The star was classified as an A7 on the Morgan-Keenan system, hotter and brighter than the G2-class star which humans had evolved under. At two and a half AUs out, where Zoreia orbited, Nigel Sheldon had to wear sunglasses; not even his modified green eyes could cope with the sharper light of his new world’s sun.
He reached the top of a gentle rise, where he could see the lush green of terrestrial grass sweeping out across the landscape in all directions. Grass was always the easy part of terraforming a new world. After Zoreia’s land had been seed-bombed, the colonists had waited thirty years for the roots and microbes and insects and worms and dead leaves to generate a deep enough layer of soil before starting on larger plants. Nigel stared at the forests that had spread out across the rumpled ground. Birds flocked among the higher branches, their nests safe from the predatory animals that stalked between the trunks. Now that the biosphere was complete, they were slowly introducing more sophisticated animals.
Zoreia was a modest triumph, given that only two hundred and fifty years ago, when the fleet of colony starships had come thundering into the star system, it had been an airless, barren rock. They had achieved so much, and not just on the planet. Oran and Bourke, two of the huge city habitats, were visible in the clear topaz sky, orbiting a hundred and fifty thousand kilometres out, far above the two small moons they’d manoeuvred into orbit to create some spectacular tides. And beyond that . . . Nigel smiled as his retinal filters activated. The surface of the blue-white star had three even brighter blemishes along the equator, like intense flowers of energy. The petals were vast streamers of plasma, pouring up into space at near-relativistic velocity, then twisting away into the J-nodes. Somewhere on the other side of the sun, the matter was streaming out of corresponding J-nodes, but changed, modified into the grid of their first Dyson shell, which would be over a million and a half kilometres across when it was finished in a couple of years.
An awareness seeped into the lowest level of his consciousness – knowledge coming from Central. There was a disturbance in hyperspace outside the star system, but approaching fast. The knowledge expanded up to full awareness, and he witnessed a line being drawn through the quantum fields that underpinned reality, driving straight for Zoreia. Its signature was familiar enough: a Commonwealth ultradrive. But this was a small ship, nothing like the behemoths of the colony fleet that had brought the Sheldon Dynasty to this place. Nigel sighed wryly as he drew up a list of who it might be carrying. It was a short list: just two names.
The ultradrive ship flashed through the star system and dropped out of hyperspace beside Oran.
‘You have a visit request,’ Central informed him.
‘So I sense,’ he replied drily. ‘Well, it looks like my diary is clear for today. Let her in.’ His biononic field function detected the planetary T-sphere engage and enact.
Paula Myo was teleported onto the ground barely four metres away.
Nigel almost laughed. It took just over five years for an ultradrive ship to fly from the Commonwealth to Zoreia. You had to really want to get here to attempt such a flight. And Paula had done it alone, in suspension. Yet here she stood wearing a grey business suit, her jet-black hair neatly styled. The amazing thing was, he knew that she’d consider this to be just another working day.
‘Paula!’ He gave her a hug and a platonic kiss on the cheek. ‘Welcome to the Andromeda galaxy.’
‘Stars are still stars. Only the distance is greater.’
‘Oh, very profound.’ He waited until she’d turned full circle to take in the vista. Then she tipped her head back and squinted at the dazzling sun.
‘Coronal matter transference, now that is impressive,’ she admitted.
‘Why thank you.’
‘You built yourself an ANA?’
‘Central. It has the same technology base, yes, but we don’t just download ourselves into it when we become jaded with life. The point of life is to avoid becoming jaded.’
‘Profound,’ she shot back.
Nigel chuckled. ‘It’s good to see you.’
‘And you. This seems to be an interesting civilization you’re building here. What would you call it?’
‘I dunno. High-end pastoral?’
‘Hmm. Slifen-lite, then?’
‘Sorry.’ She glanced about the wide empty landscape again. ‘Do you have homes?’
‘Those that want them have them.’
‘Do you want one, Nigel?’
‘Right now I’m happy just travelling around by myself. You realize no one has ever set foot on this ground before? I like that.’
‘Doesn’t sound like you. You were always so busy.’
‘I help out with Central and our major projects. I don’t have to be in the office. Not that we have one.’
‘And what about people? Do you need to be with them?’
‘You travelled between galaxies to ask me that?’
‘No. The Void has gone.’
‘What?’ He’d thought he was of an age when nothing could surprise him, but that news was extraordinary. ‘What do you mean, gone?’
‘How the fuck did that happen?’
Paula’s lips twitched. ‘There was a small conflict.’
