Starquest: Dark Suns Rising

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 will over over the next two or three weeks the opening scene or two, just to give one and all the flavor of things to come. 

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The Tale is not Ended!
For this Tale is Part of a Greater Tale Yet, as All True Tales Are…

The despotic Galactic Empire has fallen. The Dark Overlords, masters of mysterious mental powers, are dead. The remnants of the Imperial forces have retreated to the Black Sun Nebula at the core of the galaxy, brooding on revenge.

The Republic is reborn, and with it, truth, liberty, and hope. But from the ashes of the quenched tyranny, new evils arise!

One by one, an unknown force is extinguishing the life-giving suns throughout the arms of the galaxy, leaving billions to die in darkness.

Chapter 01: Murder of a Small Star

Planet Centaurus, Galactic Year 7816

More than anything in the universe, Lirazel Centauri wanted to go home. But that was impossible. Her home  was dead.

She had been no older than six standard years when her sun flickered and faded like a dying candle.

One moment, the golden sun was shining down on the emerald gardens and gleaming blue towers of the planet’s main city. The cherry blossom trees were blooming, and little white petals filled the warm air. Lyra had been running in wild circles, giggling, trying to catch the floating petals.

Prams, the NTM-model nanny-bot, wore soft gloves and an apron so that her yellow woman-shaped robot body would not bruise any child she hugged or picked up. Prams would fret and make clucking noises whenever Lyra strayed too near the brink of the rooftop arbor to throw petals off the edge.

That was one thing that stuck in her memory: Prams was worried that the force-fields preventing any falls from the unrailed edge would somehow fail. But Lyra loved jumping toward the edge, because just as it seemed she was about to fall, a misty, half-unseen cushion of energy would catch her. The force-fields were warm and rubbery, so the little girl would bounce back and be dropped lightly to the soft grass of the rooftop.

She was safe. She felt safe. That was what Lyra would remember years later. It was a feeling she would never have again.

The next moment, the sun trembled, turned red, and went utterly dark. The blue sky above turned black. The dozen moons of Centaurus winked out, the crescent moons first, the full moons half a second later.

Prams halted, frozen. She had a human mask meant for smiling, but now it went slack and blank. Alert lights dotting her skull box turned red and stopped blinking. Robots were loyal and clever, but when confronted by anything their programmers could not foresee nor imagine, they stalled. The sight of the nanny suddenly stock-still scared little Lyra. The robot looked dead.

At the same moment Lyra saw a bright flash, bright as lightning, and she turned. Lyra saw one of the larger buildings, a vast pyramidal structure with energy-broadcast antennae on every balcony erupt in flame.

Walls cracked. Bricks flew. The oily black cloud of smoke that rushed upward looked larger than a mountain to Lyra. Only then did the sound reach her ears, for the building was far away: it was louder than thunder.

Power throughout the city failed. The many golden lamps that lined the streets or shined from the windows flickered and went dark. Now it was black from horizon to horizon.

In that darkness, a noise rose up. Earlier that season, her parents had taken Lyra to see the beach, and the twelve moons with their battling tides made the waves high and wild, so her parents did not allow her onto the rocky shore itself. This noise sounded like that: a roar like the sea.

But it was screaming. Shouting, yelling, weeping, pleading, crying voices all rose into the black sky from dark windows and motionless monorails. The whole city was panicking.

Her father’s voice spoke her. She heard it clearly. The Empire has put out the sun.

She stood on tiptoes and pushed the button hidden under Prams’s cap, just as her father told her to do. The red lights on Prams’s skull flickered and came to life again.

“Prams, Daddy says pick me up and carry me as fast as you can to the temple spire.”

The robot’s alert lights blinked in confusion. “But, young mistress, I was told to sit with you here, and watch you … Mustn’t go against what we’re told…”

Sweetiepie. Listen to Daddy. Say these words: Emergency mode. Safety protocol off. Final override. Child in danger.

Lyra spoke slowly and loudly, careful to say the words exactly as she heard them. “Elmer gent sea-mud. Safe tea pro-toe call off.  Fine allover ride. Chilled in Dane sure.”

It must have been close enough. Suddenly Prams was different. The light in her lenses changed to a bright blood red, flickering and flashing. Prams snatched up Lyra. The motions were rough and quick. Her metal legs became a blur. They moved faster than a pony galloping.

Prams was not really Prams any longer. She looked the same on the outside, and the smiling mask of affection was still smiling, but something was wrong. Instead of using the servant door, she ran through the main door.

