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The Sword in the Stone

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Lieutenant Matheson had a headache.

He was trying to hide it, and doing a pretty good job: he wasn't narrowing his eyes against the lights or flinching at loud noises, nothing obvious. But Dureena could still tell. Something about the way he was holding himself. Matheson could usually best be described as standing "confidently", even "easily"—but, looking at him, the word that leapt to mind was "gingerly". As though, perhaps, if he weren't poised carefully enough, his head would roll off his neck.

Gideon was going on about something—an interesting sensor reading, something he'd been pointed at by Galen, Dureena wasn't sure. She wasn't listening. It didn't matter. She'd go wherever the Excalibur went.

But she was pretty sure Matheson wasn't listening either. And that did matter.

She wasn't the only one who noticed when Matheson moved. Swayed, even—he had to take a small step forward to steady himself, and Gideon went silent.

"Lieutenant?"

"Sir," Matheson said, blinking. "I—apologies, sir," and then his hands came up out of his usual parade-rest stance, as though he thought he might need them to catch himself.

"Lieutenant," Gideon said, but Matheson had stopped listening again—he turned his head, and Dureena could see that his eyes had gone dark. Literally: they were black, void, not just dark within themselves but none of the lights in the conference room even reflecting off them.

"Dureena," Matheson murmured; and then he closed his eyes and grimaced, putting a hand to his head, and the other was reaching out for the computer table.

"John, what are you—?"

There was no warning, no footsteps in the corridor, nothing: Galen simply swept into the room. Probably he hadn't had to walk down the corridor to get there, Dureena knew, and, as always, she couldn't help resenting it a bit. She liked being able to tell when people were coming. There was never even half a clue with Galen. No matter how long they knew each other, she was probably never quite going to get used to that.

"You must not go," Galen said.

"Where the hell did you come from?" Gideon said, exasperated. "Must not go where?"

"Wherever the coordinates he just put into the computer will take you," Galen said evenly, and crossed the conference room to take Matheson by the shoulders. Matheson's eyes were still closed, his face contorted; Dureena wasn't sure it was just a coincidence of timing that the moment Galen touched him, the first droplet of blood began to ooze its way out of Matheson's nose.

"My God," Gideon said, and then, into his communicator, "Dr. Chambers to the conference room, medical emergency—"

Everybody was looking at Matheson now, but Galen had hold of him and Sarah was on her way up—he'd be fine or he wouldn't, but it wasn't up to anybody else anymore. But nobody had checked the computer. Dureena leaned toward the computer table and asked the display to reorient itself away from the console Matheson had touched; and then she looked at the coordinates and felt her eyes widen.

"But that's—"

"What?" Gideon said.

Dureena glanced back down to double-check, but the numbers didn't change. "That's—that's one hell of a jump away. Dozens of lightyears," she said. The jump would be shorter, of course, and maybe a lot shorter, depending on how it mapped out in hyperspace; but still. And if something there was what was putting that look on Matheson's face, making his nose bleed—except it wasn't just his nose anymore, Dureena saw, a spatter of blood had just hit the back of Galen's hand and it had come from one of Matheson's ears. Galen was easing Matheson's earpiece free of the other.

"You must not go, Matthew," Galen said again, but Gideon's thoughts seemed to have followed the same track as Dureena's.

"As much as I've learned to value you and your obnoxiously cryptic advice," Gideon said, "it's starting to look like the other option might be to watch my first officer's brain liquefy without ever even figuring out why."

"You will regret it," Galen said softly. "And by then it will be too late." His gaze moved to Dureena, and there was no smugness in it, none of his usual ineffable air of fond superiority. He only looked sad—sorry. "It will destroy you, sooner or later."

"What will?" Gideon demanded. "This is that damned 'spirit of the place' death-from-the-shadows crap all over again. If you know something about whatever's doing this, then tell me."

Galen didn't answer; and Gideon's mouth went flat. Gideon hated it when Galen did that—and Galen wasn't stupid, Galen knew that. Which meant—

Which meant, quite possibly, that Galen had known and had said it anyway, just because he couldn't bear to let them walk into whatever this was without at least trying to warn them. Maybe, Dureena thought, he really did like them. Just a little bit.

But Gideon wasn't going to look at it like that, not until after he'd had a chance to calm down. "Dureena," Gideon said, sharp. "Get those coordinates transferred to the navigation computers, let's start calculating that jump. Eilerson—"

"Yes," Max said, already nodding, "yes, I'll see if I can find anything about that location in the corporation's records." Dureena raised a brow at him and he lifted his chin, belligerent. Dureena could almost hear him say it: What, I can't decide to be helpful if I want to? Max annoyed everybody—but Matheson had never been rude to him, never told him to go away or shut up. Of course he wanted to help, in his own way.

Unlike Galen, Sarah had footsteps. She was almost there, which meant Matheson would either be fine or turn out to be beyond any help—there wouldn't be any in between, not with Sarah taking care of him. And Gideon wasn't going to back down, no matter what Galen said. He took things like his crew's brains being liquefied pretty personally, as a rule.

Dureena stepped out into the corridor, neatly dodged Sarah, and headed for the bridge.




It was indeed one hell of a jump to get to Matheson's coordinates. Max had plenty of time to find exactly nothing in IPX's records, and the Alliance files accessible to Gideon weren't all that much more informative. There was a system there, inhabited—trinary, two fat suns called Imira and Dazira with a much dimmer red dwarf, Miat, circling them hopefully. The only livable planet was called Talar, and all anybody seemed to have to say about it was that it was a nice enough place. Dureena had heard of it, but even she had never met any Talari before; they weren't known for leaving their homeworld.

She asked Galen—he was already upset, she figured, so there was no good reason not to try. But all he would do was shake his head and look away.

Matheson managed not to die in hyperspace, though getting closer to the coordinates didn't seem to ease him much. Galen and Gideon had lowered him to the floor and then Sarah had had him carried to the medbay on a stretcher. He didn't seem to have passed out, not quite, but he wasn't opening his eyes and he wasn't talking. Dureena had watched from the corridor as Sarah examined him, and the bafflement on Sarah's face had said almost as much as the way Matheson kept grimacing and twisting on the medbay bed, the way his eyes stayed firmly closed.

But he did stop bleeding from the face. That was good.

Dureena had had to leave to go find Galen; but she was back outside the medbay by the time the Excalibur made the jump back to normal space. She was there to see Matheson's eyes snap open—and they looked the same as they always had, at least as far as Dureena could tell, but the strain in his face hadn't gone away. Something was still hurting him.

And Gideon would want to know. Dureena caught Sarah's eye and nodded to her, and then turned around and left.


*


"Scans," Gideon was saying when Dureena reached the bridge again, sounding faintly irritated. And of course he was, Dureena thought. With Matheson in medbay, Gideon had to make do with a lieutenant junior grade as acting first officer—Adani, who wasn't bad but also wasn't Matheson. Nobody would ever have accused Matheson of breaking the telepath regs, and that was because he never would; but he would still have had scans of the system ready before Gideon could ask for them.

"Aye, sir," Adani said quickly.

"Pretty," Dureena observed, because Adani was doing her best and didn't deserve Gideon's undiluted attention.

And because it was true. Talar's atmosphere would be breathable for Humans—and for Dureena—but it wasn't the same as Earth's. Dureena didn't know what about it made the difference, whether it was thinner or thicker or had something interesting in the mix, but whatever the reason, Talar's oceans looked not blue but vaguely violet. The plant life was probably mostly green-leaved, it tended to be that way on the majority of Earth-like planets; but from space the land had a red-gold cast. The overall effect was lovely.

Gideon glanced at it and then at Dureena. "It'll look prettier when I'm sure something on it isn't about to make my first officer's head explode."

He was worried. And he was letting Dureena see it precisely because he trusted her not to treat him softly for it, so she crossed her arms and made a considering face. "He's stopped bleeding from the face. In my experience, it's usually much easier to recover from things when you aren't bleeding from the face."

Gideon snorted, shaking his head—but Dureena thought maybe his shoulders had eased, just a little bit. He looked back out at the view of Talar, and then shook his head again. "I don't like this, Dureena," he said, low. "I don't like any of it."

"Galen telling us not to go places hasn't been a good sign in the past," Dureena agreed. "But—" She shrugged when Gideon looked at her. "We lived through it last time."

"And if we die," Gideon murmured, "we won't be able to hear him say 'I told you so'."

