Wednesday, February 9, 2005

The story of Paul from Stephen Baxter's novel 'Vacuum Diagrams'

These are excerpts, even the seemingly continuous portions are just bits copied and pasted.

He was - discorporeal; It was as if the jewel of consciousness which had lain behind his eyes had been plucked out of his body and flung into space.

Driven by curiosity he began to experiment with his awareness. Physically he was composed of a tight knot of quantum wave functions; now, cautiously, he began to unravel that knot, to allow the focus of his consciousness to slide over spacetime. Soon it was as if he was flying over the arch of the cosmos, unbound by limits of space or time.

Paul saw how the great star system rotated as one, as if solid. The Galaxy's visible matter was no more than a fraction of its total bulk; a vast, invisible halo of dark matter swathed the bright spiral, so that the light matter lay at the bottom of a deep gravity pit, turning like an oil drop in a puddle. Now Paul climbed out of that huge, deep gravity well and passed through the halo of dark matter. The ghostly stuff barely impinged on his awareness. Photinos - the dark matter particles - interacted with normal matter only through the gravitational force, so that even to Paul the halo was like the faintest mist.

Cautiously, clinging to his wave-function ropes, Paul sank into the dark matter ocean.
Currents of photinos swept past him. The moving masses distorted spacetime, and the density was high enough for him to perceive vast structures gliding through his focus of awareness. Gradually he came to understand the structure of his Universe.

At this point I'll have to summarize what's going on in the story. It goes into dark matter vs. (baryonic) matter. Life (disembodied bird-like creatures made of photinos) evolved in dark matter around the turbulence patterns created by the gravity wells of scattered stars. These creatures settled into the stars where they could subsist. But when stars exploded (all the time) they were in danger. So they went on a program of purposely leeching energy out of the universe's stars to put the entire thing into a stable "twilight" phase.

The top dogs of the baryonic world, the Xeelee, figured out what was up and started to fight back. Though they could pick out key areas (stars) to attack (explode them with "starbreaker" weapons), the dark matter life (the photino birds) could just go right past all their defenses undetected (the only interaction between their world and ours being gravity, a really weakly manifested force by our standards).

There's lots of time travel here (antiparticles going backwards through time, key part of the story). The Xeelee created a disembodied hivemind version of themselves ("anti-Xeelee") which began their new plan to colonize the entire early universe in one giant causal loop. They altered their own evolution and equipped themselves for the fight before the war ever started. They also began construction of a giant escape route from the universe in case they lost the war. Meanwhile the other baryonic life, like humans, targeted the Xeelee having no clue what was really going on. They were driven by more petty goals of trying to be "top dog" among baryonic life. Humans made a lot of progress, they even evolved versions of themselves that could subsist in stars and eventually they started chucking entire stars at the huge Xeelee contraption being built throughout the universe's history (a huge ring, the escape route). They upheaved a big chunk of the universe and progressed to the point of becoming a thorn in the Xeelee's side. This forced the Xeelee to deal with humanity. They wiped them out, imprisoned a few in a "phantom zone" like tesseract in the location of where Earth once was. And then there was Paul. He was a human who had evolved the ability to perceive things on the quantum mechanical level (spacelike separated events). The anti-Xelee thought it was cute and took him. Then woke him up before it left, collapsing back into the vacuum.

So this all above is after Paul wakes up as this disembodied consciousness subsisting on turbulent convection currents of matter wave functions. In fact, it's kind of like the star child at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey. In fact, the entire story is very obviously a homage to that influential work.

At first Paul described to himself the places he visited, the relics he found, in human terms; but as time passed and his confidence grew he removed this barrier of words. He allowed his consciousness to soften further, to dilute the narrow human perception to which he had clung. All about him were quantum wave functions. They spread from stars and planets, sheets of probability that linked matter and time. They were like spider-webs scattered over the ageing galaxies; they mingled, reinforced and cancelled each other, all bound by the implacable logic of the governing wave equations.

The functions filled spacetime and they pierced his soul. Exhilarated, he rode their gaudy brilliance through the hearts of ageing stars.

He relaxed his sense of scale, so that there seemed no real difference between the width of an electron and the broad sink of a star's gravity well. His sense of time telescoped, so that he could watch the insect-like, fluttering decay of free neutrons - or step back and watch the grand, slow decomposition of protons themselves...