They emerged onto a crowded walkway. Always before, Prams never touched any other human except to hug or help. Always before, she never disobeyed a human order. Now, when someone shouted for her to stop or render aid, Prams simply ran past him, or knocked them down and ran over him.

Lyra’s next memories were blurry, just a nightmare sensation of running in the dark with voices screaming all around. Every now and again there was a flare of light as some robot, acting as ruthlessly as Prams, assaulted a human to save its owner, or there was a brighter flare from the muzzle of a blaster pistol, as a human opened fire , trying to clear a path.

Lyra was surrounded by screaming, pleading, panicking faces, faces seen only as jerking images in blinking lamps of emergency signs and rescue-bots. The mob ignored the signs. The mob pulled down the rescue-bots and trampled them, trying to climb aboard hospital sleds meant to evacuate the injured. The mob in its fury pulled the injured from the sleds, and then each other, each man for himself.

The race through the crowded boulevards seemed to last hours. Lyra squeezed her eyes shut and tried to bury her head in the comforting apron-breast of her nanny. But this robot was not really her nanny any longer. There was no comfort there.

She looked up only twice. The first time, it was because the crowd-noise changed in pitch. It grew shrill and terrible. Lyra peeked.

Between the towers of the city, she saw it coming down toward her.

Here was an interstellar battleship in midair. The ship was enormous, over a thousand feet from stern to bow. The hull was streamlined for atmospheric maneuvers, and shaped like a titanic spearblade.

Even such large ships, when coming down through the air, usually made no more noise than a cloud, buoyed up by antigravity. This one came screaming down through the air, belly-first. Contrails of vapor rushed upward from the gunwales. The entire dorsal hull surface was a single armored plate, glowing cherry-red with re-entry heat. It was by the light of this glowing hull that the descending giant was visible.

The battleship was firing as she dove. Bolts of plasma energy, thick as columns and bright as lightning, flashed between the ship and the city. The towers were burning, and the rooftop gardens and arbors. There was no counter-battery fire from below. The rapid descent was too swift for that.

Just before she was impaled on the towertops, the great ship’s engines bellowed. The ship decelerated sharply, hull groaning in protest. A whine of repulsor rays climbed up the scale out of hearing. Structures, pavement, vehicles, people and anything directly below the dreadnaught was crumpled and torn to bits by the action of the rays. The fall of the ship was cushioned. The ship jerked to a halt. The supersonic shockwave following her now exploded downward and outward across the broken tower-tops of the city, fanning the flames just lit into tall white swathes of fire. Windows in skyscrapers all down the boulevard were shattered.

From flight decks to port and starboard sleek fighter-divers, built for use in space, stratosphere, or sealevel, now launched. With shrill, screaming thrusters the dark fightercraft flitted between towers, strafing those below with twin plasma cannons.

It was a terrifying sight.

The second time Lyra looked, it was because the sound of the crowd grew suddenly quieter. The mob here was smaller. Also the noise of Prams’s rushing feet was different: her footfalls echoed and boomed. She was no longer running on street pavement, but on the panels of a bridge.

Lyra peeked again. She should not have.

This was the bridge leading to the sacred spire. Or, rather, it was the sole remaining bridge. All the bridges but this one leading up from the neighboring rooftops had been retracted, and the heavy blast doors covered the golden entryways. The spire rose high above the surrounding buildings. Its crown was circled by parabolic dishes and radio horns. There was also a small take-off pad there, large enough for the single, one-man skiff used as a courier-ship to bring private messages to and from Daddy’s office in the Temple.

Most craft this small bore no names; but Mother christened her Mustardseed.

The top of the tall spire was still lit. The tractor-pressor array used to launch the one-man skiff was bright, and the ship itself gleamed like a silver bird. But the main body of the spire was dark. The golden doors were shut, and the lamps were off.

The force-field railings that should have been at the edges of the bridge were also off.

A thousand people tried to force their way over a narrow bridge meant to hold a hundred acolytes walking in solemn, ceremonial processions. A thousand were rushing to seize a single one-seater craft. The crowd was stampeding, and the bridges had nothing at the brink to catch anyone who stumbled. Lyra saw men, women and children as black silhouettes in the dark air. They were pushed off the bridge. Perhaps they screamed as they fell, but, if so, the sound was smothered by the screaming of the crowd. It was madness.