"That's the spirit," Dureena said, clapping him on the shoulder, and then Adani came up to Gideon's other elbow and cleared her throat.

"Excuse me, sir," she said. "Preliminary scans are complete, and—there's something you should know."


*


"The suns are colliding?" Max repeated, a little more shrilly than Gideon had said it the first time. "I'm sorry, why are we still here? Shouldn't we be talking about this from the safe distance of at least half a lightyear?"

"They haven't done it yet," Dureena said, rolling her eyes.

"Their orbits are deteriorating," Gideon clarified. "They haven't decayed fully, but they will, and when that happens—"

"The whole system will be destroyed," Sarah said. She hadn't wanted to leave Matheson alone, so Gideon had called her up on the conference room viewscreen; she'd already been looking kind of sad and tired, and hearing that an entire planet was about to become a cinder wasn't helping. Dureena was pretty sure that was Matheson's blood on her gloves. "And Talar itself—have you confirmed—"

"We'd need deep scans to assess the entire planet," Gideon said, "but there are more than a billion lifesigns on the side we're facing. If they have the ability to evacuate, they haven't used it."

Sarah closed her eyes.

"And they probably don't have it," Dureena said, as gently as she could. "The Talari aren't travelers, explorers—odds are they have a few science vessels, that kind of thing. But a fleet with the capacity to evacuate a planet? I'd be surprised if they had the infrastructure to build one, even if they did have enough time."

"But if they have science vessels," Max said, "they must know what's happening."

"God," Sarah murmured.

"If they do know," Gideon mused, "that's got to be one hell of a feeling. Could that be what Lieutenant Matheson's picking up? Two billion people staring death in the face?"

"It's possible," Sarah said, glancing over her shoulder. The medbay camera was focused too closely on Sarah for Matheson to be anything but a blurred shape behind her, but it was almost hard not to look at him. "I wouldn't have expected him to respond to anything but an extremely strong telepathic signal, at the kind of distance we were at. And in that case, I would've expected it to get worse the closer we came. But it's possible that he's adapting to it—adjusting his own mental shielding in response. And if that's so—" She looked at Gideon unhappily.

"Dr. Chambers," Gideon said, not unkindly, when Sarah didn't continue.

Sarah blew out a breath and looked down at her bloody gloves, blinking—she'd forgotten she had them on, Dureena thought, because she stared down at them and then started to slowly strip them off. "If that's so," Sarah said, grave, "then I would expect something of a—a bell curve. There will be a limit to how well he's able to shield himself. And he'll be able to do it for a while, but—" She shook her head. "That kind of telepathic work requires intense concentration. It's a mental effort comparable to the physical effort of holding something heavy over your head. You can make it as easy for yourself as possible: find a balance point, use both hands, position yourself in a good stance. But your arms will still get tired, sooner or later."

"And when they do," Gideon said, "you've still got something heavy over your head."

Sarah's mouth pinched. "Yes," she said. "I'd expect his condition to begin to deteriorate again. There's no way of telling how soon. And this time, there won't be anything he'll be able to do about it."

Gideon looked at her, and then away, and after a moment he began to nod. "All right," he said. "We'll take a couple shuttles down to the surface. We can't evacuate a billion people onto this ship, but if there's anything we can do for them, essential data we can copy or an elders' council we can take off-planet—we have to offer. But Lieutenant Matheson stays here, and I'll have Adani doing the calculations while we're gone. If his condition worsens, we jump."

There was silence, the silence of agreement—even Max didn't have any arguments, and that meant Gideon was about to give them the sharp nod that meant orders are final and then walk out.

Except that he didn't, because someone said hoarsely, "No, sir."

Gideon looked up, frowning; he was slower than Sarah, who'd already turned and taken Matheson by the arm. "Lieutenant," she said, "John, you shouldn't—"

"No, sir," Matheson said again, directly at the viewscreen. His eyes were still normal, and Sarah must have cleaned all the blood from earlier off his face, but he looked awfully unsteady. "It doesn't matter if I'm up here or down there. And I need to—" His brow furrowed—hunting for the words, Dureena thought, but whatever they were, he couldn't find them. "I—I need to—"

"Captain," Sarah said immediately, warningly, because she knew as well as any of them that Gideon never said no to Matheson.

Immediately, but still too slowly. Gideon never said no to Matheson. And that was because Matheson never asked for anything unless it was too important not to.

"All right," Gideon said.

"Captain—"

"Is there anything you can do for him here, except monitor his condition?"

Sarah's jaw tensed, unhappy; but the answer was obvious. "No," she admitted.

"Then he comes with us," Gideon said. "You too. If his condition worsens on the surface, you bring him back up here. If it doesn't, you can keep an eye on him just as well down there."

Sarah sighed, but didn't argue. "Aye aye, captain," she said, wry, and then the viewscreen went black.


*


When Dureena reached the shuttle, Max and Gideon were already arguing—Max still in favor of making a run for it, Dureena guessed.

"There won't be a lot of space back here," Sarah said. She was halfway through converting one of the seats, setting it up so Matheson could lie flat.

Dureena considered her options. "Well, I don't need much," she said, and helped Sarah force the seat-back down until it locked into place.

When they were finished, there was one seat left at Matheson's feet and one by his head. Sarah took the first, probably so she could help him get out, which left Dureena with the second.

Whatever energy Matheson had used to stand up and walk over to the medbay viewscreen, it seemed to have left him—or else, Dureena thought, he was saving it. He was lying still, except for the faint grimace that refused to leave his face; and then, as she sat down to strap herself in, he opened his eyes and looked at her.

Still normal. Maybe the blackness before had been a trick of the light in the conference room.

Yeah. Right.

"I'm sorry," he murmured.

"You got nothing to be sorry for," Dureena said, tightening her left strap. Was everybody else who used these shuttles a damn giant? How was there always so much slack?

He reached up and caught her arm—the way he was lying, she was over his head. Dureena liked to stay brisk, businesslike, especially when she had no idea what the hell was going on, but—

But Matheson hardly ever touched people. So him touching her arm on purpose was weird; and when things got weird, it was best to start paying attention. Dureena went still and looked down at him.

"I'm sorry," Matheson said, and then winced. "These people, their planet. It's all going to be wiped away."

Dureena inhaled, slow and even. Letting your breath catch was a stupid, obvious tell, and she knew better.

"They're all going to die," Matheson added, with the bleary matter-of-fact tone of a sick child. "That's hard for you."

Dureena looked away. Matheson would never break the telepath regs. She'd thought it and she'd meant it. But that was when he was in his right mind. Whatever was wrong with him, whatever was breaking down the walls in his head—whether it was two billion people's fear of death pounding at his door or something else they didn't even understand yet—it couldn't possibly be a surprise that he was picking up things he shouldn't. His mind was cracking open so hard he'd bled from the ears. It only made sense.

"It's hard for you and I know that," Matheson was murmuring, "I—I can't not know that. I can't, I'm sorry—"

"Shh," Dureena said, gentle, and took Matheson's hand. "Shh, I know. It's all right."




Gideon brought them down in a plaza near the edge of a city, on the side of the planet where it was still daytime. The Talari hadn't missed the friction-red blaze of the shuttle passing through the atmosphere, and there was quite a crowd of them ringing the plaza by the time the shuttle's landing gear actually touched down.

Dureena let Gideon and Max get out first. That way they'd get the most eyes—and they wouldn't mind it. Dureena didn't like people watching her.

So she hung back on the shuttle ramp and watched the Talari instead. She couldn't remember having ever heard anything bad about them, and there were two things that could mean: either they were just that nice, or they were really good at pretending to be.

They didn't look mean. They were short—more of them were Dureena's height than Gideon's, and Sarah was going to tower over them. The ones Dureena could see varied in skin tone from periwinkle to a delicate blushing pink-gold, but their facial features all shared certain characteristics that just shouted "harmless": large eyes, small mouths, a childlike ratio of head size to shoulder width. A majority of bipedal species—the ones with eyes, mouths, and shoulders—tended to feel kindly disposed toward that combination of characteristics.

Dureena would have to make sure she didn't underestimate them because of it.

"I don't suppose the database turned up anything in regards to the language," Gideon murmured to Max, eyeing the crowd—and then one of the Talari stepped forward and raised their hands. Loose fists, palm-out, to just above the shoulders; and then they lowered them again.

