Star Child
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The astrologer, the augur, and the chronicler were ushered into the presence of Cyron, "The Vengeful," King of Leorica, Begotten of the Sun. They stood respectfully in the light cast by torches mounted on the marble columns and suspended in arches around the anteroom, glinting from the gold and jeweled ornaments, and from the helmets and armor of the guards posted by the walls and inside the entrance. Forborem, Chief Counsel to the Throne, standing two steps below and to the right of Cyron's chair, made a motion with his hand. The astrologer stepped forward and spoke, gazing downward without meeting the king's eye.

"In just over three months, the Messenger has grown brighter than any star. Its motion has altered such that it now turns with the heavens but more swiftly than the heavens, traversing the vault east to west five times between setting and rising of the sun. Thus has it retraced its path precisely and without deviation through the past seven nights hence."

"And what message does it bring? What interpretation have you made?" Cyron asked.

"Of such as this, our tables of records offer no precedent to guide us, Majesty. We are still consulting the charts. It seems that the gods whose word the Messenger brings have not yet chosen to make their purpose known."

Cyron snorted and shifted his gaze to the augur. "And what of the winds, the clouds, and the beasts that fly? How do they foretell? Times of plenty or of famine? Should we vigorously prosecute war? Shall the mountains send down clear water and fish, or earthquake and fire?"

The sky-reader replied, "Mornings are streaked with violet and pink, but the days become troubled with rains from the east. At dusk, high furrows of gold point north, and the hooked-wings soar close to the cliffs. Build thy plans carefully. Caution is indicated in all contemplations of change."

A worthless appraisal. The High Priest, Ishtelar, who was standing by Forborem, interjected before the displeasure on Cyron's face could translate itself into action, "There is a seer come into the city, a one they call Serephelio, who is spreading word that prophecies handed down from times long forgotten are soon to be fulfilled. Excitement and agitation are rife among the people. Some say that the Vozghan war will end, and our expedition against Halsabia will be recalled." The prelate's tone carried warning as well as disapproval. "It will be as much to the detriment of morale and discipline in your army as of the faith that holds mine."

"What are these prophecies of which this seer speaks?" Cyron demanded. Ishtelar nodded for the chronicler to answer. The chronicler spoke nervously, unaccustomed to being summoned to the royal presence.

"The Essantine Oraculars, Majesty, parts of which trace back to before the Conflagration, tell that a new light would move in the sky at a time of great conflict. It is written that gods of silver would come down to walk among men. . . ." The chronicler hesitated.

"Go on. And? . . ." Cyron commanded.

"The Warrior Kings will learn ways of gentleness, and peace come upon the land."

The astrologer and the augur kept their eyes averted. If a bolt wasn't about to strike from above, one surely would from the king. Counsel and priest eyed each other for a moment, saying nothing. Then Cyron rose and strode out onto the terrace, waving an arm for his ministers to follow, out of earshot of the other three.

Around them, the domes and columns of Aranos, Leorica's principal city, loomed into the night, transformed into pillars of orange, yellow, and murky whites by the watch fires on the ramparts and in the squares. In one of the streets below, visible over the top of the palace's outer wall, a line of captives from one of the battles was being driven by mounted guards in the direction of the prison behind the circus stadium, to be sent to the galleys, picked for the public games, or disposed of in whatever other way might be decided. Every now and again one would stumble or fall. The motions of the guards as they raised their arms to wield their rods and whips were indistinct in the shadows.

"I see the plot clearly," Cyron said. "Nothing proves this light in the sky, supposedly prophesied, to be the Messenger that now passes above us. The Vozghans have taken advantage of an old fable and sent their agent to spread disunity and subversion.

Have this Serephelio arrested and brought to me. Let's see if silver gods intervene for him when he is questioned."

"The mischief that he has spread has caused much damage already," Ishtelar reminded him. "And there may be others at large of which we know nothing, spreading similar tales. What of them?"

Cyron glowered down from the terrace in silence for a while. How many prisoners has Gallestari brought us in his triumph?" he asked Forborem finally.

