Below is the first chapter (WIP) of my next novel, The Dragons of Andromeda:
Long after the park had closed for the night, a sanitation robot roamed the grounds, emptying the rubbish bins of trash people had left during the day. On a set of six wheels, the trashbot rambled along from one bin to another, lifting each with a pair of robotic arms over its head and dumping it into a hopper. The sheer volume of garbage was impressive, though the robot never complained. Mostly, it wondered how the parkgoers produced so much in a single day, as if picnics were just an excuse to litter the landscape with plates and plastic sporks.
Near midnight, the trashbot was checking the bins around the lake when it heard sounds coming from somewhere off the main trail. Animals lived throughout the park so their calls were nothing new, but this was different. The sound was a rhythmic beating like from a drum, faint but steady. As the compactor in its body pressed a clump of paper cups and a small raccoon into a tidy cube, the robot rambled over the carefully cropped grass to a cluster of bushes. The trashbot was unfamiliar with this area of the park so it was a surprise when, peering through the branches, he saw an outcrop of rock and the entrance to a cave. The robot began questioning the utility of going further, but the drumming clearly was coming from inside. Organics, and humans in particular, were always up to some kind of mischief.
The robot entered the cave.
Inside, a group of seven people sat around a fire, the flickering light casting shadows on the walls.
This doesn't look like a picnic, the robot thought.
The people were dressed in sackcloth robes with hoods covering their heads. Around their necks they wore an amulet in the shape of an eight-pointed star. At the center of each octagram was a black pearl.
One of them was slapping a large drum resting in his lap. The rest began chanting:
From the Void
The Old Ones come.
The end is near,
As heartbeats drum.
Bow your heads;
Receive your fate.
Their love is hate.
From sky will fall.
Praise the Gods!
The END for all!
The trashbot noticed some light coming from the back of the cavern. On the wall, the image of a door was carved into the stone. Around the edge of the door were letters from some language the robot didn't recognize.
The rhythm of the drum grew faster and louder.
The letters began glowing until the center of the doorway faded, the edges falling inward like a waterfall seen from above.
When the beats of the drum reached a frenzied crescendo, long tentacled arms flew from the doorway, thrashing about the cavern like flailing vines. The arms quickly coiled around the hooded figures, dragging them back toward the portal.
The trashbot expected to hear screams, but the chanters made no sounds at all. Like sacrifices accepting their fate, they each disappeared through the doorway. When the last one vanished, the portal closed and the doorway and the letters returned to lifeless rock.
Someone appeared at the cave entrance beside the trashbot. He was a man dressed in a hooded robe with his face covered in black soot and white ash, giving him the appearance of a skull. Around his neck, he wore the same amulet, an eight-pointed star.
Seeing the empty chamber, the man's face changed to a disappointed frown.
"Aw," he said. "They started without me!"
In the heart of Regalis, the Imperial capital, the VOX News headquarters rose like a shining steeple capped with antennas. Besides beaming broadcasts across the planet Aldorus, VOX News used a network of communication drones that autonomously spread their reports far and wide across the Imperium. Of their stable of anchors, Sylvia Flax was the most popular. In her early thirties, she wore red lipstick and her bright, azure hair hung past her shoulders.
Her studio, on the ninetieth floor, was normally a simple desk with a holographic background on which images of floods and disgraced politicians appeared. Tonight, however, both were gone and replaced by a stage with spot lighting focused on three chairs and a glass coffee table. Flax sat in the first chair. She faced two others, a man and a woman, seated across the table. The woman wore a fashionable dress, typical of a noblewoman, with her dark hair up in a bun. The man's clothes were decidedly more utilitarian, including a plain shirt and casual pants. Compared to the woman's olive skin, the man's complexion was darker.
The fact that he was currently one of the most important men of the Imperium seemed completely lost on him, Flax noted to herself.
"Thank you for agreeing to this interview," she said.
"You're welcome," the woman replied.
"My pleasure," the man said, his smile tucked behind a full beard.
From off-set, the director's voice said they were going live in two minutes.
"No, the pleasure's mine," Flax went on. "It's not every day I get to interview the two newest royal houses in the last seven hundred years..."
