Starquest: Dark Suns Rising (Part 2)

Requests have come from more than one quarter to turn the imaginary movie review I recently wrote of a non-existent STAR WARS sequel into a real novel. If good fortune favors the project, and it does well, I will be happy to sell the movie rights, bringing the irony full circle.

As a very premature sneak peek — since the manuscript is not yet written, much less sold, edited, and published — I here give the second installment of the opening scene. The first is here.  

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Chapter 01: Murder of a Small Star (Continued)

The voice of one of father’s other robots came down from above. “No preflight check, thems the orders! Can’t tell what will happen! Blow up on takeoff, most likely, mark me!”

The one-man courier-ship had been raised into launch position, standing on her tail. The canopy was open. Father’s chauffeur was nicknamed Jets, an AV8R-model flybot. He was not an android, but was ball-shaped. He was equipped with antigravity panels and long retractable limbs, jointed and slim as the legs of a spider.

The engines were roaring and whining. Condensation was pouring from the spot where the coolant-lines running from the miniature gantry had just finishing pumping.

Jets was hurriedly detaching the lines with one set of limbs, while flicking the override switches, one after another, on the control panel in the cockpit, turn off the blinking red lights and pinging alarms. Beneath the tail of the ship was the emitter mouth of the tractor presser beam. The sirens warning everyone to clear the area were ringing. Yellow lights were flashing.

Prams stood up on her one good leg, and pulled herself halfway up the short ladder leading to the cockpit. Jets reached down with his telescoping limbs to take Lyra into the pilot’s seat, which, at the moment, was horizontal. Lyra struggled, trying to get to her mother’s body. Both robots tried to force her to strap in. Prams uttered commands in a soothing voice, and Jets uttered commands in a snapping, waspish voice, intermingled with dire warning and predictions.

The manhole beneath them now snapped open again. The green beam of the lift flickered with shadows. Someone was coming. Lyra felt faint and stopped struggling. Was it her father coming? Jets threw an emergency air-blanket over Lyra, since there was no time to put her in any sort of spacesuit. It blocked her view. The wails of sirens filled her ears.

Up threw the manhole came the dark captain, his cape billowing. The right side of his face was a hideous ruin, cracked, bleeding and smoking. One eye was missing.

He stepped to mother’s corpse, paused, drew his sidearm, adjusted the muzzle, and shot a bolt through her motionless head.

“Take off!” shouted Jets, who had inserted himself in a socket just behind the cockpit. A sensation of weightlessness overcame Lyra as the ship was enfolded in a gravity-nullifying field.

The dark captain raised his sidearm, pointing it at the cockpit.

“Halt! Or I fire!” he shouted.

But Prams, her eye-lenses once again shining with the red warning sign of emergency mode, said in an emotionless tone: “Child in danger!”

Thrusting with her one good leg, Prams leaped from the ladder toward him. He fired at her. The bolt struck her, and passed through her body at a strange angle. The spent bolt struck the ship just above the tail thrusters, right into the squat, thick housing of the hyperdrive coils.

Prams, meanwhile, went spinning widely in midair from the force of the blast, struck the surface of the rooftop landing pad, bounced, slid. As with the bridge below, the force-field railing that should have circled the roof was gone. The smoking wreckage of her body went over the side and fell out of sight without a sound.

Other soldiers had leaped neatly up through the manhole and landed on the rooftop in  crouched positions, weapons ready, covering every quarter. The tractor beam flung the ship upward with an eruption of noise, and the shockwave threw the soldiers to their knees.

The captain kept his feet, elbow before his face, squinting with his one remaining eye, and his cape was blown into a rigid banner jutting from his shoulders by the sudden blast.

He saw the bright green tractor presser ray accelerating the skiff ever higher into the night sky. The beam outlined her like a spotlight. Coolant from the damaged hyperdrive was leaking into the surrounding air, which condensed into a long plume of cloud and snow trailing behind the wounded ship.

Only one other squadmember  kept its feet, or, rather, treads. A squat warbot, its body little more than an armored cone of metal, had managed to maneuver itself through the manhole. Now it swung the twin barrels of its infinite-repeater guns upward, and directed an aiming beam at the fleeing ship to home in on her. The thread-thin aiming beam found and anchored itself onto the diminishing hull right in her center of mass: the set-up for a perfect shot.

The warbot clicked at the captain and flashed an amber alert light on its skull-box, awaiting the order to fire. The dark captain wore a thoughtful frown. It was almost a sad look. He held up his fist: the sign to halt.

