Every Saturday I post a chapter or two of my young adult science fiction novel Star Song. Coming in in the middle? The whole thing starts here with Chapter 1 and an explanation.
By Edward Willett
A thick mist shrouded the street outside Andru’s. It glowed faintly with the refracted radiance of hidden streetlights, and within seconds it soaked through Kriss’s clothes. He shivered.
A black shape materialized within the swirling fog. “A short ten minutes,” said the soft voice. Faceless, it sounded cold and emotionless, computer-like. “Shall we go?”
With some difficulty, Kriss found his own voice. “Where?”
“Only a little way, into a side street.” Faint amusement touched the cold tones. “Sound carries in a fog. I don’t want to be overheard.”
“All right.” Kriss followed the stranger uneasily across the street, into the same alley where he and Tevera had twice met and talked. No light filtered into the narrow passage, and Kriss trailed his icy fingers against the wet stone on his right to keep from walking into the wall. Only the clicking of his companion’s boots on the cobblestones indicated he wasn’t alone.
The footsteps stopped, and so did Kriss. He stood silently waiting for the stranger to speak, wondering who else might be lurking in the darkness. I was a fool to come out here!
“My name is Carl Vorlick,” the man said abruptly.
“I know,” said Kriss, though he hadn’t been certain until that moment.
“If you know that, you also know that I am one of the wealthiest men in the Commonwealth,” said Vorlick. “I tell you that not as a boast, but so that you know my promises are good.”
Vorlick did not answer directly. “My interests are far-ranging, and include certain properties in Stars’ Edge. Recently one of my employees here informed me that a young boy had appeared from nowhere with a peculiar alien instrument.”
That startled Kriss. “Alien?”
“Of course. You surely must realize that no planet in the Commonwealth has such technology.”
Kriss’s wistful vision of his father carving the touchlyre by firelight vanished forever.
“Among other pursuits, I collect and trade in alien artifacts,” Vorlick continued. “When I heard of your instrument, I decided to investigate it myself. None of my people here have the knowledge to properly evaluate it.” He paused. “How old are you?”
“I’d like to know where your instrument came from, which of the ancient alien civilizations it belonged to. I keep track of all major extraterrestrial archaeological investigations; I may be able to link it to one of them if I know where and when you obtained it.”
It sounded reasonable. “I’m about sixteen, standard.”
“Just about right,” Vorlick said thoughtfully. “You’ve had the instrument all that time?”
“My guardian gave it to me when I was ten. It belonged to my parents.”
“And where are they?”
Kriss wished he could see Vorlick’s face. He sensed an unsettling undercurrent to the conversation, as though the offworlder knew more than he was telling.
“I heard you play,” Vorlick said, abruptly changing course. “It was…remarkable. You actually seemed to project your emotions along with sound.”
Whether I want to or not, Kriss thought, remembering the almost frightening intensity with which the touchlyre had taken hold of him that evening. “The touchlyre is…special.”
“Touchlyre.” The offworlder seemed to be savoring the word. “An interesting name. How does it work?”
“I don’t know,” Kriss said. I wish I did. Especially after tonight.
There was another long pause. All Kriss could hear was his own breathing and heartbeat, and the slow drip of water: when Vorlick wasn’t speaking, nothing betrayed his presence. It was like talking with a ghost.
“You want to leave Farr’s World, don’t you?”
The sudden question startled Kriss, but he answered truthfully, “Yes.”
“Your music made that clear. Your touchlyre is, as you say, special. Your listeners felt your emotions as their own. You made hardened spacers weep. Few entertainers can do that.” Vorlick paused again. “Your touchlyre could be your ticket off this planet.”
“Ticket, sure,” Kriss said bitterly. “I could sell it or earn enough playing it to buy passage. But I want more than a ticket. If you really felt what I feel, you know that. I want to belong—and I can’t. I’m not Family or Union, and I can never be either.”
“You’ve seen my ship,” Vorlick said quietly.