The woman smiled broadly, but the man's grin disappeared as he adjusted his position.
On a monitor, out of view of the cameras that hovered around the set, a timer slowly counted down. When it reached zero, the intro music began playing and credits for the show appeared on the monitor, superimposed over Flax's face. Turning toward the appropriate camera, she nodded and began speaking.
"Good evening," she said. "I'm Sylvia Flax and tonight I have two very important guests, Captain Andre Santos of the colony ship Merope and Captain Sheba Nasri of the Sterope."
The camera cut to the two guests before panning out to include all three in the frame.
"I doubt there's anyone in the Imperium," Flax continued, "who hasn't seen your faces by now. Certainly, the exploits that led to the discovery of your long-lost ark ships are well known to everyone. Until now, however, no one's had a chance to really hear what the captains of those two ships had to say."
Santos laughed, pulling on his beard mischievously.
"Not publicly," he said.
"Of course, I assume the Imperial government has debriefed you both..." Flax said.
"Oh, yes," Santos said. "To no end!"
Giving the other captain the side eye, Nasri interjected.
"After hundreds of years in cryosleep, naturally there's a lot to get caught up on," she said.
"Absolutely," Flax said. "It must have been quite a shock."
Nasri nodded, casting her eyes to the floor.
"We've missed out on a great deal," she said, "but I feel fortunate that we've been presented with such a rare opportunity."
"I'll say!" Flax said. "Seven ark ships set out from Earth, but only five arrived safely, or so it was assumed. The Five Families descended from the captains of those five ships. Now, all of that's been turned upside down!"
Flax felt herself getting too excited. She took a breath.
"Not to mention the rest of your crew," she went on, "who are considered nobles in their own right, and the thousands of settlers who were also on board."
"It's a lot to take in," Santos deadpanned.
"To say the least!" Flax agreed.
"Well, speaking for myself at least, I consider this a great responsibility," Nasri said. "I had no idea, when we left Earth so many centuries ago, that I might someday be the head of a royal house."
Santos rolled his eyes.
"I don't know about all that," he said from the side of his mouth. "It seems crazy to think I went into cryosleep a captain and woke up a lord."
"It's been rumored," Flax said earnestly, "that the government will be giving you both a large stipend in keeping with your new status."
"Frankly," Nasri replied, "it would be hard to wield the power of a noble without the proper funds."
"That's the other thing," Santos said. "Why should I get a king's ransom? That money should go to my crew and the colonists from my ship. We were all in it together as far as I'm concerned."
"It's what we deserve," Nasri said.
"For what?" Santos replied. "We didn't do anything."
"I think to Captain Nasri's point," Flax said, "your new status reflects the importance the Five Families place on their lineage to those other five ship captains. Both of you were, in some ways, robbed of your proper place in the Imperium. Certainly the place your descendants would have enjoyed."
Santos leaned in toward Flax.
"For me, it's like this," he said. "I signed up to bring the colonists to a new land so they could build a new society. When I woke up, I found a new society, but it's not what I envisioned. There's no democracy or rule by the people. Far from it! I don't want any part of that!"
Flax cleared her throat and tried to smile convincingly.
"Well, we have the Imperial Senate..." she said.
"No system is perfect," Nasri spoke up, "but being a part of the system helps us make it better. If I can serve humanity in my new capacity, I'm certainly willing to try."
Off camera, the director made a cutting motion across his throat.
"Well, I'm afraid that's all the time we have," Flax said, turning to face the camera hovering a few feet away. "I'd like to again thank the two of you for coming."
Captain Santos and Nasri thanked her in reply while the monitor behind them slowly faded to black.
The streets of Regalis were mostly empty when Sylvia Flax strolled down a darkened sidewalk, her high heels tapping with a steady cadence. She probably should have taken a grav taxi, but the transmat station was only a few blocks away and she was still exuberant from the interview.
Sylvia's stylish dress, cut just above the knee, rustled against her legs as her long, azure hair swayed with each passing step. She listened to the rhythm of her heels repeating tip tap, tip tap.
She became aware of another sound with a different tempo, clump clump, like a pair of heavy boots. Not many pedestrians were out this late, Flax thought, and he seemed to be getting closer.