"I am told, upward of five thousand, Majesty," the counselor replied.

"Select five hundred of the wounded and least fit, unsuited for work or to perform ably in the games, and have preparations made for them to be impaled and burned before the main city gate," Cyron ordered. "We'll see what that does for the people's morale and discipline." Forborem glanced at Ishtelar, read his approving look, and nodded.

In the cloudless black above, half the sky's width from the moon, a bright light moved silently across the background of stars.

It was as if the universe had divided itself into two parts, all its matter collected together in what had become "down," leaving behind emptiness to form what was now "above." The curve of the planet, swelling and flattening as the lander descended, now filled half the view with its swirls and flecks of white on blue, with outlines of green and yellow showing in places beneath. In the shrinking tract of void beyond the rim, the last stars to remain visible in Vaxis's glare faded as the blackness changed to a clear, diaphanous blue.

Taya sat peering out through one of the oval viewing ports, too overwhelmed to speak. Cariette, Jasem, and Bron, three of the six young-ones drawn by lot to come with her on the first descent of biopeople, watched alongside her, wide-eyed and utterly spellbound. Nyelise, Marcala, and Eltry crowded around the other port on the opposite side of the cabin. The same view was being presented on one of the screens built into the forward wall, but all of them wanted to take it in directly, as if witnessing the scene firsthand through the glass added somehow to its veracity. Kort and Scientist--who also possessed his own remote-directable "robot" body now, as did most of the mecpeople--stood motionless in the space behind them. They could couple to the lander's sensor channels directly and needed neither screens nor windows. To make themselves easily recognizable in the earlier days when the children were smaller, the robots had adorned their metal bodies with distinctive color schemes, which having become familiar, they had kept. Kort's consisted of a pattern of blue and silver points, with a black bands at the neck, waist, and cuffs. Scientist had narrow black stripes on gray, interrupted in front by a V-shaped design of white tracery extending downward from the shoulders.

Merkon had changed, transforming more of its volume into environments suitable for its newly acquired complement of biolife. Taya was nineteen now, the young-ones eleven. Forty-six of the original fifty were left. "Biochemist," a new mecmind, who specialized in the molecular processes underlying biological life, was contemplating beginning another group of fifty in the nursery laboratory up in Merkon. Apart from their superficial differences in body size and proportions, facial features, and skin color, the biopeople came in two basic forms: "he's" and "she's". The significance or purpose of this distinction was not readily apparent.

Nobody was sure why four had stopped functioning at different times during the early part of the ten years that had gone by since their resuscitation, although Thinker thought it was probably due to some not-yet-understood breakdown in internal coordination, as happened from time to time when a machine ceased operating. With a machine, it was generally a straightforward operation to trace the failure and replace the affected part. In the case of biobodies, however, nobody knew how to replace a part, even if they could tell which one was defective--and there didn't seem to be any way of growing replacement parts separately, outside of bodies, in any case. Everybody: Taya, the machines, the youngsters--although at that time the latter hadn't really understood--had watched, powerless to change anything, while the afflicted ones became less energetic, eventually stopped moving and sensing altogether, grew cold, and over a period of time reverted to the chemicals from which they had formed. Subsequently, a new entity, "Medic," had formed, specializing in knowledge for keeping biolife functioning optimally and for repairing biobodies when--as happened--they encountered mishaps.

Four failures in ten years did not seem an excessively high number. Nobody had thought to add a word to the dictionary to describe such a happening.

Over those ten years, sure enough, Vaxis had grown, and soon Taya could pick it out with her unaided eyes, standing out like a beacon against the background of other stars. Pictures that the machines obtained through Merkon's telescopes and other instruments revealed it as a globe of light of unimaginable heat and size, it surface constantly convulsing in storms and turbulence, throwing out immense streamers of plasma that Kort said would consume Merkon like a speck of dust drawn into a flame. And then, as Vaxis drew closer, slight fluctuations that Scientist had detected in its position were shown to be due to what Thinker had suspected: cool, dark bodies gravitationally bound to it, observed finally by star's reflected light. "Planets"--long, long ago conjectured by Scientist as possible places of origin for Taya's kind--actually existed.