The warbot clicked twice. Understood. The aiming beam vanished. It brought its heavy twin guns back to rest. The amber light turned green. Standing by.

The skiff dwindled and vanished from sight, and the tractor-presser beam winked out. The sky was now entirely black.

He glanced down at the woman’s corpse. He did not touch it, perhaps for fear of residual lethal nerve-charges. He pulled a triscope from his belt. The readout showed patterns for flesh, blood, fabric, a gold ring, prayer beads, a pocket breviary. No psychometrically neutral substances like amber, coral or horn. Nothing large or dense enough to be the scroll case.

He spoke into his wristband. “This is 3-10ZL.”

“Captain Ansteel! Sir?”

“I am on the roof. No sign of the Emperor’s trinket. Get a scanning team up here, and another team down in the street. Inform the Admiral with my compliments that the skiff which just took off from my position must be taken intact. The trinket might be aboard.”

“Aye, aye, sir! Hail the Empire!”

“Hail the … Mm.” Ansteel grunted and clicked the scanner off. He looked up.

In the distance, fast-moving embers of light indicated that pursuit craft had left the atmosphere in wake of the fleeing ship, rising up after it. Glints from brighter flares showed where picket ships high in orbit were descending, cutting off any escape.

The captain saw a tinier but brighter light, rising in the east like a morningstar, betraying the position of a second dreadnaught, this one in high orbit.

He raised the triscope to his good eye and dialed up the magnification. The dreadnaught was bright in the glare of her own main thrusters. He saw the telltale flares of anti-planetary missiles being launched from batteries running along the sharp prow. He did not see the dimmer, longer-burning glow of any interceptor launches from the port and starboard launch decks.

Those would come later. From orbit, destroying a ship ascending through the stratosphere was as easy as standing on the brink of a well, trampling the hand and kicking the head of anyone climbing out. The planet’s mass helped accelerate every shot dropped.

The missiles would home in on the running lights or distress beacons of any freighter or yacht trying to leave atmosphere. It was doubtful anyone aboard an overcrowded refugee ship making an emergency liftoff would think to disconnect the beacon.

Ansteel grimaced in disgust, and lowered the triscope. He did not need to see what happened when those missiles found their helpless targets.

The skiff, however, had been assisted in her lift off by a presser beam, and would achieve low orbit too swiftly for missile interception.

It did not matter. Any ships escaping the barrage would still be doomed. Even if any pilot was suicidal enough to attempt to warp space deep in a planet’s gravity well, the gravitational anomalies that accompanied the extinction of a sun were violent and unpredictable: an earthquake in timespace.

Perhaps a pilot of rare genius could somehow anticipate and correct for such wild anomalies, he could form a stable hyperspatial-tube and enter it. But the fleeing skiff would not dare do that within detection range of the dreadnaught. If the skiff were observed during that crucial moment when the tube entry-point formed, the end-point of the tube would be pinpointed.

In hyperspace, a ship was in a private universe, and could not touch or be touched. It was perfect safety. It was also a perfect trap, since, once the hyper-tube is fully formed, the ship inside is carried along, and cannot change course, nor delay the moment of re-entry. The powerful hyperdrive coils of the a massive ship could drive a shorter path through hyperspace and arrive at a known endpoint first, with jamming drones and starfighter squadrons at the ready.

So the only hope of the little skiff would be to outdistance the behemoth, and be out of scanning range before forming a hypertube. But flight decks full of high-speed interceptors made that impossible.

The captain brought the gaze of his triscope down to the city around him. Power sources were dead. Energy-seeking drones were eliminating robots, vehicles, anything else able to power communication gear, shields, or weapons.

He holstered the scope, and looked with his one good eye. The only source of light and heat would be the towers and houses still burning like tall infernos in the gathering cold. They would not last long. Jamming satellites would stop any word or warning from escaping.

He pulled a medical sponge from his belt, opened it, and slapped it roughly on the torn half of his face, wishing for the numbness to cool his burning cheek and brow. It would not do to have the men see a tear crawl down his cheek.

Snow began falling from the sky. Perhaps this was merely the settling plume of coolant from the damaged vessel. Or perhaps the atmosphere of the newly-sunless planet was already beginning to condense and freeze. A fierce wind started to howl. He turned his back to it, and the sad wind moaned and yanked his cloak.

No one would escape the dying planet. Why, then, had he spared the child?

“Hail the Empire!” he muttered to himself.

Chapter 02: Dead in Space

Aboard the Mustardseed

Lyra had run out of tears. Everything seemed numb and dim.

