Weiss Landale was yet to be born and the Space Century was far in the future. Now, in this time, the calendar dates from the Eastern Unification and the year is EU 307.
It is two thousand years before the reign of Lassic.
A tiny, pinpoint spark drifted silently between the few and faded stars of the night sky. Two other mavericks shared the sky with it but this one was different. The other two were brighter and larger, each an almost visible silver disc. The newcomer was tiny and moving with smooth speed.
It flashed suddenly and seemed to ignite. It kept moving but now it left a stream of silver in its wake. The star itself glowed and pulsed as its arc curved and brought it firmly into the atmosphere.
There were no meteorites in Algol, for there were no asteroids, but if the people of Palmer had ever seen one before they would know this was moving too slowly to be evaporating rock.
It curved slowly down from the dark sky, erasing the dim stars around it with its light, before dipping briefly out of sight over the horizon.
Which lit up like a sunrise.
"It is only," – Weff plucked a locket from where it hung around his neck and glanced at it – "third hour. It's still night time, Juan. This does not impress me."
"No sir," Juan said obediently, "but we thought you should look at this." He tugged the door handle and the door glided silently into its recess so smoothly that it seemed controlled, mechanical, in spite of being neither.
Juan led his superior in. Inside was the control centre for the Initiative – Space Initiative to give it the full title – dominated by the impressive new technology of the Palmer globe. It was a large marble sphere wrapped in a flexible bioluminescent screen. The screen was slightly and usefully holographic, allowing about a finger-length of apparent depth. It was more than enough to display the satellites in orbit around Palmer at this scale, even though that meant that Palmer itself appeared under the surface of the sphere, apparently hovering in the centre of a reflectionless black crystal ball.
Practically, it had meant that they had to rope it off or risk people bumping into the outer surface of the globe, at least until they brightened the walls so you could see its edges more clearly.
Around the walls, facing inwards to the globe, a half dozen operators had fixed their own screens to desks and were checking details – mostly telemetry, Juan guessed – against the Centre's mainframe. Things were very busy for third hour.
Juan walked directly to the Palmer globe. Six control decks were arranged around the base in a wide hexagon and Juan stopped by the closest, touching his hand lightly to the trackball set in its centre. He rolled it and the world spun backwards briefly and then around, tilting to bring the Judeia's northern coast directly before him. He touched a control and then wheeled the ball again. On the equator of the ball, a time index spun backwards.
"Time index first hour, one point two one," Juan told his superior. "First trace was... there." He pointed with his left hand.
A line appeared on the edge of the map, moving steadily inwards. Juan's light touch on the trackball rotated the planet around so that the wayward trace stayed with them as it headed east and slightly south.
"What is that?" Weff demanded.
"Outward bound flight Heres," Juan said.
"The one that -?"
"Disappeared on route to Motabia. Lost for the last six months. They had enough resources on board for only three months, so we've been presuming the flight lost, all crew dead."
"There's reason to doubt this?" Weff was no longer irritated and very businesslike.
"This is a powered trajectory," Juan said tracing the curve with a pointed finger. "It was certain that the ship was piloted."
"And it wasn't?"
"No, it was piloted, but badly." Juan pointed again. "There. Bad re-entry. The ship hit the atmosphere at too great an angle. The shock started it spinning. From there on in, it was a crash situation all the way. Projected impact was the shallows off of Malay, and we sent a retrieval team to salvage it." He spun the trackball to speed things up slightly and the ship, indeed, impacted just off Malay.
"A fishing village was flooded by the waves it put up," Juan said, tracing a finger down the coast. "Vaporised and displaced water has generated fog all along the coastline. Seismic resonance calculations indicate a crater one ri off shore. Debris are still washing up along the mountain coast. Salvage has most of it now, we think. Biggest section is the size of a hand. There was something else, too."
The man sat calmly at the wooden desk, hands folded in front of him. He had not moved for an hour except to blink. Even his breathing was too shallow to be visible. His eyes watched the people on the other side of the transparent wall with blank but unwavering interest.
I cannot hear what they are saying, he thought.
Watch their lips, a voice told him, and I will tell you.
"Ciel Garron," the diagnosian told Weff. "He seems to be in perfect health. No injuries, no afflictions, no radiation effects, no burns. There was no way he was on that ship for six months. For that matter, I find it doubtful he was on that ship when it crashed. Every test I've tried indicates he's perfectly human."
