrow," he continued, briskly, giving no hint of his thoughts. "We have three battalions of regular troops on station. You have a month to assign new officers and get them into shape before everything breaks loose. Your budget is whatever it takes to do the job in three more months, because Russia can't wait past the end of January."

"I want Takehiro and his Samurai. They need to play a role beyond the borders of Japan."

"Consider it done."

"I want him to have the same Royal Army rank as I."

"Your discretion."

He tapped his hand on his desk for a few seconds, then abruptly decided on a disclosure. "One more thing. Show me your coff."

She pulled her army ID from inside her shirt, looking puzzled, then slipped the light chain over her head. Everyone in the army called the tag a "coff", short for "coffin tag" because of where they often ended up.

"Hold it by all four edges at once and squeeze," he ordered, "then tell me what you see."

Mara complied, her puzzlement changing to astonishment.

"The background changed from green to blue. My rank has erased itself, and the motto...'Lend all assistance'?" She looked up sharply. "This is a SpecialOps badge. It says I'm operative twenty-one. Since when?"

"Since you saved my bacon at Moody."

Mara blinked rapidly, and he grinned openly. She'd never realized he was "Sergeant Reilly".

"That bit of plastic gives you the power to command full generals if you think you need it, but you have to answer to Zeke or Tad if you use it."

"Not you?"

"I've delegated command of SpecialOps."

He looked down to his papers in silent but obvious dismissal, and Mara turned to go. Just as she reached the door, he called out, "Pick a dozen or so of your buddies and send them down to Mexico with Alfred Dennison. It'll be a covert operation at first, then open battle."

Mara turned to acknowledge the additional order, then left. He pursed his lips in slight satisfaction. Good. He'd signalled that he knew about her "Friends" and didn't care. Now she could wonder why he didn't regard them as a threat to his chair--because he thought his own power overwhelming, or because he approved of her operations for reasons of his own? Let her figure it out. But he would have to get on to Sandy about finding the traitor in her organization. He didn't want Mara's ability to act against him impaired. That was another reason to inform her about her SpecialOps status. Even a general might need it.

He waited until he was sure she was out of earshot and indulged himself with a rare but hearty laugh. Twenty years as Donal was long enough. If he could stiff Mara with the job, he could find something else to do. Afterwards there would be the throne to think about.

* * * * *

Though somewhat shaken by Donal's latest revelation, Mara went straight to Dugold, as before her last assignment. He switched on a privacy screen and a broad smile, greeting her with, "In the name of the Architect, a good afternoon to you Little Daughter, and how may I serve you today?"

"Anything new?" Mara asked.

"Things come to a head on Prime, or Tirdia as you term it. Our operating committee has considered dates, and agree with you on the night of September third of 2000 after eleven o'clock and before three in the morning on the fourth, Irish meridian time. We believe the nexus will begin at the eastern edge of Vancouver."

It took Mara a few moments to recall the place, then she remembered a sprawling city by that name had grown up on Tirdia to the west of where the much smaller Hibernian town of Moody was located.

"Tirdia will divide and become two worlds?"

"We believe it almost certain," Dugold confirmed.

"What will be the effect on the Federation?"

"Unknown," Dugold replied briskly. "We cannot see Para being affected directly, but you are next to Prime in the Timestream, and with a building crisis of your own. There are likely to be critical decisions made here, too."

"Might this world also divide?" Mara asked, a sudden vision of little Meghan becoming twins entering her thoughts.

"No such thing has happened before," he assured her. "I think it can be ruled out."

"Why has there been no nexus since the time of the Christ?" she asked.

Dugold got slightly flustered at this, the first time she had seen him so. "We of Meta have believed it our duty under Heaven to prevent such," he informed her. "That is why we promoted the last dynasty, the Federation, and some of your technologies, for instance."

"Otherwise, Hibernia would have divided." It was not a question. Mara's recent work had included a lot of history.

"Only the Great Architect knows such things certainly, but we believe there could have been disaster or division in 1791."

"The year the Federation was actually established," she observed. "Did you prompt the nobles to depose the King sixty years ago?"

"No. We were busy on Tirdia."

"Helping the English win the Battle of Britain they shouldn't have," Mara baldly asserted.

"There was that," he admitted, "and other turning points in their version of the war. We knew change was indicated here, but Salmon said we could trust James IV to do what was needed. We took a closer look after Salmon was killed, but the King had disappeared by then, and the situation seemed to stabilize, so we took no further action. I must say," he added, "It created quite a stir among the elders a few years back to discover Salmon had a great-granddaughter here on Ortho. I wonder," he added reflectively, "if you would take a small test for us."

When Mara didn't decline, he pulled a small box from a desk drawer, and held it out. It contained a motley assortment of odds and ends thrown together without any evident theme. It could be so much junk. "Could you sort these items?" he asked, his voice tightly controlled.

Saying nothing, Mara dumped the contents onto the desk and fished through them. Dugold hadn't said what criteria to use, but most of the objects fell into four categories. She placed several pieces of stone in one pile, a bit of twig, a leaf and the carcass of a beetle in a second nearby, then a button, a nut and a screw along with a spherical glass ball in a third. On this last, she looked up with raised eyebrows, and Dugold explained. "It is from Prime and part of a child's game called 'marbles'."

Mara shook her head. Trust Tirdian children to play with glass trinkets instead of wooden swords. She returned to task. This left four items that felt warm to her touch. One had the appearance of an amphora, a second was another glass ball like the first in appearance, the third a carved gem, and the fourth a miniature painting of a dragon. After some hesitation, she put the second glass ball in a place at the far right, and the other three items in their own group between it and the others.

"Name the piles," Dugold invited.

She started on the left. "First, found items formed by the forces of the weather. Second, other created things once living and not altered in form." She paused to think of descriptions for the other two piles.

Dugold tossed in an observation. "Some people still claim life arose by chance. The theory is especially popular among scientists on Prime, the world you call Tirdia."

"Theirs will learn the folly of that fancy as ours did two centuries ago," Mara countered. "There never was any evidence life arose by chance, and few even among unbelievers in the Lord of Heaven would seriously propose such nonsense today in the face of overwhelming proof of God's design."

"It is what Malone and his crew believe," Dugold informed her. "They also hold the Irish are a super race, the highest evolved form of life, and have a duty to eliminate lesser breeds."

"What about Donal and Monde?" Mara asked. Dugold's information was new to her, and she pressed for more.

"Don't know what they think about such things," he replied, returning her attention to the test. "What do you call the other groups?"

Mara waved at them, her mind made up. "The third is items manufactured automatically or carved by craftsmen. The fourth are shaped by a finer hand. There is something of the soul of the crafter in them. They are like my shamrock pendant. I'm sure John Dominic told you about that."

He didn't immediately respond. "The last item?" Mara could see Dugold was excited, but was unsure why.

"The last stone is like the others, but of much greater power and beauty. It feels like every particle was built into it by someone with extraordinary creative ability." Mara saw him react to the word "built", and drew several conclusions at once. "Ah," she said immediately, "This was made by one of your leaders called the 'Builder'. But," she added, "I can tell it was not John Dominic, but another."

"It is Magel's," Dugold agreed, "from when he held office." Mara started to say something, but he cut her off. "You are a healer as well," he noted, "and Elbon has told us what you did with Black Crow at Moody. Few even of Metans have such shape sense."

But Mara was on another track, and put in, thinking out loud. "You obviously come and go between the worlds at will, and I know of no place you could hide the bulky timestream vehicles, so you Metans must have the ability to travel through the Timestream with little or no equipment. I am guessing none." She pointed a finger at Dugold as conclusions flowed, almost unbidden. "Such ability makes one a Metan elder, and the best able to read and use the Timestream is the Builder. It is that sense you depend on to predict the future from trends and so to intervene when you can." She looked at him carefully. "I detect in your manner I have passed your test, so far. What next?"

Dugold did not answer, speaking nothing into her extraordinary chain of deductions, so she concluded with another question. "Why don't you stop the nexus on Tirdia, if you know the when and where of it? Doing so might end the problems here."

"Because we lack the knowledge of the who. Prime has billions of people, more than twenty times Ortho or Para. The Enemy is less obvious than usual, and we don't know through whom he is attempting to work. There are too many candidates. No, this time, nexus seems inevitable."

Mara reflected a moment and asked, "Any chance the key decision will be made by someone not of Tirdia, but from one of the other Earths? And, what, by the way, is this 'enemy'?"

"To your first question, we have no answer. It had not occurred to us, but I don't know how we could follow up on the idea. To your second, not 'what' but 'who.' He is the old enemy of God, whom the scriptures call Satan or the Devil. He has been very active on Tirdia for decades--one reason why affairs are so much worse there than here, where he has left things pretty much alone since we last intervened to get the Federation started."

