The Canadian Chamber Choir, with which I sometimes sing and on whose board of directors I served for a few years, is once again seeking applicants for its Conducting Fellow Program. If you’re a budding conductor, this would be invaluable…so read the press release below and consider applying!
For Immediate Release
CANADIAN CHAMBER CHOIR ANNOUNCES FELLOWSHIP FOR CONDUCTORS
“A national treasure” — Montreal Gazette
“Beyond brilliant . . . Don’t miss this choir” — Hamilton Spectator
The acclaimed national ensemble, the Canadian Chamber Choir, is excited to announce a unique opportunity for conductors: the CCC seeks applicants for its Conducting Fellow Program in conjunction with its October 2013 British Columbia tour. This is an outstanding opportunity for conductors to hone their skills, preparing and rehearsing challenging repertoire under the leadership of CCC Artistic Director Dr. Julia Davids and benefitting from immersion in a professional music-making environment.
Says Davids: “…aspiring and working conductors have the chance to experiment in communicating their own musical ideas to an established professional ensemble, with the added benefit of feedback from the singers themselves.”
The CCC functions to build community through choral singing. Singers come together at least twice a year, donating their time to perform and give workshops to develop young singers, conductors and composers. The group has garnered critical rave reviews and won fans with its “extraordinary refinements [of dynamic shading]“, “flawless intonation”, and “polished blend” (Montreal Gazette).
The application deadline is June 1st, 2013. The successful applicant will be notified by July 2nd, 2013. The Conducting Fellow is responsible for travel expenses getting to and from British Columbia as well as a tuition fee of $500. All other tour expenses (travel, room and board) will be assumed by the CCC. The dates for the tour are Oct. 13-20, 2013.
For more information about the fellowship and the CCC, please visit www.canadianchamberchoir.ca.
“My experience with the Canadian Chamber choir has taken my musical passion to a whole new level…That’s what the CCC and Dr. Davids are about: building up choral communities, giving composers a chance to hear their song, and inspiring, motivating and challenging emerging conductors like myself to recognize our full potential.” — Sonja van de Hoef, Canadian Chamber Choir Fellowship Recipient October 2006
Please send the following (either by email/mp3 or post) to the CCC Artistic Director:
Dr. Julia Davids, 5247 Cleveland Street, Skokie, IL, USA 60077 email@example.com
• letter detailing interest
• resumé or CV including 3 references
• list of repertoire conducted in rehearsal and performance
• one recording (DVD preferred) of an ensemble conducted by the applicant
• application processing fee of $25, payable to Canadian Chamber Choir
How late am I? So late that when I drove it, one of the things that impressed me the most was the way it handled the deep, icy ruts that plagued the streets of my neighborhood, thanks to this year’s record snowfall. (Oh, okay, actually deep, icy ruts plague the streets of my neighborhood every winter, but the record snowfall certainly didn’t help.)
Those ruts are now but an unpleasant memory: yesterday it was around 28 Celsius. And though it’s cooler today, it does appear spring really has sprung in Saskatchewan at last.
Fortunately, the ability to handle ruts with aplomb was not the only thing that impressed me about the Explorer.
In fact, there were many things. It was comfortable. It was sharp-looking (see the photos for proof). It had all the bells and whistles I’ve become accustomed to in current-model Fords, including Microsoft Sync (which I’m getting better at talking to without losing my temper all the time, thanks for asking), that rear-view camera I really, really miss on my own car after I’ve driven a Ford equipped with it for a few days, an excellent climate-control system, and a very nice sound system.
But the one thing I really noticed was…this is a sport-utility vehicle that really takes the “sport” seriously. (Hey, maybe that’s why it’s in the name. You think?)
I don’t always get to take these test drives on a highway trip, but I had reason to go to Weyburn while I had the Explorer, and so for once I did get to drive it a couple of hundred kilometers at highway speed. It had oodles of power for passing: I never felt it was sluggish, which is one of the things I generally don’t like about larger vehicles, being (as I’ve said before) much more of a car guy than an SUV or truck guy. (Although one of my cars is a 1977 Cadillac Eldorado that’s not exactly sprightly, but hey.)
That power comes courtesy of…well, let’s let Car and Driver describe it. From the C&D test drive:
In a nutshell, the Explorer Sport is simply an Explorer fitted with the Taurus SHO’s 3.5-liter EcoBoost V-6. Here it makes 365 hp and 350 lb-ft of torque. Hit the throttle, and it’s pretty clear this is not your usual seven-seat Ford—it rockets to 80 mph before the acceleration starts to tail off. Zero-to-60 times fall from about eight seconds for the naturally aspirated V-6 Explorer to around six for the Sport.
No wonder it didn’t feel sluggish!
So, if I were in the market for an SUV—which I’m not—but if I were, there’s no question the Ford Explorer Sport would be high on my list. Power, comfort, and rutted-Regina-street aplomb.
What’s not to like?
It’s been a while, but, hey, April was the cruelest month, what with novel rewriting and family duties and let us not forget income tax. Oh, and I was also performing, in Regina Lyric Musical Theatre’s spring show, When You Wish Upon A Star: Music from the Wonderful World of Disney. My solo number was “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me),” but I think the highlight of the evening for everyone was the men’s chorus performing “The Bare Necessities.” It involved tail-waggling. Let’s leave it at that.
But speaking of Regina Lyric Musical Theatre brings me to this bit of news, which I’ve known for a while but was kind of made official in the program for the Disney revue: Lyric’s fall show will be As Time Goes By: A Love Story with Music and Ghosts, which is a play-with-music I wrote and will be directing.
Its inspiration is the wealth of old sheet music found alongside the grand piano in the old house in which I live, which once belonged to my wife’s grandparents, Sam and Nancy Goodfellow, noted patrons of the arts in the city for many years. Nancy was a talented singer in her own right who could quite possibly have had a career on stage. She didn’t follow that route, but she never lost her love for music (she was instrumental in the creation of the Regina Musical Club) and she and Helen Jolly, head nurse at the Regina General Hospital, would buy sheet music and play and sing it at home for enjoyment.
The story I’ll tell around this old sheet music is entirely fictional: but the music is all music found in our house. And the show is already fully cast (barring unforeseen developments between now and the still-distant production dates of November 7-10).
The story goes like this:
John Brenner (played by Reece Wagner), born and raised in Toronto, has had a minor career as a nightclub entertainer as “Johnny B,” but work is drying up and so he’s desperately seeking for a new angle. He’s been momentarily sidetracked by an unexpected development: his Great Aunt Dorothy has recently died and left him her old house in Regina and all its contents. His plan is to auction its contents and sell the place, and he’s come to Regina—the first time he’s ever been here—to make the arrangements.
But when he visits the house, he discovers the grand piano in the living room, and a ton of old sheet music. He’s struck by an idea: he’ll create a new act based on the music he’s found there. “Vintage” is the new wave. Of course he won’t do it straight. He’ll give in an ironic twist. It’ll be great…
Accompanying Johnny on his trip are his manager, Grace Elliott (Jamie Lemmerick), and his piano player, Tim (Ben Redant, who will also be music director). Unlike John, Grace knows Regina well. She was born and raised here, but went off to make her own career. She never had much luck as a singer, but she’s been quite successful as Johnny’s manager and agent. She’s also secretly in love with him, but he’s never twigged. He’s had a series of girlfriends, none of which lasted (sometimes thanks to a little help from Grace).
Grace has her own agenda for the trip to Regina. Her parents are getting old and she’s their only daughter. She’s decided she needs to move back to Regina to be closer to them. She’s planning to quit as Johnny’s manager while they’re there, and has the forlorn hope that maybe the shock of that will make Johnny realize how he really feels about her…
Tim’s agenda is simply to get paid, but while he’s in Regina, he discovers a kindred spirit in Bitsy Kapusianyk (Jessica Scheurer), the real estate agent Johnny has hired to sell the house. She’s an old friend of Grace’s, divorced, and loves the funny novelty songs of mid-century, just like Tim. With Johnny’s career on the rocks, Tim makes plans to move in with Betty and start his own act.
There’s a second story that plays out concurrently, with a slight ghostly twist. Great Aunt Dorothy (Erin Johansen)’s spirit still dwells in the house, and as Johnny, Tim and Grace play through the music in the piano bench, we see her ghostly memories brought to life, so that the audience learns things Johnny doesn’t yet know about why Great Aunt Dorothy never married…and why her house is full of music.
Great Aunt Dorothy grew up in and fell in love with a talented young man named Harold Horning (Garrett Woods). They were supposed to be married and had plans to create a musical act together, but he got an unexpected gig with a big-name band as a vocalist. He went on tour, promising to come back…but he never did. And soon enough, he quit writing. Great Aunt Dorothy never married. She never quit singing, but only for her own pleasure.
Harold Horning, meanwhile, went on to be quite famous during the 1950s and 1960s, but faded as the rock era came on. He never came back to Regina. He married and divorced three times, never had children, and eventually disappeared.
Grace discovers the connection between Great Aunt Dorothy and Harry Horn, and also discovers that Harry died penniless, alone and forgotten in an Ontario nursing home. That, and the revelation that Grace is leaving him…and loves him (and that Tim is also planning to stay in Regina) brings about our denouement: Johnny decides to keep the Regina house and marry Grace. He’s not sure what that means for his singing career, but he’s finally realized some things are more important than his career.
The story ends with a ghostly Harry coming into the living room. He’s finally returned for Dorothy. They’re together again at last…and forever.
Rounding out the cast is Nora Berg, who plays Dorothy’s friend, Helen, and Harold’s nurse.
Much more information to come as the production dates get closer. I’m very excited about this project and can’t wait to see it on stage! Hopefully in the company of numerous audience members.
Every Saturday I’ve been posting a chapter or two of my young adult science fiction novel Star Song…and here, at last, is the thrilling (I hope) conclusion! First visit? The whole thing starts here with Chapter 1 and an explanation.
By Edward Willett
“How?” Tevera cried.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. He’s here.” They had lost, Kriss knew bitterly. Gemfire was heavily armed; the Thaylia, though she carried weapons, could not hope to stand against the golden ship’s firepower. They could do nothing to stop Vorlick from taking the fortress.
But Yverras didn’t seem to realize it. “Rigel,” he called urgently. “Stay near the trail. If any of Vorlick’s men come along, pick them off. Understood?”
Yverras glanced at Dralos. “All right. Dralos, you go back along our trail. Stay under cover, but don’t hesitate; if you see any of Vorlick’s men, shoot. See if you can link up with Rigel—his communicator’s out.”
Kriss suddenly swore. “Rigel! I’ll bet he told Vorlick where we are!”
“No…” Tevera protested.
“How else did he—”
“Never mind that now,” Yverras snapped. “Vorlick’s here. That’s all that matters. If any of us survive this we can worry later about how he found us. Ellavar!”
“I hear you,” the woman responded.
“Stay put and stay covered. If anybody gets past Rigel and Dralos, they’re your responsibility. I’ll stay here by the gate as a last line of defense.”
“What about us?” Tevera demanded. “I can use a beamer!”
“So can I!” Kriss said, although he never had.
“You may have to. But for now, your job is to make sure those recordings get made. That’s what we’re here for, and if we escape they’ll be our proof we were here first.”
A new voice suddenly crackled across the communicators. “Greetings to the Family ship Thaylia! Greetings, Kriss Lemarc!”
Kriss opened his mouth to reply, but Tevera switched off her transceiver and gripped his arm. “No!” she said sharply. “It’s the Captain’s place to answer. Remember, you’re Family again.”
Vorlick called for him again, and this time received a reply—but not from Kriss. “This is Captain Nicora of the Thaylia. I’m surprised you had the courage to face the Family again, Vorlick.”
If the jibe registered, Vorlick’s sardonic voice didn’t reveal it. “Ah, Captain Nicora. It’s been a long time since that night on Farr’s World. Things have changed.”
“I fail to see how. Kriss Lemarc is still Family.”
“But you see, Captain, I don’t need him any more. I have the alien artifact, and from here I can see the site where it was found. You are quite incapable of preventing me from taking it.”
“This site is claimed by the Family. Under Commonwealth Law—”
“This site isn’t claimed by anybody until the proper documentation is in the hands of the nearest Commonwealth court, Captain, and no court is going to be receiving anything from you.”
“The Family will—”
“The Family is not as powerful or omnipresent as you like to pretend—or as certain of my more superstitious employees believe. Its reputation protected you on Farr’s World; it will not protect you from me or those with me now. The Family will never know what happened to you—you will have vanished in space, like so many other ships.” He laughed. “Perhaps they’ll make a song about you.”
“Others already know where we are.”
“I assume by ‘others’ you mean Andru of Farr’s World. He won’t live an hour past the time I return there.”
“No!” Kriss burst out.
Instantly Vorlick’s voice crackled back. “So, young Lemarc, you are listening?” He paused. “And not transmitting from the Thaylia. I do believe you’ve started exploring without me…”
Another voice suddenly drowned him out. “Yverras, this is on the emergency override frequency,” their shipboard monitor said urgently. “Vorlick’s sending an armed party down his ramp—five…no, six men.”
“…trespassing on my newly acquired property,” Vorlick was saying. “I’m afraid I’m out of patience.”
Yverras quickly reset all of their transceivers to transmit on the new frequency. “Get back inside,” he said sharply. “And close the door, if you can.”
“I won’t—” Tevera began.
“You’ll obey orders!” Yverras snapped; then his voice softened. “I’ll hide in the grass just outside. They won’t even know I’m there—until it’s too late. Now move!”
Kriss hesitated a moment longer, then said, “Good luck!”, grabbed Tevera’s hand, and dashed back toward the fortress. They burst through the diamond-shaped door and the sudden impact of the fortress’s mental energies smashed Kriss to his knees—but he still managed to swing around awkwardly and slap a white block like that on the outside. The gate closed.
He staggered to his feet. He had to hold out—he had to keep control! He rubbed his temples with the heels of his hands, hard. The silvery probe zipped by overhead, still busily mapping.
“Let’s go,” Tevera demanded, pulling at his hand.
“Where?” he said. “All we can do now is wait—”
“Maybe, maybe not. But down here we’ll never know what’s happening.” She pointed at the central tower. “If we can get up there, we’ll be able to see the ships, and the clearing. Our communicators might even work.”
“I should have thought of that,” Kriss muttered, then staggered as a sharp, phantom pain stabbed his side.
“Looks to me like you’ve got all you can do to think at all,” Tevera commented. “But then, what else is new?”
He shot her a surprised look, and despite everything had to laugh at her impish grin. “Come on, then,” he said, holding out his hand. “Lead me up the garden path.”
Halfway to the tower he blacked out for a second, and came to to find himself on his hands and knees, shards of shattered black pavement digging painfully into his palms and Tevera tugging at his shoulders. “Kriss? Kriss, are you all right?”
“No,” he said truthfully, “but what difference does it make?”
“I never thought—” Tevera looked up at the tower. “What if that happens while you’re climbing?”
He staggered upright, clinging to her. “We’ll manage,” he said.
For a few moments as they neared the base of the tower the mental pressure seemed to ease slightly, and Kriss was able to concentrate on the task of circling the white stone wall and feeling it carefully. “Here!” he said suddenly, and pushed. A large diamond-shaped section moved inward and slid aside.
Instantly a stronger blast of mental energy blurred his vision, and he had to lean against the tower for support. “Kriss?” Tevera said anxiously.
He pushed himself upright, fighting sudden vertigo. “I’m all right. Let’s go.” He stepped through the tall portal.
He expected darkness inside, but instead found an eerie, greenish light like burning swamp gas. A steep, narrow-stepped stairway made of the same white stone as the outside of the tower climbed up into dimness, spiraling around the tower’s central cylindrical core.
Something else unexpected also happened: the sense of dozens of mental forces pushing and pulling at his brain vanished. Now he felt a single force prying at his mental defenses, a single force as strong as, or stronger than, all the others combined.
Phantom fingers, he thought suddenly. Phantom fingers…just like the touchlyre, but stronger; and now that it was reduced to a single mental tentacle, he had the sense it was searching his mind for something and failing to find it, setting off random sensory impressions as it rummaged around.
Tevera touched his shoulder, and he shook his head sharply, trying to clear it, then smiled at her. “I’ll go first. If I fall—catch me.”
“Sure,” she said staunchly.
Kriss studied the stairs. They were too steep to climb normally, and each step was too narrow to place his whole foot on, even at the outside of the spiral. They’d have to climb the stairway more like a ladder. “Right, then,” he said, took a deep breath and, using both hands and feete, started to climb.
They slowly spiraled up the tower. Kriss concentrated on one step at a time, not thinking about how high they had come or how much farther they might have to go. Between the awkward shape of the steps and the higher gravity, it was hard enough to just keep moving. His shins and forearms felt on fire.
Worse, as he climbed the assault on his senses became stronger. He thought he knew the cause, now, but that didn’t help when his vision suddenly filled with fireworks or his hands and feet went cold and numb.
