Strangely enough, it was the oak trees which Justine Burnelli always remembered from the day Centurion Station died. She was hurrying towards the safety bunker doors along with everyone else in the garden dome when she glanced back over her shoulder. The thick emerald grass was littered with the debris of the party, mashed canapés stamped into the grass, broken glasses and plates juddering about as the colossal gravity waves washed across the station in fast unrelenting succession. Overhead, the timid light emitted by the nebulas surrounding the galactic core was now smeared into pastel streaks by the dome’s misty emergency force fields. Justine felt her weight reducing again. Yells of surprise and near-panic broke out from the staff pressed against her as they all fought for traction on the glowing orange path. Then a crack like a thunderbolt echoed across the dome. One of the huge lower boughs on a two-hundred-year-old oak tree split open close to the thick trunk, and the bough crashed down. Leaves swirled upwards like a flock of startled butterflies. The whole majestic tree sagged, with further fissures opening along the length of the trunk. It twisted as it started to fall into its neighbour. The elegant little tree house platform which the band had been playing on barely a minute ago splintered and snapped apart. The last glimpse Justine had of the trees was a couple of red squirrels scampering out of the toppled giants.
The malmetal safety bunker doors contracted behind her, and for a moment she was enveloped within an oasis of calm. It was a bizarre image, everyone still dressed in their best party clothes, breathing heavily with dishevelled hair and anxious faces. Director Trachtenberg was standing beside her, looking round wild-eyed.
“You okay?” he asked.
She nodded, not quite trusting her voice.
Another of the gravity waves swept through the station. Once again Justine felt her weight lessen. Her u-shadow accessed the station’s net, and she pulled out the sensor images of the sky above. The Raiel’s DF spheres were still accelerating across the star system to their new positions. She checked that the Silverbird, was unaffected by the weird gravity waves which the DF sphere’s were throwing off. The starship’s smartcore told her it was maintaining position just above the dusty lava field which served as the station’s landing area.
“I’ve just conferred with our alien colleges,” Director Trachtenberg announced. He smiled wryly. “Those that talk to us, anyway. And we all agree the gravity shifts are beyond anything the safety systems were designed for. With regret I am ordering an immediate evacuation.”
Several people groaned in dismay.
“You can’t,” Graffal Ehasz complained. “This is what we’re here for. Dear Ozzie, man, the data this event is spewing out. What we can learn is unprecedented! We can’t just crawl away because of some safety restriction imposed by a committee back in the Commonwealth.”
“I understand your concern,” Trachtenberg said calmly. “If the situation alters we will return. But for now please embark your designated ship.”
Justine could see most of the staff were relieved; while Ehasz and a small hard-core science clique radiated resentment. When she opened her mind to the local gaiafield the clash of emotion was pronounced. But Ehasz was definitely in the minority.
Trachtenberg leaned in close to Justine and quietly asked: “Can your ship cope with this?”
“Oh yes,” she assured him.
“Very well, if you would please depart with the rest of us.”
Through her link with the smartcore she saw the safety bunkers break surface, titanium-black spheres bubbling up out of the dusty lava plain. They started to glide smoothly towards the waiting starships.
With the evacuation procedures obviously working, Justine’s nerves calmed considerably. She asked the Silverbird’s smartcore to open a link along the tenuous Navy communication relay all the way back to the Commonwealth, thirty-thousand lightyears away. “Dad?”
“You’re okay, then,” Gore Burnelli said. “Thank Christ for that.”
Leaking along the miniscule bandwidth was the faintest sensation of a smile. Warm Caribbean sunlight was shining on his lips. It was a comfort that delivered a completely unexpected emotional jolt to Justine. She felt her throat muscles tensing up as her eyes filled with tears and her cheeks flushed. Goddamn this stupid body, she raged at its weakness. But she smiled back weakly, ignoring the way people in the shelter were looking at her. “Yeah, I’m okay.”
“Good, then get a load of this. I’ve been monitoring the Navy relay link to Centurion Station. Your new friend Trachtenberg just called the Cleric Conservator to tell him about the expansion phase. He did that before he even bothered to warn the Navy what was happening.”
