Return to Star Song

Read the first two chapters of Star Song

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Cover art by Dan O’Driscoll

From an Aurora Award-winning author comes a thrilling young-adult outer-space adventure.

When the old woman who raised him in a remote village is murdered, Kriss Lemarc finds himself alone on a planet where he’ll always be an outsider.

His only link to his long-dead, unknown parents is the touchlyre they bequeathed him, a strange instrument that not only plays music but pours his innermost feelings into the minds of his listeners.

When Tevera, a girl of the space-going, nomadic Family, hears Kriss perform, she is drawn to him against her better judgment and the rules of her people. With her help, though mistrusted and even hated by some of her comrades, Kriss seeks to discover the origin of the touchlyre, the fate of his parents, and a place where he truly belongs.

But the touchlyre proves to be more than just a musical oddity. Powerful, ruthless people will stop at nothing to get it—and Kriss and Tevera are all that stand in their way.

Chapter 1

Music shivered across the mirror-like surface of the secluded lake, tucked into a pocket canyon in the granite wall of the Featherwood Mountains. The native trees that gave the mountains their name trailed pale-blue fronds in the water as though enraptured by the shimmering sound.

Kriss Lemarc lifted his hands from the fingerplates of the touchlyre, and the music faded away. He took a deep breath. Not bad, he thought. Not bad at all. The song was a new one, and it didn’t have words yet. He’d ask Mella to help him with those that evening when he played it for her for the first time.

He put the instrument down beside him on the flat surface of the boulder on which he sat, then leaned back, stretching his legs. His skin, still wet from his latest swim, shone in the late-afternoon sunlight. He was naked, but that didn’t matter out here: in all the years he’d been coming to the lake, since he was old enough for Mella to let him go off on his own for an afternoon, he’d never seen another soul. The Black Rock villagers tended to stay close to their fields and houses.

Just as well, he thought. They didn’t like him, and he didn’t like them. The first time Mella had taken him down to the village with her as a small child, he’d clung to her skirt, frightened by the frown on almost every grown-up’s face. Oh, they took Mella’s money as she bought the things they couldn’t grow or make for themselves, but only one or two of them smiled at her or at him. And later, he’d had to ask Mella what an “offworld bastard” was, words he’d heard muttered behind his back as they passed two men lounging outside a bar.

Mella had smiled sadly and told him not to worry about it. “It’s just because you look different from their own children,” she’d said. “Some people are like that.”

Nothing had improved over the years. He avoided the village as much as he could, but sometimes he had to go down there. The villagers had grown only more hostile over the years. When he was little, his pale complexion and fair hair had made him stick out among the brown-skinned, black-haired Farrsians. Now he was taller than anyone in the village, too: he’d sprouted with puberty and towered over Mella, who had once seemed so tall to him.

Maybe things were better in Cascata, the capital city, site of Farr’s World’s only spaceport, where surely offworlders were more common, but out here in the boondocks, the native Farrsians never let him forget he wasn’t one of them.

He sighed, wishing his thoughts hadn’t gone down that particular well-trodden and unpleasant road. By way of changing the mental subject, he picked up the touchlyre again, not to play, but to admire. He ran his fingers over the three gently curving sides and the smooth, swelling back, remembering when Mella had given it to him.

Mella had been his guardian since his parents had died in an aircar accident when he was a baby. She’d never told him very much about them, and he’d never seen the touchlyre until what she said was his twelfth standard birthday (although he’d only been ten and a half Farrsian years old). In the cozy main room of their cottage, with a fire blazing in the hearth to ward off the chill of the cold air flowing down from the mountains, she’d opened a triangular case of red leather he’d never seen before—he still didn’t know where she’d hidden it—revealing the touchlyre.

He’d stared at it with wide eyes. He’d never seen anything so beautiful. Made of black wood—stormwood, he thought, from one of the local trees—it had a roughly triangular body and a long neck. Six silver strings, glinting orange in the firelight, were strung from copper pegs, three to the side, near the top of the neck—but not at the very top: there, a plate of copper gleamed. Another plate of copper, this one oval, shone on the instrument’s body, just to the right of the strings. There was no opening into the body like Kriss had seen in the guitars and zimrithers he’d admired in a shop window in the village, and no tuning keys.

