io9 is proud to present fiction from Lightspeed Magazine. Once a month, we feature a story from Lightspeed’s current issue, and this month’s selection is “Longing for Stars Once Lost” by A. Merc Rustad. You can read the story below or you can listen to the podcast.
Longing for Stars Once Lost
The ship dies in orbit above an abandoned world.
Kitshan curses. Metal bones shudder around him as the last of the ship’s breath is sucked into vacuum. His skill at the helm and hasty patch jobs have kept the engines together, but luck is scarce out here, and his is gone. The ship is unminded. Lifeless metal, basic programming, and manual flight operations are things he can tolerate better than another consciousness wrapped against his.
The viewscreen flickers and a cold vista stretches across the interior curve of the cockpit: the small star, bright and distilled against the void, clutching a trio of uninhabited planets in its aura. His ship is poised over the third in orbit.
Scanners glitch as they lose power, but he picks up the faint readings of energy clusters on the surface; flickers of possibility.
Gravity summons the ship down toward the planet’s surface in an uncontrolled descent. A flutter on the dying sensors catches his attention: the smooth, deadly ripple of the Arbiter of the Suns’ pack as it glides from subspace on the other side of the star. A dreadnought flanked by a dozen mindless fighters, painted in shadow against the dark of space.
Adrenaline spikes through exhaustion. Even on the edges of the Principality, he can’t outrun the gods. They want his death, and nothing less will satisfy.
Kitshan guns the thrusters, pushing the ship down into the atmosphere. If he can hide the emissions signature in the radiation of the planet, he might buy himself time. Find the energy blips on his sensors, repair his ship, jump back into subspace.
He’s promised himself he’ll live, that he’ll return to find his wraith. He can’t fail now.
The ship jolts as heat swallows its outer skin. Then he is burning bright, falling.
Before he was a general, Kitshan had never killed.
Before he left the Violet Sun’s side in search of Rebirth—-a world untouched by the gods where he hopes to find a way to see Forever Brightness once more—-he promised himself he would not kill again.
Before Mere was taken away from him, he believed that time would bring him peace.
Kitshan lives, battered from impact and heat, his armor compensating for the thin oxygen levels. This world is parched blue-gray stone and dust. The impact burn runs through old crumbled walls, shattered towers, and rubble-mounds.
He examines the extent of damage to his ship. With enough energy, the ship’s programming can repair the majority of its physical structure and he can take the helm again. He pats the ship’s scorched side.
It’s dusk, the last lip of starlight bleeding away into night. Kitshan pulls up a map on his vambrace, a screensnap of the readouts he saw from above. Southwest, buried in the toes of a mountain, is the first energy spike.
He squints up at the charred sky.
Without his ship’s sensors, he has no scope to follow the Arbiter’s path, to know how long he has before he’s found.
While he can’t mask his crash site, he needs to get to cover before nightfall. The cold from the dark phases of the planet will tax even his war armor. Come the dawn, he’ll find a way off this world.
All it had taken for the Arbiter of the Suns to discover him was a visit to the Burial of Worlds. Kitshan had stood in that vast crater full of dead ships and cut open his arms on his longsword. The armor tried to seal the wounds, and he overrode its programming. Forever Brightness, Burning Dark, his warship, had been such a part of him, blood is the only hope he has to feel its familiar neural contact.
Yet there is nothing. He did not even know if his ship’s body was scrapped here, or left to drift cold in the debris fields over ravaged worlds no longer named.
That he lived was condemnation enough. He and Forever Brightness were among those chosen to self-destruct during the Decommission as tribute to peace. Forever Brightness refused to obey, and Kitshan thought they would escape. But his ship had lied to him. Forever Brightness lured him down onto Nishu Atar, then ripped its consciousness free of his before it obeyed its orders and self-destructed. He was supposed to have died with his ship.
(He cannot forgive what Forever Brightness did.)
For so long he survived in obscurity, forced into cryo and hidden inside the Violet Sun’s influence. Even she, the God of War, can tire of endless destruction.
Within the Burial of Worlds, he had not found the pieces of his ship’s soul.
