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Strangely enough, it would be the oak trees that Justine Burnelli remembered from the day Centurion Station died. She had been hurrying toward the safety bunker doors, along with everyone else in the garden dome, when she glanced back over her shoulder. The thick emerald lawn was littered with the debris of the party: mashed canapés stamped into the grass, broken glasses and plates juddering about as colossal gravity waves washed across the station in fast, unrelenting succession. Overhead, the timid light emitted by the nebulae surrounding the galactic core was being smeared into pastel streaks by the dome’s emergency force fields. Justine felt her weight reducing again. Yells of surprise and near panic broke out from the staff pressing 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 upward like a flock of startled butterflies. The whole majestic tree sagged, further fissures opening along the length of the trunk. It twisted as it started to fall into its neighbor. The elegant little tree house platform on which the band had been playing barely a minute earlier splintered and snapped apart. The last glimpse Justine had was of 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 his or her best party clothes, breathing heavily with disheveled hair and anxious faces. Director Trachtenberg was standing beside her, looking around 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 the DF spheres were throwing off. The starship’s smartcore told her it was maintaining position just above the dusty lava field that served as the station’s landing area.
“I’ve just conferred with our alien colleagues,” 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 that most of the staff was relieved, while Ehasz and a small hard-core science clique radiated resentment. When she opened her mind to the local gaiafield, the clash of emotions 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 the surface, titanium-black spheres bubbling up out of the dusty lava plain. They started to glide smoothly toward 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 light-years away. “Dad?”
“You’re okay, then,” Gore Burnelli said. “Thank Christ for that.”
Leaking along the minuscule 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 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 that 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 ‘oops, 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 also were taking pressure suits from the bunker’s lockers, making 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 around her. She slipped her heeled pumps off and followed the others out through the triple pressure curtain. Ten aluminum 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 around her, raising short-lived twisters of dust that never came above her knees.
The bunker had come to rest a hundred meters 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 meters above the ground on ingrav, rocking slightly as they compensated for the treacherous gravity. Justine hastened around the nose of one to see the Silverbird waiting a farther twenty meters beyond it. Its simple purple ovoid shape, holding a lot steadier than the navy ships, was a welcome sight. She grinned in relief and scurried underneath. The airlock at the base of the fuselage bulged inward, 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. Something impossible.
“Stop,” she commanded.
Her feet paused ten centimeters above the lava. Retinal inserts zoomed in. It was a mounted Silfen. The elflike hominoid was clad in a thick cobalt-blue coat embroidered with a 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 that 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 sides of its long head were devilishly sharp and curved. Justine, who once had ridden on the Charlemagnes that 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 at the sight of it.
The Silfen simply shouldn’t have been there. 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 deadly to living things. Then she grinned at herself. 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 or to find 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 that 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 honor 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 Advanced Neural Activity (ANA)–designed craft she was as safe 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 come here only 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 a strangely varied flock: Commonwealth Navy ships sleek beside the cumbersome Ticoth vessels, the glittering purple spheres of the Ethox dancing nimbly around the big tankers containing the Suline. At another time she would have enjoyed traveling in the elegant avianlike 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 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 kilometers, where it stopped to scrutinize the last minutes of Centurion Station. Another gravity wave shook the hull so violently that the onboard gravity generator barely could 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 to be compensated for by the safety systems. 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 reabsorbed by the dark water. Inevitably, the cold won, producing a rumpled ice lake three kilometers across. Thin gray clouds streamed out of cracks in both the human and the Forleene domes, quickly dissipating in the weak gusts of argon.
In an astonishingly short time the structures were flattened, joining the greater enclave of ruins that marked the site where hundreds of alien species had spent millennia observing the terrible, enigmatic Void at the center 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 any she’d seen in her brief time at the station.