"You haven't met him, have you?" Mara was astonished at Dugold Dunnegan's casual acceptance of Satan not as a vague Biblical personality or abstract force of evil, but as an active individual still influencing the course of history.

"I have not, but do know some who have. More to the point, Satan has an ally, one we call Pelik, in your language 'Rejected Wanderer', or 'Traveller'. This man Pelik is seeped in evil, drenched in his victims' blood. He pleasures himself by cooperating with Satan's Apollyon or destroyer aspect and his victims are innumerable. Pelik I have met several times. These days he calls himself Joshua Caine, sometimes just Kane." Dugold lapsed into thoughtful silence.

Mara quickly changed the subject. "Was Catherine born of Maria and Liam, or was she adopted from their domain?"

"She is their child. I've heard them talk about the difficulty they had in conceiving her, and the help they got from the fertility labs. Why?"

The nagging idea Mara had entertained about Catherine drained away with his answer, and she waved the subject off as idle curiosity. She started to leave, then flushed as she remembered another question. "At what age do Metan women commonly mature enough to...ah...have children?"

She had hesitated in her query, and Dugold looked her over speculatively before answering. She made her own mental assessment. Fully his height, and with wide shoulders, powerful muscles, an almost flat chest, and no broadening in the hips, her figure was to Hibernians more that of an athletic man than a woman's.

"You are about twenty or twenty-one?" Mara confirmed the estimate with a nod, and Dugold, who obviously realized the source of her concern, replied in carefully measured words, "Full height among women on Meta, or Builder's World as residents term it, is usually reached between twenty and twenty-five, but some grow until thirty. Puberty in women is anywhere from twenty-five at the earliest to forty at the latest."

"Hannah Transky was pregnant before twenty, when she was attacked, before my grandfather married her," she observed. It was difficult and improper to talk about such things with a man, but he was the only Metan available, so she grit her teeth and persisted.

"True," he replied, "But she was not full-blooded, and you are less so, though I would say you appear quite typical for a healthy Metan woman your age. Perhaps you are a genetic throwback."

Mara was relieved. She had been afraid from her lack of development she might be sterile, but Dugold's assessment postponed that fear for now.

"If I were to visit Meta, is there someone I could talk to?"

"Alnech's wife would be the person," he told her. "I'll get you a language cube when the time is right," he appended.

"Thanks," she said abruptly and left Dugold for another visit with Jonas in the Security facility nearby before returning to her own office to make preparations for Indonesia. As before her last assignment, she encountered Thomas Monde on her way through the halls. The man could invariably be recognized from a distance because, above his clan tartan, he always wore black, never the colourful brocaded shirts and vests the other nobility sported.

He was solicitous and charming, bending down to her level in the chair, and pumping her for information about her latest assignment. She answered only in generalities, and they parted after a few minutes. Again, Mara had the impression of sincere interest, even pride in her work. No, despite what Catherine believed, Monde actually liked her, and the Donal surely did not.

* * * * *

Mara, at Tara of Hibernia, December, 1998

By this time completely healed, and nearly aglow over her close partnership with Takehiro, Mara returned from her successful Indonesian campaign in mid December, determined to spend another Christmas with her friends at Tara before going to Russia the following month. To her initial dismay, she discovered Alfred Dennison had arrived from Mexico a week before, and the Taran news channels, which she had not been watching, were making a hero of him. They did a series on his life, and the people at the entertainment channel were preparing a dramatization of the Mexican campaign. Mara worried at first the extra attention would make Alfred more vulnerable to attack, but after thinking it over decided the opposite was true. Alfred was less accessible to an assassin in front of cameras. Reporters could be quite persistent in their hounding of people they deemed newsworthy.

She read up on events in Mexico and was delighted to discover Alfred's work was brilliantly inspired. Local regular army troops had been dismally ineffective under the less-than-stellar leadership of a minor Reilly lord, but Alfred and the Friends he brought to shape up the dispirited battalion all but wiped out the much larger rebel force. Only their enigmatic commanding officer escaped. Evidence suggested another Davis, but there was no proof.

Meanwhile, Mara's Indonesian campaign had been tough-slogging hard work, and though an equally well-fought victory, it lacked the fascination of the Mexican affair, and the MT entertainment people certainly had a nose for glamour. After dealing with her brief resentment, Mara realized Alfred needed the public behind him, and once she got to that stage in her thinking, and saw the cameras following him everywhere, she was relieved to be ignored, taking it as the Providence of Heaven's Lord.

Editors' note: Someday, if we have time, and there is any demand, we may tell the stories of these two campaigns in a more personal way than can be found in the military gazettes.

What causes a nexus? Some say one person's decision. Others say social conditions, that is, many decisions, both in prospect and at the cusp of the event itself. There is some evidence for the latter in the recent nexus on Prime. Others point to the actions of the Builder, or someone like him, in the immediate aftermath of the critical decision, noting the course following the recent nexus was not set until days after. However, those answers all fail to account for the Providence and Sovereignty of the Great Architect, He Whom the Orthans call Lord of Heaven. It is probably better to attribute the event to His mercy, His providing a way that the path to His purposes will always be followed in some version of the universe. Of course, the dark path is followed in another, but that is a consequence of the fall, and ongoing sin and should not be laid at the doorstep of the Almighty. Even I, though, have wondered why the feet of the Architect's will take the path they do.--Heman of Meta

Chapter 2

Heman, Meta, early Friday afternoon, September 1, 2000

Humankind of all six known earths lurched inexorably toward a rare cusp of history, one of those decision points from which emerge two sharply differing futures. Time drained away toward a crisis affecting countless lives, and choices for the right had to be taken somewhere, somewhen.

The giant of a man galloping his enormous roan horse through well-spaced redwoods was accustomed to partaking of momentous decisions. He lived on the wrong earth to be the one selected by the Great Architect as the nexus' primary focus, but he would surely participate in the elders' cataloguing of the aftereffects--a once-in-a-millennium opportunity.

He was only peripherally aware of these truths. They washed over him as unnoticed as the slight mid day breeze. Indeed, he scarcely cared.

Pain. That was what he knew so intimately. As a younger man working on another planet, he had been captured and tortured for days without revealing secrets. That remembrance still had occasional power to haunt his dreams, but such recollections were ephemeral wraiths laid against the goblins of present-day reality.

It was his fault, he told himself for perhaps the thousandth time--no, not Emerald's death years ago, for no one could have foreseen the drakonta's killing rampage. However, his subsequent obsession with the beast had now cost him his son Ruel as well, bringing a weight of anguish beyond bearing. He couldn't see himself marrying again. Would there remain nothing of Emerald, no one of himself?

Heman came partly to himself, mentally willing his horse to slow to a walk as the woods thinned toward a large clearing, and his destination came into view. As always, he'd made a half-day ride for the Friday afternoon meeting, rather than simply stepping directly from his house to Elbon's through the Timestream as would the other elders. Once more, he had tarried too long at the travellers' rest several kilometres behind in the forest. Invariably, he left home early, then lingered to think and pray for hours at the place he had grown as a memorial. At last becoming aware of the time, he would mount up and urge Red on a wild gallop away from his grief. Neither he nor Red could run far enough or fast enough to escape--especially not with today's fresh burdens.

He sighed aloud as Elbon's massive house filled his view. Like all dwellings on Meta Earth, it was very much alive, though Heman saw it as yet another place of the dead--his close friend's own monument to the two men's common tragedy. Elbon's home and his own rest stop were two bookends to a tale of mutual loss.

He was much like him, Heman thought, but perhaps not enough. Both had responded to disaster with astonishing outbursts of creative work, but Heman had never completely recovered, and now.... Frustration and grief overcame him in a burst of emotion, startling his horse, and making the animal shy under him. "Easy, Red. Sorry," he soothed the animal.

As they walked toward the house, he slumped in his seat, and tried to escape the vagrant thought that a reddish tinge to the dirt they trod was much like blood. Heman shook his head to gain control, sternly reminding himself it had been ten years. No trace could remain, neither here where Elbon's wife Eideena had died, nor along the way where his own precious Emerald had perished a few hours earlier.

Heman steeled himself for what had to be endured here today by focusing on Elbon's house. In its rampaging madness, the great drakonta had uprooted the old one and killed it also. Elbon force-grew this new one to a shape quite unlike the other dwellings of the farming districts, and nothing at all like the great city trees.

He'd once lived on Prime, or Terra as its inhabitants termed it. To the distant or casual gaze of someone there this place would appear to be the kind of rambling old pile sometimes built by pre-1930 North American capitalists to contain a portion of their relaxed, expansive, simple, profligate life styles. On that planet, such houses reeked of history and secrets. This version had no small share of both.

