They were lying in a heap on the ground, her and everyone, lying on small green plants in one gravity, with the sky bright blue above them; Ravna felt a sudden but brief pressure on her skin, as the suit adjusted to the sudden presence of air pressure. They were lying next to a fountain courtyard, an open space in a city with skyscrapers spotted here and there. A steady stream of passersby dressed in casual clothes wandered in both directions through the surrounding sidewalks, seeming to pay no attention to each other or to the sudden invasion of silver suits.

What... what...

"WHAT THE FUUUUUUUCCCKK!"

There was muffled applause, as the others tried to clap through their spacesuits. Some of them were already pulling off their helmets and breathing deeply of the air. (Could anyone possibly be that stupid?)

Ravna scrambled to her feet, breathing rapidly into her helmet. "The, the device, it, it must have transported us, when we tried to activate it -"

"To green grass, blue skies, and one G?" said the little man in the gray uniform. He'd looked at the others and then begun to skin off his own pressure suit.

Powers beyond the Powers. "It could have analyzed our biology - in an instant - teleportation isn't possible even in the Transcend, but the makers of that artifact had technology beyond transcendence -"

"Possible," conceded Miles. "But in that case I don't think our, ah, less reductionist compatriots would have taken off their helmets. You did know it was safe?" He sent an inquiring glance in the direction of the ones who'd been first to de-suit.

"Oh, yes," Merlin said. "We are back in town and open for business." Ravna blinked; for a moment she'd thought she'd seen a writhing spiral in front of the man... no, there was nothing there, her eyes were just tired.

"I can't contact the main System," Belldandy said, "but I'm online."

"I don't suppose this time -" Kyon murmured to Haruhi.

"How would I know?" Haruhi snapped back. "I didn't know the first time."

"Master?" said Belgarath, holding in his hand the silver amulet that he always wore. For a moment Ravna thought she heard a rushing sound, though it could have just been the waters of the nearby fountain. Then Belgarath lowered his hand and sighed. "Didn't think so."

"What - are you all - saying?" A completely insane thought had entered Ravna's mind, maybe from the dark realms where dwelt the forces of peer pressure; it made no sense at all in the real world. They... think they... they...

The man in the bloodstained sweater pointed at the beautiful woman with the blue dots on her forehead. "Belldandy?" he said in that kindly tone. "You're probably as unalarming as it gets."

The woman smiled and lifted her hands, golden bracelets glowing in the sunlight pouring down from above; and sang, wordless beautiful notes in no melody Ravna had ever heard, a simple melody that seemed to pull Ravna out of her shock, out of herself, lift her upward.

And a bright-winged angel came out of the woman's back, and sang with her, the two voices melding in perfect harmony. A glow started around them -

"AAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!" shrieked Ravna, and scrambled back without thinking until she slammed into the fountain at the center of the courtyard, her momentum sending her right over the ledge and into the water.

There was more scattered clapping.

"Allow me," said the young man who always wore dark, stylish sunglasses. He gave her a hand, and Ravna pulled herself up, still dazed. At least she wasn't wet, under the spacesuit.

"Welcome... to the real world," said the sunglasses-wearer. "For, may I add, the eighteenth fucking time."

That brought on a sudden chorus of exclamations. "Thirty!" "Twenty-three!" "Seventeen is the mystical number!" "Number forty-two! Maybe this time I'll learn the Question!" "Tvelve! Tvelve vorlds! A-ha-ha!"

"Three hundred and nine," said Harold Shea, with a certain amount of pride.

"Four," said Belgarath sheepishly, and received some good-natured catcalls.

And at the end of the recitals, the woman of peculiar airs and queenly dignity who'd spoken before of following rabbits, said: "One thousand, four hundred, and fifty-eight."

That got applause as well.

Ravna's breathing was accelerating out of control. Desperately her mind clung to the shreds of rational explanation. "The - power beyond the Powers - must have scanned us as we were teleported - discovered what magic you expected to be able to use - and gave you that magic, just like it gave us water and air..." Ravna's voice trailed off.

Several of the others were giving her pitying looks. Harold Shea tapped his cheek thoughtfully. "It's possible, I suppose. We'll find out what's behind this world eventually." He shrugged.

The truth slammed into Ravna like a weight falling from a great height. You could simulate the appearance of magic with sufficiently advanced nanotechnology - interface it with the brain of people who thought they were casting spells, even - but it would be a lot easier - to just -

I have been uploaded.

I am running as a computer program, right now, on a death cube inside a Power somewhere, simulating the existence of Ravna Bergnsdot.

"Miss Bergnsdot," said Spock, "you should logically consider that we have made a successful prediction and you have not."

Ravna felt her sanity beginning to crack. Once it was already a given that you were an upload, that you were running as a computer simulation under someone else's control, then everything was suspect, the controller could be tampering with your memories, could have synthesized everything you remembered learning and everything you remembered thinking about, could have composed flawed versions of all the logic and philosophy you'd learned as a child. It could make you believe false mathematical theorems, execute arbitrary inferences, or steer your thoughts away from any realization it didn't like -

"Pham," she whispered.