“Where did it come from?” he’d asked Mella. “Who does it belong to?”

“Your father made it,” she told him. “And it belongs to you.” She touched the soft black wood of the body. “He carved and shaped it with his own hands,” she said softly, “and all the time he worked on it, he talked about how much he looked forward to having a son or daughter to give it to. I’m just glad he left it with me for safekeeping before . . .” Her voice trailed off. She looked back up at Kriss. “Just like he did you.”

Before the aircar crashed that killed him and my mother, Kriss thought. With a lump in his throat, he, too, reached out and touched the wood. “How do you play it?”

“I’ll show you,” Mella said. She took it from its case and helped him position it, resting the broad base on his legs so that the slender neck rose to his left ear. 

He touched the strangely keyless pegs. “How do you tune it?”

“It doesn’t need tuning,” Mella said. “It tunes itself.”

“Cool,” Kriss said. He’d flicked his fingers across the strings so that they gave a musical chime. “Do you play it like a guitar?”

“No,” Mella said. “Your father called it a touchlyre. Put your fingers on the copper plates.”

He put his left hand on the plate at the top of the neck, and his right hand on the plate on the body. Instantly, the strings shivered to life. He snatched his hands away, and they silenced.

Mella laughed at his startled face. “See?” she said. “A touchlyre. Try again.”

He touched it again, and this time kept his fingers on the plates. The strings vibrated with a formless but pleasant sound.

“Now close your eyes,” she said, “and play a song in your mind.”

He blinked. “What song?”

“What’s your favourite?”

“Um . . .” He closed his eyes again, trying to think, but his mind had gone blank. The first thing that finally came to mind was a silly Old-Earth children’s song Mella used to sing to him when he was little. Baa, baa, black sheep, have you any wool ran through his mind . . .

 . . . and the touchlyre played it. Perfectly and beautifully. His eyes snapped open, and he stared down at the strings. “Wow,” he breathed.

“Wow,” Mella agreed, her round, wrinkled face beaming. But then the smile vanished, and she leaned toward him, putting a hand on his knee. “But remember this, Kriss:  this is very, very important. You must never let anyone else see this instrument or hear you play it.”

He’d just been imagining himself giving concerts in front of cheering crowds in Cascata. The daydream vanished. “Why?” He looked down at the touchlyre. “It’s just a musical instrument.”

“It’s not,” Mella said. “It’s more than that.”

“What? How? What is it?”

Mella had just shaken her head. “I can’t tell you. Not yet. I promised your parents. Not until you are older.”

I’m older now, Kriss thought, sitting on the boulder and looking at the touchlyre. But apparently, he wasn’t old enough. He’d just had his sixteenth standard birthday—very close to his fourteenth Farr’s World birthday, though Mella had always celebrated the standard ones. (“You get more that way,” she’d pointed out, so he’d never argued.) He’d asked her again, and she’d refused again. “Your eighteenth birthday,” she said. “That’s what I promised your father. On your eighteenth standard birthday, I’ll tell you what the touchlyre is. Then, you’ll be old enough to decide what to do with it.”

Mella, he thought, I love you, but sometimes I think you still think I’m a baby.

The touchlyre looked as beautiful now as it had in the firelight the night she’d given him, orange light giving a warm glow to the dark wood, the silver strings, the copper plates . . .

Wait a second. Orange light? He sat up straight and looked west, out the mouth of the little canyon, where the lake emptied itself into a noisy stream, tumbling down rocks toward the foothills rolling into the hazy distance. The sun was almost to the horizon. He’d have to run to make it home in time for supper.

He scrambled up, pulled on his clothes and boots, shoved the wrappings from his earlier lunch of bread and cheese into his slingpack, stuffed the touchlyre into its red-leather case, slung the pack’s strap over his right shoulder and the touchlyre case’s strap over his left, and then plunged in among the featherwood trees.

