Dawn broke over the Great Inland Sea, splashing the dusty sky with a long lines of red and yellow. Beneath the polished wooden decks of the Pronathos, a five ton diesel engine rumbled. It was the first time since untold antiquity that such a powerful engine had been heard in this lonely backwater. Over one hundred million years ago, the paleoarchaeologists said, this had been a real sea. On the other side of that great gulf of time, enormous cargo freighters had carried an unimaginable amount of material wealth across the waters, but the ships and their owners were long gone. Like the great reptiles who had lived before them, the masters of the land and sea had been taken out by a cruel and random stroke of cosmic misfortune. A comet driven inward from the Outer Cloud to somewhere near this spot hsd blotted out their nascent potential. In their absence, others had eventually risen to take their place.
Even in retrospect, Shoran would always remember that as a good morning. The hot winds blowing off of the Xht'osal Desert, a vast expanse that filled the core of the supercontinent with sand dunes and cracked dirt, were cooled by the Sea. Small waves lapped at the red-painted sides of the yacht-turned exploration ship. On the bow, Chruzozozo leaned over the railing with one of her tentacles, and with the other stroked what looked to Shoran like thin air.
"Are you sure we're close?" Shoran asked.
Zo waited for a reply from the nothing she was petting, and then said, "He says it's right up ahead. We just can't see it. The whole thing is well hidden."
The diesel motor wasn't really made to move the ship at such a slow speed, but it couldn't be helped. "You know," Shoran said, "It would be easier if he would just let us all see and hear him again."
"Not going to happen," Zo replied, "He does that some times to prove that I'm not crazy. Otherwise, he doesn't want to be seen."
Shoran was about to ask why, when the prow of the ship struck ground.
It had taken all night to find this enormous shard of black basalt. Compasses were useless this close to the magnetic anomaly at the enormous impact site, and no maps could possibly have revealed something so heavily cloaked. All through the night, when Shoran slept, he saw the girl in his dreams.
Her name was Madoka. They didn't speak the same language, of course. Neither could produce the noises that the other made. The languages of the mind, however, were universal. This girl was a member of the Old Race, but she hadn't died with the rest. Zo, a professor of linguistics at Lower Missato University, had introduced her to Shoran on the same day that she had revealed her own secrets to him. Madoka could not speak to either in person, but in their dreams and through the thing that called itself Nooru, she had laid out an unimaginable possibility to the two of them.
A crane turned the small, white wooden boat over the edge of the Pronathos, and gradually lowered it on rusted steel cables to the water below. Zo, Shoran, and two large males native to the shore of the Inland Sea went down to the shallows by the rock. The two from the Interior were named Garx'oosh and X'oocapetzl, but neither of the two researchers could pronounce or remember their names. Like most of the ones who lived in the coastal forests near the world ocean, they tended to refer to them just as "you there" or "the boys", depending on the context. The two had, between them, nearly one hundred pounds of dynamite, four miles of copper wiring, and three detonators.
It was only a small ride to the shore, where the four grounded the boat near the stern of their larger ship. Shoran looked back at the boats as they walked inland. There, they bobbed in the surf beneath an opalescent, whitish blue sky. Later in the day, storms would begin to pile up on the horizon, and in the night they would unleash their fury. A perfect morning.
The girl in their dreams had made a deal with Nooru, just like Zo had during her teenage years. It was surprising to find out that the white, fluffy thing had been alive for so long, even for Zo. Nooru explained to them that it was a distributed intelligence, like the enormous colonies of small flying fish in the high western mountains. While its bodies could wear out, they could always be replaced. Years ago, it had gone by the name Kyubey. A million bodies had died since then, but the creature was eternal.
Madoka and most of the others like her had left years ago. Not physically, but by ascending to some other place between worlds. One of them, though, had been left behind.
