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Nonexistence was an impossibility....

It maddened him. Finite universes were tidy, but they required an outside s.p.a.ce to contain them. Infinite s.p.a.ce, like the notion of nothingness, was incomprehensible to common reason, which claimed that it couldn't be imagined, only defined and insisted upon. For Aristotle it had been an absurdity, a word that stood for nothing, since infinity could not be had. On the face of it, both finite and infinite universes were an affront to rationality ...

To prove that the universe was infinite in all directions required difficult measurements. The attempt itself exposed the finite bias of the human mind-to measure infinity and make it a verifiable fact, even if it could not be encompassed. Reason depended on limits, which meant that infinities were not rational, or that a finite creature took its own limits as the model for rationality....

The varieties of infinity escaped the intuitive grasp of his kind, yet they insisted on talking about a God in those terms. So why not simply accept an infinite, uncreated universe as the central fact of existence?

An infinite, uncreated universe was unimaginable and terrifying; but an all-powerful Deity was even more terrifying-especially if It might reach into finite beings and speak. Perhaps that was why God preferred to whisper in a still, small voice that human beings could easily mistake for their own conscience....

Deity would be an insoluble mystery to Itself, never having come into being; in Its presence, finite creatures would be nothing....

Hopes for afterlife clung like barnacles to archaic human notions of Omnipotent Deity; but these afterlives were banal systems. If true, they would be a tyranny imposed on finite beings, who had been created to be tested for moral worthiness, in which the exercise of free will decided the game-except that everyone had to play.

Without afterlife, it was argued, life would be degrading; but an additional life could not make life fair, since it would also be imposed, not chosen. So why did human beings cling to Deity and afterlife?

Tasarov had been right-to preserve the appearance of an unquestionable pedigree for ethical norms.

It seemed more reasonable to accept the growing evidence for an eternal existence in which the growing freedom of intelligent beings was a central feature. Humanity was on its own, responsible for the discovery of its own humane norms as it strove to transcend itself. There might be fellowship with powerful others, also struggling, by degrees, to comprehend a transcendent universe, but no prior, omniscient God. It had been a case of mistaken identity to attribute the features of an infinite, fecund nature to an omnipotent being....

Ethical rules had grown out of religious justifications, but could now stand on their own. Deity's insisted-upon enforcement of ethical norms was only psychologically necessary-but this made them no less real, since ethical norms could not help but grow out of historical needs; they could never be arbitrary, even in a Godless universe. The price of transgression had never been God's wrath, but social damage.... Juan imagined an eternal Deity lying down in the void to create a finite universe of passing things, then watching Its creatures test themselves against Its moral laws and physical mysteries, and finally plucking the worthy for what-an unequal, enforced fellowship?

Only an uncreated life offered true freedom, he realized, because it steered alone through an open, infinite universe that offered a true test of freedom, because it did not consciously impose purpose.

Humankind was free to work against natural limits and find its own way. Personal death, with nothing after, was a terror for only the vain and egocentric. A Godless universe, infinite in all directions, including time, was the best state of affairs imaginable. Religious imagery presented hoped-for states that would one day be attained....

At the edge of life's sh.o.r.e, the arrogant fortress of infinities rose before him, but he knew now that it was uninhabited, and there was no key to its gates. Order arose from chaotic process, which could not help but produce order, given endless time. The unpredictability of process did not make it acausal, only opaque before the fact. This was the secret of all creativity. Too much order was uncreative and totalitarian. Biosystems, with their plasticity, seized the regions between order and chaos....

Job's answer to God's cruelties was that he would obey and be faithful. But God's test of Job made sense even in a Godless universe-humanity still had the chance to shine or fail before temptation and adversity, to choose a human morality over lawlessness....

Juan could not imagine a n.o.bler freedom as he stepped out of the shower and remembered the boy who had loved attic s.p.a.ces-the more irregular the better-and had crawled into them in search of strangeness. We're drawn to small, narrow s.p.a.ces, he thought, to places filled with odd individual things that revealed how far the universe had come from its hot, early uniformity. Humankind was one such oddity, organizing to be an enemy of entropy....

He turned off the water and stood at the center of silence, realizing the fragility of insights that lived in isolated moments. He and Lena needed a time of private s.p.a.ces-kitchens, bedrooms, sitting rooms and backyards-a collapse into the human scale of things. Was he so tired, to think such docile thoughts?