But he’d heard a different voice, braided from the memories of ancient dead, a voice that promised hope: In the making of the Universe, there lay a single unused shard of Life. It curled itself into a world and hid far from the death-lust of the other galaxies. Still it waits, offering Life within its skin.
Kitshan’s blood seeped down into the shredded metal and rusted bones of all the dead ships piled in this crater on Ara Desino. “Is it still there?”
It is there. Life always is.
“Where?” he begged. “Tell me where.”
The voice wove coordinates like musical entropy: incomprehensible colors spun in ribbons through the Universe, the remembrance of Life.
He let his armor close the wounds, sheathed his sword, and followed the currents imprinted against his awareness. It’d taken him cycles before he could untangle understanding and discern a flight path beyond the Principality’s borders.
If there was a place in the universe that held Life, he needed to try and reach it. To see if Rebirth would grant him a small piece of itself he could use to revive Forever Brightness, wherever it lay.
Dust-scarabs scuttle around the edge of the tunnel entrance marked on his map. He flicks the beetles away as they crawl towards his armor, drawn by its powered hum.
The networked caves are lit with crystalized snails still bright from radiation. The map pings: The energy source detected is seven kilometers down a narrow branch of mountainous veins. A reading that intense could fuel his ship and his armor, with energy to spare.
He’ll need all he can get to outrun the Arbiter.
The snails fade the deeper into the mountain he trudges. He continues in darkness, guided by the infrared veil in his helmet. The tunnel abruptly yawns into a wide, arched cavern painted with ancient hologlyphs that brighten at his entrance. He stops cold. Abyss take him—-he’s walked into a tomb.
The stone melds closed behind him, sealing him inside.
In the center of the cavern is a pillar of gray translucent energy. Binding sigils wind along its shimmering surface. Within the sarcophagus, the faint outline of a humanoid being is lit by starlight.
Under the Violet Sun’s command, he studied the old starkin legacy. His god had a fond recollection of her cousins: demigods spawned from the remnants of the universe’s first breath, scattered in stardust and radiation, adrift on solar winds until they grew voices and sang to each other in the dark. She wanted him to defeat the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf; to know one’s enemies is power. So he learned.
The tattoos along Kitshan’s back and ribs burn. They were carved by the Violet Sun’s hand, his subservience made manifest on skin. Only those favored by a Sun Lord will be able to see this path and find this place. The Arbiter will see it, too.
The voice is tiny, faint, and . . . vulnerable. It comes from within the sarcophagus. It is nothing like the power of the Violet Sun. It sounds too much like Mere.
Kitshan edges nearer, his heartbeat rapid.
Sol? the starborn calls. Did you come back?
He rests his hand just above the sheathing on the sarcophagus. “I’m not Sol.” His throat is raw, word-scarred.
A long silence. The shape inside the gray shield curls in on itself.
Let me go.
Kitshan drops his arm. “Can’t. There’s no way out.”
The cavern is lit like moonlight seen on Osirin V—-his once-home. Crystals in constellation patterns brighten across the ceiling. He knows them from old star maps, from the planetside-views.
Yes there is, No One.
Kitshan grimaces. His armor’s temperature regulation is fritzing, letting cold sink faster into his bones. It’s worse in here. Pain paints the nerves through his limbs and skin.
How close is the Arbiter?
He needs a way out of this chamber. Find another source of power.
Help me, No One? You have Their fingerprints. You can open the cage.
The constellations shift, unfolding a new skyscape: Rampant Hand of Dawn in Battle, the Antlered Hound of Omega Prime, the Vines Embraced by Eternity, Skin Drawn Verdigris in Sand. He hasn’t seen these stars since Forever Brightness, Burning Dark died. Since he lay hospitalized on the battlefield of Nishu Atar, before the Violet Sun found him again.
He limps around the cavern. Its sides are polished smooth, a glossy prison. There are no seams to let him pry open. He unsheathes his longsword from across his back. It once belonged to Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf, a fallen starborn, and Kitshan took it when he defeated them. Kitshan slams the darkened blade against stone. The metal doesn’t scratch, doesn’t break, and neither does the mountain. He hammers at the walls, his frustration useless.