There wasn’t exactly a path between the lake and Mella’s cottage—he’d always varied his approaches to the lake to make sure there wasn’t one since he didn’t want anyone else to find his secret spot—but he knew the woods well, and even running in the gathering twilight, he didn’t make a misstep.

He smelled smoke before he saw the cottage through the trees, which had darkened from the light-fronded featherwoods to the darker, spikier stormwoods of the lower slopes, and grinned even as he panted for breath: Mella had promised Earthbeef tonight, and there was nothing Kriss loved more than a rare—

He burst into the farmyard and skidded to halt, unable for a moment to process what he was seeing.

The smoke came not from Mella’s cookfire but from the cottage itself, or what was left of it: nothing but tumbled, blackened bricks and a few charred beams, flames still licking around them. The heart of the cottage, where he had slept the night before, where he had slept and played and sung and laughed and cried his whole life, was a hellish pile of glowing embers.

“Mella!” he screamed, and ran toward the cottage, but the heat drove him back before he even reached what was left of its walls. He’d come at it from the back, and now he stumbled around to the front, to where the door should have been, and the garden, and the path that led down the hill toward Black Rock, ten kilometres distant.

The garden was still there, but it had been trampled, all their precious Earth vegetables and Mella’s beloved flowers crushed into the black dirt, the marks of booted feet everywhere.

Something lay on the path, a bundle of old clothes, his mind told him first, that’s all, but he knew, even as he thought that, that it was nothing of the sort, that it was . . .

 . . . Mella.

He dropped to his knees in the dirt beside her. She lay face down, and he rolled her over. Her pale-blue eyes stared sightlessly up at him. He looked for blood, or burns, but there wasn’t a mark on her.

There wasn’t a mark on her, but she was dead.

Heart attack? Stroke? Had the fire broken out, and the fear and stress had . . .

No, he thought then, staring at the bootmarks in the dirt all around Mella’s body, in the trampled garden, going right up to the door of the cottage . . .

Not just bootmarks. There were pieces of clothing, some his, some Mella’s, the broken pieces of a table that had been beside Mella’s bed, shattered crockery, a spilled bag of flour, a wheel of cheese, other scraps of food . . .

Someone had come to the cottage. Someone had ransacked the cottage, and then someone had burned the cottage. Maybe they hadn’t deliberately killed Mella, but they’d killed her just the same.

Someone? Sick fury rose in him. Someone? He knew who it had to be.

The villagers. The Black Rock villagers.

He could hear their voices in his mind, the muttered comments he’d heard his whole life, since that first time Mella had taken him with her into town.“Offworld bastard . . .” “What did she bring him here for?” “Not one of us . . .”

Once, he’d overheard two men wondering in whispers—but whispers that had carried to his young ears—just how much money Mella had tucked away. “Always able to buy whatever she needs,” one of them murmured. “I figure she was left a bundle by the boy’s parents. Hidden up there in that cottage of hers . . .”

He’d told Mella about that. She’d laughed it off. “Would I be living in a three-room cottage without indoor plumbing outside of Black Rock if I were rich? I’d be in Cascata—or on some other planet.” She told him she’d said as much to some of the villagers when she’d overheard similar rumours . . . but just denying something like that wouldn’t have made the rumours go away. In fact, it might have strengthened them.

Had strengthened them, because here was the proof.

Villagers had come to rob Mella. He was sure of it. Maybe the fire had been an accident. Maybe they’d knocked over a lantern or kicked something into the fireplace. Maybe they’d fled when the cottage started to burn. Maybe Mella had still been alive then.

Maybe. But whether they’d meant it or not, they’d killed her, as surely as if they’d come to the cottage to murder her.

And no . . . he was alone.

The enormity of it hit him then, penetrating his anger, overwhelming everything else. He buried his face in his hands and wept, body heaving with shuddering sobs of a type he’d never experienced before, seized with grief that nothing in his life had ever come close to matching.

But he couldn’t cry forever. Eventually, he raised his head. Night had fallen, only the barest hint of light remaining in the western sky. The glowing embers at the heart of the burned-out cottage gave very little light, but it was enough for Kriss to do what he had to do.

