Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.
T. S. Eliot, 'The Waste Land', Death By Water

Chapter 1: October is the Cruelest Month

July of 1981

Lily Potter sat, exhausted, her frail body completely surrounded by a wall of books.

ye compleate grimoure of charms and protections lay half-obscured by The Standard Book of Safety Spells which was nearly obscured by A Mother's Protection which was propped up against The Black Art of Protective Rituals which sat atop Over Any Distance; Protecting Your Loved Ones With Magic.

Her wand rested atop a golden Portkey that sat atop a square of pure silver on her desk, still now that the enchantment had been finished. "Almost done," she muttered to the baby sleeping in her lap. "Then maybe I can get some sleep too."

She took the golden Portkey from her desk, tapped it with her wand, then said slowly and clearly "When I break, take me to the safest place I could ever be." It shimmered and grew warm to the touch. Then she placed the Portkey against Harry's skin and watched as it dissolved into him.

Then she held him, told him he was safe, that her protection would never leave him, that to love time meant nothing, distance was just a dream, and death was an illusion, that magic of her love was greater than any evil that might seek him, that the tears that wetted his wispy hair meant she loved him, loved him, loved him then, and now, and forever, forever, forever.

October 31, 1981

The crew of the space ship Supertoys Last All Summer Long had arrived at the planet called Earth at long last, and so were busy relaxing and celebrating.

They'd voted on their break room earlier and 'Beach' had won, so Supertoys Last All Summer Long had ripped out the jungle, put all the dinosaurs back in storage, dismantled the small mountain with its lackluster cave system, then replaced the whole thing with long stretch of golden beach.

Waves beat against the shore with soothing repetition. Sea-birds, or just drones disguised as sea-birds, flew above them, calling out to each other. Some surprisingly large aquatic animal (or disguised drone) breached, the sound of its breath audible to all.

The crew were scattered all about. Some lay insensate in the sand, blissed out or lost in rapture, having made use of the drug glands installed in their heads to gland themselves their drugs of choice. Others were having sex, usually in pairs but occasionally in larger groups. Several groups were playing sports, and further down the beach a feast had been laid out. One man was building a sandcastle, with the emphasis on castle; he was lifting multiple tons of sand at a time using a remote linked to the ship's effector systems and then fusing the sand with laser pistol. Parts of the castle were already three stories high.

Gaiane sat not far away, idly listening to Baruch talk.

"-and that's why Star Trek's Prime Directive is a steaming pile of shit," Baruch was shouting not far away to a small but appreciative crowd. "Any objections? No? Well good, because we are for sure contacting these barbarians, giving them the gift of our galactic technology, and we are going to do it in a way we already know they'll be familiar and comfortable with. Behold!"

A rather large door opened in the false blue sky of the break room and a silver, saucer-shaped UFO glided gently downward. "I asked the ship to fab me a proper UFO along with an Effector suite, and today we're taking it on a spin. Anyone else interested in coming along?"

There was some shouting and heckling ('What about the anal probes?' 'Didn't that used to be our only escape-craft?') but Baruch was on a roll. "We're going to start in Iowa," he announced. "I've got some lovely virgin corn-fields picked out. There's a molecular printer on board with every sort of rubber mask you could want in its library. Tonight, we are going to be everything Earth could ever want us to be. Everyone interested, let's board."

"Sure you don't want to join one of them?" the ship's avatar asked her.

The avatar of the ship Supertoys Last All Summer Long was a tall, handsome man with powerful forearms and large, calloused hands.

"I'm too old for that shit," she told the avatar. "I've seen all this before." She glanded Soft, and felt her body sink a little deeper into the sand.

"It's not working the way you'd hoped, is it?" he asked.

She snorted. "Don't be maudlin. Ship, I'm six hundred and twelve years old." Most Culture citizens in that era of the Culture's history lived for five hundred years before euthanizing themselves, so she was quite old. "I'm older than you are. I should be giving you advice, not the other way around."

"Give me advice? I'm waiting."

There was a lull in the conversation. Gaiane took another sip, and said "You guessed right earlier. I'll probably euthanize myself when the trip ends." She glanded a little more Soft, and let her thoughts tumble out of her mouth and into the air. "All my peers are gone ahead of me, some being stored until the Culture Sublimes or something interesting happens, others dying or joining group-minds or wiping all their memories and starting over. And there's nothing left for me. My home rock is full of strangers, none of whom I have any interest in getting to know. Life for the sake of living lost its appeal somewhere around three hundred; I need a reason now. And for a long time, many lifetimes as reckoned by those poor mortals below us, I found those reason. I have done so very, very much. I have lived a life of joy and fullness. I have done everything that I feel is worth doing, as well as many things that, in retrospect, weren't. So now what?"

