With a hollow feeling unlike anything she could imagine, Lyra knew she would never see her father again. She twisted about in her mother's arms, reaching down. But her arms were too small to reach her father.
At that moment, explosions rocked the far end of the bridge. Blinding white light of incendiaries were mixed with the green of kinetic-force grenades. The kinetic grenades issued tractor-presser energy at faster than the speed of sound in all directions, a solid shockwave able to kill or fling aside anyone struck.
The mob parted. Men in shimmering gray armor with skull-faced helmets strode down the bridge, shooting into the crowd with heat-rays, and men and women burned like torches as they screamed and died. Falling into the air fanned the flames to greater fury.
At a signal, the armor of the advancing soldiers lit up. The strange pale alloy flickered with spirals pulses of light and shadow that somehow bypassed the eye and stabbed directly into the brain, so that the legionnaires blurred and multiplied and swam in one's vision. Lyra could not look directly at the pallid, flickering figures.
Father was unfazed by the trick. His eyes were as bright and unblinking as a hawk's. He shifted his sword to a one-handed grip. He flourished the bracer clamped to his left forearm. With a flick of his wrist, he unfolded his shield, which was a curving surface of energy crystal. The shield flickered with the same gold light as the ghostblade. Her father had told her this alloy was invincible and invulnerable to mere physical weapons, as long as the bearer never surrendered to fear or doubt.
The soldiers fired again. Father caught their heat-beams neatly on the shield and parried them. Pools of flame roared to either side of him, but Father was untouched. He charged the soldiers, and swept his blade through them. No armor made of matter could impede that blade.
The soldiers parted ranks. An officer in shimmering gray armor stepped forward. He wore a centurion's black cloak. Gold tracery adorned his shoulders and wrists and skull-like facemask. Above his helmet nodded whiplike antennae, long as the plumes of a quail.
"Flint!" called her father. "You are bold to face me again."
"I do not use that name any more!" said the dark-cloaked centurion. "And we will not meet again. You knew this time would come."
The dark centurion flourished a shocklance shaped like a slender black wand. With a snap, two parallel blades, each a foot long and an inch apart, slid out of the forward tip. Blue-white sparks neuro-toxic energy flickered in the gap between the forks. This weapon was forbidden on all civilized worlds.
Father struck, but the dark centurion caught the blade between the forks. The ghostblade would have cut through any matter, but the blue-white energy field erected between the parallel forks trapped it like iron trapped by a magnet. The two men wrestled, each trying to twist the other man's weapon out of line.
Father concentrated. The red-gold psychic fire of the ghostblade blazed blindingly bright, fighting the blue-white neural energy of the black technology weapon. The dark centurion twisted the controls of his shocklance, amping up the power to unsafe levels.
There was a thunderclap. The mingled fields broke their containment. The dangerous build-up of energy erupted from the tips of the forks, reached out like a crooked finger, passed over father's shoulder, and flew high.
Mommy stiffened, her face pale with shock. She opened her mouth but could not scream. Then the life in her eyes went away. It was not Lyra's mother any more. Lyra was being held in the arms of a dead woman.
At the same time, a blast of red lightning gushed from the ghostblade in father's hands and struck the dark centurion in the face. The force of the blast yanked the gold and gray helmet off his head. The centurion was flung backward. A curve of flying blood-drops and smoke wisps trailed after him. The shocklance went spinning away through the air, forks shattered, haft afire. Father couched behind his shield. Shrapnel from the explosion bounced from the golden surface, and rippling with concentric sparks at each place it was struck.
But now Father looked over his shoulder and saw his wife, little daughter her lifeless corpse being wafted lightly upward by the lifting beam toward the lofty ceiling. The strange light in his eyes was gone, replaced with a look of woe. His face was drained of all color, all hope. The light in his blade wavered. The glowing shield grew dim. The strength of will powering his invincible arms died with his wife.
The soldiers came toward him at a run. A dozen heat-rays transfixed him. In an instant his whole body was pierced with fire, wrapped in flame, shrouded in smoke.
Then Lyra passed through the manhole in the ceiling, and the terrible scene below was cut off. She was on the roof. Her mother came out of the antigravity field. Weight returned. Mother fell. There was no breath, no heartbeat, nothing. The stroke of nerve-destroying energy from the broken shocklance had done its work.
Prams was yanking on Lyra's arm, her mask once again smiling, begging with the little girl to get moving. "Ups-a-daisy! Be a peach, my little mistress! Come along! We must be in the ship now…"
The voice of one of Father's other robots came down from above. "No preflight check, thems the orders! Can't tell what will happen! Blow up on takeoff, most likely, mark me!"
The one-man courier-ship had been raised into launch position, standing on her tail. The canopy was open. Father's chauffeur was nicknamed Jets, an AV8R-model flybot. He was not an android, but was ball-shaped. He was equipped with antigravity panels and long retractable limbs, jointed and slim as the legs of a spider.
The engines were roaring and whining. Condensation was pouring from the spot where the coolant-lines running from the miniature gantry had just finishing pumping.
Jets hurriedly detached the lines with one set of limbs, while flicking the override switches, one after another, on the control panel in the cockpit, turn off the blinking red lights and pinging alarms. Beneath the tail of the ship was the emitter mouth of the tractor presser beam. The sirens warning everyone to clear the area were ringing. Yellow lights flashed.
Prams stood up on her one good leg, and pulled herself halfway up the short ladder leading to the cockpit. Jets reached down with his telescoping limbs to take Lyra into the pilot's seat, which, at the moment, was horizontal. Lyra struggled, trying to get to her mother's body. Both robots tried to force her to strap in. Prams murmured commands in a soothing voice, and Jets uttered commands in a snapping, waspish voice, intermingled with dire warning and predictions.
The manhole beneath them now snapped open again. The green beam of the lift flickered with shadows. Someone was coming. Lyra felt faint and stopped struggling. Was it her father coming? Jets threw an emergency air-blanket over Lyra, since there was no time to put her in any sort of spacesuit. It blocked her view. The wails of sirens filled her ears.
She heard the thunderbolt roar of blaster fire.
"Take off!" shouted Jets. The robot voice came from directly behind her, from the socket just behind the cockpit. A sensation of weightlessness overcame Lyra as the ship was enfolded in a gravity-nullifying field. There was a thud as the canopy shut and sealed.
Through the canopy, she heard dark centurion's shout. "Halt! Or I fire!"
The voice of Prams rang out in a cold, emotionless tone: "Child in danger!"
The clamor of shouts, the thud of footfalls, sounded as more soldiers rushed up onto the roof. Blasters roared again. The ship shuttered as it was struck by stray bolts.
A tractor beam flung the ship upward with an eruption of noise, Lyra's was momentarily deafened. All sounds diminished to a dim ringing in her ears.