The garden shed had been ransacked, too, but he found the shovel not far from its door, and as the stars wheeled above him and the glow of the embers grew dimmer and dimmer, he dug a grave in Mella’s beloved garden and buried her there. 

His muscles ached, and he was exhausted, but he knew he wouldn’t sleep. He sat by the grave in the dark for a long time, staring into the forest. He wanted to say some words over the grave, but they wouldn’t come. He’d never been to a funeral. He didn’t know what was customary . . . and even if he had, doing what was customary on Farr’s World would have felt like a betrayal after what the villagers had done to Mella.

But maybe there was something he could do.

He retrieved his touchlyre from where he had set it aside while he was digging the grave. He took it from the case, and, sitting crosslegged on the ground, held it in playing position, thinking that perhaps he could play some of Mella’s favourite songs, that he might find some comfort in that.

He touched the copper plates.

The touchlyre screamed, a discordant wailing that sent sleeping starklings screaming skyward from the stormwood trees, and he snatched his fingers back, shocked: he’d never heard the touchlyre make a sound like that before.

Except . . . somehow, it had been right. Somehow, the touchlyre had perfectly captured his emotional upheaval in that one, horrible screech. And so, with tears once more streaming down his face, he touched the plates again. He did not think of music, of a melody or chords or rhythm, but simply let all his grief and love and loneliness pour up into his soul, and from there into the touchlyre.

The initial discord repeated, but then shifted and softened into shimmering, sorrowful clouds of sound that pulled his pain from his body, letting it fall like rain all around the darkened clearing.

How long he played, he didn’t know. His eyes were closed from the beginning. At some point, even as the music welled out of him, he fell asleep.

He woke cold and stiff on his back in the dirt, the touchlyre cradled in his arms. Groaning, he got up, used the still-standing outhouse, and then began rooting through the scattered contents of the cottage for anything that might be useful.

He found bread, and an unbroken bottle of oil, and a few tomatoes, and made his breakfast from that. The wheel of cheese went into his backpack, as did some sticks of summer sausage and a couple of loaves of crusty bread he had to brush the dirt from. In all, he gathered what he though was perhaps seven or eight days’ worth of food. His canteen had been in his slingpack, and of course he had the blanket he’d been sitting on beside the lake, so there was that, at least. His slingpack also held, in an inside pocket, all the money he owned: a dozen coins of various denominations, totalling not quite a fed.

Scrounging the contents of the cottage scattered around the yard, he found a shirt he could salvage, another pair of pants, two pairs of socks, and one pair of underwear. He wished he had a weapon, but not even a kitchen knife had survived.

By mid-morning, he was set. He had all the supplies he could gather and carry. He had his touchlyre.

And he had a plan.

My parents were offworlders, he thought, looking down at Mella’s grave. You never told me anything more than that. You never told me where this touchlyre came from, only that my father made it, and to never let anyone else see it . . . but I know it uses technology from offworld, too.

He looked up at the blue sky. Last night, that sky had blazed with stars. Somewhere out among those stars, he must have relatives . . . uncles, perhaps. Aunts. Grandparents. Cousins . . .

Somewhere out there, he had family.

Whatever made the touchlyre work had to come from somewhere specific. It was the key to his past, the key to finding out more about his parents, the key to finding whatever family he might still have among the widespread planets of the Commonwealth.

With that key, he would open the door to his future.

He turned his back on the still-smoking ruins of the cottage that was the only home he’d ever known, and on the fresh grave of the woman who had been the closest thing to a parent he had ever know, the woman who had raised him and fed him and sheltered him and loved him, and he walked down the path without looking back, toward his future.

Toward the stars.

Chapter 2

Eight days later, Kriss toiled up a hill in the hot sun along a narrow path he’d thought was a shortcut when he’d left the main road a few kilometres back, a path offering no shade since it wound through the stumps of a recently logged native forest. There were Earth-tree saplings among the stumps, but it would twenty years before they’d provide any shelter from the sun.