"I would not expect so," the Talara said, in a clear, pleasant voice, "but thankfully translation is unnecessary. We have learned and taught our children the language of the Interstellar Alliance. We thought one day you might come here."

"Well," Gideon said, blinking. "That's handy."

The Talara smiled. "What use a guardian whose warnings cannot be understood?"

Dureena frowned—if that was a Talari saying, it was an ominous one—but Gideon, as always, knew what his priorities were. "We think you may already be aware of this," he said, "but your suns—"

"Are colliding," the Talara said, with a simple nod. They didn't take any pains to say it quietly, but there was no panic, no reaction, from the other Talari filling the plaza. "Our world cannot be saved. As it is written, both the greatest and the least of us have been saved—the Talriat and the Mizara have been sent to a safe distance, with copies of our cultural archives."

"You seem very comfortable with all this," Dureena said, and only as she said it did she realize her hands were clenched into fists.

It's hard for you.

Carefully, a joint at a time, she made herself relax.

"It is the end of days," the Talara said simply.

Gideon frowned. Figured acceptance wouldn't sit well with him either. "But you—look, there could still be time. We could contact the Rangers, get a fleet out here, you don't have to just—"

The Talara was looking at him patiently, their expression knowing and a little bit fond, like they were looking at a child—and then their gaze went over his shoulder, and suddenly all that was gone. Their eyes went wide, their face wary, and they raised their hands again: one up to place a fist palm-down against their chest, and the other up, flat, palm-out. Warding away.

And this time there was a ripple of response from the crowd around them, gasps and murmurs, and the rest of the Talari began to make the same gesture, until the plaza was a sea of purple-pink hands and grim faces.

Dureena turned around.

Sarah had finally finished unstrapping Matheson, helping him up, and they were standing at the top of the ramp together, Sarah's hands guiding Matheson at the shoulders. And Matheson—Matheson looked awful, but Sarah's grip all of a sudden seemed unnecessary. Matheson's gaze was flat, fixed on something well beyond the Talari and the plaza, and his body was turned the same way, steady as a compass needle.

"A bearer!" one of the Talari cried. "Turn them back, turn them away!"

Gideon's frown was thunderous now. "Look, I don't know what your issue is, but Lieutenant Matheson is no danger to you, I promise you—"

"Our concerns are quite the contrary," the Talara who'd been speaking to them said, though their hands were still raised in that defensive gesture. "I am afraid your lieutenant is in grave danger himself. As are we all, now that he has come here."


*


The Talara—Elder Dimari, apparently, though Dureena wouldn't have guessed they were especially old—led the crew of the Excalibur away through the plaza without explaining anything else, off toward a building at one side. Talari architecture tended toward lots of curves and arches, and everything close by seemed to be built out of the same sort of stone: pale but warm, a pleasant off-white that turned a little pink in sunlight.

The rest of the Talari kept their hands up, and moved aside to clear a path without even being asked—none of them seemed to want to risk getting too close to Matheson, or catching his attention.

Dureena wanted to tell them it was wasted effort, but they probably wouldn't have listened. They should have been able to tell just by looking. Matheson didn't spare them so much as a glance. Elder Dimari was leading them in a direction that almost but didn't quite align with the one all Matheson's focus seemed to be pointed in, and though his body moved along with the rest of them, his face was always turned that same direction, his eyes on something far away.

Finally, they seemed to have gone far enough; Elder Dimari stopped and faced the rest of them, and Gideon instantly jumped in. "Your suns colliding is what's putting you in danger, Elder. I don't see how Lieutenant Matheson can possibly pose a threat by comparison—"

"That is because you do not understand," Elder Dimari said, and to their credit, it managed not to come out sounding patronizing.

"It isn't you," Sarah said.

Gideon turned to look at her.

"Our working theory was that it was depression, panic, fear," Sarah clarified. "That the collective emotions of the Talari were what was affecting Matheson. But," and she turned back to Elder Dimari, "you aren't scared, are you?"

"Do not mistake me," Elder Dimari said, "there was distress enough for us all in the early days. But our doom descends upon us slowly. We have had our time to riot and to panic—and then to move beyond, to make plans, to decide what we can preserve of ourselves and take steps to do so. We are the children of Tal; we are blessed with dignity, with clear sight, with the Word of Tal to guide us. We need not stumble mindlessly into the long dark."

Gideon narrowed his eyes. "But," he said slowly, "you do know what is affecting Matheson. That he's—a bearer? What does that mean?"

Elder Dimari looked at Gideon silently for a moment, and then their mouth flattened. "The root of the word 'talar' means—"

"Guardian," Galen said, soft and knowing, from the other end of the room, and then he strode forward out of the shadows in that dramatic way he liked.

"I'm really not in the mood for more of your portentious crap," Gideon said, sighing.

"But I have so much to give," Galen murmured. His mouth quirked; and then he turned toward Elder Dimari and made the Talari greeting motion, loose fists facing outward at his shoulders.

Both hands. Which meant, Dureena thought, that he didn't have his staff, unless he was hiding it somewhere under that damn coat. Whatever was going on here, he had to be pretty sure there wasn't another technomage behind it, if he'd left that behind.

"The suns," Gideon tried, but Galen shook his head.

"That is beyond even my power to alter, Matthew. Perhaps many of my order working together, with time to prepare—but neither my order nor that time is available to us." He paused, and then, more quietly, said, "I am sorry." And then, turning to Elder Dimari, "It is still here, then?"

"Yes," Elder Dimari said. "And we guard it, as the Word of Tal implores us." They angled a glance at Gideon, and then at Sarah—no, at Matheson, in front of her, standing with his drawn, tired face turned to stare unseeingly at the wall, like there was a fourth sun there shining on him that no one else could see. "We guard it against its bearers, as we have for thousands of years. And even now—even now, as you see, we do not falter."

"Yes," Galen said. "Yes, I see. And it is sealed?"

"Yes," Elder Dimari said.

"Then perhaps, as a courtesy, they could be—shown?" Galen suggested.

"Galen, we came down here to see if we could help these people," Gideon said, "not to take a guided tour of some ancient—thing. This whole planet and everyone on it is going to be ash if we don't—"

"Ah, yes, the end of the world," Galen said, tone contemplative. "What better time could there be to look back and reflect on what has come before? What better way to save a dying thing than by remembering it?"

Gideon didn't have an answer for that, though his expression said clearly that he wasn't happy to admit it. Galen looked briefly smug; and then his face turned grave and severe. Taking a mask off—or putting one on. Dureena still wasn't sure which, sometimes.

"I was not lying. You may recall that I promised to never again abuse your trust, and to lie to your face would qualify. You should not have come here, and you will regret it; and," he added, glancing around at the rest of them, "it will destroy you. But then all things will one day be destroyed, by time or by neglect or by intent." His gaze returned to Gideon. "And I imagine that gamblers such as yourself are on first name terms with regret."

Gideon didn't answer that either. He just looked at Galen silently, and then away. "And this thing you're going to show us," he said to Elder Dimari, "it's whatever's messing with my lieutenant?"

Dureena glanced over her shoulder. "I think maybe we already know the answer to that question," she said.




Matheson had already started walking—back out the hall toward the plaza meant he had to keep his head twisted over his shoulder to keep looking the direction he wanted to look, and that was exactly what he did. Sarah had to slow him down, get him to lower his feet properly, or else he would have broken his neck on the steps.

So, in the end, Elder Dimari didn't show them anything. It was Matheson who led them to the church, with Elder Dimari hurrying alongside and looking increasingly unhappy.

A Talari church was a lovely thing. Dureena's taste ran more toward shrines in the wilderness, standing stones, maybe a small temple, but even she could admit the place was pretty. More of those delicate arches, curves gracefully bending toward each other like birds' necks, with gleaming spires climbing overhead and stone worked into a sort of solid filigree in the windows—and all of it that same warm off-white, clean and smooth and shining in three suns' worth of light.

Lieutenant Matheson didn't give any of it a second glance. He just walked right in. On the threshold, his steps faltered, for the first time since he'd come out of the shuttle, and he paused and tilted his head. Listening for a voice that had gone quiet, Dureena thought, and felt the skin at the back of her neck start to prickle.

Sarah took him by the arm carefully and guided him through the doorway, and then Elder Dimari edged in past the two of them, a wary eye always on Matheson.

"Here?" Galen said, glancing about.