Abruptly all his senses vanished utterly, and his mind drifted free, frozen with the horrible thought that he could be falling, rolling down the steps, Tevera perhaps tangled with him, and wouldn’t know he’d lost his grip until they both lay crushed at the bottom of the tower.
But that terror passed as swiftly as it had come, and he was still clinging to the stone. He risked a glance behind and saw Tevera peering up, her anxious face drawn and pale in the eerie glow. He wanted to smile at her reassuringly, but couldn’t quite manage it. Instead he peered up into the dim green murk. How much further?
Only a few more light years, he thought grimly, forcing his arms and legs to pull him upward again, but in fact only thirty steps later he emerged through another diamond-shaped opening into a circular room, and crouched trembling on his hands and knees for a moment before turning to help Tevera through.
Her hands shook as she pushed her sweat-slicked hair back from her eyes. “Are we at the top?”
“We can’t be. There are windows…” He looked around, and saw a ladder, its rungs absurdly wide-spaced, climbing to another door in the high ceiling. “Up there,” he said, and led the way.
A single push dislodged the upper door, and brilliant sunlight streamed into the dim room, bringing with it a blast of air as hot and humid as though from a greenhouse, but as deliciously fresh to Kriss as though he were surfacing from a long underwater dive. He gulped two or three lungfuls, then climbed through the opening, Tevera close behind. He almost fell back on top of her as the mental pressure redoubled, but managed to hold on and push back enough to remain in control. Only then did he look around.
They stood in a circular room only ten feet or so in diameter. A thin pole of blue metal rose from the floor through a hole in the transparent roof, supporting the crystal globe that capped the tower. Beside the pole rose a glassy pedestal, a perfect cylinder, except that on top, instead of being flat, its smooth substance was molded into gentle hills and valleys. Kriss ran his fingers over them. “It’s the same,” he breathed. “Exactly the same shape.” He looked at Tevera. “This is where my father found the touchlyre—right here.” He stared around the room, at the eight glassless windows that pierced the thin white walls. A light breeze swept cleanly through the space, and he imagined his father standing exactly where he stood now, only a few years his senior, that same breeze ruffling his hair as it did in the picture the Library had shown him…
“And Vorlick has it now,” Tevera reminded him, almost harshly, snapping him out of his reverie. She went to edge of the room and looked across the bright green forest, holding onto one of the thin pillars between the windows. Kriss reluctantly left the pedestal and joined her, and his eyes were immediately drawn to the two ships glittering on the open landing field.
But Tevera was looking nearer. “There!” she suddenly cried, as bright blue flashes lit a section of the forest near the clearing. “Rigel!”
“No, only Dralos,” Yverras said over their communicators, his voice grim. “No one has seen Rigel.”
Tevera’s hand tightened on the slim pillar. Kriss said nothing.
Another beamer flashed in the jungle, and a horrible scream, cut suddenly short, echoed over the communicators.
“Dralos,” Yverras said. “Ellavar, be ready.”
A new voice crackled in their ears. “Vorlick, this is Rigel. Let me board.”
“I knew it!” Kriss snarled.
Yverras’s only comment was a wordless growl.
The shipboard monitor spoke, his voice icy. “Vorlick is letting Rigel into his ship. And Yverras, we have a new problem. Our sensors indicate Vorlick is training his guns on us. Stay away from the ship. Our screens will hold for a while, but there’s going to be a lot of stray energy—”
Static drowned his voice as Vorlick fired.
Thick red beams leaped across the few hundred feet separating the starships, and instantly the Thaylia’s defensive fields flared into life, radiating the energy away in sheets of blinding, blue-white flame. What vegetation the Thaylia’s landing had left on the field near burned instantly away, and the nearest jungle trees began to shrivel and char. Thick gray smoke billowed up, but couldn’t hide the blinding radiance surrounding the Family ship.
Four of Vorlick’s men, armed with beamer rifles, emerged into the clearing below, then flung themselves into the grass as Ellavar opened fire, her beamer ray an insubstantial blue flicker compared to the awesome firepower of the Gemfire. Tevera drew her own beamer, but then shoved it back in her holster. “Too far,” she said bitterly. “We should have carried rifles like Vorlick’s men.” She raised her eyes to the pyrotechnics surrounding the two ships. “The Thaylia can’t last more than a few minutes. Her power reserves must be plummeting. And once they’re gone…” She turned away and pressed her face hard against Kriss’s chest. “I don’t want to see this.”
Kriss didn’t want to either, but he couldn’t seem to look away. His mind provided the gruesome details still to come. The screens would fail. The red beams would rip into the sleek skin of the Thaylia, which would flare and run molten. The air inside would superheat, bursting out through the sagging metal, and the people…
Once he had tried to protect them from Vorlick because they were Tevera’s family and he loved her. But now, when he was about to lose them forever, the image that leaped to his mind was Nicora, frail and tiny, facing down Vorlick’s henchmen to protect him. In minutes she would die…
…like his parents…like Mella…like everyone he had ever called family…
His arms tightened around Tevera, the last person he had left to love. For the first time he wished he had the touchlyre, not as a musical instrument, not as the key to the power of the fortress, but as a weapon, a weapon he could use to hurl his rage at Vorlick as he had at Salazar. He pictured Vorlick’s face going slack, his eyes dull, as the touchlyre forged Kriss’s fury into a bright, deadly sword of revenge…
Was he imagining it? No! Unmistakably, clear but faint, he could feel the familiar mental touch, so much weaker than the force pressing on him from all sides in the tower, but utterly distinct from it. But how…? It was locked on Vorlick’s ship!
Yet he could feel it, beyond any doubt! He stared across the jungle at the golden vessel pouring destruction into the Thaylia. The tower! Somehow the tower had amplified his link with the touchlyre. It must have sensed the touchlyre’s presence, used its power to reach out for it…
But could he control the touchlyre at such a distance? He strove to pour his hatred and fury into it, to make it strike out at Vorlick, but everything seemed locked in his own head. He could feel the touchlyre’s touch, but couldn’t make use of it.
Of course not, some inner voice said. You’ve raised a shield against the tower. It can’t get in all the way—and you can’t get out at all.
But if he lowered that shield, the sensory chaos would overwhelm him. He’d be helpless, unable to control the touchlyre even if he reached it. “No!” he screamed in the face of the dilemma. Tevera’s head jerked up—and a bright blue beam slashed through the tower, narrowly missing them.
Kriss remembered the battle in the clearing and stared down at it. Ellavar lay still on the small rise; a crumpled figure in the grass bore mute testimony to her marksmanship. But now the remaining three of Vorlick’s men were using that same hill as cover from which to shoot at Yverras—and one of them had seen Kriss and Tevera in the tower.
“Ellavar—” Tevera cried, and though she’d said herself it was too far, she drew her beamer again, took aim and fired.
Her beam dispersed into uselessness in the thick air before it reached the hill.
The return beam did not. Before Kriss could pull Tevera back, push her to safety, or even cry out, blue fire ripped through the chamber and into Tevera’s side, making a horrible sizzling hiss. Without even screaming, she crumpled to the floor and lay still, whisps of smoke rising from her body.
Time stopped. Kriss screamed, or thought he did, but heard nothing; for in the horror of that moment his shield against the fortress crashed down, and simultaneously his will flashed along the link with the touchlyre and the powerful force that had been trying to break into his mind succeeded.
Though it was half a mile away, he sensed the tortured cry of the touchlyre as it reacted to his blazing emotion and struck out at his enemies. Instantly the Gemfire’s weapons fell silent.
But Kriss hardly realized what he had accomplished. A powerful echo of his rage flashed back along the link with the touchlyre, and the fortress seized it.
Everything drained from him: all his rage, his hatred, his fear and his grief flowed into the touchlyre and from it into the fortress, until suddenly he had no more to give. He collapsed limply beside Tevera, his spirit numb, while the echoes of his own emotions howled around him like a hurricane.
Light kindled in the crystal globe high above, barely visible at first, but swelling until it seared his eyes. The pain stirred him to motion, and he crawled to the edge of the room to stare out over the burning jungle at the two silent ships.
Lightning flickered across the scene. He blinked, uncertain where it had come from, then saw it again.
From every tower still standing in the ancient fortress, bolts of energy streamed into the globe above him.
In the clearing Vorlick’s men ran for cover, Yverras’s beamer lashing at their heels. They cast sharp shadows against the tall grass in the light of the crystal globe, which now outshone the sun. The pale sky seemed darkened to twilight in its glare.
Abruptly the streamers of power ended, and for a moment a deadly stillness hung over the jungle. Then a single dart of energy from the globe of crystal shrieked through the smoky air—and with a blast that ripped through the trees like a tornado, Gemfire exploded in a ball of white flame that swept outward and vanished, leaving only empty, blackened pavement.
As the tower shook under the shock wave, Kriss crawled back to Tevera’s side and lay his head on her breast. Then darkness struck him down.
He woke in a soft bed, and for a moment gazed blankly at a white metal ceiling, until memory rushed over him and he shot upright. “Tevera!”
He found himself looking at the Captain, who stood at his feet. Wildly, he stared around the small infirmary of the Thaylia. To his horror, he saw only empty beds.
“I was told you would be waking,” Nicora said, moving to his side, a rare smile crinkling her face.
“Where’s Tevera?” he demanded frantically. “She was shot…she should be here…” He clutched at the Captain. “She’s not…” He choked on the word.
“She’s not,” put in a familiar voice, and Tevera came through the door from the corridor. She looked pale and she walked stiffly, but she was very much alive.
Kriss would have leaped out of bed and run to her, but his muscles were reluctant to obey, and the Captain pushed him firmly back. “You’re to stay put until you’re fully recovered,” she said sternly. Then her expression softened. “At least now we know you will recover.”
Tevera moved to the other side of the bed, and he reached out and gripped her hand tightly. “I thought you were dead,” he whispered.
“You came closer to dying than I did,” she said. “When I came to they said you hadn’t moved since they found us, and no one seemed to know what was wrong…what happened to you?”
Kriss thought back to those final, terrible seconds. “I was trying to contact the touchlyre,” he said slowly. “I could feel it, but I couldn’t reach out to it without opening up to the fortress. But then you were shot, and I lost control…and somehow, through me, the touchlyre and the fortress were connected.
“The touchlyre struck at Vorlick and his crew just like I wanted…and then through me it passed along that same order to the fortress: strike at Vorlick! What I felt inside the wall was the fortress searching for instructions. I couldn’t control it with my mind alone, but with the touchlyre…earth-shattering power, just like my father said. But I was the weak link in the circuit.” He shook his head. “All these years, using it as a musical instrument…that ability was nothing more than a side-effect. It was nothing but a part of an alien weapon…”
“Maybe, maybe not,” said Nicora. “We know nothing about the race that built the touchlyre and the fortress. In human history weapons have often been objects of art as well as killing devices. Why shouldn’t another race see fit to make its weapons objects of music?”
“Well, I certainly liked it a lot better as a musical instrument than as a weapon,” Kriss said. “But it’s gone now, isn’t it? It was on board Vorlick’s ship…”
Tevera released his hand. “That’s what I thought, too. But…”
“You know Rigel went aboard the Gemfire,” Nicora said.
Kriss nodded. “He must have contacted Vorlick some way, led him here.”
“So I supposed…but I was wrong. We all were.” She went to a cabinet by the door and pulled out an object wrapped in scorched, blackened leather.
“The touchlyre!” Kriss gasped.
Nicora brought it back and lay it on the bed beside him. “Rigel convinced Vorlick he knew an important secret about the fortress. In a sense it was true—he knew that the touchlyre was a controlling device for the fortress—he heard you say so. But he had no intention of telling Vorlick that.” She tapped the instrument lightly. “This is what he went on board for. I don’t know how he reached it—no one will ever know. But while Vorlick was concentrating on destroying us, Rigel stole the touchlyre from under his nose. We saw him stagger out of the Gemfire just moments before the weapons stopped firing.”
“That’s when I felt the touchlyre,” Kriss said in sudden realization. “He brought it into the open, and it reached out for me…” He touched the sooty leather. “He tried to apologize to me and I wouldn’t let him,” he said softly. “Is he…”
“He’s dead,” Tevera said in a choked voice. “They say he was dying when he came down the ramp with the instrument. He was just inside the jungle when the Gemfire…” Her voice trailed off.
“I’m sorry.” Kriss pulled her down to him and she sobbed against his chest as if she hadn’t wept for her brother until that moment—and maybe she hadn’t, he thought, if she were also worrying about him. He felt a curious emptiness inside. He had known Rigel only as an enemy—yet in the end that “enemy” had saved his life—all their lives. “Apology accepted, Rigel,” he whispered.
This time, Rigel hadn’t stood by helplessly while ‘worldhuggers’ killed his family. This time, he’d stopped it.
After a moment Tevera pulled back. “All right?” he murmured.
“I’ll manage,” she whispered, wiping her eyes on her sleeve, and gave him a small smile.
Nicora cleared her throat. “There is one other matter we should discuss,” she said. “What are your personal plans, Kriss?”
He stared at her. “What?”
She spread her hands. “You know your true identity. Your enemy is gone. The Commonwealth recognizes you as an Earth citizen. The reasons you gave on Farr’s World for joining the Family no longer exist…and we have wronged you, more than once. You also have Finder’s Rights to this site, and a Commonwealth court in possession of all the facts would undoubtedly grant you a rather enormous compensation from Vorlick’s estate—which means you could have the money to do whatever you want.” She looked him in the eye. “It is your choice, Kriss Lemarc. Do you remain Family?”
Kriss looked down at the blackened leather wrapping of the touchlyre, and slowly unfolded it, revealing wood, silver and copper, all seemingly untouched by the explosion that had scorched the covering. His fingers caressed the touchplate. The strings shivered to life, murmuring a faint chord, and he felt a familiar touch in his mind. Weapon, key, musical instrument or all three, the touchlyre was part of him. He had loved it, and hated it; lost it, and found it again. In a most unexpected fashion, it had brought him everything he had dreamed it might ever since Mella first gave it to him: knowledge of his parents, the freedom of the stars, and…
He looked from it to Tevera, and reached for her hand, and though he spoke to Nicora, it was Tevera’s eyes he held with his own. “Captain, I want the same thing I’ve always wanted—a family.” He squeezed Tevera’s hand. “And I’ve found it.”
The light that came into Tevera’s tear-stained face was like the dawn of a bright new day.
Masks will be followed next year by Shadows, and then by Faces. And after that…well, we’ll see. I’m hoping the series will continue, but that’ll be up to readers like you.
Below is a handy-dandy widget for pre-ordering Masks now, should you so desire.
Remember: order early–order often!
The deadline for nominations for the Aurora Awards, for the best Canadian speculative fiction, is just two weeks away (April 15)…so naturally I’m only now getting around to making my only Aurora eligible work of the year available online for potential nominators to read.
Still, ’tis better to have posted the story and not be nominated than never to have posted the story at all, so without further ado, my humorous SF story “A Little Space Music,” which appeared in the Spring 2012 issue of On Spec magazine (the cover art for which, posted at left, is by P. John Burden.)
Should you wish to nominate it for an Aurora Award, just go here and follow the instructions.
But whether you choose (or are eligible) to nominate it or not, I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it!
A Little Space Music
By Edward Willett
Dripping viscous green slime onto the brushed-steel plates of the recreation room floor, the pulsating blue slug reared until it towered a full metre above my head.
Its mouth peeled open like a gaping wound. Strings of mucus like pus-colored rubber bands stretched between the upper and lower palates, stretched, stretched–then snapped and fell toward the already fouled floor like slow-motion bungee jumpers.
Three eyes the color of old blood reared up on black stalks, somehow remaining focused one me even as they weaved and dodged like demented cobras in thrall to acid jazz played by a drunken snake charmer.
Then…then came the ultimate horror. The monstrosity made a noise like a saber-toothed tiger coughing up a hairball…and began to sing.
“Midnight…not a sound from the pavement…”
Oh, no. No!
“Touch me, it’s so easy to leave me…”
That which does not kill me makes me stronger, I reminded myself. I felt very strong indeed by the time Lloyd Weber’s oft-abused “classic” ground to its inevitable conclusion.
“Thank you, Mr…Urkh(cough)lisssss(choke). That was very…interesting. We’ll be letting…people…know in about a shipday.”
The slug grunted something that might have been “Thank you,” or might have just been a correction of my pronunciation of his–I checked the information sheet–oops, its–name, and slithered out, leaving a trail of green goop a metre wide in its wake.
Groaning, I rested my aching head in hands, twitched my jaw sideways to activate my implanted commbug, and croaked out, “Next!”
This nightmare had begun the moment I boarded the XX Mendel, rushing down the loading ramp as though the hounds of hell were after me–which wasn’t too far from the truth, considering Governor Feldercarb’s minions sported long black fur, long blue teeth, and bioluminescent eyes that radiated heavily in the longer wavelengths of visible light.
