Galaxy. Theoretical construct said to exist in cosmic space. An aggregation of stars and associated orbiting planetesimals that is bound by forces of attraction, travels through the void, and rotates around a center.
—from Arcane Nomenclature of the Dark Cosmologies
SU BEI WAS TOO AGITATED TO SLEEP. He stared at the membrane that covered the veil of worlds as it briefly showed a series of wondrous scenes.
He and Anzi had been traveling for thirty-eight days, time enough to wear blisters into their feet and run out of food and primals. But here— finally here, in an abandoned Reach of a minoral in the Radiant Arch Primacy, Bei’s old eyes had fallen upon a thing of legend: a third kingdom.
Scholars had known there were, or guessed that there must be, more realms than the Rose and the Entire, but never a glimpse, not even one ever reported to the Magisterium. No wonder that scholarship had kept to the Arm of Heaven and its productive minorals, viewing the richness of the Rose cosmos. But Anzi had said there were hundreds of realms, or so she had heard Lord Oventroe say.
Here was the proof. On the veil before him flickered a cosmos with structures like the Rose. But it was not the Rose. Bei was at this very moment face to face with a planetoid of the third kingdom. Using both the correlates and his cosmography studies, he knew the correspondence here was between the Entire and a third cosmos. He had the mathematical proofs. There was an isomorphic relationship between the Entire and the kingdoms it touched. They mapped to each other. The correlates, by their very existence, implied this. But to see it in evidence before him in a third kingdom! It made him young again, and it made him ambitious, for his cosmography work had just proven its immortal worth, when the many data points of his great map did not correspond to the data at this veil. It drove him to look for correlations beyond the Rose, and thus the hypothetical bubbles of universes suggested by Anzi had just been confirmed.
He gazed with rapt attention at the veil of worlds, that membrane over the crevasse that pierced the next realm. Here, projected onto the membrane were beings—by happenstance, very like the Hirrin. Hirrin, the progenitors of the Hirrin of the All, likely on their originating planetoid. One might well conclude that the correlates tended to search out places of interest; this could explain his luck in finding another cosmos and planetoid after so brief a search.
Upon first setting up their stone well machines in this particular reach, he and Anzi had found the planetoid quickly, and watched until their eyes could stare no more. She slept now, but Bei could not.
They had not found the lords’ universe, the Heart. They had merely confirmed the conjecture that such a thing could exist, because the third realm did. Why not a fourth? A fifth? A fiftieth? Anzi had accepted such a possibility with ease, but Su Bei had grown old waiting to see miracles and perhaps wonder came easier to him, as light will be more noticed the darker the room. Already he was developing this realm’s geocosmic placement in relation to the Entire and in relation to the Rose. It was possible—likely, even?—that some of the realms—if there were yet more—existed without touching the Entire. It was possible—was it not?—that such and such a realm might touch the Entire, and the next realm would touch only a further realm, so there were links outside the All. . . . Yes, it was growing into a dumbfounding but unified complex of . . . bubbles.
He let his mind roam. It was elegant. It . . . It . . . but what name could be found for It, this supreme complex of realities? It was a boil of realms, a froth of worlds. Bei wanted a suitable term for It. For the sum total of everything.
The scene on the veil of worlds showed the roots of titanic trees waving in the air, perhaps taking sustenance from the soup of the atmosphere.
His mood darkened when he thought how the lords used the realms. For fuel. Was that not a heinous crime? What was a nurturing land for a particular civilization was nothing but a lump of dried dung to the Tarig. The engine at Ahnenhoon was beginning to eat at the Rose, or so Anzi had explained. Nor were other realms the only casualties. Bei had seen his own minoral destroyed, chewed up like some bale of goldweed destined for a beku’s trough. He grieved that loss, his home of eighty thousand days. He suspected it had not been destroyed to conserve fuel but to prevent intercourse with the Rose—in his mind, a greater sin. The lords had ended archons of scholarship and viewing of the Rose. If, that is, the rumors were true, and all the minorals of the Arm of Heaven were gone. If true—and he prayed it was not—then the days of viewing the Rose were ineluctably over.
Even the thought staggered.
Not only was scholarship of the Rose ended, but passage, too. The lords feared more assaults on Ahnenhoon. Moreover, they were no doubt determined that Titus Quinn not escape home. In that, they were wrong to worry.
Titus was here for the duration. He was here to sit bestride their passageway to the Heart. He was going to bar the routes to the lords’ renewal.
And it was up to Bei to point Titus in the right direction.
Bei sighed. He was not on the trail of the answer Titus needed. He was striking blindly at minorals, those that possessed developed scholar-reaches. And this minoral, sadly, was not the right one. Well, they could try other minorals in this primacy, or move to the Sheltering Path Primacy . . . Bei rubbed his eyes. Perhaps sleep was best.
Anzi appeared with a candle at the archway leading into the veil-of-worlds room. “Master? Not sleeping?”
“Too much thinking, Anzi, that’s my curse.” Bei pulled on his beard, gazing at the veil, now showing a mountainous region of the same planetoid.
Anzi looked at the scene with him, perhaps fascinated anew.
In the silence Bei said, “What shall we call the hundred realms, Anzi?”
She settled into an agile cross-legged position on the floor. “Perhaps the Great Outside.”
He shook his head. “No, because it’s us, too. It’s everything.”
She seemed to accept his ruminative state and adopted it, gazing into the ancient veil. “Perhaps the Celestial All.”
She crumpled her mouth, thinking hard. “The foam.”
