At the heart of the Dark Zone, a duel for the universe rages.
In an ancient Jorian temple, Jaqi faces John Starfire, the new ruler of the Empire. He has set all the worlds aflame in his quest to destroy humankind. Jaqi has sworn to stop him. Problem is, Jaqi isn't much of a fighter.
Meanwhile, the sun-eating cosmic spiders, the Shir, have moved out of the Dark Zone and are consuming the galaxy. Araskar knows that he must hold them back, but to do that, he has to give himself over to the Resistance, under the command of John Starfire's wife. And she wants him dead more than she wants the stars to live.
If Jaqi and Araskar can fight their way out, they can use a secret at the heart of the Dark Zone to free the galaxy, and end John Starfire's new tyranny. They lose, and every star in the sky will go dark.
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Standing right in front of me. The ruler of the galaxy. The tyrant and the deliverer. The fella I aim to kill.
I know because I seen the fella on the screens. Seen that sword, right down to the flame symbol of the Resistance carved into the pommel stone, and I have to say, even with the gray in his hair and the wild eyes, and the way he clenches and unclenches his hand on his sword, he's still as handsome as they made him look. A real slab.
The Usurper, to say what folk been calling him around me.
Here, in front of me, is the man who overthrew the Empire, brought peace and justice to the galaxy.
Unless you're a human, and then he threw you in a death camp.
And here we are, two of us, with swords, standing on a bridge, in an ancient abandoned temple, above an abyss, like a scene from some holo.
He doesn't say anything. Just stares at me. For all he's a cross, his face is unique, most likely fixed up surgical. His hand holds tight to the hilt of his sword, like it's been glued there.
If I can run, and get through the field, my pal Scurv Silvershot will make short work of this fellow pretty quick. Swords en't no use against a couple of shard-blasters that always hit their targets.
But no, the controls for the protective field are in this building somewhere. Scurv is locked out till I figure that.
He finally speaks. "You're just some space scab. Why you?"
"Why does it talk to you?"
"Why does what talk to me?"
He doesn't answer, just clutches his sword hilt.
Must be talking about that thing. The thing what just seemed to touch me and move away. I don't know how to describe it but to say it was all made up of music. And seemed to have my parents' faces. And then had the face of a devil.
Sounds like nonsense, once I think on it. But it's real — it just wasn't a thing you see with eyes. It's gone now, into the depths of this temple, which stretch away far below this bridge I stand on.
"You still don't get it." He shakes his head. "I went through twenty thousand memory crypts on Irithessa looking for this information. I spent whole weeks just trying to find what you fell into."
I don't know what he's speaking about. I know I can't beat him in a fair fight, so I'd better get him outside. Better find the controls for the field keeping Scurv out.
"Why does it talk to you?"
So I run.
He runs after me. He's fast. Soldier fast, kind of runner that trains for this. All I have is desperation, as I round the end of the bridge, run along another walkway that hugs the wall above this big abyss. I just need to split through one of them hallways that runs off to the side, just need to get outside —
You cannot run! You must face him.
The voice throws me off and I nearly go right over the edge. It's my mother's voice.
"Not you again!" I leap over a piece of metal blocking a dusty hallway, run down the hallway. That thing is going and talking to me again, with the voices of my folks!
I bolt down the dusty hallway — and reach a shut steel door with no working pad. It doesn't open when I run right into it. I did get the outside gate to open just with my hand. I try my hand on the scan plate next to the door — but there is none. This door is going to stay closed.
I spin around and face John Starfire. Like an idiot, I grab the sword at my waist, the huge Thuzerian black-bladed sword, and draw it.
I can't think of anything else to do, even though it's a pain just to hold out the heavy thing, and en't no way I'll fight with it.
He stops. "Don't try to fight. Just tell me why it talks to you."
"Why does what talk to —" I break off, because my parents stand behind him.
I know it's fake, but my breath catches in my chest all the same, and the same tears start up from behind my eyes.
There's still a little girl inside me, sure they'll get back from way out in space any day now.
You have to beat him, my parents say.
Well, they don't quite say. It en't quite speech. I can make words out of the impressions, but it feels like music. That crazing music, what Araskar goes on about, the same thing swept through me when I did them "miracles" before. It sounds mad, but there it is — music making meaning out of itself.
The music is what folk call the Starfire, the power that moves through pure space.
And somehow my brain makes it into words, words coming out of my long-dead folks.
You must stop him, the music says. My parents change, blur together. They become that thing, the thing I saw when I got in, what looked like the devil but was also made of music. You must stop him or else he will bond with us, take us for his own.
"Are you ..." This can't be true, not a burning thing about it. "Are you the Starfire its own self? You got a voice and you're talking to me? The song of stars, just talking to me?"
The music rushes into my mind with a forceful Yes.
John Starfire stops, hesitates, though he's still holding that sword out like he knows how to use it. "You're speaking to it. How?"
