he sky, pictured in the viewscreen on every deck of the great temporal excursion ship, was black. It was a perfect blackness broken only occasionally by the imperfection of

 

the image transmitted to the screen itself. Farad had never seen such blackness, not that he was all that experienced a time traveler. But he had never before been anywhere where there were no stars at all.

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“Imagine the ultimate black hole,” Dr. Mng, standing beside him, said. “All the matter in the universe – all that ever was, all that ever will be – contained in one immense ball, poised for the primal explosion to mark the beginning of time and the formation of the first molecules.” Dr. Mng hoisted his drink as if in a toast. “It’s amazing! A dream come true. And I owe it all to you, my boy.”

Farad nodded modestly and affected a shy smile.

Actually, from Farad’s point of view, it was his Uncle Zet who owed him so much, but he made it a point not to say as much to Dr. Mng. For one thing, he certainly didn’t want to give Dr. Mng any excuse to keep talking. He had enough of that in class, Cosmology 204.

It wasn’t that he wasn’t grateful to Dr. Mng for what he’d said. It had kicked off the idea that Farad hoped (he trusted he’d not misjudged Zet’s generosity) would make him a wealthy man. The truth was he didn’t give a damn about Cosmology 204 and was only in the class because it was offered at eleven. All the late-morning business classes were closed and Farad hated getting up early. But it was worth it; now, at no cost to him and regardless of the cost to others, he was going to be wealthy!

“A brilliant idea, this,” Dr. Mng said, gazing into the screen. He hefted his mug again.

“Uh, how do you know you’re looking in the right screen?” Farad asked. “I mean they all look alike. That is, there’s nothing to see, really. It could as easily be space as the Cosmic Egg.”

 

“And does it matter?” Mng said, jovially. “When the time comes, I’ll be looking into the correct screen. But it’s unimportant. I have my instrument readings to keep me warm, as it were.” He laughed at his small joke, sipped off a bit of drink and went on. “Do you realize how far below the surface of the Primal Egg the event horizon actually is?”

Fared was too busy congratulating himself to realize much of anything. His mind wandered back and recalled how he stayed up half the night ironing his most conservative sarong and practicing what to say to his uncle. Dr. Mng’s lectures on the big bang had been boring, of course, but he had to admit that it was one of those lectures that gave him the idea. That was why he’d talked his uncle into bringing Dr. Mng along.

With what enthusiasm on that day had he ripped himself out of bed at the crack of eight! With racing pulse, he presented himself at Zet and Kalb Temporal Travel Agency and, with some doing, not only got past Uncle Zet’s receptionist but put to rest as well the notion he had come to borrow money. He remembered what he said to his uncle that fateful day.

“What’s wrong with the temporal travel industry?” he remembered saying. “People don’t want to see sad, bloody stuff like the Crucifixion. And what difference does something like the Declaration of Independence make – I mean, it affected only one part of one continent on one planet in one arm of a minor galaxy – just one of 200 billion galaxies! No – people want to see something really significant. And they don’t want to have to smell a lot of Xerbits – or listen to Ve!an squealing to do it. So how about we offer them the biggest event in all the history of the Cosmos? Something they can watch

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from the comfort of a spaceship?” He remembered the excitement – to say nothing of the rapacity – that lit Uncle Zet’s face as Fared explained the Big Bang to him.

And now here he was, staring at the Cosmic Egg itself – or staring at primordial emptiness that looked just like the Cosmic Egg itself. He became aware that Dr. Mng was still talking.

“We have learned so much already,” he was saying. “Were we to leave now and not bother to watch the actual event, our trip would be successful. Our measurements, our tests. So much learned, so much confirmed. There are even surprises. The egg, for example, seems much more stable than I imagined. I haven’t yet figured out how it could hatch. But I will.” He reached over and punched Fared on the arm, holding up and shaking his empty mug. “Meanwhile, my lad, if you will be so kind?”

Fared took the hint and carried the mug over to the bar. When he returned with it, he found Uncle Zet standing next to Dr. Mng. But before he could say hello, Dr. Mng exclaimed with astonishment, “By the Egg! That flash. Is it time?”

“Not yet, Dr. Mng,” Uncle Zet said. “It’s a ship. See? Popping out of Non-time. They’ve been showing up steadily for the past five minutes – if that term has any meaning here.” He indicated a couple of other screens Fared had not been paying attention to. Sure enough, Fared could see the lights of six or seven other spaceships. And as he watched, two more popped into being.

 

“Everybody wants in on the act,” Fared grumbled.

“I’m not surprised,” said Mng. “After all, this is the biggest event in anyone’s cosmos, not just ours.”

But Fared could not help but see the ships of the Xerbits and Ve!ans and feel the pang of lost opportunities. Those creatures were coming through other temporal travel agencies and Uncle Zet (and, consequently, Fared) were profiting nothing by their visit. Other ships began appearing, most of them of strange design that no one could identify. All the screens began to fill. It was as if every race in the whole 20 billion years of the history of the universe was showing up, complete with family, pets, cameras and picnic baskets. And that probably wasn’t far from the truth. Some of the screens already seemed crowded.

Zet fidgeted. “I hope this doesn’t obscure our view of things,” he said with agitation.

Suddenly, Dr. Mng’s eyes grew wide with realization. “Oh boy,” he said. “Oh boy. Zet – you must hurry. You must get us out of here.”

“But the event won’t happen for several minutes yet.”

“I don’t care. I just figured it out. I just figured it out. We have to go. The mass, the distance, the number of ships – ”

“You’re not making any sense” Uncle Zet said.

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At that exact moment something flared in the screen.

Fared jumped with surprise. “Has it started?”

“In a sense! A ship just came out of Non-time into the same part of space as another. They exploded.”

“How tragic,” Uncle Zet said, casually. “It wasn’t one of ours, was it?”

“I don’t think so,” Fared said.

“You idiots. Look. There’s others.” Sure enough, on the screens, other ships appeared only to flare into disintegration as they occupied space already occupied. “I was right. The Cosmic Egg is stable. It’ll take a detonator to set it off. These ships exploding – they’re detonators!”

“But it doesn’t matter,” Uncle Zet said. “We’re far enough away from the Cosmic Egg that when it explodes we’ll have plenty of warning and time to escape. Our shields can protect us from the wave front – ”

“Cosmic Egg? To hell with the Cosmic Egg. I’m talking about us being part of the detonator!”

“Oh,” said Uncle Zet (and Fared echoed him). Uncle Zet’s jaw dropped.

But it was too late because abruptly – and for a fraction of a second only – they could see an alien spaceship around them.