Soon there was little of the human left in him. Then, at last, he was ready for the final step.

After all, he reflected, human consciousness itself was an artificial thing. He recalled Green, on the Sugar Lump, glee-fully describing tests which proved beyond doubt that the motor impulses initiating human actions could often precede the willing of those actions by significant fractions of a second. Humans had always been adrift in the Universe, creatures of impulse and a causality, explaining their behaviour to each other with ever more complex models of awareness. Once they had believed that gods animated their souls, fighting their battles through human form. Later they had evolved the idea of the self-aware, self-directed consciousness. Now Paul saw that it had all been no more than an idea, a model, an illusion behind which to hide. Why should he, perhaps the last human, cling to such outmoded comforts?

There was no cognition, he realized. There was only perception.

With the equivalent of a smile he relaxed. His awareness sparkled and subsided.

He was beyond time and space. The great quantum functions which encompassed the Universe slid past him like a vast, turbulent river, and his eyes were filled with the grey light which lay behind all phenomena.
Space had never been empty.

Within the fight spacetime limits of the Uncertainty Principle, 'empty' vacuum was filled with Virtual particle sets which blossomed from nothing, flew apart, recombined and vanished as if they had never been - all too rapidly for the laws of mass-energy conservation to notice.

Once, human scientists had called it the seething vacuum. And now it was inhabited.

The Qax was a creature of turbulent space, its 'cells' a shifting succession of Virtual particle sets. Physically its structure extended over many yards - a rough sphere gigantic in subatomic terms containing a complex of Virtual particle sets which stored terabits of data: of understanding, of memory stretching back over millions of years.

Like the shadow of a cloud the Qax cruised over turbulent space, seeking humans...

Note, the Qax got into a war with humans (and are probably more approximative of what we believe djinn are than Paul himself or the anti-Xeelee or the photino birds). They Humans won. Qax held a grudge until the end of time.

A long time later after the Xeelee had left and the universe was waning, the humans left in the little spacetime fold, the "phantom zone" like prison the Xeelee had made, stumbled out of their "cave". They had become primitive stone-age types but knew stories about the Xeelee war and stars and all that. Most of it was gibberish to them. So they stumbled out into empty space with stars and the Xeelee had left a ship for them which woke up when it detected what happened.

But I get ahead of myself. The little phantom zone thing is referred to as the "Room" or "Eighth Room" (four dimensional hypersphere with a bunch of rooms, one of which opened into space).

There was a transparent box, half as tall again as a man. It hung in space, in orbit around a cooling white dwarf star, apparently forgotten and purposeless. It would have had no conceivable significance in the long twilight of the Universe

... if it had not occupied the site of Earth, the long-vanished original home of man, long consumed by its own sun.

A Qax had once visited the site. It was puzzled. The box was evidently one three-dimensional facet of a hypercube, extending into folded space. Perhaps it was a gateway, an interface to some pocket Universe. Such things had been constructed by the Xeelee elsewhere in the Galaxy. But why here, in the ruined cradle of humanity? The Qax had placed quantum-inseparability markers around the box. The Qax were linked to the markers by single quantum wave functions, ghostly threads that stretched across light years, and they had scattered millions of markers over the spaces once inhabited by humans.

At last the human called Teal walked into the box. He stared, open-mouthed, at the stars. He was gaunt, filthy, and dressed in treated tree-bark; a rope tied to his waist snaked around a corner and into another Universe. After some time the rope grew taut and Teal's limp form was hauled away.

The inseparability markers blared their warnings. A Qax hauled itself like a spider along the quantum web to the box - but it arrived too late; the box was empty. The Qax hissed, settling into space like condensing mist.

With a patience born of millions of years it prepared to wait a little longer.

The event spread like a soft blue dye through the linked quantum phenomena which comprised Paul's being. At the site of Earth there was a human once more: but a human alone, weak, tired, close to dissolution. Paul, godlike, pondered the implications for an unimaginable interval.

Then he came to a decision. He reconstructed his awareness; a quantum jewel danced against the clear walls of the Eighth Room. History had resumed.