To begin with, Scientist identified seven of them, moving in orbits confined to a plane--although, since Merkon was approaching the plane edge-on, there could easily have been more. As the distance diminished, new specks moving against the starfield resolved themselves that hadn't been apparent before, and the increasing glare of Vaxis made it difficult to be sure what existed in the inner regions. Then smaller bodies were discovered orbiting about some of these in turn, and then swarms of even smaller ones tracing all kinds of eccentric trajectories, and the question of counting exactly how many there were lost any real significance.

Thinker wondered if mere coincidence had moved Merkon always in the direction of Vaxis, or was it a destination that the Builders of Merkon--whatever it had been--had set out for deliberately? If the latter, then what would halt Merkon's motion when it arrived there? Nobody knew. Thinker asked Scientist if there was a way in which the output of Merkon's power sources could somehow be utilized to nullify its momentum. Scientist examined the laws he had formulated that described interactions between matter and energy, and got into a long series of debates with Thinker and Skeptic about possible ways to halt Merkon. By the time they were two years from Vaxis, a new entity named Engineer had emerged to take charge of a project to develop specialized modifications to Merkon's structure for altering its momentum through space. It occurred to Thinker that if Merkon had been meant to go to Vaxis it must have included such adaptions originally. Presumably, then, the early generations of machines that had come into being after the disappearance of the Builders had dismantled them as serving no recognizable purpose. He put the thought to "Historian," another new entity, who specialized in trying to piece together what had happened in Merkon's distant past from the remains of ancient codes and records, and Historian added it to his list of things to investigate.

One question that did get a partial answer as they entered the region of objects orbiting and whirling about Vaxis was, what were these "planets" made of? Merkon's radars detected thousands of them, ranging in size from the enormous spheres that had made their presence known from hundreds of millions of miles away, down to inches or less. While Engineer could by this time maneuver Merkon to avoid the larger bodies, it was clear that collisions with smaller ones would be only a matter of time. The implications were cause for alarm. Mecminds were distributed across different places and backed up--and the machine hosts that they existed in wouldn't be affected unduly by much short of a direct hit. Biopeople, on the other hand, were localized, and their bodies incapable of withstanding the environmental changes that even moderate damage to the structure would entail. Accordingly, their quarters were reinforced within a double-layer outer skin, and then divided into sealed subcompartments as a further precaution.

The first two encounters did indeed occur with explosive violence, the first tearing a hole in the forward part of Merkon, the second blowing away an external pylon, neither of them leaving a trace of the object responsible. Then followed a series of collisions with minor bodies, all of which were again vaporized. Finally, a scatter of slower-moving ones passed about, several of them penetrating to yield fragments that the maintenance robots were able to recover. It was the first direct experience of worlds that existed beyond Merkon.

The pieces turned out to be not of metal or plastic or anything immediately familiar, but for the most part amorphous minerals: metallic oxides and other compounds, especially of iron and aluminum, silicates and glasses, various crystalline forms. In fact, the substances were similar to some that Scientist had created experimentally but never found any great use for. However, some were rich in compounds of carbon, while others showed abundance of water in its ice form--the basic necessities for creating biolife, although lack of gravity strong enough to retain a gaseous envelope ruled out all but the very largest planets as viable. And even then, some of these had too much gravity, or the wrong mix of gases, or orbited too far away from Vaxis for water to exist as a liquid. . . . But one was different. It met all of the requirements that Scientist had specified. They called it Azure, after one of the colors that Taya had named in her mosaic designs when she was younger.