Lyra was sure she would fall. Terror choked her. In panic, she clutched at Prams, her little knuckles white with the strain where she clung to the folds of nanny’s apron.

Then, just as she feared most, Prams’s strong mechanical arms plucked her up and tossed Lyra into the air. Lyra screamed a thin, high-pitched wail, her arms and legs clutching at nothing. There was nothing to grasp.

But Prams was not flinging Lyra off the side of the bridge. Lyra was tossed up, high over the heads of the final rank of rioters in the way, and down into the grasp of her father. Father was standing on the bridge before the doors, which were standing open behind him. Light streamed out from the doors, and cast his shadow before him. The light came from the lift-tube behind him. This was a shaft of greenish tractor-pressor energy pointing upward at a manhole in the ceiling.

Father was tall and fearless, his long dark hair unbound and whipping in the wind about him. He was splendid in his knightly garb, called a kamishimo: blouse-legged trousers and tunic of black, and over this, a sleeveless vest with broad, winglike shoulders.

Both panels of the vest, and again on its back, displayed his heraldic sign: within the circle of a two-headed snake reared the image of a horse with a human face.

Father was with her, protecting her. The press of the crowd was gone. The roaring mob was not willing to approach the temple doors, for father had drawn his great weapon, a mystic sword called a ghostblade.

It was two cubits long, made of a single, razor-sharp length of energy crystal. It looked frail as glass, but it was denser and tougher than ordinary matter made of atoms. It had a wide, straight cross-guard, a grip set with gemlike studs of adamant. The heavy pommel was a ball of crystal that now shone with the light from a higher dimension.

Lyra had seen it many times resting in its special charging rack at home, on the wall above the ivory and gold images of ancestors and heroes.

Then, it had been resting. Now, it was blazing and whistling.

Psionic energy was visible as gold-hued lightning, flashing, flaming and twisting up and down the sharp length. She had never seen the sword like this: it was furious. It was awake. It was alive.

For the briefest possible moment her father held her in one strong arm, with his sword in the other. Then the rear of the mob roared and pushed the unwilling front ranks forward. Carefully father put Lyra down behind him.

As he turned away, Lyra saw her father’s eyes disappear. Instead of pupils, now there was the strange golden glow of psionic energy, the light from another realm, shining in his eyes.

Lyra quailed, terrified at the sight. It was like Prams: her father was not her real father any more. Her real father was kind and strong, and would never cut down innocent strangers.

This man, this monster, whatever he was, turned from Lyra toward the mob. The blade swept through the front rank, unimpeded, killing three or four at each stroke. The crowd pressed backward, trying to escape the terrible, living blade.

The forked lightning from the blade turned red and leaped from man to man, passing from the front rank to the rear, jolting and burning one and all,  for they were closely packed together. As the shouting crowd surged backward, bodies were flung by the dozens from the edges of the narrow bridge, and went toppling end over end away into the dark air.

Lyra’s mother was here, dressed in the long red skirts and white blouse of a shrine maiden. She knelt, hugging Lyra. Mother spoke soft calming words, but they were lost in the uproar, and the sound of Lyra’s own high-pitched screaming.

Without turning to look at his wife, Father drew a small scroll case, no bigger than a baton, from his belt pouch and held it out behind him. This was made of gold and emerald, entwined with images of a two-headed serpent fighting a three-headed hound.

Mother did not pause to wipe the tear-streaks from her calm, expressionless face. She took the scroll case, and handed it to Prams. Lyra distinctly remembered that. Lyra had not seen how Prams had made it through the press. The nanny-bot’s apron and cap were gone. Prams was charred where a heat-ray had passed over her chassis, spitting sparks from torn insulation. One leg was inoperative.

Mother gathered up Lyra in her arms, and ordered Prams up the lift shaft. Mother, carrying Lyra, entered the beam. Prams came hobbling behind, dragging her dead leg. Gravity was nullified. Up floated the three toward a small manhole in the ceiling, which snapped open. The ceiling was tall. To Lyra, it seemed as if she were hanging in midair forever.

Mother, as she rose, called out to Father. For a moment, Lyra did not understand what was being said. It was a final farewell. Mother took Lyra’s tiny hand by the wrist, and gently made it wave bye-bye to Daddy.

With a hollow feeling unlike anything she could imagine, Lyra knew she would never see her father again. Lyra twisted about in her mother’s arms, reaching down. But her arms were too small to reach her father.