It is not true to say that Paul waited beside the Eighth Room after the brief appearance of the first human. Rather, he assigned a sub-component of his personality to monitor events within the Room, while he turned the rest of his multiplexed attention elsewhere. And it could not be said that Paul's patience was tested by the subsequent delay. After all he was largely independent of the constraints of time and space; and the galaxies were available for his study. And yet ...

And yet, when humans reappeared in the Eighth Room, it seemed to Paul that he had waited a very, very long time.

The humans stared at the star-strewn Universe and retreated in alarm. Paul was fascinated by their angular movements, their obviously limited viewpoints. How unimaginably constraining to have one's awareness bound into a box on a stalk of bone!

But as Paul continued to observe, memories of his own brief corporeal sojourn on the Sugar Lump stirred, oddly sharp.

Godlike, uncertain of his own reaction, he watched men, women and children talk, touch each other, laugh.

He noticed the ragged, filthy clothes, the protruding ribs, the ice-damaged skin. He pondered the meaning of these things.

Eventually a grey-haired woman entered the Room. Her behaviour seemed different; she walked slowly to the crystal wall and stared out steadily at the stars.

Paul focused his attention so that it was as if he were gazing into her eyes.

The face was fine-boned, the skin drawn tight over the bones, and age had brought webs of wrinkles around the eyes and mouth. The skin was scarred, the lips cracked and bleeding. This was a tired face. But the head was held erect, the eyes locked on a Universe which must be utterly baffling.

And behind those eyes a quantum grain of consciousness lay like an unripened seed, shaped by millions of years. The woman left the Room; Paul, oddly shaken, reflected. Over the next few days the humans investigated their crystal box. They touched the walls, staring through them with blank incomprehension. They were clearly aware of the spacecraft which lay waiting just beyond the Room's walls: they pointed, knelt so they could see under it, and occasionally one of them would paw at the walls; but there was no pattern to their searches, no system; they deployed no tools beyond fingertips and tongues. But they showed no frustration. They were like children in an adult world; they simply did not expect to be able to make things work.

At length there was a flurry of activity at the brightly-lit doorway. The humans were goading some sort of animal into the Room: here came a barrel-like head, a broad, solid body covered by shaggy fur. The humans punched the beast's flanks, tugged at the hair above its trembling eyes; the creature, obviously terrified, was almost immovable. But at last it stood in the centre of the Room, surrounded by sweating, triumphant humans. It looked to left, right, and finally down at its feet. Paul imagined its terror as it found itself standing on apparent emptiness light years deep. The great head rotated like a piece of machinery and the beast scurried backward through the door, bowling some of the humans over. The people ran after it, shouting and waving their arms. Paul, bemused, withdrew for some time. These people were clearly helpless.

Crushed by uncounted generations in their four-dimensional cage, they had lost not only understanding but, it seemed to him, also the means by which to acquire a greater understanding. The Eight Rooms and the waiting ship were obviously intended to be found and used by the humans. But these ragged remnants were incapable of working this out.

This rabble was the relic of a race which had once had the audacity to challenge the Xeelee themselves. The strands of Paul's persona sang with contempt and he considered abandoning the humans, returning to his contemplation.

... But then he remembered the grey woman, the quantum jewel which had sparkled even within its battered setting of bone and dirt, and his contempt was stilled. Even fallen, these were still humans. Slowly, almost hesitantly, he returned to the Eighth Room.

Now we pick up with the humans.

She studied the craft beyond the wall. It was some thirty feet long - nearly three times the size of the Room - and shaped like a fat, rounded disc. It was utterly black, showing only by starshine highlights. It was completely beyond her experience ... but she knew what it was. Teal had told her what to expect, with his strange tales of men travelling among the stars.

This was the ship. It was a vessel to take them ... somewhere else. (Here her imagination failed.) The Eight Rooms were merely a way station. But if they were to go on they had to find a way through these walls! She laid her palms flat and passed them over the warm, crystalline stuff. But this was not a teepee; there were no flaps to open. She slapped the wall in exasperation.

The grey-haired woman was frustrated! She wanted to explore! Paul exulted. He slid quantum tendrils into her skull.

... She spread her hand wide and folded the fingers forward so that they formed a kind of cylinder; then she pressed her fingertips against the wall, just - here ...

Erwal gasped and staggered away from the wall. She stared at her hands, flexing them and turning them over, as if to reassure herself that they were still under her control. It had been like a waking dream.