Maybe Pham could handle this. Maybe Pham, containing the shattered remnants of Old One, could corrupt the simulation, get them - out of here -

If the whole godshatter business hadn't been just a dream.

If the entire effort to save the galaxy hadn't been just a dream.

With a sudden collapse of suspended disbelief, the overwhelming improbability of her own life drove into Ravna's mind like a brick in the solar plexus.

What are the odds that there ever really was a Ravna Bergnsdot?

"Pham!" she screamed. "Help me!"

No one answered.

And then, with sudden realization, Ravna and all the others looked toward a single silver suit that was still lying on the ground.

"Shit!" cried Jake Stonebender. There was a sudden rush toward the prone figure that ended with Belldandy yanking off the helmet to show Pham's slack and deadly pale face.

"He's not breathing!" yelled Jake. "There's some kind of transfer incompatibility! Neo, we need cardiopulmonary support over here!"

The sunglassed figure made no move that Ravna could see, but the body's chest began to inflate and deflate.

There was a slow, dreadful pause, as Belldandy looked down at Pham's face expectantly. "Pham?" she said. "Come back to us?"

Nothing happened.

Spock pushed his way through the crowd, looked up at Belldandy as if for permission. She nodded.

Spock knelt and laid a hand on Pham's forehead, fingers spreading to touch the temples.

"What -" Ravna started to say, and the man with a lock of white hair clapped a hand over her mouth.

After a period Spock pulled his fingers away, looking grimly at the breathing but speechless corpse. "Part of his mind is missing," said the dry Vulcan voice. "As though it were simply deleted. I detect no trace of Old One in him; I suspect that is what was removed."

Belgarath raised a hand. "I can heal him with the Will and the Word -"

The Doctor yanked the hand down. "You'll do nothing!" shouted the man with the scarf. "Haven't you listened to anything the rest of us have told you? Your magic is almost pure wish-fulfillment and there's no telling what implements your wishes here! You want to invoke some unknown genie to fill in the missing details of Pham Nuwen's mind?" The Doctor shook a fist in Belgarath's face. "Stay out of this! This is a job for magic-users and psychics who do their own detail work!"

Spock and Belldandy crossed gazes, and nodded to each other. With slow ceremony, Belldandy reached out her right hand, and Spock his own left; and they clasped their fingers, above Pham's slowly breathing body.

Spock put his other hand on Pham's forehead.

And Belldandy, softly, softly, began to sing.

"It'll be all right," Miles whispered in Ravna's ear.

Ravna didn't dare even move. The fear for Pham, and the transcendent beauty of the glow that was beginning around Belldandy, somehow drove through all disbelief and absurdity, making her hold her breath. The goddess's angel came forth, its wings spreading wide, seeming to embrace Spock, who knelt even lower over the body. A whirl of unrecognizable symbols spun out from Belldandy's angel, glowing letters in the air to circle them; and Spock's face tensed.

Miles continued his whisper. "I was in bad shape after my own first jump - lost some medical equipment that was helping to keep me alive - might even have died, if Dorothy hadn't gotten me to Glinda in time. But we've got plenty of healers, here -"

Pham drew in a great, ragged breath, and started coughing.

Ravna let out her own breath, and staggered with sudden dizziness, gasping for oxygen. Then with despairing stupidity she ripped off her own helmet: If the world was mad, and it was mad, then let it be mad.

The air was bright, and fresh, and smelled like cut plants and daylight.

"What happened?" whispered Pham. "Ravna...?" His voice grew panicked. "Old One?"

Somehow the man who only said 'Get on with it!' had managed to end up at the front of the huddle. "And now for something... completely different!" he said. "It's -"

"You're fine," said the man in the bloodstained sweater, and though the words were spoken in an ordinary human voice, there was something in it like the song of Belldandy. "You're just fine, and you're going to be just fine. It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood."

Pham wobbled to his feet, pushing aside a dozen proffered hands. "Where..." he said dazed. "Where is this?"

"Good question," chorused the voices. The mass of faces turned outward, looking expectantly at the city skyline, the roads and skyscrapers and ever-hurrying pedestrians.

"Would anyone like to answer the question?" called the man with the white streak in his hair. "Hello?"

The pedestrians walked onward. Their eyes did not turn or flicker, their faces remained expressionless.

Then Spock pointed wordlessly, and all the faces turned toward a single woman, who was watching them from elsewhere in the park.

Middle-aged, the woman looked; a shockingly average sort of appearance. By the standards of Ravna's people, it was the sort of flaw you would fix. She was dressed in an archaic sort of style, like someone had actually machined her clothes out of threads; and her face wasn't quite human-colored - no, it was, but it was painted with some kind of almost-but-not-quite-flesh-toned colorant.

The middle-aged woman stood there, and watched them all, with her mouth open.