One thing neither of the two possessed, however, was a boarding pass for the Mendel. The security tanglefield stopped them in their tracks at the top of the ramp. My elation evaporated two seconds later when, at the bottom of the ramp, the tanglefield likewise wrapped me in molasses and hardened to amber. Immobilized, I watched the ship’s security hatch open, revealing a stocky, auburn-haired-and-bearded man in a bright-red uniform liberally adorned with gold buttons and brain. He looked like he’d just stepped offstage from playing the Major General in The Pirates of Penzance. “Professor Peak, I presume?” he said.
I found myself rather breathless, though probably due more to the tanglefield’s compression of my lungs than the sudden outbreak of alliteration. “You have…the advantage…of me…sir.”.
“Forgive me. Robert Robespierre Robinson, Captain of the multi-species capable luxury liner XX Mendel, pride of the Blue Nebula Line, at your service.” The captain inclined his head slightly. “My friends call me Redbeard. You can call me Captain. Or ‘sir.’“ He looked over his shoulder and made an abrupt cutting-his-own-throat gesture, which alarmed me until the tanglefield suddenly shut off and I realized it hadn’t been a signal for summary execution. I staggered. The captain caught me and straightened me up, then released me.
I took a couple of deep breaths. “I’m honored you felt it necessary to greet me in person…sir.”
“I’m sure.” The Captain looked up the ramp. Feldercarb’s hellhounds snarled at him. He turned on his heel. “Come with me, ‘Professor.’ We have matters to discuss.”
Relieved and alarmed at the same time, I followed the Captain through corridors paneled with pearl and carpeted in plush pale pink to his spacious stateroom. From the platinum-floored foyer he led me into an office, and pointed me to a gray blob of pseudoleather facing a desk of black metal, topped with glass. He eased himself down on the identical gray blob on the other side of the desk; it swelled and puffed into a comfortable-looking armchair. I sat down on my gray blob, and it instantly sprang into a rigid, straight-backed shape with all the give of a block of steel. Okay, then, I thought. At least I know where I stand…er, sit.
The Captain steepled his fingers under his chin and looked at me. “You’re a wanted man, Professor. And not just by your friends on the loading dock.” He tapped the desktop, and the faint glow of a holodisplay, illegible from where I sat, sprang into existence above the desk. “There are outstanding warrants for your apprehension on half a dozen different planets.”
I cleared my throat. “Cultural misunderstandings. I’m a businessman trying to make an honest living, that’s all..”
Captain Robinson barked. It took me a moment to recognize the sound as a laugh. “You’re a con man. ‘Professor Peter Peak’ is not you’re real name. Too alliterative, for one thing.”
Despite myself, I felt my left eyebrow lift. The captain didn’t miss it. “I never said Robert Robespierre “Redbeard” Robinson was my real name either, did I? But we’re discussing your past, not mine.”
“With all due respect, I’d rather talk about my future.”
“In good time.” The Captain tapped the desktop again. “Before you became Professor Peter Peak, purveyor of programmable paramours, you went by the name Aristotle Atkinson, and sold subscriptions to Encyclopedia Galactic…until someone realized there’s no such thing. Before that, you were Dr. Schroeder Petering, sole authorized human sales agent for life-extension nanomachines from Tofuni Secundus…quite a feat, since the Tofuni system has no planets.”
“An unfortunate accident involving a planet-eating nanoswarm,” I said. “Hardly my fault. As I explained.”
“And yet, your customers tried to lynch you just the same,” the Captain said. “People can be so unreasonable.” He tapped again. “But never mind. The version of you I’m interested in is the original.”
I stiffened. No!
“Jerry Smith,” he said (and the sound of my birth name made my heart skip a beat), “this is your life.” He tapped, and the holodisplay suddenly became visible to me, too, revealing all the sordid details of my past, including birthplace (Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, United States of Alberta), birthdate (much longer ago than I liked to admit), parents, education–and, most tellingly, something I had thought long-since lost in the mists of decaying data storage: a head-and-shoulders shot of a much-younger me, attached to a press release from Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, announcing I would be playing the role of Bobby in the upcoming production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
“You’re not just a con man,” Captain Robinson said. “You’re an actor, singer–and dancer. You are, in short, a musical theatre performer.” He made it sound like a sentence of execution…and I knew it very well could be.
But I couldn’t argue with the evidence. “Was. For about five years. You know what the difference is between a stage actor and a pizza?”
“A pizza can feed a family of four. Yes, I know the joke. “ He leaned forward, reminding me of a predator about to strike. “But that was on Earth, ‘Professor.’ You’re not in Kansas any more.”
“Actually, I’ve never been to–”
“Here on the XX Mendel, you can make enough money to feed a family of four. Not as an actor, perhaps, but certainly as–” He actually had the nerve to smile. “A director.”
I suddenly had a very bad feeling the destination of our little chat. “Contrary to cliché, all I’ve ever really wanted to do is avoid directing.”
The Captain pointed at the holodisplay. “You’ve directed at least five shows.”
“That resumé is twenty years out of date.”
“It’s like riding a bicycle.”
“I can’t ride a bike.”
The Captain frowned. “Professor Peak, I really don’t have time for this. You’ve been in space a long time. You know as well as I do that of all the culture Earth has produced, all the artwork, all the novels, all the symphonies, only one thing holds the slightest interest for any of our alien neighbors.”
I did know. But I still hoped…
“You tell me.”
“Musical theatre, Professor.” The Captain tapped the desktop, and every wall lit up, as previously opaque screens suddenly displayed…theatre posters. Oklahoma. Oliver! The Sound of Music. Sweeney Todd. My Fair Lady. The Most Happy Fella. Candide. West Side Story. Chicago. Cats. Starlight Express, for God’s sake. Wicked. The Light in the Piazza. Avenue Q. Passion. Mary Had A Little Lamb. Thunder in the Night. Jimi! Apollo 13: The Musical. The posters kept changing; by the time I’d looked through them once, there was a new batch on display.
“I collect them,” said the Captain. “I have a poster from almost every musical that ran on Broadway from Show Boat in 1927 to The Singularity in 2024, the last new Broadway musical produced…”
“Because a Squill spaceship the size of Yankee Stadium suddenly appeared over Times Square and mysteriously transported the casts of every show then on stage…somewhere,” I snarled, suddenly furious. “And over the next week, any actor who dared to step out on stage and burst into song anywhere on the planet followed them. Which is why Jerry Smith disappeared, too–into a different line of work.”
“A criminal line of work.”
“I was an actor. I wasn’t suited for honest work.”
“My Squill passengers are hungry for musical theatre, Professor Peak.” He gestured at the walls. “As am I.”
“Squill!” I stared at him. “You have Squill on board?”
He had the nerve to smile. “Didn’t you know? Most of the vessel is currently occupied by Squill on a…pilgrimage, I suppose you’d call it…to their homeworld.”
Worse and worse. “We’re going to the Squill homeworld?” I hadn’t had time, what with hellhounds after me and all, to check exactly where the only ship in port would take me. “And you want me to direct musical theatre?”
“I told you, my passengers are hungry for it.”
“Maybe literally! We still don’t know where all those actors went. Maybe the Squill are serving up ham sandwiches–with bits of real ham!–on their homeworld right now.”
“They don’t eat people, they eat algae and the occasional sulfurous rock,” the Captain said. “And anyway, they said they were sorry. And they gave us the spacetime drive by way of reparation. If not for Broadway, we’d still be stuck puttering around the Earth and Moon, Professor. We owe musical theatre a huge debt of gratitude.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, and stood up. “Now, if that’s all you wanted–”
“I want you to direct a musical, Professor,” the Captain said. “The first live musical to hit the boards since the sad but profitable demise of Broadway. And I want you to cast my passengers.”
I sat down again heavily. It was worse than I thought. “Oh, God. You want me to direct Squill.” No, it was even worse than that. “Amateur Squill!”
“Squill this time,” the Captain said. “But next time, who knows? It could be Hellhounds. Skitterings. Even humans. And as for being amateurs…well, Professor, remember that amateurs are those who do something because they love it. Presumably you first went into theater because you loved it, Professor. Reach down deep into your heart, if you still have one, and…” His grin widened. “Feel the love.”
“Scripts…orchestra…stagehands…” Like a drowning man, I grasped at straws.
“Scripts are in the ship database. The computer will provide the accompaniment. And I’m sure, in time-honored community theatre tradition, that those not cast for roles will be happy to serve as stagehands.”
“I’m not the only former musical theatre actor in hiding,” I said. “And there must be others with more directing experience. Why me?”
“You’re here. And you…” He waved at the holodisplay. “…have an incentive they do not.”
“This is blackmail.”
“Of course it is! Feel free to complain to the local constabulary.” He flicked a finger, and the holodisplay showed a sudden close-up of the red-eyed, slavering visage of one of Feldercarb’s hellhounds. “Oh, look! There’s a peace officer now.”
I looked. I knew when I was beaten. “How long do I have?”
“It’s four weeks to the Squill Homeworld. I’m looking forward to seeing your production on the penultimate evening of our voyage. It will be a wonderful treat for our passengers on the eve of their big festival.”
“Festival?” I couldn’t imagine Squill partying. “What kind of Festival do giant slugs gather for?”
“It’s a religious festival, Professor. I told you they were on pilgrimage.”
I groaned. Not just Squill, but religious Squill. “We apologize for the action of our religionists,” had been the message from the second giant spaceship, which had entered Earth orbit shortly after the Broadway-eating one had departed. “We offer reparations.”
For a moment I seriously considered taking my chances with the hellhounds…but only for a moment. I doubted I’d still be in one piece two minutes after they had me out of sight.
I glared at the Captain. “I hope, when I’m spirited away by Squill fanatics, you at least have the grace to feel guilty.”
“Should that happen, I’ll do my best.”
I sighed. “When do we start auditions?”
We started auditions, it turned out, at once. Captain Robinson had been very sure of himself, I thought sourly, as I read the in-ship newsfeed, The Mendellian Factor, in my cabin an hour later. Even before I’d run down the ramp into the tanglefield, early arrivals on the ship had been reading, “Auditions for The Sound of Music, the premiere production of the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society (MAMES), will be held in Multipurpose Recreation Space 7 tonight beginning at 1900 shiptime. MAMES is pleased to announce that Professor Peter Peak, a genuine surviving musical theatre professional from Earth itself, will direct. Bring a song that shows off your voice; computer accompaniment will be provided.”
Auditions were every bit as horrifying as I’d anticipated. The “Memory”-warbler was perhaps the worst…but perhaps not. “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No” sung by an elderly female Squill with bladder–or something–control problems sticks in my mind as well. And the less said about “On the Good Ship Lollipop,” the better.
Unable to cast by appearance, I could only go by vocal skills. Fortunately, some of the Squill actually had some. I chose the best of the bunch as my leads, relegated most of the rest to chorus, and suggested a few hopeless cases join the stage crew–which they seemed thrilled to do.
In fact, everyone in my cast seemed thrilled about every single thing we did. As the XX Mendel left orbit on its four-week-subjective journey to the Squill home world, I was feeling pretty good about the show’s prospects–assuming the cast didn’t eat the director, of course, the possibility of which, despite the Captain’s assurances, I thought the jury was still out on.
Staging was simplified by the complete absence of dancing ability–or legs–among the cast, and by the fact that humans are quite incapable of reading the emotional content of a Squill’s “face.” (Indeed, the ship’s computer informed me, “some scientists believe the color of the mucus they exude is a better indicator of emotional state. When asked, the Squill change the subject.”) With no choreography either possible or desirable, I only had to come up with simple blocking. And my being unable to read their expressions just meant that if they were acting badly, I couldn’t tell–so I just pretended they were acting well.
Their memories were prodigious; most of them had their music and dialogue note- and word-perfect at the first rehearsal. The movement, limited though it was, was more challenging for them, and the set I’d programmed the ship’s fabricators to make had to be modified after the first on-set rehearsal of “So Long, Farewell,” when my entire group of “children” ended up in sickbay with nasty fluorescent bruises. Squill don’t do stairs, apparently. Who knew?
Squill don’t wear clothes, either, so our only costumes were hats: wimples, Nazi caps, sailor hats–and a couple of wigs. Maria looked terrifying in a long brown one; Gretl looked cute, in a nightmarish sort of way, in blonde pigtails.
After the first few days, my fear that I would be summarily transported to wherever the rest of my ex-profession had gone began to fade. No Squill ever threatened me or was anything but friendly…which was more than I could say of all the human actors I’d worked with.
And I began to learn more about my cast. The Squill playing the Mother Superior turned out to be an elderly “it” (the Squill have three sexes–that we know of), but it didn’t seem to mind. The “children” were, in most cases, twice as old as me (three times, in the case of Gretl) but again, no one complained.
They were all very curious about my acting past, and as the rehearsals proceeded and my risk of evaporation seemed to be receding, I relaxed and told them the usual stories actors tell–tales of forgotten lines, collapsing sets, drunks, hecklers, and the occasional wardrobe malfunction…
We were a week shy of Squill Prime, and hence still four days from our opening (and closing) performance, when the one matter I’d been very careful not to mention suddenly came up.
I was sitting in the ship’s main lounge with “Captain Von Trapp,” “Maria,” “Liesl” and “Rolf,” and had just told an entirely apocryphal story about a producer, a director, a writer and an actor walking into a bar when Rolf, probably the youngest member of the cast at 65 Earth years (only recently released from his mandatory adolescent confinement), put down his third glass of what I privately called Smoking Green Goo, burped, and slurred, “Prophet Matthew Broderick tellsh that shtory better, Professhor.”
Sudden and absolute silence. I stared around; the voices of the rest of Squill and humans in the lounge were no longer audible. I glanced down and saw that Von Trapp had suddenly slapped down on the table a little golden egg (exactly where he had had it hidden, in the absence of clothes, I preferred not to think about). A sound-dampener, obviously.
My heart jumped, then raced, but Rolf, gulping the last of his Goo, blundered on. “Hish lecture at the sheminary lasht year was the besht thing I ever…” his voice trailed off. The trio of googling eyes on either side of his slobbering maw suddenly widened, and his mouth slapped shut so suddenly gobs of mucus spattered across the table.
The slime oozing from his flanks suddenly took on a pinkish hue.
I looked around at the others. They were all staring at Rolf; but then, one by one, they looked at me.
My blood ran cold. But I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t heard. And we knew that Squill “religionists” had been behind the theft of Broadway. It wasn’t really a secret…
What had happened to all the actors, though, had been.
Heart still pounding, I said, as casually as I could, “Matthew Broderick is still alive? Wasn’t he playing Henry in Old Fool, that awful musical version of On Golden Pond, back when…um…”
I couldn’t keep talking. My mouth was too dry.
I winced as high-pitched squealing erupted around me. Squills talking their own language sound like seagulls on helium being tortured in an echo chamber.
The sound cut off as suddenly as it had begun. “We would like to tell you something,” Von Trapp said. “We had discussed doing so earlier, but had not made up our minds. Now, however…” Two of his eyes swiveled toward Rolf, whose eyestalks drooped in response, “…the matter has been settled for us.”
“Don’t tell me anything I shouldn’t know!” I said. “Much as I’d like to meet some of the great old Broadway performers in the flesh, I’m not that keen…”
“Only a Rapturer—a priest of the Order of Religious Insight Collection—would or could transport you,” Maria said. “It is unlikely any of them are aboard.”
“Reasonably,” Liesl said. “They do sometimes travel incognito.”
“Knowing the truth does not make it any more likely you will be raptured,” said Von Trapp. “If a Rapturer is on board, you are already marked simply for being a prophet.”
“Of Musical Theatre.”
A prophet of Musical Theatre? Musical-theatre actors had been called many things over the decades, but rarely that…I didn’t like the sound of it.
I drained my beer and called for another…to no effect. Damn sound-dampener. For a moment I eyed the remnants of Rolf’s Smoking Green Goo, but I wasn’t that desperate…yet. I sighed, and met Von Trapp’s disconcerting gaze. “Fire away,” I said. “I’m all ears…”
Two hours later I staggered back to my cabin (having made up for the initial lack of drink several times over once the Squill departed). I fell into my bed, looked up at the slowly spinning ceiling, and didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or throw up.
The decision was suddenly made for me, I staggered into the bathroom and vomited up everything I had eaten for the last twenty-four hours or so–but not, alas, everything I had drunk.
Discretion being the better part of valor, I decided to spend the next hour or so on the bathroom floor. I had little else to do in that position but reflect on what I had heard.
The Squill religionists, it seemed, had “raptured” Broadway in order to get closer to God.
Considering how far from God, in my experience, most people in the acting profession considered themselves, the irony was rich. But if you could wrap your head around the Squill point of view, it almost made sense.
The Squill Church, unlike its human counterparts, did not pretend to know the truth…about God, or how to best please/serve/placate/worship He/She/Them/It. Instead, the Church’s purpose was to seek for the Truth. It did so by conducting a cosmic opinion poll: it gathered various takes on the truth from all over the galaxy, then learned everything it could from them.