Justine was proud of the way she managed to avoid glancing in Trachtenberg’s direction. Okay, maybe this old body’s not quite so useless after all. “Really. How interesting.” “It gets better. About five hours ago the Second Dreamer told his Skylord pal that he wasn’t going to lead anyone into the Void. Next thing we know, this expansion begins. I don’t know what your take is, but nobody back here thinks it’s a coincidence.”
“The Second Dreamer caused this?”
“It wasn’t deliberate. At least I seriously hope it wasn’t. Cause and effect, I guess. The Skylords exist to ferry souls into the Heart of the Void, and someone tells them that their new supply is going to be cut off. Junkies tend to get irritated and irrational about such things.”
“The Skylords aren’t junkies.”
“Don’t take everything so literally. I’m doing metaphors, or allegories, some shit like that. Point is, now they know we’re out here waiting to be guided, if we don’t come to them... “
“They come to us,” she whispered.
“Looks like it.”
“But nothing can survive the boundary.”
“The original ship did. Somehow.”
“Has the Second Dreamer said anything?”
“Not a goddamn word, not even ‘ooops, sorry’. Conceited little turd. I thought I was arrogant, but Jeezus!”
“Well, he’s going to have to do something.”
“That’s the consensus back here, too. The thing is, Living Dream is closing in on him. That’s going to make serious trouble if they get their hands on him; our friend Ilanthe will make sure of that.”
Justine accessed the data coming from the station, watching with concern as their life support equipment was stressed close to its limit by the gravity waves. “It doesn’t get much worse than this, Dad.”
“Shit, I’m sorry, angel. Are you going to get out all right?”
“You know you don’t have to worry about me. Hang on for a moment, we’ve reached the starships.”
People were activating their personal force fields as the airlock’s outer door parted. Some of them were also taking pressure suits from the bunker’s lockers, making doubly sure they were safe. Justine knew she could depend on her biononics to protect her from anything the unnamed planet could throw at her. Her integral force field strengthened round her. She slipped her heeled pumps off and followed the others out through the triple pressure curtain. Ten aluminium steps and she was standing on the lava in bare feet and a completely incongruous little black cocktail dress. Tremors managed to shake the soles of her feet through the protective cushion of the force field. A gentle argon breeze fluttered round her, raising short-lived twisters of dust that never came above her knees. The bunker had come to rest a hundred metres beyond the squat building holding the base’s main airlock. Two of the five navy ships were poised on either side of her, hanging a few metres above the ground on ingrav, rocking slightly as they compensated for the treacherous gravity. Justine hastened round the nose of one to see the Silverbird waiting a further twenty metres beyond it. A welcome sight, its simple purple ovoid shape floating casually over the lava, holding a lot steadier than the navy ships. She grinned in relief and scuttled underneath. The airlock at the base of the fuselage bulged inwards, opening into a dark funnel leading to the heart of the ship. The smartcore was already countering gravity to pull her inside when she saw something moving on the horizon. An impossible sight.
“Stop,” she commanded.
Her feet paused ten centimetres above the lava. Retinal inserts zoomed in. It was a mounted Silfen. The elf-like hominoid was clad in a thick cobalt-blue coat embroidered with the most fabulous stipple of jewels that sparkled in the wavering pastels of starlight. His black hat was tall and pointed, with a simple gold ribbon fluttering from the tip. A gloved hand gripped a long phosphorescent spear which he held aloft, as if in salute. It might have been such a gesture, for he was leaning forward in his saddle, half standing on the stirrups. As if his appearance wasn’t astonishing enough, she was dumbfounded by his mount. The creature most closely resembled a terrestrial rhinoceros, except it was almost the size of an elephant, and had two flat tails that swept from side to side. Its long shaggy fur was bright scarlet, and the four horns curving from the side of its long head were devilishly sharp. Justine, who had once ridden on the Charlemagnes which the old Barsoomians had produced on Far Away, knew that this fearsome beast was a true warrior-animal. Her ancient body instinctively produced a flood of worry hormones just at the sight of it.
The Silfen simply shouldn’t have been here. She’d never known one of their paths had led to this remote, desolate planet. And he was an oxygen breather; so, she suspected, was his lethally regal mount. This tenuous, radiation-saturated argon atmosphere was deathly to living things. Then she grinned at herself and her silly affront. Who was she to make such a claim, standing exposed to the eerie energy emissions of the Wall stars in nothing more than a disgracefully short cocktail dress?