Even with the occasional lamp filling a puddle of light, the street was dark, but Flax could make out the shape of the other person approaching.
It was definitely not a woman, she realized. She could see he was short, but not feminine in any way. His shoulders rose and fell like the pistons of a poorly maintained machine. Not a robot either, although that would've been a relief. Robots rarely attacked people.
The man wore baggy pants and a sleeveless shirt. He looked like he came from the Underclass, Flax concluded, the lowest of the low except for non-humans. He wore goggles, hiding his eyes.
Tip tap. Clump clump.
He was nearly abreast now. Flax couldn't tell if he was looking at her. His eyes were hidden under those terrible goggles. And his lips. They were painted black, a sharp contrast against his sickly white skin.
Tip clump tap clump.
She could smell him as he passed. She tried not to look, at least not directly. And those goggles. What were his eyes doing? Were they looking at her?
Clump clump. Tip tap.
He went by without a word. Flax released a long breath, not realizing she had been holding one in the whole time.
Something, like metal flicking across metal, snapped behind her and she instantly felt the edge of a switchblade scrape against her neck. It was him, his body pressed against her back.
"Step out, Magnus!" he yelled down the street. "I know you're there!"
Further up the sidewalk, a different man stepped out from a doorway concealed in the shadows. Lamp light reflected off his closely shaved head and stubbly face. Intricate tattoos at the base of his neck peered out just above the collar of his shirt. The rest of him was covered by a long, brown coat.
"There's a contract out on you, Tokai," Magnus said. "And I'm here to collect."
Tokai, still holding the knife at Flax's throat, shrank behind her. "Come any closer and I'll cut her!"
"Do what you like," Magnus replied. "She's nothing to me."
Flax didn't like the sound of that.
"You can't just let him hurt me!" she shouted.
"Sorry, lady," Magnus said. "I'm a hit man, not a hero."
"I'll pay you ten thousand credits," she offered.
From her vantage point, at least twenty feet from the hired killer, Flax detected a nearly imperceptible grin at the corner of Magnus' mouth.
"Deal," Magnus replied, effortlessly drawing a weapon from a holster beneath his coat.
Tokai, the situation perhaps dawning on him, yelled out "Wait!" but a blast of orange light had already charred a hole in his forehead, exiting at the back of his skull.
Flax stood in stunned silence until she heard Tokai's body land with a thud behind her. Then she became angry.
"You could've killed me!" she screamed.
"No," Magnus replied calmly. "Then I wouldn't get paid."
"Are you crazy? I'm not paying you!"
Just as calmly, Magnus pointed the gun at her.
"Yes you will," he said. "They always do."
And he was right.
A cool wind on an otherwise warm day blew in from the sea. Lady Rebecca Veber, along with two of her aides, waited on the transmat platform. Wearing a long gown of aqua and white taffeta decorated with a scallop shell pattern, Lady Veber was in her early forties with a wide face and blue eyes, her blond hair worn in an intricate braid. The platform jutted out over a cliff, high above the white beaches and turquoise waters typical of the planet. Lokeren, the world of island chains and vast, tropical oceans, was owned by the Veber family. Of the many estates built on the planet, this particular one was Lady Veber's favorite due to the gentle breezes that blew just after dusk.
"He's transmatting now," an aide said, holding a finger to his earpiece.
At the center of the platform, the air sizzled like burning oil as a golden haze materialized into a man. Lady Veber and her two staffers bowed.
"Prince Richard!" she said, raising her head. "Always a pleasure."
The first son and eldest child of the Imperial emperor, Prince Richard was ten years Lady Veber's junior, with a primly trimmed mustache and wearing a gold and red tunic. He smiled graciously as he walked stiffly toward her. He took her outstretched hand and kissed the back of it, just above a ring encrusted with diamonds.
"Of course, the pleasure is all mine," he said.
"I must admit I was somewhat surprised the Imperial palace could spare you for a personal visit," she said, withdrawing her hand.
"We live in interesting times."
"Do we? I hadn't noticed."
"Perhaps we could talk inside," the prince suggested. "This is more fresh air than I'm used to..."
