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Children Of The White Star

Children Of The White Star

Book excerpt

Exodus

We are the lucky ones.

We survived the exodus to reach the new world, unlike many of our people. We are here because fate allowed us to survive the odds while the rest did not. It is chilling to think the Weavers can be so random when choosing who lives or dies.

From our ship's logs, the journey of House Brysdyn to our new home took place without incident.  Thirty ships left our star system, carrying no fewer than five hundred thousand passengers in stasis. However, when the computers installed in our Worldships woke us on our approach to this world, we learned only two ships remained.

Any chance of rebuilding the empire died with the others.

The loss of so many affected us as profoundly as facing the reality of our white star's impending supernova. It is a sobering thing for any race to accept it would outlive the planet of its origin. The White Star civilisation, representing everything we knew, was coming to an end.

For years, many tried to deny the truth, dismiss it as doomsday hysteria, but the science of the cosmos proved without doubt the dwarf star in the centre of our solar system was dying.  Our existence came about through an evolutionary fluke.  Life should never have formed here, but through a one-in-a-billion chance it did, and our civilisation came into being.

In the end, it mattered little, because our sun was still decaying.

After the initial shock and dismay wore off and we accepted the situation, speedy action was needed to deal with the threat.  It may seem a long time, but fifty years to move an entire civilisation to another system capable of supporting life was not enough time to get the deed done. The Worldships were commissioned by the Grand Council and construction began soon after. For the next five decades, the business of the empire became shipbuilding.

Many deluded themselves until the bitter end. When they time came, they refused to go, unable to face the idea of starting again without the comforts that had always been so much a part of their lives.  We tried not to think of those who remained behind, tried not think about their senseless death in the face of their stubborn ignorance when the sun burned its last.

Their deaths added to the tally of the lost since leaving the white star.

The computers recorded as much as possible in their memory banks, storing the information for when we woke up. Thanks to them, we possessed some knowledge of what happened to the rest of the fleet. Most vessels suffered mechanical malfunction, due to our prolonged journey. With no real grasp of how long we would be travelling, we prepared for every contingency, but still too many things remained out of our hands.

The ship arrived on the new world almost ready to fall apart.  Considering the effects of the extended voyage on our worldship by the time we set down, it is not difficult to imagine other ships buckling even earlier in the journey.  We survived because of good engineering or luck.

Not all victims fell to mechanical failure.  Numerous perils exist when travelling through uncharted space: black holes, cosmic strings, meteor showers and supernova. Any of these phenomena were capable of tearing our worldships apart like paper.

The absence of the others proved that no amount of preparation was adequate.

Fortunately, not all ships were destroyed.  One vessel discovered an ideal world much earlier than we did. House Jyne chose a world for themselves on the far side of the quadrant. During the ten further years it took us to reach our paradise, they began colonisation of their new home. News of their survival gave us hope.  Perhaps scattering our people among the stars would not mean an automatic doom.  Even in their damaged state, they reached worlds they could call home.

In some distant future, time might reunite the children of the white star.

We might even see each other as friends.

Chapter One - Dreams

He was back.

The same hot, dry wind blew across his cheeks as he blinked and renewed his acquaintance with this familiar dream. Everything here always appeared new, no matter how many times he visited. Perhaps it was because the terrain appeared so alien, with new things to discover.

The blue sky was always the first thing that caught his attention.

For most of his life, he had woken up to an amber sky being warmed by the glow of a dark orange sun around which Brysdyn orbited. The stark brilliance of it took his breath away. Blue seemed like such an unnatural colour. Throughout his military career, he'd never seen another world like this.

Blue was for oceans and frozen icescapes, not for a sky.

Still, this was one of the many enigmas about this place. The golden fields sweeping across the landscape, with the occasional patch of green, was another. He always thought gold or brown in a plant meant vegetation dying, baked in the heat of a warm climate. Yet as he looked at the land before him, he knew these were healthy. The stalks stood majestically in the sunlight, proud and defiant against the wind that gently coaxed them to bend.

They gave off a peculiar odour, unfamiliar but strangely soothing. An ember of recognition sparked in his mind, but its light was so faint and the fragments disappeared before he had sense enough to put them together. Tiny grains of pollen, carried by the breeze, danced in the air. He heard rowdy chatter of strange white birds wearing yellow crests sailing through the sky, chirping with almost human-sounding voices.

How had this world come to be in his head? Was this an amalgamation of places conjured up his psyche? Was everything here a symbolic piece of an unrealised puzzle in his subconscious?

There was a visible shift in a sudden drop of temperature. The trouble with a blue sky, he decided, was that when it grew cold, it seemed darker. Overhead, the white clouds turned an ominous grey, reminding him of smoke. The wind became a gale, stirring the pollen dancers violently from their graceful performance to scatter frantically.

He knew what was coming. The momentary calm always made him forget, but when the tempest swept across the land like a vengeful god, he remembered what came next.

What this represented, he desperately wished to know. Since the beginning, it had provoked a fear so intense it was unlike anything he ever experienced in his life. Not a coward or a stranger to the meaner things in life, Garryn was more than capable of standing up to his fear, but when the explosions began, he wished he could run and hide under a rock.