Kriss stiffened. He’d decided Vorlick would try to buy the touchlyre, and had already made up his mind to turn him down. But just what was the offworlder about to offer?
“I can get you into the Union. All I ask is the touchlyre. Give it to me, and I’ll add you to my crew and sponsor you in the Union: and at our next planetfall, if you wish, you’ll be free to take any berth you can find, on any ship going anywhere in the Commonwealth.” His voice lowered almost seductively. “Your dream can be a reality, Kriss. You value the stars, I value your instrument. A fair exchange.”
A fair exchange. Kriss swallowed, his throat tight.
The touchlyre had always been his link with the galaxy and his parents, his key to the world where he truly belonged.
But now he knew what world that was—Earth. And the instrument couldn’t take him there.
Vorlick could. Such a powerful man would have access to Earth, could even get him to the surface of the home world, help him find his parents’ families.
But could he be trusted? Kriss felt a surge of anger at himself for letting Vorlick direct the conversation. “You’ve already tried to get the touchlyre, haven’t you?” He hurled the accusation like a stone through a window. “Someone broke into Andru’s the first night I was there. The next night he attacked me. He was your man, wasn’t he?”
Vorlick did not answer at once. When he finally answered, his tone was far colder than the mist shrouding them both. “I’m a businessman, making a business proposal. That’s all. If I had anything to do with those incidents, why would I bother making this offer wno?”
“You admitted you have employees here…”
“And so I do. You were not only attacked, you were rescued. The rescuer was my man.”
Kriss blinked. “I didn’t mention—”
“Then who did attack me?”
Kriss sensed rather than saw his shrug. “I have competitors. One of them is based on this planet, and is particularly ruthless—a man named Anton Salazar.”
The man who tried to buy out Andru? “I’ve heard of him.”
“Then perhaps you know what kind of man he is. I’m afraid he has recently suffered severe economic reversals due to my business decisions. I bought up certain valuable properties here in Stars’ Edge which he greatly desired, and then under-bid him for some very lucrative space station construction contracts in the Estercarth system. He also recently attempted, and failed—expensively–to take over a mining operation in the Feldsparian asteroids in which I have controlling interest.
“Salazar knows of my interest in alien artifacts, and while he does not share my scientific curiosity about them, he fully understands their potential monetary worth. He has been known to strip-mine valuable archaeological sites, destroying their scientific value, so he could sell the artifacts to private collectors. Obviously he has also learned of your instrument. He would have wanted it the moment he heard of it, not only for the price he could get for it, but because by possessing it he would be able exact a measure of revenge against me. If I had not learned of the touchlyre, he would have stolen it and then made sure I knew he had it. Now that I have learned of it, and he undoubtedly knows it…I warn you, Kriss, he’ll stop at nothing to get it.”
Stop at nothing…in the news story about his parents’ disappearance, Kriss remembered, there had been a reference to a mysterious patron. What if that had been Salazar? What if Salazar had used Kriss’s parents to find a valuable artifact, the touchlyre—but then they had found out what kind of man he was and fled with it.
Did he follow them here? Did he kill them to get it?
If he had, he’d been too late: by then it had already been hidden, along with their infant son, in the care of Mella. No wonder she raised me in the back of beyond!
But somehow, after all those years, word had filtered back to Salazar of a strange offworld boy in a backwoods village. He had sent his men to investigate. By pure luck, he hadn’t been home. Protecting him to the last, Mella must have convinced them he wasn’t coming back to the cottage. If she hadn’t, they would have been waiting for him that night, and the touchlyre would already be in Salazar’s hands, while he—
He shivered. If not for Mella, I might be dead. In truth, he was lucky he wasn’t dead several times over, having walked right into Salazar’s hands by not only coming to Stars’ Edge, but playing the touchlyre in public. Zendra had even said Salazar owned the police, or enough of them that he could do what he wanted. Elcar himself might be Salazar’s man, he thought sickly. No wonder he closed Mella’s case so quickly!