I will serve, the starborn pleads. I will do all you wish. Please, let me out.
“I don’t want your service,” Kitshan snarls. “I just want—-”
Escape. Peace. Mere.
He stops again before the sarcophagus. The starborn presses a many-fingered hand against the inside of the sheathing. Its eyes are large, and even through the opaque prison, he feels the desperation in that gaze.
“How long have you been here?” he asks.
The starborn shrinks back. Alone. Long, long, with no one here. I am scared.
Kitshan slides his weapon back into its scabbard. Abyss take him.
Scared. So’s he. So was Mere, before the wraith was taken from him.
He can’t leave the starborn here alone.
“How do I open your cage?”
(“No,” the Violet Sun said, when he asked her blessing to travel to the world of Rebirth. “Forget of this, my wolflord. It will bring only grief.”
He’s disobeyed the gods before.)
The crystals aligned around the sarcophagus dim as Kitshan follows the numerical code the starborn gives him and dismantles the cage. Air shivers and snaps as the gray pillar dissolves.
The starborn is half his mass: a wisp of light sketched into humanoid form. Tiny horns speckle its head, and vestigial wings hang limp across its spine. Two eyes over no mouth. It shudders, flecks of gray dust crackling from its surface.
“Where’s the door?”
The starborn hesitantly stretches out a hand for his. He jerks back. It flinches away.
Skin, it says. No One has blessing and can open the door.
He hesitates. His armor is the only defense against the dead-burned cold. But he can’t stay here forever. He’ll be found or killed if he does. The Arbiter’s dreadnought can crumble this mountain with ease.
At the place the cavern entrance once sat, he irises back the palm in his glove. Pain flares, numbing his hand in seconds. He grits his teeth against the agony and lays his skin against stone.
It melts away with a soft whisper. WELCOME, BELOVED.
He fumbles to close the glove, his left arm scarcely movable now.
I can help.
The starborn presses its body against his, twining around his side and shoulder, seeping into the scratched armor and exposed skin. Memories not his bloom against his thoughts:
—-Sol-Weft-Saiph caresses the tiny starborn’s face with great wings, unpeeling the last shadows from its eyes so it can see, breathe, grow. “You fell from the darkened void, small one, but here you will be safe until you are strong enough to fly.”
—-The peoples of this world are bright like constellations, made of songs and sorrows, fierce and kind. They are friends. They let the starborn light the city from the power grids. Valuable thing, they tell it, smiling, and the starborn beams.
—-Sol-Weft-Saiph imprints a map of the universe’s skin against the new starborn’s eyes: So you may always find us.
—-The people say: The gods bring war like tides, washing away everything. We must appease them. And the starborn asks: Can I help, friends? And the people say: Yes!
—-But the gods do not want anything as bright as themselves and tell the people and these servants of the gods, the Cold Ones, to make the starborn go away. The starborn does not want to be dark again, but the people are friends and say: You must do this for us. So the starborn follows the friends deep into a mountain and climbs into the cage and waits for Sol-Weft-Saiph to come back.
—-No one comes.
Heat returns to Kitshan’s flesh and the pain ebbs. He can flex his fingers. Startled, he doesn’t throw the starborn off him. He’s shaking and doesn’t trust his voice.
Better? the starborn asks. I help you not be cold.
“Better,” he says. “Stay close.” Invitation, not command.
Where do we go?
“I need to heal my ship.” That’s all it needs to know. “Get off this planet.”
He watches as the light from the snails gradually brightens the closer he gets to the mountain’s outer skin. “How?”
The starborn’s tiny wings flutter against his nape. Can fly, No One.
This is what will happen if the Arbiter of the Suns catches him: He will die, and not well.
The consorts, if they do not strip his bones and devour him alive, will bind him and carry him to the Arbiter of the Suns. He will be dragged in chains to the Courts of Tranquility.
Mere, his wraith, the one he fell in love with long ago, will have no choice but to execute him.
His soul will be forever trapped in the still waters of the execution pool, forgotten until it deteriorates into nothingness. He will have no hope of another life when this universe ends and another grows from its ashes.