"In the tomb," Elder Dimari said, hushed.


*


The main hall of the church was vast and open—the space was kind of an oval shape, with the gentle sweeping curves the Talari seemed to favor apparent everywhere Dureena looked.

And there was another oval set into the floor. It was a huge piece of stone, a single piece, and it had to weigh—Dureena had never needed a word for such a weight, she wasn't sure her people had ever even had one. Several standard ISA tons, at the absolute least.

And it was black as pitch, black as void, all the light that touched it utterly swallowed by it. Maybe Dureena really hadn't imagined what had happened to Matheson's eyes in the conference room.

"Ah," Galen said. "There."

Matheson was moving toward it, but more slowly. Whatever was down there didn't seem to be pulling on him quite as hard as it had been.

"It is hidden among the catacombs," Elder Dimari said. "None of us know its true location."

Everybody liked to say that. "The thing about what's hidden," Dureena said, "is that somebody's got to hide it."

"Yes," Elder Dimari said, and they were so wholly unfazed that Dureena was frowning even before they added, "That is why the elder chosen to do so was sealed in with it."

"Excuse me?" Sarah said.

"It was the only way to avoid temptation," Elder Dimari said, raising one of their fists palm-out in the Talari way. "The catacombs are vast. However far Elder Tamat—may Tal sing the name forever—may have carried the sword, no one living has ever or could ever know where it came to rest in the end."

Gideon had narrowed his eyes in that way that meant he was pissed off. "You buried one of your own elders alive in there—?"

"It was necessary," Galen interrupted, and Gideon didn't look like he was willing to buy it, but Galen's tone was so somber—it might not have been necessary, but Galen believed that it had been, and in Dureena's estimation that counted for something.

"I'm sorry, let's back up for just a second here," Max said, before Gideon could tell the Excalibur to blow a hole in the floor. "Sword? You went to all this trouble—" and Max motioned to the floor, "over some oversized pocketknife?"

The Talari probably didn't have pocketknives, but Elder Dimari seemed to get the point anyway. They drew themselves up and glared at Max, and when they spoke next their tone was noticeably frosty. "Alariamir is not of this world. It is the very heart of darkness, of destruction—it bears within it an unending hatred for all things that live, and for existence itself. On the day all the stars go out at last, it will know the peace it longs for: there will be nothing left to tear apart. Tal was chosen by it, but put it aside—the Word of Tal describes its horrors, teaches us to embrace Tal's life rather than be fooled by the soul of death, and prepares us for the end of days. The blade was found again, after Tal, and it was then that we shut it away. It has been so for a thousand years, and we have let no bearers be called to it since. But it wishes nevertheless to be borne." Elder Dimari's gaze flicked to Matheson, who was gazing placidly at the great black stone, unblinking.

"Wait," Max said, sounding distracted—Dureena had looked away from him, and he wasn't standing next to Gideon anymore. He'd knelt down to look more closely at the floor. "Wait, are these—are these about this sword?"

The black stone was plain, flat. But, Dureena saw, the same couldn't be said for the floor around it. The stone tiles that enclosed it were carved with reliefs—scenery, figures, an inscription here and there in stark straight-edged letters that didn't look especially Talari-like.

"Yes," Elder Dimari said.

"You—good God," Max said, gaze moving from one to the next, brow furrowed. "You've had quite a few wars over this thing, haven't you? Never mind the natural disasters. No wonder you think the damn thing's cursed."

"Disasters they may have been," Galen murmured, "but they were not natural."

"Well, granted, based on the sections of these friezes that I can see from here, it's standard to portray someone with their hand held out at the site of each one. Earthquake," Max added, flicking a finger toward one tile. "Flood, flood, sizeable wildfire, eruption, earthquake again—massive sinkhole, ouch. And I assume that's intended to be this swordbearer. I'm guessing it's a cultural more to not actually depict the blade itself?"

"It is—"

"Forbidden, sure. Your archaeologists must hate that. How the depictions might change over time could have provided valuable insight into—"

"Can we get back on track here, Eilerson?" Gideon said.

"No need to get snippy, Captain," Max said, lifting his hands defensively. "Anyway, this is all—symbolic, visual metaphor. Leaving out the sword makes perfect sense in that context. Which means none of this can be considered actual evidence that some knife was causing earthquakes for a couple thousand years—"

"Except," Galen intoned, "that it was."

"But this isn't a technomage's work?" Dureena said.

Galen looked at her, startled. What, did he think she hadn't been paying attention? She crossed her arms and made a face at him. As if she couldn't figure it out.

"You didn't say anything when Gideon brought up the last time a technomage was the problem. Given that we've already dealt with that once, it wouldn't make sense for you not to tell us if that was the issue again. And you didn't bring your staff."

"Just because you can't see something, that doesn't mean it isn't there," Galen said—a little chidingly, but then he smiled at her.

And then his gaze went back to Gideon, Max, Matheson, and the smile slid away.

"My order is old. This artifact is older. I have heard of it, we all have—whispers, little more. It is not our work, nor the work of any like us. In fact, if I had to venture a guess, I would say it is beyond our capabilities."

Gideon stared at him. When Galen showed no signs of taking it back, Gideon looked down at the black stone and raised an eyebrow. "And this thing," he said, "it—calls people."

"Bearers of the sword survive touching it," Elder Dimari agreed, "but only in the most literal terms. They take on its powers, but they are merely the hand—the sword is arm, shoulder, mind. What they choose to accomplish is what the sword wishes accomplished, however sincerely they believe that choice to be their own, and they are changed by it. Even Tal could not have used it to advance any end but misery and ruin, though it might promise wonders."

"How very Faustian," Max observed, dry, still peering down interestedly at the carvings on the floor.

Elder Dimari's expression politely invited an explanation.

Gideon was the one who obliged. "On the Human homeworld, there are many stories about situations like this. Faust made a deal with—uh, a supernatural figure. No objects involved. In essence, he thought he was getting everything he wanted, but he was actually losing everything that mattered the most, for the sake of power that wasn't really his and would only cause harm to him and everything he cared about. Which was exactly what the supernatural figure had intended from the beginning."

"Ah," Elder Dimari said. "Then yes. Faustian is perhaps an appropriate word."

"And this thing's got its hooks in Lieutenant Matheson?" Sarah said—not because she didn't understand, Dureena thought, not because she wasn't following. Just because she was really hoping somebody would tell her the answer was no. "Why? You said you hadn't let any of its bearers be called to it—"

Were all doctors such optimists? Sarah had had to make hard choices before this, Dureena knew that—but she'd always treated them like aberrations. She didn't understand that it was the easy ones that were the exceptions. It was the easy ones that broke the rules.

But Elder Dimari knew better. Had to, if the Talari had really managed to keep something like this contained for as long as they had.

"Because you killed them before they could," Dureena said.

Sarah looked horrified. Elder Dimari only met Dureena's eyes and then looked away again.

"A precaution," they said. "Typically, they—"

Later, Dureena would think to herself that it was as though Matheson had been listening, the timing was so horribly appropriate. In the moment, all she knew was that he was moving—dropping, legs going out from under him, she figured that out before she could actually manage to draw a knife, and she was able to channel her immediate reaction into reaching out for him instead. Sarah was nearly as fast, and closer; and an instant later Gideon swore and lunged too, so together they were able to lower Matheson to the floor without injury.

More injury, anyway.

Sarah was already checking him over, hands at Matheson's wrist and neck, calm and professional. Gideon was touching his face, his forehead, saying his name. But there was nothing Dureena could do—so she was the one who looked up again, and she was the one who heard what Elder Dimari, after a moment, finished saying:

"They fall."




The Talari were more than willing to have Matheson taken to one of their medical facilities, despite Elder Dimari's seeming certainty that he was going to die. Maybe it was just because they felt sorry for him; or maybe it was down to an odd sort of fellow feeling, solidarity. They were all about to die, too.

Sarah agreed, because it was easier, faster, and safer for Matheson than putting him through another shuttle trip—especially when she couldn't be sure what was actually wrong with him.

And Dureena didn't have anything better to do, so she waited. Talari hospitals were nice, clean, pretty. They had some kind of projection-field tech that meant they didn't need to close anything off with glass or doors to contain infection or contamination; they just had wide thresholds, and you had to pause for a minute on the way through to let yourself get zapped. So the place could manage "orderly" without throwing in "institutional", and Dureena could lurk outside the room where Sarah was tending to Matheson without feeling like she was shut in.