So with this series of posessions, Paul showed her what to do to open the box and enter the Xeelee ship. It was kind of like a vision he put in her head. She goes back, gets the rest, they enter the ship. They gawk at everything like children.

The humans stepped cautiously through the circular opening and stood, incongruous in their furs and leggings, at the centre of the ship's single chamber. Chairs of some dark, soft material lay scattered over the deck. The chairs were fixed in place but the humans quickly discovered that they would, with a judicious rock backwards, convert into couches. Soon the children were swarming over the devices, rocking back and forth.

Paul, watching, considered this. These chairs were so clearly designed for humans; in fact, of course, the whole life-system was human-based. And yet the rest of the ship showed few of the characteristics of human technology. Paul's attention foci prowled. The chamber occupied by the humans was a flat cylinder which, Paul realized, filled most of the ship's volume; its drive units, life support and other equipment must be embedded in the hull. And when he studied the paper-thin hull itself he found space-wings furled into tight coils within the body; and he discovered how it would be possible to expand collapsed compartments in the hull to accommodate hundreds, thousands of people. Sadly this wasn't necessary. Slowly the humans colonized the comparatively spacious environs of the ship. They spread their foul blankets over the floor, argued over occupancy of the couches, and even tried to goad the poor animal through the Eighth Room and into the ship. Soon they were hanging up their blankets to separate the chamber into a series of private cells.

The ship meant no more to them than would a comfortable shack, Paul realized, amused and irritated.

Only the grey-haired woman showed any continuing curiosity in the ship itself. She prowled the walls, touching, staring, studying. There were panels which showed scenes of stars, but they were not simple windows; they showed images which were magnified, inverted, or distorted, as if seen sideways in a reflecting sheet of ice. Other panels, larger in area, coated the lower walls like silver paint. And to a table fixed beneath an array of panels were attached devices which Paul instantly recognized as waldoes, tailored for human hands. Obviously this was the ship's control system. With a mixture of fascination and dread Paul watched the woman approach the strange, mitten-like objects; she poked at them tentatively, and once even appeared to be contemplating slipping her hands inside. But she backed away nervously and moved on.

Paul, with the wave-function equivalent of a sigh, resigned himself to waiting a little longer.

Paul gives her another little posession-vision of how to operate the ship. Little bits and pieces here and there over the following days. They learned how to heal themselves, get food, etc from the ship (experimenting by sticking their hands into random slots).

The woman labels this presence the "Friend" and Paul increases the urgency of the visions which tell her to get the ship moving.

Terrified, she resisted the dreams, but they battered at her awareness like snowflakes. Even sleep was no escape. She sensed an urgency behind the dreams, an anxiety; but there was also tolerance and kindness. Obviously the Friend badly wanted her to slide her hands into the mittens, to submit to this awful falling sensation. But she felt that if she failed to overcome her terror the Friend would stay and help her care for her people, here in the Eight Rooms and the ship, as long as they lived.

She finally listens.

Arke came bursting into the chamber. He stared around wildly, sweat sparkling on his bald scalp. 'Erwal! What are you doing to the ship?' She turned. 'What are you talking about?' He gestured, swinging his arms through wide arcs. 'You can see it from the Eighth Room. The ship has grown wings! They must be a hundred miles long and they're as black as night...'

They're still too afraid to go anywhere.

Unsophisticated the humans might be, but they were not primitive, Paul saw clearly. They had been shaped by the habitation of a Galaxy, over millions of years. The woman, for all her fear and tentativeness, had no difficulty with grasping the essential concepts - that the object she sat in was a ship, which could be directed through immense spaces - despite the fact that such things were so far beyond her own experience. It was as if humans had evolved for spaceflight, as if the imaginative concepts required were embedded in deep mental muscles in the woman's brain - atrophied perhaps, but now stirring anew.
Paul tried to analyse his own reactions. Not long ago he had been near the peak of his sophistication, his awareness multiplexed and his senses sweeping across the Galaxy ... Now he was spending so much time locked into a crude single-viewpoint self-awareness model in order to communicate with the pilot woman that he was in danger of degenerating.
Why was he doing this? Why did he care? He shook off his introspection. There were greater issues to resolve. He had focused so long on the question of teaching the humans to fly the ship that he had neglected to consider where they were meant to take it. Already he sensed the most advanced one, the woman pilot, was beginning to frame such questions. He must consider.

