The Crystal Variation
some time. If the winds, they bluster—well then, we may have an avalanche—and still we are unsure if we will slide left or right.”
    “So our words, heard or unheard,” the elder said after a moment, “do not move us from the ridge. They may or may not permit us to jump in the most advantageous direction at the correct time. And that we know the wind is blowing—it is of no moment. The wind cares not.”
    Jela, from an impulse which felt oddly tree-like, saluted the instructors.
    “In that case, yes, I have found patterns. Many of them. They perhaps point somewhere useful; they raise questions I would pursue if my time were my own.”
    “Have some more coffee, my friend,” suggested the elder, pouring as he spoke.
    Jela sipped appreciatively and placed the cup carefully on the table.
    “I would summarize this way: the basic patterns of the settled worlds were such that trade peaked at about the same time for all of them. This makes some sense, after all, when one compares the ebb and flow of galactic economics and populations, and when one looks at what these worlds offered for trade. None of them ever rose above mid-level—but they’re all somewhat removed from the most profitable of the trade routes.
    “The pattern of the unsettled worlds was that traffic to and from peaked at about the same time as the settled worlds in question.” He paused to look at the instructors, seeing only serious attention in their faces.
    “These are misleading patterns,” he continued. “There’s a far more interesting underlying connection; and one far, far older.
    “As near as I could tell, the star systems in question were all very nearly the same age. I mean this with an accuracy I can’t properly express. Though listed in some catalogs as having a range in birth of several millions of years, it appears that they may have been more closely linked than that. My guess would be that they were exactly the same age.”
    The instructors sat as if entranced while Jela paused, picked up his cup, stared into it, trying to put thoughts, feelings, intuitive leaps into something approaching linear.
    At last, he sipped his coffee, sighed. Sipped again, and looked at them hard, one after the other.
    “The trade patterns were merely an accident of trade and technology; I doubt that they were anything more than a symptom.”
    He sipped again, still feeling for the proper way to tell it . . .
    “Isotopic timonium,” he said, at last. “Each of the systems had been sources of an isotopic timonium. The stars were known to retain a fair amount, the planets orbiting them contained some, the gas clouds beyond had it . . . I’m tempted to say a unique isotopic timonium—I can’t, not having all the information to hand.
    “The pattern I see most fully is that the matter in all of those systems was formed from the same cataclysmic event. They shared birth, perhaps in the intergalactic collision that helped form the Arm. Again, I can’t—didn’t have time—to do the retrograde orbital analysis, the spectrum comparisons, the motion component cross-sections, the . . .”
    He stopped himself. After all, the instructors didn’t care what he hadn’t done, but what he had.
    “Unique isotopic timonium?” the younger instructor murmured. “This despite the distances from each other?”
    “It’s the pattern behind many of the other patterns,” Jela assured him, being confident on that point at least. “I’ve lately seen literature which indicates that timonium was long considered to be an impossible element, semi-stable despite its atomic number, radiating in an unnatural spectrum . . . all this early conjecture was news to me, since my education was practical rather than creative.”
    He shrugged.
    “I can’t guess all of it. But, given a unique proto block or proto cloud formed in part into a galaxy that collided with the one we now inhabit—we speak in billions of years now!—and this timonium, which has all decayed at the

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