The initial explosion forced him to his knees. Even in a dream, years of soldiering sliced through the terror and took charge. Above him, he saw them come, dark, evil shapes, like birds of prey, swooping in for another pass. The shape made another strafing run, but he knew he wasn't the target.

It wanted something else here, something hidden.

He never learned what they sought, only that they would set the golden field ablaze and ignite the sky to find it.  The beautiful white birds tumbled to the charred ground, their pristine white feathers blackened by soot and dirt. His eyes began to water and his lungs burned as the smoke starved the fresh air and the heat pricked across his skin.

He wanted to wake up and be away before this serene place disintegrated further, but something always held him back. No, not something, he realised. Someone.

The instant he thought about her, she appeared.

It seemed as if he needed to conjure her up in his mind before she made an appearance. The young woman had hair of such light gold it was almost white. Sunlight bounced off it, despite the destruction around her. Her skin was bronzed and, as she ran across the burning plains, she resembled some untamed fire sprite.

He never woke before her arrival.

Her blue eyes scanned the fields, always searching while filled with fear, not in terror at the flying things raining death from above, but of something else. Something fuelled her determination to go on, despite her anxiety. It was a futile search in this chaos of fire and smoke. Even he realised it. But she forged ahead, adamant in her refusal to yield. She was driven by something greater than the preservation of her life.

She cried out a name, but he could never hear it. He saw the desperation in her eyes, riding the coat tails of panic when she began to realise she might not find what she was looking for. Tears streamed down her cheeks, creating trails across her sooty skin. He wanted to help, but like on so many occasions before this, he could not reach her in time.

Barefoot and still in his bedclothes, he ran towards her, trying to get to her before the inevitable claimed them both.

It came in the form of an all too familiar final explosion. It detonated inside his skull as all the noise and colour from the attack overloaded his senses. A short scream followed, the only sound she ever see to make in this place.

Out of breath, he reached her at the place he always seemed to find her. Like those countless other times, nothing changed as he approached her. The flames from the burning field towered over them and the smoky cloud so thick it became difficult to see the sky. The world turned into a haze of bilious smoke and encroaching heat.

A sluggish vein of reddish ooze trickled towards his bare feet, its warmth staining his soles. He did not recoil or turn away. This was necessary to the ritual, a trial to be endured until nightmare would release him. Maybe all he needed to leave, to wake up, was to see her first.

Her vacant blue eyes stared into nothingness as her golden hair matted with blood. Crimson streaks ran across her cheeks, intermingling with dirt and drying tears. Her face wore an expression of annoyance, as if Death was an early dinner guest. Her chest bore the killing wound. Her charred flesh continued to sizzle, the energy yet to fully dissipate from the blast she had taken.

The swell of grief and anguish rising from inside him was like a tidal wave of unyielding force and he cried out.

He screamed the one word he could never remember when he woke up.

*********

Garryn sat up in his bed.

For a moment, he half expected to be surrounded by the flames and smoke from his dream. As always, once he attempted to remember the substance of it, the memory fled from his mind. By the time he realised he was awake, it left him with his pulse racing as he struggled to recall why.

Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers through his hair, shaking away the residual effects of the nightmare. Despite the cool night, his sheets remained plastered to his skin. For a long while, a sensation of being lost and uncertain gripped him, before it evolved into frustration. This was the same dream from almost every night since his return home and, if the pattern held, he would not be sleeping the rest of the night.

After a futile effort attempting to defy the odds and try anyway, he decided to get out of bed. It was still dark outside. The chrono on the wall told him dawn was not far away. It was years since he'd watched the sunrise in Brysdyn and even longer since he was home to appreciate it.

"Lights."

"Lights activated."

The computerised environmental controls responded in a calm and feminine voice, flooding the room with soft, ambient light.

The sight of this room still jarred him.

He would have preferred to move back into his own, but the choice was no longer his. The room was a suite and it adjoined a balcony overlooking the courtyard below. It housed antiques and priceless art from a dozen worlds and boasted fabrics both luxurious and elegant. Garryn felt like the final piece in a museum display.

He climbed off his bed and wrapped a robe around himself before stepping out on the balcony. He needed to breathe the night air in his lungs and escape the rising panic in his gut. Deciding to take up the official residence of the Prime had never felt more claustrophobic.

Garryn leaned against the marble palisade and took in the view of the glorious dawn. It was still dark, but the deep amber sky revealed a warm day ahead. The suite belonging to the Prime was situated on the higher floors of the Domicile and provided a panoramic vista of the city.

Paralyte slept below him, making him envious of its ability to sleep. The capital reminded him of an ancient dowager who sat at the centre of the Brysdynian Empire. Home to the Imperator and the Prime, his heir apparent, it had been immortalised in prose, plays and art since the earliest days of the Empire.  The first colonists, emerging from the Exodus, had chosen this site as the place to build their new settlement, after reaching this part of the galaxy.

The Empire had begun from this city.