I ignore him and keep speaking to the Starfire itself, which still looks like my parents, but bigger, changing, shifting a thousand colors and sounds, filling me up. "You saying I'm it. I really am this special oogie deliverer of space." Is this it, then? This is all that talk writ down in the Bible, what I can't read, and here I am and despite all my skeptical words, it's coming true? Despite my shaky track record with miracles, it's all true?
John Starfire doesn't respond to that. But the Starfire, the stuff of space itself, does. You are the one I have waited for.
I was well sure I wasn't no Chosen One. The truth was that everything I've done was just trickery with a node. That en't Chosen business.
Except the Starfire itself just told me I am.
It don't get much more Son of Stars than that.
"You don't want to fight me," John Starfire says.
You must stop him, the music counters.
I set my teeth and try spreading my legs. I'm the Son of Stars, and he en't, then mayhap it don't matter that he's the better swordsman. Mayhap it don't matter that Taltus's sword, this heavy Thuzerian thing made of black metal, is already hurting my arm. Mayhap it don't matter, because if fate chose me, then I can beat him.
And when I think that, my sword breaks into blue flame. I remember what Scurv said — them swords work off faith.
"I can already tell you have no training." He gives me a real charming smile. "We're both crosses. You have to understand that the humans want us to fight. They've manipulated you. Just tell me why it talks to you, and what I need to do to make it talk to me."
Just need to rush him and stick this big old sword through his vitals, and — and this'll be done. Bill, and Quinn, Taltus and all the other dead will be avenged.
"Don't be their puppet. Don't be stupid."
"Not stupid," I say. "I got destiny on my side."
I rush him.
One second he's in front of me; next he's aside, and strikes my sword with such a blow I near drop it, go stumbling, and then I do drop it — I back up against the door and grab it, turn around.
Burning hell, he's quick.
He slashes his hand and the familiar white fire of a cross's soulsword leaps up his blade. He shakes his head. "To think, even I hoped you were more than propaganda."
I pick up my sword and rush him again. Come on, destiny —
This time he just stops me. Doesn't move an inch, knocks me back with the force of his counter-blow. I stumble backward, and my stupid heavy sword drops again, my point screeching on the metal of the floor.
Hell! "Come on, fate!" I say, to whatever's out there. "You even listening?"
He comes toward me now. "I see I have to make you bleed to make you understand," he says. "That's fine. Good, even."
And now he really fights me. And I'm scrambling backward, trying to stay away, because that sword is like a snake about to strike, and I been in some scraps but no one, not even Araskar, moves this quick, this liquid-fast, and suddenly I'm backed up against this closed door and his soulsword knocks mine aside —
He slashes my arm.
Fire shoots through my veins. My sight goes red. I sink to my knees.
Feels like he's ripping tendons out from the inside. But the tendons are my memories, and he yanks on my image of my mater and pater, and suddenly it's like the memory is tumbling away from me — I can't recall their faces, and I grab for their faces, and —
"Like I thought, just some scab." He kicks me, and I slam back into the closed door, and my wounded arm won't clutch the soulsword right anymore, so it falls. The blue flame vanishes. "And one who believes every word the humans say."
The music cries and screeches off in the distance.
He knocks me down again, too fast. His soulsword goes right through my leg, pins me to the floor.
He rips those memories apart.
My mater and pater, and Bill's, and waiting there in the darkness for my parents to come back, and then taking odd jobs until I done found the kids — and that gray girl and Bill dies and the kids talking about their memory crypt, Araskar and Trace and the Engineer and Shadow Sun Seven and Scurv — soon as I think these memories, they tear away from me, go spinning like flotsam. They've all come unmoored.
I think I hear my mother singing, but I can't make out the words. It's all white noise.
The Usurper won.
I STAND WITH A venerable old council of madmen, in a galaxy of madmen.
On the holo-viewer, the Resistance ships get closer.
"They are just beyond Frodigand," says Father Rixinius, the oldest of the Thuzerian Ruling Council. His voice echoes around the ancient stone chamber. Solid rock, this. A nice, solid meeting chamber older than the Second Empire itself.
"What's Frodigand?" I ask.
"The seventh Saint, but for our purposes, the seventh planet in our solar system." He raises a finger at the blinking lights in the holo. The representation of the solar system hangs, in swirling shades of light, above their war table. "There is another node out there. Ruins of a First Empire settlement, but no terraforming. They are giving us time."
"Wow," I say. "A two-node system. Living in luxury."
It's a stupid thing to say, and it gets me more glares from around the room. But if these folk don't glare at you, you must not be screwing up enough. Everyone in the Thuzerian Ruling Council has been a monk, abstaining from all fun for at least fifty years by Imperial reckoning, sometimes seventy, one hundred — in the case of a few long- lived sentients, one hundred fifty. Everyone in this smelly, old, cold rock chamber that predates the Second Empire.
Military monks, I should clarify. A handful of them even fought in the Dark Zone, and many of them fought against the Empire at some point. Abstaining from everything except violence.
And while I don't know much about religion, I know veterans. Once you've been in battle, you get terribly pragmatic.