He withdrew from the woman. (There was a sharp, bittersweet sense of loss.) Then his awareness multiplied, fragmented, and spread like the wings of the ship, and the small pain vanished.

The watching Qax had become aware of the quantum-function creature through its interaction with the primitives, and had only slowly come to recognize it as an advanced-form human. Now the evolved human had gone. The Qax considered. The primitive humans were helpless. There would be time to collect them later. The Qax departed, following the evolved human.

Paul brooded over the wreckage of the Solar System.

Since the retreat of the Xeelee the Universe had been lost to baryonic life forms. The photino birds had not yet completed their vast conversion programmes - stars were still shining, the Ring not yet closed - but at last, in a time not very distant, the final light would be extinguished and the baryonic Universe would grow uniform and cold, a stable home for the photino birds.

A shipful of primitive humans had no possibility of survival in a Universe occupied by such a force.

Therefore the humans would have to follow the Xeelee. Perhaps this escape had been the intention of the Xeelee all along, Paul mused. Perhaps they had provided many other junior baryonic races with similar lifeboats', so they could follow the Xeelee to a place where baryonic life was still possible.

He saw it now. His humans would have to use their ship to cross space and pass through Bolder's Ring.

And Paul would have to guide them there. He felt a surge of determination, of anticipation... And of fear.

Around his decision the diffuse cloud that comprised Paul's awareness coalesced. He prepared to return to the ship -But there was something in the way. Paul stopped. He assembled awareness foci to consider the new barrier, confused. The wave-function guides he was following had been distorted, even terminated, and -He was being watched.

Paul froze, shocked; his sub-personalities condensed into something almost as coherent and limited as his old corporeal self.

There was something here: something aware and able to study him ... and to stop him.

As if trembling, he tried to respond. The data that formed his being was stored in a lattice of quantum wave functions; now he distorted that lattice deliberately to indicate an omission. A lack. A question. - Who are you? -

The answer was imposed directly on his awareness; it was like being exposed to a raw, vicious dream, to a million years of venom.

- Qax -

While this was going on, two of the humans figured out how to use the ship. They figured out the diagram of the solar system and visited some of the other planets or what was left of them (the thing was pretty much on autopilot).

A box had closed around Paul.

Of course it was not possible for Paul to be subjected to a simple physical confinement; nevertheless the wave-function world lines which constituted his being - and his link to Sol - were bent to the point of breaking by the immaterial walls around him. He couldn't move.

Shock and surprise surged through him. Of all the strange things he had seen in his travels this was the first to endanger him directly. With a startling shift of perspective he realized that he had come to think of himself as a god, an observer, invulnerable, above interference. Now he felt an overpowering urge to retreat into the cave of a simple quasi-human self-model ... but if he went that way, madness and terror would surely follow.

Striving for order he set up limited sub-personalities to study his prison. Data began to reach him, and slowly he came to understand.

He was trapped in the focal zone of a radiation of an enormously high frequency. The zone was a sphere only a few feet across; nonlinear effects causing energy to cascade into lower frequencies must have made the zone glow like a jewel. Individual photons darted through the focus like birds, their wavelength a hundred billion billion times smaller than the radius of an electron; the short wavelength implied immense energy, so that each photon was a potent little bullet of energy mass .. . in fact, so massive that each photon was almost a quantum black hole. And it was this that was confining him. Black holes cut the world lines of which he was composed; it was as if a corporeal human were confined by a web of a billion burning threads. So it was an effective cage. The Qax had taken him. That left one question: why?

Calm now, he rearranged the data strung along his wave-function components so that the omissions represented by the question were clear and sharp. He waited. He did not trouble to measure the time.

... The Qax returned.

Paul rapidly assembled a set of multiple attention foci. There was a more coherent feel to the sleet of singularity radiation now; in a systematic fashion the frequencies, phases and paths of the powerful quanta were being modified by their passage through his being. He was being interrogated, he realized: each photon was taking a few more bits of data from him, no doubt for study by his captor. It was a data dump; he was being read as if he were some crude storage device.
He felt no resentment; nor did he try to hide. What was the point? His captor had to be aware already of the little band of humans skimming their crude ship around Sol's gravity well. His best hope was to let the Qax learn, wait for some kind of feedback.