They sat amiably for a few moments thinking of names. Bei murmured, “Sometimes I think that it’s all falling into place, Anzi. The correlates are not just about the Rose. This we discovered from the ship keeper. But as we move from primacy to primacy, from minoral to minoral, I see that we are traversing the great scheme of all the cosmos. The Entire, Anzi, has an enviable position in the . . . in it. We abut many other pieces of the foam, of the bubbles that represent the hundred realms.”
“I never meant exactly one hundred.”
“I know that, girl. I know that. There’s more than a lifetime of work to know even the smallest part of what can be known. But as for finding the Heart . . . even that is a staggering question. What universes have borders with the Entire? And where can they be seen from?” It was a rhetorical question, and they sat in silence as the scene on the veil moved on to galactic views and dark space. Only a few guttering candles pushed back the dark in this underground place. Above them was nothing but the fractured plains of the Gond homeland sway.
They had traveled by sky bulb from a major docking site on the river Nigh.
The shrewd dock master had bargained an unconscionable price for his sky bulb, one that left Anzi fuming and their expedition impoverished. Using the decrepit airship, they had traveled for days anti-Nigh-ward across the endless forests of the primacy, seeing on their journey not one Gond, with the legless creatures tucked away beneath the tight canopy of the forest’s upper story. Who knew if the famed nests of the Gond were numerous or rare? Few travelers came to this primacy, most never venturing beyond the settlements along the Nigh. Once though, as Bei and Anzi’s airship motored over a rare clearing, the sound of singing came from far below, confirming an ancient story that the Gond had voices that could fill the Empty Lands and knock a Chalin off his feet.
Anzi interrupted his thoughts. “We could call it the Great Sway.”
She was still considering names—and that one. . . . He squinted his eyes.
He mouthed the words, the Great Sway. He slowly stood up. “Anzi, by a beku’s balls.” He looked down at her, sitting easily in a position that would stove him up for days. “Anzi, you have come a long way since your days of senselessness.”
“Thank you, Master.”
Snaking a look at her, he realized she was mocking him. Perhaps she had always deflected attention from herself with that calm and pliable act. By the Miserable God, the girl could be sarcastic.
A shower of dust fell from the ceiling.
Anzi jumped up to throw a cover over the stone well machines.
Bei looked up, listening. A shuffle of boot on stone. He shared a look with Anzi. It could not be good that someone had followed them here. Here, on Titus Quinn’s business, he and Anzi could not afford to be captured. But they were trapped. The veil-of-world room in this minoral, like most mino-rals, was a dead end.
Above, more shuffling. Fortunately, in this veil, the lift was no longer in operation, and the stairs were difficult to find. It gave them a few minutes.
Bei fingered the redstones on his necklace. He glanced at the veil of worlds, that film covering the wedge that punctured the next world. They could go through. They would have to. He untied the cord holding his red-stones, sorting them into his hand.
Anzi saw him do so, and her eyes widened. Neither of them had spoken a word, nor did they need to. He was considering sending them through the to-and-from-the-worlds-door.
With a nod at the veil, he indicated silently that Anzi should secure one of their stone wells. When she didn’t understand, he whispered: “We’re taking one. Hurry!”
She shook her head. She looked like a beku balking at a ride.
He hissed at her, “You want to see Titus again? I can’t help you fight them, and we don’t know how many there are. Now remove its conduits and wrap it in a cloth!”
Anzi hurriedly wrapped the stone well, leaving it at Bei’s feet, and rushed to the doorway, piling crates in front of it to slow their pursuers down.
Bei fell to his knees and fumbled his redstones off his necklace. All his insights, all his discoveries. . . . He had to preserve them; the only way was through the veil. He’d seen departures through the veil; by the bright, he’d seen Titus Quinn leave that way, once. A globule would form around them, preserving some air. . . . And that was as much as he knew. About to find out more, by the Woeful God.
Taking one redstone onto which the correlates had been copied, he dropped it into the stone well receiving cup of their second computational device, still connected into the veil with conduits. It was a terrible gamble. Bei couldn’t direct which scene would appear, but starting a new progression might attract something of interest. They had no choice, they had to leave. How would they ever return? But Bei had the correlates, and no one must take them.
He tapped the screen with a formula he had just developed, an outgrowth of the correlates, but more specifically related to mapping. No use, no use, it was untested, foolhardy. But voices outside the room drove him to finish.
Anzi heard them coming. She drew her knife. “You go, Master. You must.”
He finished and stuffed the now loose redstones into his tunic. They were both standing next to the veil. As the boxes crashed under the assault at the door, he grabbed Anzi and shoved her with all his strength into the veil, shattering the outer film and not giving her even a moment to catch her breath.
A Hirrin lurched through the barricade.
Bei said, “Welcome. And what might your name be?” He picked up the stone well computer that Anzi had wrapped.
The Hirrin, momentarily confused by the reception from an old man, turned to look at the Ysli just coming up behind him.
In that moment, Bei threw himself into the veil after Anzi. The Hirrin was fast. He charged across the room and gripped Bei’s trailing elbow in his mouth. Anzi’s globule was close enough that she saw what was happening.
Lunging, she jammed her knife hand through the gel of the veil and slashed at the Hirrin’s mouth.
She overreached, falling into Bei’s globule of air, but she’d managed to gash the Hirrin’s face.
Bei just managed to pull his elbow back in when the transition began.
Now joined in one vacuole, they held each other like twins in a birth canal.
Through the cloudy transitional matrix Bei saw a space-time distortion of a Hirrin’s face: streams of blood twisted about his face like ribbons on a gift.
Stunned and panicked, he and Anzi huddled in the muscular little sac and abandoned themselves to the mercy of the Great Sway.