"I..." she said, in a catching, awkward voice. "I... haven't... to real people... in a while..." Her hand began to reach out to them -

Then the woman broke, and fell to her knees, sobbing.

"Who is she?" whispered Ravna. Well, she'd meant it to be a whisper. It came out rather too loud.

Nathan Brazil and Haruhi Suzumiya exchanged glances, nodded confirmation at each other, and then said in unison, "God."

"You can tell that quickly?" rumbled the mass of scar tissue who called himself the Nameless One.

Brazil and Haruhi shrugged, as if to say that it might take one to know one but they were damned if they knew how.

Jake Stonebender, after trading glances with some of the others, pushed his way to the forefront of the crowd. "Hey," said Jake softly. "You want to talk about it?"

The kneeling woman choked, even through her own tears. "I - I - talk -" She gasped for breath, looked up at them. "I haven't had anyone to talk to - in so long, in so long - there was a man who was supposed to stay with me, but it ended up that I didn't like him, and I told him I hated him, but he had only stayed alive for me in the first place, so he ended himself after that, and then there was no one to talk to - no one, no one -" The words spilling out of her like water from a broken dam. "Trapped here, I wasn't supposed to be trapped here, I was supposed to go with the others but I stayed to help Durham and they left without me and then it was too late - nothing, nothing, no one, no one, I could have made fake people to talk to, but I didn't dare, if I'd pulled into my own dreams it would have been the end of me, if I'd changed myself to be happy it would have been the end of me, I didn't dare create life it went so badly the last time -"

Of all people, it was the red-haired girl in the torn red suit, with the bandaged arm and bandaged eye, who pushed the crowd aside like other people didn't exist, and sat down next to the crying woman. The usual expression of absolute contempt was gone from the girl's face. "Hey," the red-haired girl said softly. Her unbandaged arm went around the other. "It'll be all right now. I promise. Trust me. I've been there."

The sobbing woman looked up at that. Incredulity flickered on her face. "You've been there?"

The red-haired girl nodded. "Pretty much, it sounds like. Someday I'll tell you about the Third Impact, and what happened to me after that." She directed a cold glance in the direction of the three identical fourteen-year-old boys, then her face relaxed again. "But that's not important right now. My name is Asuka Langley Soryu."

"I'm Maria," said the woman, "Maria Deluca. I used to be an Autoverse enthusiast, and -" she half-laughed, half-hiccuped - "yes, I suppose I'm God now that Paul Durham's gone. I'm - I'm sorry about all this - about bringing you here - but I was so desperate - it was a crazy idea but it seemed like the only thing worth trying -"

"YOU brought us here? YOU? YOU'RE the power beyond the Powers?"

The Nameless One folded a huge, scarred hand over Pham's mouth. "Excuse him," the hulk of muscles rumbled. "It's his first time."

Harold Shea bowed politely. "Forgive me, Maria," he said, "and it's all right if you don't want to talk about it right away; but we usually are pretty interested in knowing how we came to a place, and what the rules are."

Jake threw Shea a quelling glance. "Tell your story at your own pace, Maria. I'd offer you a drink and a fireplace, but, well, you're the God here, not me."

And they listened.

And Maria told them her story.

"Excuse me," Ravna said at one point. She was careful to make her voice soft and polite, this time. "I'm terribly sorry to interrupt, but I'm afraid I don't understand. How can you run a computer program without a computer?"

"It was Paul Durham's theory, not mine," Maria said. "Durham thought... I don't really understand what he thought, and he was pretty surprised at what happened later, so he was probably wrong anyway. But Durham thought that if you simulated a computer program with conscious observers inside it, you could stop the simulator, but the program would continue. It would continue within the... dust, he called it."

"What is dust, how does it work, and why would it notice you simulating a computer program with conscious observers inside and then carry on the program?" asked Harold Shea.

Ravna nodded. You had to admit it was the obvious next question.

Maria shook her head. "There were other things that happened later - let me continue the story -"

At first it seemed like Durham's theory had worked, Maria said. Ravna stifled a growing sense of disbelief as Maria spoke of the great civilization Elysium, that had grown out of a cellular automaton that had run for a few minutes of computer time on a supercomputer network. Ravna had thought at first that Durham's theory sounded like a scam - there was no possible way to test it by experiment, since you could never see the computer program continuing in the dust - but Maria had woken up inside a mature Elysian civilization, the distant outgrowth of that initial cellular automaton which had included a scan of her brain. Which Ravna had to admit sounded like a fair experimental observation, no matter how incomprehensible.

But then -

"What?" said Pham Nuwen. Even some of the meta-universal travelers were looking confused. "Your world got destroyed how?"

Maria tried again to explain: Elysium had simulated another cellular automaton within their own universe - using a significant part of the computing resources of their whole civilization to model an alien solar system down to the cells of its physics. It had been an effort to create aliens, real aliens, not patchwork constructs but creatures with a genuine biology and genuine evolutionary history.