It wasn't much of a wait, because there wasn't much Sarah could really do: they had a diagnosis, but even the legendary Dr. Chambers was going to struggle to come up with a treatment for "somehow getting psychically dragged around by an ancient and supremely powerful alien artifact".

But Gideon and Galen didn't take long to wander off, presumably to yell at each other about withholding information and never listening, and Max had never even left the church—he'd wanted to get some documentation of the building, the friezes, just in case, as he'd put it, "this whole place really does get blown to Kingdom Come."

So Dureena was the only one who was still there by the time Sarah came out—pausing on the threshold of Matheson's room for the little zrrt of Talari decontamination—and leaned tiredly on the wall.

"Is he all right?"

Sarah looked at Dureena helplessly and held out her hands. "I think so. Frankly, I'm not even sure what metric I should be using to gauge that. He hasn't regained consciousness, but his vitals are okay and he's not bleeding out of any orifices. Beyond that—"

"Any time you're not bleeding out of any orifices," Dureena said, "you could be doing worse."

Sarah snorted out half a laugh and then let herself slide down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. "Maybe," she added. "I hope so. I brought some suppressants with me on the shuttle, the stuff the Psi Corps used to use—but we don't know whether that's what it's doing, whether the other bearers of the sword were telepaths. I'm not sure it would even help. And—" Sarah stopped and shook her head. "I don't want to give him any of it unless I know it will do some good."

"Why do we even have it?"

"It was part of the supplies prepared for the Excalibur," Sarah admitted. "It's—by law, we have to have it on hand. In case he breaks the regs." She put her head in her hands. "Jesus. I was hoping I'd never even have to touch it, but I wasn't sure what else to do. I was starting to think it might be the only thing that could help him, but God knows what he'd think of me once he woke up."

"Deal with the devil," Dureena murmured.

"Something like that," Sarah agreed. "Honestly, the only thing I can think to hope for is that he lasts longer than this system. If stars exploding isn't enough to destroy that thing, I don't know what would be, and maybe if it's gone he'll recover." She sighed, and let her head drop back against the wall behind her. "Two billion people are about to get wiped out of existence, and the best I can do for Lieutenant Matheson is wish they'd do it quickly enough to save him."

Dureena didn't freeze—that was another stupid, obvious tell, and Dureena didn't do stupid and obvious unless it was meant as a distraction. She looked at Sarah with quiet sympathy, moved to sit down beside her, and in every way she could think of, generally did her best not to let on that she might as well just have been struck by lightning.

Galen couldn't fix the suns. He'd said that, and he wouldn't lie about it—both because he'd promised and because two billion lives did mean something to him. Galen was vague, Galen was cryptic, Galen obfuscated; but he didn't let people get killed when he could do something about it.

And he'd also said—what had it been exactly? Beyond our capabilities. The sword wasn't actually magical, it was just that it seemed to be, the same way technomages seemed to be. Sufficiently advanced technology. Except more so: much more so, to a great enough degree that Galen didn't think technomages could make such a thing, or even understand it.

And the sword? The sword had two billion people to choose from right here, two billion people who had to be desperate—but two billion people who hated it, who took the task of preventing it from being used so seriously that they had named themselves after it, built a culture around it, killed their own kind to stop it. The Excalibur had been a hell of a jump away, but Talar was in the middle of nowhere in astrometric terms. Matheson—Matheson just might have been the next closest person it could reach, and maybe the telepathy had helped with that.

The sword wanted destruction, that was what Elder Dimari had said—but probably not of itself. It was more powerful than technomages, technomages who couldn't realign suns gravitationally; and it had reached out for Matheson, maybe because it could.

"And if the devil came to you," Dureena said slowly, "wanting to make a deal—what would you say?"

"For Lieutenant Matheson?" Sarah said.

"Sure," Dureena agreed, as lightly as she could. "For Lieutenant Matheson—for this world, so it didn't have to die to save him. For Earth, for the plague. To destroy the Drakh."

Sarah looked at Dureena for a long moment, and then off into the middle distance, blowing out a breath. "I—I don't know," she said. "If I could limit the consequences—but that's the point of the stories, isn't it? That you can't, that the devil always knows something you don't no matter how careful you are." She shook her head. "To save that many people? I would want to. Which," she added, mouth quirking, "is why the devil would make me an offer in the first place." She sighed. "But I don't know whether even the devil could fix this."

"Maybe he can," Dureena murmured.


*


Elder Dimari hadn't gone far. They were still at the church when Dureena arrived—outside it. Not about to leave, Dureena suspected, not when Max was still in there translating things and taking pictures and whatever else. But standing outside, hands clasped, looking up at the sky. It was afternoon, the suns low, Imira and Dazira distinguishable but too bright for Dureena to pick out the red dwarf wobbling its way around them. Dureena wondered whether they had always looked that way. Maybe before their orbits had started deteriorating, they'd been farther apart—their light less combined, less bright, and Miat more visible.

Maybe that was why Elder Dimari was looking up toward them with such a wistful expression.

Or maybe—

"Elder," Dureena said, and held up her fists the way the Talari did. She'd been trying to decide where to begin, how to explain, but she had the sudden feeling that she didn't need to. "It could fix this. Couldn't it?"

"I do not know what you—"

"Yes," Dureena said, "you do."

Elder Dimari paused, looked away and then back up toward the sky. "I suppose I have a guess," they conceded, dry.

"It could fix this."

"It is possible. The old tales of Alariamir's powers speak only of disaster visited upon Talar itself—but then our understanding of astronomy left something to be desired, a few thousand years ago. Perhaps the bearers of the sword did not comprehend the true extent of their own abilities." Elder Dimari spread their hands. "Who can say?"

"Why do you call it that?"

"The sword?" Elder Dimari hesitated, considering, and then said, "I do not know that I can translate appropriately. It is not a name, as such. The word carries connotations of namelessness, homelessness. Of—of—" Elder Dimari fumbled. "Obtrusive nonbelonging? Displacement. Active rejection. None of these Alliance words are right, and I do not understand how they sound to you well enough to know which is closest."

"There are shorter ones," Dureena murmured. "Like—exile."

"Exile," Elder Dimari repeated. "Yes, I suppose that is as good as any of the others."

"And you know it might be able to save your planet."

Elder Dimari was silent, and Dureena felt bitterness rise up in the back of her throat like bile.

She knew what they would say. But she had to ask anyway—had to ask, had to hear them say it. "But you aren't going to use it, are you?"

"Even if I knew it would work," Elder Dimari said quietly, "it would not be worth the cost."

"How can you say that? It's your world, your people—when you haven't even tried—!"

"Because that is its nature! The work that may be wrought by the use of that thing is never worth the cost." Elder Dimari shook their head. "You say I should take it up, but you do not understand—how can you? Even if I could, even if your friend were not the one it had called instead, I would not. Our ancestors did the best they could to explain it to us: the stories written on the stones, the song of The Sacrifice of Elder Tamat, the Word of Tal itself. And even we nearly failed ourselves. In the early days, when we first learned our suns were falling, there were many who spoke as you do, and the elders' council was sorely divided—" The words were coming fast, sharp, and then Elder Dimari broke off and sighed, and began again, deliberately quieter. "It was a near thing, but wisdom prevailed in the end. We have not abandoned the Word, we have not set aside its lessons. The sword will remain where it is, and we its uncorrupted guardians."

Dureena closed her eyes. Elder Dimari sounded so certain, so horribly sure—but they were the one who didn't understand. How could they? They thought they knew what it would mean for their world to die, but they were wrong.

It was sadness that welled up first, but anger was hot on its heels: Elder Dimari had a chance, a chance to save everyone and everything that mattered to them, and in a way Dureena, Galen, even the crew of the Excalibur could only dream of. And they were—they were wasting it, they were throwing it away, just because of the hand that was offering it to them. Just because some idiot a thousand years ago had been too afraid to own up to the darkness in their own heart—

"I know it is a hard thing to accept," Elder Dimari said, gentle, from somewhere very far away. "But we have accepted it."

"Then," Dureena said, gritting it out as she turned away, "I hope you do burn."


*


She walked away, unseeing. Some part of her mind was keeping track of which direction she'd gone, how far; the rest of her was mostly just trying not to punch anything.

