Starquest — Space Pirates of Andromeda

The Tale is not Ended!
For all True Tales are Part of a Greater

The despotic Galactic Empire has fallen. The Dark Overlords, masters of mysterious powers, are dead. 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 of the galaxy, leaving billions to die in darkness. 

Prologue: Murder of a Small Sun

1. Nightfall at Noon

Galactic Year 12807, Planet Centaurus


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

She had been no older than seven 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. Little 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 remembered 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 blue 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 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. 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 to her. She heard it clearly. The Empire has put out the sun.

Then he told her about the button hidden under Prams' cap. She stood on tiptoe and pushed it, just as her father told her to do. The amber lights on Prams' skull flickered and came to life again. Then he spoke again, clearly and carefully.

"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…"

Sweetie-pie. 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 service door, she ran through the human 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 rushed past, or if anyone jumped in the way, Prams knocked him 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 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 as were  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. The fall of the ship slowed. Structures, pavement, vehicles, people, and anything else directly below the dreadnaught was smashed, crumpled and torn to bits by the action of the rays. The ship jerked to a halt. The supersonic shockwave in her wake now exploded downward and outward across the broken tower-tops of the city, fanning the flames into tall white swathes of fire. Windows in skyscrapers all down the boulevard shattered. The warship keel sank into the concrete, broken glass, shattered stones, and bloodstains buried beneath.  

Small, sleek fighters on roaring wings now launched themselves from flight decks lining the port and starboard of the mighty starship. 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 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 had 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, merely as black silhouettes in the dark air. They were pushed off the bridge. Perhaps they screamed as they fell, but any  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.

Prams' 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 sailed up, high over the heads of the final rank of rioters in the way. Up she went, screaming in fear. But then, like a deep rumbling sound on the edge of hearing, like a pressure in the air before a thunderstorm, Lyra felt her father's gaze upon her. He was guiding her down into his arms. Often he had thrown her in the air and caught her like this, and she could somehow feel the strength reaching out from his upstretched hand, and surrounding her warmly.

She passed through the air and came down gently into the grasp of her father.

Father was standing on the bridge before the doors. Light streamed out from the open doors, and cast his shadow before him. The light came from the lift-tube in the chamber behind. 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: 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 ghostblade.

This great weapon was two cubits long, made of a single, razor-sharp length of energy crystal. The mystic blade 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.

Gold-hued forks and flares of mystic energy flashed and flamed and twisted up and down the sharp length, hissing and sizzling, throbbing and humming. 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.

The roaring of the people frightened her. Always before, at parades and christenings of ships, and other official ceremonies, the crowds would cheer her father. The noise was always happy. Now, it was as the noise of beast, boiling from a thousand throats.

As he turned away, Lyra saw her father's eyes disappear. Instead of pupils, now there was the strange golden glow of Kirlian 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 anymore. 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 in the closely-packed throng. 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 temple 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 had not passed through unscathed, for her 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.


Next month: 2. Deathguard