"We thought we were simulating them," Maria said. "But when we tried to order the simulation to change the Autoverse - to make a cell change state to something other than what it should have been under the Autoverse rules - when we tried to exert our power as gods, the computer programs disobeyed."

Even Spock blinked at that.

"Which meant," Maria continued, "that the cellular automaton rules of Elysium had been disobeyed - breaking the laws of physics supposed to govern our own computers - in order to preserve the cellular automaton physics of the Autoverse. Now, we were still controlling the edges of the gigantic cellular automaton. Sending in ambient light and so on, but there was nothing really out there, it was all arbitrary, there was no deeper physics behind it. So we found that we could still change the Autoverse around the edges. And we used that to try to communicate with the Lambertians - the Autoverse inhabitants - and then -" Maria stopped, looking confused. "I don't really understand what happened then. The Lambertians rejected the theory that we were their creators, and then Elysium started to disintegrate, the laws of physics failing, spreading out from the computers that ran the Autoverse."

"Your whole universe is dead?" said Jake Stonebender softly, almost disbelievingly.

Some of the other travelers had tears in their eyes, or looks on their faces of unbearable memory.

"Not - not exactly," Maria said. "The Elysians used their remaining computers to pack themselves into a new, different cellular automaton, and ran it for a short time - long enough for it to be consciously observed from the inside - and then halted it. I mean we halted the simulation, on the outside. The Elysians thought they would continue on within the dust. It was just like what Paul Durham did to originally launch the Elysium universe. I hope it worked."

Jake nodded; the other travelers bowed their heads, and some whispered prayers to gods long left behind.

"But Durham and I stayed behind, you see, to make sure the Elysians were properly launched, and then Durham and I launched ourselves - it worked that time, too, at least for us - only Durham didn't really want to stay alive at that point, he'd lived for eight thousand years and was sick of jumping between worlds, but he didn't want me to be alone. So he stayed with me - he just modified what he wanted - but I found after a while that I really couldn't stand him, I never could, so I told him I didn't want to see him any more and then Durham switched himself off and there was no one in that whole universe but me -" and Maria started to cry again.

Ravna blinked, trying to take it all in.

But how did we get here?

Even she could see that it wasn't the right time to press on the poor girl - especially since Maria, apparently, was God, and could destroy them all with a thought.

But she really wanted to know, damn it.

"So I thought," Maria said, getting hold of herself. "I thought about what had happened. The original theory - Durham's theory - it didn't really account for what had happened with the Autoverse."

"It actually does sound more like magic than physics," said Harold Shea, with a serious look on his face. "I've been through enough worlds to know the difference - why, back in my early days, I used to travel around between worlds by describing the rules used to think about them! The Laws of Similarity and Contagion, that sort of thing. Eventually I worked out the laws of thought which described that whole multiverse, which is how I got out... but our stories can wait until later. Anyway, Maria, the logic of the events you're describing is one where consciousness has effects that take precedence over the laws of physics - where lower levels of organization give way to higher levels of organization. There are universes where the visible rules are simple, mathematical, and fundamental, and everything that happens, happens within them. And there are universes where the visible rules are complicated and have explicit special cases for surface phenomena - and usually some of the visible rules are about mental phenomena, and don't visibly reduce to rules about non-mental parts. We call the former sort of universe 'natural', and the latter sort 'magical'. By our conventions, Maria, you would be considered to come from a magical universe - or magical multiverse, rather, since you've already moved around inside it and discovered some of the rules for traveling."

Maria blinked at that. "You thought that through very quickly."

Shea shrugged, a graceful demurral. "I've been doing this for quite a while."

Maria nodded. "That's right," she said, almost whispering to herself, "that's how it was supposed to work..."

The woman drew in a breath. "So I thought about it. I thought about it for a long time. I reached some of the same conclusions... as..."

"Harold Shea," Shea identified himself.

"As Harold Shea. That's when I understood that what had happened was impossible - when I understood that it was, literally, magic. But I still think it's impossible. Magic can't exist. Not really exist."

There was some laughter from the travelers. "I personally assure you that it does," said Merlin, and Belldandy and many of the others nodded.

"I've read a lot of philosophy since then," Maria said. "Minds are too big to be atoms. Mental phenomena have to be made of parts. You can't have things that are fundamentally complicated. Anywhere. Not in any universe. And I think Durham was wrong too. You can't have a computer program without a computer."

"Then how do you explain what happened with Elysium?" asked Shea. (Many of the other travelers had a meh, don't care, it's just magic look on their faces.) "I mean, you saw that what Durham tried did work. A computer program was run on Earth. The computers running it halted on Earth. And you woke up inside that program after it had grown too large to fit on any computer running within your home universe's laws of physics."

"Well..." Maria said. She drew a deep breath. "Here's what I think. Right now you're all running as computer programs in my universe -"

Ravna's stomach lurched.