And then, slowly, as time passed—as she let herself breathe and walk, as she passed the city limits and reached the rolling hills and trees beyond, as the suns of Talar sank lower still—the anger slowly receded, and she felt her mind start to work again. The elders' council deserved whatever they got for being so selfish, so short-sighted; but two billion other Talari didn't. No one had to die for pride, or tradition, or whatever else Elder Dimari might have wanted to call it in Alliance words.

But—

Bearers of the sword survive touching it. Which presumably meant nobody else would. And that meant it had to be Matheson.

Whatever the sword did, whatever price it exacted, Dureena didn't mind taking it on herself to pay it—but Matheson? She wasn't eager to make that agreement for him. Not while he was half out of his head, still laid out in a hospital bed over all the ways the sword had already hurt him. And he'd worked so hard to get as far as he had in the military, the telepath regs dangling over his head like a—like a sword, hah, Dureena thought, and didn't smile. EarthGov already didn't like him; they weren't going to like him any better psychically linked to a mysterious omnipotent alien object.

And yet, on the other side of the scale: two billion people. Did Matheson deserve to not have his life destroyed more than they deserved to not die?

Something moved somewhere ahead of Dureena, something other than the slow regular sweep of branches and grass in the breeze. She went still and then eased down into a crouch, gaze sweeping over the rise ahead of her, and—

There. A figure—a person. Facing away from Dureena, so she had plenty of time to creep close enough to see better.

A child. Redder than Elder Dimari, who was on the periwinkle end of the scale as Talari went, and the kid's hair was such a pale pink as to be almost white, trailing down past the shoulders from the crest topping the head instead of bound up in plaits like Elder Dimari's.

Dureena waited a minute, to see what the kid would do, but the answer appeared to be nothing: the kid didn't get up and keep walking, didn't seem to be playing with anything. They were just—sitting on the crest of the hill, knees tucked up to their chest and arms wrapped around, and they were looking out across the hills, the forest to the west, out toward the sunset, perfectly still.

Like a mareemee, Dureena thought, before she could stop herself. That was what her mother would have said—had said, once, smiling as she said it, braiding Dureena's hair. And Dureena had kept standing still but had bent one leg up until her ankle pressed against her thigh, balancing on the other, the way the huge red-feathered wading birds did; and her mother had laughed.

That was before she'd sold Dureena, of course. Stupid thing to be thinking about now.

And there was probably no one else except Dureena who knew what a mareemee was, anymore.

Dureena found herself straightening up again without entirely meaning to. She didn't make much noise, but the kid was bound to notice her sooner or later, and it would be less creepy if: "Hi there," she said.

The kid turned, but didn't look afraid. They inspected Dureena up and down—her skin, her eyes, her hair—and then they said, "You are from the ship of strangers."

Ah, children. They always got straight to the point. Or at least the point as best they understood it. Dureena could appreciate that.

"Yep," Dureena said, and took the four steps left between her and the crest of the hill, until she could sit down next to the kid. "Stranger. That's me."

The kid blinked at her twice, round-eyed, and then turned back toward the sunset. "Did you come to see it?"

"To see what?"

The kid sighed, a sharp irritated breath through the nose. "I am not a baby," they said. Dureena did her best not to smile—their Alliance Standard English was just like Elder Dimari's, stiff and formal, but the tone was full of whiny near-teenager.

"Oh?"

"My parents have told me about it. About what will happen."

The urge to smile vanished. "Oh. They did, huh?"

"Yes," the kid said firmly, almost triumphantly. "They say—" The kid paused, squinting into the reddening light of the suns. "They say it will be beautiful. That the sky will fill up with light. That we are all going to be gone, but we will go together."

"Doesn't sound so bad," Dureena murmured, "when you think about it like that," and it was almost true. Almost true, except that it wasn't. We are all going to be gone.

The kid shrugged.

Dureena sat there for a second, arguing with herself, and then gave in and tucked her knees up just like the kid, wrapping an arm around them. "You scared?"

The kid took the question seriously—maybe they weren't old enough to have learned to use it as a taunt, or maybe it wasn't much of a taunt on Talar these days. "A little," the kid said at last.

Dureena nodded; and then she followed another impulse and held out her near hand. The kid looked at it, and then at Dureena, and then took it.

And that—that was it. That was it.

She'd let Matheson decide anything he wanted, afterward. She'd let him kill her, or—or chain her, sell her, snap cuffs shut around her wrists as neatly as she'd done it to him with this decision. But a world, another (what was it Galen had said once? So very many dead worlds—) was being snuffed out, and the solution was in Dureena's hands, and she couldn't bear it. She couldn't bear to let it happen.




The sunset on Talar was brilliant, violently red with a side of blinding gold. Or—sunsets, maybe, though with the suns as close together as they now were, they ended up setting at almost the same time. As their light grew dimmer, Dureena could finally see the dwarf star they'd been outshining all day.

The whole thing was lovely, beautiful; Dureena held the kid's hand and watched it all, and then they walked back to the city together. The kid was yawning right as the church came into view, and then they blinked twice and said, "Oh—oh! I know the way from here." They turned to Dureena, squeezed her hand once shyly, and then all at once let go to do that two-fisted Talari salute. "Thank you, ship-stranger."

Dureena couldn't help chuckling at that—probably, she thought, that was the only thing today that she was going to get to laugh at. Better to make it count. "Thanks yourself, kid," she said, and then flicked her hand at them in a little shooing motion. "Go on, get out of here."

The kid beamed at her, looking even redder than before in the light that was left, and then scurried off. It was silly, sentimental; but Dureena stood and watched them go anyway, until they crossed the nearest plaza and turned a corner.

"Go on," Dureena murmured, and looked down at her hands. "I've got things to do."

Sarah was still at Matheson's bedside, but she looked up when Dureena came in and offered a small smile. "There you are," she said. "I was wondering where you'd gone."

"Just needed some air," Dureena said easily. Sarah—Sarah was going to hate her for this, afterward. Sarah wanted to save Talar, too, but she probably wouldn't string Matheson up to do it; and she wouldn't lie about it, if she'd decided it was really right.

But Dureena wasn't Sarah.

"You should get some yourself. Have you been here the whole time? Have you even eaten?"

"Well—no," Sarah admitted.

Dureena crossed her arms and raised a brow.

Sarah's stomach cooperatively chose that moment of silence in which to growl loudly; and Sarah looked startled, sheepish, and then began to laugh. "All right, all right. Look, I'm just going to head over to the shuttle, grab one of our ration packs—will you keep an eye on Lieutenant Matheson for me? Just comm me if he wakes up, or if anything changes."

"Of course," Dureena said, and smiled at Sarah.

She felt suddenly conspicuous doing it, obvious and false—it wasn't uncommon, mid-con. Any good liar just knew to wait it out. Dureena didn't let herself tense, didn't shift her weight; she just smiled at Sarah like a friend, because Sarah was her friend, and Sarah grinned back and then left.

Dureena waited maybe a minute, long enough to be pretty sure that Sarah had left the building and that she hadn't forgotten anything or decided to turn around and come back. Matheson lay there, and he looked just like he had on the Excalibur: not unconscious, his face pained rather than slack, but his eyes were closed and he didn't seem to be hearing or feeling anything outside his own head.

This was going to be a lot harder if Dureena had to carry him to the church.

She crossed the room and let herself touch his arm. "Matheson. Matheson?"

Nothing.

"Matheson," she said again, and then, more softly, "John. John—please. Please, I need you to wake up. I need your help—"

Matheson grimaced. "Dureena," he said, hoarse and scraped.

"Yes," Dureena said. "Yes, that's right. Please, John, get up—"

And then Matheson's eyes snapped open, and it had happened again, it was just like in the conference room—they were black from edge to edge, dull and empty, sucking holes.

"Dureena," Matheson said, clutching at her arms, her hands, and staring at her with those endless eyes. "Dureena."

He'd said that in the conference room, too. The sword—the sword had touched him, that was what had really happened, and his eyes had gone black, and he'd called her name.

He'd called her, except maybe it hadn't been Matheson talking.

"All right," Dureena said slowly. "All right, John. Thank you," and she helped him lie back again.

She'd been wrong—she'd been wrong about everything, and so had Elder Dimari. She didn't need Matheson at all.


*


The church looked different in the dark. Talar had no moons, and the pinpoints of distant stars only served to make the night look blacker—the paleness of the church rose up into it like a pillar of ice, a broken bone.

Dureena went in.

