God invites Benny to a party on the Worldsphere, to mix with veterans of the war with the insects; some of them are still suffering from psychological damage, and he wants them to share an outsider's perspective on war. While speaking with two veterans, wiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel, Benny realizes that the war has taken their sense of certainty and security; now they know that it is possible for their way of life to end. She returns to St Oscar's, hoping that she has helped them to heal -- but in fact wiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel have plans of their own, and Benny has played right into their hands. Some time after her departure, someone apparently tries to kill an island-turtle with a singularity bomb, but although God disposes of the bomb with no casualties, the explosion temporarily blinds himself to the establishment of a time path -- an experiment forbidden by the terms of the People's Treaty with their enemies. To make matters worse, wiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel have fled along the time path to ancient Babylon, and the path cannot be shut down.
God extrudes a portion of his consciousness into Benny's robot porter Joseph to warn her of the situation. The only way to avoid a war now is to destroy the Path and claim that it was a natural phenomenon, but the backlash of energy will raze ancient Babylon to the ground, killing thousands and altering history. Benny must walk the Path to ancient Babylon and convince the renegade People to return of their own accord. Benny accepts the mission, and one of the People's drones leads her to an extrusion of the Path along which she walks to Babylon. Once there she is assaulted by a leering merchant, and although she fights him off she realizes she's going to need help. She finds it unexpectedly when she meets a Victorian translator, John Lafayette, who stumbled across the Path while on an expedition to the ruins of Babylon in 1901. Lafayette panics when he sees Benny and flees, and Benny chases him to the home of the Lady Ninan, the chief of the temple's priestess-prostitutes. Since Benny is wearing a translator, she is able to communicate with Ninan, who is intrigued by the strangers' arrival; Ninan is forbidden to leave Babylon for fear that she will become impure, and she relies on others to bring her fantastic tales of distant lands. Ninan thus invites the two strangers to her party the next day.
Lafayette has calmed down by now and realizes that he needs Benny's help to survive -- but he tells her that to him, she appears to be enshrouded with flames. According to family legend one of his female ancestors was kidnapped by water faeries, and ever since she was returned to her family, her descendents have had the second sight. Lafayette found the Path while investigating a story of a friend, a red-haired man named Smith who claimed to have stumbled across the Path in the deserts outside their camp. The next day, he and Benny attend Ninan's party, and Benny easily charms Ninan and convinces her to help search for two men whom she claims stole something valuable from her. Ninan introduces Benny to a merchant named Itti-Marduk-balatu, who claims that a friend of a friend recently met two very odd foreigners who match the description of the men Benny is looking for. Lafayette, however, tells Benny that Itti-Marduk-balatu also appears to be aflame. Benny concludes that Lafayette is naturally time-sensitive -- and that the merchant has recently been in contact with someone who has travelled through Time...
Back on the Worldsphere, God requests help from the Temporal Interest Group and its disgraced former spokesman !Cin-ta!x, who chose to take the fall for his fellows when it was learned that the TIG had been conducting illegal time travel experiments. The angel Clarence observes them as they study the Path and try to determine how to shut it down safely. !Cin-ta!x is unsure how the renegades managed to construct such a Path, and fears that their rivals deliberately slipped them the technology as a test to see how advanced the People's own researches were -- in which case their rivals may already be preparing for war. Furthermore, if the hawks in XR(N)IG learn of the Path's existence, they may urge a pre-emptive strike against their rivals just to be on the safe side. The island turtle, which took on its current form after a disgrace of its own, is forced to admit that it has been working with the fugitives; the bomb was a deliberate distraction to enable the fugitives to activate the Path. !Cin-ta!x soon finds a trap set in the harmonics of the Path which would destroy the Sphere if triggered, but he is able to bypass it. The Path can be destroyed on schedule...
The Babylonians celebrate their day of penance, and Benny and Lafayette are caught up in the crowds and nearly separated. They rush back to their inn, where, overwhelmed by the emotion of the day, they make love. After the fact, Benny finds Lafayette uncertain about her morality or what their lovemaking means to their relationship, but he nevertheless continues to assist her. As they continue to search for the renegade People, they are attacked by hired thugs; Lafayette tries to use his gun to frighten them off, but they don't know what it is and attack, causing him to shoot one of them. The others scatter in terror, but take Benny with them. Lafayette is then confronted by a drone named I!qu-!qu-tala, who attempts to extract a DNA sample from him to find out how he was able to access the path; however, while it is doing so an energy release disables the drone, enabling Lafayette to escape. He goes to Ninan for help, and she enlists the local constabulary; however, Lafayette then catches sight of one of the thugs and follows him to the building where Benny is being held. While trying to rescue her, however, he is overpowered and nearly beaten to death by the thugs, who are terrified that he will use his gun again.
