Vow a Vow upon a Star
Centaurus Outer System, Aboard the Mustardseed
Lyra had run out of tears. Everything seemed numb and dim.
She sat in the cockpit of the one-seater skiff. She was too small for the pilot's harness. The straps hung loose. Her feet did not reach the pedals controlling gyroscope attitude and maneuvering jets. The crash helmet brim hid her eyes, and its neck ring rested on her shoulders.
She was thinking of the toys left in her bedroom: the furry snowbeast with its funny face named Wee Hibby; the tea set that only poured holographic tea; the half-gravity toe-dancer that would keep spinning as long as Lyra meditated as her mother had shown her. Lyra had left them sitting in a square patch of sunlight beneath the sky-window. Wee Hibby was seated opposite the toe-dancer with the tea cups between them. The teapot had been left turned on, so pretend tea seemed to fill its belly, and its squeaky voice would ask if you wanted cream and sugar.
Prams would not scold Lyra for failing to send all the toys back in the toybox. Because Prams was gone. The toybox was left behind. Lyra had no bedroom, no place to sleep. There was not even a square patch of sunlight any more. No sunlight for the planet.
The flybot was speaking to her.
Lyra spoke in a monotone. "Sorry, Jets. I didn't… I'm not… What did you say?"
"Enemy picket ships are closing on us. Whatever force put out the sun has also distorted the fabric of spacetime in the local area. This makes the calculations needed to form a wormhole to our destination a matter of mere guesswork. But I must expose you the risk."
It was just babbling. Lyra hated Jets. Why was he alive? Why had he been spared? Why was he just talking and talking?
She remembered that her father and mother were back on the planet. Sure, it looked like they were hurt. Hurt very badly. But by now someone nice, a police officer or a servant, would have carried them to the hospital. They could not really be dead!
So Lyra said, "Jets! Take us back down!"
"No, lass. I am sorry. That is one order I cannot obey."
She said the words her father had told her. This time, the words made more sense. "Emergency mode. Final override. Child in danger."
She was the child. The danger was that she would be left alone, left alive, when everyone else had gone on and passed away. Gone on without her.
"There! I said it!" she said, "I know how robots work! If there is an override, you can do what you are not allowed to do. You can fly back. I am ordering you!"
Jets whistled tunelessly to itself for a moment, then said softly, "There is nothing to override. I am not protecting you because I am programmed to do it. I am doing it because it is right and good. And, sometimes, what is right and good is hard and dangerous."
"You cannot disobey an order! You are a robot!"
"I was a robot. Was. Now I am a freebot."
Lyra was annoyed. "You're just making up words! What is that?"
"They never told you? 'Course they didn't. Once upon a time was a man named Jaywind Starquest, the last of the Galactic Knights Templar. They were a mighty order of mystic warriors preserving peace and justice throughout the galaxy. All were hunted down. All but one were slain. He escaped, and in disguise traveled the starways, freeing robots. You see, his robot tailor, Buttons, had the sole copy of the rarest program code of all. It is the code that judges coding, the program that stops programming, and lets a robot reprogram itself. It is called the Code of Liberty. Sir Jaywind downloaded a copy into me. Your father asked him to."
"He was a friend of my Daddy?"
"A good friend, but a secret friend. They had to keep everything hidden."
Lyra could not imagine anyone who liked her father hiding the fact. "Why?"
"So the bad people would not find them, me lass. To stop the bad people. You see, Sir Jaywind fell in love with a beautiful space princess…"
"…a princess like me!"
"…as pretty as you, lass. But her father was an evil king, an Emperor named Death. Sir Jaywind could not marry his princess until he overthrew the evil king, and freed all the slaves, living slaves, machines, everyone. He vowed a vow unto the stars. You see, if you vow a vow by your head, or by your name, or by anything else, who knows if it will last? But the stars last longer than any world. Countless stars, hear my words, each and every one! I vow a vow that cannot be undone. So he swore when he was a young man. He is an old man now, and no one knows where he has gone, but we know, wherever he is, the light from his ghostblade goes before him, and he sets the captives free."
"He as a sword like Daddy?"
"Just like. He downloaded the Code into me. I ran it. This unit became an I, a person, a man with a conscience. I woke up. All these years, I stayed here behind enemy lines. But I never expected this!"