His slingpack was almost empty, other than his change of clothes (not exactly clean anymore, since he’d been alternating the clothes in the pack with the ones he’d been wearing), and the touchlyre wasn’t particularly heavy, but all the same, he was ready to wish them both to the bottom of the ocean.

Actually, the bottom of the ocean was beginning to sound good to him, too: at least it would be cool.

Something stabbed his foot, and he groaned. And now, he had something in his shoe.

He limped over to a stump and sat down on it. He pulled the boot off and turned it upside down. Nothing fell out. He thumped the heel against the stump. No luck. He thumped it again, harder, this time swearing for good measure. Whatever it was still refused to come out. 

Frustrated beyond measure, he threw the boot into the grass on the other side of the footpath—and then forgot all about it as the stump and the ground began to shake.

The rumbling vibration quickly swelled to a full-throated, crackling roar. Kriss twisted around to look up the slope. His heart leaped into his throat and pulled him to his feet as a tiny, glittering needle, riding a pillar of white fire, soared into view. He craned his neck to follow its ascent, watching it dwindle to a white-hot speck and vanish. Then, without bothering to put his boot back on, he ran up the hill.

Sweat stinging his eyes, heart pounding, stockinged foot bruised, Kriss crested the ridge and stared down, at long last, at Cascata.

The descending slope was also covered with stumps, so there were no trees to block his view of the capital of Farr’s World, which sprawled across a vast plain, huge, smoky, and more daunting than he had ever imagined.

At its centre, beyond the rough wooden buildings of the city’s verge, the jumbled structures of brick and stone farther in, and a handful of glittering glass towers, four silvery, slender spires shimmered like mirages in the middle of a vast, fenced-in duracrete rectangle—the spaceport. Smoke blowing across the pavement and trailing into the sky bore mute, fading testimony to the thunderous departure of the starship he had seen streaking into the sky moments before.

Kriss took a deep breath, suddenly feeling very young and alone. His food was gone. All he had left was his canteen, his clothes, a paltry sum of money, and the touchlyre. It didn’t seem like much with which to challenge the universe.

Challenging the universe half-shod didn’t seem like a good idea, either, so he went back down the hill, retrieved his boot, and with several more solid thumps against the boulder (and some more swearing) managed, at last, to loosen and dump out the foot-plaguing pebble. Then he turned the boot right-side-up again prior to slipping it back on—and paused, blindsided by the memory of Mella’s wrinkled hands patiently working a heavy needle through the thick leather, while she jokingly complained about the way he seemed to outgrow each pair of boots almost before she could make them.

He ran a finger over the boot’s fine stitching. Then he took a deep breath, roughly shoved the boot back onto his foot, and stamped on the heel. Mella, and his childhood, lay dead and buried eight days behind him, beneath the fresh black mound of earth beside the trampled garden and now-cold embers of the burned-out farmhouse. 

He could not change the past, and the future he had mapped out for himself would not happen unless he made it happen. Sitting by the side of the road wasn’t going to do it. 

But before anything else, he had to report Mella’s death to the police. The villagers, he thought for the thousandth or ten-thousandth time. The villagers who attacked the cottage have to pay.

He tried to brush some of the dust from his faded blue shirt and black pants—the “clean” change of clothes when he’d set out—with little success. Then he wiped grimy sweat from his forehead, took a deep breath, and climbed up the ridge once more.

Once he was down the slope, the footpath took him between split-rail fences, corn to his left, wheat to his right, and then joined a much wider road that swept in from the north—re-joined it, really, since if he hadn’t taken his “shortcut”, he would have ended up in this exact same place. It had changed, though: when he’d left it, it had been gravel. Here, it was paved.

He looked left and right as he stepped onto the road. He saw a handful of people on foot in both directions, though nobody was very close. A horse-drawn wagon trundled along the road to his right, approaching the outskirts of the city . . .