So it wasn’t an absolute impossibility to find a Silfen here. Nor that he was using some technological protection from the environment.
But... “Why?” she whispered.
“The Silfen live to experience,” Gore told her, equally absorbed by the alien’s presence. “Face it, my girl, you don’t get a much bigger experience than watching the end of the galaxy crashing down around you.”
She’d forgotten she’d left the link open. “A very short experience,” she retorted sourly. “And what is that thing he’s riding?”
“Who knows? I remember Ozzie saying the Silfen he encountered on a winter planet rode to the hunt on odd creatures.”
“Odd, not terrifying.”
“Does it matter? I imagine he’s here on the toughest steed he can find in honour of the event. After all, you’ve got the butchest starship in that section of the galaxy.”
“A butch starship?” But it broke her enchantment with the strange alien. She bowed her head formally at him. He dipped the spear in return, and sat back on his small saddle.
The Silverbird drew her up into the small luxurious cabin. Once inside, she relaxed into a deep curving chair that the deck extended. Within the ANA designed craft she was as safe now as it was possible for any human to be. The starship’s sensors showed her the last of the station staff hurrying into the airlocks of the navy ships. Another two Silfen had joined the first watcher. Her father was right, she acknowledged, they would only come here for something momentous. For her, their presence served only to amplify the whole deadly panorama unfolding outside.
“Let’s go,” she told the smartcore.
The Silverbird rose from Centurion Station ahead of all the other starships. As the rest of them began to surge up after her they made for a strangely varied flock. Commonwealth Navy ships sleek beside the cumbersome Ticoth vessels; while the glittering purple spheres of the Ethox danced nimbly round the big tankers containing the Suline. In another time she would have enjoyed travelling in the elegant avian-like artificial-life constructs that soared and swooped to carry the Forleene away from danger. Despite the devastation raging all around them, few of the departing species could resist a quick scan in the direction of the metal cube housing the Kandra. None, therefore, were wholly surprised when the whole mass simply lifted cleanly from the dusty ground and accelerated smoothly away from the collapsing structures of the observation project.
Justine was ridiculously proud of the way that none of them seemed able to match the Silverbird’s acceleration. It had taken the ultradrive ship just a few seconds to reach an altitude of five hundred kilometres, where it stopped to scrutinize the last minutes of Centurion Station. Another gravity wave shook the hull so violently the onboard gravity generator could barely counter it. Justine felt a distinct shiver run through the cabin. The unnamed planet curved away below the fuselage, its ancient geology stubbornly resistant to the worst effects of the awesome gravity waves washing invisibly through its mantle. Underneath her, the hot Ethox tower was the first to succumb; rocking from side to side until the undulations became too great for the safety systems to compensate for. It toppled with slow grace to shatter against the unyielding lava. Big waves of water cascaded out from splits in the Suline tanks, pushing a spume of debris ahead of them. Flying spray quickly solidified into sharp needles of hail, to be re-absorbed by the dark water. Inevitably, the cold won, producing a rumpled ice lake three kilometres across. Thin grey clouds streamed out of cracks in domes of both the human and the Forleene, quickly dissipating in the weak gusts of argon.
In an astonishingly short time the structures were flattened, joining the greater enclave of ruins which marked the site where hundreds of alien species had spent millennia observing the terrible, enigmatic Void at the centre of the galaxy. Justine switched her attention to the wounded sky above. As if they could feel what was happening beyond the Wall stars, the massive ion storms were seething with a rare angry sheen, brighter than she’d seen in her brief time at the station.
The Silverbird was tracking the Raiel’s gas-giant-sized DF spheres as they continued their flight across the star system. Gravity waves spilled out from them with astonishing force, distorting the orbits within the main asteroid rings. A couple of small moons caught in the backwash had also changed inclination. All nine of the DFs were heading in towards the small orange star which Centurion Station’s never-named planet was in orbit around. As the ship watched, the photosphere started to dim.
“Holy crap,” Justine yelped. The DFs must be drawing power directly from the star. She wondered how they would manifest it. The effect was fascinating, almost countering the anxiety she felt. There had been a few minutes after the emergency began that she’d seriously thought Centurion Station was where her body would finally die.
As if sharing her thought, Lehr Trachtenberg opened a channel to all the human starships. “Status report please, is everyone all right?”