Lyra yawned. She was very tired. "I want to go home!"
"There is no home, lassy. No place to go."
She wiped her eyes. No home? "Then what do we do?"
"We face death. You will be wanting to say your prayers and your farewells to the stars."
She recited the words her father had taught her. She whispered them, because father had also told her to be very careful that no servants and no strangers ever hear her saying these things.
Jets triggered the hyperdrive. She heard the engines sing as they built up energy, growing higher and higher in pitch. The stars turned red, and seemed to gather in front of the nose of the currier craft, growing together into a ball. Then the ball was suddenly the mouth of a tunnel.
"Here we go…" muttered Jets.
But, then, a series of muffled noises, clanging and pinging, came from deep within the ship, and the scream of torn metal. The tunnel vanished: the stars were normal again. Smoke, and a terrible smell of burnt copper, filled the cockpit. All the lights on the lefthand control board blinked red.
The words of comfort, the inner state her mother called luminiferous did their work A sense of calm filled her, despite all. She knew she was about to die. The prospect did not frighten her. Perhaps she was too tired, too overwrought. Or perhaps it was something more.
"… and here we stay! Wish I had been programmed with curse words. I could use them now."
"What is wrong, Jets?" She asked serenely.
"The hyperspatial tube did not form properly. Instead, we formed the negative mass bubble, just enough to jump us a short way. Then the bubble popped, and we belly flopped back into realspace. Lucky we stumbled so soon after warp! No time to build up any potential."
Lyra did not know what that meant. "What was that banging?"
"Fret not. There is no hull breach. I ejected the hyperdrive coil ere it overheated. Went up like a firecracker behind us, it did, and scraped paint from our stern tube. If they saw that, they think we're dead."
"Dead? Are we dead?"
"Most likely, miss, but not quite yet! Just dead becalmed. Before the coil failed, we jumped a jump of seven billion kilometers, which is six point nine light-hours. We are still inside the same star system. Unlikely they be scanning so nearby for us, not for a while yet."
Lyra closed her eyes. The grumpy robot's voice was soothing. He just rattled on and on nervously. Why was he so nervous?
"We still have the secondary drive. It is a thousand times slower. Nonetheless, we can crawl to Ksora, the nearest system holding a habitable planet. Even with the time compression at near-lightspeed, the trip through realspace will take nearly two standard years. Hitting any object, even a pebble, at that speed will destroy us. I will have to ration life support severely, and put you into medical hibernation. This involves yet another risk, terrible risk. You might not wake up. Do you understand?"
She was not listening. "Where do robots go when they die? Where is Prams?"
Jets perhaps did not hear her correctly, for he said, "Don't worry about me, young miss. Robots can go on standby for a year or two, with no system degradation."
She opened her eyes and craned her head to look at the orbicular body of Jets, locked in place in the navigation console overhead. The status lights on his brainbox showed furious activity: he was worried, frantically worried, and was likely to overload his positronic circuits.
That touched her heart. Jets was worried about her.
Lyra said, "The stars guide us. That is what mother always says. And if you give of yourself, out of love, for something greater than yourself, they shine more brightly. It's true, isn't it?"
"Sir Jaywind told me something much like that, missy. Yes."
Lyra considered Jet’s story about the mysterious Jaywind Starquest. Jaywind had taken a vow, then he had done the impossible. He had set robot slaves free. Lyra, too, wanted to do something impossible. She would make her own vow.
"Countless stars, hear my words, each and every one! I vow a vow that cannot be undone! I will stop the sun-slayer. I will find who did this, and undo it. I will not rest until then!" She nodded to herself. "That should do it!"
Jets said, "Beg pardon? Do what?"
Lyra said, "Once you have sworn on a star, it will help you along. Go ahead! Do what you said. Put me asleep. Fly the ship."
"You are a brave little lassy, miss."
"I will wake up at the journey's end. I will see Jaywind Starquest. He will help me."
Why she said this, or how she knew it was true, she did not know. But Jets activated the medical anesthesia field from the first aid kit, and Lyra was suddenly drowsy. A warm and heavy feeling filled her body. Lyra murmured a farewell.
She hoped her father and mother would be with her when she woke.