They're adding up all the lives they have on the ground, the lives on their ships, versus one life.
I look at the readings. "That's five Imperial dreadnoughts. Or Resistance dreadnoughts, maybe we should call them. Slightly smaller than what you have. They'll carry thirty gunships and three hundred Moths each, if it comes down to that."
"So they are keeping the Imperial munitions works running," says another of the Thuzerian council, a woman who sounds almost human, though you can't tell through those masks. "They must be, to mount this attack."
"They've got it all running," I say, from my position on the floor, next to their table. "Full complement. There's no way to crew five whole dreadnoughts without bringing the vats online."
I hear several sharp intakes of breath, from those monks who breathe through a mouth. John Starfire pledged to shut down the vats. If he hasn't, he has an infinite number of new soldiers.
"We must sue for some kind of parley," says Father Rixinius. He's an elderly Grevan, tall and too thin, and to most sentients he looks like a thing out of a nightmare, with those deep-set red-framed eyes, and those incisors that hang over his bottom lip, sticking out from underneath his ceremonial bone mask, carved deep with various curling designs.
"You knew you would have to pick a side."
I turn around to tell Paxin to be quiet, but she's on the other side of the table, somehow managing to look more commanding than me despite her condition.
Paxin is the default leader of the refugees we picked up on our mission to Shadow Sun Seven, a writer whose work helped inspire the Resistance, but had the unfortunate DNA of pure Earth stock, and fell in line with John Starfire's purge of the blueblood humans. Right now she's looking a little better than she was in the mines, but she's still hollow-cheeked and sickly. She coughs into the stump of her right hand, still tries to cover her mouth with fingers the Resistance cut off.
Father Rixinius waits until Paxin's coughing subsides, then says, slowly, "The Masked Faith cannot begin a war with the Resistance, for the same reasons we could not ever truly declare war against the Empire."
"Which reasons are —" Paxin breaks into more coughing.
"Our dreadnoughts are spread out, doing the work of God throughout the galaxy," says Rixinius. "We have called muster, but it will take time for them to return, to gather. It will take time to arm them fully. None of our ships have a full complement of shards, or short-range fighters. The Resistance knows this."
"You have a moral duty. You never took a stand when it mattered," Paxin says. "You never sided with the Empire or the Resistance."
"We also don't own a thousand factory moons!" he growls through that mask.
I wish Jaqi were here. She's good at talking people into crazing things. "It's all right," I say. "There will be no grand military stand. Let me speak."
"I won't let you offer yourself as some sacrifice, Araskar," Paxin says.
"That's nice of you," I say. "Didn't know you know my name."
"Of course I know who you are," Paxin says. "We know all of you who set us free. The seven: you, the Zarra Z and the fallen X, and Kalia and Toq of Formoz, and Jaqi, and —"
"Ai, enough," I say. She was about to name Scurv, which is a bad idea around here.
"Don't give your life away," she says.
I almost say For once, I don't want to.
I walk around the ancient table to the message relay controls.
I should feel more at peace. I've wanted to die for a few good years now, and here I am about to get my wish.
But I've just learned to live. It wasn't three days ago that Jaqi surprised me with ... something. I don't know what else to call it.
I thought she hated me; apparently she felt tenderly enough toward me to make love. And then sleep. I slept in peace, next to someone I cared for. If that's life, I want it.
Father Rixinius leaves his seat and moves to stand by me, at the control center for their war table, which doubles, of course, as a message center. He doesn't look at me. Of course not.
And we send the hail.
The screen crackles. Here we go. I'm ready to face the big bastard, John Starfire, and get this over with.
And the screen crackles again and I see —
The woman I killed.
Thin face, green eyes narrowed in that calculating way, and lips pursed as she's thinking, and for a few full seconds I swear to God I'm seeing Rashiya, that I didn't actually put my sword through her and take her memories, that somehow the Resistance found a way to bring her back, or to build a template out of her, and ...
No. Recognition snaps into place with the memories I took from my former lover. Not Rashiya at all. I see these lips moving, begging Please, I don't want my daughter's body to show up dead on the screens. I remember — as Rashiya — ignoring the pleas. You really don't understand what this feels like? I can't stop your father, but we've done all this so you could have a normal life, Rash!
Stop overreacting, Mom. I can keep my wits.
She's almost as famous as her husband in her own right; Aranella, the legends went among my crew, was a territorial boss who risked everything to take her division of mixed agricultural and security crosses against their bosses, and steal shipments of food and munitions to create the Resistance. She and her husband John Starfire had a good life, or so the propaganda went, but they had to act to stop injustice.
But that's not how I know Aranella. I know her as a woman divided; she stole and fought and sold her life to the Resistance, but all on the condition that her children would stay out of it. And I know her through the one daughter who defied that. The Resistance is in my blood, Mom. I'm not going to go the rest of my life knowing that I didn't fight.
She looks long on me, checking every one of my features, following the jigsaw scars across my face.
Excerpted from "Starfire Memory's Blade"
Copyright © 2018 Spencer Ellsworth.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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