There was a path leading up the outcroppings of basalt, marked by cairns and dilapidated stone buildings on either side. They had been nearly impossible to see from the shore, because they were made of the same smooth stone that surrounded them. Close up, though, it was obvious that all of the buildings were etched with deep reliefs. There were letters in a script that shouldn't have survived for so long, and images that weren't worn but were still completely indecipherable. At the top loomed an enormous door carved into the peak, and behind that...
The girl's name had been Homura, and Madoka had known her as a friend. For countless centuries, she had thought her friend to be irretrievable. Someone on the edge of death could be recovered in the space between worlds, she explained. If the person's soul were entirely destroyed or decayed too far, though, then restoration was impossible.
Zo had expressed discomfort at what would happen to someone if their soul decayed entirely. The possibility had always seemed frightening to her, although she had never seen it happen in person. Nooru had deferred to Madoka, who explained that it was impossible. She had made certain of that herself.
So, when Madoka heard Homura calling out from behind the heavy door on the basalt rock, she knew that it was still her friend. Placed beyond her reach by something, a statement that she followed by giving a death glare at Nooru.
At the top of the black rock, Shoran told the two natives what to do, in what little he spoke of their language. The process was rapid, with the two hefting their heavy packs to the doorway, then beginning to set up the explosives.
Zo looked down, and Shoran followed her gaze to what still appeared to him as open air. "Are you sure this is a good idea?" Zo asked, still obviously hesitant. To Shoran, there was no obvious answer.
It took only a few minutes for the demolition equipment to be set up. Relieved of his burden, Garx'oosh covered the hundred feet between the doorway and the two academics in what looked like only a few steps. In his tentacles, he held one of the detonators, attached to a spool of wire and through that to the dynamite set up on the door frame.
"What did he say?" Shoran asked.
Zo moved her compound eyes in the universal gesture for uncertainty. " He said he didn't know."
Shoran hesitated for a moment. Then, he flipped the switch.
At first, it seemed like the explosives hadn't gone off. There was no loud bang, no sound of fracturing stone. Still, there were clouds of smoke surrounding the explosive banks, rolling red with the heat of a blast that seemed frozen. Cracks seemed to have spread across the door like lightning bolts, then stopped before the door could shatter entirely. It took a moment for the reality of what had happened to hit home for Shoran and Zo.
There was no blast sound, no noise of lapping waves, no desert wind, because time was standing still. The two Inlanders were staring at something in the sky, frozen in place just like the world around them. When Shoran followed their gaze, he felt a creeping horror that rooted him to the spot only a little less.
The thing that hung there in the sky looked like a human being with long, scraggly grey hair, dressed in a pointed hat and dangling purple robe. It was much larger, though, easily three hundred feet from the top of its hat to the fringe of its robe. No arms or legs were visible, but the head and face carried a feeling of pure horror.
Shoran only looked down when he heard something speak in a voice he had never heard before.
Standing in front of him and Zo was a girl, her hair long and black, with a shield on her arm. She was only half as tall as either of the two researchers, but stood significantly higher than the one who has appeared in their dreams. Shoran couldn't understand the words she spoke, but the look in her eyes and the tone she spoke with carried the same feeling of horror that came down from the thing in the sky.
What the Hell did you just do?
Shoran tried to stammer an answer, but no words could express the regret that crept into his heart.
Are you Homura? Zo asked.
The girl replied, not in words but in the clear language of emotion and intent, I was. What are you doing here? Did that thing bring you? Did he tell you to open the gates?
The girl pointed at a point in the empty air, where Shoran knew Nooru stood.
No, Zo replied, Your friend Madoka wanted us to rescue you. Did you...not want that?
The girl's eyes widened with horror, and tears started to stream down her face. With a low roar, the explosives finished their detonation, and the door crumbled to chunks of rock on the barren stone ground. From within the empty doorway came a blackened shriek of rage and despair. The sky above turned lavender, and clouds began to form in concentric circles, stretching away across the Inland Sea.
The girl vanished, and something spoke from all around them. From the stones, from the sky, and from the sea.