“I’m fine,” she reported back to the CNE Dalfrod, where he was embarked, along with the senior staff.
Once he’d established all his own staff were safe, the director exchanged messages with the alien craft ascending out of the atmosphere. They all confirmed that everyone had escaped intact; though they had to assume the Kandra were safe as the enigmatic cube didn’t respond to any communication.
“We’ll return to the Commonwealth immediately,” Trachtenberg announced. “From what the observation systems can ascertain, we should manage to stay ahead of the boundary. It’s expanding at about three or four lightyears an hour. That gives us a huge safety margin.”
“Is the data still coming in?” Justine asked.
“Some of it. It’s patchy now, there’s a lot going on in the Wall we don’t understand. I expect most of the disturbances we’re registering are coming from the Raiel defence systems, but even so we can keep a reduced watch until the sensors are overcome. We’re relaying as much as we can to the Navy Exploration Division centre back home.”
Justine watched the other starships reach her altitude, feeling strangely annoyed with them and herself. Surely there was something else to be done other than simply flee? It smacked of not a little cowardice, ignorant peasants cowering from the lightning storm, howling that the gods were angry, looking for a sacrifice to appease them. And we stopped that nonsense millennia ago. Yet for all our enlightenment we’re right back there sheltering from the onslaught in our nice dry cave. Then the ships were accelerating past her, starting to disperse as they headed back towards their own home stars. The Forleene were the first to go ftl, slipping down into wormholes which closed immediately. A last farewell hanging in the ether from their pack leader.
The Silverbird’s cabin rocked again. Eighty million miles away the DFs were streaking into a low orbit against the darkening star. The motion hardened her determination. This is not the way it should be.
“What have the Raiel said about the expansion?”
“Sweet fuck all. The High Angel is a lifeboat, remember. Their defence systems are all concentrated round your part of the galaxy. Anyway, we can hardly blame them for not telling us anything. Right now every sentient species in the galaxy is pissed at us over the Pilgrimage, and who can blame them. I’m pissed at us.”
“I know. That’s why I’m going in,” she said, surprising herself at the speed of the thought.
“You’re doing what?”
“Heading in to the Void.” Even as she told him she was instructing the smartcore, laying down the course. Fast. Before I chicken out.
“You’re doing no such thing, my girl.”
The Silverbird dropped smoothly into hyperspace, heading in towards the Wall stars at fifty lightyears an hour. “Tell him,” she said to her father. “Tell the Second Dreamer. Get him to ask the Skylord to let me in. Once I’m in, once I’m talking to the Skylord direct, I’ll try and explain the situation, the damage their boundary is causing.”
“Get your ass back here right fucking now!”
“Dad. No. This is our chance at a diplomatic solution. The Raiel have tried force for a million years. It doesn’t work.”
“Come back. You can’t get in. This thing is killing the whole fucking galaxy. Your ship...”
“Humans can get in, we already know that. Somehow we can do it. And if the Second Dreamer helps me, I’ll stand a really good chance.”
“This is insane.”
“I have to this, dad. Somebody has to make the effort. We have to try a human method. We’re part of this galaxy now, a big part. It’s our turn to attempt our way. We have the right.” The blood was pounding in her ears as she hyped herself up. “I’m going to carry the torch for all of us. If I fail, then... we try something else. That’s being human, too.”
Over thirty thousand lightyears she could feel his anguish. For a split second, she shared it. “Dad, if anyone can get to the Second Dreamer, if anyone can make them see reason, it’s you, it’s the Gore Burnelli. All he has to do is tell the Skylord I’m out here. Ask him. Beg him. Offer him riches. Whatever it takes. You can do it. Please, dad.”
“God-damn, why are you always so fucking difficult?”
“I’m your daughter.”
Bitter laughter echoed across the stars. “Of course I’ll ask. I’ll do a damn site more than that. If he doesn’t get down on his knees and beg that Skylord he’ll wish all he faces is oblivion in the expansion.”
“Now don’t start threatening people,” she rebuked immediately.
“I’ll try and keep a channel open to Centurion Station’s relay as long as I can. The Navy systems are tough, they should hold out a while yet.”
“Okay, I’ll go find me the little tit responsible for this almighty screw-up.”
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