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Dying of the Light

PROLOGUE

A rogue, an aimless wanderer, creation's castaway; this world was all those things.

For uncounted centuries it had been falling, alone, without purpose, falling through the cold lonely places between the suns. Generations of stars had succeeded each other in stately sweeps across its barren skies. It belonged to none of them. It was a world in and of itself, entire. In a sense it was not even part of the galaxy; its tumbling path cut through the galactic plane like a nail driven through a round wooden tabletop. It was part of nothing.

And nothing was very close at hand. In the dawn of human history, the rogue world pierced a curtain of interstellar dust that covered a trifling small area near the up-edge of the galaxy's great lens. A handful of stars lay beyond-thirty or so, a mere handful. Then emptiness, a night greater than any the wandering world had known.

There, falling through that shadowed border region, it met the shattered people.

The Earth Imperials found it first, at the height of their giddy, drunken expansion, when the Federal Empire of Old Earth was still trying to rule all the worlds of humanity across immense impossible gulfs. A warship named the Mao Tse-tung, crippled during a raid on the Hrangans, its crew dead at their stations, its engines alternately shifting into drive and out again, became the first ship of the manrealm to drift beyond the Tempter's Veil. The Mao was a derelict, airless and full of grotesque corpses that bobbed aimlessly through its corridors and brushed against its bulkheads every century or so; but its computers still functioned, cycling blindly through their rituals, scanning well enough to note the nameless rogue planet on their charts when the ghost ship emerged from drive within a few light-minutes of it. Almost seven centuries later a trader out of Tober stumbled on the Mao Tse-tung, and that notation.

By then it was no news; the world had been found again.

Celia Marcyan was the second discoverer. Her Shadow Chaser circled the dark planet for a standard day, during the generation of interregnum that followed the Collapse. But the rogue had nothing for Celia, only rock and ice and never-ending night, so it was not long until she went on her way. She was a namer, however, and before she left she gave the world a name. Worlorn she called it, and never said why or what it meant, and Worlorn it was. And Celia moved on to other worlds and other stories.

Kleronomas was the next visitor, in ai-46. His survey ship made a few brief passes and mapped the wastes. The planet yielded up its secrets to his sensors; it was larger and richer than most, he discovered, with frozen oceans and frozen atmosphere, waiting for release.

Some say that Tomo and Walberg were the first to land on Worlorn, in ai-97, on their madman's quest to cross the galaxy. True? Probably not. Every world in the manrealm has a story of Tomo and Walberg, but the Dreaming Whore never returned, so who can know where it landed?

The later sightings had more of fact about them and less of legend. Starless and useless and only marginally interesting, Worlorn became a common notation on the starcharts of the Fringe, that scattering of thinly settled worlds between the smoke-dark gases of the Tempter's Veil and the Great Black Sea itself.

Then, in ai-446, an astronomer on Wolfheim made Worlorn the subject of his studies, and for the very first time someone bothered to string all the coordinates together. That was when things changed. The name of the Wolfman astronomer was Ingo Haapala, and he emerged from his computer room wildly excited, the way Wolfmen often get. For Worlorn was to have a day-a long bright day.

The constellation called the Wheel of Fire burned in every outworld sky; the wonder of it was notorious as far inward as Old Earth. The center of the formation was the red supergiant, the Hub, the Helleye, Fat Satan-it had a dozen names. In orbit around it, equidistant, arrayed neatly like six marbles of yellow flame rolling around a single groove, were the others: the Trojan Suns, Satan's Children, the Hellcrown. The names did not matter. What mattered was the Wheel itself, six medium-sized yellow stars doing homage to their vast red master, at once the most unlikely and stable multiple-star system yet discovered. The Wheel was a seven-day sensation, a new mystery for a humanity jaded on the old mysteries. On the more civilized worlds, scientists put forth theories to explain it; beyond the Tempter's Veil, a cult grew up around it, and men and women spoke of a vanished race of stellar engineers who had moved whole suns to build themselves a monument. Scientific speculation and superstitious worship both waxed feverish for a few decades and then began to wane; very shortly the matter was forgotten.

The Wolfman Haapala announced that Worlorn would sweep around the Wheel of Fire once, in a wide slow hyperbola, never entering the system proper but coming close enough. Fifty standard years of sunlight; then out again into the darkness of the Fringe, past the

Last Stars, into the Great Black Sea of intergalactic emptiness.

Those were the restless centuries, when High Kavalaan and the other outworlds were tasting their first pride and growing anxious to find a place in the shattered histories of humanity. And everyone knows what happened. The Wheel of Fire had always been the glory of the outworlds, but it had been a planetless glory, until now.

There was a century of storms as Worlorn neared the light: years of melting ice and volcanic activity and earthquakes. A frozen atmosphere came, bit by bit, to life, and hideous winds howled like monster infants. All this the outworlders faced and fought.

The terraformers came from Tober-in-the-Veil, the weather wardens from Darkdawn, and there were other teams from Wolfheim and Kimdiss and ai-Emer-el and the World of the Blackwine Ocean. The men of High Kavalaan supervised it all, since High Kavalaan claimed the rogue. The struggle took more than a century, and those who died are still half-myth to the children of the Fringe. But at last Worlorn was gentled. Then cities rose, and strange forests flowered beneath the light of the Wheel, and animals were set loose to give the planet life.

In ai-589 the Festival of the Fringe opened, with Fat Satan filling a quarter of the sky and his children bright around him. On that first day the Toberians let their stratoshield shimmer, so the clouds and the sunlight ran and swirled in kaleidoscope patterns. Other days followed, and the ships came. From all the outworlds, and from worlds beyond, from Tara and Daronne on the other side of the Veil, from Avalon and Jamison's World, from places as distant as New-holme and Old Poseidon and even Old Earth itself. For five standard years Worlorn moved toward perihelion; for five it moved away. In ai-599 the Festival closed.

Worlorn entered twilight, and fell toward night.

Chapter 1

Beyond the window, water slapped against the pilings of the wooden sidewalk along the canal. Dirk t'Larien looked up and saw a low black barge drift slowly past in the moonlight. A solitary figure stood at the stern, leaning on a thin dark pole. Everything was etched quite clearly, for Braque's moon was riding overhead, big as a fist and very bright.

Behind it was a stillness and a smoky darkness, an unmoving curtain that hid the farther stars. A cloud of dust and gas, he thought. The Tempter's Veil.

The beginning came long after the end: a whisper-jewel.

It was wrapped in layers of silver foil and soft dark velvet, just as he had given it to her years before. He undid its package that night, sitting by the window of his room that overlooked the wide scummy canal where merchants poled fruit barges endlessly up and down. The gem was just as Dirk recalled it: a deep red, laced with thin black lines, shaped like a tear. He remembered the day the esper had cut it for them, back on Avalon.

After a long time he touched it.

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