“You’re in great danger,” Vorlick continued. “I’m very much afraid of what Salazar might do if you don’t accept my offer.”
Kriss took a deep breath. The rush of understanding had left him with a clear decision. “I accept.”
“Excellent!” Excitement tinged the cold voice. “Do you have the touchlyre with you?”
“No, it’s locked away in Andru’s.”
“Good. You can bring it to the ship with you. How soon can you be ready to leave?”
Ready to leave. The words were music. “I’ll have to give Andru a little notice…”
“Even Andru’s is not safe from Salazar,” Vorlick warned. “Don’t delay any longer than absolutely necessary.”
Why put it off? Kriss reasoned. He had made Andru no promises. “Tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow night,” Vorlick corrected. “After dark. We don’t want unfriendly eyes to see you. I’ll leave a port pass at the gate closest to my ship.”
“I’ll see you back to Andru’s.” Kriss heard him move down the alley, and after a moment he followed.
All his logic told him he had made the right decision. I’m well-rid of the touchlyre, he thought. It’s too powerful. It’s alien. It could be dangerous. Who knows what it’s doing to me as I play it…or to my listeners?
But something deeper than logic, some animal instinct, sounded a warning, a warning related to the eerie, non-human sound of Vorlick’s voice in the mist. How could he trust a man who sounded like that?
Everything he said made sense, Kriss told himself firmly as they stepped into the street. The fog had thinned enough that he could see Vorlick in the blurred light of the streetlamps. Despite the mist, not a hair was out of place. “Until tomorrow,” the offworlder said, and strode toward the port.
Kriss took two steps toward Andru’s, then stopped. His misgivings wouldn’t go away. He had to try to check on Vorlick some way, and the fog gave him the perfect opportunity to follow the offworlder. If he were lying, he would surely meet one of his people to tell him of his plans, and if that employee proved to be the man who had attacked Kriss…
Vorlick’s quick, clicking footsteps were fading fast. Kriss turned from the inviting light and warmth of the inn and followed him into the misty darkness.
A light wind began to blow the fog in slithering tatters through the streets, enabling Kriss to keep Vorlick in sight while staying a safe distance behind him. But a moment after the offworlder crossed the ring road a heavy transport rumbled past, preventing Kriss from following, and when it was gone Vorlick had vanished.
Kriss dashed across the road, mentally swearing at the late-working driver, then stopped, listening. He heard nothing but the fading sound of the vehicle and the whisper of the breeze through the wire mesh fence.
He stood in a pool of darkness caused by the failure of one of the lights set on tall poles at regular intervals around the fence. Trusting to the night to hide him, Kriss gripped the mesh and peered through it at the golden ship, glittering with the reflected lights of the spaceport and city like a rare jewel in a box lined with black velvet. For a moment he forgot his doubts. Within days he would ride this beautiful ship to the stars, just as he had dreamed of for years. No more dreams, he promised himself fiercely. This time it will be real!
Then he heard footsteps again and stared around, confused by echoes off the surrounding buildings, until he spotted Vorlick approaching the base of his ship. The hatch opened, and blue-white light flooded down the ramp that slowly extended to the ground. The ramp licked Vorlick up into the ship, the hatch closed, and all fell silent again.
Kriss turned away and leaned back against the cold metal of the fence. He hadn’t learned anything, but he tried to put his doubts aside. He wanted to believe Vorlick had told the truth, because otherwise his last chance of fulfilling his dream was gone, imprisoned with Tevera in the Thaylia.
He looked back across the port. The fog had thinned to little more than a haze that cast a soft glow around the silvery skin of the Family starship, near the center of the landing field. Kriss gazed at it, wishing by some miracle he might see Tevera coming down from it and crossing the field to him. He wanted to apologize, he wanted to tell her his dream was coming true after all, and he wanted desperately to say good-bye to her.
Or rather, he wanted desperately to not have to say good-bye to her.
His throat felt tight and his eyes burned. The Family had torn them apart, and when he left with Vorlick the whole galaxy would be between them forever. Whatever might have been—whatever could have come from that achingly sweet kiss—would be lost.