He dismounted by a corner of the house and absently fingered the shape of one of its ivy-like leaves. Without them, he reflected, it would be as dead as such buildings were on Prime. As dead as.... his thought began, and he had to catch himself again. He resumed his forced inspection as he walked Red past the front entrance toward the barn.

Imposing and well-built at first glance, the house close up was indefinite, a blurred copy of a fine original. Its corners had become rough and rounded, the bark that imitated siding having grown thicker with the passing years. The wooden scrollwork about the doors and windows and the stained glass insets above were indistinct, their colours less than perfectly sharp, their lines fading into each other as the house grew and parts lost some of the original precision. Elbon's artistically brilliant and frenzied burst of building ten years earlier produced something not even a drakonta could have moved, but his friend had spent most of his time since on Prime and this place was showing signs of neglect.

Heman entered the spacious barn, Red following obediently behind. As all Metans endowed with shape sense, he had no need of saddle or bridle, so he brushed Red down and left him with plenty of feed and a mental command to remain in the stall. It was almost time to start the meeting. He could no longer delay the inevitable, so he doggedly trudged across the yard, up the outside stairs, and into the house.

In passing, he idly noted that the corners of the high doorways were no longer square, and the posts and railings of the great curving stairway leading from the spacious foyer to the upper floor resembled a tangle of roots more than they would the carefully machined but worn originals on Prime. He paused at the entrance and put his hands on the frame to take the shape of things. Yes, some of the others awaited him upstairs. There was no hurry. He began to pray, "Great Architect of the universe, why have you allowed me to be sifted so? Am I to become as Job, bereft of all my family before you fulfil your will in me?" Then he added, as many times already, "I am in your hands, oh God, and Ruel is your son more than mine. Grant him healing or gather him, but I plead with you, end his suffering soon and release us both."

He withdrew his hand, sighing deeply, grimly. He had thought of a way Ruel might be healed, but would have to persuade the others to vary one of the council's prime directives. Still, a whole new earth was about to be born and two others could see major wars, so why quail at changing a mere policy, even if it was a thousand years old? He sighed a second time, a third. It was a fantastic, impossible idea he'd had on the way here. Elbon and Hagyah would never agree.

He would ask them regardless, he decided, making his way upstairs. When they refused, he would return home to watch his only child die. Reaching the top, Heman mechanically turned toward the huge study occupying half the upper floor. As he passed the large mirror just before entering the meeting room, he paid no notice to the fleeting image of a roughly dressed and powerful man in the prime of life and strength, seeing only one bent under overwhelming sorrow.

By contrast with the building, nothing was indistinct or unoriginal about the paintings and furnishings inside the study. Heman temporized, stopping in the doorway to gaze about the familiar room.

A portion was taken up with the four by two metre oval council table--one of the finest pieces of furniture on any of the earths. The top was a solid cross section of a tree--a single piece all of heartwood--elaborately and skilfully carved with figures and verses around its thick edge. Heman often thought it still seemed a living thing, so exquisite was its fifteenth century workmanship. It had been well worth salvaging from the wreckage of Elbon's old house. Complementing it round about were ten of the moss-upholstered chairs that provided unparalleled comfort without any danger of shedding or staining--so long as one was careful not to sit in them too soon after an infrequent watering. Several more such along the walls stood ready to expand the meeting at a moment's notice.

As on his every entry, Heman's eye fixed on a particular group among the several large paintings hung on the walls. At once both larger and smaller than life, the giant reptiles they depicted were no artists' conceptions or speculations as in a museum or dinosaur exhibit on Earth Prime. Rather, they were the real thing--eyewitness accounts of living creatures painted in their actual environments. In one, an enormous drakonta looked ready to leave the small mammal snack between his wicked teeth to step boldly from the frame and devour the presumptuous viewer in one mouthful. No one who looked on it could fail to think about the terror that having such neighbours must bring to such as the artist.

A tear brushed Heman's cheek as he stared. He was the artist, his the woe. If only his attempts to make peace with the beast by putting it on canvas could bring back the dead, could raise the near dead to wholeness.

He shook himself and wandered into the room in a fog, absently greeting those already there. He was barely aware when Hagyah placed a hand on his shoulder and wished him God's blessing, and passed by Nathan without noticing him.

Elbon would have none of this. He took Heman by both arms and looked deeply into him. "Greetings old friend. You have been much in our prayers these last few days."

Heman bowed his head silently. He felt the shape of his friend's healing concern as it enveloped him with comfort, made mental acknowledgment, and turned to take his seat. Words could wait.

As though his arrival were a signal, the remaining elders promptly made their way through the same door by which he had entered, and in a few moments, all were seated at the great table.

Heman busied his mind by assessing the others. Including himself, ten men were present. Five were active observers on other earths, the others lived and worked here on Meta. Of the latter, Magel, Alnech, Heman, and Melzek, in their clean but worn overalls, scarcely looked the part of council members. They had come directly from their farms--all except Heman from a considerable distance if measured outside the Timestream. Their pale leathery faces were ploughed by many years of wind furrows, clearly marking them as men of the outdoors. Shemuel, the fifth of this group, spent most of his time in Meta's one small city and wore the flowing green robe used by most its citizens. Alnech lived there too, but only because his farm was just outside the city.

The faces of the other five bore the darker but softer lines imprinted by spending less time outside, but under the harsh, naked suns of the other earths. All but Hagyah had Metan estates managed by family members. Each was dressed for the world and role he had stepped from only moments earlier to attend this meeting.

Joel sported rough sealskin garments and boots that fairly shouted of the sea where he spent his life in one of the navies of Water World. His brother Nathan wore only a drab, single-piece uniform. Pragmatic to the core, Parans add only two badges sewn over their breast pockets. On the right was the insignia identifying his corporation. On the left a smaller multicoloured rank flash denoted his cover as a high level technician or advisor, one position below an executive. Those two had their heads together and were chuckling over some family matter.

Next to them and in sharp contrast, Hagyah wore a jaunty feathered hat above a brocaded shirt, bright green vest and brown tartan kilt. This was complemented by long, garishly striped hose, leather sandals, and an ornate sword sheathed on his braided belt. Colourful as it was, this attire was carefully chosen to blend into the background of the Court of Tara on Ortho, capital of the Federation that also included Para. "Hibernia" and "Babylon" he corrected himself. Might as well use the natives' terms, even here. The observers would. Heman idly wondered if he should take up the sword himself. Surely it would be better to die quickly in an Orthan duel than to live as he was. He could challenge this Lady Mara of whom Hagyah often spoke. Death would be a release.

At one end of the oval sat Joshaph, draped in a fur robe over buckskins, leggings, and sandals. He carried a wicked looking hunting knife thrust with exacting carelessness into a rough leather belt. Two feathers protruded from the knot of hair on the back of his head. He'd left his bow and spear at home. No one knew how old Joshaph was, but he had served as observer on the world called Desert since before any of the others were born. A mysterious fellow, Heman often thought, one who appeared to have an agenda that only happened to coincide with the elders'.

Heman wanted no more off-world assignments. Of course, if he took one, it would get him away from Meta for a few decades.

At the other end sat Elbon. He wore a plain, slightly faded, blue, double breasted garment called a suit, a white shirt, and a solid blue silk tie. This was odd clothing here, but Heman knew it as garb that went un-remarked upon in the offices and meeting places of many cities on Prime.

His friend Elbon was also the chairman or director of this group--though neither English word translates well into Metan. Here he was simply, "the Builder", and most Metans, who cared not a whit for inter-Earth politics, termed their version of Earth "Builders' World" rather than "Meta Earth". At 185 centimetres, Elbon was a big man by Prime standards, but the softest-spoken, shortest and slightest among these men of large and commanding presence. At times, he seemed colourless and inconsequential to those who failed to look closely, but that was part of his costume. He was ("is" one dares to hope) a great thinker, a leader nations could follow, a man of decision, and much more.

These were not exactly the rulers of Meta or of the other earths. On the one hand, Metans would say that Builder's World, was "built" and "shaped" rather than "ruled". On the other, though the council did take a hand in shaping the societies of all six earths, its members were normally observers rather than participants in extra-Metan affairs.

Elbon did not call the meeting to order. It just started with Hagyah's prayer to the Great Architect for wisdom from on high, then, "We are as certain as we can be about any future event," he continued, "that the nexus on Earth Prime will reach crisis stage late Sunday afternoon, Pacific time. Here is the focal point." He drew his sword with a noisy flourish to point at a map of the Pacific Northwest. "However, there is bound to be timestream leakage that will create great upheavals on all six earths..." He paused for effect and then added, "...or by that time on all seven."

Heman's reverie was broken by the weight of Hagyah's statement, but not sufficiently to extract comment.

"Hagyah," put in Magel, "it has been some time since our last full meeting. Do I take it that you five of the operating committee now consider replication of Prime to be inevitable?"