He cannot endure to hurt his wraith like that. Since the Red Sun marked him on the battlefield of Nishu Atar, he cannot die at his own hand, no matter how great his want. So he must live. Escape this planet and finish his mission.
(His final promise to Mere: I will come back for you.)
When the Violet Sun first created Mere, Kitshan offered it his friendship and promised himself he would protect this one. Mere learned to paint, learned to read poetry, learned to dance. They spun together in zero-G waltzes and lay in the observation deck of the Serantau Station to watch the rotation of the lush planet Sera III.
(“Are you happy, love?” Kitshan asked. He wanted nothing more than for Mere to dream, to create, to live. And Mere said, “I am.”)
When their time was up, Kitshan’s heart broke.
“When?” Mere asked him, as the guards bound its hands. Though separated by a long-distance holofeed, Mere’s gaze never wavered from Kitshan’s. “When will you come back for me?”
Kitshan jogs in the cold, bitter dark spilled across the landscape. The starborn huddles against his side, threaded like a holoimage into his armor. His lungs burn, muscles strain. The armor’s power is almost depleted. He doesn’t ask the starborn for more. He’ll need all its help for his ship.
Ahead, he spots the ruins. Without a moon or radiation from cityskin, he sees the vast expanse of void lit with stars laid out in this system. A shared breath of the universe.
No sign of the Arbiter or its consorts yet.
I remember this, the starborn says. It was the home of friends.
Wind keens among the broken buildings and deadened stone.
The dirge of the elements reminds him of the thrum of Forever Brightness’ engines when the dreadnought glided through subspace. How long would it have taken his partner to sail to Rebirth? On that world, he hopes to find the seeds of Life, ones he can use to restore the dead. His ship, who died because he helped bring the war to an end.
“How’ve you not been found before now?” Kitshan asks the starborn. It helps to have another voice beside him, one to remind him he isn’t alone in the dark. He’s never stopped missing Forever Brightness.
The Cold Ones can’t see.
The starborn curls about his shoulders. I am small, new. Sol says: “You are not bright enough yet to be seen. This will make you safe if the Cold Ones come before I do.”
Kitshan turns his head, his throat tight. “But Sol hasn’t come back.”
The starborn’s voice quavers, uncertain. Friends had to make me alone, but friends did not let the Cold Ones destroy me.
Kitshan reaches a hand up, and the starborn curls its fingers around his. “You won’t be caged again.”
Can we leave this world, No One? The starborn sounds smaller than before. There is no home left here.
“If you can lift the ship into orbit.” He takes a steadying breath. “I’ll see you get home.”
Yes! The starborn brightens against his armor. Can fly! The Cold Ones will never see us.
Kitshan half-smiles, fierce hope baring his teeth against the dark.
Forever Brightness, Burning Dark took its name from chiaroscuro clouds in the Echelon Rampant Nebula. It was there, among the ruins of station cities and the bones of eel ships, that Kitshan and Forever Brightness defeated the Thousand-Star-Eyed Wolf, and where Kitshan realized the vast destruction he and his ship had wrought: hundreds of worlds dead, galaxies unmade, the ghosts of a trillion non-combatants echoing in the void.
Where he realized, with the Violet Sun’s dearest enemy bound before him, he hated himself more than any of the other gods or those he was sent to fight and kill.
He dropped the sword and walked until he reached the airlocks on Forever Brightness’ fighter bays.
What’s wrong? Forever Brightness asked, their communication sequestered from official logs and the eyes of the Violet Sun.
“I can’t do this anymore,” Kitshan said. He pressed his forehead against the ship’s interior wall. “Before I became a pilot, a general, do you know what I wanted to do? Back on Osirin V, before . . .” He flicks his wrist, infinite gesture to describe all he cannot say, all he can remember of the war. “This.”
You wanted to map unknown space, make the subspace waves safer for ships to travel.
Kitshan’s shoulders hitched as he tried to breathe against the weight of guilt and grief crushing down on him. “I thought I could bring some good to those who come after.”
There is always choice, Forever Brightness said.
We can still make our own destiny even with what we have become.
