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.”