"Yes, Magel, it appears certain." Hagyah responded. "We have all known that great events were in the making. We even suspected the earths might terminate in the last great acts of the Architect, the Enemy, and humankind. While we cannot yet know for a certainty, the increasing tension in the Timestream now points inescapably to a major nexus, full replication, and a new earth."

"The last nexus involved replication," came a quiet observation from Joshaph. There was no need of the deep and aged lines in his face to lend his commonplace words an air of wisdom, he exuded it merely by being present. Heman idly wondered for a moment if the old man could even have seen that last nexus, but quickly dismissed the thought. That would give him several times the average life span.

The room fell silent at the simple but poignant remark, as each paused a moment to be with his own thoughts, to consider what nexus had meant that last time, and to speculate on what it might mean now. This council and its predecessors had intervened in political, economic, and religious affairs on all six worlds ever since that last great event. As each critical point in human history approached, they had diverted events from the potential crisis. Throughout, they acted in the belief that the role appointed to them by the Great Architect was to prevent world-dividing decisions from having to be made. Only in 1014 had they taken positive action, and that was to trigger completion of the division between Prime and Ortho that had begun a millennium before. Otherwise, for nearly twenty centuries they had succeeded negatively, for no new parallel universes formed in that time.

Now a tide developed in human affairs over which they had no control. Many small things built a momentum too broadly based to contain. Was this due to their failure, or part of some new architecture being worked out for the six universes? Lost in his personal gloom, Heman was uncertain how to care.

"This one, too, will involve replication," Hagyah continued after a lengthy pause. "In my position as senior computer technician on Ortho, I have access to the Federation's entire data set, including their records on Prime, or Tirdia as they call it. When I collate the latter with Elbon's first hand data, it confirms our conclusions. Prime will be the actual nexus location and the world that splits." He nodded at Joel. "The crisis brewing on Water World is less serious, and less subtle. It could touch off a major new war at any moment."

"Machines!" snorted Magel, without much enthusiasm, "What does our shape sense tell us about the Timestream? That's what council used to rely on. Besides, it's a Paran computer, likely to be as devious as they are."

Hagyah, who took some pride in his adopted role, momentarily looked hurt, but he knew there was a touch of fear in this low-key bluster. "The machines only confirm what those of us who travel the Timestream regularly have been convinced of for more than half a year. Today, Friday, there are six earths. By Monday, there will be seven. Three other nexi we know about before the last failed to cause replication but this one we are sure will do so. The Parans are good scientists, they build reliable equipment. Orthan software is not without its problems but it is essentially sound. Neither have all Orthans rejected the Architect and his ways--theirs was, after all, the last earth formed. Millions there still hold fast to the truth of what was revealed to them then and are our brothers and sisters in Christ even now. Conditions there also point to a crisis this weekend, but that and the one on Water World, its two neighbours, simply highlight Prime as the crucial place."

"Even the Orthan faithful could not keep the others from tearing you to pieces if you told them who you are, where you are from, and what you are doing on their planet," Magel quietly observed.

"Yes," responded Hagyah sadly, "even the believers there are indoctrinated by the MacCarthy propaganda. Most Orthans are convinced that we Metans are enemies for barring them from travel in our home universe. Feelings are particularly high now that their travel vehicles are cut off because of the impending nexus, and they have no communication even with the Para-universe, much less their observational outposts in the other three."

Heman silently congratulated himself on his current excuse for not using the Timestream today, though they all knew he was driven to repeat his wife's last journey and would allow no shortcuts.

"You know," interjected, Nathan, "things aren't nearly that bad on Para. They've taken the suspension of communications quite well. Once they were sure equipment failure at their end was not the issue, the technicians at my corporation dropped the matter and resumed work on the new space drive. I don't think they have ever particularly resented us Metans. Although," he hastened to add, "I certainly have no intention yet of informing them who I am. But tell us more about your data."

"You can see the implications in these charts." Hagyah passed a document packet to each, and Heman idly distracted himself by noting Hagyah could have projected all this on the wall with his computer. They all preferred he not do so.

Hagyah continued. "There are tensions on all six earths, but they are least serious on Para and worst on Prime. Meta and Desert are affected only slightly, Water World and Ortho have severe difficulties. In fact, Ortho's Federation with Para is likely to become badly strained afterward and we must decide how we are going to continue its support. It may not survive the crisis." As he spoke, Heman noticed Hagyah acknowledge with a barely perceptible nod Joshaph's grunt at the mention of Desert. Centuries of habit were not easily broken, though all knew only one of that planet's two continents was wasteland. Joshaph lived in a place teeming with life.

"With nexus certain, the event itself ceases to be important. What matters more is the aftermath." Alnech observed.

"But that depends on what people do at the time," added Magel.

"Thomas Monde will make his move soon?" asked Elbon tensely.

"It can be but hours away," Hagyah replied, "and the fate of his ambitions on Ortho must surely coincide with the nexus on Prime. Look here, and here. Lady Mara says...."

As the conversation continued over familiar ground, it became a detailed examination of their collective knowledge, historical reviews, discussions of previous council decisions and the usual quota of irrelevancies that creep into such meetings. Heman paid scant attention.

* * * * *

Elbon and the Council of Elders, Meta, early Friday afternoon September 1, 2000

Elbon's thoughts also drifted with the drone of voices. He entertained the passing wish that the responsibility and danger could have fallen on other men or come at a different time. He rejected the thought half formed. If he had not been Builder at this crisis, another would have. The council were foremen and principal workers, and he was the contractor, but the Architect designed and oversaw all for such a time as this. Who was Elbon to question him?

There had been six linked earths for twenty centuries. Soon, if they were correct, there would be seven. Perhaps this would be a nexus without replication as had been the fourth, fifth and seventh of the eight thus far--though he knew Magel believed otherwise. According to him, a nexus always generated two earths where there had been one. It was only a deficiency in their shape sense that prevented them from locating those other three in the Timestream. He'd been builder for thirty years and had no idea where three more earths could be, so if they did exist they were well hidden. Were the elders wiser than the people of Prime who know nothing of nexi?

He returned to another daydream that was becoming a habit. When they found the next Builder, perhaps he would have greater skills, a better sense for the shape of the Timestream and its worlds and societies. Maybe such a one could find Magel's three missing earths.

Elbon had been an active observer for forty years now. He had been both Builder and observer on Prime for the thirty since he left his post on Ortho to another and assigned himself to replace his murdered predecessor on Prime. Both terms were much longer than average, excepting Joshaph. Who knew how long the old man had lived on Desert, declining all opportunities to retire to Meta and be replaced by another?

He thought about his own initiation into the office--of the necessity for a Builder to make his mark, to first Build on each of the earths in order to establish his personal pattern on the entire timestream. And now--the patterns of societies and relationships he had built upon and shaped were fragmenting. Would he be able to establish new ones after the nexus? Elbon quailed at the prospect. There was difficulty enough in working with the patterns of one's predecessor. He had no desire to attempt the task from scratch. It would have to be done, but he hoped, even dared assume, the task would fall to another. He felt in his bones that his term had run its course. It was time for a change. Was that the shape sense speaking, or mere cowardice? Whoever was Builder afterward would first have to establish the nature of the post-nexus fabric, then place his own mark upon it, after which he would have first choice of assignments.

If he were still alive and no longer Builder, he could choose next. The last five had all taken retirement to Meta, and the council as a whole had changed little for nearly a century, he reflected. Each of those predecessors had shouldered the full responsibility for less than ten years before a new Builder had proven himself and begun work. Once, Elbon had thought Heman would be next. That now seemed impossible. The man was too deeply marked by their mutual tragedy, more by the latest events. Elbon recalled that awful day a decade before when he'd returned home to find their two wives dead, his daughter Eider cowering in the ruins of the house. He blinked away fresh tears, glanced over at his old friend, and found him staring back, unseeing. The Architect had been especially harsh with Heman.

Who else was there? The annual assessment of the best shapers Meta produced had revealed none who could build since Elbon himself took office. The council, which had grown to its largest ever at fifteen members then, had now shrunk to ten, as the inevitable accidents and assassinations had claimed three observers and two elders on Meta itself. What then of the nexus? How many of them would be destroyed in the aftermath? Elbon knew too well the dangers, and he glanced around the table to speculate who would return to it once this time of trouble had passed. Those on Meta, Para, and Desert ought to be safe. The risk was higher on Water and Ortho, but barring the extraordinary, Hagyah and Joel would survive, though both being next door to Prime, would surely be embroiled in the inevitable fighting. No, all the power of Apollyon the Enemy and Pelik had been concentrated on Prime for decades, the danger there was now extreme, and it was his to bear.