The group walked away from the cliffs toward the palace, a series of cube-shaped buildings with clay walls painted white and domes of light blue. Once inside, the two aides left them alone in a large room with a vaulted ceiling covered in byzantine tiles with the same shell motif as Lady Veber's dress. She and the prince sat on a bench covered in satin pillows.
"You really should get out more, Richard," she said, feigning concern. "A little fresh air never hurt anyone."
"No, but sound travels," he replied. "I wanted our conversation to be more private."
"Very well," she said. "Why have you come all this way?"
"I assume you've seen the interview with Lord Santos and Lady Nasri?" Richard asked.
"Well, I don't think Captain Santos would care for the title Lord being used."
"Exactly," Richard replied. "How do you react to a man who turns up his nose to wealth and fame? It's unnatural..."
"At least Lady Nasri is more... agreeable?"
"Yes, but they're a package deal."
"Are both really necessary?"
"What happens when we need to choose our next emperor?" Richard asked. "With six families, we could have a hung decision, three votes for and three against. The turmoil would be a disaster! With seven, a majority is guaranteed."
"I suppose," Lady Veber replied skeptically.
"Perhaps more importantly," the prince added, "our society is built on each family's prestige being directly tied to the captains of the colony ships. It's our birthright."
"But if Captain, I mean Lord Santos denies the inherent importance of being such a captain, it calls into question the status of the other Five Families as well, not to mention the lesser families who descended from the rest of the ship's crew."
Lady Veber considered for a time.
"Indeed," she said finally. "I see your point."
"We need Santos on board," Richard said, "or people will question the foundations of our authority and the very fabric that holds the Imperium together."
"I presume you're here on the Emperor's behalf to prevent that from happening?" she replied.
Prince Richard nodded with a sly smile.
By evening, Prince Richard had departed as he came, in a crackling of electrons disappearing into nothing. The air was still warm and gently brushed through Lady Veber's hair as she returned inside to consider what the prince had said. However, her mind was preoccupied with other business far closer to her heart.
Passing though the estate's long corridors, Lady Veber was scarcely aware of those she happened upon. She heard their voices and vaguely registered what they said before disregarding it as unimportant. Whatever they needed could wait.
She entered her son's quarters but didn't knock, knowing that was unnecessary. In the main room, a man in a white coat with buttons down the left side waited for her, but Lady Veber passed him silently and went into the bedroom. Her son Philip lay in the bed while one of Lady Veber's handmaidens stood watch beside him.
Philip was nineteen with deep-set eyes of dark brown. His hair was matted and damp from a cold compress on his forehead.
"How is he?" Lady Veber asked.
"His fever is the same, ma'am," the handmaiden said, an older woman with a round face.
"Has he eaten today?"
Lady Veber returned to the outer room where she scowled angrily.
"They told me you were the best physician in the Imperium," she said, trying not to shout, "yet my son keeps getting worse and worse!"
"His illness isn't responding to treatment," the doctor replied. "I can order another battery of tests..."
"More tests?" she scoffed. "You've scanned and pricked him a hundred times and you're no closer to curing him!"
"So far, his condition has defied diagnosis. We simply don't know what's causing this."
The handmaiden cried out, bringing Lady Veber and the doctor into the bedroom where they found Philip shaking violently.
"It's another seizure!" the handmaiden yelled.
Lady Veber and the other woman held the boy down while the doctor injected a sedative. Within a few seconds, the boy's convulsions subsided, allowing them to release their hold on him.
"Get out," Lady Veber told the doctor.
The man, his face reddening, moved toward the door but stopped.
"Should I run the additional tests?" he murmured.
"Just get out!" Lady Veber shouted, pointing at the threshold.
The doctor turned and left. Lady Veber rearranged several blond hairs that had come loose and hung haphazardly around her face.
"Ma'am," the handmaiden said meekly.
"What is it?" Lady Veber said, mopping beads of sweat from her forehead.
"I know you're convinced conventional medicine will help--"
"I'm not convinced of anything right now..."
"It's just there's something I want to show you."
From around her neck, the handmaiden removed an amulet hanging on a long, black chain. The ornament was an octagram, an eight-pointed star, made from a strange, dark metal. A black pearl was set in the center.