At that moment he would have chosen to stay with Tevera on Farr’s World over going into space without her; but there was no one to make the offer.
He turned and stepped away from the fence—then paused. From somewhere on the landing apron came the shuffle of feet. “…fog’s lifted,” a man’s deep, rasping voice said. “We could be seen now.”
“Who’s to see?” said a second voice, smoother and higher-pitched. “There’s nothing over here but warehouses. And we took out that fence light.”
“I don’t like it. It’s too easy.”
“You’d rather have it hard? Look, the crew trusted to spaceport security. They forgot they’re on Farr’s World.”
Both of them laughed, and at that moment were briefly silhouetted against the distant lights: two big men carrying a long, sagging bundle between them. Murder? Kriss thought in horror. He stayed still, afraid if he moved he would attract their attention.
“Heavy,” the deeper-voiced man complained.
“You’re just fat and lazy. Now shut up. We’re getting close to the road.”
Kriss crouched, trying to make himself invisible, as they reached the fence and set their bundle on the ground. He heard a low moan. So it wasn’t murder—yet. What had he stumbled on?
One of the men produced a short rod that gleamed in the faint light, then came to glowing red life. He touched it to the fence, and the mesh parted with a flash that revealed a face Kriss knew all too well—the man who had attacked him and Tevera in the alley.
In seconds the man had cut an opening in the fence the size of a door, and the two men picked up their victim, who groaned and doubled up as though in pain. As they came out on Kriss’s side of the fence, the lead man shifted his grip and turned to get a better hold—and the prisoner’s feet suddenly drove into his captor’s stomach.
The man’s breath whooshed out. He dropped the victim and staggered back. The prisoner twisted out of the other’s grip, hit the ground hard and began to struggle. The wrapping fell away, and a girl screamed, “Help! Someone…” before being muffled by a heavy hand.
But those two words were enough for Kriss.
He leaped forward, driving his shoulder into the back of the man who held her, and all of them tumbled to the ground. Tevera jumped up and tried to run, but the cloth tangled her feet and she fell again, her breath coming in sobbing gasps.
Kriss scrambled toward her on hands and knees, but suddenly the man he had tackled stood between them, a pillar of darker black in the night. His heavy boot cracked into Kriss’s jaw, lifting his whole body and hurling him back to crash against the duracrete. Tevera screamed, but the sound seemed to come from a great distance.
Kriss lay where he had fallen, his head filled with a vast pain and roaring, through which words reached him faintly.
“Who was that?” gasped the one Tevera had winded.
“Just some idiot bystander who thought he’d be a hero. Let’s get out of here.”
“What about him?”
“I think he’s dead. Anyway, he can’t identify us.”
“I’ll worry about Salazar. Come on, move it!”
Salazar! Kriss managed to roll over, and tried desperately to get to his hands and knees. Salazar’s got Tevera! he thought in agony. He tried to shout her name, but only a whisper came out.
On his belly, he wriggled to the fence and pulled himself painfully upright, gripping the mesh. Tevera’s captors had long since vanished. Kriss clung to the fence for a long time, until some measure of strength returned to him; then he began the nightmarish journey to Andru’s.
Every step sent pain crashing into his skull; the ring road seemed a mile wide. He crept up the street, clinging to the wall for support, but it wasn’t enough; he kept falling, picking himself up and staggering on a few more feet, then falling again. Twice he vomited into the shadows. The second time nothing came up but sour-tasting bile.
Finally he lay still, spent; conscious, but too exhausted and pain-filled to be fully aware of his surroundings.
Sometime later brilliant light speared him to the pavement, stabbing his head with daggers of pain. “All right, boy, you can’t sleep there.” Strong, rough hands hauled him to his feet, and he gasped in agony. “Bit young to handle liquor, eh?”
Kriss blinked bleary eyes at the tall, uniformed man who held him. “Police?” he said confusedly.