Along the way, it had spawned innumerable sub-cults, as various factions of religious Squill decided that the latest “truth” was THE TRUTH, and stopped searching. However, the Great Church Fluorescent (really, that’s how Von Trapp translated it) carried on, collecting bits of alien cultures from all over the galaxy.
The secular government of the Squill, while officially against the practice, made no move to stop it. Instead, its ships trailed the Church’s Rapture ships at a respectable distance, apologizing and reimbursing…and, in the process, opening up lucrative trade routes. It seemed a recipe for disaster if the Squill ever came up against a culture that could match their technological capabilities–but so far, they hadn’t, and probably the Church had enough sense of self-preservation not to attempt rapturing part of such a culture if it did turn up.
Because the Church was essentially conducting a poll, the Rapturers collected religious insights at random, and used a very broad definition of “religious.” In each culture, it simply identified activities that drew crowds, then picked one to collect. On Earth, the “winner” had been musical theatre (professional hockey had apparently been a close second).
But something had happened with musical theatre that had never happened before: the Great Church Fluorescent as a whole had declared, after much study, that there was no longer need for collection–musical theatre provided THE TRUTH.
An so, Von Trapp had told me, the musical theatre performers who had been raptured from Earth, though forbidden from leaving Squill or contacting their human counterparts, now formed a thriving, pampered human colony, a kind of Vatican City, on Squill. Not only did they produce incredible musicals–the special effects alone, thanks to Squill technology, were literally out of this world–but they sent “missionaries” around the planet, instructing everyone in the newly discovered Way.
Which meant that The Sound of Music–my Sound of Music–was, for the Squill, a worship service.
It made a strange sort of sense, I thought as the bathroom’s spinning started to slow. Like religions, musicals present neat little packages of supposed insight, wrapped up in pleasing tunes and eye-candy. To coin of phrase, they’re the “spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.”
Nothing had come up for a while. I staggered back to my bed and collapsed on it, and as darkness descended, I felt a faint frisson of fear as I recalled being told it was “unlikely” I would be raptured.
“How unlikely?” I asked again, but got no answer.
I was not at my best for dress rehearsal the next day. But the Squill were, and if you closed your eyes and ignored the multicolored trails of slime all over the stage, you had to admit that the show really was in solid shape. Maybe not Broadway-caliber, but as good as some regional productions, amateur or professional.
The next day we entered orbit around Squill Prime. After a one-Squill-day (29-hour) quarantine, the pilgrims would disembark to worship at the feet of the Broadway Prophets, Original Cast. And that meant it was showtime.
I gave the traditional Pep Talk Before Opening. “You’re ready,” I told them. “You’re good. I admit I had my doubts going in, especially with such a short rehearsal time, but you’ve all done a terrific job, and I’m proud of you all. And if Rodgers and Hammerstein were here–” And not busy spinning in their graves… “they’d be proud of you, too. Break a…” I hesitated, looking at the sea of slugs before me. “…um, good luck.”
The stage manager’s voice squealed over the monitor. I still couldn’t understand Squill, but I knew what he had just said: “Places.”
The audience of humans, non-performing Squill and one or two non-Squill aliens watched raptly, completely caught up in a tale that should have been incomprehensible to them. Squill don’t applaud; if they see something they like, they pay it the honor of being silent, while their slime turns bright blue. Our audience paid us the greatest compliment of all: a Silent Blue Departure.
Like they’re leaving church, I thought, watching from the wings.
The ear-splitting cast party more than made up for the audience’s silence. Enormous quantities of Smoking Green Goo disappeared down gaping maws, and even larger quantities of squirming blobs of shapeless protoplasm, the Squill equivalent of potato chips.
Still feeling alcohol-shy, I confined myself to a glass of the champagne sent to my dressing room by Captain Robinson. I was sipping the second of those when “Redbeard” himself appeared. He seized my hand and pumped it. “Fabulous! Bravo! I admit I had my doubts about you when you first came aboard, but you’ve proven them groundless.”
I looked around. The Squill had congregated in the furthest corner of the large banquet room, watching a holorecording of the Liesl warbling “I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen.”
“Thank you for the champagne, Captain,” I said. “Can I pour you a glass?”
“I’d be honored.”
I filled one for him, and a second one for myself. “Tell me, Captain,” I said casually as I handed it to him, “have you ever heard of the Rapturers?”
Did his glass hesitate, ever-so-slightly, on its way to his mouth?
“What an…odd question. Why do you ask?”
I looked around again; the Squill were still engrossed in watching their own performances, but I lowered my voice anyway. “Someone in the cast let it slip…Captain, I know what happened to Broadway!”
“Really?” He sipped his champagne, sharp blue eyes focused on me over the rim of the flute. “What?”
I told him what I’d heard. He said nothing until I was finished, then drained his glass and set it down. “Interesting,” he said. “Well, Professor, I must prepare for disembarkation…”
“Interesting!” I grabbed his arm. “Didn’t you hear what I said, Captain? There are humans being held prisoner on Squill! Shouldn’t you…tell someone? Shouldn’t there be government protests? A rescue, even?”
The Captain removed my hand from his arm as though lifting damp garbage from a pristine floor. “Professor, I run a liner, not a battleship. If you are truly concerned, I suggest you report to the human authorities at our next port of call after Squill Prime.” He gave me a cold smile. “For now, enjoy your success.”
I poured a third glass of wine. I seemed to be losing my brief distaste for alcohol.
In the morning, not quite hung over, I went to the shuttle bay to watch the disembarkation, and say goodbye to my cast. Captain Robinson was already there; he nodded to me, then stood at ease, watching the line of departing slugs.
Von Trapp was the last of my performers to board the shuttle. “Farewell, Professor,” he said. “We are most grateful for the insights you have shared with us. The cast has asked me to give you a token of our appreciation.”
He extruded a manipulator tentacle. It held an egg-shaped, multifaceted crystal, fiery as a diamond, but with a pulsing spark of blue fire somewhere deep within. Bits of green slime clinging to it couldn’t dim its beauty…well, not much.
“Thank you,” I said…
…and Captain Robinson’s hand suddenly snaked out and seized Captain von Trapp’s manipulator. I stared at him; I’d never seen a human willingly touch a Squill before. Von Trapp seemed just as shocked: all three of his eyes had whipped around to focus on Robinson’s hand. Now they lifted and focused intently on his face. “Explain yourself!” he barked.
“You explain yourself,” Robinson said. “On what authority do you do this?”
Authority? I looked back and forth from Von Trapp to Robinson like a spectator at a tennis match–except I had the distinct feeling I was the ball.
Von Trapp hissed, spattering mucus. “The Director commanded–”
“The Director?” Robinson let go of Von Trapp’s tentacle and straightened. “Don’t speak to me of the Director. I am the Producer!”
Von Trapp goggled at him, his eyes forming the points of an equilateral triangle, every stalk stiff. “The Producer? Himself?”
Von Trapp’s slime went gray. “There are theological disagreements over the role of the Producer. The Director claims–”
Robinson pointed at me. “He is a Director. A Director. One of several possible Directors. But I am the Producer. I choose Directors. I have the power of life and death over Directors. Would you challenge my authority?”
Von Trapp’s maw opened and shut a couple of time slowly, strings of mucus looping from it. “The Director must decide this,” he said finally. “It is beyond me. But for the moment–for the moment–we will leave matters as they are.” His mouth snapped shut, and he slithered aboard the shuttle, his slime trail now an inky black. Captain Robinson made a chopping motion at a crewman standing by the door controls, and the door slid shut, clunking and hissing as it sealed. A moment later the ship shuddered as the shuttle disconnected and began its descent to the planet.
Captain Robinson turned to me. “I think perhaps we should have a talk, Professor,” he said.
I couldn’t talk…again. I just nodded.
“Let’s adjourn to my office.”
The Captain’s looked exactly the same as it had when he first dragooned me into directing The Sound of Music. Robinson tapped his desktop to light up his collection of Broadway posters, then tapped it again; a panel slid open beneath a poster from the original production of Gigi, revealing a wet bar. “Drink?”
“Scotch.” Beer just didn’t seem up to the task of preparing me to face whatever might be coming…though I already had my suspicions.
“I have some information related to your…suspicions,” Robinson said, pouring me a double of…I squinted. Oban? Nice! “Ice?”
Robinson handed me the drink, then sat down at his desk. “I believe the time has come to tell you the truth,” he said.
“You were a Broadway producer,” I said.
“Myron Summerfeld, at your service,” he said.
I gaped at him. “You produced The Singularity. I almost auditioned for that show…”
“I made the mistake of hanging around backstage during that…final performance. When the rapture came, right in the middle of the big ‘Exponential Existentialism’ dance number, there was a flash of light, but that was all we noticed until the bows—which is when the illusory theatre vanished and we discovered we were actually on an alien spaceship populated by giant slugs…and the cast of every other musical theatre production then in production on Broadway.
“Some people reacted badly, but I’ve always prided myself on being a quick thinker. Somebody needed to take charge, and who better than a producer? The actors were happy to let me do that talking to the Squill priests. So…”
“…so when the Church Fluorescent decided it had finally found Ultimate Truth in musical theatre, you were the Pope.”
“Something like that.” Robinson shrugged. “The Squill have been very good to us. First-class digs. Fabulous food. And Squill Prime is heaven for actors and directors: no budget constraints, literally out-of-this-world special effects, freedom to perform any musical ever written, and audiences that love everything because they see the actors as preachers, priests and teachers. Matthew Broderick is head of the new seminary, you know. And if the insights on offer seem banal to us–’Always leave them wanting more,’ ‘Never act with children or animals,’ ‘Dying is easy, comedy is hard,’–that doesn’t matter to them.
“But for a producer…well, once the Church Fluorescent signed on to the whole Musical Theatre is the Ultimate Truth thing, there wasn’t much for me to do. The Church’s hierarchy takes care of the sorts of things producers usually do. And there’s no chance of producing anything new: the Musical Canon has hardened into dogma, and woe betide he who shall alter a jot or a tittle of it.” Captain Robinson sipped his Scotch, then set it down on the desk. “So I made a proposal. I pointed out that now that the Church has discovered Ultimate Truth, it needed to share that truth with other races.”
I took a largish gulp of Scotch, and had to overcome a fit of coughing before I could choke out, “You made them evangelical!”
He shrugged. “Proselytizing had never occurred to them before, but they quite liked the idea. So…they gave me this ship, and sent me out into the galaxy. I told them the first thing I needed to find was a director.” He pointed at me. “They already knew about you, Professor. If I hadn’t made sure Governor Feldercarb herded you—”
“—to my ship, the Rapturers would have taken you. But I did get you on my ship. Von Trapp had no business—” Robinson bit off what he was going to say. “Never mind. I’ll take that up with the Church hierarchy.
“It’s now up to you to make a decision, Professor. Will you stay on this ship and continue directing for the Mendel Amateur Musical Entertainment Society, or…” he reached out of my sight behind the desk, and pulled out an egg-shaped, blue-pulsing crystal identical to the one Von Trapp had offered me. “…will you join your counterparts on Squill Prime?”
“You want me to be a missionary!”
Robinson shrugged. “Why not? You’ve been everything else. What better way to make your living than spread the joy of musical theatre around the galaxy? And remember, Professor, I don’t just transport Squill. You’ll get to work with all kinds of aliens…maybe even humans.”
I looked deep into my Scotch glass, thinking. A life spent directing musicals featuring amateur casts with uncertain vocal abilities and a varying array of body parts…or a life spent surrounded by aging Broadway actors whose egos were constantly fed by vast seas of worshipping slugs.
Put that way, it was no decision at all.
I looked up at Robinson. “What’s our next show, Mr. Producer?” I said.
So here I am, halfway between Squill Prime and Arbus, trying to teach six-legged felinoids the finer points of choreography.
The show? Cats, of course.
We’re saving a fortune on makeup.
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 slammed his fist on the table. “Nothing!”
It was late the next day, and for several hours he, Tevera and Andru had been sequestered in a conference room one level below the Thaylia’s bridge, reviewing Family records for data on the planets where the Library had indicated the alien fortress might be found. Andru’s plan depended on the possibility that somewhere in those records, which Vorlick could not access, they would find a clue that would lead them to the right world first.
But they had found nothing beyond what they already knew: all ten worlds had tropical forests, gravity and atmosphere within the indicated limits, and were within range of the Farr’s World dimspace-relay.
Andru frowned. “These records just aren’t detailed enough. They’re all long-range scans. None of the worlds looked interesting enough for any Family ships to bother going in close.”
Tevera looked from him to Kriss. “Are we beaten?”
Kriss shrugged wearily, but Andru suddenly stiffened. “Not yet, we’re not!” He twisted the interface sensor toward him. “Keyboard,” he said, and a virtual keyboard appeared on the table before him. He began tapping, talking as he typed. “You said the Library told you it could only trace your father’s communications back as far as the Farr’s World dimspace-relay. But it should have been able to ask the relay’s computer exactly where the communication originated from. The reason it couldn’t is that our relay is very primitive. It pre-dates the Library; the Library can’t access it. But we can, with the right codes—and I spaced among these stars for years.”
He lifted his hands from the glowing keyboard and waited. “I’ve sent the relay’s computer the exact dates for the transmissions your father made to Earth. It should be able to…there!”
The screen that took up most of one end of the conference room had been displaying images of each of the ten candidate planets. But suddenly nine of those blue-and-white spheres vanished, and the remaining one swelled to fill the screen. “There’s our planet!”
Kriss stared at it, then at him. “But…that was easy.”
Adnru snorted. “Should have been easy. Instead we wasted hours waiting for my old brain to finally figure it out.”
“And you’re sure Vorlick can’t access Family records?”
Kriss felt as if an enormous weight had just fallen from his shoulders. He grinned. “Then what are we waiting for? Let’s tell the Captain—”
“—and lift ship!” Tevera finished triumphantly.
But Andru’s rugged face, alight with excitement a moment before, suddenly sagged. “You tell the Captain. You’ve no time to lose. I’ll go back to my inn.”
“Back to the inn?” Kriss stared at him. “But—oh!” Suddenly he remembered—Andru could never space again.
But the innkeeper straightened his broad shoulders, and some of the light came back into his gray eyes. “No matter. Good luck to you both.” He opened the computer room door, then paused and looked back at Kriss. “One thing,” he said quietly. “In my years as part of the Family but separated from it, I learned this: though the Family’s support is useful and welcome, in the end it’s what’s inside of you that’s important. Remember that.” Then he was gone.
“Andru…” Kriss took a half-step after him, but Tevera put a hand on his arm.
“Let him go. He’s said good-bye.”
Kriss stared at the closed door, then shook himself slightly and smiled down at her. “Let’s go see the Captain.”
An hour later the Thaylia roared up from Stars’ Edge. Kriss sat in the same place as he had on that first thrilling lift-off from Farr’s World—and felt just as out-of-place. It made him wonder once more if he could ever truly belong to the Family.
He hadn’t seen Rigel since the Council, and didn’t much want to, but two days into the week-long journey Rigel floated up to him in one of the crew lounges as he was getting a drinking-bulb of fizzy frenta from the vendor. Kriss saw Rigel’s reflection in the shiny surface of the machine and stiffened, but didn’t turn around. “What do you want?” he said neutrally.
“I need to talk to you.”
Kriss picked up his frenta. “Some other time, maybe.” He pushed away from the vendor, trying to brush past, but Rigel grabbed his arm and then grabbed one of the maneuvering lines strung across the lounge, bringing them both to a stop.
Rigel let go again. “Sorry. But I really do have to talk to you.”
Kriss looked at him for a moment. “All right,” he said finally. “But not here. My cabin.”
In that confined space a few minutes later, Kriss released the bulb of frenta, letting it float free, and turned to Rigel, who had closed the door behind him. “So talk.”
“I just want to tell you—I’m sorry.” Sweat-beads glittered on Rigel’s forehead; one drifted free, a bright, tiny sphere.
“Sorry? Sorry?” Kriss tried to stay calm, but he couldn’t keep his voice from rising, though at least he kept it under a shout…just. “For driving me out of the Family? For turning me over to Vorlick? For handing the touchlyre to him? Do you really think ‘sorry’ is enough?”
Rigel swallowed. “No. But it’s all I can offer you.”
“You said you were trying to protect your sister. Do you realize how much you’ve hurt her by what you’ve done?”
“I have some idea.” Heat came into Rigel’s voice now. “Look, you don’t have to accept my apology. But I had to make it. Now if you’ll excuse me…” He turned to go, but Kriss grabbed his shoulder and spun him around again.
“I don’t want your apology. I don’t want anything from you!” All the anger and frustration of the past weeks welled up in him. “There’s no way you can undo the damage. Just stay away from me, you hear me? Just stay away!”
Rigel half-raised a clenched fist, then let it drop. He took a deep breath. “All right,” he said. “I will.” He went out.
Shaking, Kriss turned toward the bed; then grabbed the bulb of frenta, spun, and hurled it against the closed door.