"Do you want me to answer that for you?"

"Don't be presumptuous." She closed her eyes. "I could make myself immortal anyways and fall into some pleasant, diverting habit to pass the millennia. But that static routine is not a person I want to become. I could Sublime, leave this universe behind for a kinder, better one, where I could grow to become more for all infinity. But that's just static immortality inverted. If I spend all eternity growing, who I am now will quickly become irrelevant, and as far as I'm concerned that's death as well, just one that happens when you aren't paying attention. I could place myself in suspended animation until something interesting happens, but that's just putting the problem off until later."

"What do you want?"

"To self actualize, and fully explore every possible permutation of myself. But that's done now. And to make the galaxy a better place. But I've become too cynical to believe anything I do matters."

The now-full saucer took off through the sky-door of the ship, which closed behind it.

"You really did change the galaxy for the better. I can show you."

"Yes, I did, and that's why I need to die now. Because in a turn of the galaxy it'll all be gone. The people, the Culture, everything. I want to go while I'll still be missed, while my good deeds are still remembered, while at least some of the people I saved still live. I want to die now, while my death would still have meaning and purpose. What else is life for?"

He kissed her.

"Well, I suppose."

They fucked for a while, with all the creativity and vigor that modern science had endowed their kind with. Gaiane orgasmed half a dozen times, each lasting over a minute. As for the ship, it felt the Mind-emotion that might be called purpose or meaning at seeing one of its passengers brought happiness. Using its Effectors to pick out any individual grains of sand that might interfere with the proceedings only added to the feeling of satisfaction.

"It's nice here though, isn't it?" the avatar said when they were finished.

"Yes, yes it is. And thank you for coming over. You make for excellent company."

They sat like that for a while, Gaiane thinking about the course her life had taken, while the ship, whose Mind was a bus-sized mass of computronium that existed in a higher dimension where computation was orders of magnitude faster and more powerful, thought about whatever gods think about.

And perhaps Lily's spell was a thing of fate, or perhaps prophecy and magic had their own designs, but at that moment there was a *crack*, the sound of which was immediately lost in the sound of the sea, and then in Gaiane's crooked arms there rested a crying baby boy with a bloody lightning scar on his forehead.

"I didn't do that," the avatar said immediately.

She gave the crying baby a squeeze. "Well, you didn't kill it the moment it appeared, so I take it you don't think it's a threat?"

The avatar shrugged. "I've already spent tens of thousands of years of subjective time studying what just happened. It was a displacement, but an odd sort, one that bypassed my forth-dimensional walls. And even as we speak, I'm manufacturing new equipment in a likely hopeless attempt to insure that this never, ever, ever happens again. The boy is named Harry, and he came here directly from a burning house where his dead parents are. I still don't know why."

"So not a threat."

"Probably not. Why do you care?"

"I'd like to go out on my own terms, thank you very much." She began rocking the baby back and forth. "So, something on the planet below us was listening to us talk, and displaced a baby here? That's quite impressive. And unusual."

The avatar shrugged again. "Maybe. This world we're orbiting has something the locals call magic that lets them do all sorts of unusual things. My guess is their 'magic' is some practical joke dreamed up by an Elder or Sublime race. Their abilities are mostly unknown to me, as my sensors and Effectors fail catastrophically in the presence of even the slightest bit of their so-called magic, but appear to include conceptual-based murder beams, perfect mind-control, time-travel, baby-displacement into secure areas, and who knows what else, which is why I have just recalled Baruch from his little adventure, and will soon be leaving this world entirely despite having been here only an hour."

"Only an hour, and yet you're already digging up all their secrets and spoiling all the fun. Stop it." She dabbed away the blood from the scar on Harry's forehead and held him tight. "You know, I've never had a child before."

"Really?"

"Really. Never felt the urge. I still don't, honestly; this may still end up one of those things I regret. But the universe seems to believe he belongs here, so I'll do it right. Unless you think we should put him back in the burning house?"

"He likes it here," the avatar said.

"True."

"Aren't you curious?" the avatar asked.

"About what?"

"About magic. About what I've discovered here. About why Harry's parents are dead. About the fact that these primitive meatbags actually frighten me, which is a new and rather uncomfortable feeling."

"Not really." He had the most magnificent green eyes. "Life is a mystery to be experienced, not a series of facts to be explained. I am content to wait and see what comes of this."