“That’s right. Constable Piltzer. Now, where do you live, young man?”
Kriss tried to think. “No…no, Andru’s.”
“Ah. That’s more like it. Come on, then, let’s get you home.”
An hour later Kriss lay in his own bed, Zendra fussing over him. “Why you should want to take a walk in the middle of the night is beyond me,” she muttered as she applied a cold compress to his jaw. “And then to get mixed up with people smuggling something out of the spaceport—what could it have been, I wonder?”
The ice wrapped around his head kept him from replying, even if he had wanted to, and with his head clearer, he wished he’d never even told her that much. He couldn’t tell Andru and Zendra or the police that Salazar had Tevera. The man had killed his parents already; how little would it take for him to kill Tevera?
Andru came into the room and gave him a piercing gaze that made him uncomfortable. “You have a penchant for attracting trouble.”
“Now, Andru, this doesn’t have anything to do with the break-in,” Zendra said firmly. “It was just bad luck.”
“Maybe.” Andru stared at Kriss a moment longer, then turned and went out.
Zendra followed Andru to the door, pausing there to glance back. “You may still have a bit of a headache tomorrow, but I think you’ll be able to navigate. Nothing’s broken.” She winked. “It’s that hard head of yours saved you.” She stepped out, closing the door behind her.
“A bit of a headache” turned out to be a considerable understatement; Kriss woke in the morning with a terrible pounding inside his skull that made thinking difficult. But he had to think, and he couldn’t stay in bed: not when Salazar had Tevera. Somehow he had to help her. Feeling as though he were moving through thick mud, he dressed and descended the stairs, frowning as he tried to make his shaken brain consider his options.
Tell Andru everything? Salazar might kill Tevera. And Andru had some secret of his own concerning the Family; he might take no action at all, or the wrong one.
Tell the police? Even worse—the police were on Salazar’s payroll.
Tell Vorlick? No. Something inside him still didn’t trust the businessman. Vorlick cared nothing for him or Tevera; Kriss remembered what Zendra had said about Vorlick buying and selling whole planets, with no concern for their inhabitants’ homes, families or futures. Vorlick’s sole interest was the touchlyre. He thought he had a deal with Kriss to get it—but Kriss was about to break their agreement; he had to, now that Salazar had Tevera. The touchlyre was the only bargaining chip he held.
“Well, you’re walking on your own, at least,” Zendra said cheerfully as he entered the common room. “That’s better than last night. Sit down, and I’ll bring breakfast.”
Kriss sat by the window as usual and looked gloomily out into the sunlit street until Zendra brought him a tray with hot cereal and cold juice. “Here you are.” She winked. “Nothing that takes much chewing. Oh, yes, and you have a couple of messages…dropped off this morning.” She placed two sealed envelopes by the platter and went whistling back to the kitchen.
Kriss stared at the envelopes as if they might bite, then slowly reached out and picked one up. His fingers trembled as he opened it. The message inside was short and to the point. Give me what I want or lose what I have. The Red Horse Inn. Midnight. S.
He squeezed his eyes briefly shut. He’d known it was coming, but…
The second note puzzled him. Vorlick couldn’t know what had happened yet, could he? So who…?
The message was written in silver ink on black paper. My sister was taken because of you. You will help us get her back. Come to us at once. Rigel.
Kriss let the note drop to the table. The Family. Salazar must have notified them, as well—and with that, the matter had been taken out of his hands. He really had no choice: he had to go to the Family.
They’re right, he thought, his heart stabbed by a pain worse than the throbbing in his skull. It’s my fault. If he had never met Tevera, never tried to use her for his own ends, she would be safe.
But he had met her, and tried to use her, and thus put her in danger. He had to help the Family get her back—and as he made that decision, the shameful thought rose inside him that maybe if he helped them, they would take him into space and…
Angry and disgusted with himself, Kriss pushed away from the table without touching the breakfast Zendra had brought him.
He would help Tevera. No matter what it meant for him.
No matter what the danger.