Weff frowned at the diagnosian.
"There was some reason to believe this is not Ciel," the diagnosian explained quickly. "Quite apart from surviving a crash like that, he's just too healthy. Ciel Garron is in better shape now than when he left, and he was in good shape then."
"Is he clean?" Weff asked.
"As far as we can tell there're no pathogens. As I said: he's healthy."
"Can I see him?"
The diagnosian sighed.
"I can see no reason why not," he admitted, "which is enough reason for me to worry in the circumstances. Your call, sir."
Weff narrowed his eyes. "Open the door," he ordered.
The door was transparent, without even a frame, and slipped noiselessly into the ceiling. Weff strode through, followed by Juan and the Diagnosian. Ciel turned to look at them but his expression didn't change.
"Ciel Garron?" Weff asked.
"Pilot of -"
Weff's hand twitched in irritation.
"What happened?" he demanded.
Ciel looked down.
No. Not this. You cannot.
"No. I cannot. I'm sorry but you would not believe me. I want to," he added, looking up with complete sincerity.
"You were missing for -"
"Six months. I am aware of this. Please. I cannot say."
"Why not?" Weff demanded, more loudly than he intended.
Ciel sighed and looked down at the desk surface again.
"Partially because you would not believe it," he said in a resigned tone. "Partially because the information is useless at this time. Partially because..."
"Partially for a reason I cannot say."
Weff yanked out the chair opposite Ciel and sat, arms folded, and glared.
"The reason will lead to the answer and I cannot give you the answer," Ciel explained evenly but with a touch of sympathy in his tone. "I am sorry."
"How did you survive, then? The crash."
"I wasn't in the ship."
"It was a powered flight."
"When it crashed, I mean. I left the ship before it hit."
Weff stared at Ciel for a moment and then stood up.
"This is a waste of time."
Tell him what is coming.
"Diagnosian," Weff continued. "I want him checked over again and I want his brain checked for any damage. Oxygen starvation, anything."
I know you want to. Do so. Show him. It may help.
"Can we go outside?" Ciel asked.
Weff turned. "Outside?"
"Yes. Please. There is something you must see. It will answer some of the questions you should be asking."
Weff exchanged a glance with the other two. The Diagnosian shrugged.
"It must be soon," Ciel said insistently. Weff had indecision in his eyes but he shrugged.
"Okay, but under -"
The world blurred and Weff staggered.
He was outside. So were Ciel, Juan and the Diagnosian. Weff turned around, taking everything in. A city – probably Gilantri – was a spread of light on the horizon and a string of distant stars marked the main transport link south. On the far side of it was a town and the Continental Cut – the wide body of water that was something between a river and an ocean – was marked far behind him by the floating lights of the boats. If there was a fishing village, then its lights were hidden by a hill.
"What in the Arms did you just do?" Weff breathed.
"Technique," Ciel said. He had pulled something irregular and glass-like from his pocket and was turning it over in his hand. "It's how I escaped the ship."
"That's impossible," the Diagnosian said. "Only true magic can tele-"
"The Esperi-Arm does not know everything," Ciel said simply. "They are on the wrong track. There is more subtlety to it than they understand. What time is it?"
Weff glanced at his pendant. It was glowing in the darkness.
"Three and a half," he said.
"Not long," Ciel said.
"Until what?" Weff demanded. The night was becoming too strange.
"I don't know what form it will take, but it is something that must be stopped."
They cannot stop it.
"Must be stopped," Ciel repeated firmly.
"Where from?" Juan asked quietly, almost reverently. He was turning his head to scan the darkness. It was not a frightening dark. There was the flow of distant technology all around.
"You will not be able to see it without my aid," Ciel said. "Wait one moment."
He raised his hand and Weff saw that he held a crystal wedge. The prism seemed to shimmer for a moment, a ripple of grey light playing through it, and then it began glowing softly with pure white light.
Ciel watched it for a moment and then looked up. Weff followed his gaze and his breath stopped for a long moment.
The stars were rimmed in rainbows as if seen through a prism. Each chromatic spectrum was unique, reflections of the star's composition. He could see their composition. My gods...