On the battlefield of Nishu Atar, he walked, unarmed and unarmored, toward the Red Sun’s wraiths and conscripted Tadier spider-queens. There were hotspots of attack and retaliation scattered over the once-trade-hub world. Peace did not mean death would stop.
“I am General Kitshan Zu,” he said, “servant of the Destroyer of Worlds. I decimated your homeworld of Xian Azure. I have shown you no mercy.”
The lead wraith, a tall bipedal machineflesh soldier, stalked towards him. Its skin burned deep red, like the Sun Lord it had been made to serve. Its long knife-like fingers splayed in rage.
Kitshan did not flinch as it stabbed him through the chest, its eyes inches from his face as he choked on blood. It lifted his body, triumphant, and then dragged him across the field to the mountain caverns.
Dead, and yet, his soul was not carried to the Beyond Space, or whatever purgatory the Violet Sun deemed fit for him endure. He felt the God of Death caress him instead, burning yet another mark into his spirit, and then he was revived, sucking breath from patched lungs as his heart beat once again.
He stared up at the red wraith, its claws still bloody. It tilted its head; in its other hand was a nanite medical kit. It had revived him. They were alone in the semi-dark, the cavern crusted in old halogen-bulbed lanterns and rusted wiring for long-dead consoles.
“Why?” Kitshan demanded, wondering if it meant to slaughter him again. The taste of his own blood clung to his teeth. “I don’t deserve mercy.”
“None of us do, General,” the wraith said. “But this one will not be seen only and forever as a machine for Death. This one . . .”
It hissed in pain, fighting programming or habit, Kitshan didn’t know.
“I,” the wraith said, “will be more. Our final actions in life must mean something.”
It picked him up and carried him to a field hospital. He did not see it again, but he knew—-he knew—-it had been destroyed when it returned to its post.
The unminded ship lies in ice-slicked dust. Kitshan sprints the final distance to the battered vessel. It’s untouched. He climbs back into the small, ruined shell. If the starborn can lend him energy to repair the maintenance drones and reignite the engines—-
The starborn shivers against him. The Cold Ones are here.
Kitshan’s belly tightens. He peers up. Entry trails burn against the sky, and then the Arbiter’s consorts’ ships land in a great explosion of dust and rubble, less than ten kilometers from his position.
The starborn quivers, its head tilted back to stare at the sky. Home.
The cloud whips debris against his helmet and armor. Kitshan hisses in pain as the starborn peels free and unwinds from his shadow.
We must go, No One! They will make us cold.
“Engines,” Kitshan snaps. “Power them on.”
Still in orbit, the Arbiter of the Suns’ dreadnought waits. Kitshan’s implants ache with memory. That ship is alive, bound, and even planetside, he senses its hurt. The Arbiter was forged in the Courts of Tranquility, and like all that is created in the Principality’s heart, the Arbiter is made from pain.
The starborn stretches itself and threads its body through the dead ship.
In the distance, the twelve consorts keen, their hunting cries melodic and synchronized. Their multifaceted armor gleams with fractal light: a hungry, multi-bodied living prism cast against the dark. They swarm towards him and the starborn.
Metal shakes, glowing faint in the night. The starborn’s energy is remaking the thrusters and healing the impact-burned hull. It shimmers through circuitry and nav system. The viewscreen, cracked, flickers clear again and the ship’s sensors show him how close the Arbiter’s dreadnought is.
Fly, the starborn says, gleeful, we will fly!
Kitshan feels the cockpit reshape, secure against vacuum and heat. “Be careful,” he says. “Even if the Arbiter can’t see us—-see you—-that dreadnought can sense when there’s atmospheric disturbance for launch.”
Will be careful, the starborn says. It has spread itself over the ship’s entire surface. Will give you the stars, No One. When home, I will be stronger! I can take you wherever you wish.
Kitshan presses his fist against his helmeted forehead in gratitude. Rebirth does not seem so distant, now.
The unminded ship creaks as the starborn lifts it with dogged velocity into the sky. They climb through the night. Kitshan stares at the sensor readouts on screen. He keeps expecting the dreadnought to lash out with cannons or war-tendrils.