If he failed to survive the nexus, the council would cast the lot, forcing two others back to active status from their farms to observe on the new world and Prime. Yes...after.... A familiar pang of apprehension crossed his troubled mind. Could he be the last Builder? Had the Architect provided no successor because none was needed? Would all the worlds end, and he soon join Eideena in heaven? Too much speculation. He must trust.

He returned to reality with a start as someone--Alnech was it?--addressed him directly. "What? Daydreaming, Elbon? Not that I blame you, if the nexus does occur on Prime with you there. Forget the printouts for a minute. Give us your personal impression of conditions. Do you know the exact time and place, or the person who will make the key decision?"

Elbon paused to collect his thoughts before replying with a general summary, "The Enemy has been personally active on Prime for nearly two centuries. We have blunted several of his people and projects, but he has gained much ground. Today, there is general spiritual and moral malaise. Most people don't care how anyone lives or acts, and what was once considered corrupt behaviour is not only accepted but aggressively promoted, even enshrined in legislation as proper. Right and wrong are not discussed. It can be dangerous to claim they exist.

"There are exceptions, but, the Architect's own people have become subverted, fragmented, and materialistic. The Enemy's influence is pandemic and Pelik his ally has been working mischief on Prime since we first spotted him there in 1912."

"But we have had great successes," interjected Magel. "In all the wars and assassinations we've stopped have we won nothing?"

"Yes," continued Elbon rather sadly, "but our broad long-term successes, for instance in the Three Worlds' War, have been far more substantial on Water World and Ortho. On Prime, Hitler won much for the Enemy before the forces we backed could prevail. Even the horror over his mass murders has not lasted. Some today deny it ever happened. In this generation, mercy killing and infanticide have gone from being war crimes to socially acceptable. Street crime, drug use, and abortion are scarcely remarked upon these days. People have come to toy with Hitler's ideas again as though they were solutions. It is as if," he paused to pick over his words, "as if they have grown tired of fighting evil, or even thinking about it. Contrast this with Water World and Ortho where we also expect crises, but are confident they will be resolved with honour even if there is war.

"The Enemy has honed a very successful operation on Prime. When he has sufficiently corrupted a large enough segment of a nation, and the economic, moral, and political conditions have become such that a reaction sets in and public outcry begins, he offers a leader--a messiah--who can solve all their problems and lead them to heaven on earth. Once he has his man installed, either an enemy outside or a scapegoat within is presented and the brutality that follows is worse than that which preceded.

"Things have changed a lot even since Alnech was on Prime as Builder, much more since any of you others spent time there. Europe and North America are lost in materialism. They have at the same time abandoned the moral force they once had to restrain barbarians who would ruin other nations. The Enemy, these days often acting through Pelik, finds it easy to elevate a madman to the dictatorship of some small country, help him to slaughter his own people and lead him to be butchered in turn by another--there is no outcry, no justice. More than one such has murdered millions. Both used to keep out of the way in the Third World, but lately have operated their game with impunity even in Europe.

"The time seems ripe for the same kind of thing, the same kind of man, but on a grander scale. The strains on the social fabric and on the Timestream are critical." Elbon paused for the sobering effect of his words to sink in. "Projections drawn from our data and the shape sense of all five observers agree--nexus will be about six o'clock Prime Pacific Time Sunday evening, or two the next morning Tara time, day after tomorrow. Since conditions on Prime are in some ways worse now than at the last nexus, and given readily felt strains in the timestream fabric, we are convinced the Architect will be merciful and cause a replication, a new earth with history taking both of two different courses. All will depend on some crucial decision made at the nexus point. On one daughter earth the decision will have gone one way, on the other the opposite. One will be as bad as it can be, the other open to better things."

"Being a spirit," mused Hagyah, "the Enemy does not replicate. Neither should his ally. Judging from past experience, we can expect Pelik to be at the nexus but afterward to be found only on one daughter earth, that is, provided the Architect of Worlds does not grant his wish, dispense with the material universe, and end the fellow's unhappy mortal life."

"He still does not understand he would then face the righteous judge in all his glory, know his purity and love for a moment, then transition to a Christless eternity in the Enemy's company," Joel remarked, shaking his head.

"Which brings us back," persisted Magel, "to the decision itself. What will it be, and who will be the trigger by making it?"

"I do not know." Elbon replied deliberately in the singular, the words blows to his pride. "I have been unable to trace Pelik. I have only guesses as to what he is working on, why it is so critical, what his timetable is. Given that, I cannot know who the key decision maker is either. So diffuse is all this I am beginning to wonder if there will be only one, or if several people will make a complex of related choices."

"Perhaps his plans will become apparent only well after the nexus," put in Alnech.

"Perhaps", agreed Elbon. "For centuries, impending nexus decisions have seemed obvious, the more so our actions to divert them. Pelik and the Enemy's other servants were just as apparent--already installed and their schemes well underway before the crucial turn of events, their destructive traces easy to follow. We knew, we could plan. This time, they have flung at us a host of tin pot dictators, mad 'holy' men, generals, anarchists, terrorists, and bandits. All have taken their toll, but we believe these represent 'business as usual,' and there's something much bigger going--you see it in these trends." He waved at the stacks of paper, and paused. "We think we have identified one group of people who are one likely focus, but...." He was not telling them things they hadn't heard of before, but this time he had an air of resigned finality.

Hagyah took over as Elbon fell silent. "As I've expressed before, the data point in one direction. These others are stage setters, mood indicators, diversions from some greater plan at which we can only guess. I think it likely the Enemy has detected our interference and is acting accordingly. In fact..." Hagyah paused and pursed his lips thoughtfully, "...I cannot help but wonder if he may find some way to move against us here on Meta."

"There are indications?" asked Magel, raising his substantial eyebrows.

"Nothing I can point to, but...." He trailed off for a moment, then resumed. "The Architect defeats the Enemy's purposes in part by the replications, but afterward there will be an earth where the latter has won his way, and there are bound to be serious effects on most of the others. I am not sure we will be exempt."

In the silence that followed this suggestion, Alnech spoke in a low calm voice. "Far be it from us to question why the Architect is permitting a replicative nexus after two millennia without one. We must bow to his will and purpose. Understanding of the Enemy's gains or losses is apparently beyond us for now. Only Pelik is predictable. He embraces destruction for himself, for everyone.

"We have no way of knowing and must expect it always," he continued, expressing aloud their collective anticipation, "but it is possible there will be no replication because this is the ultimate nexus that ushers in the end. The timestream's shape has seemed very stable, and it is not clear how a seventh earth could fit. Pelik once told us forcing an end is his goal. Perhaps he does not know what he does to the Timestream. Perhaps the Architect intends to end it all."

Yes, thought Elbon, and no need for anyone to be the next Builder, for there would be nothing left to build upon. Well, we who've trusted him would be with our Saviour, which is far better. But the lost....

Aloud he only said, "We are trying one small thing on Prime. An opportunity has arisen to create a focus for some of the Enemy's activity and I am pursuing it with help from sympathetic colleagues. It will be near, but not at the nexus time and place. We hope to discredit or blunt some of the ones whom we suspect to be his key agents hours before the critical decision.

"In so doing, we expect to draw away important energies and lessen the after-impact of his activities. If our reading is correct, he is so personally involved in his plans he does not realize a nexus is so close. A small setback with enough publicity could take him off guard and make a substantial difference.

"We have nothing to lose. We could weaken his power in both post-nexus daughter worlds, and establish the grounds on which to inflict a defeat even where the decision does go his way.

"It may not seem like much, but our plough is in the long furrow and cannot be turned. Whatever the outcome, we meet again here post nexus time each fourteen days, to plan our next moves--that is, those of us who can." Elbon paused, and shared the thought that had made him so solemn. "If I miss two such meetings, you must proclaim the fast, and pray there is someone after all with the gift and the willingness to Build. In any event there must be at least one new observer needed. Agreed?"

A murmur of reluctant assent went round the table. Most found it hard to look him in the eye.

"One last thing." Elbon had waited for that moment in a meeting when it is dying a natural death to gain approval for something that at another time would engender much discussion. Hagyah saw it and would have grinned if things had not been so solemn. These men couldn't really be manipulated, but....

"We can still travel, and will be able to for perhaps a day yet, but the timestream chaos has cut off the Federation's outworld observers. With their travel vehicles and the correct data for their computers they could also travel a couple of hours past nexus. After the earths have settled into the new pattern, they'll need new data to continue. We should make both available as a gesture of good faith. It's been understood all along that they could have whatever data we can give them on the ultimate shape of the earths, but I think they should be allowed the chance to bring home their people from the other universes. Afterwards, they may be better disposed toward us. We already agreed to consider extending travel rights to our universe on a controlled basis and this is in the same spirit."

"Fine with me."

"Why not."