‘Oh for—’ He threw his hands up in dismay. ‘The Living Dream morons, they finally went on their pilgrimage.’
‘Yes. But they were being manipulated by the Advancers—’
‘Son of a bitch. Ilanthe! I knew the Advancers were trouble. I told you all before I left.’
‘Very prescient of you. Oh, and Gore played a big part, too. I have a summary of critical events on file if you’d like to access. It’s quite large.’
‘Of course it is. You were always thorough, Paula.’
‘Thank you.’ She turned and stared out across the sweeping grasslands. ‘Our galaxy is safe now. The Raiel are considering what to do now their great vigil is over. The Commonwealth is changing, slowly as always. It’s a new age of exploration and contact.’
‘And yet here you are,’ Nigel said wearily. ‘Why is that, Paula? What could possibly be so important that you’d spend five years flying here – and five flying back.’
‘You know why,’ she said softly. ‘My file isn’t complete.’
‘Our secret mission.’
‘Your mission. You went into the Void, Nigel. Over two hundred and fifty years ago, you actually got inside. You’re unique.’
‘My clone went in.’
‘And you dreamed his life.’
Nigel closed his eyes. Today was truly a day of emotional surprises. After so long, the pain of her loss was still as strong as it had been the day his clone had detonated the modified quantumbuster. ‘Paula, it was a long time ago. Let it rest. She’s gone now.’
‘You left us, Nigel. When the Raiel brought you home, you flew to another bloody galaxy to escape whatever happened to you in the Void. You didn’t tell me what it was. The Raiel won’t tell me either. I have stood in the real Makkathran, and confronted Torux, who was with you while you dreamed your clone’s life – and he Would Not tell me.’ Her voice rose. ‘Torux said they were honouring your wishes.’
‘Yes,’ he said meekly. ‘They are.’
‘You owe me, Nigel. I helped you put that mission together. And more than that. It’s personal for me, too; I have an investment in this. I don’t just want to know about your mission. I want to know about the fallback. I have a right to know if you ever activated it. So now you tell me: what happened, Nigel? What happened to your clone in the Void?’
‘I became a monster,’ he said as tears began to leak down his cheeks.
‘I didn’t land on Querencia.’
‘But . . . then where?’
‘There used to be another human world in the Void. It was called Bienvenido.’
‘Oh crap. Used to be?’
‘We never knew it existed. How could we? But it was where the rest of the lost Brandt colony fleet wound up. And me.’
‘So you never made contact with Makkathran?’
‘No. Once I landed on Bienvenido I had to stay; they were under attack from another alien species. The Fallers. Psychotic expansionists who would even frighten the Prime. I couldn’t abandon Bienvenido – those people needed help. I thought I’d found a way. I was so fucking arrogant I just went right ahead. One of the Brandt colony ships survived – or rather, its armoury did.’
‘Armoury?’ Paula asked cautiously.
‘Yes. I rebuilt a quantumbuster.’
‘Oh yeah. Because I was right. I was always right. I thought I’d found a weakness in the Void’s quantum structure. I believed, I really believed, I could blow it apart from the inside. I promised her I’d save them all. And she put all her trust in me.’
‘Nigel.’ Paula put her hand on his arm.
‘So I detonated it. My clone was actually sitting next to it when it went off – how’s that for a noble sacrifice? Only it didn’t work. I should have known. The Raiel sent in a fucking armada of warships, with a technology orders of magnitude above Commonwealth weapons, and they couldn’t defeat the Void – it destroyed them. You’d think I’d pause to take that into account – but oh no, I was so far up my own ass I never considered failure.’
‘You thought you had an opportunity to terminate the Void. You wouldn’t be human if you hadn’t taken it.’
‘Ha! We didn’t know Bienvenido existed. Guess what else we didn’t know? The Void has a defence mechanism, it’s called Honious or Uracus – depending on which planet you’re unlucky enough to be on. After my clone died in the blast, I was still dreaming my ANAdroids’ life. I watched through their eyes as Uracus opened up and devoured the whole crudding world. They were standing beside her as it happened. I heard her screams.’ He shook his head in angry frustration. ‘I still hear them. The whole fucking planet, Paula – obliterated. It’s been two and a half centuries now, and I still hear her. I deserve to hear her. There is no punishment – no suffering – great enough to fit my crime.’
‘Don’t be. Not for me.’
She studied him intently for a moment. ‘Who was she?’
‘Doesn’t matter. She’s dead.’
‘A girl.’ Paula gave him a forlorn smile. ‘It’s always a girl. Even you, in the end.’
‘Even me. Who knew? I guess I’m human after all.’