She had gone to pick up Magnus at the airport. Juan was looking forward to telling him the story. One day they would all visit Tasarov on his distant green world, even if it meant braving another variant. The Russian had remained loyal to his community, and had secured a better life for it, even as his variant swam in mathematical ecstasies.

He dried himself in a rush of hot air, put on his father's long red robe of Spanish silk, and went up to the attic. The steeply set oak planks did not creak. He reached the top and saw faint daylight filtering in through the drawn shades on the three small windows. He pulled the chain on the old Edison industrial bulb. The irregular filament glowed in the clear glass, casting a harsh light into the gables and distant corners, summoning into being a universe of brittle cardboard boxes, old night tables, footstools, broken chairs, rolled-up rugs, and two old closets, on which sat an assortment of empty cake and cookie tins-all travelers from the past, trapped here in the stillness of dry wood.

He imagined protons decaying in the house beams, forcing the structure back into chaos, and wondered about this attic's variants.

Feeling warm, he took off his robe, hung it on an old brass hook set in a beam, and began to move boxes. Sweat ran down his back, and he coughed from the dancing dust. He smiled as he imagined Lena and Magnus coming up and finding him here like this, obviously out of his mind. What contingencies, he wondered, had arranged the objects in this attic? He saw endless pages scrolling up on a screen, listing in minute, economically phrased steps the actions of countless people, all leading to the deposit of one article after another under these beams, throughout the infinity of variants....

He caught sight of himself in a partially covered mirror. An olive-skinned biped with a large head peered back at him, as if it had just pulled back the old sheet from the other side and been surprised to find him here. He stepped closer and covered up the old mirror. This place, he realized, made him happy, and wondered if Tasarov was fulfilled in the distant red universe.

Voices echoed downstairs. Lena and Magnus had arrived. He marveled suddenly at the intimacy of the social world, at the way it blacked out the universe around it, arranging itself for the exchange of simple needs, making strangers of those outside the circle.

Disoriented, he put on his robe; in another moment he might have slipped through an event horizon and scrambled up on a new sh.o.r.e of understanding. It always seemed that way, when the world dragged him back into commonplaces. Kafka was right, he thought; at every turn we need an ax to break the frozen sea within us. The scheme as given, to live, reproduce, and die, was a sorry thing for an intelligent being to bear. Mind should live as long as it pleased, pursue knowledge, and love profoundly.

"We're here!" Lena shouted from below. His heart skipped a beat as he recalled her other self calling to him, and remembered how they had slowly drifted apart. Her death was still within him, forcing him to admit that he had failed to achieve fellowship with his kind. He was closest to Lena, who had turned him away from self-hatred.

The aliens in their entropy-free zone attained fellowship by dancing and swallowing each other. Did they also mix and remix their thoughts? Was the vast swirl of their red heaven a system for processing a finished body of knowledge-in the hope of extracting something new from it?

"Juan, are you here?" she called as he started down the attic stairs, thinking that probability was a form of divine hesitation. God was reluctant to lose anything, so He let it all happen. No joy or sorrow could ever be avoided; the best and worst embraced in the infinite sum of histories.

"Be right there!" he answered, but stopped on the landing, fearing that he would not live to see what would become of his kind, even though the alien technology might offer life-extension along with its other secrets. titus had put Lena in charge of a team of biologists to work in Earth's suncore station, where the medical mode of the alien technology had revealed itself most obviously; Mal's British facade had slipped when Lena told him that Dita would join the group. Together with Malachi and himself, Magnus would lead a group of physicists and systems analysts in attempts to gain control of the starships. A map of the web would be made.

He turned left, hurried into his bedroom, and dressed quickly, overwhelmed by the thoughts of how many working lifetimes would be swallowed by the web; but its treasures would be earned, after all, and that was better than wallowing in an alien inheritance. In time, humanity might transform itself, and pass on to a realm of its own making. The nature of that existence was unforeseeable, but it might free his kind from its inner torments and fulfill its deepest longings. Then humanity would be ready to start its dialogue with the leviathans of supers.p.a.ce.

He finished dressing and sat down in the gable. Early spring sunlight warmed his face, reminding him that the web had already bettered the chances for human survival, through Tasarov's colony, for one thing.

Summet had found the right way in this variant. He heard footsteps and turned to see Lena, Magnus, and Malachi in the open doorway. The sight of them flooded him with recognition, and he swam through their most private regions, liberated beyond himself with a new gift of childhood.

His friends were here and it was time to play.

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