Others shrugged indifference. As he expected, men anxious to return to business quickly approved the information transfer, leaving the details to Elbon and Hagyah.

The meeting adjourned with the usual hubbub of such things, the room itself seeming to stand, stretch, and enjoy subdued camaraderie with its occupants as they gradually drifted off. In a few minutes, only Hagyah, Elbon, and Heman remained.

When the door closed behind the last of the others, Heman broke his afternoon-long silence with the unseemly haste of one carrying both a great burden and a compulsion to share it.

"Ruel is no better," he announced, clipped and solemn.

Elbon glanced at a painting. Ruel was Heman's only son, badly injured in an expedition to the swampland some weeks earlier when attacked by a drakonta like the one pictured there--like the one that once came to this house. He shuddered as Heman continued.

"It is as Shemuel first feared. The damage to the part of his brain controlling the shape sense confines him to the essence only of the inanimate and prevents all attempts at healing. He could at first see, hear, and feel pain, but he has no shape sense, and so remains paralysed. His condition deteriorates, and he is now unconscious. Had he no shape sense as with most, any of us could implant the necessary body picture, but the damage within thwarts all attempts." He paused, and the others waited to hear him out. "There is only one place and one means by which my boy can be healed."

Elbon and Hagyah tensed in the silence. Both gestured for Heman to continue. In a rush of words, he dropped the bombshell he had been preparing all day.

"I want to take him to Ortho."


"I know, I know." He silenced the start of their shocked objections. "If they can heal him, they'll squeeze him for all the information they can get about us. When that's done, they may well say he's dead and keep him. But once they've tested him and have his profile, he will surely be put into the Paran space program. They waste no one, not even an enemy."

Elbon started again to speak, but Heman cut him off, continuing the plea. "Without his shape sense, I cannot expect he will ever be himself again, that I could ever find him, that he could ever return here. But, he would be happy, he would be alive. I could go down to my grave content with that. As it is, in a matter of days, weeks at the most, he will be gathered. I will have no one, and the council will appoint the inheritor of my lands.

"What would you do if it were your daughter?" he added, suddenly pointing at Elbon. "She too is an only child. Would you let her die, knowing that the mechanical skills of others might heal when our mental ones cannot? Must I lose the second of my family while you still have one?"

Elbon was so shaken by this onslaught that he reacted as when his daughter Eider was small and began to extend his shape sense to reassure himself she was well. He checked himself from such an invasion of privacy just in time. She would know, and be furious to think he would treat her as a child.

* * * * *

While Heman spoke, Hagyah's face gradually took on the speculative look of one prepared to extract maximum advantage from every situation. As his friend finished, tears running down his face, he conceived a plan that would plough two furrows at once. If it worked, Heman just might regain his son, and the Council's interests could be served in a most interesting fashion. The timing would have to be just right....

When Brodar the Dane came upon Boru's tent as the battle of Clontarf was ending and tried to gain revenge for his loss by setting upon the aged monarch with several men, he and a companion were almost immediately killed by mighty blows from Boru's sword which severed the legs of one and the head of a second. Boru, alone at the time, would have been killed by the others but for the loyal young soldier of Meathe who had been sent to him by one of the Delcassian marshals with news of the battle.

Coming suddenly upon the scene, and rushing with already bloodied sword and berserk fervour to the aid of his beloved king, he cut down four men, allowing the badly wounded Boru to destroy one more. So feted was Cormac O'Malachy for his mighty deed that when Boru later craftily proposed the lad as King Meathe in his place after burying his own son Murtough beside several other fallen chieftains, the decimated Irish nobility readily agreed, provided the new throne also represented the northern dynasties. Young Catherine O'Niall of Ulster, by some reports no mean hand with the sword herself, was promptly put forward as a worthy representative, and before the funeral procession had left Armaugh cathedral the nobles had conducted both wedding and coronation.--from Lessons of Clontarf, by Ard Seanachas Doyle Whelan (posthumously) and Jana Whelan

Chapter 3

Lucas, Cultus Lake, Tirdia (Prime) mid Friday afternoon, September 1, 2000

A solitary figure stood motionless at the end of the swimming wharf, stolidly and absently regarding the lake before him. Like Heman, he was trying desperately to avoid thinking about himself--a task in which none succeeds for long.

There, on the earth the Metans call Prime and the Hibernians Tirdia, about a hundred kilometres east of Vancouver, in one of the foothill paradises of British Columbia's coastal mountains, the last great act of summer played out on a magnificent stage. It was Friday afternoon and a spectacular day--one of those times one could imagine angels in the air.

Overhead, gauzy wisps thinly streaked the bright, friendly sky as they strained to escape the clutch of the distant city's heat and pollution. Racing at top speed for the cool quiet of these great hillsides, they spilled upward toward rocky peaks, some high enough still to bear last winter's white crowns on this first September weekend. Lower, the same hills wore the luxurious fir robes typical of the coastal rain forest.

Interspersed with the sharp green of these were hints of the Joseph's coats that the bigleaf and Douglas maples were beginning to don. Even now, they slowly shed their raiment into the early gales. In this sheltered valley, the mighty hills and trees reduced the wind to a stiff breeze, one that rustled briskly among them before escaping from their arms to dash out over the lake at their feet--an ice jewel in a verdant setting.

The natives called this lake "Cultus", or "worthless". True, it had no fish but those stocked by the government, but the place was of unsurpassed beauty, and therefore useful by its very existence, for it glorified the designer and maker of lakes.

The same breeze stuffed the starched white shirts that mirrored the clouds in the lake surface and coincidentally powered a dozen small boats as they tacked smartly off the far shore.

Surveying the miraculous peaceful sky, the crystal cold lake and the majestic mountains, the melancholy contemplative ought to see the hand of God in this glorious creation. An attentive listener could almost hear his still, small voice breathed upon the wind.

Almost, but not quite. He never had.

The work of rougher hands could also be seen. A pall of slash burn smoke from a logging operation cleanup intruded pretentiously to the southeast, an imposter among true clouds. Blocks of clear-cut scattered on the hillsides where rusty earth stood out offered mute, bleeding evidence that the shearers had visited. In such barren areas the hills seemed to shudder at the prospect of the soon-coming winter without the old garment that had sheltered them from a thousand years of storms.

Other kinds of boats intruded dragon-like about the lake--shattering the glassy surface and warm calm air with a perpetual open-throated roar. From most issued snake-like tongues towing astern such human burdens as dared the frigid mountain-fed lake. Even in summer, water skiing, tubing, and boarding was colder here than on the not-so-distant Pacific ocean.

His own thoughts fractured along with the peace, the forlorn young man turned from brooding over the grey-green expanse of water, stopping only briefly to watch the boat wakes desecrating the surface as they aided the wind in its age-old determination to render the rocky shore into minute sand particles before his very eyes.

As he began a desultory walk along the pier toward land, he surveyed the whole sweep of beach. Once, Cultus Lake had been a fashionable resort. Decades ago the modestly wealthy had built scores of summer houses off to his far left, near the outlet to the creek. There, those on the middle rungs of society's ladder who could not yet afford apartments in Spain or Hawaii had promenaded with their pampered offspring on long piers and private beaches day after endless day. But in the inevitable manner of such things, the place fell out of fashion and the old shacks that were the ghosts of those rustic summer retreats leaned precariously on inadequate wooden footings, the whole cluster threatening to slide headlong into the water. Much of the adjacent area was now a municipal beach.

To the right of these, past a private campground and thriving marina and extending to the area directly in front of him, was another public beach--a democratic affair from a later time when the Provincial government first erected bath houses, then drafted prisoners from local detention camps to build hundreds of picnic tables. These were made of great beams firmly set in concrete, as if to foil pilferage by their makers.

But when the rich found other diversions in the post-war years and failed to return, the place became "out" with hoi polloi also and until recent years was frequented only by a diminishing local population. In later times, a new generation of city folk "discovered" Cultus and on a good summer's day the public beaches were once more crowded. On this particular late season afternoon, however, the sun was well past its prime, and row upon row of tables guarded a nearly empty parking lot and comparatively deserted beach.

The river sand that had been trucked in at great expense in a bygone day covered the rocky ground only in two small bays at either end of the kilometre long public beach, at each of which were located concrete block change rooms.

It was the more southerly of these sand crescents which he now slowly approached along the pier. Here, the sand was thinly littered with the last few of this year's sun-god worshippers. Reaching land, he passed one wrinkled group in their late fifties, noisily shedding their clothes in a flurry of hollow self-congratulation. He idly wondered if they superimposed images of themselves or their partners when he spied two of them leering sidelong at the group of near-naked teenagers carelessly tossing a frisbee nearby.

