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
Kriss pulled Tevera to him, but she struggled free and stood defiant. Andru, Rigel and Nicora’s guards surged forward, but the threat of the beamers stopped them.
Vorlick himself carried no weapon. A blistered streak of red flesh marked his left cheek, and his once-immaculate suit dripped muddy water onto the hardwood floor as he strode into the common room, his fists clenched. When he spoke his voice was colder than the wind that whipped around him. “I’ve come for the artifact, boy.”
“My parents wouldn’t deal with you. Neither will I!” Kriss spat the words, and Nicora’s piercing green eyes locked on him.
“Remember what happened to them,” Vorlick said softly.
“Kill me and you’ll never even find the touchlyre. It’s hidden.” As he told the lie he prayed the Family would not betray him—and that Vorlick would not recognize the misshapen leather-wrapped bundle on the bar as the touchlyre.
Vorlick’s blue eyes narrowed. “Killing you would almost be worth losing it.” He smiled sardonically. “It’s not as if I need the money.”
Tevera edged closer to Kriss, and he saw Vorlick’s eyes flick to her, then back. Vorlick’s smile broadened, making Kriss think of a predator licking its chops after a kill. “But I have a better idea. I’ll keep you alive…for a while. Why don’t I start with the girl, instead?”
Rigel growled a curse and took a step forward, but three beamers swung to cover him and he froze. The muscles in his neck stood out like steel rods.
Kriss’s stomach knotted. “You wouldn’t…”
Vorlick jerked his head and the black-bearded giant to his right showed his yellow teeth in a humorless grin. He holstered his beamer, then drew a knife from his belt and started forward.
“I’ll break your arm if you try it,” Tevera said softly. The bearded man only grinned wider. Tevera tensed—
“All right!” Kriss cried. He closed his eyes. “All right.”
Tevera spun toward him. “Kriss, no!”
“Kelly, back in line,” Vorlick ordered. The bearded man shrugged, sheathed his knife, drew his beamer and returned to his place.
Tevera grabbed Kriss’s arm as he turned toward the bar, but he threw her off and pulled the sodden leather wrapping aside, revealing the glowing smoothness of the touchlyre. A deep hush fell on the room, through which he could hear Tevera’s ragged breathing—and the sharp crackling of the fire.
“Bring it here!” Vorlick snapped.
“All right,” Kriss said—and dashed toward the fireplace.
Tevera screamed. A beamer ray seared his cheek, dazzling him. He stumbled and another bolt shot over his head, then he smashed through the last chairs between him and the hearth and held the touchlyre over the blazing logs. “Hold your fire!” Vorlick yelled.
“Now we’ll bargain, Vorlick!” Kriss shouted, his eyes fixed on the leaping flames. “Or the touchlyre burns!”
But trembling gripped his limbs at the thought of the black wood burning, the silver strings melting and breaking, the copper plates buckling…the vision was so real it shocked him. He thought he felt the touchlyre’s phantom tentacles in his mind, scrabbling for survival.
“I can kill you from here!” Vorlick cried.
“Instantly? Because the last thing I’ll do is throw this into the fire!”
Silence. Sweat stung Kriss’s eyes, but he shivered as though standing naked in a mountain snowstorm. And all the time horror gnawed inside him at the thought of destroying the touchlyre, horror he held at bay only by thinking of the even more horrible alternative, of Tevera in the hands of that black-bearded monster…
Vorlick tried again. “I can kill everyone—including your girl!”
“The touchlyre will still burn!”
More silence. Kriss gasped for air, tortured by the heat, but he would not move. He could not.
“All right!” The offworlder’s voice was choked. “What do you want?”
“Let everyone else go. Now. When they’re gone—the artifact is yours.” What’s left of it, he added to himself, for once the room was empty, he would throw the touchlyre into the fire anyway. He couldn’t let Vorlick abuse its power. As for himself—his parents, Mella, Tevera, others had died or been endangered because of this alien monstrosity. It was time he faced that same risk. “Now, Vorlick!”
But Nicora, not Vorlick, replied. “No.”
He squeezed his eyes shut in agony. “Captain, take Tevera and go!”
“Who are you?” Vorlick demanded.
“Captain—” Kriss began again, pleading.
But Nicora snapped, “Tevera, keep him quiet.”
Footsteps. “Tevera, no—”
But she had already reached him. She snatched the instrument out of his hand and flung it on a table, then hugged him tightly.
He closed his eyes and held her. “What are you doing?” he whispered in anguish.
She silenced him with a kiss, then reached up and brushed his sweat-slick hair out of his eyes. Tears glittered, fire-lit, on her pale cheeks. “Trust the Captain.”
“Thank you,” Vorlick said sardonically, self-assured once more. Kriss looked the length of the dark room and met the man’s cold-steel eyes over Rigel’s tense shoulder. “Take him,” Vorlick commanded.