At that moment, explosions rocked the far end of the bridge. Blinding white light of incendiaries were mixed with the green of kinetic-force grenades. The kinetic grenades issued tractor-presser energy at faster than the speed of sound in all directions, a solid shockwave able to kill or fling aside anyone struck.

The mob parted. Men in shimmering gray armor with skull-faced helmets strode down the bridge, shooting into the crowd with heat-rays, and men and women burned like torches as they screamed and died. Falling into the air fanned the flames to greater fury.

The armor of the advancing soldiers flickered with subtle spirals and pulses of light and shadow that somehow bypassed the eye and stabbed directly into the brain, so that the legionnaires blurred and swam in one’s vision, making them into images like those in a dream. It was meant to befuddle the eye and ruin the aim of onlookers, inducing headaches, eyestrain, or spasms.

Long after, Lyra would learn that the use of mesmeric energy fields, such as those running through this armor, was illegal and unconscionable. Such arts were “black technology” which meant it was a technology that was outlawed and accursed. Even to speak of such things was not allowed.

Father was unfazed by mere mesmeric tricks. He shifted his sword to a one-handed grip. He flourished the bracer clamped to his left forearm. With a flick of his wrist, he unfolded his shield, which was a curving surface of energy crystal. The shield flickered with gold light. Like the ghost blade, the crystal was a spiritual alloy, able to hold solidified psychokinetic force. It was invincible and invulnerable to mere physical weapons, as long as the bearer never surrendered to fear or doubt.

The soldiers fired again. Father caught their heat-beams neatly on the shield and parried them. Pools of flame roared to either side of him, but father was untouched. Father charged the soldiers, and swept his blade through them. No armor made of matter could impede that blade.

The soldiers parted ranks. An officer in shimmering gray armor stepped foreword. He wore a captain’s cloak. Gold tracery adorned his shoulders and wrists and skull-like facemask. Above his helmet nodded whiplike antennae, long as the plumes of a quail.

The dark captain flourished a shocklance shaped like a slender black wand. With a snap, two parallel blades, each a foot long and an inch apart, slid out of the forward tip. Blue-white sparks flickered in the gap between the forks. This weapon was also a “black tech” art, forbidden on all civilized worlds, for it was designed to project lethal charges of toxic neuro-electric energy into the victim, causing convulsions, madness, and death.

Daddy struck, but the dark captain caught the blade between the forks. The ghostblade would have cut through any matter, but the blue-white energy field erected between the parallel forks trapped it like iron trapped by a magnet. The two men wrestled, each trying to twist the other man’s weapon out of line.

Father concentrated. The red-gold psychic fire of the ghostblade blazed blindingly bright, fighting the blue-white neural energy of the black technology weapon. The dark captain twisted the hilt of his shock-lance, amping up the power to overload levels.

There was a thunderclap. The mingled energy fields broke their containment. The dangerous build-up of neuro-electricity erupted from the tips of the forks, reached out like a crooked finger, passed over father’s shoulder, and flew high.

Mommy stiffened, her face pale with shock. She opened her mouth but could not scream. Then the life in her eyes went away. It was not Lyra’s mother any more. Lyra was being held in the arms of a dead woman.

At the same time, a blast of red psionic energy gushed from the ghostblade in father’s hands and struck the dark captain in the face. The gold and gray helmet was yanked off his head from the force of the blast. The captain was flung backward. The shocklance went spinning away through the air, forks shattered, haft afire. Father couched behind his shield. Shrapnel from the explosion bounced from the golden surface, and rippling with concentric sparks at each place it was struck.

But now father looked over his shoulder and saw Lyra, and saw his wife, her lifeless corpse being wafted lightly upward by the lifting beam toward the lofty ceiling. The strange light in his eyes was gone. Instead, a look of woe and loss drained his face of all color, all hope. The light in his blade wavered. The glowing shield grew dim. His strength of will that powered his invincible arms died with his wife.

The soldiers came toward him at a run. A dozen heat-rays transfixed him. In an instant his whole body was pierced with fire, wrapped in flame, shrouded in smoke.

Then Lyra passed through the manhole in the ceiling, and the terrible scene below was cut off. She was on the roof. Her mother came out of the antigravity field. Weight returned. Mother fell. There was no breath, no heartbeat, nothing. The stroke of anti-neural energy from the broken shock-lance had done its work.

Prams was yanking on Lyra’s arm, her mask once again smiling, begging with the little girl to get moving. “Ups-a-daisy! Be a peach, my little mistress! Come along! We must be in the ship now…”