The constabulary arrive just in time to rescue Benny, but Lafayette is dying -- until I!qu-!qu-tala tracks him down and uses its force fields to repair the damage to his body. It flees, however, before Benny can pass on her warning for wiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel. Realizing that Itti-Marduk-balatu knows more about the renegades than he's been saying, Benny and Lafayette confront him about the incident, and Itti-Marduk-balatu realizes that he's in over his head and tells them where the People are staying. Benny and Lafayette go to confront them, but while trying to convince them of the danger, Benny comes to realize that they are deliberately trying to provoke a war between the People and their rivals. They want to teach the People humility, to make them aware that their utopian existence is not guaranteed, and in order to do this they must provoke a war in which the possibility exists that the People will lose. When the war begins the People will be forced to evacuate along the Path to Babylon, and as the people of Babylon live every day knowing that the gods can take everything they have on a whim, wiRgo!xu and !Ci!ci-tel believe that the People will learn humility from them. They refuse to believe that God would go so far as to destroy Babylon, however, and refuse to let Benny and Lafayette go, insisting that Benny remain with them to help mediate between themselves and her own kind.
!Ci!ci-tel attempts to examine Lafayette and learn how he was able to detect the Path, but the moment he touches Lafayette he bursts into flame and crumbles to dust. I!qu-!qu-tala restrains the violent wiRgo!xu, theorizing that the time-sensitive Lafayette somehow stored the temporal energy which accumulated when he walked the Path back in Time, and that this was released when he came into contact with other travellers; this doesn't explain how Benny survived touching him, however. wiRgo!xu calms down but still refuses to let them go, and Benny realizes that, despite all his claims, he still naturally expects to get his own way in matters. Nevertheless, she manages to convince him to let Lafayette return home while she remains to help him. I!qu-!qu-tala keeps them under guard but allows them to write notes in each other's diaries. Ninan arrives to demand Benny's release, but Benny claims to be staying of her own free will and gives Ninan her hat as a memento.
wiRgo!xu and I!qu-!qu-tala take Benny and Lafayette to the Path, but Ninan confronts them there with the city constabulary, having been directed there by a message which the translator Lafayette wrote in the brim of Benny's hat. wiRgo!xu has now been exposed as an outsider, attempting to invade Babylon -- and he is thus expelled from the city for lying about his intentions, hiring the thugs who nearly killed Lafayette, and holding Benny against her will. Benny realizes that it genuinely never occurred to him simply to ask the Babylonians for help, and when she informs him that it's his unconscious arrogance as a Person which has led to the failure of his plan and to !Ci!ci-tel's death. wiRgo!xu snaps and attempts to kill her, but I!qu-!qu-tala restrains him and reveals that this was all his doing; he was assigned to take care of their rehabilitation after the war, but instead used them to carry out his plan to teach the People humility. He now accepts his responsibility for his actions, and when he senses the harmonics of the Path changing he realizes that the People are indeed preparing to destroy it. He allows Benny and Lafayette to board the Path and flee back to the Worldsphere before he shuts it down; he and wiRgo!xu will remain on Earth, and Ninan agrees to be their guide and human liaison on the condition that they allow her to travel with them and protect her.
Benny and Lafayette arrive on the Worldsphere just in time to prevent them from triggering their bomb. The story of the Path will be suppressed to prevent any of the People from trying something similar again, and !Cin-ta!x accepts voluntary exile so he will be unable to share his knowledge with anyone. God makes a private deal with the People's rivals, ensuring that Lafayette may be returned to his proper place in space and time, and Lafayette and Benny bid farewell to each other as Benny sets off back home to St Oscar's. God, however, has taken the opportunity to analyse Lafayette's physical makeup, and has realized that his time-sensitivity was genetically engineered -- and that the chromosomes responsible are incompatible with the People's genome. It appears that the People's rivals have set up an early warning system in their own galaxy to detect any temporal manipulation which is not of their own making.
Source: Cameron Dixon