“Stay where you are!” Nicora’s tone assumed obedience. The armed men hesitated.
Vorlick’s glare shifted to her. “Old woman, I came for the artifact and the boy. What happens to you is of no concern—unless you get in my way.”
“I am already in your way.” She pointed at Kriss. “To take him, you’ll have to shoot me.”
Kriss drew in his breath, but Tevera gripped his arm painfully tight. “Shut up!”
“Captain, to you.”
“Of what? A fishing boat? A garbage scow?”
That drew a hissing intake of breath from everyone in the room, but no one moved, held impotent by the threat of the beamers.
Nicora drew herself up, and her scarlet robes and gleaming silver hair made her queenly. “I am Captain Nicora of the free Family trader Thaylia.”
“Family?” Vorlick sounded incredulous. “Then why are you protecting this—this ‘worldhugger’?”
“He is not a ‘worldhugger.’ He, too, is Family.” Kriss stared at her. “He and his artifact are under my protection.”
“I said take him!” Vorlick shouted to his men.
Two started forward, but the Captain stepped between them and Kriss and spread her thin arms. “I said you’ll have to shoot me first. But if you do, you will be marked men.” Nicora’s voice, calm but intense, dropped to a whisper. “Vorlick can’t protect you from the Family. No one can. The only place you might be safe is a planet where no Family ship would ever call—and there are no such planets, not in the Commonwealth. And even if you found one, you’d know we were after you, and what we’d do if we caught you. Will you risk that?”
One man stopped. “It’s not worth it.” His companion took only two more steps, then looked back uncertainly. “I’m not shooting a Family Captain,” the first man said. “No way.”
The other nodded, and both strode back to their places, beamers now pointed at the floor.
Vorlick glared at them, then at the rest of his men, but they wouldn’t meet his eyes. One by one, they lowered their weapons. He spun back toward the Captain. “You can’t keep him on board ship forever. Whenever and wherever he steps off, he’s fair game.”
“He’s Family, Vorlick,” the Captain said in the tone of one explaining to a not-very-bright child. “If anything happens to him, we’re going to blame you. You know we have ties to the Union. You harm Kriss, and we’ll put you out of business. You won’t be able to buy a ship, land or unload on any planet in the Commonwealth. And you’ll have to have guards around you all the time. Ask your men about Family vengeance.”
“But he’s just a worthless boy!”
Nicora’s gaze didn’t waver.
“All right! Maybe you could damage my business—but I own a lot of planet-based industry, too. How long can you last without supplies?”
“You have competitors. We don’t.”
Vorlick looked from face to face, as though searching for a way out. “Sell him to me! You’re traders. How much for the boy and the artifact? Any of you—name your price!”
A sound like a muted growl ran through the Family. The Captain stood a little stiffer yet. “This conversation is ended.” She turned her back on Vorlick, robes swirling.
“Damn you—” Vorlick started forward, but Nicora’s bodyguards intercepted him, beamers aimed at his heart, and his own men stood motionless. Stopped by their unwavering weapons, he made a small motion toward something at his belt, then suddenly swore, spun, and strode out into the rain.
His men backed nervously through the door after him. Rigel slammed the door shut behind the last one, and the room erupted as everyone suddenly had to talk about what they had just witnessed.
Kriss let out a deep breath he hadn’t realized he was holding. Tevera did the same, and they looked at each other and laughed—laughter that died as the Captain approached. For a moment as she stared at them her ancient face sagged with fatigue, but then she took a deep breath and straightened. “He won’t cause us any more trouble before we leave.”
“But afterward?” Kriss said softly.
She met his gaze without wavering. “He hasn’t given up. But remember—you’re not alone anymore.”
He looked down at the floor for a moment, then back up at those piercing, sea-ice eyes. “Why?”
“You put our safety above your own. That is the essence of the Family.”
And she had put her frail old body between him and Vorlick’s guns. His heart warmed toward her for the first time. “Thank you,” he said.
She nodded, then went to talk to Andru.
Tevera hugged him again. “Welcome to the Family!” she said joyfully, then looked past him, her smile fading. “Rigel…”
Kriss turned to face Tevera’s grim-faced brother. “Rigel?” he said tentatively, and held out his hand.
But Rigel made no move to take it. “The Captain says you are one of our Family,” he said coldly. “I must accept that. But I warn you—if you do anything to hurt my sister, anything at all, I’ll make you pay for it, with interest! Understand?” He turned on his heel and strode out the door and into the storm—and Kriss silently lowered his hand.
The Family officers soon followed Rigel, leaving Kriss with orders to report to the Thaylia the next morning. Finally only Tevera remained.
They sat together near the fire, the touchlyre on the table between them. Kriss ran a finger over its gently curved flank. “It doesn’t look dangerous, does it?”