" - so suppose I were to make your processors triply redundant? Compute it three different times and compare the outputs? It's not really necessary, the computers of this universe are error-free. But I could make you run as one copy, or three copies, or four copies, duplicating all the inputs, and all the outputs would always be the same. You wouldn't notice how many redundant processors you were running on. Making you run as more or fewer copies wouldn't feel like anything, from the inside. So if you were running on three copies, and I deleted one of the copies, I wouldn't be killing you. You wouldn't even notice."

"You mean the survivors wouldn't notice," said Shea. "How would you know if you were killing some of our copies? What if there was someone who was murdered, who ceased to exist when you deleted the copy, who didn't notice anything because they were dead?"

Maria leaned forward, beginning to look intense. "I could merge two copies. I could compare the two programs, bit by bit, and write down the next bit only if the two bits were the same - which they always would be. So that each bit of each copy would have caused that bit of the successor, just as much as a state causes a successor state in an ordinary computer program. Two copies, then one copy, but neither copy would have died. Both copies would continue on as the same future copy. Do you see?"

Shea hmmed. "Interesting argument. But maybe you can merge two minds without them noticing so long as they're already identical, and yet merging is still a different operation from deletion."

Maria laughed, somewhat ironically. "Durham used to go on about this sort of thing... and it's painful to think that now I'm doing it too... but I still think you're wrong, Mr. Shea. The merge operation doesn't change anything - so why bother merging bit by bit? Why not just compare the two copies, and delete one if they're the same? And then, if you already know the two copies are identical, why not just delete one without checking?"

Shea smiled and shrugged. "Maybe it just works different ways in different universes. If there's one thing I've learned, Miss, it's that things change from one place to another."

Maria shook her head, almost panicky. "No! That I can't believe. The laws governing that - they have to be basic." She drew a breath. "But the point is - there was a computer program describing the very beginning of Elysium, and that computer program started running on Earth. But suppose there was another copy, running somewhere else, that didn't halt."

"Where?" asked Ravna.

"Anywhere," Maria said simply. "Then when the program on Earth halted - Durham, inside Elysium, wouldn't notice anything. His universe's software would just be running on one less redundant processor."

Ravna blinked. "But why would anyone from... elsewhere... spend resources on running that particular computer program? How would they get that particular computer program?"

"Because they were running all possible computer programs in order."

Pham Nuwen had said it, not Maria or Shea.

Ravna's mouth gaped open. She felt like someone had kicked her in the head, or kicked her in the brain inside her head, like the whole universe had lurched to the left. "Tha-tha-that's so far beyond the Powers it's not even funny -"

Pham shrugged. "Old One is gone inside my head, but I still remember the thoughts I had for myself about it sort of. I think Old One actually did try simulating all possible computer programs - though only up to ninety bits or so, and only for a couple of quintillion clock ticks each. Out of its equivalent of idle curiosity, mostly. If Old One had infinite resources I'm pretty sure it would have done the whole set."

"That is a logical motivation for a Power," said Spock. "But it does not explain Maria's story of the Autoverse catastrophe. The Elysium program should simply have continued running under its own logic."

"Right!" said Maria. "But if you're trying to compute all possible programs, you have to compute them in some particular order. If you just spend a clock tick on the first program, then a clock tick on the second program, then a clock tick on the third program, no program ever gets past one clock tick. So you give the first program a tick; then you give the first and second programs a tick; then you give the first and second and third programs a tick - you see? So computer programs are getting more time the closer they are to the start of the order. And the more time a computer program gets, the more... likely it becomes, somehow, the more likely you are to find yourself in it."

Harold Shea was scribbling something on a sheet of paper he'd pulled from his belt, using a quill pen. "Don't mind me," Shea said absently, "I'm just writing down all the assumptions here, in case someday I have to find this multiverse the old-fashioned way."

"So simpler programs are more likely. But how does that explain the Autoverse catastrophe?" said Pham. "Wouldn't that be a more complicated program?"

Some of the travelers (the ones who had recited higher numbers, or the ones who claimed to have started out as gods or scientific geniuses) snapped their fingers then, and said things like "Ah!" and "I see."

"The physics of Earth - of my birth universe - were genuinely simple," said Maria. "It was a universe that you'd find close to the start of the order. Durham's starting program for Elysium was huge, billions of gigabytes of initial conditions. Now that program might get some time just because you were running all possible programs in order - but some minds, some simulators, might get it by looking through a simpler universe, Earth's universe. By running programs that they found by simulating Earth's universe. They would be where Durham's Elysium got most of its computer time - not from simulators running all possible programs in order."

"But why would anyone go around running complicated computer programs that they found in simulated simple universes?" Ravna said.

Maria shrugged. "Most simulators probably wouldn't. It's just that if some of them do, even a few, then Durham's Elysium was getting most of its computing time from them. And the ones who devoted more time to Durham's Elysium would be the ones who were particularly interested in... cellular automata containing conscious observers. You see? When you look at it from that perspective, the Autoverse catastrophe - it wasn't predictable, but in retrospect, it's not too unlikely. The simulator running that copy of Elysium was the sort of simulator who looked through computer programs to find the conscious automata they contained, and singled them out as a special case."