She was a good thief, a great thief. But no thief in this galaxy could pick a lock when the lock was a black stone three times her height. She'd been turning over distant, idle thoughts about the tiles around it, the mortar—Elder Dimari had talked about catacombs, they had to extend beyond the edges of that one stone, and that meant she could get in one way or another.

But the stone—the stone was black like Matheson's eyes had been. Like other things the sword had touched. And the sword had called her.

She hesitated for a moment and then knelt down on the tiles at the base of the oval; one knee on an earthquake, she thought, and the other on a flood. And then she reached down and set her hand on the black stone.

Nothing happened for a moment. And then it shifted under her fingers—it rose up, soundless. Rose, and rose, and rose: the stone was as thick as Dureena was tall, at least from her knees to the top of her head. And then it slid aside; without so much as a scrape, which had to mean it was being suspended just above the floor, the barest millimeter.

There were no stairs beneath it—no one who'd built this had wanted anyone going in again—and in the dark all Dureena could see was that there was a space, not whether it had a bottom.

That was all right. Dureena was used to leaping even—or maybe especially—when looking wasn't an option.

She took a deep breath, found herself a handhold on the floor edge, and began to lower herself down.




Sarah pushed her thumb against one eyebrow, into the spot where a headache was just barely starting to form, and then pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.

She'd been awake a little too long, and it was stupid to keep going. There wasn't anything she could do for Matheson—honestly, she'd only been a little bit surprised to come back and find Dureena gone, because with nothing to be done for Matheson, and him not doing anything but lying there, all that was left was to ... sit. To sit and look at him and feel helpless and useless, and maybe wonder why you'd ever thought it was a good idea to become a doctor in the first place.

Not that Dureena had to worry about the last one; but none of the rest of it would really appeal to her either, Sarah thought.

She closed her eyes and put her face in her hands, and listened to Matheson breathe: steady, steady, and then a hitch as something pained him deeper than any medication she had could reach; and then steady again.

It was a little mesmerizing—enough that she wasn't really sure how long she'd been doing it before her link chirped.

She blinked, shaking herself a little, and then tapped it. "Chambers."

"Doctor," Gideon said, faint and a little crackly over the comm line. He sounded about as tired as Sarah felt. "Just wanted to let you know—Adani's reporting that the gravitational decay is worsening. You may want to start packing Matheson up to bring him back to the shuttle."

He didn't sound happy about it—he didn't want to leave without doing something, but the planet was just like Matheson: what the hell were they going to do about it? He'd offered to take people off-planet, but the Talari had already dealt with that as best they were able. Some kind of last-minute lottery would only save a tiny percentage of the people who were left, and Sarah could just imagine the desperation and distress it would cause.

"Understood, Captain," she said into the link. She'd told Dureena that if the stars collided fast enough, Matheson might be all right—maybe she was getting her wish. Maybe John Matheson's brain would be the one thing that made it out of this intact.

Gideon sighed, or else maybe there was a rush of static. One way or another, he didn't close the link right away, which was why Sarah could hear it when the shuttle's internal comm line beeped a second later.

"Answer that, would you?" Gideon said.

"But of course," and even over the shaky comm line, the wry tone of Galen's voice came through loud and clear. "My ineffable wisdom and hard-won mysterious powers are naturally at your command to ... listen to your messages."

"Hold on a moment, Doctor," Gideon said—to Sarah, this time.

"Holding, Captain," Sarah said.

A moment's silence, but for the hiss-click-hiss of the comm, and then Adani's voice—twice as distorted, Gideon's link barely able to pick up the shuttle's comm—echoed up from the back of Sarah's hand. Something indistinguishable, and then maybe "—happening, sir," that was Sarah's best guess.

"What?" Gideon said, and he didn't sound tired anymore. "Explain, Lieutenant."

"—readings are—" Sarah caught, and then Adani's voice faded out again; but even that was enough to make Sarah's heart pound, to make her hold her breath.

"Are you sure?" Gideon demanded, tinny, and Sarah stood up, almost ready to just run back to the shuttle and hear it for herself, and then looked up and met Matheson's eyes—Matheson's open eyes, because he was sitting up, looking back at her, blinking.

"Captain," Sarah said, "Captain, Lieutenant Matheson is—"

"One moment, Doctor," Gideon said, and then, clearly to Galen, "I thought you said there was nothing you could do."

He sounded baffled, not angry—being able to save the day wasn't the kind of thing Galen lied about. And, sure enough: "And I told you the truth," Galen said.

"Then what the hell—"

"She shouldn't have," Matheson murmured, holding Sarah's gaze like he thought this should make sense to her. "But she had to."

"Captain," Sarah said, a little more urgently, and on the other end of the line Gideon and Galen went silent.

Just in time for what Sarah had intended to say to change dramatically.

"Captain," Sarah said slowly. "I think I know what happened."

Matheson had turned even before Sarah had heard the sound of footsteps, and she had followed his gaze—she had been looking at the door before Dureena had even come into view. That she had heard Dureena's footsteps at all was strange, but that part was kind of overwhelmed by everything else.

Because Dureena's eyes were black, black as pitch, black as space; and Dureena was bleeding, from scratches on her hands and arms but also from the nose, from one ear, out of the corner of one eye; and Dureena was holding a sword.

For a moment, she looked terrible, strange—not only odd but like a stranger, like someone Sarah didn't know. The sword was old, dull, the metal pitted and pockmarked, but there was something about the lines of it, the way they met where blade became hilt, that hurt Sarah's eyes to look at. And Dureena's face—Dureena's face was the same way, somehow, hard in its angles and unlike itself, everything that made it Dureena's face gone or changed.

But then Dureena lowered the sword; and Sarah looked up and saw that her eyes were fine, their same usual pale yellow-green again. And Dureena blinked twice and then raised an arm to wipe the blood coming out of her nose off on her sleeve.

"You heard Adani?" Gideon's voice said, and Sarah jumped a little—she'd almost forgotten she was in the middle of talking to him. "She can't tell how it happened, but all indications from the Excalibur's sensors are that the suns' orbits have stabilized. Galen says he didn't do anything—"

"He didn't," Sarah said into the link, not looking away from Dureena.

"Then it worked," Dureena said, hoarse and scratched and so, so glad; and she smiled.




The suns were just starting to rise as they left the Talari hospital—how appropriate, Dureena thought, and tried not to grin too much.

She didn't have a coat like Galen's, and there had been no sheath, no sword-belt, in the catacombs; no one, including the sword itself, had intended for it to be easy to keep and to carry. So she was stuck just—holding it. The sword wasn't long, it didn't drag on the ground when she just let her sword arm hang, nothing like that. But it felt awfully conspicuous to just carry it around where everyone could see it.

She glanced down at it, and, with a shiver, realized it was starting to go strange and blurry around its edges, the blade easing toward translucency. Stop that, she thought at it, and after a moment's wordless rebellion, like a cranky child, it did.

She hated feeling conspicuous—but she wasn't going to hide this, wasn't going to hide from this. She'd made her choice, and she wasn't sorry.

The Talari must have had their own scientists monitoring the situation, because the streets were busier than Dureena might have expected them to be at dawn. Sarah was walking on one side of Dureena, and Matheson on the other, but it still only took about half the distance to the plaza where the shuttle was for someone to notice the sword.

As soon as the first Talara passing them had flinched away with a gasp and made that palm-out warding gesture, it didn't take long for the others to see why and follow, and then hurry away. By the time they neared the plaza, the street they were on had emptied, and the few Talari they saw at a distance were ready for their passing, palms out and faces averted.

"I don't understand," Sarah muttered. "I know they hate that thing, but you saved their planet! Shouldn't that count for something?"

"Apparently not," Dureena said.

It didn't come out especially resentful—she didn't feel resentful. The only reason they could hate her for saving them was because she'd saved them, because they were still here to do it. What was there to resent about knowing that?

She grinned down at her hands, at the sword. It was there in her head, just a little bit: a strange shadowy presence, a hand that both grasped at her and pushed her away. She understood it as poorly as it understood her, and that was probably good. But she had to be confusing it with all this elation.

The thought made her laugh, and her laughing made Sarah raise her eyebrows and then shake her head. "I'm doing all kinds of exams on you when we get back to the ship," she said warningly, but even that wasn't enough to make Dureena do anything but smile.