“It’s beautiful,” Tevera said softly.
Kriss looked up at her. The firelight burnished her hair with copper, and warmed the curve of her cheek. “So are you,” he whispered.
She smiled. “Thank you.”
He plucked a string, and a single, crystal-clear note rang in the deserted common room. “Tevera…when you stood up for me, I…I couldn’t find words to say how I felt, so I said I loved you. That’s true, but…it isn’t enough.”
“Yes it is.”
“No. It isn’t. But it’s as close as I can come—in words.” He took a deep breath. “I’d like to tell you another way—with this.” He picked up the touchlyre, and she watched him silently. “I was afraid to play it earlier. I still think I was right. I was frustrated and angry, and it was those feelings the touchlyre forged into a weapon to use against Salazar. I couldn’t risk that with your Family.”
“Your Family,” Tevera reminded him, and he smiled at her.
“Our Family.” He settled the touchlyre into playing position. “I thought I’d never dare play it again. In fact, I hated the thing. But now…” He paused, looking into her eyes. “There’s so much I want to say, and the touchlyre is the only way I can say it. You know I can’t lie with this. If I play of my feelings for you…it’s up to you.”
Tevera leaned forward, resting her head on her folded arms. “Play.”
He nodded once, closed his eyes, and touched the copper plates.
A new song welled up in him, a fresh song, a song born for the first time not of longing but of fulfillment. The touchlyre drew out the love in his overflowing heart and gave it wings of music, forming it into crystal chords that rose to the great wooden beams of the ceiling and reached beyond to the stars, and bound him to Tevera in an intimacy closer than an embrace. This time he welcomed the artifact’s ghostly touch, and wondered how he could ever have feared something so wonderful, the final gift of his long-dead parents.
At last the music soared into silence. Kriss gently lay the touchlyre on the table again as Tevera, tears gleaming on her cheeks, stood and came around the table. “I love you,” she whispered, then put her arms around his neck and kissed him before going to the door and out.
Kriss went to his room and slept away the rest of the day.
The next morning, as he packed his handful of clothes and other belongings into his pack, he heard thunder from the spaceport. He ran to the window and leaned out in time to see Vorlick’s golden ship disappearing into the clear blue sky. Relieved, he finished packing and descended to the common room, where Andru and Zendra waited. “Ready?” the innkeeper asked. Kriss nodded, and together they went into the street.
The previous day’s storm had cleansed the air, and a pleasantly cool, fresh breeze from the mountains was all that remained of the howling wind. The whole city seemed bright and sparkling to Kriss, and the silver spires of the starships gleamed like a promise of the future.
They walked without speaking to the gate nearest the Thaylia, and paused there a moment in awkward silence. “I don’t know what to say,” Kriss said finally. “I want to leave, but…” He paused, then laughed. “I never thought I’d say this, but in some ways I don’t want to leave.”
“You must.” Zendra hugged him warmly. “You have a new life ahead of you.”
He returned the embrace, then, as they separated, said, “At least let me say I’m sorry…for what I said yesterday. It was stupid, but…I thought…I didn’t think anyone cared.”
She smiled. “It’s forgotten.”
He smiled back, then turned to the innkeeper. “Andru…”
“The best way you can thank me is to play for me whenever you come back.”
“I will,” he promised. “But it doesn’t seem enough.” He looked into Andru’s gray eyes. “I know how I feel now I have Tevera, and the Family. But I have to know—how do you feel? You’re alone now…”
Andru shook his head. “I’ve still got a family.” He glanced at Zendra. “Twenty years ago they told me my heart wouldn’t take another lift-off or re-entry. In all that time I’ve lived by Family Rule. But now…” He put his arm around Tevera. “I’m not Family any more. I’m going to marry Zendra.”
Kriss beamed. “That’s great!”
“I thought so,” Zendra put in.
“I meant what I said about coming back and playing for me,” Andru added. “I want to hear the songs you will sing after visiting the stars.” He smiled. “Besides, I’ll need all the help I can get to rebuild my reputation after throwing all my customers out into the street when I called the Council.”
Someone shouted Kriss’s name, and he turned to see Tevera waving near the Thaylia. He waved back. “I’ve got to go,” he said. He kissed Zendra on the cheek, then shook hands with Andru. “Good-bye.” He swallowed the sudden lump in his throat. “And thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Andru said quietly.
Kriss hurried through the gate to join the Family, but it seemed to him he was leaving family behind, too. Too much family, he thought wryly. That’s a new problem!
Sometime later he lay in an acceleration couch next to Tevera, looking up at viewscreens that showed the ground below and blue sky above. A voice crackled over the intercom. “Ten seconds.”
I’m almost free of Farr’s World, he thought; but in some ways he knew he would never be free. His parents and Mella had died there; he had grown up there. Only now that he was leaving it did he realize how much a part of him it was.