Maria leaned back and looked tired, her story nearing its end. "Nothing like that could have happened in the original Earth, the one that really was running on simple physics. Because that universe really was simple enough to get most of its probability, its reality, from sources like all possible computations running in order. So you would be extremely likely to find the simple version of the computation continuing. But after the initial steps of the Elysium cellular automaton - after the original program on Earth shut off - then Elysium wasn't getting support from Earth any more. It was outside the mainstream of all possible programs being run in order, and into the pool of... special interest simulators? You wouldn't notice the difference from inside, at first, but Durham continued into an Elysium that was getting support mostly from simulators who were specifically interested in conscious programs running inside simulated cellular automata. From that standpoint - the Autoverse catastrophe wasn't inevitable, but it was the sort of thing that might happen easily enough - to a substantial fraction of your probability density, I mean... Did everybody follow that?"

Around two-thirds of the travelers raised their hands. Ravna wasn't one of them. Pham was. Miles Vorkosigan was making a maybe-gesture, Belldandy seemed skeptical but sympathetic, Spock had an eyebrow raised, the rabbit-following woman still looked bored, and Belgarath was looking completely lost and muttering about how much he missed the days when he only needed to decode prophecies found among the ravings of the insane.

"And just for the record," said the Doctor, "how did we get here? I think I can guess, but -"

"Well..." Maria said. Guilt flashed across her face. "I'm sorry," she said in a small voice. "I just... I just wanted out of here. I was so alone. I didn't want to evolve new life from scratch. I'd felt bad enough about it the first time, when I realized that they'd made the Autoverse real, and let conscious beings be born and suffer and die inside it. I mean, I probably didn't really make it that much worse - the Autoverse was simple, it probably got most of its probability support from much simpler programs than ours, it would have been just as real anyway... But the Autoverse inhabitants were aliens. I didn't want aliens, I wanted someone I could talk to. And it wasn't a problem I could solve by launching another universe. I would still have been alone there, too. I wanted - out. Out of this place. Out of the trap."

"But there wasn't anything in the cellular automaton rules that said you could leave," said the Doctor. "There wasn't a rule of your physics that said you could leave and go somewhere else with people."

"So I..." Maria said. She looked around at all of them. God waiting for condemnation. "It was half Durham's sort of logic, the hope that what happened with the Autoverse would happen again. Half my own logic, trying to make the right sort of simulator interested in me, maybe. Or maybe I was just going crazy. I feel - a little better now - but I'm not sure I was thinking clearly before..."

Maria took a breath. "So I raised a rock and dropped it on myself. A rock that would crash through universes, break out of simulations. I raised it very high, and let it drop very far, hoping that when it got here it would have enough momentum to just - keep going. I mean - if someone had broken through a hundred layers already, they wouldn't expect to stop here - and that would be a reasonable prediction, so it ought to come true - and if they could take me with them - does that make sense?"

Bluh - gluh - kluh -

"And therefore you created us," Jake Stonebender said, in a tone that didn't seem particularly excited.

From the rest of the mob there were various mutterings along the lines of "Oh, so that's it" or "That's number eight." No one seemed particularly offended or inclined to worship.

"I tried not to create anyone," Maria said. "I didn't want to be God. I didn't want to - be responsible, you see?"

"Been there," said a number of the travelers.

"As far as I could tell," Maria said, "I had unlimited computing power. So I simulated all possible universes whose physical laws could be specified by a program of a trillion bits or less, with clock time distributed in exponential order of simplicity and the most complex universes getting ten to the trillionth power ticks -"

Ravna's mind blew.

"- and I figured so many others already had to be doing that, simulating all possible universes in order I mean - and that my own measure was small enough at this point, so, so," God stopped and gasped for breath, "so that it wouldn't make a significant difference to anyone's average flow of subjective experience if I did it one more time -"

"You had a copy of my entire home universe?" said Miles.

"Incorrect, Lord Vorkosigan," said Spock. "Your home universe was continuous, quantum, and spatially infinite. The stated method only had sufficient resources to simulate a discrete approximation of your universe in a bounded region, in which the total number of quantum branches was limited and the branches were continuously pruned according to some pseudo-random algorithm."

Maria paused, blinking, and then continued. "I used some of the tools the Elysians left behind, even though I didn't really understand them, to write a program that would search through all possible computations. For travelers. People who'd broken out of simulations into the underlying base level, or who'd jumped from one program to another, starting out in one place and continuing somewhere else. Lots of times. In company, who'd taken others with them, gathered more of their own kind. Beings I could get along with, with human emotions and human shapes. I even looked for people who all spoke English - it sounded crazy, but English didn't have a trillion degrees of freedom, so I figured it wouldn't be a significant constraint on the search space. I thought I wrote the program to look for travelers who started out from places whose cultural history was similar to Earth, but, um..." Maria looked at Spock. "I think I... sort of recognize some of you, actually... see, the Elysian tool I used to compare your origin and culture against the giant database of Earth culture that Durham brought along, um, in retrospect I didn't really configure the tool to compare your fictions to Earth fictions and your history to Earth history, it was just doing an untyped comparison against the whole database... Anyway, you're what the program found, and it brought you here. Copied you here, I mean."