Somebody must have run off to get Elder Dimari; they were there in the middle of the plaza, a lone figure in front of the shuttle, palm upraised. They wouldn't look at Dureena, wouldn't make eye contact, but their gaze flickered over far enough for them to catch sight of the sword. Dureena could tell by the spasm of horror and distaste that crossed their face, and the way they turned their head into their own shoulder afterward.

"You will depart," they said, sharp.

"Working on it," Dureena said mildly.

They acted as though no one had spoken. "You will depart, and you will take the bearer with you."

"You'll let her go?" Matheson said, low.

"Now that she has taken it up," Elder Dimari said, "it will not be parted from her. It has lain quiet too long, dreaming its empty dreams, unable to do its work as it wills—even were we willing to risk the anger of your Alliance by killing her, it will not be parted from her. It would sunder our world apart as surely as our suns falling to prevent it. For now it has a way to escape us." They shook their head. "It is as the Word foretold. Our world remains; but nevertheless it is the end of days. All our labor, our guardianship, has come to nothing."

"But you're not dead," Sarah said.

Elder Dimari looked at her somberly. "We might rather have passed," they murmured, "knowing we had done our utmost and succeeded. But it does not matter now. You will take her and go, and never return here."

Sarah looked unnerved, and Matheson—Matheson mostly tired, wrung out, the muscle jumping in his jaw more a testament to the effort it was taking for him to keep standing up than a sign of irritation.

But none of it touched Dureena. She looked at Elder Dimari and felt sorry: sorry they couldn't appreciate the gift she had given them, sorry they didn't seem to understand just how much they had been spared. We're all going to be gone—not anymore. She would have given up so much more than Elder Dimari's goodwill to achieve it. She couldn't even find it in herself to begrudge them their unhappiness, their fear.

"I'll never need to," Dureena told them kindly. The sword had been able to do even more than Dureena had hoped—the suns of Talar were actually in a better orbit now than they had been to start with, and Dureena had thrown a fresh helping of hydrogen into their cores to extend their lifespans. The molten core of Talar itself had been starting to cool a little, too, and that would have killed the planet in its own way after—well, after a very long time, probably, but while Dureena had been using the sword it had looked like an eyeblink, and she'd reached out to fix that, too, while she was at it.

But there was no point trying to tell Elder Dimari that. They were still valiantly trying to pretend Dureena didn't exist; and Talari scientists would probably figure it out soon enough anyway. Elder Dimari had things to do—the Talari ships that had fled would need to be called back, the whole planet would need to figure out what to do next. And there was going to be a next, because they were all going to live.

Dureena smiled up at Talar's blue-green sky and walked up the shuttle ramp.


*


Sarah ordered Dureena to her quarters as fiercely as she ordered Matheson to his, even though Dureena had long since stopped bleeding from the face by the time the shuttle docked with the Excalibur. "Don't get me wrong," Sarah added, "I still want to do all those exams I promised you—but you've been up all night and so have I. You start bleeding again, or hallucinating, or hearing infernal whispers, you call me. Okay?"

"You got it," Dureena said.

Gideon would be busy with Adani, going over the sensor readings, and then probably with his logs; and Sarah and Matheson would be resting. Max was undoubtedly working his way through everything he'd collected about the Talari church.

Which, Dureena thought, left only one person who could be breathing so conspicuously loudly inside her quarters.

"What do you want, Galen?" she said, once the door had shut behind her.

Galen stepped out into view, and it was gratifying, almost sweet, that he looked at her face first and then down at the sword. "To convince you to consider regret as an option," he said, gentle, "though I do not anticipate that I will succeed."

"You won't," Dureena agreed. "They'll live. I can't be sorry for that."

"Nor should you be, I suppose," Galen murmured. "I only wish you understood what you have taken on."

Dureena couldn't help sighing—it had been a long day. "Not you, too," she said. "Look, I get it, this thing is bad news." And she did understand. She'd seen Matheson's eyes, and that was how the sword felt in her hands, her head. Cold, black—and not as a color, simply as the absence of all other things. Indescribably alien, and not in the way Dureena merited the term as Humans reckoned it. More like a Shadow, a Vorlon, an Old One; a thing that needed to be measured by a wholly different scale. Elder Dimari had talked about the sword's bearers as hands, and Dureena had understood it as metaphor then. But touching the sword, using it, had given her the distant feeling that it wasn't entirely an abstraction—that the sword simply could not conceive of how to interact with physical reality on its own, and on a fundamental level could not understand it.

It had been a really weird feeling.

"But I couldn't let them die," she added, when Galen said nothing. "I couldn't stand to."

"And have you considered," Galen said, soft, "that perhaps that was its intent?"

"What?" Dureena said, and shook her head. It was Galen's thing, trying to get everybody to solve their own puzzles on their own time with only the lightest of guiding touches from him—but sometimes she wished he'd just be merciful. Like, for example, the morning after she'd spent all night crawling around in thousand-year-old catacombs. "Look, it all makes sense if you think about it. The sword wants to—to make nothing, to have there be nothing, or—I'm not sure, I can't understand it yet. But it wants itself to keep existing. The Talari wouldn't have used it, even to save themselves, and it knew that.

"It needed us, needed me. But if it had gone for me from the beginning, the Talari would have noticed. They would have been as suspicious of me as they were of Matheson, and they sure wouldn't have answered my questions. It had to be careful, or they would have stopped me. It all makes sense."

"Yes," Galen said. "Yes, it does. A great deal of sense—particularly to anyone who knows you."

Dureena narrowed her eyes. "And just what is that supposed to mean?"

Galen paused for a moment, deliberate, before he spoke again. "Forgive me," he said slowly, "for being indelicate enough to point it out, but—you, Dureena, take the deaths of worlds particularly seriously."

Dureena almost snapped something back at him, something like who wouldn't or look who's talking—even and which one of us was it who threw the irreplaceable locus of his power at a machine to save a world that was already dead? But at the last moment, she hesitated.

She couldn't help remembering the shuttle. It's hard for you, Matheson had said—and the sword had been touching him then, looking inside him, peering around his mind with its lightless eyes. It's hard for you, I can't not know that—

She felt the sudden urge to shiver, and glanced up to find that Galen was looking at her knowingly. "Yeah, and?" she said, lifting her chin.

"I don't suppose it has occurred to you," Galen murmured, "that something capable of pulling stars apart might also be capable of pushing them together?"

Dureena didn't answer, couldn't; and Galen would know what that meant.

"You did not—you did not do the wrong thing," Galen said, moving closer, his tone kind. "My warning, such as it was, was already too late by the time I gave it. If I can even ascribe relatable emotions to such a thing, then it would be fair to say the sword was bewildered, frustrated, angry. Perhaps it would have let Talar burn, if you had not stepped in. You did what was right, if not what was wise. And believe me," he added, "I know how rare it sometimes is for those to intersect. But I want to be sure you understand the exceptional capabilities of that sword. In my order we are trained for years, decades, to handle far less power, and power that comes to us from far less dark a place. It would take only a thought, a moment, to destroy everything that you know and love—"

"Yeah," Dureena said. "And, as you so thoughtfully pointed out, who else in this galaxy understands exactly what that means better than I do?"

Galen held up his hands, appeasing. "I only want you to be careful."

Dureena snorted. He was easing them onto steadier ground, the wretch—he was being kind to her. He really was worried about this. "Oh, when am I ever not careful?"

Galen's voice went dry. "I'm going to do you the courtesy of not answering that." He paused again, and then said, more quietly, "You are clever, Dureena. And brave, and kind, and your intentions are good. But that is not always enough."

"Don't I know it," Dureena muttered. She closed her eyes, rubbed them, and then said, "And I don't suppose you have any—"

She stopped. She was talking to an empty room; he'd done that vanishing thing again, damn him. She hated that.

She'd set the sword down on one of her tables—she took a seat beside it, and looked down at it thoughtfully. "Once I get you figured out," she told it, "we're going to be able to do that, too."

If it didn't kill her, or destroy the Excalibur, or suck out her soul. But there was no going back now, she thought. Only forward. Maybe the sword would bring them down, or maybe it wouldn't—maybe Galen would be able to help her figure out how to use it, or maybe he wouldn't. Maybe she could somehow cure the Drakh plague with it; or maybe she couldn't. There was only one way to find out.

And whether in the end they were clever or brave, right or wise, whether they succeeded or failed—at least, she thought, it wasn't going to be boring.