As he shuffled along the sands, he knew there were no other contemplatives here. The others were one with the boaters and skiers behind him, celebrating skin alone, and no thought beyond. Thin wisps of smoke rose from some of the overheated bodies, as they let one deity burn dry and wrinkle them without, even as the very incense they offered to another did the same within. The sand on which they lay had long since become a vast ashtray filled with butts, bottle caps, gum wrappers, and other discardia of transitory pleasure. Here and there an oblivious couple fawned over and pawed each other. One group idly tossed empty beer bottles at signs proclaiming the prohibition of alcohol in Provincial parks, and a few newcomers headed out to the pier for a late swim. Three dogs wandered about, innocent of the required leash.

None acknowledged or greeted him as he glided among them. Indeed, he was by this time himself quite unseeing. The wasted effort not to think failed, his contemplative mood was evaporated. Instead, his lonely heart was in his throat, and he choked back tears with difficulty.

Slipping unseen among the tall trees bordering the beach, he travelled a short distance, turned into some dense woods off the public pathway and shortly after laid his aching heart down with the rest of him in a secret, trackless place of his own. A few plate-sized leaves drifted down through the maple branches to join the carpet that daily thickened with the early mountain approach of fall, and that even now served to cushion him from the hard ground.

Few ever passed this spot. It was fitting, for such was the hallmark of his life--few came close or noticed him, fewer still touched. He boasted no friends or peers to love even in the easy camaraderie of other youth. Perhaps the sight of the close couples triggered the release of his volatile emotions this time. He could give no reason for such outbursts, but this was his place and way to deal with them. Over the years he had ached so often from the pain of loneliness he sometimes thought himself inured to it, scarred over, and unfeeling, but now it returned full force--an avalanche of emotion bidding to sweep him away. His future stretched before him as a bleak, empty, grey landscape admitting no reassurance, no consolation, and no hope.

It should be made clear that this angst-filled contemplative was a strikingly tall, well-muscled, and extraordinarily talented young man. As is sometimes the way of such things, he was also an awkward, insecure, lonely, tear-stained wretch of a seventeen-year-old boy--all these things singly and in combination. What he was at a given moment often depended on these emotional rushes that occasionally overwhelmed him.

His short-cropped, very black hair and the particular faded plaid of the second-hand shirt that ill-fit his large frame would once have betrayed him to knowledgeable older locals as a resident of the nearby "Berean Boys School and Boarding House"--proprietor, John Dominic.

Elderly men of the small permanent community hugging the park boundaries used to cluck their tongues at the boys and wonder if any good might come from the Berean vagabonds. The old ladies sometimes offered odd jobs along with quarters, milk, cookies and others of the kindnesses that can make them more beautiful than they were in their youth. Younger adults sometimes allowed real tolerance to overcome suspicion, and permitted their own offspring to play with the smaller of the Berean boys. Those days passed along with cute wide-eyed innocence, and children were routinely warned against having anything to do with older Bereans. But over time, the home and its fortunes fell into decline, gradually slipping from community consciousness. A newcomer would be hard pressed to know what Berea was, or who lived there.

The young man was Lucas. No surname graced the record, except by courtesy his guardian's. Somewhere, there was an old paper with "Caine" inscribed on it, after his supposed father, but Lucas had barely passing awareness of that title. So, while outsiders knew him as Lucas Dominic, to himself he was a no-name, an unwanted nobody, a non-entity.

Such are the thoughts of angst-driven self-pitying loneliness.

Berea itself was an anomaly now, one of those rare remnants of the pre-abortion, pre-liberation era. Once, it had been a well populated home and residential school for orphan boys. But there were no orphans to be schooled any more, so Berea was that saddest of human creations--an institution without purpose, as unwanted as its residents. Like an old political party no one votes for any more, it hung about as a dusty cobweb on the fringes of society's perception, its once much-striven-for mission to rescue homeless boys now irrelevant.

Not wanted. That was the crux of Lucas's problem, built into his history more poignantly than for most Berean boys. Placed in the home at age one, Lucas might at first have had some hope of adoption, but putative parents' increasing desperation for children in the face of declining supply never caught up with their reluctance to take a boy "of his age", or to hear the more candid, "of his blood". The latter palpably was not of the purest white "race", for Lucas's grey eyes, light oak skin, too-black hair, and slightly prominent cheekbones openly displayed a mixed ancestry. He could still hear them, from a time when he'd been old enough to discern their obsequious hypocritical concern.

"He is a nice boy all-right", they'd say, looking him over while he wore his visiting finery, "but we wanted a baby, or no more than a two-year-old."

Some were more blunt. He'd heard them talking. "Mabel, lookit. The kid's part Indian. No way we're taking a half-breed cast-off. I don't care how you feel. Pick an older one if you want, but it's gotta be white, not some savage's brat." Most of those who came to examine prospective adoptees looked silently through him as if, he often thought bitterly, acknowledging his presence would somehow taint their own pure lily whiteness.

So Lucas lingered on while others slipped away--some to a parent who had found a new mate, some to relatives, and the older ones to apprenticeship and eventual independence.

Turkey face, a basket case,

Out of pace with the human race!

Memories arose of past words that took their meaning, not from content, but from the chanting cruelty with which they were hurled. The remembrance nearly stung Lucas even now to the headlong flight that had once been his only defence--running off his acute agonies in the woods. These were a memory of the early years when he knew what it meant to be someone's discard, but before he could accept the inevitability of his plight. In those cruel times he carried his angst around like a palpable shroud, and even in the place of rejection that made him different enough for high-spirited ten- to twelve-year-olds who were his seniors to taunt him half to death.

There is, after all, little to solace a boy in misery except the prospect of making someone else feel worse. John Dominic intervened on his behalf, but could not prevent him from being badly beaten twice. Eventually, the worst had left, and toleration had become grudging acceptance. This turned to admiration after he repaired the school's battered old television minutes before a crucial Canucks' hockey game was to start. Ultimately he had simply become too big and strong for anyone to best him in a fight.

His ego had taken a boost when he discovered "his" band of natives in the hidden place behind the hills. They had tentatively re-accepted him as a soul brother when it became obvious his woodcraft exceeded that of many of their own children. His partial tolerance there was, he knew, due to no affection for his mother, who had been one of them, but had died birthing him. Quite the contrary. He knew too well the contempt in which many of them held both her and the stranger they knew only as "the Traveller" who had fathered him. Those feelings rubbed off on him as well.

He had seen nothing of the band for some time. They lived, he recalled, in a valley beyond Jones Creek, never coming into town or having truck with the locals. They were his secret.

Yet he knew no pull of blood ties even there, only collegial and fraternal ones. The band, at least the older ones, shared his love of mountains, lake, and forest, but Lucas was under no illusions. They would not repent of the action that had seen him unceremoniously dumped on John Dominic at Berea. They would never grant him tribal rights, acknowledge him as family. For them too, he was different, neither fish nor fowl, even if he could run down the deer in the trackless woods and catch the salmon with his bare hands.

"So," he concluded, "I have precious little to show for my life."

"But," attempted a contrary prideful corner of his mind, "recent years haven't been bad."

In response to this suggestion, Lucas reviewed his success in the schools to which he had been sent when declining numbers made the paying of Berea's teachers uneconomic and forced the closure of its own. He always won the top academic honours and prizes including the accolades that came with a perfect score in the annual high school math contest. This was no great feat in view of the enlightened high school staff who had assisted him to finish some of his grade twelve courses two years early. They had then arranged for him to take first and second year math and physics courses at the local community college and a nearby private university. The more distant Simon Fraser University was ready to admit him as a Junior in one more year--if he went back to school and college to finish the prerequisites and officially graduated. If, if.... Lately, he'd been tormented by the alternatives.

Had it helped to be so much ahead he had to mask his intelligence to converse with some of his instructors? Some of them were O.K. You could talk to a guy like Matthews, the math teacher. But there were those who were just hanging on, twenty years still to retirement, plodding through the days repeating dull facts for minds as sterile as their own. Still others were so intent on inculcating their students into their religious or political views they were incapable of rational discussion. At least two wanted to use their students to remake society into some barely understood Marxist Utopia.

Trouble was, they couldn't teach. They only cared for their causes, not for students. Even the other kids couldn't stand them. Lucas despised such people as inferiors, about in equal measure for their snobbery as for their manipulative, self-serving ways. He kept his opinions private, for John Dominic had taught him to accept the dictates of authority, but the older, stronger, and more knowledgeable Lucas got, the less he accepted their command over him as legitimate.

He did respect two others. One was Brian McIlhargey, the oddly dressed, very Celtic fencing instructor John Dominic had somehow located. He came two or three a week to teach Lucas arcane fighting skills and the strange language only he seemed to speak. A tougher, stronger, harder working drill sergeant of a man would be hard to imagine. Unlike most, he mysteriously regarded "white" as an insult, equivalent to "coward". McIlhargey was a man of substance.