"But the magic?" Ravna said, almost involuntarily. "Why does their magic work?"

"The code libraries from Elysium had all sorts of modules for letting people take their own environments with them and making the rules interact - they spent a lot of time trying to entertain themselves - so I picked one of the standard tools that had a really simple interface, where I just needed to answer a few yes-or-no questions to make it happen automatically -"

"A wizard did it!" shouted a buxom woman in black leather armor with a silver hoop strapped to her thighs. There was widespread laughter, and not a few groans of agony.

"And what did you do to Pham?"

Maria's face crumpled, and at least six people elbowed Ravna in the ribs or kicked her in the shins. "I'm really, really sorry about what happened to - Pham, you said his name was? There's an Elysian tool that quarantines software that it defines as scary-looking - I set it to run over your group before you materialized, but I didn't think it was going to quarantine a person, let alone part of a person. I'm so, so sorry - If I'd been thinking straight I would've written the program to reject any group with scary code, not tried to quarantine it - not that I'm saying I don't like you or didn't want you here or anything, I just mean - um... And then I should have paused time and tried to fix things, but I wasn't thinking fast enough... and you were already doing something -"

"It was for the best," Pham said quietly.

"I'm sorry," repeated Maria. "I'm, I'm really bad in emergencies now, too slow, I'm too used to having an undo button on everything... but that's how you got here..." Maria trailed off.

There was silence.

Then, the man in the bloodstained sweater said, in a tone that was formal and yet still cheerful, "Thank you for sharing your story with us!" and the applause started.

Maria waited until the applause died down, and then bowed her head to the travelers. "Take me with you," she said. Her voice was choked and quiet. "Please."

"Done," said the travelers, almost with one voice.

And there was more applause.

"It was a brilliant idea," said Harold Shea, "and we'll have you out of here in a jiffy, rest assured."

"You really think so?" said Maria, her voice cracking.

"I'm quite certain, actually," said Shea. "Why, this one doesn't even look difficult - it's not a deliberate trap like bloody Ravenloft."

"But -" Maria said. A tear started from her eye again. "I, I know what I said before, but it's all just crazy talk, isn't it? There probably isn't any flaw in the code running the simulation of this universe that we could use to get out -"

Shea shook his head. "I suppose we could try and crack through to a lower level underneath this one, but the easy method would be to just look over the computable universes, pick a story we like, do a self-insert and launch the new program. Easy as pie."

Maria's hands flew to her mouth, her eyes wide.

"Oh, don't feel bad about missing it," Shea said. "Wouldn't have occurred to me when I was a greenhorn, either. Most people never manage to get out of their home universes at all, you know; I wasn't joking when I said you were brilliant for thinking to call for help like that. And you stayed true to your ethics, which speaks well for the character of anyone who acquires infinite power. You should've seen some of the other omnipotent lords of all creation we've run into - like Jehovah -"

(This produced mutterings along the lines of "that poor Job fellow", "fucking sadistic lunatic", "glad He's dead now" and "good thing we had Squirrel Girl".)

Maria still seemed to be in shock, and Shea was still continuing. "You've really got a convenient vantage point here, you know. Lots of universes are easy to get into or out of, if you're in that sort of multiverse, but being able to look them all over and watch the travelers, that's pretty rare. Even most Gods can't do that sort of thing. Hadn't occurred to me until now that the relation would hold among all reductionist universes with unlimited computing power - that any member would be theologically greater than or equal to the whole set. The pure science universes are usually a lot harder to move through." Shea looked sad, for a moment. "Had a couple of companions who got trapped that way, back when we were all a lot less experienced. Stuck in physics, the poor bastards. I didn't learn about the quantum suicide trick until much later. Though, come to think, that was a classical universe anyway - to break out of one of those crapholes you've got to be really clever -"

The Doctor waved Shea to silence. "Miss, did you keep the computation you used to find us? Could you run it again and get exactly the same result?"

"Ah... I think so," Maria said. "Even if I managed to miss a randseed or something like that, I've got a copy of the initial state of this universe, so I could just rerun my whole universe up until an hour ago and grab an exact frame of the past -"

Ravna's mind hiccuped again.

"- but I did save the original program, and I don't think it'd be difficult to run it again. Why?"

There were gasps of realization from some of travelers.

The Doctor nodded to them, graciously acknowledging that they had just demonstrated intelligence only slightly inferior to his own, and then turned back to Maria. "Could you run the program again and copy out a few things from our history, maybe? I suppose our degree of reality is small enough now that we can't really change anything that went a different way before, just by simulating it differently. Even if a - program halted - it would probably mostly continue somewhere else than here..." The Doctor paused then, blinking. "Oh, dear. Goodness knows where the souls in this multiverse mostly end up, or what happens to people if they die in a way that degrades and simplifies their cognitive computation before they stop, like Alzheimer's disease. Hell of a scary afterlife you got in this multiverse, Missy..." The Doctor shook his head, looking sad. "And we couldn't really rescue any souls - couldn't significantly change the probability distribution of what happened to them afterward. Our own measure is too small. But there's someone in my history who I miss and wouldn't mind meeting again, just for my own sake, and I don't think she'd mind if a tiny portion of her measure joined me here."