Yet nothing happens. The dreadnought hangs heavy and silent in orbit, and the consort ships drift back into their launch bays. The Arbiter of the Suns cannot see him.
Below, the consorts slow, circling near the crash site, wreathed in hunting algorithms. They cannot see him. They cannot catch him.
Kitshan dares breathe as the starborn bears him towards escape. The pace slows, and he feels the strain echoing along the lines of his vessel, traced along his armor.
Never . . . flown . . . before . . . The starborn shivers with effort. We are close!
The ship crackles, shaking inside and out, the ascent gnawing at metal. Kitshan braces himself against the cockpit. “Wait—-”
The starborn screams as it pushes itself to its limit—-it will tear itself apart lifting the ship out of atmosphere. Home! I see it, No One!
Even if its essence will hide him in space, he has no propulsion yet—-the engines are not yet charged. He might drift until his oxygen depletes or the pull of this world drags him down in flame once more. A cleaner death, at least.
But the starborn will die, too.
“Let go,” he tells it. “You can’t carry us both.”
The starborn’s face materializes inside the viewscreen. But I must get you to the stars, No One.
He swallows, aware of his choices and what they will bring. “My name is Kitshan Zu.”
I am Vale-Sol-Bright. I owe you all for how you aided me. You made me not alone again. You are friend.
Kitshan lifts his hand, just shy of the starborn’s face. A farewell. “And as your friend, I want you to be free.”
He will not let Vale-Sol-Bright self-destruct. Not like Forever Brightness. Not cold and alone. He wants the starborn to live.
Its head tilts, eyes bright as the universe intent upon him. This is your desire, Kitshan Zu?
Kitshan rests hand to the hilt of his sword. “Yes, Vale-Sol-Bright.” Like he wanted for Mere. He hopes Mere can forgive him. “Release me. Go home. You’ll find Sol and your family in the stars.”
The starborn unwinds from the ship and Kitshan shuts his eyes as he falls.
Once, Forever Brightness asked him: What will we do, if the war ends?
Once, he answered: “We can sail among the stars together, never commanded to destroy.”
Once, he believed he would see his ship again.
He doesn’t crash.
Great, sinuous braids of shipflesh unpeel from the dreadnought like tentacles and catch Kitshan’s vessel as it falls. The arms pull him towards the hold.
The dreadnought will pry apart his dead ship and the consorts will return and swarm him.
Kitshan readies his sword. He will fight, and he will lose.
He has only his memories of Forever Brightness, yet he can hope, for a moment, that if he cannot find his ship, that his ship can find him in another life.
If his last action is to see the starborn is free, it will be enough. He tips his head back, staring up through the viewscreen. His last glimpse of the sky. He sees the starborn flying higher, faster, a bright spec sharp against the turning dawn.
“Be well, my friend.”
Vale-Sol-Bright’s voice is clear, carried back to him through the stratosphere. I will remember, Kitshan.
The starborn burns bright, climbing toward home.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A. Merc Rustad is a queer, transmasculine, non-binary writer and filmmaker who likes dinosaurs, robots, monsters, and cookies. Their fiction has appeared in nifty places like Lightspeed, Cicada, Uncanny, Escape Pod, Fireside, IGMS, Flash Fiction Online, Apex, Shimmer, and others. Their stories have been reprinted in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasytwice: “How to Become a Robot in 12 Easy Steps” in 2015 (guest editor: Joe Hill) and the Nebula Award finalist “This is Not a Wardrobe Door” in 2017 (guest editor: Charles Yu). Their website is: amercrustad.com. Merc is mostly found on Twitter @Merc_Rustad and sometimes playing in cardboard boxes.
Please visit Lightspeed Magazine to read more great science fiction and fantasy. This story first appeared in the October 2017 issue, which features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories, plus a novella, nonfiction, and novel excerpts. This issue also contains work by Hugh Howey, Jeremiah Tolbert, Sofia Samatar, Aliette de Bodard, Rachel Swirsky, Adam-Troy Castro, and more. You can wait for most of this month’s contents to be serialized online, or you can buy the whole issue right now in convenient ebook format for just $3.99, or subscribe to the ebook edition at a discounted rate via the link below.