As Taya gazed down at it now, the excitement surging inside her exceeded anything she had felt on seeing the pictures sent back by the smaller probe sent down earlier--although they had been astounding enough. Merkon's mecforms and bioforms alike had watched in awe as view after view came in of expanses and formations of reds, browns, yellows, grays, vast and massive, unfolding as far as could be seen, more varied than anything ever guessed at or imagined. Some parts rose into high, pointed ridges, covered in a white crystalline form of ice; others extended away flat and featureless. Huge areas, wider than any that experience had provided standards for comparison, were covered in strange, filamented structures, primarily green, of astonishing complexity. And there was water: windborne towers of white, vapored water; endless, winding ribbons of water; tumbling, falling walls of water; shining carpets of frozen water; blue universes of water extending over vast tracts of the planet, into which Merkon could have vanished a thousand times over. Nothing had prepared anyone for this. There weren't the words. New terms poured into the dictionary as fast as they could be invented, and the biominds forgot them again almost as quickly in the torrent.

And finally, yes, there was life. But not just the kind known in Merkon, with two arms, two-legs, and a head on a body that walked upright--the form that Taya had assumed when she began growing, and upon which the mecbodies had been modeled. Such bipedal forms existed on Azure, sure enough--often in large numbers around peculiar kinds of spread-out, mineral-built Merkons made up of repeating rectangular units that they seemed to inhabit. There were countless other forms in addition: horizontal bodies that walked on four legs: on long, slender legs, on short, stubby legs; plain bodies, patchy bodies, striped bodies, spotted bodies; forms with round heads, pointed heads, spiked heads, huge-jawed heads; forms covered in hair, covered in skin, covered in curling, layered coats that looked like plastic fiber. They walked in the dry areas, climbed among the strange, filamented, branching structures, lay in the water; some even flew, using ingeniously contrived body surfaces to counter gravity by creating pressure imbalances in the air.

Even Thinker was dumbfounded by it all. Never in all his existence as a conscious being had he conceived anything remotely comparable to the diversity flaunting itself and abounding on every side. Biologist and Evolutionist had no explanations. Skeptic, for once, was without words; all the things that he would have insisted on as proof, had this been offered as a conjecture, were taking place before his eyes. Mystic, however, was jubilant. Scientist with all his armory, working over untold aeons, had managed to produce one, solitary demonstration that chemical-based life was possible: Taya, and the variations of her that had followed. And that had been only when the codes that gave the key were provided for him out of the information passed down from the forgotten past. Who but Supermind, Mystic demanded, could have created this pulsing, reverberating luxuriation of life that abounded on Azure?


Second extract from Star Child - Silver Gods from the Sky

Crelth was in a sour mood by the time he led his column into the village of Therferry. Now that his tension had eased, he was conscious of maybe having shown unseemly haste in front of the men in wanting to get away. He was angry at himself and spoiling for a fight to reaffirm his prowess.

Several colorfully painted carts and wagons were standing in the open space in the center of the village. Baggage animals were being unloaded, and others led into the communal corral to feed. Crelth recognized the caravan of Xeldro, the merchant, which had left Aranos the previous day. His orders were to be suspicious of merchants. They too easily made spies; their free and wandering way of life was not a good model for the people; and they lied to the tax collectors.

There was some kind of commotion in front of the house of the Headman, whom Crelth remembered from a previous expedition, though he was unable to recall his name, and a crowd gathered around. Figures ran ahead, warning of the approach of the soldiers, so that by the time Crelth drew up at the house, the Headman, several other village elders who had evidently been with him, along with Xeldro and his companions, were standing, waiting. There was another group too, who belonged neither with villagers or traders. Seven children in strange dress. Otherwordly dress. . . . Although one, in pale green, was taller than the others, practically a grown maid, Crelth saw on looking more closely. They all had strangely clear, otherworldly faces.

And standing with them were two enormous warriors covered every inch in armor. "Footprints . . . large . . . a giant's," Udarth had said by the river. Could there be any doubt that these were the silver ones of whom the King had spoken?

The Headman came to the front and bowed obsequiously. "Whatever pleases those who come in the King's name is our command, if it is within our ability to provide."

Crelth tested the children and the maid by fixing them with his sternest look. Not an eye among them dropped or averted. They continued to regard him with candor and curiosity, conceding nothing either to his rank or the armed might arrayed before them. Inwardly he was unnerved. It could only mean that their confidence in their two protectors was absolute. He felt his stature on trial in the eyes of the men behind him.