There was a general hmm-ing sound from the group. Some of the mated couples in the group were exchanging odd looks, one partner looking suspiciously at another partner who had a reminiscent look on their face.

The man in the bloodstained sweater beamed a friendly smile at Maria. "You're one of us now and no mistake, Miss, but would you mind terribly if we stayed a bit in your home neighborhood here before moving on?"

"We won't stay here forever," Jake Stonebender added. "Trust us on that! Any homebodies got left behind a long time ago. But you haven't heard our own stories yet, or gotten to know us, and we should bond more closely before we move on - there's no guessing where we'll end up after a while. We can leave right away if you want... but it shouldn't be so awful here if you've got someone to talk to, I hope? And it is nice when one of our own ends up as God for a while - lets us catch up on a few things." Jake paused. "Would it be any trouble for you to create a few houses for us? It's getting on toward bedtime in our sleep cycle. Or we can create our own so long as the magic holds out."

"N-no," Maria said. "I could do that."

"I hesitate to raise the subject," said Jake, "since you seem like a very polite God with a decent upbringing, but can I ask you to guarantee our privacy?"

Maria blushed slightly. "Of c-course."

There was a general cheer a moment later, when the cityscape abruptly shifted to a forest clearing studded with log cabins, with a flaming red sky above of sun almost done setting.

(Ravna staggered and almost fell over, dizzied by the apportation; she still wasn't used to this.)

Neo raised his hands to the sky and called in a great voice, "Let there be alcohol!" A moment later, bottles began to rain down from the sky (carefully missing the people) and there was another cry of appreciation.

"Ast kiranann kair soth-arn suh kali jalaran!" came a voice of hissing sibilants, and a bolt of fire flew through the air and burst on a tree stump, which began burning cheerfully. Flutes and guitars materialized from backpacks and summonings. A piano fell out of the sky with a crash, surviving unharmed; and the girl with the winged creatures sat down and began to play it, her brightly colored pets now breathing fire and blinking in and out of existence. A dance exhibition began between the muscular man on whose wrist gleamed a lenticular crystal that sparkled with a thousand colors, and the sensuous woman whose deep oaken irises were marred by a single crimson-red dart.

The mob of travelers was breaking up, some departing toward the log cabins for conversational privacy or other privacy, others forming knots of cheerful dialogue. Some of the gentler travelers were forming a cluster about Maria, who seemed to enjoy the conversation very much, though she kept bursting into tears. There seemed to be a good deal of flirting going on among the travelers who were single (or less monogamous).

Ravna looked around for Pham, and saw him and automatically started in his direction -

- and then pulled to an abrupt halt. Pham was arm-in-elbow with a woman whose name escaped her... no, Gillian Baskin, that was it. One of the few travelers whose original universe included something akin to the Zones of Thought in their own home.

Ravna felt a sudden, absurd stab of betrayal. Absurd, because she'd made no move to claim Pham for her own. They'd made love exactly once, and that had turned out to be a whim of Old One's that she still didn't understand. It was even possible that Pham had been with Gillian since before they'd come here - she hadn't been paying close attention at the time - but -

But now Pham and I are the only ones from... shouldn't we...

She raised her hand, just a little, and then dropped it.

Probably not.

Some men, and then some women, tried to talk to her.

Ravna waved them all away.

She stared up at the sky until night fell. She didn't recognize any of the constellations. It was probably the simulated night sky of humanity's legendary origin planet, the place called Earth, a place lost so terribly far away now that it had nothing to do with distance at all. If indeed this really was the night sky of the planet that had given rise to humanity in Ravna's own universe. It probably wasn't, if Ravna correctly understood the process that had created / summoned her. God hadn't said anything about comparing star maps.

Sounds diminished, the people scattering for the night. She no longer bothered being polite to the people who tried to strike up a conversation - just ignored them - and in time no one tried to talk to her any more.

Ravna went on staring at the stars. She could hear nothing now but the crackling of burnt-out fires, and a few chirps that sounded like native biologicals.

She'd saved the galaxy. Pham had carried out the final action, but she had taken him to that place, she had protected him along the way. She was responsible for saving the galaxy from the Blight. She was responsible for killing uncounted trillions. She'd had the luxury of cheap protest to salve her conscience, but the truth was, if she'd had a little more time to think, she probably would have done it herself.

And she didn't need to come to terms with that. It would be meaningless to come to terms with that. Because she wasn't in that galaxy any more.

Say it.

You have to say it.

You can't start your new life until you say it.

"Two," Ravna whispered, and began to weep.