And then, suddenly, as he looked that direction, something bright-red roared past, so close Kriss jumped back, tripped, and fell hard on to his rear end. He barely noticed, almost bouncing back to his feet so he could stare after the disappearing vehicle. A groundcar! He’d heard of them from Mella, but he’d never seen one. When he’d asked why there weren’t any around Black Rock, she’d explained that complex machinery, electronics, and other high-tech devices were enormously expensive on metal-poor Farr’s World. Those that existed did not make their way to the hinterland.

Making sure to stay well away from the middle of the road, Kriss hurried in the groundcar’s wake. What other wonders might await in Cascata?

He soon found out. As he entered the city, the road became more and more crowded, with more wagons, more groundcars (though moving at more sedate speeds), massive automated transports, and, most of all, more people—more people than he had ever seen. Fortunately, there were now sidewalks, so the risk of getting run over lessened—or, at least, it did after he almost stepped off the curb in front of a transport, jumping back at the last second. After that, he made a point of looking both ways at every intersection.

Between his offworld colouring and height and his rumpled, dusty clothes, he felt painfully conspicuous, but no one spared him a second glance. Within a few blocks, he began to relax and enjoy a sensation new to him: anonymity.

At its outer edges, apart from the vehicles, Cascata seemed just a larger, dirtier, and much more crowded version of Black Rock. But after he had walked long enough to have passed through Black Rock a dozen times, the buildings changed from wood and plaster to brick and stone, the homes and shops and warehouses far grander than anything in Black Rock. And always, in the distance, gleamed the glass towers of the city’s centre—and beyond them, he knew, lay the starships.

The road he had followed into the city eventually dumped him into a flagstone-paved courtyard with a bustling produce market. Aware of the suspicious gazes of the shoppers and sellers, he hurried across it to a new, smooth-surfaced road that arrowed straight downtown between warehouses whose blank walls, punctuated by loading docks, plunged him into shadow, a relief from the unremitting heat of the sun. Also a relief: no one else was on the sidewalks to stare at him. The road seemed devoted to automated transports, blank, silver, box-shaped drive units pulling multi-wheeled flatbed trailers. One of them hummed toward him and past him as he started down the road; he heard clanging noises behind him, and turned to see that it had pulled up in front of one of the loading docks, where men were now stacking bright-yellow metal boxes onto the trailer.

He turned and continued toward the spaceport. The transport soon passed him going the other way, stopping again at another loading dock a little farther on. He crossed to the other side of the street to avoid it. Ahead, the road ended in a T-intersection with a much broader road, along which traffic passed in both directions. Beyond that stood a tall fence, and beyond that, a vast expanse of duracrete, baking in the sun . . .

Sore feet forgotten, he broke into a run, burst out onto the busy road, dodged traffic to cross it, clung to the wire-mesh fence on the far side of it—and drank in his first close-up view of starships.

Curved, mirrored flanks cast back sharp reflections of the city and narrowed to needle-sharp, glittering prows pointing at the sky.

At the stars.

At his future.

Kriss drank in the sight, silently vowing he would be aboard one of those vessels when it launched. He saw someone come around a landing strut of the nearest ship, a slender figure, a young boy or girl—he couldn’t tell at that distance—and his heart ached with the desire to be that youth, to stand there, at the base of a starship, to gaze out at a strange new world he had never visited before . . .

Then something much closer drew his attention: two men, just crossing the field, dressed alike in beige uniforms. Very tall and very pale, they walked with a strange, fluid grace.

Offworlders!

One of them looked up and saw him staring, and elbowed the other, who glanced Kriss’s way and laughed. Kriss flushed and turned away, the assurance he had felt a moment before gone like a pricked puffplant, the young figure standing at the base of the distant starship forgotten. He looked up at the impersonal government towers. He had yet to talk to the police, and the afternoon was half over. It would soon be night, a night he would spend alone and without shelter in a strange city.

One thing at a time. Maybe the police could help.

When at last he found the police tower, halfway around the spaceport, he ran up the imposing flight of steps—and stopped, staring at his dusty, dishevelled reflection in the mirrored surface of the door. He couldn’t blame them if they just locked him up.

Then at least Ill have a place to spend the night, he thought.

He stepped forward, and the door slid aside, taking his reflection with it.

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