"Explain your association with these strangers who hide themselves in forests unannounced and call down beasts of death upon the land," he demanded, looking back at the Headman.

The Headman spread his hands helplessly. "Association? We have ourselves beheld them for the first time but a half the fall of an hour's glass since."

"Tis true," the elder next to him affirmed.

"Nearer a quarter of a glass," another said.

Xeldro, the trader, came forward and stood with them. With him was a youth, curly-haired, with a bright, intense look about him--sure sign of a troublemaker. Full of fanciful ideas about throwing off the duties conferred by birth, no doubt, and no knowledge of life. His chin could barely support the pretense of a beard.

"They arrived here with us," Xeldro said. "We came upon them on the road, tired, footsore, and without sustenance. 'Twas less than a league hence."

"Ah! And this meeting with spies and enemies, you would have us believe was mere coincidence?" Crelth challenged.

Xeldro showed his palms. "Where are these enemies of whom you speak? Canst not see these are but children?"

The youth stepped in front of him. "Travelers lost, sire. Royal heirs from distant, wondrous lands. 'Tis no beast of death that lies by the Ther, but a mighty swan that was sent to guide them."

So they knew more than they were telling, Crelth thought to himself. And their story was not consistent. If they had met these beings who posed as children on the road, how were they aware where the beast that had descended lay? The road was never in sight of that bend of the Ther river. Crelth signaled over his shoulder with a slight motion of his head to Narzin, who moved up alongside him. "Let us see how able these two champions are," he murmured. "Circle quietly about while I divert with words, then see if thou canst take one in sudden attack." Narzin returned a faint nod and fell back from Crelth's view. It was the only way to find out, Crelth reflected. And he, sure as Hades, wasn't going to risk it.

"A swan, sent to guide them where?" he asked the youth.

"That was the next thing I hoped to find out," the youth replied. "Perhaps, royal visitors to the King himself. Emissaries from rulers of other realms."

"What, on foot, lost, without carriages, baggage train, or servants? What manner of royalty travels thus?" Crelth directed his gaze at one of the two warriors, the one adorned in blue and silver. "Have you nothing to say on behalf of your charges?"

The warrior answered, "We outlanders. Simpler, if it pleases."

"They are unfamiliar with all the tongues of which I have knowledge," Xeldro said.

"From much more distant lands," the youth insisted.

"You have a name?" Crelth asked the warrior. Then again, "You? . . . Name?"

"Name Kort."

"From where?"

"I regret."


"Explain 'place,' if it pleases."

The spear flew in from the side and struck the warrior below his right ear, emerging on the far side to lodge grotesquely through the neck like a spit skewering a piece of meat above a fire. Screams and shouts of alarm broke out, and villagers scattered. Hoofs pounded as Narzin closed, swinging an axe and catching the warrior solidly in the side. The warrior fell, twisting so that one end of the spear struck the ground; he hung for a moment, then collapsed, his body bending double, almost cleaved in two. Narzin wheeled to face the other, while soldiers fanned out to encircle him with spears and bows. But the gray-coated warrior remained immobile, seemingly paralyzed. The child-impersonators too appeared to have lost the use of their faculties, and just stood, their faces frozen in shock. The village elders shrank back in consternation. Xeldro was shaking his head, looking dazed.

So . . . perhaps it had all been bluff after all. Crelth dismounted, unsheathing his sword. The youth broke through between the flanks of the horses and ran at him, his arms high in protest. "No! They are only children! You can't--" Crelth checked him with his fist and sent him reeling with a blow to the head from his sword hilt. Then he stepped over the prostrate warrior and hacked off his head. The maid in green came forward as if in a trance and gazed down between hands pressed in horror to the side of her face, seemingly incapable of making any sound. Crelth grabbed her arm roughly and shoved her toward other soldiers who had dismounted.

"Bring carts from the village and take all of them," he commanded. "The child-demons, the trader and his accomplices who consort with them, and the warrior who stands silent. All shall answer before the King personally in Aranos."

He looked down again at the slain warrior. The mail and corselets beneath the armor were the strangest he had ever seen. Curiously, there was no blood.

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