Of course, he had to spend the next half hour chasing down and suctioning up all the little floating globules of fluid…but at least he felt better.
Four days later they came out of dimspace above a blue-green planet, shining brightly under the brilliant disk of its star. Three tiny moons spun around it.
As the Thaylia swung into its own orbit, the serious work of searching for the alien fortress began. Kriss gripped a hand-hold on the bridge, watching the scanner console, as the viewscreens began to display details of a part of the surface far below.
Tevera joined him and touched his arm. “It’s up to the ship, now,” she said softly.
“Maybe the ship could use some help,” he replied, and stayed where he was. Tevera laughed and stayed with him.
The hours dragged by. Together they watched the screens, strapping themselves loosely into the chairs before the controls. Around them beat the heart of the ship; watches changed, system checks were run, repairs were carried out—but Kriss was almost oblivious, wrapped up in his thoughts and in the ever-changing views of the planet’s surface, awaiting his first glimpse of the end of the quest he had in one sense begun in Black Rock the night Mella died. One thing he wasn’t oblivious too, though, was Tevera’s steady presence beside him. She didn’t speak, but every now and then her hand would reach out and find his, and he would turn at the touch of her fingers to see her gentle, reassuring smile.
Ship-day gave way to ship-night. Kriss dozed off for a few hours, but long before the morning watch came on-duty to replace the night-shift, his eyes were once more locked on the screens, while Tevera slept in the chair beside him, her gentle breathing a comforting sound in the silence of the almost-deserted bridge, her arms and hair floating loosely, waving gently in the currents of air.
Then, in the early hours of the new ship-day, every screen flashed and locked onto a huge, rectangular structure. Kriss’s heart spasmed painfully in his chest and Tevera clutched his arm. “That’s it,” he breathed, unbuckling and floating closer to the console. He stared at the image frozen on the screens. “That’s it!” he shouted, and hugged Tevera so hard they both spun wildly and every face on the bridge turned toward them. Kriss grabbed a hand-hold before they floated away entirely and stabbed the intercom button. “We’ve found it!”
“I’m coming,” Nicora said calmly.
“Now what?” Tevera asked, breathless, one arm still around his waist.
“Land, get inside, map it—then get back to Farr’s World and lay claim to it in Commonwealth court. Even Vorlick won’t dare touch it with the full force of Commonwealth law on our side.” He stared hungrily at the screen. “Think of it, Tevera. This is where my parents found the touchlyre. Who knows what else might be down there?”
“Who knows?” she said in an odd tone, but when he shot her a quizzical look, she had already turned toward the central shaft, from which the Captain was just emerging.
Nicora glanced at the screens. She swiped her hand across one, shrinking the image of the fortress so she could study the contours of the land around it. “See that?” she said, pointing to a flat area a half-mile south of the fortress. “That’s artificial.” She raised her voice. “Pilot!”
“Ma’am!” A tall woman faced her smartly.
“There’s our landing spot. Begin de-orbiting.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The pilot turned toward her controls, screens lighting up around her.
“Congratulations,” Nicora said to Kriss.
“There’s no sign of Vorlick,” Tevera put in. “We’ve beaten him!”
“Perhaps. Tevera, take Kriss to the main lock and show him how to prepare the survey equipment. Your team will join you there. Be alert for the de-orbiting warning. We will land within the hour.”
“Yes, ma’am!” Tevera said smartly, and propelled herself toward the exit, pulling Kriss with her.
The descent through the atmosphere was uneventful, and the Thaylia settled smoothly onto the ancient landing field, burning away a thin green carpet of plants. Kriss and Tevera rode down in the main lock with the rest of the six-member exploration party. Because it was his discovery, Kriss, despite his low rank, had been put in charge of the survey of the site itself, but Tevera’s cousin Yverras led the party, which included a woman and two other men—one of whom was Rigel. Kriss ignored him, more concerned with trying to find a comfortable position for his equipment-laden pack now that they had weight again.
Tevera took a deep breath. “I hate high-gravity planets.” Then she pointed at the display by the hatch, showing the conditions outside. “And look at that temperature and humidity! We might as well be in a sauna.”
“We’ll manage,” Kriss said cheerfully. Nothing could spoil his excitement now. “My parents lived here for weeks. Ready, Yverras?”
Tevera’s cousin nodded. “Ready.” He shifted his own pack. “Why couldn’t it have been a nice low-mass asteroid?” he muttered.
Kriss activated the lock, and the inner door irised open, then the outer hatch swung wide, steamy air whistling in as the slightly higher air pressure of the planet’s surface equalized with that of the ship.
The broad ramp slid down to the steaming surface of the field, and Kriss trotted down it. He waited at the base for the others, who descended more cautiously. By the time Tevera joined him his crewsuit already clung to him damply, and he brushed a wet strand of hair from his forehead. “Well, I’ll admit it isn’t exactly a resort planet…” he said as she joined him.
“We’ll manage,” she reminded him.
He laughed, then pointed off to their left. “That way,” he told Yverras.
Yverras nodded and turned to the others. “Keep your beamers ready in case of unfriendly wildlife. And I hope you’ve all kept your pan-immuno nano injections up to date. We’re here to explore, not feed the local fauna.”
Everyone laughed except Rigel, and as Kriss plunged off the hard surface of the landing field into the tangled greenery, he glanced back to see Tevera’s brother searching the sky.
The high gravity, the strength-sapping heat and humidity, and the boggy ground that clung to their feet like lead boots seemed to stretch the half-mile from the landing field to the fortress into a light year, but at last the towering, vine-draped trees thinned and the survey party stepped out into the clearing that surrounded the alien structure.
Kriss had heard his father’s description of the site in the Library, but even he was unprepared for the incredible bulk of the fortress, and he stopped dead, along with everyone else, at his first glimpse of the endless, unbroken wall of gray-green stone, flecked with white like white-caps on the ocean. Above the wall soared graceful spires of white stone laced with blue, green and silver, glittering even in the mist-dimmed sunlight.
“I thought—” Yverras cleared his throat and tried again. “I expected a ruin.”
“My father said he could see little damage from the outside, but I never dreamed…” Kriss started forward, hitching the heavy pack higher on his back. “Let’s try to get inside.”
“Wait a minute.” Yverras activated the transceiver on his belt and motioned for the others to do the same. Then he spoke into the microphone set in his crewsuit collar. “Communications check. Can everyone hear me?”
Kriss heard his voice in the thick air and also inside his head, from the bone-conduction patch behind his ear. With the others, he nodded.
“You’re clear,” said a new voice in Kriss’s head.
“We have the fortress in sight and are approaching it.”
Yverras glanced around. “We’ll need someone to watch our back trail. Rigel?”
Rigel nodded and disappeared back into the forest.
They moved forward, and found walking in the clearing even more difficult than pushing their way through the trees and underbrush of the jungle. The tough, waist-high grass wrapped around their legs like tentacles and left them with little breath for talking.
Halfway across the clearing Yverras stationed Ellavar, the only woman in the party besides Tevera, on a small rise; then they pressed on in silence, eyes on the wall looming ever-higher before them. No visible entrance marred its smooth surface. When at last they stood at its base, Kriss reached out and touched it—and snatched his hand back at once, his fingers tingling.
But when Yverras touched it, he seemed to feel nothing. “How do we get in?”
Kriss wiped his fingers on his leg. “My father found a door…” He led the way along the wall to the right. After a moment he noticed something odd and stopped, kneeling. “Look!”
Tevera knelt beside him, groaning. “Is this is a good idea? I’m not sure I can stand up again.”
Kriss grinned at her. “You’ll manage.”
“What do you see?” Yverras and the remaining member of the landing party, an older man named Dralos, bent over them.
“See this?” Kriss pointed to a two-inch span of bare dirt between the wall and the first sparse tufts of grass. “It looks like there’s some force keeping the building from being overgrown.” He stood with some difficulty and helped Tevera up.
“Is it as perfectly preserved inside?” Yverras tilted his head back, looking up at the soaring bulk of the wall.
“No…but it isn’t exactly a ruin, either. It’s…well, you’ll see.” Kriss pushed on through the thick grass. “I just wish that force projected a little further,” he grunted.
Panting and sweat-soaked, they finally reached the southeast corner of the structure. Kriss’s three companions drank deeply from their canteens while he examined the rock.
“It looks just like the rest of the wall,” Tevera finally complained, moving up beside him. “Where’s the…oh!” She broke off as Kriss touched a white, rectangular block and a diamond-shaped opening ten feet high suddenly appeared.
Kriss turned back toward Yverras. “I’m ready to go in,” he said. “Unless you’d rather…”
Yverras grinned at him. “This is your moment. I’ll stay out here with Dralos and keep watch.”
Kriss returned his smile. “Thanks.” He glanced at Tevera. “Ready?”
“Right. Thaylia, Kriss here. We’re going in.” He stepped through the open door…
His limbs snapped rigid and he toppled, powerless. But when he hit the ground he felt nothing—because he wasn’t there any more. Instead, he drifted in chaos. Unintelligible voices whispered and roared and powerful emotions not his own tore through him—anger, hate, fear and joy.
Light exploded, shattered into a thousand colors, died in darkness. Thunder rumbled, became clanging bells, faded into horrible discords. Odors foul and fair choked him, tastes delectable and nauseating ran across his tongue, pain and ecstasy and fiery heat ripped through him in rapid succession.
He screamed, or whispered, or sang, or made no sound at all, he wasn’t sure…and then he fought back, struggling in the confusion that had swallowed him, pushing back the terrifying hallucinations, battling to find himself in the boiling storm of false sensation. He thought he was winning…
…and suddenly all of it was gone and he was back in his body again. Strong hands under his shoulders lowered him to the ground, and he opened his eyes to see Tevera, Yverras and Dralos all bending over him.
Tevera, eyes wide in her pale face, gasped, “Are you…are you all right?”
He sat up and looked around. They were just outside the wall. The diamond-shaped door mocked him. “I don’t know. What happened?”
Yverras answered. “You took one step through the gate and went down like you’d been clubbed. We dragged you back out.”
“What’s going on?” demanded the voice from the ship.
“We’re all right,” Kriss reported. He struggled to his feet, taking deep breaths of the hot, wet air, and looked hard at Tevera. “You didn’t see anything when you came in after me?”
He turned to Yverras and Dralos. “Or you?”
They both shook their heads.
“Or hear or feel anything?”
Tevera gripped his arm almost fiercely. “What happened to you?”
He stared at the gate. “It was almost familiar…” he whispered, then suddenly whirled toward her. “Of course! The touchlyre! It was just like the feeling I get from the touchlyre, only a thousand times stronger!”
“But the touchlyre doesn’t make you hallucinate.”
“It does! When I’m playing the touchlyre I visualize things that have happened to me as clearly as if I were living through them again. This is the same mechanism, I’m sure of it—but out of control!”
“Then why didn’t we feel anything?” Yverras demanded.
“You’ve never played the touchlyre. Only my father and I have.” And maybe Vorlick, he thought unwillingly. “And my father spoke about earth-shattering power in this fortress. I didn’t understand before…” He looked up at the towering wall. “Now I do. If I could tap it…” The excitement faded from his voice. “But I can’t.”
“Why not?” Tevera had caught some of his enthusiasm. “If it’s just like the touchlyre…”
“But stronger. Much stronger. I could never control what I felt in there with my mind alone.”
“Don’t you see? My father called the touchlyre the ‘key artifact.’ It’s not a musical instrument at all—it’s a key, a controlling device for this fortress. And Vorlick has it! If he finds this place…”
From his companions’ expressions he could see they realized the implications. “So what do we do?” Tevera asked, subdued.
He took a deep breath. “Just what we set out to do. We go inside, map the fortress, and lay claim to it as a Family discovery…and hope that’s enough to deter Vorlick.”
“But you can’t even get in the door!”
“I think I can, now that I know what to expect. I learned to control the touchlyre…”
“You already said you can’t control this fortress!”
“No, but I think I can shut it out.” He smiled at her crookedly. “But be ready to catch me in case I can’t.”
“Kriss, it could be dangerous,” Yverras said slowly. “Are you sure…”
“My parents didn’t let the danger stop them, and it’s not going to stop me, either!”
Yverras searched his face. Kriss met his gaze squarely, and finally he sighed. “All right. I just hope you know what you’re doing.”
Kriss relaxed a little and smiled again. “So do I. Let’s find out.” He walked back toward the gate, the other three close behind—but this time as he stepped through he was prepared for what would come.
The blast of mental energy struck him again, but though he staggered, he managed to keep the sensory chaos on the fringes of his mind. Ghostly images danced briefly across his eyes, and there was a distant roaring and muttering in his ears, but he thought he could function.
He wrinkled his nose at an imagined scent of corruption, then took a deep breath. “I’m all right. Let’s get on with it.”
“Dralos, stand watch just outside the wall,” Yverras ordered. “I’ll stay inside by the gate.”
“Yes, sir.” Dralos disappeared outside and Yverras stationed himself by the door, keeping a close watch on Kriss.
But Kriss had eyes only for the fantastic interior of the fortress. Almost without being aware of it, he took Tevera’s hand.
Time, it seemed, had stood still inside the wall; every building, every bit of glass and metal, shone clean, new and strong as though made the day before instead of centuries or millennia in the past.
But great craters pitted the broad streets of black stone, many of the white, dome-shaped buildings were shattered or split open and gaping scars marred the smooth green wall.
Tevera gave Kriss a questioning look. “War,” he said simply.
Yet although the damage was widespread, a closer look revealed, as his father had said, that it was also superficial. The tall spires, surely the most important buildings in the fortress—maybe its whole reason for existence—stood untouched; the smaller buildings and the streets had taken the brunt of the attack, as if whatever force guarded the towers had been taxed to the limit and unable to spare any protection for anything of lesser value.
Kriss unslung his pack and began pulling out the mapping equipment, relieved to get the weight off his back. “Let’s get busy,” he said, then winced as a flash of ghostly fire seared his fingers. “I’m not sure how long I can stay in here. Thaylia, are you ready to receive data?” The ship didn’t answer. “Thaylia?”
Yverras tried. “Thaylia, come in. Do you hear me, Thaylia?” He had no more success than Kriss, and glanced at the boy and shrugged. “The wall.”
Kriss nodded. “We’ll have to record the information and beam it to them later.”
With Tevera’s help he set up the equipment and activated it. At once a tiny silvery probe flashed into the sky and began criss-crossing the fortress, recording every detail. “Let’s take our own look,” Kriss suggested.
Leaving Yverras by the door, they set out for the center of the city, picking their way along the debris-littered streets. At the base of the central tower, the highest of them all, they came upon something that did not belong to the alien builders—a bright orange plastic drink container. “My parents’,” Kriss said softly, bending down and picking it up. There was nothing else to indicate humans had ever been there, but the abandoned trash was proof enough his parents had left in a hurry; they would never have contaminated the site that way except in an emergency.
Tevera looked up at the tower. “Where did they find the touchlyre?”
Kriss pointed. “There—at the very top.” Craning his neck, he could just make out the windowed chamber his father had described, but not the crystal globe above it. “My father said he felt a strong urge to climb up there the moment he saw the tower…” He looked down at Tevera suddenly. “I wonder if the touchlyre were somehow calling him?”
Tevera shook her head. “I’m almost glad Vorlick has that thing. The way you talk, it’s like…like it has a mind of its own. It scares me.”
“Sometimes it scares me, too,” Kriss said slowly, remembering Salazar. “But it’s also done so many beautiful things…it brought us together, remember.” He looked around the alien fortress. “If Mella had known what it was really capable of, she would never have passed it on to me.”
“Kriss! Tevera! Come back! Hurry!” Yverras’s frantic shouting filled Kriss’s head.
They exchanged startled looks, then dashed back along the shattered street to the gate. Yverras waved to them before plunging out through the diamond-shaped door.
“I’m…hearing…things…again,” Kriss gasped as they pounded along the black pavement. “Roaring…”
“No…hallucination,” Tevera gasped back. “I…hear it, too…”
They burst out into the clearing, where Yverras and Dralos stood staring at the sky. “What’s wrong?” Kriss choked out.
“Incoming ship,” Yverras said. “It won’t answer our hails.” He pointed into the milk-white sky, as a point of fire as bright as the mist-shrouded sun appeared. “There!”
The brilliant dot grew swiftly into a blazing tail of white flame, and the shape that rode it became clear.
With a roar that echoed from the fortress wall like baleful laughter, Vorlick’s Gemfire settled beside the Thaylia.
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 stared at her, speechless, until Andru leaned into view from the driver’s seat and said dryly, “I suggest you accept the offer. The real customs officials are probably boarding Vorlick’s ship about now.”
“Uh, sorry.” Kriss quickly opened the door and climbed in beside Tevera, but found he couldn’t look at her, suddenly gripped with guilt for the things he’d been thinking on board the Gemfire only moments before, unable to turn to her even though part of him wanted to pull her to him and hold her forever. Maybe she felt the same way: they sat very close, but neither reached out to the other.
