In a place which has no name, far beyond the Rim of known space, a door opened. It was a very peculiar door, for it had not existed until the moment it opened, and when it opened it seemed to open from a sea of unrelenting light into a realm of unrelieved shadow. It was a peculiar property of this light that it did not blend slowly into the darkness as light is wont to do, but rather the barrier between light and shadow was diamond-edged and impenetrable. So it was that a precise and unforgiving rectangle of light illuminated the sole occupant of the room who sat shrouded in black, back to the door. The figure did not stir for a long moment. Then—
"What do you want?" The voice was feminine, and irritated beneath the calm of training. Small hands swept the hood aside as the woman stood and turned, and the light sparked fire in her hair.
"The Circle requires your presence," the man silhouetted in the doorway boomed.
"I have no use for the Circle, nor they for me," was the brisk reply. The woman began to turn away, reaching to draw the hood up again.
"Amara…" The man's voice was suddenly much less magisterial and much more human. The woman paused, turning back. "There is no love lost between you and the Circle, I know, but opposing them has gotten you nowhere. If you would just… cooperate sometimes, I might be able to get you off this miserable lump of rock and back with the rest of us."
"What a kind way to refer to the home of your host, Garvan," she replied dryly. "I'll have you know that I chose the dayside of the moon. I prefer solitude to constant castigation, which is what I receive whenever I am in the Sanctuary proper."
"Nonetheless," the man continued stubbornly, "It would do you no harm to accede to their request." He took a deep breath, and it was clear that he was about to use some appeal that he thought she would be unable to resist. "I was not young when I accepted you as my student, and each passing year weighs more heavily on me. It would set my heart at ease to see you with a place of your own amongst those of our order before I pass beyond."
Amara seethed. Garvan had been like a father to her after she left her family to join the order, and he knew all the right buttons to press. Very little else than a direct appeal to her love for the old man could have persuaded her to once again face the council which ruled their order.
"Very well, teacher mine," she said quietly. "I will go. But only because you make your request so persuasively—and because you fight dirty."
The hall which had been constructed for the Circle was built of great, undressed blocks of the local grey stone, spartan in the extreme. Lining three of the walls were tiered stone benches to accommodate the Council and those who wished to view open Council sessions. On the fourth side, the otherwise blank wall was breached by a door. Today, the benches lining the walls were full. Amara felt almost immediately intimidated as she stepped into the center of the hall, even knowing as she did that the hall was specifically designed to dwarf whoever had the misfortune of being called before the Circle. The looming figures of her fellow mages filling the benches only served to reinforce that impression. A tingle of fear raced down her spine as she realised just how many mages had come to see her summoned. The last time so many people had been in attendance, a mage had been expelled from the Order. Surely they would not have sent old Garvan to fetch her if she were to be expelled—would they? She ran quickly through her mind, trying to think of anything she might have done to warrant expulsion, and drew a blank. Certainly, she'd done a few things to earn a minor reprimand, a little more meddling than strictly necessary… but nothing worth booting her out. Still, she would feel easier if she could think of anything else that might have drawn such a crowd.
"Amara va Ravnar, it has come to the attention of the Circle that you have once more been meddling in the affairs of humans, and endangering the safety of our hiding place." The voice boomed out, deep and seemingly sourceless. "You have been reprimanded before for having too much contact with outsiders, yet you persist in interfering with the outside world. We know that you maintain a network of informants inside the galactic Rim, and that you have left the Sanctuary in secret several times since our arrival to collect and act upon whatever intelligence they may have had for you."
Amara stood paralysed with shock. Her informants were hand-picked, her security impeccable. There was no way the Circle should have known about them. That aside, her activities were in no way reprehensible—and yet they reeled them off as if they were criminal charges. It wasn't as if she was the only one who still felt responsible for the greater galaxy—but as she looked around, it dawned on her that she was vastly outnumbered by those who felt it safer to stay here on the tiny planet of Haven and never return to known space. Those older mages with whom she had agreed had stayed behind almost to a being, and many of her contemporaries had ventured yet further beyond the Rim, seemingly deciding that if they could not go back they would go forward. Perhaps there were a few who felt as she did who still remained, but how on earth would she find them? She knew very few of the other mages in the first place, having been initiated as a full mage in a hasty ceremony just before the great migration beyond the Rim. There had been only two other acolytes initiated with her—Nicholai and Rebecca. They had long since vanished, drawn by the ever-extending horizon of space beyond the Rim. She roused from her daze as the voice boomed forth again.
"Conall mac Niall, you also stand accused of endangering this hiding place and all who reside therein." Amara glanced around sharply. Beside her stood a lanky young man, tall and rawboned. Blue eyes peered at her curiously from beneath a tangle of dark curls. His mouth was set in a firm, unhappy line at the voice's words, but he flashed a smile at her as their eyes met. "It is the Council's decision that you are henceforth banished from this place of Sanctuary and this Order. You will be allowed to retain your ships and other paraphernalia, on the condition that you gather your belongings and depart immediately. You may not return to this planet or communicate with any member of this Order unless granted pardon by this Council." Now the voice took on a hint of poison. "Since you are so interested in the events of the Galactic proper, you will not mind our final injunction: you are forbidden to travel beyond the Rim, either to seek this planet or any other inhabited by technomages, or to seek any of those exploring the Unknown Reaches."
As Amara and Conall stood, stunned by the magnitude of this punishment, the assembled mages began to file out. One or two seemed to glance at them sympathetically, but many more looked satisfied, even triumphant. Finally the hall was empty but for the two outcasts. At last, Amara turned to face this stranger who was now her partner in exile.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," she said—and began to giggle. The giggle became a laugh, a great whooping laugh that was close to tears. She laughed until her sides ached, and she had to subside to one of the benches to try and catch her breath. She laughed until the strange man—Conall—dropped to his knees beside her, looking worried. Slowly, she mastered herself, and gave him a polite, practiced smile. "I beg your pardon. I'm afraid I'm rather overwrought just at the moment."
"I know what you mean," he replied, with a wry twist to his lips. "What say we blow this popsicle stand?" He grinned wickedly. "I've always wanted an excuse to say that."
The smile with which she replied was entirely unpracticed and—he admitted privately to himself—quite devastating.