But he kept his question representations in place. Slowly he discerned a further evolution in the hail of photons. He spread his awareness as wide as he dared, and, like a man straining to hear distant fragments of conversation, he listened. He caught glimpses of the Qax itself, elusive impressions of something fast, quick-thinking, physically compact; the radiation cage imprisoning him implied a command of the deepest structure of the physical Universe... . And he heard hatred.

The brutal fact of it was shocking, overpowering. The Qax hated him; it hated him because he was human, and that loathing warped the path of every photon that tore through him. The hatred dominated his captor's existence and was harnessed to a determination to expunge every trace of humanity from the Universe.

Paul felt awe at the crime that had caused such enmity across a desert of time.

The unequal flow of data continued for an immeasurable period. Then -

A change. The boundary conditions of his photon cage were being altered, so that the region of spacetime which restrained him was translated ... He was being moved.

Now there was another component to the complex rain of photons. Paul strained. There was another individual out there; something huge, vast, stately, with thought processes on timescales of hours, so that its slow speculations rang like gongs . .. And yet it too was a Qax; there was such a similarity to the structure of Paul's captor that the giant surely belonged to, or at least originated from, the same species. And still the drizzle of inferred data was not resolved; there were unattributed overtones, like higher harmonics on a violin string.

There were more of them out there, he realized, too many for him to discriminate as individuals, a vast hierarchy of Qax looming over him, inspecting him like immense biologists over some splayed insect. They existed on every imaginable scale of space and time, and yet they remained a single species - scattered, multiply evolved, but still essentially united. And they all hated him. The photon cage disappeared.

Freed, Paul felt like a spider whose web has been cut. Rapidly he assessed the few quantum strands which still linked him to Sol, the Ring. Spider-like, he set to work to build on those threads.

With a small part of him he looked around. He was no longer in the Solar System. He saw a brown dwarf, a Jovian world ten times the size of Jupiter; it circled a shrunken white star. His focus of awareness orbited a few hundred miles above the planet's cloud tops. Studying the clouds he saw turbulent cells on all scales, feeding off each other in a great fractal cascade of whirling energy. A massive brown-red spot, a self-organizing island of stability, sailed through the roiling storms.

He mused over the spectacle, puzzled as to why he had been brought here. The energy for all that weather must come from the planet's interior and its rotation, rather than the wizened star. This monster world was self-contained and complete in itself: it didn't need the rest of the Universe. In fact, Paul reflected wryly, this world should be safe even from the depredations of the photino birds. While the dark matter foe turned stars to dust this world and billions like it would spin on, a container of massive but purposeless motion, until the energy dissipated by its huge weather systems caused its core to cool, its rotation to grind slowly down. Then at last it would come to rest, its only function being to serve as a gravitational seedbed for a photino bird Ghost world. The planet was harmless, dull and old; even that cloud spot might be older than mankind, he realized -Again he was being watched. A vast speculation thrilled through him. The huge Qax he had detected earlier, with thoughts like hours ...

It was here. In the spot system. The whole self-organizing complex contained the awareness of a Qax, and it was studying him. He opened himself. New data trickled into his awareness


During his studies on the Sugar Lump Paul had learned of the history of the Qax. Paul's captor, constructed of the Virtual particle sets of the seething vacuum, resembled its forebears - the odd, vast creatures who had spawned as constructs of convection cells in a boiling ocean - as a laser rifle resembles a piece of chipped stone. But it could trace its consciousness back to that boiling sea.

And it remembered the human, Jim Bolder, who had once caused the Qax sun to nova.

Paul, his awareness tightly focused on the Jovian's roiling storms, began to piece together an understanding of the future plans of the Qax.

Unlike most baryonic species the Qax would be able to coexist with the dark matter photino birds. The Qax inhabited the turbulent, twilit depths of low-energy systems. It would not matter to the Jovian's Qax parasite, for example, if, thanks to the photino birds, its host's distant star failed to shine; as long as the planet turned and its inner core glowed with heat the Qax could survive.

So the Qax might become the last baryonic inhabitants of the Universe.