Kriss finally broke the silence, as Andru turned off the ring road, but only to ask, “Where’s the Thaylia?”
Tevera said nothing. Andru gave her a quick, quizzical glance, then answered, “Tevera didn’t dare tell the Family about your message. Rigel has convinced them you deserted. The Captain has exiled you.”
Kriss had expected it, but it still hurt. He looked at Tevera, who stared straight ahead. “Then how…”
When the girl still didn’t answer, Andru continued. “She jumped ship. I hid her while the Family searched—not long. They had to get a cargo of perishable luxury foods to Eagle’s Head.”
Tevera finally spoke. “The Captain has probably exiled me by now, too,” she said in a barely audible voice.
Kriss’s face burned as he remembered his doubts. He took her hand hesitantly and swallowed, hard, before he could speak. “Thank you. What—whatever the Family thinks doesn’t matter as long as you’re on my side.”
Her brown eyes searched his. “I didn’t want to believe my brother had lied. But I couldn’t believe you’d done what he claimed. I told myself you were both telling the truth, that he’d simply misunderstood…but he wouldn’t talk to me about it. He acted so strange…then I got your message from Andru, and I thought about everything we’d gone through together here on Farr’s World…and here I am.” She flung her arms around him. “Here I am.” He held her close, and the weeks they had spent apart melted away.
Andru ignored them, concentrating on negotiating the crowded, narrow streets, occasionally checking behind for pursuit. Finally he turned sharply left into a narrow, dead-end alley, and parked. “Here we are.”
Kriss looked around, and recognized the lane behind Andru’s. “But the inn is the first place Vorlick will look,” he protested.
“Maybe. But he won’t find you. There’s an attic room no one knows about except me and Zendra. It’s where I hid Tevera from the Family. You’ll be safe there until Vorlick gets tired of looking and leaves.”
“That won’t be long,” Kriss predicted grimly. “He already has what he needs to find the site where the touchlyre was found, and he has the touchlyre itself. All he needs me for is revenge…and he knows I have no way off this planet. He can always come back for me.”
“I agree,” Andru said. “I think he’ll be gone by this evening.” He got out of the groundcar and led them into the empty kitchen. “Zendra’s keeping the staff busy out front,” he said over his shoulder. He opened the door to the storeroom, piled high with supplies, and moved four crates away from the opposite wall, revealing a door Kriss had never known existed. Andru unlocked it with a key hung on a chain around his neck; beyond was a flight of rickety wooden stairs. But as he was about to lead them up angry shouting broke out in the common room. Andru swore, shoved Kriss and Tevera into the stairway, and slammed the door shut on them. Kriss heard him pushing the crates back in place. Scarcely daring to breathe, he held Tevera’s hand and listened.
“I know you took him, Andru. Where is he?” said Carl Vorlick’s unmistakable voice.
“Look all you like—he’s not here,” Andru replied coldly.
Kriss heard the door to the storeroom crash open and Tevera’s hand tightened convulsively in his. He swallowed and held his breath.
“Nothing in here, sir!” a man’s voice called.
The storeroom door slammed shut and Kriss gulped air with relief. “Leave my inn now or I’ll call the police…” Andru’s angry voice faded away as he apparently followed Vorlick and his men back into the common room.
After a few minutes that seemed more like hours, the storeroom door opened again. Kriss tensed and heard Tevera’s small gasp as the crates were pulled aside, and gathered his legs under him, ready to leap at whomever opened the door…
But when the door swung aside Zendra, not Vorlick, peered in at them. Kriss still leaped at her, but only to hug her fiercely. Zendra laughed. “Welcome home!” She held him at arm’s length as Tevera eased out of the stairway behind him. “You’ve grown some more,” she said accusingly. “But you’re getting skinnier. You should eat better.”
He laughed, too. “I’ve had a few other things on my mind.”
“Hmmm, yes, we know. We just had a visit from one of them.”
“What did he do?” Kriss asked anxiously.
“Nothing.” Zendra smiled. “Andru had made a few preparations, you see. There happened to be a half-dozen rather large spacer friends of his drinking in the common room. Andru just told Vorlick you weren’t here, and even allowed him to search the inn to prove it.”
“Where’s Andru now?” Tevera asked.
“Keeping an eye on Vorlick and his men. He wanted to make sure they stayed gone. He’ll be back in a few minutes.”
“He’s back now.” Andru appeared in the storeroom door. “Come on out of there. We have a call to make.”
A moment later he seated them in his office behind the desk, where they could see the screen of his computer terminal but would not be in range of its vid pickup. “Who are you calling?” Kriss asked.
“The Thaylia,” Andru replied shortly, and Kriss and Tevera exchanged startled glances as his fingers flew over the antique control pad.
Letters flashed across the screen. “They’re about a quarter of the way to Eagle’s Head,” Andru said. He swiped his finger across the pad and the terminal beeped loudly.
The screen filled with snow, then cleared to reveal the bored face of a young man Kriss recognized as a recent bloodswap. “Family Trader Thaylia,” he said indifferently. “State your name and business.”
“Andru of Farr’s World, and my business is with your Captain,” Andru growled in a fair imitation of thunder. “You will relay this call to her at once!”
The crewman snapped to attention. “Yes, sir!”
In the pause that followed Andru chuckled. “I may not be Family any more, but I haven’t lost the old officer’s voice.”
A new face appeared on the screen and Kriss felt Tevera stiffen. “What is it, Andru?” Nicora snapped.
“Captain, I have found your missing great-granddaughter.”
“Tevera? She jumped ship, Andru, corrupted by that worldhugger you forced on us…”
“Wrong, Captain. Carl Vorlick forced her to stay behind.” Not exactly a lie, Kriss reflected. Tevera wouldn’t have stayed behind if Vorlick hadn’t captured me. “He hoped to use her to blackmail Kriss into giving him the touchlyre, just as Salazar tried to do. He knew you’d exiled Kriss and thought you would believe Tevera jumped ship because of that, allowing him to kidnap her without arousing the Family.”
Silence. Then, coldly, “Is Vorlick still on Farr’s World?”
“Yes, Captain, but I expect him to leave in a few hours. However, I’m quite sure he’ll return. Although I succeeded in rescuing Tevera and hid her from him, he knows she can’t leave this planet.”
“Indeed. Andru, the Thaylia is returning. Tell Tevera we will not abandon her. Eagle’s Head’s lords and ladies will have to do without their candied spiderfish eggs. Expect us in three days.” She paused. “Also, tell Tevera her brother has been very concerned about her safety. I will inform him at once that she is all right. Nicora out.”
As the screen blanked Andru turned to Kriss and Tevera and shrugged his broad shoulders. “Nothing to it.”
“But you lied to the Captain!” Tevera said in a shocked voice. “Family members don’t lie!”
Andru just laughed. “I’m not Family anymore, remember? And everyone lies when they have to, Family included. This time I had to. With Rigel on board, possibly in contact with Vorlick, we couldn’t tell Captain Nicora the truth.”
“Will we be able to tell her the truth—and get her to believe it—even here?” Kriss wondered.
“I think so. You’ll be here to refute Rigel’s stories, and Tevera and I can back you up. You did, after all, arrive on Vorlick’s ship. Rigel’s story will begin to look pretty thin.”
“All this, just because of his hatred for worldhuggers?” Kriss shook his head. “It’s almost unbelievable.”
“There’s more to it than that,” Tevera said fiercely. “There must be! Whatever he’s done, he did it because he felt it was the right thing to do…don’t look at me like that!” Her voice rose. “I’m not saying he’s right—he’s not! But he’s not evil. And he’s not working for Vorlick. He can’t be…”
“Men do many strange things for many strange reasons,” Andru said softly.
“Like Vorlick himself,” Kriss mused. Tevera gave him a puzzled look. “Well, even he must have had parents, brothers, sisters…they all loved him. Maybe they still do. So how did he become what he is today?”
“You’re wrong,” said Andru. “I doubt he’s ever been loved by anyone.”
Kriss blinked. “How—”
“Much of his background is a matter of public record, and I believe in knowing my enemies. He grew up on the streets in Berlin Megapolis—abandoned by his parents. No siblings. Lived hand-to-mouth until his teens, and not only survived but rose to the leadership of one of the toughest gangs in the city. Just before he legally became an adult, he dropped out of sight for a year—and re-emerged as a clean-cut and aggressive young businessman with a tidy sum ready to invest. No record of where that money came from, of course. He bought a struggling Earth-Moon shuttle company and within ten years had parlayed it into a controlling share in United Galaxy Spaceways. And he’s just gotten more powerful as the years go by. He never misses an opportunity to add to his empire. Since Anton Salazar suffered his ‘breakdown,’ Vorlick has absorbed most of his operations. He now owns all those inns Salazar used to control here on Farr’s World—and I hear he’s working on Salazar’s pocket policemen, too.” Andru shook his head. “He told an interviewer once that when he was on the street he swore that one day he would be able to have whatever he wanted, and that’s when he would know he was truly successful. He wants revenge on you for keeping him from the touchlyre for so long—but he wants that alien fortress even more. So he’ll leave you alone for now.”
“Three days until the Thaylia can get back,” Tevera said. “Vorlick could have found the right planet by then.”
“No. He’ll barely be finished surveying Farr’s World. Only if it’s on this planet—highly unlikely—will he have a chance of finding the site before we have the Family in action.”
“But what kind of action?” asked Kriss.
The innkeeper smiled grimly. “When Carl Vorlick tries to take this latest thing he wants—the Family’s going to be sitting right on top of it.”
On a cool, wet afternoon three days later, Kriss lay on his old bed, staring at the wall, remembering those times when, feeling trapped by the Family Rule and Rigel’s unrelenting coldness, he had thought longingly of this room as some kind of refuge he had lost, forgetting how much of a trap it, too, had seemed.
But now he knew it was neither a trap nor a refuge. It was only a room, a very small room, on a very small planet. He didn’t belong to just one planet anymore; he doubted he ever could. He rolled over on his stomach, feeling as if he had lost something, but not sure what it was.
Worse, though Farr’s World wasn’t for him, he wasn’t sure the Family was, either. What he wanted…
“What I want is the best of both!” he said to the empty room. He wanted to travel among the stars as he had with the Family, he wanted Tevera’s love, he wanted the support Nicora had given him in the beginning—all without giving up any of his independence.
But you can’t get there from here.
He rolled over and sat up, studying the room almost fiercely. He might not belong here, but unless Andru’s plan worked, this was all he could look forward to for the rest of his life—which would only last until Vorlick made a determined effort to end it. And even if Andru’s scheme succeeded, would the Family really be able to accept him back after all that had happened—and would he be able to accept them?
Thunder crashed across the sky, interrupting his thoughts. A ship—and only one ship was due! He scrambled off the bed and dashed out into the hall, almost colliding with Tevera. “The Thaylia!” they said in the same breath.
Andru met them at the bottom of the stairs. “We’re going to meet her.”
“They won’t even let me on board,” Kriss protested.
“I have been talking to Nicora for the past half hour. Though I no longer have the right to call a Council, I have persuaded her to do so. She gave me permission to bring any witnesses I wish, as long as I take responsibility for their behavior.” He looked hard at Kriss. “I can vouch for your behavior, can’t I?”
“I’ll keep him in line,” Tevera put in.
“You’d better. We’ll only get one chance at this.” He led them across the common room and out into the dripping street.
A few minutes later they passed through the spaceport gate and strode across pavement still steaming from the heat of the Thaylia’s braking rockets. “They’ll see me—they must have seen me already!” Kriss said nervously. “Are you sure they’ll let us in?”
“They’d better,” Andru growled.
Nevertheless, Kriss was relieved to see the ramp down and the hatch open. At least they’d be able to board.
Nicora’s bodyguards met them just inside. “The Captain expresses surprise at your choice of witnesses, Andru,” the black-clad man said, his tone emotionless. “She will allow him to board, but she orders us to guard him closely at all times.”
Kriss tensed and started to protest, but Andru placed a friendly hand on his shoulder—so friendly he winced. “Perfectly all right,” the big innkeeper said evenly.
“Council is convened on the bridge.” The guards fell in on either side of Kriss.
Kriss hadn’t been on the bridge since Tevera had taken him there on their tour of the ship his first full day on board. Then they had been in zero-G; now the circular room had a definite floor, and on that floor, just a few feet from the central elevator, the Captain and her officers sat around an oval table. A computer holocube glowed before each.
Kriss remembered the first Council he had seen, in Andru’s. Now he could put names and ranks to each of the men and women present. One or two of them he had even counted as friends, for a time, but he saw nothing friendly in any of their expressions now.
Now, too, he understood better how the Council worked. It was not a democratic body, where a vote would decide matters; it was only a group of advisors for the only one who could decide anything—Nicora.
He looked at the Captain, who sat at the head of the table in her red ceremonial robes. Her eyes met his and seemed to burn into his soul. Innocent though he was, he had to look away. He knew she felt he had betrayed her trust, and it hurt. She had saved his life and welcomed him into the Family. Making her despise him was the worst of Rigel’s crimes.
His enemy sat at the Captain’s left. Rigel was gazing at his sister with relief, but then he glanced at Kriss. Their eyes met briefly; then Rigel looked away. He looks miserable, Kriss thought in astonishment.
“You test my patience, Andru,” the Captain said, her voice even harsher than usual. “We have exiled this youth. You did not mention his presence when you contacted me.”
“Captain, I dared not.”
Her green eyes narrowed. “Dared not? Why?”
Looking straight at Rigel, whose head was bowed, Andru said, “I dared not let Vorlick’s spy among you know of Kriss’s whereabouts.”
Only firing a beamer into the heart of the controls could have caused more confusion. Everyone began talking at once—everyone except Rigel. But Nicora held up her hand, and gradually order returned. Only then did she speak. “This is a serious charge, Andru. Whom do you accuse—and of precisely what crime?”
The innkeeper pointed at Tevera’s brother. When he spoke, his words rang like a chisel carving stone. “I accuse Rigel mal Thaylia of selling one of the Family to an avowed enemy—in short, of being in the pay of Carl Vorlick!”
Pandemonium erupted again, but died gradually as Rigel made no effort to defend himself. As he slowly raised his pale, strained face, silence fell.
“I have proof,” Andru said softly, but Nicora shook her head.
“I do not think he is denying it,” she said, pain in her voice. “Why, Rigel?”
He took a deep, shuddering breath. “For Tevera.”
Kriss glanced at her, and felt a fist clench his heart at the sight of her stricken expression. Nothing should ever happen to make Tevera look like that.
Rigel swallowed. “When I left Andru’s after he—did what he did—Vorlick was waiting for me. He knew I was angry, that I didn’t like the idea of my sister and a worldhugger…he tried to convince me to help him get Kriss. He offered me money—a lot of it.”
“And you accepted?” Nicora said, eyes and voice cold as ice.
“No!” Rigel stiffened and looked into her eyes. “No. I told him I would not betray the Family for money, not even for this. But then…then he threatened Tevera.” The words started pouring out of him, as though he had kept them pent up too long. “He said if I didn’t help him get Kriss and the touchlyre he’d find a way to get her, instead—and then he told me what he’d do to her. Another worldhugger, threatening her. Worldhuggers killed our parents, and I just let them—well, this time, I wouldn’t just stand by. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t let him hurt her, and I wouldn’t let this one—” he pointed at Kriss— “hurt her, so I agreed. I agreed!
“I decided to do everything I could to make Kriss look bad, to make it appear he would never be able to fit into the Family, so that when I—handed him over—you’d think he’d deserted. I almost went too far. That day, in the NLS hold—” He looked at Kriss. “I almost told you I knew you wouldn’t be around much longer. But then I caught myself, and I realized I had to be more subtle.” He looked back at Nicora. “After that I treated him strictly according to the Rule. I know Tevera asked you to check up on my treatment of him…” Kriss shot a startled look at Tevera. He hadn’t known that. “And I know you found I was treating him with complete propriety. But all the time I was pushing him in little ways, hoping he’d do something foolish when we made planetfall—and he did. He ran off without a pass. I hoped he’d stay gone, and I wouldn’t have to go through with the rest of my plan, but no such luck. He came back, and I had to take more positive action. So I kidnapped him once, and lied about seeing him leaving the field on his own—and then I kidnapped him again, and handed him over to Vorlick.” He looked from Nicora to Tevera, and his voice softened. “I did it for you, Tevera. Mother and Father told me to keep you safe…and so I did what I had to.” He looked down again. “What I had to.”
Tevera ran to him and put her arms around his neck. Kriss looked away. Tevera’s right, he thought. Rigel’s not evil. But he’s wrong. Dead wrong. You can’t deal with the Devil and not get burned—and if Vorlick wasn’t the Devil, he’d do until the real item came along.
Nicora looked at her two guards, still standing watch on Kriss. “Release him,” she said, and they stepped back. She turned to Rigel. “Rigel mal Thaylia.”
He gently disengaged Tevera’s grasp, but kept one arm around her shoulders. “Yes, Captain.”