Two cold blue things moved slowly across the sky and Weff realised they were satellites, flashing coded electromagnetic signals. He lowered his gaze and looked around him. His companions were each an electro-magnetic web within an infrared smear, but at the same time, he could see them in visible light with a clarity given only to the eyes of raptors. A faint fuzz of radio enveloped the planet and, beneath the ground, blue pulsing lines marking the communication lines.
"All the power in the Arms..." he breathed.
"'The world can be beautiful if you know how to see'," Ciel quoted.
"What are we looking at?" Weff asked. He was lost to wonder now, completely in Ciel's hands.
"Everything," Ciel replied evenly. "It has not started yet, but it will soon."
...it will soon. Watch the stars...
"Watch the stars," Ciel said.
"Where?" Juan asked.
Ciel pointed. "Between Desorais and the Silver." Weff turned his eyes to look. The Silver was a long streak of distant and blurred stars. The edge of their galaxy, he knew, from which they were even further out, only just tied to its gravity. Desorais lay below it but there was nothing to be seen between them but blackness.
The alignment. It is now.
"There," Ciel said.
In a sky of cosmic energy, light and rainbows, this was darkness, deeper than even the night sky to the unaided eye, but edged with a faint flickering sheen of blue. It opened like a mouth, or a hole. Strangely slowly, Weff thought, as if held back by something but pushing against it in its hurry.
Not a hole, Weff realised suddenly, a sphere. A hole in three dimensions was a circle so this would have to be...
Energy – strange energy – appeared, as rigid as metal, linking Palmer and the rent like a bar. Patterns rippled down its length, and Weff followed their path. Even with his new sight, the energy was hard to track. It was faint and it seemed to fade as you moved, like some strange illusion. Parts of it seemed to fold away as others turned into view, as if they had been edge on.
Weff's heart lurched as he realised the beam touched down here, in the Calreid-Arm, not far away, either. North west. Maybe near the Ippi Forest.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Something is being created at the terminus," Ciel said calmly. "A dark and evil force that will destroy everything if you let it. You must stop it if you can." He pocketed the prism and the strange sight left Weff with a mental lurch. He blinked and saw Ciel looking at him evenly.
"You only have one chance," he said.
"Can you take me-?" Weff started urgently but Ciel was already nodding. He closed his eyes for a moment.
Weff's world lurched again. When it stopped, he was back at the Initiative Centre where he had been interrogating Ciel. So was the Diagnosian and Juan.
Ciel was not.
The sun rose steadily into the sky.
"Are you sure I am doing the right thing?"
You are, said the voice in his mind.
Ciel looked at the prism in his hands.
"This has power. I can see why it will be useful."
The power is incidental. It is no more and no less than my beacon. The key to my presence.
"I found my way to you without it."
But all of your technology will die.
Ciel looked up across the plain. Black cancer crawled across the grass, which withered and blew into dust at its touch. At its heart seethed Darkness.
"Will it be all right?" Ciel asked.
I do not know, said Le Roof.
"I thought you could see the future."
Chaos has patterns such that can be glimpsed through sufficiently advanced mathematics. Possibilities can be calculated and probabilities attached to each. The future, then, in some ways, can be seen.
"Then why can't you see?"
There is something more random than chaos, something with no patterns. It has a part to play here.
You, Le Roof said. And your kind. Those who protect. Those who fight. The will of the strong cannot be factored nor easily countered. Their will only needs to be fired.
"You mean you'll...?"
I will have no part in it. Our enemy will do enough. The greatest foes are always those you create for yourself. The enemy does not understand this. It does not know you as I do.
No. My part is as I have said.
"And if the prism is lost? You would lose your influence with it."
I shall call people to it. Its range is enough.
Ciel's eyes unfocused. In his mind he saw the years stretching away into unfathomable millennia.
"It just seems like too much. Too much time. Too much death."
There is no other way. The Darkness is too powerful to be destroyed by mundane means and direct attacks. She must be fought will on will, soul on soul. The strongest of you are required. Only in tragedy will they arise, and only in conflict will they become focused. The Darkness herself will forge the weapon that will destroy her.
"I wish I knew it would work, that's all. I wish I knew if it was worth it."
We will prevail, Le Roof assured him. I cannot see it, but I have faith.
Ciel laughed. "You've the breadth of vision of a god," he said. "What could a god possibly have faith in?"
Bright streaks roared from the north, machines aloft on fire. On the plain below Ciel, blackness bubbled and writhed as it grew.
"We will do our best for you, then," Ciel said with a smile.