Eventually, though, the energy sources which fuelled the turbulence sustaining the Qax would everywhere run dry. This Jovian would grow cold, exhausted by its own weather. Then, at last, it would be time for the Qax to leave. There would be a second Qax exodus, on a far vaster scale than the first, as the race followed the Xeelee through their Ring to a fresh cosmos. Paul speculated wildly on the container vessel which could store a consciousness based on the rhythms of galactic orbits ...

But the Qax weren't yet troubled by such problems. They were aware that the photino birds' actions had doomed the Ring. The Ring would close eventually; having won the Universe the photino birds were sealing themselves into it. But, the Qax judged, there was plenty of time.

And besides, the Qax had another project to complete. A loose end.

The final destruction of humanity.

The Qax had waited through the humans' brief, vainglorious morning as they grew to dominate the species around them - only to waste their strength in the absurd assaults on the Xeelee. Eventually the Xeelee had gently sealed the majority of the surviving humans in the box-world beyond the Eight Rooms. Some small colonies of people in various forms had survived, however, and the Qax had watched as, one by one, these remnants dwindled and expired.

Paul suspected that the Qax had not been reluctant to speed this process.

Now the Universe seemed at last empty of humans. But after the actions of Jim Bolder the Qax judged that even a small group of humans represented a risk to the long-term survival of the Qax. So the Qax would ensure that humans would never again rise to threaten the species with their unpredictable plans. They waited.

It was clear that there were more humans within and beyond the Rooms, still inaccessible to the Qax; and it was also clear that the emerging humans could have only one plan of action: to take the Xeelee ship across the lost Universe to Holder's Ring. For that last voyage, surely, all the humans would emerge from the protection of the Rooms; all of humanity would be contained in a single, fragile craft, undertaking an exodus with ironic parallels to the evacuation forced on the Qax so long ago.

Then the Qax would strike.

Paul considered. The Qax's enmity to humanity had endured for millions of years; it transcended hatred, even calculation, and had metamorphosed into a species imperative.

It was ironic that until his entrapment by the Qax Paul had imagined that the humans' greatest source of danger would be the rampant photino birds. Now he found it difficult to envisage how the little band of humans could run the gauntlet of this ancient enemy and survive their passage to the Ring.

His scheme, his sub-units concurred, was as unlikely and improbable as any of the wild ventures undertaken by humans in the past. Its only merit was that it was better than allowing the Qax simply to crush the Xeelee ship.

His plan hinged on the fact that the humans faced two dangers: from the Qax and from the dark matter photino birds. The photino birds were vastly more powerful, but the Qax, with their unswervable intent, represented the greater immediate danger. Clearly the humans could not fight through either - let alone both - of these great powers to the goal of the Ring. Well, then: the foes must be diverted.

So he tries to summon the remnants of the anti-Xeelee to where the Qax are, the photino birds immediately take interest. They think the Xeelee are coming back and speed up work on destroying Bolder's Ring, the Xeelee escape route.

The Qax realize they have to stop them.

This gives Paul enough time to get back to the humans. The woman manages to get a bunch of the villagers to agree to leave. A few decide to stay behind.

The people who chose to go with the woman settle into the ship, she sits at the controls, then Paul floods her with instructions and the ship takes off jumping across the universe on autopilot to the Ring.

Paul finds his own way to the ring only to find the photino birds quickly trying to destroy the weakest part of it. The Ring is millions of light years big and takes up a huge chunk of the universe. It spins around a singularity and prevents an event horizon from forming. That's the gateway out.

The Qax show up and throw a huge star through hyperspace at the photino birds. As it hurtles towards the creatures, ripping them apart in the process and about to impact with where the birds had congregated, the humans in the Xeelee ship finally pops out of hyperspace.

Other Qax-controlled ships (left behind by other species) show up and start firing starbreaker beams at the birds.

The Xeelee ship carrying the humans goes through the portal as the birds overcome the Qax and break the Ring. The photino birds return triumphantly to whatever it was they were doing while the remaining Qax retreat to their new homeworld.

The original universe eventually decays and the last bit of hydrogen fuel runs out. The remaining Qax and Paul huddle together around a cooling proton star.

In the new universe, the Xeelee ship uses its starbreaker beams to form a mini sun out of the elements. Then a planet, and then in a process mimicking Genesis or the Creation by God (but taking about a year and a half) it develops the planet to be just right for humans and using human DNA populates it with random creatures then sets the people down on it.