“A hundred years ago the penalty for what you have done would have been death,” she said, voice harsh. “But we have since become merciful. I have no choice but to exile you to—”
“No.” The single word, heavy as a stone, stopped Nicora’s pronouncement.
She turned narrowed eyes on Andru. “What?”
He met her gaze steadily. “You do have a choice. Captain Nicora, you keep punishing your own people—Kriss, Tevera, Rigel—when the real villain is none of them. Who has been behind all the turmoil in your Family? Who has threatened your members, blackmailed them? Who is the person who really ought to be punished?”
Nicora’s eyes glittered. “Carl Vorlick.” But then she looked back at Rigel. “Yet I cannot simply ignore an offence of this magnitude.”
“Nor should you. By all means, discipline Rigel. But exile?” Andru took a deep breath. “The penalty outweighs the crime. Believe me—I know. Rigel let his determination to protect his sister and his understandable hatred of worldhuggers override his obedience to Family Rule. His motives were good, however foolish and damaging his actions. Can you exile him for trying to protect Family, Captain Nicora of the Family?”
“You spend far too much time telling me how I should run my ship, Andru,” Nicora said. She pressed her lips together and looked from him to Rigel, then back again. Her mouth relaxed into a small smile. “However, you are right, as usual.” She faced Rigel again. “Rigel mal Thaylia, you are confined to quarters for a month and reduced two steps in rank.”
Rigel bowed his head in acceptance, but Nicora wasn’t finished.
“The reduction in rank is immediate. However, you will not be confined until we have settled a little unfinished business…” She smiled grimly. “With Carl Vorlick.”
And then she turned to Kriss, and said softly, “Welcome home, Crewman.”
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
“I sense you are now alone, Kriss Lemarc,” said the Library. “Do you wish to view all of your parents’ records, or do you have a specific area of interest?”
“What do the records include?”
“Besides vital statistics and financial records, they consist primarily of diaries and logs from archaeological expeditions.”
“How long would it take to view all of them?”
“With continuous display, sixty-eight days, sixteen hours, nineteen minutes, forty-four seconds.”
Kriss winced. “I think I’ll want to narrow it down.”
“Where would you like to begin?”
He didn’t answer. Where could he begin? He wanted to know everything about his parents—but he didn’t have time.
“Where would you like to begin?” the Library repeated.
A thought struck him, and he leaned forward eagerly. “Do you have pictures of them?”
The display cube filled with heavy, glowing mist, which coalesced into full-color, three-dimensional images of a young man and woman. Kriss stared at them hungrily. Here were the parents he had never known…but they were so young!
He had to smile at his own surprise. He had always pictured them middle-aged, as they would be if still alive, but of course they had only been in their mid-twenties when they died, just a few years older than he was now.
The picture of his father had been taken outside. His eyes were focused on some distant horizon, and Kriss could almost feel the wind that tugged at his father’s hair, blonde as his own, and the warmth of the sun that beat down on the tanned, lean face, quirked in a faint smile…an expression he found oddly familiar.
He should, he realized; he’d seen it often enough in the mirror.
After a long moment he turned to his mother’s image.
It had been recorded inside. She was laughing at something, and firelight tinged her skin gold, twinkled in her eyes, and glowed in the auburn hair that danced around her bare shoulders. Again Kriss caught echoes of his own face in her green eyes and high cheekbones.
He leaned back and looked at his parents side by side, their images as clear as though they were with him, instead of separated from him by seventeen years of loneliness, and fresh hatred rose in him toward the one who had taken them from him. “Thank you,” he said in a harsh voice. “I’ve seen enough.”
The images vanished.
“I’d like to view the log from their last expedition,” he went on briskly, getting down to business—but the first entry renewed the pain.
“September 30, 2947,” said a young man’s happy voice. “Our anonymous patron came through for us—we can finally start preparing for the expedition! I was afraid that old spacer’s story about an alien city untouched by time would be too tenuous for him, but looks like I was wrong.
“But that’s not the best news of today. I’m a father! Memory gave birth less than an hour ago to our son. We’ve already decided to name him Kriss, after my father. I only wish he and Mom and Memory’s parents were still alive to enjoy their first grandson…
“I hope Kriss likes to travel, because in about six months we’ll be setting out…”
Three hours later the last entry played in the cubicle. Kriss’s father no longer sounded young or happy.
“October 6, 2948, on board our scoutship, Seeker. We’re about to leave this site. We’ve discovered who our mysterious patron is, and he must not find this place. I wish we’d never told him we’d found it…as soon as he realizes we’ve run, he’ll be after us, but I tried to buy us some time by telling him in our last monthly report that our next report will include the planet’s coordinates.
“But we’ll never make that report. We’re going to vanish.
“Even in this private record I won’t say who our patron is, give the coordinates of this planet, or tell where we are headed. He may be able to break even the Library’s security. And there is no point in contacting Commonwealth authorities; he hasn’t done anything yet, and his influence is such that if we were to accuse him, we would be the ones arrested, and shortly thereafter we would be in his hands.
“We’re leaving everything here except the key artifact. It and the fortress must be separated while there is the possibility he could find either one. He must not have access to the planet-shattering power we’ve uncovered, or he could make this place a base of operations from which he could effectively rule the entire Commonwealth.
“This may be my last entry.”
It was. Silence descended in the cubicle, but Kriss knew the rest of the story: they had fled to Farr’s World, but Vorlick had tracked them down. They had hidden Kriss and the touchlyre—the “key artifact”—with Mella. Then they had fled again, to lead Vorlick away from their son and the artifact, and Vorlick had killed them…
Kriss stared at the blank gray wall above the holocube. The early log entries had been cheerful and excited like the first, describing his parents’ search for the rumored alien city, and their breathless, ecstatic excitement when they’d actually found it—and discovered it was not a city at all, but a fortress—deep in a tropical forest on an unspecified planet. The log described the site in sufficient detail to make it easy to locate from orbit, once the proper planet was found.
But not long after that the tone of the messages had changed. Somehow, either from something in Vorlick’s communication with them or through Jon’s own research in the Library’s records, they had begun to realize who their “patron” was—and what kind of man he was. While their suspicions were still only half-formed they discovered the touchlyre, and what it could do—but exactly what it could do, and why it was the “key artifact,” Jon had left tantalizingly unsaid, already distrustful of putting any information in a place where Vorlick could conceivably retrieve it.
He did say he had found the artifact in the tallest tower in the fortress, which he said he had felt “almost compelled” to climb. He also mentioned its musical nature, but again, there were no details.
His reference to “planet-shattering” power particularly puzzled Kriss. Certainly he knew—only too well—how dangerous the touchlyre could be, but “planet-shattering” seemed a bit much. Still, his parents had clearly feared what could happen if Vorlick found the fortress and the touchlyre together—and so they had separated them.
Yet now Vorlick had him and the touchlyre; and Kriss had to somehow locate its planet of origin if he wanted to stay alive.
Maybe it’s impossible, he thought hopefully. “Library, can you scan the log and determine on what planet my father found the alien fortress?”
He sighed with relief. He wouldn’t have to betray his father.
But the Library continued. “However, it is apparent there are only ten possible planets.”
“How can you tell that?” Kriss asked in astonishment.
“All the log entries were sent through the dimspace relay which orbits Farr’s World. There are only ten planets fitting the available data which are within ship-board communication range of that relay.”
That means one of the possible planets is Farr’s World itself! Kriss thought. Tevera had said the touchlyre couldn’t have come from there, but there was a lot of wilderness…and there was nothing in the log to rule it out. Therefore Farr’s World would be Vorlick’s first destination when Kriss gave him the data he had gathered.
And that decided him. He would pass on the information—because he would never have a better opportunity to escape than on his old home world.
He thought of something else, and calculated mentally. The Thaylia was due at return to Farr’s World soon—so soon, she might either be on the planet or very close when Vorlick’s ship arrived. But “very close” could mean light years, and even if he gained access to a communications terminal, he couldn’t contact the Family while Rigel had the upper hand.
Then he sat up straight. “Andru!” he said out loud. “He’d believe me. If I could contact him…”
“Whom do you wish to contact?” asked the Library.
He stared at the holocube. Of course the Library could act as a communications terminal! And Vorlick had left him alone…
“His name’s Andru,” he said quickly. “Formerly Andru of the Family ship Thaylia. He owns an inn called Andru’s in Stars’ Edge on Farr’s World.”
“Sufficient data…located. Signaling.”
The display cube misted, then solidified into an image of Andru, blinking at the screen, his shaggy, iron-gray eyebrows drawn together in annoyance. “Who is it?” he growled, then his eyes suddenly widened. “Kriss!”
Kriss felt a flood of relief at the sight of his former employer. But he wasted no time in small talk; Vorlick must be getting restless. “Listen, I’m in trouble…” he began, and sketched out what had happened.
“I want to tell Tevera I’m innocent,” he concluded. “But I can’t call the Thaylia with Rigel aboard. Even if he didn’t tell Vorlick, I doubt I’d get a sympathetic hearing from anyone except Tevera…” he paused, remembering how even she had not wanted to doubt her brother’s word. But he pushed that unpleasant thought away. “The Thaylia’s due there soon, isn’t she?”
“Could you somehow get word to Tevera? Maybe she could convince the Captain…” His voice trailed off. How could anyone sway that stiff-necked old woman once she’d made up her mind? Andru had, once, but he had nothing left to bargain with—he was no longer Family.
But Andru didn’t seem concerned. “We can do better than that. Vorlick may bring you here, but I can promise you won’t be leaving with him.”
Kriss stared at him. “How?”
“Leave it to me.”
Footsteps sounded outside the cubicle. “Vorlick’s coming. Break contact!”
Andru’s face had barely faded away when the door opened and Vorlick stormed in, his thin face dark with anger. “I’ve waited long enough. You’re stalling…”
“I’ve found what you’re looking for.” Kriss turned back to the holocube. “Library, please hardcopy the coordinates of the ten possible sites of the alien fortress and the description of the structure as outlined in my father’s log.”
“Completed,” the Library said almost at once, and a white sheet protruded from a slit in the table below the holocube. Vorlick snatched it up.
“Why ten sites?” he said suspiciously, looking it over.
“My father didn’t trust you,” Kriss said. “He didn’t record the coordinates. But all his log entries came through the Farr’s World dimspace relay. Those ten planets are all within ship-board communication range of Farr’s World.”
“Farr’s World?” Vorlick smiled. “How ironic if this search were to end right where it began!” He gripped Kriss’s arm and pulled him to his feet. “We’ll start with your old home, then. But that alien fortress had better be on one of these worlds, boy, or I may just decide to cut my losses and settle for the artifact alone…and then I won’t need you anymore.” He pushed Kriss toward the door.
“I trust I have been of some help,” said the Library.
They didn’t return to the decrepit freighter; instead they boarded Vorlick’s luxurious golden yacht, Gemfire, at another space station. Within two hours of departing the Library, they were on their way back to Farr’s World.
No question about having artificial gravity on this vessel; Vorlick led Kriss to his quarters through corridors that would not have been out of place in a luxury hotel—not that he’d ever been in one—past oak-paneled walls and crystal light fixtures, sinking into the royal-blue carpet with every step. Dark wood and red cloth predominated in the cabin into which Vorlick showed him. “Roam the ship as you please,” Vorlick said as Kriss gaped, though not at the luxurious appointments so much as at the space, at least six times what he had had on board the Thaylia. “You can hardly run away.”
He strode away, and Kriss closed the door behind him, then sat gingerly on the automated bed, which shifted beneath him to provide maximum comfort. He found himself looking at an elaborate entertainment and food console in one corner of the cabin.
The Gemfire impressed him—and not just with ostentatious luxury. He’d also been very impressed by the armored bulkhead hatches that could seal the ship into a hundred sections, the gas nozzles, beamers, needlers, netters and surveillance devices that crowded every strategic location, and the fully operational beamer that seemed an integral part of every crewman’s spotless white uniform.
It would take a small army—maybe even a large one—to break into the Gemfire and rescue him. Yet Andru had promised to try, and Kriss knew he would keep his word, no matter how hopeless the attempt. He’ll just get himself killed, Kriss thought miserably. Nothing’s changed; I still endanger everyone close to me.
Tevera had once told Kriss that the trip from Farr’s World to Earth took the Thaylia two months. On board the Gemfire it took only three weeks; but three weeks was ample time for his spirits to sink close to despair.
When at last the room’s viewscreen showed the familiar spaceport of Stars’ Edge, Kriss scowled at it blackly, remembering how jealous he had been of Tevera when he first saw her coming down the ramp of the Thaylia. Could it really have been only three and a half months ago? He felt a century removed from the innocent youngster he had been then—and envied him.
He had the viewscreen scan the rest of the landing field, looking for the Thaylia. But the Family ship wasn’t among the four other vessels in port, and he let his hands slip from the controls. Against common sense he had let himself believe the Family might be waiting for him, that Tevera would sway the Captain to his side. But his fond hope shattered against cold reality. Either Andru hadn’t been able to pass his message to Tevera, or she had been unable to convince the Captain—or worse, she had received the message but not believed it, choosing to trust her brother instead.
Like a starkling settling on a rotting carcass, his mind latched onto that last thought, and he almost relished the anger and self-pity it brought, so strong that for a moment he fancied he felt the touchlyre’s ghostly fingers reaching into his mind from Vorlick’s cabin. “Just a worldhugger who couldn’t make it in the Family, that’s all I am to her now,” he muttered. “All that garbage about giving up the Family for me…nothing but lies.” He smashed his fist against the viewscreen so hard the transparent cover cracked, and the screen went dark. “Lies!”
Probably Andru lied, too, he thought bitterly. But that’s all right. I don’t need him. “I don’t need any of them!” he shouted at the walls. He could cooperate with Vorlick, maybe make a deal…
The door slid open behind him, and he spun to see Vorlick, tight-lipped with anger, and a larger man in an ill-fitting dark-green Farrsian customs uniform. “Ever hear of knocking?” he demanded.
“People hide things from me when I do,” the customs official said. He ran sharp eyes over the room. “Nice cabin.” His gaze stopped on the wrecked console, and he raised an eyebrow. “For the most part.”
Vorlick shot a poisonous look at Kriss, then turned to show the official out. “This way, sir,” he said with exaggerated politeness, placing a hand on the official’s shoulder.
The official shrugged it off. “You look familiar,” he said to Kriss. “What’s your name?”
Vorlick shook his head, but Kriss ignored him. “Kriss Lemarc,” he snapped. “What’s yours?”
“I know you. You were playing that peculiar instrument in Andru’s a few months ago.”
“You want an autograph?”
“No,” the official said. “I never heard you and wouldn’t want to. But I’ve seen your picture. There’s a warrant out for your arrest.” He jerked his head toward the door. “You’re in custody as of now. Let’s go.”
Kriss just stared, caught off guard. Vorlick blocked the doorway. “Wait a minute—”
“Get out of my way or I’ll charge you with obstruction,” the official snapped.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Carl Vorlick—and the law applies to you the same as anyone else.”
Vorlick lowered his voice. “I’m sure we can work this out…”
“Mr. Vorlick, if you are thinking of offering a bribe, don’t. Despite the reputation of some of my colleagues, not all officials on Farr’s World are corrupt or incompetent. If you offer me a bribe you will join this youth in custody, and you just might find yourself before a judge as unimpressed as I am by your reputed wealth and power. Do I make myself clear?”
Vorlick’s fists clenched, but he stepped aside. “All right, take him! But I’ll have him free by this time tomorrow.”
“Maybe. But in the meantime…” The official gripped Kriss’s arm.
“What’s the charge?” he demanded, trying to hold back, but the official, too strong to resist, only pulled him faster along the plush corridors.
Outside a waiting automated groundcar whisked them swiftly across the landing apron to the administration building. They stopped in front of a door marked “Customs and Immigration: Detention and Impound,” and the still-silent official led Kriss inside, through a maze of corridors, rooms and fenced areas piled high with crates. They finally emerged through another door into the main lobby, as usual nearly empty except for a handful of bored-looking workers behind a long black desk. Brilliant sunshine streamed through a tall wall of glass beyond which Kriss could see the familiar ring road and its steady flow of transports, groundcars and wagons.
The official stopped at one end of the desk. “Wait here,” he said, then strode swiftly across the bright mosaic floor to an open door, climbed into another groundcar and drove off, leaving Kriss staring after him, astonished.
He glanced around. No one was watching him, or apparently even aware of him. He took two tentative steps toward the door, and nothing happened. He strode casually halfway across the lobby, and still no one shouted or even looked up.
Finally he hurried out the door and onto the sidewalk, then glanced both ways along the ring road, wondering what to do. Vorlick would soon find out he’d escaped and Andru’s was the first place he’d look. He didn’t dare go there…yet he had to warn Andru, and tell him not to attempt any rescue.
Before he made any decision a blue groundcar with mirrored gold windows pulled out of traffic and stopped right in front of him. The glass on his side rolled down.