So was Inspector O'Malley of the local RCMP detachment, and now his next door neighbour. Lucas briefly recalled his adventures solving crimes with the Inspector and Nellie Hacker two years prior and sighed deeply. Life had been dull since, despite being granted access to MacAllister Enterprises' best technology for his electronics projects.

Besides, though he could respect the two men, they weren't friends, not really.

This upper part of the Fraser Valley was old Mennonite country, so there were several Christian teachers on the school staff--at least so Lucas was told. But the fact of someone else being Christian never seemed to translate into compassion for him or concern for his welfare, so Lucas was inclined to dismiss them also. One had started a Bible study and prayer club, but he stayed away, thinking it best to hide his own connections with things religious. It was enough that Berea was funded by the Evangelical Rescue Mission Foundation. Lucas would tolerate no more labels attached to himself than the ones he found liberally plastered there already.

"What of it in any case?" His mercurial mind continued to leap from poles of self-congratulation and despair to uncharted places between. Physically and intellectually, he was beyond his teachers, and his peers could not begin to compare. But that meant there was no common ground for conversation with the guys his age. It wasn't just pride, but a fact. They were incapable of talk beyond banal trivialities of weather, girls, last night's drunken party, and sports.

Ah yes, sports. Lucas excelled in boxing, judo, archery and fencing, and he hadn't lost to a peer at these, or at such games as chess in years--when he could find an opponent. He always knew what the other person would do and could counterattack instantly, superbly.

The same attributes that helped him excel at individual contests could not, however, be brought to bear with others, for Lucas couldn't function as a team member. The "right" play was so obvious he was incapable of submitting himself to the mistaken generalship of another, but Lucas was of the wrong social class to be allowed as leader, play maker, or quarterback. "So," he asked himself even more bitterly, "what good are my successes?"

Lucas was well aware that the sports he excelled in, especially those taught by Sergeant McIlhargey, were mere diversions, not useful life skills. Worse, having no peers even in such pursuits still meant having no friends. Lucas briefly entertained the thought that there might be a place, in Africa, say, where swordsmanship might serve him in good stead and win genuine acclaim, but quickly dismissed the notion. He was not one to dwell on fantasy when the real world hung heavily.

His passion for art was lonelier still. This was something he had never been able to share--certainly not with the well-meaning but inadequate art teacher. She freely admitted she could teach Lucas nothing--but might as well say the same of all the groups of ruffians her classes had become.

Idly turning over the rumour that had swept the school last year--that she kept her job by blackmailing the principal--Lucas pulled a small wooden horse from his jacket pocket and began to pick at it in a desultory fashion with the carving knife he was never without. His was one of those rare talents that sees the finished product in the raw material before it has actually formed, whose art consists of teasing out the shape already resident. Except for the unfinished eyes, this horse was alive--a massive, powerful, wild, untamable stallion smaller than his hand.

Knives, now they were tools to make things of pride. What a variety they came in--you could pin a rabbit at fifteen metres, and skin it for eating with a good knife. You could fight or shave with one, throw them for sport and target practice, and best of all, carve. Knives were magic. He had a large collection stored with his swords, and could work wonders with them all.

It was all mathematics to Lucas--fencing, judo, sculpting--a matter of seeking out the unity of patterns inherent in the world around, anticipating how they would change, and making new ones in harmony with them. It was, he thought for the hundredth time, just as Matthews always quoted--"God really is a mathematician."

The darker side of his mind seized control: "If there really is a God, why couldn't he have made me able to have friends? What if he does own the geometry I find? I can neither explain what I do nor share it with anyone at school."

So, while reason said he had the right to be proud of his accomplishments, he was yet isolated, and his emotions stole in with yet another expression of: "What good is it if I'm by myself all my life? I am as cultus as this lake."

He was "old boy" at Berea now, had been for a year. More to the point, since June, when four others left, he had been "last boy", the only one remaining--and Lucas was now convinced that he too would leave Berea forever upon John Dominic's return from his latest business trip.

Dominic hadn't said anything, but Lucas detected a coming good-bye in the sad, somewhat preoccupied, speculative look he gave Lucas before he left. It was always like that when he went off to work out an "arrangement" somewhere--a job and boarding house, an apprenticeship, university for some. He'd return and send another one or two off and things would get quieter, lonelier. He had seen exactly that look before the other four were placed in their apprenticeships in Vancouver back in June. There was something about the shape of things, he thought, using a private vocabulary, that demanded a crisis that weekend.

Lucas paused in his introspection long enough to wonder what would become of Dominic when his last boy did leave. Berea had been his guardian's charge for a long time, perhaps thirty years. What else would he do? Perhaps Elsie, their cook, would be laid off and Dominic would retire...though he surely had more life remaining in him than that. He was old, yet somehow not.

The idea of leaving was too much. Perhaps he could refuse...but what then? He'd be wasting his time spending another year in the local secondary school, and it would do no good running away. He had money from his sales to MacAllister, but so what? Money couldn't buy escape from loneliness. He entertained the stray thought that he was trapped in the stream of time--a twig in its river, carried along by a current of events over which he had no control, like those clouds just visible between the outspread arms of the huge maples above. Why couldn't he climb the banks of the river of time and enter another world, as he had often fancied doing when he was a young child? If only, if only....

He considered again the place beyond the park woods he had found when he was six or seven years old, running away to hide from the taunts of the older boys, how he had hunted and fished with the natives there, been marginally accepted. Were they real, or was it all his imagination? It was too late in life for fantasies. Another wave of emotion swept over Lucas as he again confronted the possibility of a life-changing crisis, this very weekend. The very fabric of the universe seemed tense. If it ripped, would it destroy him?

Like any teenage boy, Lucas wouldn't have wanted to admit even to himself, but the truth was, rebellious and upset as he felt, he loved John Dominic and Elsie. He loved that big old house where just the three now lived. Most of all, he loved these woods, where he could be himself, never be criticized or called names by the animals and trees. These were father, mother, and home to him--all he had, with nothing else in prospect. The idea of going elsewhere, leaving his beloved lake and woods, and being thrust out on his own, was nothing short of terrifying.

He pushed back on the emotions that danced with increasing vigour through his consciousness, the shadowy place no mental butler could announce their names and give proper account for their presence. This was typical for Lucas, and like too many gifted with superior intellect, he relied on that very capacity to rationalize away his feelings. Even his daydreams had logical and mechanical scripts that placed him in positions of power, prestige, influence or wealth. He didn't desire such with any passion, not that he would have known what to do with them--his fantasies centred on the adventure of acquisition, not on the exercise of the thing obtained.

His allegiances were also intellectual rather than emotional. Though he couldn't have named the love he had for Dominic, for Elsie, for Berea, or for the park land about, he could have detailed reasons to be there, qualities that made it a good place. The unfortunate difficulty with commitments based on intellect is that having been reasoned together, they are as easily reasoned apart. Exercise of the mind alone does not create ties, nor bind with the ones that are available. Love was something Lucas was unsure existed.

Pressed, he would have assented to any question about being a Christian. His faith, however, was of the same nature as his other ties--acquiescence, nothing deeper. In this he was utterly unlike John Dominic, whom Lucas knew was heart and soul a servant of God. But Lucas, having never confronted such issues on inner levels, was only vaguely aware his own Christianity was of a different order, if it existed at all. He had not yet learned that commitments merely of the head are no loyalties at all. The core of his being was a depth unplumbed--a place out of which he had securely locked God, other people, and even himself. Nor did he like being pressed to spiritual commitments, as the Inspector's mother had tried to do ever since attributing her miracle healing to Lucas.

Of course, his self analysis fell far short of such depth. After a long subjective time, that lasted perhaps thirty objective minutes, he deliberately extracted his mind from confusion, rigidly set it into tolerably acceptable surface order, and returned to the only real trust and faith he ever expressed--in his own skills and abilities.

Another quick mental change, buoyed him up with a superficial "Somehow, I'll make it O.K. if I look after myself." Nothing resolved, feelings submerged and tears transferred to his sleeve, Lucas abruptly got to his feet, pocketed his knife, and gripping the wooden horse with nervous passion, headed for the pathway leading back to Berea.

The emotional time just spent loaned Lucas a measure of tingling pseudo-excitement, and the sudden vision of Elsie fussing and fuming over his lateness to dinner added wings to his feet. Soon he was fairly flying down the forest trail, away from the beach and back to Berea, his unresolved problems shoved to the side, and his heart and lungs exhilarating in the freshness of the wind on his face. If running through the deep woods at top speed was not peace or heaven, it was the next best thing. Lucas shoved his anguish to the back of a mental shelf, abandoning himself completely to the unsubtle passion of his run.

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

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