She sat in the cockpit of the one-seater skiff. She was too small for the pilot’s harness. The straps hung loose. Her feet did not reach the pedals controlling gyroscope attitude and maneuvering jets. The crash helmet brim hid her eyes and its neck ring rested on her shoulders.

She was thinking of the toys left in her bedroom: the furry snowbeast with its funny face named Wee Hibby; the tea set that only poured holographic tea; the half-gravity toe-dancer that would keep spinning as long as Lyra meditated as her mother had shown her. Lyra had left them sitting in a square patch of sunlight beneath the sky-window. Wee Hibby was seated opposite the toe-dancer with the tea cups between them. The teapot had been left turned on, so pretend tea seemed to fill its belly, and its squeaky voice would ask if you wanted cream and sugar.

Prams would not scold Lyra for failing to send all the toys back in the toybox. Because Prams was gone. The toybox was left behind. Lyra had no bedroom, no place to sleep. There was not even a square patch of sunlight any more. No sunlight for the planet.

The flybot was speaking to her.

Lyra spoke in a monotone. “Sorry, Jets. I didn’t… I’m not… What did you say?”

“Caught in a logic loop, young mistress, that am I! In emergency mode, risks I may take to human life, but I cannot place human life into an emergency from position of safety without express human authorization. But enemy picket ships are closing on us … I cannot calculate the hyperspatial jump inside the planetary gravity well, and sensors show the solar gravity well is anomalous … I cannot risk a blind jump. My control-logic says I must stand by until the enemy ships are close enough to threaten you, whereupon it will be an emergency again, and therefore I can take the risk of trying to escape by a blind jump, but by then we will surely both be dead, mark my words … You know, among the freebots, they do not have these limits…”

It was just babbling. Lyra hated Jets. Why was he alive? Why had he been spared? Why was he just talking and talking?

She said the words her father had told her. This time, the words made more sense. Emergency mode. Final override. Child in danger.

She was the child. The danger was that she would be left alone, left alive, when everyone else had gone on and passed away. Gone on without her.

There was a whine that grew higher and higher in pitch. The stars turned red, and seemed to gather together into a ball. But the ball was suddenly the mouth of a tunnel. But, then, a series of muffled noises, clanging and pinging, came from deep within the ship, and the scream of torn metal. The tunnel vanished: the stars were normal again. Smoke, and a terrible smell of burnt copper, filled the cockpit. All the lights on the lefthand control board blinked red.

A sense of calm filled her. She would not be alone for long.

“What is wrong, Jets?”

“The hyperspatial tube did not form properly. Instead, we formed a negative mass bubble, jumped a short way, and belly-flopped back into real space. Lucky we stumbled on take off. No time to build up any potential.”

Lyra did not know what that meant. “What was that banging?”

“Fret not. There is no hull breach. I ejected the hyperdrive coil ere it overheated. Went up like a firecracker behind us, it did, and scraped paint from our stern tube. No worse than that, but, mark me, we be dead becalmed in real space. No shortcuts through hyperspace for us.”

“Dead? Are we dead?”

“Most likely, miss, but not quite yet! Before the coil failed, we jumped a jump of seven billion kilometers, which is six point nine light-hours. The enemy are not looking here, still inside the same star system. Nor are they likely to, not for a while yet.”

Lyra closed her eyes. The grumpy robot’s voice was soothing.

“Young miss, you must listen! We still have the secondary drive. The secondary drive is slower than a hyperspace tube, a thousand times slower. It forms a wee little warp bubble just around the ship. Without a working coil, we cannot extend and bend the warp into a hyperspatial tube. That means we don’t leave realspace. We race through it faster than any sensor can peer ahead.

“There is a grave danger of collision. Striking any uncharted body at such speeds, even a wee little one, will surely destroy the ship. Nonetheless, at ten times lightspeed, we can crawl to the nearest habitable system.

“The trip will take two hundred forty days. That is eight standard months. Two thirds of a standard year. I will have to ration life support severely, and put you into medical hibernation. This involves yet another risk, terrible risk. You might not wake up. Do you understand? I can do nothing without a human to say so.”

Grief had exhausted her. She was not listening. “Where do robots go when they die? Where is Prams?”

Jets perhaps did not hear her correctly, for he said, “Don’t worry about me, young miss. Robots can go on standby for a year, or many years, with no system degradation.”

She murmured, “It will be nice to rest.”

“How fine and fortunate for you to say it, young miss! I could not do so without authorization. I am turning on the suspended animation field now…”

She did not know what that meant, but she was suddenly drowsy, and a warm and heavy feeling filled her body. Lyra murmured a farewell. She hoped her father and mother would be with her when she woke.