Now, the jewel was a blanket of darkness, its life revealed only by the twinkle of lights across skyscrapers throughout the sky. Garryn loved Paralyte. He enjoyed wandering through its pavilions, promenades, museums and its parks. One could make a day of riding a hover train from one end of the metropolis to the other, stepping off only when something of interest happened to be along the route.

His mother loved the bazaars and she made him love them too. He relished walking through the stalls, taking in the aroma of spices from exotic places. One could listen to the merchants for hours, haggling as they sold their wares to wily customers who came from all corners of the Empire. When they were children, Aisha had brought him and his sister to explore the markets. They would conduct these trips in anonymity, because she thought the best bargains were made when the pedlars did not know she was the Imperator's wife.

She was gone now and Garryn still missed her. Being home again without his mother waiting to greet him was almost as disconcerting as sleeping in a room opulent enough to be a museum. He was a fool to believe life could ever be the same, given the approach of the Ceremony of Ascendancy. His being in this ridiculously lavish room was proof of it.

For the last decade of his life, Garryn had played the part of soldier. Joining the ranks as just another recruit, his comrades had no idea of his real identity and he preferred it, to avoid any special treatment. He enjoyed soldiering and would have been content to remain one, if not for the responsibilities of his station.

He was always proud to be the son of the Imperator. Not because his father was the ruler of Brysdyn, but because he was a good man and a better father. He'd led them through its most turbulent years and won the undying devotion of his people in the process. It was hard for his family to not share it. After the nightmare of the Scourge, family became the singular concern of every Brysdynian and Iran was no different. He treasured his own as a precious gift.

Even though Garryn was a New Citizen, he was expected to become Imperator one day. The ceremony was only the first step. He wondered if hesitation in taking up the mantle was due to being an adopted child. Perhaps royal blood was necessary to be the Imperator. He was the same as any other New Citizen brought to Brysdyn after the Scourge.

What made him special enough for the Imperator to choose him as the next ruler?

Nothing, except he loves you, Garryn told himself. Because, adopted or not, you're his son.

Garryn discharged himself from military service to return home for the Ceremony, which was only a month away. Once he became Prime, he would fall under the direct tutelage of his father and learn the intricacies of running the empire. Even if the responsibility was daunting, Garryn knew he would do the best he could, because the only thing worse than failing the Imperator was disappointing his father.

Now, if he could only get a good night's sleep, things would be fine.

The number of times he was waking up in a cold sweat was growing. The nightmares had started months ago, but he was at a loss to understand what had triggered them. True, he recently returned from Erebo. The military was sent to suppress a violent uprising on the colony world and, while war burdened a man's conscience, he was a pilot, not a front line combat soldier. Aerial attacks spared him the ordeal of seeing the devastation of his missions up close.

If Garryn dreamed about war, it was one not familiar to him.

Perhaps he should take Elisha's advice.

His sister, the Princess Royal, was two years his junior and very much her mother's daughter. Breaking the stereotype of the vain, frivolous aristocrat, Elisha was no dilettante. Aisha, a child of the Jyne Delegation, raised her children to value tolerance and knowledge. Thanks to their mother, she grew up to be a conscientious young woman whose first loves were her causes and her books.

Spoiled scandalously by their father, Garryn dreaded to imagine what monsters they could have grown up to be, if not for Aisha's discipline. Since her passing, Iran was free to indulge Elisha's fancies, including allowing her to choose her own husband. The majority of Brysdynian aristocracy frowned upon the decision, of course, but Garryn knew his father did not care. Elisha was his little girl and he would never force a political marriage on her.

He was grateful for this. When they were children, they were confidantes; as adults, best friends. It was Elisha who knew the right things to say when he had doubts and it was only natural he would confess his nightmares to her.

Like all soldiers, he distrusted men of medicine, even if he recognised their contribution to society. Elisha suggested he consult a mentalist for his problem. At first, he baulked at the notion. If Healers were bad, mentalists were worse. These physicians, who claimed to study the psyche, saw no sacrilege in demanding access to one's most intimate memories. Garryn neither liked the idea, nor wanted to submit to such treatment.

Still, he couldn't afford to be mentally unbalanced at this time. Not when he was only weeks away from being crowned the Prime. There was also a nagging fear in the back of his mind that he might truly need help. If so, he not only owed it to himself to correct the situation, but to the Imperator, who would need his Prime in the best of health.

So, for his father's sake as well as his own, he had no choice but to see a mentalist, no matter how loathsome it might be.

Chapter Two - Imperator

"We are the children of the White Star, warriors of House Brysdyn. Are we to give up the warrior instincts that helped us build our empire? When did we become a gaggle of cowards choosing to hide behind a book of law! Peace, my friends, is a word we are using to become a nation of old women. When will these alien ideas cease to influence our society? We must defend our heritage before it collapses from our indulgences!"

Garryn stared in amazement. General Edwen had always disliked his father's policies, but listening to the man voice his opinion before the whole Quorum was unnerving. The commander of the Security Elite stood proud and defiant, staring hard at the Imperator, daring him to respond, but he lacked the authority and charisma Iran commanded in the Quorum.  Still, Edwen's nondescript and disarming features bore a quality that often tricked people into underestimating him.

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