“Need a ride?” asked Tevera.
By Edward Willett
Kriss’s captors carried him to a dark warehouse at the edge of the field, through a creaking door and into a musty room, empty except for a few broken crates. They dumped him on the floor, then one closed the door and the other turned on the lights.
One of the men was bald and middle-aged, the other young and bearded. Neither was the man who had been following Kriss for a week, but he assumed his “shadow” was the one who had chased him into the trap. “So where’s Vorlick?” he demanded as soon as the younger man undid his gag.
“The man you work for!”
“Never heard of him,” said the bald man.
Kriss struggled upright and glared at him. “You expect me to believe that?”
The bald man shrugged. “Don’t really care.”
“What are you going to do with me?”
“What we’re being paid to.” He looked at his watch. “Going to keep you here until an hour after midnight—then let you go.”
“Let me go?”
“That’s right.” The bald man sat down on a crate, leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes. “You might as well make yourself comfortable.”
Kriss stared at him. He couldn’t be telling the truth. What did they really intend to do with him—kill him? “Where’s the touchlyre?”
The bald man opened one eye again. “The what?”
“I think he means this,” the younger man said, holding up the well-wrapped instrument.
“There you go. Now be quiet or I’ll put that gag back on you.” The bald man closed his eyes again and soon began snoring.
Kriss struggled uselessly with the cords that bound his wrists. Finally he subsided and lay still, fuming. Maybe they don’t know who they’re working for, he thought. Vorlick could be trying to cover his tracks. But I’ll bet he shows up in another hour or two.
It was a bet he would have lost. Precisely an hour after midnight the bald man’s watch started beeping frantically, and he opened his eyes and sat up, stretching. “Well, lad, that’s that.” He stood and nudged the younger man, who had also fallen asleep, with his foot. “Some guard you are!”
“Still here, ain’t he?” the other man grumbled.
“No thanks to you. Cut those cords, give him that touchlyre thing and let’s get out of here.”
Two minutes later Kriss stood on the landing field outside the warehouse again, while his captors vanished into the darkness. He stared after them, completely bewildered. Was somebody playing a joke?
Finally he set out for the Thaylia. They must have been searching for me since I failed to show up for the banquet, he thought. Nicora will think Vorlick got me. I thought Vorlick had me. He shook his head. “I don’t understand,” he muttered.
A young cousin of Tevera’s stopped him as he entered the ship. “The Captain wants you,” she said stiffly.
“Thank you.” They must have seen me coming, he thought as he made his way deeper into the ship. Nicora will be glad to see I’m still alive.
He wasn’t prepared for the greeting he received as he stepped out of the elevator at the Captain’s level. Nicora’s guards awaited him, and seized his arms roughly, ignoring his angry protest.
Nicora sat behind her black desk—with Rigel standing beside her. She spoke without preamble. “Crewman Lemarc, you failed to appear as ordered at the Coronach to play for the assembled captains and their officers. This has shamed the Thaylia.”
“Silence!” The ice in her tone froze the words in his throat. “I know what you have done. Rigel saw you leaving the port, entering the city, at the very hour when you were due on board the Coronach. How dare you go to play in some worldhugger bar when Family captains await you? And worse, while you were confined to port?”
“But I didn’t! I was kidnapped!”
“Kidnapped?” The Captain raised a frosty eyebrow. “By whom?”
“I don’t know! Vorlick’s men, maybe.”
“And how did you escape?”
“I didn’t. They let me go.” Even as he said it, Kriss realized how ridiculous it sounded.
The Captain glanced at Rigel. “My report stands,” Tevera’s brother said. “He left the port alone, of his own volition.”
Kriss lunged at him, but the guards pulled him back. “Liar!” he shouted.
The Captain’s eyes transfixed him. “We in the Family do not lie.”
“But you’re saying I’m lying!”
“You were not raised in the Family.” She took a deep breath. “Crewman Lemarc, you are confined to your cabin for the duration of our stay in Try-Your-Luck, and for the duration of the next Jump, except for periods of special disciplinary duty. Nor are you to contact Crewwoman Tevera during that time. Dismissed!”
Choking on helpless rage, Kriss was dragged from the room, his last view a glimpse of Rigel’s stony face.
Later he sat fuming in his cabin. Why was Rigel lying? He stood and paced, five steps from wall to wall. Had Rigel known what really happened, or had he just decided to take advantage of Kriss’s mysterious disappearance?
He stopped suddenly. Or had he set up the whole thing? What if Rigel were the one who had hired the men to hold him, knowing it would widen the gap between him and the rest of the Family?
Did Rigel hate him enough to lie to the Captain? Kriss shook his head. There had to be more motive than that.
But he still hadn’t puzzled out the answer when the intercom at the head of the bunk beeped, disrupting his thoughts. He banged the switch with his fist. “What do you want?”
“It’s Tevera,” came the whispered answer.
“Tevera!” He sat on the bed, as close to the intercom as though it were the girl herself. “How—”
“I’m alone in my cabin. I’m not supposed to even talk to you, but unless someone looks closely at the monitor on the bridge…what’s going on? Why are you locked up?”
Briefly and bitterly Kriss told his story. When he finished she was silent. “Tevera?”
“I’m…still here.” Then, in a rush, “Kriss, are you sure there’s no way Rigel could have seen what happened and just misunderstood? He’d never lie to the Captain…”
“I was bound and gagged! How could he misunderstand that? And if he saw it at all, why didn’t he help? We’re both supposed to be Family!”
“There has to be an explanation…”
“There is,” Kriss said grimly. “Your brother hates me.”
“But Rigel is Family. Family men don’t lie!”
“He’s human. We all lie.” Anger grew in him. “You obviously think I’m lying!”
“But you don’t believe me.”
“Yes, I do! It’s just…I believe Rigel, too.”
“You can’t have it both ways!”
Another silence. “I need to think,” Tevera said finally.
“Think all you want to. But don’t call me again until you’ve decided to trust me!” He smashed the intercom switch closed, then hurled his pillow across the room and flung himself on the bed.
After a bitter time of black thoughts he drifted into sleep, but woke only an hour or two later when his cabin door opened.
He couldn’t see a thing—but he hadn’t turned his lights out before sleeping! He sat bolt upright. No light came through the door, either, though the corridor outside should have been filled with dim blue nightglow. “Who’s there?” he said into the darkness.
A hand suddenly clamped over his mouth. “An old friend,” a voice whispered, and something cold pressed against his temple. “That’s a beamer, so keep quiet. You’re leaving this ship right now—forever.”
Kriss didn’t have to see his assailant. He knew that voice.
“Get the touchlyre,” said Rigel.
Rigel produced a hand-light, and, once Kriss had retrieved the touchlyre from its locked cabinet, led him quickly and quietly through the blacked-out corridors to the lowest level. They exited through the small one-man hatch and down the ladder Kriss had climbed on his first visit to the Thaylia. Once down on the landing field Rigel pointed him toward a beat-up, antique freighter near the perimeter.
“Where are you taking me?” Kriss demanded.
Kriss stopped in shock. “But why?”
Rigel jabbed him with the beamer. “Keep quiet and keep moving.”
Stunned, Kriss walked on mechanically. It all made horrible sense. Rigel had hired the men to keep him from making it to the banquet on the Coronach. Then he had convinced Nicora Kriss had sneaked off on his own. Now he would deliver Kriss to Vorlick—and tell Nicora that Kriss had deserted. Vorlick would have Kriss, and the touchlyre, without having to worry about Family vengeance, and Rigel…No doubt Rigel will get an ample reward, Kriss thought bitterly. Plus the satisfaction of insuring that no hated worldhugger would succeed in becoming part of the Family, or involved with his sister.
A small hatch opened and a ladder descended as they neared the base of the freighter. Two tough-looking spacers met them. One took the touchlyre, then together they escorted Rigel and Kriss into the ship and up a series of ladders to a small, brightly lit cabin.
As they entered the room Carl Vorlick stood up from behind a smaller version of Nicora’s computerized desk. “Kriss Lemarc. How nice to see you again,” he almost purred.
Kriss said nothing.
One of the guards tossed the touchlyre roughly on the desk. “Careful, you idiot!” Vorlick snapped. He touched it almost reverently, then looked up sharply at Rigel. “You’re sure no one will suspect?”
“I’m sure.” Rigel’s voice sounded strained, and sweat beaded his forehead. “I’ve convinced the Captain that Kriss is a liar who will never fit into the Family.”
“The Family never lies,” Kriss repeated bitterly. “Except you. Why, Rigel?”
Rigel looked at Vorlick, who shook his head. Rigel’s shoulders slumped. “Ask him.”
“You’d better get back to Thaylia now and report his desertion,” Vorlick said coolly.
Rigel nodded and went out. Kriss folded his arms and glared at his enemy, though fear made a lump of ice in his stomach. “Are you going to kill me now or later?”
Vorlick laughed. “My dear boy, I have no intention of killing you.”
Kriss blinked. “What?”
“I have a better use for you. You’re coming on a trip with me.”
Instead of answering directly, Vorlick touched a control on his desk. “Captain, we can take off now.”
“Yes, sir,” a man’s voice came back. “Destination?”
Vorlick looked up at Kriss. “Earth.” Then he laughed at Kriss’s expression.
Kriss didn’t see Vorlick again during the month-long journey. But he felt more like a low-ranking member of the crew than a prisoner. His duties included cleaning and general maintenance, much like he’d been doing on board the Thaylia—dull, but better than being locked in a cabin.
He had a lot of time to wonder—uselessly—what Vorlick was up to. Vorlick had the touchlyre, so what did he need Kriss for, on a planet he had never even seen?
But however inexplicably, at least he was still alive, he thought as he swabbed a corridor early one ship’s day with a zero-G mop that cleaned the walls and floor and sucked up the grime without ever letting a droplet or particle free to float around the ship. He wondered again, as he had daily, what had happened on board the Thaylia. Had Nicora believed Rigel’s lies?
She believed them once, he thought bleakly. Even Tevera believed him. The thought that Tevera might believe he had deserted made him feel sick.
A bell shrilled. “Prepare for docking with Earth station,” said a disembodied voice, and Kriss hurriedly stowed his mop and pulled himself down the corridor to a nearby observation port. Maybe today he would finally get some answers.
He grabbed a hand-hold and stared out at the still-distant barrel shape of the space station, and the blue-and-white planet beyond: Earth, capital of the Commonwealth, homeworld of humanity—and, almost unbelievably, his birthplace.
The slowly spinning station drew nearer. Over more than a century micrometeorites and space junk had pitted and discolored its hull, but the symbol of the Commonwealth, a star enclosed in three interlocking circles, burned bright blue on the central, stationary docking cylinder.
The freighter’s bow steering-rockets fired and station and planet alike swung out of view as the ship turned its fat stern for the final approach. At the same moment a voice crackled over the intercom, “Kriss Lemarc, report to hatch two.”
Vorlick awaited him there. Kriss felt a faint vibration and a couple of bumps, then, “Docked and secured,” the captain reported. Vorlick acknowledged, then opened the inner airlock door, moved into the lock, opened the outer door, and floated into the cylindrical chamber beyond, Kriss close behind. “I’ve already cleared us both through customs,” Vorlick said as he drifted across the room and hit a switch, opening another door. Beyond, a tube-shaped corridor ran to their left and right. “We won’t be going into the spinning portion of the station. We’ll board my private shuttle in one of the other docking tubes.”
“Then will you tell me what you want with me?” Kriss demanded, following his captor to the right.
“Only when you need to know.” Vorlick stopped by another door, and they floated through two more airlocks, finally emerging into a room with deep gold carpet, dark wood paneling, crystal and silver lighting fixtures and velvet and satin-cushioned chairs and couches. “We’ll have artificial gravity as soon as we’re out of the station,” Vorlick said. “You’d better sit down.”
Kriss looked at him in astonishment. “Artificial gravity? In a shuttle?” Such a profligate use of energy in something so utilitarian was—well, “decadent” was the word that came to mind.
“Of course. A little luxury I can well afford which serves the dual purpose of impressing those I want impressed and making me more comfortable.” As Kriss settled himself in a padded corner Vorlick said into an intercom in the wall, “Take her down.”
After a moment of faint scraping and the beginnings of acceleration, the artificial gravity came on and Kriss sank into the cushions. “That’s better,” Vorlick said. He crossed to a cabinet and took out a cut-crystal goblet and matching bottle. He poured something blue-green and sparkling, then returned the bottle to the shelf.
He sipped from the goblet and turned toward Kriss. “Two months ago—even six weeks ago—I would have killed you on sight,” he said conversationally, sitting in one of the well-padded armchairs. “You thwarted me, with the help of the Family—temporarily, of course, but I’m not used to waiting for what I want.” He took another swallow, then set the goblet down on a polished marble drinks table. “But since then I’ve realized how you can still be of use.”
“What if I refuse?”
Vorlick shrugged. “I can still kill you. But why worry about such an unpleasant possibility? You won’t refuse.”
“You want to know about your parents, don’t you?”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“I share your curiosity. In particular, I would very much like to know where they found that artifact of yours; or rather, mine, now, of course. And I know how we can both find answers to our questions.” He lifted the glass again and drained it, then set it aside and went to a large viewscreen in one wall. When he activated it it showed the view from the shuttle’s bow, and Kriss was astonished to see they were already inside the atmosphere; he hadn’t felt so much as a bump. Sparkling towers glittered near the distant horizon.
“That’s New Oxford, home of the Commonwealth Central Data Bank and Information Processing Center—usually called the Library.” Vorlick tapped the screen. “The Library is the nerve center of the Commonwealth. The actual administrative personnel are elsewhere, but every order, every law, every public communication, every bit of information gathered in the Commonwealth is stored and correlated here. Every planet in the Commonwealth, most ships, and many individuals maintain dimspace contact with it.” He glanced at Kriss. “Like your parents.”
“I don’t understand.” Kriss stared at the rapidly nearing city, now close enough that he could see the immense, complex system of antennae spread around it for miles.
“Your parents were in contact with the Library during their expedition. They may have told the Library where they were, or at least left enough hints for me to figure it out.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
“Because I can’t get at the records. That’s why I need you.” Vorlick frowned at the city. “The Library’s security is impenetrable, even by me. It’s overseen by the most advanced artificial intelligence in existence. It would never let me access your parents’ privacy-locked communications. But it will let you.”
“I’ve had your identity confirmed. You are now officially recognized in Commonwealth records as Kriss Lemarc, son of Jon and Memory Lemarc of Earth, born on this planet not quite seventeen standard years ago and therefore an Earth citizen. As sole heir of the deceased Lemarcs, you have the right to access their private records.” He spread his hands. “You’re going to give me what I want—and it will all be quite legal.”
Kriss stared at the viewscreen. For years he had longed to find out everything he could about his parents. Now Vorlick had given him that opportunity—but at a very high price.
The shuttle landed uneventfully, and they walked from the small spaceport into the city, a quiet place with few people in sight but a great many flowers, fountains and trees. The buildings, low and simple near the port, rose stair-step fashion to the towers at the city’s centre.
They didn’t have to go far to contact the Library intelligence, however. Vorlick led Kriss into a small white building, surrounded by flowering shrubs, and down a short corridor to one of several cubicles containing only a chair, a desk, and a holographic display cube. Vorlick pointed Kriss to the chair and stood behind him as he sat down. At once a disembodied female voice said, “Please identify yourself.”
“Uh…I’m Kriss. Kriss Lemarc.”
“Insufficient response. Commonwealth Citizenship Number?”
“Z9A-S0P-L9L-Y4K-1129746,” Vorlick put in.
“Applicant must give data himself,” said the Library.
With silent prompting from Vorlick, Kriss repeated the string of letters and digits.
“Place of birth?”
A moment’s pause. “Scan complete. Identity confirmed. Second person, please identify.”
“I’m not applying for information,” Vorlick said.
“Immaterial. Current security programming requires that I confirm the identity of all humans within the Library. Please identify.”
“Carl Vorlick, of Earth. CCN A2A-E6V-W4R-N9A-0403998.”
“Scan complete. Identity confirmed. How may I help you, Kriss Lemarc?”
Kriss looked helplessly at Vorlick. “What do I say?”
But the Library answered first. “I am capable of conversing in all known human languages, in all dialects. I have full command of slang, metaphor and simile, and I am not confused by hesitations, speech impediments, improper grammar or other irregularities. No special syntax is required. Simply state your area of interest and I will request further clarification if necessary.”
“You know what I want,” Vorlick growled. “Get on with it.”
Kriss turned back toward the display cube. “I’d like to see the personal records of my parents, Jon and Memory Lemarc.”
“That information is privacy-coded. As their son, you may access it, but your companion, Carl Vorlick, may not. I cannot release it with him present.”
Vorlick looked down at Kriss. “All right, I’ll wait outside. But see you find out what I want to know—and don’t think you can lie to me, because you’ll be coming along on the search. Understand?”
Kriss nodded, and Vorlick went out—leaving him alone with his past.