“Five seconds.” Tevera gripped his hand and he turned his head to see her smile—but saw Rigel glaring at him over her shoulder, too. There’s going to be trouble with him, a voice warned him inside, but the impending take-off blotted out all other concerns. He grinned at Rigel, then turned back toward the viewscreens as the voice completed the countdown.
“Two seconds…one…engines firing.”
White fire blotted out the ground and acceleration pressed him into the couch; but with what little breath he could spare he whooped with joy as the starship thundered skyward. Stars’ Edge dwindled and finally vanished beneath them, and in the other viewscreen the sky darkened and stars began to appear, brilliant jewels scattered across the eternal night. At last, Kriss thought. At last!
If Kriss had been writing a song about his life, he would have ended it at that moment, with Farr’s World fading behind them on the viewscreens and the universe unfolding in front of him like a spring flower. But his life wasn’t a song, or if it was, he wasn’t writing it, and as he gazed hungrily at those stars he remembered Vorlick. Somewhere out there lurked a man who wanted to kill him. And when he glanced at Tevera again and once more met Rigel’s angry gaze, he wondered if maybe there wasn’t someone on board who would be only too happy to help.
Absolute proof his life wasn’t a song came after the viewscreens were turned off, acceleration ceased and the Thaylia and everything on it became weightless—because nobody in a song would ever have become as violently ill as Kriss suddenly did.
“Space sickness,” Tevera informed him sympathetically in his tiny cabin as he floated out of the “head,” as they called it on-ship, after his third bout of retching into the vacuum-assisted toilet. “Your inner ear is confused by the lack of gravity. It will take you a while to adjust—but it does get better.”
“Sometimes,” said Rigel from the cabin’s open door, hanging upside-down relative to Kriss, who gulped and closed his eyes. Luxury passenger liners had artificial gravity, and space stations simulated it with spin, but the Family couldn’t waste the energy on the former and the Thaylia was too small for the latter. Instead they lived the space-borne half of their lives in zero-G, and moved through it like fish in a lake. He felt more like some clumsy calf that had fallen into the water and was floundering around desperately to keep from drowning. He swallowed hard; how could he still feel like throwing up when there was nothing left in his stomach to throw up? And where was up, anyway?
“Rigel—” Tevera warned, but her brother ignored her. Grinning, he came over to Kriss and clapped him on the shoulder, setting him spinning. Kriss grabbed the “bed”—which in zero-G became nothing more than a rack you tethered yourself to—to stop himself.
“Sometimes when we carry passengers they never get used to it at all, and we just have to dump them off at the next planet,” said Rigel. “Sure would be a shame if that happened to you, wouldn’t it, worldhugger?”
“Rigel, go away,” Tevera snapped.
“Can’t,” Rigel said cheerfully. “I’m here on duty. Crewman Lemarc has been assigned to my watch and I’m supposed to give him the guided tour of the ship. So if you’ll just follow me, ‘Crewman…’”
Kriss tentatively shoved off after him and succeeded only in cracking his head on the ceiling—or what would have been the ceiling on the ground. Spots swam in front of his eyes. Tevera turned on Rigel furiously. “You know he can’t come now! He’ll hardly be able to move around for at least a day.”
“First day, and he’s already missed a watch.” Rigel looked down at Kriss scornfully. “Not off to a very good start, are you, worldhugger?” He spun neatly in place. “I’m afraid I’ll have to report this…” He arrowed through the door and disappeared.
“Don’t mind him,” Tevera said. “I’ll get you a medical leave-from-duty. You just strap yourself into your bunk and try to get some sleep. By the time you wake up your brain will have made sense of the new sensory inputs and you’ll feel a hundred percent better. Then I’ll give you a guided tour of the ship—and teach you a few tricks for getting around in zero-G. All right?”
“Whatever you say,” Kriss said miserably. He pulled himself down to the bunk and, with Tevera’s help, secured himself loosely with the restraining straps.
“How’s your head?” Tevera asked before she left. “I could arrange for a painkiller—”
“It’s fine,” Kriss mumbled. “I’m sure Rigel is disappointed.”
“Rigel.” Tevera looked at the door. “I don’t understand him.”
“I don’t either. Why does he hate me so much?”
“He thinks he’s protecting me,” Tevera said.
“From me? I would never hurt you.” He closed his eyes, and the churning in his stomach and the dizziness in his head really did seem to ease. Hurt her? He remembered the way she had almost twisted his arm off when he’d dared to touch her at their first meeting, and smiled. She was more likely to hurt him…
“Try to convince my brother of that. It’s all because…” Her voice trailed off. “Well, it’s a long story.”
Kriss hardly heard her; his memory of their first meeting eased him seamlessly into a dream in which the brush of her lips against his and the sound of the cabin door closing all made perfect sense.